U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials have decided to increase the opportunities for members of the public to weigh in on a controversial reservoir project in northwest Colorado with an additional round of public engagement.
Members of the BLM’s Northwest Resource Advisory Council last week expressed support for early public engagement on the Wolf Creek reservoir project between Meeker and Rangely in Rio Blanco County. This will be an extra opportunity for interested people to get involved, in addition to the scoping, public comment and protest periods of the normal National Environmental Policy Act permitting process.
Some pointed out that the Wolf Creek project is sure to get lots of scrutiny and, perhaps, national attention, especially with the current spotlight on the declining reservoirs of the Colorado River system. RAC member Jeff Comstock, who represents the Moffat County Natural Resources Department, said he is very much in support of additional public sessions.
“Moffat, myself, most of your collaborators … have always been requesting public involvement prior to Notice of Intent,” Comstock told BLM staffers at the Thursday meeting in Glenwood Springs. “I am a big supporter of having those meetings.”
The project applicant, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, is proposing an off-channel reservoir with a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long, with water that will be pumped from the White River. In January 2021, the district secured a water right for 66,720 acre-feet, which can be used for municipal purposes in the downstream town of Rangely, for mitigation of environmental impacts, for recreation, for fish and for wildlife habitat.
The BLM is overseeing the NEPA process because the federal agency would need to amend its resource management plan and grant a right of way to build Wolf Creek reservoir since the project site is on BLM land. The formal NEPA process is on a tight timeline, and once the BLM issues the Notice of Intent, it has two years to enter a Record of Decision on whether to allow the right of way. The additional public engagement may delay the start of this timeline, but it is unclear by how long.
[Two] people who oppose and have concerns about the reservoir project spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Matt Rice, Southwest regional director at environmental group American Rivers, encouraged BLM staff to focus on as much public participation as possible.
“We have grave concerns about this project,” Rice said. “As everybody is aware, the Colorado River is in crisis. … This project is going to be extremely controversial.”
Deirdre Macnab, whose 4M Ranch is adjacent to the reservoir site, also spoke and gave her reasons for opposing the project. She said a new reservoir in the proposed location would lead to water loss through evaporation.
“Now is not the time to facilitate new reservoirs in hot, dry, desert areas,” she told RAC members. “Consider the ramifications of this proposal for future generations and just say no.”
Securing the water right for the project took longer than the conservancy district expected because for five years, Colorado’s top engineers at the Department of Water Resources argued the project was speculative because Rio Blanco could not prove a need for the water. The water right was eventually granted after years of back and forth in water court, and the decree came after an 11th-hour negotiation right before the case was scheduled to go to trial. The water right gave Rio Blanco the amount of water it was seeking, but it does not allow the district all the water uses that it initially wanted, including for irrigation or Colorado River Compact compliance.
What the additional public engagement will look like remains unclear. BLM staff will now refer the project to their Collaborative Action and Dispute Resolution Program to figure out the best strategy.
“One thing we want to avoid is just doing what we typically do for scoping twice,” said Heather Sauls, BLM project manager and planning and environment coordinator. “Whether we would have public meetings or workshops to talk about focused topics, I don’t know the answers to that yet.”
Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District General Manager Alden Vanden Brink was unavailable for comment.
The BLM plans to create a webpage about the project. Those who want to join the mailing list and get alerts about future public-engagement opportunities can email BLM_CO_Reservoir@blm.gov.
Colorado and three other Upper Colorado River Basin states have, for the first time in history, embarked on a series of formal meetings to find a way to negotiate jointly with some of the largest owners of Colorado River water rights: tribal communities.
The states, which include New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, began meeting with six tribes several weeks ago, according to Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission.
The tribes are the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Utah, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Paiute Tribe in Utah, as well as Colorado’s Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, based in Towaoc, and Southern Ute Indian Tribe, whose lands lie in and around Ignacio.
“We have four Upper Basin states and the six Upper Basin tribes, 10 sovereigns, in the room together saying that the table that is set is not the table that works for all, and we are going to create our own table. They are really focused on solutions and being part of the burden and part of the success,” Mitchell said.
The six tribes are among 30 tribal communities in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, which, combined, have paper water rights to roughly 25% to 30% of the river’s flows, more than 3.2 million acre-feet of water.
The news came Sept. 16 at the Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar in Grand Junction. The river district represents 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope and is responsible for policy and managing the river within those boundaries.
For more than 100 years, modern water management in the American West has been conducted by the federal and state governments, without formal tribal leaders.
Under Western water law, water has to be measured, its historical use rates certified, and it has to be diverted so that it can be put to beneficial use. Tribal water rights are treated differently. Tribes’ water rights date back to the time when the reservations were created, based on a law that was applied retroactively – many reservations were established before the law existed and so the amount of water they received was never quantified or adjudicated. For this reason, many tribes have had to settle their water rights within the state or states where their reservation lies— some of those negotiations remain unsettled. Many tribes have never measured their water use and, even among those tribes with quantified water rights, many have never had the money to build the dams, pipelines and reservoirs that allow them to put the resource to use.
Roughly 60% of the water the tribes legally possess has never been developed or integrated into the region’s hierarchy of water rights, though they are often some of the oldest, according to tribal estimates.
Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation Water Administrator, said tribal leaders want the federal government to create a new framework to right past wrongs and establish a process for tribes to participate in critical river negotiations.
For too long, he said, “The policy-making process has been left up to the seven basin states and the federal government. We want to speak on behalf of our own water. We’ve heard a whole lot about scarcity and pain,” he told the Grand Junction audience of roughly 400 people. “And we know a whole lot about that. We’re asking, we’re demanding participation because it is a basic human right.”
During the past five years, as the Colorado River has sunk deeper into crisis, the tribes have begun working together and asserting their right to negotiate with federal, state and local water agencies to determine how their water will be used, how badly needed tribal water systems can be built, and how tribes can be fairly compensated for the water that has long been used by others.
Despite increased public pressure to recognize the tribes’ water rights and to include them in critical negotiations and decision-making processes, they continue to be shut out, including in the most recent talks over how to achieve the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of cuts that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered back in June in order to keep lakes Mead and Powell operating.
Another set of critical talks set to begin in the near future still has no mechanism for including the tribes. These are talks that will determine how to operate the river well into the future, after the current framework for river operations, known as the 2007 Interim Guidelines, expires at the end of 2026. Tribes were not included in the talks leading up to the 2007 agreement either.
Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, said traditional water users in the Colorado River Basin won’t survive unless tribal waters are legally recognized, developed and put to use by tribes and other users in the basin.
“We are a sovereign government. We should be considered just as a state would be. If you think that we shouldn’t be involved, then don’t include our 30% allocation for anyone else’s use … We need to be included in every one of these conversations. My reservation was established in 1868. We are first in time first in line. You cannot discount us,” she said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Water leaders, agricultural producers, environmentalists and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met Friday for the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar to discuss the historic-low levels in the river’s biggest reservoirs — and the need to cut back usage from Wyoming to California. While the problems the basin faces were apparent in the day-long discussions about the state of the river, solutions were not. The event’s host, Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller, told attendees that scientists now recommend that water managers plan for the river to provide just 9 million acre-feet of water annually. That’s a reduction of about a quarter from the amount used in 2021 by U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico. In an interview, Mueller said the Friday seminar was held to educate attendees on the seriousness of the Colorado River situation. Still unanswered is what the states and tribes represented in the room will do to drastically curtail use.
While the representatives for the governments agreed that solutions need to be collaborative, no one offered to be the first to make big cuts. However, representatives from nearly every state stressed that they have already cut back on the amount of water they’re legally allowed to use.
“I think the honest answer is right now there is no plan,” J.B. Hamby of the Imperial Irrigation District in California said in response to a question from the audience about how significant cutbacks would be achieved.
The Imperial district’s farms use millions of acre-feet of water a year to produce massive portions of the national food system. Hamby said water managers along the Colorado River have been distracted by incremental “dumpster fires,” and are not adequately focusing on the need for a new long-term plan that accounts for reduced water in the river.
The theme [of the seminar “Overdrawn”] refers to the emergency status of the Colorado River and its biggest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Mead, on the border of Nevada and Arizona, has dropped so low that there’s fear that turbines at Hoover Dam won’t have enough water to keep spinning and generating hydroelectric power for millions of people…
Throughout the seminar sessions Friday, upper-basin managers said lower-basin states need to take the lead in the water savings. Asked why the upper basin wouldn’t put out a plan first to get the entire river system closer to a solution, Mueller with the Colorado River Water Conservation District said in the interview with CPR News that the state of Colorado is working on specific conservation plans but doesn’t intend to release them until the lower-basin states act…Meanwhile, lower-basin water managers attending the Friday conference stressed the water savings they have made in the past and asked that states like Colorado stop waiting for the lower-basin to act.
Andy Mueller, general manager of western Colorado’s Colorado River District, said at the annual water seminar that his entity puts on that everyone in the basin needs to come to the table with solutions for reducing usage. But before that can occur, he said the federal Bureau of Reclamation needs to address the fact that the way river water is currently divvied up between Upper and Lower Basin states doesn’t account for evaporation and transit loss in the Lower Basin that amounts to 1.2 million acre-feet a year.
“The key here is getting the accounting fixed and then recognizing that we all have an obligation to participate (in conservation measures) as well,” Mueller said.
He warned that alternatively the river district may consider pursuing litigation to make that fix happen.
Friday’s event at Colorado Mesa University comes as the Colorado River Compact that divvies up river water between the Upper and Lower basins turns 100 years old this year. Drought and a warming climate have reduced precipitation and streamflows in the basin during the last 20 or so years that the compact has been in effect. While it allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year to each of the basins, the watershed doesn’t produce that volume of water. Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at less than a quarter of what they can hold, which is threatening their ability to produce hydroelectric power and raising the prospect of them reaching “deadpool” and being no longer functional.
The Lower Basin has been using more water than allocated to it under the 1922 compact, and the Upper Basin, far less than its share. In addition, Mueller said, evaporation of water in federal Upper Basin reservoirs such as Powell, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa gets attributed to the usage by the Upper Basin, which he said makes sense. But evaporation and transit losses aren’t calculated into Lower Basin usage, which Mueller, an attorney, said is “probably illegal in the context of the river.” He said the Bureau of Reclamation needs to fix that, but doesn’t want to because of the pain it would cause in the Lower Basin and the potential for resulting litigation…
Mueller then added, “I just want to be clear, from my perspective and the river district’s, there very well may be litigation if they don’t fix this problem, from us, because if their threat is to come after our federal projects in the Upper Basin we will defend those projects.”
Already, the Bureau of Reclamation has been making some water releases from Upper Basin federal reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to try to shore up levels in Lake Powell.
As the deadline approaches for the seven Colorado River basin states to come up with a plan to conserve water, some Colorado water managers are asking what authority the federal government has in the upper basin and which water projects could be at risk of federal action.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton sent water managers scrambling when she announced in June that they had a 60-day window to find another 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water to conserve or the federal government would step in to protect the system. With many reservoirs, transbasin diversion systems and irrigation projects in Colorado tied in one way or another to the Bureau of Reclamation, some are asking if the water in these buckets could be commandeered by the feds to make up the shortfall.
“I think that there’s probably a good argument that the Secretary (of the Interior) has some authority under those projects,” said Eric Kuhn, Colorado River author and former Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager. “The projects on the Western Slope and in the upper basin states that are owned by the federal government and are ultimately under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, those are the projects at risk.”
Paonia Reservoir. Photo credit: The College of New Jersey
Rifle Gap Reservoir via the Applegate Group
Taylor Park Reservoir
Ridgway Dam via the USBR
Ruedi Reservoir. Photo credit Greg Hobbs
There are many dams and reservoirs across Colorado that are tied to the Bureau of Reclamation’s 20th century building frenzy to impound water and “reclaim” arid regions through irrigation. On the Western Slope, some of the well-known projects include the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (Ruedi Reservoir), Dallas Creek Project (Ridgway Reservoir), the Dolores Project (McPhee Reservoir), Paonia Reservoir, the Grand Valley Project, the Silt Project (Rifle Gap Reservoir), the Uncompahgre Project (Taylor Park Reservoir) and more.
In general, the local entities like conservancy districts, irrigators and municipalities who use the water are responsible for repaying the Bureau for the cost of the project. But the infrastructure is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Some projects are operated by Reclamation and some are operated by a local entity. Many also have a hydropower component.
“I think each project operator is having to look at their contractual obligations with the Bureau and their attorneys are going back over those with a fine tooth comb to see if the arm of the Bureau can reach up through Lake Powell and into the upper basin states,” said Kathleen Curry, a rancher and Gunnison County representative on the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “All of the upper basin projects are going to need to look real hard at what authority the Bureau has.”
Last year Reclamation made emergency releases out of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to prop up Lake Powell. In this instance their authority was not questioned since these reservoirs are, along with Lake Powell, the four initial reservoirs of the Colorado River Storage Project. They store what’s called “system water,” which is used specifically to help the upper basin meet its delivery obligations to the lower basin.
But water managers still don’t know exactly what, if anything, Reclamation is allowed to do with the water contained in other reservoirs with Reclamation ties.
No answers from officials
At the River District’s third quarterly board meeting in July, board members repeatedly tried to pin down answers from federal and state officials without much luck.
Montrose County representative and state Rep. Marc Catlin asked state engineer Kevin Rein where he stood on whether the Bureau of Reclamation could make reservoirs with Reclamation ties release water downstream to Lake Powell to meet the 2 to 4 million acre-feet conservation goal.
“If the Bureau of Reclamation comes into the state of Colorado and says it wants to move water… down to Lake Powell, what’s the state engineer going to do?” Catlin asked. “Are those water rights under state law or federal law?”
Rein did not know the answer.
“I’m not sure what authority — this is not one of those rhetorical ‘I’m not sure,’ I really am not sure — what authority the Bureau of Reclamation would have to induce a federal project with state water rights to release them to get to Powell,” Rein said.
Later in the meeting, Katrina Grantz, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Assistant Regional Director, gave a presentation and took questions from board members. Curry asked if changes could be proposed to the operation of projects within the 15 counties represented by the River District with federal ties to get closer to the 2 to 4 million acre-feet. Grantz side-stepped the question.
“At this point we are not looking at specific locations,” she said. “I would turn it around and say: Are there areas where you locally think there might be areas to conserve?”
River District General Counsel Peter Fleming said the authority of the feds in the upper basin is untested. This is partly because the upper basin has dozens of small Reclamation projects as well as thousands of individual water users on private ditch systems that are not affiliated with the federal government. Colorado has generally been left alone to administer this complex system of water rights under the state doctrine of prior appropriation, which means older water rights get first use of the river.
The lower basin, in contrast, has only about 20 diversions — and only six or so big ones — from the Colorado River. And each entity that uses water from Lake Mead has to have a contract with Reclamation, meaning the federal government is directly involved with water deliveries.
“The reason I think these issues are untested is historically the secretary’s role in the upper basin has been different than the secretary’s role in the lower basin,” Fleming said. “It’s much more hands-off. The difference in river administration is huge.”
Fleming said that the River District does not have advice for its water users on the situation, other than to reiterate the upper basin stance that the responsibility to come up with the 2 to 4 million acre-feet lies overwhelmingly with the lower basin.
“At the end of the day I think there will be a big effort to try to resolve things through agreement and I believe the secretary will exercise her authority to the greatest extent she can without triggering litigation,” Fleming said.
Water managers may not have to wait long to get some clarity. The deadline for the states to come up with a conservation plan before the feds take action to protect the system is fast approaching. The upper basin states, through the Upper Colorado River Commission, have put forward a 5 Point Plan, which lays out actions they say are designed to protect the reservoirs.
Amee Andreason, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation, said officials may answer the question of federal authority in the upper basin at a media event on Aug. 16 that coincides with the release of the August 24-month study, which lays out reservoir operations for the following water year.
If the feds end up curtailing uses in the lower basin, it could set a precedent that would strengthen the argument that they can do the same in the upper basin, Kuhn said.
“That’s one I think is the elephant in the room,” he said. “The fact that the River District board was asking about authorities tells you people are thinking about it.”
This story ran in the Aug. 4 edition of the Sky-Hi News.
Lees Ferry streamgage and cableway downstream on the Colorado River, Arizona. (Public domain.)
September 21, 1923, 9:00 a.m. — Colorado River at Lees Ferry. From right bank on line with Klohr’s house and gage house. Old “Dugway” or inclined gage shows to left of gage house. Gage height 11.05′, discharge 27,000 cfs. Lens 16, time =1/25, camera supported. Photo by G.C. Stevens of the USGS. Source: 1921-1937 Surface Water Records File, Colorado R. @ Lees Ferry, Laguna Niguel Federal Records Center, Accession No. 57-78-0006, Box 2 of 2 , Location No. MB053635.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:
State engineer Kevin Rein oversees the state’s water rights system. In a meeting with the Colorado River District board on Jul. 19, Rein assured members he would not be mandating conservation among their municipal, industrial and agricultural users. The district covers 15 counties in Western Colorado.
“There is nothing telling me to curtail water rights. There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said…
Colorado officials have argued the blame for the river’s supply-demand imbalance rests with California, Arizona and Nevada. Some doubt the federal government’s authority to demand the states use less water. The 1922 Colorado River Compact, a document that inflated available water within the entire basin, apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the river’s Upper and Lower Basins, respectively. In recent decades Lower Basin uses have exceeded that amount, while Upper Basin uses have remained below the apportionment.
“We’re way under our allocation of 7.5 million acre-feet a year,” Rein said. “So what does that mean? ‘We need to conserve.’ To me, that means that we don’t change our administration at the state engineer’s office.”
Rein said he has mandated water use reductions in other Colorado watersheds under the compact administration legal process. But the Colorado River has avoided that fate so far, he said. Without a solid legal basis, Rein said his hands are tied.
“If you have a beneficial use for water and you have a right to water and the right is physically and legally available, then I would encourage people to use your water right. It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy. It’s part of your livelihood,” Rein said.
“Somebody might tell me I’m wrong someday, but right now, I don’t see a legal basis for asking people to curtail,” Rein said…
Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller said he wanted to know how the federal government was planning to tighten how it accounts for water use in the Lower Basin, including evaporation from reservoirs, a longtime complaint of Upper Basin leaders.
“It is extremely frustrating to see system water utilized for the benefit of the three Lower Basin states and us taking a hit for it. And now we are for the first time, frankly, about to be injured by it,” Mueller said.
Upper Basin leaders have resisted calls for specific amounts of conservation on the Colorado River. In a plan released last week, the four Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — instead call for the reinstatement of a conservation program that paid farmers to forgo water supplies, first tested in 2014.
Don Meyer, Sr. Water Resource Specialist, and Dave “DK” Kanzer, Director of Science and Interstate Matters, gave a thorough hydrological report to the Board on July 20th. Their report focused on the current, productive monsoon cycle, storage in local reservoirs, and the low flows and high water temperatures observed in the Upper Colorado River headwaters.
“We’ve been enjoying some moisture from this monsoonal flume,” said Meyer. “It seems almost weekly.”
These frequent, often fast-moving bouts of moisture have improved soil moisture across the District and helped farmers and ranchers by also providing cloud cover which decreases evaporation and soil temperature.
“Is it helping with the overall drought conditions?” Kanzer asked. “Well, the answer is sort of. It’s not doing much for the Colorado River Basin system as a whole, but those afternoon rain showers have done wonders for our local water users.”
Wet and cool conditions in April sustained the snowpack which also helped local reservoirs with water storage.
“The longer runoff is delayed, the more water ends up in the system,” Meyer said. “However, we are still below average.”
Water managers across the West Slope depend on higher flows during the spring runoff to fill reservoirs for release during hotter, drier months later in the summer. Healthy river ecosystems depend on high flows to flush sediment, however, so often larger amounts of water are passed during the natural runoff window to support fish health. Choosing how much and when to fill a reservoir of any size involves accounting for myriad variables. Accurate predictions and streamflow forecasts are an essential part of getting this balancing act right.
Meyer shared how Elkhead Reservoir, one of the two reservoirs managed by the River District, was a study in this complex process this summer. “Elkhead fill was a bit of a nail-biter this year.” Meyer said. “We were operating to reduce downstream erosion. To do this we try to store peak flows and release a lower, steadier amount of water, but we had some issue with the forecasts. In early May, we realized that we weren’t going to get those big, forecasted peaks, so we had to quickly reduce releases. Incorrect forecasts were really detrimental.”
No forecasts for streamflow or storage on the West Slope are above 80% for this summer.
“We often talk about the importance of accurate science and forecasts,” said Andy Mueller, General Manager of the River District. “Not having accurate data does have major impacts for the health of streamflow and the human communities.”
Director Kathleen Curry from Gunnison County shared the dire conditions facing Blue Mesa Reservoir which is barely half full after last year’s Drought Operations release to Lake Powell and this year’s unimpressive runoff.
“The whole system is really stressed.” Curry said. “Blue Mesa is filled with algae, and the river above that is warm and bright green. The fish from the 15-mile reach are so stressed, they are coming up the Gunnison to just below the Redlands Canal. It’s become very difficult for the system to meet all the needs.”
The 15-mile reach is a section of the Colorado River where streamflow in the summer is reduced by more than half due to agriculture and municipal diversions in Grand Valley.
High Water Temperatures
“This is a tale of two years,” said Meyer “In 2021, we had some really hot, unusual temperatures. Last year it was in June, and this year, they were just as bad, but came later in July.”
In mid-July, temperatures in the Colorado River between Kremmling and Catamount (two USGS gages which provide data on streamflow, water temperature, dissolved oxygen and particulate matter) indicated that the water temperature was well outside a healthy range for fish. In response to the spiking temperatures, Colorado Parks and Wildlife issued multiple voluntary fishing closures not only for stretches of the Upper Colorado River, but also for sections of the Eagle, Roaring Fork, Fraser, and Yampa Rivers to protect already-stressed, cold-water fish like trout.
Anticipating these conditions, the Colorado River District chose to release approximately 200 acre-feet of water from Wolford Mountain Reservoir. The low streamflow conditions are due in part to climate change and earlier, hotter summer temperatures, inaccurate streamflow forecasts, and trans-basin diverters who continue to fill their reservoirs regardless of the hydrological conditions on the Western Slope.
“The issue is not our ag producers,” said Andy Mueller, General Manager of the River District. “The issue is that Front Range diverters continue to take their water no matter what the snowpack looks like. Streamflow drops, raising the temperature of the river and damaging the fish health and the economy of the West Slope.”
Marc Catlin, Director from Montrose County shared his perspective as well. “There is no one at this table who is doing as well as they are. They divert 100% of their right now matter what, no matter what the snowpack.”
According to Brendan Langenhuizen, Director of Technical Advocacy, local anglers and residents of Grand County were deeply appreciative of the District’s efforts to lower water temperatures. “I’ve received several voicemails. One was from an angler in the Vail Valley. He talked about the real economic impacts due to high water temperatures. Once the fishing closures go into place, they can’t run their business.”
District calls on Front Range diverters to assist in prevention of further fish kills, economic impairment.
Low flows and high water temperatures are creating critical conditions on the Upper Colorado for the second consecutive year, triggering fishing closures amidst reports of struggling and dying fish. Anticipating these conditions, the Colorado River District chose to release water from an already-reduced Wolford Mountain Reservoir last weekend. This voluntary release generated approximately 200 acre-feet of water to protect the health of the river – and by extension, local economies and downstream water users. District staff, however, says further action is needed.
“Our constituents are seeing fish floating by belly-up and struggling to survive current hot temperatures,” said Brendon Langenhuizen, the River District’s Director of Technical Advocacy. “We’ve also received reports of dead fish along the riverbanks. Since the beginning of July, these new-normal conditions are having major impacts on the Upper Colorado River ecosystem. Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s fishing closures are symptomatic of a larger issue that needs the attention of all water users. Our District has and will continue to do our part with voluntary releases when water is available from our limited resources at Wolford Mountain Reservoir.”
Recent monsoonal rains are bringing some relief, but soil moisture issues and hot, dry conditions forecasted for early next week have prompted a need for direct action. In response, the River District began releasing an additional 50 cubic feet-per-second (cfs) Friday morning, July 15, and will continue through Sunday, July 17, providing another 300 acre-feet of water for the river by Monday morning. Limited West Slope water supplies will inhibit the River District’s ability to fully address temperature and flow issues, however.
“We can’t fix this situation alone,” Langenhuizen stated. “Our constituents are asking for help to address the river’s unhealthy conditions causing fish kills. They’re wondering why large Front Range providers are not reducing their transmountain diversions to join the River District in aiding Colorado’s namesake river and the livelihoods it supports.”
The River District urges these water providers to act in partnership with West Slope water users to protect the health of the Upper Colorado River.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June 14 remarks to the U.S. Senate said the ongoing drought has put the Colorado River Basin at “the tipping point.” According to published reports, she also called on the basin states to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre feet over the next 18 months and told the states to come up with a plan to do so in the next 60 days…
State Rep. Marc Catlin, a Colorado River District board member, is alarmed by the timeline — 60 days from Touton’s request is in mid-August.
“Historically, we haven’t been able to decide the shape of the table in 60 days,” Catlin said of talks between the basin states. “I really think what we’re looking at is more of what the water plan will be in water year 2023.”
BuRec is attempting, under drought response actions announced May 3, to boost storage in Powell by about 1 million af by next April. Flaming Gorge Reservoir will release 500,000 af, as called for by the drought contingency plan. Additionally, BuRec is reducing Glen Canyon Dam’s annual release volume from 7.48 million af to 7 million af.
The tax-funded West Slope entity has launched a special round of “Accelerator Grant” opportunities aimed at providing support for grant-writing, feasibility evaluation, design, preliminary environmental review, benefits analysis, and engineering to support applications for federal funding made available by the law. The district will consider paying for up to 85% of the funding needed by an applicant to pursue the federal funds. It also is planning a free online webinar June 29 to help Western Slope water users navigate the funding opportunities provided by the law and discuss the Accelerator Grant program. District staff will discuss federal funding categories for water projects, how to put together a successful federal grant application, and how to leverage other grant opportunities to maximize funding and project impacts…
The financial aid the river district is offering to help entities apply for federal funding is made possible by a tax measure that voters in its 15 counties approved in 2020. Some of the tax revenues go toward the district’s operations, but most of it, more than $4 million a year, goes to support entities on a range of water-related projects.
The deadline to apply for Accelerator Grants is Aug. 1. More information may be found by visiting https://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/ and clicking on the Community Funding Partnership link.
Community Funding Partnership’s accelerator grants are designed to help Western Slope water users build a competitive application for federal funding. This includes support in grant-writing, feasibility, design, preliminary environmental review, benefits analysis and engineering. The Colorado River District will consider supporting up to 85% of funding needs for this limited funding opportunity.
Grant deliverables must include a timely application to a federal funding opportunity that must be submitted by Dec. 31, 2023 and in no cases later than Dec. 31, 2024. Priority will be given to applications targeting a 2023 federal funding round. For more information, visit http://ColoradoRiverDistrict.org.
Applications for the Community Funding Partnership grants are due Aug. 1.
Click the link to read the article on Sopris Sun website (James Steindler). Here’s an excerpt:
Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist at the Colorado State University Climate Center, was the first presenter. She explained that snowpack determines the rivers’ flows. “Even though we’re doing okay with snowpack, we really needed above average snowpack to get the inflows back to where they need to be,” she stated.
“We are still struggling through this long-term drought situation,” Bolinger stressed. “The summer heat is a big concern and what the precipitation does is also going to be a big concern.”
[Linsay DeFrates] further stated that with every 1% rise in temperature, streamflow is reduced by 3-9%. “Last year, we ended at 89% snowpack, but we only had 32% inflow into Lake Powell,” DeFrates explained. She referred back to Bolinger’s presentation, stating that “thirsty soils are going to drink the snowmelt first, before it becomes streamflow.”
She continued, “As we go forward, it’s going to take organization nights like this where voices are brought to the table who might not have been there before. … It’s going to take recognizing that we can’t just wish away our reality anymore.”
But with the 2022 legislative session ending on May 11, there is probably neither time nor the desire from lawmakers to push the bill through, meaning that, to all appearances, the legislation is dead. The Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee would now have to take the measure back up and move it along to the full Senate and then to the House in order for it to go back to the interim committee.
Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Eagle County, who initially proposed the back-to-interim-committee amendment and is a sponsor of the bill, were the two votes against sending the issue back to the interim committee. It’s unclear why Donovan, who did not return a call for clarification as of presstime, voted against her own amendment.
“We gave it a heck of a college try,” said Donovan, the twice-elected representative for Senate District 5, which includes Pitkin County, who will be stepping down at the end of the year due to term limits. “And I think we continued an important conversation. Water always takes a long time to figure out and I was certainly hopeful that by having a bill we would force conversation.”
Senate Bill 29, with Western Slope sponsors Donovan and Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, was an attempt to stop out-of-state investors in agricultural water from making a profit off a public resource that grows scarcer in a water-short future driven by climate change.
Many say investment water speculation is a threat, but few agree on what should be done about it. A legislative fix, despite several attempts at tweaks with amendments throughout the session, failed to gain support from the constituency the bill aimed to protect: agricultural water users. Although some agricultural water rights holders recognize there could be negative impacts to their communities if water is sold to investors, they don’t want the state making the process of selling their ranch harder, placing restrictions on who they can sell to or limiting their ability to make a profit.
The original bill would have given the state engineer at the Department of Water Resources the ability to investigate complaints of investment water speculation and fine a purchaser of water rights up to $10,000 if they determine speculation is occurring.
That version failed to gain traction, as did a handful of proposed “strike-below” or “strike-through” amendments, including one put forth by the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which would have addressed speculation using the abandonment principle by saying that if someone was getting paid to not use their water, they could be punished by losing their water right.
Donovan then floated the most recent amendment that would have sent the issue back to the interim Water Resources Committee for further study and input from water users, a move Coram said was kicking the can down the road.
Lawmakers scolded some in the water community for what they said was a lack of cooperation and communication around developing legislation aimed at preventing speculation.
“We have an ineffective water group that won’t have a conversation with lawmakers anymore,” Sonnenberg said. “When we have a bill they just take a position and quit working with people.”
At Thursday’s hearing, several people testified in opposition to the bill. Colorado Water Congress, Colorado Farm Bureau, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, as well as three Grand Valley water providers, among others, were opposed to the bill.
Former state representative from Gunnison County Kathleen Curry works as a lobbyist on behalf of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, Grand Valley Water Users Association and the Ute Water Conservancy District, organizations that provide agricultural and domestic water to the Grand Valley. She said her clients would support taking more time to consult with experts and stakeholders.
“My folks have two major concerns regarding the legislation as it was introduced and as it’s been contemplated so far,” she said. “One has to do with the additional time needed to obtain feedback from the affected parties and water rights owners and secondly, they are still a bit unclear about the need for legislation, and the scope of potential impacts to water rights owners remains a concern.”
The Grand Valley has been the center of investment water speculation concerns, where New York City-based private-equity firm Water Asset Management has been acquiring irrigated farmland. WAM is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association. But as long as WAM keeps putting the water to beneficial use and keeps the land in agricultural production — which it appears to be doing — it doesn’t count as speculation.
Still, the threat from out-of-state, urban interests loomed large at Thursday’s hearing.
“We were hearing across our districts and state about a new type of player in the water world,” Donovan said. “And that player was custom suits and shiny shoes that call big cities home. … There was concern from many in the water world that probably an investment firm was not going to be the best partner moving forward.”
In an attempt to address the issue in 2020, legislators convened a workgroup, made up of water managers and policy experts across sectors to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation laws. Saddled with the incredibly complex task of figuring out how to protect Colorado’s water from profit-seeking investors without infringing on private property rights, an August 2021 report from the workgroup did not give recommendations to lawmakers because they could not come to a consensus about which concepts to implement. The group’s report did, however, lay out potential avenues new regulations to prevent investment water speculation could take.
For Loma rancher, workgroup member and President of GVWUA Joe Bernal, the lack of consensus meant that lawmakers should not move forward with any legislation.
“Our group found it very important that more information be gathered from landowners and stakeholders,” he told the committee Thursday. “I find it very concerning that bill sponsors moved forward with the crafting of an anti-speculation bill when there seems to be very little support from the people and the citizens it seems the sponsors are trying to protect.”
Threats to agriculture
The concern at the heart of the speculation issue is not that investors could profit off of Colorado’s water. Underneath, there is a broader fear about the loss of agricultural land and with it, a way of life and a part of Colorado’s history, culture and identity. The work group identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators.
For Bernal, the bigger threat to Colorado agriculture comes from developers who would subdivide the land for houses and ranchettes and take it out of agricultural production. The acres that were sold to WAM, which are still being farmed, could have been sold instead to developers, an outcome he doesn’t want to see.
“I think it could be studied further, but at this point we don’t have a problem yet,” Bernal said. “I’m not saying I’m glad WAM is here, but it seems to be the lesser of two evils. Given the choice of having the land developed, it’s a better option.”
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 23 edition of The Aspen Times.
In short, the kind of clouds that create snowstorms contain massive amounts of super-chilled water vapor, Rickert said. Left alone, those clouds can release some snow and retain the rest of their water vapor. Cloud seeders look to agitate those super-chilled water particles, causing them to freeze inside the cloud. From there they form snowflakes and fall to the ground, Rickert said. Seeders can agitate those particles by plane or from machines on the ground, both processes typically use a silver iodide compound. Airplanes will “pretty much fly right through the cloud,” spraying the compound across a flame, and spreading it throughout the air, sparking the chemical reaction, Rickert said. Ground generators do the same except they use wind drafts to carry the compound into the clouds, he said. he end result? Up to a 12% increase in snowfall for a particular storm, [Andrew] Rickert said…
Seeding efforts in central Colorado are working well too, according to Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate matters for the Colorado River District, which helps manage the program in Eagle, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties. Water from the extra snowfall eventually melts, flowing down Colorado’s rivers and streams and eventually out of state, Rickert noted, so downstream states like Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico all chip in to the state’s $1.5 million budget. But there’s a catch, Kanzer added. Cloud seeding can’t create snow storms out of nowhere. They can only enhance existing storms…
“It’s the only option for physically augmenting snowpack,” Rickert said. “And the only way to actually create and add water to the system.”
After two years of virtual and hybrid gatherings, the Colorado River District will once again host in-person State of the River events across the West Slope throughout spring 2022. Twelve events across the 15-county River District will bring District staff, local partners, hydrologists, and water users together to discuss and address the most pressing water issues facing West Slope communities today.
Each State of the River event is hosted in partnership with a local organization, with each agenda designed to address local challenges and the regional issues affecting all Western Coloradoans. Cornerstone presentations will include river basin hydrology and water forecasts from state and federal experts, local water-related efforts by partner organizations, and opportunities for funding multi-benefit projects.
“Whether you’re an irrigator, angler, boater, skier, energy provider, or simply a West Slope resident, we all have a vested interest in water – it’s the common thread that binds us all,” said Marielle Cowdin, Director of Public Relations at the River District. “State of the River events not only bring water experts to your doorstep, they also bring the ear of the River District. Our staff wants to hear from you and understand your needs and concerns. Together, we can find innovative solutions for a hotter, drier future. We hope you’ll join us.”
The passing of ballot measure 7A continues to pay dividends to communities across the fifteen counties of the Colorado River District through the Community Funding Partnership (CFP). The Community Funding Partnership program closed its inaugural year with nearly $3 million distributed to 23 multi-benefit water projects, six of which were fully completed within a year after funding.
“We continue to be humbled by the creativity and resilience of our West Slope water users as they move ideas into action and confront the realities of a hotter and drier future,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the River District.
Community Funding Partnership grants have also aided recipients in leveraging over $40 million from other funding sources. With the passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in late 2021, even more federal funding will be available for projects which prioritize infrastructure upgrades and water quality. Given these new opportunities and the Community Funding Partnership’s increased notoriety across the District, staff anticipates increased demands and applications in 2022.
“I am glad to see that awareness of this program is growing throughout our district,” said Moyer. “We are looking forward to working with new partners on projects of all scopes in this upcoming year.”
At the recent Special Joint Board meeting on February 9, Moyer presented four new projects to the Board of Directors for funding approval. The approved projects total over $1 million in new grants to start off the CFP program’s second year. A fifth project, which did not require board action, was approved shortly thereafter.
Minturn Storage Tank Project, Town of Minturn
$250,000 awarded, Eagle County
At 25 –years-old, the Town of Minturn’s existing water tank is deteriorating and experiencing active water leaks. This project seeks to upgrade the Town of Minturn’s water infrastructure to address existing water loss rates, increased wildfire risk in the area, and preparations to meet the community’s development demands.
Fruitgrowers Dam Outlet Gates Improvement Project, Orchard City Irrigation District
$225,000 awarded, Delta County
The Orchard City Irrigation District (OCID) has partnered with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, owners of the Fruitgrowers Reservoir, to plan for upgrades to the reservoir’s control gates. The project modernizes an irrigation dam and reservoir that has been used continuously since 1937, while allowing for more accurate flow monitoring and water releases.
Maybell Diversion and Headgate Modernization Project, The Nature Conservancy
$500,000 awarded, Moffat County
This proposed project involves reconstructing the historic Maybell diversion and modernizing the headgate in the lower Yampa River. The project will improve drought resilience and habitat connectivity in at least 20 miles of the Yampa River, while supporting the recovery of endangered fish and meeting water users’ long-term irrigation needs.
West Slope Growing Water Smart Projects, The Sonoran Institute
$102,000 awarded, District-wide
This project will deliver a Growing Water Smart training and assistance program for five to seven West Slope communities in the fall of 2023. The program aims to catalyze implementation of water conservation measures and the wise use of our water assets through land use planning. The project focuses on strengthening local land-use policies that influence water demand and to support communities as they manage their water resources into the future.
Silt Preserve Water Rights and Pond Delivery, Middle Colorado Watershed Council
$8,250 awarded, Garfield County
In 2008, the Aspen Valley Land Trust worked with the Town of Silt and other community partners to purchase and permanently conserve the 132-acre Silt River Preserve. Once heavily grazed and later part of a proposed 2,000‐unit development, this land has the restoration potential to become a natural, riverside park that incorporates innovative agricultural projects. Funds will support restoration opportunities to re-establish high-quality riparian and transitional upland areas.
Lake Powell could soon see its level drop below the critical elevation where the Glen Canyon Dam stops being able to generate power.
In the weeks since, however, snowfall throughout the watershed has been at a record or near-record low. Lake Powell, which is filled to just over a quarter of its capacity, could soon see its level drop below the critical elevation where the Glen Canyon Dam stops being able to generate power, even after this week’s storms…
Snowpack in the upper Colorado River basin was above average after big December storms, but an exceptionally dry January and February has water managers worried about levels in Lake Powell and other reservoirs…
Heather Patno, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees operations at Lake Powell, compared the snow season to a yo-yo or a roller coaster that has required forecasts to be repeatedly revised.
The latest projections, Patno told a Glen Canyon Dam working group earlier this month, predicted runoff into the Colorado River will be around 76% of average, and, unless more storms arrive soon, that could drop to 59% of average…
The low range of probable forecasts, Patno said, show that hydropower generation at the dam may become impossible before the end of 2022, marking an uncertain new reality for the 40 million people who rely on Colorado River water between Denver and Tijuana…
In a letter sent to Reclamation last month, John Weisheit and Robin Silver, co-founders of Living Rivers and the Center for Biological Diversity respectively, wrote that demand for water in the basin has outpaced supply for over two decades as the Southwest has been locked in a cycle of megadrought.
The ultimate goal of water managers, according to Weisheit and Silver, should be to “balance the water budget” by immediately reducing consumptive water use in the basin by 20%. Temporarily tweaking release schedules from Lake Powell, the letter said, will not solve the underlying issue that the basin states are using more water than is actually available in the river.
Click the link to read the article on The Craig Press (Eliza Noe). Here’s an excerpt:
As industries across the Western Slope continue to watch snow and water levels as the days until summer close in, the Colorado River District hosted water experts Tuesday to discuss what certain data points mean and how they reflect the current state of Colorado’s water levels…
Before Monday, snow in 2022 had been sparse for the northwest corner of the state. According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the White and Yampa River Basin is currently at 86% of the median snowpack level since 1991. To get this median, the NRCS takes all of the snow patterns over the past 30 years and finds the middle of all of the peaks and snowpack levels. This median is often used as a standard to measure how dry a year is…
This winter, snow water equivalent (SWE) levels for the White-Yampa Basin are currently at 13.4 inches as of Tuesday (the latest available data). SWE is a commonly used measurement used by hydrologists and water managers to gauge the amount of liquid water contained within the snowpack. In other words, it is the amount of water that will be released from the snowpack when it melts.
The SWE median for that same date is 15.5 inches, and this year is slightly behind last winter’s levels, which was at 14.4 inches. The median peak of these levels (meaning the highest amount of SWE levels before they dip) usually happens around April 8. During the most recent drought, this peak has happened earlier in the year, and it sometimes does not reach that average peak, either. In 2021, the peak of snowpack happened during the last week of March, topping at 18 inches. The median peak is 23.1 inches…
“One thing to keep in mind is that the percentage of normal numbers based on the SNOTEL network and snow course measurements are used for runoff prediction,” [Jeffrey] Deems said. “They are not a SWE volume measure. And so they’re used in a statistical forecasting method by the NRCS to project April through July runoff.”
Across the entire western part of the United States, the trend of a multi-decadal drought is continuing. Gov. Jared Polis visited Craig last summer to speak with local ranchers about the drought’s impact on the Yampa Valley. Currently, agriculture workers in different facets of the industry are looking to see if 2022 might provide some relief.
An organization that works to keep water on the Western Slope is taking a stab at rewriting an unpopular piece of proposed legislation aimed at preventing speculators from profiting off of water.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District board of directors voted at its quarterly January meeting to present to legislators an amendment to Senate Bill 29, which addresses investment water speculation. The River District is attempting to use the abandonment principle of water law to address investment water speculation. Invoking the well-known adage of “use it or lose it,” the amendment says that if someone is getting paid to not use their water, they could be punished by losing their water right.
Every 10 years, engineers from Colorado’s Division of Water Resources review every water right to see if it has been used at some point in the previous decade. If it hasn’t, the water right could end up on the abandonment list and the owner has to oppose the listing in water court to try to keep the water right. In Colorado, a user must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning using the water for what it was decreed for, such as growing crops.
The River District is proposing that someone’s water right could be considered abandoned in much less time than 10 years — perhaps only a matter of days — if they are being paid to not use their water. The concept would not apply to approved water conservation programs, such as those set up by state officials.
“The amendment that we are talking about basically creates a penalty for someone who is not using water if they are being paid to do so and it is outside of a state-sanctioned program,” said River District general manager Andy Mueller. “We have to make sure people are using or not using their water rights for purposes they are not decreed for, and that’s really where we see the speculation potential threat coming in.”
As an example, Mueller said municipal providers in the water-short lower basin states such as Arizona, could pay farmers in western Colorado to let their water run downstream for the benefit of Arizona water users. He said he has not yet seen any lower basin entities paying to reduce water use in Colorado, but that it could happen in the future.
“Our concern is focused on how do you prevent that or have a penalty that’s meaningful, and the abandonment statute seems like a really great way to do that,” he said.
The “strike-through” amendment, if legislators accept it, would essentially replace the current version of the bill.
Opposition from agriculture
The River District’s amendment is an attempt to revise the current proposed legislation, which has not found support from agricultural water users. Even the bill’s Western Slope sponsors — Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Eagle County, and Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose — acknowledge it is imperfect.
The bill as currently proposed aims to prevent a buyer of agricultural water rights from profiting on the increased value of the water in a future sale by giving the state engineer at the Department of Water Resources the ability to investigate speculation claims and levy fines. Lawmakers are trying to prevent out-of-state investors from making a profit off a public resource that grows scarcer in a water-short future driven by climate change.
The bill has been introduced in the Senate and will be considered by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
But it has been met with opposition from agricultural producers, one of the very groups that it is trying to protect and who say they don’t want the state peering into their private property transactions.
Although some agricultural water rights owners recognize there could be negative impacts to their communities if water is sold to investors, they don’t want the state making the process of selling their ranch harder or placing restrictions on whom they can sell to or their ability to make a profit. This leaves some posing the question: Whom is the bill for?
“Why are people running a bill if the constituency is not interested and they don’t feel the bill is properly vetted?” asked Joe Bernal, a Loma farmer and president of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, an organization that provides irrigation water to farmers in the Fruita area.
The Colorado Farm Bureau, too, has concerns about the bill and, in a letter sent in October to the Water Resources Review Committee, says the bill could unintentionally negatively impact farmers and ranchers. Farm Bureau State Affairs Director Austin Vincent said the organization is aware of the River District’s proposal but has not taken a position on it.
The Glenwood Springs-based River District represents 15 counties on the Western Slope and often advocates for agricultural water interests. The organization has historically taken an active lobbying role. Some board members thought it better to oppose the bill or ignore it altogether — with the assumption that it, as currently written, will die on its own — rather than try to rewrite the legislation.
The board was split 8-5 in favor of presenting the amendment to lawmakers. Pitkin County Attorney and River District representative John Ely voted against advancing the amendment.
“I thought it was just cleaner to oppose something you feel is poorly written than try to amend it,” he said. “It’s a lot of work to rewrite a bill.”
Last year, lawmakers tasked a work group composed of water managers and policy experts from across water sectors with exploring ways to strengthen the state’s current anti-speculation laws. The group, which included Bernal and River District general counsel Peter Fleming, came up with a list of eight concepts on how to prevent water investment speculation. But the group did not give clear recommendations to legislators because they could not come to a consensus about which concepts to implement.
That inability to find consensus and make recommendations, to Bernal, meant that lawmakers should drop their attempts to put forward a bill.
“It seems to me that this legislation has taken on a life of its own. For what reason, I don’t know,” he said at last month’s Colorado Water Congress conference in Aurora. “I would like to know why legislators are not listening to the team of experts.”
But Donovan said it is now the job of legislators to delve into the report and figure out how to navigate from there. She said lawmakers will get input from stakeholders about next steps.
“A lot of us acknowledge that it’s going to be hard to advance this session an anti-investment speculation bill, but enough of us have heard from our constituents that it’s an important enough issue that we at least need to try,” she said. “My goal this year is to just keep the conversation going.”
The anti-speculation bill is, in part, an attempt by lawmakers to address concerns in the Grand Valley, where a New York City-based private-equity firm has been acquiring irrigated farmland. Water Asset Management is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association. But under Colorado water law, as long as WAM keeps putting the water to beneficial use by keeping the land in agricultural production — which it appears to be doing — it doesn’t count as speculation.
Even though Bernal doesn’t support the proposed anti-speculation bill, he is still wary of WAM.
“I am concerned about outside interests buying up property in the valley and large blocks of it,” Bernal said. “We as a community are keeping our eyes wide open.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Vail Daily. This story ran in the Feb. 4 edition of the Vail Daily.
From the Water Education Foundation (Douglas Beeman):
Western Water Q&A: Tanya Trujillo brings two decades of experience on Colorado River issues as she takes on the challenges of a river basin stressed by climate change
For more than 20 years, Tanya Trujillo has been immersed in the many challenges of the Colorado River, the drought-stressed lifeline for 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles and the source of irrigation water for more than 5 million acres of winter lettuce, supermarket melons and other crops.
Trujillo has experience working in both the Upper and Lower Basins of the Colorado River, basins that split the river’s water evenly but are sometimes at odds with each other. She was a lawyer for the state of New Mexico, one of four states in the Upper Colorado River Basin, when key operating guidelines for sharing shortages on the river were negotiated in 2007. She later worked as executive director for the Colorado River Board of California, exposing her to the different perspectives and challenges facing California and the other states in the river’s Lower Basin.
Now, she’ll have a chance to draw upon those different perspectives as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science, where she oversees the U.S. Geological Survey and – more important for the Colorado River and federal water projects in California – the Bureau of Reclamation.
Trujillo has ample challenges ahead of her. For two decades, drought – fueled in no small part by climate change – has gripped the Colorado River Basin, starving the huge reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead of runoff. Drought plans in place since 2019 failed to stop the decline of these critical reservoirs. New operating guidelines for the river are now being discussed and the Basin’s 30 tribes, which have substantial rights to the river’s waters, want to make sure they get a seat at the negotiating table.
The Department of Interior faces still other water challenges: For example, in southeastern desert of California, the ecologically troubled Salton Sea has nearly upended past Colorado River negotiations involving drought contingency planning.
Trujillo talked with Western Water news about how her experience on the Colorado River will play into her new job, the impacts from the drought and how the river’s history of innovation should help.
WESTERN WATER: You’ve worked on Colorado River issues for years, both in the Upper Basin (as a member of New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission) and Lower Basin (as executive director of the Colorado River Board of California). How is that informing your work now on Colorado River Basin issues?
TRUJILLO: I’m very appreciative of having had several different positions that have allowed me to work on Colorado River issues from different perspectives. As the general counsel of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, we were finalizing the 2007 Interim Guideline process [for the Colorado River] and I very much had an Upper Basin hat on at that time. That was also right in the middle of our work in New Mexico on negotiating the Indian water rights settlements with the Navajo Nation. Both the Guidelines and the Navajo settlement work really expanded the notion of flexibility in the Basin with respect to the existing statutes and the existing regulations.
I had a Lower Basin perspective when I was working for the state of California on Colorado River issues with the Colorado River Board of California although I was working with a lot of the same people and there were a lot of familiar legal and operational questions. But for the other half of the job, I was brand new to California and was having to learn the whole Lower Basin perspective from scratch.… It was great just to learn the perspective of the Lower Basin and because there are quite a few challenges just within the Lower Basin that are independent of what’s going on in the Upper Basin.
WW:It’s pretty clear the Colorado River Basin is in trouble – too little snowpack and runoff, too little water left in Lakes Powell and Mead. Are we headed toward a Compact call? Or are there still enough opportunities to protect Powell and Mead and meet obligations to the Lower Basin and Mexico without draining upstream reservoirs?
TRUJILLO: I think in some respects it’s the wrong way to think about this question…. A better approach is to focus on the strategies the Upper Basin develop to continue to protect the water resources and communities and economies that rely on that water. There’s a lot to build off of.
Going back to the ‘07 guidelines, we were thinking about building off of the existing regulations that described the operating criteria. We were thinking about how to protect those resources in the Upper Basin, even when there is a drought, even when there is less water that’s naturally occurring in the system on a continual basis.
But that translates into concerns about how to protect the system in the context of the lower reservoir levels, including the impact on hydropower generation. Each of the Upper Basin states is carefully watching that not only from a power supply perspective, but because if there’s less [hydropower] production, there’s less funding coming in and the funding supports programs that are very important and beneficial to the Upper Basin, like the salinity control program and the [endangered] species recovery programs in the San Juan Basin and the Colorado Basin.
So I know those are concerns that the states have, to protect the elevations at Lake Powell. And another important concern that we specifically agree on is the need to be very careful with respect to the infrastructure and the structural integrity of the [Glen Canyon] dam itself. We may have to operate the facilities at levels that we haven’t experienced before. So we have no operational experience with how the turbines are going to function – and not only the turbines but also how the structures are going to function if we have to use the jet tubes if the turbines are not available.
WW: So there’s concern about how the structures function in terms of getting water from one side of the dam to the other? Or in terms of the physical structure itself?
TRUJILLO: I’m a lawyer and not going to be opining on the actual engineering situation. But we have lots of people who are working in the Upper Basin and Denver Technical Center who are dam safety engineers and they have not had experience in working at this facility under those low water levels. And so that’s where there’s uncertainty. We don’t know how the structures will function under those conditions and that means that people are concerned about that uncertainty because that’s such a critical piece of the infrastructure. [That is] additional motivation among the Upper Basin states for trying to think proactively about how to make sure that the supply and the flows that extend down to Glen Canyon Dam can be maintained.
WW: Given how drought and climate change have left far less water in the Colorado River than the 1922 Compact assumes, is it time to rethink that Compact? Or do you think the Compact and the rest of the Law of the River has the flexibility to accommodate the current realities? And how?
TRUJILLO: I might take the liberty of quarreling a bit with the context of the question because I think the focus should be a forward-looking focus as opposed to rethinking the situation that existed 100 years ago. Even just looking at the past 20 years, we’ve been able to be very innovative and very focused on continued efforts to improve the [weather] prediction capabilities and continued efforts to make sure we have additional flexibility, additional tools, and additional conservation options that can help us work at a multi-faceted level. There are multiple layers of innovations and flexibilities that we have been able to successfully pull together, and my expectation and hope is that will be the same kind of approach that we will continue to work through.
WW: In July, you toured portions of western Colorado to discuss drought and water challenges across the Upper Colorado River Basin. What did you hear? What did you tell them?
TRUJILLO: That was a great trip. The basis of that trip was a listening session that was co-hosted with the governor of Colorado and our Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland. It was an opportunity to hear updates and perspectives from a wide variety of water users in Colorado…. I personally was able to visit quite a few communities in the West Slope, starting in Grand Junction, and see some of the innovative agreements that are coming together in that area with respect to some upgraded hydropower facilities. So it’s great to have the aging infrastructure issues being addressed in that area.
There is obviously a lot of strong, productive agricultural communities that are clearly watching with respect to any drought developments. I was also able to visit the Colorado River District board meeting and heard a discussion about the different perspectives relating to support for additional infrastructure and funding different infrastructure projects. There was a USGS proposal that was being approved by the River District, and they were able to really showcase the tremendous contribution that USGS is able to provide to some of their cooperative investigations. I also met with representatives from Northern Water and the Arkansas Valley Conduit Project, so it was a great opportunity to get an overview of the many important projects that are underway in Colorado.
WW: Did they tell you anything that surprised you?
TRUJILLO: No, I don’t think so. I have a pretty good base of background with some of the challenges that exist in that area. Maybe one way to sum up that that week of visits is that the broad variety of examples there in Colorado can be replicated in other states as well. It was great to just see a diversity of projects that are that are in place there. I would go back there in a second. It was the first trip for me in my tenure as assistant secretary and it was very informative.
WW: As you know, the Salton Sea has been a festering environmental problem for years, and it threatened to upend California’s participation in the 2019 Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan when Imperial Irrigation District insisted that the sea’s ills needed to be addressed as part of the DCP. What can — or should — Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation do to help find a sustainable solution for the Salton Sea?
TRUJILLO: The Salton Sea has had a long history over the past century and is a dynamic and changing terminal lake. For decades there has been a recognition that the changing conditions at the Salton Sea needed to be addressed. The Bureau of Reclamation, other entities within the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies have been involved in the Salton Sea for many decades.
There are various types of federal lands surrounding the Salton Sea, the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge provides a sanctuary and breeding ground for migrating birds, and Reclamation plays an important role as a partner with respect to ongoing habitat and air quality projects in support of the state of California’s Salton Sea Management Program and the Dust Suppression Action Plan. Reclamation also works in partnership with Imperial Irrigation District to implement the Salton Sea Air Quality dust control plan. Since 2016, for example, Reclamation has provided approximately $14 million for Salton Sea projects, technical assistance and program management. Reclamation and its federal partners participate in a number of state-led committees and processes, providing technical expertise on activities related to the long-term restoration of the sea.
Water managers are dealing with the after effects of the Grizzly Creek Fire and subsequent mudslides in Glenwood Canyon by continuing a water quality monitoring program.
The Middle Colorado Watershed Council received funding approval this week for the second phase of a program that will continue to collect and distribute data about weather and river conditions downstream of the Grizzly Creek burn scar. The Colorado Basin Roundtable approved $72,200 in state grant money for continued data collection at seven rain gauges in Glenwood Canyon, which will provide information to the National Weather Service, an automatic water quality sampler, soil moisture sensors, a new stream gauge and water quality monitoring station in the Rifle/Silt area and a data dashboard for easy access of the information.
The first phase of the project, which was implemented early last summer before the monsoons, addressed immediate water quality issues, collecting data at the rain gauges every 15 minutes.
The second phase of the project amounts to an early warning system that will let water users downstream of Glenwood Canyon know when dirty water from mudslides is headed their way. The MCWC hopes to have all the pieces in place before spring runoff.
“With the way post-fire events happen, we are going to be looking at impacts for the next two to five years,” said Paula Stepp, executive director of the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. “The part I’m really excited about is the cooperation between stakeholders and downstream users.”
On July 29, a heavy rainstorm triggered mudslides in Glenwood Canyon, which left some motorists stranded overnight, and closed Interstate 70 for weeks. Because soils scorched by the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire don’t absorb moisture, the rain sent rocks, sediment and debris flowing down drainages, across the highway and into the Colorado River.
But the mudslides didn’t just affect the river at the site of the rainstorm. The cascade of dirty water also had impacts to agricultural and municipal water users downstream in Silt, whose only source of water is the Colorado.
The sediment-laden water caused problems for the town of Silt’s water treatment plant, which had to use more chemicals to get the sand to settle out. The increased manganese and iron suspended in the water gave it a brownish tint at taps. It also fouled a set of filters, which the town spent $48,000 to replace. The filters normally last four to five years, but had to be replaced after just one, said Trey Fonner, public works director for the town.
“If we knew what was coming down the river, we could shut off the intake and we could let the river clean up a little bit before we turned it back on,” Fonner said. “If our tanks are full, we can shut off and let the worst part of it go by.”
Conservancy district impacts
The mudslides also created challenges for the Silt Water Conservancy District, which delivers water from the river to about 45 headgates via a canal and pumphouse. Although the town can temporarily shut down its intake because it has about a three-day supply of water in storage, the conservancy district pumps water continuously and shutting off for a brief period of time is difficult.
“It’s not really a system that can be shut down easily,” said Nathan Bell, a consultant for the district and roundtable member. “It’s extremely cumbersome. It’s a nightmare.”
The main problem for the district is that the earthen canal which takes water from the river to the pump station silts up. The turbid water also acts like sandpaper, causing more wear and tear on the machinery and reducing its lifespan. The district is planning on more frequent canal cleanings and installing drop structures to catch the mud before it makes it to the pump house.
The data generated from the monitoring project will allow the district to better plan and budget for the inevitable increased maintenance and repairs, Bell said.
“It reduces the variables you’re having to manage,” he said. “It lets us get ahead of the game.”
The data dashboard will let downstream users and the general public set up text alerts for when a parameter of interest is too high or outside a specific window. Silt water users, for example, could set an alert for when rain gauges in Glenwood Canyon record a certain amount of rain, which increases the likelihood a plume of dirty water is headed their way.
The total cost of phase two of the project is nearly $1.3 million. The watershed council is asking the Colorado Water Conservation Board for about $650,000 in grant money and they also expect funds from the U.S. Geological Survey. Garfield County has committed to $15,000 over the next three years and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will contribute $50,000.
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the Dec. 4 edition of The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.
Here’s the release from the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):
Nearly one year since voters approved ballot measure 7A, the subsequent Community Funding Partnership has awarded nearly $3 million in grant funding to 23 multi-benefit West Slope water projects. The Colorado River District Board of Directors greenlighted $780,000 for four larger applications at the recent Fourth Quarterly Board Meeting in addition to two smaller grants approved by River District staff. Additionally, the District Board of Directors approved a new policy statement prioritizing multi-purpose, multi-benefit water projects.
“These six projects represent collaboration between stakeholders across multiple user groups,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Colorado River District. “When agricultural producers, environmental non-profits, recreationalists, and local communities join together, the outcome is beneficial for everyone in the watershed.”
The Community Funding Partnership supports multi-benefit projects, Moyer stated, with a goal of geographical equity within the District’s fifteen-county region.
“Our first year of grant funding represents communities across the West Slope. The Colorado River District is proud to provide integral support for projects in every river basin and nearly every county we serve.”
Steward Mesa Ditch Diversion Improvement Project $200,000 awarded, Delta County
The Stewart Mesa Ditch is the second largest agricultural water provider in the North Fork Valley, serving 243 users and supplying water to farms, ranches, and orchards on the South side of the valley. Identified as a priority project via the recent Stream Management Plan, this project will modify and improve the diversion structure and headgate of the ditch. The existing diversion is antiquated and problematic for water users served by the ditch, for recreational users of the river, and for fish, including native fish species. Through this upgrade, the project will protect the ditch from flooding, improve controls, reduce erosion, eliminate safety hazards for boaters, and improve the habitat and population resiliency for fish populations.
Yampa River Forest Restoration Project $150,000 awarded, Routt County
Over a three-year period, the Yampa River Forest Restoration Project aims to restore mid and upper canopy tree cover to reaches of the Upper Yampa River to help reduce summer water temperatures. As identified in the 2018 Stream Management plan, the project offers an innovative, natural infrastructure approach to protecting West Slope water supplies in the face of rising temperatures. The expected outcomes from the project are six acres of new riparian plantings, and 1.5 miles of river with increased shading in reaches where summer temperatures exceed state standards.
Crystal River Restoration at Riverfront Park $100,000 awarded, Garfield County
The Crystal River Restoration Project will restore and enhance a one-half mile, 18-acre reach of the Crystal River as it flows through the Town of Carbondale and improve the efficiency of the town-owned Weaver Ditch headgate and diversion. The project will implement river restoration improvements and water diversion modifications that will result in long term, self-sustaining river channel stability, fish habitat and spawning areas, low flow connectivity, enhanced species diversity and ecosystem resiliency, and create opportunities for recreation including angler access points.
Wolf Creek Reservoir Project Permitting $330,000 awarded, Rio Blanco and Moffat Counties
Since 2013, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has conducted planning work to design a water storage project within the White River basin. A 2014 conditional water right for a 66,720 acre-foot reservoir was awarded to the project in January 2021 for the following beneficial uses: municipal, augmentation, mitigation of environmental impacts, hydroelectric power generation, recreation, piscatorial, and wildlife habitat. River District funding is intended to support an inclusive, collaborative permitting process supported by data and responsive to public feedback.
Lower Yampa Augmentation Needs Study $30,350 awarded, Moffat County
The project will fund a Lower Yampa Augmentation Study to investigate anticipated needs for an augmentation plan in parts of the Lower Yampa Basin. This study seeks to quantify augmentation needs, divide the study area into regions that have a common downstream call and potential augmentation source, evaluate the ability to provide augmentation water from Elkhead Reservoir, and, if necessary, present high-level information regarding augmentation sources, outside of Elkhead Reservoir.
Canyon Creek Fish Passage Project $44,114 awarded, Garfield County
This project improves fish passage and productive fish habitat in Canyon Creek by installing concrete baffles and hemispheres within a previously impassable set of concrete box culverts under Interstate 70. This project supports healthy spawning habitat in area affected by recent wildfires and supports new fish passage research to encourage future, nearby projects.
When environmental projects garner support from the Colorado Basin Roundtable, it’s a sign to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources that they fall in line with the Colorado Water Plan, thus making it easier to obtain grants and other funding. There’s a caveat though: The roundtable only updates its list every five years. If projects want to be added to the list, they must appeal to their representative…
The roundtable’s focus is on the Colorado River Basin, one of nine watersheds in the state and one of the largest, according to the roundtable’s website. The eight counties in the basin that have representatives sitting on the roundtable include Summit, Grand, Routt, Gunnison, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa.
The roundtable completed its own implementation plan in 2015 that outlines specific goals of the Colorado River Basin. Projects must fall in line with both this and the state plan, in addition to one of the roundtable’s six focus areas:
Encourage a high level of basin-wide conservation
Protect and restore healthy streams, rivers, lakes and riparian areas
Assure dependable basin administration
Develop local water-conscious and land-conscious strategies
Secure safe drinking water
“If your project is listed on the basin’s implementation plan, then you have a better probability of obtaining the funding,” [Peggy] Bailey said “…Through their vetting process, (the roundtable) looks at what it does for the basin and if it’s in alignment with the interests of the basin’s implementation plan. Then they will put it on this list and they will also write a letter of endorsement for the project. Then that makes it easier for the project proponents to obtain funding.”
Projects are divided into different tiers. Projects in the first tier are ready to launch, supported by an entity and determined to be of importance to the roundtable. Projects in the second tier are nearly ready to move forward, but still need to be pursued. The third-tier projects have less data, don’t have a clear entity supporting them and need to be fleshed out. Projects in the fourth tier are supported, but need to be tweaked before moving forward.
Projects in the first tier include the Swan River restoration project and the Blue Valley Ranch fishery restoration on the lower Blue River. These projects are already well underway and have organizations securing funding that are responsible for moving them along.
Another project in the pipeline is the second phase of the Blue River integrated water management plan. Backed by the Blue River Watershed Group, this was one that Bailey said she helped push forward when the roundtable was updating its list. Formerly in the second tier, this project moved to the first as the group began collecting data over the summer…
Other projects in the second tier include the Silverthorne Kayak Park, backed by the town of Silverthorne, and cleanup measures in the French Gulch mine drainage, which is backed by the town of Breckenridge and Summit County government.
Bailey pointed out that all of these projects are meant to protect the natural beauty and splendor of not just of Summit County but the entire basin, and that much of the county’s way of living is highly dependent on this single resource.
A Colorado water seminar always had climatechange on the agenda, but the tone was different this year, more alarmed, more worried, if still optimistic
What a flip-flop from 2001. We were going to war in Afghanistan, worrying about terrorists in our midst, and anthrax arriving in the mail.
The reservoirs of the Colorado River were close to full.
At the time I had given little thought to climate change, other than to be somewhat skeptical about the alarm. That changed in 2003, when I was given an assignment by the editor of Ski Area Management to round up what was being said. I read a year’s worth of articles in the New York Times and then—my eyes widened considerably—set out to find much more. It has been front and center for me ever since.
Brad Udall also immersed himself in climate change beginning in 2003. He had been trying to preserve open space in Eagle County for a few years but then returned to the Front Range. There, he directed the Western Water Assessment in Boulder and, more recently, joined the staff of the Colorado State University Water Institute as a scholar and scientist. He has expertise in hydrology but also in crunching numbers.
Over the years, Udall has distinguished himself as an expert on the effects of the warming climate on the Colorado River. His most prominent insight was a paper published in 2017 by the prestigious journal Science. Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, who also was originally schooled in Boulder and I believe still has a cabin in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride, sifted through the data before concluding that at least a third of the reduced flows in the Colorado River should be attributed to heat, not reduced precipitation.
On Oct. 1, speaking to the Colorado River District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction remotely from Boulder, Udall described the strengthened evidence that half of the reduced flows could be explained by rising temperatures. He calls it aridification.
Much worse, he said, is yet to come.
Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, had introduced the session, using words of greater alarm than I had heard at the annual seminar—and I’ve attended most, in person or virtually, since the first session in 2003. He used the metaphor of a train wreck.
“For a decade or more, we have seen the train wreck slowly moving this way,” he reiterated afterwards when I spoke to him for a story published by Fresh Water News. “It has picked up speed pretty significantly in the last couple of years. The question is how do we avert the train wreck (from coming into our station).”
Mueller had described reduced flows and warm temperatures in the Yampa River as it flows through Steamboat Springs that have caused the river to be closed to recreation something like 8 of the last 14 years. There were fish kills in the Colorado River this year. He told of shortening ski seasons and warned lower-elevation ski areas may not make it in the future.
He had also told the audience in Grand Junction that adaptations to lower flows would be necessary. Farmer and ranchers might have to cut irrigation to marginal areas, forego low-income crops. He vowed that Front Range cities would have to conserve and not expect the Western Slope to bear the burden.
Climate change has never been a verboten word at River District seminars, even if this is from an area that elected Lauren Boebert to Congress. Udall, for example, has spoken at least three times in my memory and probably more.
This year’s outlook was different, less cautious, more worried. The tone was reflected in the seminar title: “Wake-Up Call on the Colorado River.”
National publications this summer brimmed with stories about the distress of the Colorado River, especially after the Bureau of Reclamation on Aug. 16 issued a shortage declaration. Arizona is most immediately affected, but this is huge for the five other basin states, including Colorado.
Mueller agreed with me when we talked by phone that none of what happened this year was surprising. Most people involved with the river saw it coming.
I remember talking with Udall in 2019 (for a story in Headwaters, the magazine), when something called the Drought Contingency Plan was completed. That agreement tightened the belt of Arizona but kicked the fundamental decisions down the road to a plan projected to be implemented in 2026. Udall was skeptical that the emergency would be that slow to arrive.
Now there’s an awareness in the public of the brittleness of the hydraulic empire created in the 20th century in Southwest states, including Colorado. A decade, ago, there was hope that some big snow years like we had in the ‘80s and ‘90s would fill the reservoirs. We’ve had some big snow years, but the runoff doesn’t show it.
Now, one major question is whether they will go so low as to make it impossible to generate electricity.
I asked Mueller about his remarks, the tone of this year’s session. “The tone has to reflect the reality on the ground,” he said.
“I think at every level our folks who are paying attention to the science and the hydrology, there is an increasing sense of urgency in the Colorado River Basin, and it’s shared by folks on the ground today, from ranchers in the Yampa River Valley to farmers in the Uncompahgre Valley to major urban providers like Denver Water. We all recognize there is something very different going on than there was 10 years ago in the Colorado River,” he said.
“People like Brad have been saying for years that this is coming. I have seen lots of people in power turn their backs to Brad when he’s talking,” he said, likely meaning that metaphorically. “They’re not doing that so much anymore.”
What is happening is complex but understandable. There is drought, as conventionally understood, but then the overlay of higher temperatures. The warmer temperatures cause more evaporation. They cause more transpiration from plants. More precipitation can overcome this, but particularly in Southern Colorado, there’s actually been less.
The most interesting slide Udall showed compared the runoff of several rivers over time. The San Juan River—which originates in Colorado, near Pagosa Springs—had 30% less water in 2000-2019 at Bluff, Utah, as compared to 1906-1999. The decline of the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs was 6%.
Another compelling statistic reported during the seminar was about soil moisture. Dry soil sops up snowmelt before it can get to the stream. Runoff from deep snows can be lost to the previous years’ dry soils.
In 2020, the snowpack was 100% but the runoff was 50%. That soil-moisture deficit played into this year’s even worse runoff, 30% of average from a snowpack that was 90% of average.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation during the Trump years operated well, although I do remember a session at the Colorado River Water Users Association in December 2019 of top Trump water officials who sat on a panel and patted themselves on the back for the better part of an hour, seemingly oblivious to the big issue of that day. It was like the famous Trump cabinet meeting where the cabinet heads took turns praising Trump like he was the North Korean dictator.
Udall, in his presentation to the River District seminar, pointed to the tremendous drop in storage. The two giant reservoirs, Mead and Powell, in January 2020 were 90% full and held 47 million acre-feet. They are projected to fall to 15 million acre-feet combined by April 22, leaving them 30% full.
This has manifold implications—including for Colorado. In 2009, I wrote my first story about Colorado’s possible need to curtail diversions in order to comply with the Colorado River Compact. That possibility is far more concrete now, and Udall mentioned it in his presentation.
But even when it was more remote, water managers in Colorado were talking about various programs that could allow cities to pay farmers and ranchers, especially on the Western Slope, to use their water (for a price, of course). The farmers and ranchers tend to have the oldest and most senior water rights; the cities tend to have the more junior rights – almost exclusively junior to the Colorado River Compact.
Looking around me on the Front Range, I don’t see a response that I think the situation justifies. From Pueblo to Fort Collins, we all depend greatly upon imported water. That will almost certainly change. We’re going to see a very different water paradigm a decade from now. Predicting the changes is beyond me, but the water in the 21st century isn’t there to satisfy 20th century expectations.
There may be implications in other realms. I am reminded what Colorado State Sen. Chris Hansen said at a fundraiser this summer, about the growing room for new alliances with conservatives to move forward on climate action. The evidence—wildfires, heat waves, the drying of the Colorado River – is becoming overwhelming.
Visiting Greeley to attend the Energy and Environmental Leadership Symposium on Oct 8-9, I was struck by the shift. This is in Weld County, where 90% of oil and gas production occurs in Colorado. The keynote speaker, Chris Wright, the chief executive of Liberty Oilfield Services, downplayed the risks and costs of climate change and emphasized the cost of trying to shift from fossil fuels. This will be a 200-year journey, he said, not something done in 30 years.
But for the next day and a half, whether talking about fossil fuels or renewables, all the sessions in some way had to do with a carbon-constrained world.
To modify Mueller’s cliché about the train, it seems like the train has left the station on this energy transition and it’s picking up speed. This train will have to move a lot quicker. Just what value will those giant reservoirs built during the 20th century on the Colorado River have in the 21st century? It’s an open question.
Colorado West Slope water officials turned up the volume on the call for action around water and climate change, calling it a “train wreck.”
At the Colorado River District’s Annual Water Seminar Oct. 1, Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based district, described climate change as a train wreck that needs to be stopped.
“For a decade or more, we have seen the train wreck slowly moving this way. It has picked up speed pretty significantly in the last couple of years, and the question is how do we avert the train wreck,” Mueller said.
He pointed to changes already underway as a result of the warming climate, and those that will be necessary. Uses of the Yampa River as it flows through Steamboat Springs have been curtailed for eight of the last 14 years because of high temperatures and low flows, he said. There have been fish kills in the Colorado River and other impacts to outdoor recreation. Ski areas face a shorter operating season and those in lower elevations may not survive. Agriculture users may need to remove marginal land from irrigation and take stock of their least productive crops.
“I think at every level our folks who are paying attention to the science and the hydrology, there is an increasing sense of urgency in the Colorado River Basin, and it’s shared by folks on the ground today, from ranchers in the Yampa River Valley to farmers in the Uncompaghre Valley to major urban providers like Denver Water. We all recognize there is something very different going on than there was 10 years ago in the Colorado River.”
“Climate change is barreling through the doors of America,” said Michael Connor, the second-highest ranking official in the Interior Department during the Obama administration and now a Washington D.C.-based attorney.
Brad Udall, a senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, said he began working on climate change in 2003. “I mostly got a lot of dirty looks,” he said. That has changed. “I have decided that misery loves company.”
Udall stressed the importance of inflows into Lake Powell from Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, the states that comprise the Upper Colorado River Basin. Those inflows have averaged 8.4 million-acre feet since 2000.
Each year 500,000 acre-feet is lost to evaporation, leaving 7.9 million-acre-feet for release from Lake Powell. That’s less water than is needed to comply with the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Unless flows improve, said Udall, the Upper Basin states may have to forego use of some of their own Colorado River supplies to ensure Arizona, California and Nevada, the Lower Basin states, receive their legal share.
How did we get to this point? Several researchers in the last five years have fingered rising temperatures as a crucial factor in creating what Udall and his collaborator, the University of Michigan’s Jonathan Overpeck, in a famous 2017 paper, called “hot drought.” They said temperatures alone explained at least a third of the lesser river flows.
Loss of snow may further exacerbate warming. A 2020 paper by P.C.D. Milly and K.A. Dunne in Science found a 9.3% loss in Colorado River flows with each one degree Centigrade in warming. A key finding, said Udall, was that as shiny, reflective snow recedes, the amount of absorbed radiation rises.
A decade ago, there was no clear signal whether a warming climate would affect precipitation on the Western Slope. A picture is starting to emerge, with Southwestern Colorado now at significant risk of precipitation — and runoff — declines, he said.
The San Juan River near Bluff, Utah, had 30% less water in 2000-2019 as compared to 1906-1999. The Colorado River at Glenwood Springs had a 6% decline.
Soil moisture also matters. If the soil remains dry from the previous year, it sops up more of the potential runoff. In 2020, the snowpack was 100% of average but the runoff was 50%. That soil-moisture deficit played into this year’s even worse runoff, 30% of average from a snowpack that was 90% of average.
Dr. Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center at Ft. Lewis College in Durango, was asked whether she detects more acceptance of climate change as impacting water.
“Yes,” she answered. “In Western Colorado, it’s really hard to deny that from day to day, year to year, that we are feeling the impacts of climate change.”
Connor, the former Interior official, pointed out that tribes in the Colorado River Basin have reserved rights, making them superior to the terms of the Colorado River Compact. Because of the sheer volume of those rights, especially in Arizona, many see them as crucial in whatever new Colorado River operating agreements are negotiated going forward.
“You need to be able to provide the tribes value for their rights,” if tribes are asked to give up use of those water rights, Connor said.
Muller warned of the need for adaptation and offered a conciliatory approach, saying water interests would need to unite to find solutions.
The River District, he noted, sought and obtained a tax increase from voters in an election that was supported by both the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce and the Environmental Defense Fund. “When,” he asked, “is the last time you saw those two groups on the same page?”
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District staff plans to present its own framework for a water-savings plan — separate from one the state of Colorado is developing — at its October board meeting.
The Glenwood Springs-based River District undertook its own investigation of a plan — known as demand management — that would pay water users to consume less and send the saved water downstream to Lake Powell. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is currently investigating the feasibility of such a program for the state, but the River District convened its own workgroup, made up of Western Slope water users, to look into the issue. Many of the workgroup’s stakeholders represented agricultural interests.
River District staffers will come up with their own market structure and rules for demand management to present to the board, according to general manager Andy Mueller.
“What we are presenting is not something we are necessarily as staff endorsing, but we are going to present more specifics than what the CWCB or our stakeholder group has come up with so far,” Mueller said.
The framework will incorporate some of the findings and recommendations of the River District’s stakeholder group, which were released in an August report. Among these was the unanimous recommendation that the state not rely solely on a demand-management program as a solution to water shortages in the Colorado River basin.
“It was recognized that demand management can’t be the only way in which the state successfully handles the impacts of climate change on the Colorado River,” Mueller said. “It may be a component of that, but the state needs to be really looking at conservation in all water segments.”
At the heart of a demand-management program is paying Western Slope irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to use less water in an effort to avoid a Colorado River Compact call. Instead of being spread across hayfields, the water would be sent downstream to a special 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell, which was established as part of 2019’s Drought Contingency Plan.
A compact call could occur if the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid a compact-call scenario, which could result in mandatory water cutbacks.
The participation of Western Slope agriculture is key to creating a workable demand-management program, but the report highlights several reasons this may prove challenging. Stakeholders expressed a strong distrust of decision-making and programs driven by state government and fear that Western Slope agriculture will be sacrificed to meet the Front Range’s and lower basin’s urban interests.
“Many do not view the state as representing the best interest of agriculture on the Western Slope and instead are making decisions that are driven by east slope and municipal interests,” the report reads.
TMDs in conflict
Other findings of the report are consistent with what River District and agriculture representatives have been saying since the state began its demand-management discussions in 2019: A program must not lead to the permanent dry-up of Western Slope agriculture, and additional diversions to the Front Range are in direct conflict with asking Western Slope water users to save water.
“The committee finds it inconceivable that under a demand-management program, the West Slope could work to conserve 25,000-50,000 acre-feet per year only to see the east slope simultaneously increase water diversions to the Front Range,” the report reads. “This situation would be antithetical to the goals of a demand-management program and efforts to prevent a future compact violation.”
The report says that transmountain diversions — in which Front Range water providers take water from the headwaters of the Colorado River and bring it under the Continental Divide to growing cities — are a driving factor in a potential compact violation. Most water managers agree that water rights that date to before the 1922 compact would be exempt from mandatory cutbacks in the event of a call. Post-1922 water-rights use would fuel a compact violation.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
An Interior Department official speaking Friday at a local forum voiced concern about continuing falling Lake Powell water levels that now pose the possibility of threatening hydroelectric power production at Glen Canyon Dam as early as next year.
Tanya Trujillo, Interior assistant secretary for water and science, addressed the topic during the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar, which was held at Colorado Mesa University and also in a virtual format. Some of the events involved simulcast presentations with the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School, which also was holding its own water conference this week.
Trujillo noted that last week, the Bureau of Reclamation indicated the potential of water levels at Lake Powell falling below the minimum power pool level of 3,490 feet above sea level as early as next July if the current streak of extremely dry hydrology continues into next year.
Beyond next year, Reclamation says there’s a 25-35% chance of Powell falling below that level over the next few years. Trujillo also noted that there is about a 90% chance that Powell’s water level over the next year will fall below the 3,525-foot elevation established to provide a protective buffer above the minimum power pool amount needed to produce electricity.
Trujillo called that prediction “very concerning” and said she’s particularly nervous about concerns related to the operational integrity at the dam due to low water levels.
“The engineers use words like cavitation and that gets my attention,” she said.
Cavitation can occur when oxygen mixes with water as levels drop, posing a threat of damage to power turbines. Lost power production also would result in lost revenue that pays for programs like salinity control and endangered-fish recovery in the Colorado River Basin. Also, if water could be released only through the dam’s bypass tubes and not through the power plant, that could threaten the ability of water to be delivered to downstream states at volumes required by a 1922 [Colorado River Compact].
Under provisions of a 2019 agreement, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs with the goal of providing up to 181,000 acre-feet of water to Powell by the end of this year. Trujillo said she’s happy that talks continue among Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin regarding additional drought-response measures…
Below-average precipitation last winter was aggravated this year by factors such as warmer temperatures and dry soil conditions that resulted in even worse runoff levels. Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center and an instructor at Fort Lewis College, said at Friday’s forum that the region is starting to experience novel forms of drought, such as ones where, due to higher temperatures, drought conditions prevail after a normal amount of seasonal snowpack accumulation.
Thankfully, she said, monsoonal moisture this summer relieved drought conditions in the region somewhat.
A La Niña climatological pattern that is setting up for this winter could result in storms tracking further north, which Richard said might mean less precipitation in Colorado, but she said individual storms still can result in a significant amount of moisture in a given year.
Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist/scholar at Colorado State University, said reductions in annual precipitation in the months of March and April are aggravating the increased aridification occurring in the region, setting up a process of further drying out land in the summer when there are higher temperatures and reduced precipitation.
He’s also concerned by what he sees as a general trend of more aggravated declines in average streamflows in more southern river basins in the region during this century when compared to the period of 1906-1999. Flows in the San Juan River at Bluff, Utah, have fallen 30%, and flows of the Dolores River near Cisco, Utah, have fallen 21%.
Flows for the mainstem of the Colorado River are down around 5%, he said…
Trujillo said the federal government will be advocating for water conservation in all sectors, with opportunities ranging from more water reuse/recycling to irrigation efficiency…
Andy Mueller, general manager of the river district, mentioned conservation opportunities ranging from replacing Kentucky bluegrass lawns with native vegetation, to farmers and ranchers potentially being willing to remove irrigation from marginal lands.
He called on various interests not to turn against each other as sometimes happens in societies when a resource gets scarce.
There’s 30% less water in the Colorado River than in the 1920’s and that trend is expected to continue according to the Colorado River District. General Manager for the CRD, Andy Mueller says, “We face a moment in time here that presents unprecedented challenges on the Colorado River.”
Record breaking temperatures, extreme drought conditions, and lowered streamflow were just some of the impacts discussed at the annual water seminar called, Wake-up Call on the Colorado River. “We’ve all got to work together to reduce our consumptive use to preserve the quality of life here in Western Colorado,” said Mueller.
72% of voters passed the river district tax hike generating $4.2 million dollars to fund projects to protect Western Slope water, but the best solution may simply be conservation. Mueller says, “Not necessarily how much you take from the river, but how much you take and never return.”
This unique water seminar comes at the end of a peculiar water year, but in order to adapt to a new future it’s going to take teamwork. State Representative Soper says, “I think it’s very important that we look at everything and that we try and protect as much of water here on the Western Slope as possible. Because if there’s one thing we’re caught between, it’s greedy front range interests and greedy downstream interests who would all like to use more than their fair share.”
The risk of lower and lower water levels in Lake Powell and other reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin keep getting higher and higher.
An analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released Sept. 22 finds an elevated risk of 25% to 35% of the water level in Powell falling below the minimum power pool by July 2022.
Minimum power pool is the level below which there is insufficient power to produce electricity.
The drought began in 2000, but as several studies have concluded that drought fails to fully describe what is happening in the river basin. Those studies point to rising temperatures that have produced aridification. Even with the same volume of water falling from the sky, less of it will become river water.
As an Aug. 24 article in Science magazine pointed out, about 17% of baseline precipitation ended up in the Colorado River in the 1930s and ‘40s, with a majority of that water coming from Colorado in the form of snowmelt. Today, it’s about 14%.
Since July, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing water from its smaller reservoirs upstream of Powell—Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo—with the hope of augmenting Powell sufficiently. The headwaters states for the Colorado River had an exceptionally dry spring, exactly opposite of what was happening east of the Continental Divide in Colorado. The runoff into Lake Powell was 26% of average, despite near-average snowfall last winter.
otal storage in the Colorado River reservoirs today is 39% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.
John Fleck, writing on his website, Inkstain, called the latest announcement “something remarkable.” The government predictions used something pioneered a decade by Eric Kuhn and Dave Kanzer of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District along with John Carron of Boulder-based Hydros Consulting. They thought it not useful to base predicts on the full hydrologic record of the Colorado River going back to 1906. Instead, they said, better would be to use a short-term frame, the last 30 years. They call it the stress test.
“The idea is that the traditional approach—using the entire period of record to model the probabilities of future river flows—is no longer valid because climate change is changing the river,” he explained.
From Allen’s latest newsletter:
The letter finally arrived. The Internal Revenue Service has recognized Big Pivots as a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Precious little journalistic income has rolled in the door during the last two years. This will help immediately. Two grants previously rewarded can be realized. Together, they’re a strong start. In coming weeks, I will return to you with suggestions about how you might want to assist the forward movement of Big Pivots.
I also want to recognize two “advertisers” in this issue of Pivots. Mike Foote, a former state senator from Erie, has a law office specializing in land and water. His is a sponsorship ad, meaning he has his name and website but mostly he’s saying he wants Big Pivots to go forward.
Might others want to do so also?
There’s also an advertisement from Colorado Solar and Storage Association about their November conference (and discount on registration if you say Big Pivots).
Then there was a reader from North Park who, after the last issue, sent this message.
“I just have to tell you how much I learn from every issue. I’m printing this one out as as write,” wrote Debby Burnett, whose home lies near the Wyoming border. She was hoping to mount a campaign against U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert. “I’ve been faithfully reading every issue of yours to make sure I can communicate effectively about the issues facing Colorado, specifically rural Western Colorado. … I will continue to scour each issue for the incredible nuggets of information you’ve packed onto every page.”
In this endeavor, many days have felt uncertain. That day was bright.
American Whitewater floated a plan last year to expand protections for recreational river flows in Colorado. Maybe, the nonprofit protector of rivers thought, communities should not need to build whitewater parks to secure rights for recreational flows.
“It definitely, you know, got some ears perked,” said Hattie Johnson, American Whitewater’s southern Rockies stewardship director.
Colorado officially recognized recreation in a river as a beneficial use of water in 2001, enabling riverside communities to file for water rights to support whitewater parks. Those recreational in-channel diversion water rights, or RICDs, set a minimal stream flow between structures to support “a reasonable recreation experience.”
In the 20 years since the creation of RICDs and further legislation in 2006, Colorado communities have built dozens of whitewater parks, with 13 of them using RICD water rights. Some parks have delivered lasting economic benefits to riverside communities. But there hasn’t been a new RICD filing since 2013, when Glenwood Springs proposed three whitewater parks and found itself locked in Colorado water court for more than a year…
The nonprofit river conservation group American Whitewater is advancing a plan that structures in the river are not necessary for river recreation and communities should be able to file for RICD water rights without expensively engineered features that create waves and holes for kayaking, rafting and stand-up paddling. While there are 13 official RICD water rights in the state, there are more than 130 stretches of whitewater that can be rafted, kayaked and stand-up paddled in the state…
Early talks with Colorado’s sharp-elbowed water community have not gone well. No lawmaker took up American Whitewater’s proposed legislation, which has been scrapped. And opposition to a plan that expands recreational protection of water is stiff.
The gist of opposition, which was voiced earlier this month at the meeting of the statehouse Water Resources Review Committee, is this: If any community can file for RICD water rights without actually building anything in the river, the expansion of those recreational rights could muddy Colorado’s already complicated water dealing.
Denver Water met with American Whitewater, where the powerful water utility expressed concerns over how changes to the RICD statute might “impact previous, hard-won agreements” that allowed recreational water rights, Hartman said. There is a lot of water trading that goes on in Colorado as the state’s water users navigate senior and junior water rights while meeting regional requirements to deliver Colorado River water to downstream users in Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico.
“Reopening the statute to loosen it would probably make for a significant undertaking,” Hartman said.
American Whitewater is adjusting its plan to accommodate flexible exchanges of water and what Johnson called “creative water management we are going to need in a hotter, drier future.”
“Having larger decrees for in-stream flows for recreation would make that really difficult and prevent it when it would be needed to deliver water to people’s homes and fields,” she said. “That is understandable.”
While old-guard water users may be chafing at a plan to expand recreational water rights, they are not dismissing recreation as an invalid use of Colorado’s water.
“Recreational water use and recreational enjoyment of the state’s waters are integral to Western Colorado’s lifestyle and economy,” said Zane Kessler, the head of government relations for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, adding that the current RICD water laws in Colorado “provide a good amount of flexibility.”
Kessler said the 15-county Western Slope river district “is sympathetic to the goals of American Whitewater,” but he wonders about the necessity of amending Colorado water law to allow communities like Craig and Sterling and Del Norte to increase the recreational appeal of their riverfront land.
The river district’s policy, he said, says that a RICD should not be granted if it would “materially impair” Colorado’s ability to meet its water delivery obligations under the Colorado River Compact agreements of 1922 and 1948. Colorado is part of a coalition of upper basin states — with New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — who must deliver 7.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water to lower basin states as part of a nearly century-old agreement allocating river water that now supports some 40 million users…
Johnson said American Whitewater will continue talks with Colorado water users about how communities can protect recreational flows without having to build whitewater features. The group hopes to craft an amendment to the state’s recreational water rights rules that will both protect recreational use of river water while preventing a flood of applications for RICD water rights.
On Sept. 13, Mesa County Commissioners Cody Davis and Janet Rowland voted 2-0 and elected Scott McInnis as the Mesa County Director for the Colorado River Water Conservation District…
In his almost 30 years of working in public service, McInnis boasts knowledge of various water issues that qualify him even more for his new position. With his legislative service, McInnis has worked closely with the River District, which considers the amount and water right seniority of the Colorado River. McInnis was also a partner with the Delaney and Balcomb law firm, which at the time, was legal counsel for the Colorado River District.
In addition to his new position, McInnis served as a member of the Colorado House of Representatives, he served as the Majority Leader and Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. McInnis has also served as a U.S. Congressman for six terms, where he served on the Natural Resources Committee and the Ways and Means Committee.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
AT THE END OF A UNIQUE WATER YEAR, COMES A UNIQUE WATER SEMINAR.
Water year 2021 was a wake-up call for water users across the Western Slope of Colorado. Extreme or exceptional drought conditions persisted for months as dry soils and historic high temperatures lowered streamflow. Agricultural users faced impossible choices while local municipalities dealt with aging water infrastructure in the wake of devastating wildfires. Downstream, Lake Powell dominated national headlines with plummeting levels, and the Drought Contingency Plan played a role years earlier than most expected.
Yet many of the stories which came out of this incredibly difficult year were ones of innovative solutions and never-before-seen partnerships. Collaborative projects upgraded irrigation infrastructure, increased streamflow, and even delisted 66 river miles from the Impaired Waters list.
Setting historic precedents in hydrology, 2021 also did much to highlight the ability of water users to reach across their differences in order to build a future for West Slope water together.
Wake-up Call on the Colorado River is a seminar which will face the harsh economic and environmental realities of this past year, along with a study of practical solutions and future collaboration.
From The Colorado River District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):
The Lower Gunnison River reached an important milestone this summer. During the June 2021 hearing, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission deemed the Gunnison River in compliance with aquatic life standards for dissolved selenium – a naturally occurring element and micronutrient that can be unhealthy for aquatic ecosystems in high doses. As a result, the Commission delisted 66 miles of the Gunnison River downstream of Delta, Colorado from the impaired waters list. Decades of work in the Lower Gunnison Basin shepherded this achievement, which highlights a healthier environment for native and endangered species like the razorback sucker and the Colorado pikeminnow.
“This is a big victory and a reason to celebrate,” says Raquel Flinker, Senior Water Resources Engineer with the Colorado River District. “The Colorado River District has been a leader in this effort for over 20 years, working alongside multiple partners including the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, non-governmental agencies, local conservancy districts, ditch companies, and even individual citizens to reach this point.”
Established and led by the Colorado River District as part of the cooperative Selenium Management Program, the Lower Gunnison Project (LGP) has proved instrumental in the final phases of the delisting. The decades of associated work began with the 1988 listing of the Gunnison River as an impaired water, with selenium levels as a focal point. Prevalence of the element results from the area’s marine-derived Mancos Shale, which contains vast amounts of selenium and releases it into ground and surface waters when saturated. Gunnison River Basin selenium levels had increased to such unhealthy levels that the reproductive abilities of egg-laying species – including native fish and birds – were impaired throughout the local ecosystems.
In response, the LGP was formed to address this and other natural resource issues in the Gunnison River Basin by investing in integrated water-use efficiency systems. Investments included enclosing canals and ditches into pressurized piping systems and upgrading irrigation equipment on farms with improved technology control. All together, these systems decreased water losses and minimized selenium-impacted runoff to the river resulting in better water quality and increased water availability. In 2020, the 5-year level of selenium measured at key stations in the river dropped below 4.6 ppb (parts per billion) for the first time, and the declining trend continues, as quantified by independent scientific agencies like the USGS.
“A lot of the credit goes to the local water users, especially the agricultural community,” said Ken Leib, Acting Director of the Colorado Water Science Center during the River District’s Gunnison State of the River event in June. “Often, lower flows in the river, as we are seeing today, result in higher concentrations of selenium. But despite drought conditions, we are not seeing that. So, we are really confident that the decreases we see have resulted from improvements in system efficiencies. It’s really quite impressive.”
Colorado River District Director of Science and Interstate Matters Dave “DK” Kanzer, creator of the Lower Gunnison Project, has been a long-time, integral leader in the Selenium Management. “We’re making a big difference for the environment by improving water quality and the aquatic habitat for sensitive and endangered species, while helping sustain productive agriculture in the Gunnison and Colorado River Basins,” he said. “Investments in strategic structural improvements and increased public education have moved us into full Clean Water Act compliance while helping take another step towards recovering key threatened and endangered fish species. This takes a lot of pressure off our hard-working agricultural producers; it is an important win-win for everyone.”
The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is releasing up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions…
Various agencies and water groups have worked to keep restrictions or “calls” off of the Yampa River for junior water rights holders, but if the drought persists as it has in recent weeks, there is potential that a call may be inevitable. The last call was placed on July 29, the third call in the river’s history, though it was later rescinded on Aug. 2.
Marielle Cowdin, director of public relations at the Colorado River District, said that the release was made possible by the Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, which received $50,000 in funding.
“We have been managers at Elkhead Reservoir of certain pools of water that exist there,” Cowdin said. “So when the call came on the Yampa, earlier this month, we worked in partnership with the Department of Water Resources and their division engineers to release some water to take the call off the Yampa — at least for a temporary time — so that junior water users would not have their water rights curtailed for that short amount of time.”
Because of potential calls in the future, the River District has a financial partnership with the CWCB to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin. The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in 2021, specifically for crop and livestock production.
Cowdin also said that because it is only August, the Yampa region still has weeks of potentially hot and dry weather, which could lead to another call. She added that the Colorado River District worked with the state of Colorado and the CWCB to provide contracts with local ranchers and farmers to access the 677 acre-feet of water.
Wildlife crews and water quality experts struggle to even assess the damage, as emergency management officials warn of threats to the western lifeline for years to come.
After decades of fierce arguments over damming up more of the water that rightfully belongs in the Colorado River, nature built a new dam in 5 minutes.
What happened to the fish? What happened to the river channel? What happened to drinking water downstream? Where did all the rafters go?
The relative silence about the river itself stems in part from immediate questions of who is in charge. For the highway, it’s CDOT. For the river, from the federal side, at least three different branch offices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have a say in any fixes, said emergency services director Mike Willis.
“Albuquerque, Sacramento and Omaha, just for a few miles’ stretch of the river,” Willis said,of the Army Corps involvement. Others who need to be consulted on any river rehab include the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and many more.
Sorting out changes to the river could take years, not just months, Willis said. The debris, from rockslides made worse by wildfires that burned up binding vegetation, blocked the Colorado River channel completely at Blue Gulch before the relentless river cut its way through the pile within minutes.
“The channel has changed now in several places. And so we have to be thoughtful about it, do we put the river back in its original channel or live with the channel as it is, and mitigate and protect the critical infrastructure downstream,” Willis said.
One of the first problems, Willis noted, is that the altered river flow may endanger the all-important highway. The changing channel has pushed debris up against the canyon’s complex bridge structures and overhangs, and the continual push of the water could undermine the road.
“In fact, the CDOT engineers have identified some areas where that is the case,” Willis said. “And so we need to assess that carefully and in those instances, we probably will push the river back to its original flow.”
As for wildlife recovery efforts in Glenwood Canyon, Willis said, the multi-agency task force dealing with the Colorado River has not given Parks and Wildlife full access in the slide area to start making detailed assessments…
Parks and Wildlife northwest division manager Matt Yamashita said biologists were still gathering information about the slide’s impact and waiting for full access to the river bed. But he’s concerned about mud smothering food and breeding spots for Colorado River species for miles downstream…
The Colorado and its tributaries are also vital resources for humans living along the riverbanks, long before the waterway delivers farm water to Arizona or drinking water to Los Angeles. Glenwood Springs takes its drinking water out of Grizzly Creek and No Name Creek before they hit the Colorado, and sometimes from the Roaring Fork River, if necessary, city public information officer Bryana Starbuck said.
“All of our water source intakes are below burn scars (Grizzly Creek fire and Lake Christine fire) which means that the landscape is very sensitive to heavy rainfall, which causes these debris flows or high sediment-transport incidents,” Starbuck said in an email response to questions. “Given the nature of burn scars, stabilization of the land will take time and impacts will continue to develop.”
Just as highway engineers in the canyon are looking uphill to design ways to keep future slides off the highway, Willis said, naturalists will have to work with them to think of ways to keep new slides from cutting off the river itself for years to come.
“We do not feel like this is a one time deal,” Willis said. “It’s not a one and done.”
From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) announced a partnership to release up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions.
Governor Polis announced this partnership during the Northwest Drought Tour – a two-day event that brought state officials and decision makers through Steamboat Springs and Craig to see first-hand impacts of drought on agriculture and other industries, and to find collaborative solutions and resources for the region.
The Yampa River Basin is one of many in Western Colorado suffering the effects of increasing temperatures, decreasing precipitation, and soil aridity, adding pressure to an already limited water supply.
“I am proud that the Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board are doing their part by releasing 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to local farmers and ranchers free of charge. Northwest Colorado continues to face exceptional drought conditions, with hot temperatures, dry soils, and reduced runoff, which impacts farmers and ranchers,” said Governor Polis. “Partnerships like this one showcase how collaboration and working together can help find local solutions. My administration will continue to work with local and federal entities to assist Coloradans as we navigate this systemic drought’s impact on our agricultural economy and local communities.”
The Colorado River District recently coordinated with the Division of Water Resources in an effort to postpone restrictions or a “call” on the Yampa River with releases from the District’s 2021 Yampa River Flow Pilot Project at Elkhead Reservoir. However, with water flows in the basin remaining low and water demands consistent, there is still the potential for future restrictions or “calls” in the Yampa River Basin.
In advance of this forecast, the River District initiated a financial partnership with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin.
“We are attempting to free up all available resources through innovative partnerships in the face of this ongoing drought,” said Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “This hotter, drier climate is hitting the small family farms and ranches along the Yampa River hard. We’re taking quick action to protect our constituents and the communities relying on these farmers and ranchers across the basin and the state.”
The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in Irrigation Year 2021, specifically for crop and/or livestock production. Through the CWCB, the state will provide the financial support necessary to pay for the stored water in Elkhead Reservoir for late season use by ranchers and farmers who depend on the Yampa River for irrigation and watering their livestock.
“As we continue to see compounded drought years that impact all Coloradans, including our agricultural producers, it is critical that we work together on collaborative solutions to meeting our future water needs,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell. “We are proud to support the Colorado River District in their efforts to provide additional water to the Yampa Valley farmers and ranchers in need.”
Available water through the Elkhead Reservoir release is limited, however, and therefore is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Those interested in applying should contact the Colorado River District’s Director of Asset Management, Hunter Causey, at email@example.com.
“The inescapable truth is that the Colorado River system is seeing declining flows and for the foreseeable future, is likely to continue on that trend. So we have to adjust expectations and water use accordingly,” [Andy Mueller] said…
Year after year of dry conditions hammered the river and, this year, dropped Powell so low that Blue Mesa Reservoir and others in the Upper Basin had to release water to keep Powell’s power turbines turning.
“It’s our water balance. Last year and this year have been terrible,” said Anne Castle, former assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science during the Obama Administration, during an Aug. 5 webinar hosted by the Colorado River District. Castle is currently senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado law School…
Given climate science predictions, the poor water years have not been a surprise, she said — but Powell dropped 50 feet last year, equating to 4 million acre feet of water no longer available. The reservoir is projected to drop within six months to the dreaded 3,525 feet elevation, the baseline for power generation and meeting the river compact requirements…
On top of it, the compact prohibits the Upper Basin from depleting more than 75 million acre feet over 10 years (so that it can deliver an average of 7.5 million acre feet a year to the Lower Basin)— a “guarantee,” as far as the Lower Basin sees things, while the Upper Basin’s perception is Lower Basin states are vastly overusing their water.
Under that rolling 10-year average, the Upper Basin has delivered 92 million acre feet, which is well above its obligation, but that is projected to drop to 82 million over 10 years and, if poor hydrology continues, could plunge even further, which stands to put the Upper Basin below its obligations…
Lake Powell not only provides a “savings account” to meet the Upper Basin’s compact obligations, but generates hydropower that is used throughout the basin, [Steve] Wolff said.
That hydropower in turn generates revenue, which flows back to the Upper Basin for infrastructure, Endangered Species Act compliance programs and salinity control…
Changing the rules will have ripple effects on both users and the economy, she said. Although the Upper Basin sees overuse by the Lower, the Lower Basin says it has cut use; is doing what the compact allows, and that the Upper does not have a plan for demand management, [Castle] also said.
“Everyone’s got their grievances and their legal theories. … There’s not enough water for any of the lawyers to be right 100%,” Castle said.
The task is to equitably manage use — and that means reducing it, she said.