Environmental Defense Fund looking for win-wins with farmers RE: groundwater depletion

The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

[ed. Coloradans know that ranchers and farmers are key stakeholders in the preservation of habitat and water resources, and they grow our food.]

Here’s an interview with EDF staffers from Matt Weise writing for Water Deeply. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Environmental Defense Fund is launching a new Western water strategy that aims to solve the problems of groundwater depletion and habitat restoration by working jointly with farmers.

FARMERS AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS have often been at odds. Farmers, for instance, rarely want it known that their land might host an endangered species, for fear regulations could come crashing down. Environmentalists are fond of regulations to protect natural resources, but rarely do much to help farmers comply.

These old patterns are beginning to change as the two camps find they have more in common than stereotypes suggest. One group working along this path is Environmental Defense Fund, which is developing a new Western water strategy aimed at helping farmers cope with scarcity.

The new policy, still being developed, aims to help farmers and irrigation districts comply with California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). EDF also plans to help create water markets, so farmers can sell or trade water when they have a surplus…

To get a preview of the new strategy and how it can help both wildlife and farm economies, Water Deeply recently spoke with three EDF staffers: David Festa, senior vice president, ecosystems; Maurice Hall, associate vice president, ecosystems and water; and Ann Hayden, senior director, California habitat and Western water.

Water Deeply: What region are you focusing on, exactly?

Maurice Hall: Generally, we think of our problem set as the areas where irrigated agriculture is the prominent water use. That tends to correspond to the area where we have the biggest stresses on water and water scarcity issues.

Right now, there are two really big opportunities to insert new solutions. One is California, and in large part the opportunity we have now is due to passage of SGMA. Because of the stresses that is going to add to an already stressed system, it will cause us to have do a lot of things differently.

The second big opportunity is in the Colorado River Basin, especially in the Lower Colorado region. There are clear signs of imbalance on Lake Mead, the big storage reservoir that the Lower Basin states depend on.

Water Deeply: You’re developing an open-source toolkit to help people comply with California’s SGMA and a series of workshops. That’s kind of unusual for an environmental group, isn’t it?

Ann Hayden: We recognized that the responsibility SGMA was going to put on local agencies to figure this out was going to be a huge burden. Our strategy is really to target those folks in the Central Valley who seem more willing and better positioned to get out ahead of the far-off deadlines in SGMA, and figure out ways they can be credited for doing those things.

Specifically, we’re thinking of ways we can help with groundwater recharge and developing a groundwater market. We’re focusing on where those opportunities lie.

We also recognized that in order for this to be a sustainable solution, we really need to figure out ways in which we can get disadvantaged communities to have a seat at the table, and equip them with tools and resources to engage in decision-making. We’re working with partners on the ground in the Central Valley to establish a Water Leadership Program.

Water Deeply: And you’re actually working on trying to incubate new water markets. How will that work?

Hall: Consider, right now, the agriculture water users who have water rights. Because of the way we’ve built our system and the social norms and policies we have established, they have few choices of how they can use their water. They can either grow their crops or not use their water. Because if you don’t use your water, you lose the water right. So there’s an incentive to use the water whether or not it’s really economically viable, or whether it’s really what you want to do most.

So the value of water markets, generally, is to give those who have the rights some flexibility in how they use water, so they can manage it as an asset, as opposed to just an input of their agricultural production. That opens up a lot of options. Maybe I’m growing a crop I’m barely making money on, and somebody downstream needs some water to supplement their almond orchard. And I can trade my water to them and use less on my land, and we’re both better off.

One of the problems is that if you do that without the right sideboards in place, you can have some undesirable impacts. For instance, you might reduce the recharge to groundwater in your local areas because you’re not irrigating your field. So building water-trading programs that include those externalities is what is necessary going forward, and why we see the importance of us being involved in making this happen.

Water Deeply: You sponsored a bill last year, AB 2304, to help launch water markets in the state. What’s the status of that bill, and what comes next?

Hayden: We started working with the Association of California Water Agencies, which is also coming out with its policy principles on what should and could happen to improve water markets. There was a lot of common ground. Unfortunately, there’s a whole spectrum of perspectives among its members. When it came down to it, it was too challenging to gain full support of ACWA at this point to make movement on legislation. That said, we are committed to working with ACWA on other possible policy improvements, maybe those that don’t require legislation at first.

Hall: There have been really bad examples of what ill-planned water trades can do. A dramatic example happened on the Front Range of Colorado, where pretty significant communities have been dried up through purchase of agricultural land and the water rights that go along with them – so-called “buy-and-dry” transitions that have been in the news for decades. So we recognize we have more education to do.

Water Deeply: You also want to incentivize farmers to idle land for environmental purposes. Is this a kind of land trust?

Festa: What we’d like to do is create the economic systems that will allow farmers and ranchers to look at the environment, essentially, as a crop. They can manage their lands in ways that produce a very specific environmental benefit and get paid to do it. The concept is a cousin to things like conservation easements and land banks, where land is taken out of production. But in a lot of those cases, not much, oftentimes, is actually done to manage it for a particular environmental outcome.

Hayden: In the groundwater context, it is one area where we may have a nice linkage with land restoration. We’re probably going to see more land that has to go idle in order for farmers to adjust to how water supply is going to change under SGMA. We want to get out ahead of that and help farmers design good habitat on their land – and have them be paid for that. There also could be opportunities for farmers to do on-farm groundwater recharge, and ways we can design those activities that are also beneficial to creating habitat.

Water Deeply: Any examples on the ground now?

Hayden: We have a number of pilot projects where we have been able to test our habitat quantification tool. It’s a tool to be able to measure a habitat function on a parcel of agricultural land. It allows you to plug in different practices a farmer could implement to improve that function for a suite of at-risk species.

The one site where we’re about to launch a restoration project is called Elliott Ranch in West Sacramento. We were able to get Proposition 1 funding from the Delta Conservancy to be able to compensate that landowner to make some changes in agricultural practices and direct deliberate restoration on the property. We’re about to start on the actual project and get shovels in the ground in the next couple of months. That’s a project that’s really focused on Swainson’s hawk.

Groundwater movement via the USGS

#ColoradoRiver: Conservation is the primary tool for @CAPArizona reduction targets #COriver

The Central Arizona Aqueduct delivers water from the Colorado River to underground aquifers in southern Arizona. UT researcher Bridget Scanlon recommends more water storage projects like the aqueduct to help protect against variability in the river’s water supply. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

From The Western Farm Press (Cary Blake):

The winter and spring storms were a real blessing for Arizona producers, says Chuck Cullom, CAP’s Colorado River programs manager.

In “August 2016, the probability of shortage (in Arizona) was greater than 50 percent for the next five years – for every year – upwards of 60 percent.”

Today, shortage prospects have dropped to about 30 percent.

“The risk has essentially been cut in half for the next five years because of the snowpack this year. We’ve (Colorado basin) had an incredibly wet December and January,” Cullom told about 900 agricultural folks gathered in late February for the 2017 Southwest Ag Summit held at Yuma, Ariz.

Cullom noted, “While I’m enthusiastic about the improvement it’s temporary and the structural deficit will erase these gains over the next couple of years.”

A Colorado River level one emergency shortage call was originally expected as early as last year or this year. The extra basin moisture could push back water reductions to central Arizona farms to about 2019 or later.

Lake Mead from Hoover Dam December 13, 2016.

EYES ON LAKE MEAD

Meanwhile, Arizona water leaders have their eyes peeled on the water mark at Lake Mead, the storage reservoir for the lower basin states and the largest reservoir in the nation. When the Mead dipstick measures water under the 1,075-foot mark around August of any given year, the secretary of the Interior can declare a Colorado River level one shortage call.

Arizona, specifically the central portion, would face the first water cuts under a shortage for the three lower basin states – California, Arizona, and Nevada. The annual Colorado River apportionment for these three states is 4.1 million acre feet for California, 2.4 million AF – Arizona, and 300,000 AF – Nevada.

California has senior rights in the lower basin and would receive every drop of water under its 4.1 million AF allotment under a level one shortage situation. Only Arizona’s allotment would be cut by 325,000 AF total which includes the 200,000 to 220,000 AF specifically earmarked for agriculture (75 percent of the reduction).

Also cut would be 75,000 to 100,000 acre feet of water (25 percent) normally shifted to underground storage (excess pool) by the Arizona Banking Authority and held for Arizona water emergencies.

AGRICULTURAL EFFICIENCY

Cullom says water delivery cutbacks to food and fiber growers in Arizona’s tri-county area would be “unfortunate.”

“Arizona has some of the most efficient agriculture in the West, if not the nation,” Cullom told the told the Ag Summit crowd. “(It would be) a significant reduction to ag.”

The water reductions would impact about 17 irrigation districts with CAP contracts.

With less surface water available to grow food and fiber, many farmers in the affected areas would be required to shift to more groundwater use to irrigate crops. This could be a serious problem for some growers as many old wells are in disrepair and repairs would be expensive at a time when grower prices for many of the major crops grown in the area – wheat, alfalfa, and cotton – are low. Some farm fields would likely be fallowed.

Under a level one call, the greater Yuma area in the state’s southwestern most reaches – regarded as the nation’s “winter salad bowl” leafy greens capital – would receive 100 percent of its river allotment due to its senior Arizona water rights on the river.

Each basin – the upper and lower – receives 7.5 MAF of water annually from the river. The upper basin states include Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. The lower basin total also includes mandatory Colorado River water sent to the Republic of Mexico.

REGIONAL CONSERVATION

Cullom spent part of his presentation discussing various conservation efforts to reduce Colorado River water use inside and outside the CAP service area on a voluntary compensated basis – basically paying people not to use water.

One near term strategy is the Lake Mead protection program started in 2014 to keep the lake above the trigger level.

Cullom explains, “Suffering a 320,000 AF reduction for the CAP will impact our customers, the economy of central Arizona which is linked to the ag economy in Yuma, and that starts a problem that would be difficult to stop.”

He discussed a joint upper-lower basin initiative called the Pilot System Conservation Program, a cooperative agreement between the Bureau of Reclamation, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, CAP, Southern Nevada Water Authority, and Denver Water.

These groups which represent the upper and lower basins are pooling financial resources to fund competitive conservation projects across both basins.

The projects would help mitigate drought across the entire Colorado River basin to help all users offset declining reservoir levels at lakes Mead and Powell. Lake Powell is the storage reservoir for the upper basin states, and the second largest U.S. reservoir.

Senate confirms Zinke as Interior Secretary

Arizona Water News

The new Zinke team, including appointments to Bureau of Reclamation, will need to learn quickly about the complexities of Colorado River water law and the drought-induced woes facing Lake Mead

zinke-confirmation-photo

By a comfortable 68-31 margin, the U.S. Senate today confirmed President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke.

The former Montana member of Congress will head a department that manages around 500 million acres of land and waterways in the United States.

Zinke’s department also includes the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the agency responsible for the system of dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River, the waterway that is integral to the livelihood of 40 million U.S. citizens living in the Southwest.

In a statement declaring his approval of the appointment, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said he looked forward to working with Zinke’s department, notably on behalf of Arizona’s Colorado River allotment.

“I was pleased to vote to…

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What she really wants for Valentine’s Day – News on TAP

Forget diamonds and chocolate. We have something better in mind.

Source: What she really wants for Valentine’s Day – News on TAP

Report: Climate Change and the Upper Dolores Watershed, a Cold Water Fishery Adaptive Management Strategy — Mountain Studies Institute

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

“Climate Change and the Upper Dolores Watershed, a Cold Water Fishery Adaptive Management Strategy,” is an extensive three-year analysis done in cooperation with the Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton.

The study used 72 climate models to tease out potential impacts to 46 trout streams in the basin from the town of Dolores to Lizard Head Pass up to the year 2100.

“We know there will be change, the question the study addresses is what kind of change can we expect, the approximate timing, and what are the impacts,” said Duncan Rose, director of the Dolores River Anglers chapter of Trout Unlimited.

When climate scientists ran the models over time, they pointed toward a “feast and famine” scenario, where wet periods with higher temperatures are followed by longer, more intense droughts.

According to the study, between 1949 and 2012, the upper Dolores watershed experienced wet periods with increasingly higher temperatures, followed by dry periods that were longer and more intense.

“We see that pattern developing where each drought gets more intense, and the wetter periods have higher temperatures, which causes increased evaporation and overall net loss of moisture,” Rose said.

If cyclical drought conditions were like 2002, the worst in recent years, and lasted for many years, the result could mean an average of 44 percent reduction in stream flows throughout the upper basin in 50-70 years, according to the study. Low stream flows contribute to higher water temperatures, which if reach above 63 degrees, are detrimental to trout species.

“Trout have survived these cycles for millennia, but the climate conditions may be more intense than what we have seen, so we’re going to have more challenges, particularly on the lower elevation streams,” Rose said.

The study is intended to aid current and future managers of Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the San Juan National Forest in sustaining good trout habitat in the basin.

For example, higher elevation streams will be less impacted by the climate predictions. Lower trout streams may be more or less a lost cause, with many perennial streams potentially becoming intermittent or drying up completely.

“That leaves the middle elevation band of streams, where mitigation and stream rehabilitation will do the most good,” Rose said. “It’s an adaptive management model, where we don’t rush in, take it a step at a time and invest limited resources with what climate pattern emerges.”

Protecting trout streams from higher temperatures and lower flows means improving shade, installing instream rocks and trees to create pools where fish can find refuge in lower flows and hot conditions. Streams like Roaring Fork, Scotch Creek, Kilpacker, Burnett, and higher-up stretches of the Dolores Main stem, plus others, would likely benefit the most from habitat improvement in the future.

More regulations may by on the horizon, as a result of the study’s projections, for example, lower bag limits, catch-and-release only rules, barbless hooks, and even rotating some streams into non-fishing status for a year to allow recovery.

The climate models indicate there will likely be a reduction in the 295 miles of trout streams in the upper Dolores Basin in the next 50 to 100 years. More of the fishing spots will be concentrated in the higher elevations, which would result in more people fishing in a smaller area.

“There will be more competition for fewer fish, but the good news it will not happen overnight,” Rose said. “We have time to adapt, as long as we are aware of the potential impacts.”

This summer, the Dolores chapter of Trout Unlimited will be installing eight temperature gages on various streams and rivers at different elevations to start monitoring changes and trends.

The Dolores River climate change study cost about $20,000 with $15,000 paid for by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Other groups, including TU, Southwestern Water Conservation District and the Montezuma Land Conservancy contributed funds as well.

For a power point summary of the study go to bit.ly/Troutunlimited

The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the ERWC

The Eagle River roils with spring runoff in June 2011 near Edwards, Colo. Photo/Allen Best
The Eagle River roils with spring runoff in June 2011 near Edwards, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt (Lizzie Schoder):

This past year will likely break 2015’s mark of being the hottest year on record. Colorado has seen a similar trend, with a 2 degrees Fahrenheit bump statewide in the last 30 years. Colorado, like much of the Southwest, has also seen drought for the past decade, which has been felt most strongly in the western part of the state.

How does this affect our rivers? A warmer atmosphere has a drying effect overall — meaning more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow and peak runoff and snowmelt happen earlier in the year. Although there is no significant change detected (so far) in the amount of precipitation, the change in the form of precipitation is what’s significant. Our snowpack levels, measured in snow water equivalent, act as nature’s time release to recharge our rivers. Less snowpack, or more precipitation that falls instead as rain, means less natural recharge, since rain runs through the watershed at a quicker rate.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports show trends of peak runoff and snowmelt occurring anywhere from one to four weeks earlier in the spring. Rain is an immediate surge to our rivers, but can give way to evaporation during hotter months of the summer. Snow, on the other hand, melts slowly, recharging the rivers at a steadier pace, especially during July and August when we need it most. Though predictions of how this will affect annual runoff vary, the 2011 Bureau of Reclamation report estimates that Colorado River flows will decrease by about 8.7 percent by 2060, or roughly the annual amount diverted by canal to Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. These trends along with increased evaporation due to warmer temperatures does not bode well for a region already dealing with prolonged drought.

Snowpack levels are a pivotal factor in ski communities. But it matters too for agriculture, irrigation, hydropower, river recreation and water quality. Lower water levels lead to shallower and therefore warmer rivers, affecting our plant and fish populations, as well as the aquatic bugs they need for food. Warming temperatures also mean that everything from crops to humans will need more water to compensate. The Colorado River supplies water to 40 million people in seven different southwest states. The rising temperature trend will only put more pressure on an over-allocated system, pushing both the supply and demand of the Colorado River in the wrong direction.

While communities that depend on the Colorado River have gone to extraordinary lengths to buffer the impacts of climate change, we are heading for times where water shortages will be felt more than ever. According to the New York Times, Lake Powell provides water to one in eight Americans and waters one-seventh of the nation’s crops. Like the other dams and reservoirs in the Colorado River system, it’s completely over allocated — the water levels continue to dwindle and more water is being taken out than what flows into it. If Lake Powell isn’t able to supply the 7.5 million acre feet annually to the Lower Colorado Basin as required by the 1922 interstate compact, then a river call requiring Upper Basin communities, such as Eagle County, to use less water could come into effect in coming years.

The national political debate over the legitimacy of climate change will inevitably continue. But with our county’s population projected to nearly double by 2050, we must recognize that water is a nonpartisan issue. It is important that we voice our opinions and demand action at the national level, while also encouraging action at state and local levels where it can likely happen more quickly. From the standpoint of water and river protection however, we do not need to stand around waiting for our leaders to reach consensus on the existence of climate change.

There is no arguing that the level of water in Lake Powell — and its sister, Lake Mead — continue to drop, making it clear that water conservation and efficiency is of critical importance. That can happen through legislative actions, regulatory measures, but also where you can make an impact — in your home and garden. For more information, visit http://erwc.org.

Lizzie Schoder is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit http://www.erwc.org.

SLV projects receive $1.4 million in GOCO grants

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From Great Outdoors Colorado (Rosemary Dempsey) via The Crestone Eagle:

The Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) Board awarded three grants totaling more than $1.4 million to projects across the San Luis Valley. San Luis Valley Inspire, a valley-wide coalition breaking down barriers for kids to get outside, received $1 million in funding as part of the GOCO Inspire Initiative; Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) received a $376,500 grant to permanently conserve the La Garita Creek Ranch near Del Norte; and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) received a $25,000 habitat restoration grant for Rio Grande State Wildlife Area.

The $1 million grant is part of GOCO’s Inspire Initiative, which will invest in places, programs, and pathways to get kids outside in communities across the state. This innovative framework is being looked at as a national model, and each coalition’s approach to the unique challenges of their community will serve as examples to other rural, urban, suburban, or mountain communities across the country.

Youth have led the charge for the San Luis Valley Inspire coalition; this funding will put their plans into action over the next three years. San Luis Valley Inspire will put GOCO funding to work in Antonito, Creede and Saguache, building the Antonito Outdoor Education Center and investing in the creation of the Antonito Adventure Program, improving connections along Creede’s Willow Creek Corridor, the Headwaters Youth Conservation Corps, the Saguache Backyard to Backcountry Program, and the Saguache Youth Conservation Corps.

RiGHT’s grant for La Garita Creek Ranch was part of GOCO’s open space grant program, which funds public and private land conservation. Projects sustain local agriculture and economies, give outdoor recreationists a place to play (or simply enjoy the view), protect wildlife habitat, and safeguard the state’s water supply.

La Garita Creek Ranch is a 460-acre guest ranch outside of Del Norte near Penitente Canyon, an international climbing, hiking, and mountain biking destination. The ranch is also adjacent to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and the Rio Grande National Forest.

Conserving La Garita will protect critical water access and habitat for a variety of wildlife species as well as Ute pictographs and other archaeological evidence of early Native Americans. The conservation project will also create new climbing and bouldering access.

CPW’s grant is part of GOCO’s habitat restoration grant program. In 2016, GOCO doubled funding for the program, which restores habitat through projects that remove invasive plant species, protect Colorado’s water supply, mitigate fire fuels, and perform other critical restoration work.

Restoration of the Rio Grande in Rio Grande State Wildlife Area will protect water infrastructure, local agriculture, and wetlands that support threatened and endangered amphibians, fish, birds, and mammals.

To date, GOCO has invested $42 million in San Luis Valley projects and has conserved more than 90,000 acres of land in the valley. GOCO funding has supported Alamosa’s ice rink and Rio Grande Farm Park, Faith Hinkley Memorial Park in Monte Vista, and Center’s Town Park, among other projects.

Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) invests a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds to help preserve and enhance the state’s parks, trails, wildlife, rivers, and open spaces. GOCO’s independent board awards competitive grants to local governments and land trusts, and makes investments through Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Created when voters approved a Constitutional Amendment in 1992, GOCO has since funded more than 4,800 projects in urban and rural areas in all 64 counties without any tax dollar support. Visit GOCO.org for more information.