Special Report: As #LakePowell hits record lows, is filling a new drought pool the answer? — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River flows towards Horsethief Canyon west of Grand Junction, Colo. Credit: William Woody

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

The 96-degree heat has barely broken early on a September evening near Fruita, Colo. As the sun prepares to set, the ailing Colorado River moves thick and quiet next to Interstate 70, crawling across the Utah state line as it prepares to deliver billions of gallons of water to Lake Powell, 320 miles south.

This summer the river has been badly depleted—again—by a drought year whose spring runoff was so meager it left water managers here in Western Colorado stunned. As a result Lake Powell is just one-third full and its hydropower plants could cease operating as soon as July of 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“We’re looking at a very serious situation from Denver all the way to California and the Sea of Cortez,” said Ken Neubecker, an environmental consultant who has been working on the river’s issues for some 30 years. “I’ve never seen it in a worse state.”

The Colorado River Basin is made up of seven states. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico comprise the upper basin and are responsible for keeping Lake Powell full.

Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the lower basin and rely on Powell’s larger, downstream sister reservoir, Lake Mead, just outside Las Vegas, to store water for delivery to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and more than 1 million acres of farmland.

These are two of the largest reservoirs in the United States. Few believed Mead, built in the 1930s, and Powell, built in the 1960s when the American West had just begun a 50-year growth spurt, would face a future where they were in seeming freefall. The two reservoirs were last full in 2000. Two years ago they dropped to 50% of capacity. Now they are operating at just over one-third their original 51 million-acre-foot combined capacity.

First-ever drought accord

Two years ago, this unprecedented megadrought prompted all seven states to agree, for the first time, to a dual drought contingency plan—one for the upper basin and one for the lower. In the lower basin, a specific set of water cutbacks, all tied to reservoir levels in Mead, were put in place. As levels falls, water cutbacks rise.

Those cutbacks began this year in Arizona.

But in the upper basin, though the states agreed to their own drought contingency plan, they still haven’t agreed on the biggest, most controversial of the plan’s elements: setting aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special, protected drought pool in Lake Powell. Under the terms of the agreement, the water would not have to be released to lower basin states under existing rules for balancing the contents of Powell and Mead, but would remain in Powell, helping to keep hydropower operations going and protecting the upper basin from losing access to river water if they fail to meet their obligations to Arizona, Nevada and California.

Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

The pool was considered a political breakthrough when it was approved, something to which the lower basin states had never previously agreed.

“It was a complete reversal by the lower basin,” said Melinda Kassen, a retired water attorney who formerly monitored Colorado River issues for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

But the idea was controversial among some powerful upper basin agricultural interests. Ranchers, who use some 80% of the river’s water, feared they would lose too much control of their own water supplies.

Seeking volunteers

As proposed, the drought pool would be filled voluntarily, largely by farmers and ranchers, who would be paid to temporarily dry up their hay meadows and corn fields, allowing the saved water to flow down to Powell.

Two years ago, when the drought contingency plan was approved, the four upper basin states thought they would have several years to create the new pool if they chose to.

But Powell’s plunging water levels have dramatically shortened timelines. With a price tag likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars, confusion over whether saved farm water can be safely conveyed to Powell without being picked up by other users, and concerns over whether there is enough time to get it done, major water players are questioning whether the pool is a good idea.

“It was probably a good idea at the time and it’s still worth studying,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, the largest water utility in Colorado. “But it can’t be implemented in the short term. We don’t have the tools, we don’t have the money to pay for it, and we don’t have the water.”

Neubecker has similar concerns. “I fear it’s going to be Band-Aid on an endlessly bleeding problem…we need to do more.”

Since 2019 the State of Colorado has spent $800,000 holding public meetings and analyzing the legal, economic and water supply issues that would come with such a major change in Colorado River management.

Still no decisions have been made.

A call to act

Becky Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is overseeing the analysis.

Aware of frustration with the state’s progress on studying the drought pool’s feasibility, formally known as its demand management investigation, Mitchell said the work done to date will help the state better manage the river in a drier future with or without the drought pool.

“We’re still ahead of the game in terms of what we’ve done with the study. The other states are looking at feasibility investigations but ours has been incredibly robust,” Mitchell said. “If we’re going to do it we have to do it right and factor all these things in. Otherwise we’re going to be moving backward.”

One example of a step forward is that new tools to measure water saved from fallowing agricultural land are now being developed.

A large-scale experiment in a swath of high-altitude hayfields near Kremmling has demonstrated that ranchers can successfully dry their fields and deliver Colorado River water to the stream in a measurable way, and the data is considered strong enough that it could be used to quantify water contributions to the drought pool.

Ranchers Joe Bernal, left, and his son Bryan inspect a feed corn field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

But other regulatory and physical barriers remain.

Under Colorado’s water regulations, rivers are only regulated where they cross state boundaries when water is scarce and the state would otherwise be unable to meet the terms of agreements with downstream states. But this is not yet the case on the Colorado River and its tributaries, so rules for determining who would get what in the event of cutbacks haven’t been developed.

In addition, because there has never been a so-called “call” on the Colorado River, the state has yet to require that all those who have diversion structures pulling from the Colorado River system measure their water use.

The situation is changing fast, though, with the 20-year drought and the storage crisis at Powell and Mead increasing pressure on state regulators to take action.

Now the state is taking steps to better monitor the river and its tributaries, moving to require that all diversion structures have measuring devices so it has the data it needs to enforce its legal obligations to the lower basin. If, for instance, some water users had to be cut off to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the state could manage those cutbacks based on the water right decrees users hold that specify amount and priority date of use.

Such data would also be needed to administer a mass-fallowing program to help fill the Lake Powell drought pool.

Kevin Rein, Colorado’s State Engineer and top water regulator, said what’s known as the mainstem of the Colorado River is fairly well monitored but major tributaries, such as the Yampa and Gunnison, are not.

“A lot of tributaries don’t have the devices,” Rein said, adding that the state doesn’t know the extent of the problem. “But in important areas a lot of commissioners know there is a significant lack of measurement devices and that makes water administration difficult.”

Joe Bernal is a West Slope rancher whose family has been farming near Fruita since 1920. He has water rights that date back to 1898 and, like others in this rich agricultural region, he and his family have abundant water.

Bernal was an early supporter of the drought pool. He and his family participated in an experimental fallowing program in 2016, where they were paid to dry up their fields. He’s confident the problems can be solved.

But he’s also worried that the 500,000 acre-foot pool may not hold enough water to stabilize the river system and that it may not be done fast enough.

“We want to be sure the solution does some good, but the clock is ticking,” he said. “We don’t want to change the culture of this valley or our ability to produce food. But I think things need to move faster. We are taking too long implementing these solutions.”

Checking the averages

As Powell and Mead continue to drop—they were roughly half full just two years ago— Mitchell and Rein are quick to point out that Colorado remains in compliance with the 1922 Compact, which requires the upper basin to ensure 7.5 million acre-feet of water reaches the lower basin at Lee Ferry, Ariz., based on a 10-year rolling average. Right now the average is at roughly 9.2 million acre-feet, although it too is declining as the upper basin’s supplies continue to erode due to drought and climate change.

The Colorado River flows past fruit orchards near Palisade, Colo. Credit: William Woody

Climate scientist and researcher Brad Udall has estimated that the upper basin may not be able to deliver the base 7.5 million acre-feet in a year as soon as 2025. But the upper basin would remain in compliance with the 1922 Compact even then because the rolling average remains healthy.

Still, if the reservoirs continue to plummet as quickly as they have in the past two years, when they dropped from 50% to 30% full, the upper basin could face a compact crisis faster than anyone ever anticipated.

Major water users in the state, such as Denver Water, Northern Water and Pueblo Water, have water rights that post-date, or are junior to, the 1922 water compact, meaning their water supplies are at risk of being slashed to help meet lower basin demands.

The big dry out

Many river advocates hope the drought pool is approved because they believe it is an opportunity to test how the river and its reservoirs will work as the region continues to dry out.

“What we knew in 2018 [when the drought pool was conceived] is that we have more to do,” said Kassen. The drought pool, she said, “was a big win and offers a way of testing what the upper basin can do. It’s squandered if they don’t use it.”

Neubecker and others say it’s becoming increasingly clear that the river’s management needs to be re-aligned with the reality of this new era of climate change and multi-year drought cycles.

And that means that water users in the lower basin and upper basin will need to learn to live with how much water the river can produce, rather than how much a century-old water decree says they’re legally entitled too.

“We’re facing a 21st Century situation that was totally unforeseen by anyone,” Neubecker said, “and we no longer have the luxury of time.”

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.

Get To Know Your River Basins — #Water for #Colorado

From Water for Colorado:

Our rivers are the lifeblood of the American West, and we all know that river and water management are both fundamentally important and infinitely complex, governed through a dizzying network of boards and contracts, local entities and statewide groups, individual expertise, and communal understanding.

Known as the “Mother of Rivers,” Colorado’s water impacts everyone and everything. It’s important that Coloradans from across the state have their voices heard as decisions about our critical waterways are made.

Photo Credit: Russ Schnitzer

It’s especially important to engage right now. The Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) — locally driven documents identifying goals and actions in each of Colorado’s nine river basins — are undergoing updates and will help inform the update of the state’s Water Plan, due to be final in late 2022. The public comment period for BIPs begins next week and represents a critically important opportunity to learn more, engage in local conversations, and help shape the content of these plans which inform how water is managed at a local level. Before the comment period begins, Water for Colorado has prepared this blog to help you and your community understand the world of river basins and roundtables, and how you can speak up to protect healthy rivers for all who depend on them.

Basins: In order to facilitate conversations around managing our water, Colorado developed nine unique Basins that encompass multiple rivers, natural or artificial boundaries, and watersheds. Each basin has its own governing body called a “basin roundtable” composed of local volunteers who plan and make decisions about how to manage precious water resources.

So why are there nine basins and basin roundtables? The concerns of the Arkansas Basin — from the San Luis Valley to the Eastern Plains, where agriculture reigns supreme — are different from the concerns of the Metro South Platte — where rapid growth and a booming population are key challenges — which are different from the concerns of the Colorado — where the conversations around America’s hardest working river are both intensely local and surprisingly broad. As such, having governing bodies familiar with the unique concerns and opportunities in each basin helps ensure that the management within each basin is driven by locals. This process allows for decisions to be discussed and decided by locals who deeply engage with the rivers that support our environment, economies, and Colorado way of life.

You can check out a map below to determine your river basin; and engage with the graphics at the bottom of this post to learn more about how each basin’s economy is impacted by the recreation in the area.

The eight major river basins, plus the Denver metro area, are shown on this map from the South Platte River Basin Roundtable. Each basin has its own roundtable, made up of volunteers, to address local water issues.
Credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

Basin Roundtable: The basin roundtables were developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2005 to “facilitate discussions on water management issues and encourage locally driven collaborative solutions” (CWCB Basin Roundtables). These roundtables are composed of local volunteer members who represent a variety of interests including basin agriculture, environment,and recreation. Each basin has its own bank account and funds local projects. Monthly meetings are open to the public, and are where funding and other strategic decisions are made. This means you, and others who care about water conservation can participate and help influence the decision making process. Better yet, you can join these meetings virtually from the comfort of your home.

Basin Implementation Plan: Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) are developed by basin roundtables to help frame regional issues as part of the overall creation of Colorado’s statewide water plan. While the Colorado Water Plan seeks to address statewide water concerns, BIPs are more focused on local needs, plans, projects, and goals. The BIPs are developed by basin roundtable members with support from the community and ultimately help inform the statewide water plan as well as direct spending priorities for the Roundtables.

Yampa River. Photo Credit: Sinjin Eberle

Colorado Water Plan: In 2015, then-governor John Hickenlooper ordered the creation of a plan to help coordinate and manage Colorado water. That moment was the impetus for our nine partner organizations to come together to form the Water for Colorado Coalition. The Water Plan was written and developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board with support from stakeholders, interest groups, and the general public, who submitted 30,000 comments (which Water for Colorado played a major role in gathering) to inform the plan. The core values of the plan are designed to support a productive economy, create efficient water infrastructure, and protect the state’s diverse ecosystems. Colorado’s Water Plan remains a living piece of guidance that undergoes regular updates, the next of which is coming up in June 2022 — and is therefore already underway.

Want to learn more about where your water comes from? Check out our partner organization American Rivers’ Report, “Do You Know Your Colorado Water?”

Local engagement: Here’s where you come in!

The first step toward responsibly managing water is working to ensure the public helps shape these plans. Members of the public need to speak up ensuring environmental concerns are addressed in the BIP updates. There’s no one better suited to inform local planning than people like you, who live, work, and recreate in the basins and understand the critical role that water and healthy rivers play in our economy, environment, and everyday lives. In the coming weeks, Water for Colorado will share opportunities for you to engage in the update process for the Basin Implementation Plans during the public comment phase that runs from October 13 through November 15. This is a critical opportunity for you to make your voice heard! Until then, we hope that you share this blog with members of your community to help all Coloradans understand the role they can play in supporting Colorado’s rivers and water!

San Luis Valley water projects receive funding — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

A powerful sprinkler capable of pumping more than 2,500 gallons of water per minute irrigates a farm field in the San Luis Valley June 6, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado

From The Alamosa Citizen (Matt Hildner):

THE Colorado Water Conservation Board handed out roughly $2.8 million last week to five projects in the San Luis Valley, including a first-of-its kind conservation easement program aimed at protecting the region’s groundwater.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Colorado Open Lands garnered $1.4 million for a voluntary conservation easement program, which would reduce groundwater pumping while allowing for continued agricultural use. The management plans accompanying the easements would draw on the experience of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The total cost of the project is $8.2 million, the majority of which will come from the NRCS.

The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project will use part of a recently awarded state grant to replace the Billings Ditch’s diversion structure and head gate, which are currently prone to debris and sediment buildup. Top photo: Daniel Boyes, program manager for restoration project, and Rick Davie and Steve Vandiver, both of whom sit on restoration project’s board, at the Ehrowitz Ditch, which will have the gravel push-up dam shown here replaced with a more efficient structure. It’s one of five irrigation ditches that will get improved diversions. Photos courtesy Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

CWCB granted $818,030 to the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project for work on the Anaconda, Independent No. 2, Knoblauch, Ehrowitz, and Billings ditches. The project would improve diversions for the respective ditches, all of which are in Rio Grande County, while also including fish and boat passage. Work crews would also restore 3,960 linear feet of stream bank and enhance aquatic habitat through willow planting, channel and stream bank shaping, and the installation of rock clusters.

Farmer Erin Nissen with some of her cattle. Under Subdistrict 1’s fallowed field program, she is still able to utilize the land for grazing. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

The board awarded $163,406 to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to develop an in-basin water marketing strategy to secure the roughly 16,000 acre-feet needed by the Subdistricts to offset stream depletions. The program’s managers are eyeing tools such as temporary water leases or rotational fallowing toward that end. The Rio Grande Basin Cooperative Project, as the effort is known, also received $212,105 from the U.S Bureau of Reclamation, and roughly $163,000 from three other funders toward the $425,511 project cost.

Fig. 2. Mexican Land Grants in Colorado and New Mexico. The Baumann map depicted here mislabels these Mexican land grants as “Spanish”. Source: Paul R. Baumann 2001. SUNY-Oneonta.

The Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association received $24,500 to hold seminars around irrigation, soil health and cropping in 2022. Funds would also go toward developing a stakeholder group to implement projects and the association’s hosting of the Congreso de Acequias.

San Luis People’s Ditch spanning the long lot system

Colorado Master Irrigator, a nonprofit educational group, received $414,875 to expand trainings on water and energy conservation and other efficiency practices across the state. Part of those funds will focus on expanding offerings into the San Luis Valley through a partnership with the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and Subdistrict No. 1.

All of the funding for the Valley projects came from the Colorado Water Plan Grant Program. State lawmakers and Governor Jared Polis gave the grant program a boost in spring with $15 million from the state’s General Fund.

Rio Grande River Basin via the Colorado Geologic Survey

#ColoradoRiver District report highlights Western Slope concerns with state water-savings plan: Staff will present framework at October board meeting — @AspenJournalism

These fields just south of Carbondale are irrigated with water from the Crystal River. The Colorado River Water Conservation District recently released a stakeholder report on a potential state program known as demand management that would pay irrigators to leave water in the river to send downstream to Lake Powell.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The Colorado River Water Conservation District staff plans to present its own framework for a water-savings plan — separate from one the state of Colorado is developing — at its October board meeting.

The Glenwood Springs-based River District undertook its own investigation of a plan — known as demand management — that would pay water users to consume less and send the saved water downstream to Lake Powell. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is currently investigating the feasibility of such a program for the state, but the River District convened its own workgroup, made up of Western Slope water users, to look into the issue. Many of the workgroup’s stakeholders represented agricultural interests.

River District staffers will come up with their own market structure and rules for demand management to present to the board, according to general manager Andy Mueller.

“What we are presenting is not something we are necessarily as staff endorsing, but we are going to present more specifics than what the CWCB or our stakeholder group has come up with so far,” Mueller said.

The framework will incorporate some of the findings and recommendations of the River District’s stakeholder group, which were released in an August report. Among these was the unanimous recommendation that the state not rely solely on a demand-management program as a solution to water shortages in the Colorado River basin.

“It was recognized that demand management can’t be the only way in which the state successfully handles the impacts of climate change on the Colorado River,” Mueller said. “It may be a component of that, but the state needs to be really looking at conservation in all water segments.”

At the heart of a demand-management program is paying Western Slope irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to use less water in an effort to avoid a Colorado River Compact call. Instead of being spread across hayfields, the water would be sent downstream to a special 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell, which was established as part of 2019’s Drought Contingency Plan.

A compact call could occur if the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid a compact-call scenario, which could result in mandatory water cutbacks.

The participation of Western Slope agriculture is key to creating a workable demand-management program, but the report highlights several reasons this may prove challenging. Stakeholders expressed a strong distrust of decision-making and programs driven by state government and fear that Western Slope agriculture will be sacrificed to meet the Front Range’s and lower basin’s urban interests.

“Many do not view the state as representing the best interest of agriculture on the Western Slope and instead are making decisions that are driven by east slope and municipal interests,” the report reads.

These fields of the Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale are irrigated with water from the Crystal River. The Colorado River Water Conservation District released a report that recommends the state of Colorado not rely solely on a demand management program to address water shortages.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

TMDs in conflict

Other findings of the report are consistent with what River District and agriculture representatives have been saying since the state began its demand-management discussions in 2019: A program must not lead to the permanent dry-up of Western Slope agriculture, and additional diversions to the Front Range are in direct conflict with asking Western Slope water users to save water.

“The committee finds it inconceivable that under a demand-management program, the West Slope could work to conserve 25,000-50,000 acre-feet per year only to see the east slope simultaneously increase water diversions to the Front Range,” the report reads. “This situation would be antithetical to the goals of a demand-management program and efforts to prevent a future compact violation.”

The report says that transmountain diversions — in which Front Range water providers take water from the headwaters of the Colorado River and bring it under the Continental Divide to growing cities — are a driving factor in a potential compact violation. Most water managers agree that water rights that date to before the 1922 compact would be exempt from mandatory cutbacks in the event of a call. Post-1922 water-rights use would fuel a compact violation.

According to numbers from a previous River District study, 57% of Colorado’s post-compact water use is on the Front Range. Therefore, the report says, the Front Range should contribute 57% of the water to a demand-management pool.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

#Parker Water & Sanitation District and Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District announce pioneering water partnership #SouthPlatteRiver

The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Here’s the release from the two entities (Deirdre Mueller):

Parker Water & Sanitation District (PWSD) and the
project to use a new water right that the two entities own along the South Platte River near Sterling, Colo. The announcement kicks off a unique collaboration between a Colorado conservancy district and a municipal water provider.

Known as the Platte Valley Water Partnership, the project will make use of new and existing infrastructure to store and transport water for agricultural use in northeastern Colorado and municipal use along the Front Range. The project will increase the renewable water supply for PWSD’s existing and expanding customer base while preserving and supporting agricultural uses in the South Platte River Basin. This renewable water supply is predominately available during spring runoff and major storm events, and would otherwise leave Colorado.

LSPWCD General Manager Joe Frank said of the agreement, “It’s critical for our community to avoid the buy-and-dry issues that have become commonplace. By working together with Parker Water & Sanitation District on an agreement that meets both of our needs, we’ve found a solution that addresses both agricultural and municipal water shortages without further drying up irrigated agriculture.”

“We look forward to working together with Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District,” said PWSD District Manager Ron Redd. “We’ve been guided by the principles laid out in the Colorado Water Plan; by opening up a dialog we discovered we had many shared values and were able to create a regional solution that benefits us all.”

More information about the Platte Valley Water Partnership and the project agreement can be found at https://www.pwsd.org/PVWP.

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

According to Thursday’s announcement, the project will make use of new and existing infrastructure to store and transport water for agricultural use in northeastern Colorado and municipal use along the Front Range…

The partnership involves the phased development of the water right. The early phases would involve a pipeline from Prewitt Reservoir in Logan and Washington counties to Parker Reservoir, which supplies the City of Parker. Later developments would see a 4,000 acre-foot reservoir near Iliff on land owned by Parker, and a 72,000 acre-foot reservoir near Fremont Butte north of Akron. A pipeline, pump stations, and treatment facility will also be built as part of the project,

The LSPWCD and PWSD have been in talks with each other and with landowners for several years. Lower South Platte general manager Joe Frank publicly briefed his board of directors in December 2019 about progress on the project and negotiations have been ongoing since then.

The project will be used to capture excess water that would otherwise leave Colorado, primarily during spring runoff and storms. Colorado and Nebraska have an interstate compact that requires a certain amount of water to leave the state for downriver users, but in some cases millions of gallons of water in excess of that escape across the state line.

Frank said Thursday the Platte Valley Water Partnership is a win-win for urban and rural water users…

Forecasts show water supplies will not keep pace with demand by 2050 for agricultural (Ag) or municipal and industrial (M & I) needs if Colorado does not find new approaches. Source: 2019 Analysis and Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan.

PWSD District Manager Ron Redd said the project is in line with Colorado’s Water Plan, a 2015 document that provides guidelines for providing an adequate water supply for the state’s growth through 2050.

Community Agriculture Alliance: Update on the #YampaRiver integrated water management plan — The Steamboat Pilot & Today

Yampa River. Photo credit: Yampa River
Integrated Water Management Plan website

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Gene Hinkemeyer):

Did you know the Colorado Department of Natural Resources calls for 80% of prioritized rivers to be covered by a stream management plan by 2030? Yes, that includes our Yampa River Basin.

The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable — YWG BRT — is one of nine grassroots water policy roundtables throughout Colorado working to develop locally driven, collaborative solutions to water supply challenges. The YWG BRT has been working on an integrated water management plan for the past several years.

The overall goal of the integrated water management plan is to use science, data and community input to build a healthy, productive water future in the Yampa basin for all water users. A committee of volunteers selected by and reporting to the YWG BRT coordinates the project.

Over the past two years, the integrated water management plan has focused on four geographic segments in the basin: upper, middle and lower main stem of the Yampa and the Elk River. Stakeholder interviews were conducted of agricultural, environmental/recreational and municipal/industrial water stakeholders in the basin. Interviews were conducted to learn about stakeholder’s operation and diversion infrastructure, water and riparian land management related concerns and opportunities for improvement.

Diversion assessments were also conducted to identify, evaluate and recommend multibenefit projects. The diversion infrastructure assessment report, which can be found at http://YampaWhiteGreen.com, represents the findings of the structures assessed. The primary goal of the diversion assessments was to gain an understanding of infrastructure used for diversions and to identify locations where infrastructure improvements could provide multiple benefits to the river and water users. These assessments evaluate opportunities that could benefit the structure owner(s), fish passage, recreational boating and overall river health.

So, what do we do with all this information? The integrated water management plan volunteer committee organized three focus areas around key topics to learn more and help identify projects for future work: ag infrastructure; riparian habitat/wetland/natural bank stability; and flows/shortages. A few projects are already in the works, with other projects to begin later this year.

The ag infrastructure work group has identified an initial set of agricultural diversion infrastructure projects that the integrated water management plan hopes to support and fund starting in 2022. Using data collected from interviews, the riparian focused work group has identified landowners with concerns related to erosion, bank stability and riparian habitat. Follow up interviews over the next few months are planned to better characterize their concerns and learn more about potential solutions.

Additional work has been completed, including a remote assessment that provided geomorphic, hydrological and ecological context for the integrated water management plan planning effort. This broad characterization applies remote sensing and GIS-based tools and techniques to assess moderate-resolution data sets across watershed and planning segment scales to identify and map trends and characteristics in physical and biological functions within the basin. Field assessments are underway to ground truth and verify the remote assessment findings.

A fluvial hazard mapping project is also in progress to delineate areas vulnerable to sediment and debris impacts spurred by rainfall or rapid snowmelt. As a final product, these maps can be used to inform land use planning, stream interventions and to identify and prioritize the conservation or restoration of natural geomorphic floodplains, wetlands and river corridors within the basin.

The integrated water management plan volunteer committee has been busy and continues to work hard on community driven plans for the Yampa Basin. We can only be successful with input and ideas from all stakeholders. If you would like to learn more, please visit our website, http://YampaWhiteGreen.com/iwmp.

Gena Hinkemeyer is segment coordinator of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable.

@CWCB_DNR Commissioner Mitchell Statement on #ColoradoRiver System Projections Released #COriver #aridification

Projection of Lake Powell end-of-December reservoir elevations. The colored region, or cloud, for the hydrology scenario represents the minimum, 10th percentile, 90th percentile, and maximum of the projected reservoir elevations. Solid lines represent historical elevations (black), and median projected elevations for the scenario (yellow). Dashed gray lines represent important elevations for operations, and the vertical line marks the adoption of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. Graphic credit: Bureau of Reclamation

From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:

On September 22, the Bureau of Reclamation released updated projections for levels in the Colorado River’s major reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead. As a result of continued historic drought and low runoff conditions, both reservoirs are at risk of reaching critically low levels.

In Lake Powell, projections indicate that the critical elevation of 3,525 feet now has a near 90% chance of being reached next year. In Lake Mead, elevation 1,025 feet (the third shortage trigger) is as high as 66% in 2025.

Statement from Colorado River Commissioner Rebecca Mitchell:

“Though deeply troubling, these projections tell us what we already know and have experienced in Colorado and the whole Upper Basin – that this has been a very dry and challenging year and these conditions will continue into the future. Our water users have already experienced painful and deep cuts, and these will continue. Colorado is fully committed to working with the basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation to chart a course that provides additional security to the entire Colorado River Basin and its water users during this challenging time and into the future.”

For further information, read the Bureau of Reclamation’s news release.

Monsoonal rains kept the state from setting records for dry conditions, but demand for #water keeps reservoirs low — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette #monsoon2021

From ColoradoPolitics.com (Marianned Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

The summer monsoons brought good moisture to the Western slope, relieving some of the two-year drought that has plagued areas west of the Continental Divide.

But higher than average demand for water, spurred by growth in some parts of the state, means some reservoirs are at their lowest levels, approaching the records set in 2002 and 2018. And one particular river basin is in pretty bad shape, according to Thursday’s reports.

The reports came out during the monthly meeting of the state Water Availability Task Force, a collection of state water officials, climatologists, municipal water providers and federal water watchers.

According to Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger of the Colorado Climate Center, the Yampa/White River basin, primarily in Routt and Moffat counties, has seen the worst of it this year, with below average precipitation and, even more concerning, below average stream flows. Based on the most recent reports from the U.S. Drought Monitor, the Yampa basin is in the most severe drought level, known as D4 for exceptional drought, since the first monitoring of drought levels started in 2000, and that level has persisted for almost 52 straight weeks, also a record.

Colorado Drought Monitor map September 21, 2021.

It’s meant that the large sections of the Yampa have been closed to fishing for virtually the entire summer, according to the state division of parks and wildlife.

Bolinger said the 2021 summer was the fourth warmest on record, going back 127 years. There was only one month — February — where temperatures were below average for the entire water year that runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

Monsoons, however, kept the state from setting records for dry conditions, Bolinger indicated. There was above average rainfall in Western Colorado, particularly for the Colorado River basin, but not enough to overcome drought conditions in northwestern Colorado counties such as Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt.

And drought conditions are starting to rise on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. Bolinger noted that Washington County had the driest summer on record. About 41% of the state is in some form of drought, although that’s better than it was in January, when the entire state was in drought…

Bolinger said there is a high likelihood that Colorado will experience a weak “La Niña” winter, meaning a wet pattern that may provide more snowfall over the northern mountains but drier conditions and less snowfall in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado and the Eastern Plains.

Karl Wetlaufer of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, tracks reservoir levels and precipitation by river basins. Wetlaufer said the Yampa got a bit of a reprieve with precipitation in August and above average rainfall in September. His biggest concern was for declining reservoir storage in almost every basin except for the South Platte, where reservoir levels have been well above average. The South Platte was the only basin where reservoir levels actually increased in 2021…

In the Gunnison River basin, where the Bureau of Reclamation is tapping Blue Mesa Reservoir to keep electrical generation going at Lake Powell, reservoir levels are almost at the lowest in history, Wetlaufer said. Statewide, reservoir storage is at about 80% of average, down from 85% a year ago, and at 48% of capacity…

Stream flows are also well below normal, Wetlaufer explained, even in areas of the state that had good snowpack. The effect of very dry soils from the winter months, combined with a warm and dry summer, meant some parts of the state, like the Yampa, saw their stream flows drop to 32% of normal flows…

The impact of this year’s precipitation has meant struggles for farmers planting millet and winter wheat, according to Joel Schneekloth, a regional water resources specialist at Colorado State University. He explained that for some farmers, the rainfall has been so spotty that they’re checking fields to see which ones caught rain and then immediately move to plant wheat in those fields. The good news seems to be that while fields have been drier than average, crops don’t seem to be using as much water, which he theorized could be due to higher humidity levels.

#Colorado Sports Betting Generates Nearly $8 Million for State Water Plan in FY21 — Casino.org #COWaterPlan

The 2015 Colorado Water Plan, on a shelf, at the CU law library. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Casino.org (Steve Bittenbender):

Colorado gaming officials on Thursday [September 23, 2021] announced that the first full year of legal sports betting in the state produced nearly $8 million in tax revenue that will help the state implement its water resiliency plan.

The Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission approved the allocation at its meeting Thursday.

“In all, the state received nearly $8.6 million in revenue, that’s discounting $1.6 million state gaming officials returned to the general fund in March to reimburse for start-up costs covered to launch wagering in May 2020.”

The Colorado Water Plan was established in November 2015 to help ensure the state’s long-term water needs would be met amid concerns about climate change and other challenges the state faces…

Despite the water plan funding representing less than 1 percent of the actual bets placed, state officials are still pleased with the results so far.

Teenage boys, young men, and a girl pose on the steps of a building, clothes include turtleneck sweaters, knee pants, a leather helmet, and duster hats. One holds a football. photographed by either Fred Garrison or Ola Aftinson Garrison.; History Colorado

From The Denver Post (Conrad Swanson) via The Lamar Ledger:

Since Colorado launched legalized sports betting in May 2020, the state has collected nearly five times more money for water projects than anticipated, gaming officials said.

The start of the National Football League’s season provided yet another welcome financial bump, with about $44 million in bets during its first weekend (Sept. 9-13), according to Daniel Hartman, director of the state’s Division of Gaming…

Money collected from gambling proceeds goes toward work meant to conserve water, protect natural habitats, improve infrastructure and more, according to Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. And more money equals funding new projects under the Colorado Water Plan at a time when Colorado River reservoirs downstream are low.

Hartman said his office earmarked about $8 million from sports betting for the plan, which sets priorities through 2050 for projects in the following five categories: agriculture; conservation and land use; engagement and innovation; environment and recreation; and water storage and supply.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board doles out the money, and Ris said it tries to fund projects that check more than one box, like work with Colorado Springs Utilities that brings water from the Eagle River Basin to Colorado Springs and Aurora — which she said “opened up quite a bit of fish and boating habitat.”

Before voters legalized sports betting, Ris said her department was awarding grants with whatever money officials found in their “couch cushions.”

At the outset, legislative analysts projected gambling could bring in between $9.7 million to $11.2 million in its first year, revenue department spokeswoman Suzanne Karrer said. But shortly after voters agreed to legalize the practice, state officials cut their estimates for 2020-2021 to between $1.5 million and $1.7 million in part because casinos weren’t willing to pay $125,000 every other year to host sports betting, Karrer said.

Even when the pandemic shut down leagues for a few months, gamblers flocked to sports betting — made easy through apps. The $3 billion in bets from May 2020 to July 31, 2021, translates into $9.4 million in state revenue, Hartman said…

Ris said the board can’t give out any of this windfall until next summer, after the 2022 General Assembly grants it permission to spend the money.

Jackpot: #Colorado stimulus funds boost #water grants to $13M — @WaterEdCO

ooking west across the 445 acre-foot Windy Gap Reservoir, which straddles the Colorado River (Summer 2011). Photo By: Jeff Dahlstrom, NCWCD via Water Education Colorado

From Water Education Colorado (Allen Best):

Thanks to a major infusion of COVID-related state stimulus cash earlier this year, nearly $13M in grants was awarded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board on Sept. 16 to projects designed to improve irrigation systems, aid the environment, improve water storage, and reconnect a critical channel on the Colorado River in Grand County.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has historically dispensed $7.5 million annually in grants to assist projects that align with the goals of the 2015 Colorado Water Plan.

Thanks to the state stimulus funding, state legislators delivered $15 million in cash to the grant program, more than double last year’s amount. The funds must be awarded by July 2023.

In addition to supporting the water plan, the grants are designed to benefit multiple segments of the state’s economy, according to Anna Mauss, the CWCB’s chief financial officer.

“That can be hard to define,” she says, “but we are looking at solutions that benefit all sectors.”

The projects and their grants can be found here:

https://cwcb.colorado.gov/events/hybrid-board-meeting-september-15-16-2021

Environment and recreation projects represented the largest slice of the pie at $6.6 million. The second largest slice, at $4.2 million, went to water storage and supply projects. Four agriculture projects together got $1.5 million.

The largest recipient of grants funds, at $3.8 million, is the Windy Gap Dam bypass, a project that will reconnect a critical channel on the Colorado River in Grand County. It has federal, state and county funding and cash from conservation organizations and landowners, all working under the umbrella of the Northern Water Conservancy District, which oversees Windy Gap for its owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Proposed bypass channel for the Colorado River with Windy Gap Reservoir being taken offline, part of the agreements around Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming project.

The dam was constructed in the 1980s just below the confluence of the Fraser with the Colorado River west of Granby. Aquatic life has since diminished. The new channel is to reconnect the Colorado downstream from the dam with its upstream habitat.

According to the application, the project will expand the river’s gold medal trout fishery and make this segment more resilient in the face of increased water diversions, wildfires and climate change.

Center pivot sprinklers in the Arikaree River basin to irrigate corn. Each sprinkler is supplied by deep wells drilled into the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture got nearly $300,000 for a soil health project that will focus on the Republican River watershed for three years. Program directors expect 10 farmers to participate, incorporating water-saving actions into their land-use planning in a way that will conserve 47,000 acre-feet annually. In this way, according to the grant application, the project will also help sustain the Ogallala Aquifer.

Barr Lake State Park photo via Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Two other projects getting funding are on the Front Range. At Barr Lake, located along Interstate 76 northeast of Denver, the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Co. plans to enlarge the storage capacity. A new study of regional extreme precipitation by the Colorado Dam Safety found that raising the spillway culvert would safely accommodate 1,500 acre-feet of additional storage. This, however, will inundate structures in the surrounding state park. The $279,000 granted the company will provide partial funding to mitigate the higher water levels on the park facilities.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Trout Unlimited was awarded $300,000 for efforts to restore populations of the greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish, at the headwaters of the Cache la Poudre River. The species is native to the Eastern Slope, but the Poudre is augmented by diversions from the headwaters of the Colorado River in Rocky Mountain National Park. Most prominent of those diversions is the Grand River Ditch. The $300,000 granted to Trout Unlimited will go to creating a fish barrier in the Grand Ditch where it flows across the Continental Divide and into a tributary of the Poudre River.

David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said that the project will take about 10 years. The greenback is currently federally listed as threatened by the Environmental Protection Agency, but Trout Unlimited hopes that a recovery stronghold on the Poudre can result in delisting. The full project will provide connected habitat for the trout species to more than 38 miles of stream and more than 110 acres of lakes and reservoirs.

Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at allen@bigpivots.com and allen.best@comcast.net.

Water Funding Playbook A Guide to Local Funding Initiatives for #Water and Rivers — Water for #Colorado

Click here to go to the Water for Colorado website tool for local funding initiatives:

Solving Colorado’s Water Issues

Colorado needs long-term funding to conserve, maintain, and restore our water supplies, river and stream flows, and economy in the face of numerous challenges, from prolonged drought and rising temperatures driven by climate change and population growth. Maintaining healthy river systems and water availability is essential to sustain Colorado’s way of life, preserve natural resources, grow our crops, and bolster our economy.

Our State Water Plan Lacks Sustainable Funding

The Colorado Water Plan, developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2015, sets forward a path to secure our water future by protecting Colorado’s rivers, securing clean, safe, reliable drinking water for our communities, and preserving our agricultural heritage.

Colorado’s existing public funding resources are insufficient to address the current and future needs identified in the Water Plan to secure our water future. Establishing new sources of funding – whether local or statewide – will help to keep Colorado’s rivers healthy and flowing to continue to support clean drinking water for all Coloradans and reliable water supplies for farms and ranches across the state.

In the last few years, Coloradans have illustrated their support for water funding by approving three different tax increases where water is the beneficiary. In 2019, the passing of Proposition DD legalized sports betting in Colorado with the majority of the proceeds of the betting taxes funding Colorado’s Water Plan. At the local level, both the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District successfully passed public funding initiatives to increase their mill levies in the fall of 2020, with other municipalities like the cities of Denver and Boulder and counties like Summit and Chaffee passing voter-approved funding for water and rivers in the last three years. Coloradans clearly understand the need for additional water funding and they are willing to pay for it.

How (and Why) to Use This Guide

The purpose of this guide is to assist water conservancy districts, nonprofits, local governments, citizen stakeholder initiatives and others in learning more about successfully implementing new local sources of public funding for water in Colorado. This guide is intended to help you understand the general process and important questions to ask when pursuing a public funding measure, such as a bond, property tax, sales tax, or mill levy increase. You will also see video interviews with individuals and organizations that have participated in public funding measures in Colorado, as well as with experts in the field of public funding.

New Report on Interstate Water Compact Lessons for #Colorado — Colorado Mesa University

From Colorado Mesa University (Kelsey Coleman):

Hannah Holm, the director of the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University co-wrote a Colorado River study in collaboration with Kelsea MacIlroy and The Nature Conservancy

As a headwaters state, Colorado has many interstate compacts that set rules for how the state must share the rivers that originate within its borders with downstream states. On several of these rivers, water users have had to modify their water use to meet compact requirements. That day may be coming for the Colorado River. A new report explores what Colorado River water users can learn from experiences with compact administration on other rivers.

The new report, “Lessons Learned from Colorado Experiences with Interstate Compact Administration,” utilizes interviews with water users and experts who experienced compact compliance measures in the Arkansas, Rio Grande and Republican River Basins to distill lessons that may be useful for Colorado Basin water users.

Interviewees warned against relying on courts to rule in Colorado’s favor in compact cases or on optimistic estimates of water availability. They also described how communities have developed their own, proactive measures to promote compact compliance and address other water supply challenges in ways that have fewer negative impacts than externally imposed mandates. Necessary conditions for doing so include an ability to work well together, precise water-use measurement and initiating action well in advance of a court order. On a more technical front, interviewees emphasized how accurate measurement of all water use was necessary for enhanced water management, as well as making the Colorado’s case for its own water use in discussions with other states.

This study was conducted by Kelsea MacIlroy, co-written by Hannah Holm and funded by The Nature Conservancy. MacIlroy is a PhD candidate in sociology from Colorado State University and the principal of MacIlroy Research and Consulting, LLC. Hannah Holm directs the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.

The report was presented at the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference in Steamboat Springs on August 24, 2021, and will be presented at the September Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting.

“Across Colorado and the West, communities are experiencing greater frequency and extent of drought leading to increased variability in streamflows. As water managers grapple with the consequences of changing water supplies, there is great value in looking toward neighboring communities for lessons learned,” Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservation District and the Rio Grande Basin’s representative to the Colorado Water Conservation Board said. “The report detailing “Lessons Learned from Colorado Experiences with Interstate Compact Administration” relies on voices of water users and administrators to detail personal and regional experiences including what has gone well and where they would do things differently if given the chance. While the focus of the report is on compact administration, the lessons learned touch on broader water management topics and highlight how communities are better off when stakeholders are working toward a common goal. Therefore, I feel this report is a must read for all Coloradoans that care about our collective water future.”

Alex Funk, agriculture and rural resiliency policy specialist for the Interstate, Federal, and Water Information Section at the Colorado Water Conservation Board also commented on the recent report.

“The stories shared in this report highlight the value of proactive dialogue and actions on water management challenges ranging from climate change to compact compliance.,” Funk said. “Collaborative, proactive actions and solutions give local communities and water users more agency and opportunities to adapt to changing conditions in ways that provide long-term benefits for all water users.”

Ralph Parshall squats next to the flume he designed at the Bellevue Hydrology Lab using water from the Cache la Poudre River. 1946. Photo Credit: Water Resource Archive, Colorado State University, via Legacy Water News.

On the question of water measurement, John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District said, “A valuable takeaway from the report is recognizing the importance of accurate measurement. That is a good lesson for Colorado River water users as the State Engineer commences measurement rule making.”

The full report can be found at coloradomesa.edu/water-center/compact-stories.

Ouray County water project faces opposition from state, others: roposed reservoir, pipeline, exchange could have impacts to fish and environmental flows — @AspenJournalism

Ouray County Water Users Association wants to build a 260-foot dam at this location on Cow Creek that would hold about 25,000 acre-feet of water. One goal would be to lessen daily flow fluctuations, especially during spring runoff.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Water users in Ouray County are hoping to satisfy water shortages with what they say is a multi-beneficial reservoir and pipeline project. But the Ram’s Horn reservoir, Cow Creek pipeline and exchange are facing opposition from the state of Colorado and others.

The complicated, three-pronged project proposes to take water from Cow Creek and pipe it into Ridgway Reservoir, take water from local streams via ditches and store it in the reservoir, and build a new dam and reservoir on Cow Creek. This stored water would eventually be sent downstream to be used by the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA).

Ridgway Dam via the USBR

The project applicants — Ouray County, Tri-County Water Conservancy District, Ouray County Water Users Association and the Colorado River Water Conservation District — say they need 20 cubic feet per second of water from Cow Creek. Cow Creek is a tributary of the Uncompahgre River with headwaters in the Cimarron mountains. Cow Creek’s confluence with the Uncompahgre River is below Ridgway Reservoir, which is why an upstream pipeline would be needed to capture the water and bring it into the reservoir.

The applicants are also seeking to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reaches of Cow Creek, which would hold about 25,000 acre-feet of water behind a 260-foot-tall and 720-foot-long dam. Ram’s Horn would help regulate what are known as diurnal flows during spring runoff — streamflows are higher during the day as the snow melts with warming temperatures, and lower at night as snow re-freezes. UVWUA says they can’t adjust their headgates to capture the high point of this daily fluctuation in flows, leaving the water to run downstream unused. The project would capture these diurnal peaks.

Ouray County Water Users Association wants to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reach of Cow Creek, shown here. Colorado Parks and Wildlife opposes the project, in part, because of its potential impact to fish.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Goal to prevent a call

The goal of the project is to prevent the UVWUA — one of the big senior water rights holders in the Gunnison River basin — from placing a call on the river.

When the UVWUA, which owns the Montrose & Delta Canal and has a 1890 water right, is not able to get its full amount of water, it places a call on the river. This means upstream junior water rights holders, like Ouray County Water Users, have to stop using water so that UVWUA can get its full amount. According to a state database, the M&D Canal has placed a call three times this summer, most recently from July 12 to 22. In 2020, the call was on for nearly all of July and August. Under Colorado water law, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.

By releasing the water stored in either Ridgway or Ram’s Horn reservoirs to satisfy a UVWUA call, Ouray County Water Users Association would then be able to continue using its own water.

The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is a co-applicant of the project.

“This (project) is consistent with the River District’s goals and objectives with supporting our constituents and making sure they have a reliable water supply,” said Jason Turner, River District senior counsel.

Ridgway Reservoir, on the Uncompahgre River in Ouray County, is popular with boaters. A proposed pipeline project that would bring water from Cow Creek into the reservoir is being met with opposition for environmental reasons.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Potential impacts to fish, instream flows

But some state agencies, environmental groups and others have concerns about the project. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado Water Conservation Board have both filed statements of opposition to the application, which was originally filed in December 2019, amended in January and is making its way through water court. CPW claims that its water rights in the basin, which it holds for the benefit of state wildlife areas, fisheries and state parks, could be injured by the project. CPW owns nearly a mile of access to Cow Creek on the Billy Creek State Wildlife Area.

Between August 2019 and January 2020, CPW recorded water temperatures of Cow Creek and found they exceeded a state standard for trout. A report from CPW aquatic biologist Eric Gardunio says that the proposed project would likely cause an even bigger increase in water temperatures, resulting in fish mortality.

“The flow and temperature analysis for Cow Creek indicates that the water rights application has the likelihood to damage or eliminate the native bluehead sucker population as well as the rest of the fishery in the downstream end of Cow Creek through the degradation of water quantity and quality,” the report reads.

While less water in Cow Creek could result in temperatures that are too high for trout, water released from the proposed Ram’s Horn reservoir could be too cold for bluehead suckers.

“There’s going to be some changes to temperature and what our temperature data has outlined is that the species are at their extreme ends,” Gardunio said. “It’s nearly too cold for bluehead sucker and it’s nearly too warm for trout, so changes in temperature are going to have an impact to one or the other of the fishery.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board opposes the project because they said it could injure the state’s instream flow water rights. Instream flow rights are held exclusively by the CWCB to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. Ram’s Horn reservoir would inundate a section of Cow Creek where the CWCB currently holds an instream flow right.

“The application does not present sufficient information to fully evaluate the extent to which the CWCB’s instream flow water right may be injured,” the statement of opposition reads.

Environmental group Western Resource Advocates also opposes the project. Ram’s Horn Reservoir, with conditional water rights owned by Tri-County Water Conservancy District, is one of five reservoirs planned as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek Project, which dates to the 1950s. Ridgway Reservoir is the only one of the five that has been built.

This map shows the potential location of Ram’s Horn Reservoir, as well as other reservoirs originally conceived as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek Project. Only Ridgway Reservoir has been built.
CREDIT: MAP COURTESY WRIGHT WATER ENGINEERS

Complex exchange

The third piece of the proposed project is what’s known as an exchange, where water would be conveyed via existing ditches connecting tributaries above Ridgway Reservoir. The exchange water would be stored there and released when senior downstream water users need it, which would benefit upstream water users. In addition to Cow Creek, the applicants are proposing to take water from Pleasant Valley Creek, the East and West Forks of Dallas Creek, Dallas Creek and the Uncompahgre River to use in the exchange.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 4 Engineer Bob Hurford laid out the issues his office has with this exchange in his summary of consultation. He recommended denial on the exchange portion of the application until the applicants list the specific ditches participating in the exchange and their locations, and agree that they are responsible for enlarging the ditches so they can handle the increased capacity of water.

“I have to have actual ditch names, the owners of the ditches have to be willing to participate and it has all got to be tracked to a tenth of a cfs,” Hurford said. “It’s not a loosey-goosey thing. It has to be dialed in and defined precisely.”

Another criticism of the project is that it won’t provide water directly to water users in Dallas Creek, which according to a report by Wright Water Engineers, is the most water-short region of the Upper Uncompahgre basin. Even if Dallas Creek water users participate in the exchange, in dry years still there may not be enough water in local creeks for them to use.

“This project has been sold as the savior of agriculture in Ouray County but this project will not provide wet water that would not otherwise be available to anybody that is an ag producer,” said Ouray County water rights holder and project opponent Cary Denison. “I don’t know one irrigator who is saying we need to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir.”

The project application is making its way through water court and applicants say they are continuing to negotiate with opposers. A status report is due in October. Attorney for the Ouray County Water Users Association and River District board representative Marti Whitmore said they want to make sure it’s a multi-purpose project that benefits everyone.

“Fish flows and recreation uses are important, so we are just trying to work out terms and conditions that are a win-win for everyone,” she said.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

First-come, first-serve augmentation water available to local farms and ranches — The #Craig Daily Press #YampaRiver

Yampa River at the mouth of Cross Mountain Canyon July 24, 2021.

From The Craig Daily Press (Eliz Noe):

The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is releasing up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions…

Various agencies and water groups have worked to keep restrictions or “calls” off of the Yampa River for junior water rights holders, but if the drought persists as it has in recent weeks, there is potential that a call may be inevitable. The last call was placed on July 29, the third call in the river’s history, though it was later rescinded on Aug. 2.

Marielle Cowdin, director of public relations at the Colorado River District, said that the release was made possible by the Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, which received $50,000 in funding.

Elkhead Reservoir back in the day.

“We have been managers at Elkhead Reservoir of certain pools of water that exist there,” Cowdin said. “So when the call came on the Yampa, earlier this month, we worked in partnership with the Department of Water Resources and their division engineers to release some water to take the call off the Yampa — at least for a temporary time — so that junior water users would not have their water rights curtailed for that short amount of time.”

Because of potential calls in the future, the River District has a financial partnership with the CWCB to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin. The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in 2021, specifically for crop and livestock production.

Cowdin also said that because it is only August, the Yampa region still has weeks of potentially hot and dry weather, which could lead to another call. She added that the Colorado River District worked with the state of Colorado and the CWCB to provide contracts with local ranchers and farmers to access the 677 acre-feet of water.

#Drought tour brings #Colorado leaders together to talk actionable solutions — The Steamboat Pilot & Today #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Suzie Romig):

More than 50 people ranging from legislative aides to state department heads participated in an on-the-ground opportunity to learn about the extreme drought in Northwest Colorado during this week’s Drought Impacts Tour in the Yampa and White River Basins.

On two warm, hazy days, state and local leaders conversed during bumpy bus rides and educational stops at ranches, lakes and the Yampa River in Routt and Moffat counties. During the tour, participants and educators discussed many aspects of drought impacts such as agricultural livelihood, recreation, tourism, wildlife, water, wildfires and forest management.

“I have been learning way more than I ever expected on this drought tour. Hearing directly from ranchers and the things that they are experiencing is truly eye-opening and wonderful,” said Becky Bolinger, Ph.D., assistant state climatologist who works at the Colorado State University Colorado Climate Center. “We do know that the climate is warming, and with that warming climate, we are experiencing more frequent droughts, more severe droughts. These are things that all Coloradans are going to have to deal with.”

Bolinger said a key point people need to realize is how to make the connection between climate science information and residents’ own changes in work practices, especially in agricultural and tourism businesses. Bolinger said the facts of the shifting climate need to translate into changes in business practices and seasonal offerings in order to prepare for a warmer, drier future in Colorado.

“Knowing that they are already prepared by improving their management practices and other things to mitigate the impacts but also to adapt, hopefully it’s not always going to be this doom and gloom situation when we are talking about climate change,” Bolinger said.

The atmospheric scientist said Coloradans should focus on “always working on actionable solutions and getting through this together.”

The tour was organized by the Colorado Drought Task Force, which includes directors of multiple state departments such as natural resources and agriculture. The task force operated in past times of drought and was activated again by the governor in 2020. Task force information listed online (http://cwcb.colorado.gov/drought) notes that water year 2020 concluded as the 12th warmest water year on record in Colorado since 1895 and the third driest water year on record, trailing only 2002 (driest) and 2018 (second driest)…

Gov. Jared Polis joined for part of the tour on Wednesday in Moffat County including a picnic at Loudy-Simpson Park south of Craig…

One message from the tour is that drought-related financial assistance and grant opportunities are broad and plentiful at this time. Leonard encouraged agencies, nonprofits and agricultural producers to review funding options found at http://cwcb.colorado.gov/drought-assistance.

For example, the Colorado Department of Agriculture is promoting new stimulus funding available as of July 1, including $2.5 million to expand market opportunities for funding for Colorado Proud producers, $5 million to expand agricultural efficiency and soil health initiatives, $30 million for agricultural revolving loan and grant programs including for individual farmers and ranchers, and more than $1.8 million for agriculture drought resiliency activities that promote the state’s ability to anticipate, prepare for, mitigate, adapt to or respond to drought.

The CWCB Agricultural Emergency Drought Response Program has a $1 million fund available on a rolling basis that provides immediate aid for emergency augmentation water during drought years in the form of loans or grants.

Residents who would like to share drought-related impact stories with state leaders can contribute to Colorado Drought Stories via the interactive website http://engagecwcb.org/agricultural-task-force.

Working group submits report detailing ways to bolster #Colorado’s anti-speculation law — The Center Square

The Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend, upstream of Glenwood Springs. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

From The Center Square (Robert Davis):

A working group submitted a report on Friday that includes several “concepts” that it says the Colorado Water Resources Review Committee should consider when exploring how to bolster the state’s anti-speculation law.

The 22-member group, which includes members from the legal, nonprofit, municipal, and agricultural sectors, convened due to the passage of Senate Bill 20-048. The group submitted a total of 19 “concepts” organized into five categories that the committee will consider when making future regulations.

Some of the recommendations include modifying current legal proceedings to give water courts a more active role in anti-speculation cases, encouraging local governments and state police to invest in water speculation, and establishing a maximum water rate increase with corresponding tax penalties for those who overcharge.

In its final report, the working group said it does not recommend any of the concepts for implementation due in part to the drawbacks members identified during their sessions and a lack of consensus among the group.

Instead, it recommended that lawmakers “gather additional feedback from multiple and diverse stakeholders within Colorado for any change in law considered.”

Water speculation – defined as obtaining a water right without a plan to put the water to beneficial use – is a foundational issue for the state of Colorado.

The state’s constitution expressly provides that water is “declared to be the property of the public, and the same is dedicated to the use of the people of the state.” This means that no one in the state can horde water without a legitimate need.

The approach has become known colloquially as the “Colorado Doctrine” in the water court system, according to the working group’s report.

Anti-speculation laws are also gaining more public attention as drought conditions are causing issues for some Colorado ranchers.

Gov. Jared Polis recently visited with the local agricultural communities in Craig and Steamboat Springs and declared that the recent “historic” water plan won’t be enough to help ease the conditions. The plan will spend $50 million to increase conservation and address the gap between supply and demand.

“This is an important part of who we were, who we are and who we will be now in the future,” Polis told the Craig Daily Press.

#Colorado River District and Colorado Water Conservation Board Offer Relief for #YampaRiver Valley Agriculture #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Photo: DNR Director Dan Gibbs, Gov. Polis, CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell, Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller at Elkhead Reservoir. Photo credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:

The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) announced a partnership to release up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions.

Governor Polis announced this partnership during the Northwest Drought Tour – a two-day event that brought state officials and decision makers through Steamboat Springs and Craig to see first-hand impacts of drought on agriculture and other industries, and to find collaborative solutions and resources for the region.

The Yampa River Basin is one of many in Western Colorado suffering the effects of increasing temperatures, decreasing precipitation, and soil aridity, adding pressure to an already limited water supply.

“I am proud that the Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board are doing their part by releasing 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to local farmers and ranchers free of charge. Northwest Colorado continues to face exceptional drought conditions, with hot temperatures, dry soils, and reduced runoff, which impacts farmers and ranchers,” said Governor Polis. “Partnerships like this one showcase how collaboration and working together can help find local solutions. My administration will continue to work with local and federal entities to assist Coloradans as we navigate this systemic drought’s impact on our agricultural economy and local communities.”

The Colorado River District recently coordinated with the Division of Water Resources in an effort to postpone restrictions or a “call” on the Yampa River with releases from the District’s 2021 Yampa River Flow Pilot Project at Elkhead Reservoir. However, with water flows in the basin remaining low and water demands consistent, there is still the potential for future restrictions or “calls” in the Yampa River Basin.

In advance of this forecast, the River District initiated a financial partnership with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin.

“We are attempting to free up all available resources through innovative partnerships in the face of this ongoing drought,” said Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “This hotter, drier climate is hitting the small family farms and ranches along the Yampa River hard. We’re taking quick action to protect our constituents and the communities relying on these farmers and ranchers across the basin and the state.”

The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in Irrigation Year 2021, specifically for crop and/or livestock production. Through the CWCB, the state will provide the financial support necessary to pay for the stored water in Elkhead Reservoir for late season use by ranchers and farmers who depend on the Yampa River for irrigation and watering their livestock.

“As we continue to see compounded drought years that impact all Coloradans, including our agricultural producers, it is critical that we work together on collaborative solutions to meeting our future water needs,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell. “We are proud to support the Colorado River District in their efforts to provide additional water to the Yampa Valley farmers and ranchers in need.”

Available water through the Elkhead Reservoir release is limited, however, and therefore is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Those interested in applying should contact the Colorado River District’s Director of Asset Management, Hunter Causey, at hcausey@crwcd.org.

Yampa River at the mouth of Cross Mountain Canyon July 24, 2021.

A “gut punch” as water rushes from #FlamingGorge to save #LakePowell’s hydropower system — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Boaters at Cedar Springs Marina on Flaming Gorge Reservoir. The reservoir’s levels are expected to drop 2 feet a month under an emergency release of water designed to keep Lake Powell’s hydropower system operating. July 22, 2021 Credit: Jerd Smith

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

John Rauch and his family have operated the Cedar Springs Marina here since 1986. But three weeks ago, when the federal government suddenly ordered millions of gallons of water to be released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir down the Green River to Lake Powell, Rauch wasn’t prepared.

“It was a total gut punch,” he said on a recent hot, sunny morning. As visitors trekked down to rent his pontoon boats, and others slid their fishing craft into the reservoir, Rauch and his employees were already planning which boat docks and ramps would have to be relocated to keep them afloat. The reservoir is projected to drop as much as 2 feet a month through the fall as water is released.

Drought has plagued the Colorado River Basin for 20 years, but it hit crisis proportions this summer, pushing lakes Powell and Mead to historic lows and triggering, for the first time, emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs.

All told, 181,000 acre-feet of water are to be sent to Lake Powell by the end of December. Powell has dropped so low that its hydropower plants, which supply millions of homes with electricity and generate revenue for such things as a critical Colorado River endangered species program, may stop operating as early as next year if water levels continue to drop as they have been. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates there is a 3 percent chance of this occurring next year and a 29 percent chance of this occurring in 2022. But given the speed of the Powell’s decline, no one wants to risk a hydropower shutdown.

Savings accounts

Since their construction in the 1960s these reservoirs, known as Reclamation’s Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs, have acted as a giant savings account, helping ensure that if a crisis erupted on the river, the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico would have enough water on hand to fulfill their legal obligation to deliver water to Nevada, Arizona and California, known as the Lower Basin states.

Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, part of the Aspinall Unit, is already low, at just 43 percent of capacity as of last month. Fed by the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, the reservoir is tourism hot spot on Colorado’s West Slope.

Kathleen Curry, a former Colorado lawmaker, sits on the Colorado River District Board. She said she understands the need for the releases, but she said the changes in the shoreline at Blue Mesa aren’t going unnoticed.

“It’s taking residents and visitors by surprise, just because I don’t think anyone was expecting it,” she said.

The releases come under a special Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan approved by Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in late 2018. A similar drought plan is in place for the Lower Basin, and they have been cutting back withdrawals from Lake Mead for the past two years.

Still the river system is drying out. And water leaders in Colorado are deeply worried that their carefully protected savings account is going to dry up too quickly to solve the Colorado River’s long-term problems.

Will it work?

“I understand and support the necessity of the Secretary [of the Interior] taking this action,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water. “The major concern I have is that Reclamation says the 181,000 acre-foot release will raise Lake Powell three feet. But I don’t know that they can even show that. I don’t know that they have accounted for transit losses and other losses.

“It’s important when these releases are made that they are accounted for, that we know where this water is going. If it doesn’t actually get down to [Lake Powell] to accomplish what it was designed to do, we should have kept it in that savings account,” Lochhead said.

Becki Bryant, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River region, said the agency is working to create a hydropower buffer in Lake Powell and believes the releases are adequate to accomplish that. But Reclamation is not yet doing the kind of precise tracking and accounting known as water “shepherding,” to ensure flows make it downstream, that Lochhead is requesting.

On Aug. 1, Lake Powell’s elevation stood at 3,553.8 feet above sea level. The action point, or so-called target elevation is 3,525. When that point came close in July, Reclamation moved quickly to order the emergency releases.

Powell’s hydropower plant stops generating power when it drops to 3,490 feet in elevation, according to Reclamation.

“Reclamation expects the additional release of water will be sufficient to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation through 2021. That target elevation provides a 35-vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.

“Shepherding water would be beneficial but is challenging on many levels for Colorado River Basin states,” said Bryant via email.

Bleak forecasts

Bryant said Reclamation will continue to consult with the Upper Basin states as it monitors reservoir levels and weather forecasts. Should conditions deteriorate further, the agency could examine whether to declare the releases futile and stop them, as it is allowed to do under the 2018 Drought Contingency Plan.

The water being released is so-called “system water,” meaning that it isn’t owned by a particular user.

Held by the federal government for the benefit of the Upper Basin states, the amounts of water specified in the release plan are jaw-dropping: 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge; 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa; and 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover one acre of land to a depth of 12 inches.

If that same amount of water were going to cities, it would be enough to serve more than 362,000 homes for one to two years. If going to farms, it could irrigate more than 113,000 acres, depending on the crop.

If the historic, 20-plus-year drought cycle doesn’t end soon, refilling those reservoirs is going to be difficult. And that has water managers worried.

“My level of concern is quite high,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water planning and policy agency. She also sits on the four-state Upper Colorado River Basin Commission, which advises Reclamation on river issues.

“And I can’t tell yet if [the releases] are going to do the trick,” she said. “But we have to respond to the levels in Powell.”

Cedar Springs Marina near Dutch John, Utah, on Flaming Gorge Reservoir in the early 1960s. In a first, emergency releases are being made under the 2018 Upper Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan. Photo courtesy of the Rauch family.

Legal reckoning?

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Colorado and the other Upper Basin states must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) [per year, 75 maf per 10 years] of water to the Lower Basin on a 10-year running average. Right now, the Upper Basin is delivering roughly 9.2 maf, Mitchell said, meaning that there is still time to help the system come back into balance before the Lower Basin states could legally call for more water than they currently receive.

Lake Powell is the Upper Basin’s largest storage pool on the system and is designed to be the four Upper Basin states’ major source of protection. Because of their legal obligations, Colorado water users are closely monitoring this year’s plunge in Powell, with the threat to hydropower production being seen as a dangerous antecedent to a compact call.

“That the system continues to deteriorate is concerning,” Lochhead said.

Roughly half of Denver Water’s supplies are derived from water rights it owns on the Colorado River system. While one portion of its portfolio dates back to 1921, and would therefore trump a 1922 compact call, several other rights were established later, meaning the utility might have to stop pulling from those water sources if Colorado were forced to cut back in order to meet compact obligations.

Other Front Range water providers, who also have Colorado River rights, are even more vulnerable, including the Pueblo-based Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

Southeastern’s rights date only to 1957.

Contingency v. reality

Lee Miller, Southeastern’s attorney, said the Colorado River crisis remains a long-term problem for his agency.

The rapid deterioration this year, however, is prompting everyone to rethink how much time they have to balance the massive river system as drought and a warming climate, as well as population growth, continue to sap its flows.

“Both the Upper and Lower Basin have now had to initiate elements of their drought contingency plans. When we passed it a couple of years ago everyone thought, “It’s good to have a contingency plan.’ But I don’t think anyone thought we would have to use the plans this quickly. It’s gone from being a contingency to being a reality, and that’s concerning.”

Back up at Flaming Gorge, John Rauch is watching the levels drop and making his own contingency plans.

“We are planning for the worst,” Rauch said. “For the foreseeable future, the outlook is dry. If it ends up that by the end of all of this that the reservoir becomes a river channel, we will be down there at water’s edge selling worms.”

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.

The August 2021 Confluence Newsletter is hot off the presses from the #Colorado #Water Conservation Board

Water infrastructure as sidewalk art

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

Colorado Water Loss Initiative to Kick Off Second Phase

The Colorado Water Conservation Board is kicking off the second phase of the Colorado Water Loss Initiative – a comprehensive program for training and technical assistance for urban water systems across Colorado. Phase 2 will focus on expanding the curriculum to include water loss training and technical assistance to small water systems (non-covered entities). Phase 2 is open to both new and returning participants. Registration details will be available starting September 2021. Learn more.

Two Wins for Rivers in a Dry Year — @AudubonRockies #WhiteRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado River headwaters near Kremmling, Colorado. Photo: Abby Burk via Audubon Rockies

From Audubon Rockies (Abby Burk):

Audubon secures protections for Colorado rivers.

As a result of Audubon’s engagement, leveraged with our partners, Big Beaver Creek and White River will quickly receive needed water and all of Colorado’s rivers will retain their water quality protections. All thanks to you! In this drought-stricken year, these victories are true causes for celebration. Read on to learn what your actions accomplished for rivers and the birds and communities that depend upon them.

Water Quality Antidegradation

Birds and people rely on clean water from healthy rivers. High-quality water in our rivers, streams, and wetlands is critical to the long-term health of our ecosystems, wildlife, communities, and economies across Colorado, from urban neighborhoods to headwater streams.

In late spring of 2021, we called upon our Colorado network to sign a petition to stop a proposed rule change by the Water Quality Control Commission (Commission) that would have allowed more pollution in Colorado’s rivers and streams. Because of the impact this potential rule change would have had on rivers, birds, and disadvantaged communities, we needed your engagement like never before. And you responded.

Audubon Rockies broke all our previous engagement records by collecting 2,735 unique signatures and combined with our coalition to total more than 4,700 signatures! During the June hearing, the Commission received unprecedented levels of public comments. Sixty people signed up to speak. Many impassioned public speakers showed up to oppose the proposed rule changes and to support their “home waters.” All but one of the comments opposed rule changes due to potential impacts on Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color; recreation in urban streams; and the right to clean water.

The Commission listened to you and delayed making any decision to amend the antidegradation rule until 2031. Current water quality protections will stay in place for at least the next 10 years!

We still have work to do with the Commission to ensure our rivers and streams are protected from harmful rule changes that could increase pollution. We must also resist industry’s pressure to establish a stakeholder process in which only their high-paid lawyers and consultants have the means to participate.

With advocates like you, we know we can continue to make progress. Healthy flowing rivers support our environment and all water uses and users.

Instream Flows on Big Beaver Creek and White River

After a multi-year, multi-stakeholder effort to expand Colorado’s existing program to loan water to the environment, an instream flow bill (HB20-1157) was signed into law by Colorado Governor Polis in March of 2020. Audubon’s network submitted 1,463 action alerts to state legislators to support this bill, which ultimately benefits our environment, wildlife, and local economies.

HB20-1157 expanded the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s short-term water loan program to benefit the environment. The bill provides a 100 percent voluntary, flexible, and expedited or longer-term option for water users to divert less or no water during dry years, allowing for more water to stay in a river. The statute’s “emergency” or expedited option is in motion for the first time!

On July 21, 2021, the Colorado Water Conservation Board voted unanimously to approve an expedited temporary instream flow lease to support 43 stream miles of benefits to Big Beaver Creek and White River in Rio Blanco County. In this extreme drought year, water is needed in these waterways quickly. Due to your engagement and support, a quick and responsive option to support environmental stream flows is a reality.

Colorado thrives when our rivers do. The decisions we make about water and river health impact all of Colorado—birds and people alike. Audubon’s legacy is built on science, education, advocacy, and on-the-ground conservation. We bring all of this together through you: our network. This combination of expertise and engagement makes Audubon an effective force for bird and freshwater habitat conservation. Thank you for standing with us.

#LakePowell — Nation’s Second-Largest Reservoir — Hits Record Low — KUNC #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell is shown here, in its reach between where the Escalante and San Juan rivers enter the reservoir, in an October 2018 aerial photo from the nonprofit environmental group EcoFlight. Colorado water managers are considering the implications of a program known as demand management that would pay irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to take less water from streams in order to boost water levels in Lake Powell, as an insurance policy against compact curtailment.
CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

The nation’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Powell, is now at its lowest point since it filled in the 1960s.

The massive reservoir on the Colorado River hit a new historic low on July 24, dropping below 3,555.1 feet in elevation. The previous low was set in 2005. The last time the reservoir was this low was in 1969, when it first filled. It’s currently at 33% of its capacity.

The popular southwestern recreation hotspot on the Arizona-Utah border, which plays host to houseboats, kayaks and speedboats, has fluctuated over the past 21 years due to low river flows exacerbated by warming temperatures. About 4.4 million people visited Lake Powell in 2019, and spent $427 million in nearby communities, according to the National Park Service.

Lake Powell is now at its lowest point since it first filled in the late 1960s. Credit: U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation

Demand across the seven U.S. states and two Mexican states that rely on the river hasn’t declined fast enough to match the reduced supply, said Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University…

Forecasts for Lake Powell’s inflows from the Colorado River grew increasingly pessimistic during spring and early summer this year. Flows from April to July are projected to be 25% of the long term average, placing 2021 into the top three driest on record for the watershed.

“The hard lesson we’re learning about climate change is that it’s not a gradual, slow descent to a new state of affairs,” Udall said…

Emergency water releases from smaller reservoirs upstream of Powell will take place over the next six months. They’re meant to maintain hydropower production at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.

“I’m very alarmed,” said Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Interior Department. “It’s not only focused on hydropower concerns, we’re concerned operationally in general. We’re acting in coordination with the states about these decisions.”

Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, also on the Colorado River, is at a record low. Both Powell and Mead are projected to decline further this year…

The river’s current managing guidelines are set to expire in 2026. An update to those guidelines passed in 2019 included a potential demand management program in the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. In its conceptual form, the program would pay water users to voluntarily forgo water deliveries in exchange for payment. The saved water could be banked in Lake Powell to buffer against a potential Colorado River Compact call from downstream states.

None of the Upper Basin states has committed to fully implementing a plan to rein in demands on the river’s water in order to fill Lake Powell with conserved water. The plan remains in an investigatory phase.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

Demand management discussions continue amid worsening #ColoradoRiver crisis — @AspenJournlism #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell is shown here, in its reach between where the Escalante and San Juan rivers enter the reservoir, in an October 2018 aerial photo from the nonprofit environmental group EcoFlight. Colorado water managers are considering the implications of a program known as demand management that would pay irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to take less water from streams in order to boost water levels in Lake Powell, as an insurance policy against compact curtailment.
CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

CWCB not yet ready to adopt next-steps timeline

The crisis on the Colorado River is not waiting for the state of Colorado to develop a program to avoid water shortages.

That was the message that Colorado Water Conservation Board members received from some commenters at their regular meeting Wednesday. The state water board is investigating the feasibility of a program known as demand management, which would pay irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to not irrigate and instead use that saved water to meet downstream obligations on the Colorado River.

James Eklund, former head of the CWCB and one of the architects of the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the possibility of a demand-management program, urged the board in the public-comments portion of the discussion to take swift action on what he called arguably the largest water crisis Colorado has ever faced.

“Time is not your or our collective out. If you wait, that’s a decision that you make to determine whether or not we have a hand on the steering wheel as we move forward with this river,” he said. “The waiting is, I think, folly.”

In written comments, some environmental nonprofit organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited, said they were in favor of a demand-management program and urged the state to move forward more quickly.

The state received the comments in response to a draft framework released in March of what a demand-management program could look like, with three tiers of implementation options, guiding principles, threshold issues, trade-offs and equity considerations. The framework matrix is based on the findings of nine workgroups assigned to tackle different aspects and challenges of a potential program.

In addition to written comments, Trout Unlimited Colorado Water Project’s director, Drew Peternell, also told board members at the meeting that the group has concluded that demand management should be one tool Colorado uses to avoid compact curtailment.

“We realize you are taking on some very tough issues, but I also want to urge you to pick up the pace,” he said. “Hydrology on the West Slope is not good. Additional shortages on the system are likely. They would be painful. Now is the time to get something done.”

Gail Schwartz, who represents the main stem of the Colorado River basin on the nine-member board, noted the gravity of the situation and invoked the warnings of 19th-century explorer and river runner John Wesley Powell, after whom the second-largest reservoir in the country and ground zero for many of the basin’s most pressing problems is named. In 1893, the prescient Powell said the American West was “piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.”

“I think that we are at this extraordinary moment in time,” Schwartz said. “This is a desert and we are going to empty every bucket, we are going to empty every river, and this is the inevitable unless we can develop the courage and the ability to step forward.”

The controversial water-banking program, which some fear could harm agriculture on the Western Slope, has sparked a lot of discussion but little agreement over the past two years. Some have expressed frustration with what they say is the state’s slow pace of a program rollout and want to begin pilot projects to test the program’s feasibility. Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, urged the board in his comment letter to take aggressive action.

“The only way to really raise the important questions and to identify the positive and negative consequences of our actions is to try something,” Harris said. “There is no other way to advance the agenda without taking some well-considered risk.”

Water from the Government Highline Canal pours into Highline Lake in Mack. Water from the Government Highline Canal pours into Highline Lake in Mack. The Grand Valley Water Users Association – the group that regulates water flow in the canal – is calling for the state to take more aggressive steps to test out the concept of demand management.
CREDIT: BETHANY BLITZ/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Drought Contingency Plan

Under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, signed by the seven Colorado River basin states, the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) can develop a program to send up to 500,000 acre-feet of saved water downstream to Lake Powell as a kind of insurance policy to bolster levels in the reservoir and help meet Colorado River Compact obligations. If the Upper Basin states were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona and California), as required by the 1922 agreement, it could trigger what’s known as a compact call, which would force involuntary cutbacks in water use.

Over the past two decades, climate change has been robbing the Colorado River system of flows, and levels in the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have plummeted to record lows. Federal officials have begun making emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydroelectric power. But some water managers say unless this Upper Basin reservoir water is replenished with big snow next winter, the releases may be a one-time, stopgap solution.

In addition to the urgency imposed by the worsening hydrology, the clock is ticking on the storage agreement laid out in the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the development of a demand-management program. It expires in 2026, when a new round of negotiations begins. All four Upper Basin states must agree to move forward with a demand-management program; Colorado cannot go it alone.

The “bathtub ring” at Lake Powell evidences lower flows coming into the reservoir. Federal officials are making emergency releases from upper basin reservoirs to prop up levels and Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydroelectric power.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Decision making roadmap

Despite the sense of urgency expressed by some members, the CWCB did not approve the next step forward that was recommended by staff: adopting a decision making roadmap, which sets out a timeline for determining if demand management is achievable and worthwhile for Colorado. Tackling whether demand management is achievable was set to tentatively begin in September, and looking into whether the program is worthwhile for Colorado was supposed to begin in November.

Schwartz made a motion to adopt the roadmap but later withdrew it after some board members said it was too broad, left too many questions unanswered and did not incorporate feedback from the board.

“I feel this roadmap is incomplete, and until I see the roadmap with the comments from the board, I don’t feel comfortable moving forward,” said Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa and White river basins.

This field in lower Woody Creek is irrigated with water that eventually flows into the Colorado River. The state of Colorado is exploring how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

River District’s interests

Demand management was also a topic at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s quarterly board meeting in Glenwood Springs on Tuesday. Amy Ostdiek, the CWCB’s deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information gave a presentation on the state’s progress.

The River District, which represents 15 counties and advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is conducting its own investigation into the feasibility of demand management through meetings with water users and plans to release a report of its findings. The River District has not yet taken a position on the potential program.

“My personal view is that we are going to keep pushing to protect the River District’s interests in a demand-management program, but we realize this is something necessary to move forward sooner rather than later,” said Peter Fleming, River District general counsel.

Board president Marti Whitmore, who represents Ouray County, asked staff to come up with a proposal with specifics on a demand-management program.

“The time is right to come up with something to put on the table for discussion purposes,” she said. “I’m just looking to break the logjam here, so we are talking some substance instead of just frameworks and process. It could be an opportunity for the River District to provide some leadership.”

CWCB board members plan to continue discussing demand management at an Aug. 18 workshop.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

A land where life is inscribed in #water — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #aridification #COWaterPlan

The Yampa River at Deerlodge Park July 24, 2021 downstream from the confluence with the Little Snake River. There was a ditch running in Maybell above this location. Irrigated hay looked good. Dryland hay not so much.

Here’s a guest column from Phil Weiser and Bob Rankin that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

From the very founding of our state, our predecessors recognized that, in Colorado, life is inscribed in water. This truth is even written on our Capitol walls beneath the gold dome. As we continue to grapple with the implications of a changing climate and an ever-growing population, one thing is clear — the water management challenges we face require collaboration, innovation, planning, and major funding.

From the San Luis Valley to the Western Slope to the Eastern Plains, our communities depend on water for our agriculture, our outdoor recreation economy, and our lives. But we cannot simply stand pat and continue a status quo in the face of a growing population and decreasing water supplies on account of reduced snowpack.

We must invest in water infrastructure with a sense of urgency — so we can deliver win-win solutions. And we need to do this now as we have unprecedented opportunity to utilize federal and state funds. Our forecast for state revenues for the next few years rebounded dramatically from the initial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, the American Rescue Plan Act provides Colorado $3.8 billion to recover from the pandemic and invest in our future. Water projects are one such investment in which these funds can and should be invested. Furthermore, Congress may very well send additional funds to Colorado this summer through a bipartisan infrastructure package. To be sure, there are competing demands for these funds, such as investing in broadband infrastructure for unserved areas. At the top of the list, however, we should prioritize water infrastructure.

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

We believe investment from these combined sources will dramatically strengthen Colorado’s water security and enable us to implement water management projects called for by the Colorado Water Plan. These funds will not address every need, or even every high-priority project, but they will drastically accelerate construction and maintenance work, such as repairing pipes and water leaks, on the systems we rely upon to deliver safe and clean water to our communities.

Colorado has both a vision and a strategy — as well as priorities — for how to allocate funding for water projects. The Colorado Water Plan, adopted in 2015, represents a visionary promise for how Colorado will manage its water resources. For starters, we are committed to protecting all of Colorado and not allowing wholesale “buy and dry” situations. When “buy and dry” plans are implemented, which has already happened in some rural counties, those plans spur the decline of rural communities’ infrastructure, undermine their agriculture, damage the economy, and hurt the local population. There are many cautionary tales in rural Colorado warning us that this is not how to manage water.

The Water Plan also calls for significant investments in water infrastructure, storage, and conservation efforts to meet tomorrow’s water needs. In particular, the plan identified billions of dollars in needs across water supply, infrastructure, recreation, and the environment over the next 30 years. Currently, as noted by the water plan, a fraction of the state budget goes toward water projects. We need to prioritize such investments.

In the Colorado Water Plan, we have a broad roadmap to invest in Colorado’s water future. But right now our biggest challenge is funding. With continued growth on the horizon, planning for the future of water management will become even more important. And to fulfill the plan’s vision, it will take billions of dollars. To be sure, the General Assembly has commendably found both some one-time funding and dedicated funding streams to fund the water plan in recent years. But to properly fund Colorado’s water will take billions more.

Colorado can have a bright future that enables our entire state to thrive. Ensuring that future, however, is going to require smart and innovative investments in how we manage our water. By investing a meaningful portion of the billions provided to Colorado under the American Rescue Plan Act, we can shore up critical water infrastructure that will enhance our resilience going forward, and deliver dividends by strengthening rural communities, creating jobs for agricultural and outdoor recreation centers, and ensuring water resources are protected for the next generation. We have the available resources now to do it and should come together to make the investments called for by the Colorado Water Plan. We both stand ready to work and support the effort to do just that.

Phil Weiser is the attorney general of Colorado. Bob Rankin is a state senator and represents Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt, and Summit counties.

Yampa River at the mouth of Cross Mountain Canyon July 24, 2021.

Roundtable discussion at @DenverWater focuses on #collaboration in the face of #ClimateChange — YourHub

Photo credit: Denver Water

From YourHub (Cathy Proctor):

Tackling the challenges surrounding climate change and water supply will require collaboration and creative thinking, Colorado’s top water leaders and senior federal officials agreed Thursday.

More than a dozen state officials and water leaders from across the state met at Denver Water’s Operations Complex with Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to discuss the impacts of climate change, the ongoing drought across the Colorado River Basin and how leadership and collaboration at every level will be needed to help address it.

After the discussion, Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager, welcomed the group — which included Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo, Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg — to a news conference at the utility’s Administration Building, completed in 2019, that is itself a demonstration of the future of water and water efficiency in an urban setting.

Graphic via SustainableWater.com.

Lochhead said the roundtable also included a discussion of the investments Denver Water is making in watershed health, through its From Forests to Faucets program that includes partners at the state and federal level, water conservation, resiliency and sustainability.

Haaland said she was glad to tour “this beautiful building” and praised the roundtable for bringing a wide range of people together for a thoughtful and important discussion…

Greenberg said it meant a lot to the people working across Colorado’s agriculture sector to know issues surrounding climate change were “top of mind” at both the state and federal level…

Attendees at the water leaders’ roundtable discussion were:

  • Deb Haaland, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
  • Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of Interior.
  • Davis Raff, Chief Engineer, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
  • Carly Jerla, Senior Water Resources Program Manager, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
  • Diana DeGette, U.S. Representative for Colorado’s First Congressional District.
  • Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
  • Colorado Lt. Governor Dianne Primavera.
  • Kate Greenberg, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture.
  • Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
  • Rebecca Mitchell, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board.
  • Jim Lochhead, CEO/Manager, Denver Water.
  • Christine Arbogast, representing Colorado Water Congress.
  • Peter Fleming, General Counsel, Colorado River Water District.
  • Jim Broderick, Executive Director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservation District.
  • Ken Curtis, General Manager, Dolores Water District Manager (retired).
  • Steve Wolff, General Manager, Southwest Water Conservation District.
  • Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program Director, National Audubon Society
  • The Weminuche Audubon Society: Monthly chapter meeting, Wednesday, July 21, at 6:30 p.m.

    Swim class on the San Juan River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From the Weminuche Audubon Society (Jean Zirnhelt) via The Pagosa Springs Sun:

    The Weminuche Audubon Society invites you to join us for our monthly chapter meeting on Wednesday, July 21, at 6:30 p.m.

    The meeting will take place on Zoom and the link may be found on the Events tab of our website, http://www.weminucheaudubon.org.

    Water, always an important topic in our area, will be the focus of this month’s meeting. In July, we will learn about the work of the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP), a local organization working to address the management of this precious resource.

    Al Pfister, on behalf of the WEP, will be presenting the results of data collected in Phase II of the WEP’s assessment of the environmental, recreational and agricultural infrastructure needs in the Upper San Juan River. The WEP’s data collection is a part of the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan of 2015 in the development of a Stream Management Plan/Integrated Watershed Management Plan. The WEP’s data collection efforts were done to assess local environmental, recreational and agricultural infrastructure needs in the face of a warming and drying climate.

    Pfister is a semi-retired fish and wildlife biologist who has worked in seven western U.S. states dealing with endangered species issues, trying to find a balance between conserving imperiled fish, wildlife, plants, herptiles and invertebrates, while still allowing the various uses (development, recreation, grazing, timber harvest, energy development, etc) to coexist. In addition to his work with WEP, he serves on the board of the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership and on the board of the San Juan Water Conservancy District. He is a past board member of the Weminuche Audubon Society.

    Audubon meetings are open to the public. Please come with your questions about this important management tool. We hope to be able to return to in-person meetings this fall if conditions allow.

    Why the Southwest’s shrinking water reservoirs matter to #Colorado — The #Denver Post #COriver #ColoradoRiver #aridfication #COleg #COWaterPlan

    Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
    CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

    From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

    Polis signs latest $20 million infusion for Colorado Water Plan as hotter, drier climate grips Southwest

    Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has signed off on increased funding for water development projects that state officials regard as critical to meet growing demands. But the state’s plans to secure more water from rivers here are colliding with the hotter, drier climate that’s hammering the Southwest, where Colorado River reservoirs are at record-low levels.

    Federal authorities warn hydropower electricity for millions of people (and their air conditioners) could be jeopardized if water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead — now both about 34% full — fall much lower. That’s partly why water officials from seven states met in Denver this week to size up perils before their next round of negotiations over how states deal with diminishing water.

    Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming (the Upper Basin states along the Colorado River) are facing pressure from Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, California) to use less water — even though the 1922 Colorado River Compact legally entitles them to use more — to try to save the downriver reservoirs.

    “There’s a reality that we do have a shrinking water supply and we’re all going to have to figure out new ways to reduce our use. We try to stay out of any state’s business, but we also realize there’s not enough water for the Upper Basin to use its full allotted water under the compact,” said Bill Hasencamp, the Colorado River resources manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people in the Los Angeles area and San Diego…

    Colorado leaders over the past six years have awarded more than $500 million in grants and loans for 323 projects in carrying out the state’s water plan — which calls for $100 million a year through 2050. Polis last week signed the latest monetary infusion into law: HB21-1260 for $20 million more to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to go toward increased water storage capacity and supply. The bill provides $15 million for loans and grants and $5 million for the regional “roundtable” panels that have planned 500 local water development projects.

    Polis also signed off on SB21-189 to spend $1.2 million more in construction funds for the implementation of the overall $20 billion water plan, which was launched in 2015 to ensure enough for a productive economy — from cities to farms to the recreation industry — while preserving healthy rivers through efficient water use and carefully designed water projects. Two in progress would siphon significantly more water out of the Colorado River basin — an expanded reservoir for Denver and enlarged Moffat system that diverts west-flowing water to the northern Front Range…

    “We are already actively talking about and experiencing cuts, which have been particularly painful in this very dry year,” [Rebecca Mitchell] said, referring to the state’s allocation system that forces junior water-rights holders to use less in dry times. “These are historically low conditions and we need basin-wide solutions that we work on together.”

    State officials in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming contend they’re entitled under the 1922 compact to use as much as 2 million acre-feet more water. But those shares are based on century-old calculations for how much water the river can provide — 15 million acre-feet a year — rather than the 12.3 million acre-feet average total flow since 2000.

    Contingency plans for enduring severe droughts are expected to force mandatory cutbacks next year in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

    2021 #COleg: Governor Polis Approves Stimulus Funding to Support #COWaterPlan Projects Statewide — @CWCB_DNR

    L. to R. Dan Gibbs, Kate Greenberg, Jared Polis, Rebecca Mitchell at Confluence Park in Denver June 2021.

    Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:

    The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) celebrated with Governor Polis and legislative leaders on signing legislation into law, which will provide $20 million in state stimulus funding towards the Colorado Water Plan, the state’s collaborative framework for addressing water challenges.

    “This investment in our water is a significant boost for the Colorado Water Plan. Our water supply is highly variable, and our demands are growing, all while much of our state deals with a lingering drought. The Water Plan sets a vision and allows our state to plan better for Colorado’s water future,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado DNR. “We greatly appreciate the strong support of legislators, water providers and other partners for this needed and timely funding to help us address our water challenges head on.”

    Of the funding from House Bill H.B.21-1260, $15 million is directed from the state’s General Fund to the Water Plan Grant Program for statewide goals, and $5 million is directed to local water projects recommended by each of the state’s nine stakeholder-driven basin roundtables.

    “We are so grateful for the legislature’s support in funding critical water projects around the state that will help us all meet our future needs. This funding is not only important for water supply, but also for ensuring that we have a healthy environment, productive agriculture, and robust recreational opportunities,” said CWCB Director Becky Mitchell.

    CWCB awards Water Plan Grants to agricultural water projects, conservation and land use planning efforts, engagement and innovation, environment and recreation projects, and projects that enhance water storage and supply. The upcoming deadlines for grant applications are July 1 and December 1.

    Funding dedicated to projects at the local level are intended to assist Colorado water users in addressing their critical water supply issues and interests. Grants must be approved by at least one of Colorado’s nine basin roundtables and are then forwarded to the CWCB for final approval.

    On the same day, Governor Polis signed Senate Bill 21-189, the annual CWCB Construction Fund Projects Bill, which includes funding for a variety of CWCB programs and projects including satellite monitoring systems, the floodplain map modernization program, weather modification permitting, and funding for Water Education Colorado, among other programs.

    Governor Polis declares #drought emergency for West Slope #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Colorado Drought Monitor map June 29, 2021.

    Here’s the proclamation from the Governor’s office:

    WHEREAS, the State is in Phase 3 activation of the State Drought Plan for twenty-one (21) Colorado counties; and

    WHEREAS, Phase 3 of the State Drought Plan advises a “Drought Emergency” be declared by Proclamation of the Governor; and

    WHEREAS, the State received a summary of heightened concerns emerging from county commissioners, local emergency managers, and consistent, critical input from the Water Availability, Agriculture Impact, and Municipal Impact Task Forces; and

    WHEREAS, the Department of Natural Resource and State Drought Task Force jointly sent a memorandum to the Governor recommending entering a drought emergency for western Colorado counties experiencing impacts from extensive severe (D2), extreme (D3), and exceptional (D4) drought conditions, including Moffat, Routt, Jackson, Rio Blanco, Grand, Garfield, Eagle, Summit, Mesa, Delta, Pitkin, Gunnison, Montrose, Ouray, San Miguel, San Juan, Hinsdale, Dolores, Montezuma, La Plata, and Archuleta; and

    WHEREAS, counties impacted along the continental divide in abnormally dry (D0) conditions and moderate (D1) drought will continue to be closely monitored and added to a drought emergency proclamation as appropriate; and

    WHEREAS, the severe drought conditions and associated impacts in Colorado constitute a drought emergency;

    THEREFORE, I, Jared Polis, Governor of the State of Colorado, do hereby proclaim a drought emergency in Colorado for the following twenty-one (21) western counties: Moffat, Routt, Jackson, Rio Blanco, Grand, Garfield, Eagle, Summit, Mesa, Delta, Pitkin, Gunnison, Montrose, Ouray, San Miguel, San Juan, Hinsdale, Dolores, Montezuma, La Plata, and Archuleta; and
    THEREFORE, I further direct the following measures:

  • The Drought Task Force will continue to meet and monitor evolving conditions;
  • Unmet and urgent needs from communities and regional liaisons will be reported to the Drought Task Force chairs;
  • The Agricultural Impact Task Force and Municipal Water Task Force will continue to meet monthly or as needed to recommend opportunities for incident mitigation to minimize potential impacts; and
  • The need for additional task forces, such as energy or wildlife response teams, will continue to be evaluated as conditions evolve through identified agency representatives.
  • in the State of Colorado.

    GIVEN under my hand and the Executive Seal of the State of Colorado, this thirtieth day of June, 2021 — Jared Polis

    West Drought Monitor map June 29, 2021.

    From Heart of the Rockies Radio (Danny “Dan R” Ridenour):

    Governor Jared Polis has formally declared a drought emergency for western Colorado by Proclamation of the Governor as counties continue to face evolving impacts and water shortages from a multi-year, severe drought episode affecting industries and citizens.

    On June 22, 2020, Phase 2 of the State’s Drought Mitigation and Response Plan was activated for 40 counties and expanded to all 64 counties by September. As extreme drought and record setting fires expanded across the state, drought response moved into Phase 3 (the highest level of activation) of the State Drought Plan. Spring 2021 precipitation resulted in the stark contrast between significant drought relief for counties east of the continental divide and deepening drought and fire danger for the entire west slope…

    While Colorado can face a range of shortages across the state every year, the cumulative impacts of drought stress our landscapes, reservoir storage, wildfire risks, and capacity of many water-dependent economies to rebound from previous year impacts and debts. We continue to work with our neighboring states to implement interstate agreements and consider additional potential solutions.

    To stay informed on Colorado drought issues, sign up for the State’s Drought Updates or visit the Colorado Water Conservation Board website.

    If #LakePowell’s Water Levels Keep Falling, A Multi-State Reservoir Release May Be Needed — #Colorado Public Radio #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

    Lake Powell’s water level is the lowest it’s been in decades, and the latest 24-month projections from the Arizona and Utah reservoir show that it’s likely to drop even further — below a critical threshold of 3,525 feet by next year.

    Graphic credit: USBR

    A 20-year megadrought and a hotter climate has contributed to shrinking water supplies in the Colorado River. If Lake Powell’s levels continue to dwindle, it could set off litigation between the seven states and the 40 million people that all rely on the Colorado River.

    “This is really new territory for us,” said Amy Ostdiek, deputy section chief of the federal, interstate and water information section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board…

    States agree Lake Powell must stay above certain level

    Ostdiek said it’s a “universally-accepted goal” among the seven states to avoid that situation. That’s why they agreed to the 2019 Colorado River Drought-Contingency Plan, which includes the provision that if Lake Powell drops below 3,525 feet, the upper-basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation have a plan in place to send more water to Lake Powell.

    Those meetings are happening. Ostdiek said the upper-basin states have recently switched to planning mode due to the low water levels forecasted for Lake Powell. The plan to protect Powell could involve releasing water from upstream reservoirs of Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa, and Navajo in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

    But the hope is to avoid the need for that plan by keeping Powell above the 3,525-foot threshold.

    At capacity, Lake Powell holds more than 26 million acre-feet of water that originates as snowpack from the Upper Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation)

    USGS Report: Assessment of Streamflow and Water Quality in the Upper #YampaRiver Basin, Colorado, 1992–2018

    Click here to read the report (Natalie K. Day). Here’s the abstract:

    The Upper Yampa River Basin drains approximately 2,100 square miles west of the Continental Divide in north-western Colorado. There is a growing need to understand potential changes in the quantity and quality of water resources as the basin is undergoing increasing land and water development to support growing municipal, industrial, and recreational needs. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with stakeholders in the Upper Yampa River Basin water community, began a study to characterize and identify changes in streamflow and selected water-quality constituents, including suspended sediment, Kjeldahl nitrogen, total nitrogen, total phosphorus, and orthophosphate, in the basin. This study used streamflow and water-quality data from selected U.S. Geological Survey sites to provide a better understanding of how major factors, including land use, climate change, and geological features, may influence streamflow and water quality.

    Analysis of long-term (1910–2018) and short-term (1992–2018) records of streamflow at main-stem Yampa River and tributary sites indicate downward trends in one or more streamflow statistics, including 1-day maximum, mean, and 7-day minimum. Long-term downward trends in daily mean streamflow in April (22 percent overall) at Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, correspond to observed changes in streamflow documented across western North America and the Colorado River Basin that are predominately associated with changes in snowmelt runoff and temperatures. During the short-term period of analysis, decreases in streamflow at main-stem Yampa River and some tributary sites are likely related to changes in consumptive use and reservoir management or, at sites with no upstream flow impoundments, changes in irrigation diversions and climate.

    Concentrations of water-quality constituents were typically highest in spring (March, April, and May) during the early snowmelt runoff period as material that is washed off the land surface drains into streams. Highest concentrations occurred slightly later, in May, June, and July, at Yampa River above Stagecoach Reservoir, Colo., and slightly earlier, in February and March at Yampa River at Milner, Colo., indicating that these sites may have different or additional sources of phosphorus from upstream inputs. Yampa River at Milner, Colo., and Yampa River above Elkhead Creek, Colo., had the highest net yields of suspended sediment, Kjeldahl nitrogen, and total phosphorus, and are likely influenced by land use and erosion as the basins of both of these sites are underlain by highly erodible Cretaceous shales.

    Upward trends in estimated Kjeldahl nitrogen and total phosphorus concentrations and loads were found at Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, Colo. From 1999 to 2018, the Kjeldahl nitrogen concentration increased by 10 percent or 0.035 milligram per liter, and load increased by 22 percent or 26 tons. Total phosphorus concentration increased by 20 percent or 0.0081 milligram per liter, and loads increased by 41 percent or 6.2 tons. Decreases in streamflow and changes in land use may contribute to these trends.

    During multiple summer sampling events at Stagecoach Reservoir, the physical and chemical factors indicated conditions conducive to cyanobacterial blooms, including surface-water temperatures greater than 20 degrees Celsius and total phosphorus and total nitrogen concentrations in exceedance of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment interim concentrations for water-quality standards. Local geological features (predominately sandstones and shales) and additional inputs from upstream land use likely contribute to the elevated nutrient conditions in Stagecoach Reservoir.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    2020 #COleg: Water for Colorado Coalition Celebrates Legislature’s Allocation of $20 Million for State Water Plan Implementation

    The 2015 Colorado Water Plan, on a shelf, at the CU law library. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Here’s the release from Water For Colorado:

    The Water for Colorado Coalition today celebrated the passage of HB21-1260, which allocates $20 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and Basin Roundtables for implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan.

    The bill, co-sponsored by House Speaker Alec Garnett, Rep. Marc Catlin, and Sens. Kerry Donovan and Cleave Simpson, passed both the state House and Senate with unanimous approval, illustrating continued, widespread support for water funding in Colorado. The bill will provide the CWCB $15 million for grant projects — like the ones featured here — that will benefit water users and rivers through conservation and education efforts across the state. It also allocates $5 million to be distributed directly to Colorado’s nine Basin Roundtables.

    In response to the passage of HB21-1260, the Water for Colorado Coalition issued the following statement:

    “We are thrilled by the unanimous approval of $20 million to support critical state water priorities, and applaud the Colorado General Assembly for their continued prioritization of water conservation needs. These funds will bolster ongoing water projects and programs and pave the way for new grants, allowing the state to increase resilience to climate change, safeguard flowing rivers, and support thriving communities. We look forward to working with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Basin Roundtables, and local communities as these funds are distributed to ensure that our rivers and water continue to meet the needs of all who rely on them.”

    In #Fountain, #Colorado, There’s Plenty Of Room For New Homes. But There Isn’t Enough #Water — Colorado Public Radio

    Sprawl

    From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

    Colorado Springs is one of the fastest growing regions in the state. Homes are getting more expensive and harder to buy. The boom is expanding into nearby cities — and the pressure is building…

    There are currently fewer than 9,000 taps, or connections, to Fountain’s water supply. Over the last year, Blankenship said developers have applied for nearly 30,000 new taps to the city’s water system.

    [Dan] Blankenship is telling developers, Fountain is tapped out…

    To support that many new taps, the city would need to buy additional rights to use more water. They would also need a place to store that water, and the city would need to treat it and find a way to get it to homes.

    Summary of Observed Wet & Dry Surface Water Hydrology via SCW

    That’s getting harder to make happen in a state like Colorado, where most of the people live on the Front Range but most of the water is on the Western Slope.

    Where the city of Fountain gets its water from

    Fountain gets most of its water from the Pueblo Reservoir, which is filled with water that would otherwise end up in the Colorado River. The reservoir project was built in the 1970s. It’s unlikely the city would be able to build something similar today, Blankenship said. It’s a lot tougher to do that now, just because of the environmental concerns…

    Smith said it’s becoming more common for developers to have to secure water rights and pay for additional water infrastructure if they want to build a big project.

    But he said the situation in Fountain is unusual…

    Fountain hasn’t finalized any plans yet, but they say developers are going to need to help pay the millions of dollars to buy those new water rights, reservoirs, and pipes needed to support that kind of growth. Blankenship, Fountain’s utility director, said instead of the city paying for that upfront, he wants to shift that cost to developers…

    No matter how a developer might have to secure water for a new project, the cost will get rolled into the price of a new home, said Kevin Walker, with the housing and building association in Colorado Springs…

    Kevin Reidy, a senior water conservation specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said other water utilities are also worried about how to keep up with growth. Fountain is just the first to talk so openly about the issue…

    A big part of Reidy’s job is to get water and land planners to work together, which he said have been too siloed. Reidy helps host training events to get water and land people in the same room to talk about these issues.

    “I think we’re kind of hitting that point where people are kind of saying, ‘Okay wow, we’ve got to do things differently,’” Reidy said.

    For Fountain, that means telling developers this town doesn’t have the water you need. If you want to build here, you’ll have to bring your own.

    The Confluence Newsletter June 2021 is hot off the presses from @CWCB_DNR

    The Colorado Water Conservation Board, after unveiling the Colorado Water Plan in Denver in November 2015. Photo credit: Colorado River District

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

    Scoping Phase Finalized for Colorado Water Plan Update
    The scoping phase for the Colorado Water Plan update process took place between March and early June 2021. During this phase, the Colorado Water Conservation Board collected feedback and input by hosting 13 workshops including 40 speakers and involving 600 participants. Topics ranged from environmental and recreation impacts, forest health, land use planning, climate change, agricultural viability, and more.

    The updated Water Plan will also incorporate eight Basin Implementation Plans – smaller, tailored plans for water issues in each of Colorado’s river basins. These sections of the Plan are set to be finalized in January 2022.

    To follow the Water Plan update timeline, visit http://engagecwcb.org.

    Shaped By #Storage: The How and Why of Storing #Water in #Colorado — Headwaters Magazine

    Here’s an excerpt from the Spring 2021 issue of Headwaters Magazine (Caitlin Coleman):

    INTO THE MODERN STORAGE ERA

    Most Coloradans rely on some form of water storage in order to live. Water is collected when available and later released when and where it’s needed. Water storage is a necessity, providing year-round access to water that would otherwise come in a rush each spring as snow melts into runoff and flows hurriedly out of state.

    “If we were to leave it up to the natural systems, we would be dry for a big part of the year,” says Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. (Ris also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.)

    Farview Reservoir Mesa Verde NP

    The Ancestral Puebloans, who once inhabited the Four Corners region, knew this and relied on water storage like Morefield Reservoir, which anthropologists indicate was used between 750-1100 A.D. and is still evidenced by mounds in Mesa Verde National Park.

    Standley Lake sunset. Photo credit Blogspot.com.

    Years later, upon settlement by non-native populations including land grant recipients, homesteaders and miners, reservoir construction proved vital to sustain a larger population. Dams were rapidly constructed in the late 1800s through 1910, primarily for agricultural water needs. In the early 1900s some 290 dams were built in Colorado, the most dams erected in a single decade.

    Grays and Torreys, Dillon Reservoir May 2017. Photo credit Greg Hobbs.

    The 1930s through 1970s brought a boom of reservoir construction to meet the demands of the state’s growing municipal water needs. Toward the end of this municipal era, the 1960s saw the greatest water storage volume constructed in any decade, with more than 1.8 million acre-feet, including two of the state’s largest water bodies: Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison and Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir.

    Graphic credit: RogerWendell.com

    The rapid construction of big storage projects in Colorado and the West slowed starting in the 1970s as environmental laws and community concern about environmental impacts grew stronger and project permits became more difficult to obtain. The 1980s Two Forks dam and reservoir project debate and subsequent veto, where local community groups raised enough opposition to stop a planned 615-foot dam southwest of Denver, was a turning point. Two Forks marked the very end of the era in which big reservoirs were the primary answer to Colorado’s water supply, and the start to substantial community involvement.

    The past 10 years have brought the fewest new dams and least amount of new storage volume in 120 years. Yet the call for storage from stakeholders across the state continues. Through the 2015 statewide water planning process, basin roundtables — stakeholder groups who have been working together on a regional, river-basin-wide scale to develop water priorities, assessments and goals — developed Basin Implementation Plans. All of the eight plans identified the need for new, restored or better-maintained storage.

    Evaluating Conserved Consumptive Use in the Upper #ColoradoRiver: A discussion on the initial findings of a groundbreaking research project exploring water conservation in high-altitude ranching operations, June 24, 2021 — @CWCB_DNR #COriver #aridification

    Photo credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

    Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

    About this event

    Persistent drought and climate change are putting increasing pressure on our limited water supplies, and stakeholders throughout Colorado are exploring solutions to address these challenges in ways that support our economy, our environment, and our way of life. Providing options to temporarily reduce agricultural water use is one potential solution, but significant knowledge gaps exist about how this can work in practice for the high-altitude perennial grasses that make up the majority of the irrigated acreage on Colorado’s Western Slope.

    With support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board ,the Colorado Basin Roundtable is leading a multi-year field research project with ag producers in the Kremmling area, researchers from multiple universities, and conservation groups in directly tackling this information gap.

    Results from this research project will address three key questions on how ag water conservation can work in practice: How can we accurately and cost-effectively measure water use and water savings at scale? What are the impacts of reduced irrigation on these grass fields and how do they recover under normal irrigation? What does participation in a water conservation project mean for producers’ bottom line and for the ag-based community and economy of the region?

    The CBRT and CWCB invite you to join the project partners for a webinar covering results from the first year of the project and the implications for these challenging questions.

    Basin roundtables push back on Colorado Water Conservation Board’s proposed code of conduct — @AspenJounalism

    The eight major river basins, plus the Denver metro area, are shown on this map from the South Platte River Basin Roundtable. Each basin has its own roundtable, made up of volunteers, to address local water issues.
    Credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    The state water board is encouraging all nine basin roundtables to adopt a code of conduct requiring members to communicate in a professional, respectful, truthful and courteous way. But some Western Slope roundtables are pushing back.

    Over roughly the last month, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell has been visiting the remote roundtable meetings on Zoom, answering questions about the code of conduct and urging the roundtables to adopt it. The goal of the document is to make sure everyone feels comfortable speaking up in meetings.

    Mitchell said that with important and potentially contentious discussions on the horizon for water-short Colorado, it’s important to have a set of conduct standards in place to guide those discussions.

    Gunnison River Basin Roundtable member Bill Nesbitt said at the May meeting it was a “third-grade sandbox question.” Mitchell agreed.

    “I think it is similar to a third-grade sandbox, but not every sandbox is fair and some kids throw sand in other kids’ eyes,” Mitchell said. “We need to make the message clear about the expectations as we move forward to some of those really difficult discussions.”

    Some members of the Southwest Basin Roundtable welcomed the code of conduct.

    “I support adopting a policy,” said Mely Whiting, environmental representative and legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “I think that things do get more and more controversial as we move forward. In my experience on this roundtable, in recent times things have gotten a little bit out of hand and quite a bit more aggressive. I’ve been, myself, uncomfortable quite often.”

    The Colorado legislature created the nine basin roundtables — South Platte, Metro, Arkansas, Rio Grande, San Juan/Dolores (collectively known as Southwest) Gunnison, Colorado, Yampa/White/Green and North Platte — in 2005 to encourage locally driven collaborative solutions on water issues. They represent each of the state’s eight major river basins, plus the Denver metro area, and are made up of volunteers from different water sectors like agriculture, environment, recreation and municipal.

    In addition to asking members to promote an inclusive environment that treats everyone fairly, the code also lays out best practices for conducting business. According to the code, the roundtables have the responsibility for noticing meetings, adhering to federal and state laws and public health orders and performing job tasks promptly and effectively.

    Members at both the Southwest and Gunnison roundtables had issues with the best practices section. Montezuma County representative Ed Millard said the best practices section seemed more relevant to employees of the Division of Water Resources, not a volunteer board.

    “I just think it’s going to have to be tuned to a volunteer organization before we adopt it,” he said at the April Southwest Roundtable meeting. “We certainly do need to resolve the tension and friction, but I don’t think adoption of (an) employee code is the way to do that.”

    Southwest adopted the rest of the code of conduct, minus this best practices part at its May meeting. In the Gunnison basin, a motion to adopt the code of conduct failed; the discussion has been tabled until the July meeting.

    Roundtable member Michael Murphy, who represents Hinsdale County, said the group already holds their meetings with respect and that the code was unnecessary.

    “We are western Colorado. We don’t like being told what to do,” he said at the May Gunnison Basin Roundtable meeting.

    The Colorado Water Conservation Board is hoping the nine basin roundtables adopt their code of conduct. From left, back row: Steve Anderson, Dan Gibbs, Kevin Rein, Jim Yahn, Heather Dutton, Russell George, Curran Trick, Greg Felt; front row: Jessica Brody, Gail Schwartz, Celene Hawkins, Jaclyn Brown, Becky Mitchell.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    While the code of conduct will be the policy of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Mitchell admitted there was little the CWCB could do to enforce it on the roundtables, and the roundtables don’t have to adopt it.

    “Being perfectly honest and transparent, enforcing a code of conduct on a volunteer roundtable is difficult,” she told the Southwest Roundtable. “(Enforcement) is as much a responsibility of me as a self-policing in the way we treat each other.”

    Arkansas and Yampa/White/Green roundtables are aware of the code of conduct, but have not adopted it. The Rio Grande, South Platte and Metro basin roundtables have formally adopted it. The Colorado and North Platte basin roundtables have not discussed it yet.

    This story ran in the May 24 editions of The Aspen Times and the Sky-Hi News.

    #Colorado Water Plan Scoping Workshop: Innovations in Irrigation Technology, May 26, 2021

    Efficient irrigation systems help save water and decrease leaching of salts. Photo credit: U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit

    Click here for the inside skinny and to register:

    A Colorado Water Plan Scoping Workshop focusing on innovations in on-farm irrigation technology and water management.

    About this event

    This will be a two-hour, virtual (zoom) session facilitated by Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Irrigation Innovation Consortium (IIC). The focus of this session will be on bringing together knowledgeable stakeholders on innovations in on-farm irrigation technology and water management. The discussion will be centered around specific actions (e.g. programming, public policies, resources, research) to be included in the Colorado Water Plan Update.

    Measuring the snow below, from 20,000 feet — News on Tap

    The mountain ranges above Dillon Reservoir, seen through the lens of the data collected by sophisticated equipment onboard a plane that flew over the Blue River Basin to measure the amount of water frozen in the snow above Denver Water’s largest reservoir. Image credit: Airborne Snow Observatory Inc.

    From Denver Water (Cathy Proctor):

    New generation of high-tech snow measurements feeds Denver area’s water supply models.

    On April 18, a Beech A90-1 King Air stuffed with sophisticated equipment took off from Gunnison’s regional airport and soared over the mountains above Dillon Reservoir.

    The flight occurred toward the end of the 2020-21 snow season, a nail-biter that has seen streaks of unusually warm, sunny days — and record-breaking heat in early April — broken by waves of storms and inches of snow that extended the ski season at some resorts.

    In the air for three hours, the plane cruised above 20,000 feet, flying back and forth across the 335 square miles of high-country snow drifts that make up the Blue River Basin. Snow melting off high peaks and tumbling down the basin’s creeks ultimately ends up in Dillon Reservoir and the Blue River below Denver Water’s dam.

    And as the Airborne Snow Observatories Inc. plane crisscrossed the sky, lidar equipment it carried shot beams of light at the snow below, capturing reflections from its frozen surface and measuring its depth. The company grew out of a seven-year research effort by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

    Reams of data collected during the flight provide Denver Water with an assessment of the amount of water frozen in the snow.

    Those calculations will in turn feed the utility’s forecast of the amount of water expected to flow into the largest reservoir in the utility’s system that 1.5 million people rely on for drinking water.

    Red splashed across the mountains in the Blue River Basin show where the snow was the deepest in mid-April. The line of dots down the mountain is a ski run at Breckenridge Ski Resort where snow-making machines have added snow to the ground. Image credit: Airborne Snow Observatory.

    “About 80% of Denver Water’s supply comes from snowpack and we want to be able to forecast spring runoff as accurately as possible,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply.

    “Getting more and better information improves accuracy and that helps us know if we have to go on watering restrictions, or what the impacts of runoff will be on the environment and recreation, how we should manage and move our water resources,” he said.

    The mid-April flight was timed to be at or close to the peak of the season’s snowpack. It was the first of two flights Denver Water commissioned to collect data over the Blue River Basin this season.

    Information from the first flight indicated there were normal amounts snow in the middle and lower elevations, but less than expected at higher elevations, Elder said.

    “That’s important to know, because where the snow is on the mountain will dictate when it starts melting for the runoff,” Elder said.

    A second flight in late May or early June will collect information about how much snow might be lingering at the highest elevations.

    he flight path of a plane tasked with collecting data on the snowpack above Dillon Reservoir in mid-April, as it flew a pattern back and forth across the Blue River Basin. Photo credit: Denver Water.

    That’s important because by then, snow at the four SNOTEL measurement sites in the basin, perched at about 11,000 feet, will have already melted away, leaving the utility and other snow watchers blind to water that might still be frozen in place at higher elevations — or may have already melted away.

    “Based on the measurements and history we have, we can overpredict the amount of water in the snow or underpredict. Either way has consequences for how we operate our system, and is something we want to avoid,” Elder said.

    Historically, Denver Water and other water watchers gather information about snowpack and water supplies by looking at data from SNOTEL sites scattered across the mountains, including four in the Blue River Basin area, and information collected by crews snowshoeing to remote locations. Information collected during the season is compared to historical data.

    But Elder compares the SNOTEL measurement spots to pixels in a TV screen.

    “If you have four sites in the Blue River Basin, imagine watching TV and you have four pixels for the entire screen – you won’t be able to tell what’s going on. And if the pixels are in a line across the middle, like the SNOTEL sites are all between 10,500 and 11,400 feet, you can’t see anything above or below that line,” Elder said.

    Throw in additional layers of uncertainty in shifting weather patterns due to climate change, and the confidence in data collected the same way it’s been done for decades starts to slide.

    Denver Water caretaker Per Olsson snowshoes through the woods to access snow-measuring sites. Olsson retired from Denver Water in 2018 after 26 years of service. Photo credit: Denver Water.

    “What we see now isn’t the same as what we’ve seen in the past. You can’t base today’s forecast on yesterday’s data, conditions are changing,” Elder said.

    Gathering data on the snowpack by flying above it started in California and Colorado in 2013 and has occurred occasionally in various river basins across Colorado for several years, as utilities and others have had money available to commission flights.

    Denver Water flew two flights above the Blue River Basin in 2019, then skipped 2020 amid the pandemic.

    But several Colorado water utilities and entities are looking at the possibility of banding together to coordinate future flights, sharing costs and also sharing the data that comes from the flights.

    “When Denver Water did the first Airborne Snow Observatory flights in 2019, we found incredible value from the information and we started to tell the story of those pilot flights at conferences,” said Taylor Winchell, a water resource engineer at Denver Water who works on climate change adaptation and water supply planning issues.

    “There’s a lot of interest, but there also are a lot of questions about the cost, the information, timing – when do you fly – and where those flights might be the most useful,” Winchell said.

    Information collected from the flights is another tool to be integrated into the wealth of information that exists about Colorado’s snowpack, and how it might change in coming years, he said.

    How many inches of water were frozen in the snow in mid-April? The shaded blue band shows how the amount of water changed as you go from 9,000 feet to 14,000 feet on the mountains above Dillon Reservoir. Image credit: Airborne Snow Observatory.

    In April, the Colorado Water Conservation Board gave $45,000 to fund the Colorado Airborne Snow Observatory Expansion Plan, allowing the group to work through all the questions.

    “This project isn’t designed to pay for the flights, but to create a plan for developing a sustainable operation in Colorado with consistent flights, across many watersheds, every year, with costs and information shared – similar to the California program,” Winchell said.

    The planning team includes Denver Water, Northern Water, Dolores Water Conservancy District, Airborne Snow Observatories Inc. (a company that grew out of the NASA-led pilot flights in California) and Lynker, which specializes in water resources planning and analysis.

    Winchell said the planning process is expected to get a diversity of water perspectives across Colorado, spanning state and federal agencies, agriculture and recreation interests, water providers, cities, researchers, environmental groups and Native American tribal groups.

    “Airborne snow flights have benefits for everyone who is involved in water management,” Winchell said. “We’re trying to make sure all perspectives are included in developing this program.”

    Looking to the south from a plane above Dillon Reservoir in June 2019, during an Airborne Snow Observatory flight to gather data on the snowpack above the reservoir for Denver Water. Photo credit: Quantum Spatial.

    Blanco Basin agricultural irrigation needs survey underway — San Juan Conservation District #SanJuanRiver #COWaterPlan

    Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

    From the San Juan Conservation District via The Pagosa Springs Sun (Cynthia Purcell):

    The San Juan Conservation District has been focusing efforts on evaluating irrigation systems in the Upper San Juan River Basin and looking for opportunities to improve them.

    We have completed our inventory from the upper reaches of the San Juan River Basin down to the Blanco Basin watershed. We are now looking to assess the needs within both the Upper and Lower Blanco Basin.

    We have assembled a team of natural resource professionals to perform this agricultural in ventory. Sterling Moss, a retired Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservationist from southwest Colorado, will be leading the team.

    With technical assistance from NRCS, the team will be reaching out to ditch representatives, water right holders and agricultural water users to discuss voluntary participation in this process. They will be out in the watershed throughout the summer evaluating the ditches and are happy to perform a free on-site visit to evaluate private on- farm systems when they are in the area. According to the landowner’s identified goals and objectives, agriculture water system improvements will be developed, with cost estimates provided for the improvements. The ultimate goal is to find funding to help improve these irrigation systems.

    This is part of a larger project in cooperation with the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership to understand local water supply needs and identify potential project areas in the Upper San Juan River Basin. This process is part of the Colorado Water Plan and is funded in part by the Colorado Water Conservation Board as well as local organizations and partners.

    The San Juan Conservation District is a special district of the state of Colorado and was established in 1947 to help farmers and ranchers with soil erosion as a result of the devastation of the Dust Bowl. Today, our mission is to promote the prudent use and adequate treatment of all land, water and related resources within its boundaries to sustain the use of these resources for future generations and to assist in restoration of these resources. We serve the residents of Archuleta County and parts of Hinsdale and Mineral counties up to the Continental Divide. We also work closely with our federal counterpart, the NRCS, and share an office with them.

    Private landowner information will be kept confidential and not released to the public.

    If you would like to have your irrigation water needs evaluated or have questions, please contact Cynthia Purcell, district manager, at (970) 731-3615 or cynthia.purcell@co.nacdnet.net.

    2021 #COleg: Busy #Colorado general assembly session continues, bills could have local impact — The Ark Valley Voice

    LadyDragonflyCC — Creative Commons, Flickr

    From The Ark Valley Voice (Jan Wondra):

    HB21-1260: General Fund Transfer Implement State Water Plan

    Sponsored by Senators Kerry Donovan and Cleave Simpson, this bill is focused on allocating $20 million from the general fund to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to be spent to implement the state water plan as follows:

  • $15 million, which is transferred to the water plan implementation cash fund for expenditures and grants administered by the CWCB to implement the state water plan; and
  • $5 million, which is transferred to the water supply reserve fund for CWCB to disperse to the basin roundtables.
  • Ensuring that Colorado can meet its future water needs is critical to maintaining our state as a competitive place to work, play, and live. Colorado has recently faced some of its worst drought years in the state’s history, and predictions are that the growing water demands will continue to strain our limited resources.

    The Colorado Water Plan has been established as the state’s framework for solutions to preserve water values to support a productive economy, healthy agricultural sector, and robust recreation industry. But the bill’s sponsors say the state Water Plan is currently underfunded and needs investments to ensure the state’s long-term economy and protection of our natural resources.

    April 2021 #Drought Update — @ColoradoDNR

    The U.S. Drought Monitor from April 20th showed slight improvements in areas near Larimer and Boulder counties. Similar to last month, exceptional (D4) drought currently covers 15% of the state; extreme (D3) drought covers 17%; severe (D2) drought covers 28%; moderate (D1) drought covers 29%; and recent precipitation resulted in patches of abnormally dry (D0) areas in 10% of the state.

    Colorado Drought Monitor April 27, 2021.

    The 90-day Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) values from Jan. 11 to Apr. 11 highlight continued dry conditions on the western slope. North eastern Colorado’s SPI data points reflect areas of above average precipitation after January and March snowstorms. The 12-month SPI map depicts the long-term drought conditions due to precipitation deficits in 2020 across the state, especially in the west.

    The NOAA Climate Prediction Center three month outlook indicates increased chance of above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation are in the upcoming months. These forecasts are consistent with long-term temperature trends, and a strong signal in seasonal models of inordinate high pressure ridging over the West. Monsoon season remains uncertain. The current La Niña pattern continues to weaken and is expected to revert to neutral conditions in the summer. This is typical; ENSO signals are often dampened in summer. Development of a 2nd La Niña year is anticipated this fall through winter. The last two 2nd year La Niña events were water years 2012 and 2018. Both were drought years.

    Water providers across the state report average to slightly below average storage levels and near normal demands. Drought management planning and potential restrictions are being discussed through multiple coordination groups. Stakeholders can follow along with state drought response actions and activities through public engagement pages for the Municipal Water Task Force and Agricultural Impact Task Force.

    Colorado Public Safety presented an overview of the wildfire outlook for the coming year to the Water Availability Task Force. Many factors contribute to the extremity of a fire season including humidity, lightning or human created ignitions, rainfall during monsoon season, and winds. In the past, Colorado’s fire season began in late May through June into late August and September. More recently, this pattern has changed around the state and fires can occur during any month. The number of fires has been decreasing across the nation, but the number of acres covered by fires has increased. In 2020, 4 of the 20 largest fires in Colorado occurred, including the first, second and third largest fires in the state’s history.

    Stream Management Planning & Rancher Stewardship in #Colorado — The River Network

    Photo credit: The River Network

    From The River Network (Mikhaela Mullins):

    Since 2017, River Network has worked to increase the number and quality of Stream Management Plans in Colorado. Stream Management Plans, or SMPs, were developed as a result of 2015’s Colorado’s Water Plan, which set goals and measurable objectives to map out the future of water management in the state. One of these objectives is that 80% of locally prioritized streams have an SMP by 2030. River Network is helping watershed coalitions meet this objective by developing guidance on best practices, facilitating a peer learning network, and providing direct support to local coalitions throughout Colorado.

    “Everybody has an interest in water now. There’s a lot more fingers in the pie and it’s a lot easier to all work together to dig out the pie than it is to fight over it.” — Greg Higel, Centennial Ditch Superintendent

    SMPs are data-driven assessments of river health that help communities determine how to protect or enhance environmental and recreational assets in their watershed. SMPs are accomplished by stakeholders convening to evaluate the health of their local river through an assessment of biological, hydrological, geomorphological and other data. This site-specific information is used to assess the flows, water quality, habitat, and other physical conditions that are needed to support collaboratively identified environmental and/or recreational values. To date, there are 26 SMPs that have been completed or are underway. SMPs are as much about people and communities as they are about the functional health of the river. Community and stakeholder buy-in is seen as a critical aspect of a successful SMP.

    As the second-largest economic sector and the largest consumer of water in Colorado, agriculture is a key stakeholder in SMPs. In the San Luis Valley, the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project has done an incredible job at engaging local farmers and ranchers in their SMP and related projects, many of whom have been farming and ranching there for generations. In a recent trip River Network staff, Mikhaela Mullins, had the opportunity to hear directly from these ranchers to discuss the deep connection they have with the land and the Rio Grande River.

    Kyler Brown (left) and Thad Elliott (right). Photo credit: The River Network

    Local ranchers, Greg Higel, Rick Davie, Thad Elliott, and Kyler Brown, shared that stewardship for the land and water has always been important to them and their families. In recent years they had wanted to make improvements to their ditches, diversion structures, and headgates but lacked the resources to make these needed improvements. When they were approached by the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project about partnering on infrastructure improvement projects, they were eager for the opportunity to work together. “The river needed help, and we needed to make sure we did that right,” says Greg Higel, Centennial Ditch Superintendent. Through these partnerships, a number of ditches and related infrastructure were updated. Over time, the ranchers have been able to reduce the amount of time needed to maintain these structures and have seen water quality improve, wildlife return to their land, an increase in riparian plant diversity, and an increase in water quantity resulting in a longer season of water access. The ranchers spoke about how working with Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project and other conservation organizations has been a win-win-win situation for all involved in these multi-beneficial projects.

    Thad Elliott with photos of the Rio Grande River from the 80’s. Photo credit: The River Network

    In the future, River Network will continue to support watershed coalitions as they tackle important river planning and identify how it can provide benefits to farmers and ranchers. River Network looks forward to continuing to shift the conversation between conservation and agricultural stakeholders by expanding the role of agricultural organizations, such as conservation districts, to have more of a leadership role. Learn more about the work that River Network has done in Colorado in this video.

    Learn more about the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project at http://www.riograndeheadwaters.org. Learn more about the River Network Colorado Stream Management Plan program at http://www.coloradosmp.org.

    Dear 2021 #Monsoon: Don’t be lame again this year #cwcbwatf

    This pretty much sums up the mood at today’s DNR Water Availability Task Force Meeting.

    @CWCB_DNR: Confluence Newsletter April 2021

    Left Hand Creek NW of Boulder, Colorado. By Kayakcraig – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48080249

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

    Emergency Flood Loan Completed for St. Vrain Creek and Left Hand Lake
    More than seven years after the devastating floods of September 2013, the final project supported by a Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) Emergency Flood Loan Program — the St. Vrain and Left Hand Lake No. 4 Repair — has been completed.

    In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, CWCB awarded more than $23 million in interest-free and no-payment bridge loans to affected water suppliers for repairing damaged infrastructure. Lake No. 4, located along the St. Vrain Creek was filled with floodwater and debris, eventually causing its embankment dam to collapse. The St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District received a loan of up to $4.5 million to repair the dam and construct a new emergency spillway to prevent damage in any similar flood event.

    The 2013 Emergency Flood Loan Program served as a model for the current Wildfire Impact Emergency Loan Program created in response to the 2020 wildfire season. The Wildfire Impact Emergency Loan Program has already authorized more than $9 million in low interest loans.

    Coffin vs. Left Hand Ditch location map via the Left Hand Watershed Cenber

    Bonus: Coffin vs. Left Hand Ditch