FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
The National Weather Service said Denver has seen its wettest start to a year since 1983.
All that rain has made significant improvements to Colorado’s drought map. Three months ago, nearly the entire state was in a moderate drought or worse. Now that’s just 43 percent.
But the map shows a tale of two Colorados. While above-average rain has brought relief to the eastern half of the state, the West Slope is in a terrible drought.
“Half of Denver Water’s supply comes from that West Slope side,” said Nathan Elder, manager of water supply at Denver Water.
So while those who live in Denver and the Front Range might be thinking, “What drought?”, Elder says it’s important to understand that water conservation is still needed, especially since half the city’s system exists in areas that are historically dry…
Elder says he expects reservoirs in the South Platte system will fill…
Elder says peak flows into Dillion reservoir will be about half of what’s normal. But overall, Denver’s reservoirs are 89 percent full, which Elder says is average for this time of year.
Gathered around the campfire one evening during a rafting trip many years ago, the conversation was about classroom education of river guides. I remember it well almost 40 years later because I cracked a joke that got a round of laughter.
To make the educational experience complete, I said, somebody should throw a pail of cold water over those assembled to make it like a real river trip.
That memory was provoked by a recent visit to the Headwaters River Journey, a water-focused exhibit-slash-museum that occupies the ground floor of the Headwaters Center in Winter Park. It doesn’t leave you shivering like you just fell into a cold mountain stream. It does intend for visitors to gain an appreciation for mountain water and the consequences of its loss, in the case of the Fraser Valley to the benefit of metropolitan Denver.
Colorado has 25 ditches, tunnels, and other conveyances that ferry water over and through the Continental Divide, from the Western Slope where 80% of water originates, mostly in the form of snow, to the Front Range cities and the farms beyond, where 85% of Coloradans live. No place has been dewatered so severely as the Fraser Valley, where Winter Park is located.
Diversions that began in 1936 have resulted in 60% of the water from the Fraser Valley being diverted to metropolitan Denver. That percentage will increase to more than 80% if a long-contemplated project by Denver Water gets realized.
Headwaters River Journey seeks to deliver an appreciation for the natural environment of the Fraser and other mountain valleys and the cost to these ecosystems. It does so with an abundance of hands-on experiences.
The hands-on learning is literal in an exhibit about Denver Water’s diversion from Jim Creek. The creek originates on the flanks of James Peak, across from the Winter Park ski area, meandering through a glacial-carved valley to a confluence with the Fraser River. Or, what’s left of the creek.
The exhibit has you lay hands on an operating wheel that is used to raise or lower a headgate at a diversion point. As you crank the red wheel, as if to divert water into a diversion ditch, a screen on the left shows water levels in the creek dropping. More cranks yet reveal cobbles, a creek nearly without its water. A panel on the right shows corresponding water levels rising in the water pipe in the Moffat Tunnel used by Denver to deliver water to South Boulder Creek, just one relatively minor hump away from Denver’s suburbs.
This was not news to me. I once lived in that valley, proudly wearing a “Dam the Denver Water Board” (as the water agency was formerly called) bumper sticker on my car. Now, I live on the receiving end of that water, in the Denver suburb of Arvada. Here, 78% of water for this city/suburb of 120,000 people comes through the Moffat Tunnel from Jim Creek and myriad other creeks in the Fraser Valley. More yet comes from the adjacent but far more remote Williams Fork Valley, two more tunnels away.
The plumbing before the water arrives at my garden hose is vast, complex, and expensive. The legal system for administration of Colorado’s water may be more byzantine yet.
Headwaters doesn’t dive deep on the history, legal system, or the plumbing. It’s more like a chapter in Colorado Water 101. It is geared to someone who knows relatively little about water.
Still, someone like myself, who has written about Colorado water off and on for more than 40 years, the exhibits can fill in gaps. One of my gaps is biology. One exhibit showed the life stages of stoneflies, an important component of the aquatic ecosystem. Through an interactive exhibit, I swam along a river bottom somewhat like a trout might, looking for food.
Another interactive experience allowed me to flap my arms as if a condor, flying over the geography from Berthoud Pass northward to Longs Peak and west along the Rabbit Ears Range. If a museum can be this much fun for an older guy, I wonder what it would be like to be a 10-year-old.
My companion, Cathy, was most touched by two exhibits that triggered her memories of living for almost 30 years in a very small mountain town in a house above the confluence of a creek and river.
One was a line of the life to be found along a mountain creek, from the bugs to the four-legged critters. She says it was a lovely reminder of “all the friends that I miss” now that she lives, sometimes with regret, a citified life.
The other was a wall-sized video immersion at the beginning of the exhibit that shows the changing of the seasons from one vantage point of a mountain slope. As the snow fell, there was a whoosh of chilled air. As the snow melted, there was the sound of water drops falling.
The exhibit is the creation of Bob and Suzanne Fanch, owners for the last 20 years of the 6,000-acre Devil’s Thumb Ranch, which is 7 or 8 miles down the valley —and, perhaps not incidentally, just below some of Denver Water’s diversions on Ranch Creek. It’s one of the nation’s most high-end cross-country ski destinations.
Kirk Klancke, a neighbor of the Fanches on Ranch Creek and an active member of Trout Unlimited and other water-related causes, describes himself as a technical advisor.
The Fanches, he explains, got the bug for interactive exhibits after visiting a museum in Iceland. “What a great educational tool, and the Fanches have always been interested in the future of the Fraser River,” he says.
The vision was distilled by Suzanne, he says, in a discussion. She took the message from a Trout Unlimited movie about the plight of the river that was called “Tapped Out.” A Boulder couple, Chip and Jill Isenhart, who have a company called ECOS Communications, designed the exhibits.
“We are natural history and environmental storytellers, and our team of content experts and designers has been doing this for more than 30 years in Colorado,” says Chip Isenhart.
“Our passion is partnering with mission-driven clients like the Fanches, and they have done an amazing job creating a world-class exhibit in Grand County.”
Isenhart says the primary task in creating the exhibit was to connect the dots between the Fraser River and the Front Range residential water use. To do this, he and his team needed to see the story through the eyes of the locals.
“We would go out on the river with Kirk Klancke, and folks from CPW, and meet frustrated anglers due to fishing closures at 1 p.m. due to river temperatures being so high from the lack of water,” says Isenhart. “And at the same time we also got to work closely with Front Range water interests to make sure our story was balanced. That was very, very important to ECOS and the Fanches and Trout Unlimited, as this issue is beyond complicated. It’s actually fairly easy to paint a picture that’s more sensational than accurate.”
Once ECOS had the essentials of the story figured out, they set out to create a variety of fun, changeable, and—they hoped—memorable interactive experiences to tell that story.
One of my memories is of the bathroom stall. No opportunity for educational storytelling was missed.
The take-home message of Headwaters River Journey is about personal responsibility.
“It’s taking the knowledge you’ve learned and actually making a difference using that knowledge and being a participant, rather than a spectator,” says Klancke. “That is what this museum is designed to do.”
The ideal audience would be somebody who lives in metropolitan Denver, a beneficiary of the exported water, or more broadly somebody from the Front Range. As such, it might better be located in Golden, for example, or even along the Platte River near downtown Denver. It was located in Winter Park, at least in part, because the municipality provided the 6 acres of land. Plus, there is an additional benefit. Immediately outside the backdoor of the exhibit is an illustration of beavers, willows and a braided mountain river.
But Isenhart says the exhibit can have value for remote learning, especially for classrooms along the Front Range. “That’s hopefully one of the next steps,” he reports.
I had intended to visit the exhibit in March 2020, on the way back to Denver after a trip to Craig. I was a bit late, and hence the curtain of covid descended the next week. My trip was delayed by 13 months.
It was worth the wait, though. Headwaters River Journey exceeded my expectations. And I’d go back again for a refresher.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-journal that tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. To get copies, go to http://BigPivots.com.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Kevin Foley, president of Performance Tours Rafting, said Friday, May 14, that recent reports he has received from Denver Water indicate the organization is likely to prioritize filling the Dillon Reservoir.
“What we are being told is, right now, the reservoir is low and snowpack is below average, so their model this year going to be more fill and spill,” Foley said.
Each spring and summer, Denver Water determines how much water it will release into the Blue River north of the Dillon Dam based on how much water is needed in different locations throughout an intricate network of water systems and reservoirs that service water users.
Foley said current conditions and a low water level in Dillon Reservoir point to Denver Water filling the reservoir with any new snow or rain in the coming weeks, rather than diverting flows downstream into the Blue River.
Foley said he will find out more from Denver Water at a meeting next week, but as of now, he said it’s unlikely there will be an extended season on the Blue…
The Class 2 to 3 Blue River stretch, which usually takes just over an hour for commercial trips, runs 5 to 6 miles from a U.S. Forest Service put-in at Hammer Bridge through Boulder Canyon down to a take-out at Columbine Landing. Foley said Performance Tours and KODI Rafting’s cutoff for the stretch is usually 500 cfs, signaling when they can start and stop. He said the best rafting on the Blue is at 1,000 cfs.
The commercial rafting season on the Blue is notoriously fickle, sometimes very short at just a couple of weeks in dry years to up to two months of rafting in wet seasons…
Foley said drainages down on the Arkansas River near Buena Vista are looking much better than the Blue. He credited the voluntary flow management program on the Arkansas that enables commercial companies to raft on good, augmented flows deep into summer. Trips out of Buena Vista have been operating for some commercial companies since May 1.
Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):
Coalition stays the course in fight to halt construction of tallest dam in Colorado history
A coalition of conservation groups filed a notice of appeal today in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals seeking to halt Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Dam in Boulder County and to protect sustainable flows in the Colorado River. The appeal challenges the dismissal by the lower court and asks the appeals court to order review of the merits of the case to ensure the health of the Colorado River, its native and imperiled species, and communities across Colorado that will be negatively impacted by the project…
The conservation coalition, including Save The Colorado, The Environmental Group, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Sierra Club, originally filed suit on December 19, 2018, in the federal district court of Colorado. The groups’ litigation sought to halt Denver Water’s expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County and prevent an additional diversion of water from the Colorado River through its Moffat Collection System due to violations of federal environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The project would triple the storage capacity of Gross Reservoir and the dam would become the tallest dam in the history of Colorado.
On March 31, 2021, the district court dismissed the coalition’s case finding that it was not before the proper court because the Federal Power Act provides the federal court of appeals with sole authority over hydropower licensing by the Federal Regulatory Commission.
“Given the climate, water and biodiversity crises upon us, we need to be restoring river ecosystems, not destroying them,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “This battle against the powerful water institution is not over and we will continue to fight for water and climate justice by working to reform this broken system of laws and policies.”
“The Sierra Club opposes the Gross Reservoir expansion because of the massive environmental damage it would cause,” said Rebecca Dickson, Chair of the Sierra Club-Indian Peaks Group. “If this project proceeds, hundreds of thousands of trees will be chopped down, countless habitats destroyed, and yet another waterway will be diverted from its natural course to the Front Range. On top of this, immeasurable amounts of greenhouse gasses will be released into the atmosphere during the construction and transportation process.”
“Denver Water’s plan to build the tallest dam in Colorado history will hurt the 40 million people in seven states and two countries who depend on the Colorado River for their water supply,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and advocacy director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “The basin is slowly dying a proverbial ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as its communities and ecosystems face a water crisis driven by unsustainable demand, prolonged drought, and runaway climate change. We stand with our fellow conservation groups in continuing to oppose this misguided and reckless water grab.”
“The expansion of Gross Dam is a shortsighted response to a long-term problem,” said Beverly Kurtz the President of The Environmental Group. “Denver Water should lead the way in finding sustainable solutions to the challenge of water scarcity, rather than destroying pristine areas of western Boulder County and further threatening the Colorado River with an antiquated dam proposal. Recent data confirm that predicted shortages of water in the Colorado River Basin due to climate change are happening even sooner than expected. Building a bigger dam does not increase the amount of water available. The District Court needs to hear the merits of our case rather than establishing a dangerous precedent by deferring authority to FERC and the federal court of appeals.”
“The year of decision, to not divert more water from the Colorado River, came and went about twenty years ago,” said John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers in Moab, Utah. “We know this is true because the development of contingency planning agreements to avoid water shortages began in 2014 and the urgency to resolve this threat still remains. Yet the contradictions and absurdities to also develop a suite of diversion projects in the Colorado River Basin also remains. If the basin’s water managers will not even adapt to the hydrology they accept, how could they possibly adapt to the hydrology of the future? Our lawsuit is an appeal to accept the truth that the Colorado River has nothing left to give.”
A federal judge has thrown out a legal action from multiple environmental organizations seeking to halt the expansion of a key Denver Water storage facility, citing no legal authority to address the challenge.
“This decision is an important step,” said Todd Hartman, a spokesperson for Denver Water. “We will continue working earnestly through Boulder’s land-use process and look forward to beginning work on a project critical to water security for 1½ million people and to our many partners on the West Slope and Front Range.”
The expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County is intended to provide additional water storage and safeguard against future shortfalls during droughts. The utility currently serves customers in Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Douglas and Adams counties. In July 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its approval for the design and construction of the reservoir’s expansion. The project would add 77,000 acre-feet of water storage and 131 feet to the dam’s height for the utility’s “North System” of water delivery.
FERC’s approval was necessary because Denver Water has a hydropower license through the agency, and it provided the utility with a two-year window to start construction.
A coalition of environmental groups filed a petition in U.S. District Court for Colorado against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking to rescind those agencies’ previous authorizations for the project. They argued the agencies inadequately considered the environmental impact of expansion…
…Denver Water pointed out that under federal law, appellate courts, not district-level trial courts, are responsible for hearing challenges to FERC approvals. By challenging the environmental review process that led to the project’s go-ahead, the government argued, the environmental organizations raised issues “inescapably intertwined with FERC’s licensing process.”
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Christine M. Arguello agreed that the groups’ challenge was indeed wrapped up in the FERC approval.
“[W]here a party does not challenge a FERC order itself, but challenges another agency order that is inextricably linked to the FERC order, the FPA’s exclusive-jurisdiction provision applies and precludes this Court from exercising jurisdiction,” she wrote in dismissing the case.
The Daily Camera reports that Boulder County’s approval is the final step for the expansion project.
They snowshoed through a campground hidden under soft drifts, stepped carefully to the banks of the Middle Fork of the Williams Fork River, then broke the ice to find free-flowing water.
Nick Riney and Tyler Torelli worked efficiently, dipping a long-poled scoop into the waterway and filling several pint-sized plastic bottles with samples of the cold, clear stream.
Sturdy even in finger-pinching cold, the two set up a make-shift lab on the back end of the Sno-Cat, pulled equipment out of chubby metal suitcases and ran field tests right on the spot. Twenty degrees and snowfall aren’t the ideal working conditions for most, but these guys consider it a “pretty good office” all the same.
And their work on a mid-February day in Grand County gave Denver Water’s Water Quality Operations team an early look at how last summer’s Williams Fork Fire, which burned nearly 15,000 acres northeast of Silverthorne, might have affected the water flowing through the area.
See and hear what’s required to do this work:
By sampling water as it pours through the mountains, long before it reaches any reservoirs or treatment plants, Denver Water can understand what’s happening on the landscape. Samples that veer from typical readings could indicate unexpected pollution, echoes of old mining activity or, increasingly, the impacts of forest fires.
Understanding those impacts helps prepare water quality experts for potential impacts to reservoirs or treatment processes.
The field test results came back in a healthy range, with no indication yet that a significant amount of sediment left by the summer of record fires in Colorado had ended up in the water.
“That’ll change,” Riney said, as the winter turns to spring and melting snow and monsoons more readily pull soil and ash from the scorched hillsides to the east of the tributary.
“But right now, this water is clean. Turbidity is low. We like to see that,” he said. “We’ll keep tracking these spots every month and try to understand just how much damage this fire did to the landscape.”
To be sure, the burned lands around the Williams Fork River don’t present a risk to Denver’s drinking water, primarily because this water travels to an “exchange” reservoir, where it will be sent down the Colorado River to make up for other West Slope water that is diverted to the Front Range.
Even so, understanding the impacts of the fire on water quality is important, allowing Denver Water and its partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, to take steps to prepare for, and reduce, those effects.
Denver Water recently began making monthly treks to this high-country stream to monitor a wetland protection project nearby. The utility has long made quarterly trips to the area as part of its broader field-testing program to track water quality across its mountain watershed.
To collect samples from the Middle Fork stream, Riney and Torelli towed a Sno-Cat up and over Ute Pass Road off Highway 9, turned south in County Road 30 and went to work near Sugarloaf Campground.
“This sampling work keeps us well attuned to what’s happening in our watershed and can at times serve as an early warning for issues we may need to be watching out for further downstream,” said James Berrier, water quality monitoring supervisor at Denver Water. “We want to understand, is this just a temporary issue or something that could have a longer-term impact?”
Sampling teams measure for an array on indicators. In the field, they look at temperature, pH (which measures acidity), conductivity (which helps determine salt levels), turbidity and dissolved oxygen, which is an important factor for aquatic life.
Other water samples are transported back to Denver Water’s laboratory at the Marston Treatment Plant in southwest Denver (which will be moving in the future to its new home at Denver’s emerging National Western Center). Tests there include measuring for fluoride, chloride, nitrates, E. coli, nutrients and dissolved metal.
Samples collected a few months from now may shed light on how much damage the Williams Fork fire did to the land.
Burn levels also can show up in water quality, through indicators such as ash, sediment, metals and other signatures.
“Soil erosion modelling predicts that post-fire erosion rates are generally very low (close to pre-fire conditions) in areas with minimal fire impacts on ground cover and soils. However, rates of erosion increase dramatically … in moderate and high soil burn severity areas, especially on steeper slopes,” according to the response team’s December 2020 assessment.
Denver Water has already accumulated significant expertise and partnerships related to wildfire impacts. Collaborative efforts include From Forests to Faucets, a team approach from Denver Water, the Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Colorado State Forest Service.
These agencies, together with local groups, address overgrown forests on the front end with tree-thinning projects and repairing landscapes damaged by the kind of intense fires that dramatically slow the recovery of soils and vegetation.
“We have experience, unfortunately, with the havoc that wildfires and their aftermath can wreak on our water quality,” Berrier said, referencing major fires in the late 1990s and early 2000s that put enormous strain on reservoirs and treatment on the south end of Denver Water’s collection system, challenges that the utility is still working to overcome today.
“Tracking impacts to the water once the fires are out is a key step in getting our arms around what might be in store in the years to come.”
Weekend blizzard a bounty for Denver, farmers and foothills, but not a drought-buster.
The weekend storm that brought heaps of badly needed wet snow to Denver, the foothills and the plains is an important boost to water supplies, but doesn’t appear to be a full-fledged “drought-buster.”
To put it in terms of a much-anticipated upcoming college basketball tournament: The weekend’s water results were like winning the first-round of March Madness. A nice thrill, but still a few wins short of a title.
But let’s stay optimistic for a moment. The storm was a big victory, and here are a few reasons why:
It’s a big recharge for soil moisture across the Denver region, and will mean a big boost for lawns and landscapes in the metro area. Overall, the storm was officially the fourth-largest ever for Denver, with an official snow depth of 27.1 inches as recorded at Denver International Airport. That’s not too far behind the 30.4 inches that fell in November 1946, which sits in third place, and the memorable pileup of March 2003, at 31.8 inches.
For Denver Water, the storm was especially helpful to Gross Reservoir in its North System, where surrounding areas clocked in at 20 to 30 inches. Some of Denver Water’s lower reservoirs, including Marston, Chatfield and Ralston also will reap rewards.
The moisture content of the snow was unusually high, giving everyone more bang for the buck. In short, a single storm brought the same level of water some places would typically get in a month or even two months. One Denver-based meteorologist said Monday that, with this storm, Denver has recorded 4.24 inches of liquid this year, the wettest start to a calendar year on record.
Farms and water users in northeast Colorado will benefit, and that’s a benefit to Denver Water. That’s because with downstream reservoirs on the South Platte filling, it will allow Denver Water to access its water rights sooner, without having to pass as much water down the river right away.
“All in all, this was an extremely helpful storm,” said Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water.
“We see benefits all around. While it wasn’t a drought-busting storm — it didn’t hit the West Slope hard and didn’t get into the upper South Platte region — it’s a great recharge for Denver and the foothills and puts us in a much better place than we were a week ago.”
Even so, caveats remain.
Despite the windfall, Denver Water’s collection system remains below average for snowpack, at 94% in the Colorado River Basin and 97% in the South Platte.
And Colorado is coming off a very dry year, with a dry spring and a monsoon-less summer compounding an ongoing deficit in soil moisture.
That matters because thirsty soil gets first dibs on melting snow. Water must replenish the ground before it slides down the hills and winds up in streams, rivers and reservoirs.
That means Denver Water, along with water utilities across Colorado, will keep watching the skies for more storms to keep us wet through the rest of March and April, a period that is generally a good bet for snow and rain. Areas along the Continental Divide and upper reaches of the West Slope — the headwaters — sorely need a wet spring.
The message to customers: Enjoy the bounty, but don’t let down your vigilance. Residents will need to continue being smart about irrigation. Denver Water’s standard summer watering rules take effect May 1, with watering limited to three days a week, and no watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
And it’s still possible further watering limits could be in play, depending on how the next several weeks play out.
A spike in temperatures that rapidly depletes the snowpack, for example, could have an impact on how we use water this summer.
For now, it’s certainly a storm worth enjoying and appreciating, while keeping it in a healthy context.
As a March Madness coach might say, “We’re excited as heck to make the tournament … but we’re still facing an uphill climb.”
This weekend’s snowstorm will likely translate to significant drought relief for portions of Colorado, while others remain mired in drier than average conditions.
Snow that blanketed the northern Front Range and northeastern plains will provide two to three inches of liquid water when it melts. Some localized areas are seeing even higher amounts ranging from four to five inches of water held in the snow, said Colorado’s assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger…
The city of Burlington, for example, recorded nearly three inches of precipitation in 72 hours over the weekend. In a normal year, Burlington averages a total of 2.78 inches for the period of November through March…
Much of Colorado’s Front Range has been locked in severe drought since August 2020. Bolinger expects the next U.S. Drought Monitor, released weekly on Thursdays, to show a contraction of severe drought on the Front Range and northeastern plains.
The Western Slope, the part of the state in the most need of added moisture, is unlikely to see any drought relief from this storm, Bolinger said.
As Colorado digs out from the recent blizzard, each heavy shovel full of snow proves the storm brought plenty of moisture. But is it enough to free the state from its drought conditions?
Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist, said the answer largely depends on location. The brunt of the storm hit east of the Continental Divide, dumping around two feet of snow in the Foothills and Eastern Plains. Meanwhile, preliminary snowfall reports show only a few inches accumulated on the Western Slope.
Colorado’s drought conditions had improved ahead of the storm. After record dry weather over the summer and fall, snowpack levels had inched toward normal throughout the winter, but western Colorado continued to miss out on the snowfall. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 16 percent of the state faced the most extreme category of “exceptional drought” as of last week. The entirety of the area was west of the Continental Divide.
Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said the weekend storm brought the entire state to 91 percent of its median snowpack for mid-March.
Wetlaufer said soil conditions could also affect Colorado’s downstream water users. Last year’s dry weather left the ground so parched it could absorb large amounts of snowmelt. Wetlaufer said that could decrease runoff levels by as much as 20 percent, meaning the recent snow could stay in Colorado rather than flowing down the Colorado River to Las Vegas or Los Angeles.
The recent snowstorm also likely won’t change a longer trend toward drier weather in the Southwestern U.S. A 2020 study in Science suggests the region is experiencing its worst “megadrought” since the 1500s due to global climate change. Any shift against the pattern would require a series of far wetter winters across the region…
Nevertheless, Schumacher said it’s hard to see the recent storm as anything other than good news.
“It may not be enough to get us out of the drought completely, but it’s going to be a big help,” Schumcher said.
Any snow is welcome snow in moisture-starved Colorado, but even two feet is too little to bring us out of the drought. Almost the entire state is in some stage of drought and more than half the state is in a severe or exceptional drought.
“What we’re going to see from this week is a possible incremental improvement from those really bad drought categories to not-as-bad drought categories,” said Assistant State Climatologist Beck Bolinger.
The biggest beneficiaries, she says, will be crops on the eastern plains and lawns in the Denver metro area. Denver is now 20 inches of snow above normal for this date and the city has already received four and a quarter inches of liquid.
That is well above the average. The snow could also help delay wildfires on the Front Range.
However, Bolinger says, it still may not stop cities from imposing watering restrictions, and more than a dozen are considering doing so. She says it’s not only about how much snow falls, but where it falls.
“Our water municipalities are closely focused on what’s happening west of the divide in terms of replenishing water supplies that we rely on,” she said.
The problem, she says, is the Western Slope didn’t get as much snow. Western basin averages, she says, are still 10-20% below normal.
Even an average snowpack in the mountains may not be enough says Ben Livneh with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“The landscape is dry. When the snow melts, the first thing it has to do, it has to recharge some of that dryness, some of that deficit before it can runoff and become part of the water supply.”
Winter Storm Xylia accomplished, for the most part, what all the talk was about, becoming the largest two-day storm on record for Denver and the fourth-biggest snowstorm since 1881. Dumping heavy, wet accumulations up and down the Front Range over the weekend, the blizzard halted traffic on the interstates, knocked out power to thousands, and hit a few places especially hard – including 27.1 inches at Denver International Airport, 40 inches near Red Feather Lakes, and 30.8 inches for Cheyenne, Wyo.
Here in Chaffee County, it was a stout storm, but as of Monday morning it was sunny, the lower areas were melting down significantly and Highway 285 was mostly dry through the mid-county after plowing efforts.
The great news was that, according to Open Snow, Monarch Ski Area received a beastly 24 inches (11 on Saturday and 13 Sunday) – the same total as Wolf Creek. Further west, Telluride took bragging rights from the storm with 27 inches. Elsewhere it was hit or miss: Mid-Vail reported a scant 6.
Xylia delivered some good gains to the state’s snowpack. Portions of the Arkansas River Basin – which includes Chaffee County – saw some of the biggest action from the storm, putting the basin’s snowpack at 99 percent of average, compared to 90 percent recorded March 11.
According to the USDA’s SNOTEL water snow-equivalent reporting systems, the Upper Rio Grande basin is now at 104 percent compared to 98 percent. Percentages in Colorado’s other basins include: South Platte, 97 (was 87); North Platte, 96 (was 90); Yampa and White, 91 (was 88); Upper Colorado, 88 (was 84); Gunnison, 85 (was 81); and the southwest mountains including the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins, 81 (were 78).
During deep freezes, our crews keep on fixing, plowing, ice breaking, measuring, sampling and caretaking.
Cold weather makes for harder work, so when we experienced one of the coldest weeks of the last 30 years Denver Water crews did just that: worked harder.
Last week dam supervisors, water quality trackers and pipe fixers pushed right on through the artic blast to keep the water stored, safe and moving in our system amid the harsh elements that wreaked havoc on so many across the country.
A challenge many homeowners also faced as personal pipes froze and broke as the polar plunge ensued.
Here’s a photo journey highlighting some of our dedicated and can-do colleagues doing their part to blow kisses at the Winter Warlock:
Frosty valves at dams make for a laborious day of icebreaking
On those super-cold weeks like last week, it’s common for ice to build up around valves. That means dam workers need to spend hours breaking ice off the valves, otherwise they could be damaged during operation. Said Andy Skinner, dam supervisor at Gross Reservoir: “I broke the ice away from a valve at night, and it was covered again just a few hours later. At these temperatures, it’s a twice-a-day operation.”
Emergency Services – It takes tough folks to find and stop the flow when a water main breaks in frozen temperatures
Members of Denver Water’s Emergency Services team, like Keegan May in this photo, are the utility’s first responders. They help shut off the water so crews can start their work to repair pipe breaks. (Read, “Breaking point: Temperature swings tough on water pipes,” to learn more about how the ups and downs of winter weather in Colorado impact water mains across Denver.)
But turning off the water flowing through underground pipes can be much more complex than shutting off the water in a house.
This image shows May, a utility tech at Denver Water, working through inches of ice created by below-freezing temperatures to find a shut-off valve.
On this cold, winter day in 2019, once the cover was located, Denver Water’s crew chiseled through the ice. Then they used a mallet to loosen the cover. Only then could they access the underground shut-off valve to stop the flow of water and begin to make repairs.
Clean water – critical year-round
Thirty inches of snow and finger-freezing temps don’t stop our field crews from their appointed rounds. Last week a crew from Water Quality Operations gathered their monthly water samples on the Williams Fork River northeast of Silverthorne.
One tributary stream was frozen over, so Nick Riney smashed through it with his shovel and worked with his colleague Tyler Torelli to scoop out water samples for testing, including assessments they conducted in the field using analytical equipment they set up on the back end of a Sno-cat. All this effort helps Denver Water understand what’s happening on the landscapes across 4,000 square miles of watershed and keeps the utility informed about any changes in high country water chemistry that we’ll be collecting, storing and ultimately cleaning to our high standards before distributing through the metro area.
Surveying the snow
Our crews also strap on the snowshoes for frequent high elevation treks to take snow measurements, part of our multi-pronged efforts to get a read on the snowpack levels in our collection system in preparation for spring runoff.
Our surveying team braves the cold as well, heading to all points of our system to get elevation readings for a wide variety of projects, including recalibrating gauges at remote reservoirs. Pictured here was a Sno-Cat trip our surveyors took just a year ago to Meadow Creek Reservoir northeast of Fraser.
Running the plows to keep everything running
Denver Water facilities from the mountains, to the foothills and plains all need to keep the roadways open so workers can do their thing unblocked 24/7.
One of many challenging plowing jobs can be found at Strontia Springs Reservoir where staff not only has to keep clear the 6.5-mile service road that is Waterton Canyon, they need to plow the feeder roads leading to the dam – and the top of the dam itself.
Plowing a 660-foot path across top of the dam is not for anyone with a fear of heights. The dam is 299 feet above the river. Slow and steady is the name of the game as there is no room for wrong turns or slipping.
And sometimes it’s just overcoming the cold itself
One of the coldest spots in Colorado and, indeed at times, the country: Antero Reservoir, on the high South Park plain, near Fairplay. Twice in the last two years, the site has drawn media attention for its bone-grinding readings around 50 below. Two caretakers save their inside work for those dates, but can’t avoid the daily duties outside, when as one of them, Eric Hibbs, puts it, “you can just see the cold, settled in there.” What does he do in face of Yukon-like conditions? “Put on a little heavier jacket.”
Amid dry soils and struggling snowpack in Denver Water’s collection area, longer-term Colorado River challenges also loom large.
Denver Water’s supply managers are closely attuned to the dry weather, lagging snowpack and poor soil moisture in its mountainous collection area that could mean heightened efforts to conserve water this summer.
At the same time, the utility is closely engaged with a more persistent and growing long-term challenge: a drying trend across the seven-state Colorado River Basin.
The two issues go hand-in-hand.
While early snowpack has been underwhelming, a few recent storms brought us closer to average in the two nearby basins that matter most to Denver Water: The South Platte and the Colorado.
Even so, the long-running drought across the southwestern United States persists. And earlier this year, a new warning was triggered after updated projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation suggested poor inflows to Lake Powell could put the reservoir at a level low enough to take new steps.
In short, the BOR said Lake Powell — the massive storage vessel that serves as the bank account for the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — is at risk of falling below an elevation of 3,525 feet in 2022.
That’s important to Denver Water and many Colorado water users as a century-old law requires states in the upper basin to send a certain allotment out of Lake Powell each year to the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.
Under major agreements developed between the federal government and the seven states in 2019 called drought contingency plans, Reclamation’s projection initiates a planning process with water leaders across the upper basin states to address ways to avoid further elevation declines in Powell.
This is a trigger point to say, “Hey, it’s time to ramp up our monitoring and planning, to be ready to address the potential further decline in reservoir levels,” explained Rick Marsicek, planning manager for Denver Water. “This was a metric, developed to ensure the upper basin states focus harder on next steps should Lake Powell be at risk of hitting that level.”
Planners focused on 3,525 feet as a trigger point, so as to have time to act before Lake Powell falls another 35 feet, which would threaten its ability to send enough water through turbines to generate hydropower, another important element of Powell’s operations. Hydroelectricity at the dam provides power to more than 5 million customers.
It’s an initial step toward drought contingency plans, which could be triggered as early as 2022 in the Upper Basin. The lower basin’s DCP was triggered last year, when projected shortages in Lake Mead, the other gargantuan Colorado River reservoir — a sister of sorts to Powell — required Arizona and Nevada to pull smaller amounts from supplies stored there.
All of this movement comes amid other developments important to Denver Water and water interests throughout Colorado.
The state of Colorado is working with water providers and users across the state to gauge the potential of a “demand management” plan. Such a plan would compensate water users to temporarily and voluntarily conserve water that would flow instead to Lake Powell as a deposit in a sort of bank account. Such a “pool” of water would maintain critical water levels in Lake Powell and could later be released if necessary to assure Colorado River Compact compliance.
Water users kicked off a study related to demand management in 2020. Irrigators in the Kremmling area fallowed some parcels as part of a detailed study on how high-elevation farmland would respond should water be left off the land in some growing seasons.
At the same time, the basin states, in partnership with the federal government, are beginning to dig into a new set of guidelines to help manage river supplies that must be complete in 2026, when an existing set of interim guidelines is set to expire. These guidelines co-exist with the 1922 Colorado River Compact and numerous other agreements that make of the “law of the river,” which split the river between the two big basins and the country of Mexico.
Closer to home, Denver Water and other metro area and Front Range water providers are coordinating in preparation for a year when they may have to toughen summer watering restrictions to address a dry winter and spring. It’s too early yet to know for sure how supplies will look, but the meetings that kicked off this month are an effort to get ahead of the situation and see where watering and conservation messages can be aligned to help the public understand the potential need to reduce outdoor irrigation between May and October.
“There is a lot happening, and that’s a good thing,” Marsicek said. “Far better to overplan and overprepare than to simply hope for the best. We’ve had drought years before, and we have a long-term drought now in the Colorado River Basin. By working together and planning not just for a hot summer, but for a drier long-term future, we can meet this challenge with our eyes wide open.”
High-tech device ‘swims’ through Denver Water pipelines looking for trouble spots.
How do you inspect a water pipeline buried several feet underground and far too small to safely walk through?
In some cases, you send in a tool specifically designed to go with the flow and collect data along the way.
In the fall of 2020, Denver Water tested a somewhat unusual looking, high-tech device called a PipeDiver to inspect several miles of buried pipeline.
The PipeDiver is a state-of-the-art piece of equipment operated by Pure Technologies, a division of Xylem Inc., a company that specializes in pipeline monitoring and assessments for clients around the world. The company has been using the tool for inspections since 2010.
“We have about 3,000 miles of pipes in the metro area and we take a proactive approach toward monitoring their condition,” said Devin Shable, an engineer at Denver Water. “We have several methods to inspect our pipelines, but this was our first time using the PipeDiver.”
Denver Water used the PipeDiver to inspect two pipelines, a 3.7- mile stretch of pipe in Centennial that runs under open space, University Boulevard, East Dry Creek Road and Colorado Boulevard. The other inspection was on a 2-mile stretch of pipe under West Alameda Avenue and West Bayaud Street in Denver’s Baker and Valverde neighborhoods. The pipelines range in size from 30 to 36 inches in diameter.
Over time, pipelines can deteriorate, leading to leaks and ruptures. Many sources of stress from inside and outside the pipe can take a toll on a pipeline’s condition. These sources include soil type, how the soil interacts with the pipe, age, pipe material and how the pipe was constructed.
“Based on problems we’ve had on other pipelines of similar age and conditions, we wanted to do a thorough assessment of these two pipelines to see if there are any issues,” Shable said. “Proactive inspections are a critical part of our operations to prevent pipe breaks.”
Shable said buried pipelines are challenging to inspect for many reasons.
First off, exterior inspections of pipelines would be costly and very disruptive to the community, as they would require large excavations to expose long exterior sections of pipe for inspection.
As for inspecting a pipe from the inside, some pipes are too small for a person to walk through. Even if a pipe is large enough, there are many safety and logistical challenges to overcome before allowing someone to perform an internal “manned” inspection.
Another challenge is that traditional “manned” inspections require draining a pipe, which can lead to lengthy disruptions in water service to customers.
The PipeDiver solves many of these issues.
“One of the biggest benefits of the PipeDiver is that we can leave a pipeline in service while we do the condition assessment,” said Brian Hext, project manager for Pure Technologies. “This tool can be more convenient for water utilities.”
But using the PipeDiver to inspect a buried pipeline still requires extensive planning, coordination and proper execution.
“Each time we do an inspection, we have to custom build the PipeDiver for the specific type and size of the pipe,” Hext said. “For Denver Water, we used two different PipeDivers for the two pipelines.”
The PipeDivers used for the Denver Water inspections look like 10-foot-long, mini-submarines made of several tube-like canisters that contain the electronics systems.
The articulated sections of the PipeDiver allow it to bend around sharp turns in the pipeline, much like the joint at the middle of a “bendy bus” allows it to weave through city streets.
On the front of the PipeDiver is a special nose that helps guide it through valves inside the pipeline. About 24 flexible, flower-like plastic petals stick out of each section to keep the device centered in the pipe as it moves along.
One of the PipeDivers used in Denver Water’s inspections was equipped with high-definition cameras on the tail to capture images inside the pipe.
“We like to joke that it looks a little bit like a prehistoric fish,” Hext said. “It does not have a motor and simply uses the flow of the water to move through the pipe.”
Crews must carefully assemble, test, balance and disinfect the device before each inspection.
Maintaining safe water quality is critical during the inspection process. In addition to an extensive cleaning and disinfection process for the PipeDiver, Denver Water had a water quality operations expert on hand to run tests during the inspection to ensure the utilities’ safe drinking water standards were not impacted by the inspection.
Once the PipeDiver is put together, the Pure Technologies team inserts it into an access point in the pipeline. The devices are equipped with GPS technology so crews can keep track of them as they float through the pipe.
After the PipeDiver completes its route, crews use custom-designed nets to catch the device and pull it out of the pipe.
To inspect pipes made of metal, such as cast iron, the PipeDivers are fitted with ultrasonic technology while electromagnetic technology is used to inspect pipes made of concrete.
“What we’re looking for with the concrete pipe are the wires wrapped around the pipe that help hold it together,” Hext said. “If those wires break, it can cause the pipe to burst.”
The ultrasonic technology used for metallic pipes measures the thickness of the pipe and areas of corrosion.
“If we find a place where the thickness is less than what it should be, we pinpoint that location as a potential issue,” he said.
“As with any new inspection technique, there was a learning curve that we had to work through to complete the inspection with the PipeDiver tool,” Shable said.
Denver Water crews worked with the Pure Technologies team to open all the valves in the pipeline, to give the PipeDiver a clear path through the pipe sections it was inspecting. Another challenge involved adjusting the flow of water through the pipes to ensure the PipeDiver moved at the optimal speed for data collection.
Following the inspection, Pure Technologies will analyze the data from the inspections and then send reports with the findings to Denver Water.
“The inspection went well and the PipeDiver did its job,” said Luke Switzer, field team leader with Pure Technologies. “We should be able to get some good data to help Denver Water make informed decisions down the road.”
In addition to using the PipeDiver, Denver Water’s proactive approach to assessing pipelines includes “manned” inspection techniques and real-time pipeline monitoring equipment.
Manned inspections require draining the water from the pipeline to allow for an inspector to walk through and assess the pipe.
Real-time monitoring equipment, used on some sections of important pipelines, includes the use of acoustic fiber optic monitoring systems (read a TAP story about that technology here) and equipment designed to detect pressure changes and leaks.
Data from inspections also helps in the planning process of prioritizing when pipes should be replaced. This is important because replacing large water pipelines is expensive. For example, a project to replace 2,205 feet of pipeline in north Denver in 2020 cost nearly $4 million dollars.
Denver Water uses inspection data as well as other factors including number of leaks, breaks, maintenance projects and outages to collect a full picture of a pipelines’ overall health.
Once all the information is compiled, the utility decides if small “targeted” repairs are needed or if certain sections need to be repaired to maintain a desired level of pipeline reliability.
If those options are not deemed to be cost effective, then full replacement of the entire pipeline may be needed.
“Having a good understanding of the condition of the pipe allows us to make decisions about the timing of replacement and allows us to push expensive projects out into the future,” Shable said. “The inspections help inform our decisions on what we need to address today and what we need to plan for down the road.”
Aurora Water, the city’s water utility, will co-chair the regional group.
Spokesperson Greg Baker said it’s still too early to tell whether Aurora Water’s vast network of reservoirs and sources will lose enough water to trigger use restrictions in city limits. So far, dry soils, low snowpack and extreme drought conditions in much of the state aren’t painting the picture of a summer flush with water…
The utility and others are banking on big snow-makers hitting the mountains in the spring, which tremendously benefit water networks in high river basins…
Currently, Aurora Water has about two years of water supply stored in various reservoirs and facilities. The utility usually hopes for a three-year supply in storage, and low levels may trigger restrictions, Baker said.
Aurora Water would make a decision to restrict water usage in April, Baker said. Until then, water managers have their fingers crossed for big storms in April and May, which can make the difference between a flush and lean water year for Front Range suburbanites.
The water utility last cut water usage in April 2013, according to Baker. That September, the bizarre “1,000-year flood” clobbered Front Range communities in Boulder, Jamestown and Lyons.
Baker noted that, with climate change, extreme weather events are more commonplace.
“You have extreme drought followed by extreme precipitation,” he said. “So managing that is a bigger challenge.”
FromThe Colorado Sun (Andy Mueller, Bob Wolff, Jim Lochhead, CEO, Brad Wind, Marshall Brown, Earl Wilkinson III, Seth Clayton, Kevin Lusk, James Broderick):
We may not always agree on the particulars of water policy and water use in the Centennial State, but we all recognize the importance of the Colorado River to our statewide economy and our Colorado way of life. The Colorado River is arguably the single most important natural resource to the State of Colorado. It powers economies on both sides of the Continental Divide. It provides food and fiber to the nation and the world from both sides of the Divide. And its fate will determine our own.
Colorado’s constitution and our state’s laws have long recognized one simple truth: The waters that originate in our great state are the property of the public. The people of Colorado have the right to appropriate and use that water for beneficial uses, such as municipal, irrigation, industrial and recreation. Long excluded from the list of beneficial uses of water is holding water for speculation. Our state supreme court has ruled unconstitutional any scheme that “would encourage those with vast monetary resources to monopolize, for personal profit rather than for beneficial use…”
Recently we have seen a series of articles and opinion pieces discussing and even advocating for the potential influx of financial capital from out of state investment funds to buy water from Colorado’s vibrant farms and ranches with the apparent aim of “solving” Colorado’s drought problems.
This is not the first time we have seen venture capital eyeing our state’s water resources. This time around, however, the investors and their representatives are posturing to portray themselves as the only solution to a climate change driven reduction in the flows of our rivers. We have come together to set the record straight on this misguided concept.
Our organizations and the water users we represent are working collaboratively with the State of Colorado to examine solutions to the threat of water shortages brought on by a changing climate and prolonged overuse of the River’s water by downstream states. Together, we are exploring a multi-faceted effort to secure our state’s water supply and protect irrigation for food product, our thriving communities and the environment that depend on this water. Among these approaches is the feasibility of a proposed “demand management” program to temporarily compensate water users in Colorado and other Upper Basin states to reduce their use of water to assure that we are able to meet our obligations under the Colorado River Compact.
Demand management is complex. It is controversial. But we are approaching these conversations in good faith because we recognize that we must work together to protect the economies and livelihoods supported by the Colorado River throughout the entire state. Since solutions to our water challenges must be undertaken for the benefit of the state as a whole, these efforts must be led by the state. The Colorado Water Conservation Board articulated a set of guiding principles for this process in November 2018, principles with which we agree.
One thing is clear. There is no place for private for-profit interests in this process. Moreover, private sector entities do not have the legal ability or authority to manage water across state lines or through federally owned reservoirs. This can be done only by the states and the federal government. Colorado state government has a long history of opposing interstate marketing and transfers of water by private interests, and that opposition should continue.
The introduction of private investors in our statewide water planning efforts will only serve to further exacerbate the water divisions that exist between our urban areas and our irrigated agricultural communities on both sides of the Continental Divide. Our state must stand strong together to protect our Colorado way of life.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District
Bob Wolff, president, Southwestern Water Conservation District
Jim Lochhead, CEO, Denver Water
Brad Wind, general manager, Northern Water
Marshall Brown, general manager, Aurora Water
Earl Wilkinson III, chief water services officer, Colorado Springs Utilities
Seth Clayton, executive director, Pueblo Water
Kevin Lusk, president, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.
James Broderick, executive director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District
FromThe Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:
In recent weeks, much attention has been focused on an issue not new to officials in the water world: private interests or hedge funds purchasing water rights from agricultural communities and diverting that water to cities.
An open letter from almost 10 water officials from across the state, including the local Southwestern Water Conservation District, lashes out against the practice, saying, “waters that originate in our great state are the property of the public.”
“The people of Colorado have the right to appropriate and use that water for beneficial uses, such as municipal, irrigation, industrial and recreation,” the letter, sent Thursday, says.
The open letter is largely in response to a Jan. 3 article in The New York Times called “Wall Street Eyes Billions in the Colorado’s Water,” which says private investors may become more of a force in the political water world.
The article cites several examples of private investors purchasing water rights from ranches, and then diverting it to cities to feed new developments or subdivisions in drought-strapped places.
Several private equity owners argue the practice could be one of the solutions to curb the impacts of climate change that has resulted in drought and less available water throughout the West.
In one stance, Greenstone, a private investment firm, bought most of the water rights in Cibola, Arizona, and then sold the rights to a suburb of Phoenix known as Queen Creek, 175 miles away.
“One of the things I think we’ve learned over time is that a resource like water is best allocated through kind of a combination of market forces and regulatory oversight,” Grady Gammage, a spokesman for Greenstone, said in the article…
The practice has been more common in urban areas along the Front Range or near Phoenix, and the issue hasn’t reared its head quite yet in Southwest Colorado, according to several water officials interviewed for this story.
Robert Genualdi, Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 7 engineer, which covers Durango, said there are several key distinctions why the hedge funds of Wall Street haven’t set their sights on local waterways.
For one, in most places along the Front Range where it is happening, the waterways are over-appropriated and there is not enough water to go around to serve new developments or subdivisions.
As a result, entities looking for water for urban areas seek out farm and ranch owners who may be interested in selling their rights. Then, the developers use that water for their projects and let the farms go fallow, known as “buy and dry.”
On the other hand, most waterways in the region, like the Animas River, are not over-allocated, meaning water rights can still be bought, Genualdi said.
“In our corner of the state, it’s probably not as prevalent as it might be in other parts of the state because of the water availability down here,” he said.
Also, Genualdi pointed out that much of the water is stored in Bureau of Reclamation projects – like Vallecito, Lake Nighthorse and McPhee reservoirs – which bring some level of federal protections against the practice.
“Those projects were built for specific things, so it’s more of a task to get water use changed,” he said. “You’d have to go to Congress for a change.”
While not currently an issue in Southwest Colorado, efforts should be made to prepare for private interests in water, said Amy Huff, a water attorney recently appointed to the Southwestern Water Conservation Board…
Mike Preston, former manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said several water districts in the region have set up restrictions for people to sell off to private companies.
“They’ve done what they can to protect themselves,” he said. “That water is all tied up to the land.”
Ed Tolen, general manager of the La Plata Archuleta Water District, said his water right holders shouldn’t have to worry because it’s all domestic water use, not for irrigation.
But still, he said there is concern among the agricultural community that some ranchers and farmers may have to send their water to lower basin states to meet water compacts…
“One thing is clear. There is no place for private for-profit interests in this process,” the open letter said. “Colorado state government has a long history of opposing interstate marketing and transfers of water by private interests, and that opposition should continue.”
The calls came in shortly after the story in The New York Times announced Wall Street was on the prowl for “billions in the Colorado’s water.”
“Can you help us? How do we get started?” wondered the New York financiers, pals of Andy Mueller, the manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
“My response was really that if you want to invest in Colorado, you might want to look at something other than water,” Mueller said. “There is nothing to see here.”
The national story raised hackles across Colorado. It defined agriculture as a “wrong” use of Colorado River water and detailed a growing swarm of investors eager to inject Wall Street’s strategies into the West’s century-old water laws. The idea of private investment in public water has galvanized the state’s factious water guardians…
Population growth and persistent drought exacerbated by climate change are stressing the Colorado River, which supports 40 million people in seven states and Mexico and irrigates some 5.5 million acres of crop land. Now, the increasingly parched communities along the 1,450-mile river can add an additional threat: speculation.
It’s rare to see Front Range water managers like Denver Water and Northern Water joining counterparts on the Western Slope. Heck, neighbors on the Western Slope don’t often agree over agricultural, municipal, recreation and tourism-based uses of water. But everyone involved in the perpetual tug-of-war over Colorado water is ready to fight Wall Street investors eyeing “billions” in the state’s most precious resource.
“We have different interests and we have different things we use water for on the Western Slope,” Martha Whitmore, the Ouray County board member on the Colorado River Water Conservation District Board, said during the board’s quarterly meeting last week. “but the one thing we are really unified on … is we don’t want this to be a New York hedge fund’s new thing.”
Water law requires beneficial use
Colorado has some of the toughest laws to prevent profiteering on water in the West, anchored in a nearly 160-year-old state water law that requires users to put their rights to beneficial use. That definition has expanded from irrigation and home taps to include snowmaking, protecting wildlife and even kayaking in a whitewater park. Beneficial use does not include making money.
Even with the state’s strict law preventing a gold rush on water, an 18-member Anti-Speculation Law Work Group created by Colorado lawmakers last year is studying how to give the law preventing water profiteering even more teeth.
Jim Lochhead, the head of Denver Water, agrees with water managers around the state that institutionalized private investment in water “is inherently a problem for the entire state of Colorado.”
The Law of the River could be upended by Wall Street investors buying up and fallowing farmland for water rights, or even worse, buying agricultural water and holding it unused until it makes them rich, like some kind of water-logged bitcoin bros. (Which, by the way, is illegal under Colorado law that doesn’t really allow the sale of actual water as much as the right to use water for beneficial use.)
But, in a way, that buy-and-dry scenario is already part of Colorado’s water landscape. Cities like Aurora and Pueblo often buy water rights to support growth. And more of that is coming. The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan — part of a historic water management agreement inked in 2019 by federal officials and leaders in seven states — aims to cut water use, by, in part, paying farmers and ranchers and other water users to temporarily suspend their water rights.
Details on the controversial “demand management” element of the drought contingency plan are still being hammered out. But the prospect of water speculation has led to calls for all types of safeguards of public water in a demand-management market.
There is a big difference between investors who likely would be moving water from farms to cities willing to pay big and water districts trying to temporarily secure water rights to bolster supplies, said Taylor Hawes, who directs The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program.
Demand management is about conserving water and “creating water security, which is a public good,” said Hawes, who earlier this month published a letter in Western Slope Colorado newspapers along with the the national Family Farm Alliance and Trout Unlimited urging partnerships among often-contentious Colorado River users “to find durable solutions that make economic sense for water users and rural communities, as well as cities.”
“Demand management should be more of a guided market not a free market,” Hawes said in an interview. “It needs to have sideboards and restrictions, and one of those restrictions needs to be that it is serving the public good, to make sure we have water security for the future and that we can adapt to the changing climate.”
Mueller, with the Colorado River District, led a spirited discussion last week with his board, detailing specific issues with the increasing call for private investment in water. He warned that eroding trust in government institutions could sway more people toward a revamp of Colorado laws that would increase the role of market forces.
“The demand-management market needs to focus on rules and regulations and structures that protect our communities and if it can’t be done, the program should go away,” Mueller said.
Mueller, who has many issues with the New York Times article, says the article may “help make our case” as a launching point to rally not just water managers, but state residents, around the need to protect water.
Private, profit-driven investment in Colorado River water might not respect agricultural roots of communities that exist because of the river. But the eye of Wall Street might help champion the case for drought management and it’s share-the-pain plan to spread potential cuts. Mueller said the threat of speculators moving into Colorado’s water market could help convince residents about the need for big, climate-adapting changes in how water is conserved and protected in the state…
Most of the angst over Wall Street is coming from a group called Water Asset Management, a New York investment firm that has spent more than $16 million over the past few years buying more than 2,000 acres of farmland in the Grand Valley. The company is the largest landowner in the influential Grand Valley Water Users Association, which operates the 55-mile Government Highline Canal and 150 miles of irrigation pipe and ditches that water more than 23,000 acres of farmland.
It’s safe to say that Water Asset Management has succeeded where all others have failed: The fund has found a way to get Front Range and Western Slope water users in quick and easy agreement.
And advising the investment firm is James Eklund, the former director of the state’s top water protector, the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Eklund spent years as the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, helping to draw up the drought contingency plan that, among many things, creates a pool of water for Upper Basin states inside Lake Powell that serves as the upper state’s own bank within the larger bank.
Eklund bristles at the notion that the WAM group is angling to take over that bank of Upper Basin water in Lake Powell.
“You can’t do that now and you could not do that before the Drought Contingency Plan and you can’t do it in the future. Because the Law of the River forbids it,” he said. “If we allow private accounts in Lake Powell, we will undo the benefits of the bargain of the 1922 compact.”
Water Asset Management buys farms, pays for upgrades that increase the efficiency of water used in irrigating crops and then leases the property back to the farmer, Eklund said.
The firm’s investment fund “develops and markets the water assets while our farming operators manage the farming operations of the properties, mitigating agriculture risk,” reads the firm’s website details of its Water Property Investor Fund.
The group is not trying to flip water. If it was, it would have already sold the water rights it has, Eklund said. The group wants to invest in agriculture in the Western United States, he said…
Across Colorado, water managers agree with at least of one of Eklund’s ideas: It is time to work together. But not necessarily with his group. A host of water managers across the state have been meeting, amiably, to discuss how best they can form a united front to stop Wall Street speculation on public water.
“The coming together of all these different interests is a recognition that the challenges we face on the Colorado River are already complex enough. So, so complex,” said Hawes with the Nature Conservancy. “The last thing we need is Wall Street getting in the middle of this as we try to work out the solutions which are going to be really really difficult to do.”
Disclaimer: I work for the City of Thornton and I am quoted in this article.
As drought conditions intensify across Colorado, at least 14 cities in the Denver metro area say they will join forces to warn residents of looming water shortages and the need to cut back use this spring.
Denver Water’s Jason Finehout said a metro drought coordination effort would help ensure a consistent message on reducing water use in what is shaping up to be another alarmingly dry year.
“Right now 14 cities have signed up, but I expect that number to grow,” Finehout said.
Finehout said Denver Water would likely not decide until March whether to impose tough watering restrictions, but other participating communities, such as Thornton, are likely to move ahead.
Thornton’s John Orr said the city planned to implement restrictions sooner rather than later in order to prepare for what is likely to be a water-short year.
“Our team recommends that we treat this as a start to a multi-year drought,” Orr said. “We’re trying to be cautious.”
Orr’s comments came at the Jan. 21 meeting of the state Drought and Water Availability Task Force.
Last year was the state’s second-driest calendar year on record, according to the Colorado Climate Center, leaving soils ultra dry. That is worrisome to weather trackers and water utilities, because the soil is likely to absorb much of the water coming out of this year’s snowpack.
Colorado basin-filled SNOTEL snowpack map January 27, 2021 via the NRCS.
Statewide Basin High/Low graph January 26, 2021 via the NRCS.
Right now snowpack statewide is at 78 percent of normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and stored water supplies are also below average. Last year reservoirs stood at 107 percent of average at this time, but are now at just 82 percent of average.
“2020 was a doozy of a year,” said Peter Goble, climate specialist at the Colorado Climate Center. “And we just continue to fall farther and farther behind,”
In November the state announced it would activate a statewide emergency municipal drought response plan for only the second time in its history, citing the deteriorating water forecasts. The agricultural portion of the plan had already been activated over the summer.
Colorado has experienced four severe droughts since 2000, but the trend has intensified with the drought of 2018 barely lifting before 2020 brought searing temperatures and dry weather again.
Few expect this year to be any different. “My personal demeanor has gone from cautious to concerned,” said Swithin Dick with the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch and which is a member of the new drought group. The district’s water reservoirs stand at 55 percent of capacity, a benchmark that is 25 percent lower than normal for this time of year, he said.
Denver Water will partner with Aurora Water to lead the coordinated drought communications response effort, Finehout said, with the first meeting tentatively scheduled for early February.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s dire projections for Colorado River Basin reservoirs for the first time triggers drought contingency planning across seven basin states.
The dry 2020 and the lack of snow this season has water managers in seven states preparing for the first time for cutbacks outlined in drought contingency plans drafted two years ago.
A sobering forecast released this week by the Bureau of Reclamation shows the federally owned Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the nation’s two largest reservoirs and critical storage for Colorado River water and its 40 million users — dipping near-record-low levels. If those levels continue dropping as expected, long-negotiated agreements reached by the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 will go into effect, with water deliveries curtailed to prevent the federal government from stepping in and making hard water cuts.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s quarterly report was dire, showing Lake Powell at 42% of capacity and downriver’s Lake Mead at 40% capacity. And there’s not much water coming.
“Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, presenting the bureau’s latest forecasts to the district’s board last week.
The bureau’s January report showed the impacts of a warming, drying climate peaking last year. The period from April to December was among the driest stretches ever recorded in the Southwest, with current conditions mirroring 2002, 2012, 2013 and 2018, four of the five driest years recorded in the Colorado River Basin. The bureau forecasts three scenarios for the next 24 months. Those three projections detail a most probable result, a best-case scenario and a worst-case situation.
Snowpack conditions right now in the mountains that feed the Colorado River and eventually fill Lake Powell are perilously close to the worst-case scenario. The bureau report shows the 2021 inflow into Lake Powell most likely will land around 53% of normal, but could end up as bad as 33% of normal.
The bureau expects the Utah reservoir will finish 2021 at 35% of capacity. If things get worse and follow that worst-case projection, the water level at Lake Powell could drop below a critical level — 3,525 feet above sea level — in early 2022 and that would threaten the ability of Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity…
If the reservoir falls below that 3,525-foot elevation level, the Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to deliver hydro-electricity to more than 3 million customers and the federal government could lose as much as $150 million a year in revenue from selling that electricity. Any projection that the reservoir is headed toward that critical threshold gets water managers in all seven basin states ready for drought-response operations that spread the pain of water cuts across every region of the Colorado River Basin.
Jim Lochhead has helmed Denver Water for half of this prolonged drought. He’s seen good years like 2011 — really the last decent year for water in Colorado — and bad years, like 2013…
But with the lack of snow this season and snowpack in all but one of the state’s seven major river basins below median levels, Lochhead said he is “certainly very concerned about the supply outlook.”
Kanzer, in his report to the Colorado River district board last week, said soil conditions are very dry across Western Colorado. So the state can’t blizzard itself out of this drought hole.
“Even if we did get a good spring we would not get much benefit because all of the moisture would go into the soil and not run off,” Kanzer said.
It has been a rough year for operations at the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon.
First, ice jammed the plant’s spillway in February, damaging equipment that required repair. The plant came back online in July but was able to generate electricity for only a few weeks before the Grizzly Peak Fire burned down its transmission lines.
According to the plant’s owner, Xcel Energy, the electricity impacts of the outages at the 15-megawatt generating station have been minimal, and the utility expects the plant to go back online this week. But while the electric grid can manage without the plant, the outage presents a much bigger threat to the flows on the Colorado River because the plant has senior water rights dating to 1902.
This means that any water users upstream with junior rights — which includes utilities such as Denver Water that divert water to the Front Range — have to leave enough water in the river to meet the plant’s water right of 1,250 cubic feet per second when the plant is running. When the Shoshone makes a call, the water makes its way through the plant’s turbines and goes downstream, filling what would otherwise often be a nearly dry section of river down toward Grand Junction.
A Shoshone call keeps the river flowing past the point where it would otherwise be diverted, supporting downstream water uses that would otherwise be impossible on this stretch of river. But when the plant is down, as it has been for most of 2020, that call is not guaranteed.
“Historically, what the Shoshone plant has done is kept a steady baseflow, which makes it easier for irrigators down here to be able to divert their own water right,” said Kirsten Kurath, a lawyer for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which represents agricultural water users. “When the river goes up and down, it takes a lot of operational effort.”
The Shoshone water right also supports important nonconsumptive water uses. It provides critical flows needed for fish habitat and supports a robust whitewater-rafting industry in Glenwood Canyon. When the river drops too much below 1,250 cfs, it can create for a slow and bumpy ride.
“Customers get off and think, ‘Ugh, it would have been more fun to go to Disneyland,’ ” said David Costlow, the executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. “Much lower and you are really scraping down that river and at some point you just pull the plug.”
The nearly year-long outages at Shoshone have many on the river worried. When the plant is down for repairs or maintenance, it does not make its call on the river allowing users upstream — including those that pipe water to the Front Range — to begin diverting. The Shoshone call can be the difference between the water remaining on the Western Slope or being diverted to the Front Range. Long outages, such as this one, reveal the vulnerability of the water on which so many rely.
“It’s a critically important component to the way that the Colorado main stem water regime has developed over more than a century now,” said Peter Fleming, the general counsel for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It’s sort of the linchpin or the bottom card.”
Water interests on the Western Slope have made some headway in recent years to maintain the status quo on the river even when Shoshone is down. Most of the major junior water-rights holders upstream of the plant — including Denver Water, Aurora and the Colorado Big Thompson Project — have signed on to the Shoshone Outage Protocol (SHOP). When the protocol goes into effect, as it has this year, these diverters have agreed to manage their diversions as if the Shoshone Plant — and the call — was online.
The agreement has been in operation for about a decade, helping to maintain flows during periods where the plant has undergone repairs or maintenance. The agreement was formalized in 2016 with a 40-year term. While the outage protocol has staved off major drops in the Colorado River flow over the years, the agreement is not as secure as water users that rely on Shoshone’s flows would prefer.
“SHOP is the best alternative that we have right now, but it doesn’t completely restore the flows,” said Kurath. “And one of the other problems right now is that it’s not permanent.”
For water users downstream of Shoshone, SHOP has three major issues. First, it is only guaranteed for 40 years, which for water planners is considered a short time frame. Second, the agreement does not include every upstream diverter, meaning that it doesn’t completely restore the flows to the levels where they would be if the Shoshone plant were on. Third, the agreement allows some of its signatories to ignore SHOP under certain water-shortage scenarios.
Despite the drought this year, the conditions never reached a point where SHOP’s signatories were able to opt out of the protocol, so the agreement went into effect when river levels dropped. But even though SHOP worked this year, the long outages at the Shoshone plant highlight the uncertainty of the plant’s future.
“We’ve always been nervous about it,” Fleming said. “It’s an aging facility, it doesn’t produce a ton of power, and we don’t know how long it’s going to be a priority to maintain and operate.”
The River District has been working to negotiate a more permanent solution for the Shoshone water rights for years. They have considered everything — from trying to buy the Shoshone plant outright to negotiating with diverters on the river to make something such as SHOP permanent.
The Shoshone outages have given these efforts renewed importance. In a recent board meeting of the River District, Fleming said that resuming talks with Denver Water that had stalled during the pandemic is a top priority.
While Fleming would not elaborate on the specifics of the ongoing negotiations, all options have the potential to impact many water users on the river — even those who aren’t at the negotiating table.
“We don’t approach this like we have water rights that we don’t have,” Costlow said. “But our business depends on water, and it depends on water levels that make water fun.”
This story ran in the Nov. 13 edition of The Aspen Times.
Rate changes are needed to help pay for Denver Water’s Lead Reduction Program, officials said.
Denver Water has been notifying Littleton residents of rate increases, which are set to begin Jan. 1.
Most residents can expect rate increases of less than 70 cents if they use water at similar volumes to 2020, the agency said.
The rate changes will help Denver Water pay for its Lead Reduction Program. The agency has sent letters to hundreds of Littleton homes — those built between 1983 and 1987 — to warn of possible lead contamination. The water does not contain lead, but the homes may have lead solder between copper pipes that could contaminate the water.
To protect customers from lead in drinking water, Denver Water raised the pH of the water in March to reduce corrosivity, and the agency will be replacing all customer-owned lead service lines over the next 15 years, officials said.
Community members can now share comments about Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir expansion project proposal, which is being reviewed by Boulder County.
Although a postcard sent to property owners near Gross Reservoir said public comment about the proposed expansion project should be in by Oct. 14, county staff clarified that community members can comment at any point until the Boulder County Board of Commissioners makes a final decision.
The current Oct. 14 deadline is for referral agencies and even that may be pushed if enough agencies request an extension. If an extension is granted, a new postcard will be sent to property owners, according to Boulder County.
While Boulder County spokesman Richard Hackett said it’s helpful to have community comments in early, he stressed there is no official deadline or cutoff. Some adjacent property owners, such as Timberline Fire Protection District, also are referral agencies on the project, which Hackett said is part of the explanation for the postcard’s wording.
No public meetings or hearings have been scheduled yet, but the county will announce them to its Gross Reservoir Expansion Project news list. People who want to receive emailed or text messaged notifications can sign up at here.
Meanwhile, community members can submit questions or written comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Boulder County Community Planning and Permitting Department’s review of a planned expansion of Gross Reservoir in western Boulder County is underway, officials announced Thursday.
This is the latest in a years-long dispute between Boulder County and Denver Water, who owns and operates the reservoir and dam. A Boulder District Court judge in December 2019 affirmed the county’s right to require that Denver Water go through its 1041 land use review process in order to expand the reservoir…
“Denver Water put in a request to determine if the expansion project would be exempt from our land use code,” Boulder County spokesperson Richard Hackett said.
However, the water utility company in July dismissed that appeal soon after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted approval for Denver Water to continue with design and construction after the county told the company it would not conduct the review while the litigation was ongoing. The regulatory commission’s approval stipulates that project construction begin within two years. The project in 2017 received the other permit it needed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers…
No public meetings or hearings have been scheduled yet, but the county will announce them to its Gross Reservoir Expansion Project news list. People who want to receive emailed or text messaged notifications can sign up at here. Hackett said the agencies reviewing the application have until Oct. 14 to return initial comments, although the county has the right to extend that deadline due to extenuating circumstances caused by the coronavirus.
In the meantime, community members can submit questions or written comments to email@example.com. There is no deadline for doing so. Comments will be accepted until the Boulder County Board of Commissioners makes a decision.
Here’s a guest column from Stacy Chesney that’s running in The Sky-Hi Daily News:
When it comes to collaboratively managing water supplies on the West Slope, Denver Water understands that we must walk the talk.
When talking about our new era of doing business, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead regularly cites that “instead of platitudes, politics or parochialism, you need to sit down and work together.”
And that is exactly what has happened since the signatories of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement sat down on Sept. 26, 2013, to put the new framework into action that ultimately benefits water supply, water quality, recreation and the environment on both sides of the Continental Divide.
From it came the Learning By Doing cooperative effort to maintain and enhance the aquatic environment in Grand County, which has already seen huge successes in the Fraser Flats River Habitat work, stream sampling programs and the removal of 2,500 tons of traction sand from Highway 40 before it could impact water quality and trout habitat downstream in the Fraser River.
We’re also aware that dry and hot summers, like we saw in 2018 and are experiencing again this year, bring added stress to the fisheries, environment and ultimately the entire communities of Grand and Summit counties.
When the rivers are low, talking the talk also becomes imperative.
Water efficiency is always top of mind for the Denver metro area, and during times like this, conservation dominates our communication channels. If you live on the West Slope, you may not see Denver Water’s communications about efficiency, but we are focusing on conservation measures and fostering appreciation for our source water where it matters: our customers.
We know that using less water means more water can be kept in the reservoirs, rivers and streams that fish live in and Coloradans enjoy. And ultimately, Denver Water’s customers are answering that call despite enduring what is turning out to be one of the hottest and driest years on record.
Overall, residents of the Denver metro area are using less water than they did in other summers when it was similarly hot and dry. We see them being cautious and judicious with their water use and adjusting based on the weather. In fact, Denver Water customers cut their water use in half in a matter of days when it snowed earlier in September.
This is nothing new though. After the 2002 drought, Denver Water’s conservation campaign led to our per-person reduction goal of 22% from pre-drought levels — one that we’ve continued to maintain since 2016. We’ve taken that momentum and are now working directly with our customers, sending water use reports along with rebates and tips to inefficient users on how to better use water wisely.
We also continue to evolve everything we do, from leading the way with new water reuse solutions, to upgrading our Water Shortage Plan – developed with feedback from our partners at Trout Unlimited, Grand County and other Learning By Doing stakeholders.
Denverites value where their water comes from. We live in this great state because of communities like Grand and Summit counties that provide resources precious to all of us. This benefit was made even more valuable because of the pandemic this year – a reality that we don’t take for granted and continually stress to the 1.5 million people we serve.
Stacy Chesney is Denver Water’s director of public affairs.
Amid one of the hottest summers on record for Colorado, Dillon Reservoir is 94% full, nearly 5 feet below its capacity. The reason is a complex combination of past weather patterns, current water-use habits and recent changes to the lakebed.
For most of the summer, Dillon Reservoir has been down about 4 1/2 feet. This low elevation is noticeable from the shore, but the drop in water level is less pronounced than it has been in other dry years. Around this time in 2018, Dillon Reservoir’s elevation was dropping an inch daily and was down about 11 feet by Labor Day.
Dillon Reservoir is no normal mountain lake. The man-made reservoir is one of the largest sources of drinking water for Denver. Usually in late June, Denver Water holds back water that flows into Dillon Reservoir from the Blue River basin and stores the water until it’s needed along the Front Range. In late summer, Denver Water typically begins piping water out of Dillon Reservoir via the Roberts Tunnel, a 23-mile pipe that runs under the Continental Divide and into the North Fork of the South Platte River. From there, the water flows down toward Strontia Springs Reservoir, where it’s delivered to Denver Water’s customers.
In most normal water years, managers at Denver Water are able to fill the reservoir to its 257,000 acre-foot capacity in the spring, and recreation along the reservoir is usually best when it’s full. This year, unseasonably warm spring weather created dry soil that absorbed much of the moisture from melting snow before it reached rivers. Wind and low precipitation in May also contributed to a lackluster runoff season. Denver Water was able to fill Dillon Reservoir to 244,000 acre-feet of water, about 95% of its capacity. The reservoir levels have hovered around that number ever since late June.
“You know, 95% seems like it would be pretty full, but in the past, at this point, we would be moving docks and boat ramps would be unusable,” Frisco Bay Marina General Manager Tom Hogeman said. “But other than tightening cables on docks to adjust for different water levels, we haven’t had to move anything.”
The operational changes for the marina are due to an excavation of the lakebed in 2019. That spring, the lake was at historic low levels after the 2018 drought. The town of Frisco and Denver Water took advantage of the dry lakebed and rolled out heavy digging machines to excavate areas near the shore. The $4 million project moved more than 85,000 cubic yards of dirt, deepening the area around the marina and lengthening the beach.
The “Big Dig,” as the project was dubbed by the town of Frisco, was designed to improve navigation for boaters and lengthen the boating season by making the parts of Dillon Reservoir that are more desirable for recreation less prone to elevation fluctuations. The project is one of the main pillars of the Frisco Bay Marina Master Plan, a long-term blueprint for projects to expand recreation and tourism on Dillon Reservoir.
The reservoir, already a significant source of tourism for Summit County, has seen a bump in visitors this year. The increase is likely the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased demand for outdoor recreation across the High Country. The marina this year has already brought in 18% more revenue than last year, and there is still a month left before boating season is over.
Last summer, the changes from the lakebed excavation were less noticeable because healthy snowpack from the previous winter filled the reservoir. With water levels down again, Hogeman said it’s clear that the project was a success.
“That has really paid off,” he said. “We are in a better position to deal with these smaller fluctuations. Before, our slip holders would have to adapt to their boats being in different places at different times of the year depending on water levels. Now we’ve just got an improved level of consistency.”
While the lake excavation helped to ward off problems from small water-elevation drops, a more severe drop would still threaten recreation at Dillon Reservoir. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entire state is currently at some level of drought for the first time in eight years. Both Summit County, where Dillon Reservoir is located, and Denver County, where the lake’s water is used, have a mix of moderate and severe drought within their borders.
This level of drought has been manageable this year for Denver Water partly because of the 2018-19 winter. Snowstorms that winter left snowpack levels at about 104% of normal all the way through April 2019, and the reservoir filled to capacity last summer.
According to Nathan Elder, the manager of water supply for Denver Water, that extra water was a big help when this spring-runoff season produced less water than normal.
“We had a really great water supply year last year, and we came into this year roughly 5% above normal (storage at Dillon),” he said. “We pretty much maintained that until late June.”
The storage boost was also helped along somewhat by water use — or lack thereof — in Denver. The city is experiencing one of its hottest years on record, with 65 days seeing temperatures hit at least 90 degrees, a number that is second only to 2012. Despite the heat, water use is only 11% above the five-year average, and Denver Water has not had to implement any restrictions beyond its normal summer watering guidelines.
According to Elder, residential water use has gone up, but with many businesses closed due to the pandemic, commercial water use has dropped significantly.
“Our customers, despite it being hot and dry, (have) been pretty good with usage this year,” Elder said. “We haven’t seen the use that we would expect for these types of temperatures.”
Unusually, Dillon Reservoir will have another chance to fill this year. Typically, Denver Water pulls water from the lake using the Roberts Tunnel through the end of the year, but the tunnel will be undergoing about two months of maintenance this fall. That project will cut off Denver from Dillon Reservoir and require Denver Water to rely heavily on Cheesman Reservoir, which draws water primarily from the South Platte River basin, on the Front Range.
This will give Dillon Reservoir an extra chunk of time to bolster its reserves, but only if it rains. According to Elder, forecasters are not predicting a very rainy September. Without a large amount of carryover storage going forward, next year’s levels at Dillon Reservoir will depend on snow from this winter. Although the lake avoided a drought disaster this year, a prolonged dry period could change that.
“The worst-case scenario is that the reservoir doesn’t fill again next year,” Elder said. “So hope for rain.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with the Summit Daily News and other Swift Communications newspapers. For more, go to AspenJournalism.org.
Ruedi Reservoir is feeling the effects of an unusual water year, with less water for endangered fish and with low reservoir levels predicted for late summer and fall.
“This year was a strange year,” Tim Miller, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist who manages operations at Ruedi, said at an annual public meeting about reservoir operations held virtually Wednesday. “For most of the year, it seemed like we were doing well, we thought we would get a fill on the reservoir. However, things really turned around in late spring and early summer.”
At the meeting convened by the Bureau of Reclamation, Miller said the reservoir, which holds just over 102,000 acre-feet of water, topped out at 96,750 acre-feet this year — about 5,000 acre-feet short of filling. That means there is 5,000 acre-feet less water available this season to boost flows downstream for endangered fish in what’s known as the “15-mile reach” of the Colorado River near Grand Junction.
As reservoir levels continue to drop over the next month, Aspen Yacht Club members may not be able to access the boat ramp over Labor Day weekend. By Sept. 1, reservoir levels are predicted to be down to about 84,500 acre-feet and the surface to be at an elevation of 7,747 feet, which is 19 feet lower than when it’s full.
“After Sept. 1, it’s going to be dicey,” Miller said of accessing the private marina’s boat ramp. The U.S. Forest Service boat ramp will still be accessible at those levels, he said.
Bruce Gabow of the Aspen Yacht Club said that when water levels are 13 feet below full, the club’s docks become grounded and inoperable. He said that most years, boats are taken out of the reservoir by mid-September, but with water levels dropping sooner this year, many will need to go before the end of August.
“Everyone has kind of been expecting it, but they will be bummed out,” he said of the club’s members.
Ruedi Reservoir is currently 92% full, at 94,065 acre-feet. It topped out on July 17 at 96,914 acre-feet. In 2018, the reservoir also didn’t fill, topping out at 92,650 acre-feet, according to Miller.
Each spring, Miller must decide how much water to release from Ruedi and when to release it to make room for inflow from snowmelt. Those decisions are based on streamflow forecasts from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation’s statistical forecasts.
This year’s unusual conditions made for tricky forecasting, leading some to question whether more and better data collection is needed, instead of relying primarily on snow telemetry, or SNOTEL, data. These automated remote sensors collect weather and snowpack information in remote watersheds, but they provide only a snapshot of a specific location. Each of the three forecasting agencies over-predicted Ruedi inflow for the months of April, May and June.
Usually, the amount of runoff closely mirrors snowpack. And with snowpack in the Roaring Fork River basin slightly above normal, as measured by SNOTEL sites, it seemed that is where runoff would also end up. But parched soils from a dry fall sucked up some of the moisture before it made its way to streams and eventually the reservoir. Miller also suspects that a high rate of sublimation — where snow goes from a frozen state to vapor, skipping the liquid phase — may have also played a role.
“To do our statistical forecast, it’s 90% snowpack only,” Miller said. “We had some different variables this year.”
By the end of May, Miller realized inflow projections were too high and began scaling back releases. Ruedi also did not participate in Coordinated Reservoir Operations this year. In the annual CROS, which began around May 29, water managers from across the state aimed to enhance peak spring runoff by releasing water from reservoirs at the same time. The peak flows have ecological benefits, especially for fish in the 15-mile reach.
“It was pretty much a last-minute declaration we couldn’t do CROS,” Miller said.
April Long, executive director of Ruedi Water & Power Authority, suggested that water managers should explore other ways of collecting data in addition to SNOTEL information to improve forecast accuracy. The city of Aspen and Denver Water have experimented with LiDAR technology — which analyzes the reflection of laser light to create detailed three-dimensional maps — to track the depth of mountain snowpack, providing a more complete picture of the water contained in that snowpack.
“With this year of unexpected results from our snowpack and the way it melted off, I have concern that with climate change and climate variability, we are going to see more uncertainty,” Long said in a follow-up interview with Aspen Journalism. “I wonder how much benefit we could gain if we knew a little more.”
This map shows the snowpack depth of the Maroon Bells in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions. Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center
A flight from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory gathers data about the snowpack above Dillon Reservoir on a flight. Information gathered from the flight helped Denver Water manage reservoir operations. Photo courtesy of Quantum Spatial
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the date Ruedi storage peaked in 2020.
Aspen Journalism is a local, investigative, nonprofit news organization that collaborates on coverage of water and rivers with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 7 edition of The Aspen Times.
“We are committed to working closely with the Boulder County community to ensure safety, be considerate neighbors and retain open, two-way communication channels during this construction project,” Jeff Martin, program manager for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, said in a recent statement…
At the same time, Denver Water has its own case with Boulder County, which initially denied the utility’s request to be exempt from a local review of its plan. A Boulder district judge ruled in December that Denver Water must go through the county’s review process. Denver Water has appealed that decision through the Colorado Court of Appeals and must file an opening brief by Aug. 4.
This means that ultimately county officials could have a say over approval of the expansion. Boulder County Deputy Attorney David Hughes said they have that power thanks to a series of Colorado statutes referred to as 1041 Regulations.
Boulder County could also request another hearing from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But Hughes declined to say whether his office will do so.
After receiving that federal approval, Denver Water said it plans to finish the design phase of the expansion next year, followed by four years of construction.
“The FERC order is an important advance for the project,” a Denver Water spokesman said in an email to CPR News. “From here, related to legal matters, we’ll need to take some time to evaluate our options and the appropriate next steps.”
Infrastructure built more than a century ago still endures, but some of Colorado’s old irrigation ditches have been repurposed to meet the moment. The High Line Canal—a 71-mile-long former irrigation conveyance turned greenway and stormwater filtration tool—winds its way through the Denver metro area as an artery of infrastructure boasting a story of adaptation.
The canal, built in the 1880s to move irrigation water, was purchased by Denver Water in the 1920s. But the metro area changed around it. By the 1960s, people were sneaking onto the service road alongside the ditch and using it as a walking trail, says Harriet Crittenden LaMair, executive director of the High Line Canal Conservancy, a nonprofit working to preserve, protect and enhance the canal.
By the 1970s, municipalities and special districts began negotiating with Denver Water to allow residents to legally enjoy the tree-lined trail. While this opened the canal up to public enjoyment, it also divided it through a series of leases and use agreements. “[The public] saw it as a greenway but it was being cared for as a utility corridor,” Crittenden LaMair says.
So sparked the development of a working group, and eventually the Highline Canal Conservancy, to create a larger, unified vision for the waterway. “In urban areas, people are rethinking the uses of old infrastructure that has outlived its original purposes,” Crittenden LaMair says. “Parks advocates are working with utilities and thinking, ‘Wow, what additional benefits can be seen from this infrastructure?’”
With the public using the trail as a recreational resource, Denver Water has been weaning customers off of water delivered through the canal, having them instead rely on more efficient conveyances. While there are still a few dozen customers receiving water via the High Line Canal, they will switch to different sources within the next few years. In the meantime, the canal will capture and filter stormwater. “It’s amazing that parts of the actual infrastructure built in the 1880s can be used, with modifications, for stormwater management,” Crittenden LaMair says.
The Conservancy’s 15-year plan for the canal, completed in 2018, comes with a price tag of more than $100 million in improvements, including the stormwater management infrastructure, underpasses, interpretive signage, and more. Work will be incremental, but four individual stormwater projects are already underway to filter runoff before it makes its way to receiving streams, helping municipalities and special districts meet their stormwater discharge permitting requirements.
That stormwater benefit is even lessening the new infrastructure that some developments and cities would have had to build, says Amy Turney, director of engineering for Denver Water and the utility’s stormwater lead on the High Line Canal work. “As development and roadway projects get designed close to the canal, developers and cities are realizing that using the canal is a better option than having to build new detention ponds and storm sewers.’”
Work on the High Line Canal hasn’t been without its challenges. Public perception has been high on that list with people cherishing the canal as a recreational greenway while the utility was using the canal as a piece of water delivery infrastructure.
“We had a maintenance road that turned to a path and [neighbors] didn’t want maintenance trucks anymore. There’s been no shortage of public ownership. This is their backyard—literally,” Turney says. But it will be worthwhile in the end. “The long-term success of the infiltrated stormwater helping the greenway prosper and improving receiving stream health is a legacy for us, as well as an amenity throughout the Denver metro area that thousands enjoy every year. We’re really proud of it,” she says. “Anyone who hears about this and cares about water gets excited about how we are saving water, and simultaneously using water for the best purposes.”
Caitlin Coleman is the Headwaters magazine editor and communications specialist at Water Education Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[On July 17, 2020], the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered Denver Water to proceed with design and construction to expand Gross Reservoir in Boulder County.
Seventeen years ago, Denver Water began the federal environmental permitting process that lead to approvals by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2016 and 2017.
“Obtaining the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission order to move forward with the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project brings a comprehensive 17-year federal and state permitting process — one that involved nearly 35 agencies and organizations — to a close,” said Denver Water CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead. “This order directs Denver Water to move ahead with construction to meet mandated milestones and timelines.”
“Expanding Gross Reservoir is a critical project to ensure a secure water supply for nearly a quarter of the state’s population. The project provides the system balance, additional storage and resiliency needed for our existing customers as well as a growing population. We are seeing extreme climate variability and that means we need more options to safeguard a reliable water supply for 1.5 million people in Denver Water’s service area,” Lochhead said.
The design phase of the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project is expected to wrap up by mid-2021 and will be followed by four years of construction. The project involves the raising of the existing 340-foot-tall Gross Dam by an additional 131 feet, which will increase the capacity of the reservoir by 77,000 acre-feet, and includes 5,000 acre-feet of storage dedicated to South Boulder Creek flows that will be managed by the cities of Boulder and Lafayette.
“We are committed to working closely with the Boulder County community to ensure safety, be considerate neighbors and retain open, two-way communication channels during this construction project,” said Jeff Martin, program manager for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project. “We will continue to seek community input on topics such as traffic control plans, hauling traffic schedules, tree removal plans, and other construction-related activities.”
The FERC order, along with the permitting conditions put in place by CDPHE and the Corps, further commits Denver Water to implement environmental improvements by putting in place measures evaluated in the environmental assessment issued in February 2018.
The project relies on the expansion of an existing footprint — without the placement of a new dam, reservoir or diversion structure; it also benefits from an original design that anticipated eventual expansion. Increasing the capacity of Gross Reservoir was a specific and formal recommendation from the environmental community as an alternative to construction of the proposed Two Forks Reservoir in the 1980s.
Denver Water has committed more than $20 million to more than 60 different environmental mitigation and enhancement projects that create new habitat and flow protections to rivers and streams on both sides of the Continental Divide as a result of the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project. According to Colorado officials, those commitments will have a net environmental benefit for the state’s water quality.
This project has earned the support of major environmental groups including Colorado Trout Unlimited, The Greenway Foundation and Western Resource Advocates; local, state and federal elected officials (including Colorado’s last five Governors); and major business and economic development groups, among others.
An expanded Gross Reservoir is critical to Denver Water’s multi-pronged approach — including efficient water use, reuse and responsibly sourcing new storage — to improve system balance and resiliency while contributing to water security for the more than 1.5 million people in the Denver metro area.
The FERC regulates the production of hydropower in the United States. As a Federal Power Act project dating back to 1954, expanding Gross Reservoir required the FERC’s approval of Denver Water’s application to amend its hydropower license. This approval and order carry the force of law and are the final federal authority over the reservoir project.
Participants in a 12-year process to establish protections for a stretch of the upper Colorado River are calling the finished product — which amounts to a workaround of a Wild and Scenic River designation — a success.
Last month, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service formally approved the “Amended and Restated Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Stakeholder Group Management Plan.” The plan lays out a blueprint for protecting the “outstandingly remarkable values,” or ORVs, of the Colorado River from Kremmling to Glenwood Springs, with an emphasis on recreational floatboating and fishing.
The ORVs must either be a unique, rare or exemplary feature located on the river or shoreline; contribute to the functioning of the river ecosystem; or owe their existence to the presence of the river. The plan seeks to balance these ORVs with water development and use by Front Range water providers and Western Slope water users.
To ensure protection of the ORVs, the plan includes voluntary cooperative measures that the participants could take, such as the strategic timing of reservoir releases, enhancing spring peak flows and agreements with water users to acquire water rights, which would be used to preserve the natural environment.
The plan includes a provision that addresses two big uncertainties that would lead to more transmountain diversions from the Colorado River: Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System Project and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming Project. The “poison pill” provision would allow any stakeholder to withdraw support for the plan if those projects — which are still in the permitting phase and mired in litigation, and which would provide a combined 48,000 acre-feet of water for the Front Range — negatively impact streamflows, especially for boating.
Six interest groups — conservation/environment/fishing; local government; recreational floatboating; state interests; Front Range water users; and Western Slope water users — have been working on crafting the plan since 2008. The Eagle River Watershed Council has been involved as a stakeholder since 2013, said executive director Holly Loff.
“It’s really exciting, and what a huge collaborative effort this has been, and I can’t really think of other situations that have been larger in scope and larger in the number of collaborators and all with very diverse interests — and we found a way to make it work,” Loff said. “It’s an amazing feat, really.”
Opposition to W&S
The alternative management planning process came about after the BLM in 2007 found that 54 miles of the upper Colorado River from Gore Canyon to just east of No Name Creek in Glenwood Canyon possessed enough ORVs that they were eligible for a federal Wild & Scenic River designation. Created by an act of Congress in 1968, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System seeks to preserve rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values in a free-flowing condition.
There are two ways that a river can be designated as Wild & Scenic: The secretary of the Interior can designate a river if a state governor requests it or Congress can designate a river, usually after a land-use agency conducts a study to see whether it’s eligible.
Designation as Wild & Scenic brings protection from development. For example, new dams cannot be constructed on the designated stretch and federal water-development projects that might negatively affect the river are not allowed.
But the possibility of federal government involvement and potential restrictions on water development on the upper Colorado doesn’t sit well with some groups. Municipal water providers such as Denver Water and Northern Water divert water from the Colorado’s headwaters to Front Range cities.
“A lot of members of the water community find the idea of a Wild & Scenic designation kind of frightening and prohibitive,” said Colorado Water Conservation Board Stream and Lake Protection Section Chief Linda Bassi. “It would prevent potentially new reservoirs along a Wild & Scenic river (and) certain types of structures, and that is why the water community has typically been a little leery of Wild & Scenic designation.”
In 2009, the Colorado General Assembly established the Wild and Scenic Rivers Fund. Despite what its name suggests, the fund is not dedicated to establishing Wild & Scenic designations of rivers, but to avoiding the federal designation through “work with stakeholders within the state of Colorado to develop protection of river-dependent resources as an alternative to wild and scenic river designation.”
The Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Stakeholder Group has been the recipient of money from the state fund, which is allocated up to $400,000 a year and administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. According to a CWCB memo from May, when staff reviews requests for these funds, they evaluate whether projects will promote collaboration among traditional consumptive water interests, including irrigation, and non-consumptive interests, including recreation and the environment, and whether the project will still enable Colorado to fully use water it is allocated.
“If we tried to go through designation, we don’t know if it would have ever made it past the state of Colorado,” said Kay Hopkins, outdoor recreation planner for the White River National Forest. “The state would have had to be supportive of our determination.”
Despite its renowned river rafting, fishing and scenic beauty, which contribute to the recreation-based economy of many Western Slope communities, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache La Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. That’s less than one-tenth of 1% of the state’s 107,403 river miles.
Instead of a federal designation, the CWCB considers its instream-flow program to be a primary tool in the effort to protect ORVs. Instream flows are in-channel water rights aimed at preserving the natural environment to a reasonable degree. As a part of the alternative management plan process, the CWCB secured three instream-flow rights that date to 2011 on the upper Colorado River — from the confluence of the Blue River to Piney River; from Piney River to Cabin Creek; and from Cabin Creek to the confluence with the Eagle River.
Bassi, who runs the state’s instream-flow program, has participated in the state interests group since planning began in 2008.
“Those flow rates are designed primarily to meet the needs of fish,” Bassi said. “But they will help to maintain flows that provide for some levels of boating experiences.”
The Forest Service and BLM approval of the alternative management plan means that the stretch of the upper Colorado River has been deferred from Wild & Scenic eligibility. But if the plan fails or any of the stakeholders enact the “poison pill” provision, the river could revert to being considered for eligibility, meaning it would once again be up for federal scrutiny, something some stakeholders want to avoid.
“That is the hammer behind the long-term commitments,” said Rob Buirgy, coordinator for the stakeholder group.
Eagle County Commissioner and Colorado River Water Conservation District Board member Kathy Chandler-Henry believes the strength of the alternative management plan is the input of its many participants.
“My first thought was the alternative management plan must be a lesser system of protection, but in my mind, it has not turned out to be that way because there are so many players at the table,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like a lesser process. It seems like a more publicly engaged process.”
Loff was more pragmatic.
“I don’t think (the alternative management plan) is better, but I don’t know that this group ever would have agreed to a standard Wild & Scenic designation. I don’t think that would have happened at all,” she said. “I think it’s better that we have this.”
Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story was published online and printed in the Aspen Times on July 11, 2020.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Recent abundant flows of Colorado River water between Palisade and the Gunnison River confluence during another spring runoff season weren’t entirely the work of Mother Nature.
They also were the product of a coordinated, voluntary effort by operators of upstream reservoirs to coordinate releases of water into the river to bolster peak flows in that stretch of river and aid in the recovery of endangered fish.
This was the 12th coordinated release since the first one occurred in 1997, and the fifth one in the last six years. The coordinated releases occur as conditions warrant and allow each year, to flush out fine sediment in gravel beds that serve as spawning habitat for rare fish. They also improve habitat for insects and other macroinvertebrates that fish feed on…
The upper Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are home to four endangered fish. Don Anderson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who serves as the instream flow coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a public-private partnership, said that what’s known as the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River between the Palisade area and the Gunnison River confluence is primarily used by two of the endangered fish, the razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow. But a third endangered species, the bonytail, sometimes makes use of the stretch. And a fourth, the humpback chub, which favors deep, rocky, fast-flowing stretches in places such as Westwater Canyon downstream, also indirectly benefits from water releases primarily aimed at bolstering flows in the 15-Mile Reach.
The 15-Mile Reach experiences less of a spring runoff peak than some other parts of the Colorado River because of Grand Valley irrigation diversions just upstream. The goal of this year’s coordinated releases was to achieve daily flows averaging at least 12,900 cubic feet per second upstream at Cameo, an amount that was nearly achieved on some days last week. At times during a couple of days flows exceeded 13,000 cfs, Michelle Garrison, senior water resource specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, told entities involved in the coordinated release program in a conference call Wednesday. She said the effort was a success, and Anderson agreed. He told participants that without getting hung up on exact numbers, flows at that level, which meant peak flows of about 12,000 cfs in the 15-Mile Reach, do good work for the endangered fish and their habitat.
The effort involved in part coordinated releases by the Bureau of Reclamation from Green Mountain Reservoir, Denver Water from Williams Fork Reservoir, and the Colorado River District from Wolford Mountain Reservoir. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District also was a participant.
“Man, you guys did a nice job of coordinating as well as you possibly could with the water you had available,” Anderson told reservoir operators…
The coordinated releases can have benefits far beyond the 15-Mile Reach. Anderson said this year’s coordinated releases helped downstream in the Moab area by topping off flows into a wetland that is a potentially valuable razorback sucker nursery. Also, Utah state wildlife officials have reported concerns about seeing smallmouth bass, which prey on endangered fish, possibly spawning for the first time below Westwater Canyon. The coordinated releases may have helped combat that due to the higher and faster flows, cooler water temperatures and increased water turbidity.
Coordinated runoff flows are just one water-delivery effort targeting the 15-Mile Reach. Each year releases of dedicated endangered fish water are made to boost low flows in the reach later in the summer. Also, releases sometimes are made around early April to supplement flows in the reach after irrigation diversions have begun but before the river levels gain from spring runoff. This year was the first year such releases occurred after stored water was specifically held over from last year with the primary goal of possibly serving that purpose.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says various recovery efforts appear to be working, with scientific analysis showing the razorback sucker and humpback chub could be reclassified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Denver Water officials increased the release of water from Dillon Reservoir into the Blue River to about 400 cubic feet per second in the first week of May as inflow held steady at about 500 cfs through Monday, May 11. The latter number is expected to steadily rise as spring runoff picks up.
The current forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Colorado River Basin Forecast Center estimates as of May 11 that there is 146,000 acre-feet of water — in the form of snowmelt — that will flow into Dillon Reservoir through July 31. There’s currently 17,500 acre-feet of space in the reservoir, according to Denver Water, so about 128,500 acre-feet will flow out of the reservoir either to the Blue River or Roberts Tunnel by July 31, with an estimated 13,000 acre-feet through the tunnel.
All of these complex calculations are the first steps in a delicate dance Denver Water performs each spring to balance public safety with Denver’s water needs, recreation, hydroelectric demands and obligations to downstream senior water-rights holders.
“Dillon is our biggest reservoir and one of our more complicated to operate,” said Nathan Elder, water resources manager for Denver Water. “Most of our other reservoirs only have one outlet, but Dillon’s got both the outlet to the Blue and the outlet to the Roberts Tunnel, which provides water to the East Slope and down the North Fork (of the South Platte River) to Strontia Springs Reservoir and then to our customers.”
The Roberts Tunnel, finished in 1962 about the same time the old town of Dillon was relocated to its current spot and the Dillon Dam was built, is a 23-mile concrete conduit that diverts water from the Blue River basin on the Western Slope to the South Platte Basin on the Front Range to supply more than 1.4 million Denver Water customers.
This system is what’s known as a transmountain diversion — one of many that bring water from the Colorado River basin on the west side of the Continental Divide to the state’s population center on the Front Range. What it’s not, Elder said, is a way to avoid dangerous spring-runoff flooding.
“We can’t use Roberts Tunnel as a flood-control option,” he said. “So we’re very careful about the amount of water we take from the West Slope over to the East Slope. And when we use the Roberts Tunnel, we can only take it over to the East Slope if it’s put towards the demand. We can’t just dump it over there to prevent flooding or high flows below Dillon.”
The 2014 Colorado River Cooperative Agreement places a 400,000 acre-foot limit on Blue River water stored in existing or future Denver Water storage facilities on the Front Range.
There are more than 1,000 properties in regulatory floodplains in Summit County, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and quite a few of them are along the Blue as it makes its way northwest through Silverthorne and toward its confluence with the Colorado River near Kremmling.
This time of year, as snowpack begins to melt into local tributaries — the Blue, Snake River and Tenmile Creek all feed Dillon Reservoir from the south — Elder and his team closely monitor snowmelt forecasts and weather reports to coordinate with local officials to prevent flooding.
“Denver Water has worked with the town over the years to release water from Dillon Reservoir at rates between 50 cfs and 1,800 cfs,” said Tom Daugherty, Silverthorne’s director of public works. “They have done a very good job of doing that. Denver Water attends our local meetings concerning snowmelt runoff and inform us of what they expect.”
FEMA designates 2,500 cfs as a 10-year flood level just below Dillon Dam, while 3,350 cfs there would be a 100-year flood level. The amount of runoff pouring into the reservoir varies widely, depending on weather conditions and snowpack, from a low inflow of 410 cfs in the drought year of 2012 to a high of 3,408 cfs in 1995.
The amount of snowpack on the Front Range and rate of melting due to high temperatures or rain events also impacts when Denver Water turns on the Roberts Tunnel and how much water it takes out of Dillon Reservoir. The Blue River Decree dictates that Denver Water needs to keep as much water on the Western Slope as possible and can take water only to meet demand.
“Last year was a good example of that,” Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said. “We had so much snowpack on the Front Range that we just didn’t need the Roberts Tunnel water and couldn’t take it because of that demand issue.”
That resulted in higher flows on the Blue below the dam last runoff season.
“It got up to around 1,900 cfs, and we didn’t actually turn on the Roberts Tunnel until the second week in August last year,” Elder said. “That’s after everything on the East Slope filled, and we started dipping into that storage and streamflow dropped off on the East Slope.”
This year, there’s a similarly healthy snowpack above the reservoir and also decent snowpack on the Front Range, but temperatures have been higher and the spring runoff season hasn’t been nearly as wet and cool as last year.
“We have a Snotel (snow telemetry) site on top of Hoosier Pass, which is extremely important for monitoring that basin and for forecasting, and it’s still at 121% of normal right now,” Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer said in early May. “It looks like it did actually have a net accumulation through April and is just really just starting to turn around and melt out now over the last few days with this warm weather.”
The Natural Resources Conservation Service produces snowmelt forecasts used by Denver Water, which also taps into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast center.
Based on information from Snotel sites, snowpack above Dillon Reservoir peaked at 127% of normal. The forecast center’s inflow outlook for Dillon Reservoir is 104% of average, and the forecast from the Natural Resources Conservation Service was 107% of average.
The first priority for Denver Water is to fill the reservoir to meet customer needs, but it also tries to minimize high flows out of the reservoir via the Blue River and maintain water levels so that the Frisco and Dillon marinas can operate from June through Labor Day. Elder said the minimum operating level for both Dillon and Frisco marinas is 9,012 feet in elevation.
The goal, Elder said, is to get the reservoir to that level or higher by June 12. On May 11, the surface level of the water in the reservoir was at 9,010 feet. The reservoir is full when the elevation of the water, as measured on the dam, is 9,017 feet, which is 257,304 acre-feet of water. At 9,010 feet, the reservoir is holding about 236,232 acre-feet of water.
Release too much and too early — to avoid high flows and flooding downstream — and Denver Water runs the risk of missing the chance to fill Dillon for use by its customers later in the summer season as well as keep the reservoir full for a long boating season. And then there are the downstream hydroelectric factors and calls by senior water-rights holders.
Senior water rights
While the Blue River Decree does not have a volumetric limit on how much water Denver Water can take out of Dillon Reservoir through the Roberts Tunnel to meet its customer needs, the Roberts Tunnel right is from 1946 and is junior to Green Mountain Reservoir and Shoshone Power Plant rights, which limit the ability of Denver Water to divert. The Roberts Tunnel right is for 788 cfs, which is not a storage right but instead a direct-flow right.
So if Green Mountain gets toward the end of its fill season and hasn’t filled and Dillon has diverted, then Denver Water owes water to Green Mountain. Green Mountain Reservoir, located on the Blue River in northern Summit County, was created specifically to compensate the Western Slope for diversions to the Front Range as part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
Then on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, well downstream from where the Blue feeds the Colorado at Kremmling, there’s Xcel Energy’s Shoshone Generating Station hydroelectric plant — which has one of the most senior water rights on the main stem of the Colorado River. A 1902 right draws 1,250 cfs of water downstream to meet the plant’s needs. During dry times of the year, such as late summer, the power plant often places a “call” on the river, meaning junior diverters upstream — including Denver Water — must stop diverting so that Shoshone can get its full allocation of water.
Elder said Denver Water wants to fill Dillon Reservoir quickly enough each spring before any potential Shoshone call. If a call came before Dillon was full, Denver Water would have to release water from Williams Fork Reservoir in order to keep water in Dillon Reservoir. However, Williams Fork can hold only 96,000 acre-feet of water.
“We want (both reservoirs) to fill quick enough that we fill both before that Shoshone power plant call comes on and before the senior call comes on the river, but not too quick that we fill before peak runoff where we get in those high-flow situations,” Elder said. “So it’s a real balancing act there. You’re balancing elevations for marinas, downstream water rights, filling the reservoir safely and then also any potential releases you may need to make from Roberts Tunnel.”
Aspen Journalism, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by its donors and funders, covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Summit Daily News and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the May 17 edition of the Summit Daily.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A 2016 agreement is helping protect Colorado River flows downstream of Glenwood Canyon despite ice jams from the Colorado River shutting down the Shoshone Hydropower Plant in the canyon.
Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, a tax-funded agency serving counties within the river basin in western Colorado, said the problem at the plant occurred around March 1. Xcel Energy, the plant’s owner, says it won’t be using Colorado River water at the plant until it is repaired.
The plant’s operations are watched closely by the water community because it has one of the oldest water rights on the river in western Colorado — a 1902 right to 1,250 cubic feet of water per second.
That right has limited the ability of Front Range water users with more junior rights to divert Colorado River water. It helps keep water flowing down-river not just to the plant, but further downstream because the plant’s water use is nonconsumptive, benefiting municipal and agricultural water users, recreational river users and the environment.
However, the river district and regional water users have worried about the potential impacts on the river and water users whenever the aging plant is out of service and not calling for water under its senior right, such as when it requires maintenance.
To address that concern, reservoir operators including the river district, Denver Water and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation agreed in 2016 to cooperate to maintain river flows at levels mimicking Shoshone’s normal operation, with certain exceptions.
Modified reservoir operations to mimic those flows are now in effect, and will remain so until snowmelt runoff causes the river flow to exceed the current outage protocol target of 1,250 cubic feet per second.
Pokrandt said that among the benefits of protecting flows, more water in the river means lower concentrations of total dissolved solids in the river due to dilution, reducing the need for water treatment by municipal water providers that rely on the river.
Kirsten Kurath, an attorney who represents the Grand Valley Water Users Association, a party to the 2016 agreement, said a big benefit of the Shoshone flows is maintaining flows in what’s known as the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River in Mesa County. Efforts to protect endangered fish in the river focus in part on maintaining adequate flows in that stretch of the river, upstream of the Gunnison River confluence…
While Grand Valley irrigators also have senior water rights on the river, Kurath said the Shoshone water smoothes out the river’s flows, making it easier for irrigators to plan and making water diversions more efficient than when flows are lower. “Everybody downstream always benefits as you keep water in the river,” she said.
The Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Irrigation Co. are among other parties to the 2016 deal. As of late Monday afternoon, Xcel hasn’t yet said how long the power plant may be out of commission. According to the river district, Xcel has said that the COVID-19 outbreak is complicating repair plans…
The current outage agreement is in effect for 40 years. The river district says it and its West Slope partners are exploring ways to permanently protect the river flows.
Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant back in the days before I-70 via Aspen Journalism
Shoshone Falls hydroelectric generation station via USGenWeb
The penstocks feeding the Shoshone hydropower plant on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon.
The Shoshone plant and boat ramp on the Colorado River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The blown-out penstock in 2007 at the Shoshone plant. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Shoshone hydroelectric generation plant Glenwood Canyon via the Colorado River District
Xcel truck at Shoshone plant. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Number of days the Shoshone outage protocol, or ShOP, was in effect, and stages of the agreement.
Municipal water providers in Aspen, Vail, Steamboat and other communities say there is no threat from COVID-19 in their water supplies and that people do not need to hoard bottled water — provided that the employees who operate the various water plants can still come to work.
And yet, two weeks into Colorado’s crisis, you still see people exiting the state’s grocery stores with shopping carts brimming with multipacks of 4-ply Charmin or Angel Soft toilet paper. And buried under the TP, you’ll spot the 48-bottle cartons of Arrowhead or Fiji water.
Toilet paper aside, water systems operators around the state — including ski towns, which are among the hardest-hit areas for the novel coronavirus pandemic — do not understand why people think they need to stock up on bottled water.
“Aspen Water provides safe, high-quality water that exceeds all stringent state and federal drinking-water regulations,” said City of Aspen spokeswoman Mitzi Rapkin. “Aspen’s water-treatment methods use filtration and disinfection process which remove and inactivate viruses.”
The same is true for Front Range water utilities.
“We have wastewater-treatment facilities that work above and beyond the standards devised for us, so there is no worry that water would be impacted by COVID-19,” said Ryan Maecker, spokesman for Colorado Springs Utilities, where surrounding El Paso County is second only to Denver in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state.
Those drinking-water standards, established by the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, are enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“The water is treated and it’s disinfected, which takes care of all viruses,” said Linn Brooks, general manager of Eagle River Water and Sanitation District in eastern Eagle County, which has the third-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state.
Officials say water should be the least of anyone’s concerns during the growing outbreak, which has prompted an unprecedented statewide stay-at-home order and has seen most nonessential businesses and schools shut down.
“No, there are no water shortages. No, municipal water is not a vector for COVID-19,” said Zach Margolis, utility manager for Silverthorne Water & Sewer in Summit County.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus is thought to spread in the following manner: “Mainly from person-to-person between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) … through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”
Michelle Carr, distribution and collection manager for the City of Steamboat Springs Water and Sewer, attended a CDC webinar on the topic of COVID-19 and drinking-water systems.
“It said that the coronavirus is essentially very susceptible to our disinfection processes, and that while our disinfection process targets bacteria, bacteria is less susceptible than this virus,” Carr said. “So, the fact that we’re treating for killing bacteria means that we should adequately be taking care of the COVID virus.”
Buying bottled water during the ongoing pandemic makes no sense, she said.
“Our water is completely safe to drink,” Carr said. “I don’t anticipate that there will ever be an issue where we’re spreading COVID-19 through the treated potable water system. The bottled water is completely unnecessary.”
Brooks won’t speculate on why people are hoarding toilet paper, but she does have a theory regarding the stockpiling of bottled water.
“I think (people) see communications on how to isolate at home, how to prepare to a shelter in place, how to deal with emergencies, and those instructions almost always tell you to get bottled water,” said Brooks, adding that some people inexplicably prefer to drink bottled water all the time. “I don’t particularly understand that because our water here is so great, and (bottled water) certainly has an environmental impact.”
Various municipal, county and state emergency declarations have been enacted, covering water systems, but officials say those mostly just allow them to apply for state and federal funds or obtain additional equipment if necessary. Most water providers and wastewater-treatment operators are planning for staff shortages and doing everything they can to keep their staff healthy.
“We are not aware of any specific threats to our water system,” said Aspen’s Rapkin. “We have taken proactive measures to isolate our operations staff in order to continue to provide this critical community resource.”
Brooks agrees that staffing is the biggest concern as the virus spreads.
“Our biggest risk is absenteeism of our operators,” she said. “But, that being said, we can run with a pretty lean crew even if we got into some pretty significant absenteeism, as long as it doesn’t hit everyone at once, which we don’t think is likely at all.”
Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which treats and provides water for users from East Vail to Wolcott along Interstate 70, took steps to mitigate against absenteeism early on.
“We knew that that was going to be our biggest risk and that protecting our employees was the most important thing that we could do. That’s our highest priority — to keep our staff healthy,” said Brooks, who added that any staffer with a symptom of any kind must stay home from work and not return until they have been free of symptoms for 72 hours.
Even if smaller mountain utilities were to be hit suddenly by a COVID-19 outbreak and get into staffing problems, other water-systems operators would step in to help. A cooperative venture among all utilities across the state and codified with intergovernmental agreements dictates that if a utility needs assistance, others will provide aid.
“So, if there’s somebody that has a plant failure, and we have staffing, we will send our staffing to them,” City of Aurora Water Department spokesman Greg Baker said during a call with other Aurora and Colorado Springs water officials. “I know Colorado Springs has been heavily involved in (mutual assistance) as well, so that should really not be a major concern.”
The desire to hoard bottled water, on the other hand, escapes officials.
“The bottled-water hoarding is a phenomenon we do not understand, because we bring safe, high-quality drinking water to your house,” Baker said. “We deliver it for a half a penny a gallon, so why are people going out and buying water? We do not understand that at all.”
Also, all the plastic is an environmental issue, Baker said, and transporting it around the state or out of state in bottles removes local water from Aurora’s extensive reuse system for irrigation and agriculture.
“So, whenever people take bottled water and start shipping it out, you’re kind of losing that reusable component, and that impacts our culture because we’re so used to reusability. So that hurts us there,” Baker said. “It also hurts us through the fact that, frankly, we have some of the highest-quality water in the state, and why do you need it in a bottle? It’s as irrational as the toilet-paper hoarding.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the March 28 editions of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the primary water-policy agency for the state, met last week in Westminster, and afterward I had dinner with a friend. The friend, who has long worked in the environmental advocacy space, spoke of some matter before the board, and added this: “Twenty years ago this conversation never would have happened.”
Water politics in Colorado have undergone a Big Pivot. As the century turned, environmental issues had made inroads into the conversation, but water development remained a dominant theme. Then came the drought of 2002, which more or less changed everything. So has the growing realization of how the changing climate will impact the already over-extended resources of the Colorado River.
Instead of a deep, deep bucket, to be returned to again and again, the Colorado River has become more or less an empty bucket.
Those realizations were evident in a panel discussion at the Colorado Water Congress about water conservation and efficiency. Jeff Tejral, representing Denver Water, spoke to the “changes over the last 20 years” that have caused Denver Water and other water utilities to embrace new water-saving technology and altered choices about outdoor water use.
Denver Water literally invented the word xeriscaping. That was before the big, big drought or the understandings of climate change as a big, big deal. Twenty years ago, the Colorado Water Congress would never have hosted panels on climate change. This year it had several.
Tejral pointed to the growth in Denver, the skyscrapers now omnipresent in yet another boom cycle, one that has lifted the city’s population over 700,000 and which will likely soon move the metropolitan area’s population above 3 million. That growth argues for continued attention to water efficiency and conservation, as Denver—a key provider for many of its suburbs—has limited opportunities for development of new supplies. “The other part of it is climate change,” he said. “That means water change.”
Denver Water has partnered with a company called Greyter Water Systems on a pilot project involving 40 homes at Stapleton likely to begin in June or July. It involves new plumbing but also water reuse, not for potable purposes but for non-potable purposes. John Bell, a co-founder of the company, who was also on the panel, explained that his company’s technology allows water to be treated within the house and put to appropriate uses there at minimal cost.
“It makes no sense to flush a toilet with perfectly good drinking water, and now with Greyter, you don’t have to,” he said.
For decades Denver has had a reuse program. Sewage water treated to high standards is applied to golf courses and other landscaping purposes. Because of the requirements for separate pipes—always purple, to indicate the water is not good for drinking—its use is somewhat limited.
A proposal has been moving though the Colorado Department of Public Health rule-making process for several years now that would expand use of greywater and set requirements for direct potable reuse. The pilot project at Stapleton would appear to be part of that slow-moving process.
Greyter Water Systems, meanwhile, has been forging partnerships with homebuilders, the U.S. Department of Defense, and others in several small projects.
“It seems like 40 homes in Colorado is a small step,” said Tejral, “but a lot of learning will come out of that, which will open the door for the next 400, and then the next 4,000.”
There are limits to this, however, as water cannot be recycled unless it’s imported into a basin. Water users downstream depend upon releases of water from upstream. Water in the South Platte River Basin is estimated to have 6 or 7 uses before it gets to Nebraska.
In the Eagle River Valley, the streams gush with runoff from the Gore and Sawatch ranges, but there can be pinches during years of drought. That area, said Linn Brooks, who directs the Eagle River Water and Sanitation Districts, has a population of between 35,000 and 60,000 between Vail and Wolcott, “depending where we are during our tourist year.”
Water efficiency programs can make a big difference in what flows in the local creeks and rivers. Brooks pointed to 2018, a year of exceptionally low snowfall. New technologies and policies that put tools into the hands of customers reduced water use 30% during a one-month pinch, resulting in 8 cubic feet per second more water flowing in local creeks and rivers. During that time, Gore Creek was running 16 cfs through Vail. It flows into the Eagle River, which was running 25 cfs. “So saving 8 cfs was really significant,” she said.
Many of Eagle Valley’s efficiency programs focus on outdoor water use. That is because the water delivery for summer outdoor use drives the most capacity investment and delivery expenses. “Really, that is the most expensive water that we provide,” Brooks said.
Tap fees and monthly billings have been adjusted to reflect those costs. One concept embraced by Eagle River Water and Sanitation is called water budgeting. “Our hope is that water budgeting will continue to increase the downward trend of water use per customer that we’ve had for the last 20 years for at least another 10 years,” she said.
Eagle River also has tried to incentivize good design. The district negotiates with real estate developers based on the water treatment capacity their projects will require. “That is a way to get them to build more water-efficient projects, especially on the outdoors side,” explained Brooks. “When we execute these agreements, we put water limits on them. If they go over that, we charge them more for their tap fee. That can be a pretty big cost. We don’t like to do that, but we have found that in those few cases where new developments go over their water limits, we have gone back to them and said, we might have to reassess the water tap fees, but what we really want you to do is stay within your water budget.” That tactic, she added, has usually worked.
In this concept of water budgeting, she said, “I don’t think we have even begun to scrape the surface of the potential.”
Outdoor water use has also been a focal point of efforts by Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the agency created to deliver water to customers from the trans-mountain diversion at Grand Lake. Municipalities from Broomfield and Boulder north to Fort Collins and Greeley, even Fort Morgan, get water from the diversion.
Frank Kinder was recently hired away from Colorado Springs Utilities to become the full-time water efficiency point person for Northern. Part of the agency’s effort is to introduce the idea that wall to wall turf need not be installed for a pleasing landscape. Instead, Northern pushes the idea of hybrid landscapes and also introduces alternatives for tricky areas that are hard to irrigate. The ultimate goal falls under the heading of “smiles per gallon.” Some of the district’s thinking can be seen in the xeriscaping displays at Northern’s office complex in Berthoud.
Kevin Reidy, who directs water conservation efforts for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the Colorado Water Plan posited a goal of reducing water use by 400,000 acre-feet. Don’t get caught up in that precise number, he advised. “It’s really about trying to figure out a more stable water future for our cities,” he said.
Readers might well be confused by an agency named “water conservation” having an employee with the title of “water conservation specialist.” The story here seems to be that the word conservation has changed over time. In 1937, when the agency was created, water conservation to most people meant creating dams and other infrastructure to prevent the water from flowing downhill. Now, conservation means doing as much or more with less.
On why Eagle River Water takes aim at outdoor use
The amount of water used outdoors is generally twice that used for indoor purposes, and only about 15% to 40% of water used outdoors makes its way back to local waterways.
None of this water is returned to local streams through a wastewater plant. Most of the water is consumed by plant needs or evaporation; what is leftover percolates through the ground and may eventually make its way to a local stream.
— From the Eagle River Water website
This was originally published in the Feb. 18, 2020, issue of Big Pivots.
The action filed to the Colorado Court of Appeals raised several issues to be addressed by the higher court, including whether Boulder District Court Judge Andrew Macdonald erred in his Dec. 27 decision by concluding Boulder County had not exceed it jurisdiction, abused its discretion or misapplied the law in determining it had regulatory control over the project.
“While we appreciate the district court’s consideration, we respectfully disagree with the conclusion and have decided to exercise our right to further review by the court of appeals,” Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson said in a statement.
“The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project is a vital component of developing a more secure, reliable drinking water supply for a quarter of the state’s population,” he added. “In the face of the uncertainties of climate change that bring more frequent and extreme droughts and precipitation events, we’ve come together with partners on both sides of the divide to ensure the project benefits the environmental health of our entire state.”
Denver Water, which serves 1.4 million customers in the Denver metro area, but none in Boulder County, had planned to start construction in 2019 on what would be the largest construction project in Boulder County history, raising Gross Dam by 131 feet to a height of 471 feet, and increasing the capacity of the reservoir by 77,000 acre-feet.
FromThe Associated Press (Tammy Webber) via The Colorado Sun:
In Australia’s national capital of Canberra, authorities are keeping a wary eye on burning forests and bushland, hoping a new water treatment plant and other measures will prevent a repeat of water quality problems and disruption that followed deadly wildfires 17 years ago.
There have not yet been major impacts on drinking water systems in southeast Australia from the intense fires that have burned more than 40,000 square miles (104,000 square kilometers) since September. But authorities know from experience that the biggest risks will come with repeated rains over many months or years while the damaged watersheds, or catchment areas, recover.
And because of the size and intensity of the fires, the potential impacts are not clear yet.
“The forest area burned in Australia within a single fire season is just staggering,” said Stefan Doerr, a professor at Swansea University in England who studies the effects of forest files on sediment and ash runoff. “We haven’t seen anything like it in recorded history.”
The situation in Australia illustrates a growing global concern: Forests, grasslands and other areas that supply drinking water to hundreds of millions of people are increasingly vulnerable to fire due in large part to hotter, drier weather that has extended fire seasons, and more people moving into those areas, where they can accidentally set fires.
More than 60% of the water supply for the world’s 100 largest cities originates in fire-prone watersheds — and countless smaller communities also rely on surface water in vulnerable areas, researchers say.
When rain does fall, it can be intense, dumping a lot of water in a short period of time, which can quickly erode denuded slopes and wash huge volumes of ash, sediment and debris into crucial waterways and reservoirs. Besides reducing the amount of water available, the runoff also can introduce pollutants, as well as nutrients that create algae blooms.
What’s more, the area that burns each year in many forest ecosystems has increased in recent decades, and that expansion likely will continue through the century because of a warmer climate, experts say.
Most of the 25,000 square miles (64,000 square kilometers) that have burned in Victoria and New South Wales have been forest, including rainforests, according to scientists in New South Wales and the Victorian government. Some believe that high temperatures, drought and more frequent fires may make it impossible for some areas to be fully restored…
Very hot fires burn organic matter and topsoil needed for trees and other vegetation to regenerate, leaving nothing to absorb water. The heat also can seal and harden the ground, causing water to run off quickly, carrying everything in its path.
That in turn can clog streams, killing fish, plants and other aquatic life necessary for high-quality water before it reaches reservoirs. Already, thunderstorms in southeast Australia in recent weeks have caused debris flows and fish kills in some rivers, though fires continue to burn…
…climate change has affected areas such as northern Canada and Alaska, where average annual temperatures have risen by almost 4 degrees (2.2 degrees Celsius) since the 1960s, compared to about 1 degree (0.55 degrees Celsius) farther south. As a result, the forested area burned annually has more than doubled over the past 20 to 30 years, said Doerr, from Swansea University.
Although there might be fewer cities and towns in the path of runoff in those areas, problems do occur. In Canada’s Fort McMurray, Alberta, the cost of treating ash-tainted water in its drinking-water system increased dramatically after a 2016 wildfire.
In the Western U.S., 65% of all surface water supplies originate in forested watersheds where the risk of wildfires is growing — including in the historically wet Pacific Northwest. By mid-century almost 90% of them will experience an increase — doubling in some — in post-fire sedimentation that could affect drinking water supplies, according to a federally funded 2017 study…
Denver Water, which serves 1.4 million customers, discovered “the high cost of being reactive” after ash and sediment runoff from two large, high-intensity fires, in 1996 and 2002, clogged a reservoir that handles 80% of the water for its 1.4 million customers, said Christina Burri, a watershed scientist for the utility.
It spent about $28 million to recover, mostly to dredge 1 million cubic yards (765,555 cubic meters) of sediment from the reservoir.
Since then, the utility has spent tens of millions more to protect the forests, partnering with the U.S. Forest Service and others. to protect the watershed and proactively battle future fires, including by clearing some trees and controlling vegetation in populated areas.
Utilities also can treat slopes with wood chips and other cover and install barriers to slow ash runoff. They purposely burn vegetation when fire danger is low to get rid of undergrowth…
Eventually, some communities might need to switch their water sources because of fires and drought. Perth, on the western coast, has turned to groundwater and systems that treat saltwater because rainfall has decreased significantly since the early 1970s, said Sheridan of University of Melbourne.
A court ruling from the end of 2019 determined Denver Water officials must obtain an additional permit for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project — a project that Arvada is depending on so it can continue developing land…
Arvada has a contract to purchase raw water from the reservoir and, in return, is sharing the cost of the project with Denver Water…
Denver Water is one of two sources through which Arvada obtains its water, with the other being Clear Creek, said Jim Sullivan, the city’s former director of utilities.
In total, the city has the rights to roughly 25,000 acre-feet of water, with about 19,000 of that provided through its existing contract with Denver Water, he said.
“We have a comprehensive plan that shows what the city limits will eventually grow to” by 2065, when an estimated 155,000 people will live in Arvada, Sullivan said. This plan would require approximately 3,000 additional acre-feet of water, which will be provided by the expansion project.
If the project was canceled, the city would need to halt development until it could secure alternate resources, Sullivan said.
Those other resources “have been harder and harder to come by,” said Arvada water treatment manager Brad Wyant. Other entities have already laid claim to the other major water supplies in the area, he and Sullivan said.
“The next big water project will be some kind of diversion of water from the Western Slope to the Denver area,” Sullivan said. This would be a major endeavor and “there’s nothing even on the horizon at this point,” he said, making the success of the Gross project a necessity for Arvada development.
So far, the city has contributed about $3 million to the project, with plans to contribute about $100 million by 2030.
The contributions are funded through Arvada Water’s capital improvement budget, which consists of one-time tap fees that customers pay when they first connect to the Arvada Water system. Resident’s bimonthly water billing funds ongoing operations and will not be used for the Gross project, Sullivan said.
Denver Water has estimated the project will cost a total of $464 million.
An innovative water-sharing partnership between Denver Water, Aurora Water and water utilities that serve the south metro area has won national recognition.
The WISE Partnership, WISE being short for Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency, recently brought home a “Community Water Champion Award” from WateReuse, a national organization that advances the use of recycled water.
The award marks another sign of success for a project that showcases sustainability on multiple fronts.
WISE not only provides a way for Denver and Aurora to reuse water supplies, it also creates a dependable supply for 10 water providers that serve the south metro region.
That more dependable supply, in turn, reduces pressure to pull more water from the Colorado River, conserves dwindling groundwater supplies south of Denver and diminishes the need for metro area utilities to buy agricultural water in the South Platte River Basin, which can lead to drying up farmland if the water is diverted…
The unusual nature of the WISE project may have helped it capture the national award.
Awards typically recognize a specific facility, such as a water recycling plant, or a technology. WISE includes such features, but also leverages the power of a regionwide partnership to make it all work.
WateReuse described the award this way: “This innovative regional partnership for a sustainable water future will reduce groundwater reliance and bolster renewable water supplies to the South Metro area, while maximizing existing water assets belonging to Aurora and Denver Water.”
WISE works by pulling water that Denver and Aurora have a legal right to reuse from the South Platte River near Brighton. That water is then pumped via pipeline back upstream to Aurora for a series of treatment steps before distribution to project partners…
Simply put, the project’s benefits accrue this way:
Denver Water develops a new water supply by being able to use Aurora’s Prairie Waters system and a new revenue stream by selling unused water to the south metro area water providers.
Aurora Water benefits by selling unused water and putting unused treatment and pipeline capacity to use while receiving revenue that helps keep its water rates down.
The South Metro Water Supply Authority receives a permanent renewable water supply, helping to reduce its reliance on nonrenewable groundwater.