A rancher-led group is boosting the health of the #ColoradoRiver near its headwaters — @WaterEdFdn #COriver

From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):

Western Water Spotlight: a Colorado partnership is engaged in a river restoration effort to aid farms and fish habitat that could serve as a model across the west

Strategic placement of rocks promotes a more natural streamflow that benefits ranchers and fish. (Source: Paul Bruchez)

“What used to be a very large river that inundated the land has really become a trickle,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado counsel for Trout Unlimited. “We estimate that 70 percent of the flow on an annual average goes across the Continental Divide and never comes back.”

Ranchers on the river who once relied on floodwater from the Colorado River to irrigate their hayfields now must pump from the river to irrigate. The river is shallow, sandy and warm in spots. Irrigation ditches have sloughed. The stretch of the river near Kremmling has not been working well for ranchers or the environment.

Now, a partnership of state, local and conservation groups, including Trout Unlimited, is engaged in a restoration effort that could serve as a template for similar regions across the West. Centered around the high plateau near Kremmling, a town of about 1,400 people in northern Colorado about 100 miles west of Denver, the partnership aims to make the river function better for people and the environment.

Rancher and fly fishing guide Paul Bruchez (Source: Russell Schnitzer, used with permission)

Paul Bruchez, a fifth-generation rancher of 6,000 acres near Kremmling who also runs fly fishing expeditions for tourists, sees the river’s challenges from both perspectives.

“Some of us involved with fly fishing care deeply about the environmental conditions within the river corridor,” said Bruchez. “Other landowners are more focused on the agricultural sustainability. But the one thing we agreed about is that things were collapsing.”

Restoring a Healthier River

The partnership, known as the Irrigators of the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK), obtained grant funding in 2015 to start the process of assessing the river’s conditions and identifying possible pilot projects, such as stabilizing riverbanks and reviving irrigation channels across a meandering 12-mile stretch of the Colorado River. As projects are identified, ILVK members attempt to prioritize them and apply for grants with the project costs evenly divided between grantors and landowners, Bruchez said.

River improvements often have immediate benefits for irrigation infrastructure.

“Many of our irrigation laterals had washed into the river system and there was no large-scale look at the system as a whole and how it connects,” Bruchez said. “A lot of these simple bank stabilization projects not only create habitat but are literally safeguarding some of our irrigation laterals that we all rely on to deliver the water to our crops.”

The key, he said, is realizing that less can be more in re-establishing a proper flow regime. “You set the stage for the river then you let the river do the work itself instead of getting in there and manipulating everything,” he said.

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Trout Unlimited is a full partner in the project. It applied for all the funding and is the fiscal agent and manager of the grants. Whiting and Bruchez consult on project management, retention of consultants and scope of work.

“It’s a complete win for everybody. It’s just a question of money,” Whiting said. “It’s been so successful and such a good story and so far, we have been able to draw quite a bit of funding and turn that into impressive improvements for the river and the ranchers.”

The partnership has obtained $2.6 million in grants from funders such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($500,000), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service ($2 million) and the Gates Family Foundation ($120,000).

Four miles downstream from Bruchez, the Colorado River becomes a smaller river with warmer temperatures that have spurred algae growth. “The minimum stream level of the Colorado River at Kremmling is 150 cubic feet per second,” said rancher Bill Thompson. “That’s not much.”

Thompson, who ranches about 400 acres, moved to Kremmling in 1959. He said he’s spent about $200,000 to match grant funding for two grade-control projects that have raised the river channel 18 inches near his property. While helping him get the water he needs, the structures also help create fish habitat.

“I speed the water up, I’ve got them [fish] more oxygen and I’ve cooled [the water] down,” he said. “It’s a healthier river now because of it.”

River projects are undertaken to be cost-effective. “We are trying to do this in a capacity where it is more affordable,” Bruchez said. “These are not people that live on limitless budgets that are doing this for building Disneyland fish habitat. These are multigeneration ag producers that just want to be able to irrigate.”

Overcoming Skeptical Landowners

Moving water great distances helps meet Colorado’s water supply demand. The Continental Divide spans the length of the state, with watersheds on the west side flowing toward the Pacific Ocean and those on the east feeding the Atlantic Ocean. The more rural Western Slope of the Rockies gets most of Colorado’s precipitation, about 80 percent, and a vast network of storage and conveyance infrastructure moves water to major cities like Denver, Boulder and Aurora.

That diversion has come at the expense of the Colorado River in the area near Kremmling. “Where you had a very large river there is now a very small river,” Whiting with Trout Unlimited said. “It doesn’t have enough water; it is overly wide and shallow, and it gets really hot.”

Prior to the diversions, the Colorado River’s floodwaters washed over the land and helped prepare it for planting.

“You didn’t even need a water right,” said Thompson, the longtime rancher. “All you had to do was take your rake out there and scrape off the logs and the willows and start haying.”

Getting to a place where landowners agreed to commit themselves to projects took time. “It’s fair to say most landowners were pretty skeptical,” Bruchez said. “These are people that like private lives. They don’t like public dollars; they don’t like meetings and they don’t like talking about stuff. They like doing their thing.”

Eventually a cost-sharing structure emerged that focused on improving the condition of the river, with grant funding helping to cover the gap beyond out-of-pocket expenses for traditional repairs. River fixes run the gamut, from rebuilding lost banks to altering the channel with rock that makes the current meander, ebb and flow. This, in turn, stimulates the production of insects that fish feast on. Bruchez said anglers tell him the results are “off the charts.”

Calming Suspicions

A restored Colorado River means good things for the ranchers near Kremmling and the trout that thrive in its waters. How much further work happens and at what scale remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the merits have been demonstrated. For her part, Whiting said the next challenge and hard conversation will entail finding ways to leave more water in the river.

Beyond the physical improvements to the river, the interaction between stakeholders has also worked well, Bruchez said, especially with trans-mountain diverters such as Denver Water. “We all view it now as a one-river thing, and when we all work together and are able to talk about the issues, we can solve problems,” he said. “If we all go to our corners and put up our fists, it doesn’t work so well.”

The Upper Colorado River meanders through the high plateau around Kremmling, Colorado. (Source: Russell Schnitzer, used with permission)

Whiting said partnerships between landowners and outside agencies work best when people like Bruchez are there to serve as a bridge.

“They can go in and say, ‘These guys are not coming to take your water, they are not here to take your land,’” she said. “All these suspicions can be calmed when you have a trusted source who walks stakeholders through it.”

As 2019 moves toward 2020, more bank and river channel work is scheduled. Centered at the swirl of activity, Bruchez said he wants to keep things in perspective.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do and we are trying to not get too big for our britches,” he said. “We also recognize there are river-system challenges all over the country, especially in the Southwest, and we are hoping as a collective group that this project is enough of a success that we can really try and demonstrate to others how people can come together and accomplish a successful project, especially by reasonably affordable techniques of installation.”

Reach Gary Pitzer: gpitzer@watereducation.org, Twitter: @gary_wef
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Click here to read Coyote Gulch posts about Paul Bruchez’s influence.

Wildfire mitigation projects help reduce damage from the #LakeChristineFire burn scar

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

A large catch basin that Eagle County sculpted into the mountainside above Basalt in recent weeks prevented significantly more water, mud and debris from swamping part of the Hill District during [the August 4, 2019] flash flood, officials said Thursday.

Eagle County Road and Bridge Department used heavy equipment to dig out a settlement pond and then used the dirt removed to regrade the hillside above the Basberg Townhouses. Boulders were placed in two drainage channels that led the water to the settlement pond. While water topped the pond during Sunday’s downpour, a lot of it was captured. Thick, sludge-like water was still in the pond Thursday.

This summer, the town of Basalt also created berms, added curb and gutter and installed a swale to direct water, all just uphill from the Basbergs…

The work was part of a $1.35 million Emergency Watershed Protection Program project. The federal government supplied a $1.23 million grant through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The state of Colorado contributed $153,359. Basalt, Eagle County and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are undertaking in-kind projects valued at $153,359, or 12.5%, to cover a local match.

The grant was administered by Basalt. Projects were identified by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Engineering was provided by SGM, a consultant for Basalt town government.

Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said about 20% of the work has been completed. Additional projects have been identified above Basalt, on the hillside overlooking Ace Lane’s Tree Farm property in El Jebel and on Basalt Mountain where it drops steeply to Upper Cattle Creek where several historic cabins are located.

Mahoney said he felt work performed at and around a culvert at the intersection of Pinon and Cedar drives in the Hill District also softened the blow of the flash flood.

The town widened the area around the entrance to the culvert but it was still overwhelmed by the amount of water roaring down from a usually dry gulch on the mountain.

“We’ve got some river pigs — big concrete blocks — at the bottom of the drainage,” he said. “Those are to hold debris back.”

[…]

Governments teamed to install three rain gauges on Basalt Mountain so the risk of flash flooding can be better assessed in the future. Those rain gauges were calibrated this week to ensure accurate readings.

In addition, National Weather Service meteorologists visited Basalt Mountain with local emergency responders this week to get a better feel for the lay of the land. Thompson said Sunday’s storm demonstrated that different sections of Basalt Mountain can experience vastly different weather.

The projects funded through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program will continue through the summer and into fall. All told, work will be undertaken in nine drainages, Mahoney said.

Farmington, #NewMexico: San Juan Water Commission meeting recap

From Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

The lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California have created a drought contingency plan while the upper basin states including New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming have a different drought contingency plan.

These two plans fall under a companion agreement between the upper and lower basin states as well as federal legislation signed into law earlier this year.

The key component of these agreements is to keep water levels in Lake Powell from dropping below 3,525 feet in elevation and to keep water levels in Lake Mead above 1,090 feet in elevation.

The upper basin states will be responsible for maintaining the levels in Lake Powell.

The San Juan Water Commission learned about the drought contingency plan during a meeting on Aug. 7 in Farmington.

Here are three things New Mexico residents should know about the Drought Contingency Plan:

The outflow at the bottom of Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

1. Navajo Lake is a key component

…New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission Lawyer Dominique Work said the first step will be to look at operations at Lake Powell to determine if less water could be released. If that does not work, the response plan will look at different storage reservoirs — Flaming Gorge, Aspinall and Navajo Lake.

All three reservoirs can release water into rivers that eventually flow into Lake Powell.

One of those three storage reservoirs could be chosen to release water to keep the levels at Lake Powell above 3,525 feet…

How much electricity the turbines in the bowels of Glen Canyon Dam can generate depends upon how much water is delivered from the Wind River Range of Wyoming and the high mountains of Colorado into Lake Powell. Photo/Bureau of Reclamation.

2. The 3,525 feet water level was chosen for hydropower generation

Lake Powell produces hydropower that provides electricity to utilities in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the hydropower plant at Glen Canyon Dam produces about five billion kilowatt hours of power each year.

Electric utilities in Farmington and Aztec both receive power from Lake Powell.

If the lake levels drop below 3,490 feet, the hydropower plant cannot work…

Hay fields under Meeker Ditch 2. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

3. Plan also allows upper basin states to place water in storage

Another key aspect of the plan is it allows the upper basin states to develop a plan to store up to 500,000 acre-feet of additional water in Navajo Lake, Flaming Gorge and Aspinall. This water would be released if needed to fulfill Colorado River Compact requirements…

However, the 500,000 acre-feet of water must come from water rights that would otherwise have been used if it had not been put into storage. For example, a farmer could choose to put an acre-foot of water into storage and let their field go fallow.

The upper basin states must develop a demand management program before they can begin putting water in storage in the reservoirs.

@USBR: The next Aspinall Operations meeting will be held on Thursday, August 15th, at the Elk Creek Visitor Center at Blue Mesa Reservoir. Start time is 1:00 PM

What a drier and hotter future means for the arid #Southwest — Yale Climate Connections #ActOnClimate

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

From Yale Climate Connections (Daisy Simmons):

Water shortages, wildfires, and algal blooms to become more common.

“It’s a dry heat” is usually considered a positive expression, a relief on high-temperature days, and salve for the reality that the southwestern U.S. has never been what you’d call water-rich. But now human-caused climate change is adding new credence to the region’s bone-dry reputation – and not in a good way.

For starters, that’s because regional temperatures are on the rise, according to a late 2018 federal government assessment report. Between 1901 and 2016, temperatures increased across the Southwest, with the greatest upturns in California and Colorado. This warming trend – together with its diminished snowfall – have intensified recent droughts.

Meanwhile, growing population, aging infrastructure, and groundwater depletion are also compounding long-standing water scarcity issues in the region.

These mounting pressures have a bevvy of potential implications, from human health and ecological function, to food and energy supply. Consider:

  • Food production is deeply affected by drought, and recent years have seen crops and livelihoods across the region, ruined.
  • Recent droughts have dried out forests, altering habitats and making them more susceptible to fire.
  • Indigenous tribes across the region are experiencing adverse effects of drought, such as declines in traditional staple foods like acorns and corn.
  • Less snowpack means less water available for hydropower. In states like California, at times, when hydropower supply goes down, carbon emissions go up.
  • And that’s just the nutshell. To really understand the potential effects of climate change on water supply, it’s useful first to crack into the basic history of water in the American West.

    The Southwest’s history with water

    Aridity long has been a defining characteristic of the region, from 19th-century maps that labeled it the “Great American Desert,” to those of its states consumed by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Cities in the region have grown undeterred by this thirstiness, with 32 percent growth in the last quarter of the 20th century alone. In fact, western states comprise nine of the top 10 slots in population growth over the past century, based on Census records from 1917-2017.

    Humans, of course, could not build cities without access to water, so massive efforts have been made all along the way to connect drier areas with wetter ones. Diversions from the Colorado River, as a prime example, have redirected its flow hundreds of miles away, to major cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix, using dams and aqueducts to divvy up the river’s waters (ultimately weakening the river, but that’s a story for another day).

    Today, the American West is home to more people than ever – along with their fundamental thirst for water. And the region’s hard-won water supply doesn’t just support the locals, either. It also affects the millions of people across the country and around the globe who eat food grown in agriculture hubs like California, home to an estimated two-thirds of all the country’s fruits and nuts.

    The trouble is, climate change is already making water harder to come by in these parts. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment cited above, human-caused climate change is making the West hotter, with greater temperature increases there than in any other region, and drier; and with “chronic” deficits of precipitation expected in the future, particularly in the Southwest.

    What ‘drier, hotter’ means for water across the West

    Roughly three-quarters of the country’s water supply comes from surface water, that is, rivers, streams and lakes, which are replenished naturally by rain or snow. The rest comes from groundwater, also replenished by precipitation.

    But under the drier and hotter conditions of climate change in the western U.S., there’s less precipitation falling to fully replenish what’s being consumed.

    Consider these additional key conditions increasingly affecting water supply in the Southwest:

    1. Warmer winters are reducing snowpack across the West.

    In the high mountains of the West, winter snowpack is a critical piece of the water supply picture. As these “frozen reservoirs” melt through spring and summer, they keep mountain-fed rivers and streams flowing fast all season long, filling up reservoirs to contribute to regional water supply all year long.

    California, for example, receives 75 percent of its rain and snow in the watersheds north of Sacramento. As snow from the Sierra Nevada mountain range melts to fill reservoirs in the spring and summer, it provides roughly 30 percent of the state’s water supply throughout the year.

    But the region’s snowpack has been declining dramatically for decades. A new study of long-term snowfall in the western U.S. found declines, one-third of them “significant,” in snowpack at more than 90 percent of monitored sites.

    Why? Because the long-term trend toward warmer winters is causing more winter precipitation to fall as rain. And what snow has fallen is often melting earlier, flooding riverbeds and overwhelming reservoirs in spring, then leaving drier conditions behind as the summer months tick on.

    Complicating matters further is the fact that warmer air temperatures in summer also mean more water is lost to evaporation.

    2. Western states have always endured drought, but it’s getting worse.

    Droughts have historically plagued the Southwest, but the region is now considered “one of the more sensitive regions in the world” for heightened risk of drought sparked by climate change. For example, the California drought that stretched from 2011 to 2017 is now considered one of most extreme in the state’s history.

    One reason drought is becoming more intense and frequent? Warmer temperatures also leads to higher evaporation rates and plant transpiration, increasing water loss in soil and plants.

    It’s important to note here that increasing drought doesn’t mean precipitation is off the table. Climate change is also associated with more extreme weather in the region, including, at times, periods of heavy precipitation followed by possible flash flooding, causing what’s been called “precipitation whiplash.”

    In addition to implications for water supply, drought is also a major cost sink. Since tracking began in 1980, drought is the second most economically costly of U.S. weather and climate disasters, costing a net $247 billion as of 2019.

    3. Warming weather can lead to harmful algal blooms.

    Warmer air temperatures and less snow-fed water can contribute to warmer water, a potential boon to algae growth. Although naturally occurring, algae can sometimes grow out of proportion to its ecosystem and create harmful, even toxic, water conditions.

    Algal blooms can also be compounded by excess nutrient pollution that pours in during the severe weather events increasingly associated with climate change. More than just creating murky water, these blooms can produce toxins that can infiltrate a city’s drinking water supply, as recently evidenced in Oregon.

    More research is needed to understand the direct links between algal bloom and climate change, but some of the worst blooms on record have occurred within the past decade or so.

    So what solutions may lie ahead?

    Rising temperatures and more frequent and severe droughts are expected to ramp up competition for water across the western U.S., whether for civic use, agriculture, or hydropower production. So what can be done?

    There are a few ways communities are working to protect water supply into the future.

    Phoenix, Arizona, for example, has been preparing for increasing drought in several key ways. For starters, it’s been banking water since 1996, to save for a non-rainy day. The fast-growing city also recycles wastewater, uses gray water in agriculture, and is working on “toilet-to-tap” technology. Private citizens are increasingly answering the call: In 2000, roughly 80 percent of city buildings were surrounded by lawns; now it’s estimated at just 14 percent. Plus Arizona, along with other states in the Colorado River basin, recently signed onto an interstate Drought Contingency Plan, which aims to reduce the risk of declining water levels.

    Cities can also modernize aging infrastructure to help keep water from being lost to old, leaky pipes and unprotected channels, which are prone to evaporation. In Los Angeles for example, one-fifth of the city’s water pipes were built in 1931 – and are considered the culprits behind nearly half the city’s water loss.

    Landscape restoration is another way forward. In the West, restoration efforts could include increasing natural water storage by restoring prairies and meadows around headlands, which soak up melting snow and hold it for later release.

    These and other actions will be needed to sustain water supply for the West’s booming populations. But experts agree that the most powerful, long-term fix for this problem must include addressing the underlying threat: climate change.

    “#Colorado is the #Southwest’s water cooler” — Michael Cox #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Here’s a guest column from the Michael Cox via The Montrose Press:

    All hell needs is water.

    That iconic declaration could have been uttered by any number of famous writers, government officials and even men and women of the cloth. In fact, it was the observation of an undertaker from Prescott, Arizona. Budge Ruffner was forced to become a mortician when his father won the funeral home in a card game on Whiskey Row. Budge was a better philosopher/writer than he was an embalmer. He was a student of the history of this corner of the nation. And so, one of his books, published by the University of Arizona, carried this astute observation as the title.

    For much of the great Southwest, from El Centro to Amarillo, and from Idaho to the Mexico border, one of the only things that ever really stood in the way of progress or economic stability was the availability of a dependable water supply. Sunny and dry with, in many cases, fertile soil, the desert only needed moisture, as is testified to whenever it rains in the desert and a profusion of flowers burst forth.

    The Uncompahgre River Valley is technically high desert, even though a river runs through it. Early, it seemed like a nice place to live and the river valley soil proved rich. But the water came and went — it went more often than it came. Farming was a gamble at best. Often the summer months would see the river reduced to a trickle.

    The solution came when one of those early farmers, Frank Lauzon, put forth the idea of a tunnel bringing water from the much bigger, and more consistent, Gunnison River to the Montrose valley. The longest irrigation tunnel in the world turned Montrose into a fertile place to grow everything from beans to a sweet corn variety that is now in demand worldwide.

    But that is not the happy ending to the story. The prince is still a frog. And frogs need more water. What happens with water in Montrose and on the Western Slope of Colorado eventually affects places like Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, Las Vegas, Denver and Omaha. Yes Omaha. That’s where the South Platte River, born in Colorado, joins the Missouri River. Omaha depends on the South Platte and the Missouri. Over here on the Western Slope we are the watershed that produces one of the most embattled, highly regulated and now overused rivers in the U.S., The Rio Colorado and its tributaries.

    The Colorado River itself is born in the Rockies and flows in multiple iterations to the Gulf of California. It has not been a wild river for a very long time. It is damned at Glen Canyon, Boulder Canyon, Parker, Davis Camp, Imperial and Morales. On the way, 1 million acre feet (AF) go to Las Vegas, 1.5 million to the Central Arizona Project, half-a-million to California’s Coachella Valley, 4.4 million to the Imperial Valley, plus more to other municipalities, a dozen Indian tribes and other entities. At Morales Dam on the Mexican border it gives the last of itself, a guaranteed 1.5 million acre feet to the Mexican farm lands and Mexicali, Baja, California. The river itself never reaches the ocean anymore.

    Colorado is the Southwest’s water cooler.

    Here is the bottom line, when it comes to water in the Southwestern U.S.: We have it, they want it. It has always been that way. Colorado has always been the water cooler for the rest of the southwest. Without it, lettuce doesn’t grow in the Imperial Valley. Palm Springs doesn’t water golf courses. Phoenix or Tucson don’t keep growing. Believe it or not, they all care how much water Montrose and Delta farms take out of the rivers. Which isn’t all that much.

    Agriculture on the Western Slope uses about 1.4 million acre-feet per year. The cities and towns use about 77,000 acre feet per year. There are about 80,000 acres under cultivation, primarily in Delta and Montrose counties. Those farms and ranches are a major part of the economy here. But, there are folks in Phoenix (and Denver) who would sooner those farms went fallow. That’s what causes concern for people like Steve Anderson, the General Manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA).

    How much water is kept and used in the Uncompahgre River Valley depends on a staggering number of factors, the most important of which are the water rights connected to the land.

    “We are somewhat insulated in that the water rights are connected to the land,” Anderson explained. “Those senior rights are federal, connected to the agreements made when the Bureau of Reclamation facilitated the Gunnison tunnel. The rights will always been connected to the land.”

    That is important because under that arrangement, a landowner cannot simply sell his water rights to, say, a downstream entity.

    The UVWUA, which has 3,500 shareholders (landowners), gets a constant 1,000 cubic-feet per second (CFS) flow from the tunnel, 24/7, April through October. To be sure, there are folks both on the Front Range and downstream who think that is more water than is really needed in the Montrose and Delta Valleys.

    “There will always be pressure on areas like the Western Slope to cede water to the populated areas,” says Anderson. “When push comes to shove, the votes are there to change the rules.”

    It is no secret that, while there is a big mountain between Denver and Montrose, there are those who would see water moved over the mountains to satisfy the needs of the growing Denver/Colorado Springs corridor. That is in fact already being done. There was a series of clandestine, closed door meetings involving those who control those diversions in which they deeply explored the idea of mandatory, non compensated curtailing of certain Western Slope water rights, to the point of creating a scenario that would bankrupt Montrose farmers and communities. Those secret meetings were outed by the Colorado River District, a public policy agency chartered to provide planning and policy guidance regarding the Colorado River Basin. State Rep. Marc Catlin is a member of the river district board. He is also a former manager of the UVWUA and a farmer. “My life’s equity is water. It is a big deal to me,” he has been quoted as saying.

    There has always been the pervasive attitude among the urban entities who use the Colorado River, that cities are more important than agriculture, recreation and environment. It is interesting to note that water lifted over the mountains to the Eastern Slope may not necessarily wind up coming from taps in Denver. It could end up going into the South Platte system to satisfy guarantees to the downstream users in Nebraska.

    But why is everybody worried about water and river flows, we just ended a drought? The Colorado snowpack reached a record level…The upstream reservoirs, like Blue Mesa, are at 90-plus percent capacity. Lake Powell, the master pool for all downstream withdrawals, is up almost 20 feet from last year (although it is still down almost 80 feet from a full pool).

    The rest of the Lake Powell numbers give us a clue. The releases from the dam, with two months to go in the water year (October to September), are already at 100 percent of minimum withdrawal. According to the Colorado River District figures, the compacts that govern downstream releases call for a 7.5 million acre feet minimum draw down of Powell. The fact is, the lake has had a rolling average release of more than 9 million acre feet per year over the past ten years, several of which had well below average input from upstream. The sum is that only 4.5 million acre feet per year went into the lake over the past ten years and 9.1 million was released. The current wet year not withstanding, the river is very much overused, now and for the foreseeable future.

    Coloradans cannot be complacent.

    Insulated by senior rights, or not, the Uncompahgre Valley has vultures circling and they are thirsty. Big money and many times more votes make laws and rules change. According to Catlin, Anderson and anyone else involved, like agriculture water users and growing small cities like Montrose, have to be part of the fight to make sure the local economies remain viable with enough water for all uses.

    Catlin campaigned on water as his main issue last year.

    “It’s the biggest issue on the Western Slope,” he said. “We are in a drought, the Colorado River’s in a drought, and the Front Range and Southern California are wanting us to stop farming our land so that they’ll have water. I’m really not in favor of that because it seems to me that we are asking one segment of our society to change how they live so that other people can continue in the same way they always have.”

    Catlin’s remarks last winter came ahead of the current improved condition. Even, so the issue remains.

    The Colorado Farm Bureau ranks water as its top issue. Montrose County Farm Bureau director Hugh Sanburg said last month that dealing with losing more and more water downstream is a major issue for the bureau. Sanburg is a cattle rancher in the Eckert area at the foot of the Grand Mesa.

    But, put agriculture aside, there is another facet that Catlin and Anderson both talk about.

    “We are not talking about just water rights for farmers, we also are talking about recreation based on water,” Anderson said. “We keep shipping all the water to the cities and when those folks come out here to fish and paddle their kayaks, there won’t be any water.”

    Is there an answer?

    To quote MacBeth, “maybe, maybe not.” The problem is not unique to the Uncompahgre River Valley and the tributaries of the Colorado River. Water has always been an issue, everywhere. Range wars have been fought over it. Millions of hours and dollars have gone in long court cases. Predictions have been horribly wrong.

    Anderson says a new water plan for Colorado is needed.

    “It is going to cost a lot of money, as much as 100 million dollars,” he said.

    What do we get for $100 million?

    “We get storage, infrastructure, education and management,” Anderson declared.

    The Colorado Water Conservation Board, on which Anderson serves, has taken on the task. The draft of Colorado’s Water Plan is now public. The primary thrust of the plan is conservation. The funding for the project comes from a wide assortment of organizations from the Colorado Water Trust to the Gates Family Foundation. In all, there are 21 entities that have signed on for the project. In some cases there is reason to believe that some of those 21 have competing goals for water use.

    Next week: The Water Plan and what it means for the Western Slope.

    Michael A Cox is a Montrose-based content developer and author. He may be reached at mcox@burrocreekpictures.com

    Jack Holmes: One solution to numerous water projects — The Vail Daily “Valley Voices”

    Eagle River Basin

    Here’s a guest column about water projects for the upper Eagle River Valley, from Jack Holmes, that’s running in theThe Vail Daily:

    There are at least five water-related project proposals being considered for the Upper Eagle River Valley from Dowd Junction to the top of Tennessee Pass in the next 50 years. These include several tributaries of the Eagle River.

    One combined project could take care of all major stakeholders and turn the area into a model for the future. The alternative will be five decades of litigation and a patchwork of projects that will be costly to all communities.

    It is not about who will get the water. That is settled by Colorado Water Law and the 1989 Memorandum of Understanding. It is about whether the parties involved will work together, which happened during the drought of the early 2000s, or go in separate directions, which was the case during the middle 1950s.

    The common project would be an Upper Eagle Pipeline and Storage Co. from Dowd Junction to Tennessee Pass. Storage, if needed, could be at Bolts Lake and Camp Hale. The 20-mile-long pipeline would follow the route of the Eagle River, the Railroad, the U.S. 24 highway or some combination thereof depending on what works and preserves the existing scenic corridor between Dowd Junction and Tennessee Pass.

    That is the lowest continental divide pass in the Central Rockies. Those wanting to move or store water would need to pay accordingly. A trench and bury pipeline approach would seem to a good approach.

    This proposal would give all major parties what they need at a reasonable cost. Memorandum of Understanding obligations could be met. To be sure, this would require some compromise. Camp Hale restoration might need to shift from some limited and expensive wetland restorations to a series of small reservoirs but probably would get more visitors to honor the 10th Mountain Division. Extensive wetlands are a few miles away on Homestake Creek in the original Camp Hale boundaries.

    Building the one project pipeline and reservoirs would require funding, but it should cost less than tunnels, which are problematic to begin with because of potential seismic activity that would destroy the tunnels. In fact, the concept could be sold as a demonstration project worthy of grant funding.

    While moving of water is not attractive to environmentalists, the concentration of project impacts in a well-established corridor makes sense. To be sure, the rail corridor would need to be preserved for possible future use, but an adjoining pipeline could be helpful in this regard.

    If Front Range communities are more willing to pay for initial construction than Western Slope entities, the first phase of the project could start at the junction of Fall Creek and the Eagle River.

    A major environmental question is how much effort should be spent to erase existing environmental impacts in the Eagle River and its Homestake Creek tributary basins above their lower Red Cliff junction. Such actions could merely shift impacts to the other basin at great public and environmental expense.

    Anybody familiar with these issues knows that this proposal is a simplified summary. However, it also is known that 50 years in court and countless engineering and field hours can be curtailed by working together. The public has every right to insist that every attempt be made to arrive at a unified approach. While there are some good studies of limited areas, consideration of the larger area is missing at this point.

    Jack Holmes is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and vice-chair of the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund. He has backpacked in the Holy Cross Wilderness since 1959 and is a summer resident on Homestake Creek above Red Cliff. For many years, he taught a summer course on wilderness politics.