Heavy snows came to Pagosa Country this week, causing Archuleta School District to call snow days on Jan. 17 and 18, among other disruptions. Sites in Archuleta County received between 22.4 and 35.6 inches of snow in the storms be- tween Saturday Jan. 11 and Jan. 18, according to the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network website. Snowfall totals varied throughout the county, with the highest amount reported near Village Lake. A report from Wolf Creek Ski Area indicates that Wolf Creek had received 16 inches of snow in the previous 24 hours and 52 inches from the latest storm as of approxi- mately 6 a.m. Jan. 18, bringing the midway snow depth to 106 inches and the year-to-date snowfall total to 219 inches.
According to the U.S. Depart- ment of Agriculture National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 22.2 inches of snow water equivalent as of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 18.
The Wolf Creek summit was at 131 percent of the Jan. 18 snowpack median.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins were at 152 percent of the Jan. 18 median in terms of snowpack.
Click the link to read the newsletter on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson). Here’s an excerpt:
Okay, “aridification” may be the wrong header this time, since the West is getting battered by atmospheric rivers and bomb cyclones and power grid-wrecking snows and winds and rains. It’s record-breaking craziness — at least it seems that way, since we haven’t had much like it in a bit. But is it really all that unusual? Here’s a mini-Data Dump on early winter snowpack levels to help us figure it out:
19: Number of monthly precipitation records broken during the first 28 days of December 2022 in the Western climate region (the final three days aren’t yet recorded in the system).
8.2: Inches of precipitation recorded during a 24-hour period at Sierraville Ranger Station in California on Dec. 2, 2022, shattering the previous all-time record set in 1913.
27: Inches of new snow that fell in the Tahoe City, California, area on Jan. 1, 2023. It contained about 3.33 inches of water. On Dec. 11 the area received 31 inches of snow in one day.
210,000: Approximate number of utility customers who lost power along the West Coast as a result of the late December storms.
30,000: Number of utility customers who lost power in the Northwest after vandals attacked four electrical substations in Washington state on Christmas day.
3: Number of people killed by avalanches so far this season, including two skiers/snowboarders in Colorado and a snowmobiler in Montana.
Further inland, the moisture is giving a needed boost to the giant snowpack “reservoir” that feeds the beleaguered Colorado River system. After tracking close to median levels for the first three months of the 2023 water year, this year’s Upper Colorado Basin snowpack shot up to 142% of the Jan. 3 “normal.” It may be a little too early to get excited, though — last year’s snows followed the same early season abundant pattern before dropping off in January.
Zooming in on the San Juan Mountains and Southwest Colorado we see a similar but slightly less wet pattern. Levels are above the median, but still below last year and 2020.
And zooming in even further to our three go-to SNOTEL stations, all located in Southwest Colorado, we find that snowpack levels are about at the average for each station’s period of record (which varies from station to station), but are still tracking ahead of 2019, which turned out to be a BIG snow year.
All of which is to say, it’s too early to really know what winter will bring us. So be sure to enjoy the snow while it’s here!
Click the link to read the article on the KSJD website (Gavin McGough). Here’s an excerpt:
The Dolores River starts high in the San Juans southwest of Telluride, passes through Dolores, Colorado, where it fills the Reservoir at McPhee Dam. From then on it trickles north through hundreds of miles of desert, meeting the San Miguel and feeding eventually into the Colorado River. Those who have boated it say it’s a river like no other.
“You start below the dam and you head into the Ponderosa Gorge with these big canyon walls and amazing majestic Ponderosa Pines, and you start to see more and more of this red rock coming out,” said Amber Clark, director of Dolores River Boating Advocates (DRBA) which promotes stewardship and recreation along the river.
“Then you transition down into less trees and more red rock canyon walls, and the Wilderness Study Area, and at different places it opens up more, and it’s kind of this ever-changing landscape, but the majesty of it never diminishes,” she said…
The DRBA is one of dozens of stakeholders who have been working to protect the Dolores as a National Conservation Area, or an NCA. Some rivers are protected by Congress under The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but protection as an NCA is less controversial, especially amongst agricultural interests. Al Heaton, a cattle rancher in Dolores, is involved in the conservation effort.
“Wild and Scenic comes with some rules and regulations, some laws, that are pretty dramatic and would affect a lot of things, private property and things down the river,” said Heaton.
“Of course, grazing could continue in a Wild and Scenic setting but it could also be restricted, so I felt there had to be a better way.”
The river is in deep doo-doo, and worse may very well come. So why such a sluggish reaction?
On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It was my first visit.
Turning off the paved highway, I drove about 10 miles around the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain, past a few irrigation ditches, one carrying water, and a lot of fields and center-pivot sprinklers. I knew the runoff the San Juan Mountains, the source of water for the 7,700-acre farming operations by the Utes, was bad. I didn’t realize just how bad it was.
Unlike many tribal rights in the Colorado River Basin, the water rights of the two Ute tribes in Colorado were negotiated in 1986. The agreement resulted in delivery of water to Towaoc, where I ate at the casino restaurant twice on that trip. Before, potable water had to be trucked in.
Mike Preston, filling in for a Ute leader at the Colorado Water Center conference this week, remembers a time before that delivery of water. “There were stock tanks sitting in people’s yards, and a water truck would back up and fill those tanks, and people would go out with buckets to get their potable water.”
The Utes got other infrastructure, too, including water from the Dolores River stored in the new McPhee Reservoir that allows the Utes to create a profitable farm enterprise. But to get the use of McPhee water, the Utes conceded the seniority of their water rights. It worked well for a lot of years, but now in a warmer, drier climate, it leaves the Utes in a hard, dry place: They got 10% of their full allocation in 2021 and 40% this year.
They have been forced to adapt. Instead of planting alfalfa, they planted corn and other crops that use less water and can be fed to cattle. They culled cattle from their herd of 650. The tribe – as are others in Colorado – is exploring the viability of kernza, a new perennial grain created at The Land Institute in Kansas.
Still, some adaptation is impossible. The agricultural enterprise has laid off about half of its employees. And last year, despite securing all available government grants created to allow farmers to make it through hard times, the operation lost $2 million.
Listening to that story related by Preston in a video feed to the conference on the campus of Colorado State University, I wondered whether this was a metaphor for what faces the 40 million people who, in one way or another, depend upon water from the Colorado River.
“No wonder Lakes Powell and Mead are in the condition that they are in today,” he said after accounting the over-drafting of the two big reservoirs, now down to 24% and 26% of storage respectively. “The bank account has been drawn down,” he said, “and we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit.”
By now, the 21st century story of the Colorado River has become familiar in its broadest outlines, part of the national narrative of despair. The pivoting reality came on hard in 2002, when the Colorado River carried just 4.5 million acre-feet of water.
To put that into perspective, as Eric Kuhn, co-author of “Science Be Dammed,” did at this conference, those who framed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 assumed 20.5 million acre-feet as they went about apportioning the river’s flows. In the 21st century, the river has averaged 13 million acre-feet.
Alarm has been sounded but…
Now, scientists are warning that river managers should plan for no more than 11 million acre-feet, a reflection of the new hotter, and in some places, drier climate. Some think that figure is overly optimistic.
The seven basin states – particularly the thirsty states of California and Arizona – have cinched their belts with various agreements. But they have not responded in ways proportionate to the risk they now face. There is a very real danger of the reservoirs dropping to just puddles of dead pool, too little to be released downstream. Imagine the Grand Canyon without water. Imagine no water below Hoover Dam. Do these images leave you dumbstruck?
A public official on the Western Slope recently confided to me that he and others had grown weary of what they called “drought, dust and dystopia” stories. That troubled me, leaving me to wonder how my own stories are being received.
At the conference this week on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I heard something of the same self-doubt.
“With all due respect to my fellow panelists, I live in an area where some of the topics that are mentioned, we’re not uniformly and broadly received,” said Perry Cabot, the lead researcher at Colorado’s State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Grand Junction. “I think as researchers, we tend to believe that just more educating is going to change the dynamics of the narrative.”
Other panelists agreed with Cabot’s observation that new narratives, not just information, would better convey the gravity of the situation.
“I think the scientific community has gotten its head handed to itself,” said Brad Udall, who has dome some of the pioneering research that shows that “aridification” – as much or more than drought itself – is driving the reduced flows. Drought ends, but aridification resulting from atmospheric greenhouse gases? Not any time soon.
That has gone against the grain of water managers. A decade ago, there was still skepticism about climate change, and water always has been variable. Surely, good winters would return in the mountains of Colorado and other upper basin states that produce 90% of the river’s flows. Colorado alone is responsible for 60%.
After all, every batter goes through slumps, every best-selling author can tell of rejection slips.
By now, however, a clear trend has become evident. Even in good snow years, the runoff lags.
At the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for refilling the glass that is now far less than half-full in the coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.
Even so-so precipitation has been coming up as something worse. For example, the snowpack in the Gunnison River watershed last year was 87% of average, but the runoff was only 64%.
Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last year has been among the six warmest in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuizen, a water resources engineer for the River District. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to apportion demand to match supply. After all, there’s money in the bank, and for probably a year more, enough water in the reservoirs to generate electricity.
At water meetings, an element of collegiality has remained, at least until recently. Testiness has crept in, an element of what Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, calls finger-pointing.
Colorado water officials, Mueller included, are doing some of that themselves.
They point out that Colorado and the other upper-basin states get nicked for 1.2 million acre-feet in evaporative losses in their delivery of water to Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas. California, Arizona, and Nevada do not. “It’s like running two sets of books,” said Mueller.
Mueller was negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the day of the conference in Fort Collins. His stand-in, Dave Kanzer, explained that the Law of the River —the Colorado River Compact and other agreements – don’t necessarily apply anymore. It is “based on long-term stable water supply, and we no longer have that,” he said.
Renegotiate the compact?
The Colorado River Compact assumed too much water and also used precise numbers when ratios would have been better, Mueller has observed. Instead, those who gathered in Santa Fe in November 1922 apportioned
7.5 million acre-feet to each of the two basins, upper and lower. In practice, the lower-basin states have been using twice as much water as Colorado and other upper-basin states.
Colorado’s average annual consumption from the Colorado River and its tributaries is 2.5 million acre-feet. In terms of the compact, what mattes entirely is when the diversion began, before or after the compact.
About 1.6 million-acre feet- mostly older agriculture rights – are pre-compact, but 900,000 acre-feet came later. This includes water for Western Slopes cities and the nearly all of the 500,000 acre-feet diverted across the Continental Divide to cities along the Front Range and farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys. This water is most imperiled.
Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, said he does not believe it’s practical to attempt to amend or renegotiate the Colorado River Compact.
“But within a few years, maybe after we have figured out how to get out of the current crisis, we’re going to essentially ignore all of the provisions of the compact except perhaps article one, which defines the purpose and the signatures page.”
Lochhead has much the same opinion about the much-disputed element of the compact about the obligations of Colorado and other upper basin states to deliver water. It really won’t matter, he said. The real problem is that the basin states need to align demand with supply that, during the last few years, has been close to 11 million acre-feet. (Keep in mind, the compact assumed more than 20 million acre-feet).
“We’re literally in a situation of triage,” said Lochhead. “Something needs to be done in the very near term to lay a foundation for actions that can be taken in the medium and longer term to manage the river to a sustainable condition.”
The feds need to step up
Lochhead outlined three possibly overlapping alternatives.
First: involuntary regulations and restrictions. The federal government – although it has been using it with restraint – does indeed have authority to regulate use of water that enters into Mead. The U.S. Supreme Court has characterized its power as such. The Bureau of Reclamation must be seen as delivering a coherent threat.
“That gives the U.S. government enormous authority over what happens in the lower basin,” Lochhead said. This is unlikely to happen until after the November election, he said, but it absolutely must happen.
Voluntary agreements must also occur. The Bureau of Reclamation imposed an August 2022 deadline for agreements. If the deadline had been a hard one, the states would have failed. Lochhead said it came down to finger pointing. Arizona and California “stared across the river at each other, seeing who’s going to blink first.”
The federal government has now put $4 billion on the table – through the Inflation Reduction Act —to “grease” the skids in terms of voluntary agreements. (Think, perhaps voluntary retirement of water rights). “They’re going to have to buy down demands in the lower basin,” said Lochhead, conjecturing on deals involving the Imperial Irrigation District, the giant ag producer just north of the border with Mexico.
Lochhead also described the need for reductions in water use in the municipal sectors. Denver Water and several other water agencies in Colorado – but also in Nevada and California and Arizona—announced an agreement in August in which they will try to pare their consumption. For example, Denver wants to end irrigation of medians along roads and highways and crimp the amount of water used for turf. But Denver and other cities need to continue to have trees, said Lochhead.
More cities will join this pact to reduce water use for residential consumption in coming weeks and months, Lochhead said.
But he said Colorado may need state legislation to ensure that real-estate developers can’t create landscaping in the future that requires lots of water, offsetting these gains.
That brings me back to the Ute Mountain Ute lands that I visited in May. By virtue of their 1986 agreement, reality has smacked them hard. There is pain, but there is also adjustment. They have had to adjust.
Something of the same thing must occur in the broader Colorado River Basin. So far, it’s easier to postpone action. But another so-so year – or worse? While the states are trying to make the cuts necessary for a river that is delivering 12 million acre-feet per year, Mueller warns that the plans must contemplate a 9 million acre-foot river, as some scientists have said may come to pass.
But in Grand Junction, one of the scientists pointed out to me that it’s just possible the river may deliver 7 million acre-feet – and that could be next year and the year after.
Then, we may need a new metaphor, something worse than an empty bank account.
It’s one of those days when the clouds pile up in the azure blue, their shadows gliding across the sandstone and sage, offering a bit of relief from the late June heat. They also promise rain, but I have my doubts. This is the Paradox Valley, after all, which lives up to its name in more way than one, a place of beauty and brutality.
The Uravan Mineral Belt, which roughly follows the lower Dolores River in western Colorado, slices perpendicularly across the Paradox Valley just like the river, giving it its name. The mineral belt, meanwhile, got its name from the elements that lie within: vanadium and uranium. The belt was the center of the radium boom from the early 1900s into the 1920s and was ravaged for uranium from the 1940s into the 1980s. Vanadium was mined here in between.
Jennifer Thurston, the executive director of the Colorado mining watchdog group INFORM, tells me there are 1,300 mining sites, abandoned and otherwise, in the Dolores and San Miguel River Basins, making it among the most heavily mined sites in the West. And it shows.
I’m here with Thurston and Soren Jespersen to take a look at myriad wounds inflicted by the mining industry, most still gaping and oozing with uncovered waste rock, rusty equipment, and other detritus decades after they were last active. But this is more than a journey into the past, it’s also a look at what might happen again in the not-so-distant future. A renewed interest in nuclear energy as a low-carbon power source and a desire to source reactor fuel domestically could wake the U.S. uranium industry from its long dormancy and rouse some of the mineral belt mines back into action.
“Here we go again,” Jespersen, of Colorado Wildlands Project, said earlier in the day, as we examined what looked a tombstone-looking monument marking the internment site of nearly 1 million tons of radioactive tailings from the Naturita Mill. “Are we going to stumble blindly down the same path?” Thurston and Jespersen are both working, in their own way, to prevent that from happening.
The U.S. uranium industry has been on a downward slide since the eighties. First the 1979 Three Mile Island incident gave Americans the nuclear power jitters (Chernobyl, in ’86, didn’t help matters). Then the Cold War ended, allowing the fissionable material in dismantled nuclear warheads to be downgraded to a concentration that could be used as reactor fuel, and opening up Russian and former Soviet republic markets to the world. Uranium prices dropped significantly, gutting the domestic mining industry. Now at least 95% of all of the uranium used to fuel American reactors is imported from Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Russia, and other countries.
After the Fukushima disaster it seemed as if nuclear power would gradually fade away, at least in the U.S. New conventional reactors are simply too expensive to build and low natural gas prices and a flood of new renewables on the power grid threatened to make the existing, aging nuclear fleet obsolete. But as the effects of climate change become more and more apparent, and the sense of urgency around the need to decarbonize the power sector intensifies, climate hawks are giving nuclear power a new look.
The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant outside San Luis Obispo, California, for example, is scheduled to shut down in 2025, but now California Gov. Gavin Newsom is leading a push to keep it open longer. His reasoning: The state’s grid doesn’t have the renewable generation capacity yet to replace the big plant, meaning if it were to close now grid operators would have to rely on carbon-emitting natural gas-fired generation.
Meanwhile, a Bill Gates-backed firm called TerraPower is working to build an advanced nuclear reactor in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and Oregon startup NuScale is looking to install a battery of small modular reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory and sell power to small, Western utilities.
Any of these initiatives, on their own, can’t revive the U.S. uranium industry. But this mild resurgence in nuclear power, paired with the fallout (only figurative, we hope) of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has caused the price of uranium to double over the last couple of years. If that trend continues—and if the federal government pitches in subsidies for the industry—it might be enough to make U.S. uranium mining economically feasible and spark renewed interest in the Uravan Mineral Belt.
Thurston has tirelessly worked to bring regulations and regulators out of the 19th century, sometimes by dragging them into court. She was instrumental in the fight to block a proposal to build a uranium mill in the Paradox Valley several years ago and more recently has forced regulators to revoke long-idled mines’ “temporary cessation” status, clearing the way for them to be cleaned up. (For more on her efforts, check out this Land Deskdispatch from March.
Jespersen is taking a different tack, he explains as we stand next to the confluence of the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers, swatting away pesky horse flies. His organization was formed with the aim of achieving landscape level protection for Bureau of Land Management lands on the Colorado Plateau. In this case, they are looking at the Dolores River watershed, specifically the lower, northern end, which manages to be spectacular, remote, and industrialized by uranium mining, all at once.
A piece of that is moving forward. In July, Sen. Michael Bennett introduced a bill that would establish a National Conservation Area along the Dolores River from McPhee Dam to the San Miguel County line, just upstream from Bedrock and the Paradox Valley. That would add a layer of protections to a 76-mile stretch of the river corridor, including prohibiting new mining claims. However, it would not stop mining on existing claims or Department of Energy leases, both of which are abundant.
But, thanks to local political opposition, Bennett’s bill leaves out the lower 100 river miles—along with serpentine canyons, slickrock expanses, isolated mesas, and the western edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau. Jespersen and Colorado Wildlands Project are looking to up protections on that remaining section, specifically the area from the Dolores River’s confluence with the San Miguel River downstream. During uranium mining times, much of that section of river was dead, thanks to tailings and other waste dumped into the river from the mills and mines. But still other areas remain relatively unmarred and even qualify for wilderness designation.
We drive along the Dolores River, stop for lunch at the Bedrock recreation area, which was once a well-tended and crowded takeout zone for Dolores River rafters. But since McPhee Dam’s operators have released little more than a trickle into the river due to aridification, the picnic area no longer serves much of a purpose and is sad-feeling and overgrown. Thurston tells us mining speculation has picked up in the area, but not much else. And then she explains a sort of ore pre-processing technique called ablation that some mining companies are hoping to use to save costs and maybe get around regulations.
Then we drive into the heart of the wreckage on a nearby mesa. From there we see the JD-7, a big, open pit mine in the Paradox Valley that never even produced ore. Now it sits idle and unreclaimed. We peer down into the darkness of a mine shaft and poke around in a dilapidated building where packrats have taken up residence among old equipment. This is one of the mines that INFORM won a cleanup case against, but regulators haven’t approved a reclamation plan, so nothing’s happened. “This whole formation is basically Swiss cheese,” Thurston says as we ponder yet another abandoned site, replete with a couple of ancient cars with “straight eights” under the hoods. And we go out to a point where we can look out on the landscape and see the web of roads scraped through the piñon, juniper, and sagebrush decades ago to give prospectors access to every inch of this vast space.
It’s heartbreaking to see, but hopeful, too, as the land is slowly healing. Yet it’s infuriating to think that the wounds may one day be torn open again.
Well how about that. You may remember our story last month about the Horseshoe-Gallup oil field and about how a determined group of activists and land protectors were trying to bring regulators’ attention to the blight there. Not only did they get the Bureau of Land Management’s attention, but they got their boss—Interior Secretary Deb Haaland—to come out and see one of the worst sites. Haaland also announced $25 million in federal funding to plug and reclaim orphaned oil and gas wells in New Mexico during her visit.
At Spring Born, a greenhouse in western Colorado near Silt, you see few, if any, dirty fingernails. Why would you? Hands never touch soil in this 113,400-square-foot greenhouse.
You do see automation, long trays filled with peat sliding on conveyors under computer-programmed seeding devices. Once impregnated, the trays roll into the greenhouse.
Thirty days after sprouting, trays of green and red lettuce, kale, arugula, and mustard greens slide from the greenhouse to be shorn, weighed and sealed in plastic clamshell packages. Hands never touch the produce.
Spring Born says it needs 95% less water compared to leafy greens grown using Colorado River water a thousand miles downstream in Arizona and California. That region supplies more than 90% of the nation’s lettuce. At Silt, the water comes from two shallow wells that plumb the riverine aquifer of the Colorado River, delivering about 20 gallons per minute. The water is then treated before it is piped into the greenhouse. This is agriculture like nowhere else.
Great precautions are taken to avoid contamination and prevent the spread of pathogens. Those entering the greenhouse must don protective equipment.
There’s no opportunity for passing birds or critters to leave droppings. As such, there is no need for chlorine washes, which most operations use to disinfect. Those washes also dry out the greenery, shortening the shelf life and making it less tasty. The Spring Born packages have an advertised shelf life of 23 days.
Spring Born likely constitutes the most capital-intensive agricultural enterprise in Colorado. Total investment in the 250-acre operation, which also includes traditional hay farming and cattle production, has been $30 million. The technology and engineering come from Europe, which has 30 such greenhouses. The United States has a handful.
Agribusiness in Colorado generates $47 billion in economic activity but it ties to one reality: The future is one of less water. So how exactly can agriculture use water more judiciously?
The Thirsty Future
A Desert Research Institute study published in April 2022 concluded that the warming atmosphere is a thirstier one. Modeling in the study suggests that crops in some parts of Colorado already need 8% to 15% more water than 40 years ago. Agricultural adaptations to use less water are happening out of necessity.
Colorado has warmed about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 120 years. Warming has accelerated, with the five hottest summers on record occurring since 2000.
Higher temperatures impact the amount of snowfall and amount of snowpack converted to water runoff. “As the climate warms, crops and forested ecosystems alike use water more rapidly,” says Peter Goble, a research associate at the Colorado Climate Center. “As a result, a higher fraction of our precipitation goes into feeding thirsty soils and a lower fraction into filling our lakes, streams and reservoirs. Essentially, a warmer future is a drier future.”
This year was a good example of the drying trend.
Snowpack was around average in the San Juan Mountains, but spring arrived hot and windy. Snow was all but gone by late May, surpassed in its hurried departure only in 2018 and 2002. Farmers dependent on water from the Dolores River, still reeling from last year’s meager supplies, were required to accept lesser supplies yet again as the growing season began this year.
The Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise, the most southwesterly agriculture operation in Colorado, expected less than 30% of its regular water delivery from McPhee Reservoir. This was on top of a marginal year in 2021, too. Simon Martinez, general manager of the operation, said just 15 of the 110 center pivots had crops under cultivation in early June. Employment was cut in half, and the 650-head cow-calf operation had been slimmed to 570.
Pressured by compacts
The warming climate is not alone in spurring adaptations. In many river basins, irrigators must also worry about delivery of water to downstream states specified by interstate compacts.
Water conservation districts formed in the last 20 years are paying farmers to decrease pumping and planting to save the water that remains in the aquifers, comply with compacts, and transition to less water use.
Directors of the Republican River Water Conservation District, in northeastern Colorado were successful in voluntarily retiring 4,000 acres by June 2020. They are confident about retiring 10,000 acres in the area between Wray and Burlington before 2025. They’re less sure of achieving the 25,000 acres that compact compliance will require by 2029.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District directors in south-central Colorado have an even greater lift. They must figure out how to retire 40,000 irrigated acres by 2029. They’re at 13,000.
High commodity prices have discouraged farmer participation. The pot of local, state and federal money hasn’t been sufficient to fund high enough incentives to compete with commodity pricing. A bill, SB22-028, Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund, which passed in the Colorado Legislature in May, will allocate $60 million to both the Republican and Rio Grande basins to help them comply with interstate river compacts by reducing the acreage outlined above. The law says that if voluntary reductions cannot be attained, Colorado may resort to mandatory reductions in groundwater extraction.
From Sprinklers to New Crops
Even as center-pivot sprinklers are removed in the Republican River Basin and San Luis Valley, they are going up in the Grand Valley of western Colorado. There, instead of drafting groundwater, they are distributing Colorado River water, because they are reducing labor costs and reducing water use.
The geography of the valley from Palisade to Fruita and Loma does not immediately favor center pivots. They work best as a pie within a square, a full 40 or 160 acres. Parcels in the Grand Valley tend to be more rectangular. That means a pivot can arc maybe three-quarters of a circle. That slows the payoff on investment.
Why the pivot, so to speak, on pivots? Perry Cabot, a water resource specialist with Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Fruita, sees two, sometimes overlapping, motivations. (Cabot also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.)
The greater motivation is the desire to save labor. That itself is good, he says, because the investment reflects an intention to continue farming. “People are obviously doing it for the long haul,” he says.
The other motivation appears to be water related. “The feedback I get is, to paraphrase the farmers, at some point in the future we are going to have less water to farm with and so we must prepare for that,” Cabot says.
Incremental improvements have improved efficiency. Experiments at the CSU research center in Walsh have shown conclusively the advantage of long-drop nozzles that spray the water just a couple feet off the ground, reducing evaporation.
Technology can help perfect a producer’s irrigation set up. Consider work in the San Luis Valley by Agro Engineering, crop consultants who seek to assist growers in producing maximum value with minimum water application. Potatoes, the valley’s largest cash crop, thrive in warm, but not hot, days and cool nights. They need 16 to 18 inches of water per year, of which 13 to 15 inches comes from irrigation. This includes two inches applied during planting, to moisten soils sufficiently for germination. They do not do well with too much water, explains Jason Lorenz, an agricultural engineer who is a partner in the firm. That, and the need to align use with legal requirements, gives growers compelling reason to closely monitor water.
The company uses aerial surveys conducted from airplanes to analyze whether the desired uniformity is being achieved. The latest advancement, multispectral aerial photography, enables the detection of green, red and near-infrared light levels. These images indicate the amount of vegetative biomass, vegetative vigor, and the greenness of the leaves. Variations show where crops are healthier and where there are problems, including insects and diseases, water quality, or soil chemistry problems.
Any discussion of water and agriculture in Colorado must include a focus on corn. In 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, almost 1.4 million acres in the state were devoted to corn, with well more than half of that irrigated.
Corn is also thirsty. So far, efforts to produce corn with less water have come up short, says Colorado State University water resources specialist Joel Schneekloth. But if corn still needs the same amount of water, researchers have succeeded in producing greater yields.
How about alternatives to corn? Sunflowers, used to make cooking oil but also for confections, came on strong, but acreage shrank from 132,000 acres to 59,000 acres statewide between 2010 and 2019. For farmers, corn pays far better.
Quinoa may be possible. It consumes less water. But no evidence has emerged that it’s viable in eastern Colorado. The demand is small. Demand also remains small for black-eyed peas, which a bean processing facility in Sterling accepts along with pinto, navy and other beans.
“We can find low-water crops, but they just don’t have huge markets,” explains Schneekloth who conducts studies for the Republican and South Platte basins at a research station in Akron. There has to be enough production to justify processing facilities, he said. One such processing facility proximate to the Ogallala aquifer in Colorado—it was in Goodland, Kansas—closed because it didn’t have enough business.
Nearly all of the corn in Colorado is grown to feed livestock. What if, instead of eating beef or pork, we ate plant-based substitutes? The shift, says Schneekloth, would save water. It takes seven pounds of forage and grain to produce one pound of meat. For a meat substitute, it’s closer to one for one. But that tradeoff isn’t that simple in most places. Much of the cattle raised in Colorado start on rangeland, feeding off of unirrigated forage, which is not suitable for crop production.
Besides, Schneekloth says he has a hard time imagining a mass migration to meat substitutes in the near future. Plant-based substitutes cost far more and the product, to many people, remains unsatisfactory. “Mass migration will be a hard one to sell,” he says. “Maybe eventually, but it won’t happen for a long time, I don’t think.”
Soil health has emerged as a lively new frontier of research and practice and the integration of livestock and crop production is one of its tenets—manure adds nutrients to the soil and builds organic matter, improving soil health.
Soil, unlike dirt, is alive. It’s full of organisms, necessary for growing plants. Wiggling worms demonstrate fecund soil, but most networking occurs on the microscopic level. This organic matter is rich with fungi and bacteria. Iowa’s rich soils have organic content of up to 9%. The native soils of Colorado’s Eastern Plains might have originally had 5%. The farms of southeastern Colorado now have 1% to 3%.
Derek Heckman is on a quest to boost the organic matter of his soil to 5% or even higher. It matters because water matters entirely on the 500 acres he farms in southeastern Colorado, just west of Lamar.
“Water is the limiting factor for our farms a majority of the time,” he explains. “We are never able to put on enough water.”
Heckman’s water comes from the Fort Lyon Canal, which takes out from the Arkansas River near La Junta. In a good year, he says, his land can get 25 to 30 runs from the ditch. Last year he got 16 runs. This year? As of early May, Heckman was expecting no more than 10 runs.
“The more organic matter there is, the more the moisture-holding capacity of the soil,” he explains. This is particularly important as water supplies dwindle during the hot days of summer.
“Let’s say we have 105 degrees every day for two weeks,” says Heckman. “Organic content of your soil of 3% might allow you to go four additional days without irrigation and without having potential yield loss or, even worse, crops loss.”
Heckman, 31, practices regenerative agriculture.
In explaining this, Heckman shies away from the word sustainable. It’s too limiting, he says. “I don’t want to just sustain what I’m doing. Regenerative is bringing the soil back to life.”
Growing corn in the traditional way involved plowing fields before planting. The working of the field might involve five passes by a tractor, compacting the soil and reducing its porosity. The plows disrupt microbial life.
For several decades, farmers and scientists have been exploring the benefits of less intrusive tilling of the soil. Beginning about 20 years ago, Heckman’s father was one of them. The scientific literature is becoming robust on the benefits of what is generically called “conservation tillage.”
Irrigated corn fields of eastern Colorado can require 10% less irrigation water depending upon tillage and residue management practices, according to a 2020 paper published by Schneekloth and others.
Heckman experiments continuously, trying to find the best balance of cover crops, minimal tilling, and the right mix of chemicals.
“A lot of guys are comfortable with what grandpa did and what dad did, and that’s what they do,” he says. “I want to see changes in our operation.”
On the Western Slope, soil health restoration is being tested in an experiment on sagebrush-dominated rangelands south of Montrose. Ken Holsinger, an ecologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, says the intent is to restore diversity to the lands and improve the water-holding capacity of the soil.
Holsinger says the federal land was likely harmed by improper livestock grazing, particularly prior to adoption of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, but may well have continued until the 1970s prior to implementing modern grazing practices.
This experiment consists of a pair of one-acre plots that have lost their topsoil and have become dominated by sagebrush and invasive vegetation. Such lands produce 200 to 300 pounds of forage per acre but should be producing 800 to 1,000 pounds per acre of native grasses. The soil will be amended with nutrients to restart the carbon cycle. Afterward, 50% of the sagebrush will be removed.
“We are looking at restarting the carbon cycle and ultimately holding more water in the soil profile,” says Holsinger.
One way these enhanced, restored soils help is by preventing the monsoonal rains that western Colorado typically gets in summer from washing soil into creeks and rivers, muddying the water. If the experiment proves successful, then the task will be to cost-effectively scale it up, ideally to the watershed level.
Back in Silt, at the site of Spring Born, Charles Barr, the company’s owner, speaks to the need for innovation. “That will be the model going forward for all of these agricultural areas,” he says. “They have to find new sources of revenue, they have to find new ways of doing business, and they have to find new ways to conserve water.”
A presentation for San Juan County commissioners on the status of local watersheds on Sept. 6 illustrated that while the Four Corners region remains locked in the grip of a long-running drought, it is in relatively good condition compared to other parts of the Southwest. The 14-minute presentation delivered by Aaron Chavez, executive director of the San Juan Water Commission, was designed to bring commissioners up to speed on the health of the county’s two main watersheds, those associated with the Animas and San Juan rivers.
But Chavez, who is beginning a two-year term as president of the Colorado River Water Users Association, also devoted a significant amount of attention to the status of that watershed, which serves as a crucial water supplier to tens of millions of residents of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico…Chavez began his presentation by noting that while last winter’s snowpack in southwest Colorado was close to normal, it did not yield the kind of runoff one might have expected because the soil moisture content in the region was down substantially after years of substandard precipitation…
Nevertheless, most of the indicators Chavez examined this year were an improvement over the recent past, he said, as he noted the Four Corners area has had a good monsoon season this year that has helped make up for the relatively poor spring runoff. Most river basins in the area, he said, are at 90% to 100% of average…
According to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cited by Chavez, Navajo Lake was 55% full as of Aug. 24 — a level that was roughly equal to other local reservoirs, as Vallecito Lake northeast of Durango, Colorado, was at 49% and McPhee Reservoir north of Cortez, Colorado, was at 53%. The good news was that Lake Nighthorse west of Durango was listed at 99% full…But those figures stood in sharp contrast to the Southwest’s two mammoth reservoirs fed by the Colorado River. Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona was only 26% full, while Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona was at only 28% of capacity.
“A lot of reckoning” as Colorado low water flows imperil farming and ranching
The Utes are surviving, for now, by relying on a unique asset: a mill built in 2014 where tribal crews de-husk, grind and package all the corn they can harvest: “Native American Grown whole grain Non-GMO.” Sales nationwide to whiskey distilleries, health-oriented grocery stores and others help make ends meet — even as less water is available. Dry times led reservoir operators to cut the Utes’ water to 10% of their allotment last year and 25% this year. Only 13 of the tribe’s 110 center pivot irrigation sprinklers can run…
The agricultural economy of far southwestern Colorado once encompassed more than 75,000 irrigated acres, including 7,700 acres on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. It relies on the huge McPhee Reservoir completed in 1986, one of the largest and last that the federal government built to enable settlement in the arid Southwest. The reservoir is less than half full. Snowpack in the high San Juan Mountains has been shrinking — recent federal research has found these mountains will be dry before 2080 — and the cumulative impacts are such that runoff toward the reservoir disappears more quickly into parched terrain. The snow melts earlier, complicating planting, and unusually high winds and heavy dust accelerate water depletion.
By tribal leaders’ own reckoning and multiple historical assessments, the Utes have been dealt repeated bad hands, forced in the 19th Century onto some of North America’s harshest land – high desert southwest of Cortez — with limited access to water.
For thousands of years, Utes migrated in sync with nature’s seasons across valleys and deserts that became Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. A tribal website video celebrates Utes’ role as stewards of the mountains. European settlers displaced them and disrupted nomadic lifestyles. A 1908 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said water on reservations had to fulfill the purpose of the reservations, which included agriculture. Yet, access to sufficient water remains difficult. Ute Mountain Utes lacked domestic drinking water in Towaoc, the tribal capital, until the late 1980s. Tribal members had been hauling snow down from Sleeping Ute Mountain on their backs and melting it.
Low snowpack and soaring temperatures made 2020 the third-driest year on record in Colorado. When similar conditions repeated in 2021, tribal farmers in southwest Colorado had to scramble, fallowing thousands of acres of land and laying off workers at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s farm and ranch outside of Cortez.
“It made me very aware that our farm is in the desert. We have to look at it that way,” says Simon Martinez, general manager for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch Enterprise and the Bow and Arrow Brand non-GMO cornmeal business. The 7,700-acre farm is located on the tribe’s 553,008-acre reservation in southwest Colorado, less than 20 miles from the Four Corners.
When Dolores River flows below McPhee Reservoir were reduced to just 10% of normal in 2021, the tribe was able to operate only eight center pivot sprinklers, compared to its usual capacity of 110 sprinklers. A single center pivot sprinkler system irrigates circles of crops ranging from 32 to 141 acres in area. Lack of water meant fallowed acres, leaving the tribe to use only 500 acres in 2021, compared to 4,500 acres of alfalfa alone grown in 2020.
Without irrigation water, the farm’s ability to grow its mainstay crops of alfalfa and corn was majorly reduced, and without crops to harvest, employment, too, was cut to 50%. Twenty farm workers lost their jobs.
This year the tribe is expecting slightly more water, 20% to 25% of its normal allocation, or roughly 6,000 acre-feet of water, according to Mike Preston, president of the Weenuch-u’ Development Corporation, which oversees the farm’s operations. But some 6,000 acres of its 7,700-acre farm remain fallowed, a situation that requires the tribe to spend millions of dollars to keep weeds in check.
There is also hope in rising wheat prices, which are expected to reach $11.16 a bushel by December, according to Wall Street Journal crop pricing data. Preston said the tribe hopes to plant a late wheat crop this year to capitalize on the world-wide wheat shortages triggered by the war in Ukraine.
Overall, the tribe’s farm and ranch enterprises operate for economic empowerment and employment. And operations are largely successful—before the drought, the farm had been productive and profitable since it began operating in the late 1980s.
For Bow and Arrow Brand, operations didn’t slow, even last year. The cornmeal operation was launched years ago in order to stretch the shelf life of the tribe’s corn. Fresh sweet corn can last about two weeks, but by creating cornmeal, the produce remains profitable for around 18 months. Even during the drought and pandemic, sales continue. Full staff employment has been maintained.
Sustaining everything has been a challenge, but Martinez is up for the challenge, as he must be, he says. “We’re going to do our best to keep employment.”
Some help and funding is available to make up for losses, such as drought impact funding. And Martinez is working to help the farm adapt. He’s spreading the limited amount of water as far as possible through work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to upgrade sprinkler nozzle packages and continued consultations with agronomists on crop selection for increased drought tolerance. But those efforts can only go so far.
Martinez is hopeful that McPhee, the third-largest reservoir in Colorado, which serves the tribe, will see its water levels restored to meet tribal needs.
“We’re kind of teetering on the brink,” says Preston. The Dolores River watershed relies entirely on snowpack. But conditions aren’t looking great—100% of Montezuma county remains in severe or extreme drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Forecasts for the Dolores River Basin, as of June 1, project 45% to 60% of water supply availability this year, according to the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.
What seems clear to many in the region is that desert-like conditions are likely to continue and that means the Ute Mountain Utes must shift their operating plans to accommodate drier conditions.
“We’ve got to adapt,” Martinez says.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of Headwaters magazine. Additional reporting was contributed by Fresh Water News Editor Jerd Smith.
Rachelle Todea is Diné and a citizen of the Navajo Nation. She is a freelance reporter based in Westminster, Colo., who reports on climate change and Indigenous peoples.
The Bureau of Reclamation today [June 1, 2022] restarted operations of the Paradox Valley Unit (PVU), a crucial salinity control facility for the Colorado River system. For the next six months, the PVU will operate at a reduced capacity to gather data that will help guide future operational decisions.
Located in a remote area of western Colorado, along the Dolores River in Montrose County, the PVU removes an average of 95,000 tons of salt annually from the Dolores and Colorado rivers. It does this by extracting brine groundwater in the Paradox Valley and injecting it into a deep injection well, thereby preventing it from entering the Dolores River, which is a major tributary of the Colorado River. Saline concentrations of this naturally occurring brine groundwater have measured in excess of 250,000 milligrams per liter—about eight times saltier than seawater—and have contributed up to 200,000 tons of salt per year to the Colorado River system.
Prior to the restart, the Paradox injection well had been shut down since March 2019, when a 4.5 magnitude earthquake was recorded at the site. Though there was no damage to the well or surrounding area, injection was suspended to model injection formation pressure, monitor and analyze seismic activity, and to perform a seismic hazard analysis to ensure safe operation. Reclamation has determined that seismic activity at the site has significantly decreased and that resuming operations at a reduced rate under close watch is acceptable.
“The safety of our personnel and that of the community is our primary concern,” said Upper Colorado Regional Director Wayne Pullan. “After ceasing operations of the unit and thorough inspections, we want to ensure the community that we are ready to test the site by operating the unit at a reduced capacity for continued evaluation and assessment.”
The six-month-long operational test will consist of injecting brine groundwater into the 16,000-foot-deep well at a reduced rate of 115 gallons per minute, which is 67% of past operations. Modeling indicates that this reduced rate will have a negligible impact on seismicity and Reclamation will closely monitor the injection pressure and seismic response. If any unfavorable conditions develop, such as increased magnitudes in seismicity, operation will be suspended until it is deemed safe to continue.
“The injection test results will be used to evaluate well conditions and help Reclamation create a plan for potential future injection operations,” said Western Colorado Area Office Manager Ed Warner. “A seismic risk analysis will be completed in 2023 and an operations plan may be developed, based upon the injection test results.”
The PVU started operations in 1996 and provides substantial benefits, up to $23 million annually, including improved water quality, increased life of municipal and industrial infrastructure, and increased crop yields for all downstream water users in the Colorado River Basin.
The Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum meeting was held May 11, where the Basin states participated in discussion and coordination regarding PVU operations, seismic risk analysis, and post-EIS direction, to include the start of this six-month injection well test.
For more information about the PVU, visit our website.
Click the link to read “Reclamation resumes salt-water injection at reduced level as it evaluates seismic threat” on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Dennis Webb). Here’s an excerpt:
The agency’s Paradox Valley Unit has been used for decades to help keep salt from reaching the Dolores River, and ultimately the Colorado River. Salinity in the Colorado River watershed harms water quality, impacts municipal and industrial infrastructure and impairs crop yields within the river basin. The Bureau of Reclamation facility extracts brine groundwater in the Paradox Valley and injects it into a 16,000-foot-deep well, keeping it from reaching the Dolores River, a tributary of the Colorado River.
The groundwater has been measured to be about eight times saltier than seawater, with saline concentrations exceeding 250,000 milligrams per liter, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. It estimates that its project has kept an average of about 95,000 tons of salt a year from reaching the rivers through operation of the injection well from 1996, when operations started, through 2019. This has resulted in up to $23 million in annual benefits by reducing river salinity and its impacts. The wastewater injection has a drawback, however, in that it induces seismic activity that has worsened over the years. In March 2019 a magnitude 4.5 associated with the facility was felt as far away as Grand Junction and Moab. It was the largest quake that has been linked to the injection well.
Following that quake, the Bureau of Reclamation suspended operations at the well for more than a year before briefly resuming them on a test basis. It also considered alternative salinity control measures in the Paradox Valley, including drilling and operating a new well at one of two new locations, using evaporation ponds, or building a plant to heat the brine to crystallize and remove the salt. But it ultimately decided against pursuing any of those due to concerns about things such as cost and potential aesthetic and wildlife impacts.
Last week, [a Colorado online daily] ran an opinion piece about the dwindling Colorado River and what role agriculture may or may not play in helping to shore it up. It was written by Don Schwindt, a Cortez, Colorado, farmer, and Dan Keppen, Executive Director of the Family Farm Alliance. Along with praising a Southwestern Colorado dam, they argue that agriculture is important and “must be protected by ensuring water remains on-farm.”
They go on to say:
“Now, the narrative in some recent media coverage is even more troubling. For some, the current severe drought provides a platform to advocate taking water from farmers to make more available for cities and the environment.
“The hydrology of the West may be changing, but that should not drive hasty decisions. Agricultural water cannot be simply viewed as the default “reservoir” to meet other growing water demands.”
They are referring to “demand management,” which can include encouraging farmers to plant less thirsty crops, to increasing efficiency, to paying farmers to stop watering their fields and leave the water in the river (either buying water rights and permanently transferring them, or leasing them when needed on a temporary basis).
As I read the piece, I was struck less by the arguments, which were fairly predictable, than by my reactions to the arguments. One sentence would have me scoffing, the next nodding in agreement, and another both nodding and snorting derisively. That’s not because I’m insane. It’s because these issues—the “Law of the River,” agriculture’s role in culture and ecosystems, and the Colorado River system—are complicated as all get out. And that sometimes means that the only workable solutions to the growing problems on the river are not always vary palatable. I like farmers, for example, but I also like rivers and the fish in them. It’s getting more and more difficult to have both.
The following is an attempt at a Data Dump response of sorts to the column.
The Colorado River is facing a serious supply-demand imbalance. A century ago, when the framers of the Colorado Compact got together to divvy up the river’s waters, they made a few mistakes. First, and most egregious, they didn’t include tribal nations in the negotiations, despite the fact that tribes are sovereign nations and collectively are entitled to first rights to all the water in the river. That was just wrong. Second, they overestimated the amount of water in the river, which in some ways was an honest screw up, given the records they had to work from. And, third, they parceled out too big a portion of the water they thought was in the river, leaving too small of a buffer in case their calculations were off (they were).
The result: The river is over-allocated, and would be even if climate change were not a factor. So, supply was already lagging behind demand two decades ago, when the Southwest entered the megadrought in a dramatic way (i.e. 2002, the year of our desiccation). Now the supply is diminishing while demand holds steady, which is rapidly drawing down Lakes Powell and Mead (and other reservoirs). With those huge water “banks” at a critically low level, the Colorado River Basin is at its breaking point. Demand must be slashed, quickly and significantly.
The logical way to make big cuts in consumption is to go to the biggest consumers. And the biggest user of Colorado River water, by far, is not lawns, not golf courses, not the Bellagio fountain in Vegas. It is agriculture: all of those orchards, cornfields, alfalfa fields, ranches, and so on. It’s true in the Upper Basin, in the Lower Basin, and in each state except Nevada, which uses virtually all of its relatively minuscule portion of the river to keep Las Vegas from shriveling up and dissolving back into the desert.
Farms’ outsized water guzzling may seem surprising, especially since residential development has been gobbling up farmland in recent decades and ag makes up a smaller and smaller portion of these states’ economies. But crops need water in the arid West and, besides, the farmers tend to have most of the water rights. And Western water law and custom encourage folks to use all of the water they have a right to, conservation be damned—the motto, “use it or lose it,” is pounded into many a Western irrigator’s head: Take all of the water to which you’re entitled and then some, whether you need it or not, or else it might end up on your neighbor’s field or, God forbid, flow back into the river!
Schwindt/Keppen write, in reference to diverting Dolores River water onto the farms of Southwest Colorado’s Montezuma Valley:
“The valley’s irrigated ecosystem also improved, further enhancing critically important environments for wildlife and generating other cultural benefits. Irrigated agricultural lands provide groundwater storage, open space, and riparian habitat and wildlife corridors. They also serve as important buffers between public wildlands and expanding urban and suburban areas.”
And it’s true, kind of. It’s a stretch to say irrigation enhances the existing ecosystem, but it certainly creates its own, new ecosystems which can be quite vibrant and beautiful. Leaky ditches are especially good at feeding new wetlands, willows, cattails, cottonwoods, and birds and other wildlife. But what irrigation bestows on previously arid landscapes, it takes from once wild rivers. That is especially true on the Dolores, where in the late 1800s irrigators began diverting its waters out of the Dolores River watershed and into the San Juan River watershed, meaning the runoff did not go back into the river. That essentially dried the lower Dolores right up.
The same was happening all over the region. In the late 1880s ichthyologist David Starr Jordan surveyed area rivers. Here’s what he observed, not about the Dolores, specifically, but about the general state of streams in Colorado at the time:
But then came the Dolores Project, McPhee Dam and Reservoir, which Schwindt and Keppen say “put water in the dry Dolores riverbed.” Well, no, not really. What it did is take water out of the river during spring runoff and then release some of it later in the year into the riverbed that had been dried out by irrigation diversions.
The dam started impounding water in 1983, in the midst of a string of unusually wet years. During that era, the dam did its job. The current irrigators got a more stable supply of water. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe got both drinking water from the project as well as enough to irrigate a major agricultural enterprise near the toe of Ute Mountain, providing much needed economic development. The Town of Dove Creek receives water from the project as do the formerly dryland farmers, allowing them to diversify their crops. And still the year-round flows below the dam were enough to build and sustain a cold-water fishery for trout in the first dozen or so miles below the dam and a habitat for native fish below that. In some ways the dam had set the stage for a win-win-win situation.
Until it didn’t. That riverbed below the dam? It’s dry more years than not. Last year farmers had to fallow some or all of their fields. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe received only about 10 percent of its usual irrigation water, forcing it to fallow fields; the Town of Dove Creek faced the prospect of losing its drinking water supply altogether; and releases from the dam for the lower river were cut to 10 cubic feet per second, a mere trickle. For several consecutive weeks in June and July the river gauge at Slickrock registered zero. Fish died off, boating has been nearly non-existent most years, and the dearth of high spring water has allowed tamarisk and Russian olive to proliferate.
This spring’s flows on the Dolores River above the dam have actually been somewhat healthy, peaking out (rather early) at nearly 2,000 cubic feet per second.
And yet virtually none of that is making it past the dam (yes, that flat black line at the bottom represents releases. It’s at about 7.5 cubic feet per second, a mere trickle, and water managers say they will increase it to a whopping 25 cfs later this year, which is about enough to float a stick):
And even with good flows and low releases, Dolores Project irrigators are expected to get only 18% of their allocation this year. That’s up from 10% last year, but still. The dam isn’t doing the job it’s meant to do, which is to insulate users from drought. And yet, Schwindt and Keppen say the solution is not to try to reduce demand, but rather to “seriously assess projects that enhance water supplies.” They and the Farm Alliance suggest forest restoration, as well as building more water storage, i.e. dams. That won’t be enough.
Anyway, back to demand management. I think most of us can agree that farms shouldn’t be dried to allow cities to grow heedlessly, or to allow urban folks to water big lawns or keep parks green. And we can also all agree that everyone needs to manage their own demand, from the coal power plants to cities and towns to ski areas. Cities need to enhance efficiency and incentivize conservation by banning lawns, structuring water rates to discourage waste, requiring water-efficient appliances in new homes, and limiting growth. Reusing treated wastewater should be the norm. Coal plants should be shut down. Data centers, which can use as much as 1 million gallons of water per day, probably shouldn’t be sited in water-scarce areas (i.e. the Southwest).
But as the consumption graphs above make clear, all of that will only go so far. Agriculture is the biggest consumer of water, so demand management in that realm will also pay the highest dividends. This doesn’t necessarily mean fallowing vast tracts of farmland. It might just mean irrigating more efficiently, plugging leaks on ditches, or switching to less water-intensive, more nutritionally dense crops. Land Desk readers will probably know what I’m saying: Maybe plant a little less alfalfa, instead of more of it!
I know, I know, we need that alfalfa to feed the cows to make our cheeseburgers. I get it. But here’s the thing: A lot of that alfalfa is going overseas.
In other words, we are exporting our increasingly scarce Colorado River water—in the form of hay bales—to China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. I think the agriculture industry can probably handle a little bit of demand management.
The earliest melt out in last 30 yrs for the Upper San Juan Basin years was in 2002. On 3/18, there was nearly twice as much snow (SWE) in the basin compared to 2002: 16.3 vs 8.5 inches. But after a few weeks of wind and dust, the runoff is already ending https://t.co/9uLQ0EhcTf
Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan Thompson) and to drop some dough in the tip jar:
It’s that time of the year, again, folks. Yep, you guessed it, it’s … Yukigata Time! Okay, maybe you didn’t guess it. Maybe you have no idea what the word even means. But I’m willing to bet you are familiar with the concept and, if you are a farmer or a gardener, you probably use a yukigata.
A yukigata is a pattern formed by melting snow on a mountain slope or hillside in the spring. They often serve as agricultural calendars, letting farmers know when to plant certain crops, or when the danger of a tomato-killing freeze has passed. The calendars can be simple: over in the Montezuma Valley gardeners wait until Ute Mountain is free of snow to plant. Or more elaborate: In the Grand Valley of Colorado, it would be foolish to plant before the Swan’s Neck has melted. And in the North Fork Valley of Western Colorado, gardeners wait for the Devil’s Neck on Mt. Lamborn to “break.”
But the yukigatas have been doing their thing, or disappearing, sooner than in the past, tricking people into planting too early and making their crops vulnerable to the inevitable spring freeze. In Durango, Colorado, for example, gardeners once planted according to when the snow melted off the north face of Smelter Mountain. Now that can happen as soon as March—if there’s snow on the mountain at all—which is just too early.
This also messes with plants’ internal calendars, tricking fruit trees into blossoming too early. A study published this spring found wildflowers in the sagebrush ecosystem now bloom weeks earlier than they did in the 1970s. And here’s a cool map from the National Phenology Network showing where trees leafed out earlier (or later) than usual this year.
Clearly the premature melting of the yukigata is caused by less snow to begin with combined with warming temperatures. Dust on the snow causes it to melt faster, too. As does, wait for it, atmospheric thirst! That’s right, the increasing temperatures are making the atmosphere thirstier, and it’s guzzling up snow, drying out plants, sucking up reservoirs, and so on. Last month, scientists from the Desert Research Institute published a study tracking changes in evaporative demand and found it is increasing everywhere, especially in the Southwest.
As evaporative demand increases, it pulls more water from the land into the air via evaporation and transpiration from plants (and snow and reservoirs), leaving less in the streams and soil. In the Rio Grande Basin, the authors say, that means crops need 8% to 15% more irrigation now than they did in 1980. They go on to note, “These increases in crop water requirements are coincident with declining runoff ratios on the Rio Grande due to warming temperatures and increased evaporative losses, representing a compounding stress on water supplies.”
The authors conclude:
“These higher evaporative demands mean that, for every drop of precipitation that falls, less water is likely to drain into streams, wetlands, and aquifers across the region. Soils and vegetation spend more time in drier conditions, increasing potential for forest fire, tree mortality, and tree regeneration failure.”
So the thirsty atmosphere is likely a factor in the catastrophic fires currently burning in New Mexico. The Hermits Peak Fire—in the Pecos River watershed, east of the Rio Grande—has grown to a monstrous 166,000 acres and is threatening Las Vegas, Mora, and Montezuma.
This year neither the Rio Grande nor the Pecos watershed has done all that well, snowpack-wise. Not many watersheds have, although Southwest Colorado is in better shape than it was last year. Snow season is pretty much over. That doesn’t mean it won’t snow any more in the high country. It’s just that the snowpack peak has almost certainly passed, runoff is underway, and many lower elevation SNOTEL stations are registering zero, which can throw off basin-wide graphs. So, below we offer the snowpack season finale with May 1 readings at our three go-to high country SNOTEL , plus the current graph for the Rio Grande Basin.
The bright spot is definitely Columbus Basin, high in the La Plata Mountains. It’s below the average level for the period of record, but still doing far better than 2021. The La Platas feed the Animas, La Plata, Mancos, and Dolores Rivers. Last year the Dolores had an awful year. Things are looking up this time around—relatively speaking. The Dolores River through its namesake town shot up to 1,800 cfs at one point, dropped, then shot back up again, pushing up levels at McPhee significantly. Still, don’t goo excited. McPhee’s only at 59% of capacity and water managers are releasing virtually nothing from the dam.
River runners better get out on the water now, while they still can.
Water forecasts remain below average, but above last year’s troubling lows – a positive sign for water managers adapting to sustained drought in the region. Yet, much will depend on the impact of recent dust events and summer monsoons.
According to SNOTEL data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service, a little more than half of the snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins has melted so far. Snowpack is measured using the metric of snow water equivalent, or the water content of the snow.
The Animas River was flowing at 669 cubic feet per second in Durango on Wednesday afternoon, the Dolores River at 556 cfs in Dolores and the San Juan River at 895 cfs, according to Colorado Basin River Forecast Center data. Southwest Colorado’s rivers have slowed since Friday, but the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center predicts that flows will again increase over the next week and a half. Forecasts show the Animas River will peak at 3,100 cfs in late May or early June, slightly above last year’s peak of 2,910 cfs on June 7. Forecasts project peaks of 1,500 cfs for the Dolores River and 1,600 cfs for the San Juan River also in late May and early June…
Snow is melting earlier than average this year, according to the SNOTEL data, a trend that Wolff and other water managers have noted. Typically, snowpack would peak around April 1 and runoff would last from April through May and even into June, Wolff said…While runoff is happening earlier this year, water supply forecasts suggest more optimism. The Animas, Dolores and San Juan rivers are hovering just above 70% of average, according to Colorado Basin River Forecast Center forecasts…
Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, told Wolff the district was hoping to get at least 70% of its average water.
San Miguel County and Boulder lawsuits against two oil companies will be heard in Colorado. That helps. But these cases will still have an uphill struggle to prove damages that might seem obvious.
Colorado has abundant evidence of destruction caused by the warming, and more volatile, climate. Wildfires, ever larger and more destructive, now happen year-round, including the ghastly Marshall Fire of late December and the much smaller fires of recent weeks. Rising temperatures have robbed flows from the Colorado River, from which Boulder and Boulder County get substantial amounts of water. Air conditioning has become more necessity than luxury.
But can Boulder and other jurisdictions show harm from burning of fossil fuels — the primary cause of warming — in their climate liability lawsuits against oil companies?
In 2018, Boulder (both the city and the county) as well as San Miguel County sued two oil giants, ExxonMobil and Suncor. These Colorado cases are among more than 20 climate lawsuits now in courts from Hawaii to Massachusetts. They’re the only cases from an inland state claiming actual damages from climate change — and after a recent legal victory, they could be among the first where substantive arguments are heard in court. (Only Honolulu’s case is on a faster track.)
Despite all the evidence of climate destruction, the legal case will be challenging, according to Pat Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School.
“In a court of law, you have to prove by the preponderance of evidence and you have to convince the jury, all 12 of them,” says Parenteau, who has advised some parties who filed similar lawsuits, but is not currently involved directly in the litigation.
He points to the difficulty of pinning health impacts on tobacco companies in the 1990s. “Cigarettes kill people. Global warming, per se, kills people: Heat waves kill people. High tides kill people.”
Proving responsibility in a courtroom will be the tricky part. “There are multiple links in the causal change that you have to prove with climate change,” Parenteau says. “It was difficult enough to prove with tobacco. It never was proven [in court]. It was just settled. Just imagine how difficult it is for climate change.”
Suncor operates a refinery in Commerce City northeast of downtown Denver that processes 98,000 barrels of oil daily. “We purchase crude oil from the Denver-Julesburg Basin, process it in Commerce City, and sell nearly 95% of our products within the state,” Suncor’s website says.
Exxon has no refinery in Colorado, but it does sell fuel in the state.
“They are the two most consequential oil companies in Colorado, given their local operations,” says Marco Simons, the lead attorney with EarthRights International, the organization representing the three jurisdictions in Colorado.
So far, the arguments in the Colorado cases (and others) have been about process, namely where the cases should be tried.
In legal cases, as in basketball, home court matters. This is likely why Exxon and Suncor wanted lawsuits filed against them by Boulder and San Miguel heard in federal courts instead of Colorado district courts.
“Basically, their argument was that you can’t let state law allow these people to seek remedy before climate change injury when federal law doesn’t provide that remedy,” Simons explains.
The oil companies lost that round. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled on Feb. 8 that the two lawsuits should be heard in Colorado. The court then ordered, on March 2, for that mandate to take effect.
“The court is basically saying there’s nothing wrong with using ordinary state law to hold oil companies accountable to their contribution to climate change,’” says Simons. “That does not in any way violate federal law. It’s not something inappropriate for states to do.”
arenteau agrees there is value to the climate cases being heard in state courts. The empirical evidence is clear: “Where do the states and cities find the best success? It’s in their own courts. The faster these cases get back to state courts from federal courts, the better.”
Colorado’s cases, originally filed as one, have been separated. San Miguel County’s case is to be heard in Denver District Court, and the Boulder and Boulder County case in Boulder County District Court.
Home-court advantage goes only so far. Attorneys for EarthRights International must now prove that the fossil fuels sold by Suncor and ExxonMobil in Colorado have produced damages from a changing climate to the local jurisdictions.
While many legal analysts say that will be difficult to prove, some observers think the Colorado lawsuits could be successful, even short of total courtroom victories.
One of those making that case is Cara Horowitz, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change & the Environment, a program embedded in the law school at the University of California Los Angeles. She has coordinated with counsel for several jurisdictions in California that filed climate change lawsuits in 2017, but is no longer involved in those other climate liability cases.
“On an even more deep level, one goal that the plaintiffs have across the set of cases is undermining the social license of the corporations to do what they have been doing for decades,” says Horowitz. “They just need one good victory to hang their hats on.”
That could help supporters of these suits win verdicts in the court of public opinion.
Neither Suncor nor Exxon responded to requests for comment, but the premise of the fossil fuel companies is that they have been doing nothing wrong by peddling gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuel products.
Climate change-related lawsuits have been filed since the mid-1980s. Early lawsuits generally sought to force actions by state governments and federal agencies. The most notable such case is Massachusetts v. EPA, which resulted in the Supreme Court’s landmark 2007 decision that gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. Other lawsuits, such as Connecticut vs. American Electric Power in 2011, targeted energy companies. For complex legal reasons, these cases using federal courts have struggled to go forward.
Investigative reports in 2015 by Inside Climate News and independent work by the Los Angeles Times about ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil and gas company, were important in triggering the wave of lawsuits of the last five years. The journalists showed that the oil giant misled the public about what it knew about climate change and the risks posed by fossil fuel emissions decades ago. The investigative series were based largely on the company’s internal records.
Since then have come a wave of lawsuits by state and local governments.
California jurisdictions — first Marin and San Mateo counties along with the city of Imperial Beach in July 2017, followed by Oakland and San Francisco that September — were at the forefront of suits by state and local governments. Currently pending are lawsuits filed by seven states and the District of Columbia and 19 by cities and counties, according to the Center for Climate Integrity.
These lawsuits fall into primarily two overlapping buckets. The two cases in Colorado fall into both.
In one bucket of lawsuits are claims of fraud and deception by oil companies, primarily by Exxon. The second bucket consists of suits alleging the oil companies have created “nuisances” that have caused damages. In the Colorado cases, local governments have suffered harm as a result, the lawsuits say.
“It’s about fundamental principles of tort law that basically boil down to, ‘If you harm someone, you have to pay for it,’” explains Simons, the EarthRights attorney.
The 2018 lawsuits for the Colorado jurisdictions cite many climate impacts from fossil fuels. Rising temperatures will affect water supplies. Emergency management services will have to be ramped up because of increased wildfires, heavy rainfall and other extreme weather events. Warmer temperatures will worsen the already problematic ground-level ozone in Boulder County.
Some increased costs have already occurred, the lawsuit filed by the three Colorado jurisdictions in 2018 says. It points to the West Nile virus spread by mosquitoes amid rising temperatures. Prior to 2002, Boulder had no mosquito control program. That was the year the virus first appeared in Colorado. After that, costs of mosquito abatement grew steadily. By 2018 mosquito management nicked the city budget roughly $250,000. In Boulder County, the cost approached $400,000.
Buildings will have to be modified, the lawsuit says. “Due to the expected continued heat rise in Boulder County, a place that historically rarely saw days above 95 degrees, Boulder County and the City of Boulder are expected to see increased public health heat risks, such as heat stroke, and their associated costs,” the lawsuit filed in 2018 says.
This increasing heat, the lawsuit continues, will drive up costs, such as that of cooling infrastructure for buildings. “Cooling centers that are available during heat waves, and/or assisting with home air-conditioning installation, could cost Boulder County and the City of Boulder millions of dollars by mid-century.”
The lawsuit cites the $37.7 million of a $575.5 school construction bond for the Boulder Valley School District used for air-conditioning and better ventilation.
How the Colorado cases are different
Colorado’s lawsuits were the first filed in an interior state. Even now, the only other states without coastlines to have filed climate change lawsuits against oil companies are Minnesota and Vermont. They claim fraud. That makes the Colorado cases the only ones claiming damages.
This duality, an inland state claiming actual damages from climate change, sets Colorado’s cases apart from all others.
“It’s easy to imagine a city like Miami or other coastal cities being imperiled by climate change,” says Horowitz, the UCLA law professor. “The Boulder case is helping to illustrate that even inland cities, cities in the middle of America, are being harmed by climate change.”
One long-sought goal of the litigation is getting to what in courts is called the discovery phase. That’s the stage where documents, emails, other correspondence and information related to the suits could reach the public and prove devastating to the company. (That is essentially what happened to the tobacco industry, with the release of memos and documents in discovery.)
Horowitz, the law professor in Los Angeles, expects the filings and rulings to accelerate. “You will start to get state court decisions sooner rather than later, by which I mean probably in the next year,” she says. Appeals will follow, but these Colorado cases — and those similarly proceeding in other states — will move along.
“I wouldn’t think it will take five to 10 years,” she says.
And the fact that Colorado has no beach-front property could spur other similar cases. Sea level rise is not imminently threatening Boulder the way it is in Imperial Beach, a city of 26,000 people near San Diego that has also filed a climate change lawsuit.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if more jurisdictions realize they will need help in funding climate change adaptation,” Horowitz says, “and the fossil fuel companies are logical places to look as sources for that funding.”
This story was prepared in collaboration with the Boulder Reporting Lab, whose editing and suggestions enormously improved the story.
Local leaders are celebrating a win this week, after learning last Friday that the Norwood area was awarded a $110,000 grant for water. The Wright’s Mesa Water Planning and Prioritization Project (WMWPPP) partners are the recipients, and they were supported in the application process by the West End Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC)…
WMWPPP is a group that includes the Town of Norwood, San Miguel County, WEEDC, Norwood Water Commission, Farmers Water Development, the Lone Cone Ditch Company, the Norwood Fire Protection District, and the San Miguel Watershed Coalition.
The idea to go for funding came together in the summer of 2021, when Norwood Town Trustee Candy Meehan and District 3 Commissioner Holstrom were both students in Water Education Colorado’s program “Water Fluency.” One session in Water Fluency was focused on funding, and learning about the availability of funds for just the type of infrastructure needed in the local region “lit a fire” for Meehan and Holstrom. Meehan spearheaded the grant application effort, and she and Holstrom worked with Deanna Sheriff, of WEEDC, and April Montgomery, of the Telluride Foundation, to flesh out their idea of looking for ways to get some of the $80 million in monies available for known water projects identified by the Southwest Basin Roundtable…
With funding secured, an engineering firm will be chosen to conduct a collaborative water infrastructure planning and prioritization analysis for all of Wright’s Mesa…
Though this winter appears to be looking good regarding snowpack, the local region is still classified in drought — with a changing climate, the need for housing and development, and the critical need for repairing and updating the town’s current water infrastructure…
The Colorado Water Conservation Board made its decision to fund Norwood during its March 15 meeting and announced the decision on March 18.
The Nine Basins Bulletin is the new newsletter from the Southwestern Water Conservation District and the Water Information Program, a summary of the latest updates from southwest Colorado. In this email forum, we want to raise awareness, engagement, and coordination among our nine distinct watersheds—and share our successes with the state. It’s for you.
Send your updates, jobs, and events to email@example.com.
At a time when water in the Southwest is becoming increasingly scarce, more than 20 streams in the region are being proposed for protective safeguards in an attempt to preserve the waterways for years to come.
For the past two decades, a prolonged drought driven by climate change has snowpack levels in the Southwest on a continual downward trend. Obviously, that’s not good – less snow means less runoff for rivers and streams, and less water available for use.
As a result, a few years ago, a coalition of environmental groups started a process to locate and identify streams in the high country of Southwest Colorado that would qualify as Outstanding Waters (OW). The designation protects defined reaches of rivers, streams and lakes that have exceptional water quality.
The thinking, environmental groups say, is saving these pristine high-alpine streams in the face of climate change and worsening drought will ensure the long-term protection of tributaries that are vital for the region’s most important rivers, such as the Animas, Dolores, Gunnison, San Juan and San Miguel – which all feed into the Colorado River…
Really special rivers
The Outstanding Waters designation was established as part of the Clean Water Act of 1972. For streams to qualify, they must meet a set of criteria based on water quality and national resource values. And, the streams also must serve as critical habitat for aquatic life and have a component of recreational value, such as fishing or river running. Once designated, the water quality in those streams must be maintained and protected from any future development or use.
The Clean Water Act, however, left it up to states to create a process and specific criteria for streams to qualify as OW. In Colorado, that job falls to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We protect every stream in Colorado, but this is the highest level of protection,” Blake Beyea, a water standards unit manager with CDPHE, said. “And it needs to be supported by water quality data, as well as evidence it’s an outstanding resource that requires protections.”
While the designation is somewhat seldom used, as of February 2020, Colorado had an estimated 78 stream segments and bodies of water, covering 5,869 river miles, classified as OWs, mostly located within wilderness areas and national parks. The environmental groups’ proposal – which includes SJCA, Trout Unlimited, American Waters and Pew Charitable Trust, among others – would be unique in terms of the amount of streams proposed and the fact the waterways are located outside wilderness areas, mostly on Forest Service lands…
Setting a standard
Back in 2019, the environmental groups started conversations on what streams might qualify as OWs. They looked at maps for high-altitude waterways that showed the potential for pristine water quality and impeccable habitat for aquatic life, while also escaping historical impacts from uses like mining and development over the years.
In all, nearly 30 streams emerged as potential OW candidates. Then, the next step was to prove it with on-the-ground water testing, an effort led by the Durango-based Mountain Studies Institute. That process lasted two years, with samples taken four times a year from each stream. In the end, the environmental groups ultimately proposed 26 stream segments (five in the Animas; nine in Dolores; seven in Gunnison; three in San Juan; and two in San Miguel).
An OW designation does not affect water rights and would not prohibit future development in these watersheds, Gaztambide said. It would, however, establish a baseline of water quality that cannot be impacted or degraded in the face of that development. And in some circumstances, it’s not just development; the waterways are also protected from things like an increase in recreation, which can result in elevated levels of E. coli.
Essentially, uses and development can change on the landscape; the existing, high-level water quality standards cannot…
Gaztambide and the environmental groups are optimistic all the streams they’ve proposed will attain the OW designation. And indeed, there doesn’t seem to be much pushback from other water users in the region, such as agriculture and water districts.
Steve Wolff, manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, which represents nine counties in Southwest Colorado, said it’s unlikely the district’s board will take a stance either way for the OW designation. To date, the board has just monitored and asked questions about any possible unintended consequences the listing may have.
One potential concern, Wolff said, is what outside impacts and degradation, like rising water temperatures driven by climate change, would have on the designation and the requirement to maintain those standards. “If that happens, what does that mean from a regulatory aspect?” Wolff said. “We really don’t know yet.”
Since most of the streams are located on Forest Service lands, another question has been raised on the impacts to grazing and logging. A Forest Service representative said Tuesday “we don’t have information to share about the designation at this time” and did not provide comment for this story. Gaztambide, however, said an OW designation does not impact uses like grazing.
A critical time
Peter Butler, who serves as a consultant for SWCD and has worked on water quality issues in the region for years, said he wasn’t aware of too many issues with the OW designation in Colorado over the years. In 2009, Hermosa Creek, for instance, was designated as the first OW outside of a wilderness area or national park, and the situation hasn’t run into any problems or controversy…
To nominate nearly 30 streams in one proposal is a big project, Butler said. But OW, though rarely used, is a way to protect precious water resources at a critical time, in a way that’s more regulatory and doesn’t have to go through a political process. In June, CDPHE’s nine-person Water Quality Control Commission is expected to vote on the proposal…
Gaztambide said the designation will also protect these vital tributaries, which provide a boost of clean water to major rivers should a large event, like the Gold King Mine spill or mudslides from the 416 Fire, seriously impact water quality and threaten drinking water for downstream towns.
FromThe Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:
Limited water supply consolidated to keep corn crop and flour mill operating; jobs lost, canal payment assistance requested
In the Ute Mountain Ute language, paa is the word for water, nüvav means “snow,” uway means “to rain” and tühpar üatüaa means “dried up cropland.”
These words weigh heavily on the minds of Ute Mountain Utes in Southwest Colorado because they are missing the critical ingredients of snow in the mountains and rain in the valleys.
Tribal member Wilford Lang drove a tractor for more than 20 years for the tribe’s 7,600-acre alfalfa and corn farm, southwest of Towaoc.
He has seen water supply fluctuate up and down. But when flows in the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir came in at 10% for the 2021 season, he and 20 other workers on the farm suddenly lost their jobs…
Water is sacred for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and with less to go around, the tribe is searching for ways to augment its supply.
Tribal elders remember water scarcity long before the Colorado Ute Water Rights Settlement of 1988, which provides water for tribal lands from the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir.
Vera Summa remembers the 1950s, when she and her grandmother collected water from the springs and mesas of Sleeping Ute Mountain. During winter, adults, elders and children collected snow in bundles and hauled it out on their backs, Summa said…
The Mancos River runs through Ute Mountain reservation lands, but it dried up after Jackson Reservoir was built in 1950 to serve the Mancos area upstream, said elder Laverna Summa, Vera’s sister.
Water shortages are happening again, brought on by a worsening dry spell that started in 2002…
In 2021, drought-stricken fallow fields have replaced the bounty of alfalfa and corn harvests on the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch operations, an economic hardship brought on by the worst water year in McPhee Reservoir history.
Marginal mountain snowpack was sucked up by dry ground and whisked away on the warm spring wind.
The runoff from mountain snowmelt never made it to McPhee, where the water level already was low from the previous parched year.
The 2021 deficit caused a 90% water shortage for farmers tied to the Dolores Water Conservancy District, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
The tribe’s 7,600-acre farm received just 10% of its 24,517 acre-foot allocation.
The water shortage dried out fields and brought financial challenges for the farming and ranching operations. The tribe laid off half its farm workers, about 20 total, most of whom are tribal members…
Farm operations include the Bow and Arrow mill, a state-of-the-art facility opened in 2014 that sells non-GMO, gluten-free and kosher cornmeal to food manufacturers, grocery stores and distilleries.
The mill’s products are used to make chips, polenta, pasta, grits, cornbread, whiskey and more.
Simon Martinez, general manager of the Ute Mountain Ute Bow and Arrow Brand and Farm & Ranch Enterprises, talks Oct. 20 near Towaoc about how drought and reduced irrigation have affected crop production. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
The Ute Mountain Ute Bow and Arrow Brand mill on Oct. 20 near Towaoc. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Martinez used most this year’s limited water supply to irrigate the white, yellow and blue corn crops and keep the mill and its staff of 13 going. The tribe’s ranching operation, with a 600 cow-calf herd, has been kept whole.
So far, business has been brisk at the corn mill, but the drought weighs on everyone’s mind…
Lang said the farm and ranch operation and Bow and Arrow corn mill have been an economic boon for the tribe. They provide well-paying careers for many tribal members and create a deep sense of pride…
The drastic drop in crop revenue fell short of the $660,000 in annual delivery costs for the water on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Towaoc-Highline Canal.
So far this year, Martinez said, the tribe has paid $150,000 of that bill and has asked the Bureau of Reclamation for drought assistance to pay the rest…
Martinez and his reduced farm staff still must tend to thousands of acres of fallow fields, and they are discing the soil and controlling weeds to prep the fields for next year.
Long-term forecasts for the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah call for abnormally dry and hot weather…
Senior water rights buffer drought impacts
Ute Mountain Ute water rights have a complex history.
As part of the Colorado Ute Water Rights Settlement of 1988, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe gave up 1868 rights on the Mancos River in exchange for more junior water rights to the Dolores River in McPhee Reservoir, said Mike Preston, a water consultant for the tribe.
The settlement was made partly in response to the Mancos River going dry through Ute Mountain Ute land after Jackson Lake was built upstream in Mancos.
As original inhabitants, Native American tribes have inherent water rights, which were codified by the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision that mandates that tribal reservations have access to water.
As part of the 1988 settlement, the Dolores Project and McPhee Reservoir satisfied Ute Mountain Ute water rights via delivery from McPhee and the gravity-fed 39-mile Towoac-Highline Canal to Ute Farm and Ranch.
The settlement also created a reliable domestic water line to Towaoc from the Cortez water treatment plant, which gets the water from McPhee…
Ute Farm and Ranch shares equally with other water district farmers when water supply is below normal.
Consequently, the tribe took a 90% hit this year, along with other ranches and farms. The fish pool, 32,500 acre-feet earmarked for native fish habitat downstream of McPhee Reservoir, also took the cut. Municipalities do not share in the shortage.
McPhee, the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the tribe are more exposed to drought because their water rights on the Dolores River are junior to those of Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co.
In these dry times, the tribe has redoubled its efforts to study and potentially claim all its water rights, including on the San Juan River, said Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart. The river touches the Ute Mountain reservation while flowing from New Mexico to Utah…
Colorado’s prior appropriation water system of “first in line, first in right” can leave more junior water right holders high and dry in extreme drought, a situation that is playing out now.
The practicality and fairness of the system in a new era of aridification and chronic water shortage has been a point of discussion, Heart said.
“We have been here the longest, but don’t have senior status, plus we have OandM costs on the canal to get our water,” Heart said. “We’re seeing a megadrought. In the future if the drought gets worse, who will get cut short, Montezuma, Cortez or us?”
The tribe has hired additional staff to work on water issues, and Heart encourages leaders to “think out of the box.” He said the tribe should have looked into buying Totten Lake, which recently was sold to Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. Totten feeds McElmo Creek, which flows through tribal lands…
“We’d like to talk about adding storage to Jackson Lake, so we could release our share down the Mancos and collect it here,” Heart said. The water could augment water shortages from the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir.
Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. has senior rights
Montezuma Valley Irrigation’s senior water rights date to 1888 and 1885 and include the first 795 cubic feet per second of the Dolores River. Anything above that flow mostly goes to Dolores Water Conservation District.
In normal runoff years, the river flows well above that level and is enough to satisfy MVIC rights and fill McPhee reservoir.
But during extreme dry periods, MVIC’s senior position buffers the impact of drought somewhat for its shareholders because at lower flows, their river rights are more senior and more likely to be filled.
MVIC, which stores water in Narraguinnep, Groundhog and Totten reservoirs, has rights to about 130,000 acre-feet of Dolores River Basin water annually. This year, it received only 92,000 acre-feet because of the drought.
The poor snowpack caused a 30% shortage this year for MVIC, and the irrigation season was shortened by about 20 days, said MVIC manager Brandon Johnson.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Water and Climate Center’s snow pack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 9.6 inches of snow water equivalent as of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 22.
That amount is 75 percent of that date’s median snow water equivalent.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins were at 72 percent of the Dec. 22 median in terms of snow pack.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 40.6 cubic feet per second (cfs) in Pagosa Springs as of 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 22.
Based on 86 years of water records at this site, the lowest recorded flow rate for this date is 23 cfs, recorded in 1990.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1987 at 132 cfs. The average flow rate for this date is 62 cfs.
An instantaneous reading was not available as of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 22, for the Piedra River near Arboles.
water scarcity driven by drastic climate-change along the Dolores River in southwest Colorado has been a real jaw-grinder for folks who bear a century’s worth of grudges over who gets water, how much and when.
After 22 years of drought, the river is down to a trickle this late fall and the water storage it feeds, McPhee Reservoir, has shrunk to its lowest level in decades. Even when the runoff was flowing last spring, the Dolores project was already in water shortage mode and farmers only got 10% of what they’re normally allocated, which means they were only able to grow 10% of the crops they’re used to producing.
Much of the farmland lays fallow…
The water that was released from McPhee Dam tells the story, said Colorado State University senior water and climate scientist Brad Udall: “The agreement is for 25 cubic feet per second minimum flow release and they were releasing 1/5 of that.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows Colorado’s Four Corners region in bright red, in the extreme drought category.
“I have said for years that the southwest portion of the state is very much at risk for these kinds of drought,” Udall said. “We should expect for them to occur repeatedly throughout the 21st century.”
At the mouth of the Dolores, one of the only things standing between a shovel to the head and civility is a Montezuma County sheriff deputy whose job it is to keep watch on water robbers.
Dave Huhn is a tall, silver-haired deputy with a bad back from 12 years of ditch riding. He sips from a Big Gulp-sized iced tea as he travels miles of county roads; a badge, a gun and a tablet of citations are his shield.
“Communication is everything and just because you’ve lived out here 100 years doesn’t mean you’re doing it right,” explains Huhn, who was given the responsibility of enforcing complicated Colorado water laws by the county commissioners in 2009. “You can’t steamroll these people. You’re not out there talking with a physicist. You’re out there talking with someone who needs to produce your food. You’ve got to listen to the problem.”
[Marty] Robbins is the keeper of the ditch deeds, which are the official record of water rights. He opened a drawer and pulled out a thick leather-bound dossier of evidence. It is the smoking gun in the world of water crime.
“My whole world changed when Dave took over ditch issues,” Robins said. “Around here, you have a whole lot of attitude and very little forgiveness.”
District 3 San Miguel County Commissioner Kris Holstrom and Norwood Mayor Pro-Tem Candy Meehan are working together to make sure Norwood has water in the future.
Currently, Holstrom with the West End Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC) and April Montgomery are collaborating to bring groups together, including the Lone Cone Ditch Company, Farmers Water Development, Norwood Water Commission, Norwood Fire Protection District, the Town of Norwood and San Miguel Watershed Coalition.
In a grant application that is due Dec. 1 to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the collaboration, with WEEDC as the fiscal agent, is going after a 75-25 percent match of what could be millions of dollars.
Holstrom and Meehan said the grant is for bringing a third-party engineer to Wright’s Mesa to examine major water projects, layer them and “plan and prioritize” for sustainable water for the region. Holstrom said it can help with water supply and storage.
Holstrom said the engineer won’t be hired to come and take over water on Wright’s Mesa. She said each organization can still go after its own grants. She said “buckets of money” are soon going to be available in the near future, though, and the grantors want to see collaboration.
For a region in extreme drought, Meehan said it only makes sense to do this work…
Should the collaborators on Wright’s Mesa be awarded — and they just might considering officials at CWCB were described as being “very enthusiastic” regarding the incoming grant application — the organizations who’ve contributed then become stakeholders. Only then would a regional partnership be established. Next, a regional comprehensive water plan could also be done…
Holstrom said Monday that she’s pleased various organizations on Wright’s Mesa are agreeing to go for the collaborative grant. She said the “yesses and nods” are an indication that it’s time to look into getting the funding to sustain water in the Norwood area.
If Jim Howell, a fourth-generation rancher in Western Colorado, has a guru, he’s Allan Savory, the champion of intensive cattle grazing even on semi-arid land.
Howell, 52, says Savory’s methods, which require moving cattle quickly from pasture to pasture, enable him to keep adding thousands more animals as the ground recovers. He says the method is so efficient he can even foresee leasing out irrigation water that he doesn’t need.
If all this sounds unbelievable, Howell, who is ranch manager for Eli Feldman in Ridgway, Colorado, understands the skepticism. But he says the ranch speaks for itself.
Western States Ranches is huge, a 213,000-acre spread that’s a mix of 3,000 acres of irrigated bottom land in Delta and Montrose counties, plus 210,000 acres of mostly leased federal rangeland that sprawls from western Colorado to eastern Utah. There’s forested, high elevation range, but half of the ranch is semi-arid. Rainfall can be a scant 10 inches per year.
The herd is also large at 3,300 head, with 1,800 pregnant cows. What makes Savory’s approach effective, Howell says, is speed: In a day or two, cows eat fresh grass and weeds, then move on to new pasture before an enclosed pasture is damaged. Ten cowhands make the process work by moving miles of electric fencing, even though they’re traditionally loath to get off their horses. Feldman found Howell by consulting the Savory Institute, where Howell’s wife, Daniella Ibarra-Howell, is director.
The man and the money behind this enterprise is Eli Feldman, whose Conscience Bay Company is mostly staked by lifelong friends, the Laufer family of Stony Brook, New York.
East Coast money and Western know-how might seem an odd combo, but Howell studies the land with total concentration. He says his rule of thumb is to make a grazing plan and then rip it up as changing conditions dictate.
Howell has made dry, overgrazed range bloom before. Using Savory methods, he boosted the number of cattle on his former family ranch on Blue Mesa in Western Colorado. He went from 150 cows to 450, while also attracting herds of elk.
But if demand management gets going — the controversial plan of leasing water temporarily and voluntarily to fulfill downstream obligations – Feldman and Howell are on board. Feldman asked Trout Unlimited to administer a demand management study on part of his ranch that lies in Eckert, Colorado, where ground is irrigated only until July 1.
Howell derides programs that encourage leasing water for full seasons. “It’s going to be seen as socially untenable for ranchers in the upper basin to be over-irrigating hay fields when downstream users are running out of water.”
Because Feldman is an outsider with a formidable operation, he says he’s been a target since the ranch got going in 2018. Shortly afterward, he recalls, a Delta County commissioner poked him in the chest with a finger, saying, “I’ve got my eye on you.”
Feldman figures he’s been cast as a water speculator. “But when a ranch was auctioned off recently,” he says, “we passed on the irrigated land (with senior water rights) and purchased the herd and grazing permits only.”
For both Feldman and Howell, one of their goals is to restore grass on ground that’s been ranched “old-school.” By that they mean trampled creek beds where cows for generations wallowed away the summers.
Howell says he has all sorts of tricks to get lazy cows moving. Artificial watering holes are scattered across dry range, while gullied creeks are fenced off and left to recover. The payoff is growing grass-fed, certified organic beef, and Howell says it commands a 15-20% premium over cattle grown for the commodity market.
Despite the ranch’s sprawl, it seems a lean operation. Howell manages it halftime from a small tent, which also doubles as his sleeping quarters. His cowhands are equipped with little besides horses, trailers and portable electric fence. Still, Howell has his share of environmental critics. The Center for Biological Diversity charges that grazing any cattle on marginal land leads to degraded water and spurs desertification.
Howell shrugs off the charge. “These native rangelands evolved with hooved animals,” he says. “To say they are not meant to be grazed is total BS. They were meant to be grazed — but as nature intended.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, http://writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.
Few in the American West have been spared the effects of the region’s long-standing drought, but on the frontlines of the sere conditions are those who work most closely with the land — farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers. San Miguel County created a program, Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) that compensates landowners for implementing practices in “drought resilience and other soil health improvement projects,” according to the county’s Parks and Open Spaces page n the county website. The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) got an update from the department’s director, Janet Kask, and contractor Chris Hazen, on their efforts to enlist landowners in the forward-thinking program.
The county was awarded a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to enhance the PES program, Kask explained…
The pilot program is seeking six partners and is currently in earnest talks with several interested landowners. Hazen, an independent contractor with The Terra Firm, is spearheading the administration of the CWCB grant in order to “continue with our soil health initiative,” Kask said…
While talks with landowners are ongoing, Kask and Hazen reported there have been delays.
“We’re disappointed that we haven’t had the landowner commitments that we initially set out to have,” Kask told the commissioners Wednesday. “We were looking at a total of six this year, but just based on active conversations Chris has had with certain landowners, some of them are on hold and hesitant to join and we do have somebody who’s almost ready to go, but waiting for their USDA number. There are some criteria that the landowners need to meet and adhere to on our end.”
Norwood farmers Tony and Barclay Daranyi of Indian Ridge Farm are closest to qualifying as of Wednesday. Other participants close to being green-lighted are the owners of Laid Back Ranch and of Lizard Head Wilderness Ranch, Hazen said…
Some of the practices the county is looking for in property being proposed for participation includes cover crops, intensive till to no-till or strip till, improved fertilizer management, conservation cover /cropland conversion, forage and biomass planting/convert cropland to grass/legume/biomass, convert cropland to permanent grass/legume cover, windbreaks, nutrient management, and other practices as called out by the Natural Resource Conservation Service…
Some hiccups in meeting the goal of six participants include delays in submitting a USDA number, mapping challenges, the pandemic and other delays.
The CWCB grant totals $34,646, with the county matching at $34,646 for a total of $69,293.
For more information, contact Hazen at The Terra Firm 970-708-1221, with questions or to schedule a meeting to identify partnership opportunities.
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