FromThe Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Thomas Phippen):
“What a difference a year makes,” Zane Kessler of the Colorado River District said at the State of the Rivers meeting in Carbondale Thursday, comparing current snowpack averages to last year.
But as Kessler pointed out, 134 percent of average is only 34 percent better than average, and one good year doesn’t change the rising temperatures or the facts of living in the west, or the southwestern states that rely on Colorado River water are using more and more water.
The high snowpack will translate to fuller rivers and reservoirs, but it won’t solve the larger issues of what happens during the next low-precipitation year.
“One thing we noticed this year … is that our soil moisture was horribly low. So a lot of the moisture that came in the early part of this season, went to restoring those soils, and a lot of the water was sucked up,” Kessler said.
More water is being used up as temperatures rise, and both natural forests and agriculture lands have longer growing seasons.
This year, however, the biggest reservoirs in the region “are all expected to fill,” Alan Martellaro, division engineer with the Department of Water Resources, said at the meeting Thursday.
With the exception of [Granby] Reservoir, “the rest are expected to fill and spill. Hopefully, not spill,” Martellaro said.
As the weather warms and more snow melts, there is a risk of flooding on the Crystal River near Carbondale and near the Fryingpan River in Basalt.
The Crystal River “definitely will be above-bank full” at the peak flow for the year, which will likely be weeks later than usual, Martellaro said.
The usual peak occurs by June 7, but this year it will likely be between June 12 and 25, Martellaro said. The peak is also projected to last for weeks instead of days.
While snowpack is well above last year’s average and historical averages, river flows for many rivers only exceeded historical averages this week. The Colorado River just below Glenwood Springs reached 12,700 cubic feet per second Friday, above the historic median peak of 11,200 cfs, according to the USGS…
Another likely flooding area is on the Roaring Fork River just after the confluence with the Fryingpan in Basalt, Lewin said. The park was designed in part to allow the river to overflow there, she said.
From the Colorado River Water Conservation District via the The Sky-Hi Daily News:
Colorado’s eponymous river is doing relatively well in early June 2019 with significant snowpack still lingering at higher elevations, making the river basin’s water managers cautiously optimistic as they look at the state of one of the nation’s key waterways.
Last Thursday evening the Colorado River District, a special taxing district dedicated to the conservation and management of the Colorado River and its stream flows, held a public forum at West Grand High School in Kremmling regarding the current status of the Colorado River. Each year officials from the River District present a series of public forums called “state of the river” meetings in various communities up and down the length of the basin. State of the River meetings are typically held each year in the late spring prior to the start of high runoff periods and irrigation season.
The state of the Colorado River is relatively strong in 2019 following a solid year for snowfall in Colorado’s High Country but despite plentiful precipitation water managers are struggling against a surprising impediment: low temperatures.
“With this cold and wet weather, the snow is lingering much longer than normal,” Victor Lee, a hydrologic engineer with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said. “It has not run off like it typically does. We are going into June with a very delayed peak runoff.”
Despite the delayed start to high water season in the Rockies water managers are cautiously optimistic about the state of the river this year and the impacts from this year’s snowpack. Multiple officials presenting at the State of the River meeting noted they plan to fill, but not spill, the major reservoirs in Grand County with the exception of Wolford Mountain, which is expected to spill sometime later this summer. Nathan Elder, with Denver Water, said the entity he works for anticipates reduced diversions out of Grand County this year thanks to predicted higher than average native stream flows in East Boulder Creek.
Even with the improved snowpack in 2019 though officials continue to sound alarm bells about the future of the key waterway of the American southwest, noting the river basin currently consumes more water than Mother Nature replaces, even in wet years. Andy Mueller, General Manager for the Colorado River District, gave a presentation on drought contingency planning for the Colorado and made several sobering statements about the future water in the west.
According to Mueller the Colorado River basin uses up roughly 16 to 17.5 million acre-feet of water each year, though on average the basin rarely receives that much precipitation annually. To cover the gaps between how much water is consumed and how much is received water managers rely on the massive network of reservoirs that dot the western US to provide the supply. That supply is dwindling though as the water deficit continues to grow.
Mueller noted that the 10-year running average for the amount of water deposited by the environment into the Colorado River basin continues to decline. The current 10 year running average is now just above 12 million acre-feet a year. Mueller noted the ongoing impacts of climate change and a warming environment on the water picture in the west and presented a slide showing average temperature data for the Colorado River going back to 1900.
According to Mueller the Colorado River is now, on average, a full two degrees warmer than it was 30 years ago. The slide provided by Mueller shows a marked uptick in river temperatures beginning in the early 1980s. Since 1983 the Colorado River has experienced only three years when river temperatures were below historic averages.
“Recent studies indicate there is a three to four percent decline in annual runoff in Colorado for every one degree of warming,” Mueller said, noting that researches believe the decreased runoff is a result of a longer growing season, allowing vegetation to consume more water naturally.
“The forests are using more water, the riparian area is using more water,” Mueller said. “We have a supply problem. The question is, where are we headed?”
Ruedi Reservoir on Friday was just under 63 percent full as it continues to recover from the recent drought, but the wet, cool spring — more snow and rain is possible today — means there is plenty of snow remaining in the upper Fryingpan River Valley.
Gauges at and near the reservoir show winter is loosening its grip, albeit slowly. The Ivanhoe Snotel site, which sits at 10,400 feet, had a snowpack Friday that is 185 percent of normal for the day, while the Kiln site (9,600 feet) stood at 161 percent of average.
That simply means more snow is locked in at high elevations than normal for this time of the year, said John Currier, chief engineer with the Colorado River District.
“This year the snow is melting out a little later higher up,” he said. “I do expect water to be fairly high for the reservoir.”
Currier predicted Bureau of Reclamation officials, who control releases from Ruedi, to keep flows in the Fryingpan at around 300 cubic feet per second (CFS) for most of the summer. That level, which will increase drastically as snowmelt increases and fills the tub, is preferable for “fisherman wade-ability reasons,” he said. “They are typically going to have to bypass [that CFS rate] because there’s much, much more water during runoff.”
Ruedi being roughly three-quarters full in mid-May is somewhat below normal, said Mark Fuller, who recently retired after nearly four decades as director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority. That’s a sign of both a stubborn snowpack and the reclamation bureau “trying to leave plenty of room for late runoff in anticipation of a flood out of the upper Fryingpan when it gets warm,” he said…
Releases from Ruedi may make fishing the gold-medal waters below the reservoir a bit more difficult when they occur, but greatly aid the river environment in the long term, said Scott Montrose, a guide with Frying Pan Anglers.
Anybody who has gone camping in the desert for more than a day has asked the same questions that John Currier, the chief engineer at the Colorado River Water Conservation District, has been obsessing about the past 18 months.
How much water do we have left?
How much water have we been using?
How much water will we have if our friends join us and they don’t bring water?
And while many campers ask these questions standing over a 5-gallon plastic jug, for Currier, the water-storage vessel he’s concerned about, Lake Powell, holds 24 million acre-feet of water.
But the giant reservoir, formed by Glen Canyon Dam, was under 40 percent full the last week of April.
And a lot of water is still being released from the reservoir, more demands on the water are expected, and the water supply above the reservoir, in the sprawling Colorado River system, is expected to decrease.
So Currier, along with John Carron of Hydros Consulting in Boulder, has been asking questions familiar to all campers, but asking them on a much larger scale. And with a lot more at stake.
How much water in Western Slope rivers is currently being depleted, or consumed, mainly through irrigation and transmountain diversions?
How much more water is likely to be consumed on the Western Slope, and the upper basin states of Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico?
If more water is consumed on the Western Slope and the upper basin, what does that do to the risk of Lake Powell falling below 3,525 feet above sea level? That level is beneath the intakes to the dam’s hydropower plant, aka minimum power pool.
To try to get the answers, Hydros has developed a water model for the river district’s “risk study” that uses information from two other hydraulic models: one used by Colorado called StateMod, which includes detailed information about water rights and use in Colorado; and the other used by the Bureau of Reclamation called Colorado River Simulation System, which provides a regional look at the river system.
“To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think anybody has ever practically linked StateMod with CRSS, so I think the work that Hydros is doing here is out in front of anything anybody has gotten done,” Currier told the River District’s board of directors, who represent 15 Western Slope counties, on April 15. “And they are just now really getting into the guts, the interesting stuff, of the study.”
Detailed results from the risk study are slated to be shared June 20 in Grand Junction at a regional meeting of Western Slope water users and providers.
Studying the options
To handle the supply side of the scenarios, Hydros is using the recorded hydrology from 1988 to 2015, a period that was drier than even the most severe climate-change models show. As such, it’s called the “stress test” hydrology.
To model potential future depletions, Hydros has taken guidance from a series of programmatic biological opinions, or PBOs, done in various river basins as part of managing endangered fish populations.
The study is focused on the five major river basins on the Western Slope that contribute water to the Colorado River system above Glen Canyon Dam: Yampa, White, Colorado, Gunnison and San Juan.
With supply-and-demand assumptions in hand, Currier said the model can be asked a question on many people’s minds in Colorado: How might consumptive use of water be curtailed or reduced on either a mandatory or voluntary basis in order to maintain targeted elevations at Lake Powell, such as minimum power pool at 3,525 feet?
Minimum power pool makes a good target elevation for the model, because not only is the produced electricity valuable, but the elevation level also serves as a good proxy for staying in compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
If Lake Powell stays above minimum power pool, there is almost zero chance the compact will be violated, Currier told the river district board.
Colorado also is studying curtailment options using its own methodologies, but unlike the River District, it is not releasing its findings due to concerns of potential litigation.
The Front Range Water Council, an ad-hoc group of the largest water providers between Fort Collins and Pueblo, is also conducting studies that ask questions similar to those being asked by the state’s curtailment study and the river district’s risks study, according to Currier.
The river district’s model is exploring two ways a potential mandatory curtailment in Colorado could be implemented, or administered, by the Division of Water Resources.
The first way is based on the priority system in Colorado of first in time, first in right.
Say the state, in order to not violate the compact, set a goal of sending 100,000 acre-feet of water a year to Lake Powell from the Western Slope, water that otherwise would have been used or consumed.
And say the state began curtailing water rights, starting with the most junior rights, and proceeded down the list of rights, by date, until it reached rights that carry a date prior to Nov. 24, 1922, when the compact was signed.
Such pre-compact water rights are exempt from its terms.
How far down the list would the state have to curtail to put 100,000 acre-feet in Lake Powell?
And which junior rights, in each the five basins, would be curtailed first?
For example, almost all of the 600,000 acre-feet of water diverted through transmountain diversions was developed after 1922, and so the Front Range cities and farmers relying on that water are vulnerable to a compact call.
Knowing how a mandatory curtailment, administered in priority, rolls out “would really be useful for a lot of users,” Currier said.
Another way to potentially administer a curtailment is to do it on a pro-rata basis
For example, of all of the post-compact depletions occurring in Colorado, 70% are happening in the Colorado River basin proper, which includes flows above Grand Junction.
Currier said, for example, that a preliminary model run shows if the state wanted to curtail 300,000 acre-feet of post-compact water today, do so on a pro-rata basis among the Western Slope basins, the Colorado basin would have to come up with 69% of the water. And the White River basin would have to come up with just 1% of the water.
Currier said the results of the risk study will not only help how a mandatory curtailment would be implemented, it will also help inform how a voluntary program could be set up.
The CWCB is currently developing such a “demand management” program,” as are the other upper basin states. Colorado’s program is to be voluntary, temporary, compensated and equitable between basins and water users.
The framework for the nascent demand management programs was approved recently approved by an act of Congress, along with a series of other DCP agreements.
As part of DCP, the upper basin secured the option of storing 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell in a new regulatory pool that is exempt from the 2007 interim guidelines that now dictate how water is stored and released from Lake Powell.
The guidelines have a goal of equalizing the levels in both Powell and Mead, and upper basin water managers say the result is that more water is being released from Powell, to the benefit of Mead, and is reducing the upper basin’s operating cushion in Lake Powell.
This new pool of water in Powell must come from actual savings in water use, or water that otherwise would have been consumed by agriculture or cities, but instead was not used and was sent downriver to Lake Powell.
Today across the Western Slope, an annual average of 2.6 million acre-feet is being depleted, or consumed, according to StateMod. And the risk study estimates an average annual increase in depletions of 287,000 acre-feet.
The Colorado River basin, above Grand Junction, accounts for 1.2 million acre-feet of those depletions, the Gunnison for 575,000, the San Juan for 500,000, the Yampa for 197,000 and the White for 62,000.
The estimated 287,000 of total future average depletions on the Western Slope represents an 11 percent increase in water use, Currier said.
If that 11% increase is applied to the current use in the other upper basin states, it means another 390,000 acre-feet of water could be depleted in the future above Lake Powell.
Which leads to the posing of a series of questions to the Hydros model, and reflected in a chart that shows how different measures lower the risk of reaching minimum power pool.
Let’s say an additional 390,000 acre-feet of water is developed in the upper basin, the dry stress-test hydrology is applied over 25 years, and the upper basin reservoir re-operations, recently approved by Congress as part of a drought contingency planning program, are not yet in effect. What, then, happens to Lake Powell?
Well, this scenario shows there is a 17% chance that Lake Powell will fall below 3,525 feet, or minimum power pool. The risk study calls this the “baseline, future” scenario.
Now, let’s say that the new 390,000 acre-feet of depletions are made, but the drought contingency planning measures are applied, including releasing water from three big upper basin reservoirs.
This scenario, called “DCP, future,” cuts the risk level at Lake Powell to 10 percent.
Now, say that no new water is developed, or consumed, but the DCP measures are not yet in place.
That scenario, “baseline, current,” cuts the risk to about 5%.
And finally, assume that no new water is developed, but the DCP water conservation and supply measures are in place.
The risk drops to about 3%, in the “DCP, current” scenario.
“You get down to maybe a 3% chance that you’re going to drop below 3,525,” Currier said.
Given the 3% risk factor, should the upper basin also shore that number up by adding 500,000 acre-feet of water into a new demand-management pool?
If demand management — difficult and expensive to implement — is going to provide only a small pillow against minimum power pool, is it worth doing?
If it helps answer the question, Currier said the 500,000 acre-foot demand-management pool at Powell amounts to 8 feet of additional elevation, once the reservoir has dropped to 3,525 feet.
“We’re not talking a huge pillow here to save us, with 500,000 acre-feet,” Currier said.
But he noted that trying to fill that pool could still yield benefits.
First, it could show the lower basin states that the upper basin states can actually use less water, and securely get it to Lake Powell — which might lead the lower basin states to agree to an even larger demand-management pool.
Also, it could help water users in Colorado figure out how to use less water on a voluntary basis.
If they do that, they might be able to camp out a little longer with the water they have.
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Monday, April 29, 2019.
[The President] tweeted this week that he “just signed a critical bill to formalize drought contingency plans for the Colorado River.”
It was the first time that Trump had ever mentioned the Colorado River in a tweet.
And the drought contingency planning, or DCP, bill the president signed Tuesday had been whisked through Congress in just six days.
For water managers used to working in slow-moving “water time,” it was a surprise to see the federal legislation necessary to implement the DCP agreements happen so fast, and compelling for the Colorado River to be in President Trump’s hands, however briefly.
“That did go through fairly quickly, and in a relatively non-confrontational manner,” Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told the district’s board of directors Tuesday morning during a quarterly meeting.
And by the end of the meeting, Mueller was announcing that Trump had just tweeted about signing the bill.
The brief DCP bill authorizes the Interior secretary, now David Bernhardt of Rifle, to implement the DCP agreements negotiated by water managers in the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico and the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.
Perhaps less surprising to regional water managers was that the Imperial Irrigation District, which is the biggest user of water in the lower basin, wasted no time and filed a lawsuit Tuesday in an effort to halt, or at least influence, the DCP agreements. The district is seeking funding to help restore the shrinking Salton Sea and had been vocal in its dissent when the DCP bill was before Congress.
It is not clear yet how Imperial’s lawsuit will affect the still unfolding DCP process, but James Eklund, who represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission and would sign the DCP agreements for Colorado, said Tuesday he was still optimistic the agreements would be signed this month.
If the DCP agreements are finalized, it means Colorado and the upper basin states could store up to 500,000 acre-feet of conserved water in Lake Powell, and other upper basin reservoirs, and do so in a new regulatory framework that shields the water from the current operating guidelines dictating how Lake Mead and Lake Powell are operated.
Those guidelines, which sunset in 2026, seek to balance the levels of the two big reservoirs, which have been falling due to a 19-year drought, of which this past snowy winter was a welcomed exception. (The Bureau of Reclamation announced Monday that it was forecasting runoff into Lake Powell would be 112 percent of average, up from 43 percent of average in 2018.)
In balancing the levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the upper basin states feel that the guidelines require the release of too much water from Lake Powell, and they want to create a savings account they control in the big reservoir to raise the surface level and protect against a violation of the Colorado River Compact, which requires the upper basin to deliver a set amount of water to the lower basin.
With the passage of the DCP legislation, that savings account in Lake Powell is almost a reality, as is authorization for the Bureau of Reclamation to release water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs down the Green, Gunnison and San Juan rivers to help keep Lake Powell above minimum power pool.
And next comes the part where the upper basin states each have to figure out a demand management, or water-use reduction program, to fill their new water savings account.
The conserved water is supposed to come from the reduction of consumptive use, which in Colorado means it will mainly come from applying less water to fields, pastures and urban lawns.
In Colorado, it is the job of the Colorado Water Conservation Board to figure out how, and if, to start up a demand management program.
To investigate its options, the state agency plans to create eight small working groups to tackle various aspects of demand management, and officials have given people until the end of day Friday to express interest in serving on the various work groups, which are expected to meet throughout the year.
Mueller, the manager of the Colorado River District, has informed the CWCB that the district wants to place a staff member on every one of the eight work groups, given the importance of the potential demand management program to the 15 Western Slope counties the district covers.
The River District’s board wants to ensure that a demand management program is voluntary, temporary, compensated and equitable for water users across the state.
And while the CWCB has adopted a policy that includes those goals, it has confirmed that the state also is studying how an involuntary reduction in water use might happen if necessary to avoid violating the Colorado Compact.
“The state has been working on a study that evaluates the legal elements of compact compliance,” CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell said Thursday. “This is being done through a variety of evaluations that focus on avoiding the need for compact compliance and for options that the state engineer may want to take into consideration in case administration of the compact is necessary to address a compact deficit on the Colorado River.”
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Friday, April 19, 2019.
Here’s the release from the Colorado River District (Andy Mueller):
Please join us for a free, educational webinar hosted by the Colorado River District and the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies on Tuesday, April 2nd, from 12:00 to 1:00pm.
“Know Your Snow” will provide important updates on current snowpack conditions, ongoing drought in the Colorado River Basin, threats posed to our water supply by dust on snow, and an overview of changing runoff trends important to water users on Colorado’s Western Slope.
Officials at the Colorado River Water Conservation District say the market for additional water sales to cities and the energy sector from water it owns in four Western Slope reservoirs, including Ruedi Reservoir, is flat or declining.
However, the potential to sell water from the reservoirs to increase flows in rivers for environmental purposes holds promise.
As part of a Feb. 15 workshop on the river district’s financial outlook, which is challenged by the effects of two Colorado laws that put limits on property-tax revenue, district officials briefed the district’s board of directors on the potential to increase revenue to the district from additional water sales.
Today, the district’s enterprise fund brings in about $1.2 million a year from the sale of about a third of the 24,400 acre-feet of water it has available for sale in Ruedi, Wolford, Elkhead and Eagle Park reservoirs.
But there does not appear to be much future demand for the district’s unsold water.
“Municipal entities that could benefit from either Ruedi or Wolford water are already well situated for the foreseeable future through existing Ruedi and Wolford contracts,” district general manager Andy Mueller said in a Feb. 11 memo to the board of directors. “Energy demands are expected to remain modest or potentially decline as the principal use for our marketing pool by industry has been for frac water and ancillary uses. Again, absent some large-scale, industrial demand (historically, oil shale development) demands are expected to be flat.”
The district owns 11,413 acre-feet of marketable water in Ruedi Reservoir, which holds about 102,000 acre-feet of water behind a dam on the Fryingpan River above Basalt.
Today, the district has existing sales contracts to deliver to various customers 5,263 acre-feet of water from Ruedi, leaving 6,150 acre-feet of water available to sell.
In Wolford Reservoir, the district has 8,100 acre-feet of water set aside for sales. Wolford is owned and operated by the river district and located on Muddy Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River above Kremmling. The district now has sales contracts for 3,038 acre-feet of water from Wolford, leaving 5,062 acre-feet available to sell.
In Elkhead Reservoir, on Elkhead Creek, a tributary of the Yampa River near Craig, the district has 4,457 acre-feet of water available for sale but has contracts for only 100 acre-feet of the water.
And the district owns 432 acre-feet of water in Eagle Park Reservoir, which is on the upper Eagle River. Of that, 254 acre-feet is under contract, leaving 178 acre-feet to sell.
But according to Mueller, Wolford contracts have decreased since 2009 and Ruedi contracts have been flat or decreased since 2013.
A recent exception to the trend at Ruedi is a lease for water that the district signed in July with a state agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, for $229,000.
In exchange for the money, the district will ask the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Ruedi, to release this year up to 3,500 acre-feet of water from the reservoir.
Releases of the water will be timed to boost instream flows in the Fryingpan River during the winter to prevent icing and to increase flows in the Colorado River later in the year to help preserve habitat for endangered fish in the “15-mile reach” below Palisade. (The Fryingpan flows into the Roaring Fork River in Basalt, and the Fork flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs).
“There is a growing trend and acceptance for paying market rates for in-channel water,” Mueller said in his memo. “Evidence is the 3,500 AF lease to the CWCB, as well as prices paid for various non-diversion agreements in recent years. Staff recommends that the enterprise (fund) pursue creative ways to monetize our marketable yield for in-channel beneficial uses while preserving our ability to meet municipal and industrial demands when they arise.”
Tom Gray, who represents Moffat County on the river district board, was bullish on the idea of using water stored in reservoirs to bolster flows in the state’s rivers as an alternative to drying up agricultural fields to do so.
“I think in all the basins there is going to be money for that,” Gray said. “I think there is opportunity there.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published a version of this story on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, as did the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and the Summit Daily News.