Colorado Basin Roundtable OKs grant to study Crystal River backup water supply — @AspenJournalism

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservancy District gave up their conditional water rights in 2011 that could have allowed for a reservoir on the Crystal River at Placita. A proposed back-up water supply study has some groups worried that the idea of dams on the Crystal could be resurrected. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The fight over damming the Crystal River has been resurrected, this time before there are even any dam projects to fight over.

The Colorado Basin Roundtable voted Monday to recommend the state give $25,000 toward a water study in the Crystal River basin, despite calls from some to deny the Water Supply Reserve Fund request because of concerns that a study might conclude there is a need for water storage.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District brought the grant request to the roundtable in Glenwood Springs in an effort to solve a long-acknowledged problem on the Crystal: In dry years, there may not be enough water for both irrigators and some residential subdivisions.

On Nov. 18, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable gave its unanimous support to the grant application, even though its support was not necessary. Although the Crystal is in the Colorado River basin, its headwaters are in Gunnison County, and so the Gunnison roundtable decided to voice its support.

The feasibility study would look at water demands and options for creating a basinwide backup water supply plan, known as an augmentation plan. The study will look at small storage alternatives, probably off the main stem of the Crystal. Until the study is completed, it’s unclear how much water is needed for a basinwide backup supply.

But some fear that the plan could include dams and reservoirs on the free-flowing Crystal, and they opposed the grant unless storage was off the table.

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury requested two amendments to the grant application: that any reservoir would be off the main stem of the river and would only be located downstream of the Sweet Jessup Canal diversion (about 2 miles downstream of Avalanche Creek) to preserve the possibility of designating 39 miles of the Crystal River as Wild and Scenic.

“We are not going to support this application as it’s currently written,” McNicholas Kury told roundtable members Monday. “The county continues to support Wild and Scenic designation on the Crystal.”

McNicholas Kury and two other roundtable members voted against the funding: recreation representative Ken Ransford and Eagle County representative Chuck Ogliby, who owns the Avalanche Ranch Cabins & Hot Springs in the Crystal River Valley.

The Crystal River Caucus, which doesn’t have a seat on the roundtable, also objected to the grant application and passed a resolution at its Nov. 14 meeting to that effect. In a letter to the roundtable, the caucus said it does not support the grant and urged voting roundtable members to deny the request. The caucus would, however, support a study and augmentation plan that evaluates options other than storage.

But others downplayed the threat of dams, insisting they won’t happen.

“You’re not going to see a dam on the main stem of the Crystal,” said Colorado River District President Dave Merritt. “It’s not going to happen. The river district is not predisposed to dams. There is a need for a small amount of augmentation water up there. We are talking tens of acre-feet, probably.”

The Sweet Jessup Canal’s diversion structure is on the Crystal River about two miles downstream from Avalanche Creek. Pitkin County wants any storage on the Crystal that an augmentation study might recommend to be located below the Sweet Jessup to keep open the possibility that the upper portion of the Crystal can one day qualify as Wild and Scenic. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

No backup supply

During the historic drought of late summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. This means, in theory, that junior-rights holders upstream have to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch, which has water rights dating to 1885, can receive its full decreed amount.

Most junior-rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which lets them continue using water during a call by replacing the called-for water with water from another source, such as a reservoir or exchange. The problem on the Crystal is that several residential subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.

Without an augmentation plan, these entities — which are the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company, Chair Mountain Ranch, Crystal River Resort, Crystal View Heights and Seven Oaks Commons — could be fined for every day they are out of priority and could potentially have their water shut off, if there is a call on the river.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 5 engineer Alan Martellaro said instead of each subdivision coming up with its own augmentation plan, a basinwide approach makes more sense.

“We think it would save everyone money if we had a reasonable regional solution,” he said. “It looks a lot to us that a call from the Ella Ditch is going to be more common in the future.”

The Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the Crystal River for the first time ever in 2018. Water managers are seeking solutions in the form of a basin-wide augmentation study, which the Colorado River Basin Roundtable recommended for grant money. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Contentious history

To understand why some groups are opposed to even just a study whether storage is an option, it helps to review the contentious history of water development in the Crystal River Valley.

In 2011, the West Divide district and the Colorado River District abandoned their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water storage on the Crystal River after local groups — Crystal River Caucus, Pitkin County and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association — opposed the reservoirs tied to the conditional rights. Known as the West Divide project, the now-defunct conditional water rights were tied to a dam on the Crystal just downstream from Redstone, which would have created Osgood Reservoir, and a dam on the Crystal at Placita, which is at the bottom of McClure Pass.

To try to prevent the specter of dams coming back to haunt the Crystal in the future, Pitkin County and other local groups have pushed for a federal designation under the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968, which requires rivers to be free-flowing. The Colorado River District opposes the designation.

“With our challenging history with both the river district and West Divide … this is why we are very nervous whenever we hear discussion of any dams on the Crystal River,” said Bill Jochems, Redstone resident and member of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board.

In the end, the roundtable approved the grant request. A motion to amend the request with a no-storage requirement failed.

“Obviously, storage is not the first choice,” said Ken Neubecker, the roundtable’s environmental representative and Colorado project director for environmental organization American Rivers. “But you have to look at all the options, including storage, or you’re just not being responsible.”

The two conservation districts plan to ask for a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Water Plan grant fund in early 2020 to fund the roughly $100,000 project. West Divide plans to contribute $15,000 and the Colorado River District $10,000.

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Aspen Times.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

Study: #ColoradoRiver water crisis could dry out Front Range, West Slope cities and farms — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Gross Reservoir, west of Boulder. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Water sufficient for more than 1 million homes on the Front Range could be lost, and thousands of acres of farm land on both the Eastern and Western Slopes could go dry, if the state can’t supply enough water from the drought-stricken Colorado River to downstream states as it is legally required to do, according to a new study.

Among the study’s key findings:

+ In the next 25 years, if the state does nothing to set more water aside in Lake Powell, the Front Range could lose up to 97 percent of its Colorado River water.

+ All but two of the state’s eight major river basins, under that same “do nothing” scenario, also face dramatic water cutbacks.

+ If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico increase their water use by as little as 11.5 percent, as predictions indicate they will by 2037, the risk of a legal crisis spurring such cutbacks on the river doubles, rising from 39 percent to 78 percent, under one scenario, and 46 percent to 92 percent under another.

“Every water user in every river basin [linked to the Colorado] faces some risk,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, one of the sponsors of the Colorado River Risk Study, as it is known. The Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District also sponsored the work.

Palisade peach orchard

“That’s an important takeaway because when you begin to realize the extent of potential damage, whether it is on the West Slope or the Front Range, then we all come to the realization that we have a shared risk,” Mueller said.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s supplies are divided between the four Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) and three Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona). The compact dictates that cities and farmers in the Upper Basin whose water rights were obtained after the compact was signed would have to give up some or all of their water to the Lower Basin if there isn’t enough water in Lake Powell to meet the terms of the compact. Colorado uses the most water of all the Upper Basin states and therefore faces the most risk.

The study was conducted by Boulder-based Hydros Consulting and released in June. It looked at different scenarios for the way river conditions and reductions to diversions could play out, as well as ways to reduce the risk cities and farms face, including spreading the cutbacks proportionately among all the river basins, something that isn’t typically done.

Scare tactics

Front Range water utilities are wary of the study and have begun a new round of analysis to determine if they agree with the results.

Alex Davis is a water attorney for the City of Aurora. At a recent forum on the risk study, she said that the chances of a Colorado River crisis were being exaggerated. And the study acknowledges that under some scenarios the risk of such a legal crisis is low.

“All of this talk is helpful to get people to think about the issue, but it also seems like a bit of scare tactics. If the Lower Basin states did try to do something, there would be a whole number of reasons [they would not get far],” she said.

Including the fact that they continue to overuse their share of the river by about 1.2 million acre-feet a year. Before Colorado and its northern neighbors were asked to cut back, the Lower Basin would have to do additional cutbacks as well, she said.

If drought and climate change continue to sap the river’s flows, and a legal crisis erupts with downstream states, six of the state’s eight major river basins could be forced to give up water. The Front Range and Eastern Plains are most vulnerable if shortages hit the river downstream and could lose as much as 97 percent of their Colorado River supplies. Credit: Chas Chamberlin via Water Education Colorado

West meets east

Though the Colorado River flows west, and originates in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, a large chunk of its flows, more than 530,000 acre-feet, are pumped east over the Continental Divide to the state’s Front Range cities, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Boulder, Fort Collins and Broomfield, among others. That’s enough water to supply 1.06 million homes or to irrigate more than one-half million acres of crops.

Because these water users built their tunnels and reservoirs decades after the 1922 Compact was signed, they could be among the first to be cut off. Denver’s largest storage pool, Dillon Reservoir, was completed in the 1960s. East Slope cities and farmers would lose 97 percent of their Colorado River supplies if those diversions were completely shut down, according to the study.

“You have to start with the fact that 50 percent of the water on the Front Range comes from the West Slope. Should the Upper Basin fail to meet its delivery obligation, half of water use on the Front Range would be curtailed. That’s an enormous problem,” said Brad Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.

Other parts of the state also face risk, some more than others. The Yampa River Basin, home to Steamboat Springs, would lose slightly more than 70,000 acre-feet of water, or 30 percent of its Colorado River supplies.

The Gunnison Basin, where agriculture controls historic water rights that pre-date the compact, is better protected, with the potential to lose just over 57,000 acre-feet of water, or 10 percent of its share of the river.

But a large swath of the southwestern part of the state would also be hard hit. Despite the historic farm water rights in this region, several small communities and irrigation districts built reservoirs after the compact was signed, just as cities did on the Front Range, meaning that those stored water supplies are also at high risk. In this basin, 178,000 acre-feet of water, roughly 36 percent of its Colorado River supplies, could be lost, according to the study.

The likelihood of ongoing drought and hotter summers only deepens the uneasiness over the river’s ability to produce the amount of water the state once relied on.

“We don’t expect to see cooler temperatures in the future, we expect to see warmer temps,” Mueller said. “If that is true, then we have to plan on reduced water supplies within our state.”

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Saving more water?

The study comes as the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the lead water policy agency in the state, is examining whether to launch a massive, voluntary conservation program that would allow the state and its neighbors to save some 500,000 acre-feet of water and store it in a newly authorized drought pool in Lake Powell. The pool, to be used only by the Upper Basin states, could help protect Colorado and its neighbors if drought and climate change continue to sap the river’s flows.

Michelle Garrison is a modeler with the CWCB who has analyzed the study’s results. She said the scenarios it considered are important for comparative purposes and may help the West Slope and Front Range collaborate on any water cutbacks, something that hasn’t always occurred in the past.

“It’s a tough one,” she said. “The hydrology in the Colorado River has always been extremely variable and it’s predicted to become even more variable. But I’m really pleased to see them sharing their results.”

In places like the Yampa Basin, if the state cut back water use based strictly on prior appropriation, where water right dates determine who gets water first in times of shortage, Stagecoach Reservoir, the most significant storage pool in the valley, could be shut off because its storage rights date only to the 1980s. And residents would be hard pressed to cope if another long-term drought drained the river and their only source of stored water was no longer able to refill.

Kevin McBride is manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns Stagecoach. He, like dozens of other water managers across the state, is still contemplating the options. (Editor’s note: McBride serves on the board of Water Education Colorado, which houses Fresh Water News.)

“Generally being safe from drought is what it’s all about,” McBride said. “But how do you get there?

“It’s complicated and it comes down to how it’s done.”

McBride and others on the West Slope are asking for another round of modeling that would examine more equitable ways to cut back water use, so that no one takes the brunt of the reductions.

With insurance, or without?

Others have suggested that the state should let the rules embedded in the 1922 Compact and Colorado’s water rights system play out, rather than creating an expensive, legally complex water conservation program.

Anne Castle is a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources who specializes in Colorado River issues. Going without a major conservation program carries its own set of very high risks, such as decades of expensive lawsuits or unplanned water shortages.

Over the next several months, the state will continue to examine how best to protect its Colorado River water as part of drought planning work it is engaged in with the other Upper Basin states. Late next year, all Colorado River Basin states will begin negotiating a new set of operating guidelines for the entire river system, designed to bring it back into balance and slash the risk of major cutbacks.

“Truly one of the points of this risk study is to make sure that anyone who is at risk understands the risk,” Mueller said. “If you’re a water planner, it may set off some alarm bells. But we don’t want people to panic. The hope is people will look at this and say, ‘Our community is at risk…what are we going to do about it?’”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

This graphic shows the transmountain diversions in Colorado.

#ColoradoRiver District named the 2019 J. Evan Goulding District of the Year

Boundary map via the Colorado River District

From the Colorado River Water Conservation District via The Aspen Times:

The Colorado River District recently received special recognition from the Special District Association of Colorado.

The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District was named the 2019 J. Evan Goulding District of the Year by the association. The award is given annually to single out a district that demonstrates exceptional leadership and community spirit.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District, commonly known as the Colorado River District, was created in 1937 to oversee conservation, use and development of water resources of the Colorado River and its principal tributaries in the state of Colorado.

The river district is composed of 15 Western Slope counties with about 500,000 residents. The district covers about 29,000 square miles or roughly 28 percent of the land area of the state. It works to protect 70 percent of the water resources in the state. One way it fulfills its mission is through water storage and operational solutions that ensure economic, agricultural and environmental health of western Colorado. It also undertakes legislative and regulatory advocacy at the state and federal levels.

The district is overseen by a board of directors with one appointed representative from each of the 15 counties.

The latest “E-Newsletter” is hot off the presses from the Hutchins Water Center

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

RIVER DISTRICT SEMINAR TALKS
The Colorado River District’s annual seminar drew a big crowd and featured speakers with provocative ideas, like a “grand bargain” to cap upper basin uses in exchange for lifting the threat of a compact call by the lower basin. You can access video of the talks and the slides presented here.

Click here to view the Twitter storm from the seminar.

Crystal River study on backup supply plan being floated by conservation districts — @AspenJournalism

Sprinklers irrigate land on the east side of the Crystal River (in foreground) in August 2018, one of its driest years in recent history. A call by a downstream senior water rights holder during the drought of 2018 illustrated a long-simmering problem: several subdivisions in the Crystal River Valley don’t have back-up water plans. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Two water-conservation districts are working to find solutions to a long-simmering problem on the Crystal River: In dry years, there may not be enough water for both irrigators and some residential subdivisions.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District plan to submit a state grant request for a feasibility study on a basinwide augmentation plan, or backup water supply plan, for the Crystal. The study would look at water demands and augmentation strategies, including the potential for a reservoir in or near the town of Marble.

he historic drought late in the summer of 2018 illustrated some long-acknowledged problems with water rights on the Crystal. In August and again in September, the Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time ever. This means, in theory, that junior-rights holders upstream have to stop taking water so that the Ella Ditch can receive its full decreed amount.

The Crystal River in August 2018 was running at 8 cfs near the state fish hatchery. Two conservation districts are hoping to get state funding for a study about water supply replacement plans for several subdivisions in the Crystal River Valley. Photo credit: Heather Sackett via Aspen Journalism

No back-up water supply

Most junior-rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which lets them continue using water during a call by replacing the called-for water with water from another source, such as a pond, a reservoir or an exchange.

The problem on the Crystal is that several subdivisions don’t have augmentation plans.

“This hasn’t been a surprise for at least 30 years,” said John Currier, chief engineer for the river district. “This is a well-known problem. The issue has been out there all the time, but the call is potentially becoming more frequent in those kind of dry years.”

The entities that were out of priority in 2018 — and therefore could potentially have water to homes shut off to satisfy a downstream call — include the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company, Chair Mountain Ranch, Crystal River Resort, Crystal View Heights and Seven Oaks Commons.

The Colorado Division of Water Resources, which administers the calls, sent these entities letters encouraging them to create an augmentation plan. Otherwise, their water could be shut off or they could be fined for every day they are using water out of priority when there is a future call by a downstream senior-rights holder.

Division 5 Water Engineer Alan Martellaro hopes it won’t come to that. Issuing fines won’t do anyone any good, he said.

“We basically told everybody: As long as we are moving forward and not dragging our feet, we are not going to issue any orders, especially since we are searching for regional answers,” Martellaro said.

The boundaries of the West Divide Conservancy District extend up the Crystal River Valley almost to McClure Pass. The district, along with the Colorado River Water Conservation District are submitting a state grant request for a feasibility study of a basin-wide augmentation plan.

Basinwide cooperation

West Divide, which is based in Rifle, with its boundary extending up the Crystal River Valley nearly to McClure Pass, sees the situation as an opportunity for basinwide cooperation to find what will probably be a multi-faceted solution. But that will require groups that were once at odds to work together.

“At this point, we are just getting back into this to see what’s feasible, and at this point we want to, and are open to, working with any interested parties up there,” said Bruce Wampler, a West Divide board member.

In 2011, the West Divide district and the Colorado River district abandoned their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water storage in the Crystal River drainage after local groups — Crystal River Caucus, Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association — opposed the reservoirs included in the conditional rights.

At the Gunnison Basin Roundtable meeting in Montrose on Sept. 16, Wendy Ryan, project manager for Colorado River Engineering, an engineering firm that works with West Divide, asked roundtable members for a letter of support for the grant application. (The town of Marble, which could be the site of storage, is in Gunnison County, but not in the Gunnison River basin.) Some roundtable members said they want to see the involvement of environmental groups before they would offer a letter of support.

“It’s going to be a hard nut to crack,” said Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck, a roundtable member.

As of Thursday, no members of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board said they had been informed of the grant application or the augmentation-plan study. The group officially opposes the construction of new storage facilities in the Crystal River watershed.

To get the state money from the Water Supply Reserve Fund, the feasibility study request must be approved first by the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and then the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The request, though not yet finalized, will probably be for roughly $100,000, Currier said.

West Divide introduced the proposal to the CBRT on Monday, and plans on putting forth a formal grant request in November.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Sept. 24 edition of the Times.

#YampaRiver Fund launch

A lovely curve on the Bear River, which is really the headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

On Thursday, Steamboat Resort announced that it plans to donate $500,000 to the Yampa River Fund as a founding donor to the new endowed fund, which will pay for projects to protect the Yampa River’s flow…

The Yampa River Fund will pay for three types of projects aimed at benefiting all water users, from South Routt ranchers to Steamboat rafters to people drinking water from Craig faucets and the endangered fish living in Dinosaur National Monument. This includes leasing water to boost flows in dry years, actions to restore the river health and water infrastructure improvements.

The $500,000 donations will be matched dollar for dollar under a million-dollar matching challenge grant, boosting the amount raised by the money to $1 million…

The Nature Conservancy will lead management of the fund until at least 2021.

Perlman said the resort is “putting their money where its mouth is” in supporting its core values, particularly collaboration and environment. This donation is the largest single cash donation since the resort was founded in 1963. Last week, Steamboat Resort also announced it has created a new department focused on environmental sustainability

The resort will donate $100,000 per year to the fund for the next five years.

Smith said Ski Corp.’s donation “lays a strong foundation for the effort to be successful.” Ski Corp. will participate in the fund’s board of directors and the smaller steering committee that will make funding decisions…

Ski Corp. will join about 20 other local governments, companies and organizations overseeing the fund’s operation. Other entities range from agricultural organizations, such as the Moffat County Cattleman’s Association and Community Agricultural Alliance, to nonprofits, such as the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council and Friends of the Yampa, to businesses, including Smartwool and Tri-State Generation and Transmission…

[Nancy Smith] also noted there’s still $2 million needed to reach organizers’ fundraising goal of $4.75 million over the next five years.

From the Craig Daily Press (Clay Thorp):

On Thursday, Sept. 19, community members gathered in Steamboat Springs for the launch of the Yampa River Fund, an endowed fund that will be used to fund projects to improve river health, protect the water supply, and boost river flow in dry years.

Currently the fund has about $2 million, but organizers plan to build the fund up to $5 million.

The Yampa River Fund specifically directs its money to goals included in several Northwest Colorado river management plans, including those created by the Yampa, White and Green River Basin Roundtable, and many others. These goals include protecting water users on the Yampa from curtailment, finding ways to address water shortages, and keeping water infrastructure up to date.

Another factor that instigated the water fund are the reservoir releases that are becoming a regular occurrence to increase river flow in dry years…

Other signatories that have joined Craig and Moffat County in the fund include the Colorado River District, the Colorado Water Trust, the Community Agriculture Alliance, Friends of the Yampa, Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, Northwest Colorado Chapter of Parrotheads, Routt County, Smartwool, Steamboat Ski Resort, the Nature Conservancy, and the towns of Dinosaur, Hayden, Oak Creek, and Yampa…

The fund would have a steering committee of nine members along with a four-member board and the Nature Conservancy has apparently taken the lead on dispersing the funds. Any decision made on the board must be by unanimous consent, meaning if Moffat County doesn’t agree, it won’t happen…

Craig City Council signed the agreement at their Sept. 10 meeting. The city is interested in using the fund to possibly finance a diversion structure on the Yampa River near Loudy-Simpson park.

Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

#ColoradoRiver District Annual Seminar

I’ll be at the Colorado River Water Conservation District Annual Seminar today. I will post the seminar hash tag as soon as we work it out this morning. You can follow along on my Twitter feed @CoyoteGulch.

Sunset from my campsite at the James M. Robb State Park Fruita Section, September 17, 2019.

I’ll try to catch up on posts this evening.