From The Montrose Daily Press (Andrew Kiser):
Parts of the Uncompahgre River have become “unstable” and “injured” over time due to past land use practices, leaving some areas packed with landfill material like debris and rubble, City Engineer Scott Murphy said.
But now, the City of Montrose will be able to refine portions of the river, in part due to a $400,000 grant given to the city by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). The funds come through the Colorado Watershed Restoration Program to enhance the Uncompahgre.
The grant will begin the first phase of river restoration improvements for 0.65 miles of the Uncompahgre within city limits…
Additionally, aerial images have shown the river channel has migrated around 400 feet in some places over the past 50 years, Murphy indicated.
“It’s a pretty unstable breach of the river which is bad for the habibat because once the fish habibat gets established it gets wiped out as the river moves,” he said.
City of Montrose grant coordinator Kendall Cramer also said the Uncompahgre has experienced flow modifications and encroachment, which has developed a wider channel, bank stabilization issues and a lack of aquatic and riparian habitat.
“It’s an excellent project that’s going to enhance the river corridor,” Cramer said. “It’ll invest in the Uncompahgre River, which is one of our greatest assets in terms of tourism and recreation.”
He added the project will fix those problems as well as create better aquatic environments, stabilize the river banks and give the public better access to the water.
The city is hopeful this project will be the first step in receiving a gold medal fishery designation within the Uncompahgre River, Murphy said. Once completed, this section of the river will join a section of the Gunnison River which connects to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and joins the Gunnison Gorge…
The project design is being done by Ecological Resource Consultants, which won the bid for it in 2017. The River Restoration Committee and volunteers have helped the project come to fruition and have given input on the design, Cramer said.
The city anticipates construction to begin in winter of 2019-2020. Due to the river flow, work has to be completed within a four-month timeframe of November to February, when the water is at its lowest point.
From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):
Colorado officials and regional water managers are poised to start working together on a plan to reduce water use in Colorado, mainly by paying willing irrigators to fallow hayfields, in order to bolster falling water levels in Lake Powell and guard against a compact call on the Colorado River system.
After a series of meetings held last week by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and by Western Slope and Front Range water interests, state officials are now set to begin investigating the feasibility of a “demand management” program that’s “voluntary, temporary and compensated,” and water users and managers throughout Colorado will be asked to help shape the new program.
“Demand management, reduction in consumptive use, is an incredibly threatening concept to Western water users, and certainly to West Slope water users,” Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, told a ballroom full of water professionals Friday during the last day of a three-day Colorado Water Congress meeting here. “Our agricultural community is concerned that what this is really about is taking water from ag and bringing it into urban areas.”
Nonetheless, Mueller said, “this is a time where we have to work collaboratively, with both our urban friends and our rural friends, to figure how we do this together, and how we recognize the values that are important to each of us.”
Mueller also told the Water Congress audience that “the River District is committed to proactively engaging and working with the CWCB and the Front Range to figure out how we can stand up a program that truly protects all of us in this situation. To not do so, to not engage proactively in that conversation, would be irresponsible of every one of us in this room.”
He also laid out the Western Slope’s vision for the program, which centered on sustaining rural communities.
“We want, from a West Slope perspective, our agriculture and our industries and our cities that are going to participate in these programs to have the opportunity to use the water when they need it, and to monetize their assets into a program when they can figure out ways not to use it,” Mueller said.
Demand management is based on the idea that if water that otherwise would be used to grow hay, or turf in suburban settings, can instead be left in the river system to flow into Lake Powell, and into a new regulatory pool of water within the big reservoir, it will help boost water levels in the reservoir, allow for continued hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam and help the upper-basin states meet their obligations to deliver a minimum amount of water to the lower-basin states under the terms of the Colorado River compact.
A recently concluded four-year test program called the System Conservation Pilot Program paid irrigators in the Upper Colorado River Basin an average of about $200 per acre-foot of conserved consumptive use of water.
Jim Lochhead, CEO and manager of Denver Water, was sharing the stage with Mueller on Friday during a panel discussion, after they together had met Thursday with other Front Range water providers in a behind-the-scenes meeting.
Lochhead said the Front Range and the Western Slope are united in their desire to avoid violating the terms of the compact.
“No one wants the result of a situation where we haven’t come together collectively to arrive at a solution,” Lochhead said.
And, he stressed, “Colorado needs to do our part to make sure that the demand-management piece is done in a way that protects all water users in Colorado, East Slope and West Slope.”
“From Denver Water’s perspective, we’re prepared to engage productively, as I’ve indicated many times in the past,” Lochhead said. “We’re prepared to contribute our share of water into a solution that would be collectively agreed to within Colorado and the other upper-basin states, if it is necessary, for our own mutual benefit and survival.”
The state’s emerging demand-management program is tied to the ongoing effort to approve “drought-contingency planning,” or DCP, agreements in the seven states in the Colorado River Basin: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Nevada.
Arizona’s governor on Thursday signed a required piece of state legislation in order to meet a federally imposed deadline, but there are still other DCP agreements that need to be finalized by a new working deadline, March 4. Federal legislation also is required to implement the regional agreements designed to keep both Lake Powell and Lake Mead operating as designed.
On Tuesday during a regular public meeting held in Westminster, the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board indicated they were in support of a staff proposal to form seven different work groups in 2019 to study demand management.
Brent Newman, the CWCB’s interstate, federal and water information section chief, and point person on Colorado River issues, told the agency’s board of directors that the state is not yet starting up a demand-management program; it is only studying the feasibility of doing so.
He also said the state is not studying how a curtailment, or mandatory cutback in water use, would be administered by the state if the Colorado River Compact were to be violated.
Karen Kwon, a first assistant attorney general of Colorado, echoed that stance in her remarks to the CWCB directors Tuesday.
“We are not talking about how we would administer a curtailment,” Kwon said.
Newman and Kwon are proposing that the CWCB set up work groups, staffed by hand-picked experts, to explore a “plethora of issues” raised by demand management, including policy; monitoring and verification; water administration; the environment; economics; funding; and education and outreach.
The staff also proposed to set up a quarterly series of workshops for water users, managers and stakeholders, as well as engaging the state’s basin roundtables, which meet regularly in each of the state’s major river basins, on the issues raised by demand management.
A detailed work plan for the proposed process is to be presented by CWCB staff to the agency’s directors in March.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other newspapers owned by Swift Communications. The Times published this story Feb. 4.
From The Boulder Daily Camera (Amy Bounds):
Community members wanting to comment next month at a Boulder County commissioners hearing on whether Denver Water can move forward with an expansion of Gross Reservoir can start signing up next week…
Online sign-ups for the March 14 hearing start Feb. 14, while in-person sign-ups will start an hour before the hearing.
Commissioners plan to continue to take public testimony until all speakers have had an opportunity to comment, according to a news release.
After the public hearing, commissioners will hear Denver Water’s appeal of a decision by the county’s Land Use Department that Denver Water must run the project through what is known as a “1041” review process before construction can begin.
Named for the bill number by which it was enacted in 1974, the 1041 legislation gives local governments the right to control development by agencies beyond their boundaries through a local permitting process.
Denver Water argues the Gross Reservoir expansion is exempt from 1041 requirements. Boulder County claims it is not.
The public hearing will focus on the limited scope of the determination and is not a hearing or decision on the perceived impacts or merits of the reservoir expansion project, according to a news release…
Written comments can be submitted through an online comment form available at bit.ly/GrossDamExpansion. Comments also can be mailed to the Boulder County Commissioners’ Office, P.O. Box 471, Boulder, 80306. Comments need to be received by noon March 12.
From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):
Having gained an endorsement from its members, a tribe with one of the largest and most secure claims to water in the Colorado River basin will seek approval from Congress to lease water for use off of its riverside reservation.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes, or CRIT, have lands that stretch along 56 miles of the lower Colorado River. Eighty-five percent of the reservation is in Arizona, with the remainder in California. The tribe’s right to divert nearly 720,000 acre-feet from the river is more than twice the water that is allocated to the state of Nevada.
By law, that water is to be used on the reservation. But if CRIT convinces Congress to allow off-reservation leasing, the change would free up a large volume of water that would be highly desirable for cities and industries in Arizona’s fast-growing Sun Corridor, spanning Phoenix and Tucson, where four out of five state residents live.
CRIT members signaled their approval on January 19, with 63 percent voting in favor of pursuing legal changes that would allow leasing. The vote was prompted by an attempt to recall all nine tribal council members last spring over some residents’ objections to leasing.
“This referendum was a successful effort of our people to understand the value and importance of our natural resources,” Dennis Patch, CRIT chairman, said in a statement. “Our members have shown they understand that it is time to make our water work for all of us. With this responsibility in mind, our Council will continue to work on ways to protect and maximize full economic benefits for our people.”
CRIT has said that it could make as much as 150,000 acre-feet available for off-reservation use in the next decades. The tribe’s administration referred questions about the leasing vote to the attorney general, who did not return repeated phone calls from Circle of Blue…
Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor who focuses on water policy, called CRIT “an enormously powerful player” in those negotiations.
“The tribe is absolutely critical to the willingness of the parties in Arizona to go forward with the drought plan,” Glennon told Circle of Blue. “Critical because of their willingness to put such a large amount of water on the table to prop up Lake Mead or to potentially lease water to cities.”
CRIT pledged to fallow farmland and leave 50,000 acre-feet per year in Lake Mead for three years, starting in 2020. For its effort, the tribe will be paid $38 million dollars.
CRIT’s water is desirable because the rights are among the most senior in the state, meaning they would be fulfilled before other users if all claims to the river cannot be delivered. The flow of the Colorado River is declining and the addition of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere is causing the basin to become drier.
The relative security of senior water rights is a lure for cities, which value reliable water. Preserving that seniority is essential for any lease deal, said Mike Pearce, an attorney with Maguire, Pearce, and Storey, a water law firm in Phoenix.
“It’s an attractive marketing point and all effort would be made to protect [the status of the senior rights] if the water were to be leased,” Pearce told Circle of Blue.
Tribes, in general, are powerful players in the Colorado River basin, holding approximately 20 percent of the water rights, some 2.9 million acre-feet. In interior Arizona and in other states they have negotiated lease deals that secure long-term water availability for cities while bringing in revenue for the tribe.
CRIT hopes to be next to do so. Larry MacDonnell, a water law professor at the University of Colorado, told Circle of Blue that CRIT’s banking of water in Lake Mead is a “potentially helpful precedent” that acknowledges the tribe’s ability to provide water for use off of the reservation.
Since 2016, CRIT has participated in a small-scale water banking project, in which the tribe fallowed nearly 1,600 acres and left the conserved water, roughly 8,500 acre-feet, in Lake Mead.
From Inside Climate News (Bob Berwyn):
As major reservoirs shrink with the changing climate, seven states seek a sustainable future for the critical regional water source.
The Colorado River watershed may be reaching a climate tipping point, drying under the influence of global warming to the point that states and tribes in the basin can no longer put off a day of reckoning about the water allocations that have been their lifeblood for the past century.
On Thursday night, Arizona joined other states that share the river basin in agreeing to voluntary water conservation plans. Its legislature approved a plan that helps balance the state’s competing water rights with of those of California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, along with Native American tribes and Mexico. The states faced a Jan. 31 deadline for completing interstate contingency plans on water rights; without them, federal officials could order mandatory cuts later this year. Only a California water district had yet to agree.
U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said Friday that with details in the complex web of agreements still being finalized in California and Arizona, her office would start the federal review process but halt it if all states had formal agreements in place by March 4.
A crisis point in the region has been approaching for years. When the regional water arrangements were first devised in 1922, assumptions about the river’s bounty were way off because they were based on data from wet years. Even when the mistake was recognized decades later, managers continued to permit new withdrawals.
And as dry heat has enwrapped the Southwest, the great river’s flow has been going down while cities and farms slurp up ever more water. The gap between supply and demand can no longer be papered over by shunting billions of gallons of the river’s waters back and forth among reservoirs in what has been one of the nation’s most significant attempts to adapt to climate change.
To the contrary, recent scientific research shows that the Colorado’s flow is very likely to drop even more in the years ahead.
Since 2000, temperatures have persistently run well above average. The heat sucks water out of the ground, as do thirsty plants. And the high country snowpack has dwindled, too.
From 1916 to 2014, flows in the Colorado dropped 16.5 percent, even though total precipitation in the upper basin increased slightly during that period, said Jonathan Overpeck, a climate researcher at the University of Michigan, who has written several studies showing the lasting impacts of warming.
In a recent study, Brad Udall and other researchers found that rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns reduced Colorado River flows between 2000 and 2014 by 19 percent compared to the 1906–1999 average.
“This drought is not going to end until we stop global warming,” Overpeck said. “It’s not just precipitation, it’s temperatures. We need to understand how what’s happening on the land and to plants affects flows. It would be crazy to bet on increased precipitation.”
What’s Reducing the Basin’s Runoff?
If recent research shows the fingerprints of global warming all across the basin, advanced modeling helps explain why.
A 2018 study used hydrology models to tease out what was causing the reduced runoff. It blamed a little more than half of the decline on unprecedented regional warming, which melted the snowpack and increased water use by plants. The rest was due to lower snowfall in four key pockets of Colorado where most of the water originates.
Model simulations run by Keith Musselman of the University of Colorado for a 2017 study indicated that some Western mountains could be expected to lose 10 percent of their mountain snowpack for every 1 degree Celsius of warming. (The models simulated flows in the Southern Sierra Nevada.)
A third application of advanced models across six mountainous regions of the West saw global warming driving the snowline — the altitude where snow falls above, but rain below — significantly higher up the slopes. Rain runs off immediately, while snow is stored until spring or summer.
The results “overwhelmingly indicate” the vulnerability of snowpack to a warmer climate,” wrote the authors, from the University of Utah.
More Warming and Drying Ahead
Alarmingly, climate scientists expect another 2.5 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit of warming in the region by 2070 even if global greenhouse gas emissions are substantially reduced.
By mid-century, flows could drop another 20 percent, and there is a significant risk of long droughts in the coming century that will cut river flows even if there is an increase in precipitation. Some climate models do suggest that precipitation may increase — warmer air holds more water — but there is a lot of uncertainty around the projections.
The term “drought” may not be useful anymore because it implies a short-term condition with an end in sight, said Udall, who works for the Colorado River Research Group. He calls it aridification instead, and says the negotiating over sharing the water is a dry run for the future of water use in the Southwest under climate change.
Ominously, some studies have already suggested the region is at the beginning of a megadrought, based in part on reliable projections that global warming will drive an expansion of subtropical dry areas, which means the deserts of the Southwest could encroach on what are now the water producing-areas of the Colorado River Basin, he added.
The lower end of the river basin, in Southern California and Southern Arizona, is already one of the hottest parts of the country. The 2018 National Climate Assessment shows places like Phoenix and Las Vegas will have more frequent heat waves with extreme life-threatening temperatures in the decades ahead. Those extremes will also affect agriculture in the lower basin, but these types of impacts haven’t even been considered in the current Colorado River talks, Udall said.
State Contingency Plans
The Drought Contingency Plans are designed to keep Lake Mead’s water level above a threshold that would trigger disruptive mandatory cutbacks in water use. Upper Basin states have agreed to keep enough water flowing to the desert lowlands. And the lower basin states, now including Arizona, have agreed to divert less for farms and cities in order to bolster Lake Mead.
The Southwest is going to have to live with less water, said Doug Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “We can do it with people kicking and screaming, or we can try to do it in a way that’s fair to everybody.”
The process still has a long way to go, but Gary Wockner, director of the conservation advocacy group Save the Colorado, said getting past the Jan. 31 deadline was a small sign that water managers recognize the elephant in the room.
It acknowledges that the agencies involved know that the collapse of the Colorado River management system is impending. Now the collapse is happening faster than they thought it would. But because of global warming time is running out. Incrementalism not adequate any longer. We have a global climate emergency, everyone needs to first and foremost approach every issue based on that.”
Water engineers, planners and scientists understand how global warming threatens water supplies and are generally averse to risk, Overpeck said. That’s not always the case in politics.
“The polarization that exists on climate policy in the U.S. has prevented a lot of conservative politicians from doing something,” he said. “And the decisions that are being made now, or the lack of decisions being made now, are going to condemn the Colorado to additional flow reductions.”
Overpeck, who recently moved from Arizona to Michigan, said global warming was part of his family’s decision to leave. Among other things, they were worried about the value of their property in the coming years.
“If we don’t deal with climate change, the Southwest will become a place of exodus. It was getting depressing to see politicians writing off the future of the Southwest,” he said.
From Aspen Journalism (Lauren Blair):
After 19 years of extended drought in the Colorado River basin, water users in Northwest Colorado are concerned that the region could become a “sacrificial lamb” as the state seeks to reduce water use to meet downstream demands.
As Colorado water officials begin work on a new “demand management” system to reduce water consumption, members of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, which met Jan. 9 in Craig, are seeking to make sure the cutbacks don’t disproportionately impact their river basins, including the Yampa, White and Green rivers. The concerns prompted the creation of a new Big River Committee, which met for the first time Jan. 9, to advocate for the basin on state and regional issues across the Colorado River system.
“We’re already doing our fair share,” said Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, a basin roundtable member and fourth-generation cattle rancher. “[In the Yampa basin] we already use only 10 percent of our water — 90 percent of our water goes to Lake Powell.”
There is relatively little reservoir storage on the Yampa River — less than 72,000 acre feet of water on the main stem and a total of 113,000 acre feet in the basin — compared to other major rivers in the West, meaning most of the water feeds into the Colorado River system and eventually Lake Powell.
“Such a small part of our native flow is developed, and there are concerns about how much should fall on the shoulders of our basin to send past the state line when we already don’t use very much,” said Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable Chair Jackie Brown, who is the natural resources policy advisor for Tri-State Generation and Transmission.
Indeed, data shows that consumptive water use in the Yampa basin averaged about 182,000 acre feet of water annually between 1990 and 2013, or about 10 percent of the basin’s total 1.74-million acre feet of average annual stream flow, according to hydrologic models used by the state.
By comparison, upper Colorado River stream flows averaged about 3.8 million acre feet of water over the same time period, not including the Gunnison River. Consumptive use equaled about 908,000 acre feet, or about 24 percent of the basin’s total water, according to the same data source.
But Colorado water law doesn’t account for such discrepancies across basins, and prioritizes water use according to a system based on dates tied to the initiation of a water right, often described as “first in time, first in right.”
“The Yampa and the White both were settled at such a later time period than the Front Range and some other areas, and we’re that much further behind in priority dates,” Monger said. “If we want to go forward on the prior appropriation system for allocating future water — last one in is the first one cut — that absolutely doesn’t work for us.”
Many roundtable members believe the Yampa and White river basins should have the right to develop their water resources further in the future.
“We’re the sacrificial lamb if they were to lock things in the way they are now,” said Kevin McBride, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a member of the Big River Committee.
However, such worries are largely speculative at the moment, as the mechanisms of a demand management program are far from decided and drought contingency planning hasn’t yet been finalized.
“This is the very, very beginning of the demand management conversation,” said Brent Newman, the interstate, federal and water information section chief for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The board has already committed to avoiding “disproportionate negative economic or environmental impacts to any single sub-basin or region within Colorado while protecting the legal rights of water holders,” according to a policy statement adopted by the agency’s board in November.
“We want to make sure no basin is a target basin, and as best we can, make sure reductions are shared equitably across the state, across basins and the divide,” Newman said. “We’re trying to make things fair.”
If a compact call were to occur — a demand by lower basin states for more water to be sent downstream according to the Colorado River Compact — then it is widely expected that Colorado water officials will use the prior appropriation doctrine to curtail water use based on seniority.
“We want to be proactive and avoid a compact call instead of being reactive and responding to crisis if it came to pass,” Newman said.
“Big river” issues aside, Northwest Colorado water users are feeling the squeeze after record-breaking heat and drought in 2018 prompted the first-ever call on the Yampa River.
Furthermore, officials at the Colorado Division of Water Resources will examine this year whether the Yampa and the White rivers should be designated as “over-appropriated,” Division Engineer Erin Light told roundtable members at the Jan. 9 meeting.
The designation would signal that there is not enough water to meet demands during dry years, and new water rights would be conditional to available water supply.
But even as water users start to adjust to the new local reality, roundtable members are preparing for an uphill battle to argue their case regarding demand management.
“We’re already sending as much water as we can,” Monger said. “We’re paying the bill for Colorado.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. The Pilot published this story online on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 and the Press published it online on Jan. 30, 2019.