Coca-Cola, several Colorado nonprofits, as well as Denver Water, the Colorado River District, and a group of irrigators have launched a new instream flow effort to help keep the scenic headwaters of the Fraser River wetter in the fall, aiding fish and habitat in the stream near Winter Park.
The Colorado Water Trust is a nonprofit that works to match distressed streams with water right holders interested in selling, donating or leasing water that can be used to boost streamflows. It spearheaded the Fraser’s 10-year instream flow agreement. Participants also include Learning By Doing, an East Slope-West Slope partnership that works on local stream restoration projects
Coca-Cola Corporation, as well as one of its bottlers and distributors, Swire Coca-Cola, have pledged $24,000 annually to pay for the water and the restoration work, according to Tony LaGreca, Colorado Water Trust’s project manager for the Fraser program.
Erica Hansen, external communications manager for Swire, said the Coca-Cola companies have 35 environmental water projects across a 13-state region, including 10 in Colorado that are completed, underway or pending.
“We operate in several states that are high drought risk,” Hansen said. “Any drop we use we’re putting back into nature. The Fraser River project is one of the ways we do that.”
LaGreca said the new initiative represents an important step forward in restorative water management in Grand County and Colorado.
“There was a time,” he said, “when we did not have irrigation companies coming to us to find ways to put water into the river for fish. But more and more we are having successful partnerships to increase flows as part of a larger water management strategy.”
Grand County is home to the headwaters of the Colorado River and the Fraser River, one of its tributaries. Both waterways are heavily diverted to the Front Range to serve residents and farms from Denver up to Fort Collins and out to the Nebraska border.
Over the years, as droughts have become more common and climate change has sapped flows, Grand County’s rivers have become increasingly stressed.
To help solve the problems, two of the largest transmountain diverters, Denver Water and Northern Water, among others, signed on to the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013. The agreement gives the water agencies some leeway to develop new water supplies to which they have water rights, while also funding efforts to keep rivers and wetlands in the headwaters region healthier, and to ensure mountain tourist economies have enough water to thrive.
Mike Holmes is president of the Grand County Irrigated Land Company. As part of the restorative work underway, he and his shareholders agreed to sell a portion of their water stored in a small reservoir to benefit the river. Each year the program operates, the ranchers will deliver about 50 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons of water, the amount used by two to three average households in a year. Holmes said the growers have been working to improve the efficiency of their irrigation systems, freeing up water for the river.
“This year, with the abundant snowpack, we had the water available, and so we worked with the water trust to execute a lease and then went through a review by the Colorado River District. It’s a pretty streamlined process,” Holmes said.
Though 50 acre-feet is not a lot of water, it should make a difference in the Upper Fraser, where Denver is allowed to divert even when the river’s fall flows are already shrinking, LaGreca said.
Denver Water’s role in the restoration effort is to allow the Colorado Water Trust to use the utility’s collection system to put water into distressed stream segments in the headwaters. In turn the irrigators give Denver Water access to water stored in Meadow Creek Reservoir, farther downstream, according to Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s water supply manager.
Work on the program for 2023 wrapped up earlier this month and will begin again next September.
Scott McCaulou is director of the corporate water stewardship program at Business for Water Stewardship. The Portland-based nonprofit is funded by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and helps connects corporations to environmental water restoration initiatives.
“This first year of the agreement between the [irrigators] and the water trust is a small step but the hope is that it grows into a longer-term partnership and helps develop more flexible water management tools in the Upper Colorado,” McCaulou said. “We see it as a good contribution to something that could grow if it is successful this year.”
DENVER — Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023 — The Denver Board of Water Commissioners on Wednesday, Oct. 11, adopted rate changes to help pay for important upgrades, projects and ongoing maintenance and repair work to keep its system operating efficiently while keeping rates as low as good service will allow.
The new rates take effect Jan. 1, 2024, and for typical single-family residential customers who receive a bill from Denver Water, if they use the same amount of water in 2024 as they did in 2023, the new rates will increase their monthly bill by an average of $1.60 to $2.30 over the course of the year, depending on where they live.
“Denver Water is at a pivot point. These are historic times and we’ll be affected, just as the communities we serve will be affected, by climate change, population growth, variability in the economy, inflation and supply chains,” said Alan Salazar, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager who joined the organization in August.
“Water is a crucial resource that supports all of us. You can’t have civilization without it. Continuing to maintain and invest in the system that supports our water supply will ensure we — Denver Water as well as our customers — are ready for what lies ahead, while keeping rates as low as good service will allow.”
Denver Water expects to invest $1.9 billion over the next 10 years in projects that will maintain, repair, protect and upgrade the system and make it more resilient and flexible in the future. The utility is committed to ensuring the system can reliably deliver safe, clean and affordable water to its customers while mitigating the effects of the economy, from inflation to supply chain issues, on its costs.
More details on the rate increase can be found at these links:
Water rates to rise slightly in 2024 — Provides details on Denver Water’s rate structure and how the increase impacts customer bills, including an infographic visually highlighting the impacts to customers inside and outside of Denver.
Major investment on tap — Highlights what water rates help pay for with an overview of some of the projects that make up the utility’s 10-year forecast for an estimated $1.9 billion investment into the system that supports about 25% of the state’s population, including Colorado’s capital city. The story includes a video highlighting some of the current projects including the expansion of Gross Reservoir, the Lead Reduction Program that is replacing customer-owned lead service lines at no direct cost to the customer, the new Northwater Treatment Plant under construction north of Golden and the new water quality laboratory now operational at the National Western Center near downtown. The investment forecast also includes improving and replacing aging water mains under the streets and improving the overall flexibility and resiliency of the system and our communities.
Since January 2020, Denver Water has replaced more than 20,000 customer-owned lead service lines at no direct cost to the customers.
The utility in 2022 signed a Memorandum of Understanding with several water utilities across the West to reduce the use of water-intensive Kentucky bluegrass in places where it’s purely decorative, such as traffic medians.
It’s not often that a median in the middle of a street gets a lot of attention, and that makes it a perfect candidate for a landscape makeover.
For decades, the four medians separating the north and southbound lanes of Quebec Street, just south of Interstate 70 between Smith Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, have featured 10 acres of thirsty Kentucky bluegrass.
Now, the Denver Parks and Recreation department is transforming the grass fields into prairie grass meadows that will be home to a more appropriate type of ColoradoScape that needs significantly less water to thrive.
“The medians had what we call ‘nonfunctional grass,’ which means the grass was not being used for any type of activity. That made it a perfect location for landscape transformation,” said Ian Schillinger-Brokaw, a Denver Parks and Recreation urban ecology planner.
“We were using around 9 million gallons of water every year to keep grass green that no one used, so it was really not a good use of water.”
The landscape transformation project on the four medians is being done in partnership with Denver Water, which is helping to fund the work.
During summer 2023, the city shut off the sprinklers and let the bluegrass die. Then in September, landscape crews from Western States Reclamation planted more than 60 species of prairie grasses and wildflower seeds through the remains of the dead bluegrass.
After the seeds were in the ground, workers sprayed the field with “hydromulch,” which is the process of spraying water mixed with small particles of wood fiber on top of the seeds, so they don’t blow away or get eaten by birds.
The field will be watered over the next two to three years to help the seeds grow. Depending on the weather, some grasses will sprout this fall, while others will begin to grow next spring and summer.
It will take roughly three years for the new plants to become established.
“The field will have a variety of grasses with different heights, colors and textures and the wildflowers will provide an added boost of color,” Schillinger-Brokaw said.
The wide variety of plants will help the new prairie meadows thrive in different weather conditions. For example, some grasses and flowers will do better in dry years, while others will grow better in wet years.
“By adding a variety of grass species, we’re ensuring that each season the field will have plants that are in good shape,” he said.
“The field will look very similar to some of our other parks and open spaces in the area, such as Westerly Creek and Prairie Meadows parks.”
Schillinger-Brokaw said the landscape will keep safety in mind by making sure plants around the corners of the medians will be shorter, so they won’t impact drivers’ ability to see other cars and make safe turns at the intersections.
Before the landscape conversion, the field required roughly 9 million gallons of extra water every year to keep the Kentucky bluegrass green. By transitioning to a prairie meadow, the goal is to eventually stop watering the field and let Mother Nature provide all the moisture the plants need to survive, Shillinger-Brokaw explained.
The Denver Parks and Recreation department will continue to water the trees on the medians. However, by eliminating the extra irrigation that the bluegrass needed, the overall water use for the medians could be reduced by roughly 8.5 million gallons each year once the plants are established.
“Kentucky bluegrass has been used as the default form of landscaping for decades across many parts of Colorado, but it requires a lot of water,” said Austin Krcmarik, a water efficiency planner at Denver Water.
“With water being such a scarce resource across the West, it’s great to see Denver Parks and Recreation switching to landscaping that fits our climate.”
The new medians full of prairie grasses and wildflowers are an example of ColoradoScaping, which is landscaping that features low-water-use plants that thrive in our state’s semi-arid climate.
Along with water savings, ColoradoScaping provides additional benefits for Denver’s parks, such as:
Providing more resilient landscapes that can cope with extreme weather, such as drought.
Adding biodiversity to the city with new habitats for pollinators such as birds and bees.
Establishing areas that improve stormwater drainage and improve water quality.
Eliminating the need for mowing the medians regularly throughout the summer.
Saving money on water bills that can be used for other park improvements. (The water savings on the Quebec Street project will save Denver Parks and Recreation roughly $20,000 each year.)
Saving water across the West
Water-saving projects like the Quebec Street median turf conversion are critical because Denver Water gets half of its water supply from the Colorado River Basin, which has seen drought conditions over much of the last 23 years.
“Denver Water and other utilities across the West are actively promoting and working with cities and park districts to look for areas of nonfunctional Kentucky bluegrass and see if other types of landscaping is a better fit to help save water,” Krcmarik said.
The comprehensive plan serves as a roadmap to the future of Denver’s park system. A key aspect is investing in the fight against climate change through conserving water, transforming landscapes, growing the urban canopy and protecting habitats.
As part of the plan, in April 2023, Denver Parks and Recreation changed its policy of using thirsty turfgrass, like Kentucky bluegrass, as its primary landscaping groundcover in areas with no recreational value. The Quebec Street medians are an example of how the city is using drought-tolerant and ecosystem-friendly plants instead of turfgrass.
“We’re doing a lot across the city to reduce our water footprint and the Quebec Street medians project is one of the biggest landscape transformation projects we’ve done,” Shillinger-Brokaw said.
“We ask for patience as these new grasses grow, and we’re excited to see the new look coming soon to this part of the city.”
Click the link to read the article on the Denver Water website (Jay Adams):
What a difference a year makes for the front of Arapahoe County’s Administration Building in Littleton.
Since the 1970s, the west side of the building had been covered by a 3-acre field of unused, water-intensive Kentucky bluegrass.
Recognizing the need to set a positive example regarding water conservation for the long term, in August 2022 the Arapahoe County Commissioners launched a plan to seed the field with a mix of prairie grasses in an effort to transform the bland expanse of bluegrass into a more natural ColoradoScape that will use less water.
The project is part of Arapahoe County’s broader sustainability initiative that includes reducing water consumption indoors and outdoors.
One year later, all the planning has paid off and the grasses are flourishing.
“We’re very pleased with how the grasses have come in and are thriving,” said Lisa VanderHeyden, senior project manager of facilities and fleet at Arapahoe County. “We were lucky and got a nice boost from Mother Nature with all the rain in May and June, which really helped the grasses grow in their first season.”
The old field was chosen for landscape transformation because it was considered to have “nonfunctional grass,” which is grass that requires frequent watering from an irrigation system but is not used for activities or events.
The new field contains a mix of grasses with varying heights and textures. It resembles what the field looked like before people settled the area and started irrigating the land.
It typically takes about three years to fully establish a native grass area, in which the grasses fill in and squeeze out the weeds. Once established, the grass should be able to survive solely on the moisture provided by Mother Nature.
Arapahoe County’s staff will actively manage the field and the county anticipates saving approximately 1.5 million gallons of water per season due to the switch from the bluegrass.
“The field will have a very natural look and, like other prairie grass fields in the area, the colors will change depending on the amount of precipitation throughout the year,” VanderHeyden said.
Changing landscapes across the Southwest
The building is in Denver Water’s service area and is a great example of a greater push across the Southwest to reduce the amount of nonfunctional grass and help boost the struggling Colorado River, where Denver Water gets half of its water supply.
“We’ve been really impressed with Arapahoe County’s efforts to examine their nonfunctional grass areas and make water-saving changes,” said Austin Krcmarik, water efficiency planner at Denver Water.
“For decades, Kentucky bluegrass has been the default landscaping option for many government buildings and now we’re seeing a shift to more natural looking, water-saving ColoradoScapes.”
So, how do you start a new prairie grass field? Hear Arapahoe County officials discuss the project:
Creating a long-term plan
Krcmarik and Arapahoe County agree that there are a number of steps to take when doing large landscape transformation projects:
Consult with the growing number of landscape experts who support water-saving transformations.
Work with landscapers who are willing to research what will work best and commit to support the transformation beyond the initial implementation.
Get the full support of management.
Think the project through, from start to finish and consider long-term maintenance.
Inform the public about the reasons behind the landscape change.
Develop a plan for how to prepare the site for new seeds and plants.
Upgrade and/or modify irrigation systems to protect mature trees if the new landscape will use less water.
Develop a plan to manage weeds during the early years.
Choose plants that can survive without irrigation after establishment.
Denver Water and Arapahoe County are part of the Colorado Native Grass Working Group, which includes dozens of other cities, landscape and water professionals to put together a guide on best practices for installing low-water grass landscapes. You can check out their resources and sign up for their email list at coloradonativegrass.org.
The turf replacement project was awarded a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board for supporting the Colorado Water Plan’s goal of encouraging municipalities to reduce water use through landscape change.
“It’s been great working with Denver Water, and we appreciate their support and also the grant from the CWCB,” said Anders Nelson, Arapahoe County public information officer.
“While this is a relatively small field, we hope to learn from our work, share and improve the processes and continue to look for other opportunities to reduce our water consumption here in Arapahoe County.”
Veteran Colorado water attorney Jim Lochhead has been part of most of the history-making Colorado River deals crafted over the last 30 years including California’s landmark 2003 quantification settlement agreement, where the state famously agreed to cut back its overuse of the Colorado River. For decades, he advised state and local agencies on Colorado River issues. He also served as head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Roy Romer from 1994 to 1998.
But in 2010 he moved into a decidedly different role: running Denver Water, a 1,200-employee agency that serves more than 1.5 million customers in the Denver metro area and which operates as an independent government agency.
Under his leadership, Denver Water launched a major capital investment program, which included a new, hyper-green operations complex. It built a new water treatment plant and battled on many fronts to launch a controversial expansion of Gross Reservoir. The agency also launched one of the largest lead pipe replacement programs in the country.
Lochhead, who announced he was leaving Denver Water in December, has a departure date of Aug. 7. Alan Salazar, chief of staff for the city of Denver, will take over as interim CEO for the next year, until a permanent hire is made.
But is Lochhead, 71, planning to retire? Not just yet. See what this high-profile water veteran has to say about the state of the Colorado River these days and what his future may hold.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Question: Why leave now, when issues on the Colorado River are just getting interesting?
Answer: I think as a CEO you need to realize what your shelf life is. I’ve accomplished what I was hired to do. When I came, Denver Water was right in the middle of negotiating the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement [a deal that resolved many, though not all, conflicts between West Slope Colorado River water users and those on the Front Range, including Denver.]
I was really brought in to move Denver Water forward in terms of being a trusted leader in the water industry and in serving customers, and to focus us on the sustainability of our water supply and the health of our watersheds. I’d like to leave Denver Water in a good place, and I feel like we’re in good a place.
Question: This summer critical negotiations begin on how to operate the Colorado River system and the two major reservoirs on the river, lakes Powell and Mead, in ways that stop overuse and allow the system to operate more efficiently. Have you heard any great ideas that you think would solve its problems?
Answer: Unfortunately, no. What we need is a path forward that includes the tribes in the basin. We need a process that is not so onerous for participants so that we can collaborate and come to solutions. It’s going to require tremendous leadership.
Question: Lakes Powell and Mead operate under different agencies, in some cases use different calendars, and serve different regions. Some have suggested that the two lakes should be operated as one, to simplify management and improve operational efficiencies. Do you support this idea?
Answer: It’s worth exploring. We need to be looking at totally different ideas about how the system is managed.
Question: Others have suggested that any new reservoirs or dams should be stopped, that the seven-state Colorado River Basin should be closed to new water development. What are your thoughts on this?
Answer: I don’t even know how you would do that. There is no authority. In Colorado [and the other Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming] the prior appropriation system is self-limiting. [The system delivers water in times of scarcity based on which water right is the oldest. Any newly claimed water rights, in practicality, would never receive water.] All of our rivers are over-appropriated. If you are going to do something new you have to buy an existing water right. You would just be shifting use between sectors.
And in the Lower Basin [Arizona, California and Nevada] the amount of water that is taken is limited by contract and federal law to 4.4 million acre-feet in California, 2.8 million acre-feet in Arizona, 300,0000 in Nevada and 1.5 million acre-feet in Mexico. The big problem is that river [transit] losses and evaporation sit on top of all of that.
Question: Farms and ranches use as much as 80% of the water in the Colorado River Basin. What could be done to reduce agricultural water use while protecting the farm economies and food supplies?
Answer: The fundamental dilemma that we have is the conflict between the priority dates of long-established irrigation districts in the Lower Basin and the Upper Basin under the priority system, versus new development and growth that is occurring that is junior in priority.
If we strictly went by those priorities, you would literally be cutting off the Central Arizona Project, as well as Las Vegas, Denver and the Metropolitan Water District [of Southern California]. That’s just not going to happen. So how do we equitably manage through that dilemma, so that ag economies and the communities that have grown to depend on those priorities grow and can rely on that supply? And how do we have security of water for the 40 million people who live in this basin?
It is going to result in a shift of waters. The Lower Basin has asked for $1.2 billion to reduce demands. I don’t have a silver bullet, but to me that is the heart of the negotiation that is going to have to occur.
Question: A number of people have suggested that a new forum of some kind needs to be created to help solve the Colorado River’s problems now. You’ve said that you don’t plan to retire. If you were offered the opportunity to run that new entity, would you take it?
Answer: Going out to pasture is not my nature. I would have to think about it. I would love to stay involved.
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.
Climate change is robbing the Colorado River of water and threatening water security for 40 million people living in the Southwest. But prominent Colorado water managers, citing political concerns, are shying away from action on climate, favoring instead adaptation to rising temperatures and sustainability in their own operations.
The climate news surrounding the river is often grim. Scientists have shown that flows have declined nearly 20% from the 20th century average and that human-caused higher temperatures are responsible for about one-third of that. They have also shown that every 1 degree Celsius of warming results in a 9% reduction in flows. A record-setting snowpack this past winter led to above-average runoff conditions, but that good news follows the fact that water levels in the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, dropped to historic lows early this year.
And it is predicted to get worse. Scientists at the World Meteorological Organization said last month that we are more than likely headed for a period of warming in the next four years, driven by El Nino, that will see record-breaking heat. This will push the Earth 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels for at least one year between now and 2027. The 1.5-degree Celsius mark is a major threshold; experts have warned that this amount of warming will result in far more impacts such as droughts and heatwaves.
Yet, despite a cleareyed recognition of the scale of the climate problem, Colorado water managers have done remarkably little when it comes to pushing for climate action on a main cause of water shortages: rising temperatures caused by humans burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Experts agree the world needs to quickly transition away from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power.
Managers instead have focused almost entirely on climate resilience and adaptation by funding programs that help water users adjust to the impacts of shortages and, in some cases, have worked to reduce their own carbon footprint and increase sustainability in their operations. “Climate resilience” and “drought resilience” have become popular buzz phrases in the Colorado water world.
But experts say these approaches don’t address the root cause of the problem and that water managers have a responsibility to pivot from climate adaptation to mitigation. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — an arm of the United Nations representing 195 countries and considered an international authority on climate change — adaptation and mitigation are necessary to avoid the worst losses and damages.
“This is their resource,” said John Berggren, a water policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates, referring to Colorado River water managers. “It’s not disconnected, it’s not tangential. Climate change is impacting their ability to provide water, and therefore I think they have a responsibility to be advocating for policy change at every level of government.”
Climate scientist Brad Udall has been beating the drum on this issue for years. Udall’s 2017 paper with researcher Jonathan Overpeck was one of the first to illustrate just how much of an effect rising temperatures were having on the Colorado River. A hotter atmosphere can hold more water through evaporation, and plants suck up more water as heat increases. Udall and Overpeck’s research found that an average of one-third of the declines in flows can be attributed to human-caused higher temperatures.
Udall’s family is steeped in the history of the Colorado River. As he writes in the forward to the book “Cornerstone at the Confluence: Navigating the Colorado River Compact’s Next Century” (2022),his father, Morris, was a U.S. congressman from Arizona who shepherded the Colorado River Basin Project Act through the House of Representatives in 1968 and his uncle Stewart was secretary of the interior during the 1960s, who promoted the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s vision for the river. His great-great-grandfather John D. Lee founded the famous Lee’s Ferry, now the dividing point between the upper and lower Colorado River basins.
Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, has been one of the loudest voices in recent years calling for audacious leadership on issues of climate change and the river. He often says that climate change means water change. He said water managers have a responsibility to address climate change and that it’s frustrating to watch people retreat to their silos.
“It’s disheartening to me, the idea that it’s somebody else’s problem and the potential for disaster that exists because people are just focused on their little areas of expertise and what they think is their responsibility as defined by their job title versus what I would argue is their responsibility to humanity as a whole, which might not be in their job title but should be,” Udall said.
During his presentation at the 2019 Upper Colorado River Commission meeting in Las Vegas, Udall told water managers that adapting to impacts doesn’t go far enough, and he suggested tools for mitigation such as carbon pricing and tax credits for renewable energy. He said not nearly enough is being done.
“How many times can we say this is a full-on, five-alarm fire that we’ve got to address immediately and yet nothing happens?,” Udall said. “It’s kind of as if people don’t understand the historic times in which we are operating right now. This is a once-in-human-history pivot point.” [ed. emphasis mine]
Hot-spot mission scope
When General Manager Andy Mueller was hired at the Colorado River Water Conservation District in 2017, he told his new board the two biggest challenges facing the district were its anemic bank account and climate change. The money problem was largely remedied in 2020 when voters throughout the 15-county district overwhelmingly approved ballot measure 7A, raising an additional $5 million a year for the River District. The majority of that new taxpayer money now goes to fund water projects, many of which are aimed at helping water users across the Western Slope adapt to the impacts of climate change.
The River District has funded projects that create a redundant water supply so that cities aren’t at risk if a wildfire affects one water source; projects that help farmers and ranchers figure out how to still grow crops with a smaller supply of water; and projects that try to predict water availability such as soil moisture monitoring and remote-sensing snowpack monitoring. Mueller said adapting to climate change underlies everything they do at the River District.
“Conversations today are largely driven by the fact that climate change has impacted the availability of water,” Mueller said. “Everything we think about at the River District is how do we prepare our water users and how do we help protect our water users in our communities from that hotter and drier future from the water-security perspective.”
The area covered by the River District is feeling climate change impacts more acutely than other areas in the West. According to a 2020 analysis by The Washington Post, a cluster of counties on the Western Slope has warmed more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F), which is double the global average. The hot spot spans more than 30,000 square miles; is the largest hot spot in the contiguous United States; and includes some of western Colorado’s largest irrigation districts in the Grand Valley and Uncompahgre River Valley.
It’s likely that the River District’s mission — to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of Colorado River water for the welfare of the district — will be made all the more challenging in years to come as rising temperatures cause flows to decrease even more. But Mueller said he sees addressing the causes of climate change — humans burning fossil fuels — as outside the scope of that mission. The River District hires lobbyists and has staff focused on government relations, but it does not push for climate policies that aim to curb carbon emissions.
Turning from adaptation to prevention is a massive lift and one that would change the focus of the organization, Mueller said. Add to that the fact that some of the counties represented on the district board have economies still partly dependent on extracting oil, gas and coal and it becomes even harder to take action.
“I think we have a responsibility to give voice to what climate change is doing to our communities and our water supply, and I do think the River District does a good job with that,” he said. “Do we have an obligation to lead in the prevention of climate change? I would say no, we don’t … . We have identified climate change as a threat, but the idea that we have the ability to meaningfully prevent the root cause of climate change isn’t within our traditional abilities and our mission.”
The trust of the customer
Denver Water is Colorado’s oldest and largest public water utility, supplying water to 1.5 million people. The water provider gets about half of its supply from the Colorado River through transmountain diversions that take from the headwaters to the Front Range via a system of pumps, pipes, tunnels and reservoirs. Its operations and water quality have been impacted by climate-change-fueled wildfires in the watersheds where it draws this water, with post-fire debris and ash being washed into reservoirs and clogging infrastructure.
Denver Water’s departing CEO, Jim Lochhead, who has led the utility since 2010, is an attorney and the former head of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources. He has received a Water Leader of the Year award from the Colorado Water Congress.
Lochhead and Denver Water are powerful political players in Colorado. For example, after he and heads of other water utilities that pull some of their supply from the Colorado River testified at a state Senate hearing this year, lawmakers added more seats for Front Range water providers to a drought task force.
Lochhead said that every aspect of Denver Water’s operation is impacted by climate change and that climate change, population growth and the resulting impact on the Colorado River are the utility’s greatest challenges. He said Denver Water walks the talk by doing stream-restoration projects in the headwaters to mitigate the impacts of its diversions and forest health initiatives that mitigate impacts of wildfires. The utility is preparing for a future with a less consistent water supply through increased efficiency, water recycling and projects such as the expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County. That project is raising the height of a dam in the foothills west of Boulder by 131 feet, nearly tripling the reservoir’s capacity from 42,000 to 119,000 acre-feet.
Lochhead said Denver Water is addressing climate change in a major way: through sustainability, water conservation and energy efficiency efforts at its new campus, which has solar panels, blackwater reuse and rainwater capture for irrigation, LED lighting and has been awarded multiple LEED Green Building certifications.
“We wanted it to be a vision of the future and a vision of sustainability,” Lochhead said. “This is the most sustainable campus that has been developed in Colorado.”
Denver Water’s goal is to reduce by 2025 overall energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by 50% from a 2015 baseline, and Lochhead said they are on track to meet that goal.
But addressing the root cause of warming is a bridge too far for Lochhead, as it is for Mueller and the River District. Lochhead called climate change “a hot-button political issue.”
“We are created to be nonpolitical, and part of the trust our customers have for us is that we are nonpolitical,” he said. “To the extent that we are operating politically or we have stepped out of that role, we actually risk losing some of the trust of our customers.”
Last year, Denver Water joined a memorandum of understanding with other large municipal water providers to commit to reducing nonfunctional turf grass — a major water hog — by 30% and other efficiency upgrades. This type of collective action, along with promoting an ethic of sustainability, is how Lochhead sees Denver Water’s role in the climate crisis.
“There hasn’t been, to my knowledge, a collective discussion around reducing carbon emissions,” he said.
Making the shift to activists
Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. and a thought leader on climate issues in the ski industry, said water managers need to engage in solving climate change not just in their own operations but at the policy level.
A water utility getting its own sustainability house in order doesn’t do enough to make a difference and takes the blame off of where it belongs: the fossil fuel industry, which has long misled the public about the impacts of burning its products, Schendler said.
“By definition, it doesn’t do the things that fossil-fuel-industry people fear,” Schendler said. “What do they fear? Active voters, movements, legislation, public shaming, public exposure — that kind of thing. The fact that very powerful entities, businesses, water districts and trade groups won’t speak up is an astounding win for the fossil fuel status quo power structure … . I would argue that it’s negligent for a water district to not engage in those things.”
In recent years, SkiCo has become a leader on climate, aligning itself with Protect Our Winters, a group that harnesses the power of outdoor athletes and recreationists to solve the climate crisis. POW focuses on large collective action and political action for systemic change, an approach that the IPCC says can work.
“Effective climate action is enabled by political commitment, well-aligned multilevel governance, institutional frameworks, laws, policies and strategies and enhanced access to finance and technology,” reads the latest IPCC assessment report.
SkiCo has made the shift from a business that merely worked to make its operations “green” to climate activists promoting policies that combat climate change. Schendler said SkiCo’s role is to wield power, model solutions, lobby, help build movements, get involved in politics and basically engage in civics. So far, water managers have not made a similar shift, even though rising temperatures represent as much of a threat to their mission as they do to the snowy winter slopes relied upon by ski resorts.
Although things can often look grim, one of the points stressed in the latest report from the IPCC is that there is still time to avoid the worst impacts if people act now to limit warming. The window to secure a livable and sustainable future is rapidly closing, but there is a window nevertheless. Seeing climate change only as an inevitability that is global in nature can contribute to inaction, said Berggren, of Western Resource Advocates.
“Sure, maybe you as a water provider aren’t going to be writing or developing international climate policy, but as a water provider whose entire mission is dependent on a resource that is being negatively impacted by this issue, … you do have maybe even a moral obligation to be advocating for our national elected leaders to do something.”
During Aspen Journalism’s interviews with a wide swath of Colorado River experts, politics emerged again and again as the main barrier for the water community taking action on climate change. Most experts echoed the conclusions reached by Mueller and Lochhead: Climate action is perceived as a liberal issue, and taking more aggressive action is seen as an overreach.
The future of water in the West may depend on shifting those perceptions. With the Colorado River crisis making international headlines, many are looking to see what water leaders will do during this pivotal time.
“It’s a moral obligation on the part of leaders in our community to depoliticize climate,” Schendler said. “If water districts can’t think 100 years in the future, who can?”
Study after study has shown that as the climate warms, more and more Centennial State snowmelt is lost through evaporation and other processes before it can find its way into our rivers, streams, and reservoirs. So we’ll need bigger than average snowpacks each winter just to keep reservoir levels and river flows from falling further—and unless everyone gets serious about tackling the climate crisis, that’s simply not going to happen. One recent study from researchers at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory found that Colorado could see a 50 to 60 percent reduction in snow within 60 years. When those same researchers used pattern recognition programs to group subregions of the Colorado River Basin by how each sector will respond to climate change, they found something disturbing: By 2080, much of western Colorado could experience aridity similar to Arizona’s…
What’s even more alarming is that, in many ways, the future is already here. This past June, the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Colorado River through a network of reservoirs, announced that the seven states in the Colorado River Basin had 60 days to devise a plan to reduce the amount of river water they use annually by two to four million acre feet, as much as a third of the waterway’s annual flow…
Meanwhile, water levels are still dropping and the ripple effects of whatever compromise is reached—or isn’t reached—will be felt far beyond that river basin, including in Denver, which gets much of its water from the Western Slope. There is some cause for hope, however. From new cash crops that aren’t nearly as thirsty to science-fiction-worthy technology for forecasting droughts, there are ways to decrease demand and stretch supply. “You need to have as many tools in your toolbox as possible,” says Greg Fisher, demand planning and efficiency manager at Denver Water. “This is Colorado. Even if you could take the drought and the Colorado River [crisis] out of the equation, we’re still a water-constrained state with a growing population. People need to appreciate what water is for. It’s for life, safety, and health. I think anything beyond that is discretionary, and I don’t know if we’re at the point where we can afford discretionary use.”
Registration includes access to the Watershed Summit, happy hour, refreshments, and entrance to Denver Botanic Gardens on June 22, 2023.This year, we’re excited to offer add-on optional experiences for those looking for something special before the main event:Guided tour of water-wise gardens by Denver Botanic Gardens horticulturists: $10 (75 spots available)Eat within your watershed: Locally sourced lunch prepared by SAME Café: $20 (25 spots available)The Watershed Summit, or “Shed” as it is affectionately known, has become a Colorado tradition, gathering a range of stakeholders to discuss current and future water challenges and opportunities facing the state. This year’s event will convene diverse voices and creative points of view to explore water efficient landscaping, how youth environmental education is bridging geographical divides, federal involvement in western water issues, and so much more!
Shed ’23 returns to a fully in-person event at Denver Botanic Gardens, concluding with the ever-popular happy hour event sponsored by Stem Ciders and Howdy Beer.
This event is produced through a collaborative partnership between the One World One Water Center (a joint initiative of Metropolitan State University of Denver and Denver Botanic Gardens), Aurora Water, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Denver Water and Resource Central.
We hope you’ll join us this summer for the return of the Watershed Summit!
If you have lived in Denver for a few years or longer, you probably know that the efficient way to water landscapes is to follow Denver Water’s summer watering rules, which begin every year on May 1 and run through Oct. 1.
But what about those thousands of people who have moved to the City and County of Denver in recent years?
As it turns out, they are pretty familiar with Denver Water’s rules too.
Best practices for efficient, healthy outdoor watering are not just a Denver thing. They are the same best practices you’ll find utilities advocating for in California, Texas, Arizona, Illinois and Florida — the states where many of Denver’s newcomers came from.
How did we figure that out? We looked at federal census data (specifically the 72,490 people who moved in between 2012 and 2016) to learn which five states, and which county in each of those states, were the biggest suppliers of our recent round of new neighbors in Denver.
Then we looked at a sampling of the water providers in each of those counties to see what they advise their own customers to do.
Here’s what they all said:
There is no need to water when it’s raining, Mother Nature can handle it. And if it’s windy, it is best to hold off on watering.
When using a hose to wash the car, or water the lawn or trees, always use a shut-off nozzle in order to use only what you need, right when and where you need it.
Allowing water to run off onto sidewalks or the street wastes water.
Watering in the cooler parts of the day, between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m., cuts down on evaporation.
So, when it comes to outdoor watering, there’s no need for a native versus transplant turf battle. Instead, let’s raise a cool glass of safe, clean tap water to everyone who knows the best way to water landscapes efficiently.
And if you need a refresher on the ins and outs of Denver Water’s annual summer watering rules, check out denverwater.org/BestPractices for more information. You’ll find all kinds of efficiency tips there for water use inside and out.
Let’s get to the good news: Colorado got snow this year, and it’s going to help fill up our reservoirs, some of them almost to average! Yes, that doesn’t sound great, but considering our last few years, the average is something to celebrate. Travis Thompson, Denver Water spokesperson, pointed to the snowpack just starting to melt into the Colorado River Basin, where he said Denver gets about half its water. If these next rounds of storms coming through are able to drop off some moisture, our pack levels will likely hit 100% normal and we’d be in good shape, for this year at least.,,
…in Colorado, it’s more spread out, some parts got hammered, like the San Juan Mountain Range, and some parts of Colorado got what they usually got, or even less in some spots. To look at an overall state average would to be instilling a false sense of confidence, Thompson said.
In the race to protect homes and communities ― and water supplies ― from the intensifying threat of wildfire, Front Range organizations spent urgent years hustling to thin dense and overgrown forests in scattered patches.
Cutting trees and clearing brush ideally would ease the risk of catastrophic fire by reducing what could burn and slowing a fire’s spread in a less crowded forest.
And that was true. But the approach, while well-meaning and understandable, also was disorganized and scattershot.
“Organizations were frantically out there working on their own,” explained Madelene McDonald, a watershed scientist at Denver Water focused on protecting water supplies from wildfire. “These were shotgun treatments, or what is sometimes called ‘random acts of restoration.’ It was 500 acres here, then 300 acres there.”
Things are changing ― for the better. And Denver Water is at the forefront.
With greater coordination, more resources and a more strategic approach, agencies and communities are beginning to create larger, more connected swaths of thinned-out forests.
Experts believe these larger swaths can better prevent the kind of massive damage to waterways, reservoirs — and the forests themselves — that have marked the last quarter-century of epic wildfire in Colorado.
“We are recognizing that we can’t be working independently. We need to be collaborating and doing strategic cross-boundary planning. We can get far more done together,” McDonald said. “The risk is still there, but we are moving the needle.”
Focus on the Pike National Forest
One of the clearest examples of this strategic shift can be found in the South Platte Ranger District, in a region near Bailey located south and west of Denver.
Here, partnerships involving the U.S. Forest Service, Denver Water, the Colorado State Forest Service and other state and local organizations are driving landscape-scale work that will provide greater protection for forests and for Denver Water’s supplies in an era of a warming climate and hotter, larger, more damaging forest fires.
Much of the work is occurring under the banner of the Jerome Miller/Miller Gulch Project, an effort focused on an area of the Pike National Forest that lies between the North Fork and the South Platte rivers and upstream from where the two waterways merge near Strontia Springs Reservoir, a temporary pool for 80% of Denver Water’s supply.
The project is expanding a series of forest treatments in the region that collectively are designed to limit future fires ability to spread quickly and grow in intensity. That, in turn, should lessen wildfire impacts to the North Fork of the South Platte, a stretch that conveys critical supplies of water flowing from Dillon Reservoir to the metro area.
Parts of this general region in the South Platte River watershed were the epicenter of two major fires in 1996 and 2002 that together burned more than 150,000 acres, devastated landscapes and left reservoirs clogged with thousands of tons of sediment that poured from the scorched, treeless landscape left by the fires.
Those two fires, named the Buffalo Creek and Hayman, set Denver Water and other land management agencies on the course they are on today ― to collaborate on the ground to ease the risk of future catastrophic fires.
Examples of success
Already, the partnership’s work has resulted in tangible success stories.
In 2019, a fire broke out in an area called Payne Gulch in the Pike National Forest. As part of a series of forest management projects in the region, this area had been thinned in 2017.
“The fire could have blown up to be a pretty catastrophic fire, but wildland firefighters were able to access and suppress the fire effectively because of the thinning,” McDonald said. “That’s a shining example of where we’ve seen this work pay off. The connectivity between treated areas is increasing and attracting more and more work in that area.”
In perhaps the highest profile example, the partnership’s work to develop fuel breaks protected about 1,400 homes and as much as $1 billion in value in Silverthorne during the Buffalo Fire in Summit County in 2018. The work has also protected Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir, Denver Water’s largest water storage facility.
Success has many fathers (as the saying goes), but there’s little question that Denver Water’s From Forests to Faucets partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado State Forest Service and Colorado Forest Restoration Institute is a key part of the story driving greater investment and partnerships to get ahead of big fires in Colorado.
All told, partners have committed more than $96 million to the From Forests to Faucets partnership, from its inception in 2010 through work planned into 2027.
In total, Denver Water and partners have treated more than 120,000 acres of forested land since 2010, with nearly two-thirds of that within the South Platte Basin. Local organizations involved in the South Platte Basin work include Jefferson County Open Space, Jefferson Conservation District, Aurora Water and the Coalition for the Upper South Platte.
Feds point to Colorado
Federal officials gathered Feb. 9 for a news conference in Broomfield to highlight new congressional funding for forest work and called such partnerships in Colorado “a template for the nation.”
At that event, Homer Wilkes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment, announced $37 million in federal money for priority landscapes along the Front Range in 2023, including areas in the South Platte watershed.
Last year, the region attracted $18 million in federal dollars. All of that money comes on top of recent funding at the state level of more than $80 million.
“Investing proactively in protecting forests and watersheds is a smart business decision. You can see our partners increasingly understand that as state and federal resources pour in to help reduce the impacts of, and potential for, big fires,” said Christina Burri, who has for years developed and strengthened Denver Water’s interagency collaboration.
Burri noted that with the new flow of state and federal money, Denver Water is seeing up to a tenfold return on the utility’s investment into From Forests to Faucets.
“It is amazing to see,” she said.
Outgoing Denver Water CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead said the big rise in funding to protect water supplies and communities is a tribute to Denver Water’s years of focus on the issue.
“It is just one more example of how a utility can achieve results by leaning into collaboration and partnerships, and by leading in innovation,” Lochhead said.
When Denver’s early settlers built the High Line Canal back in the 1880s, little did they know what the future would hold for the 71-mile man-made waterway that stretches from Waterton Canyon southwest of Littleton all the way to Aurora.
The High Line Canal was originally designed to deliver irrigation water to farmers on the dry plains of Denver. While Denver Water still owns and uses the canal to deliver irrigation water to customers, the canal corridor also has grown into a recreational asset and an ecological resource for the metro area.
On the recreational side, each year around 500,000 people walk, run and ride the canal’s 71-mile maintenance road that also serves as a popular trail. As an ecological resource, some sections of the canal structure itself are now being used for stormwater management.
The evolution of the public’s use of the canal for recreation and stormwater management, along with its original role as a water delivery method, is one of the reasons why Denver Water and regional partners, including cities, counties, park and flood districts and stormwater management entities, have partnered with the High Line Canal Conservancy. The nonprofit organization’s mission is to preserve, protect and enhance the 71-mile canal in partnership with the public.
Denver Water plays an active role in the ongoing discussions about the canal’s future as it continues to serve its High Line customers. Because the canal has a junior water right and experiences high seepage and evaporation losses over large distances, Denver Water is looking for more reliable and efficient ways to deliver water to some of the High Line customers.
“As the canal’s role in the metro area evolves, Denver Water is committed to making sure it remains a beneficial asset to the community,” said Jeannine Shaw, Denver Water’s former government relations manager. “That’s why in 2020, the Denver Water Board of Commissioners approved an historic $10 million pledge to the High Line Canal Conservancy to invest in the long-term care and maintenance of the canal corridor.”
Included in the pledge is a piece of property and an office building located adjacent to the canal in Centennial for the Conservancy to use as its new headquarters.
As part of this evolution, the Conservancy, Denver Water and canal stakeholders are creating a new management structure called the Canal Collaborative to formally connect the regional partners as they guide the future of the canal.
“The collaborative helps us do more together than any one entity can do alone,” said Suzanna Fry Jones, senior director of programs and partnerships for the High Line Canal Conservancy. “The collaborative management structure will ensure this treasured resource is preserved, protected and enhanced as a regional legacy for future generations.”
The formalized structure will benefit citizens and the environment along all 71 miles of the canal as it winds its way through Denver as well as Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.
The Canal Collaborative includes the High Line Canal Conservancy, Denver Water, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, the cities of Aurora, Denver, Cherry Hills Village, Greenwood Village and Littleton, the Highlands Ranch Metro District, the Mile High Flood District, the Southeast Metro Stormwater Authority and South Suburban Parks and Recreation.
“The collaborative is important because we need to have a group that brings together all of the jurisdictions so we can hear from each one of those entities and their communities about what’s most important to them,” said Nancy Sharpe, Arapahoe County Commissioner for District 2, which includes Centennial, Greenwood Village, a portion of Aurora and unincorporated central Arapahoe County.
The Conservancy was formed in 2014 and has developed “The Plan for the High Line Canal,” which lays out guidance for repurposing the corridor along with over 100 recommendations for new projects.
Here’s a look at some of the developments along the canal in recent years.
Under the new Stormwater Transformation and Enhancement Program, High Line Canal partners are looking at ways to allow and move stormwater through areas of the canal to improve water quality and manage local flooding in the South Platte River Basin. This is in addition to the canal’s existing irrigation delivery purposes.
Stormwater is any rain and snow that eventually flows off any impervious surface and into the canal.
Several structures have been built in or on the side of the canal to help manage the flow of stormwater through the channel.
The new structures that are located on the side of the canal help improve drainage on city streets and collect debris and trash before water enters the canal.
The structures being built inside the canal also help catch and stop debris and trash from flowing down the channel. They also temporarily slow down and detain water to filter out sediment.
These structures are designed to improve water quality before the water reaches receiving streams. Moving stormwater through the canal could provide an additional 100 days that the canal could be wet in some parts of the channel, which would benefit vegetation along the corridor while also enhancing the recreational user experience.
“Often times across the country, old utility and railroad corridors become degraded once their primary uses have been reduced, so we’re happy to see areas of the High Line Canal being maximized and transformed into green infrastructure,” Shaw said.
Along with Littleton and Denver, stormwater projects are also being implemented in Centennial, Douglas County and Greenwood Village with additional projects in progress. Learn more about the Stormwater Transformation and Enhancement Program in this video.
Denver Water and its regional partners also are exploring other opportunities to allow the canal structure to be used. In areas where it has adequate stormwater capacity the canal could provide additional benefits to the neighboring communities and their surrounding environment to improve water quality in the South Platte River basin.
“As we navigate the evolving future for the lands the High Line Canal irrigates, Denver Water is excited to further the work with our regional partners to find additional utility for this cherished resource,” Shaw said.
Tree canopy health
There are more than 23,000 mature trees along the High Line Canal, but many are at the end of their life span. The Conservancy is working with Denver Water and regional partners to remove dead trees and trim others to improve overall tree health and safety along the canal’s recreational trail.
To maintain the canal’s urban forest, the Conservancy’s Plan recommends planting 3,500 new trees by 2030. The species of trees being planted will be more drought tolerant than many of the old cottonwood trees currently along the canal.
A major goal of the Conservancy and the Canal Collaborative is to make it easier, safer and more fun to walk or ride on the canal’s recreational trail. The Conservancy is working with local jurisdictions to add new pedestrian bridges, trailheads, underpasses, mile markers and wayfinding signs.
Canal Improvement Zones
Under The Plan, the Conservancy has worked with the community and jurisdictional partners to identify nine Canal Improvement Zones. These are locations where residents asked for trail enhancements to increase physical activity, foster community connections and create access points to nature.
Many of the sites are in diverse neighborhoods where the canal corridor has been historically under-utilized and lacked investment.
Enhancements may include pedestrian bridges, improved trail access, benches, signs, gathering spots and play areas.
The first location to see new projects is the Laredo Highline neighborhood in Aurora, thanks to a $180,000 grant from the Colorado Health Foundation and an additional $180,000 from Arapahoe County.
“I grew up in the Laredo Highline neighborhood and the canal has always helped bring the community together,” said Aurora resident Janak Garg. “We’re really looking forward to the new bridge and other improvements coming to the neighborhood.”
New mile markers
A very noticeable and welcome improvement to the trail is the addition of new mile markers. In the past, there were a variety of mile markers with different mileage from each jurisdiction, which made it confusing for hikers and bikers.
Now there are new Colorado red sandstone mile markers that line the trail from start to finish, paid for through donations by the Conservancy’s founding partners.
Most of the markers have a quote or message from the founding partners, like Al Galperin who lives near the South Quebec Way Trailhead, whose message reads: “Be the reason someone smiles today.”
“I hope it brings a little bit of extra joy to people on the trail,” Galperin said. “It’s nice to be able to help out and see all the new features coming to the canal.”
“It’s inspiring to see all these improvements and we’re excited for the future of the canal,” Shaw said. “The Conservancy and all of the partners are doing a great job leading the way and working with Denver Water and the community.”
Visit highlinecanal.org to sign up for monthly emails for information on events throughout the year. The website also provides information about history of the canal, new projects and volunteer opportunities.
In Colorado, farmers must enroll in a four-state program by March 1, if they want to get paid for fallowing their fields perhaps the best option to plump up the Colorado River’s giant reservoirs, Mead and Powell.
Not everyone is a fan, including Andy Mueller, director of the Colorado River District. He doesn’t like programs that pay farmers to stop farming. Mueller also didn’t ask for the Inflation Reduction Act’s $125 million to pay the farmers he represents. Mueller’s organization exists to keep Western Colorado’s rural water away from growing cities across the Rockies.
State Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, who chairs the Committee for Agriculture and Natural Resources, has a more nuanced view. He says he understands that rural communities fear a “buy and dry” scenario. Where annual leases become routine, and once-verdant fields and farms wither. He insists that any water leasing must be temporary, voluntary and well compensated.
A water-leasing program called demand management was created for Colorado irrigators under former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — it was tested, but never used. It would have allowed farmers to lease and store their water in a Lake Powell account under state control. Under Gov. Jared Polis’ administration, however, demand management was quietly shelved.
Now, this new, multi-state program for leasing agricultural water, called a “system conservation pilot program,” isn’t getting much traction. The program was announced two and a half months ago by Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
Its major drawback, says Tom Kay, an organic farmer in western Colorado, is that the Upper Colorado River Commission is offering a “stupid price of $150 an acre-foot.”
“Farmers like to farm; you have to pay them more than they make farming to interest them,” Kay adds. He gets around $650 per acre-foot of water growing mostly organic corn and dry beans on his 350-acre farm near the town of Hotchkiss.
Kay says he recently toured California’s Imperial Valley, where farmers are getting $679 an acre-foot. They sell their 200,000 acre-feet of Colorado River to the San Diego County Water Authority and consider the price reasonable.
Water prices are also rising. In California last summer, when the Bureau of Reclamation was looking hard for water, large irrigation districts in the Lower Basin were asking $1,500 per acre-foot to lease their water to cities, reported Janet Wilson of California’s Desert Sun.
If farmers got more money for their water under the new pilot program, says State Sen. Roberts, Colorado “could get more participation (and) show the federal government we are doing our part.” He also says that many state legislators think California and Arizona should bear the brunt of water cuts.
Getting farmers to fallow their land could build resilience in the Colorado River Basin, says Aaron Derwingson of The Nature Conservancy. A few years ago, he worked with grower Kay and Cary Denison, formerly of Trout Unlimited, to develop an “organic transition” program whose concept was simple: Lease two-thirds of your water for three years so pesticides and fertilizers leach off the land, then apply for organic certification. The demand management trial was largely funded by the Bureau of Reclamation.
So the question remains: Why is the Upper Colorado River Commission offering farmers so little for their irrigation water? The commission’s executive director, Chuck Cullom, explains: “$150 per acre-foot was chosen to discourage drought profiteering.”
Kay guesses that the low price was set to discourage participation. While $150 is the floor, and farmers can negotiate for more, commission representatives haven’t gone to agricultural communities to beat the drum for its program.
Kay says, “That $125 million is a lot of money, and it belongs to Upper Basin farmers.”
Meanwhile, in mid-November, 30 western cities agreed to cut “non-functional” turf grass by up to 36%, including big water guzzlers such as Utah’s Washington County, which wants to siphon more water out of Lake Powell.
What’s unclear is how much water from not watering grass stays in the river. Mueller points out that Aurora, a fast-growing Denver suburb, “is cutting water to sell more water taps. They’re building more houses.”
Kay admires Mueller’s rural leadership but thinks the way forward is clear: “Denver has a junior water right. Why isn’t it paying us in western Colorado to fallow ground, just like what Los Angeles and San Diego are doing?”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He owns a small, irrigated parcel in Western Colorado.
The winter of 2022-23 is off to a cold and snowy start across most of Colorado, which is good news for the state’s water supply.
So far, water watchers say we’ve had the best start for the statewide snowpack season since 2017.
However, while some parts of the state, like Steamboat Springs, are seeing the highest snowpack levels in over a decade, numbers in some parts of the state are lagging.
Snowpack is a measurement of the amount of water packed into the snow.
“Colorado is a big state and it’s not uncommon to see a wide range of snow totals across various regions,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply.
For example, the snowpack in the northwest corner of Colorado sat at 151% of normal as of Jan. 31, but the southeastern corner was just at 83% of normal.
Sign up for our free, weekly TAP email to stay on top of this season’s snowpack. (Scroll down to put your email in the light blue sign-up bar.)
The amount of snow that falls in the mountains is critical in Colorado because that’s where most of the state’s water comes from each year.
Denver Water provides water to 1.5 million people in Denver and several surrounding suburbs, and 90% of the utility’s water supply comes from snow. The utility collects water from roughly 4,000 square miles of terrain in the mountains and foothills west of Denver in the Upper Colorado and Upper South Platte river basins.
Denver Water collects roughly half of its water from the Colorado River Basin and half from the South Platte.
In the areas where Denver Water collects water, as of Jan. 31, the snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin stood at 111% of normal, while the Upper South Platte River Basin stood at 82% of normal.
“The difference in snowpack is why Denver Water has built a large collection system spread across several counties. That way if one area is having a down year, hopefully things are better in another area. And that’s what we’re seeing so far this year,” Elder said.
Elder said this year the snowfall in the mountains has been steady since November 2022, compared with last winter, which will be remembered for having only a couple big storms that hit over the holiday season and ended up providing the bulk of the entire season’s total snowfall.
“As a water planner, it would be nice to have a steady, predictable snowpack season, but weather doesn’t work that way and each year plays out differently,” Elder said. “That’s why we constantly monitor the mountain snowpack and adjust our water planning accordingly.”
See how Denver Water monitors the snowpack from the air, on the ground and by using automated weather stations.
Denver Water’s reservoir storage stood at 82% full heading into February, which is average for this time of year. Elder said he’s cautiously optimistic the reservoirs will fill when the snow melts in the spring due to the snowpack so far.
He’s also encouraged by the fact that soil moisture for the state is the best it’s been in eight years.
“When the soil moisture is in good shape, it means more water will flow into rivers and streams instead of being absorbed by dry ground,” he said.
Denver Water monitors snowpack throughout the winter season, using monthly measurements gathered by crews on the ground and daily reports from automated weather stations. The utility also gets information about the snowpack from planes surveying its collection system using high-tech equipment.
This year, planes will fly over forests in Summit and Grand counties where Denver Water collects water — and for the first time also will fly over the utilities’ South Platte and South Boulder Creek watersheds.
“We’ve got our snowiest months of the season coming up, and we’re hoping the snow will keep falling,” Elder said. “Snowpack typically peaks around the third week of April, so that’s the key snowpack measurement we’ll be watching.”
Elder said that even though water supply looks good now, the winter months are a great time to get your house into water-wise shape indoors by finding and fixing toilet leaks, installing low-flow aerators and replacing old showerheads with WaterSense-labeled fixtures.
Watershed scientist Madelene McDonald started at Denver Water as an intern while wrapping up graduate school in 2019.
Just four years later, she’s representing the agency — and utilities across the West — as one of just 18 primary nonfederal members appointed to a nationwide commission advising Congress on reducing the threat of wildfire to land, water and communities.
McDonald is one of the 18 primary, nonfederal members. There also are an additional 18 members assigned as alternates should primary members be unavailable for a commission vote.
Their task: To spend a single year developing a list of recommendations for Congress to implement as it grapples with the increasing risk of wildfires amid rising temperatures and drought triggered by climate change.
The commission has been meeting virtually since late summer. This week, (Wednesday and Thursday) one of the commission’s three in-person meetings will be held at Denver Water’s Operations Complex.
The first in-person gathering was in Salt Lake City in September. McDonald has been leading organizational efforts for the gathering at Denver Water’s Three Stones building this week.
One big thing going for McDonald during the commission’s competitive application process: Denver Water has carved out a national reputation for its work protecting water resources from the impacts of wildfire via its From Forests to Faucets partnership. And McDonald also was one of very few utility specialists focused almost solely on addressing wildfire risks to water supplies.
Listen to Denver Water’s watershed scientist Christina Burri talk about why protecting forests protects our water supplies:
Asked her reaction when she learned she had been appointed to the commission, McDonald admitted: “I saved that voicemail for sure,” when she was phoned by federal officials last summer with the news.
She’s modest about the achievement, citing Denver Water’s long and high-profile experience with wildfire impacts as a key factor. She also credits her supervisor Christina Burri, who oversees Denver Water’s From Forests to Faucets partnership, with pushing her to apply for the commission and for Burri’s efforts to work across agencies to promote the importance of watershed protection.
McDonald said her appointment also suggests there’s a new, wider recognition of the threat wildfire poses to water supplies.
Protecting communities, property and people have long been at the forefront of wildfire risk planning. But Denver Water’s own experiences with fires that threatened water supplies on the South Platte River in the late 1990s and early 2000s, along with threats to water in New Mexico and Arizona, have expanded the thinking on reducing wildfire risk.
“The wildfire community does understand now that water needs to be at the table,” she said.
The commission faces a tall order in developing wide-ranging recommendations in just a year’s time.
But McDonald, who calls the commission’s work “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape federal wildfire management policy,” is impressed with the resolve and work ethic of her colleagues.
“Starting with that first gathering in Salt Lake City, I don’t think I’ve ever walked out of a meeting more encouraged that a group of people could tackle such big challenges,” she said. “The collective expertise that’s been assembled is outstanding. I do think this group is probably our best shot at solving some of these systemic barriers to more efficient wildfire policies.”
McDonald serves on three of the 10 work groups that the commission formed to divide up the workload and said those work groups are moving at a “breakneck pace.”
The commission’s focus, she said, is on “sweeping, impactful actions,” that would provide direction for future legislation out of Congress. The commission will issue its first report on its efforts Jan. 31, when it provides recommendations for improvements to aerial firefighting.
McDonald, herself, is largely focused on recommendations that will take water supplies into greater account when considering federal approaches to fire prevention and post-fire rehabilitation work. She said even today, some federal policies focus solely on communities and property, without sufficient consideration to wildlife habitat, recreation, and reservoirs and the landscapes that impact them.
“Ensuring these recommendations take water supplies into greater account is one of my top priorities,” McDonald said.
With the commission nearing its halfway point, “I’ve got an Excel spreadsheet full of water-specific recommendations.”
Denver Water’s Three Stones building will host two major federal wildfire discussions the week of Jan. 23.
On Jan. 23-24, the Wildfire Resilience Interagency Working Group, a federal entity established by President Joe Biden in 2021, will meet for a workshop, along with federal, state and local partners from Colorado and New Mexico. The focus will be on learning from post-fire recovery work in Colorado and New Mexico
On Jan. 25-26, the federal Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, the group described in this TAP story, will hold one of its three in-person meetings slated for the commission’s 12-month project. The commission and its sub-groups meet virtually for most of its work but gather in person to take votes and have broader discussion.
There is a critical connection between clean drinking water and forests. For 80 percent of Coloradans, their water starts in the state’s forests before making its way downstream to their taps.
Given this connection, it is important for Colorado to protect its forested watersheds from the ever-present threat of wildfire to ensure residents and communities have water for drinking, agriculture and other uses. The Colorado Legislature recognizes this need and passed House Bill 22-1379 during the 2022 legislative session to fund projects that reduce wildfire fuels around high-priority watersheds and water infrastructure.
Today, the Colorado State Forest Service announces three projects funded through HB22-1379 that will reduce the risk wildfire poses to water supplies for more than a million Coloradans.
“We are excited to put these funds provided by the legislature to work in high-priority areas where an uncharacteristic wildfire could significantly impact water supplies and infrastructure,” said Weston Toll, watershed program specialist at the CSFS. “All three projects connect to prior fuels reduction work completed by the CSFS and our partners, so we can make an impact on a large scale in our forests.”
The CSFS received $3 million through HB22-1379 to fund forest management in critical watersheds and has allocated $1 million each to three projects in these locations:
Staunton State Park, Park and Jefferson counties
The project in Staunton State Park will build upon more than 800 acres of prior fuels treatments to reduce the impact a wildfire could have to water resources, communities, outdoor recreation areas and wildlife habitat. Creeks running through the park feed into the North Fork South Platte River, which flows into Strontia Springs Reservoir. Eighty percent of Denver Water’s water supply moves through Strontia Springs Reservoir.
This area, about 6 miles west of Conifer, is noted as a priority for action in assessments by the CSFS, Denver Water, Upper South Platte Partnership, Elk Creek Fire Protection District and in local Community Wildfire Protection Plans. It is also in a focus area for the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative.
“This project will allow us to get into areas of the park we haven’t been able to treat yet,” said Staunton State Park Manager Zach Taylor, “to reduce the risk of a wildfire spreading from the park to adjacent neighborhoods. The project also reduces wildfire risk to creeks in the park and the entirety of the drainage.”
Taylor said that the park has worked alongside neighbors in the area, including private landowners and the U.S. Forest Service, to address wildfire fuels since the park was acquired in the 1980s.
“Staunton State Park lies between all of these communities,” he said. “This project could set up the park for the next 5 to 10 years in helping us meet our goals for fuels reduction.”
North Slope of Pikes Peak, Teller County
The project on the North Slope of Pikes Peak will help protect essential drinking water and water infrastructure for the City of Colorado Springs. Reservoirs on the North Slope provide about 15 percent of the city’s drinking water supply. Work there will add to more than 3,500 acres of prior fuels treatments on Colorado Springs Utilities’ municipal lands and fill an important gap in treated areas around North Catamount Reservoir and the headwaters of North Catamount Creek. It will also help protect infrastructure that conveys water from the utility’s Blue River collection system to the reservoir.
The Pikes Peak Watershed is noted as a high priority area in plans by the CSFS, U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Springs Utilities. It is also in a focus area for the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative.
“Colorado Springs Utilities’ 34-year-long partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service has enabled many beneficial forest management activities that reduce the risks and impacts of wildfire in and adjacent to our watersheds,” said Jeremy Taylor, forest program manager with Colorado Springs Utilities. “Through the Pikes Peak Good Neighbor Authority (GNA), we’ve expanded this collaboration to include the U.S. Forest Service for cross-boundary work, and we’re now embarking on the Big Blue project on the North Slope of Pikes Peak. It’s a valued partnership that prioritizes working together to improve forest health and protect our water resources, public lands and neighboring private lands.”
Fraser Valley, Grand County
The project in the Fraser Valley will lower the risk of wildfire to water supplies for Denver and the towns of Fraser and Winter Park by reducing fuels on U.S. Forest Service, Denver Water and private lands. It connects to several prior treatment areas to establish a connected, large-scale fuel break that could allow firefighters to engage a wildfire in the event of a fire. During the William’s Fork Fire in 2020, the project area was identified as where a wildfire could spread into the densely populated Fraser Valley.
The Grand County Wildfire Council identified the project area as a high priority through planning efforts by the CSFS, USFS, Bureau of Land Management, Denver Water, Grand County and local fire departments.
“These projects are critical for watershed health and source water protection for Denver Water and our 1.5 million customers. Healthy forests equal healthy watersheds,” said Christina Burri, watershed scientist with Denver Water. “Denver Water is so grateful for the partnerships and collaboration that make these projects possible.”
The CSFS expects work on these projects to begin in 2023 and will monitor the project work in future years to evaluate its impact and efficacy. All three projects allow the CSFS and its partners to achieve goals and enact strategies identified in the 2020 Colorado Forest Action Plan and are in areas identified as priorities in the plan.
“Governor Polis and the Colorado legislature have made tremendous investments to protect our watersheds from the increasing threat of wildfires and the Colorado State Forest Service is at the forefront in moving these projects forward”, said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The three projects announced today build on existing efforts to increase resiliency and make impactful investments in key watersheds to create healthier forests and reduce the threat of future wildfires.”
“Thank you to the Colorado Legislature for making the $3 million available for this important work and to our many partners for working alongside the Colorado State Forest Service on these projects,” Toll said. “Together, we are making a landscape-level impact and leveraging our collective resources toward the goal of lowering wildfire risk to water supplies and protecting one of our state’s most precious resources.”
When it comes to supplying water to 1.5 million people, the spring runoff is the most important time of the year for Denver Water.
That’s why having good information about the snowpack is critical. Mountain snow is Denver Water’s primary source of water for its customers.
When the snow that piles up in the mountains over the winter starts to melt, the water flows into rivers and streams that fill storage reservoirs. The spring runoff typically starts at the end of April and wraps up in late June or early July.
But the work to count the snowflakes starts long before that.
“We keep track of the snowpack through measurements on the ground, from the sky and from automated sensors,” said Nathan Elder, water supply manager at Denver Water. “We monitor the snow all winter because it constitutes the majority of our water supply and has major impacts on how we operate.”
In 2022, the snowpack peaked below average in the areas where Denver Water catches the snowmelt. A below-average snowpack affects the amount of water available to capture and store in the spring.
“We would like to completely fill our reservoir system every runoff season,” said Elder. “In the years when we don’t hit that mark, it makes following the utility’s annual summer watering rules even more critical for the Denver metro area.”
Watering two days a week should be enough for most landscapes for most of the summer. (Only water a third day, if needed, during periods of extreme heat or dryness.)
Following the summer watering rules will help keep reservoir levels higher, in case next winter’s snowpack is below average.
The snowpack data, reservoir forecasts and customer water use are some of the key factors used to determine if Denver Water might need to impose additional watering restrictions beyond the regular summer watering rules, which run from May 1 through Oct. 1.
Here’s a closer look at the primary ways Denver Water’s planning team keeps track of Colorado’s snowpack.
Four times a year from January through April, Denver Water crews strap on boots and snowshoes and sometimes ride snowcats to trek into the forest to measure the snow in Grand, Park and Summit counties, the primary areas where the utility collects its water supply for customers in metro Denver.
Each journey follows a specific, predetermined route called a snow course.
Each snow course has 10 designated stops where workers jab a hollow tube into the snow to capture and weigh a sample of the snowpack.
At each stop, the crew conducts a four-step process:
Collect a sample by dropping the pole into the snow until it hits the ground.
Measure the depth of snow in the tube.
Get the weight of the snow by weighing the snow-filled tube and subtracting the weight of the empty tube.
Calculate the density of the snow using the depth and weight measurements.
Using these measurements, crews calculate the snow water equivalent, or SWE, to determine the water content.
For example, if 10 inches of snow has a density of 10%, the snow water equivalent — the amount of water left behind if those 10 inches of snow melted — is 1 inch of water.
Denver Water shares the data collected on each snow course with the National Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. Denver Water is one of 15 agencies that sends people out to collect snow data at 95 locations across Colorado in partnership with the NRCS.
The information helps the agency develop water supply forecasts and monitor snowpack trends over time.
The NRCS’s forecasts are used by water provides, dam operators, farmers, ranchers, recreationists and communities to make important decisions about their water supply.
Along with data collected by hand, Denver Water uses information from snow telemetry sites, or SNOTEL, sites during the winter.
SNOTELs, basically automated backcountry weather stations, were first installed in the 1970s and are operated by the NRCS. The federal agency currently has more than 900 SNOTEL sites collecting data in remote, high-elevation mountain watersheds across the western U.S.
At each site, a bladder about the size of a queen-sized waterbed and filled with antifreeze monitors and reports the weight of the snow falling on it, providing information about the water content frozen in the snow. SNOTEL sites send data multiple times per day, although some sensors report hourly.
Denver Water uses information from 13 SNOTELs located in its 4,000 square miles of watershed.
From the air
Starting in 2019, Denver Water began getting data about the snowpack from the air, using Airborne Snow Observatory planes stuffed with high-tech equipment flying over the snow-covered mountains.
The plane uses beams of light to measure the depth of the snow fields below and capture reflections from the frozen surface. The equipment pings the snow’s surface at up to 10 locations every square meter, and powerful computers crunch reams of data.
The flights provide an assessment of the amount of water frozen in place in the snow across hundreds of square miles that is more accurate than anything Denver Water has ever had before.
“The data we get from the Airborne Snow Observatory flights quantifies all of the snowpack in river basin below, rather than trying to build a picture of the snowpack in basin using just a few selected point measurements we get from the SNOTELs and the snow courses,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply. “Imagine trying to watch a high-definition TV that only has 10 of its thousands of pixels working; you just don’t get the whole picture.”
And in the face of increasingly variable weather patterns related to climate change, having better information and more accurate forecasts of the seasonal runoff will be more important in the future, he said.
Putting it all together
Elder’s planning team uses data from the snow-measuring methods and combines it with other data such as soil conditions and weather forecasts to determine how much water the winter snowpack will send into Denver Water’s reservoirs.
“Having people hike into the forests to measure the snow by hand is very important for water planners because they give us the ‘boots-on-the-ground’ information we use to verify the data we get from the machines in the SNOTELs and the Airborne Snow Observatory flights,” Elder said.
The forecasts — in turn — help determine how Denver Water will manage the water stored in its reservoirs to meet customer demands in the city and determine if additional water restrictions are needed.
The water supply forecasts are also used to provide information to communities, businesses and other water managers about flooding concerns, water levels for boating on reservoirs, maximizing water rights and how to manage water supplies to benefit the environment.
“Managing water is a very complex business,” Elder said. “The more information and data we can get, the better decisions we can make.”
Colorado State University’s marching band, university mascot CAM the Ram and the enthusiastic clamor of cowbells joined with dignitaries from the city, state and nation on Friday to celebrate the opening of the new Hydro building at the CSU Spur campus in north Denver.
The Hydro building will be the home of Denver Water’s new, state-of-the-art water quality laboratory, replacing a small and outdated facility in southwest Denver that Denver Water had outgrown.
See inside the Hydro building, which opened on Friday, Jan. 6:
Prior to cutting the ribbon to open the new building, Denver Water CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead noted that the building offers far more than laboratory space, which is expected to be fully operational later this spring.
“Here at CSU’s Spur campus, Denver Water will be the heart of a new research environment where we can work closely with academics and scientists in planning for water demands and challenges of tomorrow,” Lochhead said.
“Climate change and emerging water quality issues require innovation. Spur provides a collaborative opportunity with all water interests to help Denver Water provide leading solutions to water challenges for our customers, the state and the West in a public and engaging way,” he said.
The utility’s water quality team conducts nearly 200,000 tests every year to ensure the water delivered to 1.5 million people every day is clean, safe and meets all state and federal water quality standards. The new facility provides room for Denver Water scientists to test three times that amount in the future.
Denver Water’s Youth Education team also will use the site to teach students about their water — where it comes from, how it’s cleaned and how its delivered to their homes.
“This space also provides us with new ways to connect with the next generation of water leaders and highlight career paths that many students may not have been aware of before. It’s a win for all of us,” Lochhead said.
Hydro, which is Greek for water, joins two completed buildings at the CSU Spur campus.
The first building, Vida, which means “life” in Spanish, opened in January 2022. It’s home to a community veterinary hospital for the Dumb Friends League; Temple Grandin Equine Center, which offers equine assisted services; and a 9-foot model of a kitten named Esperanza, quite possibly the largest cat in the West.
The second building, Terra, which means “earth” or “land” in Latin, opened in the summer of 2022. It features rooftop greenhouses and a teaching kitchen, along with food innovation labs for new product creation, agricultural diagnostic labs and exhibits focused on food and agricultural systems.
The intersection of those three areas — water, land and life — represent the global challenges facing our world.
“I don’t think we can imagine what will be accomplished in the next 20, 40, 50 years at this campus. But I believe when we think about the human potential that will be unlocked here, the creativity that will be unleashed to make progress around these great global challenges, CSU Spur is something we’ll be incredibly proud to be a part of,” said Tony Frank, the chancellor of the Colorado State University System, at the opening ceremony.
The connections the three buildings will foster — between people dedicated to public health and animal care, the land and the food it provides, and the life-giving water that circulates throughout — was noted by several speakers during the ceremony.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said Denver Water’s presence at the building, with its water quality experts, will feature the mission of Hydro — to bring research and innovation to the questions of water resilience and sustainability.
Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, has been involved in the planning for the CSU Spur campus for years. The end of construction means the start of opportunity and change on a local and international level, he told the crowd.
“These buildings are not just buildings. They’re not just incredible educational opportunities. They’re not just a place to celebrate the science and arts. They’re not just a place to connect rural and urban,” Vilsack said.
“This is the center of transformation. This is a center for a brighter and better future, not just for Colorado agriculture, not just for United States agriculture, but for global agriculture. It’s that important what you all are doing here.
“I hope as you go through here, you understand and appreciate how proud you should be to be connected to a university, to a city, and to a state that is so committed to this endeavor,” he said.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said he viewed the campus and the connections it will foster as a place that will drive the state’s economy and sustainability efforts.
“Water is life in our state, and the challenges that Colorado and the West face around water are really reaching a critical point in less water, more demand, our straining of our streams and our waterways, making the work here, inventing innovative, a future that works for the West, that works for Colorado is more important than ever before,” Polis said.
“This is a place where we can continue our leadership on water, fostering conversations that lead to local, regional, statewide solutions.”
After the ribbon was cut, all three buildings were open to the public.
Children, parents and adults walked through Hydro, learning about the importance of water from Denver Water employees who staffed the “Water and Land” hands-on exhibit demonstrating how moving water, such as a river, shapes the land around it.
On the third floor of the building, they peered through the glass at the new laboratory space that will be set up and operational in coming months. And they gathered around a column of water, watching bubbles rise through the water and using an information table to explore different indicators that scientists look for to determine water quality.
At the Terra building, students explored food options, while at Vida they learned about veterinary care – even trying on lab coats while bandaging a stuffed dog.
Before the celebration, John Gritts, a member of the Cherokee Nation, blessed the building:
“Creator, as we gather here today to open and celebrate Hydro, the last building in this educational complex, we ask for your blessings upon this sacred ground,” Gritts said.
“We ask for your blessings for this place where people can learn the importance of the relationship between animals, plants — and how sacred water is to us as human beings. May we recognize and honor those relationships.
Back in 2017, at the Biennial of the Americas, Colorado State University and Denver Water announced plans to work together to support a new future for water research, policy, education and innovation. This week, that vision comes fully to life with the opening of the Hydro building on the CSU Spur campus at the National Western Center.
Historically, water has been viewed through the lens of starkly different choices. Do we use it for agricultural lands and food production, urban life and expansion, recreation and the environment — or something else?
When CSU and Denver Water announced our partnership, we chose not to view water that way. We didn’t want to focus solely on the water needs of agriculture (a primary concern for CSU), nor just on issues connected to municipal water supplies (where Denver Water is focused). Instead, we approached it as all just water – a life-giving, flexible, finite resource that has to work for all of us, an approach much more closely tied to that of the Indigenous people who relied on the life-giving flows of the South Platte long before there were cities here. And we wanted to bring great minds, experimentation and learning about water together in one place where we could collectively focus on addressing the complex water challenges facing all sectors of our state and the American West.
Hydro is that place, and we’re honored to open its doors to the people of Colorado.
CSU Spur, with funding from the State of Colorado, is a three-building complex at the National Western Center nestled up against the Platte River. It’s a place where people of all ages and education levels can explore learning, research and demonstrations connected to food, water, and human and animal health. The Vida building, focused on human and animal health, opened a year ago. The Terra building, which opened this past summer, spotlights food and agricultural systems.
The partnership between CSU and Denver Water is centered in the third building at Spur, Hydro (named for the Greek word for water), which opens this week in conjunction with the National Western Stock Show.
With its physical connectivity to the Platte, and a backyard space demonstrating the concepts of headwaters and watersheds, Hydro is uniquely positioned as a resource for teaching about the importance of water and how it flows to different users and communities. But for the people of Denver, its importance is even greater. Hydro will be the home to Denver Water’s new water quality lab, dramatically expanding our ability to ensure a safe and reliable water supply for the people we serve.
The lab is responsible for ensuring 1.5 million people across the Denver metropolitan area have safe, clean drinking water that meets all state and federal standards. Denver Water currently performs nearly 200,000 tests every year to monitor water quality and the effectiveness of our treatment and distribution systems. Thanks to the expanded capacity and state-of-the-art equipment at CSU Spur, the new laboratory will provide capacity for nearly three times as many tests.
The location at Spur also positions Denver Water to interact more closely with the University’s scientists and students. Planning for the water demands of tomorrow requires innovation and understanding as customer needs and policies surrounding water in our state are changing. It requires that all voices be brought into the mix of how water is discussed and treated. The partnership at Spur will help Denver Water provide leading solutions to water challenges for its customers, the state,and West in a more public-facing and engaging way than ever before.
The quality of the water around us — knowing what it is, how it changes, and how it affects our food, our health and our lives — will be crucial as we address new and emerging issues and uses, from the “forever chemicals” moving from consumer products into our environment to the cutting-edge use of wastewater to heat new buildings at the old Stock Show complex. Water quality also underpins the rehabilitation work underway at the edge of the Spur campus, where the South Platte River is becoming a place for recreation and wildlife habitat.
This is a neutral, science-based campus focused on finding solutions to real-world problems. We are interested in helping bring together people representing agencies and interests across many disciplines to work on challenges common to all of us. And the location at the National Western Center allows us to leverage the entire site to educate the water industry and the many types of visitors to the main NWC campus – starting with the North Denver community. Free educational programming will be a cornerstone of this campus for everyone.
When we announced this partnership back in 2017, we were inspired by the Biennial of the Americas and its mission to create connections, build community and inspire change. With Hydro, that mission is coming into focus in ways that will serve Colorado and its water future for generations to come.
Three years after it started, Denver Water’s Lead Reduction Program is getting a big boost from more than $76 million in federal funding.
The funding will help fast-track the program, replacing thousands more old, customer-owned lead service lines in the next few years than had been originally anticipated.
The state approved allocation of funds to Denver Water in October, and the Denver Board of Water Commissioners formally accepted the funds Dec. 7.
The money will be spent in 2023 through 2025 and is expected to replace up to 7,600 lead service lines, shortening the 15-year program by 1.5 years. Thanks to the new funding, between 3,000 and 5,000 additional lines will be replaced in 2023 — on top of the nearly 5,000 lines already planned for replacement next year.
Since the program started in January 2020, Denver Water has replaced more than 15,000 lead service lines. The lead lines are replaced with lead-free, copper lines at no direct cost to the customer.
“This infusion of federal money means we will be able to replace thousands more customer-owned lead service lines at a faster pace than we had originally planned, and ultimately shorten the length of the biggest public health initiative in Denver Water’s history. This groundbreaking program is supported by all our customers across our service area,” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager.
“Removing these lines is the most effective way to eliminate this source of lead exposure, and we are committed to this program until every lead service line has been removed. We’re grateful for the opportunity provided by this funding.”
The water Denver Water delivers to customers is lead-free, but lead can get into the water as it passes through a customer’s internal plumbing or water service line that contains lead. The service line is the small pipe that connects to Denver Water’s pipe in the street and carries water to the customer’s home. Lead can cause serious health problems if too much enters the body, whether from drinking water or other sources.
Denver Water’s groundbreaking Lead Reduction Program aims to replace nearly 5,000 customer-owned lead service lines every year. When the program started, Denver Water estimated there were between 64,000 and 84,000 lead service lines in its service area and expected it would take 15 years to remove them all.
The addition of federal money will help Denver Water exceed its annual target in 2023 by an extra 3,000 to 5,000 lines. For every 4,500 additional lead service lines replaced using the federal funding, the overall length of the program will be one year shorter.
Replacement work will take place in parts of many neighborhoods across Denver in 2023, including Baker, Globeville, Sunnyside, Barnum West, Athmar Park and Capitol Hill.
An initial map of the 2023 replacement work areas is available at denverwater.org/Pipes. The replacement work prioritizes areas with vulnerable, at-risk populations and disproportionately impacted communities while also taking into account planned construction activities, schools and child care centers.
Lead was a commonly used material for water service lines across the U.S. through the mid-1900s and is frequently found in Denver homes built before 1951.
The replacement work is done by contractors through the Lead Reduction Program and by Denver Water crews, who replace any lead service line found during scheduled pipe replacements or during repair work on a broken water main.
In total, Denver Water was approved for $76,123,628 from the Colorado Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which will receive money from the federal bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in November 2021. The funding Denver Water received is a low-interest loan that the utility will repay, with $40 million of the loan’s principle forgiven immediately as allowed by the legislation.
The state will receive federal funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to address lead in drinking water every year for five years, beginning in 2022. Denver Water intends to apply for funds in the future and, if approved, will be able to accelerate the replacement program even more.
The EPA also has approved a continuation of the Lead Reduction Program, via a variance from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, following a review of the progress made in its first three years.
“Denver Water’s approach to tackling lead in drinking water has been remarkable and an example for other communities across the country,” said EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker, in an announcement.
“Thanks to new funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law the utility’s customers can expect an even faster lead service line replacement schedule delivering health protections for children and adults across the Denver area.”
Lochhead thanked EPA and Denver Water’s community partners for working with the utility to ensure the successful implementation of the program.
“Denver Water’s first priority is sustaining our communities by protecting the health of our customers,” Lochhead said.
In addition to the installation of a new, lead-free, copper water service line at no direct cost, customers enrolled in the program also receive water pitchers and filters certified to remove lead.
Filtered water should be used for cooking, drinking and preparing infant formula until six months after the lead service line is replaced. The utility also has changed the water chemistry, raising the pH of the water it delivers, to better protect customers from the risk of lead.
This has been a huge effort involving many areas of Denver Water, and we couldn’t have done it without the support we’ve received from our customers,” said Alexis Woodrow, who manages the Lead Reduction Program for Denver Water.
“Our customers enrolled in the program allow us into their homes to replace their old lead service lines, and they are patient with all the construction work that accompanies the replacement process. We’re also excited that in a recent survey, 83% of customers said that they use the filters we provide to filter water for cooking, drinking and preparing infant formula.”
With the federal funding, the work surrounding the replacement process will touch more homes and neighborhoods in 2023.
“We’re grateful for all the support we’ve received for this program, from our customers to our community partners and our elected officials,” Woodrow said.
“We’re all working to protect our customers now and for generations to come.”
Water Year 2022 started slow, lit up at wintertime, dried up in early spring, leaped back into action in late summer, then got lazy in early fall before one last hurrah.
The erratic spurts over the just-completed “water year,” the 12-month span between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30 that hydrologists use to track water trends, added up to a not-terrible-but-not-great-either result for Denver Water.
The most noticeable events included a very slow start to mountain snowfall through the first three months (bad), a second straight year of healthy summer monsoons in the mountains (good) and a sizable split between the water fortunes of Denver Water’s collection area (the high country and foothills) versus its service area (Denver and parts of five surrounding counties).
In short, it translated into a reasonably good water year in higher elevations and a far drier one for the 1.5 million people the utility serves in Denver and nearby suburbs.
One memorable result? Denver’s first snowfall came Dec. 10 — the latest first snow on record for Denver.
“Every water year is different, and Mother Nature throws new challenges at us almost every time,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply. “But timely rains and good customer practices helped us keep reservoir levels in solid shape and we soldiered through an up-and-down year.”
The very best news appears to be the way a second consecutive year of strong monsoon rains and higher humidity replenished dry soils in the mountains.
Should Colorado enjoy a deeper winter snowpack this year, it would mean more melting snow in the spring could find its way to streams and reservoirs in 2023, rather than vanishing into parched soils as has been the case in recent cycles.
Dice up the numbers in a different way and zoom out from Denver Water and the picture looked better from a statewide perspective, with summer precipitation levels the best since 2015.
Additionally, soil moisture is at its highest levels in three years, according to climate trackers at Colorado State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service via recent reporting from Marianne Goodland in the Denver Gazette.
While those are positive developments, experts across various agencies agree that Colorado and its water utilities need a string of strong winters, and preferably some wetter/cooler years overall if we’re ever to see longer-term improvements in hydrology.
But in an era of steady climate change that appears to be unlikely. Colorado’s summer of 2022 was the sixth warmest in the 128-year record maintained by state climatologists.
Denver Water’s supply managers faced some tough conditions in the 2022 water year.
Ongoing work to expand capacity at Gross Reservoir has limited storage in the facility west of Boulder. At the same time, unusually dry conditions on the South Platte River downstream of Denver left farmers calling on water rights dating all the way back to 1871 (just a decade shy of the oldest water rights on the river).
These rights are senior to all of Denver Water’s South Platte River reservoirs and made it difficult to fill those reservoirs. Cheesman Reservoir’s 1889 right is the most senior storage right in Denver Water’s portfolio.
All of that meant more water bypassed Denver Water’s reservoirs to meet those agricultural calls and there was less ability to make up that water by pulling from Gross Reservoir on the north side of the utility’s system. It also meant higher-than-average flows through the Roberts Tunnel to help supplement South Platte supplies.
But, in a hat tip to customers and Mother Nature, smart irrigation techniques (like turning off systems in rainy periods) and solid summer precipitation in the higher country (and, at times, in metro Denver) helped keep Denver Water’s reservoirs at just below average levels.
In fact, all that combined to close a storage gap. Reservoirs were 5% below average in July. But by the end of September that deficit fell to just 1% below average.
And there was more good news. Another good summer of monsoons kept wildfires at bay, which was a big relief after the devastating water year of 2020, when record-setting late-season fires extended the burn season into October.
The last month of summer keeps getting warmer. This one set a new record for 90-degree days (10), which — along with other factors — make it the fastest-warming month in the Denver area when compared to the previous 30-year block of records that spans 1981 to 2010.
Conditions improved in late September, when late-season moisture boosted streamflows and dampened soils, especially in the high country, bringing a happy ending to the water year.
Some broader context also is in order.
The 2022 Water Year for the wider Colorado River Basin was another poor one. One simple metric captures the status of the basin: The amount of water in the two major reservoirs on the river dropped dramatically, with Lake Mead falling 1.8 million acre-feet from a year ago and Lake Powell falling 1.5 million acre-feet in the same time frame.
Trends in the Colorado River Basin matter a great deal to Denver Water, as the utility gets about 50% of its supplies from the headwaters of the basin.
The new 2023 Water Year that began Oct. 1 is off to a good start for Denver Water.
After the nip-and-tuck of the summer months, the utility’s reservoir levels have hit their average mark heading into late fall and winter, just where water managers want to be at the beginning of the snow-accumulation season.
“We hope Mother Nature makes a New Water Year Resolution to provide ample snow and rain fall in the water year of 2023,” said Elder.
It’s he and his team who must now begin planning for the various scenarios winter and spring might bring.
You, too, can make a resolution for the New Water Year: to reduce your water use. Check out Denver Water’s website for rebates and ways to use water efficiently.
Hundreds of thousands of Coloradans exposed to drinking water tainted by lead from aging, corroded city pipes or so-called “forever chemicals,” will see clean water faster thanks to a historic infusion of $500 million from the federal government.
The money, largely from the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, is being funneled through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment over a five-year period and will allow miles of lead water delivery pipes to be replaced in towns across the state much faster than cities with little access to cash could achieve.
It will also be used to remove a set of chemicals known as PFAS, or poly and perfluoroalkyl substances, that are present in household and industrial products, such as Teflon and fire-fighting foam. The substances have been unregulated to date, although states and the federal government are writing new regulations to address the contaminants.
CDPHE officials said the money will double the agency’s capacity to fund its water quality safety work.
“The federal money is big,” said Nicole Rowan, director of the CDPHE’s Water Quality Control Division. “It’s a once in a generation opportunity to improve our infrastructure here in Colorado.”
To date, 67 Colorado water districts and communities, including the Academy Water and Sanitation District north of Colorado Springs, Limon, Louisville and Grand Junction, have expressed an interest in and are eligible for the funds, according to documents on file at the CDPHE.
Denver Water has been awarded $76 million to fast-track its lead pipe replacement program. The infusion will allow Denver to shave 1.5 years off the 15-year program, according to spokesman Jose Salas.
The City of Englewood also plans to apply, and will ask for $79 million to replace 8,000 lead service lines, according to Sarah Stone, deputy director of business solutions for Englewood Utilities.
Stone said the federal infrastructure funding will provide a critical boost to its efforts to remove lead from Englewood’s drinking water delivery system, if the city’s application is approved.
“We were extremely worried,” Stone said. “This means we can fund the program.”
Cities across the country, including Denver, Flint, Mich., Pittsburgh, Penn., Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C., have been dogged by an increase in lead contamination as service lines age and corrode, allowing the lead to comingle with drinking water supplies, eventually reaching taps.
Denver Water, which is Colorado’s largest municipal water utility, has known lead was present at the tap in some of its customers’ homes since it appeared in routine sampling in 2013. The levels exceeded the benchmarks set under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
For several years, the utility ran pilot tests and negotiated with CDPHE and EPA over how best to eradicate the harmful metal. Though the amounts of lead found in Denver’s tap water samples varied, no amount of lead is considered safe to ingest, especially for young children.
The CDPHE issued an order in 2018 requiring Denver to begin adding phosphorous to its water, one of the most effective ways to reduce corrosion in pipes. But phosphorous is also a pollutant and causes problematic algae blooms in lakes and rivers. Adding it to the municipal drinking water supply would also make it harder for wastewater treatment operators to meet their own obligations to keep phosphorous out of rivers and streams.
Due to those concerns, Aurora, Metro Water Recovery, The Greenway Foundation, and eventually Denver, sued the CDPHE in 2018 to stop the order from taking effect.
The dispute was settled after Denver was able to obtain a rare variance under the Safe Drinking Water Act in exchange for agreeing to invest some $68 million over 15 years to replace lead service lines, offer free water filters to residents as they wait for the new lines to be installed, conduct community education programs, and increase the pH of the water supply to also help reduce corrosion in pipes.
Several cities and water districts are hoping the federal funding will allow them to mitigate their ongoing issues with PFAS contamination.
Roy Heald manages the Town of Security’s water utility. The town has been hard-hit by PFAS contamination attributed to Peterson Air Force Base. The PFAS chemicals from fire-fighting foam contaminated its groundwater.
Though the military facility has built a remediation plant for Security, it is considered a temporary facility, Heald said. With $450,000 in federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act approved earlier this year, Security is converting the plant to a permanent facility, one capable of operating for the decades it will likely take to clean up the groundwater.
“We’re happy to get it,” Heald said. “This work has to be done, and it’s $450,000 our ratepayers won’t have to pay.”
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.
Nestled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains west of Denver sits an old concrete canal that’s been delivering water to the metro area since the 1930s.
Fast forward to 2022, and the South Boulder Canal is still performing its regular job for Denver Water.
But the canal has now taken on the added role of generating hydropower, with four small turbines spinning inside the concrete waterway and producing electricity. The turbines were connected to the local energy grid in mid-July.
“Denver Water has been producing hydropower at our dams for decades, but this is the first time we’ve generated power from one of our canals,” said Ian Oliver, source of supply director at Denver Water whose team operates the utility’s dams, reservoirs and canals.
The innovative hydropower project began in 2017 when Denver Water teamed up with Emrgy Inc., an Atlanta-based company that specializes in creating clean, sustainable energy using the flow of water through existing infrastructure.
The South Boulder Canal is part of Denver Water’s northern delivery system, which brings water from Colorado’s West Slope to the Front Range. The 8-mile canal starts near Eldorado Canyon and ends at Ralston Reservoir north of Golden.
Denver Water typically runs water through the canal about nine months a year, with flows ranging between 50 and 300 cubic feet per second depending on time of the year and water demands in the city.
“Sustainability is part of our mission at Denver Water, so when we met the team at Emrgy and they told us about their turbines for low head applications, we knew it was something we wanted to pursue further,” Oliver said.
In 2017, Emrgy placed an initial array of turbines in the canal as part of a pilot project.
Since that time, the company has continued to innovate its design and installed four new turbines in June. The new turbines are easier to lift, handle and connect to the utility grid through the same inverters used in the solar power industry. The turbines are located at the end of the canal just before it reaches Ralston Reservoir.
The turbines look somewhat like mixers you’d see in the kitchen to stir cake batter — just a lot bigger, stronger and more advanced.
As the moving water in the canal flows past the turbines, the blades spin and produce mechanical energy, which is then converted into electrical energy. The electrical energy is then fed to a power conversion system next to the canal and delivered to the local power company’s energy grid.
“The process is unique in that it uses the kinetic energy of the flowing water and doesn’t require a large dam to build up pressure to create hydropower,” said Emily Morris, Emrgy’s CEO. “These turbines will work in any channel with moving water where energy can be extracted.”
From the original pilot study, Emrgy refined the hydro system and made the assemblies more modular, so they are easier to deliver and install. The new design also made the turbines easier to remove for maintenance, according to Morris.
Another enhancement focused on the design of the concrete flume box assembly. The flumes include curves in the concrete structure that direct moving water to pass by the rotors more efficiently.
The new turbine system is also more “plug and play,” using the same onshore power electronics equipment used by the solar industry so it’s easier to connect to the power grid, according to Morris.
Morris said each turbine can produce anywhere from five to 25 kilowatts of instantaneous power depending on the speed and depth of the water in the canal. If running 365 days a year, that would be roughly enough to power around eight U.S. homes each year.
Denver Water’s role in letting Emrgy use the canal to refine the technology has been a win-win for both organizations. For Emrgy, the pilot program helped them develop their turbines and expand them to three other states in the U.S. and into three other countries.
For Denver Water, Oliver says putting water to work to generate electricity is part of the utility’s annual goal of being a “net-zero” organization in terms of the utility’s overall energy consumption. “Net-zero” status is when the utility produces as much electricity through its hydro and solar power units as it consumes through traditional forms of energy.
With the addition of the South Boulder turbines, Denver Water now has 13 hydropower units at its facilities. The hydro program generates an average of 61,000 megawatts of electricity annually.
“Denver Water’s interest in hydropower is really multifaceted,” Oliver said. “We generate hydropower to sell to the local power grid, which helps offset the consumption of electricity at our facilities, and, by doing so, we’re also helping to meet our own sustainability goals.”
Power generated by Emrgy’s South Boulder Canal turbines is distributed to the local power grid. Denver Water receives a credit for the hydropower on its utility bill, which helps offset energy consumption at the utility’s Northwater Treatment Plant and Ralston Reservoir.
Denver Water and Emrgy are now studying the feasibility of adding six more turbines to the canal in the future to create a larger array of power generation, similar to installing a series of solar panels.
Morris said small turbines in canals help produce clean energy at the local level.
“In order to achieve a truly carbon-free future, we’re going to have to harness the power of the sun, the wind and the power of water,” Morris said. [ed. emphasis mine]
“Water is one of the only controllable natural resources that we have, and I’m excited about the ability to harvest the natural energy here to improve our environment.”
After multiple water treatment plant mishaps over the past year, Arvada’s City Council unanimously approved a 12.3% water rate increase to fund improvements for the city’s aging infrastructure on Oct. 17. The rate hike will increase single-family water bills by roughly $19 per bi-monthly billing cycle on average for single-family homes. The increase will see water and wastewater usage rates increase by an average of $13 per bi-monthly billing cycle for single-family homes. It also includes a $4 bi-monthly water service fee increase and a $2 bi-monthly wastewater service fee increase. Primary cost drivers of the rate hike are a 15% price hike for raw water from Denver Water, the recommended issuance of a $50 million bond later this year that will fund infrastructure upgrades and an expected overall operation cost increase of $4.2 million in 2023. Over the past five years, the average in-city water rate has increased by about 3.55% annually, Gillis said. The bi-monthly service fee was last adjusted in 2022 for the first time since 2009.
At the heart of Arvada’s decision to invest in aging infrastructure are two water treatment plants: the Ralston Water Treatment Plant, built in the 1960s; and the Arvada Water Treatment Plant, built in the 1980s. The RWTP is rated at 36 million gallons per day, while the AWTP is rated at 16 million gallons per day. 75% of Arvada’s raw water comes from Denver Water, while the remainder is provided by Clear Creek. Two recent water line breaks and leaks through an exterior wall at the RWTP over the summer have threatened the city’s water supply, as Arvada Director of Utilities Sharon Israel recounted during a tour of the RWTP with the Arvada Press…
At the Oct. 17 city council meeting, Arvada Mayor Marc Williams summed up the position of many council members, all of whom voted for the rate increase.
“We had two major water line breaks in the last two weeks that cost us well over a million gallons of water, I believe,” Williams said. “We’ve got to take lasting care of our community and this is an appropriate step that we’re taking…That passes 7-0; reluctantly, but necessarily.”
The Colorado River District this week agreed to contribute $75,000 toward a proposed $255,123 project to more accurately assess snowpack in the upper Roaring Fork River Basin next year to improve the ability to forecast streamflow runoff volumes. The district’s board agreed to help fund the work by Airborne Snow Observatories, Inc., a Colorado public benefit corporation that was initially a program in NASA. The company “combines state-of-the-art remote sensing tools with snowpack modeling and fast data processing to deliver snow measurements of high accuracy, high resolution, and full-watershed coverage,” a river district staff memo to the board says…
The river district has agreed to contribute to the Roaring Fork basin project through Community Funding Partnership funding made possible by voter approval of a 2020 tax measure. The city of Aspen has verbally committed $50,000 for the project, Pitkin County is considering a request for a $77,000 contribution, the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. has committed $12,500, and funding is being pursued from other Front Range water entities…
Snow-free data for comparison purposes is required for the airborne approach, and was collected this summer from the targeted region, which includes the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River and one of its tributaries, the Fryingpan River. The plan is for Airborne Snow Observatories to conduct an aerial survey around April 1, near the seasonal peak for snowpack accumulation, with a second survey following around mid-May to early June, potentially coinciding with when snow already has melted at NRCS sites. The collected data would be available for free to any interested stakeholder, according to the river district memo.
“The proposed project, through an accurate and comprehensive accounting of snowpack water resources in the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan watersheds, will provide a novel and unparalleled monitoring capacity for these snowmelt-dependent river systems,” the river district staff memo says. “This new capacity, and the runoff forecasts based on it, will provide an additional decision-support resource for water managers in the basins.”
Weather forecasters consider September the start of “meteorological fall.” And even without the fancy term, most of us think of the month as the unofficial kickoff to autumn.
School starts, football season is underway, and temperatures begin a welcome cool down.
Well, about that last part: September is not as cool as it used to be.
And that means customers are watering their yards later into the year, creating more demand for water and making things trickier for Denver Water’s water supply managers.
Just recall the way September started this year, with a string of days in the mid-to-upper 90s, including back-to-back 99-degree days in the Denver area. (Denver Water’s downtown weather station hit 100.)
In fact, as 9News meteorologist Chris Bianchi reported on Twitter, Denver broke a record for number of 90-degree days (10) in a single September this year.
The phenomenon was also well-documented by 9News meteorologist Cory Reppenhagen in his Sept. 5 report on how unusual heat records in Denver notched during September’s first week are part of the metro area’s rising September heat trend.
All told, toasty Septembers appear to be one more element of a changing and warming climate.
“We have a pretty good idea of what water demand in the summer months will look like, but September is becoming a wild card,” said Nathan Elder, the utility’s water supply manager.
“We have seen higher demand and increased reservoir releases in recent Septembers,” he added. “But we also know we can see snow during the month, which makes planning for the month and setting up winter operations difficult.”
Additionally, Elder said, warmer fall temperatures can dry soil in the collection system, which means more snow is needed the following winter to fill reservoirs.
“This is a trend we are really keeping our eye on because it can have significant impacts on water supply late in the season and going into the next spring,” Elder said.
One other challenge tied to warmer Septembers: a longer fire season, such as in 2020, when the state’s two largest-ever fires exploded late in the year, including the East Troublesome Fire that roared through Grand Lake in mid-October.
Some numbers that tell the story:
– Denver Water is seeing more demand for water in September. Last year, demand was about 30 million gallons per day above the 30-year average. In 2022, the volume was 15 million gallons over the same average. The difference between the two years can be attributed to the fact that precipitation in 2022 was closer to normal and 2021 was drier.
– September 2022 was Denver’s third-warmest on record, at an average of 69 degrees, surpassed only by 2015 and 2019, according to National Weather Service data highlighted by Bianchi, the 9News meteorologist.
– Flows in the Roberts Tunnel, which delivers water from Dillon Reservoir to the Front Range, are rising in September, with 260 cubic feet per second seen in recent years versus the long-term average of 160 cfs. That’s a sign Denver Water needs to send more water to the metro area to meet the higher September demand.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Denver Water is pulling more water from its West Slope reservoirs. In fact, overall water movement through the Roberts Tunnel over the course of a year is flat, as lower winter demand and tunnel shutoffs have helped balance out that September bump.
Overall, September reservoir releases across the system have been higher than average in recent years, a sign that Denver Water must rely more on storage to meet higher late-summer demand.
Cheesman Reservoir on the South Platte River system serves as one example, with average September releases during the last five years of 286 cfs versus the longer-term average of 211 cfs.
Denver Water’s records show September is warming at a higher rate than any other month during the watering season. And Reppenhagen’s reporting found that “September (weather) is changing the most out of all the months, warming by 1.5 degrees compared to the previous 30-year period of record.”
As Reppenhagen points out, warmer Septembers are extending the summer growing season, a development that he notes was predicted by some of the earliest computer modeling examining the effect of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
That is borne out by water use.
Outdoor demand in September has grown about 23% when comparing the recent-five year stretch of 2017-2021 to the period between 2000 and 2016. In the same five-year span, September use has only been 3% below June levels.
From a practical standpoint, warmer Septembers make work tougher for Denver Water’s planners.
When that extra pull on reservoirs in September is combined with lower soil moisture, it means the utility has to lean even harder on the winter months to provide enough snowpack to fill reservoirs the following spring.
The shift also means planners are relying less on historical water demand models and focusing far more on data from more recent years to get a better idea of how much water Denver Water customers will need in September.
Overall, Denver Water customers have been good at conserving. Demand is generally flat or even declining during most months of the year. September is an outlier: as noted above, the five-year average for the month is actually on the rise.
But a reminder to customers: Even with a warmer September, the need for outdoor watering declines because nighttime is cooler, and grass can get by with less water.
Ensuring a system that is providing clean, safe water to 25% of the state’s population will continue delivering requires taking the long view when it comes to maintenance and upgrades.
At Denver Water, projects from replacing water mains to building a new treatment plant are carefully vetted to ensure they will bolster the system as it exists today and for the decades ahead.
“Our mission is to deliver a clean, safe, reliable water supply to 1.5 million people, and also to sustain our vibrant communities for years to come,” said Jim Lochhead, the CEO/Manager of Denver Water.
To do that, the utility expects to invest about $2.3 billion into the system during the next 10 years, from large projects to regular inspection and maintenance programs designed to ensure the system is flexible, resilient and efficient.
Denver Water’s approach has been recognized repeatedly by its peers in the water industry and others.
The awards committee specifically called out the utility’s sustainable, scalable and streamlined design approach to the project, which leaves room at the site for future expansions as needed.
The redevelopment of its Operations Complex near downtown has won several awards since its completion a few years ago, including a LEED Platinum certification for the utility’s Administration Building, just one of many the project received for its sustainable aspects. The building includes solar power panels on its roof and parking structures, a highly efficient radiant heating and cooling system and an on-site wastewater recycling system that treats water for reuse flushing toilets and irrigation.
Here’s an overview of some of Denver Water’s work:
Work on the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, the subject of more than 20 years of planning, got underway in April. Expected to be complete in 2027, the project will raise the height of the existing dam by 131 feet.
The higher dam will nearly triple the amount of water that can be stored in Gross Reservoir, providing Denver Water with more flexibility to manage its water supply in the face of increasingly variable weather and snowpack patterns.
The additional storage capacity also will provide a greater balance between Denver Water’s separate north and south water collection areas.
Much of the work done on the expansion during 2022 and 2023 will be site preparation for the on-site quarry and concrete production plant and removing rock from the sides and bottom of the existing dam to make room for the new concrete. Workers also have been hydroblasting the face of the dam, removing a few inches of concrete, to leave a rougher surface for the new concrete to adhere to.
At the height of construction, there will be as many as 400 workers on-site and when complete, the dam will be the tallest in Colorado.
A major part of Denver Water’s investment forecast is the Lead Reduction Program, which launched in January 2020.
The water Denver Water delivers to customers is lead-free, but lead can get into drinking water as the water passes through old lead service lines that carry water from the water main in the street into the home.
The program reduces the risk of lead getting into drinking water by replacing the estimated 64,000 to 84,000 old, customer-owned lead service lines at no direct cost to the customer. Households enrolled in the program are provided with water pitchers and filters certified to remove lead to use for cooking, drinking and preparing infant formula until six months after their lead service line is replaced.
It’s the biggest public health campaign in the utility’s history and through the end of September, more than 14,000 lead service lines have been replaced.
The program aims to replace about 4,500 lead service lines every year, and the utility is working through final approvals to accept federal funding. The money will allow the utility to replace an additional number of lead service lines (at no direct cost to the customer) above the 4,500 currently slated for replacement in 2023. This additional funding will help speed up the replacement program while keeping rates as low as possible for customers.
In March 2020, Denver Water also raised the pH of the water it delivers to customers to help reduce the risk of lead getting into water as it passes through customers’ internal plumbing that may contain lead.
Northwater Treatment Plant
Work on Denver Water’s new, state-of-the-art Northwater Treatment Plant next to Ralston Reservoir north of Golden this year passed a milestone, with 2.5 million hours of work poured into its design and construction since 2016.
The treatment plant, scheduled for completion in 2024, will include 14 buildings and be able to clean 75 million gallons of water per day. Its design left room for the plant to be expanded to clean up to 150 million gallons of water per day in the future as needed.
During this last year, roofs have been placed on buildings, allowing workers to start installing electrical lines and HVAC equipment.
Construction also has continued on the two giant water storage tanks, which will be mostly buried underground when complete. Each tank is capable of holding 10 million gallons of clean, safe drinking water.
It will house Denver Water’s new water quality laboratory, expected to become fully operational during 2023, and replaces a facility that has been tucked into the Marston Treatment Plant south of U.S. Highway 285 and South Wadsworth Boulevard, on the south side of Denver Water’s service area.
Locating Denver Water’s water quality laboratory in the midst of CSU’s new Spur campus ensures the utility’s water experts will be working near researchers, scientists and others tackling issues surrounding water, agriculture and public health that are important to the metro area, state and region.
Two other buildings are at the CSU Spur campus, Vida, which opened in January 2022 and focuses on life and public health, and Terra, which opened earlier this year and focuses on land and food.
With the completion of the Hydro building, the campus will house experts dedicated to exploring how the three disciplines intersect — and interact — with each other.
As the metro area grows and changes, its often an opportunity for Denver Water to upgrade older elements of its system — before new development takes place.
That was exactly the situation at Loretto Heights in the southwest part of Denver.
The site is best known for the historic tower built in the 1890s as part of a boarding school and college. But buried under that same hill is a 575-foot-long concrete tunnel, 7 feet in diameter, used to deliver water from the Marston Treatment Plant in southwest Denver to the downtown area.
Before construction on a new residential development at Loretto Heights began, Denver Water worked with the developer to do needed upgrades and repairs at the site before homes were built — and to avoid disrupting the new neighborhood later.
Earlier this year, crews dug down to uncover pipes and valves installed a century ago, removed the four original valves, placed new pipes, installed a single new valve and repaired cracks inside the tunnel.
Watch a video of the Loretto Heights project.
Denver Water also is continuing its investment in replacing its water mains under streets and installing new ones where needed. The utility has more than 3,000 miles of pipe in its system, enough to stretch from Seattle to Orlando.
The utility is working toward a goal of replacing 1% of its installed water mains every year, or more than 145,000 feet of pipe.
And in recognition that the drought in the Colorado River Basin affects us all, Denver Water and several large water providers from across the basin have committed to substantially expanding existing efforts to conserve water.
Denver Water is working with partners — including local governments, fellow water providers, and experts in water use and landscapes — to develop programs that will help transform our landscapes and expand our indoor and outdoor conservation efforts.
Being financially responsible
Denver Water has a long been proactive with maintaining and improving its vast network of dams, pipes, canals and treatment plants — and planning ahead for the future.
And that work extends to the financial side of the utility.
Denver Water doesn’t receive tax dollars or make a profit. Its infrastructure projects, day-to-day operations and emergency expenses, like water main breaks, are funded by a mixture of water rates, bond sales, cash reserves, hydropower sales and fees for new service (called System Development Charges).
And in this area too, Denver Water has received high marks.
For a recent bond sale, which brought in about $200 million to invest into the system, rating agencies extended Denver Water’s existing triple-A credit rating, the highest available. The agencies cited multiple factors, including the utility’s strong financial management for the rating.
The rating was just another example of how at Denver Water, sustainability isn’t just a word, it’s embedded throughout the organization, from its long-range planning for a warmer future to the training it provides to inspire its employees to go the extra mile for customers.
The Environmental Protection Agency said the utility has succeeded in its three-year trial program and should be allowed to finish its 15-year program
Denver Water’s plan to replace tens of thousands of lead pipes connecting homes to the city’s water supply is working well enough to move past the trial phase, federal officials said. Environmental Protection Agency officials gave the utility three years in late 2019 to try its unique approach of replacing lead service lines, home by home, while changing the chemistry of its water supply to keep lead levels low. In that time, Denver Water has replaced thousands of lead service lines and kept levels of the toxic, heavy metal in its water supply at a fraction of the allowable federal limits, Sarah Bahrman, chief of the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Branch, said. Bahrman said EPA officials are recommending that Denver Water be allowed to finish the remaining 12 years of its replacement plan, a decision that EPA Region 8 Administrator KC Becker is expected to make in the coming weeks.
Denver Water officials originally estimated that between 64,000 and 84,000 homes received water through lead service lines and that replacing them would cost about $500 million and take 15 years. Considering inflation, supply chain shortages and more, Alexis Woodrow, the utility’s lead reduction program manager, said the new cost estimate for the life of the program is more likely to be $681 million…
Denver Water needed approval from the EPA because CEO and Manager Jim Lochhead pushed back on a mandate from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which originally ordered the utility to inject a nutrient – orthophosphate – into its water system. Lochhead argued that orthophosphate could pose a health risk for metro residents and downstream communities. Instead he proposed to send water filters to homes that might have lead service lines, replace the service lines themselves and to slightly boost the water’s alkalinity to stop the heavy metal from breaking off into the water supply.
The river is in deep doo-doo, and worse may very well come. So why such a sluggish reaction?
On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It was my first visit.
Turning off the paved highway, I drove about 10 miles around the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain, past a few irrigation ditches, one carrying water, and a lot of fields and center-pivot sprinklers. I knew the runoff the San Juan Mountains, the source of water for the 7,700-acre farming operations by the Utes, was bad. I didn’t realize just how bad it was.
Unlike many tribal rights in the Colorado River Basin, the water rights of the two Ute tribes in Colorado were negotiated in 1986. The agreement resulted in delivery of water to Towaoc, where I ate at the casino restaurant twice on that trip. Before, potable water had to be trucked in.
Mike Preston, filling in for a Ute leader at the Colorado Water Center conference this week, remembers a time before that delivery of water. “There were stock tanks sitting in people’s yards, and a water truck would back up and fill those tanks, and people would go out with buckets to get their potable water.”
The Utes got other infrastructure, too, including water from the Dolores River stored in the new McPhee Reservoir that allows the Utes to create a profitable farm enterprise. But to get the use of McPhee water, the Utes conceded the seniority of their water rights. It worked well for a lot of years, but now in a warmer, drier climate, it leaves the Utes in a hard, dry place: They got 10% of their full allocation in 2021 and 40% this year.
They have been forced to adapt. Instead of planting alfalfa, they planted corn and other crops that use less water and can be fed to cattle. They culled cattle from their herd of 650. The tribe – as are others in Colorado – is exploring the viability of kernza, a new perennial grain created at The Land Institute in Kansas.
Still, some adaptation is impossible. The agricultural enterprise has laid off about half of its employees. And last year, despite securing all available government grants created to allow farmers to make it through hard times, the operation lost $2 million.
Listening to that story related by Preston in a video feed to the conference on the campus of Colorado State University, I wondered whether this was a metaphor for what faces the 40 million people who, in one way or another, depend upon water from the Colorado River.
“No wonder Lakes Powell and Mead are in the condition that they are in today,” he said after accounting the over-drafting of the two big reservoirs, now down to 24% and 26% of storage respectively. “The bank account has been drawn down,” he said, “and we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit.”
By now, the 21st century story of the Colorado River has become familiar in its broadest outlines, part of the national narrative of despair. The pivoting reality came on hard in 2002, when the Colorado River carried just 4.5 million acre-feet of water.
To put that into perspective, as Eric Kuhn, co-author of “Science Be Dammed,” did at this conference, those who framed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 assumed 20.5 million acre-feet as they went about apportioning the river’s flows. In the 21st century, the river has averaged 13 million acre-feet.
Alarm has been sounded but…
Now, scientists are warning that river managers should plan for no more than 11 million acre-feet, a reflection of the new hotter, and in some places, drier climate. Some think that figure is overly optimistic.
The seven basin states – particularly the thirsty states of California and Arizona – have cinched their belts with various agreements. But they have not responded in ways proportionate to the risk they now face. There is a very real danger of the reservoirs dropping to just puddles of dead pool, too little to be released downstream. Imagine the Grand Canyon without water. Imagine no water below Hoover Dam. Do these images leave you dumbstruck?
A public official on the Western Slope recently confided to me that he and others had grown weary of what they called “drought, dust and dystopia” stories. That troubled me, leaving me to wonder how my own stories are being received.
At the conference this week on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I heard something of the same self-doubt.
“With all due respect to my fellow panelists, I live in an area where some of the topics that are mentioned, we’re not uniformly and broadly received,” said Perry Cabot, the lead researcher at Colorado’s State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Grand Junction. “I think as researchers, we tend to believe that just more educating is going to change the dynamics of the narrative.”
Other panelists agreed with Cabot’s observation that new narratives, not just information, would better convey the gravity of the situation.
“I think the scientific community has gotten its head handed to itself,” said Brad Udall, who has dome some of the pioneering research that shows that “aridification” – as much or more than drought itself – is driving the reduced flows. Drought ends, but aridification resulting from atmospheric greenhouse gases? Not any time soon.
That has gone against the grain of water managers. A decade ago, there was still skepticism about climate change, and water always has been variable. Surely, good winters would return in the mountains of Colorado and other upper basin states that produce 90% of the river’s flows. Colorado alone is responsible for 60%.
After all, every batter goes through slumps, every best-selling author can tell of rejection slips.
By now, however, a clear trend has become evident. Even in good snow years, the runoff lags.
At the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for refilling the glass that is now far less than half-full in the coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.
Even so-so precipitation has been coming up as something worse. For example, the snowpack in the Gunnison River watershed last year was 87% of average, but the runoff was only 64%.
Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last year has been among the six warmest in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuizen, a water resources engineer for the River District. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to apportion demand to match supply. After all, there’s money in the bank, and for probably a year more, enough water in the reservoirs to generate electricity.
At water meetings, an element of collegiality has remained, at least until recently. Testiness has crept in, an element of what Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, calls finger-pointing.
Colorado water officials, Mueller included, are doing some of that themselves.
They point out that Colorado and the other upper-basin states get nicked for 1.2 million acre-feet in evaporative losses in their delivery of water to Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas. California, Arizona, and Nevada do not. “It’s like running two sets of books,” said Mueller.
Mueller was negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the day of the conference in Fort Collins. His stand-in, Dave Kanzer, explained that the Law of the River —the Colorado River Compact and other agreements – don’t necessarily apply anymore. It is “based on long-term stable water supply, and we no longer have that,” he said.
Renegotiate the compact?
The Colorado River Compact assumed too much water and also used precise numbers when ratios would have been better, Mueller has observed. Instead, those who gathered in Santa Fe in November 1922 apportioned
7.5 million acre-feet to each of the two basins, upper and lower. In practice, the lower-basin states have been using twice as much water as Colorado and other upper-basin states.
Colorado’s average annual consumption from the Colorado River and its tributaries is 2.5 million acre-feet. In terms of the compact, what mattes entirely is when the diversion began, before or after the compact.
About 1.6 million-acre feet- mostly older agriculture rights – are pre-compact, but 900,000 acre-feet came later. This includes water for Western Slopes cities and the nearly all of the 500,000 acre-feet diverted across the Continental Divide to cities along the Front Range and farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys. This water is most imperiled.
Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, said he does not believe it’s practical to attempt to amend or renegotiate the Colorado River Compact.
“But within a few years, maybe after we have figured out how to get out of the current crisis, we’re going to essentially ignore all of the provisions of the compact except perhaps article one, which defines the purpose and the signatures page.”
Lochhead has much the same opinion about the much-disputed element of the compact about the obligations of Colorado and other upper basin states to deliver water. It really won’t matter, he said. The real problem is that the basin states need to align demand with supply that, during the last few years, has been close to 11 million acre-feet. (Keep in mind, the compact assumed more than 20 million acre-feet).
“We’re literally in a situation of triage,” said Lochhead. “Something needs to be done in the very near term to lay a foundation for actions that can be taken in the medium and longer term to manage the river to a sustainable condition.”
The feds need to step up
Lochhead outlined three possibly overlapping alternatives.
First: involuntary regulations and restrictions. The federal government – although it has been using it with restraint – does indeed have authority to regulate use of water that enters into Mead. The U.S. Supreme Court has characterized its power as such. The Bureau of Reclamation must be seen as delivering a coherent threat.
“That gives the U.S. government enormous authority over what happens in the lower basin,” Lochhead said. This is unlikely to happen until after the November election, he said, but it absolutely must happen.
Voluntary agreements must also occur. The Bureau of Reclamation imposed an August 2022 deadline for agreements. If the deadline had been a hard one, the states would have failed. Lochhead said it came down to finger pointing. Arizona and California “stared across the river at each other, seeing who’s going to blink first.”
The federal government has now put $4 billion on the table – through the Inflation Reduction Act —to “grease” the skids in terms of voluntary agreements. (Think, perhaps voluntary retirement of water rights). “They’re going to have to buy down demands in the lower basin,” said Lochhead, conjecturing on deals involving the Imperial Irrigation District, the giant ag producer just north of the border with Mexico.
Lochhead also described the need for reductions in water use in the municipal sectors. Denver Water and several other water agencies in Colorado – but also in Nevada and California and Arizona—announced an agreement in August in which they will try to pare their consumption. For example, Denver wants to end irrigation of medians along roads and highways and crimp the amount of water used for turf. But Denver and other cities need to continue to have trees, said Lochhead.
More cities will join this pact to reduce water use for residential consumption in coming weeks and months, Lochhead said.
But he said Colorado may need state legislation to ensure that real-estate developers can’t create landscaping in the future that requires lots of water, offsetting these gains.
That brings me back to the Ute Mountain Ute lands that I visited in May. By virtue of their 1986 agreement, reality has smacked them hard. There is pain, but there is also adjustment. They have had to adjust.
Something of the same thing must occur in the broader Colorado River Basin. So far, it’s easier to postpone action. But another so-so year – or worse? While the states are trying to make the cuts necessary for a river that is delivering 12 million acre-feet per year, Mueller warns that the plans must contemplate a 9 million acre-foot river, as some scientists have said may come to pass.
But in Grand Junction, one of the scientists pointed out to me that it’s just possible the river may deliver 7 million acre-feet – and that could be next year and the year after.
Then, we may need a new metaphor, something worse than an empty bank account.
We really would rather be getting news about another Super Bowl triumph or the end of the 55-year drought in Denver Nuggets championships. But the Colorado River is rapidly nearing total disfunction. It is the story du jour.
Rivers and streams on Colorado’s Western Slope chattered excitedly with runoff during mid-September after several days of rain, softening landscapes that had turned sullen after another hot summer.
The water was a blink of good news for a Colorado River that needs something more. It needs a long, sloppy kiss of wetness.
Hard, difficult decisions have almost entirely lagged what has been needed during the last 20 years of declining reservoir levels and rapidly rising temperatures. Hope has lingered stubbornly. After all, every batter has slumps. And maybe next winter and spring it will snow hard and long in Colorado, source of 60% of the river’s water, instead of getting unseemly warm come April and May, as has mostly been the case.
This glass half-full hopefulness has left the two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell, at roughly 25% of capacity. To prevent worse, the smaller savings accounts near the headwaters – Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, Blue Mesa in Colorado, and Flaming Gorge on the Utah-Wyoming border – have been pilfered. Little remains to be tapped.
Even threats from the Bureau of Reclamation this year failed to spur definitive action. “We can’t keep doing this,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, a major water policy agency for the Western Slope.
Recently at the River District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for recovery this coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.
Even so-so precipitation comes up as something less. Yampa River Valley snowpack last winter was 84% of average; runoff lagged at 76%. The Gunnison River watershed figures were even worse; snowpack of 87% yielding runoff of 64%.
Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last 12 months have been among the six warmest years in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuisen, a water rights engineer. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to agree on cuts that would match demand with supply.
It’s tempting to accuse the states of being caught up in century-old thinking. After all, they nominally operate under provisions of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. They have taken steps but they insufficiently acknowledge the shifting hydrologic reality. Instead of delivering an average 20.5 million acre-feet, as the compact assumed, the river has delivered 13 million acre-feet in the 21st century. In the last few years, it’s been worse yet, about 12 million acre-feet.
How low can it go? Mueller talked about learning to live within 9 million acre-feet, as some climate scientists have warned may be necessary. Climate scientists have built up some credibility as their forecasts have been, if anything, a tad conservative.
A scientist I talked with in Grand Junction suggested potential for an even starker future. What if the river delivers just 7 million acre-feet a year for the next two or three years?
One of my acquaintances, a county official on the Western Slope, recently confided weariness with the now familiar narrative of “drought, dust, and dystopia” on the Colorado River. Understood. We all want to see the Broncos and Avs win. More instructive may be the Denver Nuggets, who are now in a 55-year championship drought.
Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water, likens the situation on the Colorado River to a bank account that has been drawn down. “And we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit,” he said this week at the Colorado Water Center conference in Fort Collins.
What is needed? From a perspective in Colorado, Lochhead argues for a stronger, more assertive federal role. Lochhead was for many years a lawyer based in Glenwood Springs who represented Colorado in river issues.
Everybody that depends upon Colorado River water from northeastern Colorado to Los Angeles and San Diego will have a role, he says. Denver for example, wants to crowd out grass from medians and incentivize turf removal.
Lower-basin states use about twice as much as the upper basin states, and there the cuts must be more radical. Lochhead wants to see the federal government, through the Bureau of Reclamation, more assertively force the lower-basin states to make those hard decisions. Federal authority over water entering Lake Mead has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, he points out, and he suggests the agency may use that power after the November election.
The broad theme will be reducing water used for low-value grasses. That takes in suburban lawns but also the water-greedy grasses grown for livestock, including corn and alfalfa. Hard choices, but they must be made. What more warning do we need?
Large water providers from across the Colorado River Basin announced today a commitment to substantially expand existing efforts to conserve water, reduce demands and expand reuse and recycling of water supplies.
The agreement includes water providers in both the upper and lower basins of the Colorado River, stretching from Colorado’s Front Range to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The providers invite other utilities in the basin to join in the commitment to increasing water-use efficiency and reducing the demand for water.
The agreement comes amid a two-decade drought on the river that affects 40 million people who rely on it for drinking water, agriculture, power production, landscape irrigation, recreation and more. Demands for water in the basin have exceeded available supply, reducing storage levels in lakes Mead and Powell to critically low levels.
The water providers are outlining their commitments in a Memorandum of Understanding that was delivered to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton today. Some providers have committed to pursuing the MOU’s intent while awaiting final approval through their various governing boards.
“We are developing prudent municipal water conservation actions that every community that relies on the Colorado River should be using,” water providers said in the letter to Touton. Moving forward, “We will describe the steps our organizations will take now and codify our commitment to continued effort as we work to ensure our river and the communities it serves continue to thrive. We sincerely hope our commitment to action inspires other stakeholders that share the river to do the same.”
Specifically, the agreement will focus on several key areas as pathways to cutting water use, including:
Develop programs to replace non-functional or passive cool weather turf grass (grass that serves primarily a decorative role and is otherwise unused) with drought- and climate-resistant landscaping, while maintaining vital urban landscapes and tree canopies where appropriate.
Increase water reuse and recycling programs where feasible.
Continue and expand conservation and efficiency programs to accelerate water savings.
“Achieving the protection storage volumes needed to preserve water and hydropower operations within the Colorado River basin cannot be met by a singular country, basin, state, or water use sector,” continued the letter to BOR. “While municipal water use represents only a small fraction of total Colorado River water use, progress begins with one and then many until we are all moving in the same direction.”
While not all the conservation strategies under consideration may make sense for each community, utilities say the agreement demonstrates the commitment that municipal water providers have not only to coordinating and collaborating on strategies to conserve and manage water demands, but to also help protect the Colorado River system.
“The water supply challenges we are facing on the Colorado River are accelerating at an alarming pace. Everyone who relies on the Colorado River must take bold and immediate action to reduce their use on this vital water source,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “This agreement represents our commitment to working with our municipal partners on the river to come up with innovative, collaborative approaches to better manage our Colorado River supplies and promote a more sustainable future for our communities.”
“With climate change and aridification affecting the entire Basin, improving the health of the Colorado River system requires a swift and collective effort of all water users — in all sectors — to reduce water use and implement actionable strategies, policies and programs to protect this vital resource and balance water supplies with demands,” said John Entsminger, Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager.
“Climate change and overuse of the Colorado River have put us squarely within the crisis we long saw coming. The bottom line now: We all need to work on solutions, no matter our individual impacts on river flows,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water. “While we have long been a conservation leader, Denver Water has consistently said it is prepared to do even more, and the commitments contained in this agreement reflect our readiness to take further important steps to keep more water in the Colorado River Basin.”
“Water issues in the arid west are accelerating,” stated Aurora Water General Manager Marshall Brown. “Aurora is embracing these conservation pathways through Colorado’s largest potable reuse system, an aggressive turf replacement rebate program and a new ordinance that prohibits nonfunctional turf in new developments. We’re doing what needs to be done to ensure a reliable water supply for our community in unpredictable times and we challenge other municipalities to do the same.”
“Colorado Springs Utilities is committed to conservation programming that ensures a clean, reliable water supply for years to come. Building on our customers’ successful 41% reduction in per capita use since 2001, we continue to pursue and implement water efficiency and reuse initiatives that support our vibrant community and make wise use of this valuable resource,” said Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin.
“The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District supports the efforts of the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), the State of Colorado, and municipal and agricultural water providers in the basin, to collaborate in bringing the system into balance,” said Jim Broderick, executive director of the district.
Protecting people from hazards that can lurk in their drinking water is the day-in, day-out job for water industry engineers, utilities and regulators.
And at Denver Water, efforts to protect people from the health risks posed by lead from old, lead service lines getting into drinking water, has been part of the job for decades.
There is no lead in the water Denver Water delivers to customers, but the utility regularly tests for lead in the drinking water of homes that are known to have lead water service lines, the primary source of lead in drinking water.
In the first half of the 20th century, lead was a common, cheap and easy-to-work-with material to use when forming small pipelines that carry drinking water from utility pipelines in the street into customers’ homes. But these old lead service lines, which in Denver Water’s experience are more often found in homes built before 1951, pose a threat in the community, particularly to children, infants and pregnant women.
Denver Water has tested for lead in customers’ drinking water for decades under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule. In 2012, the routine monitoring indicated the utility needed to investigate whether it could adjust the chemistry of the water it delivered to customers to better protect them from the risk of lead getting into drinking water.
Read this 2019 story to learn about Denver Water’s efforts over the years to combat lead in drinking water, which culminated in the 2020 launch of its groundbreaking Lead Reduction Program.
In short, the results of tests on customers’ drinking water launched Denver Water into years of study centered on one question: What more could it do to better protect at-risk customers?
The first step was more testing.
“For a utility of our size and the number of lead service lines we have, you can’t just test something by putting it into the distribution system that’s delivering water to 1.5 million people every day. That’s not acceptable to us,” said Ryan Walsh, manager of the water treatment engineering section at Denver Water.
“We had to test things at a pilot scale, by doing the pipe loop study, before we could move forward.”
Walsh’s team was in charge of testing various treatment options via the pipe loop study and later planned, designed and executed the treatment plant systems involved in increasing the pH level.
To build the pipe loop study, Denver Water used old lead service lines its crews removed from customers’ homes (replacing them with lead-free lines) as the crews found the old lines during their regular work on water mains across the utility’s service area.
Denver Water plumbers connected the decades-old pipes together on racks and its treatment engineers ran water through them for hours, days and years. They tested different treatment methods to find out which worked best to reduce the risk of lead from the old pipes getting into the water passing through them.
Watch this video to see Denver Water’s pipe loop study, which is still underway today.
“That testing was so critical because we used the water that had been treated by our treatment plants, Moffat and Marston, the water that was going into our system to customers. The pipe loop study allowed us to test the adjustments we might do to the water to keep people safe,” said Patty Brubaker, a water treatment plant manager.
“We tried different pH levels, we tried different phosphate levels, and we tried all of them on the actual lead pipes that had been taken from our system,” Brubaker said.
“There were so many people involved in putting this together. We had the crews who went out and pulled those lines, the plumbers that put them together on the racks, the people who made the adjustments and tested the water as it ran through the pipes.
All of us were studying the impacts to figure out which would be the best method to use to protect our customers from those old lead pipes.”
In March 2018, based on Denver Water’s studies, state health officials told Denver Water it had two years — until March 2020 — to get ready to start using a food additive called orthophosphate to tamp down the potential for lead to get into customers’ drinking water.
The decision worried many people inside and outside of Denver Water.
The concern wasn’t whether orthophosphate would reduce the potential for lead to get into drinking water. They knew it would.
Denver Water’s years of tests on the old pipes had shown orthophosphate would work, and other water utilities use orthophosphate to reduce the risk of lead getting into their drinking water.
But Denver Water, environmental groups and other water and wastewater utilities downstream of Colorado’s capital city worried about the widespread, long term — and expensive — consequences of adding orthophosphate to such a large system, including the increased potential for environmental impacts in and downstream of the Denver metro area.
Nicole Poncelet-Johnson, director of Denver Water’s water quality and treatment section, had been hired at the utility few months before the state’s 2018 decision on orthophosphate. From previous jobs involving water and wastewater treatment plants, she’d seen what orthophosphate could do at the plants and in the environment.
“I’d seen the algae, which can grow faster when there are higher levels of phosphate in the water. I’d seen it coating the valves coming into the treatment plant so we couldn’t bring water in. I’ve seen how the taste and odor problems with the water were so bad that people bought and used bottled water instead of tap water,” Poncelet-Johnson said.
“And in Colorado’s dry, arid environment, with our long, sunny days and the UV light, adding orthophosphate to our system would have created a primordial soup. Plus, after the expense of adding it to the water at the drinking water treatment plant, it’s hard, expensively hard, to get phosphorous out of the water when it arrives at the downstream wastewater plants,” she said.
On top of the expensive work that would be required at wastewater treatment plants, there simply was no way to recapture all the orthophosphate that would be added to Denver’s drinking water due to the way water is used in the metro area, she said.
About half of Denver Water’s residential water use is outdoor water use, tied to the irrigation of lawns and gardens. That means some of the orthophosphate-treated drinking water was bound to run off of lawns, down the gutter and end up in the metro area’s urban creeks, streams and rivers.
The groups worried that under the right conditions, that additional phosphate could accelerate the growth of algae not only downstream of the city, but also in the metro area’s urban creeks, streams and reservoirs.
There had to be another way, they said.
“We went back to the data from the years of tests we’d run. We saw that if we raised the pH level of the water, instead of adding orthophosphate, we could protect people from the lead service lines,” Poncelet-Johnson said.
“And if we combined a higher pH with replacing those lead service lines with new, lead-free copper lines, then the lead levels would drop to the point where the tests couldn’t detect anything.”
In 2019, Denver Water formally proposed an alternative approach to state and federal regulators.
Denver Water’s proposal, at its core, called for raising the pH of the water delivered to customers from 7.8 to 8.8 on the pH scale, and keeping it there with relatively little variance as it flowed from the treatment plant to the customers’ homes and businesses.
The higher pH level would strengthen an existing protective coating inside the lead service lines, reducing the risk of lead getting into the drinking water as it passed through the lead pipes.
And that — combined with significantly accelerating the replacement of the old lead services lines — would 1) lower the risk faster than relying on orthophosphate alone, and 2) do so without the cost and environmental concerns posed by adding the phosphate.
“It was a better solution, a permanent solution to the problem of old lead service lines, which are the primary source of lead in drinking water,” Poncelet-Johnson said.
“Because instead of a Band-Aid approach, instead of just adding chemicals to the system and then dealing with the widespread economic and environmental consequences of that decision for decades, we went the other way and proposed permanently removing the problem by raising the pH of the water and replacing the lead service lines,” she said.
Listen to Nicole Poncelet-Johnson, director of Denver Water’s water quality and treatment section, discuss Denver Water’s Lead Reduction Program:
Denver Water’s alternative proposal focused on five areas:
Raising the pH of the water it delivers to 1.5 million people to 8.8, and keep it fairly constant, with very little variance, as the water flowed from treatment plant, through the distribution system, to customers’ homes and businesses.
Mapping the location of the customer-owned lead service lines in its service area and sharing that map with customers.
Replacing the estimated 64,000 to 84,000 customer-owned lead service lines in its service area with new lead-free copper lines at no direct cost to the customer.
Providing customers enrolled in the program with water pitchers and filters certified to remove lead to use until six months after their lead line was replaced.
Launching the largest public health communication effort Denver Water had ever done to educate its customers about the risks of lead, the importance of using filtered water until the old lead service lines could be replaced, and the process for replacing those lead pipes.
Watch this video to learn more about lead service lines.
Breaking new ground
The proposal broke new ground in the water industry in two main ways.
It attacked the legacy issue posed old lead service lines from all sides — by raising the pH level, replacing customers’ old lead service lines, providing water filters to customers enrolled in the program to use until six months after their line was replaced, and educating those customers about the program.
And Denver Water said it would tackle all those steps on a scale and at a speed never before seen in the water industry.
Other cities had aimed to replace a few thousand lead service lines.
But Denver Water proposed replacing up to 84,000 customer-owned lead service lines estimated to be in Denver Water’s service area, doing it at no direct cost to the customer, and doing it in 15 years.
And, the utility proposed sending water pitchers and filters to more than 100,000 households enrolled in the program to use for cooking, drinking and preparing infant formula until six months after their lead line was replaced.
In December 2019, health officials at the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment agreed to Denver Water’s alternative proposal.
Weeks later, in January 2020, Denver Water launched its Lead Reduction Program — and immediately faced a crucial deadline.
The utility’s engineers, treatment plant operators and monitoring teams now had to implement the systems and processes that would raise the pH level of the water and maintain that level as the water flowed across more than 3,000 miles of pipe to 1.5 million people. And they had less than 90 days to do it.
The seven Colorado River states – Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming – face a daunting mid-August deadline. The federal government has asked them to come up with a plan to reduce their combined water usage from the Colorado River by up to 4 million acre-feet in 2023.
That is a massive reduction for a river system that currently produces about 12.4 million acre-feet. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Colorado River, warned that it will “act unilaterally to protect the system” if the states cannot come up with an adequate plan on their own.
The seven states have worked cooperatively over the past two decades to identify solutions to a shrinking river. But their response now, much like the global response to climate change, seems far from adequate to the enormous challenge.
In a recent letter to BuRec, the Upper Colorado River Commission, speaking for the four Upper Basin states, proposed a plan that adopts a business-as-usual, “drought-reduction” approach. They argue that their options are limited because “previous drought response actions are depleting upstream storage by 661,000 feet.”
The Commission complains that water users “already suffer chronic shortages under current conditions resulting in uncompensated priority administration, which includes cuts to numerous present perfected rights in each of our states.”
This leads the Commission to conclude that any future reductions must come largely from Mexico and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, because they use most of the water.
But the Lower Basin states have already taken a significant hit to their “present perfected rights,” and if BuRec makes good on its promise to act unilaterally, they will face another big reduction. The cooperative relationship among the Basin states will not endure if the Upper Basin refuses to share the burden by reducing its consumption.
A good place to start might lie with two Colorado projects to divert water from the Colorado River basin to the Front Range. Both began construction this summer. The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project will triple the size of one of Denver Water’s major storage units. Denver Water’s original justification for this project – to serve Denver’s growing urban population – seems odd given that water demand in their service area over the past two decades has shrunk, even as its population rose by nearly 300,000.
Similar questions have been raised with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming Project, which plans to store Colorado River water to support population growth in Front Range cities.
These two projects suggest that Colorado is prepared to exacerbate the current crisis when the opposite response is so desperately needed.
Abandoning these two projects would signal that Colorado is serious about giving the Colorado River a fighting chance at survival. It might also jump-start good-faith negotiations over how Mexico, the states, and tribes might work to achieve a long-term solution to this crisis.
The homestead laws of the 19th century attracted a resilient group of farmers to the West who cleverly designed water laws to secure their water rights against all future water users. “First in time, first in right” became the governing mantra of water allocation, because, except for Tribal Nations, the farmers were first.
That system worked well for many years. As communities grew, cities and water districts built reservoirs to store the spring runoff, ensuring that water was available throughout the irrigation season.
Climate change and mega-droughts have upended that system. Nowhere have the consequences been as dire as in the Colorado River Basin. America’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead – key components of the Colorado River’s water storage system – have not filled for more than two decades. They now sit well below 30% of their capacity.
Hotter temperatures, less mountain snowpack, and dry soils that soak up runoff like a sponge have brought us to this seven-state crisis. All seven states must now share the pain of addressing this crisis.
The Upper Basin Commission’s anemic response to BuRec’s plea is not a serious plan. We can do better and we must.
Mark Squillace and Quinn Harper are contributors to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. Mark Squillace is the Raphael J. Moses professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School. Quinn Harper is a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in natural resource policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
If yes, then you’re familiar with Denver Water’s decadelong campaign, launched a few years after the 2002 drought, that urged customers to reduce the amount of water they used in their everyday lives.
The occasionally cheeky campaign showcased images like a park bench with only room for one person, water from a broken sprinkler head cascading onto a giant billboard and suggestions for using less water — like showering with a friend.
And it worked. By the time the campaign — created by Denver’s Sukle Advertising & Design — ended in 2015, water use by Denver Water’s customers had dropped 22% compared to usage before the drought.
The “Use Only What You Need” campaign has been recognized repeatedly over the years for its effectiveness and memorability, and on May 17 the Out of Home Advertising Association of America inducted it into the OBIE Hall of Fame, a group dominated by advertising campaigns backed by national and international brand names.
“Denver Water’s signature orange box asking customers to ‘Use Only What You Need’ became advertising legend in the Denver metro area,” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO/Manager.
“In a light-hearted and at times outrageous way, the campaign led the charge for our conservation programing where we had a critical call to action: Reduce water use by 22%. Eight years after achieving that goal, Use Only What You Need has remained a one-of-a-kind catchphrase that has continued to help Coloradans embrace a culture of conservation, which is so vital in the arid West where water is such a precious resource.”
Out-of-home advertising is visual advertising outside of the home, such as billboards, indoor and outdoor signs, ads on bus shelters or benches, in airports or train stations, and in a stadium or movie theater.
Previous OBIE Hall of Fame winners include the insurance company Geico (2021), entertainment giants The Walt Disney Co. (2007) and Universal Studios (2019), brewer MillerCoors (2018) and technology company Apple Inc. (2005).
Competition for the 2022 Hall of Fame award put Denver Water up against international heavyweights — and household names — Google, Netflix, Procter & Gamble Co., Pepsi and Samsung.
In the 30-year history of the OBIE Hall of Fame awards, Denver Water’s award is only the second time a regional brand has won the judges’ nod. The first was the San Diego Zoo in 1995.
“This is one of the highest creative honors in our industry, and we are immensely proud to be recognized by OAAA and our peers,” said Mike Sukle, owner of Sukle Advertising & Design.
“Creating and managing the campaign for a decade shaped how we approach every campaign we create. It cemented our philosophy that work must be both smart and creative to generate exceptional results. And while mass media including out of home was critical, the campaign spread almost as much through word-of-mouth. Our audience became our media. That’s an important lesson for all brands. And if you can make people like you, they may also listen to you,” he said.
Anna Bager, president and CEO of the association, called Denver Water’s campaign “truly brilliant and entertaining.”
“Denver Water has achieved legendary out-of-home status with a sustained level of creative excellence over many years. Their commitment to the ‘Use Only What You Need’ headline came to life in a seemingly endless number of creative solutions,” she said.
And while Denver Water’s message that water is precious and should be used wisely hasn’t changed, the utility’s campaign around water has evolved into a simple main message: Water is everything.
Using the tagline “Life Is Better With Water,” the utility’s current campaign with Denver advertising agency Pure Brand celebrates the importance of water as a precious resource in our everyday lives and one that plays a vital role in Colorado’s unique lifestyle.
“It’s about elevating the value of water in our daily lives. Together, we all can help create a ripple effect that ensures our Colorado lifestyle continues for generations to come,” said Kathie Dudas, manager of brand and marketing at Denver Water.
Denver Water sits on the front lines of climate change.
Rising temperatures, long-term drought and less dependable snowpack are all making the job of providing water to 1.5 million people tougher.
In response, the utility is preparing for a future with a less consistent water supply for its customers, through innovations including greater efficiency, One Water and new storage projects such as the Gross Reservoir expansion.
The utility also is moving aggressively to cut its own carbon footprint, striving to meet goals for producing renewable energy and reducing dependence on energy sources tied directly to warming temperatures.
In 2020, Denver Water met an organizational goal for “net zero” annual energy consumption. That’s a fancy way of saying it produced as much or more energy than it consumed, and that its energy was generated using carbon-free sources: hydropower and solar power.
To be precise, the utility produced roughly 1.5 million more “kilowatt-hour equivalents” than it used in 2020.
The utility’s solar power panels and hydropower generators produced enough clean energy to account for not only its electricity use but also the natural gas it uses for heat. Natural gas burned to supply heat is an energy category that’s not always factored into “net zero” calculations, but Denver Water made a point of including it to create a stretch goal for its effort.
“Several years earlier, we had set a goal to hit ‘net-zero’ as a benchmark for our sustainability efforts,” said Kate Taft, Denver Water’s sustainability manager. “Hitting that in 2020 was the result of a lot of focused, dedicated work across the organization and represents an important milestone in the utility’s long history of environmental progress.”
Net-zero is a big deal in the era of climate change.
Many major corporations are striving to attain the status, including companies such as Coca-Cola and General Motors. Many companies and governments have set net-zero goals for 2030 and 2040, for example.
Denver Water got there sooner. Though, to be sure, Denver Water benefits from — wait for it — water in this endeavor.