Moving into the month of September, rainfall in Summit County is starting to slow down and temperatures have remained high, meaning the Dillon Reservoir is starting to look a little dryer.
The reservoir is currently 91% full after reaching full capacity earlier this summer.
Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water, said this is typical of the reservoir’s fill and drawdown cycle but added that the water level took a slightly sharper decline at the start of the month due to increased water needs, as well…
Compared to recent years, Elder said the reservoir has stayed full longer because of above-average precipitation in the Blue River watershed and less demand in the area the reservoir serves. He said the levels did not set any records, though…
Elder said the drawdown of the reservoir typically starts in early to mid-July, but this year’s July was very wet in the Blue River watershed. Dillon Reservoir started to slightly lose storage in mid-July, but in late July and early August, precipitation brought the reservoir back up, keeping it full longer than normal…
Elder also said the Roberts Tunnel, which moves water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, was turned off for a part of August when it would typically be running at 215 cubic feet per second. He said Denver water has not started releasing more water down the Blue River but has been consistently releasing 105 cubic feet per second for the past month…
[Treste] Huse said streamflows were generally above normal throughout the summer, but they have started to come back down again. She said at least half of the streams in Summit County are running normally, but six of them have now dipped below normal.
Looking at the whole summer, Huse said Dillon had more rainfall than it typically does. From May through August, Dillon received 9.08 inches of rainfall, which is 145% of the average amount of 6.25 inches.
The Colorado River at Kremmling in Grand County will enjoy a big bump in flows from August into October as Denver Water pays off a hefty water debt.
The rising flows — an addition of more than 300 cubic feet per second (more on that later) sent from Wolford Mountain and Williams Fork reservoirs — serve as a good example of how Colorado’s intricate system of water rights can drive river flows higher when they might typically be lower as autumn settles in.
In this case, it works like this: A dry year created conditions that now require Denver Water to “pay back” water to the West Slope.
Why? Let’s stick with the easy version.
An agreement that emerged over 50 years of Byzantine legal fights allows Denver to move water from Dillon Reservoir in Summit County to the Front Range when it needs the water for its customers.
But — and this is a big “But” — if another big reservoir called Green Mountain (that’s the very long reservoir you drive past as you cruise Highway 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling) — doesn’t fill up in the spring and summer, Denver Water has to make up the difference later in the year.
Stay with us here. Take a look at the map that accompanies this story to help.
Years like this, when Denver Water has to refund water, are called “substitution” years. There have been big substitution years, when a lot of water is involved in the refund, in dry years such as 2002, 2004, 2012 and 2013.
This year is shaping up as a big one, too; one of the largest. In all, the utility expects to release about 37,600 acre-feet from Williams Fork and Wolford to make up what Green Mountain, a reservoir operated by federal Bureau of Reclamation, lacked this year.
That’s a lot of water — close to the capacity of Gross Reservoir, the big Denver Water reservoir in the foothills northwest of Denver. An acre-foot is roughly enough water to serve three or four households for a year.
But wait, you say. Water from Williams Fork and Wolford won’t find its way to Green Mountain, since the Green Mountain Reservoir is on the Blue River and those two reservoirs send their water into the Colorado River, not the Blue.
(Also, water can’t flow upstream from the Colorado River into Green Mountain Reservoir. Take another look at the map in this story.)
That’s OK, as the point is to make up for flows in the Colorado River that would otherwise be augmented by releases from Green Mountain. In short, the releases keep the flows moving on the West Slope.
Now, back to those flows. Releases are expected to add an additional 400 cubic feet per second to the Colorado River in August, 320 cfs in September, and then decrease somewhat to an extra 200 cfs in the first two weeks of October.
How much water is that?
Quite a bit. If you think in terms of gallons (think of the gallon of milk at the grocery story), a cubic foot contains about 7.5 gallons. So 300 cubic feet per second means about 2,250 gallons of water per second added to the river flows. (Think about that many milk jugs floating by each second).
While it’s a lot of water to pay back — and it means Denver Water will need to draw down its supplies in Wolford and Williams Fork quite a bit — it could have been even more.
But a wet spring on the Front Range kept sprinklers off and demand low. Monsoons returned this year as well, boosting flows on both sides of the Continental Divide. All of that allowed Denver Water to reduce what it moved from Dillon Reservoir, through the Roberts Tunnel, to the Front Range.
Which, in turn, allowed a bit more water down the Blue River and into Green Mountain and reduced the “substitution” amount to be repaid.
If you’ve stuck with us until now, we raise a toast to you, salute your interest in a puzzling topic, and hope that this boost in late season flows in the Colorado River brings a smile to all of us inspired by the beauty of a moving stream.
On July 1, the Blue River below Dillon was flowing at 221 cubic feet per second. On Aug. 5, it jumped up to 455 cfs. Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water, explained that in the first week of August, the Blue River’s flow reached the 450 mark and has slowly declined since. On Tuesday, Aug. 10, it was 340 cfs, which he said is slightly above normal for this time of year.
Denver Water manages Dillon Reservoir, which the Blue River flows into and out of.
“We’re trying to match outflow with inflow and send that water downstream to Green Mountain Reservoir,” Elder said…
The increase in water to Green Mountain Reservoir is welcome, as the reservoir was over 50,000 acre-feet below normal in late July, and a downstream call for irrigation rights was placed on the reservoir. As of Aug. 11, the reservoir, which is full at about 154,000 acre-feet of water, was holding 100,243 acre-feet of water.
Summit County saw its wettest July in 10 years, which is what has contributed to the increase in outflow, Elder said. He noted that not only has the rain on the Western Slope helped, but rain on the Front Range has lowered water demands on that side of the Continental Divide. That has reduced the need to send water through Roberts Tunnel, which has kept more water in Dillon Reservoir and made way for the release of more water down the Blue River and into Green Mountain Reservoir…
Dillon Reservoir started out the year lower than normal, and less water flowed in from the melting snowpack. In late June, Elder reported that the reservoir was full but only because much less water was released from the reservoir to the Blue River than in an average year. The lack of water flowing into the Blue River meant two things: Less water went to Green Mountain Reservoir, and commercial rafting couldn’t happen on the river this year…
As for the Goose Pasture Tarn, which is currently lowered due to the rehabilitation of the dam, Elder said the tarn’s water that is being stored in Dillon Reservoir has a “very small impact.” For context, the tarn is 771 acre-feet, whereas Dillon Reservoir is over 257,000. Once it’s time for the tarn to be refilled, it will be given priority for water rights.
John Rauch and his family have operated the Cedar Springs Marina here since 1986. But three weeks ago, when the federal government suddenly ordered millions of gallons of water to be released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir down the Green River to Lake Powell, Rauch wasn’t prepared.
“It was a total gut punch,” he said on a recent hot, sunny morning. As visitors trekked down to rent his pontoon boats, and others slid their fishing craft into the reservoir, Rauch and his employees were already planning which boat docks and ramps would have to be relocated to keep them afloat. The reservoir is projected to drop as much as 2 feet a month through the fall as water is released.
Drought has plagued the Colorado River Basin for 20 years, but it hit crisis proportions this summer, pushing lakes Powell and Mead to historic lows and triggering, for the first time, emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs.
All told, 181,000 acre-feet of water are to be sent to Lake Powell by the end of December. Powell has dropped so low that its hydropower plants, which supply millions of homes with electricity and generate revenue for such things as a critical Colorado River endangered species program, may stop operating as early as next year if water levels continue to drop as they have been. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates there is a 3 percent chance of this occurring next year and a 29 percent chance of this occurring in 2022. But given the speed of the Powell’s decline, no one wants to risk a hydropower shutdown.
Since their construction in the 1960s these reservoirs, known as Reclamation’s Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs, have acted as a giant savings account, helping ensure that if a crisis erupted on the river, the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico would have enough water on hand to fulfill their legal obligation to deliver water to Nevada, Arizona and California, known as the Lower Basin states.
Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, part of the Aspinall Unit, is already low, at just 43 percent of capacity as of last month. Fed by the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, the reservoir is tourism hot spot on Colorado’s West Slope.
Kathleen Curry, a former Colorado lawmaker, sits on the Colorado River District Board. She said she understands the need for the releases, but she said the changes in the shoreline at Blue Mesa aren’t going unnoticed.
“It’s taking residents and visitors by surprise, just because I don’t think anyone was expecting it,” she said.
The releases come under a special Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan approved by Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in late 2018. A similar drought plan is in place for the Lower Basin, and they have been cutting back withdrawals from Lake Mead for the past two years.
Still the river system is drying out. And water leaders in Colorado are deeply worried that their carefully protected savings account is going to dry up too quickly to solve the Colorado River’s long-term problems.
Will it work?
“I understand and support the necessity of the Secretary [of the Interior] taking this action,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water. “The major concern I have is that Reclamation says the 181,000 acre-foot release will raise Lake Powell three feet. But I don’t know that they can even show that. I don’t know that they have accounted for transit losses and other losses.
“It’s important when these releases are made that they are accounted for, that we know where this water is going. If it doesn’t actually get down to [Lake Powell] to accomplish what it was designed to do, we should have kept it in that savings account,” Lochhead said.
Becki Bryant, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River region, said the agency is working to create a hydropower buffer in Lake Powell and believes the releases are adequate to accomplish that. But Reclamation is not yet doing the kind of precise tracking and accounting known as water “shepherding,” to ensure flows make it downstream, that Lochhead is requesting.
On Aug. 1, Lake Powell’s elevation stood at 3,553.8 feet above sea level. The action point, or so-called target elevation is 3,525. When that point came close in July, Reclamation moved quickly to order the emergency releases.
Powell’s hydropower plant stops generating power when it drops to 3,490 feet in elevation, according to Reclamation.
“Reclamation expects the additional release of water will be sufficient to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation through 2021. That target elevation provides a 35-vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.
“Shepherding water would be beneficial but is challenging on many levels for Colorado River Basin states,” said Bryant via email.
Bryant said Reclamation will continue to consult with the Upper Basin states as it monitors reservoir levels and weather forecasts. Should conditions deteriorate further, the agency could examine whether to declare the releases futile and stop them, as it is allowed to do under the 2018 Drought Contingency Plan.
The water being released is so-called “system water,” meaning that it isn’t owned by a particular user.
Held by the federal government for the benefit of the Upper Basin states, the amounts of water specified in the release plan are jaw-dropping: 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge; 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa; and 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover one acre of land to a depth of 12 inches.
If that same amount of water were going to cities, it would be enough to serve more than 362,000 homes for one to two years. If going to farms, it could irrigate more than 113,000 acres, depending on the crop.
If the historic, 20-plus-year drought cycle doesn’t end soon, refilling those reservoirs is going to be difficult. And that has water managers worried.
“My level of concern is quite high,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water planning and policy agency. She also sits on the four-state Upper Colorado River Basin Commission, which advises Reclamation on river issues.
“And I can’t tell yet if [the releases] are going to do the trick,” she said. “But we have to respond to the levels in Powell.”
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Colorado and the other Upper Basin states must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) [per year, 75 maf per 10 years] of water to the Lower Basin on a 10-year running average. Right now, the Upper Basin is delivering roughly 9.2 maf, Mitchell said, meaning that there is still time to help the system come back into balance before the Lower Basin states could legally call for more water than they currently receive.
Lake Powell is the Upper Basin’s largest storage pool on the system and is designed to be the four Upper Basin states’ major source of protection. Because of their legal obligations, Colorado water users are closely monitoring this year’s plunge in Powell, with the threat to hydropower production being seen as a dangerous antecedent to a compact call.
“That the system continues to deteriorate is concerning,” Lochhead said.
Roughly half of Denver Water’s supplies are derived from water rights it owns on the Colorado River system. While one portion of its portfolio dates back to 1921, and would therefore trump a 1922 compact call, several other rights were established later, meaning the utility might have to stop pulling from those water sources if Colorado were forced to cut back in order to meet compact obligations.
Other Front Range water providers, who also have Colorado River rights, are even more vulnerable, including the Pueblo-based Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
Southeastern’s rights date only to 1957.
Contingency v. reality
Lee Miller, Southeastern’s attorney, said the Colorado River crisis remains a long-term problem for his agency.
The rapid deterioration this year, however, is prompting everyone to rethink how much time they have to balance the massive river system as drought and a warming climate, as well as population growth, continue to sap its flows.
“Both the Upper and Lower Basin have now had to initiate elements of their drought contingency plans. When we passed it a couple of years ago everyone thought, “It’s good to have a contingency plan.’ But I don’t think anyone thought we would have to use the plans this quickly. It’s gone from being a contingency to being a reality, and that’s concerning.”
Back up at Flaming Gorge, John Rauch is watching the levels drop and making his own contingency plans.
“We are planning for the worst,” Rauch said. “For the foreseeable future, the outlook is dry. If it ends up that by the end of all of this that the reservoir becomes a river channel, we will be down there at water’s edge selling worms.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Conservation groups want more “cash for grass” and other plans to acquire new water by saving it. But Denver and Aurora, among others, say there’s only so much to cut before a new dam is needed.
Conservation groups applaud water savings efforts like Aurora’s. What they want is far, far more of the same.
They point to reports required by the state water conservation board showing many large agencies on the Front Range cutting back spending and personnel dedicated to water conservation since 2013, at the same time those water departments press to build massive dam complexes for new water they say they desperately need.
Large water agencies like Denver Water and Aurora Water say they do have ongoing conservation efforts they take seriously, but that fast population growth on the Front Range overwhelms potential savings and they need new water storage…
It would be much better for Colorado’s environment, the conservation groups respond — not to mention cheaper — to acquire water by using less of it, rather than spending billions of dollars on dams and diversions of Western Slope water.
And yet, several projects are on the drawing board:
Aurora wants to team up with Colorado Springs to build Whitney Reservoir and divert more of Homestake Creek over the Continental Divide to the Front Range
Denver Water wants to expand Gross Reservoir above Boulder to hold more Fraser River water diverted from the Colorado River Basin
Northern Water has a $1 billion proposal to dam more Cache la Poudre River water for more than a dozen northern suburbs and cities
All of those would be unnecessary, the conservationists say, if the agencies doubled down on water-saving efforts that cut deeply into household use in the years after the devastating 2002 Front Range drought…
“We know that water in the West is increasingly in short supply and will only become more so as climate change results in worsening drought conditions and water shortages. The answer can’t simply be to pull every last drop of water out of our rivers,” said Juli Slivka, policy director at Wilderness Workshop, which is among the groups fighting any new dams on Homestake Creek.
Some of the bigger water agencies on the Front Range respond that conservation remains a primary goal, despite the falloff in their spending evident in annual reports required by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Aurora’s population will grow by hundreds of thousands of people by 2050, said Aurora Water spokesman Greg Baker. The agency focuses intensely on conservation to expand its water supply, Baker said, through programs like the smart meters and rebates to property owners who remove thirsty lawns, and with Prairie Waters, the largest potable water recycling system in the state.
But that growth, highly visible on Aurora’s eastern edge at the Highlands or Painted Prairie, means stretching existing water use is not enough for future supply, he added. Acquisition of new water must continue. The agency just spent about $17,000 an acre-foot for 500 acre-feet of farm water in the South Platte River Basin, Baker said.
“That’s more than we could find through conservation right now, unless we took such draconian measures — you know, say we banned all outdoor water use,” he said.
Denver Water, serving 1.5 million customers as the largest water agency in Colorado, said it is proud of conservation efforts launched after the wakeup call of the 2002 drought, achieving its goal of a 22% cut in per capita water use in a campaign from 2007 to 2016. Since then, said Denver Water’s manager of demand planning Greg Fisher, some resources have shifted to the concept of “efficiency” — focusing less on absolute cuts to everyone’s use, and instead consulting with larger customers and homeowners to ensure they are using only the water they actually need…
Denver Water’s officially reported tally of its conservation work fell from 36 full- and part-time staff and a budget of $8 million in 2013 — the first year of required reporting — to five full-time staffers and $1.5 million in spending in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic shut down many field services. Denver’s peak of conservation staffing, at 40 in 2016, was the same year the agency said it achieved the long-set goal of 22% per capita reductions in use.
Denver Water says daily water use fell from 211 gallons per person in 2011, before another severe drought began in 2013, to 165 gallons a day in 2016. Since then, Fisher said daily use has declined to about 140 gallons. In the years since the 2002 drought, Denver Water’s annual overall use has gone down, even as the customer base has climbed by hundreds of thousands.
The Denver agency says the state conservation reports are partially misleading because they ask for too narrow a classification of spending that ends up cutting water use. For example, Fisher said, Denver Water is spending more money on staff time helping local agencies rewrite green building codes to require more efficient water use…
Aurora’s conservation staffing has changed less dramatically, from 15 full-time and 13 contract positions in 2013, to a total of about 24 positions now, officials said. The emphasis has shifted over the years, Baker said. Most home and building owners have long since swapped out older toilets for efficient models, and individual homeowner irrigation audits are not as productive as broader efficiency programs…
Environmental conservation groups opposed to diverting water from Western Slope rivers are especially focused this year on Boulder County’s Gross Reservoir, where Denver Water wants to raise the dam by 131 feet at a cost of $464 million. A higher dam would allow Denver to bring over more of the water it owns in the Fraser River, part of the Colorado River Basin west of the Continental Divide. Denver also says it needs more water storage on the northern end of the Front Range in case changing climate patterns and wildfire runoff threaten water collection in the southern South Platte River basin, where most of its available water is collected…
Multiple environmental groups have sued to stop Gross Reservoir and sought to scrap it during the local permitting process. Boulder County held the power over a key construction permit Denver Water needs this year. Now Denver Water has asked a federal court to take over jurisdiction for the permit because the agency believes Boulder County Commissioners have already demonstrated their intent to block it…
Aurora Water says it is one of the few Colorado utilities that is doing exactly that [paying cash for grass], with its “water-wise landscape” payments. Aurora will design a homeowner’s low-water garden for free, and pay material costs up to $3,000 for 500 square feet — even more for a zero-water landscape, Baker said…
Denver Water says it offers everything from low-water “garden-in-a-box” kits, to rebates for installing the kind of smart controllers Aurora promotes, to training for landscapers…
Building storage, though, must remain a part of the water acquisition mix, both Denver and Aurora argue. As the system has gotten more efficient through conservation, Denver Water said, possible future gains diminish. In the 2002 drought, Denver said, its short-term restrictions cut water use 30%. After years of conservation work, similar restrictions in the 2013 drought — for a significantly larger customer base — cut water use only 20%.
“We are reaching the edges of supply,” Hartman said.
Denver Water conveying stunningly scenic parcels to Forest Service as part of Gross Reservoir Expansion Project.
It’s been getting crowded on the trails, open spaces and forests along the Front Range, especially since COVID-19 sent lock-down weary residents bursting into the backcountry in an eager search for safe, socially distanced outdoor recreation.
That newfound enthusiasm for backcountry adventure isn’t expected to fade any time soon.
But now, thanks to an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and Denver Water, explorers will have just a sliver of additional elbow room.
Denver Water is in the process of conveying 539 acres of wetlands, meadows and forests in Gilpin County to the Forest Service to be managed for public use.
The remote acreage, near the east portal of the Moffat Tunnel, protects ecologically precious lands near two wildly popular wilderness areas (Indian Peaks and James Peak) and the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests. The land also complements a larger landscape protection effort in the region assembled by The Conservation Fund.
“Denver Water is thrilled to be a part of this landscape preservation effort,” said Jim Lochhead, the utility’s CEO/Manager. “This region near these precious wilderness areas is an environmental gem and one much loved by Coloradans, especially many within our service area.
“Ensuring its permanent protection is an outcome we are proud to be a part of, and we appreciate our partnership with the Forest Service and the Conservation Fund in putting this all together,” he said.
Denver Water agreed to provide the land for its ecological value and public use as part of a sweeping agreement with the Forest Service to offset environmental impacts associated with the expansion of Gross Reservoir to the east of the area.
It’s one of several steps Denver Water has already taken to complete so-called “mitigation” projects years ahead of the expansion work.
The lands being conveyed are part of what’s known as the Toll Property, the name derived from a ranching family that owned the land for 120 years.
Denver Water’s contribution, scattered across 11 parcels, is part of a much larger agreement, according to reporting in the Boulder Daily Camera. A much larger area of 3,334 acres remains in the Toll family’s private ownership, but with a perpetual conservation easement to prevent development.
An additional 823 acres also were acquired by the Forest Service.
The entire land protection project creates a significant buffer, separating the adjacent James Peak Wilderness to the west from rural development and urban areas to the east, as described in a summary by The Conservation Fund.
It also helps protect a four-mile stretch of the upper portion of South Boulder Creek, a key part of Denver Water’s supply.
The landscape is familiar not only to backpackers. Train aficionados know the area as part of the route taken by Amtrak’s California Zephyr, between Denver and San Francisco.
Since that time, CPP requested additional information from Denver Water. On June 29, 2021, the CPP Director acknowledged Denver Water’s intent to not provide additional requested information, and determined the 1041 review will move to public hearings.
Denver Water filed a lawsuit against the county in July 2021. The lawsuit alleges that the county does not have the authority to regulate the project because the project requires a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Because of the lawsuit, on July 26, Denver Water’s attorney requested that the CPP Director place the 1041 application on hold, and CPP Director Dale Case granted the request the next day, July 27.
Consequently, public hearings that were set for August and September have been canceled.
“It makes sense to have the court resolve the legal issues about whether Boulder County can proceed before conducting hearings on the 1041 review,” said Case. “We have already devoted significant time and resources to processing Denver Water’s application, and it would take even more county resources to proceed with public hearings.”
The Areas and Activities of State Interest (1041) application for the expansion of Gross Reservoir is a request to store an additional 77,000 acre-feet total of water, which includes increasing the dam height by approximately 131 feet, the dam length by approximately 790 feet, and the spillway elevation by approximately 126 feet; quarry operations to obtain aggregate needed for construction; construction of a temporary concrete batch/production plant and an aggregate processing plant; permanent road improvements to Gross Dam Road from State Highway 72 to Gross Reservoir; temporary road improvements to FS359 (Winiger Ridge Road) and FS97 (Lazy Z Road); and the relocation of the Miramonte Multi-Use Trail.
Tackling the challenges surrounding climate change and water supply will require collaboration and creative thinking, Colorado’s top water leaders and senior federal officials agreed Thursday.
More than a dozen state officials and water leaders from across the state met at Denver Water’s Operations Complex with Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to discuss the impacts of climate change, the ongoing drought across the Colorado River Basin and how leadership and collaboration at every level will be needed to help address it.
After the discussion, Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager, welcomed the group — which included Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo, Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg — to a news conference at the utility’s Administration Building, completed in 2019, that is itself a demonstration of the future of water and water efficiency in an urban setting.
Lochhead said the roundtable also included a discussion of the investments Denver Water is making in watershed health, through its From Forests to Faucets program that includes partners at the state and federal level, water conservation, resiliency and sustainability.
Haaland said she was glad to tour “this beautiful building” and praised the roundtable for bringing a wide range of people together for a thoughtful and important discussion…
Greenberg said it meant a lot to the people working across Colorado’s agriculture sector to know issues surrounding climate change were “top of mind” at both the state and federal level…
Attendees at the water leaders’ roundtable discussion were:
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of Interior.
Davis Raff, Chief Engineer, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Carly Jerla, Senior Water Resources Program Manager, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Diana DeGette, U.S. Representative for Colorado’s First Congressional District.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Colorado Lt. Governor Dianne Primavera.
Kate Greenberg, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture.
Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Rebecca Mitchell, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Jim Lochhead, CEO/Manager, Denver Water.
Christine Arbogast, representing Colorado Water Congress.
Peter Fleming, General Counsel, Colorado River Water District.
Jim Broderick, Executive Director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservation District.
Ken Curtis, General Manager, Dolores Water District Manager (retired).
Steve Wolff, General Manager, Southwest Water Conservation District.
Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program Director, National Audubon Society
Denver Water today [July 14, 2021] filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Boulder County, asserting the county is overreaching its authority and jeopardizing a federally ordered reservoir expansion critical to a safe and secure water supply for one quarter of the state’s population while risking long-planned benefits for the West Slope environment.
For nearly two decades, Denver Water has conducted an exhaustive and comprehensive planning and permitting process at the direction and oversight of six federal and state regulatory agencies. That process culminated last year in a final order to commence expansion of Gross Reservoir from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has final authority over the expansion project because Gross Reservoir occupies federal lands specifically designated for hydropower production.
For years, Denver Water has also attempted good faith efforts to work with Boulder County to secure county permits, including through two attempts at an intergovernmental agreement, robust engagement with county staff and neighbors, and participation in a local land-use review known as the “1041 process.” Unfortunately, Boulder County has been unreceptive and is using the 1041 process to frustrate the project, extending and delaying its review to the point that it is now placing the entire project at risk.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON NEED FOR THE PROJECT
It is hard to overstate the importance of the expansion of Gross Reservoir to the future of the Denver region. It will offer crucial protection to the utility’s water supplies from the urgent threat of catastrophic wildfire and prolonged drought — the same forces that nearly 20 years ago combined to threaten Denver Water’s ability to ensure drinking water to its customers.
This risk to clean water supplies is even higher today, in an era of rapid climate change and increasing periods of extreme weather. Last year’s record wildfire fire season, which generated the three largest forest fires in Colorado history, only just missed triggering major impacts to Denver Water’s supplies. Water providers to the north haven’t been as lucky, unable to treat some supplies running black and brown with ash produced by the Cameron Peak fire. Denver Water must act now to mitigate these risks.
The Gross Reservoir expansion conforms in every way to benchmarks in Colorado’s Water Plan, a plan developed through statewide and bottom-up guidance from eight major river basins over two years and published in 2015. That plan calls for increasing the capacity of existing reservoirs as a key element in creating 400,000 acre-feet of additional storage in the state by 2050.
The State of Colorado, in comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, expressed its support for the Gross Reservoir expansion and has identified it specifically as fitting within the kind of project defined as necessary in Colorado’s Water Plan: “A significant portion of Colorado’s future needs will be met with the implementation of projects and planning processes that the local water providers are currently pursuing, including the Moffat Collection System Project” (aka Gross Reservoir expansion).
The reservoir expansion also addresses the significant need for additional supplies in the metro region, as referenced in the Water Plan’s 2019 technical update. That update projected metro Denver demand will increase by 134,000 acre-feet to 280,000 acre-feet by 2050 against a 2015 baseline and the area likely will experience a supply shortfall, even accounting for the Gross Reservoir expansion and other water projects, a drop in per-capita use, and further conservation and reuse.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON DEVELOPMENT OF THE PROJECT
Denver Water’s diligent and earnest work to build partnerships across the Continental Divide, conduct significant and ongoing environmental mitigation for the project and work closely with regulators since the early 2000s has earned the project the support of major environmental groups, Grand County and each of the last five governors of Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded the project would result in net water quality improvement on both sides of the Continental Divide.
The dam, when built in the 1950s, was designed to be raised. In the 1980s, amid discussion of the Two Forks project southwest of Denver (later vetoed by the EPA) a coalition of environmental groups recommended the expansion of Gross Reservoir as a viable, environmentally stable project. “We feel that additional capacity at Gross Reservoir is an environmentally acceptable and cost-effective way of increasing the overall yield of the system,” the coalition wrote. It included representatives of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Trout Unlimited, among several other groups.
Denver Water also worked industriously with local governments and citizen groups on the West Slope to address the impacts that putting more water in an expanded Gross Reservoir would have on streams in Grand County. Those talks, often intense, and spanning half a decade, resulted in the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, an unprecedented cooperative effort involving 18 signatories and 40 partner organizations that began a new era of collaboration and conflict-resolution between Denver Water and the West Slope.
Expanding Gross Reservoir locks in a key component to that agreement: Denver Water would place a geographic limit on its service area, putting to rest fears the utility would continue to expand its reach to an ever-sprawling suburban ring. The utility also agreed to several measures that would provide more water to West Slope rivers, towns and ski areas and invest in improvements to aquatic habitat. The landmark concord also affirmed that with the Gross Reservoir expansion, Denver Water would benefit from more flexibility in its system, and it would use that flexibility to address stream flow and stream temperature concerns more nimbly and readily in Grand County.
Additionally, Denver Water worked with the cities of Boulder and Lafayette to establish an environmental pool in Gross Reservoir to provide additional water in South Boulder Creek during low-flow periods. Water in that pool would also supplement supplies for those two cities. Many of these commitments, however, depend on the project going forward and are therefore in jeopardy through Boulder County’s actions.
As planning for the expansion moved ahead, the utility undertook a proactive strategy to reduce demand. It deployed a water recycling facility to reduce its dependence on West Slope water supplies, embarked on a conservation program renown nationally for its success — cutting per capita water use by 22% between 2007 and 2016 — and has now undertaken direct efforts at water efficiency that pinpoint savings opportunities at the individual customer level. These are only a sample: The utility remains committed to innovation to drive further savings and expand water reuse as a core part of its strategy, work that will continue to be essential even with an increase in storage at Gross Reservoir.
In short, the effort to build civic and regulatory support for the Gross Reservoir expansion has been persistent, inspired and earnest. The future of the region, its access to clean, safe drinking water, protection of its urban tree canopy and environment, and its economic development rest in large part on the ability of Denver Water to protect water supplies from emerging threats, develop a climate-resilient system and remain prepared for the demands that will result from continued growth within its service area in metro Denver.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON BOULDER COUNTY’S PROCESS
Boulder County is endangering the project through delays, repeated and expanding requests for information — information demands that duplicate the already completed federal permitting process in which Boulder County participated — the potential for months of additional hearings and the fact that two of the county’s three commissioners have already publicly stated their opposition to, and desire to stop, the expansion project.
Further, the county’s land use director informed Denver Water on June 29 that the utility — despite over nine months of diligent and painstaking work to respond to Boulder County’s ever-expanding queries — failed to provide sufficient information to county agencies about the project, setting the project up for failure and rendering further involvement with the 1041 process futile.
These actions also put engineering and construction deadlines at risk, threaten to disrupt FERC-ordered timelines and risk other permits and actions necessary for successful completion of the project. A project of this size and complexity requires extensive preplanning, substantial resources and a highly skilled design and construction team. Delays resulting from Boulder County’s refusal to timely process the 1041 application add substantial costs and cause permitting, procurement and logistical issues that seriously disrupt Denver Water’s ability to execute the project.
In summary, the actions of a single local jurisdiction, Boulder County, threaten to derail and undermine a federally permitted and state supported project vital to a safe and secure water supply for one-quarter of Colorado’s population. This presents an unacceptable risk to a critical project spanning nearly 20 years and involving intensive review by environmental agencies at the federal and state levels and the engagement of dozens of organizations and communities across the metro area and the West Slope.
For that reason, Denver Water must seek relief in federal court. The complaint further details Denver Water’s attempts to work with Boulder County, the reasons that federal law preempts Boulder County’s claimed authority over the FERC-licensed expansion project, and the basis for Denver Water’s request that the court prevent Boulder County from further delaying and derailing the project.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has asked anglers to voluntarily avoid fishing on the Colorado River between Kremmling and Rifle — and more voluntary closures could be coming.
The closure is in effect until further notice with a possibility of a mandatory emergency closure to all fishing if conditions worsen…
Heat, drought and low water levels are contributing to elevated water temperatures in much of Colorado, depleting oxygen levels and leaving trout vulnerable. Trout are cold-water fish that function best in 50-60 degree waters. When temperatures exceed 70 degrees, they often stop feeding and become more susceptible to disease.
As the aquatic biologist for CPW’s Hot Sulphur Springs office, Jon Ewert has seen already seen the local impact to the fishery firsthand. After a number of public reports of fish mortality along the Colorado River, he recently floated from Radium to Rancho del Rio to verify the issue. On that float, he counted 15 fish carcasses…
River flows have been exceptionally low this year.
The USGS gauge on the Colorado River at Catamount Bridge has been measuring 600-700 cfs, less than half what is historically expected there. The USGS gauge on the Colorado River near Dotsero is running at 1,250 cfs, down from an expected 3,000-4,000 cfs.
Mixed with high temperatures, these conditions spell disaster for the fishery. And it’s not just the Colorado River downstream from Kremmling.
According to Ewert, temperatures for other river sections in Grand are also edging toward dangerous levels for fish…
Ewert explained that these types of voluntary closures on rivers are not unheard of, but the extent of the closures might be…
Around 60% of Grand County’s water is diverted, mostly to the Front Range, with the Denver metro area receiving about 20% of its water from Grand.
In early June, temperatures were already spiking to 70 degrees on the Colorado River near Kremmling. Grand County coordinated with the Colorado River District, Denver Water, Northern Water and other partners to boost water levels where possible…
Denver Water estimated that by early July it will have voluntarily foregone collecting around 11,000 acre-feet of water from Grand County…
Northern Water said it has bypassed more than 6,000 acre-feet or about 2 billion gallons of water this year that has been sent downstream in the Colorado River…
Representatives of the Grand County Learning By Doing Cooperative Effort, the partnership of Front Range and West Slope water stakeholders, said that coordination is underway to release additional flows to mitigate temperatures.
While these voluntary efforts by those with water rights in Grand are helping, the sharp contrast in water use is hard to ignore for those invested in the health of the county’s rivers.
“Here’s what really breaks my heart: The Front Range water diverters filled their reservoirs … they continued to divert as much water as they did in a wet year,” [Kirk] Klanke said. “They don’t seem to feel they have any more wiggle room to leave a little more water in the river …
“Now we’re at the mercy of senior water right calls downstream. As I watch my guide friends become unemployed, I watch Kentucky bluegrass be watered on the Front Range. It’s hard to swallow.”
Denver Water cuts back on some of its West Slope supplies to help struggling streams.
The Colorado River is hurting.
The struggles of the river’s largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have been well documented over the last decade as drought has ravished the West.
The story, however, starts more than 500 miles upstream in Grand County, Colorado.
The county is filled with streams that make up the beginning of the mighty Colorado’s journey in the mountains north of Grand Lake. Around 60% of the water in Grand County is diverted from these streams and used for agricultural and municipal water supply, mostly on the Front Range.
That includes the Denver metro area, which receives about 20% of its water from Grand County, where Denver Water has water rights dating back to the 1920s. Most of the water is captured in rivers and streams around Winter Park when mountain snow melts in the spring.
But, after a lackluster runoff season on the West Slope combined with dry soils from the past year, the hot, dry conditions in early June meant the high-country rivers and streams needed help.
Denver Water responded by voluntarily reducing diversions from several Grand County creeks and coordinating with the Colorado River District, Grand County, Northern Water and other Learning By Doing partners to adjust operations, where possible, to help boost water levels in some of the more troubled areas.
“While our primary responsibility is to make sure we’re supplying water to 1.5 million people in the metro area, we’re always looking for opportunities to help improve conditions on the rivers, to help the aquatic environment, recreation and communities they flow through,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply.
By reducing diversions, Denver Water foregoes collecting a portion of water it is legally entitled to collect for its water supply in exchange for improving streams and tributaries along the Colorado River.
It started with a plea for help
On June 5, the Colorado River District asked Denver Water for help after reporting extremely low water levels and critically high water temperatures on the Colorado River. The river district reported conditions were creating unhealthy habitat for fish and aquatic insects.
“When the email came in Saturday morning, we were in a position to quickly respond and reduce the amount of water we were pulling from several Grand County creeks,” Elder said.
Denver Water has continued making operational adjustments since that email.
The utility estimates that by early July it will have voluntarily foregone collecting around 11,000 acre-feet of water from Grand County to help keep more water in the Colorado and Fraser rivers. That’s roughly enough water to supply over 44,000 residences for one year.
“It has been helpful to hear directly from stakeholders in Grand County, including Trout Unlimited and ranchers along the river, on where we may be able to truly help the river, the community and the environment with our operational adjustments,” Elder said.
“With help from the West Slope, we’ve been able to target specific areas and send some beneficial water downstream.”
This includes adjusting water releases from Williams Fork Dam twice a day in a way that also benefits the Colorado River.
For example, when releasing water from the dam, Elder and his team try to time the flows, so the water reaches the river in Kremmling — an area prone to higher river temperatures — during hotter times of the day.
The higher water level helps to cool down the water, which is better for the aquatic environment.
Position to help
The wet spring conditions along the Front Range boosted water supplies in Denver Water’s South Platte River collection system, which drastically reduced customers’ demand for water across the metro area — where Denver Water serves a quarter of the state’s population.
In fact, from January to May, Denver Water’s customer water use hit a 50-year low across the metro area, despite nearly 600,000 more people in its service area since 1970. That includes years in which the metro area was on mandatory drought restrictions.
“Some of the low use may be due to COVID-19 impacts on business and obviously a wet, cool spring helped,” said Greg Fisher, demand manager for Denver Water.
“It’s a great sign that our customers really understand efficient water use and let Mother Nature do the watering for them when possible.”
This wet spring on the Front Range also helped provide additional flexibility on how Denver Water collected and distributed water across its collection system during the spring snow runoff.
“We were able to turn off the Roberts Tunnel in April, which helped bring water levels up in Dillon Reservoir for boating,” Elder said.
“The conditions also enabled us to send more water down the Blue River below Dillon Dam to help improve fish habitat around Silverthorne instead of sending the water to the Front Range.”
Denver Water uses the Roberts Tunnel to bring water from Dillon — the utility’s largest reservoir — under the Continental Divide to the Front Range.
But flexibility like this is not always possible, especially with the myriad threats Denver’s water system is facing.
“Between the rising temperatures, changes to the timing of spring runoff, extreme fire behavior and half a million more people expected in the metro area by 2040, our ability for flexible operations is decreasing in a time when we need it the most,” said Elder.
“We must take an ‘all-in’ approach that includes conservation, water reuse and development of new water supplies so we can continue to maximize the benefits of a large system.”
According to Elder, hot, dry weather conditions highlight the benefits of having a large water collection system, as it provides the water planning team more flexibility in its operational playbook.
The vision for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, which is in its final steps of permitting, is an example of how additional water storage can really help streams in times of drought.
“As part of the Gross Reservoir Expansion, some of the voluntary things we’re doing this year — like leaving more water in the Grand County rivers — will become required annual operations for us,” said Elder.
That’s because Denver Water is one of 18 partners who signed the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, ushering in a new era of cooperation between the utility and West Slope stakeholders, all with the vested interest in protecting watersheds in the Colorado River Basin.
As part of that agreement, a process called “Learning by Doing” was created, which has helped the utility stay better connected on river conditions in Grand County. The partnership is a collection of East and West Slope water stakeholders who help identify and find solutions to water issues in Grand County.
“Denver Water has been part of Grand County for over 100 years, and we understand the impact our diversions have on the rivers and streams,” said Rachel Badger, environmental planning manager at Denver Water.
“Our goal is to manage our water resources as efficiently as possible and be good stewards of the water — and Learning By Doing helps us do that.”
Storage tanks at Denver Water’s new, state-of-the-art water treatment plant taking shape.
The work started in the dark, at 2:30 a.m., continued through the dawn and lasted until noon on Friday, May 14.
Loaded concrete trucks trundled onto the site of the Northwater Treatment Plant, along Highway 93 north of Golden. A truck arrived every four minutes, delivering concrete that was pumped, then smoothed into place by an army of about 100 workers.
They shaped the round, concrete floor of what will be the first of the new treatment plant’s two water storage tanks. The tanks will hold clean, treated water to be delivered into Denver Water’s distribution system that sends safe drinking water 1.5 million people every day.
“It’s a big milestone day. Each tank can hold 10 million gallons of water — and to put that in perspective, that’s 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools,” said Bob Mahoney, Denver Water’s chief engineering officer.
“The project is going very well. It’s ahead of schedule and — in addition to pouring the floor of the new treated water reservoir — the overall project is about 38% complete.”
A look at the numbers behind the work:
23 feet, the height of the storage tank when finished, although most of it will be buried underground.
300-plus feet, the diameter of the tank, longer than a football field.
1,400 cubic yards of concrete were needed for the floor of the tank.
145 concrete trucks delivered the concrete.
100 workers were involved with the concrete placement.
The new, state-of-the-art water treatment plant, being built next to the utility’s Ralston Reservoir, is expected to be complete in 2024 and will be capable of cleaning up to 75 million gallons of water per day. Concrete for the floor of the second water storage tank is expected to be put in place July 2, weather permitting.
The Northwater Treatment Plant is part of Denver Water’s $600 million North System Renewal effort, which includes a new pipeline to carry water from the new plant and upgrades at the old Moffat Treatment Plant built in Lakewood in the 1930s.
The concrete work in mid-May drew a steady stream of curious onlookers, including workers building the new plant — and those who will run it when it’s finished.
“I had to come out. I really wanted to see how they do this,” said Nicole Babyak, a water treatment plant supervisor at Denver Water.
“The team and I, we’ve been involved in this project for years. We’re going to be running the plant and have seen parts of the facility being built from the ground up, but I haven’t seen a large concrete pour like this yet. It’s so neat to be here while they’re pouring the first tank.
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.