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Gunnison State of the River
Learn about current Gunnison Basin water conditions, drought, and water planning at the virtual Gunnison State of the River meeting hosted by the Colorado River District.
•Bob Hurford, Division 4 (Gunnison Basin) engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, will talk about the weak winter snowpack, the dry spring and how these factors are affecting streamflows, reservoir storage and water rights administration.
•Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, will address the “Protection of West Slope water as we face an uncertain future.”
• Molly Mugglestone, director of communications and Colorado policy for Business for Water Stewardship, will present on a study that found Colorado’s rivers are major economic drivers producing nearly $19 billion in output annually from people recreating on or near rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs and waterways.
• Tom Alvey, head of the projects committee for the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, and Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the River District, will discuss hot water topics in the basin including drought, fruit freezes, an update of the roundtable’s water plan for the region, how the new crops of hemp and hops are working and the River District’s Lower Gunnison Project.
Jun 24, 2020 06:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)
After a winter of near-average snowfall, Mother Nature put the brakes on Western Colorado’s snowpack beginning in mid-March. As a result, the snowpack withered prematurely and West Slope runoff has suffered, a fact compounded by the lack of subsequent spring moisture. The Gunnison River peaked in mid-May and the Colorado River peak is expected this week.
According to the Colorado River District, Western Colorado’s hot and dry summer and fall of 2019 set a poor stage for whatever snow was to come, especially in the Gunnison and San Juan basins. Dry soils absorb snowmelt before streams benefit. Lack of precipitation and high winds at the end of this past winter further decimated the conversion of snow to water supply.
“We are now in year 20 of an extended dry period that we should start accepting as the new normal,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District. “Warmer temperatures, dry soils and disappointing spring and summer moisture are defining how we look at future policies to determine how best to protect Western Colorado water security.”
The bright spots for West Slope water supply continue to be in Grand and Summit counties, where the best snowpack peaked above average in mid-April and continues to be above-average for this time of the year, feeding the Upper Colorado River reservoirs such as Dillon, Green Mountain, Wolford Mountain and Granby.
The situation is much different to the west and the south with below normal snowpack and seasonal runoff forecasts that approached half of what is normally expected in the Grand Mesa zone above the Grand Valley and lower Delta County. The same holds for the greater Gunnison, Uncompahgre and San Juan river basins.
The Western Water Assessment, based at the University of Colorado-Boulder, reported that a “very dry” April in Utah and southern Colorado spurred snowmelt, while northern Colorado benefited from near- average precipitation and near- to below-average temperatures. Summer temperatures are expected to be well above average with near-average precipitation, although important seasonal monsoonal rain activity is difficult to predict.
Western Colorado contributes about 70% of inflows into Lake Powell, where the total April to July runoff forecast has now fallen to 56% of normal at 4 million acre-feet. Contributions from the Green River through Utah and Wyoming are not anticipated to be enough to offset Western Colorado’s dryness. San Juan Basin runoff is expected to be less than 50% of normal.
The accumulation of snowfall and associated runoff records over time inform water planners about drought or wet trends. Unfortunately, with fifty-six percent of normal runoff into Powell, the drought that started in 2000 continues through 2020. Lake Powell was last full in 1999. It’s just about half full currently.
Here are some reservoir outlooks throughout the Colorado River District:
− On the Colorado mainstem, Granby and Green Mountain reservoirs are expected to fill. Wolford Mountain, owned and operated by the Colorado River District, is already full.
− Ruedi Reservoir is projected to fill.
− Elkhead Reservoir and Stagecoach Reservoir in the Yampa Basin will fill.
− Blue Mesa Reservoir in the Gunnison Basin will hit 75% full due to inflows that are 54% of normal.
− Ridgway Reservoir and Taylor Park reservoirs will reach 90% capacity, with forecasted seasonal inflows of 54% and 70%, respectively.
River peaks are another data point of interest to many:
− The Gunnison River peaked on May 19 at about 5,000 cubic feet a second at the Whitewater gauge near Grand Junction.
− The Colorado River will peak this week at Cameo at about 12,900 cubic feet a second, with flows aided by upstream reservoir releases to support endangered fish habitat.
− The Yampa River near Deer lodge Park may already have seen its peak at about 13,400 cubic feet a second in early May.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Recent abundant flows of Colorado River water between Palisade and the Gunnison River confluence during another spring runoff season weren’t entirely the work of Mother Nature.
They also were the product of a coordinated, voluntary effort by operators of upstream reservoirs to coordinate releases of water into the river to bolster peak flows in that stretch of river and aid in the recovery of endangered fish.
This was the 12th coordinated release since the first one occurred in 1997, and the fifth one in the last six years. The coordinated releases occur as conditions warrant and allow each year, to flush out fine sediment in gravel beds that serve as spawning habitat for rare fish. They also improve habitat for insects and other macroinvertebrates that fish feed on…
The upper Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are home to four endangered fish. Don Anderson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who serves as the instream flow coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a public-private partnership, said that what’s known as the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River between the Palisade area and the Gunnison River confluence is primarily used by two of the endangered fish, the razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow. But a third endangered species, the bonytail, sometimes makes use of the stretch. And a fourth, the humpback chub, which favors deep, rocky, fast-flowing stretches in places such as Westwater Canyon downstream, also indirectly benefits from water releases primarily aimed at bolstering flows in the 15-Mile Reach.
The 15-Mile Reach experiences less of a spring runoff peak than some other parts of the Colorado River because of Grand Valley irrigation diversions just upstream. The goal of this year’s coordinated releases was to achieve daily flows averaging at least 12,900 cubic feet per second upstream at Cameo, an amount that was nearly achieved on some days last week. At times during a couple of days flows exceeded 13,000 cfs, Michelle Garrison, senior water resource specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, told entities involved in the coordinated release program in a conference call Wednesday. She said the effort was a success, and Anderson agreed. He told participants that without getting hung up on exact numbers, flows at that level, which meant peak flows of about 12,000 cfs in the 15-Mile Reach, do good work for the endangered fish and their habitat.
The effort involved in part coordinated releases by the Bureau of Reclamation from Green Mountain Reservoir, Denver Water from Williams Fork Reservoir, and the Colorado River District from Wolford Mountain Reservoir. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District also was a participant.
“Man, you guys did a nice job of coordinating as well as you possibly could with the water you had available,” Anderson told reservoir operators…
The coordinated releases can have benefits far beyond the 15-Mile Reach. Anderson said this year’s coordinated releases helped downstream in the Moab area by topping off flows into a wetland that is a potentially valuable razorback sucker nursery. Also, Utah state wildlife officials have reported concerns about seeing smallmouth bass, which prey on endangered fish, possibly spawning for the first time below Westwater Canyon. The coordinated releases may have helped combat that due to the higher and faster flows, cooler water temperatures and increased water turbidity.
Coordinated runoff flows are just one water-delivery effort targeting the 15-Mile Reach. Each year releases of dedicated endangered fish water are made to boost low flows in the reach later in the summer. Also, releases sometimes are made around early April to supplement flows in the reach after irrigation diversions have begun but before the river levels gain from spring runoff. This year was the first year such releases occurred after stored water was specifically held over from last year with the primary goal of possibly serving that purpose.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says various recovery efforts appear to be working, with scientific analysis showing the razorback sucker and humpback chub could be reclassified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
FromAspen Journalism (Heather Sackett/Luke Runyon). Click through to play the recording and for the great photo gallery showing farms purchased by Water Asset Management:
For five years, Zay Lopez tended vegetables, hayfields and cornfields, chickens, and a small flock of sheep here on the western edge of Colorado’s Grand Valley — farming made possible by water from the Colorado River.
Lopez has a passion for agriculture, and for a while, he carved out a niche with his business, The Produce Peddler, trucking veggies seven hours away to a farmers market in Pinedale, Wyoming.
Lopez also moonlights as a Realtor, with his finger on the pulse of the local real estate market. A few years ago, he noticed a strange new phenomenon. Much of the irrigated agricultural land sold in the valley — such as parcels just down the road from his farm — wasn’t being bought by another farmer. Instead, his new neighbor was Water Asset Management, a New York City-based hedge fund with deep pockets.
When Lopez and his wife Leah grew tired of trying to make ends meet, they decided to pack up and move to southern Colorado to grow hemp. They, too, sold their 26-acre farm to WAM.
“It was hard to make the mortgage payment plus all of our other payments, and I didn’t see — with our current model of what we were doing — how we could get out of that hole,” he said. “Selling the farm wasn’t really a choice. We had to do it.”
Lopez’s recent sale is the continuation of a trend that has made some in the agricultural communities west of Grand Junction nervous; has created a buzz among water managers; and has led state lawmakers to pass a bill looking at strengthening Colorado’s anti-water-speculation law.
WAM is buying irrigated land as an investment in the future potential value of the water. Although the company isn’t doing anything illegal, its actions have rekindled deep-seated and long-held fears about water in the West — that it could hasten the death of agricultural communities’ way of life and create an unregulated market for water that would drive up prices and drive out family farms.
Because of these sensitive issues, many people in the Grand Valley are reluctant to talk about WAM and what it is doing. Meetings have erupted in anger, some who have sold have become social pariahs, and top water officials from the valley’s canal companies refuse to talk to reporters on the record. For a while, a local rancher was actively updating a website “wall of shame” for people involved in Grand Valley water deals.
“They are the same concerns that have existed since the 1930s,” said Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center. “The east slope municipal diverters or an investment firm — it doesn’t matter who it is — are going to be able to offer more money for water than you could derive from farming or ranching. The concern is that if that becomes a trend, then the whole economy of the Western Slope changes and the agriculture economy will be very different and smaller than it is now.”
The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to KUNC and partial funding for Castle’s work. A member of the Walton family currently provides funding to Aspen Journalism via the Catena Foundation.
Since 2017, WAM has spent $16.6 million buying up 2,222 acres of irrigated agricultural land in the communities of Fruita, Loma and Mack, west of Grand Junction. The company is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the nonprofit canal company that delivers water to many Grand Valley irrigators.
WAM now owns 1,659 acres in the GVWUA delivery area, which according to its website has 23,341 irrigated acres. That means the hedge fund owns about 7% of the land irrigated by the Government Highline Canal.
WAM, whose headquarters is on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, says it “seeks to be a leader in managing global water investments that solve water quality and availability issues,” according to its website. WAM is run by co-founder and principal Disque Deane Jr., while Matthew Ketellapper has been doing much of the “boots on the ground” work in the Grand Valley as the company’s Colorado asset manager.
Deane has been involved in water markets in the West for years, buying water and land tied to water rights. He doesn’t give many interviews, but according to a 2016 ProPublica article, “debt, death and divorce” has become his sort of motto, because those circumstances drive people to sell.
WAM are cash buyers — a rare offer in this rural area. In many cases, WAM makes improvements to irrigation infrastructure, such as adding center pivots and lining ditches, and leases the land back to farmers to keep it in agricultural production.
Grand Valley’s farmland is expansive, with views stretching west to Utah, north to the Book Cliffs and south to Colorado National Monument. It is also exceedingly dry. The area where Lopez’s former farm is located was once a community of homesteaders known as New Liberty, who eked out a living by dryland farming before the construction of irrigation infrastructure, a notion at which Lopez marvels.
Not much would grow here without the region’s two main irrigation canals, which draw water from the Colorado River: Government Highline Canal and Grand Valley Irrigation Canal. The bigger of the two, the 55-mile-long Government Highline, snakes through the northern part of the valley and is managed by GVWUA. One hundred and fifty miles of ditches known as laterals bring water from the main canal to individual farms.
In mid-March, before the water began flowing in the canals and bringing the annual green return of irrigated agriculture to this valley, the air was thick with smoke as farmers burned their ditches and the earth was dusty, brown and parched.
What leaves people scratching their heads is this: How does a New York City investment firm plan to make money from marginal desert land in western Colorado?
“Everyone is very cautious about what these guys from New York are doing out here buying up our ground,” Lopez said. “I mean, honestly, it’s still kind of a mystery what their overall vision is.”
‘Temporary, voluntary, compensated’
The key to WAM’s overall vision may lie in demand management, a state program still in the investigation and feasibility stage.
At the heart of such a program envisioned by state officials — and designed to be “temporary, voluntary and compensated” — is the concept of paying irrigators to use less water by fallowing fields. By doing so, there will be more water in the Colorado River flowing downstream to be stored in Lake Powell in an effort to bolster reservoir levels and help Colorado meet its Colorado River Compact obligations.
The future of the demand management feasibility investigation is unclear because the state on May 1 cut its budget by $750,000 due to the COVID-19-caused state financial crisis.
The thing many water managers and users in Colorado fear most is what’s known as a compact call. Under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) are required to deliver 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona). If the Upper Basin can’t deliver because of drought, climate change or any other reason, it could lead to a compact call, triggering involuntary cutbacks and an interstate legal quagmire that could drag on for decades.
A new demand management program would allow Colorado to send water to a 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell that would act as a modest insurance policy to help protect the Upper Basin against a compact call.
The Grand Valley, which takes its name from the “Grand River,” the historical name for the Colorado River, is well-positioned for a demand management program. Water left in the river at this location is almost certain to reach Lake Powell because there are few major diversions between here and the giant reservoir.
And entities in the Grand Valley have rights to a lot of water. With 1912 adjudication dates, Grand Valley irrigation districts are some of the most-senior water rights on the Colorado River and can call about 2,200 cubic feet per second down through the river system.
There is some precedent that a demand management program would work in the Grand Valley, as some irrigators here have participated in two different experimental pay-to-fallow programs undertaken by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the GVWUA. These types of programs have intense interest from many sectors, including municipalities, which often see transferring water from agriculture as a viable way to increase their supplies, as well as from environmental organizations that would like to see more water stay in the river.
Returns on water
Since 2017, WAM has made investments in Grand Valley agriculture, choosing to make purchases of parcels in batches every few months. But in the past six months, the hedge fund has taken one step that signals what could be a renewed effort to sway Western water rules in its favor.
WAM recently brought onto its team a heavy hitter in the world of Colorado River politicking: Denver-based attorney James Eklund.
Eklund is the former director of the state’s top water policy agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and served as the state’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission, another powerful policymaking agency on the river. He was one of the architects of the Drought Contingency Plan, the document that made the case for a demand management program throughout the Upper Basin. Soon after he left these public posts, he began representing WAM as counsel.
Eklund, who comes from a Western Slope ranching family, says WAM’s strategy is to buy irrigated land and then pump money into cutting-edge technology and practices, thereby increasing irrigation efficiency and crop yield. The leftover water could be, in exchange for payment, sent downstream under a demand management program.
“I definitely think that if there’s a program that pays farmers, (WAM is) interested in it — and for good reason,” Eklund said. “They want to make sure their investment is generating the types of returns that their investors expect.”
That strategy doesn’t sit well with Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. His organization’s mission is to protect water interests on the Western Slope, which often means protecting agricultural interests. He worries that WAM’s land buys are being done with the intent to separate the water from the land and that the private equity fund does not have the community’s best interest at heart.
“I think a charitable view would be that they are engaging in the acquisition of private property in a capitalistic society, and they have the right to do that,” Mueller said. “And that might be as charitable as I could get with them.”
So far, WAM has been keeping the land in agricultural production, much the same as it had been with previous owners. According to Colorado water law, to retain its agricultural water rights, the company must continue to put the water to “beneficial use,” or, in other words, utilize the water to keep growing crops.
And Mueller’s fear of separating water from land isn’t currently possible under the rules of GVWUA, where three-quarters of the land purchased by WAM sits. Under that organization’s rules, the water cannot be sold separately from the land; you must own the land to get the associated water.
Without access to GVWUA records, it is difficult, if not impossible, to figure out exactly how much water WAM has the rights to. Class 1 land irrigated by GVWUA comes with 4 acre-feet of water per acre each irrigation season.
There is not a way to tell from publicly available property records how much of the land WAM has purchased is irrigated Class 1 land. But if all the land WAM has purchased is Class 1, then it would have at least 6,636 acre-feet of water.
Eklund said the amount of water held by WAM is akin to financial information, which the hedge fund, per its policy, won’t disclose. GVWUA director Mark Harris and the organization’s counsel, Kirsten Kurath have both repeatedly declined to be interviewed on the record for this story. However, Kurath, said in an email that GVWUA is aware of and monitoring activities within its district.
Another lingering, hard-to-answer question is how much WAM’s water is worth. Under the System Conservation Pilot Program, run by the Upper Colorado River Commission, Grand Valley farmers were paid $200 for every acre-foot of water they left in the river. Using this number as a benchmark, WAM’s 6,636 acre-feet of water could currently be worth more than $1.3 million. But that price the program paid to farmers was to lease it for only one year, which could bring the true value of the transferred water to tens of millions of dollars, experts say. How much it could be worth in a hotter, drier future is unknown.
“A lot of the crops we grow are not very profitable, so I think they are projecting, hey, this water is going to be more valuable than even the crops they are growing with it,” Lopez said.
WAM’s land buys have not escaped the attention of Colorado lawmakers, who say what the company is doing is legally dubious. State Sen. Kerry Donovan is a rancher who represents District 5, a stretch of rural mountains, agricultural valleys and ski towns on the Western Slope.
In the 2020 legislative session, before the coronavirus pandemic slowed legislative activity, she sponsored Senate Bill 48, which Gov. Jared Polis recently signed into law. The new legislation directs Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources to convene a workgroup to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law.
“I also hope (this bill) sends a message to people that might be looking to Colorado to make a quick buck that we’re not interested in that type of behavior in our state,” Donovan said. “If you’re just coming up here to buy up water to turn into a profit in the years to come for your clients, like, ‘No, thank you.’”
Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.
“(WAM’s) goal is to buy assets, to make money — and as much money as they can,” Donovan said. “I don’t want that type of player in the prior appropriation system, just full stop.”
WAM attorney Eklund says the investment firm’s directors are not speculators; they are farmers.
“The characterization of any farming or ranching operation that is putting water to a beneficial use as a speculator, that’s just plain-and-simple wrong,” he said. “In light of Colorado water law, this is not accurate as a description that they’re speculating here.”
Eklund sees a bigger role for WAM and other similar players in a potential future water market. He would like to see Colorado fill up that insurance pool in Lake Powell as quickly as possible and said WAM can help the state do that.
“(WAM is) looking at how they can move water down to Lake Powell to avert a crisis,” Eklund said. “And they’re trying to make sure that we’re becoming more resilient in the agricultural economy in the Grand Valley by strategically planning for how that water gets into the account in Lake Powell.”
The type of land purchase that WAM usually pursues has recently shifted. All of the Grand Valley land that the company bought up until this year had been irrigated with water from the Government Highline Canal, where the right to water depends on how much irrigated acreage someone has and where water is tied to the land.
But WAM’s most recent purchase in January was a $6 million deal on 541 acres in Fruita and irrigated by the Grand Valley Irrigation Company Canal, the other big player in Grand Valley agriculture. In its delivery system, shares of water can be bought and sold, and the amount of water is not tied to the land. It marks a departure from the company’s previous purchases, even as Eklund maintains it’s not a change in WAM’s strategy.
“I would say it’s very significant,” Mueller said. “Land that is irrigated under a private water right like the GVIC, that becomes more challenging and more threatening from a permanent-dry-up perspective.”
But even as suspicion and skepticism run high, some Grand Valley farmers, including Lopez, say WAM has been a good neighbor so far.
“Absolutely, they are committed to the future of agriculture in the Grand Valley. They are fronting a lot of money to do these irrigation projects and leasing the ground back to the farmers who had farmed it already,” Lopez said. “Now, is that just to look good to the community and their investors? I have no idea.”
This story is part of a series on water investment in the West, produced by KUNC in Greeley, KJZZ in Arizona, The Nevada Independent and Aspen Journalism.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues.
KUNC’s Colorado River reporting project is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
While a dry April and May hurt western Colorado runoff forecasts, Grand County’s remains above average for this time of year.
According to the Colorado River District, a winter of near-average snowfall withered prematurely and West Slope runoff has suffered.
The hot, dry summer and fall of 2019 set a poor stage for whatever snow was to come because of the dry soil that absorbs snowmelt before the streams can benefit.
“We are now in year 20 of an extended dry period that we should start accepting as the new normal,” Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said in a news release. “Warmer temperatures, dry soils and disappointing spring and summer moisture are defining how we look at future policies to determine how best to protect Western Colorado water security.”
The Colorado River District did mention that Grand and Summit counties continue to be bright spots for the West Slope water supply.
Snowpack peaked in Grand at above average in mid-April and continues to be above average for this time of year. This is good news as the county’s water feeds the Upper Colorado River and important reservoirs.
The Colorado River is expected to peak this week at Cameo at 12,900 cubic feet per second, aided by upstream reservoir releases to support endangered fish habitat.
Granby and Green Mountain reservoirs are expected to fill, the river district said, while Wolford Mountain Reservoir is already full.
The situation is much different to the west and the south, which have below normal snowpack and seasonal runoff forecasts at half of what is normally expected. Western Colorado contributes about 70% of inflows to Lake Powell, where the runoff forecast has now fallen to 56% of normal.
The river district expects the drought that began in 2000 to continue through 2020.
No one denies it: Overconsumption of water and extreme drought caused by climate change are realities driving the Colorado River into crisis. But some solutions are better than others.
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suggested recently in a Writer’s on the Range column that “retiring” 10 percent—some 300,000 acres—of irrigated agriculture would save 1 million acre-feet of the Colorado River. Secretary Babbitt wants the federal government to pay farmers in both the Lower and Upper Colorado River basins to dry up their cropland.
The imbalance on the Colorado River needs to be addressed, and agriculture, as the biggest water user in the basin, needs to be part of a fair solution. But drying up vital food-producing land is a blunt tool. It will damage our local food supply chains and bring decline to rural communities that have developed around irrigated agriculture.
Let’s look at the river’s problems. First, Secretary Babbitt minimizes the challenge as the overuse of the river’s system is even greater than 1 million acre-feet. The flow is so diminished that the end of the line, the Colorado River Delta, hardly receives any water.
The three states that make up the Lower Colorado River Basin—including the former Secretary’s home state of Arizona—have in recent years consumed at least 1.2 million acre-feet more per year than the 8.5 million acre-feet allotted to them under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
This overuse has been perpetuated because the Lower Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation fail to account for the losses caused by evaporation from reservoirs and the transit losses during water deliveries. The first step in fixing the imbalance must be elimination of the Lower Basin’s overuse.
Through the Drought Contingency Plan, the Lower Basin is actively reducing its water consumption when Lake Mead hits critically low levels. But while this is a good start, more must be done.
Climate change is a major cause in reducing Colorado River flows, with recent studies putting the reduction between 3-5.2 percent for every 1 degree rise in temperature. Important water-producing parts of our basin, such as Western Colorado, have already seen temperatures rise by as much as 4 degrees since 1895, and predictions for a 2- to 5-degree increase in the foreseeable future will compound the trend.
It might be surprising to learn that the Upper Basin’s annual consumption of Colorado River water—less than 4.5 million acre-feet—is far below the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted to the four Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. But this is hardly the time to increase diversions. To sustain the communities and the ecosystems that depend upon the Colorado River, all water users—both Upper and Lower Basin states—will need to consume less water.
The Colorado River District has taken a stand against “buy-and-dry” practices because we recognize the environmental and economic harm of drying up agricultural lands. If the health of the river is balanced solely on the back of agriculture, the 10 percent suggested by Secretary Babbitt today will almost certainly lead to 20 percent tomorrow.
In Western Colorado, most of our agriculture is family owned and operated. These family farms provide a local food supply, form the backbone of our rural communities, and they are already under economic stress. So what can be done to both help the river and keep rural life intact?
Initiatives must be aimed at reducing consumptive losses due to inefficient irrigation systems. At the same time we need to incentivize selective retirement of marginal land, all while providing technical support and funding for growers to switch to higher-value crops. The Lower Basin must reduce the cultivation of highly water consumptive crops in the increasingly hot desert, such as cotton and alfalfa raised solely for export.
Increased funding is better directed to off-farm and on-farm irrigation improvements and growing alternative crops. An example of that kind of effort is the Lower Gunnison Project in Western Colorado, a partnership between agricultural producers, the Colorado River District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This project improves diversion structures by piping delivery ditches and modernizing irrigation technology on farms. The producers are also experimenting with new crops such as hemp and hops.
From a purely mathematical standpoint, the Lower Basin has to reduce its 1.2 million acre-feet in overuse. That’s a big start. But in both basins, agriculture must improve the way it uses scarce water taken from the river. We have no time to lose.
Andy Mueller is a contributor to Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is general manager of the Colorado River District and spends his time protecting the flows of the Colorado River and its tributaries in Western Colorado.
The results of a survey to gauge voters’ attitudes about the Colorado River Water Conservation District and Western Slope water returned some good news for the district. But due to concerns about the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, River District officials are still mulling whether to push ahead with a plan to ask voters to restore part of its original mill levy.
River District general manager Andy Mueller said the overall results of the survey, which found that 65% of respondents would support a mill levy increase, were a ray of good news in an otherwise dark time. But at the board’s April quarterly meeting, Mueller recommended that it postpone making a decision about whether to move forward on a ballot initiative until at least its July meeting.
“Given the economic devastation that is occurring throughout the district, the question we have to ask ourselves in July is: Is it appropriate to go to the voters to ask for additional funding at this time when they are suffering such great economic hardship?” Mueller said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
The River District board is considering whether to ask voters to raise its property tax rate from a quarter-mill to a half-mill, taking its budget from about $4 million to $8 million. That works out to 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value. One mill is the equivalent of $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.
According to numbers provided by the River District, for the median home value in Pitkin County — the highest in the district at $1.13 million — the mill levy would increase from $18.93 to $40.28 per year.
For several days in mid-March, River District consultant Arvada-based New Bridge Strategy surveyed about 600 residents and voters via email and phone to assess the feasibility of a ballot question. The survey results found that residents trust that the River District manages taxpayer funds wisely, and three out of five people said they would support a tax increase if it were on the ballot measure in November.
“I think, overall, this is positive,” said Lori Weigel, principal of New Bridge Strategy. “It’s pretty rare to see something testing at 60 percent or higher in Colorado these days. It speaks to the primacy of water and people’s concern about water in this part of the state.”
Survey-takers said protecting western Colorado water for agriculture and preserving clean drinking water were the most compelling reasons to vote yes on a tax increase. Eighty-eight percent found these reasons convincing. The River District is not a direct provider of drinking water, but part of the organization’s mission is to keep water on the Western slope.
Women older than 55 years old made up the backbone of support for a tax measure — 73% said they would back it. Residents across the political spectrum supported a tax increase, but it found the most support from Democrats, with 75% saying they would vote “yes.” Fifty-six percent of Republicans were supportive.
The Glenwood Springs-based River District, created in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in western Colorado, spans 15 counties: Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Garfield, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Saguache. The survey found broad geographic support overall, but the numbers were lowest in one key, populous county: Mesa. Only 59% of survey respondents there said they would support a tax increase.
“What it means to me is that we need to do better and make sure that if there are places that others perceive we are not speaking and advocating well for agriculture, then we need to do it more uniformly,” Mueller said.
Steve Acquafresca, who represents Mesa County on the River District board, said probably only a small percentage of voters know what the River District does, and although the River District has ramped up its outreach to Western Slope communities this year, more is needed. Those efforts, however, have been sidelined by the pandemic. The River District had scheduled a series of State of the River meetings this spring, which were canceled.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Acquafresca said. “That’s a huge disadvantage of going forward with a question in 2020 if we can’t get out and do the campaigning.”
He also pointed out that the results of the survey may no longer be valid because of its timing.
“Although some of the results look pretty good, all of that was done before the pandemic really impacted our Western Slope communities,” Acquafresca said. “Nobody had any concept of the economic consequences of this pandemic on big cities and small towns alike.”
For the median home value in Mesa County, at $218,601, the mill levy would increase from $3.67 to $7.81 per year.
River District staffers also have unveiled a fiscal implementation plan for how that additional funding could be spent should voters pass a ballot measure. Of the projected $4.9 million in additional revenue, $4.2 million of that would be spent on projects identified as priorities by local communities and basin roundtables in five categories: productive agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality.
Some representative projects that River District revenue could help fund are the White River Storage Project, maintaining flows secured by the Shoshone call and the Windy Gap Reservoir connectivity channel.
The state engineer is opposing the water rights tied to the White River Storage Project in water court over concerns that the project is speculative and that the applicant, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, has not proven there is a need for the water. The project would include a 90,000-acre-foot conditional storage right, and a dam and reservoir on the White River between Rangely and Meeker. But Mueller said it’s too early to know what specific projects the River District’s tax money might fund.
“We can’t say we would fund any one of those in particular; those are examples,” Mueller said. “We are not making a commitment to funding any of those that are listed.”
Aspen Journalism is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, supported by its donors and funders, that covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the May 8 edition of The Aspen Times and the May 12 edition of the Vail Daily.
Click here to read the May 2020 newsletter from the Colorado River District:
As the snow melts, reservoirs clear of ice and ditches and rivers swell with runoff, Colorado River District staff normally look forward to our State of the River meetings, which provide local updates on important water issues in throughout the District.
Few events have gone as planned this spring. In light of COVID-19, the District will hold some State of the River events virtually as webinars. Presentations will include the same information the West Slope has come to expect: updates on runoff and hydrology, the latest on local water issues and information about how our water fits into the larger Colorado River basin.
We’ve got two virtual State of the River events planned so far.
The Summit State of the River will be 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 14 on Zoom. You can complete the required registration for the event and find an agenda here: bit.ly/SummitSOR. This event is hosted by the Colorado River District and the Blue River Watershed Group. A recording of the webinar will be emailed to registrants after the event.
The Mesa State of the River webinar will be 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 20. You can complete the required registration for the event and find an agenda here: bit.ly/MesaSOR. This event is hosted by the Colorado River District and the Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. A recording of the webinar will be emailed to registrants after the event.
The Colorado River District will hold a public forum to provide important updates on the River District, West Slope water and big river issues featuring Colorado River District Manager Andy Mueller and Colorado State Climatologist Russ Schumacher. The event will be noon Wednesday, June 10. More information about the event will be available soon at http://www.ColoradoRiverDistrict.org.
Here’s a guest column from Hannah Holm that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
It seems like the pandemic has soaked up most of the newsprint lately, but even now, when so much has come to a standstill, our rivers keep flowing. As Jim Pokrandt pointed out in a recent op-ed, our canals have started flowing, too, as Grand Valley farmers begin the annual ritual of putting water on the land to reap a harvest, and an income, later in the year.
Another annual ritual, monitoring the forecasts for how much spring snowmelt will flow down the rivers, has also begun. This year, we have an above-average snowpack in the mountains that feed the Colorado River, but below-average runoff into Lake Powell is expected. Parched soils from last year’s dry summer are expected to soak up much of the water before it can make it into the river.
If that forecast proves accurate, it will mark the 15th time in 20 years in which runoff into Lake Powell has been below average. This is one more piece of data to support the conclusion that the Colorado River is shrinking. Coming to terms with this fact is the central challenge facing all who depend on the Colorado River — about 40 million people throughout the Southwest.
A shrinking river is a particularly hard to adapt to when it is already being completely used up — the Colorado River rarely reaches the sea any more, and its major reservoirs are less than half full. So how, and what, are we doing? Here’s a rundown of a few things that are happening.
Downstream, California, Arizona and Nevada agreed to a detailed schedule of water delivery cuts triggered by different water levels in Lake Mead. This is the first year they are taking reduced deliveries.
Here in Colorado, along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, water leaders are continuing to study “demand management:” paying water users to temporarily leave some of the water they are entitled to in the river. State-sponsored work groups on demand management are hashing out technical details on financing, legal issues, how to measure saved water, and the potential economic and environmental impacts of different approaches. You can learn more about these discussions here: https://cwcb.colorado.gov/demand-management.
In related efforts, scientists and ranchers are about to start working together in Grand County to figure out what happens to high-elevation hay fields if you take a pause on irrigating them. This will help ranchers determine whether they might want to participate in demand management or not. Other studies are also looking at the potential impacts on communities of reductions in irrigated agriculture.
Scientists are also working hard to refine their tools for understanding and forecasting water supplies. A new report from Western Water Assessment at CU-Boulder synthesizes information from nearly 800 studies and reports on Colorado River Basin science and hydrology. If you are interested, you can check it out at https://wwa.colorado.edu/.
So far, we’re mostly studying different options for cutting back our water use from the Colorado River, without many people actually having to do it yet. But if current trends continue, which long-term projections indicate that they will, that day will come.
Any change is hard, and abrupt change is especially hard. Abrupt change without data is terrifying, as we’ve recently learned. The good thing about the troubling situation on the Colorado River is that we don’t have to suffer the terror of change without data. The bad thing about the situation on the Colorado River is that we can’t study our way out of actually having to do something about it — sooner or later. [ed. emphasis mine]
Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.
From the Colorado River District via The Rio Blanco Herald-Times:
A growing body of research shows that the Upper Colorado River Basin is growing warmer on average. In fact, the national hot spot centers on Western Colorado and much of the Southwest.
A result: a significant reduction in the snowpack that makes up the Southwest’s main water supply.
In the Colorado River District’s “Know Your Snow” webinar, Deputy Chief Engineer Dave Kanzer and National Snow and Ice Data Center researcher Jeff Deems explored how water managers and snow scientists are studying and adapting to the changes to our snowpack and water supply.
About three-quarters of the snowmelt that forms the Colorado River’s flow falls as snow at elevations above 8,500 feet in the mountains of the Upper Colorado Basin, Kanzer explained. Deems pointed out that the 15 Western Slope counties that make up the Colorado River District have warmed at a rate from about 2 degrees Fahrenheit in Summit County to more than 4 degrees in Mesa, Montrose, Ouray and Rio Blanco counties since about the early 1900s, according to data developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“We’re seeing changes on the order of 4 or 5 degrees in parts of the District,” Deems said. “This is just a slice out of this big, warming bullseye that is hitting the Upper Colorado (River) Basin over that time period. This is a problem for us because we rely on the snowpack, and that’s because warming reduces stream flow through a number of different mechanisms in this snowmelt-dominated basin.”
That reduction comes from several factors: more snow falling as rain, earlier spring snowmelt, more snow directly evaporating into the atmosphere instead of melting into streams and a longer growing season that has plants taking up more water.
Deems explained that for every 1 degree of warming, there is an estimated 3 to 4% decline in annual runoff. That’s about double the amount of water Las Vegas uses in one year, and 18 months of water supply for the city of Los Angeles, Deems said.
A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that a decline in flow due to warming is even greater than earlier studies have shown, with statistics suggesting that average annual flow decreases by 9.3% for every 1.8 degrees of warming.
All of this poses a threat to drinking water, irrigation to grow our food and water to maintain healthy wildlife habitats. The Colorado River District is not only studying the water-supply risks posed by warming temperatures but also implementing solutions such as cloud seeding to make sure West Slope communities are prepared for future challenges.
Cloud seeding to increase snowpack
As part of an effort to boost snowpack, Kanzer coordinates the Colorado River District’s cloud seeding program. Increasingly, water managers are turning to cloud seeding, a practice that can increase how much snow winter storms produce.
“We’re trying to figure out how to mitigate and adapt to a changing world,” Kanzer said. “We’re doing this through cloud seeding, and (we’re) implementing these programs throughout Western Colorado. In fact, this is going on throughout the West and throughout the world.”
Cloud seeding requires a specific set of conditions to be successful, Kanzer explained. A cloud must contain super-cooled water. Water vapor in these clouds is cold enough to form ice crystals, around 5 to 23 degrees Fahrenheit, but it needs something on which to crystalize. When conditions in a storm system are right, with favorable winds with proper uplift, cloud seeding generators send tiny particles of silver iodide into the moisture-laden clouds, typically using propane-fired burners on the ground.
Silver iodide has been proven to be safe for the environment, Kanzer said, adding that it is effective because and it naturally has a similar crystal structure to the ice crystals that form snowflakes.
The super-cooled liquid water more efficiently freezes on to these introduced tiny particles of silver iodide, building small ice crystals that grow into snowflakes.
Kanzer said cloud seeding could increase snow on the ground by up to 15%, boosting what might have been a 10-inch snowstorm by 1.5 inches. After a successful season of cloud seeding, this might, in turn, lead to as much as a 5% increase in streamflow in watersheds where cloud seeding occurred. This increases recreation opportunities for skiers in the winter and boaters in the warmer months, he added.
“And it helps us with our water supplies, of course, and that’s what we’re really focused on here at the Colorado River District,” Kanzer said.
Improving predictions with better data
While Kanzer’s work focuses on increasing the amount of snowpack, Deems’ research seeks to better understand what snow we have.
He explained that water supply forecasts are traditionally generated by comparing the current amount of snow on the ground at fixed locations to historical streamflow records. With the changes we are experiencing, Deems said these methods of comparing the present to the past are no longer accurate.
Additionally, snowpack is measured by a network of weather stations widely spread out across the mountain landscape where Colorado’s snowfall accumulates. While these stations provide accurate measurements in very specific locations, they don’t indicate how much snow, and how much water, might be stored high in the mountains, above the elevations where these stations are located.
Deems’ company, the Airborne Snow Observatory, uses a system called light detection and ranging — LIDAR for short — to measure snow across the entire landscape. From a plane, Deems’ team sends pulses of scanning laser light toward the earth, which reflect off the snow. Researchers can then use information in the reflection to build a three-dimensional picture of the snowscape.
This technology gives snow scientists and water planners landscape-based information about how much snow, and water, is present. This technology is detailed enough to reveal the deep pockets of snow below bare slopes where avalanches occurred or even areas where snowmaking was used to make terrain parks on a ski run.
This more comprehensive of the snowpack significantly improves water supply forecasts critical to water managers in making decisions.
Together with cloud seeding, this technology is helping water managers turn the corner from historical practices to prepare for and adapt to a changing world in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
Here’s a guest column from Jim Pokrandt that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
April is a good time to celebrate the Grand Valley’s relationship with the Colorado River. The great canals and laterals of the valley’s turn-of-the-last-century irrigation infrastructure are filling with water, an annual rite of spring. Irrigation season is upon us and that matters to every soul in the valley.
Water makes the Grand Valley grand. It makes it green. It makes the desert livable. It makes the economy go ’round.
Look north of the Government-Highline Canal and what do you see: a dry, scrub landscape. It’s beautiful in its own right, good for livestock grazing and in today’s world, an attraction for mountain bikes and dirt bikes.
The Grand Valley would look like the desert it really is but for three things: the good soils, a long growing season and the introduction of irrigation water, the ultimate catalyst that makes the formula work for agriculture and our urban landscapes.
More than that, it matters to folks from the headwaters counties along the Continental Divide all the way down the mainstem of the river to the Grand Valley. And it’s not because everybody loves a Palisade peach or a bottle of Grand Valley-produced wine, although they should. It’s not because people like me prize the unsung, delicious tomatoes grown in the valley or the locally produced beef that finds its way into restaurants.
Here’s why: the very senior water rights held by the irrigation companies command the river, controlling the natural east-to-west flow of water. That natural direction of water could otherwise be intercepted by big tunnels through the Continental Divide that move water to eastern Colorado. Some 500,000 acre-feet already go to the east, and it has defined the Front Range as we know it with vibrant cities, universities, culture, agriculture (the primary reason water was first moved) and an economy that benefits us all. Use it well, we say here in western Colorado. But if you want more, that’s a problem. That is a story, though, for another time.
Grand Valley folks are water savvy, in my experience. They understand the role their water rights play in the well-being of western Colorado. Likewise, the headwaters counties of Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield know the value of your Grand Valley water rights. Your irrigation rights pull water downstream and that underpins the economies, the environment and recreation in each of these upstream locales. They don’t want your water. They want you to maintain a thriving water rights system so their communities can thrive, too.
The linchpin of the Grand Valley water rights system is the Roller Dam in De Beque Canyon, just upstream from where Plateau Creek enters the mainstem of the Colorado River. It is more than 100 years old. It diverts water for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, the Palisade Irrigation District and the Mesa County Irrigation District. It’s not just about agriculture anymore. Many residential homes receive raw irrigation water from this infrastructure. Valley residents should know that the Grand Valley Water Users Association, operators of the Roller Dam, is working its way through a master plan to keep it in repair. It’s not inexpensive work.
The Grand Valley Irrigation Company is the last canal to divert. Its infrastructure is at Palisade. It, too, is working to maintain and improve its system. This month it finished the latest canal-lining segment. In fact, it has lined 10.63 miles in the last 11 years at a cost of about $14 million. This work is part of a long-running effort across the valley to keep salts out of the river.
One of the most important pieces of the Grand Valley’s water mosaic is located many miles away in Summit County. It’s Green Mountain Reservoir. Green Mountain stores water that comes into play for the Grand Valley and other users as snowmelt winds down through summer and streamflows diminish, part of the natural cycle. Releases are then stepped up to bolster river flows.
Green Mountain was negotiated as a western Colorado benefit back in the 1930s when the big transmountain diversion, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, was proposed to take Colorado River water out of Grand County and send it to northern Colorado. That raised alarms in Mesa County and all along the river. The negotiators became the founders of the Colorado River District in 1937, so there could be a taxpayer-supported entity to watchdog regional water interests as the Front Range grew. Some of those founders were from Mesa County. Yes, back then, folks realized the importance of water supply and river flows to the Grand Valley.
Not to be overlooked in this ode to the Colorado River is the importance of the Shoshone Hydro Plant in Glenwood Canyon. It also commands the river, not just in the irrigation season, but in all 12 months. The Daily Sentinel recently reported on how reservoir operators and Grand Valley irrigation entities cooperate to mimic Shoshone water rights in the river when the plan is down and cannot call for water. The benefits of Shoshone, whether its operating or its flows are mimicked, are the same generated by the Grand Valley water rights. Plus, they improve the environment for endangered fish.
So, while we cope with orders to stay at home in order to avoid getting or spreading the coronavirus and wonder how we can restart the economy, we can take solace in the bedrock fact that water is flowing in the Grand Valley and springtime will soon be in full bloom.
Jim Pokrandt is the community affairs director for the Colorado River District. Mesa County is one of his favorite places in western Colorado.
The Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon has been down since at least Feb. 14 and could be down until June, but a 2016 safety-net agreement has kept water flowing down the Colorado River.
The Shoshone Generating Station, owned by Xcel Energy, is the keeper of one of the largest water rights on the main stem of the Colorado River. In February, ice jams on the spillway caused water to flood the plant and damaged equipment inside, according to Xcel media-relations representative Michelle Aguayo.
Xcel said the COVID-19 crisis is complicating repair plans.
“Given the current circumstances, it’s more challenging to get contractors to repair equipment, but even so, we expect to be back in June,” Aguayo said in a prepared statement.
Xcel said service to electric customers will not be impacted by the outage.
The inoperable plant would be a major concern to water users on the Western Slope, except for the 2016 Shoshone Outage Protocol, which mimics conditions as if the plant were still operating and using its full amount of water.
When the plant is operating, a senior water right from 1902 draws 1,250 cubic feet per second of water downstream to meet the plant’s needs. That means that upstream junior water-right holders must leave enough water in the river for Shoshone to receive its full amount. It also means that the 1,250 cfs is available for other downstream users on the Western Slope.
The water used by the Shoshone plant is diverted at a low riverwide dam about two miles above the plant near the Hanging Lake exit on Interstate 70. The water is then sent through pipes along the cliffs to penstocks that send it down to the plant, where it spins turbines. All of the water is then released back into the river via a spillway at the top of what’s called the “Shoshone” section of the Colorado River, which is about five miles east of Glenwood Springs and is popular with kayakers and rafters.
This water is crucial for endangered fish in the often-dry, 15-mile reach near Grand Junction; for boaters and rafters near Glenwood; and for Grand Valley irrigators, who have begun filling their canals for the start of irrigation season, which began Wednesday.
In the past, if the hydropower plant was not operating, the water right tied to it is not being put to beneficial use and cannot be used. The 1,250 cfs could have been lost — either diverted to the Front Range or kept locked in reservoirs. But the Shoshone Outage Protocol took effect March 1 to keep water flowing in the river.
“We are very happy that the outage protocol exists,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It’s to make sure the water keeps flowing this way. It’s really about the fish as well as bringing the water to the Grand Valley.”
Formalized in 2016, the agreement is signed by many Colorado River water users, water providers and government agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Denver Water, the River District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.
Between Feb. 14 and March 1, flows were kept up by a winter maintenance outage agreement, according to Victor Lee, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation.
Lee said that about 1,400 acre-feet of water from Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County has been released so far to meet the Shoshone Outage Protocol requirements. He said the protocol will probably be relaxed in the next week or two because spring runoff will begin to naturally boost river flows.
The Shoshone plant and its big water right have long been a concern for the River District, especially since outages have increased in recent years, including a penstock rupture in 2007. Since about 2018, River District officials have been in talks with Xcel about ways to preserve the Shoshone water right for the Western Slope.
“Those efforts are ongoing,” Mueller said. “We still view that as a significant priority for western Colorado.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A 2016 agreement is helping protect Colorado River flows downstream of Glenwood Canyon despite ice jams from the Colorado River shutting down the Shoshone Hydropower Plant in the canyon.
Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, a tax-funded agency serving counties within the river basin in western Colorado, said the problem at the plant occurred around March 1. Xcel Energy, the plant’s owner, says it won’t be using Colorado River water at the plant until it is repaired.
The plant’s operations are watched closely by the water community because it has one of the oldest water rights on the river in western Colorado — a 1902 right to 1,250 cubic feet of water per second.
That right has limited the ability of Front Range water users with more junior rights to divert Colorado River water. It helps keep water flowing down-river not just to the plant, but further downstream because the plant’s water use is nonconsumptive, benefiting municipal and agricultural water users, recreational river users and the environment.
However, the river district and regional water users have worried about the potential impacts on the river and water users whenever the aging plant is out of service and not calling for water under its senior right, such as when it requires maintenance.
To address that concern, reservoir operators including the river district, Denver Water and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation agreed in 2016 to cooperate to maintain river flows at levels mimicking Shoshone’s normal operation, with certain exceptions.
Modified reservoir operations to mimic those flows are now in effect, and will remain so until snowmelt runoff causes the river flow to exceed the current outage protocol target of 1,250 cubic feet per second.
Pokrandt said that among the benefits of protecting flows, more water in the river means lower concentrations of total dissolved solids in the river due to dilution, reducing the need for water treatment by municipal water providers that rely on the river.
Kirsten Kurath, an attorney who represents the Grand Valley Water Users Association, a party to the 2016 agreement, said a big benefit of the Shoshone flows is maintaining flows in what’s known as the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River in Mesa County. Efforts to protect endangered fish in the river focus in part on maintaining adequate flows in that stretch of the river, upstream of the Gunnison River confluence…
While Grand Valley irrigators also have senior water rights on the river, Kurath said the Shoshone water smoothes out the river’s flows, making it easier for irrigators to plan and making water diversions more efficient than when flows are lower. “Everybody downstream always benefits as you keep water in the river,” she said.
The Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Irrigation Co. are among other parties to the 2016 deal. As of late Monday afternoon, Xcel hasn’t yet said how long the power plant may be out of commission. According to the river district, Xcel has said that the COVID-19 outbreak is complicating repair plans…
The current outage agreement is in effect for 40 years. The river district says it and its West Slope partners are exploring ways to permanently protect the river flows.
Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant back in the days before I-70 via Aspen Journalism
Shoshone Falls hydroelectric generation station via USGenWeb
The penstocks feeding the Shoshone hydropower plant on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon.
The Shoshone plant and boat ramp on the Colorado River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The blown-out penstock in 2007 at the Shoshone plant. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Shoshone hydroelectric generation plant Glenwood Canyon via the Colorado River District
Number of days the Shoshone outage protocol, or ShOP, was in effect, and stages of the agreement.
Property owners in 15 Western Slope counties could be asked to pay an average of $7.65 more in annual property taxes to the Colorado River Water Conservation District, if its board votes to place the question on the November ballot. District general manager Andy Mueller has proposed the property tax increase to make up for declining funding and create a new pot of money for water supply projects developed by local partners in each county.
“The money would help us with structural deficits caused by Gallagher, TABOR and the decline of the fossil fuel industry in the district,” Mueller said…
To address declining funding, the district eliminated a grant program for small projects and reduced expenses by cutting staff by 16 percent, which was four employees. Thevehicle fleet was also cut by 25 percent and the travel budget by 20 percent…
Mueller is recommending the district ask for an increase in property taxes from the current 0.252 mills to 0.500 mills, as well as exempting the spending limits from the TABOR law. The district’s property tax revenues, which were $4.1 million in 2018, would increase to approximately $9 million if voters passed the ballot measure.
The median home value would see an annual district property tax increase from $6.03 to $11.96. For homes valued at $300,000, district taxes would go from about $5 to $10 per year.
Marti Whitmore, who is Ouray County’s representative on the district’s board, said, “I tend to believe that this is a very reasonable proposal. On my house, it would result in a tax increase of less than $11 per year. I think it is important for the river district to be able to have funds to assist Western Slope communities in developing and ensuring adequate water supplies for all uses—agriculture, municipal, commercial/industrial — as well as non-consumptive uses such as recreation, fishing, boating or rafting, and so on. We will benefit from this increased support from the river district in Ouray County.”
Mueller is recommending that 20 percent of the property tax increase go toward remedying budget shortfalls for staffing and operations. His proposal is for the other 80 percent to fund projects through partnerships primarily with local governments and water users groups that manage agricultural irrigation supplies.
“We are looking for projects where we can partner with multiple sectors of the community; agricultural, municipal, recreation and others to find projects that work well for all of them,” he explained. “We have identified projects that have those types of attributes in all 15 of our counties to help the communities become more resilient in times of change.”
He said one good use of the new project fund would be a water storage or augmentation plan in Ouray County, which proposes building the Ram’s Horn Reservoir in the Uncompahgre National Forest in the Cimarron Mountains and a pipeline from Cow Creek to Ridgway Reservoir. The project would take much more than the estimated $80,000 per year in property taxes that would come from Ouray County if the ballot measure passes…
The district board, which is made up of one appointed representative from each of its 15 counties, heard the property tax proposal at its January meeting but took no action. The board asked staff to bring more information to its next quarterly meeting on April 21-22, where the board is likely to vote on whether to put the question on this November’s ballot. The meeting will be at the Colorado River District building at 201 Centennial St. in Glenwood Springs, and is open to the public.
A bill aimed at expanding Colorado’s instream-flow loan program is moving through the state legislature and has support from agricultural water users, Front Range water providers and environmental organizations, in contrast to last year when the bill ran into opposition.
House Bill 1157 [Loaned Water For Instream Flows To Improve Environment], which last week passed the House in a unanimous 60-0 vote, would allow water-rights holders to temporarily loan their water to the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s instream-flow program with the goal of improving the natural environment.
The bill expands the number of years from three to five (but for no more than three consecutive years) that a loan may be exercised within a 10-year period. The loan also may be renewed for two additional 10-year periods, meaning that holders of agricultural water rights could theoretically loan their water for the benefit of the environment for 15 of 30 years.
Environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy, Colorado Sierra Club and Conservation Colorado, support the legislation, and so do water-user organizations, including the Colorado Water Congress, Denver Water, Northern Water, and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.
HB 1157 is sponsored by Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail) and District 26 Rep. Dylan Roberts (D-Avon), both of whom floated a similar bill last year. This year’s iteration gained the sponsorship of District 57 Rep. Perry Will (R-New Castle).
After the bill faltered in last year’s legislative session, Roberts knew he had some work to do before he brought it back to lawmakers, so he spent the summer and fall talking with the many interested parties about how to improve it.
“I represent Eagle and Routt counties, which are home to four major river systems, and I know how vital it is to the Roaring Fork Valley, the Eagle River Valley and the Yampa River Valley to have a really strong flowing river,” he said.
The Eagle, Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers flow through Eagle County, and the Yampa River flows through Routt County.
“Instream-flow loans allow people to loan the water back and help the river, while not losing their water rights,” Roberts said.
n the new bill, lawmakers added more protections for water-rights holders by increasing the window for people to appeal a loan. The legislation quadruples the comment period from 15 to 60 days so that those who feel they could be harmed by a loan of water have sufficient time to raise their concerns with the state engineer
Instream flow program
Colorado’s instream-flow program gives the CWCB the ability to hold water rights specifically for preserving the natural environment “to a reasonable degree” by keeping water flowing in the river. Since 1973, the CWCB has appropriated instream-flow rights on nearly 1,700 stream segments, covering more than 9,700 stream miles.
Instream water rights are administered under Colorado’s prior appropriation system. And, given that none of the instream rights were in place before 1973, most of them are junior to senior agricultural water rights. Those rights, which can date to the 1860s in Colorado, have a higher priority under the “first in time, first in right” doctrine.
Senior ag rights divert significant amounts of water from the state’s rivers and streams and can even dry up some reaches in drought years. However, the state’s instream-flow program does allow owners of such senior water rights not to use their rights for irrigation and instead leave their irrigation water in the river, on a temporary basis, to bolster low flows. And the new legislation expands that option.
The temporary loan program — where water-rights owners offer, in exchange for payment, to contribute their water to one of these segments with an existing instream-flow right — has only been used seven times since its creation in 2003. In Division 5, temporary water loans have occurred on Deep Creek, the Fraser River and the Colorado River.
CWCB officials estimate an additional two to four loans under the program over the next few years.
In past deals, irrigators have been paid for the loan of their water by the state, Trout Unlimited or the Colorado Water Trust.
According to CWCB Stream and Lake Protection section chief Linda Bassi, the loan program can help boost streams in late summer when flows are low, temperatures are high and fish are stressed.
“It’s a really helpful tool for instream flows that fall short,” she said. “It’s always good to have more tools to help preserve the environment.”
River District support
The bill has garnered the support of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, which helped shape the revamped 2020 bill with its input. The River District board voted unanimously to support the measure, according to Zane Kessler, director of government relations.
“Rep. Roberts went above and beyond to make sure the bill addressed the River District’s needs and provides meaningful protections to our constituents on the West Slope and agricultural water users across the state,” Kessler said.
Also, the legislation requires the CWCB to give preference to loans of water stored in reservoirs, when available, over agricultural and other water rights diverted directly from rivers and streams. This provision was included at the request of the River District.
Kirsten Kurath, attorney for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said lawmakers worked with the association over the past year to improve the bill from 2019.
“I think, in general, that the bill is much more protective now of other water-rights users on the stream,” Kurath said.
The bill is now under consideration by the state Senate.
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the Feb. 29 issue of The Aspen Times.
The loss of the reflective snowpack drives evaporation and reduces the flow of water, the study found.
The 40 million people who rely on Colorado River water need to prepare for a drier future.
Global warming is shrinking the Rocky Mountain snowpack that feeds the river and flows are declining at a rate of about 9.3 percent for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit increase in temperature, according to a new study that “identifies a growing potential for severe water shortages in this major basin.”
The decline is “mainly driven by snow loss and consequent decrease of reflection of solar radiation,” a pair of scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey wrote in a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science. The study helps resolve a “longstanding disagreement in previous estimates of the river’s sensitivity to rising temperatures.”
The study links dwindling flow of water with the loss of albedo, a measure of the snowpack’s reflective quality. Like ice in the Arctic, white snow reflects solar radiation back to space. But as the snowpack in the Colorado River declines, the ground and, crucially, the air directly above the ground, warm up. Water from the melting snow or from rain evaporates from the soil, rather than trickling into the streams that feed the Colorado River.
The scientists found the link by measuring the relationship between the amount of water in the snow, the amount of the sun’s incoming radiation and how much of that was reflected back by the snowpack’s albedo, showing that, as the snowpack dwindled, the river’s flow declined.
Brad Udall, a climate scientist with the Colorado River Research Group, said the study “adds another brick in the wall of evidence that it’s very likely we’re going to see significant declines in Colorado River flows.
“Scientists have been trying to figure out how sensitive the river is to global warming,” he said, “and these numbers put the sensitivity at the upper end of what’s possible.”
The research divided the Colorado River Basin into 960 sub-areas and broke down the data, including satellite measurements of albedo, month by month. That enabled the scientists to see that the effect was dominant in the late spring and early summer, when the snowpack was being depleted, said Chris Milly, the senior U.S. Geological Survey researcher who led the new research. Previous studies on the Colorado River’s climate sensitivity focused primarily on precipitation and temperatures, without considering the radiation balance, he added.
“Before our study there was a huge range of estimates of how sensitive Colorado River flows are to warming, from 2 percent to 15 percent for every 1 degree Celsius of warming. We really wanted to try and understand and narrow that uncertainty,” Milly said.
It’s not just a Colorado problem. “Many water-stressed regions around the world depend on runoff from seasonally snow-covered mountains,” the authors wrote in the journal report, “and more than one sixth of the global population relies on seasonal snow and glaciers for water supply.”
The findings suggest that the snow cover offers a “protective shield” that limits evaporation from this natural reservoir, the scientists wrote in the study. As the shield shrinks, it will crimp water availability in snow-fed regions that are already stressed, including the Colorado River Basin…
Unending Stream Flow Decline
University of Michigan climate researcher Jonathan Overpeck said the new study is valuable because it details the mechanism “by which regional human-caused warming is reducing flows in the Colorado River.”
Continued warming, he said, “will lead to significant and unending reductions in river flows. Until global warming is stopped, the Colorado and other key rivers of the Southwest will continue to provide less and less water to the region.”
Research since then has confirmed that global warming is affecting water supplies in the West in several different ways. As early as 2013, U.S. Geological Survey research showed that warmer spring temperatures since 1980 have cut the Rocky Mountain snowpack by 20 percent.
A 2016 study in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains showed how the snowfall line is speeding uphill. At lower elevations where the mountains aren’t so steep, tens of thousands of square miles that used to be white all winter now stay brown and heat up, and the moisture in the soil evaporates.
In 2017, Overpeck, along with Udall, showed a clear relationship between warming temperatures and less water in the Colorado River Basin, as they studied the Colorado River’s 21st century “hot drought.”
The new study doesn’t take into account extreme events like the crippling 2012 drought that sent Colorado River flows to record lows while reservoir storage plummeted.
By the end of May that year, 100 percent of Colorado was in some stage of drought, including the mountains that supply more than three-quarters of the Colorado’s total flow. It would end up being Colorado’s hottest year on record, as well as one of the state’s worst wildfire seasons, burning a quarter million acres and causing temporary evacuations of 35,000 people.
But so-called Black Swan climate events like megadroughts lasting several decades have happened regularly in the last few thousand years, and are increasingly likely in a world that’s cooking in a thickening stew of greenhouse gases.
In May 2019, the Colorado River Research Group published a warning about “unexpected shocks from Black Swan events.” That includes megadroughts or extreme floods, as well as “socioeconomic events that might stress the existing legal/management framework beyond any known circumstance,” the report said.
Because of global warming, the chances of such events are increasing at the same time that reservoir storage and groundwater reserves are being depleted, a disconcerting situation “given the role of multiple megadroughts in undermining past civilizations in the region,” the river researchers wrote.
They said planning scenarios should be based on water records that stretch back longer than the last century, and should take into account that “the abnormally wet period of the early 20th century … might be better viewed as a highly unlikely hydrologic event that cannot be assumed to be part of the future.”
The paleoclimate record clearly shows that the first 100 years of the European settlement era in the Colorado River Basin was an unusually stable period of abundant water, and that there were sudden extreme swings between drought and floods during past geologic eras of rapid climate change.
One of most severe drought periods on record in the Colorado River Basin was between the years 900 to 1300, when regional temperatures close to today’s triggered “a period of extensive and persistent aridity over western North America,” according to a 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…
Overpeck said, “The good news is that we understand what is happening to the Colorado River and why. This means we can have confidence on the solution, which is putting a rapid stop to climate change, mainly by ending the burning of fossil fuels.”
He added, “Simply put, the more oil and gas we burn, the less water will be available to the American Southwest.”
Using hydrologic models, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey, found that the Colorado River basin is extremely sensitive to slight changes in temperature. In their new paper in the journal Science, they show for each degree Celsius temperatures rise, flows in the river are likely to decline more than 9%.
That decline is likely to cause severe water shortages in the Colorado River basin, where more water exists on paper in the form of water rights than in the river itself. Warmer temperatures diminish snowpack, lessening the amount of water available…
The reductions might sound small, Milly said, but they will be felt throughout the basin.
“There’s not a lot of slack in the system,” Milly said. “In the long-term communities, states will be making adjustments to how they allocate water.”
The finding comes as water managers throughout the watershed are gearing up for negotiations over a long-term plan for the river’s management. The Colorado River’s current operating guidelines expire at the end of 2026, and the states that make up the watershed are required to start negotiating new ones by the end of this year.
“The new rules must consider how to manage the river with unprecedented low flows in the 21st century,” Udall said. “The science is crystal clear — we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately. We now have the technologies, the policies and favorable economics to accomplish greenhouse gas reductions. What we lack is the will.”
FromThe Washington Post (Juliet Eilperin, Chris Mooney):
Up to half of the drop in the Colorado’s average annual flow since 2000 has been driven by warmer temperatures, four recent studies found. Now, two U.S. Geological Survey researchers have concluded that much of this climate-induced decline — amounting to 1.5 billion tons of missing water, equal to the annual water consumption of 10 million Americans — comes from the fact that the region’s snowpack is shrinking and melting earlier. Less snow means less heat is reflected from the sun, creating a feedback loop known as the albedo effect, they say.
“The Colorado River Basin loses progressively more water to evaporation, as its sunlight-reflecting snow mantle disappears,” write the authors, USGS senior resource scientist Chris Milly and physical scientist Krista A. Dunne…
Milly and Dunne, who analyzed 960 different areas in the Upper Colorado River Basin to determine how disappearing snowpack influenced the river’s average annual flow, determined that the flow has dipped 9.3 percent for each temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). The average annual temperature for the area they surveyed has risen 1.4 degrees C (2.5 degrees F) in the past century, Milly said in a phone interview.
The region is poised to warm even more in the years ahead, Milly said, and it isn’t “likely” that precipitation can compensate for these hotter and drier conditions. Comparing the Colorado River’s historic flow between 1913 and 2017 to future conditions, he added: “That flow, we estimate, due to the warming alone would be reduced anywhere from 14 to 31 percent by 2050.”
Colorado State University senior scientist Brad Udall, who has written two papers attributing half of the Colorado River’s lower flows to warming temperatures, said in a phone interview that researchers now “have multiple lines of evidence pointing to a very similar number.”
“And this number is worrying,” Udall said of the new study. “I would say eye-popping.”
Andrew Mueller, general manager for the Colorado River District, said in an email that the new findings provide “confirmation of significantly grim indicators about future flow in the Colorado River.”
The amount of water that would disappear with another 1 degree C temperature rise, he added, is nearly five times what Las Vegas uses each year. “A decline in flows of this magnitude will present a significant challenge to all inhabitants in the Colorado River Basin.”
The current operating rules for the river expire at the end of 2026, and negotiations over how to share the water going forward start this year.
Udall said that in light of current projections, policymakers need to consider crafting an agreement where all the major players in the West will use less water than they do now.
“These projections are dire, but we’re looking at a glass that’s 70 percent full, not half full,” he said. “It could be grimmer.”
Officials at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, who brokered a drought contingency plan among seven states and Mexico last year, said that they are continuing to monitor the way climate change is affecting the river.
“Reclamation works closely with leading scientists at the state and federal level, as well as universities to understand the potential impacts of climate change on the Colorado River,” said bureau spokesman Marlon Duke. “We will continue to use the best available science to manage the river to sustain reliable water far into the future.”
River district Director Andy Mueller presented the commission with the possibility of asking taxpayers to double the existing mill levy for Garfield and 14 other counties. Currently, the River district levies about a quarter mill on properties, which has been enough since about 1992.
Under the 2019 assessment rate, the river district’s current quarter-mill levy comes out to $1.79 on a $100,000 home. If increased, the half-mill would cost the same home $3.58 in property taxes.
But with cost increases, decreasing revenues from oil and gas development, and several crises looming over the Western Slope’s water, the current tax is simply not enough, Mueller said…
Mueller said the river district has cut costs in recent years, but sustaining current operations requires an increase.
And the district wants to support important projects that are currently unfunded, like identifying and developing small high-mountain reservoirs.
Those reservoirs could play a role in keeping streams flowing, and supplementing water for agriculture and municipalities “during times of severe hot, dry summers that we’re having more and more of,” Mueller said.
“We can’t do it with the current revenue stream,” he added, which is why he again asked the district’s board to look into placing the tax increase on the November 2020 ballot.
The Garfield County commissioners expressed support for the mill levy ballot language…
If the river district’s board approves the ballot language, and voters approve the property tax in November, it would bring in an additional $4.9 million to the district.
Mueller suggests using most of that for the special water projects. One example is the Windy Gap bypass, which would reconstruct a channel around the reservoir to preserve fish habitats and river flows.
The river district’s mission is “to make sure we have water for all of our industries and economic activity, everything from recreation to agriculture,” Mueller said, but that’s impossible without sufficient funding.
From the Colorado River Water Conservation District via The Aspen Daily News:
The Colorado River District will present an online seminar next week delving into the details of snowpack’s effect on water supply in an age of climate change.
The webinar, titled “Know Your Snow” and taking place at noon on Feb. 19, will feature presentations from Colorado River District Deputy Chief Engineer Dave Kanzer and Dr. Jeffrey Deems, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The presentation will highlight the latest research in snow science and the connections between snowpack and water supplies on Colorado’s Western Slope. Webinar participants will have a better understanding of our snow hydrology and its impact upon our water supplies in the face of our warming climate. They’ll also hear updates on current snowpack and snow monitoring on the Western Slope.
Over the last 20 years, snow scientists like Kanzer and Deems have noted that things are changing, causing water managers to grow concerned. Already, the Colorado River District is studying the risks to our snowpack and water supply to plan for an uncertain future.
“Snowfall and snowmelt patterns are less predictable,” Kanzer said. “Our water supply systems were designed and built in response to historical patterns, and they may also need to adapt and change. We’re seeing shorter snow accumulation seasons, more precipitation falling as rain and snow accumulating in smaller ranges on the mountainside. With these changes, we need to change our approaches to managing our water supply.”
“Know Your Snow” will explore these changes and how we might adapt. The event is free to attend, though you must register online.
The directors of the Colorado River Water Conservation District are revisiting a recommendation to ask voters to restore part of the district’s original mill levy.
River District General Manager Andy Mueller recommended at the district’s quarterly board meeting this week asking voters in the November 2020 election to raise the district’s property tax rate from a quarter-mill to a half-mill, taking its budget from roughly $4 million to $8 million.
That works out to 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value.
According to a memo from Mueller, the River District has taken steps over the last year to reduce expenses — which have climbed at a rate of 3% per year — such as putting a grant program on hold, instituting an early retirement program to reduce the number of full time employees and reducing its fleet of vehicles by two. These efforts, however, are not a long-term fix to what Mueller called a structural deficit.
Mueller’s recommendation seeks to remedy a dwindling general fund caused by the bane of many Colorado taxing districts: the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and Gallagher Amendment, which restrain the growth of government by placing limits on the amount of taxes allowed to be collected. The River District gets 97% of its revenue from property taxes.
“It’s not with lack of thought that I’m recommending this board consider asking the voters, appropriately under TABOR, to support a tax increase,” Mueller told River District directors. “We want to see that money going to partners on the West Slope and projects that span the scope of our water improvement needs.”
Some directors said they supported the measure, which was first publicly discussed at a February 2019 meeting.
“I think it’s obvious this is a necessary step forward,” said Karn Stiegelmeier, who represents Summit County.
Others agreed about the need to increase the River District’s revenue but expressed doubt a tax measure could pass in western Colorado’s more conservative counties, such as Mesa, Montrose and Delta, especially in a presidential election year with high turnout.
“I think we face a really difficult battle,” said Tom Alvey, who represents Delta County. “There are a number of tax-averse areas on the Western Slope.”
The River District was created by the state Legislature in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in 15 Western Slope counties, including Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle. County commissioners appoint its directors to three-year terms. The Glenwood Springs-based organization works to shape Colorado water policy and advocates for keeping water on the Western Slope.
Even though the River District plays an important role in Colorado water planning, its financial might has lagged behind its political clout. A revenue increase would help remedy that, Mueller said.
“What we are trying to do is respond to the public’s concerns about (a secure water future) and be the leader at the table and not just with our skilled staff and political influence, but also with money,” he said.
But before the tax money can start rolling in, voters have to know what the River District is and what it does. To that end, staff has undertaken a rebranding of the River District to help voters connect what it does with its name. Staff has stepped up efforts with social media, a newsletter and video featuring Mueller and West Slope water users, and is also planning a series of webinars and workshops around the 15 counties.
“We are trying to help people realize there is an agency charged with protecting two-thirds of the West Slope and assist in the long-range planning for water supply and helping them realize while we may not touch their daily lives, how important that work is,” Mueller said.
In addition to Mueller, the River District employs attorneys, engineers, hydrologists, legislative lobbyists and communications specialists to protect the West Slope’s water interests.
Directors did not make a decision at this week’s meeting on whether to put the tax question on this year’s ballot. Instead, they agreed to continue to research the issue and discuss it with their constituents.
“I would need some time before I say yay or nay,” said Steve Acquafresca, who represents Mesa County. “I need some time to talk to people and consider the issue.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Jan. 24 edition of the Post-Independent, The Aspen Times and The Vail Daily.
After years of their questions and concerns not being met, Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to formally oppose the water rights associated with a proposed reservoir project in northwest Colorado.
In November, the Colorado Division of Water Resources filed a motion to intervene in the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s application for a 90,000-acre-foot conditional water-storage right on the White River. The state DWR is now waiting for a judge to determine whether it will be allowed to file a statement of opposition in the case.
For more than 4½ years, state engineers have expressed concerns that the conservancy district has not proven there is a need for the water, which would be stored in the proposed White River reservoir and dam project between Rangely and Meeker. The issue is whether Rio Blanco has shown that it can and will put to beneficial use the water rights it applied for in 2014. It remains unclear whether the town of Rangely needs the water.
“And throughout this case, the Engineers have consistently maintained that RBWCD must demonstrate that its claimed water right is not speculative,” the motion reads. “Although RBWCD has addressed some of the Engineers’ concerns in the past six months, the Engineers maintain that RBWCD has not met its burden.”
State Engineer Kevin Rein said his office had been trying to resolve its concerns with Rio Blanco’s claims to water informally and doesn’t take filing a motion to intervene lightly.
“We are very aware of the influence we can have on the process and costs and delays, so we don’t just frivolously file a statement of opposition every time we have some issue with a case,” Rein said. “We believe there are issues that need to be fixed in this water-court application in order for it to go forward.”
Rio Blanco declines comment
The White River storage project, also known as the Wolf Creek project, would store anywhere from 44,000 to 2.92 million acre-feet of water. The water would be stored either in a reservoir formed by a dam across the main stem of the White River — this scale of project proposal is now rare in Colorado — or in an off-channel reservoir at the bottom of Wolf Creek gulch, just north of the river. Water would have to be pumped from the river uphill and into the off-channel reservoir.
Rio Blanco District Manager Alden Vanden Brink declined to comment on the state’s opposition, citing concerns about litigation. Vanden Brink also is chair of the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
Rio Blanco is a taxpayer-supported special district that was formed in 1992 to operate and maintain Taylor Draw Dam, which creates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely. The district extends roughly from the Yellow Creek confluence with the White River to the Utah state line.
Rio Blanco says Kenney Reservoir is silting in at a rate of 300 acre-feet per year, threatening the future of Rangely’s water supply and flatwater recreation, and a new off-channel reservoir on the White River could help solve this problem.
If a water-court judge grants the motion to intervene, the state will become the second opposer in the case. Currently, the only other remaining opposer is 4M Ranch, owned by Deirdre Macnab.
Tucked between rolling hills of arid, sagebrush-covered rangeland, the proposed reservoir and dam site abut her 13,000-acre property along the White River.
Macnab, who bought the beef and hay operation nearly five years ago, is on the board of the conservation group White River Alliance, as well as the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable. Macnab said the main reason she opposes the reservoir project is because of the state’s concerns.
“If we felt that there was a clear purpose and need that would benefit the public, then we would, in fact, be supportive of this,” Macnab said. “But the fact that the experts are saying there does not appear to be a clear purpose and need means that this would be a real travesty and waste of taxpayer money. It’s something we will continue to oppose until that changes.”
State engineers are also concerned about the vagueness of the revised amounts of water for various uses that Rio Blanco says it needs.
In a 2018 report, Division 6 engineer Erin Light questioned Rio Blanco’s claims that it needed water for industrial/oil and natural gas/oil shale and irrigation uses. In response, Rio Blanco dropped those claims but almost doubled the need for municipal and industrial use for the town of Rangely and added a new demand for recreation.
The conservancy district also set the amount of water for environmental needs for threatened and endangered species at between 3,000 and 42,000 acre-feet despite its acknowledgement that the actual amount needed for this use was unknown. Rio Blanco then added a new demand for a sediment pool of 3,000 to 24,000 acre-feet and an insurance pool of up to 3,000 acre-feet but did not describe either of these uses.
“Thus, despite removing its claims for industrial/oil and natural gas/oil shale, which originally accounted for over half the demand for the claimed water right, the total demands for water identified by RBWCD actually increased to 24,000-100,000 acre-feet,” the motion to intervene reads.
Since 2013, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has given roughly $850,000 in grant money to Rio Blanco to study the White River storage project, including a $350,000 Colorado Water Plan grant in 2018. According to CWCB communications director Sara Leonard, Rio Blanco has so far spent about 60% of these most recent grant funds.
Leonard said that DWR’s motion to intervene was not a surprise to the CWCB, that the two state agencies with seemingly differing views on the project have met and that the CWCB is aware of the state engineers’ concerns.
“The grants that have been awarded to the applicant to date have all been with the intention of helping the District with the evaluation process,” Leonard wrote in an email. “In other words, the motion has not changed the scope of the ongoing work in the grant.”
The Colorado River Water Conservation District has also given Rio Blanco $50,000 toward investigating the feasibility of the storage project.
“We are not advocates and we are not opposers,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of River District community affairs and chair of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. “It’s a regional question that our constituents need to figure out.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Craig Daily Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Jan. 17, 2020 edition of The Craig Daily Press.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Cloud Seeding Discussion with Colorado River District
A big thank you to our presenters, Dave Kanzer with the Colorado River District and Eric Hjermstad with Western Weather Consultants for a great community discussion. We had about 50 folks join us at Loaded Joe’s to learn about the weather modification tool being implemented locally.
Missed it? You can watch a recorded version here thanks to High Five Access Media and the underwriting of Eagle River Water & Sanitation District!
Here’s a guest column from Andy Mueller that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
At the Colorado River District, we are working to ensure that whatever the future holds, there’s water on the West Slope to support our way of life.
Whether you grow food, rely on clean water from your kitchen tap, or recreate on our rivers, the River District is working to develop every tool possible to ensure that West Slope water users are represented and protected.
In fact, the District recently received a $315,000 “WaterSMART” grant, which we will use to analyze many of the risks that we face on the West Slope in an uncertain water future.
Despite the optimism from recent snowfall, Colorado is still amid a prolonged decline of flows in the Colorado River — and facing more variable weather conditions and snowpack with each passing year. When you combine that with growing population in the Colorado River basin, both in Colorado and downstream, we’re looking at an uncertain water supply.
Under the Colorado River Compact, Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin are required to keep a certain amount of water flowing to states in the Lower Basin. But declining flows have signaled a risk to that obligation. And continued drought could mean water users in the Centennial State might have to reduce water use in the future without compensation in order to meet this compact commitment.
As part of a multi-state plan to avoid that, Colorado is exploring the feasibility of a program called demand management, which would pay farmers, industry and cities to voluntarily and temporarily reduce water use in order to bank it in reservoirs for use in preventing an uncompensated call. At the Colorado River District, we have concerns about whether such a program is advisable or necessary, but even as we seek answers to those concerns, others are looking at how such a program will be structured.
Right now, there are a lot of questions. As Colorado decides if and how demand management would be implemented, we want to advocate for rules that are the best possible for West Slope water users. We are studying the hypotheticals and talking to a broad set of water users to understand what might work in western Colorado.
The Colorado River District received its $315,000 WaterSMART grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of a federal water planning program. We will be working with the Southwestern Water Conservation District, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, The Nature Conservancy, Basin Roundtables, the state of Colorado and others to study risks to our water supply. Leveraging these federal funds and partnerships allows us to do more to protect West Slope water users.
Agricultural producers play a critical role in our local economies, whether it’s equipment repairs at a local mechanic or a ranch hand buying a burger at the local diner. Our main street businesses could see changes if farmers, even temporarily, aren’t farming.
To understand how our local economies might be affected by demand management, the River District is sponsoring a study of the potential secondary economic impacts that such a program could have on the businesses and communities that West Slope agriculture supports.
The grant will also fund the next phase of a multi-year study to understand the risk to Colorado’s water users if a call under the Colorado River Compact requires that we use less water. This study is designed to give us all an idea of what water rights might be curtailed by a compact call, giving water users across the West Slope a better idea of what could happen to their water.
Finally, the WaterSMART grant will help us bring West Slope water users together to understand how to create a program that makes sense for them. While we can’t get the thousands of water users in the Colorado River District in a room to decide what demand management should look like, we’ll be working with a broad cross-section of water users from different industries and communities in the district to do just that. We want to be sure that if demand management is implemented, it works for ranchers, towns, and rivers in western Colorado.
All these studies and conversations will give West Slope water users the information and tools they need to decide if they should take part in demand management. They will also better allow the Colorado River District to advocate for those users and protect water on the West Slope in an uncertain future.
Water managers from throughout the Colorado River Basin took the stage at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference earlier this month to talk about conserving water in the face of the twin threats to the river: increasing demand and climate change.
The state of Colorado is currently exploring a water-use-reduction program that is largely designed to pay farmers and ranchers on the Western Slope to voluntarily conserve water. While there’s still debate whether such a program should be implemented, the first question many ask is how to pay for such a program. In recent months, some water managers have come up with innovative ways to fund the controversial water-use-reduction plan — known as demand management — that wouldn’t rely entirely on taxpayers.
The drought contingency plan, which water leaders inked at last year’s annual CRWUA meeting, set up a reserve account of 500,000 acre-feet of water that the Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — could use to store water in Lake Powell as an insurance policy against dwindling reservoir levels.
In November, Colorado voters passed Proposition DD, which is projected to funnel roughly $16 million a year to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, or CWCB, by taxing sports betting. Demand management is one of the two things money from Proposition DD could fund (the other is Water Plan grants).
However, it’s widely accepted that $16 million is not enough to fund either of those things in their entirety. Demand management needs other sources of money.
Although the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District still isn’t convinced that a demand-management program is the right approach for the Western Slope, general manager Andy Mueller told the Las Vegas crowd that the Upper Basin has to reduce its water consumption — and explore creative solutions to accomplish that.
“I often talk about the Lower Basin overuse and how that’s driving the problem, and I will say they in the Lower Basin need to fix that problem,” Mueller said. “I will also say we in the Upper Basin … need to reduce our use. The science is pretty clear. Water we all thought was there even 15 years ago is not going be there. You can’t have water for the environment and the people if we are not reducing consumptive use throughout the basin.”
Who should pay?
So, if nearly all water users on the Colorado River, including those in the Lower Basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — would stand to benefit from a demand-management program, who should pay for it?
Not Colorado taxpayers, Mueller said, at least not entirely.
“Eighty million (dollars) a year would need to be out there in payments to get the appropriate amount of water in Lake Powell,” he said. “That cost to taxpayers is too high. So you turn to: Who else benefits from us creating a storage account in Lake Powell?”
One answer: power providers in both the Upper and Lower Basin states, who all need Lake Powell to remain above 3,525 feet, the minimum level required to continue generating hydropower. Some Upper Basin power cooperatives such as Western Area Power Administration, which sell power to local communities, including Aspen and Glenwood Springs, purchase hydropower generated at Lake Powell. Adding a small demand-management surcharge to customers’ bills is something that should be explored, Mueller said.
“Power customers should share in the costs of us storing for demand management,” Mueller said.
Another potential source of funds could be nonprofit environmental groups, since sending more water downstream to Lake Powell would also benefit stream health. The federal government, whose Bureau of Reclamation operates Lake Powell and Lake Mead, also has a role to play, Mueller said.
But no matter where the money comes from, Mueller said it must be channeled through the CWCB in a heavily regulated market to prevent speculation by private buyers.
“We have been very clear it needs to be a guided market if it’s going to happen, with lots of thoughtful, proactive rules to prevent lots of serious consequences,” he said.
The CWCB currently has a workgroup devoted to exploring how to fund demand management. The group has met twice so far, but CWCB facilitator Anna Mauss said the two biggest questions the group is grappling with are these: how much water is needed and what would the cost be. The workgroup, she said, will dive deeper into funding strategies at the next meeting, scheduled for the end of January.
“We are baby-stepping into this, trying to be diligent,” Mauss said. “It’s really just looking at scenarios at this point.”
The state is also encouraging innovative ideas from the private sector. The CWCB recently awarded $72,000 to 10.10.10, a Colorado Nonprofit Development Center project that aims to tackle “wicked problems” in water and climate. Under the program, 10 entrepreneurs will, over 10 days, attempt to tackle 10 systemic issues that are not adequately addressed by government, organizations or institutions.
“Yes, we are looking at demand management, and it could be one of the wicked problems we address,” said Jeffrey Nathanson, president of 10.10.10.
Platform for payment?
While some people work on finding sources of funding, others are already creating a platform to pay irrigators once the money is in place. Southwest Colorado water managers Steven Ruddell and David Stiller think a reverse auction to compensate water users for using less is the best way to go.
A reverse auction, which features many sellers (farmers and ranchers) and one buyer (the state of Colorado through the CWCB), would allow water-rights holders to set the lowest price they are willing to accept to voluntarily send their water downstream. According to Ruddell and Stiller’s paper on the subject, a reverse auction would remove paying for demand management from a political process and move it into a market-based process that lets water-rights holders bid the fair-market value of their water. It would also keep costs down for the CWCB.
Ruddell and Stiller presented their reverse-auction idea at the Upper Colorado River Basin Forum at Colorado Mesa University last month.
“We’ve tried to bite off a small piece of demand management by suggesting we use an auction that people are familiar with,” Ruddell said. “It’s used to determine the value of something, especially in the ag world.”
There are still many questions surrounding how a demand-management program might be paid for.
“There are all sorts of options,” Mueller said. “We shouldn’t just focus on raising taxes in our state.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Dec. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.
Click here to view the Twitter hashtag #CRWUA2019 from the conference.
The fight over damming the Crystal River has been resurrected, this time before there are even any dam projects to fight over.
The Colorado Basin Roundtable voted Monday to recommend the state give $25,000 toward a water study in the Crystal River basin, despite calls from some to deny the Water Supply Reserve Fund request because of concerns that a study might conclude there is a need for water storage.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District brought the grant request to the roundtable in Glenwood Springs in an effort to solve a long-acknowledged problem on the Crystal: In dry years, there may not be enough water for both irrigators and some residential subdivisions.
On Nov. 18, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable gave its unanimous support to the grant application, even though its support was not necessary. Although the Crystal is in the Colorado River basin, its headwaters are in Gunnison County, and so the Gunnison roundtable decided to voice its support.
The feasibility study would look at water demands and options for creating a basinwide backup water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan. The study will look at small storage alternatives, probably off the main stem of the Crystal. Until the study is completed, it’s unclear how much water is needed for a basinwide backup supply.
But some fear that the plan could include dams and reservoirs on the free-flowing Crystal, and they opposed the grant unless storage was off the table.
Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury requested two amendments to the grant application: that any reservoir would be off the main stem of the river and would only be located downstream of the Sweet Jessup Canal diversion (about 2 miles downstream of Avalanche Creek) to preserve the possibility of designating 39 miles of the Crystal River as Wild and Scenic.
“We are not going to support this application as it’s currently written,” McNicholas Kury told roundtable members Monday. “The county continues to support Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal.”
McNicholas Kury and two other roundtable members voted against the funding: recreation representative Ken Ransford and Eagle County representative Chuck Ogliby, who owns the Avalanche Ranch Cabins & Hot Springs in the Crystal River Valley.
The Crystal River Caucus, which doesn’t have a seat on the roundtable, also objected to the grant application and passed a resolution at its Nov. 14 meeting to that effect. In a letter to the roundtable, the caucus said it does not support the grant and urged voting roundtable members to deny the request. The caucus would, however, support a study and augmentation plan that evaluates options other than storage.
But others downplayed the threat of dams, insisting they won’t happen.
“You’re not going to see a dam on the main stem of the Crystal,” said Colorado River District President Dave Merritt. “It’s not going to happen. The river district is not predisposed to dams. There is a need for a small amount of augmentation water up there. We are talking tens of acre-feet, probably.”
No backup supply
During the historic drought of late summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. This means, in theory, that junior-rights holders upstream have to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1885, can receive its full decreed amount.
Most junior-rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which lets them continue using water during a call by replacing the called-for water with water from another source, such as a reservoir or exchange. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.
Without an augmentation plan, these entities — which are the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company, Chair Mountain Ranch, Crystal River Resort, Crystal View Heights and Seven Oaks Commons — could be fined for every day they are out of priority and could potentially have their water shut off, if there is a call on the river.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 5 engineer Alan Martellaro said instead of each subdivision coming up with its own augmentation plan, a basinwide approach makes more sense.
“We think it would save everyone money if we had a reasonable regional solution,” he said. “It looks a lot to us that a call from the Ella Ditch is going to be more common in the future.”
To understand why some groups are opposed to even just a study whether storage is an option, it helps to review the contentious history of water development in the Crystal River Valley.
In 2011, the West Divide district and the Colorado River District abandoned their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water storage on the Crystal River after local groups — Crystal River Caucus, Pitkin County and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association — opposed the reservoirs tied to the conditional rights. Known as the West Divide project, the now-defunct conditional water rights were tied to a dam on the Crystal just downstream from Redstone, which would have created Osgood Reservoir, and a dam on the Crystal at Placita, which is at the bottom of McClure Pass.
To try to prevent the specter of dams coming back to haunt the Crystal in the future, Pitkin County and other local groups have pushed for a federal designation under the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968, which requires rivers to be free-flowing. The Colorado River District opposes the designation.
“With our challenging history with both the river district and West Divide … this is why we are very nervous whenever we hear discussion of any dams on the Crystal River,” said Bill Jochems, Redstone resident and member of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board.
In the end, the roundtable approved the grant request. A motion to amend the request with a no-storage requirement failed.
“Obviously, storage is not the first choice,” said Ken Neubecker, the roundtable’s environmental representative and Colorado project director for environmental organization American Rivers. “But you have to look at all the options, including storage, or you’re just not being responsible.”
The two conservation districts plan to ask for a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Water Plan grant fund in early 2020 to fund the roughly $100,000 project. West Divide plans to contribute $15,000 and the Colorado River District $10,000.
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Aspen Times.
Water sufficient for more than 1 million homes on the Front Range could be lost, and thousands of acres of farm land on both the Eastern and Western Slopes could go dry, if the state can’t supply enough water from the drought-stricken Colorado River to downstream states as it is legally required to do, according to a new study.
Among the study’s key findings:
+ In the next 25 years, if the state does nothing to set more water aside in Lake Powell, the Front Range could lose up to 97 percent of its Colorado River water.
+ All but two of the state’s eight major river basins, under that same “do nothing” scenario, also face dramatic water cutbacks.
+ If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico increase their water use by as little as 11.5 percent, as predictions indicate they will by 2037, the risk of a legal crisis spurring such cutbacks on the river doubles, rising from 39 percent to 78 percent, under one scenario, and 46 percent to 92 percent under another.
“Every water user in every river basin [linked to the Colorado] faces some risk,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, one of the sponsors of the Colorado River Risk Study, as it is known. The Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District also sponsored the work.
“That’s an important takeaway because when you begin to realize the extent of potential damage, whether it is on the West Slope or the Front Range, then we all come to the realization that we have a shared risk,” Mueller said.
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s supplies are divided between the four Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) and three Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona). The compact dictates that cities and farmers in the Upper Basin whose water rights were obtained after the compact was signed would have to give up some or all of their water to the Lower Basin if there isn’t enough water in Lake Powell to meet the terms of the compact. Colorado uses the most water of all the Upper Basin states and therefore faces the most risk.
The study was conducted by Boulder-based Hydros Consulting and released in June. It looked at different scenarios for the way river conditions and reductions to diversions could play out, as well as ways to reduce the risk cities and farms face, including spreading the cutbacks proportionately among all the river basins, something that isn’t typically done.
Front Range water utilities are wary of the study and have begun a new round of analysis to determine if they agree with the results.
Alex Davis is a water attorney for the City of Aurora. At a recent forum on the risk study, she said that the chances of a Colorado River crisis were being exaggerated. And the study acknowledges that under some scenarios the risk of such a legal crisis is low.
“All of this talk is helpful to get people to think about the issue, but it also seems like a bit of scare tactics. If the Lower Basin states did try to do something, there would be a whole number of reasons [they would not get far],” she said.
Including the fact that they continue to overuse their share of the river by about 1.2 million acre-feet a year. Before Colorado and its northern neighbors were asked to cut back, the Lower Basin would have to do additional cutbacks as well, she said.
West meets east
Though the Colorado River flows west, and originates in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, a large chunk of its flows, more than 530,000 acre-feet, are pumped east over the Continental Divide to the state’s Front Range cities, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Boulder, Fort Collins and Broomfield, among others. That’s enough water to supply 1.06 million homes or to irrigate more than one-half million acres of crops.
Because these water users built their tunnels and reservoirs decades after the 1922 Compact was signed, they could be among the first to be cut off. Denver’s largest storage pool, Dillon Reservoir, was completed in the 1960s. East Slope cities and farmers would lose 97 percent of their Colorado River supplies if those diversions were completely shut down, according to the study.
“You have to start with the fact that 50 percent of the water on the Front Range comes from the West Slope. Should the Upper Basin fail to meet its delivery obligation, half of water use on the Front Range would be curtailed. That’s an enormous problem,” said Brad Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.
Other parts of the state also face risk, some more than others. The Yampa River Basin, home to Steamboat Springs, would lose slightly more than 70,000 acre-feet of water, or 30 percent of its Colorado River supplies.
The Gunnison Basin, where agriculture controls historic water rights that pre-date the compact, is better protected, with the potential to lose just over 57,000 acre-feet of water, or 10 percent of its share of the river.
But a large swath of the southwestern part of the state would also be hard hit. Despite the historic farm water rights in this region, several small communities and irrigation districts built reservoirs after the compact was signed, just as cities did on the Front Range, meaning that those stored water supplies are also at high risk. In this basin, 178,000 acre-feet of water, roughly 36 percent of its Colorado River supplies, could be lost, according to the study.
The likelihood of ongoing drought and hotter summers only deepens the uneasiness over the river’s ability to produce the amount of water the state once relied on.
“We don’t expect to see cooler temperatures in the future, we expect to see warmer temps,” Mueller said. “If that is true, then we have to plan on reduced water supplies within our state.”
Saving more water?
The study comes as the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the lead water policy agency in the state, is examining whether to launch a massive, voluntary conservation program that would allow the state and its neighbors to save some 500,000 acre-feet of water and store it in a newly authorized drought pool in Lake Powell. The pool, to be used only by the Upper Basin states, could help protect Colorado and its neighbors if drought and climate change continue to sap the river’s flows.
Michelle Garrison is a modeler with the CWCB who has analyzed the study’s results. She said the scenarios it considered are important for comparative purposes and may help the West Slope and Front Range collaborate on any water cutbacks, something that hasn’t always occurred in the past.
“It’s a tough one,” she said. “The hydrology in the Colorado River has always been extremely variable and it’s predicted to become even more variable. But I’m really pleased to see them sharing their results.”
In places like the Yampa Basin, if the state cut back water use based strictly on prior appropriation, where water right dates determine who gets water first in times of shortage, Stagecoach Reservoir, the most significant storage pool in the valley, could be shut off because its storage rights date only to the 1980s. And residents would be hard pressed to cope if another long-term drought drained the river and their only source of stored water was no longer able to refill.
Kevin McBride is manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns Stagecoach. He, like dozens of other water managers across the state, is still contemplating the options. (Editor’s note: McBride serves on the board of Water Education Colorado, which houses Fresh Water News.)
“Generally being safe from drought is what it’s all about,” McBride said. “But how do you get there?
“It’s complicated and it comes down to how it’s done.”
McBride and others on the West Slope are asking for another round of modeling that would examine more equitable ways to cut back water use, so that no one takes the brunt of the reductions.
With insurance, or without?
Others have suggested that the state should let the rules embedded in the 1922 Compact and Colorado’s water rights system play out, rather than creating an expensive, legally complex water conservation program.
Anne Castle is a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources who specializes in Colorado River issues. Going without a major conservation program carries its own set of very high risks, such as decades of expensive lawsuits or unplanned water shortages.
Over the next several months, the state will continue to examine how best to protect its Colorado River water as part of drought planning work it is engaged in with the other Upper Basin states. Late next year, all Colorado River Basin states will begin negotiating a new set of operating guidelines for the entire river system, designed to bring it back into balance and slash the risk of major cutbacks.
“Truly one of the points of this risk study is to make sure that anyone who is at risk understands the risk,” Mueller said. “If you’re a water planner, it may set off some alarm bells. But we don’t want people to panic. The hope is people will look at this and say, ‘Our community is at risk…what are we going to do about it?’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
From the Colorado River Water Conservation District via The Aspen Times:
The Colorado River District recently received special recognition from the Special District Association of Colorado.
The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District was named the 2019 J. Evan Goulding District of the Year by the association. The award is given annually to single out a district that demonstrates exceptional leadership and community spirit.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District, commonly known as the Colorado River District, was created in 1937 to oversee conservation, use and development of water resources of the Colorado River and its principal tributaries in the state of Colorado.
The river district is composed of 15 Western Slope counties with about 500,000 residents. The district covers about 29,000 square miles or roughly 28 percent of the land area of the state. It works to protect 70 percent of the water resources in the state. One way it fulfills its mission is through water storage and operational solutions that ensure economic, agricultural and environmental health of western Colorado. It also undertakes legislative and regulatory advocacy at the state and federal levels.
The district is overseen by a board of directors with one appointed representative from each of the 15 counties.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
RIVER DISTRICT SEMINAR TALKS
The Colorado River District’s annual seminar drew a big crowd and featured speakers with provocative ideas, like a “grand bargain” to cap upper basin uses in exchange for lifting the threat of a compact call by the lower basin. You can access video of the talks and the slides presented here.
Click here to view the Twitter storm from the seminar.
Two water-conservation districts are working to find solutions to a long-simmering problem on the Crystal River: In dry years, there may not be enough water for both irrigators and some residential subdivisions.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District plan to submit a state grant request for a feasibility study on a basinwide augmentation plan, or backup water supply plan, for the Crystal. The study would look at water demands and augmentation strategies, including the potential for a reservoir in or near the town of Marble.
he historic drought late in the summer of 2018 illustrated some long-acknowledged problems with water rights on the Crystal. In August and again in September, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. This means, in theory, that junior-rights holders upstream have to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch can receive its full decreed amount.
No back-up water supply
Most junior-rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which lets them continue using water during a call by replacing the called-for water with water from another source, such as a pond, a reservoir or an exchange.
The problem on the Crystal is that several subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.
“This hasn’t been a surprise for at least 30 years,” said John Currier, chief engineer for the river district. “This is a well-known problem. The issue has been out there all the time, but the call is potentially becoming more frequent in those kind of dry years.”
The entities that were out of priority in 2018 — and therefore could potentially have water to homes shut off to satisfy a downstream call — include the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company, Chair Mountain Ranch, Crystal River Resort, Crystal View Heights and Seven Oaks Commons.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources, which administers the calls, sent these entities letters encouraging them to create an augmentation plan. Otherwise, their water could be shut off or they could be fined for every day they are using water out of priority when there is a future call by a downstream senior-rights holder.
Division 5 Water Engineer Alan Martellaro hopes it won’t come to that. Issuing fines won’t do anyone any good, he said.
“We basically told everybody: As long as we are moving forward and not dragging our feet, we are not going to issue any orders, especially since we are searching for regional answers,” Martellaro said.
West Divide, which is based in Rifle, with its boundary extending up the Crystal River Valley nearly to McClure Pass, sees the situation as an opportunity for basinwide cooperation to find what will probably be a multi-faceted solution. But that will require groups that were once at odds to work together.
“At this point, we are just getting back into this to see what’s feasible, and at this point we want to, and are open to, working with any interested parties up there,” said Bruce Wampler, a West Divide board member.
In 2011, the West Divide district and the Colorado River district abandoned their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water storage in the Crystal River drainage after local groups — Crystal River Caucus, Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association — opposed the reservoirs included in the conditional rights.
At the Gunnison Basin Roundtable meeting in Montrose on Sept. 16, Wendy Ryan, project manager for Colorado River Engineering, an engineering firm that works with West Divide, asked roundtable members for a letter of support for the grant application. (The town of Marble, which could be the site of storage, is in Gunnison County, but not in the Gunnison River basin.) Some roundtable members said they want to see the involvement of environmental groups before they would offer a letter of support.
“It’s going to be a hard nut to crack,” said Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck, a roundtable member.
As of Thursday, no members of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board said they had been informed of the grant application or the augmentation-plan study. The group officially opposes the construction of new storage facilities in the Crystal River watershed.
To get the state money from the Water Supply Reserve Fund, the feasibility study request must be approved first by the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and then the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The request, though not yet finalized, will probably be for roughly $100,000, Currier said.
West Divide introduced the proposal to the CBRT on Monday, and plans on putting forth a formal grant request in November.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Sept. 24 edition of the Times.
On Thursday, Steamboat Resort announced that it plans to donate $500,000 to the Yampa River Fund as a founding donor to the new endowed fund, which will pay for projects to protect the Yampa River’s flow…
The Yampa River Fund will pay for three types of projects aimed at benefiting all water users, from South Routt ranchers to Steamboat rafters to people drinking water from Craig faucets and the endangered fish living in Dinosaur National Monument. This includes leasing water to boost flows in dry years, actions to restore the river health and water infrastructure improvements.
The $500,000 donations will be matched dollar for dollar under a million-dollar matching challenge grant, boosting the amount raised by the money to $1 million…
The Nature Conservancy will lead management of the fund until at least 2021.
Perlman said the resort is “putting their money where its mouth is” in supporting its core values, particularly collaboration and environment. This donation is the largest single cash donation since the resort was founded in 1963. Last week, Steamboat Resort also announced it has created a new department focused on environmental sustainability…
The resort will donate $100,000 per year to the fund for the next five years.
Smith said Ski Corp.’s donation “lays a strong foundation for the effort to be successful.” Ski Corp. will participate in the fund’s board of directors and the smaller steering committee that will make funding decisions…
Ski Corp. will join about 20 other local governments, companies and organizations overseeing the fund’s operation. Other entities range from agricultural organizations, such as the Moffat County Cattleman’s Association and Community Agricultural Alliance, to nonprofits, such as the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council and Friends of the Yampa, to businesses, including Smartwool and Tri-State Generation and Transmission…
[Nancy Smith] also noted there’s still $2 million needed to reach organizers’ fundraising goal of $4.75 million over the next five years.
On Thursday, Sept. 19, community members gathered in Steamboat Springs for the launch of the Yampa River Fund, an endowed fund that will be used to fund projects to improve river health, protect the water supply, and boost river flow in dry years.
Currently the fund has about $2 million, but organizers plan to build the fund up to $5 million.
The Yampa River Fund specifically directs its money to goals included in several Northwest Colorado river management plans, including those created by the Yampa, White and Green River Basin Roundtable, and many others. These goals include protecting water users on the Yampa from curtailment, finding ways to address water shortages, and keeping water infrastructure up to date.
Another factor that instigated the water fund are the reservoir releases that are becoming a regular occurrence to increase river flow in dry years…
Other signatories that have joined Craig and Moffat County in the fund include the Colorado River District, the Colorado Water Trust, the Community Agriculture Alliance, Friends of the Yampa, Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, Northwest Colorado Chapter of Parrotheads, Routt County, Smartwool, Steamboat Ski Resort, the Nature Conservancy, and the towns of Dinosaur, Hayden, Oak Creek, and Yampa…
The fund would have a steering committee of nine members along with a four-member board and the Nature Conservancy has apparently taken the lead on dispersing the funds. Any decision made on the board must be by unanimous consent, meaning if Moffat County doesn’t agree, it won’t happen…
Craig City Council signed the agreement at their Sept. 10 meeting. The city is interested in using the fund to possibly finance a diversion structure on the Yampa River near Loudy-Simpson park.
I’ll be at the Colorado River Water Conservation District Annual Seminar today. I will post the seminar hash tag as soon as we work it out this morning. You can follow along on my Twitter feed @CoyoteGulch.
FromThe Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Thomas Phippen):
After 28 years with the River District, Treese is set to retire Sept. 13.
“Time really does fly, and the issues persist,” Treese said in an interview at his Glenwood Springs office, located across the street from Two Rivers Park, right beside the river that provides water to states in the Western U.S. and Mexico.
For the last third of the River District’s 82-year history, Treese has been the organization’s external affairs director, managing communication of the district’s mission to the public; to other nongovernmental organizations; and to local, state and the U.S. government.
And during that timeframe, change has been a consistent.
Water demands — and the way water is conserved — has changed somewhat.
As the Western Slope has grown, the meaning of conservation evolved, placing more value on environmental priorities and recreational use of the rivers. Conservation has come to mean something different and the advent of climate change has forced the River District to think in different ways.
“The conservation in our title, historically, meant building a dam to conserve spring runoff for later use, year-round allocation,” Treese said. “We have grown as the term has grown.”
Treese joined the River District as director of external affairs in 1991. He started as a one-man external affairs department, and now has four people working with him.
The River District is funded by a relatively small property tax, and is tasked with ensuring that water is conserved and managed to accommodate the many uses — from agriculture and oil extraction to providing cities with water and making sure there’s enough water in the river for recreation and the people downstream.
During the past 20 years, growing populations, shifting priorities and increased demand for water has needed many creative solutions, some of which Treese has been a part.
For example, Treese remembers the development of instream flow policies, which started out as a creative solution and is now precedent across the western states.
The instream flow doctrine is not a particularly recognized term but it was critical during the creation of the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness area around 2009.
“One of the core values in the West is protecting and maintaining the states water rights,” Treese said.
But with the creation of a wilderness area, the federal government naturally exerts control over the water. The Dominguez area, however, was downstream from non-wilderness streams, setting up a struggle between holders of water rights and the feds.
“We came up with an approach to the federal interest in water that implicitly relies on Colorado’s instream flow law,” Treese said.
WATER SCARCITY AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Treese has two degrees in economics, a bachelor’s from Colorado College and a masters from Denver University. He likes to joke his degrees “are largely irrelevant to my current field.”
But economics at its most fundamental level studies the allocation of scarce resources, and in the West, water qualifies — especially in a warming and unpredictable climate. Water consumption plus the demand for water in the rivers for fishing and recreation have placed strains on the system.
On top of that, “You have a supply that by almost all scientific accounts is diminishing,” Treese said. “The last two decades certainly point to it.”
“We have grown in the west where demand exceeds supply,” Treese said.
Still, it’s critical to plan for the uncertainty.
“Climate change is in every conversation,” Treese said. “It’s part of every future forecast. It’s a large part of what we’re doing now.”
Gov. Jared Polis appointed Treese this year to the Water and Power Development Authority, which implements federal funds for water treatment systems. Treese serves on the Water Education Colorado Foundation, and Garfield County asked him to facilitate a water forum for local governments and utilities. He also will stay on the Club 20 board for Garfield County, and on Glenwood Springs’ streams and rivers committee.
Treese’s experience in the world of water issues taught him a helpful lesson that could be expanded to a number of occupations.
“There is no guidebook, no textbook, there is no lesson plan,” he said. “It’s getting out there, finding good people and working with them.”
Click here and here to view posts from Coyote Gulch that mention Chris. [ed. I misspelled his name many times over the years]
A “rooster tail” is formed by the water descending the Granby Dam spillway on July 19. Photo credit: Northern Water
Wolford Mountain Reservoir. An aerial view of Wolford Reservoir, formed by Ritschard Dam. The Colorado Water Plan outlines many different types of projects, including reservoirs and dams, that need funding.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Some rejiggering of reservoir operations in the upper Colorado River watershed is taking the heat off trout in Grand County through the early release of water that had been set aside for endangered fish in Mesa County.
The approach is being made possible by storing water elsewhere so it can be released for the endangered fish when they need it later.
Under the agreement involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Colorado River District, an additional 35 cubic feet per second of water started being released last week from Lake Granby, also known as Granby Reservoir, in the Colorado River headwaters. That nearly doubled Colorado River flows immediately downstream.
The increased flows help reduce daytime temperatures in the river, which had begun topping 60 degrees and threatening the health of trout. The releases involve water normally stored in Granby for use in boosting flows in the river near Grand Junction for endangered fish such as the humpback chub and razorback sucker.
The endangered fish still will get water under the deal, however. In exchange for the additional water coming out of Granby, the river district is withholding 35 cfs of water from Wolford Mountain Reservoir, which sits above Kremmling on Muddy Creek, a Colorado River tributary. That’s below the problem stretch of the Colorado River, thanks to inflows to the river coming from Muddy Creek and other tributaries, so the Wolford water that’s being withheld doesn’t hold the importance to the trout that the released Granby water does.
“There’s plenty of water in the river except for in that stretch below Granby,” said Jim Pokrandt, a river district spokesman.
Pokrandt said the Colorado River is currently a “free river” right now in Colorado. There are no calls on it to meet the needs of senior water rights holders when flows are more limited. But the upper stretch in Grand County in the Hot Sulphur Springs area is depleted due to transmountain diversions to the Front Range.
Withholding the Wolford water means it will be available for the endangered fish during lower-flow periods on the Colorado River in Mesa County, in lieu of the water that is being released from Granby.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
RISK STUDY RESULTS
Phase III of the Colorado River Risk Study spearheaded by Colorado’s Colorado River District and Southwestern Water Conservation District has yielded some modeling results on the risks of Lake Powell dropping to critical levels, as well as how various curtailment scenarios could impact Colorado River uses from different sub-basins in Colorado. The final report won’t be out until the end of the summer, but a slide show was presented at the Four West Slope Basin Roundtable meeting on June 20 in Grand Junction, and it is posted here.
…in the long-term puzzle of ensuring that the Colorado River — the main artery of the American West — provides water to the millions of people in the basin who depend on it, the challenges are mounting. And in the face of a complicated tangle of population growth, long-term drought and climate change, does 2019’s water stand a chance of making a meaningful impact?
Water experts say the answer is: Sadly, not likely.
Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller likened it to a year-end salary bonus. It’s a great development in the short term, but if it’s an anomaly in the broader picture, its effects will be minor.
“This is a short-term boon, and we should be happy,” Mueller said before adding the caveat stressed by many in the water community: “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”
A pattern of aridification
Going from the record-breaking drought of 2018 to the record-breaking water year of 2019 is a stroke of luck that has enabled a much faster recovery of fisheries, soils and watersheds, said Taryn Finnessey, Colorado’s senior climate change specialist.
Here, reservoirs such as Blue Mesa, Navajo and Ridgway are expected to rebound as snowmelt flushes through rivers.
“However, on the broader Colorado River, even with a banner water year, we won’t see a significant recovery,” she said.
Large inflows are expected into both Lake Powell on the Utah/Arizona border and Lake Mead downstream — the big reservoirs considered to be the savings accounts for the Colorado River basin. The reservoirs, which have been steadily dropping for years, are projected to end the year at slightly higher levels.
But both are so far from capacity — as of June 24, Mead was only at 40 percent, while Powell was at 51 percent, according to the Bureau of Reclamation — that these increases will, at best, put them a little more than half full by year’s end.
“So we’re not seeing a huge rebound in those really large storage buckets that provide long-term storage in the Southwest,” Finnessey said.
Why not? The short answer, she said, is climate change.
Over the past 20 years, the broader Colorado River system has experienced not only decreased precipitation — in the form of 19 years of drought — but also increased temperatures. The hotter weather creates more rapid evaporation and thirstier soils, and causes the snow to melt more quickly, transforming it from the steady flows that were once typical, into an annual big-water flush that’s harder to capture and store.
The result, Finnessey said, is a slow shift in the basin “from drought to long-term aridification” that’s drawing down the water. A growing population only exacerbates the problem. And one good year of water won’t reverse that.
In fact, Mueller said the river district’s engineer guesses it would require eight to 13 years “exactly like this one” to emerge from the deficit. So, relying on Mother Nature to turn things around isn’t a reliable option.
James Eklund, the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado Basin Commission, said the problem is that the entire system of storing, capturing and using the water of the Colorado River is predicated on the way things functioned before climate change…
Make no mistake, Eklund said, managers will store every drop they can in a year like this. Unfortunately though, “climate change is boxing Colorado water managers in from all sides.”
The result of those talks is the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which was signed in May. In that agreement, the Lower Basin states agreed to specific decreases in water use.
The plan is designed to bank water and leave it in Lake Mead, which in turn keeps more water in Lake Powell (by preventing large releases from Powell required to bail out the Lower Basin’s supply.) And unlike in the past, the water that is banked in Powell by the Upper Basin states will belong solely to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico as a sort of emergency water account.
Previously, all the water saved by Upper Basin states in Lake Powell could be released to Lake Mead for the Lower Basin states to use.
“That was a perverse incentive,” Eklund said of the former arrangement that didn’t really reward water conservation by Upper Basin states. “What we decided to do is make it a positive incentive.”
The Upper Basin states, meanwhile, agreed in the Contingency Plan to explore methods for managing and reducing consumption.
(As part of that promise, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has assembled eight workgroups to study a demand-management program for the state, which is envisioned as a voluntary program that would pay users to not use their water rights. The water saved through that program, the river district’s Mueller said, could be stored in Lake Powell to be used explicitly for Upper Basin needs.)
Finally, the contingency plan makes reservoir operation more flexible for Colorado’s Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs and Flaming Gorge in Wyoming — while still respecting the environmental considerations of their water releases…
But it’s also a problem that can’t be ignored away. “Everybody in the basin has to get better, faster, smarter at our jobs,” Eklund said. “Our policies have to become more flexible, smarter and better.”
Mueller echoed that, noting that if Lake Powell is a measure of how secure the Upper Basin should feel about its future, “we should not feel that secure.”
He said it’s time to take a hard look at measures such as removing sod, improving agricultural efficiency, crop switching and even cloud seeding.
There are models of success out there. Denver Water, which serves 1.4 million people in Denver and the surrounding suburbs, has seen its per-capita water use drop 34 percent since 2001 thanks to major conservation efforts.
“We’re actually using the same amount of water that we used in the ’70s even though our population has grown by half a million,” said Dave Bennett, the utility’s director of water-resource strategy. “And that’s really a testament to conservation.”
When it comes to the Colorado River, conservation may not be enough. For now, though, it’s one of the best tools available. So, while nobody has come up with the end-all answer for solving the long-term crisis, water managers are unanimous on one thing: Users can’t afford to waste a single drop of water, even in a year of abundance.
“We were lucky this year,” said Finnessey, the climate change specialist. “But I don’t think that’s something that we can ever assume will happen again. So we need to be really wise stewards of our resources.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Entities including Front Range water utilities and the Bureau of Reclamation on Friday began coordinating water releases from upstream reservoirs in a voluntary effort to prolong peak runoff flows in what’s called the 15-Mile Reach upstream of the confluence with the Gunnison River. It’s a critical stretch of river for four endangered fish — the humpback chub, razorback sucker, bonytail chub and the Colorado pikeminnow.
River flows at Cameo exceeded 20,000 cubic feet per second Saturday. The coordinated reservoir operations are intended to slow the decline of high flows, sustaining those flows for three to five days this week. The first releases from the coordinated program were expected to arrive Monday night; the flows at Cameo earlier Monday were at 18,900 cfs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Strong flows help remove fine sediment from cobble bars that serve as spawning habitat for the fish, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They also help reconnect the river to backwaters where the fish, especially at the larval stage, can find refuge from the stronger river flows, said Don Anderson, a hydrologist with the agency.
The releases are being made possible by this year’s ample winter snowpack, which means reservoir operators can release reservoir water without risking the ability to fill the reservoirs.
Anderson said that in some years the releases are coordinated with the goal of raising peak flows to beneficial levels, but this year the peak flows were high enough it was decided that the reservoir water instead could be used to prolong those flows.
According to a Fish and Wildlife Service news release, under the coordinated operations:
The Bureau of Reclamation is increasing releases at Ruedi Reservoir and Green Mountain Reservoir, with the Green Mountain releases including inflows bypassed by Dillon Reservoir, operated by Denver Water.
Denver Water is likely to increase releases from Williams Fork Reservoir.
Homestake Reservoir, operated by Colorado Springs Utilities, may participate in the releases after peak flows on the Eagle River recede.
The Windy Gap Reservoir and Pump Station, operated by Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, will delay pumping water to Granby Reservoir.
The current effort follows reservoir releases by the Bureau of Reclamation earlier this spring on the Gunnison River to boost flows for endangered fish there. In both cases, the efforts are planned in a way intended to keep from resulting in flooding impacts downstream.
Anderson said the coordinated spring operations on the upper Colorado River started in 1997, and by his count have occurred in 11 years since beginning…
He said that while the coordinated releases target the 15-Mile Reach, their benefits extend as far as Moab, Utah, improving management of a river floodplain wetlands there that is being used to help in the recovery of razorback suckers.
Entities including the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Grand Valley Water User Association, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, Palisade Irrigation District, National Weather Service, Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Xcel Energy also participate in the coordinated reservoir operations effort.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The river is flowing so fast right now that people can float the entire 25-mile Ruby-Horsethief stretch in a day — even as few as four or five hours, Baier said. He said his company is running guided one-day trips there right now and he thinks some people are realizing they can float the stretch in a day rather than needing to make reservations for Bureau of Land Management campgrounds.
In Glenwood Canyon, raft companies currently aren’t running the Shoshone stretch of the Colorado River due to strong flows, as is typical this time of year. Ken Murphy, owner of Glenwood Adventure Co., said that closure might last perhaps a week longer this year than in a normal year. He said the Shoshone rapids have a brand appeal and people want to raft there, but high water provides lots of other good rafting options. Last year, the Roaring Fork River didn’t provide much of a rafting season, but this year is different. While it usually offers good rafting until maybe the first or second week of July, “now we’re going to be on it we hope maybe until August,” Murphy said.
He said the Roaring Fork offers beautiful scenery away from Interstate 70 and sightings of bald eagles and other wildlife. And rapids that are usually rated Class 2 are currently Class 3.
“It gives people enough whitewater to get wet but not scare them,” he said.
Colorado River trips that put in at the Grizzly Creek area of Glenwood Canyon below Shoshone also are heading farther downstream than normal right now, to New Castle, due to the fast-flowing water, Murphy said…
Murphy said his company also owns Lakota Guides in Vail. He said the Eagle River in Eagle County will be good for rafting for longer this summer due to the big water year, meaning the company can continue offering trips to guests there rather than having to bus them to Glenwood Springs or the upper Arkansas River. He said the Blue River in Summit County also will benefit from a longer boating season.
FromThe Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Thomas Phippen):
“What a difference a year makes,” Zane Kessler of the Colorado River District said at the State of the Rivers meeting in Carbondale Thursday, comparing current snowpack averages to last year.
But as Kessler pointed out, 134 percent of average is only 34 percent better than average, and one good year doesn’t change the rising temperatures or the facts of living in the west, or the southwestern states that rely on Colorado River water are using more and more water.
The high snowpack will translate to fuller rivers and reservoirs, but it won’t solve the larger issues of what happens during the next low-precipitation year.
“One thing we noticed this year … is that our soil moisture was horribly low. So a lot of the moisture that came in the early part of this season, went to restoring those soils, and a lot of the water was sucked up,” Kessler said.
More water is being used up as temperatures rise, and both natural forests and agriculture lands have longer growing seasons.
This year, however, the biggest reservoirs in the region “are all expected to fill,” Alan Martellaro, division engineer with the Department of Water Resources, said at the meeting Thursday.
With the exception of [Granby] Reservoir, “the rest are expected to fill and spill. Hopefully, not spill,” Martellaro said.
As the weather warms and more snow melts, there is a risk of flooding on the Crystal River near Carbondale and near the Fryingpan River in Basalt.
The Crystal River “definitely will be above-bank full” at the peak flow for the year, which will likely be weeks later than usual, Martellaro said.
The usual peak occurs by June 7, but this year it will likely be between June 12 and 25, Martellaro said. The peak is also projected to last for weeks instead of days.
While snowpack is well above last year’s average and historical averages, river flows for many rivers only exceeded historical averages this week. The Colorado River just below Glenwood Springs reached 12,700 cubic feet per second Friday, above the historic median peak of 11,200 cfs, according to the USGS…
Another likely flooding area is on the Roaring Fork River just after the confluence with the Fryingpan in Basalt, Lewin said. The park was designed in part to allow the river to overflow there, she said.
From the Colorado River Water Conservation District via the The Sky-Hi Daily News:
Colorado’s eponymous river is doing relatively well in early June 2019 with significant snowpack still lingering at higher elevations, making the river basin’s water managers cautiously optimistic as they look at the state of one of the nation’s key waterways.
Last Thursday evening the Colorado River District, a special taxing district dedicated to the conservation and management of the Colorado River and its stream flows, held a public forum at West Grand High School in Kremmling regarding the current status of the Colorado River. Each year officials from the River District present a series of public forums called “state of the river” meetings in various communities up and down the length of the basin. State of the River meetings are typically held each year in the late spring prior to the start of high runoff periods and irrigation season.
The state of the Colorado River is relatively strong in 2019 following a solid year for snowfall in Colorado’s High Country but despite plentiful precipitation water managers are struggling against a surprising impediment: low temperatures.
“With this cold and wet weather, the snow is lingering much longer than normal,” Victor Lee, a hydrologic engineer with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said. “It has not run off like it typically does. We are going into June with a very delayed peak runoff.”
Despite the delayed start to high water season in the Rockies water managers are cautiously optimistic about the state of the river this year and the impacts from this year’s snowpack. Multiple officials presenting at the State of the River meeting noted they plan to fill, but not spill, the major reservoirs in Grand County with the exception of Wolford Mountain, which is expected to spill sometime later this summer. Nathan Elder, with Denver Water, said the entity he works for anticipates reduced diversions out of Grand County this year thanks to predicted higher than average native stream flows in East Boulder Creek.
Even with the improved snowpack in 2019 though officials continue to sound alarm bells about the future of the key waterway of the American southwest, noting the river basin currently consumes more water than Mother Nature replaces, even in wet years. Andy Mueller, General Manager for the Colorado River District, gave a presentation on drought contingency planning for the Colorado and made several sobering statements about the future water in the west.
According to Mueller the Colorado River basin uses up roughly 16 to 17.5 million acre-feet of water each year, though on average the basin rarely receives that much precipitation annually. To cover the gaps between how much water is consumed and how much is received water managers rely on the massive network of reservoirs that dot the western US to provide the supply. That supply is dwindling though as the water deficit continues to grow.
Mueller noted that the 10-year running average for the amount of water deposited by the environment into the Colorado River basin continues to decline. The current 10 year running average is now just above 12 million acre-feet a year. Mueller noted the ongoing impacts of climate change and a warming environment on the water picture in the west and presented a slide showing average temperature data for the Colorado River going back to 1900.
According to Mueller the Colorado River is now, on average, a full two degrees warmer than it was 30 years ago. The slide provided by Mueller shows a marked uptick in river temperatures beginning in the early 1980s. Since 1983 the Colorado River has experienced only three years when river temperatures were below historic averages.
“Recent studies indicate there is a three to four percent decline in annual runoff in Colorado for every one degree of warming,” Mueller said, noting that researches believe the decreased runoff is a result of a longer growing season, allowing vegetation to consume more water naturally.
“The forests are using more water, the riparian area is using more water,” Mueller said. “We have a supply problem. The question is, where are we headed?”
Ruedi Reservoir on Friday was just under 63 percent full as it continues to recover from the recent drought, but the wet, cool spring — more snow and rain is possible today — means there is plenty of snow remaining in the upper Fryingpan River Valley.
Gauges at and near the reservoir show winter is loosening its grip, albeit slowly. The Ivanhoe Snotel site, which sits at 10,400 feet, had a snowpack Friday that is 185 percent of normal for the day, while the Kiln site (9,600 feet) stood at 161 percent of average.
That simply means more snow is locked in at high elevations than normal for this time of the year, said John Currier, chief engineer with the Colorado River District.
“This year the snow is melting out a little later higher up,” he said. “I do expect water to be fairly high for the reservoir.”
Currier predicted Bureau of Reclamation officials, who control releases from Ruedi, to keep flows in the Fryingpan at around 300 cubic feet per second (CFS) for most of the summer. That level, which will increase drastically as snowmelt increases and fills the tub, is preferable for “fisherman wade-ability reasons,” he said. “They are typically going to have to bypass [that CFS rate] because there’s much, much more water during runoff.”
Ruedi being roughly three-quarters full in mid-May is somewhat below normal, said Mark Fuller, who recently retired after nearly four decades as director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority. That’s a sign of both a stubborn snowpack and the reclamation bureau “trying to leave plenty of room for late runoff in anticipation of a flood out of the upper Fryingpan when it gets warm,” he said…
Releases from Ruedi may make fishing the gold-medal waters below the reservoir a bit more difficult when they occur, but greatly aid the river environment in the long term, said Scott Montrose, a guide with Frying Pan Anglers.
Anybody who has gone camping in the desert for more than a day has asked the same questions that John Currier, the chief engineer at the Colorado River Water Conservation District, has been obsessing about the past 18 months.
How much water do we have left?
How much water have we been using?
How much water will we have if our friends join us and they don’t bring water?
And while many campers ask these questions standing over a 5-gallon plastic jug, for Currier, the water-storage vessel he’s concerned about, Lake Powell, holds 24 million acre-feet of water.
But the giant reservoir, formed by Glen Canyon Dam, was under 40 percent full the last week of April.
And a lot of water is still being released from the reservoir, more demands on the water are expected, and the water supply above the reservoir, in the sprawling Colorado River system, is expected to decrease.
So Currier, along with John Carron of Hydros Consulting in Boulder, has been asking questions familiar to all campers, but asking them on a much larger scale. And with a lot more at stake.
How much water in Western Slope rivers is currently being depleted, or consumed, mainly through irrigation and transmountain diversions?
How much more water is likely to be consumed on the Western Slope, and the upper basin states of Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico?
If more water is consumed on the Western Slope and the upper basin, what does that do to the risk of Lake Powell falling below 3,525 feet above sea level? That level is beneath the intakes to the dam’s hydropower plant, aka minimum power pool.
To try to get the answers, Hydros has developed a water model for the river district’s “risk study” that uses information from two other hydraulic models: one used by Colorado called StateMod, which includes detailed information about water rights and use in Colorado; and the other used by the Bureau of Reclamation called Colorado River Simulation System, which provides a regional look at the river system.
“To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think anybody has ever practically linked StateMod with CRSS, so I think the work that Hydros is doing here is out in front of anything anybody has gotten done,” Currier told the River District’s board of directors, who represent 15 Western Slope counties, on April 15. “And they are just now really getting into the guts, the interesting stuff, of the study.”
Detailed results from the risk study are slated to be shared June 20 in Grand Junction at a regional meeting of Western Slope water users and providers.
Studying the options
To handle the supply side of the scenarios, Hydros is using the recorded hydrology from 1988 to 2015, a period that was drier than even the most severe climate-change models show. As such, it’s called the “stress test” hydrology.
To model potential future depletions, Hydros has taken guidance from a series of programmatic biological opinions, or PBOs, done in various river basins as part of managing endangered fish populations.
The study is focused on the five major river basins on the Western Slope that contribute water to the Colorado River system above Glen Canyon Dam: Yampa, White, Colorado, Gunnison and San Juan.
With supply-and-demand assumptions in hand, Currier said the model can be asked a question on many people’s minds in Colorado: How might consumptive use of water be curtailed or reduced on either a mandatory or voluntary basis in order to maintain targeted elevations at Lake Powell, such as minimum power pool at 3,525 feet?
Minimum power pool makes a good target elevation for the model, because not only is the produced electricity valuable, but the elevation level also serves as a good proxy for staying in compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
If Lake Powell stays above minimum power pool, there is almost zero chance the compact will be violated, Currier told the river district board.
Colorado also is studying curtailment options using its own methodologies, but unlike the River District, it is not releasing its findings due to concerns of potential litigation.
The Front Range Water Council, an ad-hoc group of the largest water providers between Fort Collins and Pueblo, is also conducting studies that ask questions similar to those being asked by the state’s curtailment study and the river district’s risks study, according to Currier.
The river district’s model is exploring two ways a potential mandatory curtailment in Colorado could be implemented, or administered, by the Division of Water Resources.
The first way is based on the priority system in Colorado of first in time, first in right.
Say the state, in order to not violate the compact, set a goal of sending 100,000 acre-feet of water a year to Lake Powell from the Western Slope, water that otherwise would have been used or consumed.
And say the state began curtailing water rights, starting with the most junior rights, and proceeded down the list of rights, by date, until it reached rights that carry a date prior to Nov. 24, 1922, when the compact was signed.
Such pre-compact water rights are exempt from its terms.
How far down the list would the state have to curtail to put 100,000 acre-feet in Lake Powell?
And which junior rights, in each the five basins, would be curtailed first?
For example, almost all of the 600,000 acre-feet of water diverted through transmountain diversions was developed after 1922, and so the Front Range cities and farmers relying on that water are vulnerable to a compact call.
Knowing how a mandatory curtailment, administered in priority, rolls out “would really be useful for a lot of users,” Currier said.
Another way to potentially administer a curtailment is to do it on a pro-rata basis
For example, of all of the post-compact depletions occurring in Colorado, 70% are happening in the Colorado River basin proper, which includes flows above Grand Junction.
Currier said, for example, that a preliminary model run shows if the state wanted to curtail 300,000 acre-feet of post-compact water today, do so on a pro-rata basis among the Western Slope basins, the Colorado basin would have to come up with 69% of the water. And the White River basin would have to come up with just 1% of the water.
Currier said the results of the risk study will not only help how a mandatory curtailment would be implemented, it will also help inform how a voluntary program could be set up.
The CWCB is currently developing such a “demand management” program,” as are the other upper basin states. Colorado’s program is to be voluntary, temporary, compensated and equitable between basins and water users.
The framework for the nascent demand management programs was approved recently approved by an act of Congress, along with a series of other DCP agreements.
As part of DCP, the upper basin secured the option of storing 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell in a new regulatory pool that is exempt from the 2007 interim guidelines that now dictate how water is stored and released from Lake Powell.
The guidelines have a goal of equalizing the levels in both Powell and Mead, and upper basin water managers say the result is that more water is being released from Powell, to the benefit of Mead, and is reducing the upper basin’s operating cushion in Lake Powell.
This new pool of water in Powell must come from actual savings in water use, or water that otherwise would have been consumed by agriculture or cities, but instead was not used and was sent downriver to Lake Powell.
Today across the Western Slope, an annual average of 2.6 million acre-feet is being depleted, or consumed, according to StateMod. And the risk study estimates an average annual increase in depletions of 287,000 acre-feet.
The Colorado River basin, above Grand Junction, accounts for 1.2 million acre-feet of those depletions, the Gunnison for 575,000, the San Juan for 500,000, the Yampa for 197,000 and the White for 62,000.
The estimated 287,000 of total future average depletions on the Western Slope represents an 11 percent increase in water use, Currier said.
If that 11% increase is applied to the current use in the other upper basin states, it means another 390,000 acre-feet of water could be depleted in the future above Lake Powell.
Which leads to the posing of a series of questions to the Hydros model, and reflected in a chart that shows how different measures lower the risk of reaching minimum power pool.
Let’s say an additional 390,000 acre-feet of water is developed in the upper basin, the dry stress-test hydrology is applied over 25 years, and the upper basin reservoir re-operations, recently approved by Congress as part of a drought contingency planning program, are not yet in effect. What, then, happens to Lake Powell?
Well, this scenario shows there is a 17% chance that Lake Powell will fall below 3,525 feet, or minimum power pool. The risk study calls this the “baseline, future” scenario.
Now, let’s say that the new 390,000 acre-feet of depletions are made, but the drought contingency planning measures are applied, including releasing water from three big upper basin reservoirs.
This scenario, called “DCP, future,” cuts the risk level at Lake Powell to 10 percent.
Now, say that no new water is developed, or consumed, but the DCP measures are not yet in place.
That scenario, “baseline, current,” cuts the risk to about 5%.
And finally, assume that no new water is developed, but the DCP water conservation and supply measures are in place.
The risk drops to about 3%, in the “DCP, current” scenario.
“You get down to maybe a 3% chance that you’re going to drop below 3,525,” Currier said.
Given the 3% risk factor, should the upper basin also shore that number up by adding 500,000 acre-feet of water into a new demand-management pool?
If demand management — difficult and expensive to implement — is going to provide only a small pillow against minimum power pool, is it worth doing?
If it helps answer the question, Currier said the 500,000 acre-foot demand-management pool at Powell amounts to 8 feet of additional elevation, once the reservoir has dropped to 3,525 feet.
“We’re not talking a huge pillow here to save us, with 500,000 acre-feet,” Currier said.
But he noted that trying to fill that pool could still yield benefits.
First, it could show the lower basin states that the upper basin states can actually use less water, and securely get it to Lake Powell — which might lead the lower basin states to agree to an even larger demand-management pool.
Also, it could help water users in Colorado figure out how to use less water on a voluntary basis.
If they do that, they might be able to camp out a little longer with the water they have.
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Monday, April 29, 2019.
[The President] tweeted this week that he “just signed a critical bill to formalize drought contingency plans for the Colorado River.”
It was the first time that Trump had ever mentioned the Colorado River in a tweet.
And the drought contingency planning, or DCP, bill the president signed Tuesday had been whisked through Congress in just six days.
For water managers used to working in slow-moving “water time,” it was a surprise to see the federal legislation necessary to implement the DCP agreements happen so fast, and compelling for the Colorado River to be in President Trump’s hands, however briefly.
“That did go through fairly quickly, and in a relatively non-confrontational manner,” Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told the district’s board of directors Tuesday morning during a quarterly meeting.
And by the end of the meeting, Mueller was announcing that Trump had just tweeted about signing the bill.
The brief DCP bill authorizes the Interior secretary, now David Bernhardt of Rifle, to implement the DCP agreements negotiated by water managers in the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico and the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.
Perhaps less surprising to regional water managers was that the Imperial Irrigation District, which is the biggest user of water in the lower basin, wasted no time and filed a lawsuit Tuesday in an effort to halt, or at least influence, the DCP agreements. The district is seeking funding to help restore the shrinking Salton Sea and had been vocal in its dissent when the DCP bill was before Congress.
It is not clear yet how Imperial’s lawsuit will affect the still unfolding DCP process, but James Eklund, who represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission and would sign the DCP agreements for Colorado, said Tuesday he was still optimistic the agreements would be signed this month.
If the DCP agreements are finalized, it means Colorado and the upper basin states could store up to 500,000 acre-feet of conserved water in Lake Powell, and other upper basin reservoirs, and do so in a new regulatory framework that shields the water from the current operating guidelines dictating how Lake Mead and Lake Powell are operated.
Those guidelines, which sunset in 2026, seek to balance the levels of the two big reservoirs, which have been falling due to a 19-year drought, of which this past snowy winter was a welcomed exception. (The Bureau of Reclamation announced Monday that it was forecasting runoff into Lake Powell would be 112 percent of average, up from 43 percent of average in 2018.)
In balancing the levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the upper basin states feel that the guidelines require the release of too much water from Lake Powell, and they want to create a savings account they control in the big reservoir to raise the surface level and protect against a violation of the Colorado River Compact, which requires the upper basin to deliver a set amount of water to the lower basin.
With the passage of the DCP legislation, that savings account in Lake Powell is almost a reality, as is authorization for the Bureau of Reclamation to release water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs down the Green, Gunnison and San Juan rivers to help keep Lake Powell above minimum power pool.
And next comes the part where the upper basin states each have to figure out a demand management, or water-use reduction program, to fill their new water savings account.
The conserved water is supposed to come from the reduction of consumptive use, which in Colorado means it will mainly come from applying less water to fields, pastures and urban lawns.
In Colorado, it is the job of the Colorado Water Conservation Board to figure out how, and if, to start up a demand management program.
To investigate its options, the state agency plans to create eight small working groups to tackle various aspects of demand management, and officials have given people until the end of day Friday to express interest in serving on the various work groups, which are expected to meet throughout the year.
Mueller, the manager of the Colorado River District, has informed the CWCB that the district wants to place a staff member on every one of the eight work groups, given the importance of the potential demand management program to the 15 Western Slope counties the district covers.
The River District’s board wants to ensure that a demand management program is voluntary, temporary, compensated and equitable for water users across the state.
And while the CWCB has adopted a policy that includes those goals, it has confirmed that the state also is studying how an involuntary reduction in water use might happen if necessary to avoid violating the Colorado Compact.
“The state has been working on a study that evaluates the legal elements of compact compliance,” CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell said Thursday. “This is being done through a variety of evaluations that focus on avoiding the need for compact compliance and for options that the state engineer may want to take into consideration in case administration of the compact is necessary to address a compact deficit on the Colorado River.”
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Friday, April 19, 2019.
Here’s the release from the Colorado River District (Andy Mueller):
Please join us for a free, educational webinar hosted by the Colorado River District and the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies on Tuesday, April 2nd, from 12:00 to 1:00pm.
“Know Your Snow” will provide important updates on current snowpack conditions, ongoing drought in the Colorado River Basin, threats posed to our water supply by dust on snow, and an overview of changing runoff trends important to water users on Colorado’s Western Slope.
Officials at the Colorado River Water Conservation District say the market for additional water sales to cities and the energy sector from water it owns in four Western Slope reservoirs, including Ruedi Reservoir, is flat or declining.
However, the potential to sell water from the reservoirs to increase flows in rivers for environmental purposes holds promise.
As part of a Feb. 15 workshop on the river district’s financial outlook, which is challenged by the effects of two Colorado laws that put limits on property-tax revenue, district officials briefed the district’s board of directors on the potential to increase revenue to the district from additional water sales.
Today, the district’s enterprise fund brings in about $1.2 million a year from the sale of about a third of the 24,400 acre-feet of water it has available for sale in Ruedi, Wolford, Elkhead and Eagle Park reservoirs.
But there does not appear to be much future demand for the district’s unsold water.
“Municipal entities that could benefit from either Ruedi or Wolford water are already well situated for the foreseeable future through existing Ruedi and Wolford contracts,” district general manager Andy Mueller said in a Feb. 11 memo to the board of directors. “Energy demands are expected to remain modest or potentially decline as the principal use for our marketing pool by industry has been for frac water and ancillary uses. Again, absent some large-scale, industrial demand (historically, oil shale development) demands are expected to be flat.”
The district owns 11,413 acre-feet of marketable water in Ruedi Reservoir, which holds about 102,000 acre-feet of water behind a dam on the Fryingpan River above Basalt.
Today, the district has existing sales contracts to deliver to various customers 5,263 acre-feet of water from Ruedi, leaving 6,150 acre-feet of water available to sell.
In Wolford Reservoir, the district has 8,100 acre-feet of water set aside for sales. Wolford is owned and operated by the river district and located on Muddy Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River above Kremmling. The district now has sales contracts for 3,038 acre-feet of water from Wolford, leaving 5,062 acre-feet available to sell.
In Elkhead Reservoir, on Elkhead Creek, a tributary of the Yampa River near Craig, the district has 4,457 acre-feet of water available for sale but has contracts for only 100 acre-feet of the water.
And the district owns 432 acre-feet of water in Eagle Park Reservoir, which is on the upper Eagle River. Of that, 254 acre-feet is under contract, leaving 178 acre-feet to sell.
But according to Mueller, Wolford contracts have decreased since 2009 and Ruedi contracts have been flat or decreased since 2013.
A recent exception to the trend at Ruedi is a lease for water that the district signed in July with a state agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, for $229,000.
In exchange for the money, the district will ask the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Ruedi, to release this year up to 3,500 acre-feet of water from the reservoir.
Releases of the water will be timed to boost instream flows in the Fryingpan River during the winter to prevent icing and to increase flows in the Colorado River later in the year to help preserve habitat for endangered fish in the “15-mile reach” below Palisade. (The Fryingpan flows into the Roaring Fork River in Basalt, and the Fork flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs).
“There is a growing trend and acceptance for paying market rates for in-channel water,” Mueller said in his memo. “Evidence is the 3,500 AF lease to the CWCB, as well as prices paid for various non-diversion agreements in recent years. Staff recommends that the enterprise (fund) pursue creative ways to monetize our marketable yield for in-channel beneficial uses while preserving our ability to meet municipal and industrial demands when they arise.”
Tom Gray, who represents Moffat County on the river district board, was bullish on the idea of using water stored in reservoirs to bolster flows in the state’s rivers as an alternative to drying up agricultural fields to do so.
“I think in all the basins there is going to be money for that,” Gray said. “I think there is opportunity there.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published a version of this story on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, as did the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and the Summit Daily News.
Facing financial headwinds, the directors of the Colorado River Water Conservation District are leaning toward asking voters in November for relief from the Gallagher Amendment, which limits residential property-tax revenue to the district.
During a five-hour “fiscal workshop” Friday in Glenwood Springs, the river district’s directors reviewed how Gallagher shifts the tax burden away from the growing residential sector to the commercial and industrial sectors, which ends up reducing property tax revenue for the district. And the district gets 97 percent of its revenue from property taxes.
For most of 2018 it looked like the river district was facing, under Gallagher’s provisions, a $370,000 hit to its $4.5 million budget. But a January estimate put the number at $77,000.
While that’s better news for the district’s 2020 budget than anticipated, the Gallagher Amendment, named for the state legislator, Dennis Gallagher, who drafted it in 1982, “will continue to negatively impact the district in the future,” according to a Feb. 11 memo to the district’s board from general manager Andy Mueller.
“We want to stress that there is not an immediate financial crisis in the district and that the district is currently in solid fiscal health,” Mueller also wrote. But he noted that “since 2012 the district general fund revenues have remained relatively flat while our expenses, have climbed at an average rate of approximately 3% per year.”
The river district was created by the state legislature in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in 15 Western Slope counties, including Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield. County commissioners appoint its directors to three-year terms.
The organization works on shaping state and regional water policy, securing and using Western Slope water rights, operating two reservoirs, managing grants for irrigation efficiency measures, and other initiatives related to the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Mueller warned the district’s directors about potential “significant harm” to the river district’s revenue stream from the combined limitations of Gallagher and 1992’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which are made worse for the district by rising residential property values on the Front Range and a sagging energy sector on the Western Slope.
“The resultant effect of these caps has been and threatens to continue to be a diminishing of the district’s ability to provide services to our growing population and to our ability to successfully achieve our mission of developing and protecting our district’s water resource,” Mueller said in his memo.
At the end of Friday’s fiscal workshop the consensus among the directors was that asking voters in the district for relief from Gallagher in 2019 had the brightest short-term prospects, and they directed staff to proceed with developing a potential ballot question.
“Delaying this just makes this worse,” said Dave Merritt, who represents Garfield County on the river district board, which he also chairs. “We have an impending problem.”
Mueller said the staff needed more time to work with outside legal counsel on the nuances of both Gallagher and TABOR before bringing a specific question back to the board.
Martha Whitmore, who represents Ouray County on the river district board, said tax–related questions, especially for operations, can be hard to pass.
“I think we have to be really careful and pick the one that has the least resistance,” Whitmore said.
The river district in the past has asked voters for relief from the tax rate and revenue limitations of TABOR, but without success.
In 2002, ballot question 4A sought to increase the river district’s taxing rate, or mill levy, but it failed 66,946 to 53,745, or 55 percent to 45 percent.
In 2003, another ballot question, also named 4A, asked voters if the river district could keep revenue that surpassed the limits set by TABOR, but not increase its mill levy. That also failed, 51,840 to 40,141, or 56 percent to 44 percent.
Now the river district is exploring if it should follow in the shoes of Colorado Mountain College, which won voter approval to “de-Gallagherize” its district in November.
The college’s district includes Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Summit, Routt and Lake counties, and all of them but Lake County also are within the river district’s boundaries.
So, when CMC’s ballot question was approved 72 to 28 percent it did not go unnoticed by the river district.
The river district’s boundaries also include all of Mesa, Rio Blanco, Moffat, Gunnison, Delta, Grand and Ouray counties, and parts of Montrose, Saguache and Hinsdale counties.
Mesa County, home to Grand Junction, is the crux county for a potential river district ballot question, as it has the most active voters. In 2016, 107,000 of the 329,000 voters in the river district’s territory were in Mesa County. And of those, 41,460 were active Republican voters.
CMC’s well-crafted 2018 ballot question started with the phrase “without raising additional tax revenues in the year in which the mill levy is adjusted,” as opposed to an opening required phrase that tax-weary voters often search for, and reject, on ballots: “shall taxes be increased …”
The CMC ballot language also included a positive-sounding reference to maintaining “affordable college education” for firefighters, law enforcement officers, first responders, nurses and teachers.
With CMC’s recent success with voters in mind, the river district’s directors agreed Feb. 7 to hire the same expert attorney who worked on CMC’s ballot question.
And they approved a $30,000 survey of 500 active voters in the river district’s boundaries to see how a similar question might work for the river district.
The survey, conducted Feb. 7 to 11 online and on landlines and cellphones, sought reactions to a potential ballot question for the river district based on CMC’s winning question.
Like CMC’s question, the river district’s question started with the phrase “without raising additional tax revenues.”
But instead of mentioning firefighters and nurses, the river district’s potential question said it was for “continuing to legally fight to keep river water for use on the Western Slope” and “ensuring adequate supplies for farmers and ranchers in order to sustain local food production.”
The people polled liked what they heard, with 60 percent of people across the district saying they would vote for it, including in Mesa County. And those numbers went up to 72 percent when voters were informed again that the measure did not constitute a tax increase.
The Colorado River flows through the heart of Mesa County and its water makes the Grand Valley green. When the river drops due to drought, as it did in 2002, residents notice.
In late 2002, then Republican Congressman Scott McInnis, now a Mesa County commissioner, wrote a letter to editor of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, supporting the river district’s ballot question seeking relief from TABOR.
“The good news is that the Colorado River District covers fifteen counties in Western Colorado, so a tiny increase in property taxes across the district raises sufficient investment to provide West Slope solutions to Western Colorado’s water supply problems,” McInnis wrote. “You all know that I am loathe to support tax increases of any kind; however, we survived this year’s drought on the investments of past generations, now we must each make a small investment to benefit the next generation.”
But river district staff members know that the wind can also blow upriver in Mesa County.
In a contentious December 2017 meeting Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese questioned the river district’s expenses and the size of its 24-member staff, which includes water attorneys, engineers and public affairs experts.
The river district got the message, and took steps this year to cut costs during its 2019 budget planning cycle.
For example, the district’s grant program was put on hold to save $150,000 to $250,000 a year, a retirement-incentive program was started to reduce staff by three or four people by 2020 and save $300,000 to $400,000, and a 15 percent across-the-board reduction in expenses was built in to the 2020 budget.
“These efforts are needed, but they do not present a long-term fix to the district’s financial issues,” Mueller said in his memo, adding that if the Gallagher and TABOR issues were not resolved, “the district will need to make additional significant cuts in personnel, programs and services in the future.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2018. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent also published it on Feb. 19. The Summit Daily News published the story in its print edition on Feb. 20, 2019.
Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet today applauded the groundbreaking of the Fire Mountain Canal Improvement Project in the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
“Because our parents and grandparents made necessary investments in water infrastructure, agriculture has thrived on the Western Slope,” Bennet said. “We need to make these same investments for future generations. The demands on our rivers are greater than ever as we face the challenges of climate change and a growing population. Collaborative efforts like the Fire Mountain Canal Improvement project are critical to making irrigation systems more efficient to support our agricultural economy.
“Congratulations to all of the local, state, and federal partners who collaborated to make this project a reality. Our work to secure the Critical Conservation Area designation, and federal funding through the Farm Bill, are the first of many actions we can take to invest in Colorado’s water security,” Bennet concluded.
In 2014, Bennet secured the Critical Conservation Area (CCA) designation for the Colorado River Basin, making the lower Gunnison basin eligible for federal funding. As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Bennet then helped craft a new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in the 2014 Farm Bill, which secured $8 million for the Colorado River District project in the Lower Gunnison River Basin. In the 2018 Farm Bill, Bennet worked to reauthorize and increase funding for the RCPP and direct more funding toward water infrastructure and drought resilience across Colorado and the West.
The $4.6 million Fire Mountain Canal Improvement Project will build a buried, large-diameter pipeline along four miles of currently unlined canal. The project is part of the $50 million Lower Gunnison River Basin Project, spearheaded by the Colorado River District, with combined funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, local water conservancy and conservation districts, and local irrigation companies such as the Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Company.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A sweeping, multi-entity effort in the lower Gunnison River Basin to boost irrigation efficiency and help the environment is marking a milestone with the start of work on a pipeline project in the North Fork Valley.
A groundbreaking celebration Tuesday marked the beginning of the Fire Mountain Canal Improvement Project. The $4.6 million undertaking, which is expected to take two years to complete, is part of the larger, $50 million Lower Gunnison Project.
The Fire Mountain work involves converting more than four miles of open, unlined, earthen canal to a buried, large-diameter pipeline.
That will eliminate water loss along the canal route and also result in a pressurized supply reaching irrigators who can then use methods such as sprinklers or drip systems to water crops more efficiently than with flood irrigation…
Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River District, which is managing the Lower Gunnison Project, said the Fire Mountain project will benefit some 5,000 acres of irrigated ground.
The potential benefits to the Fire Mountain system were made evident last summer when drought taxed its water supply. Kanzer said Fire Mountain is what’s called a “water-short” system.
It has a brief, limited water supply season, relying on water from Paonia Reservoir and unable to tap supplies from the Gunnison River mainstem.
Kanzer said converting to sprinklers allows for switching to minimum- or low-till agriculture, which allows for carbon capture and accumulation of organic matter in soil, as an alternative to using chemical fertilizers.
These changes in irrigation approaches also mean less concentration of salts and other chemicals in soil, less salt and selenium in waterways and improved river flows, which benefit wildlife, including endangered fish downstream.
While several projects in the lower Gunnison basin have gotten underway as part of the umbrella Lower Gunnison Project, Kanzer said the Fire Mountain project is the first large one. A $5 million pipeline project in the Uncompahgre River Valley also is going forward this year, he said.
The Lower Gunnison Project incorporates funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, local water conservancy and conservation districts, and irrigation companies including the Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Co.
The project is the product of a diverse partnership and is focusing on improving agricultural water use efficiency in areas covered by the North Fork Water Conservancy District, Bostwick Park Water Conservancy District near Montrose, the Crawford Water Conservancy District and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association.
The directors of the Colorado River Water Conservation District voted Monday to endorse a new state policy regarding “drought contingency planning” designed to bolster water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, with the larger goal of avoiding violating the Colorado River Compact.
The support of the River District board, which represents 15 Western Slope counties, was expected. The district’s general manager, Andy Mueller, spoke in favor of the policy before the CWCB directors unanimously voted to approve it Nov. 15 at a meeting in Golden.
Expected or not, the support by the River District board was seen a key step in the fast-moving effort to get the four states in the upper Colorado River basin, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, and the three states in the lower river basin, California, Arizona and Nevada, to keep working together on a plan to keep the two biggest reservoirs on the river system functioning as intended.
Lake Powell today is 43 percent full. The giant reservoir formed by Glen Canyon Dam typically receives 10.3 million acre-feet of water flowing into it from the Colorado, Green and San Juan rivers each year. But annual inflows have been less than 5 million acre-feet for seven of the past 18 years, and have been below average for 15 of the past 18 years, according to a summary of recent water meeting at Colorado Mesa University prepared by Ken Ransford, the secretary of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable.
Water from the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Crystal rivers flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs.
Water managers say three more dry years could leave the reservoir too low to make hydropower at the dam, and then if drought continues, too low to release enough water to meet the upper basin’s obligations to the lower basin, which could trigger a compact call.
The timing of the River District’s vote Monday was also important, as the seven basin states are working to gain basin-wide consensus on a series of related drought contingency agreements by the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas from Dec. 12 to 14.
And if the River District had not endorsed the state’s new policy, it could have signaled discord on the plans between Colorado’s Western Slope and Front Range.
“We recognize that these policies are far from perfect. We do, however, believe that they represent a good-faith effort by the CWCB at demonstrating leadership and a commitment to many of the policies adopted by our board,” Mueller said in a Nov. 23 memo to the district’s board of directors.
The new Colorado policy, which has now been endorsed by the River District, voices the state’s support for setting up a regulated pool of water in Lake Powell designed to boost reservoir levels.
That pool of water — a tiny bucket within a very big bucket — is to be filled through a voluntary, temporary and compensated demand management, or water-use reduction, program that has yet to be set up across the upper basin states.
Colorado’s new policy also says if the voluntary program does not send enough water to the new pool in Lake Powell, and a mandatory curtail program is necessary to avoid a compact call, that such a mandatory program be set up only after a public process.
The policy also says that the voluntary program will be designed to cut back on water use on both sides of the Continental Divide so as to minimize economic hardship being focused on just one part of the state.
“One of the primary areas of concern for the West Slope conservation districts is that any demand management program not have disproportionate impacts on the West Slope and that water contributed to such a program be produced in rough proportion to the post compact depletions to the Colorado River system from both sides of the continental divide,” wrote Mueller in his Nov. 23 memo.
Marti Whitmore, who represents Ouray County on the River District board, put that concern in plain terms Monday: “I want the Front Range to actually have to turn off the spigot, so to speak.”
Soft on prior appropriation?
The River District’s endorsement of the new state policy was not without some contention, including issues raised by Glenn Porzak, the water attorney for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, which together provide water for 65,000 users in the Vail and Eagle County region.
Porzak had concerns about whether the state policy represented a retreat from the prior appropriation doctrine in Colorado, which is summed up by the phrase “first in time, first in right.”
In his letter, Porzak said language in the new state policy about potential future compact administration “is an obvious effort to protect transmountain diverters with junior water rights and should be alarming to all senior West Slope water managers, owners and organizations charged with protecting those rights.”
Porzak also questioned whether the CWCB would advocate in the future for strict adherence to the prior appropriation system, where junior water rights are cut off before senior rights, and especially water rights in use before the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed.
“The lack of commitment to the state’s constitution and laws demonstrates its intent to deviate from them should a compact call occur,” Porzak said in his letter.
The River District board discussed Porzak’s concerns and then ended up taking three votes on carefully worded motions, all of which passed.
The first vote was to formalize the River District’s support for the regional drought contingency planning efforts and the setting up a voluntary demand management program in Colorado and the other upper basin states.
That motion also said “the River District will continue to advocate on behalf of West Slope water uses in future discussions concerning a demand management program.”
The second vote was to voice the district’s support for a public process in the event that a mandatory effort was needed.
And in response to Porzak’s concerns, that motion also said the River District will only support curtailment policies or actions that are consistent with the district’s own policies regarding the Colorado River Compact.
The River District’s policy, last updated in July, recognizes that some flexibility in how the prior appropriation system is administered may be needed in the future, given the complexity of actually curtailing water rights across four Western Slope river basins based strictly on their priority date.
The third vote taken Monday by the River District board was to support, in concept, the short piece of federal legislation that is soon to be introduced and is required to allow the drought contingency planning efforts to take effect.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2018.
State cloud seeding programs. Graphic credit: The Huffington Post
Cloud seeding ground station. Photo credit H2O Radio via the Colorado Independent.
Instumentation cloud seeding research Colorado.
Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters
FromAspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):
The Colorado River District says adding to the snowpack is one way to address dwindling water supplies; a study in Wyoming showed that, when the conditions are right, cloud seeding can increase snowfall by 5 to 15 percent per storm. That translates to a slight increase in water supplies — a 1 to 5 percent increase in snowpack-derived water.
Dave Kanzer, an engineer with the River District, said more efficient storms with more snowfall can mean more water across the West.
“We’re not just talking about one county and one city,” Kanzer said. “We’re really talking about augmenting or increasing the water supply for 40 million people that rely on the Colorado River Basin.”
The River District has ongoing cloud seeding operations across Colorado, all along the Continental Divide, but not in Aspen and Pitkin County.
“We are proposing to fill in those areas upstream toward Independence Pass, to include all of the Ski Co properties, and all of the upper Roaring Fork Watershed,” Kanzer said.
He will present a proposal for a three-year cloud-seeding program to Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers Board at its meeting this Thursday. The River District has also been in talks with the City of Aspen and Aspen Skiing Company.
FromAspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):
Kanzer says the science is clear, but the process is not precise. A study conducted in Wyoming shows the conditions are only right in about 30 percent of storms, but when they are, cloud seeding can increase snowfall. That snowpack contributes to the water supply not just in the Roaring Fork Valley, but across the west.
“Even if we only increase the water supply by a small fraction, it can have wide ranging benefits,” Kanzer said, including more water in local rivers and more snow on the mountain.
The River District wants to see more cloud seeding activities in the Aspen area. On Thursday, the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Board will hear a proposal from Kanzer about expanding cloud seeding activities. He also has met with City of Aspen water officials and Aspen Skiing Company.
Rich Burkley, vice president of mountain operations for SkiCo, said the company is interested in supporting the River District, but not as a business investment. The small increase in snowfall doesn’t translate to extra powder days for skiers and riders.
“A 10-inch storm going to a 10.5-inch storm, doesn’t really do too much,” Burkley said.
While cloud seeding might not be a boon for powder skiers, Burkley said SkiCo is supportive of any measures that might help the water supply. The company has offered to participate as a site for the generators and to help with manpower to operate them.
The River District is looking for funding from Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers Board and the City of Aspen; the proposal would then need a permit from the State of Colorado.
Western Slope water managers have doubled down on their position that they will oppose federal legislation creating a new regulated pool of water to boost the falling level of Lake Powell unless Colorado adopts a policy that the pool should be filled only on a voluntary basis.
At a well-attended water meeting last week, Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said that without a new state policy putting limits on how water can be stored in the big reservoir, “You will find that our district, the Southwest District and hopefully others will be, frankly, opposing the federal legislation.”
Mueller said his district and the Southwestern Water Conservancy District “have to have those guidelines” in order to protect agriculture on the Western Slope, a stance first expressed by both districts in September.
In response to the Western Slope’s concerns, a policy on how to fill a new “demand management storage” pool in Lake Powell is being drafted by the staff of the Colorado Water Conservation Board for review by the agency’s directors Nov. 15.
“I can’t say with certainty, but I believe that policy will be established and will allay the concerns that we’ve heard,” Steve Anderson, a CWCB board member representing the Gunnison River Basin, said Tuesday at the meeting.
But there may be still be a gap between the protections the Western Slope wants and the Front Range’s stance, which is that it may be necessary to fill the proposed pool of water in Lake Powell through mandatory cutbacks in water use if voluntary efforts are not enough.
Water managers from Southern California to Wyoming are watching the ongoing debate because if Colorado can’t reach a consensus, an ongoing effort to establish a “drought contingency planning” program could falter.
Draft “DCP” agreements are now under review in seven states. They would change the way water is stored in Lake Mead, which primarily affects the lower Colorado River Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.
In the upper-basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, the DCP agreements would set up a process to release water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, if necessary.
The agreements also would create a pool of water in Lake Powell that would be shielded from current regulations that balance water levels in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Regional water officials are working hard to gain widespread consensus by Dec. 14 for the DCP agreements in both the upper and lower basins, and given how slow water policy usually moves, it’s a tight timeline.
The necessary federal legislation to implement the program may be introduced during the coming lame-duck session in Congress, and any significant opposition to the legislation, such as that from the Colorado River district, could derail the effort.
And the differing views between Western Slope and Front Range water managers now appear to be the largest obstacle to gaining consensus in the four upper-basin states.
“I’m not aware of any other issue that has risen to the top like this,” said Amy Haas, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which is coordinating the upper basin’s drought contingency efforts. “I know that some discussions have been difficult in other states, but not to this degree.”
Officials on both the Western Slope and the Front Range do agree on many aspects of demand management storage in Lake Powell, which is designed to keep Glen Canyon Dam both producing hydropower and releasing enough water to meet the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
They agree that such a program should include equitable reductions in the use of water from both sides of the Continental Divide.
And they agree that the effort should start with a “voluntary, temporary and compensated” approach, with the goal of incentivizing irrigators to fallow fields and send the conserved water downriver to Lake Powell.
But where they differ is the potential use of mandatory reductions in water use if voluntary measures are not enough to keep Glen Canyon Dam operating as usual.
In a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB, the Colorado River and the Southwestern districts said the state must declare that “Colorado’s contributions to the demand management program will be generated exclusively through voluntary, temporary and compensated contributions of water.”
The key word there is “exclusively.”
The two districts also said they were concerned “that a demand management program might morph into a mandatory ‘anticipatory curtailment’ program or something else that has not been publicly vetted.”
Meanwhile, the Front Range Water Council, which includes the biggest water providers from Pueblo to Fort Collins, told the CWCB in a Sept. 13 letter that if there is not enough water generated through a voluntary program, the state “may wish to pursue alternative measures to ensure continued compliance with the Colorado River Compact.”
To Western Slope officials, “alternative measures” sounds like mandatory “anticipatory curtailment,” where water rights are cut back by the state to avoid a compact call.
State officials continue to stress that the state is not developing a mandatory curtailment program and is only focusing on a voluntary program.
However, the Colorado River District’s Mueller has been telling Western Slope water managers that the Front Range, which uses large amounts of water from the Colorado River, is eager for mandatory curtailment.
“There are major water users, major interests in this state on the Front Range, who are talking about that,” Mueller said Tuesday at the water meeting, which was attended by about 200 Western Slope water managers and users. “Because they either don’t think we are going to get the money for a voluntary program or maybe they see advantages to be had in mandatory curtailment.”
But Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water and the president of the Front Range Water Council, on Friday rejected Mueller’s assertions that it was pushing for mandatory curtailment.
“That’s not our preference, that’s not our hope, that’s not what we want to see — it’s just reality,” Lochhead said. “It may happen. I hope it doesn’t happen. But it’s not something we’re rolling out, and the first priority should be voluntary, temporary and compensated.”
But he also said, “At the end of the day, if we’re in trouble from a compact standpoint, the state is going to have to exercise its authority.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent also published it on Oct. 29. The Summit Daily News published the story in its print edition on Oct. 30.