Pitkin County and West Slope close to securing 1,000 AF of water for upper Roaring Fork

The upper Roaring Fork River, east of Aspen, near the river’s confluence with Difficult Creek. The stretch of river between Difficult Creek and Maroon Creek is often plagued by low flows in late summer and fall.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

As a way to settle a 2009 state water court case led by Pitkin County and the Colorado River District, the Front Range city of Aurora has agreed to let as much as 1,000 acre-feet of water run down the upper Roaring Fork River each year instead of diverting the water under Independence Pass.

The pending settlement could mean that about 10 to 30 cubic feet per second of additional water could flow down the river through Aspen in summer and fall.

It’s an amount of water that Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said would be “visibly noticeable” and would help bolster flows in the often water-short stretch of the Roaring Fork between Difficult and Maroon creeks.

“It’s exciting,” Ely said. “It’s not very often you get to put water into the upper Roaring Fork. These opportunities are pretty limited, and I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one.”

A June 13 memo from Ely on the agreement states that “the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board has long recognized this reach of the Roaring Fork as one of the most stressed reaches of the Roaring Fork” and that “the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s State of the Watershed report identifies the upper Roaring Fork just above Aspen and heading into town as being severely degraded.”

The Pitkin Board of County Commissioners is expected to approve the settlement in the form of an intergovernmental agreement with Aurora on Wednesday.

Aurora’s city council also is expected to approve the agreement, as is the Colorado River District board of directors at its July meeting. A Water Court judge has set a July 20 deadline for the parties to file the settlement.

Officials with Pitkin County and the Colorado River District see the deal with Aurora as a victory, especially as some estimates, according to Ely, place the value of water in Aurora at $50,000 an acre-foot, which makes the 1,000 acre-feet of water potentially worth $50 million.

The settlement is also of high value to officials at the Colorado River District, who led the efforts of the West Slope entities in the case.

“I think it’s a big deal,” said Peter Fleming, the general counsel for the Colorado River District, which represents 15 counties on the Western Slope. “I think it’s going to be a good deal for Pitkin County, the Roaring Fork River, and the West Slope as a whole. And frankly, I think it’s a pretty good deal for Aurora, as well.”

But Tom Simpson, a water resource supervisor with Aurora, said it’s a “bittersweet” deal for the growing Front Range city.

“We’ve worked hard on this agreement over the last year,” Simpson said. “It is bittersweet, but we are happy that we are finally there.”

The deal lets Aurora retain its current use of 2,416 acre-feet of water it diverts on average each year from the top of the Fryingpan River Basin, but Aurora also is giving up 1,000 acre-feet of water it now diverts from the top of the Roaring Fork River Basin.

Aurora also is agreeing to abide by operating protocols and future potential use of the senior water rights on the Colorado River now tied to the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon. That agreement could limit the amount of additional water Aurora can divert in the future from the Colorado River Basin.

The provisions of the agreement relating to the Shoshone water right also include an acknowledgement that the senior water right might someday be changed to include an instream flow right rather than the water being diverted out of the river and sent to the hydropower plant.

“Aurora will not oppose an agreement between a West Slope entity or entities, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and any other entity entered for the purpose of adding instream flow as an additional use of the senior hydropower right,” the agreement states.

Simpson agreed the overall deal represented a “haircut” for Aurora’s water rights in the Colorado River Basin.

“Yes, we’re going to get the 2,416 acre-feet out of Busk, but we’re going to make these other deliveries on the Roaring Fork, and we might lose just a little bit of water on the Shoshone protocol,” he said. “It’s a haircut, absolutely.”

On the other hand, Simpson said “while this agreement is not perfect, we feel like it is a good agreement, and preserves some of our Busk-Ivanhoe water and lets us all move forward.”

A view of Ivanhoe Reservoir, where water from the upper Fryingpan River headwaters is collected before being sent under the divide to Busk Creek, Turquoise Reservoir, and then the Front Range.

Started in 2009

In December 2009, Aurora filed a water rights application in Division 2 Water Court in Pueblo to change the use of its water rights in the Busk-Ivanhoe transmountain diversion system in the Fryingpan River headwaters.

The system, built in the 1920s, gathers water from Ivanhoe, Pan, Lyle, and Hidden Lake creeks and diverts the water through the Ivanhoe Tunnel to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville before it is sent to East Slope cities. The system was built to deliver water to irrigators in the lower Arkansas River basin.

The water rights to the system carry appropriation dates from 1921 to 1927, which makes them junior to the senior water rights on the Colorado River near Grand Junction known as the “Cameo call.”

The Pueblo Board of Water Works bought half of the Busk-Ivanhoe system in 1972, and Aurora gradually secured its half-ownership in the system between 1986 and 2001.

In its 2009 application, Aurora told the water court it wanted to change the use of its water in the Busk-Ivanhoe system from irrigation to municipal use.

However, it also conceded it had already been using the Busk-Ivanhoe water for municipal purposes in Aurora, even though its water-right decree limited the use of the water to irrigation in the lower Arkansas River valley. It also came to light that Aurora was first storing the water in Turquoise Reservoir without an explicit decreed right to do so.

That caught the attention of Pitkin County, the Colorado River District, a host of other Western Slope water interests, and the state engineer’s office, which administers water rights.

As Ely put it in a June 13 memo to the Pitkin County commissioners, “In 1987, Aurora began using Busk-Ivanhoe water for undecreed municipal and residential purposes in an undecreed area, the South Platte Valley, after storing the water in an undecreed manner in Aurora system reservoirs.”

Aurora’s stance was that since the water had been diverted under the Continental Divide, it didn’t matter how it used or stored the water, as it should make no difference to the West Slope. But an array of West Slope entities, including the Colorado River District, disagreed with Aurora’s position.

In July 2013 the Western Slope entities and the state took Aurora to a five-day trial in Div. 2 Water Court in Pueblo, arguing that Aurora should not get credit for its 22 years of undecreed water use and storage.

“It was always an issue of fact at trial as to how much water was in play because it depends on how you calculate the yield of the project,” Ely said.

In 2014, thought, the district court judge in Division 2 ruled in Aurora’s favor, and the West Slope interests then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The appeal process prompted a host of entities on both sides of the Continental Divide to come forward and argue aspects of the case before the court. It also prompted a scolding of Aurora by former Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs over the use of undecreed water rights.

In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, ruled in favor of the Western Slope, and remanded Aurora’s original change application back to the lower court.

“The Supreme Court wrote that notwithstanding the fact that the change application and original decree concerned developed transmountain water, water used for undecreed purposes cannot be included in a calculation for historic consumptive use and is therefore excluded from water available for change of use,” Ely wrote in his June 13 memo.

So, rather than going back to Water Court and continuing to fight over the potential size of the Busk-Ivanhoe rights, which the West Slope now saw as being between zero and well-less than 2,416 acre-feet, Aurora began negotiating in January 2017 with the Western Slope entities still in the case, which included Pitkin County, Eagle County, the Colorado River District, the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the Basalt Water Conservancy District, Eagle County, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, and Ute Water Conservancy District.

Today, each of those entities is also a party to the intergovernmental agreement expected to be submitted to the water court in July, along with a proposed decree for Aurora’s Busk-Ivanhoe rights.

Ely said Pitkin County didn’t start out in the case with an eye on securing 1,000 acre-feet for the Roaring Fork, but did have a local interest in the operation of the Busk-Ivanhoe project.

“We weren’t doing it to obtain an end result, we were doing it because the [Busk-Ivanhoe] project is in our backyard and we felt it was the right thing to do,” Ely said. “And all the other dialogue developed after the trial and the Supreme Court decision.”

At the time of the 2016 Colorado Supreme Court decision, Pitkin County had spent $353,000 in legal and other fees in the case, using money brought in by a tax to fund the county’s Healthy River and Streams program, which includes litigation in water court.

Since then, Ely said the county had spent an additional $27,300 for hydrology and engineering work, but had not spent more on additional outside legal help, as he and Assistant County Attorney Laura Makar handled the settlement negotiations for the county.

The dam across the main stem of the upper Roaring Fork that diverts water from Lost Man Creek and the Roaring Fork into a tunnel under Green Mountain and, eventually, into Grizzly Reservoir and the tunnel under Independence Pass to the Arkansas River basin. Some of the water owned by Aurora will be bypassed at this point to run down the Roaring Fork.

Pan, or Fork?

For Pitkin County and other Western Slope entities, it made more sense to negotiate with Aurora for some of the water it owns in the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system rather than the Busk-Ivanhoe system, as any water bypassed by the Busk-Ivanhoe system would be scooped up by the Fry-Ark Project, which sits below the Busk-Ivanhoe system in the upper Fryingpan valley and also diverts water to the East Slope.

Aurora owns 5 percent of the shares in the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which operates the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System. Its share of the water diverted each year from the top of the Roaring Fork equals about 2,100 acre-feet a year, so the 1,000 acre-feet of water equals about half of Aurora’s water in the Twin Lakes company.

In the 10 years from 2007 through 2016, Twin Lakes Co. diverted a total of 485,762 acre-feet of water from the upper Roaring Fork River Basin through its diversion system, putting the 10-year average for that period at 48,567 acre feet. 2011 was the biggest year of diversions since 2007, with 67,463 acre-feet diverted, and 2015 was the lowest year since 2007, with 18,374 acre-feet diverted.

Colorado Springs owns 55 percent of the shares in Twin Lakes Co., Pueblo 23 percent, Pueblo West 12 percent, and Aurora 5 percent. There are also other minority shareholders, holding 5 percent of the shares, still using the water from the system for agriculture.

Twin Lakes is not a party to the intergovernmental agreement between Aurora and the West Slope entities, but it is willing to work with all involved to make the water deliveries as beneficial as possible for the Roaring Fork River.

Ely said Pitkin Country was grateful for the willingness of the Twin Lakes Co. to work with the county and the Colorado River District to release the water in a way that benefits the river, even if it means more work for the operators of the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system.

According to Kevin Lusk, the president of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and a senior engineer at Colorado Springs Utilities, the company is simply responding to the desires of a shareholder in the company, Aurora.

He also said it’s legal under a 1976 water-rights decree held by Twin Lakes to bypass water for use on the West Slope instead of diverting it under the Continental Divide.

“The decree allows for this type of operation and so really all we’re doing as a company is accommodating the request of one of our shareholders to do something that was contemplated and provided for in the decree,” Lusk said.

And as part of the agreement, representatives from Pitkin County, the Colorado River District, Aurora, and Twin Lakes will meet each year to agree on a delivery schedule for the water that describes the “desired rate, timing, amount, location and ultimate use of the water, as well as the operational needs and constraints” of the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes diversion system.

In a letter attached to the agreement laying out how Aurora and the Twin Lakes Co. plan to manage the releases, Aurora said it “would prefer the water to be delivered at times of the year and at locations that will provide the most benefit to the Roaring Fork River stream flow. Typically this will be in the second half of the summer, beginning July 15, through the fall season.”

And Pitkin County feels the same way, according to Ely.

“We would like it delivered later in the year when the flows of the river start to go down,” he said.

However, Lusk at Twin Lakes said if the West Slope entities wait too long in the season to bypass the water, it may not be there to bypass.

“I know that there is a great interest in saving a lot of this water and bypassing it at the end of the season,” Lusk said. “But it’s going to be a bit of a balancing act. You’ve got to take the water when it’s there, because if you don’t take advantage of it there won’t be any to release later.”

Lusk also said that if the West Slope really wanted to take full advantage of the water, it might consider building a reservoir above Aspen to store the water at peak runoff and then release it later in the season.

Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek, well above its confluence with the Roaring Fork River at Lincoln Gulch Campground. The reservoir briefly stores water before it is diverted under the Continental Divide.

Flows on the Fork

According to a draft resolution to be voted on by the Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday, there were several factors that went into the county’s goal of acquiring 1,000 acre-feet per year of water for the upper Fork, including “the expected amount of yield for Aurora in the Busk-Ivanhoe system; existing in-basin and out-of-basin diversions from the Roaring Fork River between Independence Pass through the City of Aspen; potential future demand on the river; extent of existing conditional water rights; and the results of a stream analysis and channel measurement study.”

If the deal is approved, as soon as next year 700 acre-feet of Aurora’s water is expected to be captured briefly in the Independence Pass system, which includes dams on Lost Man Creek, the main stem of the Roaring Fork River, and on Grizzly Creek, and then released down either the Fork or Lincoln Creek toward Aspen.

Another 200 acre-feet of Aurora’s Twin Lakes water will be held in Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek, which holds 570 acre-feet of water. That water will then be released late in the year, after most transmountain diversions have stopped, to bolster late-season flows in the river.

“So it’s actually reservoir release of previously stored water, while the [700 acre-feet] is a true bypass of water that would have gone through the tunnel that day to the other side,” Lusk said. “It’s new for us. We typically don’t operate the reservoir that way. Typically we would run that reservoir quite a bit lower, just for safety-of-dam reasons. But this change in operation is going to be holding the reservoir up much fuller for a lot longer, and we just need to watch the behavior of the dam.”

Another 100 acre-feet of water could also eventually be left in the Roaring Fork each year after a complicated exchange-of-water arrangement is worked out with Aurora and other parties on the Fryingpan River, which brings the potential total water left in the Fork to 1,000 acre-feet.

There is also a drought contingency provision which will allow Aurora to bypass 100 acre-feet less than they would have under the deal if the water level in their system of reservoirs falls below 60 percent on April 1 in a given year. So in a dry year, that could bring additional flows in the Roaring Fork back to 900 acre feet.

The upper Roaring Fork River at the Cascades at about 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 16, 2016, after Lincoln Creek surged into the Fork, about an hour after the Twin Lakes Tunnel was closed. When the Twin Lakes system is closed for whatever reason, as it has been the past several seasons, the Roaring Fork River leaps to life with renewed intensity.

Other provisions

The pending Busk-Ivanhoe settlement also includes a provision that allows the Basalt Water Conservancy District to store 50 acre-feet of water in Ivanhoe Reservoir, which holds 1,200 acre-feet of water and serves more as a forebay for the Ivanhoe Tunnel diversions than a storage reservoir.

And, in a provision to Aurora’s benefit, the West Slope entities, including Pitkin County, have agreed not to fight, at least on a wholesale basis, the permitting of two potential reservoirs that Aurora is working on, Wild Horse Reservoir in South Park and Box Creek Reservoir, which could hold between 20,000 and 60,000 acre-feet on private land on the south flank of Mt. Elbert.

“Any participation in the permitting processes by the West Slope Parties will not seek to prevent the project in its entirety and comments or requests may be raised only for the purpose of addressing water related impacts caused directly by either of the two above specified projects on the West Slope,” the draft agreement between Aurora and the West Slope says.

The concession from the West Slope is significant as Box Creek Reservoir will be able to store water from the West Slope.

The West Slope entities also agree not to oppose changes in diversion points tied to the Homestake transmountain diversion system in the Eagle River Basin, not to oppose Aurora’s efforts to repair the Ivanhoe Tunnel, which is also called the Carlton Tunnel. The tunnel was originally built as a railroad tunnel, and then used as a highway tunnel.

Finally, the parties to the deal have agreed, in what’s called a “diligence detente,” not to challenge in water court for 15 years a list of conditional water rights, held by both East Slope and West Slope entities, that are required to periodically file due-diligence applications with the state.

The list of conditional water rights includes rights held by Aurora tied to the Homestake project and rights by the Southeastern Water Conservancy District tied to the Fry-Ark Project. They also include rights held by the Colorado River District on a number of West Slope water projects, including the potential Iron Mountain Reservoir near Redcliff and the Wolcott Reservoir near Wolcott.

Notably, the agreement does not include provisions to legally shepherd the water from the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system all the way to the confluence of Maroon Creek, so it’s possible that diverters on the river near Aspen, such as the Salvation Ditch, could pick up the water left in the river.

However, Ely said the county will seek cooperation from diverters on the river near Aspen.

“We’ve had some conversations with water users on this side of the hill, and we’ve had conversations with the Division 5 engineer’s office, and we’re hopeful that when the water is being bypassed and put in the river and there is an increase of flow, folks won’t take advantage of that and we’ll be able to get it down through Aspen,” Ely said. “And eventually, you know things will change, and we hope to have that water associated with its own water right, so we can call it further down, but that won’t be the case right away.”

An additional benefit to the deal, according to Ely, is that the management of the 1,000 acre-foot pool of water from Aurora may also lead to better management of a 3,000 acre-foot pool of water also available in the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system.

That pool was created to mitigate the impacts to the Roaring Fork River from diversions by the Fry-Ark Project on Hunter, Midway, and No Name creeks, which drain into the Fork in central Aspen. And while Twin Lakes releases the water down the Roaring Fork, releases from the Fry-Ark Project replace the water in Twin Lakes Reservoir, where both transbasin diversion systems can send water.

For years, the water from the 3,000 acre-foot pool has been released at a rate of 3 cfs on a year-round basis and has not been timed to help bolster low-season flows. Now, given the greater cooperation over the management of the 1,000 acre-foot pool from Aurora, how the 3,000 acre-foot pool from Fry-Ark is managed may also change, to the benefit of the river.

Aspen Journalism is collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water with The Aspen Times. The Times ran a shorter version of this story on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.

Fryingpan River proposal would increase winter flows, help trout populations — @AspenJournalism

Flow in the Fryingpan. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith (@AspenJournalism).

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

A proposal to increase winter flows on the lower Fryingpan River could have big benefits for downstream trout populations.

The Colorado River District is proposing to the Colorado Water Conservation Board a one-year, renewable lease of some of the water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir to boost winter flows in the Fryingpan. CWCB staff presented the proposal to the board at its May meeting in Salida.

Currently, the decreed instream flow rate between Nov. 1 and April 30 in the Fryingpan below Ruedi is a minimum of 39 cubic feet per second. Often, winter flows are higher than this, but in dry years they can hover around the minimum amount.

But 39 cfs is not enough to maintain a healthy food source for the Gold Medal fishery’s population of trout. The proposal seeks to boost the minimum flow to 70 cfs.

The proposal is a collaboration between the Colorado River District and the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

Heather Tattersall Lewin, watershed action director with the conservancy, explained that low streamflows, combined with frigid temperatures, can lead to the formation of anchor ice on the bottom of the river.

This ice has a negative effect on the population of aquatic insects, known as macroinvertebrates, which are food for the brown, rainbow, and cutthroat trout that call this 14-mile stretch of river home.

“When the water and air temperatures are both really cold, the anchor ice can scour the bottom of the river,” Tattersall Lewin said. “It can scrape the macroinvertebrates in that area and they can get moved downstream. The insect population is what we are concerned about because it’s the fish food.”

Extra water in the stream will prevent anchor ice from forming. The conservancy estimates that 56 days is the maximum amount of time the leased water would be needed during the winter.

“This is a great opportunity to manage water to the benefit of environmental and recreational needs,” Tattersall Lewin said.

Under the proposal, the CWCB would lease up to 3,500 acre-feet of Ruedi Reservoir water from the river district. It would cost $65.25 per acre-foot, plus a $400 application fee, which for the total 3,500 acre-feet would cost $228,775.

The river district owns a total of 11,413.5 acre-feet of water in Ruedi, with 7,500 acre-feet of that available for leasing. Of the total the river district owns, 5,412.5 acre-feet is to support flows for the endangered fish recovery program.

Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller said there are two reasons his organization decided to offer up their water for lease. The first is to improve the health of the river and its trout populations. The second is related to the business arm of the district.

“We are charged with maximizing our assets and our assets are pools of water in different reservoirs,” Mueller said. “In this instance, we are leasing water to the CWCB and they are paying our district’s enterprise fund to release that water. It’s a win-win from our perspective.”

The Fryingpan River is popular with anglers because of predictable hatches that lead to fish feeding frenzies and great conditions for dry fly fishing.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife supports the increased winter flows.

In a letter of support to the CWCB, CPW instream flow program coordinator Jay Skinner wrote, “recent history has taught us that more flow during the winter months improves fish habitat, increases spawning success and fry emergence for brown trout, promotes a more robust macroinvertebrate food base for fish and most importantly, addresses issues related to anchor ice formation and accumulation.”

The CWCB will consider the proposal for approval at its July meeting. If approved, the increase in flows could begin this winter.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily on the coverage of rivers and water. The Times and the Post Independent published this story in their print editions on Thursday, June 7, 2018.

Fryingpan River downstream of Ruedi Reservoir. Photo credit Greg Hobbs

Shoshone plant water rights in Glenwood Canyon eyed by Colorado River District — @AspenJournalism

Penstock blowout at Shoshone hydro plant. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett) via The Aspen Times:

The Colorado River District is renewing its efforts at preserving a major Western Slope water right: the Shoshone hydropower plant.

But this time around, under the new leadership of general manager Andy Mueller, the district’s discussions with plant owner Xcel Energy are focusing on finding a way to maintain the water right instead of purchasing outright the plant or associated water rights.

The Shoshone plant is located on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, upstream of Glenwood Springs and the popular Shoshone boating stretch of the river.

The plant began operating in 1909, and has a senior water right dating to 1902. That water right keeps 1,250 cubic feet per second flowing down the Colorado River. That means upstream junior water rights holders must leave enough water in the river for Shoshone to receive its full decreed amount. It also means that full amount becomes available for downstream users.

Some Western Slope water managers fear that if Xcel were to sell the plant or discontinue generating power at the site, the guaranteed 1,250 cfs could be lost. It would be a major blow for Western Slope water users.

At the Colorado River Basin Roundtable’s meeting in May in Glenwood Springs, Colorado River District general counsel Peter Fleming delivered a history of the Shoshone hydropower plant and an update on the efforts of the river district to preserve the flows associated with the plant.

“Simply by virtue of its very senior priority and large size, it is the controlling water right on the river upstream of Glenwood Springs,” Fleming said.

He said river district officials have met with Xcel officials about five times over the past few months to talk about ways to preserve the Shoshone water right for the Western Slope, and he anticipates additional meetings in the future.

In the past, conversations have centered around the Colorado River District potentially purchasing the hydro plant from Xcel. But those talks have shifted to ways of preserving the flow without ownership changing hands.

“A lot of it is explaining to [Xcel] why this is an important issue for the West Slope and that we are not out to interfere with their business,” Fleming said. “We don’t have any interest in operating a power plant. But maybe there’s a win-win concept out there to achieve the permanency of the Shoshone flows.”

Michelle Aguayo, Colorado media relations representative for Xcel, said in a statement the company has begun discussions with the river district, 20 West Slope water providers, and government entities about the possibility of achieving permanent management of the flow of the Colorado River so that it mimics current and historic flows.

“Although Xcel Energy is willing to talk with parties that express interest, Xcel Energy wants to reiterate that this does not signal any desire or commitment to transfer or sell any rights related to the company’s assets,” the statement reads.

Mueller said he does not view Xcel’s statement as a closing of the door and remains optimistic a solution can be found.

The Minneapolis-based energy company provides electricity and natural gas to customers in eight states, including 1.5 million people in Colorado.

Preserving flows of the Shoshone plant has long been priority for Western Slope water managers and the Colorado River District. In 2007, Xcel and Denver Water reached an agreement that during drought conditions, Xcel would “relax” Shoshone’s call on the river down to 704 cfs, cutting it roughly in half. The agreement allows Denver Water to fill its reservoirs earlier, which made some Western Slope water managers nervous.

Then came the 2012 Shoshone Outage Protocol, a 40-year agreement between Front Range and Western Slope water managers. It says that when the Shoshone plant is shut down for repairs, maintenance, or other reasons, the flows must still be maintained.

Colorado River Basin Roundtable member Chuck Ogilby said the Colorado River District should have played a bigger role in negotiating these deals and that the organization has not taken a strong enough lead in protecting the Shoshone flows.

Ogilby would like to see a group of Western Slope water managers attend an Xcel board meeting to lobby for protection of the Shoshone flows.

“It’s maddening to me,” Ogilby said. “They have missed the boat on this entire activity. … Now here we are trying to make up for their lack of engagement. We all pay taxes to the river district and this is the most important thing they can do and they are dragging their feet.”

That may be changing under the new leadership of Mueller, who took over in December.

“I was specifically requested by the board to lead that charge on behalf of the district, so I think yes, the discussions are reinvigorated and we feel reasonably optimistic about it,” Mueller said. “And we appreciate the willingness of Xcel to sit down and have discussions with us.”

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on the coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

Roaring Fork “State of the River” meeting recap

Low flows in the Roaring Fork River just above Rio Grande Park, in July 2012. City of Aspen officials say the Roaring Fork runs below environmentally-sound levels on this stretch about eight weeks of the year now.

From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

Warm, dry weather has essentially gobbled the snowpack below 11,500 feet in the Fryingpan Valley, according to Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who oversees the vast plumbing system that fills Ruedi Reservoir…

At this time last year, about 79 percent of the 133 square miles of the Fryingpan River Basin had some level of snow coverage, according to the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center. That produced a mean of 10.3 inches of snow-water equivalent — in layman’s terms, the amount of water in the snow.

This year, only 51 percent of the terrain in the basin has some level of snow coverage. The mean snow-water equivalent is only 2 inches…

Reduced runoff can have broad implications including low streamflows that affect everything from the health of fish to the quality of whitewater rafting and kayaking. There also will be less water available for irrigation.

The dry conditions mean Ruedi probably won’t reach its capacity of 102,000 acre-feet…

The drought was obviously a hot topic last night at the Colorado River District’s Roaring Fork Valley State of the River forum in Carbondale.

Heather Tattersall-Lewin, watershed action director for Roaring Fork Conservancy, said there are spots in local rivers that create special concerns in low-water years. The Roaring Fork River through Aspen is often “dewatered in dry years.” The city government worked on an agreement to put water from the Wheeler Ditch into the river when it drops to certain levels, she said.

The Roaring Fork River also tends to drop to especially low levels just above the confluence with the Fryingpan River in low-water years, Tattersall-Lewin. Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams developed a whitewater park with junior water rights to try to increase the water level in that stretch in lean years, she said.

The low runoff prevented the reclamation bureau from dumping a high amount of water from the Ruedi dam into the lower Fryingpan River this spring.

“We didn’t see a flushing flow go through the Fryingpan this year,” Tattersall-Lewin said.

That could lead to proliferation of a particularly nasty type of algae called Didymosphenia geminate but often just referred to as didymo or rock snot. Roaring Fork Conservancy will monitor the presence of the algae.

The Crystal River, which often is affected by low flows during the summer, faces a tougher than usual year. The snowpack at McClure Pass was well below average all winter long and melted completely out prior to May 1.

Zane Kessler, communications director for the Colorado River District, said snowpack at numerous measuring stations throughout the Colorado mountains have melted out already. Statewide the snowpack is at 30 percent of average, he said.

Far western Pitkin County, including McClure Pass, is considered in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor released by the federal government Thursday. Far eastern Pitkin County, which includes Independence Pass, is considered “abnormally dry.”

Most of Pitkin County is in the moderate drought classification, the second in five classes.

Ouray “State of the River” meeting recap: “We can survive one bad drought” — Bob Hurford

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Tanya Ishikawa):

[Bob] Hurford’s general sentiment about this year’s drought was shared by all who presented reports at the Ouray State of the Rivers meeting at the Ouray County 4H Event Center May 16. The presentations came two weeks after Gov. John Hickenlooper activated the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan for the agricultural sector in 34 of the state’s 64 counties, including San Miguel, Ouray, Montrose, and Delta counties…

Hurford explained that over half of the Rocky Mountains’ water supply is in its snowpack. As of April 1, Colorado’s snowpack was 68 percent of average and 64 percent of last year’s. Data maps show that the April 1 snowpack was between 50 percent and 69 percent for Ouray and Montrose counties, and below 50 percent for San Miguel County. Division 4, the eastern area around Gunnison, has the most snowpack; the San Juan Mountains have the least, with snowpack above Ridgway Reservoir at just 46 percent of average.

Colorado, Utah, Arizona and California had the lowest amount of precipitation in the U.S. this winter, and those four states — plus Nevada and New Mexico — had the highest temperatures from November 2017 to January 2018, according to statistics in Hurford’s report.

Data from reservoirs in October 2017 show that Colorado had one of its best years with close to 120 percent of average water levels statewide, 100 percent of average in Division 4 and around 116 percent of average in Ridgway Reservoir. Over the last two decades, reservoirs were at or above 100 percent for 11 years.

“We can survive one bad drought. Two bad droughts in a row and that gets us,” Hurford said.

Ridgway Reservoir Dam Superintendent Tony Mitchell, of Tri-County Water Conservancy District, showed National Weather Service forecast data that estimated January-April 1 flows into the reservoir at 88 percent of average in 2016, 111 percent in 2017 and 49 percent in 2018. For the period of April 1 through July, the main runoff season, flow estimates were 92 percent of average in 2016, 96 percent in 2017 and 40 percent in 2018.

Responding to a question about why the reservoir has looked lower than usual this spring, Tri-County Water Conservancy District Manager Mike Berry said late-season releases to the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA) were larger than usual last year, precipitation was low last summer and storage levels are kept lower than normal to avoid water spilling over the dam, which would send non-native fish into the Uncompahgre River, endangering the trout there.

UVWUA Manager Steve Andersen, who is also a director on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said, “My association will be OK this year. There’s not as much water as we would like to have, but we will be able to make a crop this year.”

However, to ensure its downstream water users have enough water, the association in Montrose may have to put a call on water use later in the season, shutting headgates to irrigators upstream in Ouray County (who have junior water rights). Andersen does not expect to make a similar call on water on the upper Gunnison River side because of better snowpack, which should maintain higher flows there. He said the association would use that Gunnison water before resorting to a call on the Ouray side…

The last time that Ouray irrigators had to shut their headgates due to low stream flows and obligations to more senior water rights holders downstream was in 2012. That is when the Ouray County Water Users Association was founded…

With the drought conditions came concerns about wildfires, and Ouray and Montrose counties implemented Stage 1 Fire Restrictions on [May 21, 2018]. Stage 1 limits the areas where fires, smoking and spark-igniting activities can take place, according to the State of Colorado Department of Fire Prevention. Stage 2 adds more restrictions, while Stage 3 is the strictest, limiting entry into closed areas and setting fines as high as $10,000 for violators, or imprisonment for six months.

Honing in on options for a potential White River Dam near Rangely

Looking up the White River valley, with the Wolf Creek valley opening up to the left. The view is from Hwy 64.

By Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

CRAIG — Three variations of a potential dam that could someday sit astride the main stem of the White River between Meeker and Rangely have been examined by the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District in Rangely.

Last week in Craig, Steve Jamieson, a principal engineer and president at W.W. Wheeler and Associates, told the members of the Yampa, Green and White river basin roundtable that an 80-foot-tall dam built across the main stem of the White River at Wolf Creek could store 68,000 acre-feet of water.

He said a 104-foot-tall dam across the river could store 138,000 acre-feet.

And a 290-foot-tall dam across the valley floor could store 2.9 million acre-feet of water.

“The maximum you can get here is 2.9 million acre-feet in this bucket,” Jamieson said. “It’s a big bucket, and you can do that with a dam that it’s about 290 feet high. It would be a very efficient dam site, but you need to have the water to fill it.”

A slide being presented by Steve Jamieson of Wheeler a showing the range of dam and reservoir sizes that have been studied for the potential White River Dam on the main stem of the White River 23 miles east of Rangely. The dams range in size from 80-feet-tall to 290-feet-tall and could store between 68,000 AF to 2.9 MAF. The dam sizes were studied as part of Phase 2A of the White River storage project, and the state has provided $500,000 in funding so far to study the project.
Steve Jamieson, left, of Wheeler and Associates, and Brad McCloud, right, showing an illustration of where the axis of a 290-foot-tall dam across the White River would be. The big dam would require a 500-foot-wide spillway, which would mean relocating a section of Hwy 64.

Water enough

About 500,000 acre-feet of water a year runs down the lower White River each year, flowing through Meeker and Rangely and into Utah and the Green River.

And between 1923 and 2014, the annual flow in the White River at the Utah line ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million acre-feet, according to Wheeler and Associates.

The potential White River Dam would be located 23 miles east of Rangely, along Highway 64.

The existing Taylor Draw Dam, which forms Kenney Reservoir on the main stem of the White River, is six miles east of Rangely.

That reservoir was built in 1984 to hold 13,800 acre-feet of water, but it’s gradually silting in, as was expected in a 1982 EIS done for the project. The surface area still “available for recreation,” or boating, is now less than 335 acres, down from 650 acres when the reservoir opened.

The dam’s hydro plant, however, is still generating about $500,000 a year in electricity revenue for the Rio Blanco district in a run-of-river setup.

A slide being presented by Steve Jamieson of Wheeler and Associates and Brad McCloud of EIS Solutions showing the range of dam and reservoir sizes that have been studied with state funding for the Wolf Creek drainage. The dams range in size from 80-feet-tall to 260-feet-tall and could store 41,000 AF to 1.6 MAF. The dam sizes were studied as part of Phase 2A of the White River storage project, and the state has provided $500,000 in funding so far to study the project.

Off-channel too

Jamieson also has been studying an off-channel dam in the Wolf Creek drainage, which is a broad, dry valley on the north side the river, just upstream of the proposed White River Dam site.

The Wolf Creek Dam would be located 3,000 feet back from the river and 170 feet above it.

An 80-foot-tall version of that dam could store 41,000 acre-feet of water, a 119-foot-tall dam could store 130,000 acre-feet, and a 260-foot-tall dam could store 1.6 million-acre feet, Jamieson said.

“This is really good dam site here, I like this,” Jamieson said. “It’s very flexible.”

However, the off-channel Wolf Creek Dam would require that water be pumped up from the river, at a high cost, or delivered via a 40-mile long canal or pipeline starting near Rio Blanco Lake — closer to Meeker than Rangely.

“It’s going to be a very long and expensive canal,” Jamieson said.

The pumping facility for a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir, which was studied in 2014, was estimated to cost $18.2 million build and up to $1.1 million a year to operate.

Jamieson said Highway 64 would need to be moved to accommodate the biggest White River Dam option, which requires a 500-foot-wide spillway on one side of the river valley.

The river itself would also have to be moved during construction.

“You’d be constructing two to three years at least,” Jamieson said. “So what we looked at is actually building a tunnel around into this abutment that we would divert the White River through during construction.”

A slide presented by Steve Jamieson of Wheeler and Associates on May 9, 2018, showing the maximum inundation area of a 290-foot-tall dam on the main stem of the White River. Jamieson presented the slide at the May 9, 2018 meeting in Craig of the Yampa/White/Green basin roundtable.

Gardner-sized

Jamieson said the district started studying the maximum size of the potential reservoirs after Sen. Cory Gardner asked during a site visit, “How big can you make this reservoir?”

During his presentation Jamieson repeatedly referred to Sen. Gardner, using phrases such as “this is the maximum Cory Gardner reservoir.”

A roundtable member asked, “Did the senator promise the money for this?”

The basin roundtables operate under the auspices of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and review grants for water projects.

“No, he did not, unfortunately,” said Brad McCloud of EIS Solutions, a public affairs consulting firm retained by the district. “We asked.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board also wants to know what the maximum reservoir size is.

“Based on recent comments from some stakeholders, it may be beneficial to build the largest possible reservoir at Wolf Creek,” the scope of work for a 2017 grant from the board to the district states.

It also says “a much larger reservoir … could have additional benefits to the state.”

One of those benefits could be helping the state avoid a compact call on the Colorado River.

“Part of the Phase 2A study is to determine if the project may have the potential to provide Colorado compact curtailment insurance during periods of drought,” the 2017 grant application from the district said.

Since 2013, the district has received three grants totaling $500,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board for its White River project, and the potential benefit of compact compliance has been mentioned in all three grants.

The White River near the vicinity of the Wolf Creek drainage. The river sends about 500,000 acre-feet of water a year across the state line into Utah, with flows ranging from 200,000 AF to 1.2 MAF a year. The White drains the western side of the Flat Top Mountains and flows through Meeker and Rangely.

20,000 or 90,000

On Wednesday in Craig, Jamieson downplayed compact curtailment and focused on the district’s goal of creating a 20,000 or 90,000 acre-foot “working pool” of water inside larger potential reservoirs.

For example, it would require a 138,000 acre-foot on-channel reservoir to establish a 90,000 acre-foot working pool for the district, after allowances for a recreation pool and a 24,000 acre-foot sedimentation pool — which would fill in over 50 years.

To establish a need of the stored water, Jamieson cited a 2014 study showing demand in the basin at 91,000 acre-feet in 2065.

That’s on the high end, though.

The low-end need in 2065 was 16,600 acre-feet.

The district filed in water court in 2014 for a 90,000-acre-foot storage right at both the on-channel and off-channel locations.

But Erin Light, the division engineer in Div. 6, told the district in July 2017 “this application continues to contain aspects that are speculative and this is concerning to me.”

She questioned the district’s use of the highest estimates for such potential uses as oil shale production and flows for endangered fish.

The water attorney for the district, Ed Olszewski, responded to Light in August.

He said the district “disputes that any portion of the application is speculative” and the application is intended to be “as flexible as possible.”

As Jamieson wrapped up his presentation, he said the Rio Blanco district plans to “initiate project permitting” in 2019.

“I know we’re very aggressive,” Jamieson said. “We’re making progress.”

Aspen Journalism is covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. The Times and the Post Independent published this story on Monday, May 14, 2018.

“Eagle River Valley State of the River Meeting ” recap

In 1922, Federal and State representatives met for the Colorado River Compact Commission in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Among the attendees were Arthur P. Davis, Director of Reclamation Service, and Herbert Hoover, who at the time, was the Secretary of Commerce. Photo taken November 24, 1922. USBR photo.

From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):

At an Eagle River Valley State of the River Meeting held at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards on Wednesday, May 9, Colorado River District Director Andy Mueller talked about the potential impacts of curtailment. The district, funded by a small property tax levy, includes 15 counties that fall into the Colorado River watershed.

Mueller said under current state water law, the burden could fall most heavily on municipal and industrial water users on the Western Slope and Front Range.

That’s because state water law operates on a “first in time, first in line” system. That means agricultural users on the Western Slope, many of whom have held their water rights since before 1922, have priority over other users.

But those other users include the state’s main population centers, including Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs. Mueller said taking water from politically powerful areas could create “chaos” in the state.

“It’s not realistic” to curtail home water taps and fire hydrants, Mueller said.

Again, a curtailment order has never been issued. And, Mueller said, the current prospects of such an order, even during the present prolonged drought cycle in the west, is only about 25 to 30 percent.

But, he said, the risks to upper basin states are enormous.

That’s why state and federal agencies are working on planning for drought.

Brent Newman, of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said that planning includes researching ways to manage water demand and continued cloud seeding to boost winter snowfall.

Demand management is the state’s “last line of defense,” Newman said, but it has to be evaluated.

The ultimate goal is avoiding a drop in Lake Powell water levels that makes it impossible to spin the hydroelectric generators at Glen Canyon Dam.

Newman said if that day comes, everything from streamflows to Lake Mead to income from the power produced would be affected. Electricity prices would rise, Newman said, and the federal Bureau of Reclamation would lose income that’s used to pay for existing and future water projects, as well as fish-recovery and other environmental efforts. The impact spans the continent “from Jackson Hole to Tijuana,” Newman said.

The clock is already ticking on drought contingency planning. Newman said a 2007 agreement based on the original compact expires in 2026, with the states set to re-convene starting in 2020.

And, Newman said, it’s not just upper basin states that are planning. Lower basin states are also looking at voluntary reductions in water use, he said. A draft of that plan cuts 1.1 million acre-feet per year in use.

“There are a lot of opportunities and challenges,” Newman said. “We need to ensure users aren’t being harmed.” And, he added, “a lot needs to be investigated before implementing anything.”