A draft bill that proposes to create the 45,455-acre Dolores River National Conservation Area and a 10,828-acre special management area would prohibit certain activities but also protect existing uses.
The proposed special land designations are in Dolores and San Miguel counties in Southwest Colorado. The bill was drafted by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in cooperation with the two counties. A 45-day comment period began Monday. The draft has not been introduced in the Senate.
Generally, the NCA stretches about 61 miles along the Lower Dolores River corridor on Bureau of Land Management land from Bradfield Bridge to Little Gypsum Bridge.
It also would include the side drainages of Summit and McIntyre Canyons, which are southwest and northwest of Slick Rock.
What is allowed?
New mining, new roads and commercial timber harvesting would be prohibited, as well as new large dams. Motorized vehicles would be restricted to existing routes.
Large-scale water development outside the NCA would not be allowed if it diminished the scenic, recreational, and fish and wildlife values of the NCA.
Valid existing mining leases would be allowed. Water rights, grazing rights, private property rights would not be affected, according to bill language.
According to the bill, the purpose of the Conservation Area is to “conserve, protect and enhance the native fish, whitewater boating, recreational, scenic, cultural, archaeological, natural, geological, historical, ecological, watershed, wildlife, educational and scientific resources.”
If passed, a management plan must be drawn up within three years for the long-term protection, management and monitoring of the NCA.
Water Rights: The NCA designation and special management area do not include a water right.
According to the draft bill, water rights would be protected and operations of McPhee Reservoir would not be affected by the NCA. McPhee Reservoir would continue to operate under the Bureau of Reclamation and Dolores Water Conservancy District.
The NCA would allow the construction of small diversion dams or stock ponds. It also would allow for new minor water developments or modification of existing structures.
The NCA would not affect any existing water resource facility, including irrigation and pumping facilities, reservoirs, water conservation works, canals, ditches, pipelines, wells, hydropower projects, power lines, water diversion, storage and carriage structures. It also would not impede access to facilities for operation, maintenance, repair or replacement…
McPhee dam releases: Managed releases from McPhee Dam for whitewater boating and native fish populations would not be affected by the NCA, according to the bill.
For 10 years, boaters, fishery managers and water managers have improved cooperation on how best to manage limited releases for various recreation and ecological benefits. The bill calls for that to continue.
It also would require the Bureau of Reclamation to prepare and make publicly available a report that describes any progress with respect to the conservation, protection and enhancement of native fish in the Dolores River.
The NCA would not “alter or diminish” operations of the Dolores Project, which includes McPhee Dam, according to the draft bill. It would not affect treaty rights of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Wild and Scenic River: If the bill is passed, the BLM would drop a section of the Dolores River’s eligibility status for federal designation as a National Wild and Scenic River designation.
A designation of wild and scenic rivers can include a federally reserved water right. Water and county officials have advocated to eliminate the eligibility for a wild and scenic river because of concerns that upstream McPhee Reservoir could be eyed as a potential source for the water right.
Mining: The NCA preserves valid existing leases for mining within the boundaries, and leases may be extended. No new mining patents or leases would be allowed.
Grazing: Grazing and trailing permits would continue under current BLM and Forest Service rules.
Private Land: The NCA protects reasonable and feasible access to any private property that is located within or adjacent to the NCA. It would not impact county zoning designations.
Roads: The NCA would not impact county roads, their use or maintenance. The popular Dolores River Road, which travels along the river from the Dove Creek Pump Station, would not be affected. The bill states the road would not be improved beyond its existing primitive condition. No new or temporary roads would be constructed, and motorized vehicles must stay on designated routes, with exceptions for administrative or emergency purposes.
Wildfires: The NCA allows for control of wildfire, insects and disease.
Utilities: Right of ways, operations and maintenance would not be impacted by the NCA. New utility permits and right-of-ways would be allowed.
Ponderosa Gorge: The proposed NCA includes the popular Ponderosa Gorge, an 18-mile stretch of the river canyon popular with boaters.
The gorge will be managed in a manner that maintains its wilderness character. No new roads would be allowed, and motorized vehicles or equipment would be prohibited, with exceptions for public safety.
Commercial timber harvests in Ponderosa Gorge would be prohibited, with exceptions for ecological restoration.
Advisory Council: An 11-person Dolores River National Conservation Area Advisory Council would be created as part of the bill. The council would advise the Secretary of Interior on the preparation, implementation and monitoring of the management plan.
Two members will represent agricultural water user interests, and two will represent conservation interests. Two others will represent recreation interests, including one specifically for whitewater boating.
Dolores County, San Miguel County and the Ute Mountain Ute tribe each will have one representative. One member will be a grazing permit holder within the NCA, and another will be a private landowner that owns land in the immediate proximity to the NCA.
Council members must be residents of Dolores, San Miguel, Montezuma, Montrose or La Plata County. Terms will be for five years. Advisory meetings will be open to the public and be noticed.
When the CC Ditch washed out on June 8 outside of Nucla, West End water shareholders did what they’ve been doing for more than a century in rallying together to do what needed to be done.
Stan Galley, the Colorado Cooperative Company Ditch board president, told The Norwood Post that upon investigation, the ditch appeared to have been leaking through the bank for some time and then ended up washing out about 175 feet of the waterway, leaving the area without its source of raw water.
The oldest water right on the San Miguel River and established in the late 1800s, the ditch runs 17 miles from the old site of Pinion and made the town of Nucla, otherwise a desert, possible.
Not having water in early June sounded an alarm for shareholders who have animals, crops, gardens, fruit trees and fields.
“We didn’t have any water on the morning of June 9,” Galley said.
As a result, Dean Naslund, who is the ditch superintendent, went to see what the issue was and found water running across the road below the head gate.
“We basically started work that afternoon-evening to start getting it fixed,” Galley said.
And that work took a few weeks to accomplish.
Shareholders had to dig about 15 feet back into the hillside to set the ditch back. There was no bank left. Then, they poured a concrete floor, and next a wall.
“You could see where they stacked rock and filled dirt,” Galley said. “It had been there 120 years before it gave out.”
The CC Ditch board hired Monty Spor, since he had the right size excavator. He and Chas Burbridge dug the hillside out.
“I was pretty impressed by that,” Galley said. “Monty got the machine out there and started digging at 2:30 p.m., and then by the next day had it to grade. … By the weekend, they started forming the grade and got the floor all ready.”
Galley’s family has been using CC ditchwater since its inception. His grandmother’s step-dad, a Bowen, was involved in constructing the ditch. A farmer and rancher, Galley said not having water in Nucla was difficult. For him, his corn suffered, and things got pretty dry. He’d already started haying, though, so he went ahead and cut hay and tried to be ready for when the water came back on…
Last week, Galley reported that the ditch was not back “at a full head” at that point. He said Naslund wanted to make sure the fix worked properly, like they wanted it to, before they started using water like they normally do.
Fish and wildlife leaders say they have their eye on potential closures of the Animas and San Juan rivers as well.
Devastating drought and disappearing runoff in far southwestern Colorado have prompted state officials to seek voluntary fishing restrictions on the Dolores River for the first time, and fish and wildlife leaders say they have their eye on potential closures of the Animas and San Juan rivers as well.
Intense rain over the weekend — generating eye-opening but perhaps deceptive coverage of flash floods and mudslides — are not nearly enough to bring Colorado’s Western Slope out of a 20-year drought that has drained rivers and desiccated pastures.
Conservation groups, meanwhile, say they are also worried about low river levels in more visible, main-stem branches of waterways usually popular with anglers and recreators in July, including the Colorado River…
Voluntary fishing closures on prime stretches of the Colorado are “imminent,” too, as soon as state weather warms up as expected in a few days, said Kendall Bakich, aquatic biologist for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division in the Glenwood Springs area. Portions of the Colorado are seeing water temperatures above 70 degrees and related fish stress a month earlier than in a usual year, Bakich said.
Moreover, sediment from the heavy rains and mudslides that make some Front Range residents hear “drought relief” are actually making things harder on trout and other species, Bakich said. The murky water makes it harder for them to find food.
Even if you release a caught trout and it survives, Bakich said, this year’s far earlier than normal heat stresses are threatening the sperm and egg health in the species…
Bakich said she has worked the waters from Glenwood Springs upstream to State Bridge since 2007, and has not seen Colorado River temperatures rise this fast, this early…
Flow in the Dolores River is controlled almost completely by McPhee’s dam. Normally at this time of year, the stream is running at 60 to 80 cubic feet per second. Last week, it ran at 9 cfs, White said. Managers believe it will be down to 5 cfs later in the summer, barely a trickle in the wide stream bed.
So Parks and Wildlife is asking Dolores anglers to stop fishing by noon each day. Water comes out the bottom of McPhee at a chilly, trout-friendly 45 degrees, White said. In typical weather, anglers have a few miles of river to work below the dam before the water heats up to 75 degrees, a temperature band that starts weakening fish survival rates. Those 75-degree stretches have moved much closer to the dam this summer, he said.
The same is happening on the Animas and San Juan rivers in the southwest corner of the state, and voluntary closures are close on the horizon there, White said.
“We anticipate probably asking anglers to refrain from fishing at some point later in the summer if water temperatures start to get high, which we do anticipate this year,” he said.
The Colorado River sections could see some relief, from engineering if not from the weather.
Wildlife and conservation leaders said they are in talks with Front Range water diverters, who have rights to send Western Slope river water under the Continental Divide for urban and suburban household water, to release more flow west from their healthy reservoirs on the Colorado and its tributaries.
FromField & Stream (Sage Marshall) (Click through for the photos from Rig to Flip):
“The stream is flowing anywhere between 5 and 9 cfs,” reports Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “Typical flows are around 70 cfs or higher.”
Such low flows are taking a toll on the river’s trout population. The lack of water leads to higher water temperatures, which directly harm cold-water species such as trout.
“We’ve got a temperature logger placed 2 miles below the dam, and we’re starting to see temperatures upwards of 80 degrees in the evenings,” says White. “We’re starting to exceed what’s called the ‘acute temperature threshold’ for trout, meaning they’re gonna die.”
Managers Expect “Total Mortality” in At Least Half of the Tailwater
The CPW manages a 12 mile stretch below McPhee Reservoir as a catch-and-release tailwater trout fishery. Given the conditions, the agency’s plan is to institute a voluntary fishing closure on the area. Regardless, White expects total mortality of the trout population in the lower half of that section, and potentially in part of the upper half as well. He is also concerned about the river’s mottled sculpin, a native cold-water species and favorite trout food, as well as warm-water native fish such as the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker, and the roundtail chub populations. That’s not to mention the insects, such as mayflies and caddis, that can’t live in high water temps…
There are two main culprits in the Dolores’ plight: agricultural water use and drought. McPhee Reservoir was a man-made project completed in 1985 primarily to store and provide water for agricultural use in the region. The reservoir itself has become a known hotspot for cliff jumping and catching smallmouth bass, but recent drought conditions have put the project’s long-term viability in question. Not only is the tailwater at 5 to 10 percent of its usual flows, but farmers are only receiving similarly meager water allocations.
Before the creation of the dam, spring runoff would provide enough water to replenish deep pools and runs in the stretch of river that is now suffering. The reservoir is expected to reach its lowest level since its inception this summer.
Experts Eye Trouble for Trout Rivers Across the Region
“We’ve been in a drought for almost 20 years,” says White. “Everybody is suffering from dry conditions here on the West Slope of Colorado and region-wide in Utah and Wyoming.”
White adds that climate change is playing a role in creating extended drought conditions “without a doubt.” According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, every state in the Western U.S. is currently experiencing drought conditions.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):
Due to continuing drought conditions, trout fishing in the Dolores River below the McPhee Reservoir dam will be adversely affected this year, said a Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist.
Water releases from the dam will probably be under 15 cubic feet per second (cfs) and could possibly drop as low at three cfs, explained Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Durango. In normal years, the sustained release from the dam is usually about 60 cfs. The section of river, which flows through the Lone Dome State Wildlife area, from below the dam to Bradfield Bridge ─ a distance of about 12 miles ─ is a popular tail-water fishery. Most trout fishing is done within the first six miles.
White said the lower flows will shrink the river habitat and many brown and rainbow trout will likely die. The water coming out of the dam is about 42 degrees, which is an ideal temperature for trout. But with such a low flow the water will warm quickly as it moves downstream.
“This is going to impact the trout fishery,” White said. “I would expect to see about half or more of the trout fishery habitat suffer and lose much of the trout population.”
White suggested that anglers fish early in the day and carry a thermometer to check the water temperature. Fishing should stop when the water hits 70 degrees.
The low flows will also affect native fish that live in the lower reaches of the Dolores River ─ the Flannelmouth Sucker, the Bluehead Sucker and the Roundtail Chub. These fish are listed by CPW as species of concern. The fish are adapted to survive in warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.
White is concerned about lower sections of the river drying up or being connected by only tiny rivulets of water.
“I’m worried that the natives are going to be stuck in isolated pools throughout most of the year at these flows,” White said.
Exacerbating the problem are Smallmouth Bass, an invasive non-native fish that thrives in the lower Dolores but are predators on the young of the native fish. Anglers are encouraged to fish for Smallmouth Bass; they are abundant, fairly easy to catch, tasty and there are no bag or possession limits.
As drought continues to grip the West, more and more rivers will be facing the same scenario – this year and beyond.
“All of this is a result of three things: low snowpack, dry soil that will absorb run-off and no carry-over water in the reservoir from last year,” White said.
Where once a river ran, the Dolores River has all but disappeared in its lower reaches below McPhee Dam this summer, another causality of an intense drought that has gripped Southwest Colorado.
Striking images of dried up streambeds, tepid pools filled with suffocating algae and vegetation encroaching into the historic channel of the Dolores River has incited deep concerns over the ecological collapse of an entire waterway.
“It’s pretty devastating,” Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said. “It’s going to be a tough year for fish.”
Farmers and ranchers that rely on water from the reservoir, too, are also coming up on the losing end. This year, most irrigators are receiving just 5% to 10% of usual water shares, with valves expected to be shut off by the end of the month, an incredibly early end to the growing season sure to have economic fallouts.
“Absolutely, it’s the worst in the project history,” Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, the agency that manages the dam, said of the situation on the Dolores River this year.
Completed in 1985, McPhee Dam bottlenecks the Dolores River in Southwest Colorado, just west of the town that bears its name. At the time, the project was sold as an insurance bank of water for both irrigators and the downstream fishery.
But in the years since, a crippling, 20-year drought has exposed intrinsic flaws within the management system put in place. And it all seems to have come to a head this summer after back-to-back poor water years, which has forced a reckoning among water users who rely on the strapped river…
Montezuma Tunnel entrance.
Montezuma Tunnel steel arches.
The Dolores River tumbles south out of the high country of the San Juan Mountains, and takes a sharp turn west near the town of Dolores before it heads more than 170 miles north to the Colorado River near Moab.
Near Dolores, the river skirts the edge of the Montezuma Valley, a different drainage basin where water is incredibly scarce. In the 1880s, Western settlers, looking to irrigate these arid fields, constructed a series of tunnels and large diversions to bring water over from the Dolores River.
This system, known as a transmountain diversion, brought a whole host of its own issues. Some years, flows were so erratic, that after spring runoff, agricultural needs reduced the Dolores River to a trickle. On top of concerns for the fishery below the dam, farmers and ranchers further out near Dove Creek also started to eye shares from the river. 4
So, by the mid-1900s, as was custom at the time, a dam was proposed. Much has been written and said about the concept of McPhee; even top-ranking Bureau of Reclamation officials have expressed on record the ill-advised nature of the water project in such an arid environment. Ranchers and farmers, however, came to hold water reserves in McPhee as an economic lifeline.
But, even a few years after completion, the dam started showing proverbially cracks in its plan after low-water years in the late 1980s…
“Deal with the devil”
McPhee’s first and foremost priority is to serve agriculture in the Montezuma Valley. Today, water out of the reservoir irrigates the fields of an estimated 1,500 farms, which range in size from small, three acre tracts to 1,000 acre operations.
Early on in the project’s management, however, low snowpack years in the mountains, which resulted in less available water supply coming into the dam, created tension among the competing interests for agricultural and the health of the river…
Ultimately, a “pool” of water was dedicated for releases out of the dam to support the fishery. But as the region increasingly dried out, shares have had to be reduced, and in some years the water sent down river has not provided enough habitat to sustain fish populations.
This summer, the fishery will receive just 5,000 acre feet of water, far below its 32,000 acre feet allotment. As a result, releases out of McPhee are expected to drop as low as 5 cubic feet per second, the lowest amount ever recorded (for reference, summer flows tend to be between 70 and 90 cfs).
Further downstream, the picture is even bleaker as water is lost to evaporation, sucked up by the soil and even in some cases used for irrigation. As of Wednesday, the stream gauge on the Dolores River at Bedrock, about 100 miles downstream of McPhee, was reading an inconceivable 0.45 cfs, virtually a nonexistent flow…
Short end of the stick
Thousands of fish are expected to die this year on the Dolores River.
For the first 10 miles or so downstream of McPhee Dam, the river boasts a robust trout fishery. Further on, as the river cuts toward the towns of Bedrock and Gateway, the waterway is home to many native fish, like the bluehead sucker and roundtail chub. Survival rates, as expected, are grim.
CPW’s White said that before the construction of the dam, spring runoff would replenish pools for fish to find refuge in. But that’s not the case in the post-dam world, and many fish will likely succumb to high water temperatures and the evaporation of pools in the hot summer months. And, conditions have set up perfectly for the invasive smallmouth bass to take over…
The Dolores River has been so changed and altered by the construction of McPhee Dam, and compounded by the effects of climate change, that it’s also prompted a multi-year study to understand the ecosystem’s new normal. Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center at Fort Lewis College, said vegetation is now growing in the river bed, and the channel is losing the diversification of flow that support so many species…
Cutting off the tap
Explaining water rights is never an easy task for reporters with a word count.
But here we go: the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., formed in 1920 to consolidate the earliest water users, hold the most senior water rights. The next tiers in the pecking order are those served explicitly because of the construction of McPhee: farmers out near Dove Creek, the downstream fishery and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
With McPhee receiving just a quarter of normal inflows from the Dolores this year, MVIC irrigators had their allocations slashed 50%, Curtis said. But that’s not the worst: all other users had their water supply cut to 5% to 10% from normal years, the worst project allocation in its history.
(The water supply for the towns of Cortez and Towaoc, which serves about 20,000 people, also comes from McPhee Reservoir and is expected to receive a sufficient amount this year.)…
Because of shortages, the Ute Mountain Ute Farm & Ranching Enterprise was forced to abandon most of its alfalfa, a profitable yet water-intensive crop, and focus on corn, less water dependent but also less valued…
All predictions show no signs of the drought in the Southwest reversing course, so what’s to become of a reservoir like McPhee that increasingly doesn’t have enough water to meet its own demands? It’s a question managers at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which also face record low levels, also are grappling with.
Curtis, for his part, said the water district is consumed with the emergency-response nature of this year’s drought. Montezuma County earlier this month declared a disaster emergency because of the lack of water, and funds are being sought to offset losses for farmers.
This fall, Curtis expects more serious, long-term conversations about the future of McPhee. Even further on the horizon, the dam’s Operating Agreement plan between DWCD and the Bureau of Rec expires in 2025, expected to reinvigorate the conversation. Still, Curtis doesn’t foresee any fundamental changes in the way the reservoir provides water to its customers.
“It’s not going to be fun, I can tell you that,” he said. “Fundamentally, the project didn’t anticipate this amount of shortages, so we’re having to think about what the longer-term implications are. I’m not authorized to make those decisions, no single party really is.”
By the end of the year, McPhee Reservoir is expected to drop to its lowest level since construction, at about 40% capacity. Most of that remaining water, Curtis said, is inaccessible because of topography issues.
State and federal programs offer drought assistance, emergency loans
The order passed by the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners on June 1 says the purpose “is to activate the response and recovery aspects of any and all applicable local and interjurisdictional disaster emergency plans, and to authorize the furnishing of aid and assistance under such plans.”
Recent winters in Southwest Colorado have seen below-average snowpack, and a lack of monsoonal rains has depleted soil moisture. The lack of precipitation has left reservoirs unfilled this year, a devastating impact for the agricultural economy…
McPhee Reservoir irrigators will receive just 5% to 10% of their normal allocation this year, leaving thousands of acres fallow.
Montezuma County has only had one good snow season (2018-19) in the past four years and has had dry summers, said Peter Goble, drought specialist with the Colorado Climate Center, during a meeting with county officials…
The disaster status opens up emergency assistance programs from county, state and federal agencies. It also helps the Dolores Water Conservancy District receive drought assistance from the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the infrastructure of McPhee Reservoir and its canals.
In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 63 Colorado counties primary natural disaster areas because of the severe drought conditions.
Emergency loans are available for producers. The loans can be used to replace equipment or livestock, reorganize the farm operation and refinance certain debts.
Colorado State University Agriculture Extension provides education and connects farmers and ranchers with resources for drought management and assistance, said Greg Felsen, Montezuma County director and extension agent.
The forecast for a summer monsoon is not favorable for Southwest Colorado, according to the National Weather Service.
Dry conditions are predicted for June, July and August, according to the National Weather Service meteorologist Megan Stackhouse.
Blue Mesa [Reservoir] is at about 345,000 acre feet and sits at 42% full, based on May data, which predict the reservoir will only hit just above 50-percent full — “not very good,” as Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Erik Knight put it.
“We’re lower than we were at any time in 2020. In 2018, we were below 250,000 acre feet by the end. We’re not projecting to go that low yet, but we’re heading in that direction, that’s for sure,” Knight said Friday.
“The reservoir is pretty low. Runoff hasn’t really kicked into gear, although I think that is starting now,” he added.
Although the Uncompahgre River is a bit bouncier and swelling with some snowmelt, Montrose County and the western side of the state remain locked in drought.
Conditions in the county range from extreme drought to exceptional — the two worst levels — according to US Drought Monitor data.
So far, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which serves about 3,500 shareholders, has been able to fill its contracts at 70%. The association’s storage “account” at Taylor Park Reservoir — which with Blue Mesa and other reservoirs is part of the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit — is full, UVWUA manager Steve Anderson said. (Taylor itself is not expected to fill at 100%, but UVWUA anticipates it will receive the full amount to which it is entitled from the reservoir.)
“I expect our account at Taylor to refill,” Anderson added. “We are storing second-fill water in Taylor right now and my expectation is for us to wind up the season with a full reservoir at Taylor. That means a lot to us, but that’s 100,000 acre feet and we need 600,000 acre feet to run the project. But that’s a good start.”
The storage account at Ridgway Reservoir is close to full, Anderson also said — of 21,000 acre feet of association water, a bit more than 300 acre feet have been used…
The water picture for the Grand Mesa and North Fork is worse than it is for Montrose, he said, and also pointed to the south, to the Dolores River.
McPhee Reservoir, which the river feeds, is well below average and, the Cortez Journal reported Wednesday, irrigators with contracts for its water have been told to expect between 5 and 10% of their ordinary fulfillments.
“The Dolores is just horrible,” Anderson said. Only one-sixth of the water would ordinarily be delivered from McPhee is coming to users, he said. “That’s pretty sad. We’re fortunate in that respect, that we’re not in those kind of dire straits.”
[Lake] Powell’s levels are within a whisker or two of being too low to sustain hydropower generation. If Powell drops below 3,490 feet elevation, that’s the danger zone, Anderson said in January. As of May 14, Powell was projected to end the water year at 3,543 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, although the agency also noted “significant uncertainty” at the time…
Flaming Gorge has enough storage right now that it can bail out Powell in an absolute emergency, as it could release 2 million acre feet, Anderson said…
Back at home, the Aspinall Unit also has drought contingency plans that kick in as needed to maintain baseflows and satisfy the requirements of legal records of decision.
In dry years, flow targets are dropped and that helps keep Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs in the unit from running dry, Knight said.
FromThe Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:
Irrigators tied to McPhee Reservoir contracts will receive just 5% to 10% of their normal supply, said Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
The shortages affect full-service users in the water district in Montezuma and Dolores counties, the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch and the downstream fishery.
The water district said no supplemental irrigation supplies will be available to the senior water-rights holders.
Alfalfa farmers are consolidating acreage to try to produce one small crop…
“Financial impacts will be hard on all agriculture producers,” said Dolores Water Conservancy District board president Bruce Smart, in a news release. “The recovery for producers, the Ute Mountain Tribe and the district will take years.”
The tribe’s Farm and Ranch Enterprise reports it will limit employment and cut back on buying farm supplies.
The 7,600-acre farm will only receive 10% of its normal water supply, tribal officials said.
The tribe will limit operations to growing corn for its Bow and Arrow Brand cornmeal mill, and to protect high-value alfalfa fields, said Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart…
The tribe intends to work closely with the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to protect the continued viability of the Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise.
Heart notes that the tribe’s participation in the Dolores Project is a result of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act. He said the tribe will exercise the settlement rights “in the fullest to protect our Farm and Ranch Enterprise.”
The economic impact of the irrigation water shortage will be widespread, as farmers expect a significant decrease in revenue that will trickle through the local economy, water officials said.
If next year’s supply doesn’t improve “multigenerational farm families may face bankruptcy,” said Curtis.
Unirrigated alfalfa fields will dominate the landscape this summer. Farmers noted that with some rain, the fallow fields can produce enough forage for cattle grazing. Ranchers have been contacting farmers to take advantage of the option, Deremo said.
Curtailed supply for Dove Creek
The town of Dove Creek depends on McPhee Reservoir water for its domestic water supply. The water is delivered via the Dove Creek Canal and into town reservoirs and a water treatment facility. But because of a shortened irrigation season, the canal will not run all summer, as it does during more normal water years.
The water district is working closely with Dove Creek officials to keep the town’s water reservoirs adequately stocked for the winter months, Curtis said.
During normal water years, the Dove Creek Canal runs to the first week in October, allowing Dove Creek to store 100 acre-feet that lasts them until May 1 the next year. This year, the canal is expected to shut off for irrigators before the end of June.
The other large irrigation supplier in the area, Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., also faces shortages. Customers will receive only half their normal allocation. The irrigation company has the most senior water rights on the Dolores River, and therefore the impact of the water shortage is somewhat less…
Montezuma Valley Irrigation has storage rights in McPhee Reservoir, and owns Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs.
Runoff low in Dolores River
Poor winter snowpack the past two years and no monsoonal rain for the past three years have hurt reservoir levels and depleted soil moisture.
The winter snowpack failed to deliver at historical average, peaking at only 83% of normal snowpack on April 1, then dropping to 25% after another dry, windy and warm spring. Recent rains and snowfall on the high peaks were helpful, but not enough to significantly improve water supply.
As dry conditions continue, 2021 is shaping up to be the fourth-lowest recorded runoff in the Dolores River, after 1977, 2002 and 2018.
Fish will suffer
As part of the McPhee Reservoir project, the downstream fishery is allocated 32,000 acre-feet of water during normal water years for timed releases downstream to benefit sport and native fish.
This year, the fish pool will receive 5,000 acre-feet of its normal allocation.
The Dolores River below McPhee dam will see flows of 10 cubic feet per second for a few months, then it will drop to a trickle of 5 cfs for eight months until spring.
The river below the dam faces significant trout and native fish population losses, said Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife…
Flannel mouth sucker
Blue head sucker
The low flows will also affect native fish in the lower reaches of the Dolores River – the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub. The fish, listed by CPW as species of concern, have adapted to warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Southwestern Water Conservation District Hires New General Manager
Southwestern Water Conservation District (SWCD) is pleased to announce the hiring of its newest General Manager, Steven W. Wolff.
Board President Jenny Russell expressed the board’s enthusiasm in naming Wolff as General Manager for the Southwestern District. “Steve immediately stood out in an impressive pool of candidates for the GM position,” said Russell.
Wolff is currently Administrator of the Interstate Streams Division within Wyoming’s State Engineer’s Office in Cheyenne. The Interstate Streams Division oversees Wyoming’s rights and responsibilities outlined in the seven interstate water compacts and three interstate water decrees the state is signatory to. Wolff is also responsible for the development of technical and policy recommendations on inter- and intra-state water issues. The Southwestern board was also pleased and impressed with Wolff’s work with river basin planning efforts of the Wyoming Water Development Commission for each of Wyoming’s seven major river basins. He will be winding down his representation of Wyoming over the next month.
Wolff’s interstate experience will be invaluable to the Southwestern District in its involvement in complex interstate negotiations on the Colorado River, state and federal water policy advocacy, local water planning efforts, water education, and other critical, water-related matters.
“I am honored to be offered this opportunity to contribute to the District’s leadership on West Slope water issues and look forward to becoming an active part of the Southwestern community. I thank the board for their confidence in me,” Wolff said. “We are undoubtedly entering a critical period in providing a reliable water supply for all uses, and no place is more significant than the Colorado River basin. Water management is challenging at a local, regional, and national scale. I look forward to working with the Southwestern District board and the many stakeholders to define and implement a vision for sustainable water resources in southwest Colorado,” added Wolff.
Wolff currently serves as gubernatorial appointee representing Wyoming to the Western States Water Council, the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum, and the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program. He also currently serves as chair of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s Engineering Committee and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s Management Committee.
“We look forward to Steve’s long and productive leadership with the Southwestern District,” concluded Russell.
The Southwestern Water Conservation District was created by the Colorado legislature 80 years ago to protect, conserve, and develop the water resources of the San Juan and Dolores River basins and to safeguard for all of Colorado the waters of the Colorado River basin to which the state is entitled.
At Nucla and Naturita, two small communities in Western Colorado, the transition from a coal economy has begun. As for a just transition?
No, not yet says Sarah Backman, a local attorney who, like many others in these towns an hour west of Telluride, wears a lot of hats.
Backman and others hope that the proposed Just Transition appropriation bill being heard in the Colorado Legislature for the first time on May 6 will deliver money for their communities, to continue the work already underway.
“I don’t feel like we have a just transition, but hopefully if this bill passes, (the money) can be allocated quickly so that we can continue our efforts to transition our community,” she says.
Nucla Station was a 100-megawatt plant that was closed by Tri-State Generation and Transmission in September 2019 in response to anti-haze enforcement by the federal government. The plant faced more stringent regulation of emissions of nitrous oxide, a component in haze, also called smog, and upgrades to the aging plant would have been expensive.
The first unit at Craig Station will also be closed by the end of 2025 as a result of the same settlement.
Nucla Station had 76 employees and the accompanying mine 35 at one time. At closing in November 2019, they had 35 and 23, according to Tri-State. Ten remain at work on reclamation of the sites.
As for the roughly $2 million in property taxes paid annually by Tri-State, that is mostly gone, too. The plant and mine represented about 43% of property tax valuation in the west end of Montrose County, where the communities are located.
This is from the April 30, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal covering the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Sign up at http://Big Pivots.com.
In small communities, a few people tend to wear a lot of hats. It’s often the same faces on the water districts, chamber, historical society – you name it.
Backman is one of those in addition to being a young mother. She says that the prevailing vision in the communities is of developing an economy more strongly reliant on tourism. Tourism has its weaknesses, she says, but it’s not boom or bust. And, if far off the beaten paths of Colorado, Nucla and Naturita have much to work with.
Telluride lies an hour to the east, and some in the community work there or have businesses catering to the Telluride economy. Moab lies 90 minutes to the west, and Grand Junction a little longer to the north.
There are slickrock canyons of the San Miguel River, the eye-pleasing forests of the Uncompahgre Plateau. In the west end of Montrose County, a place with 2,500 residents in the 2010 census, there is a place called Bedrock, located in the Paradox Valley, so-named for its queer geology. It is bisected by the Dolores River.
There’s also a place called Uravan, from which the uranium used by Madame Curie in her experiments during the 1920s was mined.
The Manhattan Project of World War II spurred a boom in uranium mining. That boom petered out in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving widows who, as Peter Hessler documented in his 2010 piece in the New Yorker (and this writer learned in a 2006 visit), pined for the good old days and a return to uranium mining. It hasn’t happened yet. See: “The Uranium Widows”
With this focus on tourism, not uranium, the effort is on drawing visitors for events such as the dark skies festival, scheduled for June. In this, the community will be in the company of Idaho’s Sun Valley and Canada’s Banff resort communities in celebrating dark skies.
Another multi-hatted community doer is Aimee Tooker, the president of the West End Economic Development Corporation since its founding in 2014.
“We have been working on economic development ever since then,” she says. In 2017, the group got a $836,000 economic development grant to pay for programming funding., but that grant will be exhausted within the next year. She hopes that Colorado funding will continue to put wind into the sails of this effort.
The coal plant’s closing was done two years earlier than expected. Tri-State was paying $2 million in property taxes to local jurisdictions. That’s not a huge sum in many places, but these are small places. The population of Nucla is 644, and that of Naturita is 486.
“This is 67% of the tax base of our emergency services district,” says Tooker.
Tri-State is providing a $500,000 grant to the communities over the course of five years to West End Pay It Forward Trust. It’s welcome but not enough, say those in the Nucla-Naturita community trying to build a bridge to a new, more diversified economy.
How will state funding help these two communities? “By keeping our boots on the ground,” replies Tooker. She cites a plan to beautify the main street in Nucla.
Paul Major has worked with the Nucla-Naturita community. Until recently, he operated the Telluride Foundation, a philanthropy. He remains on Colorado’s Just Transition advisory committee.
He credits Tooker, Backman, and others for their drive and ambition. Instead of whining about the closing of the plant, he says, they’re working hard to make their community a great place to live. “It’s a cliché, but they are really leaning into it,” he says.
Farmers expected to receive just a fraction of normal supply
Runoff from below-average snowpack is forecast to result in the lowest project irrigation supply in McPhee Reservoir history.
According to most probable forecast, Dolores River Basin snowmelt is expected to deliver 95,000 acre-feet of water to McPhee Reservoir, just 32% of the average 295,000 acre-feet average, reports the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center. The forecast could also continue to drop.
Full-service farmers of the Dolores Project are expected to receive just 1 inch per acre of irrigation water, or 4.5% of the 22 inches per acre provided when the reservoir fills, reports Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages McPhee.
The forecast of 1 inch per acre is “the wost ever” for the Dolores Project, he said. The reservoir first filled in the late 1980s.
The previous worst irrigation seasons for McPhee Reservoir were in 2013 and 2002, when farmers received 6 inches per acre.
The amount of water predicted for this year is not enough for even one normal crop of alfalfa. With a full supply farmers typically get three to four crops of alfalfa per year. Farmers will be forced to consolidate crops into smaller acreage to produce anything on the limited water.
This year’s forecast shows McPhee Reservoir will fill less than 40% of its 229,000 acre-feet active capacity, according to forecast models. The reservoir had no significant carryover supply from last year’s water season.
Water shortages are across the board, except for domestic supplies for municipalities.
Ute Farm and Ranch on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation is predicted to receive about 2,000 acre-feet, or 8.5% of the 23,300 acre-feet delivered when the reservoir has a full supply.
The water supply for downstream fish habitat dropped to less than 5,000 acre-feet of the 32,000 acre-feet provided when the reservoir fills.
Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, said snowpack in the Dolores Basin took hits from multiple angles.
With the exception of a few good snowstorms, the basin experienced an extended dry period since April 2020, she said.
No monsoonal precipitation last summer dried out soils, which will cause snowmelt to be absorbed into the ground before it hits the river and McPhee.
Below-normal snowpack further suffered from warm weather and high winds in April, plus dust on snow that sped up evaporation.
April precipitation at the Lizard Head Pass Snotel is below normal, showing 0.2 inches, or 15% of the average 1.4 inches for the month…
On March 29, the Dolores Basin snowpack showed 83% of average for snow-water equivalent. On April 19, snowpack water equivalent had dropped to 32%.
Below-average snowpack and ongoing drought will hurt flows and fish habitat below McPhee Dam going into spring and summer, reports Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Water releases from the dam are expected to be under 15 cubic feet per second and could possibly drop as low as 3 cfs, said Jim White, a CPW aquatic biologist, in a April 14 news release.
During normal snowpack years, McPhee Reservoir fills, and the allocated fish pool allows for a sustained dam release of 60 cfs in summer.
Fish flows increase if snowpack runoff exceeds reservoir capacity, which prompts a recreational boating release. But a recreational water release will not happen this year because of below average snowpack and low reservoir carryover from last water season.
As of April 13, Snotels in the Dolores Basin reported 39% of average snowpack for snow water equivalent.
Trout and native fish will be adversely impacted by the water shortage below the dam, White said.
The 12-mile section of river that flows through the Lone Dome State Wildlife Area from below the dam to Bradfield Bridge is a popular tail-water fishery. Most trout fishing is done within the first 6 miles.
White said the lower flows will shrink the river habitat, and many brown and rainbow trout likely will die. The water coming out of the dam is about 42 degrees Fahrenheit, which is an ideal temperature for trout. But with such a low flow the water will warm quickly as it moves downstream…
The low flows will also affect native fish that live in the lower reaches of the Dolores River ─ the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub. The fish, listed by CPW as species of concern, have adapted to warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.
White is concerned about lower sections of the river drying up or being connected by only tiny rivulets of water.
Making the problem worse is the smallmouth bass, an invasive non-native fish that thrives in the lower Dolores River but preys on young native fish. Anglers are encouraged to fish for smallmouth bass; they are abundant, fairly easy to catch, tasty and have no bag or possession limit.
As drought continues to grip the West, more and more rivers will face the same scenario — this year and beyond.
“All of this is a result of three things: low snowpack, dry soil that will absorb runoff and no carryover water in the reservoir from last year,” White said.
As snow and rain fell outside, about 50 audience members gathered at the indoor arena of the Montezuma County Fairgrounds for the morning meeting session to hear presentations, some broadcast via Zoom…
State House bills
Republican Marc Catlin, state representative for the 58th District, listed some bills he plans to introduce.
A watershed mitigation bill proposes to provide funding for cities and counties for timber thinning projects on private land. A water rights bill would protect the water rights of mutual ditch companies. Another bill would allow tribes to operate their own foster homes so Native American foster children could grow up in their culture. Catlin said a bill providing a tax exemption for the removal of beetle-killed trees in forests would be an incentive to remove the fire-prone dead trees.
A fresh face was appointed to the Southwestern Water Conservation District to bring new ideas to decades-old problems surrounding water in the arid Southwest – at least that’s the hope of La Plata County officials.
In January, La Plata County commissioners Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff, in their last meeting before leaving office, along with commissioner Clyde Church, appointed local water attorney Amy Novak Huff to the district.
The move ousted longtime board member Bob Wolff, who has represented La Plata County on the commission for more than 10 years.
Lachelt, speaking to The Durango Herald, said commissioners will sometimes replace people who have served long bouts of time to bring in new perspectives about various issues facing the county…
Huff was raised in Southern California, but went to school at the University of Colorado-Boulder and never looked back. After teaching high school in Durango and Mancos, she went to law school at the University of Denver while working at Denver Water, where she became drawn to water law.
After she passed the bar exam, Huff was selected for a judicial clerkship in Division No. 1 Water Court and then worked for a water law firm in Denver. All those years on the Front Range, where water is scarce, allowed her to experience firsthand the contentious water issues…
Huff said she has now been practicing water law for 18 years, the majority of which has been in Southwest Colorado where water issues abound, exacerbated by drought, increasing demand and tricky multi-state compacts…
Huff, for her part, will take a seat at her first board meeting Tuesday. She said she understands the gravity of the moment and how important local decisions will affect water availability and people’s way of life.
“We’re going to be faced with water restrictions, changing landscapes and people are going to be forced to learn (about water issues),” she said. “It’s a lot more complicated than people think.”
In 1888, local farmers and ranchers got together to start a formal ditch company. For this, there would have to be an official survey. The original survey map that was made in July through August of 1888 was measured by hand with 100-foot links of chain. Once completed, the Lone Cone Ditch Company was formed on Wright’s Mesa for irrigation purposes on July 30, 1889.
Shortly after that, on Oct. 29, 1889, the State of Colorado awarded its certificate of incorporation. The original eight owners of the Lone Cone Ditch Company were Roger Williams, Charles Hotchkiss, Charles Traux, Jeremiah Foster, R.A. Peers, J.W. Winkleman, L.W. White and J.W. Fraser.
Approximately 12 to 13 years later, land was donated for a reservoir. The company took the opportunity to grow, and the Lone Cone Ditch Company then became the Lone Cone Ditch and Reservoir Company on June 21, 1902. The reservoir was excavated using a Fresno machine pulled by horses. The reservoir floor was compacted after excavation by running a sheep herd back and forth through it. It was built to hold 1,800-acre feet of water…
Every year, the size of the water shares depends on Mother Nature. Snowmelt, rain, wind and heat all contribute to the factors of water dispersed to each shareholder annually. Lone Cone Ditch does not have a ditch rider. Given that there are approximately 14 miles of upper ditch and 32 miles of lower ditch, water shares are taken on an honor system with divider boxes made and placed by each shareholder. This ditch system is not an “on call” system. It is “all on” or “all off.”
According to Colorado SNOTEL Snowpack Update report for Jan. 24, the Lone Cone is at 6.1 inches of water and 64 percent of it median. These numbers are low and could be an indicator of what our water circumstances could be for the upcoming irrigation season. Conservation practices can become highly effective habits.
The Lone Cone Ditch and Reservoir Company is currently working on the mechanics of the dam structure that is in need of maintenance and repairs. Their engineer is diligently completing his assessment and report. The existing water outlet has held strong and true for many, many years. But, like with all things, it is in need of replacement. At that time, regular maintenance will be performed to ensure that it is functioning to capacity. Once the assessment is complete, grant funding will be the next step.
One of the most profound statements I have ever heard before was from a Wright’s Mesa farmer and rancher: “Gold runs clear.”
Funds will upgrade plants, replace aging pipelines
An increase in monthly water and sewer service rates in Dolores will go into effect in January.
The base water rate will increase by $5 to $30.84 per month, up from $25.84.
The base sewer rate will increase by $2.50 to $31.16 per month, up from $28.66.
Rate increases were approved by the town board in March, but implementation was delayed until 2021 because of economic challenges due to the pandemic.
The last time water and sewer rates were raised was in 2015. The town is reviewing a senior, income-based exemption from the latest rate increase.
Inflation and the need for infrastructure upgrades are the reasons for the rate increase, said Mayor Chad Wheelus.
While both the sewer plant and water plant are in good condition, outdated pipelines are deteriorating and need replacement.
Many water service pipelines are more than 50 years old, and their 4-inch diameter size is insufficient. The undersized pipes puts limitations on fire protection needs.
Wheelus said the town has replaced aging leaking water and sewer collection lines, more needs to be done…
Priority needs for the water and wastewater pipeline system in Dolores are estimated to cost $2.7 million, according to a recent assessment from SGM Engineering.
Rate increases will help cover current and future repairs and upgrades at the water and sewer plants over several years, town officials said during recent budget discussions.
In the fall, 10 deteriorated water lines passing under Colorado Highway 145 were replaced. The job was a priority because the highway through town is scheduled to be repaved by Colorado Department of Transportation in 2021. An upgrade to the water treatment plant also was completed this year.
To cover the approximate $800,000 cost, the town secured a $292,363 grant from the Department of Local Affairs, and a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Remaining costs were covered from town reserves and a loan from Dolores State Bank.
The water rate increase will go toward paying off the loan…
According to town documents, there are numerous other infrastructure needs pending within the next 5 to 10 years in Dolores. The rate increase will help build up the reserve to pay for future water and sewer upgrade and maintenance projects.
The increase will also help offset ordinary inflation of costs to operate and maintain water and sewer utilities, officials said.
Dolores has significant remaining capacity in both treatment plants, they said, and both plants are also meeting state standards for water quality. Regarding water quantity, SGM said water supply, and the water and sewer treatment systems are sufficient, and the plants have capacity to meet growth in town without major repairs or expansion.
Because the existing brine injection well is nearing the end of its useful life, the Bureau of Reclamation investigated alternatives for disposing of the brine. Reclamation has prepared and released a Final Environmental Impact Statement. The FEIS review period is from December 11, 2020 to January 11, 2021. Alternatives analyzed in the FEIS include a new injection well, evaporation ponds, zero liquid discharge technology, and no action.
After weighing the benefits and impacts of the alternatives analyzed in the FEIS, the Bureau of Reclamation has identified the no action alternative as the preferred alternative.
The no action alternative achieves the best balance among the various goals and objectives outlined in the FEIS, including: optimizing costs; minimizing adverse effects on the affected environment; minimizing the use of nonrenewable resources; consistency with Bureau of Land Management Resource Management Plans; and being in the best interest of the public, including considerations of health and safety.
The Paradox Valley Unit injection well will continue to operate until it becomes infeasible. New technically, environmentally and economically viable alternatives may be investigated in the future to continue salinity control at Paradox Valley.
FromThe Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:
Sorry skiers, ranchers and kayakers: Weather observers see no relief in sight for a persistent drought that has gripped the Four Corners.
A strong La Niña weather pattern has helped shift the jet stream farther north, which keeps storms from reaching the Four Corners, officials said.
“It’s the strongest La Niña in 10 years,” said Jim Andrus, a weather observer for the National Weather Service. “Even when we do get storms that dip down our way, they are weak at most.”
The long-term forecast for the Four Corners is below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures, said Norv Larson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
High pressure and a dry air mass are generally blocking storms from reaching and forming in the area, he said…
Snowpack is well below average in Southwest Colorado.
Snotel stations in the mountains that measure snowfall, show the Dolores and San Miguel river basins are 48% of normal as of Dec. 7.
The Animas River Basin is at 38% of normal, and the Gunnison River Basin is at 53% of normal.
The Telluride Ski Resort reports a 21-inch base, and Purgatory Resort has a 16-inch base.
As of Dec. 3, Southwest Colorado and most of the Western Slope were in “exceptional” drought, the worst level out of five, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most of Utah and Arizona also were in exceptional drought.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
The Southwestern Water Conservation District (“District”), based in Durango, Colorado, is seeking candidates for the General Manager position. The District was created by Colorado statute in 1941 to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of the water of the San Juan and Dolores River basins for the welfare of the District, and to safeguard for Colorado all waters of the basin to which the state is entitled. The District encompasses all of La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, San Juan, San Miguel and Dolores counties and parts of Montrose, Hinsdale and Mineral counties. The District has a nine-member board of directors with an appointee from each board of county commissioners.
The General Manager serves as the chief executive and management official of the organization reporting directly to the District’s Board of Directors. The General Manager is responsible for all business operations (administrative, financial, technical and external affairs) and manages a small team of staff and contractors. The General Manager must be able to lead the team, delegate, and play to the strengths of others, and must possess strong oral and written communication skills and be capable of clearly communicating difficult issues with candor. The General Manager works collaboratively to bring together groups of diverse interests in complicated and sometimes contentious matters, and is expected to offer creative solutions to the Board that take into consideration the varying water-related priorities and perspectives of the District’s diverse constituency. The General Manager represents the District’s broad range of constituents and priorities at conferences, speaking engagements and on local, statewide, and national matters, as directed by the Board.
All application materials should be submitted electronically (PDF preferred) to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, September 25, 2020 at 5:00 PM. Applicants are encouraged to apply promptly and are responsible for ensuring that application materials are received by the District before the closing date and time listed above.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Basin Implementation Plan Update
Ed Tolen, SW Basin 1st Vice Chair, explained that in January a sub-committee was set up to select a local expert to work with the SW Basin Roundtable on updating the Basin Implementation Plan (BIP). From the proposals received the committee chose Harris Water Engineers to be local expert. Steve Harris (Harris Water Engineering) will no longer participate on the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) or the SW Basin Roundtable, and Carrie Padgett, P.E. of Harris Water will also step down from the SW Basin Roundtable. Roundtable elections will take place in October, Officer elections will take place in July.
There will be a team approach to working on the BIP update that will include the SW Basin Roundtable, the Local Experts (Harris Water Engineers), who work with the General Contractor (Brown and Caldwell) and the CWCB.
Matt Lindberg with Brown/Caldwell, the General Contractor, gave a presentation on next steps regarding the BIP review process. The purpose of the review and update is to improve project data, unpack technical update, revisit goals and objectives and invest in process efficiency.
The timeline for the BIP update is as follows:
March – August 2020 – Local Expert Workshops, Work Plans and Project lists.
September – December 2020 – Basin Analysis/Study
January – December 2021 – Update the Basin Implementation Plan
December to March 2022 – Incorporate Updated BIP’s into the Water Plan Update
To view the full Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan go here.
A river rechanneling and tailings recap project on the west end of the Valley Floor has been put in motion this week after a year’s delay.
Originally green-lighted by Telluride Town Council last year, the project was put on hold when abundant winter snowpack made for what town project manager Lance McDonald called “abnormally high flows in June and July.” But this year, conditions are ideal and the project’s first phase — the creation of an access road off the Spur west of Eider Creek — kicked off Tuesday. The ambitious plan includes capping the tailings on the northwest end of the Valley Floor and rerouting the river where it runs near those tailings.
The tailings pile (the Society Turn Tailings Pile No. 1) spans 23 acres and sits south of the abandoned railroad grade on either side of the river. It is subject to a cleanup agreement between Idarado Mining Company and the State of Colorado that calls for capping and revegetating the contaminated area in place. The Remedial Action Plan allows the landowner — the town — to offer an alternative plan, which the town has done….
“It’s very large, on a landscape scale,” [Lance] McDonald said. “It’s not like building a building. It’s working across an entire landscape.”
Remediating the tailings area has long been in the town’s sights, McDonald said.
“It’s been in the works for 25 years,” he said. “It’s great to see it happening now.”
The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley.
For nearly a decade, a group of farmers in the North Fork Valley joined with local tourism businesses and conservation groups to craft a resource management plan that could help the Bureau of Land Management shepherd the multiple uses of the valley’s public lands for the next 20 years.
More than 600 mining jobs disappeared in that decade of planning as the coal industry contracted and mines closed. Entrepreneurs in the lush communities around Paonia and Hotchkiss helped diversify the local economy from reliance on a single, extractive industry to an eclectic mix of organic agritourism and outdoor recreation.
The group’s North Fork Alternative Plan proposed energy development on 25% of the valley’s public lands, with increased protections for water and recreational attractions in the region.
“We put a lot of effort into negotiating with the BLM with what we thought was a pretty constructive way to share our values and how they should consider those values in managing the lands here,” said Mark Waltermire, whose Thistle Whistle farm is among 140 members in the North Fork’s Valley Organic Growers Association.
The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley. And it did not weigh the state’s concerns over energy projects injuring wildlife, habitat and air quality. But as the first resource management plan released under the Trump Administration, it did represent the president’s pivot toward “energy dominance” by reducing regulations and greenlighting exponentially more coal mining.
“I feel betrayed by the system,” said Waltermire this week after spending the day fixing a tractor on his Delta County farm. “Most definitely this is a step backward. Really it’s even worse. We have lived with coal for 100 years and coal has proven to be compatible with the agriculture we practice here. But gas and the oil development is a different beast. It is a much more substantial threat to our economy, with increased traffic and the potential for spills. That could destroy our reputation that we have built for our valley. It could change everything.”
Earlier this month the agency released the final plan for managing the vast swath of the Western Slope, which is an update to the region’s 1989 RMP. Many of the wildlife, habitat and environment-focused objections to the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” push to loosen regulations around domestic energy production — including those from Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, county commissioners, conservation groups and local residents — were dismissed.
As Colorado’s local BLM officials honed the preferred alternative — Alternative D — for the RMP last fall, the agency’s higher-ups crafted a new alternative. Alternative E identified energy and mineral development as key planning issues, and promoted access and a reduced regulatory burden alongside economic development as top priorities.
The BLM said the RMP would contribute $2.5 billion in economic activity into the region and support 950 jobs a year for the next 20 years.
The Alternative E plan:
Increased coal available for leasing by 189%, to 371,250 acres from 144,790 acres.
Added 13,020 acres to the region’s 840,440 acres open for mineral development.
Removed more than 30,000 [acres] from development in areas previously identified for leasing.
Cut acres the BLM could sell from 9,850 to 1,930.
Added six special recreation management areas and three extensive recreation management areas, setting aside 186,920 acres for recreation management.
The final draft of the proposed RMP conflicted with new state laws protecting wildlife, recreation access and improving air quality, so Polis last year sent a letter to the BLM’s Colorado director expressing his concerns as part of a consistency review that makes sure the agency’s plan aligned with state policies.
Specifically the state wanted the agency to limit the density of development — including oil and gas facilities — to one structure for every square mile to help protect wildlife corridors. It also asked the agency to develop a comprehensive plan to protect and conserve the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat. Polis noted that the BLM plan allowed an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas development that conflicted with last year’s House Bill 1261, which aims to cut those emissions by 90%. The BLM plan also conflicted with Senate Bill 181, which allows the state to consider public health and the environment when regulating oil and gas development.
The BLM’s final plan released this month did not include the state’s push for limiting the density of development or creating a region-wide wildlife and sage grouse conservation plan. But it did agree to protect 33,000 acres of riparian habitat from surface development and initiate a future statewide planning effort to study density on BLM land. The agency also agreed to coordinate with the state over potential development in sage grouse habitat.
“Our issue is that we worked on the preferred alternative, Alternative D and we sent that to Washington for approval. Alternative E was never contemplated and that’s what came back from D.C. We were not able to weigh in on that option,” said Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, who joined Polis in the only process available for commenting on the final proposal: a protest letter to the BLM over its proposed RMP.
Gibbs said he was happy the agency heard a portion of the state’s protests and the final decision included plans to work more closely with the state on a border-to-border plan for limiting development density…
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility group uncovered a BLM document summarizing an October 2018 meeting where the agency’s Washington D.C. leaders told Uncompahgre Field Office managers that their preferred alternative “misses the mark” and was “not in line with the administration’s direction to decrease the regulatory burden and increase access.”
San Miguel County, for example, asked the BLM to expand areas of critical concerns in the San Miguel River watershed and remove those riparian areas from mineral leasing. The final plan reduced the size of those areas and kept them open for mineral leasing. Montrose County asked for some areas inside Camelback, Dry Creek and Roc Creek to be managed for wilderness protection, but the final plan did not set aside any land in the county for wilderness protection.
San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper said that while the plan is slightly improved by the promise to work with Parks and Wildlife on a density-limiting plan, “it still feels like the BLM is not a willing partner in the management of our land.”
This month he blasted the plan as “completely inadequate.”
“You see what happened today?” he said this week, after the price of a barrel of oil collapsed to below $0 for the first time as a stalled nation sits at home and oil stockpiles swell.
“That is really good news. I bet they are not going to look to develop new rigs for 10 years now,” Schwartz said. “We seem to have bought ourselves some time. Gas and oil are looking to survive right now. And if they look to fracking in our valley, they know we will fight them tooth and nail every step of the way. They don’t want that.
“And really, who knows what will happen in the future,” he said. “We will have a new administration in a year or four years and this whole thing could change. Either way, we are coming out the end of this solid and safe.”
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From Water Education Colorado (Laura Paskus and Caitlin Coleman):
When Water Justice is Absent, Communities Speak Up
Two years ago, a company that analyzes property data crunched the numbers on more than 8,600 zip codes in the United States and found that America’s most polluted neighborhood was in northeast Denver. The study, from ATTOM Data Solutions, shows that Denver’s 80216 zip code, which includes Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and River North, topped its “environmental hazard index.” As of 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory reported that 22 facilities were still releasing toxic chemicals in 80216, chemicals such as nickel, lead, methanol, creosote and more.
“The neighborhood is parked between gas refineries, the former airport, and then, also, what was at one time an Army base making mustard gas,” says University of Denver law professor Tom Romero, II, who has spent his career dissecting the factors behind environmental injustices in Colorado. There are two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites in 80216, plus the knot of Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 severs the neighborhood from the rest of Denver and increases pollution from highway traffic. The area is also home to a predominantly low-income, Hispanic and Latinx community, says Candi CdeBaca, Denver City Councilwoman for northeast Denver’s District 9.
Last year, CdeBaca became the first person from the neighborhoods to represent on the Denver City Council, ever. She points to an opposition campaign to the Central 70 Project as the beginning of the neighborhood rallying to achieve representation against environmental inequities.
The Central 70 Project broke ground in 2018 to widen the highway through Denver. It will demolish the viaduct that carries I-70 over Elyria-Swansea, replacing it with a below-grade highway. Residents had a list of worries: losing their homes to eminent domain, living even closer to the highway, and unearthing a Superfund site, which they feared would re-expose harmful heavy metals and increase health risks, CdeBaca says.
Their opposition campaign didn’t stop the highway work, but the community came together and won in one sense—the Colorado Department of Transportation will pay for a long-term health study, collecting data to determine whether toxins in the air, soil and water are making residents sick. They also gained a louder voice. “Those losses were the first start of me galvanizing some community power around environmental racism,” says CdeBaca. “Now we have this amplification of groups who never had representation in our government from the neighborhoods that were polluted.” She points to the importance of local voice and representation in all issues, particularly for communities that want to bring about environmental justice. “There is nothing that I support more than activating people power,” CdeBaca says.
With water affordability, access and quality challenges—all of which can translate into health impacts—the role of water in Colorado isn’t always one of fostering healthy communities, yet it could and should be. What contributes to these less-than-whole communities? And what does it take to recognize the issues and how they evolved, address power imbalances, engage the community, and restore equity where it’s been missing?
What is Environmental Justice?
Environmental injustices in Colorado, or anywhere, can span cities and suburbs, sovereign tribal lands, and rural communities. They have their roots in narratives of immigration, development and industry, and political power dynamics, further influenced by evolving legal and regulatory frameworks.
In 1990, EPA Administrator William Reilly created an Environmental Equity Workgroup to assess evidence that “racial minority and low-income communities bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population.” The agency, which went on to establish an Environmental Equity office in 1992, later changing its name to the Office of Environmental Justice in 1994, defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” It has since expanded to offer a range of programs that provide services from grant funding to technical assistance and training. It also runs a National Environmental Justice Hotline.
Another early definition of environmental justice came from University of Michigan professor Bunyan Bryant, who said it refers to places “where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential.”
Scholars add additional layers to the term—it’s not just about identifying who is or isn’t harmed but includes some form of restitution, says Kelsea MacIlroy, an adjunct professor and PhD candidate in the sociology department at Colorado State University.
“There are a lot of different ways to talk about justice that aren’t just about who and how but also about a long-term social justice component,” MacIlroy says. “Does the community actually have an authentic seat at the table in addressing the ills?”
80216 may feel it all. “Denver was segregated, and that segregation manifested itself in a variety of ways in terms of water,” Romero says. “It meant that Denver’s communities of color, particularly African Americans and Mexican Americans, were living in close proximity to the areas with heavy industry, where the affordable housing is.” That’s a pattern and practice, he says, that was established in the 20th century and continues today. Many environmental justice cases have similar roots, as repeated practices that ultimately create winners and losers.
When Government Fails
Americans watched one of the most high-profile environmental justice cases unfold in Flint, Michigan, in 2015 and 2016 when corroded lead pipes poisoned the population.
To save money, in April 2014, the city switched its drinking water source and began supplying residents with Flint River water that wasn’t treated under federal anti-corrosion rules. The population was predominantly black, and more than 40 percent of residents were below the poverty threshold. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, no level of lead exposure is safe but higher lead exposure leads to more health challenges including anemia, kidney and brain damage, heart disease, decreased IQ and more. In children, the impacts are especially toxic.
Residents began noticing a rusty tint to their tap water in the summer of 2015, but it wasn’t until October 2015 that the governor ordered Flint’s water source switched. By then, though the new water was safe, the plumbing wasn’t—corroded pipes continued to leach lead into drinking water. Bottled water and free faucet filters to remove lead at the point of use were distributed.
More than five years after the crisis in Flint began, the city and its residents are still recovering. The city’s FAST Start program is removing and replacing lead and galvanized steel service lines across the city, but it’s a big, expensive job. FAST Start has been funded with $25 million from the State of Michigan and $100 million allocated by Congress through the Federal Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act of 2016. As of December 2019, less than 40 percent of the city’s pipes had been replaced, with many residents still relying on faucet filters or bottled water.
Fifteen state and local officials were charged with various crimes, including involuntary manslaughter—some took plea deals and most cases were dropped. Residents now mistrust their water and water providers. That mistrust has flooded the nation, with many more communities now coping with elevated lead levels and lead pipe replacement.
According to the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s final report, released in 2016, breakdowns in protocol, dismissal of problems, and failure to protect people occurred at nearly every level of government. Not only were customers supplied with unsafe drinking water, government officials were slow to acknowledge the problems and rectify the issue by providing safe water. According to the 2016 report, the Flint water crisis is a “story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental justice.” Had there been local control of resources and decisions, they write, the problems wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.
Coping with Forever Chemicals
Flint’s toxic water is not unlike the water quality issues discovered in 2016 in the Colorado towns of Fountain and Security-Widefield. That’s when water providers and residents learned that PFAS chemicals, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, were detected at levels above EPA’s new 2016 health advisory levels. The source of the chemicals: firefighting foam used for decades to extinguish training fuel fires at the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force now uses a replacement foam at the base, and in 2019, the Colorado Legislature enacted restrictions and bans on PFAS foam, but the damage has been done. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they bioaccumulate and remain in the environment for a long time, with half lives (the amount of time it takes the chemical to decrease to half its original value) in humans of two to eight years, depending on the chemical. They have been linked to cancers, liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, low infant birth weight, and other ailments.
“We ended up having 16 family members that lived within that area that had cancer, and five of them died of kidney cancer,” said Mark Favors, during a public event on PFAS at Colorado School of Mines in January 2020. Favors is a former resident of Security, a U.S. Army veteran, a PFAS activist, and member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition. “A lot of [my family] are military veterans. One of my cousins, while he was doing two combat tours in Iraq, the Air Force was contaminating their drinking water. That’s the crazy part. How they’ve admitted it and it’s just hard to get any type of justice on the issue,” Favors says.
These southern El Paso County towns aren’t home to what are often considered disadvantaged populations—the poverty rate is between 8 and 9 percent, slightly less than the statewide average; about 60 percent of residents are white, and about 20 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. However, census numbers don’t represent military personnel who temporarily reside in the area. According to El Paso County’s Health Indicators report, published in 2012, four military bases in the county employ 40,500 military personnel and about 21,000 contract personnel.
When EPA tightened its health advisory levels in 2016, they were 10 times more restrictive than what the agency had previously advised, and water providers realized they had a problem. They acted quickly to provide residents with free bottled water and water filling stations while they suspended use of the aquifer, then worked to broker deals to purchase clean water from other municipalities. Some of those deals were only temporary. Since June 2018, the City of Fountain has worked to get back on its groundwater supply, treating the groundwater with granular activated carbon units provided by the Air Force. Now it is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a full, permanent groundwater treatment plant. The story in Security is similar—the Security Water and Sanitation District has been importing water, primarily from Pueblo Reservoir, to meet the needs of its residents since 2016, which involved building new pipelines and purchasing extra water from Colorado Springs Utilities—an added cost. Security avoided raising water rates for a time, paying those costs out of its cash reserves. By 2018, residents had to absorb a 15 percent rate increase, with another 9.5 percent increase in 2019.
The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a treatment facility in Security, too, which should be complete by the end of 2020. Once the plant is finished, Security will switch back to a combination of groundwater and surface water, and rates should stabilize once the costs of those pipelines are recovered, says Roy Heald, general manager at Security Water and Sanitation Districts.
Who pays to protect the health of those who rely on this water? “What responsibility did [the Air Force] have in rectifying this? What about the local sanitation districts? They have to deal with this. It’s not their fault but they’re tasked with giving clean water,” says MacIlroy at Colorado State University.
“The Air Force really has stepped up,” Heald says. But they may have to step up further—in 2019, the Security Water and Sanitation Districts and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, another affected entity, sued the Air Force to recoup the costs of purchasing and piping in clean water. Their lawsuit cites negligence for disposal of chemicals, remediation of contamination, and breaching a responsibility to prevent dangerous conditions on the defendant’s property. Heald wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, but says, “As long as [cash] reserves are at an adequate level, if we received a windfall there would be no place else for it to go besides back to our customers.” Those recouped costs would likely take the form of lower or stabilized rates.
Residents are also pushing for justice through a class-action lawsuit brought by the Colorado Springs-based McDivitt Lawfirm, which has teamed up with a personal injury law firm in New York to file against 3M, Tyco Fire Products, and other manufacturers of the firefighting foam.
“There’s going to have to be some sort of accountability and justice for these people who unknowingly, for years, drank colorless, odorless high amounts of PFAS,” says Favors. He calls for better oversight and demands that polluters are held accountable.
As for coping with PFAS-related health challenges, there are still a lot of unknowns, but El Paso County was selected to participate in two national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies to better assess the dangers of human exposure to PFAS, and to evaluate exposure pathways.
Locally, the study and lawsuits might help recoup some financial damages—but PFAS-related water contamination isn’t isolated to these Colorado communities. In July 2019, the Environmental Working Group mapped at least 712 documented cases of PFAS contamination across 49 states. Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, hoping to implement a national PFAS drinking water standard, estimate the number is even higher: 1,400 communities suffer from PFAS contamination. A U.S. Senate version of a PFAS-regulating bill has yet to be introduced. But in February, EPA released a draft proposal to consider regulating PFOS and PFOA, just two of the thousands of PFAS.
Justice through Water Rights
Environmental justice isn’t exclusively an urban issue. Injustices involving pollution, public health, access, affordability and water can be wrought anyplace—including rural and suburban areas. For rural communities, the issue comes to a head when people, organizations or entities in power seek more water for their needs at the cost of others.
In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, acequia communities fought for years to protect their water rights and way of life. Acequias are an equity-based irrigation system introduced by the original Spanish and Mexican settlers of southern Colorado. “What it means is that the entire community is only benefitted when all resources are shared,” says Judy Lopez, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. There, Lopez works with landowners to preserve wildlife habitat, forests, culturally significant lands, and ag lands—including those served by acequias.
The Town of San Luis, the heart of Colorado’s acequia community, is one of the most economically disadvantaged in the state. It’s in Costilla County, where more than 60 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latinx—more than any other county in Colorado—and 25 percent of the population live in poverty, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. But the people there are long-time landowners, never separated from the land their ancestors settled, four to seven generations back, Lopez says. They have the state’s original water rights to match, including Colorado’s oldest continuously operated water right, the San Luis People’s Ditch, an acequia established in 1852.
Prior to statehood, the territorial government recognized acequia water rights. But when the Colorado Constitution established the right of prior appropriation, the priority scheme of “first in time, first in right” became the law, challenging communal rights.
“It was very difficult for [acequias] to go to water court and say, ‘This guy is taking my water,’” Lopez says. “It was very difficult to quantify the use and who was using it.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that the Colorado Legislature passed the Acequia Recognition Law. The law was developed by Rep. Ed Vigil with the help of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, an entity that represents more than 73 acequias and 300 families who depend on them. Amended in 2013, the law solidifies the rights of acequia users. According to the Colorado Acequia Handbook, it allows “acequias to continue to exercise their traditional roles in governing community access to water, and also strengthens their ability to protect their water.”
In order to be recognized under the Acequia Recognition Act, acequias needed bylaws. Over the past six years, Colorado Open Lands, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, and the University of Colorado Boulder have partnered to help 42 acequias write bylaws, thereby protecting their water. “The bylaws were still based, in large part, on those oral traditions,” Lopez says, “and included protective language that said, ‘If a water right is sold, or a piece of land is sold, that acequia gets the first right to purchase those rights.’”
Even having water rights doesn’t guarantee water access: Over the past few decades, the federal government has settled longstanding water rights cases with sovereign tribes, in many cases backdating tribal water rights to the dates of their reservations’ establishment. Although the tribes now have the nation’s oldest established water rights, they haven’t always, and they still come up against structural and financial barriers that prevent them from developing water and getting the real benefit of those rights.
Of the more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, as of 2019 only 36 tribal water rights settlements had been federally approved. The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes in Colorado are among that small number, but despite their long journey, the tribes still don’t have access to all the water they own.
Tribal water rights have their roots in the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 case which established tribal water rights based on the date the federal government created their reservations—thereby moving tribal water rights to “first in line” among users.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the U.S. government filed and worked through claims on behalf of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes to surface waters in southwestern Colorado. In the 1980s, Congress approved a settlement between the tribes, the federal government and other parties; in 2000, the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act was amended, entitling tribes to water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP), as well as from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir. Construction on A-LP began in 2001, and the project’s key feature, Lake Nighthorse—named for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell—began filling in 2009.
Prior to the Dolores Project, many people living in Towaoc, on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, did not have running water and instead trucked it in to fill water tanks at their homes, says Ernest House, Jr., senior policy director with the Keystone Policy Center and former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. His late father, Ernest House, Sr., was pivotal in that fight for water. “I was fortunate, my father was able to see A-LP completed. I think he probably, in his own right, couldn’t believe that it would have been done and could be done,” he says. But even today, some Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute communities still lack access to water, and aging infrastructure from the 1980s needs updating and repairs.
“Our tribes as sovereign nations cannot maintain or move forward without access to water,” House says. “We have to remind people that we have tribal nations in Colorado, and that we have other tribes that continue to call Colorado home, that were removed from the state, either by treaty or forced removal,” he says, adding that acknowledging the difficult past must be a part of conversations about the future.
Those conversations include state, regional, and federal-level water planning. The Colorado tribes are engaged in Colorado’s basin roundtable process, with both tribes occupying seats on the Southwest Basin Roundtable, says Greg Johnson, who heads the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Planning Section (and serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). Through the roundtables, local stakeholders conduct basin-wide water planning that is eventually integrated into the statewide Colorado Water Plan. However, until recently, tribal involvement in regional Colorado River negotiations between the seven U.S. basin states and federal government has been nonexistent. Change is brewing—a 2018 federal Tribal Water Study highlighted how tribal water resources could impact Colorado River operations, while a new Water and Tribes Initiative is working to build tribal capacity and participation in water negotiations throughout the basin.
“The Utes have been in what we call Colorado for the last 10,000 to 12,000 years,” House says. “It would be a shame if we were left out of the conversations [about water].”
The External Costs of Industry
Government is vital to addressing the legacy of environmental injustice, and preventing future problems, but finding solutions also demands reconsidering how business is done.
Consider Colorado’s relationship with the extraction industry, visible in the 19th-century mines that pock mountain towns, uranium-rich communities like Nulca, and the escalation of oil and gas drilling today. Colorado is an “epicenter” of extraction and environmental justice issues, says Stephanie Malin, associate professor at Colorado State University and a sociologist who studies energy development and extraction.
Lack of local control in the past has been especially frustrating, Malin says, since private corporations earn profits off the resources but then outsource the impacts. In the end, extractive industries have a track record of leaving communities and governments to bear the costs of cleanup.
Take Gold King Mine as one high-profile example. In August 2015, wastewater from an abandoned mine in San Juan County contaminated the Animas River between Silverton and Durango. Contractors hired by EPA accidentally caused 3 million gallons of mine waste, laden with heavy metals, to wash into the Animas. New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation all filed to sue EPA, with farmers reporting that they couldn’t water their crops and others saying they had to truck in alternative water supplies. But those responsible for the contamination were long-gone. Like tens of thousands of other mines in the region, the Gold King Mine was abandoned in the early 20th century.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—more commonly called Superfund—which Congress passed in 1980, was originally set up as a “polluter tax” on oil, gas and chemical companies at risk of contaminating communities or the environment. But Congress never reauthorized the tax, which expired in 1995. By the early 21st century, the fund was bankrupt. Today, these cleanups are funded entirely by taxpayers.
“It’s part of a bigger pattern of privatizing profit and nationalizing, or socializing, risk,” Malin says. “Then, communities and the environment are left holding the ‘external’ costs.” Those external costs, she says, are nearly unquantifiable: “The intergenerational impacts in particular are so hard to gauge, in terms of what the communities are absorbing.”
While these problems can seem intractable, there are solutions, Malin says. For example, the bond amounts companies are required to pay up-front should better reflect the actual cost of cleanup, she says. Last year, Colorado lawmakers made strides to unburden taxpayers in just that way, with an update to Colorado’s old mining law.
The new Colorado law, HB19-1113, makes sure water quality impacts from mining are accounted for and long-term impacts are avoided. The law says that the industry can no longer self bond—a practice that allowed mine operators to demonstrate they had the financial resources to cover clean-up costs rather than providing the resources up front. Without self bonding, taxpayers won’t be left paying for remediation if the company goes bankrupt. It also requires mine operators to factor water quality protection costs into their bond—and requires most to develop a water quality treatment plan. This means that reclamation plans must include a reasonable end date for any needed water quality treatment, hopefully ensuring Colorado will avoid new perpetually polluting mines.
State lawmakers are currently looking at a more encompassing environmental justice bill, HB20-1143, introduced in January 2020. At press time the bill was still under consideration. If it moves forward as introduced, the bill would increase the maximum civil fine for air and water quality violations—from $10,000 per day to $47,357 per day, which would be adjusted annually according to the consumer price index—reallocating some of the financial burden back on polluters. It would also authorize the use of the money in the state’s water quality improvement fund, which is where those water quality violation fines go, to pay for projects addressing impacts to communities. The bill would also bolster the state’s environmental justice efforts, with a new environmental justice advisory board and environmental justice ombudsperson who would run the advisory board and advocate for environmental justice communities.
Speaking up for Tomorrow’s Climate
Environmental justice can’t be about a single issue, says Lizeth Chacón, executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial-justice, member-led organization based in Denver and Pueblo. That means looking at water-focused environmental justice alongside related issues such as climate change, racial justice, inequities, poverty, housing, power dynamics, and more.
“When we are talking to our members, we are talking to them about the fact that they are working two jobs and still cannot put dinner on the table in the week, talking that they live in fear of being deported and being separated from their families, talking about the fact that they are sick, or have headaches, or have to spend money on water because they can’t drink the water coming out of their tap like other people can,” she says. “It can’t be seen as one issue … This work has to be holistic.”
Currently, the Colorado People’s Alliance is working on a climate campaign directed by its members in Commerce City. “They said, ‘This is something that’s impacting all of us, regardless of where we’re from, whether we’re undocumented or documented, what our economic status is,’” she says. The Alliance is focused on greenhouse gas emissions, which have immediate health impacts and long-term water effects.
Another approach in northeast Denver is proceeding thanks to an EPA environmental justice grant, in which organizers will convene youth, local leaders, and scientists to create a community science project that leads to a more fishable and swimmable Denver South Platte River. The river flows through Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, but it used to be a dumping ground, with a landfill beside its banks. Clean ups and improved recreational access, much of which has been spearheaded by the nonprofit Greenway Foundation since its founding in 1974, have created opportunities for kayakers downtown, but river access in northeast Denver, beyond the popular Confluence Park, is limited. In addition, E. Coli levels are often high, making swimming inadvisable. Access to a healthy waterway makes communities more vibrant and whole, supporting health, wellbeing, recreation, and cultural and spiritual practices, but also connection. This may be the only recreational water access available to some urbanites.
“Rivers are one of the major pathways to healing the environment and healing ourselves,” said Jorge Figueroa at an initial workshop for this project in December 2019, where they began to establish a youth advisory board. Figueroa runs El Laboratorio, an organization that brings people together from different disciplines and cultures to creatively solve environmental challenges. (He is also on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) He’s working on this project with Lincoln Hills Cares, a nonprofit that provides outdoor education, recreation and experiences to youth who may not otherwise have these opportunities; and Colorado State University, which is developing a new campus at the National Western Center, called Spur, in the neighborhood. The partners expect to have a plan ready by the end of 2020, and the project should begin in 2021.
Figueroa, who grew up and has family in Puerto Rico, also witnessed, up close, the wave of climate refugees who left his home state after Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017.
“It’s critical for us to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and in the reliability of our municipal potable water systems,” Figueroa says. “But from an equity perspective, we need to ensure that the more than a trillion dollars that will be invested in the nation’s public water systems provide the most benefit to the most people.” His suggestion to build climate resiliency in an equitable way: water conservation. “Water conservation can be a supreme water equity tool: It provides cheaper water for the community and more resiliency and reliability for the system. It’s not only an ideal climate change adaptation strategy but also is one of the top, by far, equity water strategies.” When you don’t consider equity in water decisions, you can make vulnerable communities more vulnerable, he says.
Whether working to improve environmental justice structurally and physically through conservation and resiliencies, or politically and financially through new regulations, bonding or taxation, there are many opportunities to do better. But there are also social justice elements to work on. Chacón recommends involving community members at the beginning of a process—not at the end. She says it’s important to listen—and to not dismiss people when they disagree.
Looking forward, it’s up to everyone in positions of power to actively create space for disadvantaged communities to lead, says Chacón. “To us, the people who are closest to the pain are the ones closest to the solution because they know what’s happening in their community best of anyone.”
Some of the principles of engaging communities in these situations are “almost universal,” says Colorado’s Michael Wenstrom, an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s Environmental Justice Program. Wenstrom worked in Flint over the course of a year following the water emergency, “assisting them to connect with processes, in understanding what their rights are, and helping them learn how to raise their voices effectively,” he says.
He says that where communities and families are already overburdened—with poverty, crime, racism—they often don’t have time, expertise or resources to recognize the problems, nevermind address them. “In addition, people in low-income communities may be less inclined to raise their voices for various reasons,” Wenstrom says. Reasons could include racism, job discrimination, or, for some, the fear of being identified as an illegal resident.
He says officials like him who come into communities as outsiders must be careful, persistent, and work to build trust. “As trust builds, we can then start pointing people toward tackling issues related to pollution or public health,” he says. But, Wenstrom cautions, if people don’t believe they can make a difference, they won’t raise their voices in the first place.
Laura Paskus is a reporter in Albuquerque N.M., where her show, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future,” airs on New Mexico PBS. Caitlin Coleman is editor of Headwaters magazine.
According to the figures from SNOTEL and the Colorado Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) this week, the snowpack in the Southwestern Colorado mountains is nothing close to the 700% of normal we experienced last year, although it is well above the low mark set in 2018.
As of Tuesday this week, even with a relatively active snow season on Colorado, it turns out that the most intense snowpack is in the northern part of the state, while the San Juans and other more southern ranges did not fare as well.
There were 39 SNOTEL sites across northern Colorado that received above the 90th percentile of February precipitation on the period of record, with nine of these being the record high. Conversely, 24 SNOTEL sites in the southern half of the state were in the bottom 10th percentile with six sites observing record low precipitation…
As of this week the SNOTEL numbers for the Gunnison Basin are ranging somewhere between the 2018 low and the averages over the past couple of decades.
The basin watershed has an average of about 13 or 14 inches of snow water equivalent and rests at about 103 percent of normal, as opposed to even lower numbers in the Dolores River Basin…
The good news tends to be the level of the reservoirs, like Blue Mesa and Ridgway…
Following the trends of snowpack and precipitation, stream flow forecasts predict considerably higher values across Northern Colorado than in the southern half of the state, with respect to normal. On the low end the average of forecasts in the combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan basins is for 64 percent of normal, followed closely by the Rio Grande at 68 percent.
The Gunnison is doing a little better with all forecast points averaging out to 72 percent of normal. The most plentiful forecasts in the state reside in the South Platte Basin with some exceeding 130 percent of average in the main stem headwaters. The Arkansas, Colorado, and combined Yampa and White basins are forecasted to have near normal runoff volumes with the basin-wide average of forecasts ranging from 96 to 106 percent of normal.
The Dolores Town Board [March 9, 2020] raised rates for water and sewer services, increased funding for the farmers market, and preliminarily approved property transactions and a solar project.
Beginning May 1, the water rate will increase by $5 per month, to $30.84 per month, a 19.3% increase. The sewer rate will rise $2.25, to $30.91, a 7.8 percent increase. Rates were last increased in 2015, 2009 and 2006.
The board and town staff said increases are needed to fund rising maintenance costs and system upgrades to the 50-year old infrastructure. It passed by a 6-0 vote.
The increase will help finance a $650,000 project to replace deteriorating water lines beneath Colorado Highway 145. Nine deteriorating lines need to be replaced before the Colorado Department of Transportation repaves the highway in 2021.
To help pay for the project, the town has applied for a $292,630 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. To cover the 100% grant match, the town would pull from reserves and take out a 4% interest loan, with payments covered by the monthly $5 water rate increase. Revenues from the increases will also help build water and sewer budget reserves for future maintenance and improvements.
The town board created a task force to research a potential tiered water use billing system that would incentivise water savings.
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The 2020 Annual Water Seminar is titled “Wading into Watershed Health,” and there’s plenty to talk about. Water supply and water quality are inextricably linked to the health of our watersheds–from forest to valley floor. Irrigators, municipalities, tribes, and fish populations are among those impacted by recent wildfires. Efforts to bring significant financial support to southwest Colorado for forest management and wildfire mitigation have been successful. Also, the regional forest products industry is gaining momentum as economic incentives shift.
Each year, the board votes on a new chairperson that is from either location; a town member is appointed to lead on odd years, and a rural member is appointed on even years. The opposite happens for the vice chairperson.
For 2020, the board voted Jim Jensen, who represents the surrounding rural area, as chair. He replaces Finn Kjome, who lives in town limits. Kjome was appointed as the new vice chair at last week’s meeting.
Other water commission board members are Mike Grafmyer, Jim Wells, Ron Gabbett and John Owens.
Tim Lippert, the town’s public works director and operator, gave the board several updates. The first item was the repair work needed on a town vehicle and the possibility of purchasing a new vehicle as a replacement. Lippert said the repairs would cost approximately $1,000.
He also presented new raw water data to the board, as they’d requested information on how the new system was impacting the town’s reserves. However, the water data is based on only the first year of operation and study for Norwood’s new system. The board agreed that additional data over several years is needed to ensure data collected on the raw water system is accurate.
Lippert informed the board of a state program, which is offering free testing of municipal water for the chemical Teflon, a substance dangerous to drinking water and frequently found in fire-fighting foam.
Lippert told the board that the testing is not mandatory, but could possibly be in the future.
Teflon testing has been occurring across the nation since 2013 and has recently started in Colorado. The test looks for Teflon in amounts as small as 70 parts per trillion.
Norwood’s board expressed willingness to do the Teflon testing if the tests are paid for by the state program. Board members said they don’t want to have to pay for the testing with the town’s money.
Currently, the state has roughly $500,000 in funding for the free testing. Lippert said on Monday the Town of Norwood did apply for funds and will know in the near future if the test will be conducted locally.
At the same time, board members also said they don’t believe that the chemical will be found in Norwood’s water, because of the lack of forest fires that have occurred on the Lone Cone. Still, they said they are open to running the test to be certain.
The main injection well for salinity control in the Paradox Valley is hearing the end of its useful life, prompting a draft document spelling out actions to take.
Montrose County commissioners, who met on Wednesday afternoon with several representatives of the Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management, raised concerns over scenic and recreational values, seismic activity and energy use that would come into play, depending on which of four scenarios the Department of Interior selects to address salt loading.
“Some of the concerns I have is the aesthetics of it,” Commissioner Roger Rash said, referring to an alternative in the agencies’ draft environmental impact statement that calls for several large evaporative ponds.
Commissioner Sue Hansen, meanwhile, was concerned about private land bordering the proposed sites for new salinity control facilities, as well as seismic activity…
Agencies offer strategies
The first alternative in the Dec. 6 draft EIS is no action: salinity control would stop in the Paradox Valley.
Alternative B calls for a new deep injection well, under which brine would be collected and piped to the existing surface treatment facility and, from there, piped to a new deep injection well and injected into unpressurized sections of the Leadville Formation.
Two proposed areas were analyzed as possible locations for the new well. One includes a combination of BuRec land and BLM-administered land on Skein Mesa.
The second area is on BLM-administered land on Monogram Mesa or Fawn Springs Bench.
Each site would require rights of way or withdrawals of BLM land and a variety of infrastructure; additionally, the Monogram Mesa site would require BuRec to acquire 49 acres of private land.
Potential Gunnison sage-grouse habitat implications were noted, although the draft EIS did not deem these to be significant.
If Alternative B is selected, new seismic investigations would be completed to determine the final site of the well; this would require additional analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Alternative C would control salinity through several evaporation ponds and piping. It would require a 60-acre landfill that could be as tall as 100 feet above ground…
The draft EIS acknowledges the ponds and landfill would “negatively affect the visual landscape of the Paradox Valley” and would not conform with the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office’s resource management plan, so an amendment to that plan would be required…
Alternative C would also have the most indirect effect on cultural resources and on wildlife, particularly migratory birds…
Rash said the proposed mitigation itself wasn’t visually appealing, either, particularly putting netting over the evaporative ponds; McWhirter said that would only be feasible for one of the ponds.
The draft EIS also looked at zero-liquid discharge technology, Alternative D.
Under it, brine would be piped to a treatment plant consisting of thermally driven crystallizers to evaporate and condense water from brine, resulting in a solid salt and freshwater stream. The salt would also go to a 60-acre landfill.
There would be 80 acres of permanent surface disturbance, requiring the withdrawal of 267 acres of BLM-administered lands, further, 56 acres of private land would have to be obtained.
Alternative D would also use the most energy — 26,700 megawatts per hour for electrical energy use and 4.2 million CCF (hundreds of cubic feet) of natural gas per year.
Hansen asked about seismic activity related to injection activities and was told it’s not usually significant — although there was a 4.5 magnitude earthquake close to the current injection well — and that seismic activity is indeed associated with the injection drilling…
Summary of alternatives
• A (no action): 95,000 tons of salt per year no longer removed from Dolores and Colorado Rivers; induced seismicity; increase in downstream salinity numeric criteria.
• B (new injection well): removal of up to 114,000 tons of salt per year; induced seismicity; drilling under Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area (if sited on Skein Mesa location); 22-mile pipeline and pumping stations to transport brine with high hydrogen sulfide concentration (if sited on Monogram Mesa location).
• C (evaporation ponds): Removal of up to 171,000 tons of salt annually; 540-care surface evaporation ponds; wildlife mortality; non-conformance with BLM’s Resource Management Plan; 60-acre salt disposal landfill…
• D (zero-liquid discharge technology): Removal of up to 171,000 tons of salt annually; significant energy requirement; 60-acre salt disposal landfill…
Comments may be submitted until 11:59 p.m., Mountain Time, Feb. 4. Those interested may submit comments by email to email@example.com or to Ed Warner, Area Manager, Bureau of Reclamation, 445 West Gunnison Ave, Suite 221, Grand Junction, CO 81501.
Much of Southwest Colorado remains listed in a severe drought although it has accumulated 130% of average snowpack.
According the U.S. Drought Monitor as of Dec. 24, all of Montezuma County and all but the northern edge of La Plata County and the eastern edge of Archuleta County remain listed in severe drought. Virtually all of Dolores, Montrose and Ouray counties were designated in a severe drought.
As of Dec. 30, the severe drought designation remained despite an above-average snowpack for Southwest Colorado.
A SNOTEL map showed 130% of the 30-year average snowpack for the San Juan, Animas, Dolores and San Miguel river basins as of Dec. 30.
The reason the region remains in the drought category is because the drought monitor tracks precipitation over many previous months, said Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages McPhee Reservoir.
July through October was very dry, with below-average moisture. It will take continued average, to above-average moisture to knock the area out of drought, he said…
A large part of Colorado’s Western Slope remains in severe or moderate drought.
In fact, only the northeast section of the state, including the Denver metro area and the northern mountains around Steamboat Springs, are not under some kind of drought listing.
In all, nearly 70% of Colorado is abnormally dry or in moderate or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. A year ago, roughly 85% of the state had some kind of drought status, including 11% that was listed as being in exceptional drought.
Despite the continued dry conditions, forecasters said things are better than they were last year at this time when exceptional and extreme drought – the worst categories – had set in. Over the last three months, parts of southern Arizona and New Mexico recovered but portions of Utah and Colorado dried out…
Purgatory Resort was reporting a 54-inch base depth Monday, Telluride Ski Area was reporting a 43-inch base, and Wolf Creek Ski Area was reporting an 81-inch midway base depth.
The Dolores Town Board approved a $1.5 million budget for 2020 that funds a variety of services, and includes infrastructure upgrades and recreation projects…
The budgeted expenditures are $618,572 for the General Fund, $378,066 for the Street Fund, $285,584 for the Water Fund, $199,526 for the Sewer Fund, and $41,500 for the Conservation Trust Fund. Capital improvements total $278,000 for 2020 for all departments…
A major expense for 2020 is a $645,000 project to replace 50-year-old water lines beneath Colorado Highway 145. Nine deteriorating lines need to be replaced before the highway is repaved in 2021 by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
To help pay for the project, the town is seeking a $322,000 grant from the Department of Local Affairs, and may consider taking out a low-interest loan.
“Both water and wastewater treatment plants are in good condition, but repairs are necessary,” states the budget report…
The Water Fund budget includes $58,000 for a new chlorinator treatment system required by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment…
Dolores officials will be researching options for solar power in 2020 to offset electric costs, which represent nearly 6.5% of operations in all funds.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Justin Liff, Lesley McWhirter):
The Bureau of Reclamation is seeking public input on alternatives to reduce salinity in the Colorado River from sources in the Paradox Valley in western Colorado. Currently, the Paradox Valley Unit (PVU) in Montrose County, Colorado, is intercepting naturally occurring brine and injecting it 16,000 feet underground via a deep injection well. The PVU began operating in 1996 and is nearing the end of its useful life. The United States has a water quality obligation to control salt in the Colorado River, in compliance with the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Act, the Clean Water Act, and a 1944 treaty with Mexico.
“The Paradox Valley Unit is a cost-effective salinity control project in the Colorado River Basin as it prevents 95,000 tons of salt annually from reaching the Dolores River and eventually the Colorado River—that’s approximately 7% of total salinity control occurring in the basin,” said Area Manager for Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office Ed Warner. “Reducing salt in the rivers improves water quality, crop production and wildlife habitat in the basin.”
Reclamation is preparing an Environmental Impact Statement and has released a draft for public review and comment. Alternatives analyzed in the draft EIS include a new injection well; evaporation ponds; zero liquid discharge technology; and no action, which would result in no salinity control in the Paradox Valley.
The public is invited to attend public meetings to learn more, ask questions and provide comments. Two public meetings will be held on:
– Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 in Paradox, Colorado at the Paradox Valley Charter School, 21501 6 Mile Rd., at 5 p.m. – Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 in Montrose, Colorado at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites, 1391 S. Townsend Ave., at 6 p.m.
Reclamation will consider all comments received by 11:59 p.m. Mountain Standard Time on Feb. 4, 2020. Those interested may submit comments by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Ed Warner, Area Manager, Bureau of Reclamation, 445 West Gunnison Ave, Suite 221, Grand Junction, CO 81501.
Here’s the release from the Utah Department of Natural Resources (Kim Wells:
After reviewing and incorporating over 330 public comments, the Utah Division of Water Resources has finalized regional water conservation goals. Goals were established for nine regions around the state for municipal and industrial (M&I) water conservation. M&I includes residential, commercial, institutional (for example, schools and parks), and industrial water use, and excludes agriculture, mining and power generation.
“We appreciate all those who took the time to review the goals and share their opinions,” said Division of Water Resources Director Eric Millis. “There were some insightful comments, which were incorporated into the report. There is always value in soliciting public input.”
Although the numbers did not change, the comments improved the readability of the report including text clarifications that make the report better. All 334 comments and the division’s response to them are included in Appendix J of the report. The comments were collected during a 30-day comment period that ran from Aug. 27-Sept. 25.
The goals vary by region. When every region reaches its goal, a 16% water use reduction will be realized by 2030. This approach allows the goals to be tailored to each region’s characteristics.
“When you look at the amazing variety we have in our great state – from southern Utah’s red rocks to the Alpine mountains in the north – targeting goals for a specific region allows the goals to account for things like climate, elevation, growing season and specific needs,” said Millis. “It’s a more local and customized approach.”
“The regional goals replace the ‘25% by 2025’ goal. They also build on the previous statewide goal and will require everyone to do their part to conserve this precious resource,” said River Basin Planning Manager Rachel Shilton. “Every step counts and water conservation needs to become a way of life for all Utahns.”
Utah’s previous statewide conservation goal of reducing per-capita use 25% by 2025 was introduced by Gov. Gary Herbert during his 2013 State of the State address. (Gov. Mike Leavitt first set a target to use 25% less water by the year 2050 back in 2000.) Utahns were making great progress on the water conservation front, so Herbert challenged Utahns to cut the time in half. The regional goals are designed to continue to improve the state’s conservation efforts.
To formulate the regional water conservation goals, the Division of Water Resources first gathered public input. During fall 2018, over 1,650 people participated in a water conservation survey, and eight open houses across the state were held. After public input was tallied, a team consisting of water providers, members from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, and Water Resources staff worked with a third-party consultant to provide input on the region-specific goals. Public input was gathered during a 30-day comment period, reviewed and incorporated.
“These goals will help guide the state’s water managers in planning future infrastructure, policies and programs consistent with Utah’s semiarid climate and growing demand for water,” said Millis. “They will also be used to plan conservation programs.”
The 37th Annual Water Seminar will be kicked off by SWCD’s new executive director, Frank Kugel. He has a strong track record of building partnerships and leveraging local resources for collaborative water solutions. Frank will speak to some of the challenges SWCD sees facing water management in southwestern Colorado, and opportunities for our communities to proactively address them.
Anxious for winter storms? First, we’ll hear about the forecast from KKTV meteorologist Brian Bledsoe, and cutting-edge methods for snowpack measurement from Jeff Deems of the National Snow & Ice Data Center.
No water seminar in 2019 would be complete without a discussion of the state’s current feasibility investigation of a demand management program. Mark Harris, Grand Valley Water Users Association, will moderate a panel of heavy hitters on the topic: Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell, The Nature Conservancy Water Projects Director Aaron Derwingson, and Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller.
Further expanding on the subject, we’ll hear a proposal from local economist Steve Ruddell and consultant Dave Stiller which challenges the notion that a successful *and* voluntary, temporary, compensated demand management program would be impossible. State Senator Don Coram and State Representative Marc Catlin will react to this proposal and provide their thoughts more generally on funding water management in Colorado.
And if you haven’t heard the latest results of the West Slope Risk Assessment, John Currier, Colorado River District, will be summarizing the report for southwestern Colorado and taking questions. Jayla Poppleton, Water Education Colorado, will also preview several exciting programs and content making waves across the state. Watch your inbox for the final program, coming soon!
Reserve your seat now. Registration includes catered breakfast and lunch. Click here to register or call 970-247-1302.
Longtime district engineer Ken Curtis has been appointed the new general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
Curtis replaces Mike Preston, who is retiring after leading the organization that manages McPhee Reservoir for the past 12 years. Preston will stay on during a transitional period serving in external relations.
The two have worked closely together as a management team, said DWCD board president Bruce Smart.
Curtis served as chief of engineering and construction during the 12 years that Preston was general manager…
Preston informed the board in February his intention to retire, and recommended Curtis as his successor. The board agreed to the transition plan in order to facilitate a smooth change over…
Curtis has been involved in all aspects of water management, including delivering water to customers, oversight of project maintenance and upgrades, and invasive mussel prevention program. He also monitors reservoir levels and Dolores River inflows, conducts water policy research and community outreach, and helps coordinate the downstream fishery release and whitewater boating spill.
The new Four Corners Water Resource Center at Fort Lewis College aims to help educate professionals and bring the community together to make good water management decisions, Director Gigi Richard said.
“(Water) is a problem that is not going to go away as the population grows, as the climate warms, as we place greater demands on our existing systems and our infrastructure ages,” she said.
Richard co-founded the water center at Colorado Mesa University and is launching a similar center at FLC that will focus on the Dolores and San Juan river watersheds.
“We have called it the Four Corners Water Center because we don’t want to stop at the state line; the rivers don’t stop at the state line,” she said.
The center expects to educate students, convene community discussions and create an online data hub collected on the Dolores and San Juan river watersheds, she said.
Richard hopes to help highlight FLC water research and connect students with water-related classes, projects, research opportunities, internships and careers, she said. Fifteen FLC faculty are involved in water-focused research…
Richard also plans to assess the college’s water-related courses over the next year and determine how the school could expand its water-related curriculum. The school could offer minors, majors or certificates related to water studies…
The center also plans to create an online hub for data on the San Juan and Dolores river watersheds, such as native fish, sediment and channel morphology. She would like some of the data to be made into graphs that could be accessible to decision-makers, she said.
The center also hopes to convene forums that could promote education and discussion, Richard said.
For example, on Sept. 13, the center will host a forum called “Burned, Buried and Flooded: Water Resources Excitement in Southwest Colorado.” Panelists will discuss water topics including how the 416 Fire may affect the watershed, reservoirs and avalanches.
The center expects to work with many of the groups already working on water issues in the region such as Mountain Studies Institute and the Water Information Program.
Kugel was the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District for almost 13 years, and is a registered Professional Engineer with a Civil Engineering degree from the University of Colorado – Denver. Frank was involved in construction engineering in the Denver area before joining the Colorado Division of Water Resources as a Dam Safety Engineer. He served in the Denver and Durango offices of DWR before moving to Montrose where he ultimately became Division 4 Engineer for the Gunnison, San Miguel and lower Dolores Basins. Frank joined the UGRWCD upon leaving DWR in 2006. He was a member of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable since its inception and chair of its Basin Implementation Planning Subcommittee.
WIP had a brief chat with Frank to give you a bit more information. Here are a few questions and answers from our conversation.
WIP: What experience and knowledge do you bring to the District?
Frank: I have been the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District for the past 13 years. During that time I worked on local and statewide water issues and reported to an 11-member board. Prior to that, I was Division Engineer for Water Division 4, encompassing the Gunnison, San Miguel and lower Dolores River basins. As Division Engineer, I frequently attended SWCD board meetings and the SW seminar. Before that, I lived in Durango for 11 years while inspecting dams for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
WIP: As the new Executive Director of SWCD, what is your vision for the district?
Frank: My vision as Executive Director is to build upon the many successes accomplished by the Southwestern Water Conservation District. I intend to work closely with the board of directors in developing policies that will help guide the district. Instream flows and drought contingency planning are two of the areas that could benefit from policy guidance.
WIP: What are some of your top priorities with/or within the district?
Frank: A top priority for me is to reach out to the local communities. I plan to attend a county commissioner meeting in each of the nine counties within my first year at the district. Working on Colorado River issues will also be a high priority.
WIP: What do you foresee being challenges?
Frank: Facing a future with reduced water supplies due to climate change, coupled with increasing population, is a challenge for all of Colorado. The Southwest District can play a lead role in educating our constituents about this pending gap between water supply and demand and how the District can mitigate its impact.
We welcome Frank Kugel to SWCD and wish him all the best in his new position!
Coming out of extreme drought, water releases a pleasant surprise
For 51 days this spring and summer, water managers opened the spigots on McPhee Reservoir, sending millions of gallons of water down the Dolores River – a boon to fish, farmers and boaters.
During the last 20 years, only 10 years have been boatable. But this year was remarkable for the number of boating days after extreme drought conditions in 2018.
McPhee Reservoir started 2019 with one of the poorest water levels in its history, but extraordinary snowfall allowed the Dolores Water Conservancy District to fill the reservoir and release 135,000 acre-feet of water.
The high-flow days will benefit the ecology of the entire corridor, said Mike Preston, general manager of the district. The big releases occurred between Memorial Day weekend and the first week of July, with a short intermission after Memorial Day.
The district met with stakeholders, such as boaters and biologists, weekly to determine water management strategy, Preston said.
“So far, everybody is pretty happy,” he said.
The Dolores River Boating Advocates were pleased with the number of boating days. While it was not the longest season ever, it was a good run, said Sam Carter, program and outreach coordinator for the group…
The high levels in the reservoir will allow the district to provide irrigators all the water they have rights to and hold over water in the reservoir for next season, Preston said. The releases from the reservoir will also have lasting benefits for native fish and trees along the river, experts said.
The high flows help maintain and improve habitat for three species of native fish: roundtail chub, bluehead sucker and flannelmouth sucker, said Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The bluehead and flannelmouth sucker populations are both depressed in the Dolores. Their populations have been hurt by non-native fish and changes in habitat because of the dam, he said…
This summer, White said he may have observed benefits of the last big water year on the Dolores, which was in 2017. He was surveying fish in Slick Rock Canyon and found an abundance of young flannelmouth suckers possibly from 2017 or 2018, he said. Higher water helps support spawning…
The large amount of spring runoff released from McPhee also kept the water district from needing to tap into water set aside specifically for fish, Preston said. So now the same amount of water can be released over a shorter period of time, which will be beneficial for fish.
The high-water year will also have lasting benefits for trees, such as cottonwoods and willows, because it will recharge the groundwater in the floodplain, said Cynthia Dott, a biology professor at Fort Lewis College. Dott specializes in studying the floodplain forest habitat and has worked on the Dolores River with her students.
Rainwater does not provide enough water to recharge the water table, and when the table drops too low, it can hurt large cottonwoods, she said. But there should be plenty of groundwater for the trees to tap into next year, she said.
“They will have plenty of water to keep their feet wet,” she said.
The high flows were also traditionally needed to scour the banks of rivers and leave open, muddy areas for young cottonwood seedlings to get established, she said.
However, because there have been so many years of low flows on the Dolores, willows have established themselves along the banks and high flows now are not enough to rip them free, she said.
One the region’s foremost water experts is being offered another job in the industry that would take him back to Durango. Frank Kugel, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District, is in negotiations with the Southwestern Water Conservation District for the top job.
According to the SWCD website, “on July 15, pursuant to C.R.S. § 24-6-402(3.5), the Board of Directors of the Southwestern Water Conservation District selected Frank J. Kugel as the finalist under consideration for the position of Executive Director.” The SWCD board plans to approve a conditional offer employment at its August 6 meeting and formally make the offer on August 7.
Kugel confirmed the situation and said if all goes well and the SWCD board accepts the terms of employment, he would begin the new position on September 3.
Kugel has led the UGRWCD for almost 13 years. “The Southwestern Water Conservation District serves all of nine counties, as opposed to three with the UGRWCD, so it is a higher profile position for me,” Kugel explained in an email this week. “I have worked with the SWCD for 18 years, 11 of which were while inspecting dams while living in Durango. The other seven years were while I was Division 4 Engineer in Montrose and dealing with water administration in the San Miguel and lower Dolores River basins.
“The Southwestern District shares a number of common challenges with UGRWCD, namely Colorado River issues and drought contingency planning and demand management,” Kugel continued. “They also face a challenge of having nine separate river basins, most of which individually flow out of the state.”
The SWCD board unanimously chose Kugel as the top finalist for the executive director job as the previous executive director had retired in April. Board president Robert Wolff explained there is a two-week public notice period before a formal job offer is made, so that will happen after the August meeting.
“For me personally, several things about Frank stood out,” Wolff said. “He is fluent with all the Western Slope water issues we are dealing with, and he lived in Durango back in the 1990s. He is well thought of in the water community as a whole and he seems to know how to manage a district.”
Kugel said he is fortunate to have this new opportunity and also lucky to have been in the Gunnison Valley for a dozen years. “I have been blessed with a supportive board and top-notch staff over these past 13 years,” he said. “We have done great things to develop and protect the quality and quantity of our precious water resources. The Upper Gunnison basin is a very special place and I will always hold it, and its people, near and dear to my heart.”
“You’re all here at a momentous time,” guide Trey Roberts said before the drop. “You’re about to raft a big, famous, rare river.”
Jeanette Healy of Utah had been waiting 10-plus years for this chance on the Dolores. Doug Nie, a kayaker from Albuquerque, had been waiting even longer. Also here were Rick and Beverly Anderson, a young couple from Albuquerque as well.
“We figured we could do the Las Animas and Arkansas out in (Buena Vista) any year,” Rick said. “But this is our one chance to do Dolores.”
Chances have been tough to come by since the 1980s, when the McPhee Dam began trapping the water that Dominguez and Escalante found to be rushing during their 1776 expedition. El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores, they called it — the River of Our Lady of Sorrows…
Most joyful now are the boaters who had hoped this year’s snowpack would grant McPhee’s occasional controlled “spills.” As of last week, the Dolores Water Conservancy District expected releases to remain at or above 1,200 cubic feet per second through June 23, keeping the river fun until then at least.
That would mean a rafting season of almost one month here, which seems a short window. But longtime river rats regret to say that’s long for the Dolores.
Bill Dvorak, who’s frequented the state’s rivers since the ’60s, can’t recall a longer season. He ran the Dolores in 2017; his last time before that was 2009. “Every six to eight years is about when I get on it,” he said.
And he gets on it almost every floatable opportunity. The Dolores, after all, is easily his favorite river in Colorado…
Provisions are still vague. Releases are indeed unpredictable, said Michael Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. The Bureau of Reclamation factors in current reservoir levels with never-perfect forecasts. Then there’s juggling ever-increasing demand: Farmers combine for the largest allocation of the supply, recent spreadsheets show, followed by the downstream fishery, tribe and municipalities.
“McPhee is a hard-working reservoir,” Preston said. “We use every inch of our active storage capacity to take care of things.”
The height of that arch is reached at Snaggletooth, the legendary Class IV rapid aptly named. Swirling eddies are like mouths ready to inhale, the jumble of rocks like jaws ready to chomp.
From an embankment, we stopped to analyze the beast. And yes, [Christian] Wright was scared. “If someone says they’re not scared, don’t get in their boat,” he said.
The National Weather Service on Saturday issued flood advisories for the Mancos, Animas and La Plata rivers, and residents reported flooding along the Dolores River about 10 miles north of town.
“We have major flooding on Road 37, Dolores, 10 miles north of Dolores,” Jeffrey L. Jahraus told The Journal. Eight to 10 properties were getting water, he said.
The flooding began Tuesday and has continued intermittently, Jahraus said. About a half-acre of his neighbor’s property was under water.
Flooding has happened at their property once or twice before, he said, but never like this. The Jahrauses live along Road 37, right by where the now-famous rock slide happened on Memorial Day Weekend…
At the gauge in Dolores, the river was flowing Saturday morning at 4,200 cubic feet per second, about 256% the average June 8 rate of 1,604 cfs. Saturday afternoon, it reached 6.7 feet at the gauge, more that a foot shy of the 8-foot flood stage…
Meanwhile, flood advisories continued Saturday until further notice for the Mancos, Animas and La Plata rivers.
The river flow along the Mancos River was expected to remain near to slightly above bankfull, and minor lowland flooding was possible. Saturday morning, the river was at 5.3 feet – several inches above bankfull – and flood stage was at 6 feet. The river was expected to rise to about 5.4 feet around midnight Sunday.
La Plata River
A flood advisory also continued Saturday for the La Plata River at Hesperus. The flows along the La Plata River were expected to remain slightly above bankfull, and flooding is possible, the National Weather Service said. Bankfull stage is 5 feet, and flood stage is 5.5 feet. Saturday morning, the river was at 5.1 feet and expected to rise to nearly 5.3 feet by Monday morning.
The Animas River was flowing Saturday at 6.6 feet. The National Weather Service said the river was expectd to reach 6.93 feet by Sunday morning, a foot shy of the flood stage of 8 feet. Moderate flooding would occur at 9 feet, and major flooding at 10.5 feet. The record height of the Animas is 11 feet, the weather service says.
From the Brigham Young University The Daily Universe (Josh Carter):
Lake Powell is benefitting considerably from this year’s runoff following a strong snow year in the Rocky Mountains. The lake has risen 16 feet in the last month and is experiencing an inflow of 128% the average. While water levels are expected to continue to rise until the peak month of July, there is still a long way to go before the lake reaches full capacity.
“This year definitely helps,” said Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Officer Marlon Duke.
“But people need to keep in mind that when we came into this season Lake Powell was about 140 feet low. Even after this year, we’re going to be about 100 feet below full pool. So what we really need is three or four years just like this in a row.”
Lake Powell is currently stuck in the worst drought of its 56-year history. Its water levels and inflow have dropped significantly since the summer of 1999 — the last time Lake Powell was essentially full at 97% of capacity. The lake hit an all-time low in 2005 when its elevation sank to 3,555 feet, 145 feet below full pool.
The lake did experience a spike during the summer of 2010, when its levels got within 40 feet of full capacity. The drought has since continued, however, affecting not only Lake Powell but its sister reservoir Lake Mead as well.
“In 2000, when the drought started, Lake Powell and Lake Mead were both full,” Duke said. “Today Lake Powell is about 42% full and Lake Mead is even lower than that. Before we can start talking about whether or not the drought is over we need those reservoirs to be full again.”
Lake Mead was formed in 1935 and Lake Powell in 1963 after the completion of the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, respectively, along the Colorado River. They were created in hopes to store and provide water for the Colorado River Basin states during times of drought. Lake Powell predominately serves the Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, while Lake Mead provides for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and Southern California.
While both man-made reservoirs have served their purpose throughout the current drought, experts are thankful for this year’s runoff after a particularly low year in 2018.
“We’re coming off of 2018 which was the second-driest year ever since we’ve been keeping records in the Basin,” Duke said. “We were worried because if we had another year like 2018 then that would have really put us in some trouble.”
The drought hasn’t been the only threat to the lake’s water levels in recent years. A couple different proposals and campaigns are calling for Lake Powell to be drained and to distribute its water to Lake Mead and elsewhere.
“Fill Mead First” is a campaign first started in 1996 to encourage conversation about restoring the dammed Glen Canyon to its natural state. As the drought continued, the campaign has gained traction, arguing that Lake Mead needs more water from Lake Powell to ensure big cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego have enough. The campaign also argues that Lake Powell loses water through both rapid evaporation and water seeping into the porous sandstone walls.
BYU geology professor Gregory Carling talked about the potential benefits that could come from restoring Glen Canyon to what it once was.
“When the Glen Canyon Dam was built, it not only flooded one of the most beautiful canyons in the world but also thousands of archeological sites and side canyons,” Carling said. “Also, the way it is now with Lake Powell and Lake Mead half-full, both are losing lots of water through evaporation. So there probably is some sense in looking into what the benefits would be of draining Lake Powell and filling Lake Mead.”
Carling added, however, the proposal would have to go through a lengthy legislative process in order for anything to change.
“There are a lot of legal requirements and bureaucracy behind that, so it’s not just as easy as saying, ‘let’s drain one and fill up the other,’” Carling said. “You’d have to go back through a hundred years of the law of the river.”
Those opposing the “Fill Mead First” campaign argue that Lake Powell, one of the most popular boating and camping spots in Utah, supports the local economy through both recreation and tourism. The lake saw over 4 million visitors during each of the past two years for the first time in its history. Lake Powell supporters also argue the lake ensures a steady water supply to Lake Mead and the Lower Basin states.
The Lake Powell Pipeline is another proposal aimed at transferring water from Lake Powell to nearby Kane and Washington Counties in southern Utah. The proposed pipeline would run approximately 140 miles underground and deliver over 82,000 acre-feet of water per year to Washington County and 4,000 acre-feet of water per year to Kane County.
The proposal did take a hit last year when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled it would need greater oversight from other federal land agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service. Officials expect a final decision to be made on the project by 2020.
Even amid the recent controversies experts hope the Colorado River Basin can take full advantage of its water resources, especially in times of drought. Representatives from all seven Colorado River Basin states recently met to sign drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basins.
“This brings us one step closer to supporting agriculture and protecting the water supplies for 40 million people in the United States and Mexico,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Working together remains the best approach for all those who rely on the Colorado River.”
“The City of Farmington has temporarily closed sections of trails in Berg Park due to rising water levels.” City spokesperson Georgette Allen said in a press release June 7. “Trails on the north side of the Animas River near the All Veterans Memorial Plaza will be closed throughout the weekend.”
Karen Guglielmone, the Town of Telluride’s environment and engineering division manager, presented the yearly water audit to Town Council in a Tuesday work session, which emphasized the importance of conservation, despite the town’s abundant water supply.
“We are a steward to our water resources,” she told council. “We are stewards for what we need now and into the future.”
The annual report has been produced since 2014, when the town adopted a Water Efficiency Plan, which was subsequently approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) late that year. The annual report reveals figures such as overall municipal water use — and losses — and indicates trends that can help officials modify the plan.
Water losses are attributed to a number of factors including leaks, unauthorized consumption, faulty metering and data errors.
Leaks, Guglielmone explained, are common in municipal water systems as they age. One such leak occurred under East Columbia Avenue in 2018, which officials then said had likely been a progressive event due to pressure from a rock. Directly on the waterline. There are more of those, Guglielmone said.
“We can expect a slow increase of leaks over time,” she said. “We have others we can’t locate precisely.”
Despite the challenges of controlling losses, in 2018 the loss rate dipped by 13.5 percent when compared to the last five years of collecting data. Last year’s losses were calculated to be 26 million gallons, down from 2017’s 37 million gallons. Telluride’s losses are still high compared to other municipalities.
“We’re high on our water loss,” she said. “Fifteen percent is the goal, though 25-30 percent is more the reality,”
Residential water use is holding steady, according to the report. The fact that it stayed about the same (118 million gallons) is “pretty cool,” Guglielmone said…
Town Attorney Kevin Geiger noted that overall the town is in good shape as far as its supply is concerned.
“Our water portfolio is robust,” he said. “(Blue Lake) is a very large reservoir for our town. It is the envy of municipalities in Colorado.”
Telluride’s water rights are also strong…
Incorporating the Blue Lake reservoir and the Pandora water treatment plant became necessary when the town’s growth overtook what Mill Creek could provide, Geiger explained. Past water usage reports, which reflected peak days such as those that occur during the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, necessitated the work to bring Blue Lake into the fold…
Council member Geneva Shaunette said she liked the idea of the stricter irrigation practices that the town imposed during last year’s parched summer.
“I’m a fan of every other day irrigation,” she said. “Maybe grass isn’t the best thing.”
Unfortunately, even though low maintenance buffalo grass uses half the water, many landscapers’ clients prefer water-hungry Kentucky bluegrass, Guglielmone said. “We can’t police everything.”
FromThe Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:
A 10-day whitewater boating release is planned for the Dolores River below McPhee dam and reservoir, managers said this week.
The recreational water flows will be let out from Tuesday to May 30 and are scheduled to accommodate boaters over Memorial Day weekend.
“Timing the release early for the three-day holiday was a big interest for the boating community,” said Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
Beginning Tuesday, the managed “spill” will increase at a rate of 400 cubic feet per second per day to achieve a 1,200 cfs flow by the morning of May 24. The high flow will be maintained through May 27, then ramp down to 800 cfs through noon May 30. A gradual ramp down over a few days will follow.
However, the managed release is expected to continue after May 30, but to what extent has not yet been determined, water officials said.
Winter snowpack that reached 140% of normal is enough to fill McPhee Reservoir and provide the boating release below the dam. Recent cooler and rainy weather in Southwest Colorado has slowed the snowpack runoff, creating uncertainty about the final timing…
The inflow rate will depend on hard-to-predict temperatures and potential rain in the coming weeks. McPhee is expected to reach full capacity by mid-June, said district engineer Ken Curtis, and all irrigators will get a full supply for the season…
The 97-mile stretch of the Dolores River below the dam from Bradfield Bridge to Bedrock is revered by boaters for its challenging rapids and remote, red-rock canyon wilderness.
The three- to five-day Slick Rock-to-Bedrock section through winding Slick Rock Canyon offers a pristine river running experience. The 18-mile, one-day Ponderosa Gorge has convenient access and fills with locals and tourists when the river runs. No permit is required to boat the Dolores River.
The expert Snaggletooth Rapid is especially notorious for drenching boaters and occasionally flipping boats. A road along the river accessed from Dove Creek is a popular spot to spend the day watching boaters negotiate the wild hydraulics created by the rapid’s “fangs.”
Also this week, temperature suppression flows of 100 cfs were released from the dam to benefit the downstream native fishery. The strategy is to delay the spawning of the bluehead and flannelmouth suckers and roundtail chub until after the whitewater release.
t’s been about 35 years since the mill at Uravan closed and about 33 since the former West End town was designated a Superfund site, eventually to be bulldozed, burned and buried. But roughly 2 miles away is the Ballpark at Historic Uravan, Colorado, which was never contaminated by uranium and vanadium mining — and the one place people who grew up there still have to gather and remember.
The ballpark, with its primitive camping, has also attracted its share of hobbyist gold miners who access the San Miguel River from there. But when some began showing up with machinery, locals sounded the alarm and on Thursday, Montrose County passed an ordinance prohibiting unauthorized, mechanized mining along the river acreage it owns there. The ordinance can go into effect May 28…
A problem reared its head, though, when she discovered a video on the Facebook page of a hobbyist prospecting group. Thompson said the video showed compressors and a hose that was pumping the river — plus the site was promoting the location to other hobbyists, as was a prospecting book, which has since delisted the location.
“There was a big group that was going to come. They were all going to bring their machinery and have a big weekend there. We decided we probably better let the county know what was happening,” Thompson said.
Although it’s one thing to pan for gold in the river, or put up a small sluice box — that’s still allowed under the new ordinance — mechanized mining imperils the river and the habitat it provides.
“We contacted the group and told them … it belongs to the county. We lease it to the historical society. They have spent many countless hours down there and have turned that into a beautiful little park we encourage people to use. We don’t want it destroyed,” said Montrose County Commissioner Roger Rash, a former Uravan resident.
The county also put up a sign barring machinery in the river.
“But we needed to have some teeth,” Rash said. “We don’t want mechanized mining going on in our park.”
The new ordinance allows panning within the river channel, as long as it occurs at least 2 feet from the bank. Among other provisions, the ordinance prohibits motorized mining activities, including motorized suction dredging.
It also bars activity that undercuts or excavates banks and the ordinance further restricts access to the channel to existing roads and trails.
People cannot disturb more than 1 cubic yard of soil per day and anything that cannot be removed by hand must remain undisturbed.
All digging has to be filled in and the work area must be cleaned up before departure.
Violations are treated as a petty offense, which carry fines between $100 on first occurrence and up to $1,000 for repeat offenses.
If the county property, river or surrounding area sustains damages in excess of $100, violators can be charged with a class-2 misdemeanor punishable by stiffer fines and up to a year in county jail.
Thompson said she and other Rimrockers didn’t understand why anyone would be mining the river with machinery to begin with. The park is open to the public — although it relies upon donations to sustain the picnic structures and fire pits former residents paid for — and has had only minor vandalism issues prior to the mechanized mining.
Aquatic biologist Jim White, of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, spoke at a community meeting in Dolores about planned fish surveys, population data and survey techniques.
Parks and Wildlife works with McPhee Reservoir managers to manage downstream flows for three native species that reside in the Lower Dolores – the roundtail chub, bluehead sucker and flannelmouth sucker. The first several miles below the dam to Bradfield Bridge is managed as a cold-water fishery for brown and rainbow trout.
“Roundtail populations have been good,” White said, “and bluehead and flannelmouth are not as abundant.”
The reservoir holds a 33,500 acre-foot reserve for the native fish needs. The “fish pool” is released gradually throughout the year base on biologists’ input. In the winter, flows below the dam are 20-30 cubic feet per second. During summer, they reach 60-80 cfs if there is no whitewater release.
During low water years, the fish pool and farmers share in shortages. When there is a recreation dam release like this year, it is not counted against the fish pool, and the higher flows are managed for ecological benefits such as channel scouring, timing to benefit the fish spawn, and flood plain sedimentation that replenishes nutrient rich sediment on the banks for new seedlings…
Fish counts and surveys are done each year at Slick Rock Canyon, Dove Creek Pump Station, Pyramid Mountain and below the San Miguel confluence.
White explained how a “pit-tag array” installed in 2013 to monitor native fish on the Lower Dolores River works. It is just upstream from the Disappointment Creek confluence.
Native fish captured throughout the Lower Dolores are inserted with a electronic tag, and when they move past the “array” wire above the river, the movement and fish identification is recorded.
So far, 1,421 fish have been tagged. Of those, 38 percent were flannelmouth suckers, 35 were roundtail chubs, and 23 percent were bluehead suckers. Four percent were smallmouth bass, a non-native species biologists are trying to get rid of because they prey on young native fish.
Since installed, 157 tagged fish have been recorded passing under the pit-tag array. In 2018, 14 fish were detected, including eight flannelmouth that arrived after April 8. Five of the flannelmouth were tagged in Slick Rock Canyon, two in the Pyramid Mountain Reach and one tagged in 2014 in the San Miguel River.
The first native fish of 2019 passed under the array on April 5. It was last detected on Oct. 18. On April 16, two flannelmouth were recorded.
On Monday, 30 officials and residents attended an informational meeting at the Dolores Fire Station hosted by Montezuma County emergency manager Mike Pasquin.
The town has not experienced a major flood from the river since 1911, which filled the town valley with up to 3 feet of water.
But there is potential this year because of the heavy snowpack, warming weather, and wet El Niño weather pattern.
The Dolores River peaks from snowmelt between May 15 and June 15, officials said. How much comes down and at what rate depends on snowpack levels, temperature, rain and soil moisture. Runoff forecasting is an educated guess, and possible flood levels require ground truthing as well.
There are some trigger points to watch for, officials said.
Flood stage for the Dolores River in town is 8 feet. A safe maximum flow of the Dolores River is about 6,000 cubic feet per second in town, said Ken Curtis of the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
Increased flows from a hot spell or rain event in the upper valley takes time to reach town and usually arrives at night, said town board member Val Truelsen, “so there should be some nighttime monitoring of the banks.”
Residents should stay tuned to the National Weather Service for regional and local flood watches and warnings.
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said the community will be given warnings about predicted flooding conditions through media outlets, town reports, reverse 911, Nixle and social media. The town has recently repaired emergency siren that would also be activated as a warning.
Bridges up the valley are being monitored for debris accumulation and to ensure boaters can safely get under them. Collapsed mines in Rico that collect runoff have automated sensors that warn emergency personnel if the pressure and levels are too high, triggering relief valves.
Community sandbagging projects are happening in some flood-prone towns in the state, said Karen Dixon, emergency manager for the county health department. Local agencies said they are ready to respond to a flood emergency with equipment and staff.
If needed, sand is available at the county shop on County Road 30, said county road manager Rob Englehart.
Officials said severe flooding could compromise utility systems such as water, sewer and natural gas lines, and cause them to be shut down until the water recedes and repairs are made.
Potential shelter areas for evacuees discussed were the Dolores Community Center, Dolores High School, county fairgrounds, House Creek and McPhee campgrounds, and Canyons of the Ancients Museum and Visitor’s Center.
The Bureau of Reclamation will host the 2019 operations meeting for the Dolores Project on Thursday, April 18, at 7 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Dolores Community Center, 400 Riverside Avenue in Dolores, Colorado.
“This meeting is a great opportunity for our partners and the public to find out how the 2019 water year is shaping up and to have any related questions answered,” said Western Colorado Area Office Manager Ed Warner.
Meeting topics will include a review of 2018 operations, projected water supplies and runoff for 2019 and the forecasted possibility of a boatable release to the Dolores River below McPhee Dam in 2019.
The meeting will also include presentations and representation from several agencies, including: Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service, Dolores Water Conservancy District, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Dolores River Boating Advocates, American Whitewater and Fort Lewis College. There will be opportunities for questions, comments, and discussion during the meeting.
For more information, please contact Robert Stump at 970-565-7232 or email@example.com.
At a local level, Cortez adopted a conservation plan in November that seeks to reduce per capita water consumption from 200 gallons per day to 180 gallons per day. The plan includes metering water users and rebates for water-efficient appliances.
“Luckily, we had a great year this year, but if we have another couple of dry years, 2020 might be when it gets a little closer,” Padgett said. “But for right now, we’re fine.”
There might not be an immediate threat, but she said the variable hydrology and declining storage at Lake Powell pose real and immediate concerns. She said it’s best to take a proactive approach to planning to avoid getting into sticky situations.
“If we do fall out of compact compliance, it’s a pretty catastrophic event, so we always want to be prepared for that worst-case scenario,” Padgett said. “These recent droughts have really made everyone aware that we need to start planning more for that uncertain future.”
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Marlon Duke):
The U.S. Geological Survey reported that an earthquake occurred at 10:22 a.m. MST, on Monday, March 4, 2019, near Reclamation’s Paradox Valley Salinity Control Facility near Bedrock, Colorado. Reclamation maintains a comprehensive network of seismic monitoring instruments in the area, which indicated a preliminary magnitude 4.1 for this earthquake. The quake was felt by employees at the Reclamation facility and residents in surrounding areas.
The Paradox Valley Salinity Control Facility injects highly pressurized, concentrated salt water (brine) into a 16,000-foot-deep well, preventing the brine from entering the Dolores River. The well was not operating at the time of the earthquake due to routine maintenance. Operations will not resume until Reclamation completes a thorough assessment of the situation.
High-pressure brine injection has been known to trigger small earthquakes in the past, and today’s event was within the range of previously induced earthquakes. Reclamation’s seismic network in the area monitors the location, magnitude and frequency around the Paradox Valley Salinity Control Facility. Reclamation will continue using that network to monitor earthquakes in the area.
The Paradox Valley Salinity Control Facility substantially benefits downstream water quality in the Colorado River Basin, and helps the United States meet treaty obligations with Mexico for allowable salinity levels in the river. Historically, the Dolores River picked up an estimated 205,000 tons of salt annually as it passed through the Paradox Valley. Since the mid-1990s much of this salt has been collected by the Paradox Valley Salinity Control Unit in shallow wells along the Dolores River and then injected into deep subsurface geologic formations. The deep well injection program removes about 95,000 tons of salt annually from the Dolores and Colorado rivers.