When environmental projects garner support from the Colorado Basin Roundtable, it’s a sign to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources that they fall in line with the Colorado Water Plan, thus making it easier to obtain grants and other funding. There’s a caveat though: The roundtable only updates its list every five years. If projects want to be added to the list, they must appeal to their representative…
The roundtable’s focus is on the Colorado River Basin, one of nine watersheds in the state and one of the largest, according to the roundtable’s website. The eight counties in the basin that have representatives sitting on the roundtable include Summit, Grand, Routt, Gunnison, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa.
The roundtable completed its own implementation plan in 2015 that outlines specific goals of the Colorado River Basin. Projects must fall in line with both this and the state plan, in addition to one of the roundtable’s six focus areas:
Encourage a high level of basin-wide conservation
Protect and restore healthy streams, rivers, lakes and riparian areas
Assure dependable basin administration
Develop local water-conscious and land-conscious strategies
Secure safe drinking water
“If your project is listed on the basin’s implementation plan, then you have a better probability of obtaining the funding,” [Peggy] Bailey said “…Through their vetting process, (the roundtable) looks at what it does for the basin and if it’s in alignment with the interests of the basin’s implementation plan. Then they will put it on this list and they will also write a letter of endorsement for the project. Then that makes it easier for the project proponents to obtain funding.”
Projects are divided into different tiers. Projects in the first tier are ready to launch, supported by an entity and determined to be of importance to the roundtable. Projects in the second tier are nearly ready to move forward, but still need to be pursued. The third-tier projects have less data, don’t have a clear entity supporting them and need to be fleshed out. Projects in the fourth tier are supported, but need to be tweaked before moving forward.
Projects in the first tier include the Swan River restoration project and the Blue Valley Ranch fishery restoration on the lower Blue River. These projects are already well underway and have organizations securing funding that are responsible for moving them along.
Another project in the pipeline is the second phase of the Blue River integrated water management plan. Backed by the Blue River Watershed Group, this was one that Bailey said she helped push forward when the roundtable was updating its list. Formerly in the second tier, this project moved to the first as the group began collecting data over the summer…
Other projects in the second tier include the Silverthorne Kayak Park, backed by the town of Silverthorne, and cleanup measures in the French Gulch mine drainage, which is backed by the town of Breckenridge and Summit County government.
Bailey pointed out that all of these projects are meant to protect the natural beauty and splendor of not just of Summit County but the entire basin, and that much of the county’s way of living is highly dependent on this single resource.
A Colorado water seminar always had climatechange on the agenda, but the tone was different this year, more alarmed, more worried, if still optimistic
What a flip-flop from 2001. We were going to war in Afghanistan, worrying about terrorists in our midst, and anthrax arriving in the mail.
The reservoirs of the Colorado River were close to full.
At the time I had given little thought to climate change, other than to be somewhat skeptical about the alarm. That changed in 2003, when I was given an assignment by the editor of Ski Area Management to round up what was being said. I read a year’s worth of articles in the New York Times and then—my eyes widened considerably—set out to find much more. It has been front and center for me ever since.
Brad Udall also immersed himself in climate change beginning in 2003. He had been trying to preserve open space in Eagle County for a few years but then returned to the Front Range. There, he directed the Western Water Assessment in Boulder and, more recently, joined the staff of the Colorado State University Water Institute as a scholar and scientist. He has expertise in hydrology but also in crunching numbers.
Over the years, Udall has distinguished himself as an expert on the effects of the warming climate on the Colorado River. His most prominent insight was a paper published in 2017 by the prestigious journal Science. Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, who also was originally schooled in Boulder and I believe still has a cabin in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride, sifted through the data before concluding that at least a third of the reduced flows in the Colorado River should be attributed to heat, not reduced precipitation.
On Oct. 1, speaking to the Colorado River District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction remotely from Boulder, Udall described the strengthened evidence that half of the reduced flows could be explained by rising temperatures. He calls it aridification.
Much worse, he said, is yet to come.
Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, had introduced the session, using words of greater alarm than I had heard at the annual seminar—and I’ve attended most, in person or virtually, since the first session in 2003. He used the metaphor of a train wreck.
“For a decade or more, we have seen the train wreck slowly moving this way,” he reiterated afterwards when I spoke to him for a story published by Fresh Water News. “It has picked up speed pretty significantly in the last couple of years. The question is how do we avert the train wreck (from coming into our station).”
Mueller had described reduced flows and warm temperatures in the Yampa River as it flows through Steamboat Springs that have caused the river to be closed to recreation something like 8 of the last 14 years. There were fish kills in the Colorado River this year. He told of shortening ski seasons and warned lower-elevation ski areas may not make it in the future.
He had also told the audience in Grand Junction that adaptations to lower flows would be necessary. Farmer and ranchers might have to cut irrigation to marginal areas, forego low-income crops. He vowed that Front Range cities would have to conserve and not expect the Western Slope to bear the burden.
Climate change has never been a verboten word at River District seminars, even if this is from an area that elected Lauren Boebert to Congress. Udall, for example, has spoken at least three times in my memory and probably more.
This year’s outlook was different, less cautious, more worried. The tone was reflected in the seminar title: “Wake-Up Call on the Colorado River.”
National publications this summer brimmed with stories about the distress of the Colorado River, especially after the Bureau of Reclamation on Aug. 16 issued a shortage declaration. Arizona is most immediately affected, but this is huge for the five other basin states, including Colorado.
Mueller agreed with me when we talked by phone that none of what happened this year was surprising. Most people involved with the river saw it coming.
I remember talking with Udall in 2019 (for a story in Headwaters, the magazine), when something called the Drought Contingency Plan was completed. That agreement tightened the belt of Arizona but kicked the fundamental decisions down the road to a plan projected to be implemented in 2026. Udall was skeptical that the emergency would be that slow to arrive.
Now there’s an awareness in the public of the brittleness of the hydraulic empire created in the 20th century in Southwest states, including Colorado. A decade, ago, there was hope that some big snow years like we had in the ‘80s and ‘90s would fill the reservoirs. We’ve had some big snow years, but the runoff doesn’t show it.
Now, one major question is whether they will go so low as to make it impossible to generate electricity.
I asked Mueller about his remarks, the tone of this year’s session. “The tone has to reflect the reality on the ground,” he said.
“I think at every level our folks who are paying attention to the science and the hydrology, there is an increasing sense of urgency in the Colorado River Basin, and it’s shared by folks on the ground today, from ranchers in the Yampa River Valley to farmers in the Uncompahgre Valley to major urban providers like Denver Water. We all recognize there is something very different going on than there was 10 years ago in the Colorado River,” he said.
“People like Brad have been saying for years that this is coming. I have seen lots of people in power turn their backs to Brad when he’s talking,” he said, likely meaning that metaphorically. “They’re not doing that so much anymore.”
What is happening is complex but understandable. There is drought, as conventionally understood, but then the overlay of higher temperatures. The warmer temperatures cause more evaporation. They cause more transpiration from plants. More precipitation can overcome this, but particularly in Southern Colorado, there’s actually been less.
The most interesting slide Udall showed compared the runoff of several rivers over time. The San Juan River—which originates in Colorado, near Pagosa Springs—had 30% less water in 2000-2019 at Bluff, Utah, as compared to 1906-1999. The decline of the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs was 6%.
Another compelling statistic reported during the seminar was about soil moisture. Dry soil sops up snowmelt before it can get to the stream. Runoff from deep snows can be lost to the previous years’ dry soils.
In 2020, the snowpack was 100% but the runoff was 50%. That soil-moisture deficit played into this year’s even worse runoff, 30% of average from a snowpack that was 90% of average.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation during the Trump years operated well, although I do remember a session at the Colorado River Water Users Association in December 2019 of top Trump water officials who sat on a panel and patted themselves on the back for the better part of an hour, seemingly oblivious to the big issue of that day. It was like the famous Trump cabinet meeting where the cabinet heads took turns praising Trump like he was the North Korean dictator.
Udall, in his presentation to the River District seminar, pointed to the tremendous drop in storage. The two giant reservoirs, Mead and Powell, in January 2020 were 90% full and held 47 million acre-feet. They are projected to fall to 15 million acre-feet combined by April 22, leaving them 30% full.
This has manifold implications—including for Colorado. In 2009, I wrote my first story about Colorado’s possible need to curtail diversions in order to comply with the Colorado River Compact. That possibility is far more concrete now, and Udall mentioned it in his presentation.
But even when it was more remote, water managers in Colorado were talking about various programs that could allow cities to pay farmers and ranchers, especially on the Western Slope, to use their water (for a price, of course). The farmers and ranchers tend to have the oldest and most senior water rights; the cities tend to have the more junior rights – almost exclusively junior to the Colorado River Compact.
Looking around me on the Front Range, I don’t see a response that I think the situation justifies. From Pueblo to Fort Collins, we all depend greatly upon imported water. That will almost certainly change. We’re going to see a very different water paradigm a decade from now. Predicting the changes is beyond me, but the water in the 21st century isn’t there to satisfy 20th century expectations.
There may be implications in other realms. I am reminded what Colorado State Sen. Chris Hansen said at a fundraiser this summer, about the growing room for new alliances with conservatives to move forward on climate action. The evidence—wildfires, heat waves, the drying of the Colorado River – is becoming overwhelming.
Visiting Greeley to attend the Energy and Environmental Leadership Symposium on Oct 8-9, I was struck by the shift. This is in Weld County, where 90% of oil and gas production occurs in Colorado. The keynote speaker, Chris Wright, the chief executive of Liberty Oilfield Services, downplayed the risks and costs of climate change and emphasized the cost of trying to shift from fossil fuels. This will be a 200-year journey, he said, not something done in 30 years.
But for the next day and a half, whether talking about fossil fuels or renewables, all the sessions in some way had to do with a carbon-constrained world.
To modify Mueller’s cliché about the train, it seems like the train has left the station on this energy transition and it’s picking up speed. This train will have to move a lot quicker. Just what value will those giant reservoirs built during the 20th century on the Colorado River have in the 21st century? It’s an open question.
Colorado West Slope water officials turned up the volume on the call for action around water and climate change, calling it a “train wreck.”
At the Colorado River District’s Annual Water Seminar Oct. 1, Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based district, described climate change as a train wreck that needs to be stopped.
“For a decade or more, we have seen the train wreck slowly moving this way. It has picked up speed pretty significantly in the last couple of years, and the question is how do we avert the train wreck,” Mueller said.
He pointed to changes already underway as a result of the warming climate, and those that will be necessary. Uses of the Yampa River as it flows through Steamboat Springs have been curtailed for eight of the last 14 years because of high temperatures and low flows, he said. There have been fish kills in the Colorado River and other impacts to outdoor recreation. Ski areas face a shorter operating season and those in lower elevations may not survive. Agriculture users may need to remove marginal land from irrigation and take stock of their least productive crops.
“I think at every level our folks who are paying attention to the science and the hydrology, there is an increasing sense of urgency in the Colorado River Basin, and it’s shared by folks on the ground today, from ranchers in the Yampa River Valley to farmers in the Uncompaghre Valley to major urban providers like Denver Water. We all recognize there is something very different going on than there was 10 years ago in the Colorado River.”
“Climate change is barreling through the doors of America,” said Michael Connor, the second-highest ranking official in the Interior Department during the Obama administration and now a Washington D.C.-based attorney.
Brad Udall, a senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, said he began working on climate change in 2003. “I mostly got a lot of dirty looks,” he said. That has changed. “I have decided that misery loves company.”
Udall stressed the importance of inflows into Lake Powell from Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, the states that comprise the Upper Colorado River Basin. Those inflows have averaged 8.4 million-acre feet since 2000.
Each year 500,000 acre-feet is lost to evaporation, leaving 7.9 million-acre-feet for release from Lake Powell. That’s less water than is needed to comply with the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Unless flows improve, said Udall, the Upper Basin states may have to forego use of some of their own Colorado River supplies to ensure Arizona, California and Nevada, the Lower Basin states, receive their legal share.
How did we get to this point? Several researchers in the last five years have fingered rising temperatures as a crucial factor in creating what Udall and his collaborator, the University of Michigan’s Jonathan Overpeck, in a famous 2017 paper, called “hot drought.” They said temperatures alone explained at least a third of the lesser river flows.
Loss of snow may further exacerbate warming. A 2020 paper by P.C.D. Milly and K.A. Dunne in Science found a 9.3% loss in Colorado River flows with each one degree Centigrade in warming. A key finding, said Udall, was that as shiny, reflective snow recedes, the amount of absorbed radiation rises.
A decade ago, there was no clear signal whether a warming climate would affect precipitation on the Western Slope. A picture is starting to emerge, with Southwestern Colorado now at significant risk of precipitation — and runoff — declines, he said.
The San Juan River near Bluff, Utah, had 30% less water in 2000-2019 as compared to 1906-1999. The Colorado River at Glenwood Springs had a 6% decline.
Soil moisture also matters. If the soil remains dry from the previous year, it sops up more of the potential runoff. In 2020, the snowpack was 100% of average but the runoff was 50%. That soil-moisture deficit played into this year’s even worse runoff, 30% of average from a snowpack that was 90% of average.
Dr. Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center at Ft. Lewis College in Durango, was asked whether she detects more acceptance of climate change as impacting water.
“Yes,” she answered. “In Western Colorado, it’s really hard to deny that from day to day, year to year, that we are feeling the impacts of climate change.”
Connor, the former Interior official, pointed out that tribes in the Colorado River Basin have reserved rights, making them superior to the terms of the Colorado River Compact. Because of the sheer volume of those rights, especially in Arizona, many see them as crucial in whatever new Colorado River operating agreements are negotiated going forward.
“You need to be able to provide the tribes value for their rights,” if tribes are asked to give up use of those water rights, Connor said.
Muller warned of the need for adaptation and offered a conciliatory approach, saying water interests would need to unite to find solutions.
The River District, he noted, sought and obtained a tax increase from voters in an election that was supported by both the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce and the Environmental Defense Fund. “When,” he asked, “is the last time you saw those two groups on the same page?”
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District staff plans to present its own framework for a water-savings plan — separate from one the state of Colorado is developing — at its October board meeting.
The Glenwood Springs-based River District undertook its own investigation of a plan — known as demand management — that would pay water users to consume less and send the saved water downstream to Lake Powell. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is currently investigating the feasibility of such a program for the state, but the River District convened its own workgroup, made up of Western Slope water users, to look into the issue. Many of the workgroup’s stakeholders represented agricultural interests.
River District staffers will come up with their own market structure and rules for demand management to present to the board, according to general manager Andy Mueller.
“What we are presenting is not something we are necessarily as staff endorsing, but we are going to present more specifics than what the CWCB or our stakeholder group has come up with so far,” Mueller said.
The framework will incorporate some of the findings and recommendations of the River District’s stakeholder group, which were released in an August report. Among these was the unanimous recommendation that the state not rely solely on a demand-management program as a solution to water shortages in the Colorado River basin.
“It was recognized that demand management can’t be the only way in which the state successfully handles the impacts of climate change on the Colorado River,” Mueller said. “It may be a component of that, but the state needs to be really looking at conservation in all water segments.”
At the heart of a demand-management program is paying Western Slope irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to use less water in an effort to avoid a Colorado River Compact call. Instead of being spread across hayfields, the water would be sent downstream to a special 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell, which was established as part of 2019’s Drought Contingency Plan.
A compact call could occur if the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid a compact-call scenario, which could result in mandatory water cutbacks.
The participation of Western Slope agriculture is key to creating a workable demand-management program, but the report highlights several reasons this may prove challenging. Stakeholders expressed a strong distrust of decision-making and programs driven by state government and fear that Western Slope agriculture will be sacrificed to meet the Front Range’s and lower basin’s urban interests.
“Many do not view the state as representing the best interest of agriculture on the Western Slope and instead are making decisions that are driven by east slope and municipal interests,” the report reads.
TMDs in conflict
Other findings of the report are consistent with what River District and agriculture representatives have been saying since the state began its demand-management discussions in 2019: A program must not lead to the permanent dry-up of Western Slope agriculture, and additional diversions to the Front Range are in direct conflict with asking Western Slope water users to save water.
“The committee finds it inconceivable that under a demand-management program, the West Slope could work to conserve 25,000-50,000 acre-feet per year only to see the east slope simultaneously increase water diversions to the Front Range,” the report reads. “This situation would be antithetical to the goals of a demand-management program and efforts to prevent a future compact violation.”
The report says that transmountain diversions — in which Front Range water providers take water from the headwaters of the Colorado River and bring it under the Continental Divide to growing cities — are a driving factor in a potential compact violation. Most water managers agree that water rights that date to before the 1922 compact would be exempt from mandatory cutbacks in the event of a call. Post-1922 water-rights use would fuel a compact violation.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
An Interior Department official speaking Friday at a local forum voiced concern about continuing falling Lake Powell water levels that now pose the possibility of threatening hydroelectric power production at Glen Canyon Dam as early as next year.
Tanya Trujillo, Interior assistant secretary for water and science, addressed the topic during the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar, which was held at Colorado Mesa University and also in a virtual format. Some of the events involved simulcast presentations with the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School, which also was holding its own water conference this week.
Trujillo noted that last week, the Bureau of Reclamation indicated the potential of water levels at Lake Powell falling below the minimum power pool level of 3,490 feet above sea level as early as next July if the current streak of extremely dry hydrology continues into next year.
Beyond next year, Reclamation says there’s a 25-35% chance of Powell falling below that level over the next few years. Trujillo also noted that there is about a 90% chance that Powell’s water level over the next year will fall below the 3,525-foot elevation established to provide a protective buffer above the minimum power pool amount needed to produce electricity.
Trujillo called that prediction “very concerning” and said she’s particularly nervous about concerns related to the operational integrity at the dam due to low water levels.
“The engineers use words like cavitation and that gets my attention,” she said.
Cavitation can occur when oxygen mixes with water as levels drop, posing a threat of damage to power turbines. Lost power production also would result in lost revenue that pays for programs like salinity control and endangered-fish recovery in the Colorado River Basin. Also, if water could be released only through the dam’s bypass tubes and not through the power plant, that could threaten the ability of water to be delivered to downstream states at volumes required by a 1922 [Colorado River Compact].
Under provisions of a 2019 agreement, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs with the goal of providing up to 181,000 acre-feet of water to Powell by the end of this year. Trujillo said she’s happy that talks continue among Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin regarding additional drought-response measures…
Below-average precipitation last winter was aggravated this year by factors such as warmer temperatures and dry soil conditions that resulted in even worse runoff levels. Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center and an instructor at Fort Lewis College, said at Friday’s forum that the region is starting to experience novel forms of drought, such as ones where, due to higher temperatures, drought conditions prevail after a normal amount of seasonal snowpack accumulation.
Thankfully, she said, monsoonal moisture this summer relieved drought conditions in the region somewhat.
A La Niña climatological pattern that is setting up for this winter could result in storms tracking further north, which Richard said might mean less precipitation in Colorado, but she said individual storms still can result in a significant amount of moisture in a given year.
Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist/scholar at Colorado State University, said reductions in annual precipitation in the months of March and April are aggravating the increased aridification occurring in the region, setting up a process of further drying out land in the summer when there are higher temperatures and reduced precipitation.
He’s also concerned by what he sees as a general trend of more aggravated declines in average streamflows in more southern river basins in the region during this century when compared to the period of 1906-1999. Flows in the San Juan River at Bluff, Utah, have fallen 30%, and flows of the Dolores River near Cisco, Utah, have fallen 21%.
Flows for the mainstem of the Colorado River are down around 5%, he said…
Trujillo said the federal government will be advocating for water conservation in all sectors, with opportunities ranging from more water reuse/recycling to irrigation efficiency…
Andy Mueller, general manager of the river district, mentioned conservation opportunities ranging from replacing Kentucky bluegrass lawns with native vegetation, to farmers and ranchers potentially being willing to remove irrigation from marginal lands.
He called on various interests not to turn against each other as sometimes happens in societies when a resource gets scarce.
There’s 30% less water in the Colorado River than in the 1920’s and that trend is expected to continue according to the Colorado River District. General Manager for the CRD, Andy Mueller says, “We face a moment in time here that presents unprecedented challenges on the Colorado River.”
Record breaking temperatures, extreme drought conditions, and lowered streamflow were just some of the impacts discussed at the annual water seminar called, Wake-up Call on the Colorado River. “We’ve all got to work together to reduce our consumptive use to preserve the quality of life here in Western Colorado,” said Mueller.
72% of voters passed the river district tax hike generating $4.2 million dollars to fund projects to protect Western Slope water, but the best solution may simply be conservation. Mueller says, “Not necessarily how much you take from the river, but how much you take and never return.”
This unique water seminar comes at the end of a peculiar water year, but in order to adapt to a new future it’s going to take teamwork. State Representative Soper says, “I think it’s very important that we look at everything and that we try and protect as much of water here on the Western Slope as possible. Because if there’s one thing we’re caught between, it’s greedy front range interests and greedy downstream interests who would all like to use more than their fair share.”
The risk of lower and lower water levels in Lake Powell and other reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin keep getting higher and higher.
An analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released Sept. 22 finds an elevated risk of 25% to 35% of the water level in Powell falling below the minimum power pool by July 2022.
Minimum power pool is the level below which there is insufficient power to produce electricity.
The drought began in 2000, but as several studies have concluded that drought fails to fully describe what is happening in the river basin. Those studies point to rising temperatures that have produced aridification. Even with the same volume of water falling from the sky, less of it will become river water.
As an Aug. 24 article in Science magazine pointed out, about 17% of baseline precipitation ended up in the Colorado River in the 1930s and ‘40s, with a majority of that water coming from Colorado in the form of snowmelt. Today, it’s about 14%.
Since July, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing water from its smaller reservoirs upstream of Powell—Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo—with the hope of augmenting Powell sufficiently. The headwaters states for the Colorado River had an exceptionally dry spring, exactly opposite of what was happening east of the Continental Divide in Colorado. The runoff into Lake Powell was 26% of average, despite near-average snowfall last winter.
otal storage in the Colorado River reservoirs today is 39% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.
John Fleck, writing on his website, Inkstain, called the latest announcement “something remarkable.” The government predictions used something pioneered a decade by Eric Kuhn and Dave Kanzer of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District along with John Carron of Boulder-based Hydros Consulting. They thought it not useful to base predicts on the full hydrologic record of the Colorado River going back to 1906. Instead, they said, better would be to use a short-term frame, the last 30 years. They call it the stress test.
“The idea is that the traditional approach—using the entire period of record to model the probabilities of future river flows—is no longer valid because climate change is changing the river,” he explained.
From Allen’s latest newsletter:
The letter finally arrived. The Internal Revenue Service has recognized Big Pivots as a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Precious little journalistic income has rolled in the door during the last two years. This will help immediately. Two grants previously rewarded can be realized. Together, they’re a strong start. In coming weeks, I will return to you with suggestions about how you might want to assist the forward movement of Big Pivots.
I also want to recognize two “advertisers” in this issue of Pivots. Mike Foote, a former state senator from Erie, has a law office specializing in land and water. His is a sponsorship ad, meaning he has his name and website but mostly he’s saying he wants Big Pivots to go forward.
Might others want to do so also?
There’s also an advertisement from Colorado Solar and Storage Association about their November conference (and discount on registration if you say Big Pivots).
Then there was a reader from North Park who, after the last issue, sent this message.
“I just have to tell you how much I learn from every issue. I’m printing this one out as as write,” wrote Debby Burnett, whose home lies near the Wyoming border. She was hoping to mount a campaign against U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert. “I’ve been faithfully reading every issue of yours to make sure I can communicate effectively about the issues facing Colorado, specifically rural Western Colorado. … I will continue to scour each issue for the incredible nuggets of information you’ve packed onto every page.”
In this endeavor, many days have felt uncertain. That day was bright.
American Whitewater floated a plan last year to expand protections for recreational river flows in Colorado. Maybe, the nonprofit protector of rivers thought, communities should not need to build whitewater parks to secure rights for recreational flows.
“It definitely, you know, got some ears perked,” said Hattie Johnson, American Whitewater’s southern Rockies stewardship director.
Colorado officially recognized recreation in a river as a beneficial use of water in 2001, enabling riverside communities to file for water rights to support whitewater parks. Those recreational in-channel diversion water rights, or RICDs, set a minimal stream flow between structures to support “a reasonable recreation experience.”
In the 20 years since the creation of RICDs and further legislation in 2006, Colorado communities have built dozens of whitewater parks, with 13 of them using RICD water rights. Some parks have delivered lasting economic benefits to riverside communities. But there hasn’t been a new RICD filing since 2013, when Glenwood Springs proposed three whitewater parks and found itself locked in Colorado water court for more than a year…
The nonprofit river conservation group American Whitewater is advancing a plan that structures in the river are not necessary for river recreation and communities should be able to file for RICD water rights without expensively engineered features that create waves and holes for kayaking, rafting and stand-up paddling. While there are 13 official RICD water rights in the state, there are more than 130 stretches of whitewater that can be rafted, kayaked and stand-up paddled in the state…
Early talks with Colorado’s sharp-elbowed water community have not gone well. No lawmaker took up American Whitewater’s proposed legislation, which has been scrapped. And opposition to a plan that expands recreational protection of water is stiff.
The gist of opposition, which was voiced earlier this month at the meeting of the statehouse Water Resources Review Committee, is this: If any community can file for RICD water rights without actually building anything in the river, the expansion of those recreational rights could muddy Colorado’s already complicated water dealing.
Denver Water met with American Whitewater, where the powerful water utility expressed concerns over how changes to the RICD statute might “impact previous, hard-won agreements” that allowed recreational water rights, Hartman said. There is a lot of water trading that goes on in Colorado as the state’s water users navigate senior and junior water rights while meeting regional requirements to deliver Colorado River water to downstream users in Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico.
“Reopening the statute to loosen it would probably make for a significant undertaking,” Hartman said.
American Whitewater is adjusting its plan to accommodate flexible exchanges of water and what Johnson called “creative water management we are going to need in a hotter, drier future.”
“Having larger decrees for in-stream flows for recreation would make that really difficult and prevent it when it would be needed to deliver water to people’s homes and fields,” she said. “That is understandable.”
While old-guard water users may be chafing at a plan to expand recreational water rights, they are not dismissing recreation as an invalid use of Colorado’s water.
“Recreational water use and recreational enjoyment of the state’s waters are integral to Western Colorado’s lifestyle and economy,” said Zane Kessler, the head of government relations for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, adding that the current RICD water laws in Colorado “provide a good amount of flexibility.”
Kessler said the 15-county Western Slope river district “is sympathetic to the goals of American Whitewater,” but he wonders about the necessity of amending Colorado water law to allow communities like Craig and Sterling and Del Norte to increase the recreational appeal of their riverfront land.
The river district’s policy, he said, says that a RICD should not be granted if it would “materially impair” Colorado’s ability to meet its water delivery obligations under the Colorado River Compact agreements of 1922 and 1948. Colorado is part of a coalition of upper basin states — with New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — who must deliver 7.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water to lower basin states as part of a nearly century-old agreement allocating river water that now supports some 40 million users…
Johnson said American Whitewater will continue talks with Colorado water users about how communities can protect recreational flows without having to build whitewater features. The group hopes to craft an amendment to the state’s recreational water rights rules that will both protect recreational use of river water while preventing a flood of applications for RICD water rights.
On Sept. 13, Mesa County Commissioners Cody Davis and Janet Rowland voted 2-0 and elected Scott McInnis as the Mesa County Director for the Colorado River Water Conservation District…
In his almost 30 years of working in public service, McInnis boasts knowledge of various water issues that qualify him even more for his new position. With his legislative service, McInnis has worked closely with the River District, which considers the amount and water right seniority of the Colorado River. McInnis was also a partner with the Delaney and Balcomb law firm, which at the time, was legal counsel for the Colorado River District.
In addition to his new position, McInnis served as a member of the Colorado House of Representatives, he served as the Majority Leader and Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. McInnis has also served as a U.S. Congressman for six terms, where he served on the Natural Resources Committee and the Ways and Means Committee.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
AT THE END OF A UNIQUE WATER YEAR, COMES A UNIQUE WATER SEMINAR.
Water year 2021 was a wake-up call for water users across the Western Slope of Colorado. Extreme or exceptional drought conditions persisted for months as dry soils and historic high temperatures lowered streamflow. Agricultural users faced impossible choices while local municipalities dealt with aging water infrastructure in the wake of devastating wildfires. Downstream, Lake Powell dominated national headlines with plummeting levels, and the Drought Contingency Plan played a role years earlier than most expected.
Yet many of the stories which came out of this incredibly difficult year were ones of innovative solutions and never-before-seen partnerships. Collaborative projects upgraded irrigation infrastructure, increased streamflow, and even delisted 66 river miles from the Impaired Waters list.
Setting historic precedents in hydrology, 2021 also did much to highlight the ability of water users to reach across their differences in order to build a future for West Slope water together.
Wake-up Call on the Colorado River is a seminar which will face the harsh economic and environmental realities of this past year, along with a study of practical solutions and future collaboration.
From The Colorado River District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):
The Lower Gunnison River reached an important milestone this summer. During the June 2021 hearing, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission deemed the Gunnison River in compliance with aquatic life standards for dissolved selenium – a naturally occurring element and micronutrient that can be unhealthy for aquatic ecosystems in high doses. As a result, the Commission delisted 66 miles of the Gunnison River downstream of Delta, Colorado from the impaired waters list. Decades of work in the Lower Gunnison Basin shepherded this achievement, which highlights a healthier environment for native and endangered species like the razorback sucker and the Colorado pikeminnow.
“This is a big victory and a reason to celebrate,” says Raquel Flinker, Senior Water Resources Engineer with the Colorado River District. “The Colorado River District has been a leader in this effort for over 20 years, working alongside multiple partners including the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, non-governmental agencies, local conservancy districts, ditch companies, and even individual citizens to reach this point.”
Established and led by the Colorado River District as part of the cooperative Selenium Management Program, the Lower Gunnison Project (LGP) has proved instrumental in the final phases of the delisting. The decades of associated work began with the 1988 listing of the Gunnison River as an impaired water, with selenium levels as a focal point. Prevalence of the element results from the area’s marine-derived Mancos Shale, which contains vast amounts of selenium and releases it into ground and surface waters when saturated. Gunnison River Basin selenium levels had increased to such unhealthy levels that the reproductive abilities of egg-laying species – including native fish and birds – were impaired throughout the local ecosystems.
In response, the LGP was formed to address this and other natural resource issues in the Gunnison River Basin by investing in integrated water-use efficiency systems. Investments included enclosing canals and ditches into pressurized piping systems and upgrading irrigation equipment on farms with improved technology control. All together, these systems decreased water losses and minimized selenium-impacted runoff to the river resulting in better water quality and increased water availability. In 2020, the 5-year level of selenium measured at key stations in the river dropped below 4.6 ppb (parts per billion) for the first time, and the declining trend continues, as quantified by independent scientific agencies like the USGS.
“A lot of the credit goes to the local water users, especially the agricultural community,” said Ken Leib, Acting Director of the Colorado Water Science Center during the River District’s Gunnison State of the River event in June. “Often, lower flows in the river, as we are seeing today, result in higher concentrations of selenium. But despite drought conditions, we are not seeing that. So, we are really confident that the decreases we see have resulted from improvements in system efficiencies. It’s really quite impressive.”
Colorado River District Director of Science and Interstate Matters Dave “DK” Kanzer, creator of the Lower Gunnison Project, has been a long-time, integral leader in the Selenium Management. “We’re making a big difference for the environment by improving water quality and the aquatic habitat for sensitive and endangered species, while helping sustain productive agriculture in the Gunnison and Colorado River Basins,” he said. “Investments in strategic structural improvements and increased public education have moved us into full Clean Water Act compliance while helping take another step towards recovering key threatened and endangered fish species. This takes a lot of pressure off our hard-working agricultural producers; it is an important win-win for everyone.”
The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is releasing up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions…
Various agencies and water groups have worked to keep restrictions or “calls” off of the Yampa River for junior water rights holders, but if the drought persists as it has in recent weeks, there is potential that a call may be inevitable. The last call was placed on July 29, the third call in the river’s history, though it was later rescinded on Aug. 2.
Marielle Cowdin, director of public relations at the Colorado River District, said that the release was made possible by the Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, which received $50,000 in funding.
“We have been managers at Elkhead Reservoir of certain pools of water that exist there,” Cowdin said. “So when the call came on the Yampa, earlier this month, we worked in partnership with the Department of Water Resources and their division engineers to release some water to take the call off the Yampa — at least for a temporary time — so that junior water users would not have their water rights curtailed for that short amount of time.”
Because of potential calls in the future, the River District has a financial partnership with the CWCB to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin. The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in 2021, specifically for crop and livestock production.
Cowdin also said that because it is only August, the Yampa region still has weeks of potentially hot and dry weather, which could lead to another call. She added that the Colorado River District worked with the state of Colorado and the CWCB to provide contracts with local ranchers and farmers to access the 677 acre-feet of water.
Wildlife crews and water quality experts struggle to even assess the damage, as emergency management officials warn of threats to the western lifeline for years to come.
After decades of fierce arguments over damming up more of the water that rightfully belongs in the Colorado River, nature built a new dam in 5 minutes.
What happened to the fish? What happened to the river channel? What happened to drinking water downstream? Where did all the rafters go?
The relative silence about the river itself stems in part from immediate questions of who is in charge. For the highway, it’s CDOT. For the river, from the federal side, at least three different branch offices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have a say in any fixes, said emergency services director Mike Willis.
“Albuquerque, Sacramento and Omaha, just for a few miles’ stretch of the river,” Willis said,of the Army Corps involvement. Others who need to be consulted on any river rehab include the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and many more.
Sorting out changes to the river could take years, not just months, Willis said. The debris, from rockslides made worse by wildfires that burned up binding vegetation, blocked the Colorado River channel completely at Blue Gulch before the relentless river cut its way through the pile within minutes.
“The channel has changed now in several places. And so we have to be thoughtful about it, do we put the river back in its original channel or live with the channel as it is, and mitigate and protect the critical infrastructure downstream,” Willis said.
One of the first problems, Willis noted, is that the altered river flow may endanger the all-important highway. The changing channel has pushed debris up against the canyon’s complex bridge structures and overhangs, and the continual push of the water could undermine the road.
“In fact, the CDOT engineers have identified some areas where that is the case,” Willis said. “And so we need to assess that carefully and in those instances, we probably will push the river back to its original flow.”
As for wildlife recovery efforts in Glenwood Canyon, Willis said, the multi-agency task force dealing with the Colorado River has not given Parks and Wildlife full access in the slide area to start making detailed assessments…
Parks and Wildlife northwest division manager Matt Yamashita said biologists were still gathering information about the slide’s impact and waiting for full access to the river bed. But he’s concerned about mud smothering food and breeding spots for Colorado River species for miles downstream…
The Colorado and its tributaries are also vital resources for humans living along the riverbanks, long before the waterway delivers farm water to Arizona or drinking water to Los Angeles. Glenwood Springs takes its drinking water out of Grizzly Creek and No Name Creek before they hit the Colorado, and sometimes from the Roaring Fork River, if necessary, city public information officer Bryana Starbuck said.
“All of our water source intakes are below burn scars (Grizzly Creek fire and Lake Christine fire) which means that the landscape is very sensitive to heavy rainfall, which causes these debris flows or high sediment-transport incidents,” Starbuck said in an email response to questions. “Given the nature of burn scars, stabilization of the land will take time and impacts will continue to develop.”
Just as highway engineers in the canyon are looking uphill to design ways to keep future slides off the highway, Willis said, naturalists will have to work with them to think of ways to keep new slides from cutting off the river itself for years to come.
“We do not feel like this is a one time deal,” Willis said. “It’s not a one and done.”
From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) announced a partnership to release up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions.
Governor Polis announced this partnership during the Northwest Drought Tour – a two-day event that brought state officials and decision makers through Steamboat Springs and Craig to see first-hand impacts of drought on agriculture and other industries, and to find collaborative solutions and resources for the region.
The Yampa River Basin is one of many in Western Colorado suffering the effects of increasing temperatures, decreasing precipitation, and soil aridity, adding pressure to an already limited water supply.
“I am proud that the Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board are doing their part by releasing 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to local farmers and ranchers free of charge. Northwest Colorado continues to face exceptional drought conditions, with hot temperatures, dry soils, and reduced runoff, which impacts farmers and ranchers,” said Governor Polis. “Partnerships like this one showcase how collaboration and working together can help find local solutions. My administration will continue to work with local and federal entities to assist Coloradans as we navigate this systemic drought’s impact on our agricultural economy and local communities.”
The Colorado River District recently coordinated with the Division of Water Resources in an effort to postpone restrictions or a “call” on the Yampa River with releases from the District’s 2021 Yampa River Flow Pilot Project at Elkhead Reservoir. However, with water flows in the basin remaining low and water demands consistent, there is still the potential for future restrictions or “calls” in the Yampa River Basin.
In advance of this forecast, the River District initiated a financial partnership with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin.
“We are attempting to free up all available resources through innovative partnerships in the face of this ongoing drought,” said Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “This hotter, drier climate is hitting the small family farms and ranches along the Yampa River hard. We’re taking quick action to protect our constituents and the communities relying on these farmers and ranchers across the basin and the state.”
The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in Irrigation Year 2021, specifically for crop and/or livestock production. Through the CWCB, the state will provide the financial support necessary to pay for the stored water in Elkhead Reservoir for late season use by ranchers and farmers who depend on the Yampa River for irrigation and watering their livestock.
“As we continue to see compounded drought years that impact all Coloradans, including our agricultural producers, it is critical that we work together on collaborative solutions to meeting our future water needs,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell. “We are proud to support the Colorado River District in their efforts to provide additional water to the Yampa Valley farmers and ranchers in need.”
Available water through the Elkhead Reservoir release is limited, however, and therefore is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Those interested in applying should contact the Colorado River District’s Director of Asset Management, Hunter Causey, at email@example.com.
“The inescapable truth is that the Colorado River system is seeing declining flows and for the foreseeable future, is likely to continue on that trend. So we have to adjust expectations and water use accordingly,” [Andy Mueller] said…
Year after year of dry conditions hammered the river and, this year, dropped Powell so low that Blue Mesa Reservoir and others in the Upper Basin had to release water to keep Powell’s power turbines turning.
“It’s our water balance. Last year and this year have been terrible,” said Anne Castle, former assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science during the Obama Administration, during an Aug. 5 webinar hosted by the Colorado River District. Castle is currently senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado law School…
Given climate science predictions, the poor water years have not been a surprise, she said — but Powell dropped 50 feet last year, equating to 4 million acre feet of water no longer available. The reservoir is projected to drop within six months to the dreaded 3,525 feet elevation, the baseline for power generation and meeting the river compact requirements…
On top of it, the compact prohibits the Upper Basin from depleting more than 75 million acre feet over 10 years (so that it can deliver an average of 7.5 million acre feet a year to the Lower Basin)— a “guarantee,” as far as the Lower Basin sees things, while the Upper Basin’s perception is Lower Basin states are vastly overusing their water.
Under that rolling 10-year average, the Upper Basin has delivered 92 million acre feet, which is well above its obligation, but that is projected to drop to 82 million over 10 years and, if poor hydrology continues, could plunge even further, which stands to put the Upper Basin below its obligations…
Lake Powell not only provides a “savings account” to meet the Upper Basin’s compact obligations, but generates hydropower that is used throughout the basin, [Steve] Wolff said.
That hydropower in turn generates revenue, which flows back to the Upper Basin for infrastructure, Endangered Species Act compliance programs and salinity control…
Changing the rules will have ripple effects on both users and the economy, she said. Although the Upper Basin sees overuse by the Lower, the Lower Basin says it has cut use; is doing what the compact allows, and that the Upper does not have a plan for demand management, [Castle] also said.
“Everyone’s got their grievances and their legal theories. … There’s not enough water for any of the lawyers to be right 100%,” Castle said.
The task is to equitably manage use — and that means reducing it, she said.
Powell is sitting at 32% full and Mead, at 35% full, Mueller said…
The Colorado River Compact accords to the Lower Basin an additional 1 million acre feet. The Upper Basin’s argument is that this is supposed to account for use from the Gila River, a tributary. The 1.5 million acre feet to Mexico under treaty is to be provided from surplus, unless there is a shortage on the river.
What constitutes a shortage is a point of contention between Upper and Lower Basin states, but Mueller said it’s the Upper Basin’s position that the Lower Basin is undercounting its consumptive use.
The Upper Basin uses 4 million to 4.5 million acre feet per year, well below its allocation, while the Lower Basin and Mexico (most years) use their full allotments.
The Lower Basin has use of 2 million to 2.5 million acre feet in tributaries and loses another 1 million to 1.3 million acre feet in federal reservoir evaporation or loss during transit.
Mueller said that evap is not accounted for in the Lower Basin’s consumptive use, which even without it is at 7.5 million acre feet. Evaporation from the Upper Basin’s reservoirs, including Blue Mesa, is counted as consumptive use, and the Upper Basin is still only using 4.5 million acre feet of its allocation, Mueller said…
Through reservoir evap, transit losses, system losses, Lower Basin tributary consumption (excluding Mexico deliveries), species conservation and purported inefficiencies having to do the groundwater storage in Arizona, more than 1.1 to 1.3 million acre feet a year is being lost. Taking the low end of those estimates, over 10 years, more than 11 million acre feet of water would be available in the system had the overuse been addressed, Mueller said…
Climate change and rising temperatures concern everyone in the Southwest, [Mueller] also said.
“It’s not a political statement from me. It’s a fact we’re seen that temperature increase,” Mueller said Aug. 5, referring to data between 1895 – 2018.
For every 1 degree rise in temperature, streamflow in the Colorado River system decreases 3 to 8%, he said, citing U.S. Geological Survey data.
“The bottom line is, we have seen and should expect to continue to see decreasing flows in a system that is already stressed,” Mueller said…
For the Upper Basin, such parched conditions in areas that don’t operate below large federal reservoirs mean a cut in consumptive use — or even near-cessation. Upper sub-basin ranchers and farmers on direct flow ditches don’t have water…
The Uncompahgre and Grand Valley systems do have some reservoir storage above them and can continue to produce…
Farmers and ranchers have been feeling the pinch for the past two decades. They cull herds because there is insufficient water for cattle and/or to grow their feed.
Here’s the release from the Colorado River District:
Five grant awards to benefit agricultural, municipal, and recreational water users across Western Colorado
From enclosing irrigation canals to precision agriculture research; from creating reliable water storage to building redundancy in municipal water sources, the Colorado River District’s Community Funding Partnership is directly helping Western Colorado water users.
At its most recent Board meeting on July 21, the Colorado River District awarded a total of $494,350 to five projects across the West Slope. Since the beginning of 2021, a total of approximately $1.9 million has been awarded to thirteen different water projects, all of which benefit multiple stakeholders.
“In the midst of exceptional drought on the West Slope and increasing pressures on our rivers, our Community Funding Partnership continues to demonstrate the need for water funding to ensure our communities thrive into a hotter, drier future,” said the Colorado River District’s Director of Strategic Partnerships, Amy Moyer. “Developing solutions across a diverse geographic area and across diverse water uses is key. These projects advance multiple benefits to support our farmers and ranchers, recreators, and economies on the West Slope.”
Cedar Mesa Ditch Piping Project – Cedar Mesa Ditch Company Delta County
$45,000 in funds awarded
Just outside of Cedaredge, this project will pipe 3.5 miles of the lower Cedar Mesa Ditch that passes through Mancos Shale to avoid losing a significant amount of water to seepage. By preventing this water loss, particularly in drought years, the ditch users will face fewer cutbacks in the production of hay and fewer declines in the quality and quantity of crops such as fruit, hemp, vegetables, and greenhouse flowers. It will also improve water quality by eliminating salt and selenium returns to the Gunnison River and the broader Colorado River Basin.
Lake Irwin Valve and Piping Project Design and Engineering – Town of Crested Butte Gunnison County
$42,000 in funds awarded
This project will fund the necessary geotechnical and structural investigations required to better understand the infrastructure of a crucial source of water for the Town of Crested Butte. From this information, an engineered design will be developed to replace the valve structure, valve, and pipeline which conveys water from Lake Irwin. In addition, the project will conduct a condition assessment of the upstream portion of the tunnel which was originally installed in 1877 and is assumed to be timber set construction. Failure of this inlet tunnel would restrict the drinking water for the town and result in costly emergency repairs.
Artificial Intelligence for Sustainable Water, Nutrient, & Salinity Management in the Western U.S. – Colorado State University Mesa County
$50,000 in funds awarded
This project will construct and equip the Western Colorado Research Center at Grand Valley (WCRC-GV) with an overhead traveling sprinkler system on a 12.5-acre field to support research on digital and precision agriculture. A significant body of research into precision agriculture supports the improvement of crop yields, efficient irrigation, and reduced fertilizer use. This infrastructure addition will support emerging technologies and ensure cutting-edge research has a grounded presence in the Colorado River Basin for our communities to test and learn from.
GH Lateral Enhancement Project – Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association Delta County
$57,350 in funds awarded
The GH Lateral Enhancement Project includes the construction of a 70 acre-foot in-system, regulating reservoir to provide a more reliable water supply to farms served by the northern portion of the Uncompahgre Project. This funding will support the land acquisition for the reservoir and a permanent easement for the GH Lateral Pipeline, leveraging approximately $14 million in federal funding. This area experiences high diurnal fluctuations, and the regulating reservoir will allow for water storage during peaks and the subsequent release during low flows. The project will allow water managers to optimize water diversions from the Uncompahgre River and minimize spills from the project.
Roaring Fork Pump Station Pipeline Connection Project – City of Glenwood Springs Garfield County
$300,000 in funds awarded
The project consists of the construction of a raw water transmission line from the City of Glenwood Springs’ existing Roaring Fork Pump Station to the Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant. Constructing a new pipeline connection will expand the City’s water supply capabilities, creating redundancy within the water system. This redundancy will not only mitigate drought and wildfire hazards, but will also mitigate increased hazards for sediment, debris flow, and rockfall issues within the No Name and Grizzly Creek watersheds caused by the August 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire.
The crisis on the Colorado River is not waiting for the state of Colorado to develop a program to avoid water shortages.
That was the message that Colorado Water Conservation Board members received from some commenters at their regular meeting Wednesday. The state water board is investigating the feasibility of a program known as demand management, which would pay irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to not irrigate and instead use that saved water to meet downstream obligations on the Colorado River.
James Eklund, former head of the CWCB and one of the architects of the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the possibility of a demand-management program, urged the board in the public-comments portion of the discussion to take swift action on what he called arguably the largest water crisis Colorado has ever faced.
“Time is not your or our collective out. If you wait, that’s a decision that you make to determine whether or not we have a hand on the steering wheel as we move forward with this river,” he said. “The waiting is, I think, folly.”
In written comments, some environmental nonprofit organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited, said they were in favor of a demand-management program and urged the state to move forward more quickly.
The state received the comments in response to a draft framework released in March of what a demand-management program could look like, with three tiers of implementation options, guiding principles, threshold issues, trade-offs and equity considerations. The framework matrix is based on the findings of nine workgroups assigned to tackle different aspects and challenges of a potential program.
In addition to written comments, Trout Unlimited Colorado Water Project’s director, Drew Peternell, also told board members at the meeting that the group has concluded that demand management should be one tool Colorado uses to avoid compact curtailment.
“We realize you are taking on some very tough issues, but I also want to urge you to pick up the pace,” he said. “Hydrology on the West Slope is not good. Additional shortages on the system are likely. They would be painful. Now is the time to get something done.”
Gail Schwartz, who represents the main stem of the Colorado River basin on the nine-member board, noted the gravity of the situation and invoked the warnings of 19th-century explorer and river runner John Wesley Powell, after whom the second-largest reservoir in the country and ground zero for many of the basin’s most pressing problems is named. In 1893, the prescient Powell said the American West was “piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.”
“I think that we are at this extraordinary moment in time,” Schwartz said. “This is a desert and we are going to empty every bucket, we are going to empty every river, and this is the inevitable unless we can develop the courage and the ability to step forward.”
The controversial water-banking program, which some fear could harm agriculture on the Western Slope, has sparked a lot of discussion but little agreement over the past two years. Some have expressed frustration with what they say is the state’s slow pace of a program rollout and want to begin pilot projects to test the program’s feasibility. Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, urged the board in his comment letter to take aggressive action.
“The only way to really raise the important questions and to identify the positive and negative consequences of our actions is to try something,” Harris said. “There is no other way to advance the agenda without taking some well-considered risk.”
Drought Contingency Plan
Under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, signed by the seven Colorado River basin states, the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) can develop a program to send up to 500,000 acre-feet of saved water downstream to Lake Powell as a kind of insurance policy to bolster levels in the reservoir and help meet Colorado River Compact obligations. If the Upper Basin states were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona and California), as required by the 1922 agreement, it could trigger what’s known as a compact call, which would force involuntary cutbacks in water use.
Over the past two decades, climate change has been robbing the Colorado River system of flows, and levels in the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have plummeted to record lows. Federal officials have begun making emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydroelectric power. But some water managers say unless this Upper Basin reservoir water is replenished with big snow next winter, the releases may be a one-time, stopgap solution.
In addition to the urgency imposed by the worsening hydrology, the clock is ticking on the storage agreement laid out in the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the development of a demand-management program. It expires in 2026, when a new round of negotiations begins. All four Upper Basin states must agree to move forward with a demand-management program; Colorado cannot go it alone.
Decision making roadmap
Despite the sense of urgency expressed by some members, the CWCB did not approve the next step forward that was recommended by staff: adopting a decision making roadmap, which sets out a timeline for determining if demand management is achievable and worthwhile for Colorado. Tackling whether demand management is achievable was set to tentatively begin in September, and looking into whether the program is worthwhile for Colorado was supposed to begin in November.
Schwartz made a motion to adopt the roadmap but later withdrew it after some board members said it was too broad, left too many questions unanswered and did not incorporate feedback from the board.
“I feel this roadmap is incomplete, and until I see the roadmap with the comments from the board, I don’t feel comfortable moving forward,” said Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa and White river basins.
River District’s interests
Demand management was also a topic at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s quarterly board meeting in Glenwood Springs on Tuesday. Amy Ostdiek, the CWCB’s deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information gave a presentation on the state’s progress.
The River District, which represents 15 counties and advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is conducting its own investigation into the feasibility of demand management through meetings with water users and plans to release a report of its findings. The River District has not yet taken a position on the potential program.
“My personal view is that we are going to keep pushing to protect the River District’s interests in a demand-management program, but we realize this is something necessary to move forward sooner rather than later,” said Peter Fleming, River District general counsel.
Board president Marti Whitmore, who represents Ouray County, asked staff to come up with a proposal with specifics on a demand-management program.
“The time is right to come up with something to put on the table for discussion purposes,” she said. “I’m just looking to break the logjam here, so we are talking some substance instead of just frameworks and process. It could be an opportunity for the River District to provide some leadership.”
CWCB board members plan to continue discussing demand management at an Aug. 18 workshop.
Tackling the challenges surrounding climate change and water supply will require collaboration and creative thinking, Colorado’s top water leaders and senior federal officials agreed Thursday.
More than a dozen state officials and water leaders from across the state met at Denver Water’s Operations Complex with Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to discuss the impacts of climate change, the ongoing drought across the Colorado River Basin and how leadership and collaboration at every level will be needed to help address it.
After the discussion, Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager, welcomed the group — which included Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo, Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg — to a news conference at the utility’s Administration Building, completed in 2019, that is itself a demonstration of the future of water and water efficiency in an urban setting.
Lochhead said the roundtable also included a discussion of the investments Denver Water is making in watershed health, through its From Forests to Faucets program that includes partners at the state and federal level, water conservation, resiliency and sustainability.
Haaland said she was glad to tour “this beautiful building” and praised the roundtable for bringing a wide range of people together for a thoughtful and important discussion…
Greenberg said it meant a lot to the people working across Colorado’s agriculture sector to know issues surrounding climate change were “top of mind” at both the state and federal level…
Attendees at the water leaders’ roundtable discussion were:
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of Interior.
Davis Raff, Chief Engineer, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Carly Jerla, Senior Water Resources Program Manager, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Diana DeGette, U.S. Representative for Colorado’s First Congressional District.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Colorado Lt. Governor Dianne Primavera.
Kate Greenberg, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture.
Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Rebecca Mitchell, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Jim Lochhead, CEO/Manager, Denver Water.
Christine Arbogast, representing Colorado Water Congress.
Peter Fleming, General Counsel, Colorado River Water District.
Jim Broderick, Executive Director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservation District.
Ken Curtis, General Manager, Dolores Water District Manager (retired).
Steve Wolff, General Manager, Southwest Water Conservation District.
Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program Director, National Audubon Society
Officials say back-up water supply plan will not affect Wild & Scenic designation
Representatives from the Colorado River Water Conservation District say their efforts to develop a solution to a water shortage on the Crystal River will probably include natural fixes before a dam and reservoir and that the plan should not impact a future Wild & Scenic designation.
Staff from the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District presented some preliminary findings of a study of a back-up water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan, to Pitkin County commissioners [June 22, 2021]. They said their preference is to find and develop natural infrastructure like aquifer recharge or wetlands restoration before proposing a dam and reservoir.
Water could be diverted and stored in an underground aquifer during peak flows and then be allowed to slowly seep back into the river when it’s needed. Restoring wetlands can raise the water table throughout the valley floor, creating a sponge that holds water.
River District staff said they would absolutely not consider storage on the main stem of the Crystal — any potential small reservoir would be on a tributary — and that whatever solutions they come up with shouldn’t affect the long-held goal of some residents to get a federal Wild & Scenic designation to protect the free-flowing nature of the river.
River District Director of Government Relations Zane Kessler said the River District is working with environmental groups like American Rivers to find a solution to the shortage.
“We see a real opportunity to do something cool here and think outside the box,” he said. “I don’t know that natural infrastructure could take care of all of it, but we want to prioritize that first and look at opportunities.”
The River District, along with Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District, undertook the study, paid for by a state grant, to examine a problem that became evident during the summer of 2018: that in dry years there may not be enough water for both irrigators and residential subdivisions.
“2018 was a wake-up call for water users on the Crystal,” Kessler said.
That August, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. That meant that junior water rights holders upstream were supposed to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1902, could receive its full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources did not enforce the call by turning off water to homes, but instead told water users they must work together to create a basin-wide augmentation plan.
Most junior water rights holders have augmentation plans, which allows them to continue using water during a call by replacing it with water from another source, like releasing it from a reservoir. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.
Until water users come up with a permanent solution, DWR has said it may not allow outdoor water use when a senior call is on as a temporary fix. Water managers expect once-rare calls by irrigators to become more frequent as rising temperatures result in less water in streams.
River District staff presented the first step in the study: a demand quantification or putting numbers on the amount of water needed for different uses throughout the year.
Engineers found 90 structures — many of them wells for in-house water use — that take water from the river system and which would need to be included in the augmentation plan. These 90 structures deliver water to 197 homes, 80 service connections in Marble, nearly 23 irrigated acres, Beaver Lake and Orlosky Reservoir in Marble, 16,925 square-feet of commercial space, plus some water for livestock.
In order for these water users to keep taking water during a downstream call by an irrigator, they would have to replace about 113 acre-feet of water in the Crystal River per year. The amount of extra flow that would need to be added to the river is small — just .58 cubic feet per second during July, the peak replacement month.
Some commissioners asked if simply using less water — instead of creating a new supply of water — especially by irrigators on the lower Crystal, could solve the problem.
“I’d love to see an analysis of the conservation opportunities,” said Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury. “What can we do that’s not taking the water out, but preserving it in the stream?”
River District General Manager Andy Mueller acknowledged there may be more “aggressive” irrigators on the Crystal, but that in addition, climate change is decreasing the amount of water available. He said he wants the River District to work more closely with Pitkin County to find conservation opportunities.
“I think those types of opportunities require identifying the potential for them but then developing relationships with the water users,” Mueller said.
Tuesday’s meeting was a chance for board members from both organizations, which have not historically seen eye to eye on water issues, to work together and ask questions. Next steps include public outreach and education, coordinating with water managers and eventually developing a basin-wide augmentation strategy.
“We are going to continue to evaluate alternatives and try to get some additional expertise in the realm of natural infrastructure or aquifer recharge,” Kessler said. “We are going to do our best to make sure that this effort aligns with the Wild & Scenic values that the community supports.”
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
Join the Colorado River District for the White River State of the River webinar on Tuesday, June 15 at 6 p.m.! Our experts and special guests will be presenting on the issues that affect your water supply throughout the White River Basin.
Learn more about the river’s hydrology and water level forecasts as we enter another drought year. Hear updates on management plans to provide water for endangered fish species and learn about current efforts to study the impact of algae blooms in the river.
If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive an emailed webinar recording to watch later!
Welcome – Colorado River District Staff
The Community Funding Partnership – Amy Moyer, Colorado River District, Director of Strategic Partnerships
Water Supply and Drought in the White River Basin – Becky Bolinger, Colorado Assistant State Climatologist
Measurement and Abandonment on the White River – Erin Light, Colorado Division of Water Resources, Division 6 Engineer
Water Management Planning in the White River Basin – Callie Hendrickson, Executive Director, White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts
Algae Issues on the White – Natalie Day, Biologist, Colorado Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey
Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District Update – Alden Vanden Brink, Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, District Manager
Fish Tales: The White River Basin and the Endangered Fish Recovery Program – Jojo La, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Endangered Species Policy Specialist
Jun 15, 2021 06:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)
Click here for all the inside skinny and register:
Join the Colorado River District for the Gunnison State of the River webinar on Thursday, June 10 at 6 pm! Our experts and special guests will be presenting on river forecasts, landmark accomplishments, project opportunities, and the impacts of and on recreation for the Gunnison.
One of the major tributaries of the Colorado River, your Gunnison River provides the life force for local West Slope communities. Learn more about the river’s hydrology and water supply as we enter another drought year, celebrate a Lower Gunnison victory that’s been years in the making, and hear from David Dragoo, founder of Mayfly, about the West Slope recreation economy and its impacts.
You’ll also receive information on exciting new funding for Gunnison River Basin water projects and plans to sustain flows throughout the basin as conditions shift to hotter, drier seasons.
If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive an emailed webinar recording for later viewing!
Welcome – Marielle Cowdin & Zane Kessler, Director of Public Relations and Director of Government Relations, Colorado River District (CRD)
Your Gunnison River, a Water Supply Update – Bob Hurford, Division 4 Engineer, Colorado Department of Natural Resources
The Lower Gunnison Project: Modernization in Action – Dave “DK” Kanzer, Director of Science and Interstate Matters, CRD
A Victory for the Lower Gunnison – Raquel Flinker, Sr. Water Resources Engineer/Project Manager, CRD and Ken Leib, Office Chief of the Colorado Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey
Rivers on the Fly, Recreation Economy and Impacts – David Dragoo, Founder of Mayfly
Community Funding Partnership – Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships, CRD
Experts from different organizations presented updates specific to their work, all focusing on water rights, drought outlooks and river basin updates.
Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, went through the recent history of the ongoing drought in the state. He said throughout the past few months, eastern Colorado has seen decent drought improvement, but western Colorado has remained about the same.
Schumacher presented a chart showing average temperatures and precipitation from April through September, which showed that 2020 was somewhat of an outlier.
“It was the driest April through September on record and one of the few hottest on record, and that is a recipe for a drought that develops quickly,” Schumacher said…
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, provided an overview of the goals and accomplishments from phase one of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan. The first objective of the plan, which Van Gytenbeek said the group has spent most of its time on, is to understand potential causes for declining fish populations between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how the decline can be mitigated…
The second objective is what Van Gytenbeek called a “literature search,” which aims to compile information regarding physical and biological aspects of the Blue River Basin’s water resources. This would then formulate objectives and goals for future phases of the plan.
Van Gytenbeek said the phase one report is currently being finalized, and they intend to submit it to an advisory committee in the middle of June. He said he expects the report to be made public in July or early August.
Once the report is completed the second phase of the project will continue, with hopes of having the final phase two report ready for the public by March 2022. Van Gytenbeek said he thinks integrated water management plan organizations like the Blue River Watershed Group should get some support to keep the dialogue going past the life of phase two of the project.
Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer at the Colorado River District, talked about supply issues within the Colorado River Compact…
Nathan Elder and Jason Finehout of Denver Water said there is a low likelihood of filling the Dillon Reservoir this year, predicting an inflow of about 50-60% of normal. Finehout went on to explain that many of Denver Water’s annual summer watering rules are the same as many jurisdictions’ stage one drought restrictions…
Brian Lorch, trails director of Summit County Open Space and Trails, provided an update on the Swan River Restoration Project, which aims to naturalize more than two miles of the Swan River Valley impacted by historical dredge mining.
Lorch said this summer, Reach B of the project will start to take shape, as contractors will create about another mile of stream channel.
Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer, and Don Meyer, senior water resources engineer, provided a disheartening update to the Colorado River District Board of Directors on the continuing drought and dire water supply outlook in 2021. Unfortunately, conditions have only worsened since January.
For most of the last two years, monthly precipitation amounts have been below average within the Colorado River District. As of April 30, the snow water equivalent is well below average across the Western Slope with the Colorado basin at 72% of average, the Gunnison at 62% and the Yampa & White at 72%.
In addition to the below-average seasonal snowpack, the temperature and precipitation model forecasts from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center are predicting a hot and dry summer with above-average temperatures across most of the southwest. Forecasters also predict below-average precipitation, particularly in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Most of the Colorado River Basin is currently in extreme or exceptional drought conditions.
Adding insult to injury, low soil moisture will adversely impact runoff. Models from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center suggest the majority of the Upper Colorado River Basin has such low soil moisture that it will require up to 12 inches of water to reach saturation. This means that most of the snowpack is absorbing into the soils and not turning into runoff. With the sizable reservoir drawdowns from last year, very few reservoirs are likely to fill in the upcoming water year. This soil moisture deficit presents a significant challenge to refilling the Colorado River storage system, especially the lower, larger facilities, like Lakes Powell and Mead.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s mid-term modeling forecasts project this water year to be below average, with inflow into Lake Powell at about 5.13 million acre-feet, less than 47% of the long-term average. Furthermore, Reclamation projects that Lake Powell will end the water year near 3,557.03 feet elevation, holding about 8.10 million acre-feet in storage, which is 33% of its capacity.
With these projections for Lake Powell, combined with similarly low projections for Lake Mead, Drought Contingency Plan operations will continue to be in effect for the Lower Basin in 2021 with lowered deliveries to the Central Arizona Project, Southern Nevada and Mexico. Should these projections continue to play out, the Lower Basin will enter a higher tier of shortage in 2022, prompting mandatory cutbacks under the 2007 Interim Guidelines.
If the level of Lake Powell is projected to fall below 3,535 feet in elevation by October 2022 — which is currently within the worst-case scenario forecast — it would activate the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan. This would trigger coordinated releases into Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and other upstream reservoirs to protect reservoir levels and maintain power generation at Glen Canyon Dam.
There is still time for conditions to improve, but the outlook is not good.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District’s board of directors has approved a contract with an engineering firm to address problems with a dam that are turning out to be worse than previously thought.
At its second quarterly meeting, held in April, the River District board agreed to pay $323,840 to HDR Engineering to further study the movement and potential cracking at the district-owned Ritschard Dam. The dam forms the 66,000-acre-foot Wolford Mountain Reservoir across Muddy Creek, about 5 miles north of Kremmling in Grand County. Muddy Creek is a tributary of the Colorado River.
River District staff, aware since 2008 that the dam is settling and moving more than expected, have been monitoring the situation. However, a 2020 Comprehensive Dam Safety Evaluation prepared in December by HDR Engineering for the state’s Dam Safety section of the Division of Water Resources found that the risk of internal erosion of the dam due to cracking had increased from a 2016 evaluation. That year’s evaluation estimated the chances of a dam failure at 1 in a billion in any given year; the 2020 report found a 1.5-in-10,000 chance of a dam failure.
A crack causing internal erosion is the primary driver of the risk of dam failure.
“It is currently expected that the core will crack at some point, if it has not already done so,” the report reads. “Although a deep crack through the core would represent a severe defect and a serious dam safety incident that significantly compromises the dam’s ability to store water, formation of a crack does not necessarily mean the dam would breach.”
Ritschard Dam has an impermeable clay core that is covered on the upstream and downstream sides with rockfill. Because the rock-fill is poorly compacted, the dam’s outer shells are still moving, especially on the downstream side. The 122-foot-tall dam was built for the River District in 1995 by D.H. Blattner and Sons of Minnesota. The cost was $42 million.
According to the report, normal reservoir operations that involve cycles of drawdown and refill appear to have a detrimental effect on the deformations. Even if the dam does not breach, there could still be very serious incidents that necessitate emergency actions and downstream evacuations or a reservoir restriction.
“The probability of a serious dam safety incident will only increase over time as deformations continue, and therefore there is urgency in taking actions,” the report reads.
The report said risk of dam failure at Ritschard is about the same as the historical failure rate for dams built prior to modern dam safety. Generally, a dam designed and constructed in the 1990s should have a much lower risk of failure than the historical rate.
The River District has been monitoring the dam with instruments, but HDR Engineering will help identify areas that could benefit from additional inclinometers, which measure slope angle, and piezometers, which measure underground water pressure.
“First and foremost, the River District puts public health and safety as our number one priority always, and every action we take is with public safety in mind,” said River District chief of operations Audrey Turner, who is acting as spokesperson on Ritschard Dam matters. “The River District has and will continue to increase our monitoring and emergency preparedness at the dam as recommended by the report.”
The River District also will use a LiDAR survey program — which utilizes lasers for remote sensing — to track and visualize dam deformation, stockpile emergency materials onsite such as gravel and riprap and is planning an exercise for the fall that will improve the community’s emergency preparedness.
It’s still unclear whether or when the dam will need to be rehabilitated; that’s what adding more monitoring instruments may help the district figure out.
“There are still some other areas of exploration and additional information before any decision is made toward the rehabilitation of the dam,” Turner said.
Runoff season operations
The dam deformation won’t stop the reservoir from filling this runoff season. The plan is to still fill the reservoir, as long as the drought conditions allow. Turner said the River District also will still be able to fulfill all of its contract demands for water later in the summer.
Dam Safety has signed off on the district’s operation plan, which calls for letting Denver Water make releases from Wolford instead of from other Western Slope reservoirs in order to get the reservoir level down to 10 feet below the crest as soon as possible after it fills with runoff.
“The plan looks well thought out, and we appreciate the proactive steps taken to continue to monitor conditions and toward emergency preparedness,” Bill McCormick, chief of Colorado’s Dam Safety Branch, said in an email to the River District.
Denver Water leases 40% of the water in Wolford. After 2020, the Front Range water provider was supposed to have become the owner of that water. But the deal is off, at least temporarily, while the dam’s problems are studied.
“The River District and Denver Water have temporarily postponed that transfer of ownership to allow the parties to conduct further study related to the risk-assessment recommendations,” Turner said.
Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said the two entities mutually decided to extend the lease temporarily while they determine the next steps.
“We were supportive of the 2020 risk assessment and shared some costs of that process along with the expertise and guidance of our engineering team,” Hartman said in an email. “We’ve continued to consult on the path ahead and will remain engaged in helping to develop and guide the upcoming engineering study.”
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the May 3 edition of The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily, and Steamboat Pilot & Today.
Wolford Reserovir, and the Gore Range. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The downstream face of Ritschard Dam, which forms Wolford Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The outlook works at Ritschard Dam, which forms Wolford Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
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.
Muddy Creek outfall Wolford Mountain Reservoir
A graphic of the issues at Ritschard Dam from the Colorado River District
Ritschard Dam movement graphic Colorado River District
The Colorado River District has approved funding for several projects across the Western Slope, including Phase 2 of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan in Summit County. The district allocated $25,000 to the project. The Blue River plan was created by the Blue River Watershed Group and Trout Unlimited in 2019.
The goal of the plan is to understand why there is a decline of fish between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how to reverse or mitigate the problem. The plan and its associated research is also intended to guide future goals and projects in the Blue River basin watershed.
Phase 2 of the plan involves gathering data and analyzing certain areas of the Blue River basin identified as needing further analysis in Phase 1.
The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict has voted to approve a settlement of a federal lawsuit over Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
In a meeting Wednesday, the Municipal Subdistrict Board voted 10-1 to authorize its participation in the settlement.
The settlement means construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir will begin this summer and the Colorado River Connectivity Channel in Grand County next year. In return, the Municipal Subdistrict will contribute $15 million to a foundation to pay for projects that enhance the Colorado River and its many watersheds in Grand County.
“This settlement shows there is an alternative to costly litigation that can provide benefits both to the environment in Grand County and the Colorado River, as well as acknowledging the need for water storage,” said Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind.
The compromise will bring to a close a lawsuit in federal court filed by Save the Colorado, Save the Poudre, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club in October 2017. The suit challenged the permit issued by the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers for the construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir. On Dec. 19, 2020, the federal court ruled against the environmental organizations. The ruling was then appealed in February, and as part of the appeals process, both sides were required to engage in court-ordered mediation, which resulted in this settlement.
Chimney Hollow Reservoir, the key component to the Windy Gap Firming Project, will bring a reliable water supply to the 12 municipalities, water providers and utilities paying for its construction as well as provide a much-needed recreation area to be managed by the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will be located in a dry valley just west of Carter Lake in southwest Larimer County and will store 90,000 acre-feet of water from the Windy Gap Project for use by 12 participants, including Broomfield, Platte River Power Authority, Longmont, Loveland, Greeley, Erie, Little Thompson Water District, Superior, Louisville, Fort Lupton, Lafayette and the Central Weld County Water District. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will make the Windy Gap water supply serving those participants more reliable and meet a portion of their long-term water supply needs. Each participant will also enact a water conservation plan to comply with state law and permit requirements.
The compromise will also move forward other environmental measures related to the Project, including the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, a newly proposed channel around the existing Windy Gap Reservoir to reconnect the Colorado River above and below the reservoir. The channel will restore the ability for fish, macroinvertebrates, nutrients and sediment in the river to bypass the reservoir. Many other environmental protections are included, such as improving streamflow and aquatic habitat in the Colorado River, addressing water quality issues, providing West Slope water supplies and more.
The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict negotiated with Colorado River stakeholders to develop this package of environmental protections and received a permit from Grand County and approvals from others, including Trout Unlimited and the State of Colorado, to move forward with the Project.
Water storage such as Chimney Hollow Reservoir was specifically identified in the Colorado Water Plan as a necessary component for Colorado’s long-term water future. It joins conservation, land use planning and other solutions to meet future water needs in the state. To learn more about the project, go to http://www.chimneyhollow.org.
Northern Water will begin construction of the 25-story Chimney Hollow dam this summer.
complex Front Range dam-building project that includes transferring water from the Colorado River will move forward this summer after Northern Water agreed to a settlement putting $15 million in trust for waterway improvements in Grand County.
Environmental opponents begrudgingly accepted the mediated settlement of their lawsuit against Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming Project, which involves a menu of waterworks construction including Chimney Hollow dam near Loveland and rerouting the Colorado River around Windy Gap Dam near Granby.
The settlement resolves litigation in the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Northern Water said it now can begin construction of the 25-story Chimney Hollow dam this summer. The dam will plug the northern end of a dry valley northwest of Carter Lake. It will eventually be filled using Colorado River rights purchased by municipalities that are members of Northern Water. The Northern Water rights can be tapped only when Grand County is wet enough to supply other, higher priorities first…
An alliance of environmental groups opposing the project wants to stop any more transfers of Western Slope water, which would ordinarily flow west in the Colorado River, to Front Range reservoirs that supply growing Colorado cities and suburbs.
In the case of Chimney Hollow and Windy Gap, the environmentalists say damage has already been done to the Colorado River in Grand County, and the settlement can help them reverse some of the hurt…
The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict Board voted 10-1 Wednesday to participate in the settlement. A federal district court had rejected the environmental groups’ challenge of permits for the Windy Gap and Chimney Hollow projects issued by Army Corps of Engineers, and mediation was required as part of the appeal.
Chimney Hollow water will be used by 12 of Northern Water’s members: Central Weld County Water District, Little Thompson Water District and the Platte River Power Authority, and the cities of Broomfield, Erie, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Lafayette, Longmont, Louisville, Loveland and Superior. The members say they need more water storage to accommodate future growth in homes, industry and agriculture.
Environmental groups, including WildEarth Guardians, Save the Colorado, Save The Poudre, Sierra Club, Living Rivers, and the Waterkeeper Alliance, filed a lawsuit in Oct. 2017 challenging the project’s federal permits. A federal judge in Dec. 2020 ruled against the environmental groups.
In a settlement reached with Northern Water — the agency pursuing Windy Gap on behalf of a municipal subdistrict of Front Range water providers — the environmental coalition agreed to withdraw their lawsuit, while securing $15 million for projects aimed at improving water quality, river health and fish habitat. The Grand Foundation in Grand County, Colo. will be the recipient of those funds. An advisory panel will be made up of representatives appointed by Northern Water and the environmental groups, and will decide how the money is spent. The funds will be issued in installments as the project is built…
The additional environmental mitigation joins other projects already negotiated between Grand County, Trout Unlimited and Northern Water, among other partners…
That previously agreed to package of environmental mitigation includes the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which is to be constructed around the existing Windy Gap dam and reservoir, and is designed to reconnect a portion of the Colorado River below its confluence with the Fraser River. The channel is meant to allow for more natural conditions to return, like allowing sediment to move downstream and providing more habitat for fish and aquatic insects. Monitoring programs and riparian restoration were also a part of the deal negotiated among those parties.
The connectivity channel was a recent recipient of a $1 million grant from the Colorado River District, becoming the first project to receive funds generated from ballot question 7A which appeared on the Nov. 2020 ballot in the district’s boundaries…
Despite the additional funding, representatives from the environmental coalition that sued to halt construction remained alarmed about the project’s legal success, and said the $15 million is a drop in the bucket…
Northern Water plans to begin construction on the Chimney Hollow dam this summer and on the Colorado River Connectivity Channel in 2022.
FromThe Colorado Sun (Andy Mueller, Bob Wolff, Jim Lochhead, CEO, Brad Wind, Marshall Brown, Earl Wilkinson III, Seth Clayton, Kevin Lusk, James Broderick):
We may not always agree on the particulars of water policy and water use in the Centennial State, but we all recognize the importance of the Colorado River to our statewide economy and our Colorado way of life. The Colorado River is arguably the single most important natural resource to the State of Colorado. It powers economies on both sides of the Continental Divide. It provides food and fiber to the nation and the world from both sides of the Divide. And its fate will determine our own.
Colorado’s constitution and our state’s laws have long recognized one simple truth: The waters that originate in our great state are the property of the public. The people of Colorado have the right to appropriate and use that water for beneficial uses, such as municipal, irrigation, industrial and recreation. Long excluded from the list of beneficial uses of water is holding water for speculation. Our state supreme court has ruled unconstitutional any scheme that “would encourage those with vast monetary resources to monopolize, for personal profit rather than for beneficial use…”
Recently we have seen a series of articles and opinion pieces discussing and even advocating for the potential influx of financial capital from out of state investment funds to buy water from Colorado’s vibrant farms and ranches with the apparent aim of “solving” Colorado’s drought problems.
This is not the first time we have seen venture capital eyeing our state’s water resources. This time around, however, the investors and their representatives are posturing to portray themselves as the only solution to a climate change driven reduction in the flows of our rivers. We have come together to set the record straight on this misguided concept.
Our organizations and the water users we represent are working collaboratively with the State of Colorado to examine solutions to the threat of water shortages brought on by a changing climate and prolonged overuse of the River’s water by downstream states. Together, we are exploring a multi-faceted effort to secure our state’s water supply and protect irrigation for food product, our thriving communities and the environment that depend on this water. Among these approaches is the feasibility of a proposed “demand management” program to temporarily compensate water users in Colorado and other Upper Basin states to reduce their use of water to assure that we are able to meet our obligations under the Colorado River Compact.
Demand management is complex. It is controversial. But we are approaching these conversations in good faith because we recognize that we must work together to protect the economies and livelihoods supported by the Colorado River throughout the entire state. Since solutions to our water challenges must be undertaken for the benefit of the state as a whole, these efforts must be led by the state. The Colorado Water Conservation Board articulated a set of guiding principles for this process in November 2018, principles with which we agree.
One thing is clear. There is no place for private for-profit interests in this process. Moreover, private sector entities do not have the legal ability or authority to manage water across state lines or through federally owned reservoirs. This can be done only by the states and the federal government. Colorado state government has a long history of opposing interstate marketing and transfers of water by private interests, and that opposition should continue.
The introduction of private investors in our statewide water planning efforts will only serve to further exacerbate the water divisions that exist between our urban areas and our irrigated agricultural communities on both sides of the Continental Divide. Our state must stand strong together to protect our Colorado way of life.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District
Bob Wolff, president, Southwestern Water Conservation District
Jim Lochhead, CEO, Denver Water
Brad Wind, general manager, Northern Water
Marshall Brown, general manager, Aurora Water
Earl Wilkinson III, chief water services officer, Colorado Springs Utilities
Seth Clayton, executive director, Pueblo Water
Kevin Lusk, president, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.
James Broderick, executive director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District
FromThe Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:
In recent weeks, much attention has been focused on an issue not new to officials in the water world: private interests or hedge funds purchasing water rights from agricultural communities and diverting that water to cities.
An open letter from almost 10 water officials from across the state, including the local Southwestern Water Conservation District, lashes out against the practice, saying, “waters that originate in our great state are the property of the public.”
“The people of Colorado have the right to appropriate and use that water for beneficial uses, such as municipal, irrigation, industrial and recreation,” the letter, sent Thursday, says.
The open letter is largely in response to a Jan. 3 article in The New York Times called “Wall Street Eyes Billions in the Colorado’s Water,” which says private investors may become more of a force in the political water world.
The article cites several examples of private investors purchasing water rights from ranches, and then diverting it to cities to feed new developments or subdivisions in drought-strapped places.
Several private equity owners argue the practice could be one of the solutions to curb the impacts of climate change that has resulted in drought and less available water throughout the West.
In one stance, Greenstone, a private investment firm, bought most of the water rights in Cibola, Arizona, and then sold the rights to a suburb of Phoenix known as Queen Creek, 175 miles away.
“One of the things I think we’ve learned over time is that a resource like water is best allocated through kind of a combination of market forces and regulatory oversight,” Grady Gammage, a spokesman for Greenstone, said in the article…
The practice has been more common in urban areas along the Front Range or near Phoenix, and the issue hasn’t reared its head quite yet in Southwest Colorado, according to several water officials interviewed for this story.
Robert Genualdi, Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 7 engineer, which covers Durango, said there are several key distinctions why the hedge funds of Wall Street haven’t set their sights on local waterways.
For one, in most places along the Front Range where it is happening, the waterways are over-appropriated and there is not enough water to go around to serve new developments or subdivisions.
As a result, entities looking for water for urban areas seek out farm and ranch owners who may be interested in selling their rights. Then, the developers use that water for their projects and let the farms go fallow, known as “buy and dry.”
On the other hand, most waterways in the region, like the Animas River, are not over-allocated, meaning water rights can still be bought, Genualdi said.
“In our corner of the state, it’s probably not as prevalent as it might be in other parts of the state because of the water availability down here,” he said.
Also, Genualdi pointed out that much of the water is stored in Bureau of Reclamation projects – like Vallecito, Lake Nighthorse and McPhee reservoirs – which bring some level of federal protections against the practice.
“Those projects were built for specific things, so it’s more of a task to get water use changed,” he said. “You’d have to go to Congress for a change.”
While not currently an issue in Southwest Colorado, efforts should be made to prepare for private interests in water, said Amy Huff, a water attorney recently appointed to the Southwestern Water Conservation Board…
Mike Preston, former manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said several water districts in the region have set up restrictions for people to sell off to private companies.
“They’ve done what they can to protect themselves,” he said. “That water is all tied up to the land.”
Ed Tolen, general manager of the La Plata Archuleta Water District, said his water right holders shouldn’t have to worry because it’s all domestic water use, not for irrigation.
But still, he said there is concern among the agricultural community that some ranchers and farmers may have to send their water to lower basin states to meet water compacts…
“One thing is clear. There is no place for private for-profit interests in this process,” the open letter said. “Colorado state government has a long history of opposing interstate marketing and transfers of water by private interests, and that opposition should continue.”
The calls came in shortly after the story in The New York Times announced Wall Street was on the prowl for “billions in the Colorado’s water.”
“Can you help us? How do we get started?” wondered the New York financiers, pals of Andy Mueller, the manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
“My response was really that if you want to invest in Colorado, you might want to look at something other than water,” Mueller said. “There is nothing to see here.”
The national story raised hackles across Colorado. It defined agriculture as a “wrong” use of Colorado River water and detailed a growing swarm of investors eager to inject Wall Street’s strategies into the West’s century-old water laws. The idea of private investment in public water has galvanized the state’s factious water guardians…
Population growth and persistent drought exacerbated by climate change are stressing the Colorado River, which supports 40 million people in seven states and Mexico and irrigates some 5.5 million acres of crop land. Now, the increasingly parched communities along the 1,450-mile river can add an additional threat: speculation.
It’s rare to see Front Range water managers like Denver Water and Northern Water joining counterparts on the Western Slope. Heck, neighbors on the Western Slope don’t often agree over agricultural, municipal, recreation and tourism-based uses of water. But everyone involved in the perpetual tug-of-war over Colorado water is ready to fight Wall Street investors eyeing “billions” in the state’s most precious resource.
“We have different interests and we have different things we use water for on the Western Slope,” Martha Whitmore, the Ouray County board member on the Colorado River Water Conservation District Board, said during the board’s quarterly meeting last week. “but the one thing we are really unified on … is we don’t want this to be a New York hedge fund’s new thing.”
Water law requires beneficial use
Colorado has some of the toughest laws to prevent profiteering on water in the West, anchored in a nearly 160-year-old state water law that requires users to put their rights to beneficial use. That definition has expanded from irrigation and home taps to include snowmaking, protecting wildlife and even kayaking in a whitewater park. Beneficial use does not include making money.
Even with the state’s strict law preventing a gold rush on water, an 18-member Anti-Speculation Law Work Group created by Colorado lawmakers last year is studying how to give the law preventing water profiteering even more teeth.
Jim Lochhead, the head of Denver Water, agrees with water managers around the state that institutionalized private investment in water “is inherently a problem for the entire state of Colorado.”
The Law of the River could be upended by Wall Street investors buying up and fallowing farmland for water rights, or even worse, buying agricultural water and holding it unused until it makes them rich, like some kind of water-logged bitcoin bros. (Which, by the way, is illegal under Colorado law that doesn’t really allow the sale of actual water as much as the right to use water for beneficial use.)
But, in a way, that buy-and-dry scenario is already part of Colorado’s water landscape. Cities like Aurora and Pueblo often buy water rights to support growth. And more of that is coming. The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan — part of a historic water management agreement inked in 2019 by federal officials and leaders in seven states — aims to cut water use, by, in part, paying farmers and ranchers and other water users to temporarily suspend their water rights.
Details on the controversial “demand management” element of the drought contingency plan are still being hammered out. But the prospect of water speculation has led to calls for all types of safeguards of public water in a demand-management market.
There is a big difference between investors who likely would be moving water from farms to cities willing to pay big and water districts trying to temporarily secure water rights to bolster supplies, said Taylor Hawes, who directs The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program.
Demand management is about conserving water and “creating water security, which is a public good,” said Hawes, who earlier this month published a letter in Western Slope Colorado newspapers along with the the national Family Farm Alliance and Trout Unlimited urging partnerships among often-contentious Colorado River users “to find durable solutions that make economic sense for water users and rural communities, as well as cities.”
“Demand management should be more of a guided market not a free market,” Hawes said in an interview. “It needs to have sideboards and restrictions, and one of those restrictions needs to be that it is serving the public good, to make sure we have water security for the future and that we can adapt to the changing climate.”
Mueller, with the Colorado River District, led a spirited discussion last week with his board, detailing specific issues with the increasing call for private investment in water. He warned that eroding trust in government institutions could sway more people toward a revamp of Colorado laws that would increase the role of market forces.
“The demand-management market needs to focus on rules and regulations and structures that protect our communities and if it can’t be done, the program should go away,” Mueller said.
Mueller, who has many issues with the New York Times article, says the article may “help make our case” as a launching point to rally not just water managers, but state residents, around the need to protect water.
Private, profit-driven investment in Colorado River water might not respect agricultural roots of communities that exist because of the river. But the eye of Wall Street might help champion the case for drought management and it’s share-the-pain plan to spread potential cuts. Mueller said the threat of speculators moving into Colorado’s water market could help convince residents about the need for big, climate-adapting changes in how water is conserved and protected in the state…
Most of the angst over Wall Street is coming from a group called Water Asset Management, a New York investment firm that has spent more than $16 million over the past few years buying more than 2,000 acres of farmland in the Grand Valley. The company is the largest landowner in the influential Grand Valley Water Users Association, which operates the 55-mile Government Highline Canal and 150 miles of irrigation pipe and ditches that water more than 23,000 acres of farmland.
It’s safe to say that Water Asset Management has succeeded where all others have failed: The fund has found a way to get Front Range and Western Slope water users in quick and easy agreement.
And advising the investment firm is James Eklund, the former director of the state’s top water protector, the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Eklund spent years as the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, helping to draw up the drought contingency plan that, among many things, creates a pool of water for Upper Basin states inside Lake Powell that serves as the upper state’s own bank within the larger bank.
Eklund bristles at the notion that the WAM group is angling to take over that bank of Upper Basin water in Lake Powell.
“You can’t do that now and you could not do that before the Drought Contingency Plan and you can’t do it in the future. Because the Law of the River forbids it,” he said. “If we allow private accounts in Lake Powell, we will undo the benefits of the bargain of the 1922 compact.”
Water Asset Management buys farms, pays for upgrades that increase the efficiency of water used in irrigating crops and then leases the property back to the farmer, Eklund said.
The firm’s investment fund “develops and markets the water assets while our farming operators manage the farming operations of the properties, mitigating agriculture risk,” reads the firm’s website details of its Water Property Investor Fund.
The group is not trying to flip water. If it was, it would have already sold the water rights it has, Eklund said. The group wants to invest in agriculture in the Western United States, he said…
Across Colorado, water managers agree with at least of one of Eklund’s ideas: It is time to work together. But not necessarily with his group. A host of water managers across the state have been meeting, amiably, to discuss how best they can form a united front to stop Wall Street speculation on public water.
“The coming together of all these different interests is a recognition that the challenges we face on the Colorado River are already complex enough. So, so complex,” said Hawes with the Nature Conservancy. “The last thing we need is Wall Street getting in the middle of this as we try to work out the solutions which are going to be really really difficult to do.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The Colorado River District will spend the first $1 million in partner project funds made possible from a recent tax approval to help pay for a Grand County effort to address environmental impacts from a reservoir.
The district board last week approved the contribution to a $23.5 million project for a channel to reconnect the Colorado River where the Windy Gap Reservoir blocks its flow.
The decision means nearly a quarter of the annual amount that the tax approval will generate for such projects will be spent in just one of the 15 counties in the river district. But district General Manager Andy Mueller believes it’s a good place to start. And a district policy newly approved by the board aims to ensure that over the long run, funding is allocated fairly and broadly around the district…
In November, voters, including in Mesa County, approved roughly doubling the district’s property tax rate to 0.5 mills. The measure is expected to boost its revenues by nearly $5 million in the first year. Some of the annual revenues from the new tax will help the district address operating budget needs, but most of it — about $4.2 million this year — is to go toward partnering on projects addressing agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, and conservation and efficiency.
Under the board’s new policy to implement the program, it is seeking over time to spread funds among those categories and among counties and river basins in the district, while also considering factors such as the relative populations of counties and basins, and the district’s strategic goals.
The district also plans to use funds to help lobby for contributions of funds from other sources, rather than paying for projects by itself…
Mueller told the board the Windy Gap project is the kind of funding partnership he had in mind, in that “it really brings together all of these folks to fix something.”
Among those who already have committed to the project are the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (about $5.67 million), the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District and related entities ($5 million), the Colorado Water Conservation Board (more than $3.2 million) and Grand County ($1 million).
With the river district commitment, the project remains more than $6.3 million short of full funding, but Mueller plans to use the district’s commitment to push for further funding from a variety of sources, including by pressuring the Northern Colorado Water to chip in more…
The bypass project partly involves reconfiguring the reservoir through construction of a redesigned dam, and building a roughly mile-long natural channel around the reservoir to reconnect the river upstream and downstream of it.
The project is expected to improve Gold Medal trout habitat and improve water quality for downstream irrigators…
Steve Acquafresca, Mesa County’s representative on the river district board, told fellow board members that the project is necessary…
He said it provides a lesson to the current generation of the water community about the need to “really pay attention to what you’re doing” to avoid unintended consequences…
As for other projects that the new river district tax revenue could someday fund, the district more locally has pointed to possibilities such as helping rehabilitate the Grand Valley Roller Dam in Mesa County, and working to maintain for the long term Colorado River flows secured by the senior water right associated with the aging Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon.
“This one was right up there, one of those the district thought was really qualified to be the initial (recipient),” said Catlin, of Montrose, who also represents State House District 58 in the Colorado Legislature. “Hopefully, it gets started right away, but all the communities will be able to apply for funding for projects across the district.”
Montrose and the 14 other counties that make up the Colorado River District voted in November to increase the district’s mill levy to 0.5. The same ballot measure eliminated spending and revenue caps under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but not the tax-rate cap, and allows the district to keep and spend state and local grant funds.
The mill levy increase was projected to generate about $5 million in 2021, with the bulk going to partnerships for priority water projects.
Applications may be made for the awarding of partnership funds, which are to be direct to priority projects; the money can also serve to leverage other funds from state, federal or private sources.
“The projects supported by the Partnership Project Funding Program will protect and sustain West Slope water for all of us who rely on it,” River District General Manager Andy Mueller said, in a provide statement announcing the Windy Gap funding.
“In launching this program and funding our first project, we’re fulfilling our promise to the voters who make our work possible. This and future projects will help build a brighter water future for Western Colorado.”
Under the Partnership Project Funding framework, the river district has created a line item in its general fund budget, identifying the moneys available for such funding.
Staff analyze requests for funding and forward those that match up with several criteria to the board for further consideration. Under those criteria, the proposed project must fit with the mission of the district and language of the 2020 ballot measure.
Risk analysis is part of consideration and applicants need buy-in from their respective local governments. Mostly, the river district will offer partial financial support, although some projects may also receive technical, legal or administrative advocacy.
District funds are not intended to be the sole funding source for any project.
Projects may involve improvements related to agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health/water quality, conservation and efficiency. The framework calls for geographic equity in awarding the funds.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s dire projections for Colorado River Basin reservoirs for the first time triggers drought contingency planning across seven basin states.
The dry 2020 and the lack of snow this season has water managers in seven states preparing for the first time for cutbacks outlined in drought contingency plans drafted two years ago.
A sobering forecast released this week by the Bureau of Reclamation shows the federally owned Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the nation’s two largest reservoirs and critical storage for Colorado River water and its 40 million users — dipping near-record-low levels. If those levels continue dropping as expected, long-negotiated agreements reached by the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 will go into effect, with water deliveries curtailed to prevent the federal government from stepping in and making hard water cuts.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s quarterly report was dire, showing Lake Powell at 42% of capacity and downriver’s Lake Mead at 40% capacity. And there’s not much water coming.
“Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, presenting the bureau’s latest forecasts to the district’s board last week.
The bureau’s January report showed the impacts of a warming, drying climate peaking last year. The period from April to December was among the driest stretches ever recorded in the Southwest, with current conditions mirroring 2002, 2012, 2013 and 2018, four of the five driest years recorded in the Colorado River Basin. The bureau forecasts three scenarios for the next 24 months. Those three projections detail a most probable result, a best-case scenario and a worst-case situation.
Snowpack conditions right now in the mountains that feed the Colorado River and eventually fill Lake Powell are perilously close to the worst-case scenario. The bureau report shows the 2021 inflow into Lake Powell most likely will land around 53% of normal, but could end up as bad as 33% of normal.
The bureau expects the Utah reservoir will finish 2021 at 35% of capacity. If things get worse and follow that worst-case projection, the water level at Lake Powell could drop below a critical level — 3,525 feet above sea level — in early 2022 and that would threaten the ability of Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity…
If the reservoir falls below that 3,525-foot elevation level, the Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to deliver hydro-electricity to more than 3 million customers and the federal government could lose as much as $150 million a year in revenue from selling that electricity. Any projection that the reservoir is headed toward that critical threshold gets water managers in all seven basin states ready for drought-response operations that spread the pain of water cuts across every region of the Colorado River Basin.
Jim Lochhead has helmed Denver Water for half of this prolonged drought. He’s seen good years like 2011 — really the last decent year for water in Colorado — and bad years, like 2013…
But with the lack of snow this season and snowpack in all but one of the state’s seven major river basins below median levels, Lochhead said he is “certainly very concerned about the supply outlook.”
Kanzer, in his report to the Colorado River district board last week, said soil conditions are very dry across Western Colorado. So the state can’t blizzard itself out of this drought hole.
“Even if we did get a good spring we would not get much benefit because all of the moisture would go into the soil and not run off,” Kanzer said.
From Yale Climate Connections (Jan Ellen Spiegel):
The region is transitioning to a more arid climate, challenging longstanding practices of water-sharing in the basin.
Colorado is no stranger to drought. The current one is closing in on 20 years, and a rainy or snowy season here and there won’t change the trajectory.
This is what climate change has brought.
“Aridification” is what Bradley Udall formally calls the situation in the western U.S. But perhaps more accurately, he calls it hot drought – heat-induced lack of water due to climate change. That was the core of research released in 2017 by Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center, and Jonathan Overpeck at the University of Michigan.
Their revelation was that the heat from climate change was propelling drought. “Previous comparable droughts were caused by a lack of precipitation, not high temperatures,” the study said. And all the factors at play were having compounding effects on each other that made the situation even worse. Those impacts were being felt most acutely on the biggest water system in the West – the Colorado River Basin.
Without a dramatic and fast reversal in greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change, Udall and Overpeck said, the additional loss of flow in the basin could be more than 20% by mid-century and 35% at the century’s end – worse than currently assumed.
“I always say climate change is water change,” says Udall, whose father was Arizona congressman Morris (Mo) Udall, an iconic environmental activist. “It means too much water, not enough water, water at the wrong time. It means reduced water quality. You get all of these things together as the earth warms up.”
In Colorado it’s all pretty much coming true. The drought is the second worst 20-year period in the past 1,200 years, according to Udall. This summer/fall alone had some of the hottest spells on record and the worst wildfire season ever. On the other hand, 2013 brought catastrophic floods to the Front Range. “I got 17 inches of water in my house here in four days. It’s all part of the same change,” Udall says.
It’s forced Colorado to start facing the reality that its perpetual struggle for water can no longer be written off as cyclical weather that will all balance-out over short periods of time. It’s climate change at work, and it requires long-term planning and likely fundamental changes to the paradigm of how the state gets, uses, and preserves its water.
The state and individual municipalities are beginning to address their new reality with policies that range from the obvious – conservation, just using less water, to the more innovative – considering using beaver dams to restore mountain wetlands and generally remediating the landscape to better handle water.
But all those actions and more must face the political reality of the longstanding way water-sharing is handled in the basin. It pits state against state, rural against urban, agriculture against, well, everyone.
The Colorado River Compact
The Colorado River Basin provides water to a massive swath of the Rocky Mountain and western states. The Compact that rules it dates to 1922, with California, Nevada and Arizona – the lower basin states – essentially getting first dibs on water that flows from upper basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah – with secondary access to the water, so they generally absorb the brunt of water losses.
Colorado is a headwaters state – where the river flows down from the continental divide. It relies on whatever falls out of the sky: It does not have the luxury of access to whatever water may flow in farther downstream.
A process to re-evaluate aspects of the Compact is underway with a 2026 deadline. No one expects the basic structure to change, though other contingencies are likely to be layered on, as has happened a number of times in the intervening years.
River levels are off some 20% since the Compact was initiated, compounding the water crunch while the region’s population has grown dramatically, especially in Colorado. That combination of factors have many water experts and administrators convinced any new strategy has to do more than divvy-up the water differently.
That’s because it’s climate change and not cyclical weather causing the problems, Udall says emphatically: “Yup. Yup. Yup.” He notes that scientists already see impacts they hadn’t expected to see until 2050.
“I think some of the predictions about reduced flows in the Colorado River based on global warming are so dire it’s difficult to wrap your brain around them. We have no operating rules for that kind of reduction in supply,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources at the University of Colorado. “Even with these discussions that will be taking place over the next five years for the Colorado River system, I’m not sure that they will be able to get to an agreement about what would happen if flow is reduced by 50%.”
The critical climate change impacts seem to act in a loop: heat causes more evaporation of surface water. The resulting lower water level means water will warm more easily, and in turn evaporates more readily.
Global warming is also changing the dynamics of snowpacks. They melt faster and earlier and don’t regularly continue to slowly dissipate, creating a gradual runoff that is more beneficial and sustaining to the water supply. Udall notes that on April 1, 2020, there was 100% of normal snowpack above Lake Powell, which with Lake Mead are the two enormous reservoirs in the system. In a normal year that would provide 90-110% of runoff. But it provided only 52% in 2020 as a result of dry warm weather through fall.
Sustainable water supplies are also threatened as weather events occur more often as extremes: major rains in a short period of time sandwiched by extended dry periods. Torrential rains that follow a long drought may help the soil, but runoff may never make it to the water supply.
Wildfires, in recent years larger and longer, complicate matters by dumping ash and crud into water bodies, which results in less water and contamination that can render unusable what water there is. And if difficult climate conditions keep trees from growing back after fires, the resulting ecosystem changes could further damage water supplies.
Big ideas in place
“This is not your average variability,” says Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which covers most of the water used by the state. “Cooperative management of water resources can really help in these hot dry summers,” he says.
Mueller says the district tried releasing additional water from a reservoir that also creates hydropower. The extra water helps cool the river it flows into – slowing evaporation and allowing fishing and other activities often stopped when the water gets too warm and low to resume. That same water was also used for other hydropower plants downstream. Some then continued to other river areas. And some was diverted for crop irrigation, important given that farming and ranching are the biggest consumers of water in the state.
Basic conservation – just using less water – is always the first step, but even Colorado Water Conservation Board senior climate specialist Megan Holcomb admits: “We’re definitely beyond that conversation.”
The Board is considering systems that employ the technique of demand management: finding ways to use minimal water to allow for storage for dry years. So far, the thinking involves a voluntary program.
Already in place is an online tool called the Future Avoided Cost Explorer or FACE: Hazards. It helps quantify impacts of drought and wildfires on sectors of the Colorado economy.
“We know these hazards are going to continue to impact our economy, but we have no numbers to even say how much we should invest now so that we don’t have financial impacts in the future,” Holcomb says.
Castle talks about ideas such as consideration of water footprints on new developments and re-developments; integrating land use planning with water planning including things such as landscaping codes; and use of technology at various levels of water monitoring.
In search of more equitable sharing of water
She notes also a drought contingency plan adopted in 2019 by the Compact states calling for reductions in deliveries to the lower basin. It’s pointed in the right direction, she says. “At the same time pretty much everyone involved in those discussions and that agreement also agreed that it was not sufficient,” Castle says.
Many experts have called for more equitable sharing of water reductions. But ideas on what is fair differ from state-to-state and also among different groups within a region where some interests are pitted against agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the water usage in the basin.
“I think people look at that huge volume of water being used in irrigated agriculture as a place where there’s flexibility. And when you get to the politics of working through that in an equitable way, it gets really complicated,” says Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society.
The suggestions have included crop switching or alternative transfer mechanisms that call on farmers to periodically grow less water-intensive crops, or pay them not to grow, as a way to make water available for municipal use or storage.
“From a pure economic perspective, it may seem like you pay them and they’re whole,” Udall says. “There are actually a lot of things where they don’t get whole. They potentially lose a market that they’ve established over years and a great relationship with a buyer. And if that goes away for a year, that buyer may not come back.”
In the end, experts say people in the Southwest should definitely not count on more precipitation arriving to bail them out. “I would disabuse people of the idea that you’re going to get more water,” Udall says. “I think it’s pretty clear you’re going to have less water.” So for folks who think building more reservoirs is a solution, Udall says: “It’s not at all clear to me that that works.”
But less conventional strategies just might.
Beaver dams to the rescue?
Beaver dams are a water management technique that has worked in nature for eons – at least for beavers. Sometimes for people? Not so much.
But the thinking is they could help slow water loss from high-elevation wetlands. That includes the real deals built by beavers or human-constructed beaver dam alternatives.
“We think there’s a possible synergy there that helps to improve water supply for water users and helps to improve habitat conditions for species – birds in particular – that depend on that kind of wetlands being around,” Pitt says.
The goal would be to protect remaining ones, help establish new ones, and do the same for high-elevation meadows.
A lot of research is still needed, Pitt says. “There’s all kinds of instrumentation that has to go into place to understand the groundwater, the surface water, evaporation, the water balance, what it does to your river downstream,” she says. There are water law considerations. And then the inevitable pilot projects.
Overall, she says, this type of holistic approach to water through natural ecosystem restoration could become a component of water-sharing agreements as have already been done with Mexico. In exchange for getting river areas restored to better flow, Mexico agreed to a sharing agreement it might not otherwise have.
More people, less water, and a touch of Johnny Appleseed
More people and less water has forced Denver Water to work with uncertainties not previously considered. “Variability is the name of the game in Colorado,” says lead climate scientist Laurna Kaatz. “And that variability’s going to increase over time. That makes it incredibly challenging to continuously provide high-quality drinking water when you’re not sure what’s coming around the corner.”
The situation calls for adaptive capacity, she says, to provide technical and legal flexibility to adjust for changing circumstances.
Kaatz pointed to the One Water project that pairs water with usage. For instance, treated wastewater could be used to water a golf course, saving the purest water for drinking.
Another project is called From Forests to Faucets, which works on watersheds as natural infrastructure to optimize water flow. It has already proved successful at keeping a wildfire in 2018 from encroaching on a reservoir. In April, Denver Water plans to expand its Airborne Snow Observatory, which uses technology developed by NASA to track snow availability, but now it can be deployed above an altitude of 8,000 feet.
Together the efforts seem to be working – since the 2002 drought, Denver Water has maintained a 22% per-person reduction in water usage from pre-drought levels.
Steamboat Springs is opting for tree-planting. The idea is that trees will help cool down the Yampa River, which is part of the Colorado River Basin. Hot, dry seasons had been pushing stream temperatures so high that part of the river wound up on EPA’s impaired waterbody list.
“That was a call to action,” says Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs’ water resources manager.
The timing also dovetailed with the 2015 release of a Colorado Water Plan that included goals for stream management. Steamboat Springs did a streamflow management plan – released in 2018. In it was the idea of shading the Yampa.
“What we learned was that flow alone cannot overcome the thermal load for the solar radiation, as strength of that radiation increases over time,” she says. “The more that we can prepare the river for that, the better it will buffer against the impacts of climate change.”
They joined forces with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council’s ReTree program that began in 2010 as a reforestation effort to counteract trees killed by pine beetle infestations. It morphed into a three-year Yampa River restoration.
“That work also increases resilience to future changes,” says Michelle Stewart, the council’s executive director. “We’re really learning the important role soil moisture plays in resilience.”
ReTree planted 200 narrow leaf cottonwoods in 2019 and another 350 this past October. This coming October, its plans are for 450 cottonwoods and 150 mountain alders. All were raised at the Colorado State Forest Nursery from Yampa Valley clippings. “We’re using local trees that are already kind of adapting to big swings in temperature and probably have a little bit more of that hardiness that we need and drought readiness,” she says.
It’s too early to know how the shading is working but there are plans for citizen help to monitor that and to implement a soil moisture monitoring network in the Yampa Basin.
“This is a Johnny Appleseed project,” says Romero-Heaney. “We plant today and hopefully my children will get to enjoy it.”
Click here to read Ian James’ fantastic article about the current state of the Colorado River from stem to stern that’s running up at AZCentral.com. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
The warming climate is intensifying drought, contributing to fires and drying out the river’s headwaters, sending consequences cascading downstream.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colorado — Beside a river that winds through a mountain valley, the charred trunks of pine trees lie toppled on the blackened ground, covered in a thin layer of fresh snow.
Weeks after flames ripped through this alpine forest, a smoky odor still lingers in the air.
The fire, called the East Troublesome, burned later into the fall than what once was normal. It cut across Rocky Mountain National Park, racing up and over the Continental Divide. It raged in the headwaters of the Colorado River, reducing thick forests to ashes and scorching the ground along the river’s banks.
The fires in Colorado spread ferociously through the summer and fall of 2020 after months of extreme heat that worsened the severe drought.
As smoke billowed over the headwaters, the wildfires raised warning signs of how profoundly climate change is altering the watershed, and how the symptoms of heat-driven drying are cascading down the heavily used river — with stark implications for the entire region, from Colorado’s ranchland pastures to the suburbs of Phoenix…
Over the past year, the relentless hot, dry months from the spring to the first snows left the soil parched. The amount of runoff into streams and the river dropped far below average. With reservoirs sinking toward new lows, the risks of shortages are growing.
Much of the river’s flow begins as snow and rainfall in the territory of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which includes 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope. Andy Mueller, the district’s general manager, said the extreme conditions over the past year offer a preview of what the region should prepare for in the future.
“Climate change is drying out the headwaters,” Mueller said. “And everybody in the Colorado River Basin needs to be concerned.”
Mueller saw the effects while backpacking in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness in the summer with his 19-year-old daughter. Above the tree line, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, they expected to see mushy green tundra. Instead, they found the ground was bone dry…
People who focus on the river have widely acknowledged the need to adjust to a shrinking system with less water to go around.
Many suggest solutions can be achieved through collaborative efforts — often with money changing hands in exchange for water — while working within the existing rules. Others say solutions shouldn’t fall on the backs of farming communities by taking away water that fuels their economies. Some people argue the river seems headed for a crash and its rules need to be fundamentally reimagined…
The deals between the seven states are designed to temporarily lower the odds of Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropping to critical lows over the next five years. The states’ representatives have yet to wade into the details of negotiations on what shortage-sharing rules will look like after 2026, when the current agreements expire.
Still unresolved are difficult questions about how to deal with the shortfall over the long term.
What’s increasingly clear is that the status-quo methods of managing the river are on a collision course with worsening scarcity, and that eventually something will have to give…
Watershed ‘thirstier’ with heat
Last winter, after a dry year, the Rocky Mountains were blanketed with a snowpack that was slightly above average. Then came extremely hot and dry conditions, which shrank the amount of runoff and flows into tributaries and again baked the soils dry.
[Andy] Mueller said the change occurred abruptly at the end of the snow season in the spring…
With the heat, some of the snow didn’t melt but instead evaporated directly into the air, which scientists call sublimation — something that has been happening more over the past two decades. The flows in streams dropped over the next few months, and then August brought record heat, which dried out the headwaters and fueled the fires through the fall…
In a 2018 study, scientists found that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the Upper Colorado River Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming. In other research, scientists estimated the river is so sensitive to warming that it could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise…
“A warmer atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere, and we’re seeing less runoff bang for our precipitation buck,” said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher in Colorado. “We’ll still have wetter and drier years, but the baseline is very likely to be shifting downward, as it has in the last 20 years.”
And when extreme heat comes, it leaves less water running in tributaries and also translates into drier forests, leading to increased fire risk.
The soils were so dry over the past year that they soaked up moisture, contributing to below-average stream flows, said Megan Holcomb, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“You can think of it as like the dry sponge that you haven’t wetted in forever,” Holcomb said. “That kind of soil moisture deficit is not something that you rebound from immediately.”
After the hot spring came a dry summer. The lack of monsoon rains compounded the drought. And then came August, Holcomb said, when a map of record-hot temperatures hugged the Colorado River Basin like a “massive red handprint.”
In areas of western Colorado that drain into the river, it was the hottest and driest August on record, breaking the previous temperature record by 2 degrees F, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center.
The state usually gets its largest wildfires in June and July. But with the severe drought, the fires burned through August, and then exploded in October with unprecedented speed and intensity. The ultradry conditions, together with high winds, contributed to the three largest wildfires in Colorado history, which together devoured more than half a million acres.
In the future, rising temperatures will lead to more of these scorching summers.
Firefighters on the march: The Pine Gulch Fire, smoke of which shown here, was started by alighting strike on July 31, 2020, approximately 18 miles north of Grand Junction, Colorado. According to InciWeb, as of August 27 2020, the Pine Gulch Fire became the largest wildfire in Colorado State history, surpassing Hayman Fire that burned near Colorado Springs in the summer of 2002. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Mangement-Colorado, via InciWeb and National Interagency Fire Center.
The Cameron Peak fire soon after it started on Aug. 13, 2020. By Sept. 11, the fire had grown to more than 102,000 acres (now >200,000 acres) and was not expected to be considered out until Oct. 31. Photo credit: InciWeb via The Colorado Sun
East Troublesome Fire October 21, 2020 via Wildfire Today.
Scenes of the CalWood Oct. 17, 2020 (Jivan West/CU Independent)
Abby Burk of the conservation group Audubon Rockies noticed how low the river was in the summer when she went paddling in her kayak. In parts where the river was full and muddy a year earlier, she found bars of gravel. Where there once were channels to paddle through, she encountered dead-end lagoons.
In November, when Burk drove through the headwaters near the smoldering fires, she snapped photos of the hills and mountains, still golden-brown beneath a dusting of snow.
When the soil is so parched, it will always “take the first drink” before water reaches the streams, Burk said. “We need a lot more snow for many years to come to really replenish the soil moisture deficits that we’re seeing now.”
The fire scars will also bring challenges come spring, she said, when melting snow will send runoff carrying ash, debris and sediment into streams, potentially creating complications for water systems.
Burk said she’s hoping there will be a slow melt so the runoff comes gradually, without “bringing down the mountain into the river.”
A rancher looks to adapt
Paul Bruchez raises cattle on his family’s ranch in the headwaters near the town of Kremmling, where the Colorado River winds through pastures…
Bruchez has been involved in discussions about the river as a member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. And while he’s heard many people voice alarm about the watershed lately, Bruchez said he and other neighboring ranchers have been talking about the need to adapt to a river with less water since 2002, when severe drought came.
The flows dropped so low then that even ranchers with the longest-standing water rights, known as senior rights, couldn’t get it to their fields.
“Within this river basin, we have seen a change over time of the quantity and volume of water that is available. And in that same time, we’ve seen a growth of population that relies on it,” Bruchez said. “We knew this in 2002 when we hit that drought, that if we didn’t change how we operated, we weren’t going to survive.”
Since then, Bruchez and other ranchers have been talking about ideas for adapting…
The closer the region gets to a scenario of curtailing water allotments, Bruchez said, the more investors and representatives of cities and towns are going to be contemplating ways of securing water from elsewhere.
For people in agriculture, he said, “we need to be at the table or we’re going to be on the menu.”
‘It affects everybody’
One of the main tributaries that feeds the Colorado is the Gunnison River, which like the mainstem has shrunk during the heat-amplified drought. Along the Gunnison, cattle ranchers got less water last year and their pastures produced less hay.
The river’s low flows also forced an early end to the river rafting season on Labor Day weekend. After that, releases from a dam had to be cut back and the Gunnison was left much shallower than usual, with rocks protruding in stretches where boats would normally be drifting until the end of September.
The river has dropped to some of its lowest levels in years, said Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.
The effects are visible at Blue Mesa Reservoir, one of the state’s largest, which has declined to less than half its full capacity.
Visiting the lake, Chavez walked on sandy ground that used to sit underwater.
Looking across the inlet where the river pours into the lake, she pointed to a gray line on the rock showing the high-water mark. During spring runoff, she said, the river in this channel can reach about 20 feet higher. But with the soil so parched, its level dropped.
“When we are dry in the Upper Gunnison Basin, it affects everybody downstream of us,” Chavez said. And the swings between high and low flows, she said, have made it difficult to plan how to operate the reservoirs…
Photo credit from report “A Preliminary Evaluation of Seasonal Water Levels Necessary to Sustain Mount Emmons Fen: Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests,” David J. Cooper, Ph.D, December 2003.
Gunnison River in Colorado. Source: Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation
Upper Gunnison watershed May 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs
In the Gunnison Valley, a local climate action group meets to talk about potential solutions. Some conversations have focused on how to manage forests that have grown thick with vegetation over the past century as federal agencies have focused mostly on putting out fires.
While the forests have grown thicker, warmer temperatures have enabled beetles to flourish, littering the mountains with dead trees.
Chavez and others want to prioritize efforts to make the forests healthier and more fire-resilient by thinning the trees through logging, mechanical treatments or controlled burns, which they say would make the whole watershed healthier. She said the federal government needs to be more involved and the region needs funding for these projects.
“Our big push this year is to do some watershed management planning and work with the Forest Service to identify zones of concern, or areas that we can treat,” Chavez said. “We’re worried if we had a big fire what would happen.”
Alongside those efforts, water managers are discussing ways of dialing down water usage…
Ranchers, farmers consider using less
One lifelong rancher who had a smaller-than-usual hay crop was Bill Trampe, who has worked on water issues for years as a board member of the Colorado River District.
His cattle graze on meadows near Gunnison where the grasses survive year after year. He was short of water to irrigate after mid-June, which left the pastures parched.
Over the past two decades, only a few years brought good snowpack, he said, and ranchers have repeatedly had to weather the financial hits of years when they must buy hay for their cattle…
‘We need to set the terms’
In other parts of the river basin, some representatives of agricultural water agencies are worried about the potential consequences of paying farmers to leave land dry.
One such voice is J.B. Hamby, a newly elected board member of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, who said he’s concerned that while cities and sprawling suburbs continue to grow rapidly, agricultural communities are increasingly at risk. He said people in cities need to realize there is a priority system that shouldn’t be changed…
Arizona gets nearly 40% of its water from the Colorado River. Much of it flows in the Central Arizona Project Canal, which cuts across the desert from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson.
In 2020, Arizona and Nevada took less water from the river under the drought agreement among Lower Basin states, and in 2021 they will again leave some of their water in Lake Mead. The latest projections show Mead could fall below a key threshold by summer, which would trigger a shortage declaration and larger cutbacks in 2022…
Now, with less water flowing to farms, the amount of runoff into the Salton Sea has shrunk, leaving growing stretches of exposed lakebed that spew dust into the air. The dust is contributing to some of the worst air pollution in the country, and many children suffer from asthma.
Hamby said the Imperial Valley would have been better off without the water transfer deal. Looking at the proposed approach in Colorado, Hamby said, it seems to replicate what occurred in Imperial.
“When you tie money to water, you get users who become addicted to the money and don’t actually in the end start to want to farm anymore,” Hamby said. “That is really corrosive to the long-term survival, much less thriving, of rural communities when people get more hooked on money rather than the way of life and putting the water on the land.”
He argued that such an approach would be “subverting the whole priority system” and enabling cities to avoid taking cuts themselves…
‘Are we doing enough?’
At his ranch by the river, Bruchez said he wants to be on “the preventative side,” getting ahead of the looming problems instead of reacting. And that includes studying and promoting conservation, he said, because the bottom line is “we just all have to figure out how to use less water.”
In early 2019, Bruchez began talking with Perry Cabot, a researcher from Colorado State University, about a project that would help provide data on crop water use, impacts of reduced irrigation and strategies for conserving water.
Cabot gave a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable, and members supported the idea of a study. The project began in 2020 with about $900,000 in funding, including support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and groups including Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.
A group of nine ranchers participated and were paid for leaving some fields dry or partially dry, Bruchez said. More than 900 acres weren’t irrigated for the entire year, and about 200 acres were “deficit irrigated,” meaning they received less water.
Bruchez’s ranch totals about 6,000 acres. He participated on about 41 acres, where he stopped irrigating on June 15 and didn’t water the rest of the year.
“My end goal is to understand the impacts of water conservation for agriculture so that if and when there are programs to participate, agriculture is doing it based on science,” Bruchez said…
Paul Bruchez said he’s seen that when people talk about solutions, they often seem to draw boxes around different approaches like demand management, water conservation, climate change and forest management, but he thinks they’re all quite connected.
“It’s all the same conversation,” Bruchez said. “To me, the question just comes down to, are we doing enough, quick enough?”
“It’s that water that is provided by the Colorado River that ties us all together,” Mueller said. “And truly, when we recognize the importance of the Colorado River and how it ties us together, that’s when we succeed as a society.”
Ian James is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who focuses on water, climate change and the environment in the Southwest. Send him story tips, comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @ByIanJames.
After 20 years as a member of the Colorado River Water Conservation District board of directors, prominent local rancher Bill Trampe has announced he will retire from the position in 2021. The vacancy has drawn interest from three candidates within Gunnison County, one of whom will be appointed to the position on January 12 by the Gunnison County commissioners. Commissioners conducted interviews with the candidates on Tuesday, December 29, including an interview with county commissioner Jonathan Houck himself…
The vacancy drew interest from Sonja Chavez, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, serving all of Gunnison County and portions of Saguache and Hinsdale counties. It also drew the interest of Kathleen Curry, who serves as chairperson of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, runs an active cattle and hay operation in the Tomichi Creek drainage and works as a lobbyist on behalf of two major water providers in Mesa County, the Ute Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.
The third candidate who applied is chairperson of the Gunnison County commissioners Jonathan Houck. Houck made his interest known publicly on the last day of the application process…
Before conducting interviews, county attorney David Baumgarten offered his professional opinion on how to conduct the appointment process, considering one of the commissioners was also an applicant. He reviewed the relevant state statute, CO 37-36-104, which identifies who may be on the River District board of directors. “There are 15. One should be from each of the respective counties, and shall be selected by the board of county commissioners,” he reviewed. “So the threshold question is, can you apply? Yes, you can. The statute is silent on how you make that decision,” said Baumgarten of Houck’s participation.
Baumgarten suggested that Houck participate in the interviews, and that he recuse himself from voting initially on the appointee, unless there is a tie between candidates.
Houck proceeded according to Baumgarten’s direction, participating in each interview before being interviewed himself by the other two commissioners…
Commissioners Roland Mason and Liz Smith will make their decision on January 12 in advance of the next River District quarterly board meeting on January 19.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Winter may be the offseason when it comes to a lot of construction work, but for ongoing efforts to line local irrigation canals, it’s the only practical time for further pursuing multi-year efforts to line them.
Doing so locally helps address salinity problems throughout the Colorado River Basin, meaning that irrigation entities can tap federal funds to pay for much of the work. But it also provides the side benefit of making canals able to deliver water more efficiently, in higher volumes, multiplying the payback for the millions of dollars that get invested in such work.
In September, the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced that it will distribute $33.7 million for salinity control projects in western Colorado over the next three to five years. This includes nearly $4.7 million for the Grand Valley Water Users Association for continued lining of the Government Highline Canal, and about $1.23 million to the Grand Valley Irrigation Company for a fifth phase of lining it has been doing over the past decade or so thanks to Bureau of Reclamation salinity control funding.
Lining canals limits seepage of water into the ground, where that water can pick up salt before eventually reaching the Colorado River, which is relied upon by downstream states and Mexico. High salinity in the river reduces crop yields downstream for farmers reliant on the river water, and can increase water treatment costs and corrode things such as household appliances, reducing their useful life.
In Colorado, salinity control efforts by the Bureau of Reclamation also include the operation of a deep injection well for salty groundwater in Montrose County’s Paradox Valley. While that project has been highly effective in salt removal, it is increasingly causing earthquakes and the future of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Paradox desalination program is uncertain as the well nears the end of its serviceable life.
23,426 TONS OF SALT A YEAR
In the Grand Junction area, groundwater reaching the river percolates through Mancos shale associated with an inland sea that left salt deposits behind tens of millions of years ago. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates that a total of $37.2 million it will distribute to 11 projects in western Colorado and Wyoming over the next few years will keep about 23,426 tons a year from entering the Colorado River.
The last lining work the Grand Valley Water Users Association did on the Government Highline Canal was finished last year and ended at 36-3/10 Road in the Palisade area. The work being undertaken now will pick up from there and run to 35 3/10 Road, covering some 6,100 feet of canal length, said Mark Harris, the association’s general manager.
The canal is operated by the association and owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. The project the new funding will cover most of will take place over three winters, and Grand Valley Water Users Association is covering about 10% of the cost through cash and in-kind contributions.
The funding the Grand Valley Irrigation Company is getting will be used for work on close to a mile of the Grand Valley Canal over multiple years, on stretches running by Bookcliff Gardens and the Crown Point Cemetery area. Phil Bertrand with the Grand Valley Irrigation Company said the hope is to get about 300 or 400 feet lined in the first phase of that work this year.
Grand Valley Irrigation’s project involves a little more than $149,000 in matching funding, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
Harris said the work on the Government Highline Canal will include restoring its shape where needed. A fuzzy geotextile layer will be laid down to help protect the water-sealing PVC liner that’s put on top of it from the underlying earth and rocks. The PVC liner is covered with another fabric liner, and then three inches of concrete are added on top to help protect the canal from abrasion from sand and silt flowing through the canal.
A drainage system also is being installed below the canal to help control the accumulation of underlying groundwater that can damage the canal lining when it is drained due to pressure exerted on it. The water in the canal when full otherwise counters that pressure…
Canal lining also reduces seepage that can impact adjacent private property. In addition, it can reduce the amount of selenium that also leaches along with salt into the river. High selenium levels in soil are particularly a concern in the Gunnison River Valley, and high levels in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers can threaten wildlife including endangered fish…
Harris said some sections along the Government Highline Canal cause more salt loading in the river than others. Localized levels of salt underground, the underground geological structure in an area and how much water that seeps from the canal actually makes it to the river all can play roles in salt loading, and areas of the canal with a lot of seeping aren’t necessarily where lining results in the most reduction of salt…
The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association got more than $5 million in funding, and Grandview Canal & Irrigation Co. in the Crawford area received more than $6.3 million. Needle/Rock Ditch Company, also in the Crawford area, is receiving about $4.24 million, and Pilot Rock Ditch Company in eastern Delta County is getting more than $940,000. The Turner Ditch Company near Paonia will receive about $6.15 million.
All of those projects entail installing pressurized pipe. Some involve matching funds and others are being completely paid for by the Bureau of Reclamation.
A local initiative called the Lower Gunnison Project tries to take advantage of salinity-control funds and leverage them with other funding sources to make projects go further, Kanzer said. That project’s goals are wide-ranging, from reducing salt and selenium loading in the Gunnison River, to pursuing more efficient delivery and on-farm application of irrigation water, to improving soil health and boosting agricultural productivity…
Canal-lining projects also can have wetlands projects associated with them. Where wetland habitat is destroyed as a result of the work, it has to be replaced elsewhere, Harris said. In the case of the Grand Valley Water Users Association project, crews will be creating new wetlands at the Colorado River Island State Wildlife Area south of D Road. Harris said the project will involve some 1,500 plantings and will result in creation of habitat far superior to what is being replaced…
The Grand Valley Water Users Association’s canal project is occurring as the association also is in the middle of work to replace electrical and operating equipment at the Grand Valley Diversion Dam, the roller dam in De Beque Canyon. Harris said such projects “all kind of fit together” in improving water delivery in the Grand Valley, but are expensive. It’s hard for the association to pay for something like the current lining project internally through assessments, he said.
Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com
The Government Highline Canal, in Palisade. The Government Highline Canal near Grand Junction. The Grand Valley Water Users Association, which operates the canal, has been experimenting with a program that pays water users to fallow fields and reduce their consumptive use of water. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism
These are hills of exposed Mancos shale in Delta County. Selenium is a natural element found in the soil type that is common in the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism
Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier stands atop a diversion structure that was built as part of a project to improve irrigation infrastructure completed between 2014 and 2019. Kehmeier served as manager for the ditch-improvement project, which was 90% funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and serves 10 Delta County farms with water diverted from Surface Creek, a tributary of the Gunnison River. Lining and piping ditches, the primary methods used to prevent salt and selenium from leaching into the water supply, are critical to the protection of endangered fish in the Gunnison and Colorado river basins. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism
Colorado River Water Conservation District officials have laid out a framework for how they will spend their new tax revenue with an emphasis on equity across water sectors and gaining the support of local government.
At a Dec. 3 board meeting, River District General Manager Andy Mueller presented a framework for the organization’s new Partnership Project Funding Program, which creates a system for how entities can apply for funding and how River District staff and board members will evaluate those applications.
In November, an overwhelming 72% of voters approved ballot measure 7A, which raises property taxes across the district and will add about $5 million annually to the River District’s coffers. Eighty-six percent, or $4.2 million, of that will go toward funding water projects.
The new program is designed to be more nimble and responsive than other federal or state grant programs, with the River District board considering projects on a rolling basis throughout the year. It also gives Mueller the power to approve smaller amounts of project funds without the board’s involvement.
The River District plans to doll out funding for projects in five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.
Each of these categories will receive roughly equal funding on a five-year running average. The project money also will be distributed as evenly as possible across the district’s 15-county region. River District staff will evaluate project applications and decide which ones to bring to the board for approval.
Mueller said he wants “to memorialize within this program our commitments that we made to the voters with respect to how we are going to spend the money. … I think it’s really critical going forward that future board members, future staff members, members of the public can turn to a document and find what it is we have committed to and what are the guiding principles of our program.”