A “rooster tail” is formed by the water descending the Granby Dam spillway on July 19. Photo credit: Northern Water
Wolford Mountain Reservoir
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.