Today is a big day! As of July 26th, 2021 our partners at Ecological Resource Consultants and Tezak Heavy Equipment will be mobilizing crews and setting the stage for channel construction and Rock Island Road bridge installation. The pull off at the intersection of Tiger Road and Rock Island Road will be used by crews to stage equipment and will be closed to overflow parking from the Tiger Trailhead through the end of the construction season. Rock Island Road will remain open to the public throughout the construction phase, including during bridge installation.
This seasons work will include final grading, channel construction, bank stabilization, bridge installation, and initial revegetation of the site. When completed, 4,800′ of new channel, 13 acres of riparian habitat, and 5 acres of upland habitat will be created on Reach B. The new channel will include 20 riffle-glide-pool sequences that mimic the natural morphology of reference streams in similar elevations and habitats. These sequences will provide natural aquatic habitat and will be paired with large woody debris and boulder installation to further diversify the available habitat along this stretch of stream. New bank stabilization techniques that utilize logs and root wads will also be installed on this stretch to serve as fish refuges. By taking into consideration lessons learned on Reach A, we have made these improvements to the Reach B design and will continue to utilize the most current restoration techniques.
Last week, Summit TV was on site to shoot some aerial photography prior to the beginning of construction (see the photos below). Colorado Parks and Wildlife also toured the Reach A site recently to see an example of successful stream restoration and the following establishment of brook trout and sculpin populations. We hope that this project can continue to serve as a model for stream restoration, both here in Colorado and around the country.
Keep following the blog to see progress photos throughout the construction season and the transformation of the site.
The water level in Lake Powell has dropped to the lowest level since the U.S. government started filling the enormous reservoir on the Colorado River in the 1960s — another sign of the ravages of the Western drought.
On Monday, the pool elevation in Lake Powell, which stretches from Utah into Arizona, had dropped to 3,554 feet. (On Tuesday, it stood at 3,555 feet.) The water level has plunged as the American West experiences what scientists are calling a “megadrought.”
Too little water is coming into the lake, and too much is being sent downriver to maintain levels in Lake Mead, which is also at historically low levels…
The dams that hold back the water on the lakes produce hydropower for many Western states, and electric production from the Hoover Dam at Lake Mead has dropped by about 25 percent during the drought…
Last month, the federal Bureau of Reclamation released a 24-month study showing that the amount of water flowing into Lake Powell had dropped sharply in the previous six months, and issued a prediction of a 79 percent chance that Lake Powell would fall below 3,525 feet “sometime in the next year,” which could lead to stricter water restrictions…
Brad Udall, a senior climate scientist at Colorado State University, was more blunt: “I’m struggling to come up with words to describe what we’re seeing here,” he said.
The effects of climate change and water use management have led to “off the charts” water depletion, he said, comparing the water restriction measures that are currently in place to a parachute. “I worry that the parachute is not big enough,” he said, “and that we didn’t deploy it soon enough.”
The nation’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Powell, is now at its lowest point since it filled in the 1960s.
The massive reservoir on the Colorado River hit a new historic low on July 24, dropping below 3,555.1 feet in elevation. The previous low was set in 2005. The last time the reservoir was this low was in 1969, when it first filled. It’s currently at 33% of its capacity.
The popular southwestern recreation hotspot on the Arizona-Utah border, which plays host to houseboats, kayaks and speedboats, has fluctuated over the past 21 years due to low river flows exacerbated by warming temperatures. About 4.4 million people visited Lake Powell in 2019, and spent $427 million in nearby communities, according to the National Park Service.
Demand across the seven U.S. states and two Mexican states that rely on the river hasn’t declined fast enough to match the reduced supply, said Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University…
Forecasts for Lake Powell’s inflows from the Colorado River grew increasingly pessimistic during spring and early summer this year. Flows from April to July are projected to be 25% of the long term average, placing 2021 into the top three driest on record for the watershed.
“The hard lesson we’re learning about climate change is that it’s not a gradual, slow descent to a new state of affairs,” Udall said…
Emergency water releases from smaller reservoirs upstream of Powell will take place over the next six months. They’re meant to maintain hydropower production at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.
“I’m very alarmed,” said Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Interior Department. “It’s not only focused on hydropower concerns, we’re concerned operationally in general. We’re acting in coordination with the states about these decisions.”
Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, also on the Colorado River, is at a record low. Both Powell and Mead are projected to decline further this year…
The river’s current managing guidelines are set to expire in 2026. An update to those guidelines passed in 2019 included a potential demand management program in the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. In its conceptual form, the program would pay water users to voluntarily forgo water deliveries in exchange for payment. The saved water could be banked in Lake Powell to buffer against a potential Colorado River Compact call from downstream states.
None of the Upper Basin states has committed to fully implementing a plan to rein in demands on the river’s water in order to fill Lake Powell with conserved water. The plan remains in an investigatory phase.
Here’s a guest column from Bruce Babbit that’s running on AZCentral.com:
It’s too soon to tinker with key parts of the Colorado River Compact. For now, our best bet may be to temporarily extend the Drought Contingency Plan.
Lake Mead is disappearing. It has already fallen more than 146 feet since 2000.
Last week the Bureau of Reclamation forecast that it will likely drop another 42 feet in the next five years, drawing the lake surface down to a level barely sufficient to generate power and release water for downstream water users in California and Arizona.
To manage this decline and stabilize the lake is not rocket science. Cities and farms are simply taking more water out of Lake Mead than is coming in from the Colorado River. The lake is like a bank account: on average, you can only take out as much as is being deposited by the Colorado River.
We’ll need all of DCP’s cuts to stabilize Lake Mead
When the current drought began in 2000, the three Lower Basin states that take water from the lake (Arizona, California and Nevada) suddenly awakened to the problem. After several years of difficult negotiations, they agreed on a Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) that, with previously agreed cuts, would bring the lake into balance.
Hoping the drought would lift before too long, the DCP negotiators agreed to spread the cuts over coming years in response to changing lake levels. However, as the drought continues and intensifies, the Drought Contingency Plan is looking more like a Drought Certainty Plan.
It now appears that the full schedule of DCP reductions will be needed to bring the lake into balance at approximately 1,025 feet of elevation. The next reduction begins in 2022, a further cut is likely in 2023 with even deeper remaining cuts likely to occur by 2026, the year in which the current DCP will expire.
By that time the states that share the Colorado River must reach a new agreement. Their first task will be to decide whether still more reductions beyond the present DCP will be necessary in a new “DCP Plus.” It will be a close call, for the existing DCP schedule may be enough to bring the lake into balance, albeit at a very low level.
The negotiators will then face a newly emerging problem – the threat that the Colorado River might run so low, there will not be enough inflow to stabilize the lake, even with the full agenda of DCP reductions.
It works if we keep getting the minimum flow
So far Arizona and the Lower Basin states have managed through the drought by counting on a steady average minimum of at least 7.5 million acre feet of new water released annually from upstream reservoirs into Lake Mead. This minimum flow “guarantee” is contained in Article III(d) of the Colorado River Compact, the basic law governing the river.
This combination of a guaranteed minimum inflow from upstream reservoirs, paired with scheduled DCP reductions, makes it possible to plan with some confidence for Central Arizona Project (CAP) deliveries.
The Central Arizona Project aqueduct will not run dry and disappear alongside the ancient Hohokam canals. It will continue to deliver water up from the river to the Phoenix and Tucson areas.x
As long as the scheduled DCP cuts are carried out, and as long as the minimum anticipated inflow guaranteed by Article III(d) remains in place, the CAP should deliver into the future an average of about 40% less than the delivery forecast in 2020.
As its shoreline shrinks, Lake Mead will be a smaller lake, but it should hold steady at a level sufficient to generate power and deliver water through its outlets. And it will remain a beautiful and inviting National Recreation Area.
A warming climate could upend the law of the river
However, there is an elephant in the room. It is called human caused global warming.
As the climate continues to warm, rising temperatures cause more of the runoff from rain and melting snow to both evaporate and soak into drying soils before reaching the Colorado River.
If these predictions hold, there will come a point at which the guaranteed Article III(d) flows into Lake Mead could so severely limit water use in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming that the entire law of the river, including the Colorado River Compact, will be up for discussion and reconsideration.
We have not reached that point.
More studies are necessary and the predictive power of science is still evolving. The natural drought cycle that exists apart from global warming may lift. The Upper Basin states have yet to curtail any of their water uses in order to send flows to the Lower Basin.
For now, it might be smart to extend DCP
It is, therefore, too soon to be tinkering with Article III(d) or other provisions of the Colorado River Compact.
From the vantage point of today, the best alternative for a new agreement in 2026 will be to extend the existing DCP for another 10 years.
The negotiators will surely need to make adjustments to the amount and timing of DCP reductions. And there is certainly some flexibility to simultaneously adjust the amount and timing of the Upper Basin’s releases to the Lower Basin.
The Colorado River is a magnificent and wildly unpredictable resource. Managing it will always require our ongoing vigilance and commitment to working together to create fair and equitable outcomes.
Bruce Babbitt is is a former Arizona governor and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At a special meeting on Monday, July 19, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors voted unanimously to enter into Stage 1 drought restrictions in compliance with its 2020 Drought Management Plan.
At the special meeting, District Manager Justin Ramsey explained that the primary factor behind deciding when to enter into the restrictions is the San Juan River flow rate.
“We’re not seeing an average flow anywhere near median, so that’s where we’re at,” Ramsey stated.
He explained that it is not likely that the river will rise enough in the next month or two to where it would no longer meet the Stage 1 restriction requirement.
Ramsey explained that with en- tering into the Stage 1 restrictions, there is still no requirement as to which days residents are allowed to water lawns.
However, he mentioned that PAWSD is still asking people to voluntarily irrigate on an odd/even schedule where those with even-numbered addresses irrigating only on even-numbered days and odd-numbered addresses irrigating only on odd-numbered days.
Ramsey explained that one requirement with the Stage 1 restrictions is that residents must irrigate after 6 p.m. and before 9 a.m.
Board member Glenn Walsh noted that this is the first time the district has been through this process under the 2020 Drought Management Plan…
The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) was updated on July 13, showing that 100 percent of Archuleta County is in a moderate drought and more than half of the county is in severe drought.
The NIDIS website notes that under a moderate drought stage, dry-land crops may suffer, rangeland growth is stunted, very little hay is available and risk of wildfires may increase.
The NIDIS website also notes that 71.17 percent of the county is in a severe drought stage.
According to the NIDIS, under a severe drought stage, fire season is extended.
Additionally, the NIDIS website notes that 51.04 percent of the county is in an extreme drought, mostly in the western portion of the county…
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 81.7 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 20.
Based on 85 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 263 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1941 at 1,470 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 15.4 cfs, recorded in 2002.
As of 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 20, the Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at a rate of 66.2 cfs. This is an increase from a July 14 reading of 62.3 cfs.
Based on 58 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 232 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was 1,350 cfs in 1986. The lowest recorded rate was 10.3 cfs in 2002.
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 Tuesday, July 27th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
FromThe New Mexico Political Report (Susan Dunlap):
Climate change isn’t in the future for New Mexico—it’s already here and impacting families of color, according to climate change experts.
From Navajo leaving their land due to dwindling resources, hotter wildfires altering landscapes, an increase of climate change refugees crossing outside ports of entry and wells running dry in rural areas, families of color in New Mexico are already feeling the heat from climate change, various sources told NM Political Report.
Joan Brown, executive director of climate justice organization New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, said it’s hard to not feel “immobilized” by the immensity of the problem…
According to a Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication report, communities of color are likely to disproportionately feel climate change more than white communities due to socioeconomic inequities. Communities of color are likely to be more vulnerable to heat waves, extreme weather events, environmental degradation and the resulting job opportunity dislocations, the report said.
Brown said she believes the first aspect of climate change to have the greatest impact on families of color in New Mexico will be the intensity of forest fires in the state.
This week forest fire smoke from western states has affected skies and air pollution in the eastern part of the U.S. and the Bootleg Fire in Oregon is so intense it is causing its own weather…
Families of color who live in Albuquerque are also feeling the effects of climate change and the ensuing severe drought, Brown said. Her organization has been involved in tree plantings, as part of the City of Albuquerque’s initiative to plant thousands of trees in city neighborhoods. Brown said New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light has focused its efforts in the International District in Albuquerque because the area acts as a “heat sink” due to a lack of vegetation and too much concrete, she said.
Heat sinks, which occur in urban settings, are more likely to affect low income and diverse communities such as the International District, Brown said…
Brown said there are places around New Mexico where wells are running dry. She said the state needs to allocate money and put more effort toward water preservation, adaptation and mitigation…
In southeast New Mexico, where significant oil and gas extraction takes place in the Permian Basin, Brown said the “folks suffering the most” are those who have less access to income. She said families of color who are low-income suffer from pollution-related health issues such as asthma.
With the anticipated increased heat from climate change, she said, low income families of color will suffer the most because they often don’t have evaporative coolers, insulated houses or air conditioning.
In another corner of the state, local organizer Nena Benavidez works with the social justice organization New Mexico CAFé in the Silver City area, the home of the Santa Rita Copper Mine. As the state plans to transition to meet legislation enacted to plan for a 50 percent renewable energy standard by 2030, Benavidez is focused on the transitioning economy for rural locales, such as Silver City, which has been dependent on the metal mining industry since the late 1800s.
The Energy Transition Act is about phasing out the state’s reliance on coal, not copper, but New Mexico CAFé is concerned about what happens to jobs in rural communities, such as Silver City as the planet heats up. Johanna Bencomo, executive director for New Mexico CAFé, said immigrants and people of color in rural areas frequently work outside in the extractive industries or agriculture…
Bencomo said this summer, which has been one of the hottest and driest on record, impacted people of color picking green chile, as well as people of color working in the copper mine and in dairies.
New Mexico CAFé is pushing for a “just transition” to a green economy especially for the state’s rural communities. Not everyone wants to leave their small towns for a bigger city, Bencomo said…
The Navajo Nation
Mario Atencio, who is Diné [Navajo] and a board member of Diné C.A.R.E. (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment), said the Navajo, who are still living on their traditional land, are already being dispersed from their homeland due to climate change.
“Even now, people are selling their cows. It’s kind of happening. There are no jobs, you can’t raise and sustain a herd of cows, what else are you going to do? You’ve got to go work. It’s not going to be a mass migration. It’s happening very slowly, a climate change diaspora,” he said…
He said some Indigenous people who rely on medicinal plants are not finding those plants due to climate change and worsening drought, which he said is a matter of food security and food sovereignty…
But, the biggest climate change challenge facing the Navajo will be sustainable water resources, Atencio said. Robyn Jackson, Diné [Navajo] and climate and energy outreach coordinator for Diné C.A.R.E., said a number of Navajo farmers did not plant this year because of the significant decrease in water due to the severe drought…
Not being able to plant, as Navajo people have done for generations, affects mental health because many dry land farmers received their seeds from their grandparents. She said maintaining the generational traditions are a reminder of the Navajo way of life.
Navajo and other Indigenous people have had to suffer the effects of environmental racism for generations. Jackson said that during the 1970s, the U.S. government named areas of the Navajo Nation a national sacrifice zone to meet the energy needs for large cities in the southwest region…
Oil and gas wells have been in operation on Navajo land since the 1920s, Jackson said. The extractive industries have brought “huge environmental impacts” with air and water quality issues and now that some, such as the coal industry, are in decline and closing, this brings additional economic impacts as well, Jackson said.
In a land where water is scarce and a third of Navajo families lack electricity and running water at home, the Navajo’s water issues have been exacerbated by different types of mining that American industry has extracted on Navajo land, including uranium mining and strip coal mining, Jackson said. This has left the Navajo with some contaminated water sources. She said there are over 1,000 abandoned mines on Navajo land.
As the drought worsens across the West and ushers in an early fire season, cattle ranchers are among those feeling the pain. Their hay yields are down, leading some to make the hard decision to sell off animals. To avoid the high cost of feed, many ranchers grow hay to nourish their herds through the winter when snow blankets the grass they normally graze…
At the Loma Livestock auction in western Colorado, sales were bustling earlier this month even though its peak season isn’t usually until the fall when most calves are ready to be sold. Fueling the action are ranchers eager to unload cattle while prices are still strong…
Weather has long factored into how ranchers manage their livestock and land, but those choices have increasingly centered around how herds can sustain drought conditions, said Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of natural resources at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association…
Culling herds can be an operational blow for cattle ranchers. It often means parting with cows selected for genetic traits that are optimal for breeding and are seen as long-term investments that pay dividends.
If 2020 and the global COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered for shining a light on the realities of our connected world, then the summer of 2021 will be remembered for the mirror it held up to the realities of a warming and drying future for water in the Colorado River Basin.
We’re on the brink of the federal government declaring a water shortage, Lake Mead and Lake Powell have plummeted, and any sign of replenishing flows is precarious at best. But unlike COVID-19, this shortage has been on the horizon for decades. Water managers, scientists, and non-profits like American Rivers are sounding the alarm (and have been), about the realities of a simultaneously drying and ever-more-demanding West.
Concerns about drought and impacts to everything from fish to farmers are not political statements—they’re true ones, backed now by a bounty of science. The harsh reality of these truths is that the scale and pace of climate-related changes in the Colorado River Basin pose a gargantuan challenge, unprecedented in the history of water management.
It’s not that we haven’t made attempts to respond. Certainly, we have. Conservation efforts have long centered on balancing supply and demand, but these are in-the-moment and short-term responses to a very long-term challenge. What we need now is forward thinking strategies to adapt, respond to, and mitigate the steady, compounding, and extreme risks of climate change to economies, communities, wildlife, landscapes, and at the root of all of it—the rivers we rely on.
At this precipice, our future demands that we invest our time, energy, and financial resources boldly and immediately in strategies that will work—that will build for all of us the kind of future we want for our children.
A recent report to which American Rivers contributed entitled “Ten Strategies for Climate Resilience in the Colorado Basin,” authored by Martin & McCoy and Culp & Kelly, LLP, outlines those strategies (see below). To arrive at this list of top ten, report authors asked:
Could the investment help the Basin adapt to ongoing climate shifts?
To what extent would the investment reduce pressure on existing water supplies?
Would the investment help mitigate climate change?
Could the investments strengthen economic resilience in communities?
The resulting top 10 investment strategies for a more resilient future are:
Forest Management & Restoration – Prioritizing forest management and restoration to maintain system functionality and biodiversity
Natural Distributed Storage – Restoring highly degraded natural meadow systems to improve local aquifer recharge, water retention, reconnect historic floodplains, and support productive meadows and riparian ecosystems
Regenerative Agriculture – Promoting voluntary farming and ranching principles and practices that enrich soils, enhance biodiversity, restore watershed health, and improve overall ecosystem function and community health
Upgrading Agricultural Infrastructure & Operations – Upgrading diversion, delivery and on-farm infrastructure and operations, including irrigation systems
Cropping Alternatives & New Market Pathways – Developing on-farm operational shifts and market and supply chain interventions to incentivize water conservation, e.g. shifting to lower water-use crops
Urban Conservation & Re-Use – Incentivizing conservation technologies, indoor and outdoor conservation programs, and direct and indirect potable reuse
Industrial Conservation & Re-Use – Incentivizing modifications and upgrades to reduce water use and increase energy efficiencies
Coal Plant Retirement Water – Purchasing or reallocating water rights from closed or retiring coal plants to be used for system or environmental benefits, or other uses
Reducing Dust on Snow – Improving land management practices to reduce the dust on snow effect — which controls the pace of spring snowmelt that feeds the headwaters of the Colorado River.
Covering Reservoirs & Canals – Implementing solutions to reduce evaporation from reservoirs and conveyance systems
The full report outlines, in detail, not just the near-term next steps for moving these strategies forward but includes demonstration projects, investments and action-oriented research.
But it’s important to emphasize that these strategies can’t be implemented in a silo. “I” doesn’t work in these conditions. We all rely on rivers, and water, and their continued existence. Our ability to count on them well into the future will be dependent upon our willingness to develop cross-sector partnerships and basin-wide funding for these investments that can be cohesively implemented at a scale commensurate to the challenge. Local, state, and tribal governments must be on board. Our private land partners need voluntary measures and incentives, not mandates.
And we can’t wait for calls on the river, fallowed fields, and dry stretches to act. These investments in climate resilience for the Colorado River are needed now.
The crisis on the Colorado River is not waiting for the state of Colorado to develop a program to avoid water shortages.
That was the message that Colorado Water Conservation Board members received from some commenters at their regular meeting Wednesday. The state water board is investigating the feasibility of a program known as demand management, which would pay irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to not irrigate and instead use that saved water to meet downstream obligations on the Colorado River.
James Eklund, former head of the CWCB and one of the architects of the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the possibility of a demand-management program, urged the board in the public-comments portion of the discussion to take swift action on what he called arguably the largest water crisis Colorado has ever faced.
“Time is not your or our collective out. If you wait, that’s a decision that you make to determine whether or not we have a hand on the steering wheel as we move forward with this river,” he said. “The waiting is, I think, folly.”
In written comments, some environmental nonprofit organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited, said they were in favor of a demand-management program and urged the state to move forward more quickly.
The state received the comments in response to a draft framework released in March of what a demand-management program could look like, with three tiers of implementation options, guiding principles, threshold issues, trade-offs and equity considerations. The framework matrix is based on the findings of nine workgroups assigned to tackle different aspects and challenges of a potential program.
In addition to written comments, Trout Unlimited Colorado Water Project’s director, Drew Peternell, also told board members at the meeting that the group has concluded that demand management should be one tool Colorado uses to avoid compact curtailment.
“We realize you are taking on some very tough issues, but I also want to urge you to pick up the pace,” he said. “Hydrology on the West Slope is not good. Additional shortages on the system are likely. They would be painful. Now is the time to get something done.”
Gail Schwartz, who represents the main stem of the Colorado River basin on the nine-member board, noted the gravity of the situation and invoked the warnings of 19th-century explorer and river runner John Wesley Powell, after whom the second-largest reservoir in the country and ground zero for many of the basin’s most pressing problems is named. In 1893, the prescient Powell said the American West was “piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.”
“I think that we are at this extraordinary moment in time,” Schwartz said. “This is a desert and we are going to empty every bucket, we are going to empty every river, and this is the inevitable unless we can develop the courage and the ability to step forward.”
The controversial water-banking program, which some fear could harm agriculture on the Western Slope, has sparked a lot of discussion but little agreement over the past two years. Some have expressed frustration with what they say is the state’s slow pace of a program rollout and want to begin pilot projects to test the program’s feasibility. Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, urged the board in his comment letter to take aggressive action.
“The only way to really raise the important questions and to identify the positive and negative consequences of our actions is to try something,” Harris said. “There is no other way to advance the agenda without taking some well-considered risk.”
Drought Contingency Plan
Under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, signed by the seven Colorado River basin states, the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) can develop a program to send up to 500,000 acre-feet of saved water downstream to Lake Powell as a kind of insurance policy to bolster levels in the reservoir and help meet Colorado River Compact obligations. If the Upper Basin states were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona and California), as required by the 1922 agreement, it could trigger what’s known as a compact call, which would force involuntary cutbacks in water use.
Over the past two decades, climate change has been robbing the Colorado River system of flows, and levels in the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have plummeted to record lows. Federal officials have begun making emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydroelectric power. But some water managers say unless this Upper Basin reservoir water is replenished with big snow next winter, the releases may be a one-time, stopgap solution.
In addition to the urgency imposed by the worsening hydrology, the clock is ticking on the storage agreement laid out in the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the development of a demand-management program. It expires in 2026, when a new round of negotiations begins. All four Upper Basin states must agree to move forward with a demand-management program; Colorado cannot go it alone.
Decision making roadmap
Despite the sense of urgency expressed by some members, the CWCB did not approve the next step forward that was recommended by staff: adopting a decision making roadmap, which sets out a timeline for determining if demand management is achievable and worthwhile for Colorado. Tackling whether demand management is achievable was set to tentatively begin in September, and looking into whether the program is worthwhile for Colorado was supposed to begin in November.
Schwartz made a motion to adopt the roadmap but later withdrew it after some board members said it was too broad, left too many questions unanswered and did not incorporate feedback from the board.
“I feel this roadmap is incomplete, and until I see the roadmap with the comments from the board, I don’t feel comfortable moving forward,” said Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa and White river basins.
River District’s interests
Demand management was also a topic at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s quarterly board meeting in Glenwood Springs on Tuesday. Amy Ostdiek, the CWCB’s deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information gave a presentation on the state’s progress.
The River District, which represents 15 counties and advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is conducting its own investigation into the feasibility of demand management through meetings with water users and plans to release a report of its findings. The River District has not yet taken a position on the potential program.
“My personal view is that we are going to keep pushing to protect the River District’s interests in a demand-management program, but we realize this is something necessary to move forward sooner rather than later,” said Peter Fleming, River District general counsel.
Board president Marti Whitmore, who represents Ouray County, asked staff to come up with a proposal with specifics on a demand-management program.
“The time is right to come up with something to put on the table for discussion purposes,” she said. “I’m just looking to break the logjam here, so we are talking some substance instead of just frameworks and process. It could be an opportunity for the River District to provide some leadership.”
CWCB board members plan to continue discussing demand management at an Aug. 18 workshop.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Colorado’s Western Slope is considered a climate hot spot where temperatures are increasing faster than the global average. This warming has contributed to more than 20 years of dryness, which scientists are calling a megadrought.
Ranchers like Washburn are trying to adapt. That might mean having to give up ranching altogether.
Washburn is raising the sixth generation of kids on the ranch, which has operated in Crested Butte for more than 130 years. He said that just in the last 20 years, there’s been a noticeable difference in the amount of available water.
Washburn grows hay on his private acreage while his cows graze on federal land. Some of the smaller creeks and ponds that irrigate the government rangeland are drying up.
“Year-after-year of this continued drought, we’re seeing places that we didn’t think would ever go dry,” Washburn said.
One creek dried up three years ago. Washburn said his father-in-law had never seen that creek go dry in his life.
Without enough water on their federal pasture, Spann Ranch is bringing its cattle back to the private ranch weeks earlier than they’re supposed to. That’s a costly snag. Without open grazing, ranchers are forced to use their winter hay supplies early to feed their hungry cattle during the summer. When the hay runs out, they have to buy more…
Most of the farmland in this county is irrigated, meaning farmers and ranchers flood their crops and pastures with river water.
Farmers and ranchers started digging this system of trenches and ditches more than 100 years ago, transforming the landscape. What was once sagebrush and rocks are now meadows of hay and grass. Colorado’s agricultural industry depends on this water, but more than 20 years of deep drought has depleted this critical resource.
Washburn believes that the lack of water on the Western Slope will mean the end of his family’s ranching operation within his childrens’ lifetime…
[Andy] Spann believes his family can stay in agriculture, but the operation will need to change. Right now, their business is raising and selling calves. That requires a lot of hay to feed mother cows during the winter.
Instead, Spann said they might move to raising cattle during the warmer months and selling off any hay they are able to grow.
More drastic options include transitioning from cattle ranching to growing hay full-time — or even turning the livestock operation into a horse ranch, Spann said…
Bill Parker, another Gunnison County rancher, said his operation is already successfully adapting to climate change.
Parker learned hard lessons from previous droughts, including the historic drought of 2012 that forced him to sell off half his animals for close to a loss…
If a bad drought year is forecasted, ranchers like Parker won’t raise as many animals. That usually means less potential profits, but Parker raises grass-finished beef and lamb that fetch a premium when he sells the meat directly to wholesalers locally and online.
Parker said his family uses direct marketing to pocket as much of the retail dollar as possible. Without a middleman, Parker can make more money by raising fewer animals instead of feeding and caring for a large herd when it’s abnormally dry.
Parker also moves his livestock to warmer places in the winter so they can continue grazing on grass, which means his operation isn’t dependent on a good hay crop.
He’s also adopted other climate-friendly ranching techniques. Instead of letting his sheep or cattle overgraze one spot, he moves them around using a portable electric fence. Parker said this allows him to control the health of his soil.
The technique, called rotational grazing, keeps the animals from eating all the plants before they can grow the deep roots that help hold moisture in the soil. Healthy soil and plants also absorb carbon from the atmosphere, which can help fight climate change.
Parker could get federal drought insurance and get compensated during dry years, but he doesn’t. He said he wants to take responsibility for ranching in the arid West, a burden that’s growing heavier as the climate warms.
Lake Powell will soon hit its lowest level since Glen Canyon Dam started trapping the Colorado River’s water in 1963 — even with emergency releases of water from reservoirs upstream.
The Bureau of Reclamation announced Thursday that the lake elevation will soon drop below 3,555.1 feet above sea level, the record set in 2005, back near the start of a 20-year dry cycle plaguing the Colorado River Basin.
“Lake Powell’s elevation is expected to drop another two feet by the end of July, and will likely continue to decline until next year’s spring runoff into the Colorado River begins,” the bureau said in a news release.
The level has dropped 145 vertical feet since 1999, when the lake was full. Since then, Lake Powell — straddling the Utah-Arizona border — has lost about 16 million acre-feet and is just 33% full. On Thursday, the elevation was 3,555.55 feet, less than 6 inches above the record low.
The level has dropped 145 vertical feet since 1999, when the lake was full. Since then, Lake Powell — straddling the Utah-Arizona border — has lost about 16 million acre-feet and is just 33% full. On Thursday, the elevation was 3,555.55 feet, less than 6 inches above the record low…
Meanwhile, various projects remain on the drawing board in Utah and other Upper Colorado River Basin states that would divert even more water from the Colorado. Utah, for example, is fully committed to its $1.5 billion Lake Powell pipeline proposal, which would move 86,000 acre-feet a year to Washington and Kane counties, and has recently established the Colorado River Authority of Utah to advanced the Beehive State’s claims to the river.
Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation authorized the release of 181,000 acre-feet over the next five months at three reservoirs, mostly from Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River. Conservationists like John Weisheit of Living Rivers say that move is merely buying time, forestalling the day when Lake Powell will no longer function as a reservoir.
“Emptying the upstream reservoirs is … like burning your furniture to stay warm,” said Weisheit, paraphrasing a famous quote from Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” “It’s an act of desperation. … Everything is breaking. We have exceeded the limits of nature.”
Originally an afterthought, recreation has become Lake Powell’s most important and visible role for many Westerners who explore the 185-mile lake by boat to play, camp and fish. Now most of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area’s boat ramps are either unusable or difficult to use, and the marinas could become inoperable.
On Monday, the National Park Service closed the lake’s Dangling Rope Marina, the only place to get fuel in the 100-miles stretch between Wahweap and Bullfrog, at least through the end of the year. Houseboats can no longer be launched at Wahweap, although they still can be retrieved for now.
“It has not taken a whole lot of rain to move what has moved so far so I anticipate there will be more movement in some of those same drainages but it’s hard to measure and know exactly so much,” said Elizabeth Roberts, an ecologist with the White River National Forest who has spent most of the past year planting grasses in the burn scar to stabilize soil and restore damaged terrain.
The seeds Roberts and her team sow will eventually become the rooted plants that keep soil from moving in the dozens of debris fields that funnel into Glenwood Canyon’s Colorado River. But since the Grizzly Fire burned into winter last year, she’s racing to get seeds into every path of scorched earth. Many of the Grizzly Creek Fire’s 32,631 acres are in steep, rocky chutes where seeds would not take anyway.Everyone knew the runoff and rains of 2021 would pose a threat to Glenwood Canyon. The City of Glenwood Springs spent more than $10 million on emergency watershed protection projects that included replacing and upgrading water intakes and filtering systems in the No Name and Grizzly Creek drainages where the city collects its water.
Swift protection for the highway from rain-loosened debris was much more difficult, if not impossible…
The U.S. Geological Survey created a landslide hazard map following the Grizzly Creek Fire that identified dozens of drainages where the likelihood of debris flows was increased if the area saw only 15 minutes of rain that fell at a rate of roughly an inch an hour. That map was spot on. Debris flows that shoved tons of mud onto the highway have come from three separate areas where the USGS estimated the chance of debris flows was between 40% and 100%.
Forest and transportation officials were working with models, so the actual amount of mud coming down and where it might end up was impossible to predict…
Roberts has been doing most of her seeding work on the rim above the canyon. She’s been surprised to see lots of natural vegetation coming back in the first year. The growth of herbaceous shrubbery — known as forbs, which are neither grassy nor woody, like snowberry, chokecherry and fireweed — has been “quite significant,” Roberts said.
That’s been helpful because forest botanists are generally speeding native grasses, which can take a couple years to firmly establish, depending on the health of the soil…
Mitigation in the narrow canyon is complicated. The stretch of interstate built between 1980 and 1992 is an engineering marvel, heralded not only for its ingenious efficiency but how its minimal footprint protected as much of the canyon as possible. When a fire hit perhaps the worst place on Interstate 70 for a burn scar, there just isn’t much room for barriers and other strategies for protecting roads from rain-riding debris. That isn’t stopping CDOT from trying to find ways to divert flows of mud and rock.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) recently shared alarming news about the unprecedented conditions on the Colorado River and I’ll attempt to explain their complicated projections. Reclamation, the agency that oversees federal water management across 17 western states, publishes some pretty wonky information, even to those of us who regularly interface with this agency and rely on its analyses.
Just last month, in June, Reclamation shared their new 5-year projections for the Colorado River Basin to further assist drought management within the Basin. They share these projections a few times every year. The big news is that the water situation on the Colorado River is worse than folks anticipated when adopting the shared shortage agreements called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) adopted in 2019.
To jump to the conclusion: Reclamation’s projections signal that we urgently need to do more than the DCPs envisioned because of the increasingly hot and dry conditions in the basin. Reclamation has continued to revise their projections throughout this shockingly dry spring, resulting in really dire projections for water storage and distribution. In other words, less water for people, and less water in streams that benefit birds, fish, and a robust recreational economy.
We’ve arrived at the time when the limits of the Colorado River are being reached.
What does this mean for birds? Birds rely on the riparian habitats of the Colorado River and its tributaries and aquatic birds have come to rely on the big reservoirs on the river too. Surveys of aquatic birds at Lake Powell have documented dabbling ducks, diving species, shorebirds, and more. American Coot and Western Grebe are common. Gadwall, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, and Green-winged Teal have also been observed. The habitats created by Lake Powell have existed for less than 60 years and can change with the lake level, which can affect birds.
You may recall that the main reservoirs on the highly-plumbed Colorado River—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—sometimes “equalize” in water accounting flows. Lake Powell is the receiving reservoir from the Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) meaning that it stores water that runs downstream from these states. Lake Mead is the distributing reservoir for the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) and Mexico meaning that water deliveries to each of these places comes from available water in this lake (and legal water rights, of course). The amount of water in Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country—determines how much water a state has available for their Colorado River water users.
Reclamation projects that Lake Mead water levels are, for the first time ever, so low that they will require cuts in water Lower Basin water deliveries, operating in Tier 1 shortage. And they say there is a greater than 99% chance of this shortage in 2022 and a high risk (greater than 80% probability) that Lake Mead will remain under shortage operations for at least the next five years, perhaps with even more aggressive cuts.
Severe drought conditions are also triggering emergency response (outlined in the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement as part of the DCP here on page 7) whereby Reclamation will release water from reservoirs further upstream to address declining water levels at Lake Powell and protect the ability of the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower. Representatives from Reclamation and the Upper Basin states just announced they will release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs.
If we have another bad water year, elevations at Lake Mead could even be lower than before Lake Powell was created. It’s getting to the bottom for both of these reservoirs.
Why does this matter? These unprecedented and exceptional drought conditions are a signal to all of us to take steps to ensure the river flows long into the future and address water security for people and wildlife. The entire Colorado River Basin is in crisis.
Climate change is here. We have a very limited window to begin implementing innovative tools that are at our disposal in order to adapt to and mitigate climate change. In addition to reductions in carbon emissions and other large-scale solutions for our planet, Audubon continues to focus on federal and state investments in climate resilient strategies that will help stabilize water supplies and better assist economic sectors and ecosystems adapt to changing conditions. Future water projections by Reclamation – and future agreements on the Colorado River – need to account for climate extremes.
The effects of prolonged drought and climate change affect everyone in the basin. Our way of life is at stake—millions of acres of farmland and ranches, urban and rural communities, recreation on rivers and lakes, our economies, as well as incredible bird life. Our work is more urgent and more difficult. Please join us in advocating for climate solutions that benefit the Colorado River and other important rivers in the West. Sign up for updates here.
High up on Colorado’s Independence Pass, a narrow, winding road weaves through the evergreens and across mountain streams, up and over the Continental Divide at more than 10,000 feet. At one point that road crosses a canal.
It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, but that canal is part of water infrastructure that makes life on Colorado’s Front Range possible.
The state has a geographical mismatch between where water shows up and where much of the population has settled.
“Wherever you are in this state, you’re either at the source of the drinking water supply, you’re in the middle of the drinking water supply, or you’re at the end of the tap,” said Christina Medved, outreach director at Roaring Fork Conservancy. “So on the Western slope, we are at the source of the water.”
About 80% of Colorado’s water falls on the western side of the state. Much of it is high-mountain snow and rain that eventually trickles down into streams and rivers like the ones on Independence Pass.
But about 80% of Colorado’s people live on the east side of the mountains. Because of gravity, that water doesn’t flow to them naturally. Instead, Colorado’s heavily-populated Front Range relies on a massive plumbing system to keep drinking water flowing to its taps.
For a century and a half, engineers have carved up the mountains with tunnels and canals that pipe water across the state through trans-mountain diversions. Some of that infrastructure is nestled near the high-alpine headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, which eventually flows through Aspen and Glenwood Springs on its way to the Colorado River. Near Lost Man reservoir, a dam and tunnel create a juncture between water that will follow that natural path westward to the Colorado, and water that will be diverted eastward through the mountains and onto cities such as Colorado Springs.
A tunnel through the mountains draws in water that will pass through two reservoirs and the Arkansas River on its way to the southern portion of the Front Range. Water diverted from the Colorado River basin, through trans-mountain diversions, makes up 60 to 70% of the water used by Colorado Springs. Denver, Greeley, Fort Collins and smaller municipalities on the Front Range also rely heavily on Western Slope water.
And these kinds of set ups aren’t confined to Colorado. Similar systems bring water to big cities all across the region. Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Los Angeles rely on canals and tunnels to ship faraway water into their pipes. New ones are in the works on the Front Range and in southern Utah.
But these systems aren’t without critics.
“When you first learn about it, the concept of a trans-mountain diversion is crazy,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It seems wrong. It seems antithetical to the health of the river. And I have to say all of that’s true.”
His organization was set up in the 1930s to oppose these diversions and ensure that there is enough water for people on the Western side of the state…
The issue is, contemporary environmental values aren’t written into the West’s water law. Instead, water use is defined by regulations written when Colorado first became a state in the 1800s. The rules say that if you have rights to use water, it doesn’t matter if you want to use it hundreds of miles away from its source – even if that requires miles of cross-mountain plumbing to do so.
At this moment, there is less water to pull from in every part of the state. The Front Range escaped from drought after steady spring rains, but those high-mountain areas that usually provide a dependable source of water for all of Colorado are experiencing a different fate. The western slope is deep in the second year of drought conditions, leaving snowpack and river flows lower than they should be.
Mueller thinks that only sharpens the need for the Front Range to curtail its water use. Although they retain the legal right to use a certain amount of water, he’s asking them to use less – which he says will promote the health of rivers and their ecosystems west of the divide.
On the Front Range, those on the receiving end of diversions say they are listening to their western counterparts when they put up distress signals during particularly critical times. They also say deliberate conservation work is paying off in the longer term. Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, said over the past two decades, per capita water use in his district is down by 22%.
“Everyone in Colorado needs to decrease their use,” he said…
Amid tension between demands for water on both sides, exacerbated by extreme drought conditions, is the fact that there is not much of an alternative. Colorado’s water system is built to accommodate the fact that the majority of its people and the majority of its water are far from each other. Without fundamental changes to the bedrock of water law, those asking for water will have to work within a system built on trans-mountain diversions…
Some contingency planning – within the reality of a diversion-centric system – is already in place. In Colorado Springs, which receives some of the flow diverted from the top of Independence Pass, re-use practices are helping the city get more mileage out of the water it’s apportioned.
Abby Ortega, water resources manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, said reused water accounts for 26% of the city’s total portfolio and the city relies heavily on storage to get through dry years like this one.
But climate change threatens to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts, which has water managers on edge and looking more intently at ways to maximize what’s available.
“Every water planner in the state has some worry with the rapidly declining hydrology on the Colorado river,” Ortega said.
Click here to read the newsletter and to follow the links in the article. Here’s an excerpt:
Drought in the Southwest is a “hot” topic, and its effects wreak havoc on all aspects of life as we know it. The 20-year drought across the US West is taking a major toll on the Colorado River with extreme low flows and high temperatures. Lakes Powell and Mead are at historic lows. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned that Lake Mead is likely to fall to levels in June/July that could trigger the first federal water shortage declaration, with water use restrictions across the region.
We are seeing negative impacts on our fish life, agriculture/ranching water supply, urban water supply, forest, soil and river health, and environmental impacts in general. Trees in Western forests have been dying at an alarming rate over the past two decades due to droughts, high temperatures, pests and fires.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, more than 93% of the U.S. West is in drought conditions, and nearly 59% of the area is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst conditions, indicating widespread risk of crop loss, fire and water shortages.
While I don’t mean to spout doom and gloom, we are witness to the impacts of climate change and it is a serious situation in the West. The impact that changing drought and fire regimes will have on forests in the future is still unclear.
As continuing greenhouse gas emissions warm the planet and drive moisture loss, increasing the frequency, duration and intensity of droughts, research shows the U.S. will likely witness more widespread forest fires, tree death and water scarcity.
In a new study conducted by researchers from The University of New Mexico, they have found that wildfires — which have been increasing in frequency, severity and extent around the globe — are one of the largest drivers of aquatic impairment in the western United States, threatening our water supply. The research, “Wildfires increasingly impact western U.S. fluvial networks,” was published recently in Nature Communications.
So, what can be done about it?
A variety of government agencies and community advisory groups (CAGS) are actively working on conservation policy and ways to help mitigate some of the water challenges ahead.
Even though the legislature had to cut 3.5 billion from the 2020 budget due to COVID, it was able to restore millions of dollars for a variety of education and infrastructure projects and small business. It also made for considerable amounts of funds to be dedicated to wildfire prevention and mitigation, water education, and Colorado’s Water Plan, including its statewide and basin grant programs.
A few of the water related bills included:
House Bill 1260, which transfers $15 million in state general funds to the Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund to be spent by the Colorado Water Conservation Board on grants to help meet the plan’s goals. HB 1260 moves $5 million into CWCB’s Water Supply Reserve Fund for the state’s basin roundtables.
Senate Bill 240, also takes advantage of stimulus money and transfers $30 million in general fund revenue to the CWCB Construction Fund for grants to restore, mitigate and protect watersheds from wildfire-induced erosion and flooding.
House Bill 1008, helps fund watershed protection efforts by authorizing local governments to band together and form special improvement districts empowered to levy property taxes for wildfire mitigation and forest health projects.
Senate Bill 234 creates the Agriculture and Drought Resiliency Fund in the Colorado Department of Agriculture to help the state prepare for and respond to drought. It transfers $3 million in general fund revenue to the new fund to support agricultural water projects and recovery of grazing lands affected by wildfires
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is continuing to investigate the feasibility of a Demand Management program, which would involve temporary, voluntary and compensated reductions in consumptive use to bank water in Lake Powell as a hedge against future shortfalls on the Colorado River, as one option to ensure that Colorado and the three other upper basin states comply with Colorado River Compact delivery obligations.
Citizens can check out the Water Smart and Water Wise resources and programs, as well as the Water Information Program website. The public can participate in the local basin Roundtable meetings, join a Citizens Advisory Group, and participate in water conservation efforts. If you are not aware of the Colorado Water Plan you can check out the executive summary here. Water Education Colorado and the Statewide Water Education Action Plan (SWEAP) has a lot of great resources for Water Education’s role in achieving sustainable water for Colorado by 2050.
Since mid-May, Woodland Park residents and businesses have confronted Level 2 water restrictions conditions, which can affect their daily and weekly watering habits.
Property owners can only water their lawns so often, and the restrictions impact big commercial users, like the Shining Mountain golf course in Woodland Park. Area linksters will be forced to abide by cart-path-only rules for some time due to the lingering drought and because of the city’s limited availability of H2O…
With all the recent rainfall, locals may be wondering why these restrictions are still in place. The story is complicated, as much of the city’s water supply depends on sources some 200 miles away.
According to drought.gov website, in collaboration with The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAH) and National Integrated Drought Information System, (NIDIS), no one in Teller are affected by drought at this time. Drought.gov states that May of 2021 was the 24th wettest period in 127 years, at 1.52 inches above normal for Teller County.
However, drought.gov also states that 36.4-percent of Colorado is under a “severe drought” and 30-percent of the state is under “extreme drought” conditions. The western slope of Colorado is where the majority of these “severe” and “extreme” drought conditions exist. The western slope headwater drainages are the major source of the city’s augmentation water.
As a result of the drought conditions on the western slope, On July 1, a declaration of a drought emergency for Western Colorado by Gov. Jared Polis opened up federal and state dollars to help those most affected by the lack of moisture. As of July 1, the US Drought Monitor lists 18 counties as being in extreme or exceptional drought.
Drought conditions are so bad on the Colorado river, that water storage in Lake Mead is at historic lows. Lake Mead, the largest US reservoir, and fed by the Colorado River — fell below the elevation of 1,075 feet. It has hit that mark only a handful of times since the Hoover Dam was finished in the 1930s, but it always recovered shortly after. It may not this time, at least not anytime soon…
Lake Mead is currently 16 feet below where it was this time last year and the reservoir is only 37-percent full.
The second largest reservoir in the Colorado river basin, Lake Powell, is not faring any better.
Lake Powell is down 35 feet from last year and sits at just 34-percent of the lake’s total capacity…
According to Wiley, “The amount of water in a share varies according to the source. Our shares never get cut off. We always own those shares. It’s the production of those shares (amount per share). The production is controlled by the amount of precipitation and snowpack and then how water rights are allocated. The only thing that happens is in a dry year the yield (amount) is less on those shares.”
Denver Water today [July 14, 2021] filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Boulder County, asserting the county is overreaching its authority and jeopardizing a federally ordered reservoir expansion critical to a safe and secure water supply for one quarter of the state’s population while risking long-planned benefits for the West Slope environment.
For nearly two decades, Denver Water has conducted an exhaustive and comprehensive planning and permitting process at the direction and oversight of six federal and state regulatory agencies. That process culminated last year in a final order to commence expansion of Gross Reservoir from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has final authority over the expansion project because Gross Reservoir occupies federal lands specifically designated for hydropower production.
For years, Denver Water has also attempted good faith efforts to work with Boulder County to secure county permits, including through two attempts at an intergovernmental agreement, robust engagement with county staff and neighbors, and participation in a local land-use review known as the “1041 process.” Unfortunately, Boulder County has been unreceptive and is using the 1041 process to frustrate the project, extending and delaying its review to the point that it is now placing the entire project at risk.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON NEED FOR THE PROJECT
It is hard to overstate the importance of the expansion of Gross Reservoir to the future of the Denver region. It will offer crucial protection to the utility’s water supplies from the urgent threat of catastrophic wildfire and prolonged drought — the same forces that nearly 20 years ago combined to threaten Denver Water’s ability to ensure drinking water to its customers.
This risk to clean water supplies is even higher today, in an era of rapid climate change and increasing periods of extreme weather. Last year’s record wildfire fire season, which generated the three largest forest fires in Colorado history, only just missed triggering major impacts to Denver Water’s supplies. Water providers to the north haven’t been as lucky, unable to treat some supplies running black and brown with ash produced by the Cameron Peak fire. Denver Water must act now to mitigate these risks.
The Gross Reservoir expansion conforms in every way to benchmarks in Colorado’s Water Plan, a plan developed through statewide and bottom-up guidance from eight major river basins over two years and published in 2015. That plan calls for increasing the capacity of existing reservoirs as a key element in creating 400,000 acre-feet of additional storage in the state by 2050.
The State of Colorado, in comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, expressed its support for the Gross Reservoir expansion and has identified it specifically as fitting within the kind of project defined as necessary in Colorado’s Water Plan: “A significant portion of Colorado’s future needs will be met with the implementation of projects and planning processes that the local water providers are currently pursuing, including the Moffat Collection System Project” (aka Gross Reservoir expansion).
The reservoir expansion also addresses the significant need for additional supplies in the metro region, as referenced in the Water Plan’s 2019 technical update. That update projected metro Denver demand will increase by 134,000 acre-feet to 280,000 acre-feet by 2050 against a 2015 baseline and the area likely will experience a supply shortfall, even accounting for the Gross Reservoir expansion and other water projects, a drop in per-capita use, and further conservation and reuse.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON DEVELOPMENT OF THE PROJECT
Denver Water’s diligent and earnest work to build partnerships across the Continental Divide, conduct significant and ongoing environmental mitigation for the project and work closely with regulators since the early 2000s has earned the project the support of major environmental groups, Grand County and each of the last five governors of Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded the project would result in net water quality improvement on both sides of the Continental Divide.
The dam, when built in the 1950s, was designed to be raised. In the 1980s, amid discussion of the Two Forks project southwest of Denver (later vetoed by the EPA) a coalition of environmental groups recommended the expansion of Gross Reservoir as a viable, environmentally stable project. “We feel that additional capacity at Gross Reservoir is an environmentally acceptable and cost-effective way of increasing the overall yield of the system,” the coalition wrote. It included representatives of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Trout Unlimited, among several other groups.
Denver Water also worked industriously with local governments and citizen groups on the West Slope to address the impacts that putting more water in an expanded Gross Reservoir would have on streams in Grand County. Those talks, often intense, and spanning half a decade, resulted in the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, an unprecedented cooperative effort involving 18 signatories and 40 partner organizations that began a new era of collaboration and conflict-resolution between Denver Water and the West Slope.
Expanding Gross Reservoir locks in a key component to that agreement: Denver Water would place a geographic limit on its service area, putting to rest fears the utility would continue to expand its reach to an ever-sprawling suburban ring. The utility also agreed to several measures that would provide more water to West Slope rivers, towns and ski areas and invest in improvements to aquatic habitat. The landmark concord also affirmed that with the Gross Reservoir expansion, Denver Water would benefit from more flexibility in its system, and it would use that flexibility to address stream flow and stream temperature concerns more nimbly and readily in Grand County.
Additionally, Denver Water worked with the cities of Boulder and Lafayette to establish an environmental pool in Gross Reservoir to provide additional water in South Boulder Creek during low-flow periods. Water in that pool would also supplement supplies for those two cities. Many of these commitments, however, depend on the project going forward and are therefore in jeopardy through Boulder County’s actions.
As planning for the expansion moved ahead, the utility undertook a proactive strategy to reduce demand. It deployed a water recycling facility to reduce its dependence on West Slope water supplies, embarked on a conservation program renown nationally for its success — cutting per capita water use by 22% between 2007 and 2016 — and has now undertaken direct efforts at water efficiency that pinpoint savings opportunities at the individual customer level. These are only a sample: The utility remains committed to innovation to drive further savings and expand water reuse as a core part of its strategy, work that will continue to be essential even with an increase in storage at Gross Reservoir.
In short, the effort to build civic and regulatory support for the Gross Reservoir expansion has been persistent, inspired and earnest. The future of the region, its access to clean, safe drinking water, protection of its urban tree canopy and environment, and its economic development rest in large part on the ability of Denver Water to protect water supplies from emerging threats, develop a climate-resilient system and remain prepared for the demands that will result from continued growth within its service area in metro Denver.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON BOULDER COUNTY’S PROCESS
Boulder County is endangering the project through delays, repeated and expanding requests for information — information demands that duplicate the already completed federal permitting process in which Boulder County participated — the potential for months of additional hearings and the fact that two of the county’s three commissioners have already publicly stated their opposition to, and desire to stop, the expansion project.
Further, the county’s land use director informed Denver Water on June 29 that the utility — despite over nine months of diligent and painstaking work to respond to Boulder County’s ever-expanding queries — failed to provide sufficient information to county agencies about the project, setting the project up for failure and rendering further involvement with the 1041 process futile.
These actions also put engineering and construction deadlines at risk, threaten to disrupt FERC-ordered timelines and risk other permits and actions necessary for successful completion of the project. A project of this size and complexity requires extensive preplanning, substantial resources and a highly skilled design and construction team. Delays resulting from Boulder County’s refusal to timely process the 1041 application add substantial costs and cause permitting, procurement and logistical issues that seriously disrupt Denver Water’s ability to execute the project.
In summary, the actions of a single local jurisdiction, Boulder County, threaten to derail and undermine a federally permitted and state supported project vital to a safe and secure water supply for one-quarter of Colorado’s population. This presents an unacceptable risk to a critical project spanning nearly 20 years and involving intensive review by environmental agencies at the federal and state levels and the engagement of dozens of organizations and communities across the metro area and the West Slope.
For that reason, Denver Water must seek relief in federal court. The complaint further details Denver Water’s attempts to work with Boulder County, the reasons that federal law preempts Boulder County’s claimed authority over the FERC-licensed expansion project, and the basis for Denver Water’s request that the court prevent Boulder County from further delaying and derailing the project.
State officials are preparing for a future with less water by developing rules and guidance for water users to measure how much they are taking from streams.
State Engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein is planning a rule-making process on measurement devices that includes stakeholder input. Although state engineers in each water division have the authority to enforce the requirement of measurement devices, Rein said drafting more formal rules through an administrative rule-making process, instead of an ad hoc push like in the Yampa River basin, would affirm that authority. Rules would also include specific technical guidance on the best types of flumes, weirs and meters to use for different types of diversions.
“The idea about rule-making is that we would have consistent guidance across the basin, developed through a formal process,” Rein said. “One thing I’ve found is that when you have stakeholder involvement in the development, then you have stakeholder buy-in during the implementation.”
Yampa/White/Green river basin
Division 6 Engineer Erin Light is still taking a lenient stance with water users in the White and Green river basins while the measurement rules are developed. In fall 2019, Light ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use and initially received some push-back from agricultural water users unaccustomed to measuring their diversions.
In March 2020, Light issued notices to water users in the White and Green, but decided to delay sending formal orders after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the economy. Orders are still on pause while Rein’s office develops the measurement rules, which would apply across the Western Slope.
“It made more sense to wait for the measurement rules to at least get started, maybe not necessarily get completed, but allow Kevin to get out and start doing the stakeholder meetings and encourage these structures to be installed without orders,” Light said.
Compliance is gradually increasing across the basin, but at a slower pace than Light would like. In January 2020, 49% of diversions in the Yampa River basin did not have a measuring device; as of April 2021, 42% were still without one. White River basin compliance has improved from 83% without a measuring device to 68% over the same time period; water users in the Green have gone from 69% to 49%. As a whole, Division 6 has gone from 55% of diversions without measuring devices to 46%.
“I would have hoped that we would have had more compliance at this point,” Light said. “I look at those numbers and think we still have some work in front of us and how are we going to accomplish our goal, which is to assure that all of these structures that we maintain records on have operable headgates and measuring devices.”
In some basins on the Western Slope, nearly all diversions already have measuring devices. For example, in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins, about 95% of the structures have devices, according to Colorado Department of Natural Resources Communications Director Chris Arend. That’s because there has traditionally been more demand and competition for water in these basins, he said.
Water shortages drive measurement push
The push for Western Slope diverters to measure their water use comes down to impending water shortages. Division 6, in sparsely populated northwest Colorado, has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as climate change tightens its grip on the West, there is less water to go around. Calls by senior water users have gone from unheard of to increasingly common in just the last few years.
“We definitely have systems on call that have never been on call,” Light said of current conditions in the Yampa.
A call occurs when a senior water rights holder is not getting their full amount they are entitled to. They place a call with state engineers, who shut off more junior water rights users so the senior user can get their full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
“If you don’t have a measuring device during a call, we are shutting you off, period,” Light said.
As the threat of a Colorado River Compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.
A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.
If a compact call were to play out, measuring devices would be crucial, because as Rein says, you can’t administer what you can’t measure.
“We need to better measure what has been diverted, so having measurement rules and therefore measuring devices in place will be critical to prepare for and implement compact administration, should it happen,” he said.
The state is also currently exploring a potential demand management program, which would temporarily pay irrigators to not irrigate and leave more water in the river. The goal would be to boost water levels in Lake Powell and avoid a compact call. But in order to participate in the voluntary program, feasibility of which is still being evaluated, irrigators need to first measure their water diversions.
“We would have to know how much they were using in the years before, before we can give them credit for not using it,” Rein said.
Low interest in grant funding
One of the reasons Light originally paused enforcing the measurement device requirement in the White River basin was to give conservancy districts time to secure grant money to help irrigators pay for the potentially expensive infrastructure. But there was not much interest from water users in getting grant money, according to Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River & Douglas Creek Conservation Districts.
“We did not proceed with (securing grants),” she said. “We didn’t hear from very many people that they were seeking funding.”
The story was similar on the Yampa. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District had a $200,000 pot of money — half of it state grant money and half from the district — to reimburse water users for installing measuring devices. Irrigators can get 50% of their costs covered, up to $5,000 through the first tier of the grant program. According to Public Information and External Affairs Manager Holly Kirkpatrick, despite a very simple application process, the program has doled out just under $40,000 so far for about 20 projects.
“I had certainly hoped to have more interest in the first year of the program,” she said.
As Rein plans for webinars and meetings with water users later this summer and fall, the situation in the Colorado River basin grows more dire. The Bureau of Reclamation this week began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell to try to maintain the ability to produce hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon Dam.
“I recognize the value in having measurement rules as soon as possible because, yes, they would be extremely helpful if we need to take measures toward compact administration,” Rein said. “Having more data sooner rather than later is important.”
Water, always an important topic in our area, will be the focus of this month’s meeting. In July, we will learn about the work of the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP), a local organization working to address the management of this precious resource.
Al Pfister, on behalf of the WEP, will be presenting the results of data collected in Phase II of the WEP’s assessment of the environmental, recreational and agricultural infrastructure needs in the Upper San Juan River. The WEP’s data collection is a part of the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan of 2015 in the development of a Stream Management Plan/Integrated Watershed Management Plan. The WEP’s data collection efforts were done to assess local environmental, recreational and agricultural infrastructure needs in the face of a warming and drying climate.
Pfister is a semi-retired fish and wildlife biologist who has worked in seven western U.S. states dealing with endangered species issues, trying to find a balance between conserving imperiled fish, wildlife, plants, herptiles and invertebrates, while still allowing the various uses (development, recreation, grazing, timber harvest, energy development, etc) to coexist. In addition to his work with WEP, he serves on the board of the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership and on the board of the San Juan Water Conservancy District. He is a past board member of the Weminuche Audubon Society.
Audubon meetings are open to the public. Please come with your questions about this important management tool. We hope to be able to return to in-person meetings this fall if conditions allow.
The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) shows 100 percent of Archuleta County is in moderate drought, with almost three-quarters of the county in severe drought and just over the half the county is in extreme drought.
The NIDIS website notes that under a moderate drought stage, dry-land crops may suffer, range- land growth is stunted, very little hay is available and risk of wildfires may increase.
The NIDIS website also notes that 71.17 percent of the county is in a severe drought stage.
According to the NIDIS, under a severe drought stage, fire season is extended.
Additionally, the NIDIS website notes that 51.04 percent of the county is in an extreme drought, mostly in the western portion of the county.
The NIDIS website notes that, under an extreme drought stage, large fires may develop and pasture conditions worsen.
According to the NIDIS, 6.24 percent of the county, in the southwestern portion, is in an exceptional drought stage.
Under an exceptional drought stage, agricultural and recreational losses are large and dust storms and topsoil removal are widespread.
For more information and maps, visit: https://www.drought. gov/states/Colorado/county/ Archuleta.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 92.2 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 14.
Based on 85 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 328 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1995 at 1,550 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 10.9 cfs, recorded in 2002.
As of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 14, the Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at a rate of 62.3 cfs.
Based on 58 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 266 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was 1,160 cfs in 1979. The lowest recorded rate was 9.44 cfs in 2002.
With federal officials expected to announce a water shortage at Lake Mead next month, this would be an ideal time for Utah officials to kill off that state’s insane plan to divert a huge amount of upstream water to fuel development in the St. George area.
On Thursday, a diverse group of Colorado River stakeholders gathered near Hoover Dam called on Utah to do just that, and pressed for a moratorium on other projects that would divert water from the river.
This wasn’t simply people from other states ganging up on Utah, either. One of the most strident speakers was Zach Frankel from the Utah Rivers Council, who blistered the officials in his state who were backing the pipeline for St. George.
“While the Lower Basin is going on a diet of cutting its water use, we should not allow the Upper Basin to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet of water waste,” Frankel said.
Well put, neighbor.
The Utah pipeline would suck 86,000 acre-feet of water per year from Lake Powell to St. George, where it would be used to grow crops, maintain the grass lawns that are common in the area and to expand development.
Not only is this pipeline unconscionable given the dwindling water supply of lakes Powell and Mead, but the water would be going to a community whose residents are water hogs already. As Frankel pointed out, water usage in Washington County, the home of St. George, averages 306 gallons per person per day — about three times the usage in more water-conscious places like Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Plus, to give some perspective to the amount of water involved in the project, consider that Nevada’s entire annual allotment from Lake Mead is 300,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of ground 1 foot deep, or about 326,000 gallons of water.)
That allotment is all but sure to get a haircut soon, with the looming water shortage declaration by the feds. We’ll lose about 21,000 acre-feet total in mandatory and voluntary cuts. But since Nevada has learned to live with less, we currently use only 256,000 acre-feet per year, meaning we’ll still fall below the 279,000 acre-feet we’ll have after the cutbacks.
Decline of Lake Mead. Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
Meanwhile, though, there’s no indication that years of dwindling flow in the Colorado River will reverse themselves anytime soon. To the contrary, long-range forecasts of snowmelt and rain runoff in the Colorado River watershed suggest that what’s happening now shouldn’t be considered a drought but rather a normal condition.
With Lake Mead at just 36% capacity and shrinking, it’s important to note that the Utah pipeline project isn’t the only one of its type. There are more than a dozen proposed dams and diversions upstream of Southern Nevada in the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.
That was another point of emphasis from the group of stakeholders last week at Lake Mead, which included business operators, agricultural interests, Native American advocates and more. They urged all Southwestern states to recognize that their own water projects would affect the entire region and the millions of Americans who rely on the Colorado River.
“No flow, no future,” said Brea Chiodini, tour boat operator and member of the Laughlin-Bullhead City River Flow Committee.
Putting a moratorium on every current project might be extreme, but at the very least the criteria for approval should be stiffened to reflect the upcoming shortage and the long-term outlook.
One thing is crystal clear, though: The Utah pipeline needs to be shelved. The upcoming water shortage declaration gives officials in the Beehive State an opportunity to terminate the project and save face. If they don’t act on their own, though, it’s a no-brainer that federal officials should put a stake in the heart of this horrible proposal.
It is simply madness that as the Colorado River reaches its lowest levels in recorded history that we’d be proposing a new water diversion upstream,” Frankel said. “At some point, we have to put our foot down and stop this madness.”
Again, a voice of reason from Utah. Frankel’s fellow state residents should listen to him.
Governor Jared Polis today signed an Executive Order memorializing a verbal disaster declaration from June 23, 2021, for the Muddy Slide Fire in Routt County. The Executive Order enables State agencies to coordinate for fire suppression, response, consequence management, and recovery efforts.
The images that define this drought are etched into the creek beds and hillsides of Summit County, their importance drawn out by experienced eyes that know how the land should look.
For one Summit County rancher whose operations cover vast swaths near Wyoming, the emblem might be the bare creek that’s never run dry this early, or the grass last year that grew so dry and brittle it blew away with the wind.
For a dairyman in Hoytsville, it might be the yellowing field that’s next to a still-green one, the result of hard choices after irrigation water was cut off earlier than in memory.
For a South Summit rancher and water official, it might be the hay they’re harvesting at almost half the yield of what it should be, or the low reservoirs that just keep emptying.
That official, Dave Ure, speaking just after a tour of waterworks facilities in Summit County, put the situation in stark terms.
“We are in the worst drought in the state of Utah’s history right now, and the only thing compared to it is the droughts back in 1895 and 1933,” Ure said.
The Ures have been in South Summit for 135 years. Dave Ure is a former politician and current trustee of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which oversees many of the water sources in Summit County.
Ure said water will still flow from household taps, contending that the situation isn’t close to threatening culinary water, at least for those who are connected to a larger municipal system. Water will be diverted from agriculture users long before that happens, Ure said.
But that doesn’t mean the impacts will be confined to farmers and ranchers. Food prices can be expected to go up, Ure said, and wildfire risk will likely remain elevated. The drought might change the landscape itself, possibly hastening a trend of developing farmland into subdivisions.
Those impacts remain on the horizon, for now, but the impacts on farmers and ranchers are already here…
[Jeff] Young traced the current shortages to last summer. He said the 2019-2020 winter provided good water, but that it stopped raining in June and didn’t start snowing until November. A summer and fall without water was something he hadn’t seen before…
The dryness persisted into the winter, and even though there was a below-average snowpack, the season total was not devastating. But the drought was waiting underneath, with soils as dry as had ever been measured.
Ure said there is normally about 500,000 acre-feet of runoff water in the entire Weber Basin catchment area…
Young said the higher-elevation springs on the ranch are still producing, but that the lower areas are bone dry. He said the drought was already beginning to affect the underground aquifers.
Earlier this season, he went to the creek to fix what he thought was a problem with the water-capturing infrastructure.
“I was naive. I thought I had to fix the diversion, but there was nothing to get,” he said…
The Browns have water stored in a reservoir dug by their ancestors in 1883. But that reservoir was down significantly this year, and once that water is used, their fields will no longer be irrigated.
They won’t be able to grow as much feed for their cattle as they normally can, meaning they’ll have to buy it.
Hay prices have skyrocketed, they said, driven up by the lack of supply as well as the number of people who are in the market for feed.
Mike Brown flipped his phone over and showed a social media post from a friend asking if anyone had hay for sale…
With the drought forcing ranchers across the region to sell off portions of their herds, animals don’t fetch the same prices they once did.
All three said they had or were planning to sell significant portions of their stock.
Mike Brown said he has to call days ahead to reserve an appointment to send animals to slaughter. The packing plants are full, he said.
Liquidating the stock might get the ranchers out of debt, but it might not raise enough capital to restart a ranching or farming operation after the drought passes.
Moving the animals comes with transportation costs and the added challenge of finding areas unaffected by the drought, which stretches across much of the West…
Challenges to come
There aren’t many small ranching operations left in Summit County, Ure and others said, and this drought might just drive them out.
Young said it would likely change who’s in the ranching business, possibly opening the door to larger agriculture operations.
Ranchers could also opt to sell to housing developers…
Farmland that may have been profitable might not be so now, and the real estate market is red hot. Ure said he’d heard of several recent transactions in the Kamas area in which land sold for “outrageous prices.”
Summit County Councilor Chris Robinson, who owns or co-owns hundreds of thousands of acres in Utah and elsewhere, including Ensign Ranches, said one silver lining of what he called the “megadrought” is that it’s putting the appropriate level of scrutiny on water use…
Ure predicted that over the course of the summer, governments would start announcing water-conservation regulations. Some options include reducing the amount of grass installed in new development and incentivizing a switch to drought-resistant landscaping.
Young, Ure and Mike and Glen Brown agreed that if the drought persisted into next year, it would compound the problem to perhaps unmanageable levels.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron):
The Bureau of Reclamation today released the July 24-Month Study, confirming declining hydrologic conditions for the Colorado River system. To protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the study incorporates the implementation of drought operations under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA).
The July 2021 Operation Plan for Colorado River System Reservoirs 24-Month Study (July 24-Month Study) shows that the Lake Powell water year 2021 predicted unregulated inflow volume has decreased 2.5 million acre-feet in the six-month period between January and July 2021. The current forecast for WY2021 is 3.23 maf (30% of average).
In addition, 5-year projections released by Reclamation last week predicted a 79% chance that Lake Powell would fall below the DROA target elevation of 3,525 feet within the next year. That target elevation provides a 35 vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam and meet current operational obligations to the Lower Basin States of Arizona, California and Nevada.
Consistent with DROA provisions to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the July 24-Month Study includes adjusted releases from the upstream initial units of the Colorado River Storage Project Act to deliver an additional 181 thousand-acre feet of water to Lake Powell by the end of December 2021. The additional releases are anticipated to be implemented on the following schedule:
The releases detailed above are in addition to the already established releases determined by operational plans for each of the identified facilities. The additional delivery of 181 kaf is expected to raise Lake Powell’s elevation by approximately three feet. The additional releases from the upstream initial units do not change the annual volume of water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead in WY2021, as those volumes are determined by the 2007 Interim Guidelines.
Reclamation publishes a 24-Month Study for Colorado River System reservoirs each month. The August 24-Month Study will set the operating conditions for Lake Mead and Lake Powell for the upcoming year. Reclamation will also release an update to the 5-year projections in early September.
Reclamation and the Colorado River Basin states continue to work together cooperatively to closely monitor projections and conditions and are prepared to take additional measures in accordance with the DROA.
Reclamation remains committed to reducing the collective risk of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead falling to critical elevations and will continue to work with entities in the Colorado River Basin to ensure that both facilities continue to function as authorized to meet the natural, municipal and agricultural needs of the basin.
Completion of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project is expected to move back a few years since the project intends to use facilities at the San Juan Generating Station for its future water delivery.
Members of a state legislative committee were told this week by a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation official that the bureau decided to use the existing system that intakes water from the San Juan River to help deliver water to the Navajo Nation and the City of Gallup once the pipeline is completed and operational.
Pat Page, manager of the Bureau’s Four Corners Construction Office, explained that among the apparatuses that will be acquired are the diversion dam, pumping plant and reservoir.
The tribe is the primary beneficiary of the project through its water settlement for the San Juan River Basin in New Mexico. The project will also serve Gallup and the Jicarilla Apache Nation – through a separate lateral…
Extension of the project’s completion date from 2024 to 2029 is due to upgrades of existing structures and construction at the site, he explained.
However, it is also viewed as a cost savings because the original plan was to build a new diversion system off an irrigation cancel downstream, Page added.
The bureau is continuing negotiations to acquire the facilities from the power plant’s owners.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Monsoonal moisture in the area this week is helping take the edge off the drought, however so slightly, but also is creating concerns about flash flooding in areas, including the Pine Gulch Fire burn scar north of Grand Junction.
The National Weather Service recorded 0.12 inches of rain Tuesday at the official recording station at the Grand Junction Regional Airport. Jeff Colton, a warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service, said other moisture readings for the day were spotty around the region, ranging from just a trace in Fruita and a tenth of an inch in Palisade to more than a half-inch in Orchard Mesa…
Cody Moser, a hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, said during a conference call with reservoir operators, local irrigation entities and others Wednesday that Tuesday’s precipitation in the region was heaviest in the Roaring Fork Valley…
Colton said the recent moisture is occurring after a strong high-pressure ridge that had brought hot temperatures to the region broke down, allowing monsoon moisture to come up from the south…
The pulses of monsoonal moisture are becoming a bit more frequent, which Colton said is providing hope for Colorado and some other area states in the grip of drought.
STILL BEHIND ON RAIN
Grand Junction had received just 0.14 inches of rain at the airport all month through Tuesday, and just 2.28 inches of precipitation all year, compared to 4.37 inches through the same date in a normal year.
Still, Colton said this summer is starting to feel like the old days, with an active monsoon season developing. The region saw little monsoonal moisture the last few years…
He said the moisture is slowing down fire activity in the state, but has been kind of hit or miss. Northwest Colorado didn’t get as much rainfall Tuesday, and the most critical burn conditions in the region remain there, he said. The Morgan Creek Fire outside Steamboat Springs had burned more than 3,800 acres as of Wednesday, but officials there said Wednesday that precipitation was helping to temper the blaze.
FromThe Montrose Daily Press (Cassie Knust and Anna Lynn Winfrey):
The City of Montrose welcomed the public to roam around the nearly completed structure, which will hold 1.5 million gallons of water. In lieu of a formal presentation, city officials mingled with the crowd of curious citizens in and around the tower as the sun began its descent on July 12.
To build the water tower, Cory Noles explained that giant pieces of steel were welded together into 8-foot tall rings that were stacked on top of each other. Noles is the general superintendent of Ridgway Valley Enterprises, a commercial contractor on the project.
Despite the 135-foot height, Scott Murphy, the city engineer for Montrose and the project lead, said that the foundation is only 5 feet deep from ground level because the dirt in the area bodes well for a tall structure.
The water that is scheduled to fill the tower this November is sourced from the general city water system, which comes from the Project 7 Water Authority’s treatment plant on the east side of town.
Water towers help stabilize water pressure throughout the city. Murphy said that the tower fills up during lower demand periods, so when demand is high on hotter days, water pressure can stay constant.
The tower, which cost approximately $5 million, addresses the city’s need for water storage and prepares the city for continued growth on the western side of the Uncompahgre river.
In the case of an emergency water break, the tower can hold enough to provide the town with water for up to four days. Murphy said that only one line crosses the Uncompahgre river to the western side of town, so if a disaster struck and the pipe was obliterated, the water tower ensures that people would still have water.
The water tower is slated to sustain another period of growth in Montrose, and the city has made long-term plans to ease the construction of another tower in the future…
The project is scheduled to be completed by November of this year. Some pandemic-related shortages have caused minor delays, but the project is still slated to be completed on time…
The tower will be painted a lighter color to blend into the landscape. Murphy said that the tower will be emblazoned with the logo for the city, but artsier designs may be considered in the future.
Plummeting reservoir levels at Mead and Powell solidify Arizona cutbacks next year and near-future threats to all the Compact states, from Colorado to California
blunt new report based on June runoff conditions from the Colorado River into Lake Powell and Lake Mead shows the reservoirs fast deteriorating toward “dead pool” status, where stored water is so low it can’t spin the massive hydroelectric power generators buried in the dams, and large swaths of Arizona farmland going fallow.
The enormous, life-sustaining buckets of water in the drought-stricken West are emptying so fast that the Bureau of Reclamation added a new monthly report – on top of three already scheduled this year – to keep up with the dam
The bureau said the loss of water is accelerating, confirming projections that massive water restrictions will begin in 2022 for the three Lower Basin states in the seven-state Colorado River Compact. Conservation groups believe Arizona will lose more than 500,000 acre-feet of water usually delivered by the Colorado in 2022 through voluntary and mandatory cuts, forcing significant reductions to irrigated farming in the desert state. Some, but not all, of Arizona’s share will be replaced in trades using water already “banked” in the reservoirs.
Decline of Lake Mead. Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
The bureau’s report for June, added on to previously scheduled reservoir updates for January, April and August, paints a dire picture. As snowpack runoff disappeared into dry ground instead of hitting the reservoirs, engineers calculated a 79% chance Lake Powell will fall below its minimum target water height of 3,525 feet above sea level next year.
That minimum provides only a 35-foot cushion for the minimum water level of 3,490 feet needed to spill water into the electric turbines. The bureau said there is now a 5% chance Lake Powell falls below the minimum needed to generate any power in 2023, and a 17% chance in 2024 — the odds are going up with each new report.
Lake Mead, which feeds the three Lower Basin compact states of Nevada, California and Arizona, is in even worse shape. The compact requires declaration of restriction-triggering “shortage condition” if Mead hits 1,075 feet or lower. Mead is falling now, and the bureau affirmed the shortage declaration will happen in August. Las Vegas, a short drive from Mead and Hoover Dam, hit 117 degrees on July 10, and longtime local users are alarmed at how fast the pool is evaporating into desert skies.
Mead is also in great danger of hitting “critical” elevations of 1,025 feet, a sort of emergency-stop minimum, and the minimum pool for generating power at 1,000 feet, the bureau’s new report said. The chances of draining past the minimum by 2025 are now 58%, and the chances of falling below a power pool that year are 21%.
Weather plus climate change
Long-term climate change is being exacerbated by a short-term drought lasting more than 20 years in the West, scientist and water engineers say. Even with a future snowpack bonanza – not currently in the forecast – the compact reservoirs will remain in deep trouble, said John Berggren, water policy analyst for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates.
The Colorado River basin’s latest snowpack was just about 100% of normal, Berggren noted, but delivered only 50% of normal runoff into the river and the giant reservoirs. Water is soaking into parched ground or evaporating entirely before it can contribute to stream flows.
“It’s startling how with each new projection, you had thought it can’t possibly get worse,” Berggren said. “Even just a year or two ago, most people would have thought these projections are pretty far away from ever happening.”
Major water cutbacks for the Lower Basin states are now an unavoidable reality, Berggren said. “This just shows that we no longer have the luxury of thinking it’s a decade down the road.”
“The June five-year projections for the Colorado River System reaffirm this is a serious situation,” Wayne Pullan, Upper Colorado Basin regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation, said in a statement about the latest river modeling. “We are actively engaged with the Colorado River Basin states and other partners to respond to changing conditions to avoid critical elevations at Lake Powell.”
The original compact between Upper Basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – and the Lower Basin was negotiated in 1922. It was given real teeth in 2019 with a Drought Contingency Plan that first penalizes Lower Basin states if levels and inflows into Powell and Mead fall below trigger points.
Upper Basin states face future cutbacks in water use as well if they can’t deliver agreed-upon amounts of water to the basin separation point at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, just above the Grand Canyon. Colorado water engineers, agricultural interests and utilities are in ongoing discussions and experiments on how best to leave more in the Colorado should those downstream treaty calls eventually come.
Mexico is also part of the historic compact. Some states are negotiating with Mexico to build ocean water desalinization plants near the Pacific Ocean, so that Mexico could use that water and the states could keep more river water.
Colorado tries to refill the Yampa
Colorado water managers, meanwhile, are working quickly to mitigate some of the intense near-term impacts of recent drought, including along the severely depleted Yampa River in northwest Colorado, which is a tributary of the Colorado River.
On July 8, the Colorado Water Trust bought 1,000 acre-feet of water in Stagecoach Reservoir, with an option to buy 1,000 more, for releases over the rest of the summer into the Yampa to keep fish alive and keep the river basin healthier in hot temperatures. The Water Trust has made similar purchases in other years, but will likely have to release the water far earlier than usual this season in order to prevent high water temperatures and stagnant flow that stress fish and hurt their spawning chances.
After spending about $46,000 on the July purchase, the trust has spent just under $500,000 to buy water from Stagecoach’s reserve since 2012. In announcing the deal, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District noted the late-May stream flow into Stagecoach was at less than 10 cubic feet per second, when it should have been more than 100 cfs. The district said it has separately released more than 1,500 acre-feet of its own water from Stagecoach so far this year in order to support river health.
Cash donors to buy the Stagecoach water include the Yampa River Fund, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, among others. Tri-State operates coal-fired electricity generating units down the Yampa to the west of Stagecoach.
From the Community Agriculture Alliance via The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Libby Christensen):
Many of you reading this article are fortunate to get to call Routt County home. Clearly after this year, word has gotten out, and we have seen an influx of new folks lucky enough to own land in our community. With this incredible opportunity, comes incredible responsibility.
In an effort to assure that everyone is stewarding this limited resource and to reduce potential conflicts, the Community Agriculture Alliance and CSU Extension are teaming up again to offer the 101 Land Stewardship class.
This course is for folks new to Routt County or to owning land in Routt County, real estate agents and anyone interested in learning more about agriculture and land stewardship. The six-week course is offered on Wednesday evenings, beginning on Sept. 15 through Oct. 20.
A wide variety of topics will be covered throughout the course. Participants will be taught how to identify common plants, weeds, grasses, and trees in the area. The course will cover the relationships between humans, soil, plants, and water.
At the end of the course, participants will be more aware of their surroundings and understand how land management decisions impact the land, water, and people around them.
Grazing and Ranching Stewardship will cover ranching in Routt County including a conversation about the impacts of wildlife on livestock and humans and vice a versa. Local experts, who represent multigenerational land stewards in Routt County, will be on hand to teach the class and to provide real world examples of positive ranch stewardship.
The Water Stewardship class will show learners how both nature and man can alter and/or improve waterways. Participants will be introduced to several different types of irrigation systems and how they work. Local experts will also provide an overview of basic Colorado water law.
In Preparing for Fire, instructors will review what steps you can take to prepare yourself, your animals, and your home for wildfire.
Community Stewardship conversations will focus on how to be a good neighbor, covering proper weed management, fence laws, and the Routt County Master Plan.
Wrapping it all together in our last class Stewardship with a Purpose, we will discuss how soil, water, animals, plants and air should all be considered when making plans to manage property.
Land stewardship is a responsibility that we owe not to the generations before us, but to those who come after us. Our forefathers thought enough of us to take care of the land so that we could use it for our benefit, and we have the opportunity to do the same for the generations who follow us.
The Land Stewardship 101 course will help you learn how to become a better steward of your property, benefiting you, your neighborhood, your community, your children, and anyone else who calls or will call our valley home.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Travis Duncan):
Due to low flows and warm water temperatures, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is asking anglers to voluntarily avoid fishing after noon on sections of the Yampa River that run through the boundaries of CPW’s Yampa River State Park and Yampa River State Wildlife Area, both located just west of Hayden, Colo. CPW is also asking anglers to avoid fishing after noon on the 1.5-mile section of the Elk River that runs through CPW’s Christina State Wildlife Area to the northwest of Steamboat Springs. These voluntary fishing closures go into effect on Tuesday, July 13.
Update to voluntary fishing closure on section of Colorado River
On July 7, CPW placed a full-day voluntary fishing closure on the Colorado River beginning at the Highway 9 bridge in Kremmling downstream to the Highway 13 bridge in Rifle. Environmental conditions have recently improved between Kremmling and State Bridge due primarily to upstream reservoir releases. As a result, CPW is lifting the voluntary, full-day fishing closure in place upstream of State Bridge while the voluntary, full-day fishing closure remains in effect from State Bridge downstream to the Highway 13 bridge in Rifle.
“We are continuing to closely monitor changing environmental conditions, and appreciate anglers’ patience and cooperation relative to implementation and removal of fishing closures,” said CPW Northwest Region Senior Aquatic Biologist Lori Martin. “Other waters that may see closures in the immediate future include sections of the Colorado River upstream of the Williams Fork River confluence, the Fraser River, and the upper Yampa River.”
Anglers should be aware that most of the major rivers on Colorado’s Western Slope are experiencing adverse conditions heading into the hottest days of summer. Follow the Leave No Trace Principle to “Know Before You Go” to the West Slope this summer and check out conditions related to mandatory and voluntary fishing closures: https://cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/Pages/StatewideFishingConditions.aspx
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Travis Duncan):
Due to low flows and warm water temperatures, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is asking anglers to voluntarily avoid fishing after noon on the 4-mile section of Tomichi Creek that runs through CPW’s Tomichi Creek State Wildlife Area, located just east of Gunnison, Colo. The voluntary fishing closure is in effect immediately.
“Currently, water temperatures are exceeding 71 degrees fahrenheit consistently,” CPW Aquatic Biologist Dan Brauch said. “The temperatures are tending to spike in the afternoon. Fish that are caught when temperatures are that high may experience increased stress and anglers may find it difficult to release fish safely.”
Brauch said anglers should fish early to avoid the higher water temperatures commonly seen in the afternoon and seek out high-elevation trout lakes and streams, where water temperatures are more suitable.
CPW aquatic biologists will be monitoring temperatures on the creek in the coming weeks to let anglers know when conditions have improved.
Anglers should be aware that many of the major rivers on Colorado’s Western Slope are experiencing adverse conditions heading into the hottest days of summer. Follow the Leave No Trace Principle to “Know Before You Go” to the West Slope this summer and check out conditions related to mandatory and voluntary fishing closures: https://cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/Pages/StatewideFishingConditions.aspx.
Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is asking its customers to get into the habit of conserving the water they pay for and use.
NTUA, the tribal utility enterprise that restricted the amount of water its water-loading stations could take, stated on Wednesday asking its consumers to get into the habit of conserving water.
The reasons: drought and extreme weather events…
While a few areas in the Navajo Nation received nearly an inch of rain, much of the reservation received less than half an inch of precipitation, despite some places getting a heavy downpour, according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
On June 27, water levels in some NTUA tanks dropped 2 feet, Kontz said, because some water-loading station customers are filling their 100- to 200-gallon water tanks repeatedly throughout the day. He said NTUA found one customer took 6,000 gallons of water in two days. The significant drop in water levels prompted the water restriction to be issued.
Kontz said the water-loading stations are connected to the main water supply that provides water to its other water customers with water piping. The over-usage by water-loading station customers caused the water pressure to homes and businesses to drop.
The restriction, Kontz said, has been helping tank levels to recover.
NTUA has approximately 39,000 customers and has 18 water-loading stations that serve an unknown number of additional customers who do not have access to a piped water system.
The tribal utility company provides water for communities along the San Juan River, from Fruitland, N.M. to Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. Those communities get water from the City of Farmington. The city issued a water shortage advisory and sent a letter to NTUA on May 27, informing them it would encourage its customers to reduce their water usage by 10%.
Chris Sypher, the community works director for the City of Farmington, said on June 7, the city uses up to 16 million gallons of water a day, and NTUA has access to up to 6 million gallons of water for its reservation customers during the summer…
NTUA manages and operates the domestic, public water systems providing water for human consumption throughout the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation Water Resources Department oversees livestock wells and windmills.
NTUA recommends minimizing water usage by not washing parking lots or driveways, using potable water for construction purposes, watering lawns or gardens less than three times per week, and hauling less than 500 gallons – of potable water for remote home cistern systems – per day.
NTUA also recommends homeowners check for leaky faucets, leaky toilets, turn off the water while brushing their teeth, and taking fewer or shorter showers.
The West has more hydrologic variability — more flood years and drought years per average year — than any other part of the country, Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, and the head of the school’s Center for Watershed Sciences told ABC News.
But a study published in Science Magazine in 2020 warned that the West is exiting an unusually wet time in its history and heading toward an unusually dry time that could last years — even centuries.
Some 42% of California’s population is now under a drought emergency — every part of the state except Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday. And if some of the most prominent reservoirs in the West are any indication, residents may be in trouble. Last month, water levels in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, hit historic lows — an alarming notion considering the West is largely dependent on surface water.
Neighboring Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the U.S., is seeing similar patterns. Lake Mead and Lake Powell will likely never refill to previously normal levels, John Berggren, a water policy analyst with conservation organization Western Resource Advocates, told ABC News.
“Climate change is definitely challenging the system,” Berggren said. Population growth is straining the system as well, as increasing amounts of water get diverted to more households.
If the predictions come to fruition, and the recent warm, dry trends persist in coming years, how will the West solve its water crisis?
For years, states and municipalities are already urging residents, and in some cases enacting laws, to protect the water supply. Some regions on the coast, such as Santa Barbara, California, are installing desalination plants, and other inland areas, such as the state of Arizona, are monitoring ground water supplies as major reservoirs and the Colorado River continue to see the water levels dip.
Agriculture will be hit the hardest
Farming uses the largest chunk of water supply, accounting for 80% of consumptive water use in the U.S. and more than 90% in many Western states, according to the U.S. Department of AgricultureYour text to link…, and would likely be the first casualty if supply in the West were strained.
In Utah, up to 90% of the water used in the state goes to agriculture, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. In Arizona, a large amount of the water extracted from the Colorado River goes toward agriculture, Erinanne Saffell, acting Arizona state climatologist, told ABC News.
Overall, between 80% and 90% of the water from the Colorado River system is used for agriculture, Berggren said.
In California, about 80% of the water use goes toward irrigated farming, Lund said, but agriculture only accounts for about 5% of the economy…
Alternative solutions like desalination and groundwater aren’t always feasible
As water levels in reservoirs continue to drop, officials are also exploring other options to retrieve water.
In Arizona, groundwater is the state’s largest water supply, Saffell said. Lawmakers passed legislation in 1980 in which municipalities agreed to not overdraw the groundwater.
In the past, when there was not enough surface water and water in reservoirs, states would pump as much groundwater as needed, Cora Kammeyer, a senior researcher at the environmental research nonprofit Pacific Institute, told ABC News. But now, after turning to that solution “over and over again,” they are now seeing both surface water and groundwater shortages, she added.
Depletion of groundwater in the Southwest has been of concern for many years, especially in Arizona. Increased pumping to support population growth near Tucson and Phoenix resulted in water level declines of 300 to 500 feet in the region by the 1980s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The installation of desalination plants, which remove mineral components from saltwater to create sources for drinking and agriculture, along the coast are for “some extreme cases,” Lund said, and with it comes “a whole host of challenges,” Berggren said.
The cost of treating seawater is about $2,000 to $3,000 an acre foot, which is about two or three times the cost of the next cheapest source, which is water conservation, such as buying water from farmers and reusing wastewater, Lund said. Relying on desalination plants would likely double a household water bill, he added.
And while the technology has been around for a while, desalination also presents environmental challenges, such as where to put the salt and sediments left over from the process, which are bad to return to the sea, because all the extra sediment and minerals essentially pollutes the natural seawater. It would also be inefficient to pump the water from the coast to more inland states such as Colorado, Berggren said…
Water management and conservation may be the strongest solutions
Water management and conservation have already proven to be the most effective tactics in maintaining water supplies in the West, experts said.
Arizona water management is well-equipped to ensure supplies to the desert community, Saffell said. The state has been at a Tier Zero level of shortage, the highest classification for a lake shortage, for the past couple of years. It decreases water allotment slightly, but Saffell expects the state to move to an unprecedented Tier One conservation level in 2022, when they will then decrease their draw rom the Colorado River by 8%.
It will be the first Tier One shortage ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation in lower Colorado River basin states such as Arizona, California, Nevada and some states in northern Mexico. Once Lake Mead, which supplies water to about 25 million people in the region, reaches a certain level, each state will have to extract less water, Berggren said…
With every drought in the West, officials have made improvements in water management, Lund said.
And the efforts to conserve have already made great strides in recent decades. in California, cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are using the same amount of water, or less, as they did 30 years ago, despite substantial increases in population, Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, wrote in 2019.
Currently, per capita water use is 16% lower than 2013 levels, suggesting there has been some permanent behavior change by Californians since the mid-2010’s drought, California Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters on Thursday…
Conservation mandates are imminent
Officials have already begun to lay down the law on curbing water usage, and additional restrictions are imminent, experts say.
Newsom requested that residents voluntarily use 15% less water after signing an executive order adding nine counties to the state’s drought emergency on Thursday…
On Wednesday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order mandating that state agencies stop watering lawns and washing windows at state offices and facilities and to stop running fountains that don’t recirculate water. The order also bans the planting of new landscape that requires irrigation.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has asked anglers to voluntarily avoid fishing on the Colorado River between Kremmling and Rifle — and more voluntary closures could be coming.
The closure is in effect until further notice with a possibility of a mandatory emergency closure to all fishing if conditions worsen…
Heat, drought and low water levels are contributing to elevated water temperatures in much of Colorado, depleting oxygen levels and leaving trout vulnerable. Trout are cold-water fish that function best in 50-60 degree waters. When temperatures exceed 70 degrees, they often stop feeding and become more susceptible to disease.
As the aquatic biologist for CPW’s Hot Sulphur Springs office, Jon Ewert has seen already seen the local impact to the fishery firsthand. After a number of public reports of fish mortality along the Colorado River, he recently floated from Radium to Rancho del Rio to verify the issue. On that float, he counted 15 fish carcasses…
River flows have been exceptionally low this year.
The USGS gauge on the Colorado River at Catamount Bridge has been measuring 600-700 cfs, less than half what is historically expected there. The USGS gauge on the Colorado River near Dotsero is running at 1,250 cfs, down from an expected 3,000-4,000 cfs.
Mixed with high temperatures, these conditions spell disaster for the fishery. And it’s not just the Colorado River downstream from Kremmling.
According to Ewert, temperatures for other river sections in Grand are also edging toward dangerous levels for fish…
Ewert explained that these types of voluntary closures on rivers are not unheard of, but the extent of the closures might be…
Around 60% of Grand County’s water is diverted, mostly to the Front Range, with the Denver metro area receiving about 20% of its water from Grand.
In early June, temperatures were already spiking to 70 degrees on the Colorado River near Kremmling. Grand County coordinated with the Colorado River District, Denver Water, Northern Water and other partners to boost water levels where possible…
Denver Water estimated that by early July it will have voluntarily foregone collecting around 11,000 acre-feet of water from Grand County…
Northern Water said it has bypassed more than 6,000 acre-feet or about 2 billion gallons of water this year that has been sent downstream in the Colorado River…
Representatives of the Grand County Learning By Doing Cooperative Effort, the partnership of Front Range and West Slope water stakeholders, said that coordination is underway to release additional flows to mitigate temperatures.
While these voluntary efforts by those with water rights in Grand are helping, the sharp contrast in water use is hard to ignore for those invested in the health of the county’s rivers.
“Here’s what really breaks my heart: The Front Range water diverters filled their reservoirs … they continued to divert as much water as they did in a wet year,” [Kirk] Klanke said. “They don’t seem to feel they have any more wiggle room to leave a little more water in the river …
“Now we’re at the mercy of senior water right calls downstream. As I watch my guide friends become unemployed, I watch Kentucky bluegrass be watered on the Front Range. It’s hard to swallow.”
In the gray light of dawn, hundreds of swallows darted over a pool of standing water in an irrigated field along the Colorado River. The birds were attracted to the early-morning mosquitos swarming the saturated landscape. Bill Vetter, a wildlife biologist with Wyoming-based Precision Wildlife Resources, methodically counted the birds. For six minutes, he marked down every bird he saw or heard at eight different locations across the ranch, 250 meters apart.
Vetter is part of an avian-monitoring program, headed up by Audubon Rockies, which aims to learn more about how birds use irrigated agricultural lands. In 2020, the fields near Kremmling where Vetter counted purposely did not irrigate as part of a state-grant-funded study on water use in high-elevation pastures. This year, irrigators are back to watering their usual amount and Vetter is tracking the trends in bird species and numbers.
This year, Vetter counted four or five additional species, including the yellow-headed blackbird, white-faced ibis and sora.
“I can say that for sure we got additional species this year that we didn’t have last year, and those species are largely associated with water habitat,” he said.
Across the Western Slope, birds and other wildlife have come to depend on these artificially created wetlands, a result of flood irrigation. But as the state of Colorado grapples with whether to implement a demand-management program, which would pay irrigators to temporarily dry up fields in an effort to send more water downstream, there could be unintended consequences for the animals that use irrigated agriculture for their habitat.
Learning more about how birds use these landscapes is a key first step, according to Abby Burk, Western rivers regional program manager with Audubon Rockies.
“Wetlands are the unsung hero for all the ecological services and functions they provide for wildlife,” she said. “Those low-field wetlands are good habitat for birds, for breeding, for migratory stopovers.”
In 2020, the bird count turned up 1,285 birds, comprising 39 different species, including great blue herons, meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, an osprey, a peregrine falcon, and several types of swallows, warblers and sparrows. The numbers are not yet tallied for this year, but the general expectation is that more water means more birds.
“Birds have adapted to how we have created these different habitat types,” Burk said. “We’ve really got to look at the larger effects of how we use water can impact birds and other wildlife. Where there’s water, birds also do thrive.”
The seven ranches where the avian monitoring is taking place are part of a larger water study that is evaluating conserved consumptive use in the upper Colorado River basin. Consumptive use is a measure of how much water is consumed by thirsty plants. Conserved consumptive use is the amount by which consumptive use is reduced as a result of changing irrigation practices.
Researchers from Colorado State University are studying the impacts of using less water on the high-elevation fields in Grand County and how long it takes them to recover once water returns. Researchers hope to fill in a data gap about the impacts of reducing irrigation water on high-elevation pastures.
In 2020, some participating landowners did not irrigate at all and some only irrigated until June 15. This year, landowners reverted to their historical irrigation practices. Remote sensors and ground-based instruments are monitoring the difference in plant and soil conditions, and will continue to do so through 2023. Early results found that the plants used about 45% less water in 2020 compared with the previous four years.
The first phase of the project received a $500,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) under its Alternative Agriculture Water Transfer Method program, which aims to find alternatives to “buy and dry” water transfers. The CWCB in September will consider another $60,000 grant request for Trout Unlimited to continue to do monitoring with a field technician.
Although the project is not directly related to the state’s demand-management feasibility investigation, the results could have implications for any potential program that the state eventually comes up with.
“We are hoping all this information and research is going to be used down the road if a program does develop,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado water project legal counsel with Trout Unlimited. Trout Unlimited is helping to fund and implement the research project.
At the heart of a demand-management program is paying irrigators on a voluntary and temporary basis to not irrigate and to leave more water in the river in an effort to bolster levels in Lake Powell and help Colorado meet its downstream obligations.
Under the Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) must send 7.5 million acre-feet each year to the Lower Basin (California, Arizona and Nevada). Failure to meet this obligation could trigger a “compact call” where junior water users in the Upper Basin would have their water cut off. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre of land one foot deep.)
As rising temperatures due to climate change continue to rob the Colorado River and its tributaries of flows and increase the risk of a compact call, finding solutions to water shortages is becoming more urgent. Lake Powell, the river’s biggest reservoir, is just under 34% full and projected to decline further. Demand management would let the Upper Basin set aside up to 500,000 acre-feet in a special pool in Powell to help avoid a compact call.
Some still-unanswered questions remain: How much of the conserved consumptive water from high-elevation pastures would actually make it downstream to Lake Powell? And how much would local streams benefit from the added flows?
“One critical part of what we’re doing is looking at the stream and saying: Do we see any changes from one year to the next? How much water would actually make it to the stream?” Whiting said. “We are measuring to see if there’s any distinction between the year the conservation practices were applied and the following year.”
The unintended consequences of different irrigation patterns under a demand-management program could be many and far-reaching. In 2018, the CWCB formed nine workgroups to examine some of these issues, including one that looked at environmental considerations.
In notes submitted to the CWCB last July, the environmental workgroup acknowledged there could be trade-offs, sometimes among species. For example, reducing irrigation and leaving more water in rivers would benefit fish and riparian habitats, but might negatively impact birds or other species that use wetlands created by flood irrigation. And with full irrigation, birds may thrive, but to the detriment of river ecosystems.
David Graf, water-resource specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, participated in the environmental-considerations workgroup. He said irrigated agriculture provides a lot of diversity in forbes, grasses and insects — good sources of protein for birds. But fish need water too. And in the summer and fall, the more, the better. There is an environmental value in irrigated agriculture, but only if the streams aren’t suffering at its expense, Graf said.
“There is a whole bunch of wildlife that is dependent on irrigated agriculture,” he said. “I think we all recognize the value that irrigated agriculture brings to wildlife, but it’s at the expense of fisheries in a lot of cases. There’s a little bit of a trade-off on a local level. I think we get the balance wrong sometimes.”
Birds as indicator
Burk acknowledged that the usefulness of the bird count is limited by the absence of baseline data, because there was no bird monitoring on the fields before 2020. But trends are still important and, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, birds can be an indicator of what’s happening on a landscape. Burk said she would like to do a bird-monitoring program on a larger scale at different locations around the Western Slope.
“As we learn more about how birds respond to water on the landscape, whether that’s in the river, in the fields, in the wetlands and adjacent habitats, it’s going to help give us a better picture of how the entire landscape and our natural systems are responding,” Burk said.
Colorado River water issues sometimes make for seemingly strange bedfellows. Nonprofit environmental groups such as Audubon are usually focused on keeping more water in the rivers, while irrigators traditionally take it out. In this case, interests align with keeping water on the landscape, with birds as the beneficiaries. Burk said those “us-versus-them” distinctions among water users are evaporating as people realize they are not facing the water crisis alone.
“When we drop the silos, drop the fences and walls between water users, we can see that this is one water — people, wildlife, the environment, the recreation industry — we all depend upon it,” Burk said. “So, how do we keep these natural systems so they can keep doing their job for everyone with reduced water? Water has to go further because there’s less of it.”
This story ran in The Aspen Times and the Craig Press on July 10.
On Wednesday, June 30, Gov. Jared Polis formally declared a drought emergency for 21 counties in the western portion of the state by proclamation.
The proclamation states that Colorado is now in phase 3 activa- tion of the State Drought Plan for 21 counties, including Archuleta, Hinsdale and La Plata counties.
Mineral County was not in- cluded in the governor’s proclamation.
However, a press release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) explains that counties along the Continental Divide in abnormally dry conditions or a moderate drought “will continue to be closely monitored and added to the drought emergency proclama- tion as appropriate.”
The CWCB press release explains that phase 3 is the highest level of activation under the State Drought Plan.
The CWCB press release notes that on June 22, 2020, phase 2 of the State Drought Plan was activated for 40 counties and expanded to all 64 counties by September 2020…
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), as of 10 a.m. on June 29, 100 percent of Archuleta County remains in a moderate drought stage, with more than half of the county in extreme drought.
The NIDIS website notes that under a moderate drought stage, dry-land crops may suffer, rangeland growth is stunted, very little hay is available and risk of wildfires may increase.
The NIDIS website also notes that 71.17 percent of the county is in a severe drought stage.
According to the NIDIS, under a severe drought stage, fire season is extended.
Additionally, the NIDIS website notes that 51.04 percent of the county is in an extreme drought, mostly in the western portion of the county.
The NIDIS website notes that under an extreme drought stage, large fires may develop and pasture conditions worsen.
According to the NIDIS, 6.24 percent of the county, in the southwestern portion, is in an exceptional drought stage…
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 149 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 10 a.m. on Wednesday, July 7.
Based on 85 years of water re- cords at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 482 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1995 at 2,080 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 17.5 cfs, recorded in 2002.
As of 10 a.m. on Wednesday, July 7, the Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at a rate of 119 cfs.
Based on 58 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 372 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was 1,920 cfs in 1975. The lowest recorded rate was 8.05 cfs in 2002.
During a meeting on June 21, members of the San Juan Water Conservation District (SJWCD) board discussed local implications of historically low water levels in Lake Powell.
“The article that came out today just said that there’s a threshold that Lake Powell has to reach for the CWCB (Colorado Water Conservation Board) to enact some legal movements,” said board member Joe Tedder. “Apparently we’re going to hit that, probably by the end of June.”
The threshold Tedder referred to is outlined in the Colorado River Drought Contingency Management and Operations Plan (DCP).
The plan states that if Lake Powell reaches a surface elevation of 3,525 the upper-basin states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) shall take action to send more water to Lake Powell from reservoirs upstream.
According to the USBR, the surface elevation of Lake Powell was 3,559 feet on July 4. Aside from the drought in 2005, such low water levels have not been seen since the 1960s, when Lake Powell was still filling after the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963.
Low water levels in Lake Powell have implications for the Colorado River Basin, which includes the San Juan River and Pagosa Springs.
According to a report by the Pacific Institute in 2013, roughly 70 percent of the Colorado River Basin’s water is used to irrigate nearly 5.7 million acres of land for agriculture. The USBR estimates that more than 40 million people depend on the river to support their lives.
Another report prepared by Southwick Associates in 2012 esti- mated that 5.6 million people over the age of 18 use the Colorado River for recreational purposes each year.
The same report totals the value of all spending resulting from such recreational expenditures to be $25.6 billion, generating $1.6 billion in federal tax dollars…
SJWCD board member Doug Secrist outlined provisions in the DCP, stating that in an effort to stabilize Lake Powell, water would be reallocated from reservoirs up- stream, otherwise referred to as initial units…
“I can tell you that PAWSD is senior to all those reservoirs, so PAWSD water is pretty well protected,” SJWCD Board of Directors President Al Pfister said of the Pagosa Area Wa- ter and Sanitation District. “But it is a very intricate and interwoven issue.”
The National Integrated Drought Information System reports that Archuleta County is experiencing its driest year in over a century, and that the initial units from which water is planned to be supplied to Lake Powell are already low in volume and inflow…
The USBR predicts that the preliminary unregulated flow which supplies the Navajo Reservoir, which presently has a pool elevation 27 feet below the 1981-2010 average, will be 36 percent of the average for the month of July.
For Blue Mesa, which presently rests 43 feet below the 1981-2010 av- erage, is projected to have an inflow volume 40 percent of average.
Flaming Gorge, which rests only 3 feet below its average pool eleva- tion, is projected to have an unregu- lated inflow volume of 42 percent of average.
FromYale 360 (Jim Robbins). Click through for Ted Wood’s photo gallery:
The Gila was once a vibrant desert river, providing a lifeline for the riparian habitat and wildlife that depended on it in the U.S. Southwest. But population growth, agricultural withdrawals, and, increasingly, climate change have badly diminished the river and threaten its future.
The confluence of the tiny San Pedro River and the much larger Gila was once one of the richest locales in one of the most productive river ecosystems in the American Southwest, an incomparable oasis of biodiversity.
The rivers frequently flooded their banks, a life-giving pulse that created sprawling riverside cienegas, or fertile wetlands; braided and beaver-dammed channels; meandering oxbows; and bosques — riparian habitats with towering cottonwoods, mesquite and willows. This lush, wet Arizona landscape, combined with the searing heat of the Sonoran Desert, gave rise to a vast array of insects, fish and wildlife, including apex predators such as Mexican wolves, grizzly bears, jaguars and cougars, which prowled the river corridors.
The confluence now is a very different place, its richness long diminished. A massive mountain of orange- and dun-colored smelter tailings, left from the days of copper and lead processing and riddled with arsenic, towers where the two rivers meet. Water rarely flows there, with an occasional summer downpour delivering an ephemeral trickle.
On a recent visit, only a few brown, stagnant pools remained. In one, hundreds of small fish gasped for oxygen. An egret that had been feeding on the fish flew off. The plop of a bull frog, an invasive species, echoed in the hot, still air.
The Gila River, which was listed by the advocacy group American Rivers in 2019 as the nation’s most endangered river, drains an enormous watershed of 60,000 square miles. Stretches have long been depleted, largely because of crop irrigation and the water demands of large cities. Now, a warmer and drier climate is bearing down on ecosystems that have been deprived of water, fragmented, and otherwise altered, their natural resilience undone by human activities.
Other desert rivers around the globe — from the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates to the Amu Darya in Central Asia — face similar threats. Efforts are underway to restore some integrity to these natural systems, but it is an uphill battle, in part because desert rivers are more fragile than rivers in cooler, wetter places.
Last year was the second-hottest and second-driest on record in Arizona, where heat records are frequently broken. The last two years have seen fewer desert downpours, known locally as monsoons, an important source of summer river flow.
“We’re dealing with a rapidly changing climate that is becoming, overall, more dry and varied and warmer,” said Scott Wilbor, an ecologist in Tucson who studies desert river ecosystems, including the San Pedro. “We are in uncharted territory.”
Born of snowmelt and springs in the mountains of southern New Mexico, the Gila is the southernmost snow-fed river in the United States. It was once perennial, running 649 miles until it emptied into the Colorado River. As the climate warms, scientists predict that by 2050 snow will no longer fall in the Black and Mogollon ranges that form the Gila’s headwaters, depriving the river of its major source of water.
“We’re seeing a combination of long-term climate change and really bad drought,” said David Gutzler, a professor emeritus of climatology at the University of New Mexico. If the drought is prolonged, he said, “that’s when we’ll see the river dry up.”
The same scenario is playing out on the once-mighty Colorado, the Rio Grande, and many smaller Southwest rivers, all facing what is often called a megadrought. Some research indicates that a southwestern U.S. megadrought may last decades, while other scientists fear the region is threatened by a permanent aridification because of rising temperatures.
Worldwide, said Ian Harrison, a freshwater expert with Conservation International, “pretty much where there are rivers in arid areas, they are suffering through a combination of climate change and development.”
Like the Gila, many of these rivers have high degrees of endemism. “Life is often highly specialized to those particular conditions and only lives on that one river, so the impacts of loss are catastrophic,” he said.
Rivers everywhere are important for biodiversity, but especially so in the desert, where 90 percent of life is found within a mile of the river. Nearly half of North America’s 900 or so bird species use the Gila and its tributaries, including some that live nowhere else in the U.S., such as the common blackhawk and northern beardless tyrannulet. Two endangered birds, the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo, live along the Gila and its tributaries, including the San Pedro and the Salt.
Desert rivers, of course, make life in the desert possible for people, too. Growing crops in the perpetual heat of the desert can be highly lucrative, especially if the water is free or nearly so thanks to subsidies from the federal government. Agriculture is where most of the water in the Gila goes.
This spring, photographer Ted Wood and I made a journey along the length of the Gila, from the headwaters in New Mexico to west of Phoenix. In most of Arizona, the Gila is dry. Where it still flows, I was impressed by how such a relatively small river, under the right conditions, can be so life-giving. The trip brought home what desert rivers are up against as the climate changes, and also how much restoration, and what types, can be expected to protect the biodiversity that remains.
Our journey began at the river’s source, where Cliff Dweller Creek spills out of a shady canyon lined with Gambel oak in Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The creek is barely a trickle here. Above the creek, ancestral Puebloans, known as Mogollon, once lived in dwellings wedged into caves, making pottery and tending vegetable gardens. The Mogollon abandoned these canyons in the 15th century, perhaps done in by an extended drought.
From inside a Mogollon cave, I looked out at rolling hills, covered with ponderosa pine, pinyon and juniper trees. The green-hued water gains volume where three forks come together near here. Historically, the mountain snow melts slowly each spring, providing high steady flows through April and May. Flows slow to a trickle in June. In July and August, monsoons pass through and, along with frontal systems, cause flash flooding and a rise in water levels.
Flooding is a “disturbance regime,” not unlike a forest fire, that rejuvenates aging, static ecosystems. A healthy river in the mountains of the West is one that behaves like a fire hose, whipping back and forth in a broad channel over time, flash flooding and then receding, moving gravel, rocks, logs and other debris throughout the system. A flooding river constantly demolishes some sections of a river and builds others, creating new habitat — cleaning silt from gravel so fish can spawn, for instance, or flushing sediment from wetlands. A river that flows over its banks, recharges aquifers and moistens the soil so that the seedlings of cottonwoods, mesquite trees and other vegetation can reproduce. Along healthy stretches of the Gila, birds are everywhere; I spotted numerous bluebirds in the branches of emerald green cottonwoods.
The riparian ecosystem that lines the 80 or so miles of the New Mexico portion is largely intact because of the protections afforded by federal wilderness areas, the lack of a dam, and the river’s flow not being completely siphoned off for farming. This is an anomaly in a state that has lost many of its riparian ecosystems. “This is the last free-flowing river in New Mexico,” said Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition.
The future of the New Mexico stretch of the river is uncertain because of the possibility of more water withdrawals and the loss of snowpack. “We’ve seen flows in the last 10 years lower than we’ve ever seen,” Siwik said. This year, she said, set an all-time low on the river, with flow less than 20 percent of normal.
Undammed, the Gila River through New Mexico still floods, refreshing the Cliff-Gila valley, which contains the largest intact bosque habitat in the Lower Colorado River Basin. The valley is home to the largest concentration of non-colonial breeding birds in North America. The river is also a stronghold for threatened and endangered species, such as nesting yellow-billed cuckoos, the Gila chub, Chiricahua leopard frogs and Mexican garter snakes all live there.
At odds with efforts to keep the Gila wild are plans by a group of roughly 200 long-time irrigators in southwestern New Mexico. Each summer they divert water from the Gila to flood-irrigate pastures, which de-waters stretches of the river. The irrigators have been trying to raise money to build impoundments to take even more of their share of water, but so far have been unsuccessful, in part because of opposition from conservation groups.
Cattle are another threat to the river’s biological integrity here — both unfenced domestic cattle and feral cows. Cattle break down riverbanks, widen the stream and raise water temperatures. They eat and trample riparian vegetation, causing mud and silt to choke the flow, and destroy habitat for endangered species. The Center for Biological Diversity recently sued the U.S. Forest Service to force the agency to take action.
“We’re in a cow apocalypse,” said Todd Schulke, a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are even in the recovered Gila River habitat. It’s just heartbreaking.”
As the river enters Arizona, the riparian ecology remains largely intact, especially in the 23 miles of the Gila Box National Riparian Area. Here, 23,000 acres of bosque habitat is in full expression, with thick stands of cottonwoods, velvet mesquite trees and sandy beaches. It is one of only two national riparian areas in the country set aside for its outstanding biodiversity; the other is on the San Pedro River.
As the river leaves the riparian area, it undergoes a striking change: massive cotton farms near the towns of Safford, Pima, and Thatcher, first planted in the 1930s, cover the landscape. The dried, brown stalks of harvested cotton plants stand in a field, bits of fluff on top. Growing cotton in the desert — which uses six times as much water as lettuce — has long been seen as folly by critics, made possible only by hefty federal subsidies.
Much of the flood pulse ecology is lost here, as the river is diverted or subject to groundwater pumping. Instead of flooding, the river cuts deeper into its channel, lowering the water table, which many plants can no longer reach. The cottonwood stands and other riparian habitats have disappeared. “You want the groundwater within five feet of the ground, but it’s mostly 8 to 12 feet,” said Melanie Tluczek, executive director of the Gila Watershed Partnership, which has been doing restoration here since 2014.
It is a harsh place for new planting. The river is dry in long stretches. Tamarisk, a pernicious invasive tree also known as salt cedar, needs to be cut down and its stumps poisoned to prevent regrowth. Small willows and Fremont cottonwoods have been planted on barren desert ground. Wire cages over infant trees keep elk, beaver and rabbits from gobbling them up.
Meanwhile, tamarisk grows prolifically, slurping up water, changing soil chemistry and the nature of flooding, robustly outcompeting natives, and increasing the risk of wildfire.
“If you can do restoration here, you can do it anywhere,” Tluczek said. She said the Gila Watershed Partnership has removed 216 acres of tamarisk along the river and planted 90 acres with new native trees. But the Gila here will never look like it did. “We can’t restore the past,” Tluczek said. “We’re going to see a floodplain that has more dryland species and fewer floodplain species.”
Downstream, the Coolidge Dam forms a giant concrete plug on the Gila. Built in the 1920s by the federal government, it was the result of irrational exuberance about the amount of water on the Gila and meant to supply farmers with water. Today, however, the reservoir is usually dry. Built to hold 19,500 acres of water, this year the water in the lake covered just 50 acres.
From here to Phoenix and on to the Colorado, water only occasionally flows in the Gila. Yet even the small amount of water that remains is vital to wildlife. “Where there has been water near the surface, animals smell it and will dig down in the sand in the riverbed to free it up,” Wilbor said. “You set up a camera and it’s like an African watering hole, with species after species taking turns to come use the water.”
Will the Gila River through most of Arizona to the Colorado ever be restored to a semblance of the biological jewel it once was? The chances are slim. But two pioneering efforts have brought back elements of the desiccated river.
In 2010, Phoenix completed a $100 million, eight-mile restoration of the long-dewatered Salt River where it joins the Gila and Agua Fria rivers at Tres Rios. Fed by water from the city’s sewage treatment plant across the road, this constructed complex includes 128 acres of wetlands, 38 acres of riparian corridor, and 134 acres of open water. It is thick with cattails and other vegetation, an island of green around a lake amid the sere surrounding desert.
On the nearby Gila River Indian Community, meanwhile, home to the Pima — or the name they prefer, Akimel O’othham, the river people — is something called a managed area recharge. The Akimel O’othham, who share their community with the Maricopa, are believed to be the descendants of the Hohokam, an ancient agricultural civilization with a vast network of irrigation canals that was largely abandoned centuries ago. The Akimel O’othham continued to farm along the Gila in historic times until their water was stolen from them in the late 19th century by settlers who dug a canal in front of the reservation and drained it away.
After a century of the Akimel O’othham fighting for their water rights, in 2004 the Arizona Water Settlement Act provided the tribe with the largest share of Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project, a share larger than the city of Phoenix’s allotment. The tribe is now water-rich, using much of that water to restore its tribal agricultural past, though with modern crops and methods.
Last year, some of the Colorado River water was released into the Gila to be stored in an underground aquifer and used to create a wetland.
Both of these projects, at Tres Rios and at the reservation, have created oases in a harsh desert landscape, bringing back an array of birds and wildlife, and — in the case of the Akimel O’othham — helping revitalize the cultural traditions of these river people.
“We’re not going to have rivers with native species in the Southwest unless we can protect and restore these systems,” especially with a changing climate, Siwik said. “Protecting the best, restoring the rest — or else we lose these systems that we need for our survival.”
Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):
To safeguard irreplaceable wetlands and imperiled species in the headwaters of the Colorado River, a coalition of conservation groups today warned the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they will file a lawsuit in federal court if the agencies do not complete a comprehensive analysis of the effects of the planned and permitted geotechnical investigation on the greenback cutthroat trout and Canada lynx.
The Forest Service issued a special use permit for the Whitney Creek Geotechnical project on March 22, 2021. The feasibility assessment is the first step by the Cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora to build another large dam and reservoir in the Homestake Valley in the White River National Forest for diversion out of the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range.
“Nature’s bank account is severely overdrawn due to climate change and unsustainable use,” said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “The solution is not to build a bigger bank, but to conserve water, protect land and wildlife, and start living within the river’s means.”
The letter sent by WildEarth Guardians, Colorado Headwaters, Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, Save the Colorado, the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Wilderness Workshop details how the agencies failed to consider the effects of the investigative drilling, as well as the forthcoming dam and reservoir project, on listed species in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Listed species identified that exist in or downstream of the project include the threatened Canada lynx, Greenback cutthroat trout, and Ute Ladies’-tresses orchid, and the endangered bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, and razorback sucker.
“After reviewing the record it’s clear that the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The real impacts to listed species, including lynx and cutthroat trout, haven’t been adequately considered or disclosed,” said Peter Hart, Staff Attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “Today’s letter puts the agencies on notice of the violations we’ve identified; they now have 60 days to respond. If the issues we’ve raised remain unresolved, we could pursue a legal challenge in federal court.”
In addition to the harm to imperiled species detailed in the notice letter, the investigative drilling proposed along Homestake Creek in Eagle County, Colorado could drain and destroy valuable wetlands. Further, the exploration will lay the foundation for a destructive reservoir that would inundate hundreds of acres in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area while stealing more water from the Colorado River to the thirsty front range for use by the Cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora.
The groups urge the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the effects of the geotechnical investigation and related activities on threatened and endangered species as required by the Endangered Species Act before any investigatory drilling or other activities are undertaken in the Homestake Valley. If the agencies fail to do so, the groups will file a lawsuit in federal court after the 60-day notice period is complete.
“Colorado has not seen a transmountain diversion in 45 years. With climate change and the Colorado River losing 1% of flows each year, the Aurora and Colorado Springs’ Homestake project will never be built,” said Jerry Mallett, President of Colorado Headwaters…
“It is unfortunate that the U.S. Forest Service has chosen to facilitate the construction of a dam near a wilderness area in order to transfer yet more water from the West Slope to cities in the Front Range. The proposed dam and reservoir would drown wetlands and riparian habitat, which are naturally rare in the arid west comprising just 2 percent of the landscape,” explained Ramesh Bhatt, Chair, Conservation Committee of the Colorado Sierra Club. “Despite their rarity, wetland ecosystems are needed by greater than 80 percent of our native wildlife during some phase of their life cycle. Building this dam would be another devastating blow to Colorado’s biodiversity, which is already in crisis. This action by the Forest Service is not only contrary to its mandate to protect natural areas but is also illegal because the Service chose to cut corners to make its decision.”
“The proposed Whitney Creek project starting with destructive drilling of the irreplaceable Homestake Creek wetlands is an environmental atrocity and must be abandoned. The permit for drilling must be revoked. It is premised on several fallacies: that it will not damage the wetlands, that it will determine that there is no geologic reason not to build the proposed Whitney Creek Reservoir, and that the reservoir will be built. None of these things are true,” said Warren M. Hern, Chairman, of Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund. “The permit assumes that Congress will approve a loss of 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness, which we will oppose, which the public will oppose, and which will not be approved by the Congress. Aside from irrevocable destruction of the Homestake Creek wetlands at and downstream from the proposed reservoir, the proposed reservoir is placed over a major geological fault, the Rio Grande Rift, which is a tectonic divergent plate boundary. Placing a reservoir at this site is pure madness and terminal stupidity. It would endanger the lives of those living downstream. We will oppose it by every legal means available.”
Homestake Creek flows from Homestake Reservoir near Red Cliff. A pilot reservoir release to test how to get water to the state line in the event of a Colorado River Compact Call proved hard to track for state engineers. CREDIT: BETHANY BLITZ/ASPEN JOURNALISM
This map shows the location of test holes Homestake Partners plans to drill as part of its geotechnical investigation into the feasibility of a dam site in the Homestake Creek valley. The Forest Service has received more than 500 comments, most of them in opposition to, the drilling and the overall reservoir project. Credit: USFS via Aspen Journalism
These wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley are near the site of the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The Forest Service is considering whether to issue a permit for drilling and a geotechnical study to test whether the site would support a dam. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
A map from Colorado Springs Utilities that shows how tunnels could bring water to Whitney Reservoir from Fall and Peterson creeks, and from the Eagle River. The map also shows the route of a pipeline to pump water from Whitney Reservoir to Homestake Reservoir.
A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A map prepared by Aurora Water that shows a potential 500-acre adjustment to the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the potential Whitney Reservoir on lower Homestake Creek. The map as current as of July 16, 2019.
A view, from the Alternative A dam site, of the Homestake Creek valley. The triangle shape in the distance is the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
One of four potential dam sites on lower Homestake Creek, about four miles above U.S. 24, between Minturn and Leadville. From this location, the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir higher up the creek can be seen. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Homestake Creek, flowing toward the Eagle River, near the Alternative A dam site being studied by Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, about three miles up Homestake Road from U.S. 24. The photo was taken on July 13, 2019. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Another dry year has left the waterway that supplies 40 million people in the Southwest parched. A prolonged 21-year warming and drying trend is pushing the nation’s two largest reservoirs to record lows. For the first time this summer, the federal government will declare a shortage.
Climate change is exacerbating the current drought. Warming temperatures are upending how the water cycle functions in the Southwest. The 1,450-mile long river acts as a drinking water supply, a hydroelectric power generator, and an irrigator of crop fields across seven Western states and two in Mexico. Scientists say the only way forward is to rein in demands on the river’s water to match its decline.