Water managers seek certainty in Colorado Basin — @AspenJournalism

The Colorado River, not far below the Utah-Colorado state line, flowing toward the lower basin.

GRAND JUNCTION — Bringing more certainty to an unruly and unpredictable Colorado River system was a common theme among water managers speaking at the Colorado River District’s annual seminar Friday­­.

Although the drought that has gripped much of the Colorado River Basin for the past 16 years has eased up a bit, population growth and the long dry spell have pushed the river’s supplies to the limit, with every drop of water in the system now accounted for.

Meanwhile, the effects of climate change on the Colorado’s future flows are still a big question mark, and it could mean wide variability in the years to come, with periods of punishing drought followed by a sudden record-setting wet year, as California recently experienced.

Bill Hasencamp, general manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, described how in April 2015, snowpack in the Sierras was at an all-time low. But by this spring, it was at an all-time high, after a winter of heavy precipitation.

The change in snowpack eventually led to huge fluctuations in water prices – from $1,800 per acre-foot at the height of the drought to just $18 per acre-foot this year, Hasencamp said.

That kind of turbulence places enormous pressure on the Colorado River Basin’s big municipalities, which must secure their water supplies for millions of people, said Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the River District, which is based in Glenwood Springs and helps protect western Colorado’s water resources.

Kuhn is retiring next year and was making his last formal presentation as general manager of the river district. As he heads into retirement, he’s working on a book with author John Fleck about the history of managing the Colorado River and the creation of the Colorado Compact.

“The reality is — and we all have to accept this — big-city providers need certainty,” he said. However, Kuhn said he didn’t think that means more transmountain diversions from the Western Slope.

The most obvious source of additional water for cities is agriculture, which holds the lion’s share of senior water rights on the Colorado River, but no one is eager to see rural areas sacrificed for urban growth, Kuhn said.

So, he added, water managers throughout the basin are figuring out ways to adapt 19th-century water laws to a 21st-century reality.

The upper Colorado River below the Pumphouse put-in.

System conservation

Cooperative agreements between irrigators and municipalities are one option, providing cities with additional sources of water during dry periods.

Already, a three-year pilot initiative called the System Conservation Pilot Program has shown that farmers and ranchers are open to using less water in exchange for compensation.

Beginning in 2014, four of the big Colorado River Basin municipalities and the Bureau of Reclamation contributed $15 million to fund water conservation projects throughout the basin.

The program was in limbo after this year while officials worked out some issues, but Hasencamp said Friday that the funders have agreed to continue the pilot program for another year, in 2018.

For water managers, these kinds of flexible arrangements, along with rigorous water efficiency, recycling, and reuse efforts, are the key to finding “certainty” on an inherently volatile river system.

Still, those solutions will not be easy.

As Bill Trampe, a longtime rancher from Gunnison County, explained, less irrigation often comes with unintended consequences such as diminished return flows to the river and nearby fields.

And as Lurline Underbrink Curran, the former county manager for Grand County, described, efforts to heal the destructive impacts of existing water diversions on the Fraser River, a tributary of the Colorado, means accepting that future diversions will in fact take place.

“We tried to form friendships that would help us do more with what we had,” she said.

California’s Salton Sea presents another dilemma, which reaches back up into Colorado River system.

The salty inland lake, created by an accidental breach in an irrigation canal, is drying up.

Since 2002, the state of California has been paying the Imperial Valley Irrigation District to keep the Salton Sea on life support by delivering 800,000 acre-feet of water, but that initiative expires at the end of this year.

Continuing the water deliveries means using up more of the Colorado River’s dwindling supplies, but letting it dry up means exposing local residents to a lakebed full of toxic dust.

None of these problems is new, but as many of the speakers at the river district’s annual seminar explained, water managers now have more tools than ever before to address those challenges — and new urgency with which to apply them.

Recent successes include the successful negotiation of an updated binational water agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, called Minute 232, that is expected to be signed this month. It will outline how the two countries share future shortages on the Colorado River.

“We’re at a point where we can work together, and the success we’ve had is from collaboration,” said Becky Mitchell, the new director of the Colorado River Conservation Board. “It’s really all hands on deck.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Aspen Times, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News on coverage of rivers and water. The Post Independent published this story in its print edition on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. The Aspen Times published it in its print edition on Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. The Vail Daily published it in its print edition on Sept. 18, as did the Summit Daily News.

@CWCB_DNR/@DWR_CO: September 2017 #Drought Update

Here’s the update from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Taryn Finnessey/Tracy Kosloff):

Following cooler than average temperatures in August across much of the state, September has been hot and dry. Consequently, both abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions have expanded across western Colorado. Reservoir storage is well above average, and municipal water providers have no immediate concerns with levels of supply and demand in their systems.

  • After receiving only 69 percent of statewide average precipitation in August at SNOTEL stations, September precipitation to date remains low at 30 percent of average as of September 14. The South Platte was the only basin to receive normal precipitation levels in August (100 percent); while the Arkansas is the only basin to receive above normal precipitation (122 percent) September to date. All other basins are experiencing well below average precipitation for the month, ranging from zero (Yampa/ White) to 44 percent (Upper Colorado).
  • Reservoir storage statewide is at 120 percent of normal, with all basins above average. The Rio Grande basin is reporting above average storage (133 percent) for the first time since 2009. The Colorado and Yampa/ White basins have the lowest storage levels in the state at 110 percent of normal.
  • 31 percent of Colorado is classified as abnormally dry (D0), while 4 percent is classified as experiencing moderate drought, predominantly concentrated in Rio Blanco and Garfield Counties.
  • Warmer than normal temperatures have affected Colorado over the last few weeks, with western slope temperatures averaging as much as eight degrees above normal.
  • ENSO-neutral conditions remain, but a La Nina watch has been issued by NOAA with more than 50 percent likelihood of a La Nina developing. Short term forecasts show that temperatures should cool off, with parts of the west receiving significant precipitation. This is a welcome change for those areas currently battling forest fires.
  • Long term forecast shows no major indication towards wet or dry in the upcoming months. If La Niña conditions set in, mountain snows are often enhanced during the winter season, but fall and spring tend to be dry.
  • #ColoradoRiver District seminar recap @ColoradoWater #CRDseminar #COriver

    Rebecca Mitchell was named to the Colorado Water Conservation Board on July 5, 2017. Photo credit the Colorado Independent.

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    Becky Mitchell, who has been the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board for about two months, spoke Friday at the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar in Grand Junction.

    She told attendees that when it comes to meeting the state’s water needs, “it’s really all hands on deck. Everyone here plays an important role. … What you’re doing is equally as important as anything we’re doing.”

    Steps already taken by entities ranging from her agency to the river district to agricultural interests, environmental stakeholders and members of river basin roundtables “have really shown me that we are at a point where we’re ready to work together and that the success that we’ve had has been because of collaboration,” Mitchell said.

    In comments to the group and in an interview, she addressed the monetary challenges for Colorado in meeting its future water needs. An initial estimate for paying for projects identified in the new water plan in coming decades was about $20 billion — already a daunting amount — but Mitchell’s agency now believes the price tag could be twice that much when the cost of water quality projects, generally involving water or wastewater treatment, are included.

    The state water board is looking into the cost issue through a statewide water supply initiative analysis that is expected to come out next year…

    She said it will be important to rely on a prioritization of projects by roundtable groups in each river basin. Also key is to focus on projects that provide multiple benefits, because having multiple interests in a project could lead to multiple sources of money to pay for it, she said.

    “It’s not necessarily the responsibility of the state to come up with the entire amount to implement the water plan,” Mitchell said. “A lot of it goes back to the local level and how we can support work that’s being done on the ground.”

    Mitchell worked on developing the plan as a staff member of her agency before being promoted after her predecessor, James Eklund, left to take a job as an attorney with a legal firm.

    “We’re at a really important time in the state where we have a capability to make a big difference in how we’re looking at our water future. It’s an exciting time and I’m excited to be a part of it,” Mitchell said.

    As for Eastern Slope/Western Slope water matters, “I am optimistic that we’ll be able to work through issues like we have done. When we’ve found solutions, it’s when we’ve come together regardless of the side of the (Continental) Divide. I think where we’re going to see solutions is where we come together,” she said.

    Eric Kuhn along the banks of the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, general manager of the Colorado River District. Photo via the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

    From KJCT8.com:

    The Colorado River is the hardest working river in the world, that’s according to local experts. Hundreds of water experts are gathered in the valley to put together their game plan to tackle the biggest challenges facing the river.

    The General Manager Colorado River Water Conservation District, Erik Kuhn, says there are a lot of ideas to better manage the Colorado River, before it runs out in southern California. In order to stretch the water even further, one idea is to move the waters in Lake Powell to Lake Mead.

    “So it would allow for the recovery of lands that are now inundated by water in Lake Powell, natural recovery of those. It’s called the ‘Fill Mead First’. He’s talking about that. We don’t think that works very well for a number of reasons. But it’s one of those things that’s caught a lot of press attention of late,” Kuhn said.

    The Colorado River helps supply water to people in Denver all the way to about 20 million people in the Los Angeles, California area.

    The Colorado River Basin is divided into upper and lower portions. It provides water to the Colorado River, a water source that serves 40 million people over seven states in the southwestern United States. Colorado River Commission of Nevada

    @CWCB_DNR: #Colorado Watershed Restoration Program Guidance and Application

    Photo via the Rio Grande Restoration Project

    Click here to go to the Colorado Water Conservation Board website:

    What is the Colorado Watershed Restoration Grant Program?

    The Program provides grants for watershed/stream restoration and flood mitigation projects throughout the state.

    Examples of Funded Projects

    Who can apply for a Grant?

    Organizations interested in developing watershed/stream restoration and flood mitigation studies and projects. Contact Chris Sturm, 303-866-3441 x3236, to discuss project eligibility.

    How can the money be used?

    Grant money may be used for planning and engineering studies, including implementation measures, to address technical needs for watershed restoration and flood mitigation projects throughout the state. Special consideration is reserved for planning and project efforts that integrate multi-objectives in restoration and flood mitigation. This may include projects and studies designed to:

  • Restore stream channels,
  • ­

  • Provide habitat for aquatic and terrestrial species,
  • ­

  • Restore riparian areas,
  • ­

  • Reduce erosion,
  • ­

  • Reduce flood hazards, or
  • ­

  • Increase the capacity to utilize water.
  • How do I apply for a Grant?

    1. Read the program guidance document.
    Program Guidance

    2. Contact Chris Sturm at CWCB to discuss potential applications: 303-866-3441 x3236.

    3. Complete the application and submit by November 3, 2017.
    Application

    @CWCB_DNR: August 2017 #Drought Update

    Click here to read the update:

    July was characterized by warm and wet conditions. The first half of August has been cool, particularly east of the Continental Divide with near normal precipitation. Reservoir storage remains high, and municipal water providers have no immediate concerns with levels of supply and demand in their systems.

  • Reservoir storage statewide remains high at 116% of average.
  • After receiving 130% percent of statewide average precipitation in July at SNOTEL stations, August precipitation through August 16 was 110% of average in the mountain areas. Much of eastern Colorado was exceptionally wet in early August.
  • Reference evapotranspiration (ET), an indicator of how much water that can be consumed by crops, has been below normal for the first half of August.
  • Colorado Drought Monitor August 15, 2017.

    Colorado water and climate professionals are bidding a sad farewell to our longtime State Climatologist, Nolan Doesken. Nolan is retiring after 40 years of service to Colorado. In his presentation to the August Water Availability Task Force meeting, Nolan provided some long-term graphs relevant to Colorado climate and water supply.

    Professor Emeritus and former State Climatologist Tom McKee, left, shared memories dating back to 1977, the year Nolan started working at CSU as Assistant State Climatologist.

    Uncompahgre River watershed: Streamflow management study and plan

    Ridgway Reservoir during winter

    From The Telluride Daily Planet (Tanya Ishikawa):

    Whitmore volunteered to oversee Ouray County’s grant application submission to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to get funding for a stream management study and plan. The study is aimed at confirming and expanding the information from a 2016 water needs study by Wright Water Engineers that concluded the county has current unmet needs and will need additional water supplies for the future, especially in the area of storage.

    Last year’s study was initiated by the county and the Ouray County Water Users Association, a group organized to represent agricultural water users, and Tri-County Water Conservancy District, which manages the operation of the Ridgway Dam and supplies water to an area including parts of Ridgway, Montrose, Olathe and Delta. The county commissioners approved a memorandum of understanding between the three entities on July 11, to give the county permission “to take the lead in moving forward with development of the water rights” to supply future water projects such as building reservoirs for storage. Tri-County approved the agreement on Wednesday, and the water users group was reviewing the document this week but had not yet approved it…

    The stated purpose of the stream management plan is “to assist in balancing water needs amongst various users and the development of additional sustainable multipurpose water supplies including both consumptive and non-consumptive demands.” To complete the plan, the recommended tasks include further evaluation of water needs in the upper Uncompahgre River water supply area, possible storage development, potential development of voluntary water transfer agreements between water rights holders, and identification of ditch irrigation efficiency projects.

    Tri-County water rights being considered for potential storage and storage expansion projects are located on Dallas Creek and Cow Creek. Proposed project locations are Dallas Divide, Ram’s Horn and the Sneva Ditch.

    The county plans to invite various stakeholders to create a steering committee to manage and implement the stream management plan and grant. Whitmore said that in creating the committee, “We want to make sure we are bringing all our knowledge and experience together so we hopefully have the support of the whole community. The support of the whole community is important because whether we look at exchanges, new water rights or storage, we need to go through water court. If everyone agrees, it’s less likely those plans will run into opposition.”

    Pete Foster, Wright Water’s vice president and senior project engineer, and Cary Denison, a Ouray County resident and Trout Unlimited’s Gunnison Basin project coordinator, assisted in developing a draft grant application. Foster will be paid out of the county budget, and possibly some funding from Tri-County and the water users group, for related consulting work on the grant, steering committee administration and plan development and implementation.

    The county expects to submit the application for an amount under $100,000 by early October, and if funding is awarded, complete the study by the end of 2018.

    @AmericanRivers: #Colorado families need a Ford not a Ferrari for a @COwaterplan budget

    Red Canyon from Roaring Fork River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith.

    From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle, Kristin Green, Rob Harris, Brian Jackson)

    A recent article suggested that the Colorado Water Plan could cost much more than anticipated – but estimates of higher cost are misguided, as all the proposals for proposed projects, and smart prioritization, is not yet final. Low-cost conservation measures will bring down the cost of the plan, and protect Colorado’s rivers for drinking water stability and healthy rivers.

    SMART PRIORITIZATION AND COLLABORATION CRITICAL

    Most everyone in Colorado knows that we can’t take a reliable water future for granted. Having clean, secure water for our communities, businesses, and agriculture, along with healthy rivers for respite, recreation, and to fuel our economy is not a given. In 2015, Colorado adopted a water plan, setting a course to achieve a reliable water future. Many applauded the balance of solutions and goals, including bolstering water conservation and reuse, looking for favorable ways to share water between cities and agriculture, and ensuring we had plans, and ideally actions, to keep our streams healthy.

    Recently, the cost of the plan has come up in discussion.

    There is no firmly identified cost to implement the water plan. We only have estimates at this time for what it will take to secure reliable water for our communities, agriculture, and environment. Those costs will become clearer as the state and water providers prioritize what water conservation, new supplies, water reuse, and stream restoration we want to do.

    What we do know is that it will take resources to preserve the Colorado we love, and keep our farms productive and taps flowing. We also know that the money we need to restore and protect our rivers and streams, and find innovative ways to conserve water, are currently underfunded.

    The initial estimate for the plan put the cost of implementation around $20 billion. That estimate includes the cost of the projects proposed from each basin around the state, but given the state’s limited resources that number could change as stakeholders further prioritize those projects.

    We recently heard a much higher estimate cited that is simply wrong. When a Colorado family needs a new car, most are not going to go out and buy a Ferrari when a Ford affordably meets their needs – and that’s what we have here. We can achieve all of what’s needed to secure Colorado’s water needs into the future while investing only in those ideas that provide the best return to ratepayers and taxpayers. That’s what Coloradoans expect and it can be done. We need to identify what projects are a priority and which are financially feasible. We need to make sure we don’t double count projects that overlap with each other.

    We encourage the state to prioritize funding the most cost-effective and feasible projects to secure a reliable water supply and protect our rivers and streams. Water conservation is one of the most cost effective ways to get where we need to go. Other innovations like water reuse and agricultural-urban sharing can provide multiple benefits and help us achieve a reliable water future.

    Do we need more money? Yes. There are water funding needs identified in the plan and we will likely need to find new sources of dedicated funding. New funding sources should be used to support stabilizing a clean water supply for people, river health, agricultural conservation and efficiency, municipal conservation for smaller and medium-sized communities, and environmental water transactions. These projects are modest in costs, like adding air conditioning to a Ford, not a splurging on a lavish luxury car.

    Collaboration will be critically important to shaping our water budget. We look forward to working with water providers, businesses, consumers, the state, local leaders, and other stakeholders in exploring the best way to meet the goals of the Colorado Water Plan.