How this tribe survives in #Colorado’s worst #drought region with as little as 10% of its hard-won water supply — The #Denver Post #DoloresRiver #SanJuanRiver #COriver #aridification

South of Hesperus August 2019 Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Bruce Finley). Here’s an excerpt:

“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…

Mcphee Reservoir

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.

Towaoc-Highline Canal via Ten Tribes Partnership/USBR Tribal Water Study

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.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe faces another devastating #drought year, but recent rain, wheat prices bring hope — @WaterEdCO

South of Hesperus August 2019 Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Rachelle Todea):

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.

Six-month test of injection well begins at Paradox Valley Unit — Reclamation #DoloresRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Paradox Valley Unit Facility in western Colo. Photo credit: Reclamation

Click the link to read the release on the Reclamation website (Justyn Liff and Becki Bryant):

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.

Dolores River Canyon near Paradox

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.

Deep injection well

Is #ColoradoRiver demand management unfair to farmers? It’s complicated — @Land_Desk #COriver #aridification

Sprinklers and Four Corners Power Plant. San Juan County, New Mexico, 2022.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan Thompson):

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).

Natural Flow is an estimate of how much water would have naturally run past Lee’s Ferry if there were no dams or diversions upstream. It is calculated using the actual flow, historic flows, and upstream consumptive uses. Bureau of Reclamation modeling is complete to 2019; I extrapolated 2020 and 2021 based on Lake Powell inflows. The 1922 Colorado River Compact gave 7.5 million acre feet to the Upper Basin, 7.5 MAF to the Lower Basin, and (in the ‘40s) 1.5 MAF to Mexico, based on early 1900s observations. As the graph above shows, the average flows dropped below that level a decade later and stayed there aside from a brief respite in the 1980s. Source: USBR

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.

While overall demand on the Colorado River trended upward from 1970 to the late 1990s, it plateaued when the region entered the current megadrought. Although this data only goes to 2010, the plateau has pretty much held. But at over 14 MAF per year, demand is significantly higher than what the river has supplied most years. Note that more water is lost to reservoir evaporation than is sent to Mexico. Source: USBR Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.

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.

Please visit this post at http://LandDesk.org to see larger, higher resolution images. Note that in New Mexico energy takes up a relatively large share of water. This is mostly for the coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region, which use billions of gallons of water each year for cooling, steam-generation and other purposes. In some cases, some of this water is returned to the river, but the San Juan Generating Station—scheduled to close this year—is a zero-discharge facility, meaning all of its water use is “consumptive.” Source: USBR.

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!

Montezuma Tunnel entrance.

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:

Via The Land Desk.

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.

McPhee Reservoir. JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

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.

The Dolores River shows us what’s at stake in the fight to protect the American West — Conservation Colorado

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.

Dolores River watershed

The #DoloresRiver and the #RioGrande are melting-out quickly (May 17, 2022) — @Land_Desk

#Aridification Watch: May edition As the snow season wraps up, how are things looking? — @Land_Desk #snowpack #runoff

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 managers see runoff as positive sign (April 29, 2022): Heading into summer, forecasts aren’t great, but they are slightly better than last year — The #Durango Herald

Click the link to read the article on The Durango Herald website (Aedan Hannon). Here’s an excerpt:

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.

Home court for #Colorado #climate lawsuits — @BigPivots #ActOnClimate

Suncor refinery Commerce City. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

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?

Marshall Fire December 30, 2021. Photo credit: Boulder County

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’s private prediction of the future growth of carbon dioxide levels (left axis) and global temperature relative to 1982 (right axis). Elsewhere in its report, Exxon noted that the most widely accepted science at the time indicated that doubling carbon dioxide levels would cause a global warming of 3°C. Illustration: 1982 Exxon internal briefing document

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.

Telluride. San Miguel County alleges damages to its skiing economy at Telluride. The case will be heard in Denver 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.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck.

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.

This car in Superior was among the victims of the Marshall Fire in late December 2021 that burned 1,084 homes and caused 30,000 residents of Superior and Louisville to flee. Photo/Allen Best

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.

Wright’s Mesa awarded $110k for #water: Water engineering analysis is on the way — The #Norwood Post

Lone Cone from Norwood

Click the link to read the article on the Telluride Planet website. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

Say hello to the new newsletter “Nine Basins Bulletin”

Click the link to read the newsletter at Nine Basins Bulletin. Here’s an excerpt:

This is your new water newsletter.

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 lauras@swwcd.org.

What would you like your newsletter to be called? Submit the best newsletter name and win free admission to the seminar and kudos in the next edition…

Southwestern Water Conservation District Awards $197,500 to Local Water Projects

At their February meeting, the Southwestern Water Conservation District Board of Directors approved grants to support the following local water projects:

$60,000 for the Eaklor Ditch Company’s emergency piping project in the Navajo river basin

$28,500 to repair Lone Cone Reservoir’s outlet and intake in the San Miguel river basin

$25,000 toward the Mancos Conservation District’s remote metering program for three historic irrigation ditches

$16,500 to support the Dolores River Restoration Partnership’s ongoing monitoring and stewardship of their tamarisk removal project

$30,000 for the Town of Pagosa Springs’ Yamaguchi South river restoration project on the San Juan river

$16,000 to help Animas Watershed Partnership launch a basin-wide stream management planning process

$5,000 for the Mancos Conservation District’s urban water quality and conservation plan

$16,500 for Science on the Fly’s innovative partnership with anglers to collect water quality data in the San Miguel, Animas and La Plata basins

Outstanding waters: 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 — The #Durango Telegraph

Priest Creek. Photo credit: Four Corners Hikes

From The Durango Telegraph (Jonathan Romeo):

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…

Unintended consequences

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.

A future of #drought? Ute Mountain Ute Tribe looks at life with less #water — The #Durango Herald #DoloresRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #SanJuanRiver #MancosRiver #aridification

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe area map via USBR/Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study

From The 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…

Mancos River in Montezuma County

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.

Mcphee Reservoir

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)
Jerry McBride

The Ute Mountain Ute Bow and Arrow Brand mill on Oct. 20 near Towaoc. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Jerry McBride

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…

South of Hesperus August 2019 Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

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…

Towaoc-Highline Canal via Ten Tribes Partnership/USBR Tribal Water Study

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.

Montezuma Tunnel

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?”

Looking west across the northeast bay of Totten Reservoir with the boat in the background; the photo was taken from the peninsula between the two bays at the north end of Totten Reservoir. Sources/Usage Public Domain via USGS. Photographer: Keelin Schaffrath

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 Tunnel steel arches.

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.

View to southwest, looking down on Groundhog Reservoir. Photo via dcasler.com.

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.

Upper #SanJuanRiver #snowpack and streamflow report — The #PagosaSprings Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Clayton Chaney):

Snow report

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.

Note: It looks like the gage may be icing up.

River report

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.

#Drought along a #ColoradoRiver calls for extreme efforts to enforce #water laws: A badge and a gun — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette

Dolores River watershed

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Carol McKinley):

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.”

Colorado Drought Monitor map November 23, 2021.

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.”

[…]

Desperate times

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.”

Regional #water planning partnership in the works — The #Telluride Daily Planet #SanMiguelRiver #DoloresRiver #ColoradoRive #COriver

Lone Cone from Norwood

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Regan Tuttle):

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.

This rancher has radical ideas about #water — Writers on the Range

From Writers on the Range (Dave Marston):

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.

Jim Howell, a fourth-generation rancher in Western Colorado.
(Photo Credit: Dave Marston)

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.”

Howell in a small 24 acre irrigated pasture. After being grazed by 900 cows for one and a half days the pasture is growing back lush and green.
(Photo Credit: Dave Marston)

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.

#Water #conservation the goal with grant program: Several landowners near approval — The #Telluride Daily Planet #SanMiguelRiver #DoloresRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Crop residue. Photo credit: Joel Schneekloth

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Suzanne Cheavens):

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.

Proposed #DoloresRiver National Conservation Area limits some uses, preserves others: New mining, large dams and new roads would be prohibited; grazing, #water rights and existing mine leases will be protected — The #Cortez Journal

The Dolores River, below Slickrock, and above Bedrock. The Dolores River Canyon is included in a proposed National Conservation Area. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

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.

Ponderosa Gorge, Dolores River. Boating is popular on the Lower Dolores River, which is being considered as a National Conservation Area. Photo credit RiverSearch.com.

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.

CC Ditch gets repaired this summer — The #Norwood Post

CC Ditch San Miguel River headgate wall. Photo credit: Colorado Water Trust

From The Norwood Post (Regan Tuttle):

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.

Wildlife officials ask anglers not to fish the #DoloresRiver for the first time ever as rain fails to dent Western Slope #drought — The #Colorado Sun

West Drought Monitor map June 22, 2021.

From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

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…

Ranchers are seeking alternate pasture and culling herds. Fruit orchards south and east of Grand Mesa predict smaller crops. Reservoir managers told the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and other growers they will see only 10% of their usual water allotment.

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.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

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.

“They’re Gonna Die”: #Drought Dooms Trout in #Colorado’s #DoloresRiver—and Probably Beyond — Field & Stream #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

From Field & 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.

Intermountain West Drought Monitor map June 22, 2021.

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.

Dolores River watershed

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.

The disappearing #DoloresRiver — The #Durango Telegraph #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Dolores River in southwestern Colorado on Memorial Day in 2009. Photo/Allen Best

From The Durango Telegraph (Jonathan Romeo):

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…

Dam it

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…

Mcphee dam

“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…

August 16, 2017: Colorado ParksWildlife and John Sanderson found imperiled bluehead sucker fry on Dolores River — a hopeful sign.

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…

Montezuma Valley

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…

Drying out

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.

Dolores River watershed

Montezuma County declares drought disaster — The #Cortez Journal #SanJuanRiver #DoloresRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Montezuma Valley

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

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…

La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain with historical Montezuma County apple orchard in the foreground.

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.

Mcphee Reservoir

#Water worries abound as #drought wears on — The #Montrose Daily Press #runoff #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GreenRiver #DoloresRiver #GunnisonRiver

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

Blue Mesa Reservoir

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.

Colorado Drought Monitor map May 25, 2021.

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.)

Taylor Park 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.”

Ridgway Dam via the USBR

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

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 is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

[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 Reservoir July 2020. Photo credit: Utah DWR

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.

#Drought saps agricultural economy in Southwest #Colorado — The #Durango Herald #DoloresRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Montezuma Valley

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:

Irrigators tied to McPhee Reservoir contracts will receive just 5% to 10% of their normal supply, said Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

The shortages affect full-service users in the water district in Montezuma and Dolores counties, the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch and the downstream fishery.

The water district said no supplemental irrigation supplies will be available to the senior water-rights holders.

Alfalfa farmers are consolidating acreage to try to produce one small crop…

“Financial impacts will be hard on all agriculture producers,” said Dolores Water Conservancy District board president Bruce Smart, in a news release. “The recovery for producers, the Ute Mountain Tribe and the district will take years.”

The tribe’s Farm and Ranch Enterprise reports it will limit employment and cut back on buying farm supplies.

The 7,600-acre farm will only receive 10% of its normal water supply, tribal officials said.

The tribe will limit operations to growing corn for its Bow and Arrow Brand cornmeal mill, and to protect high-value alfalfa fields, said Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart…

The tribe intends to work closely with the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to protect the continued viability of the Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise.

Heart notes that the tribe’s participation in the Dolores Project is a result of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act. He said the tribe will exercise the settlement rights “in the fullest to protect our Farm and Ranch Enterprise.”

The economic impact of the irrigation water shortage will be widespread, as farmers expect a significant decrease in revenue that will trickle through the local economy, water officials said.

If next year’s supply doesn’t improve “multigenerational farm families may face bankruptcy,” said Curtis.

Unirrigated alfalfa fields will dominate the landscape this summer. Farmers noted that with some rain, the fallow fields can produce enough forage for cattle grazing. Ranchers have been contacting farmers to take advantage of the option, Deremo said.

Curtailed supply for Dove Creek

The town of Dove Creek depends on McPhee Reservoir water for its domestic water supply. The water is delivered via the Dove Creek Canal and into town reservoirs and a water treatment facility. But because of a shortened irrigation season, the canal will not run all summer, as it does during more normal water years.

The water district is working closely with Dove Creek officials to keep the town’s water reservoirs adequately stocked for the winter months, Curtis said.

During normal water years, the Dove Creek Canal runs to the first week in October, allowing Dove Creek to store 100 acre-feet that lasts them until May 1 the next year. This year, the canal is expected to shut off for irrigators before the end of June.

The other large irrigation supplier in the area, Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., also faces shortages. Customers will receive only half their normal allocation. The irrigation company has the most senior water rights on the Dolores River, and therefore the impact of the water shortage is somewhat less…

Montezuma Valley Irrigation has storage rights in McPhee Reservoir, and owns Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs.

Dolores River watershed

Runoff low in Dolores River

Poor winter snowpack the past two years and no monsoonal rain for the past three years have hurt reservoir levels and depleted soil moisture.

The winter snowpack failed to deliver at historical average, peaking at only 83% of normal snowpack on April 1, then dropping to 25% after another dry, windy and warm spring. Recent rains and snowfall on the high peaks were helpful, but not enough to significantly improve water supply.

As dry conditions continue, 2021 is shaping up to be the fourth-lowest recorded runoff in the Dolores River, after 1977, 2002 and 2018.

The Dolores River, below Slickrock, and above Bedrock. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Fish will suffer

As part of the McPhee Reservoir project, the downstream fishery is allocated 32,000 acre-feet of water during normal water years for timed releases downstream to benefit sport and native fish.

This year, the fish pool will receive 5,000 acre-feet of its normal allocation.

The Dolores River below McPhee dam will see flows of 10 cubic feet per second for a few months, then it will drop to a trickle of 5 cfs for eight months until spring.

The river below the dam faces significant trout and native fish population losses, said Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife…

The low flows will also affect native fish in the lower reaches of the Dolores River – the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub. The fish, listed by CPW as species of concern, have adapted to warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.

The May 2021 Newsletter is hot off the presses from the #Water Information Program

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Southwestern Water Conservation District Hires New General Manager

Steven W. Wolff. Photo credit: The Water Information Program

Southwestern Water Conservation District (SWCD) is pleased to announce the hiring of its newest General Manager, Steven W. Wolff.

Board President Jenny Russell expressed the board’s enthusiasm in naming Wolff as General Manager for the Southwestern District. “Steve immediately stood out in an impressive pool of candidates for the GM position,” said Russell.

Wolff is currently Administrator of the Interstate Streams Division within Wyoming’s State Engineer’s Office in Cheyenne. The Interstate Streams Division oversees Wyoming’s rights and responsibilities outlined in the seven interstate water compacts and three interstate water decrees the state is signatory to. Wolff is also responsible for the development of technical and policy recommendations on inter- and intra-state water issues. The Southwestern board was also pleased and impressed with Wolff’s work with river basin planning efforts of the Wyoming Water Development Commission for each of Wyoming’s seven major river basins. He will be winding down his representation of Wyoming over the next month.

Wolff’s interstate experience will be invaluable to the Southwestern District in its involvement in complex interstate negotiations on the Colorado River, state and federal water policy advocacy, local water planning efforts, water education, and other critical, water-related matters.

“I am honored to be offered this opportunity to contribute to the District’s leadership on West Slope water issues and look forward to becoming an active part of the Southwestern community. I thank the board for their confidence in me,” Wolff said. “We are undoubtedly entering a critical period in providing a reliable water supply for all uses, and no place is more significant than the Colorado River basin. Water management is challenging at a local, regional, and national scale. I look forward to working with the Southwestern District board and the many stakeholders to define and implement a vision for sustainable water resources in southwest Colorado,” added Wolff.

Wolff currently serves as gubernatorial appointee representing Wyoming to the Western States Water Council, the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum, and the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program. He also currently serves as chair of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s Engineering Committee and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s Management Committee.

“We look forward to Steve’s long and productive leadership with the Southwestern District,” concluded Russell.

The Southwestern Water Conservation District was created by the Colorado legislature 80 years ago to protect, conserve, and develop the water resources of the San Juan and Dolores River basins and to safeguard for all of Colorado the waters of the Colorado River basin to which the state is entitled.

No ‘just’ transition yet after 2019 closing of #coal plant and mine in western #Colorado — The Mountain Town News

Nucla. Photo credit: Allen Best

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

At Nucla and Naturita, two small communities in Western Colorado, the transition from a coal economy has begun. As for a just transition?

No, not yet says Sarah Backman, a local attorney who, like many others in these towns an hour west of Telluride, wears a lot of hats.

Backman and others hope that the proposed Just Transition appropriation bill being heard in the Colorado Legislature for the first time on May 6 will deliver money for their communities, to continue the work already underway.

“I don’t feel like we have a just transition, but hopefully if this bill passes, (the money) can be allocated quickly so that we can continue our efforts to transition our community,” she says.

Nucla Station was a 100-megawatt plant that was closed by Tri-State Generation and Transmission in September 2019 in response to anti-haze enforcement by the federal government. The plant faced more stringent regulation of emissions of nitrous oxide, a component in haze, also called smog, and upgrades to the aging plant would have been expensive.

The first unit at Craig Station will also be closed by the end of 2025 as a result of the same settlement.

Nucla Station had 76 employees and the accompanying mine 35 at one time. At closing in November 2019, they had 35 and 23, according to Tri-State. Ten remain at work on reclamation of the sites.

As for the roughly $2 million in property taxes paid annually by Tri-State, that is mostly gone, too. The plant and mine represented about 43% of property tax valuation in the west end of Montrose County, where the communities are located.

This is from the April 30, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal covering the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Sign up at http://Big Pivots.com.

In small communities, a few people tend to wear a lot of hats. It’s often the same faces on the water districts, chamber, historical society – you name it.

Backman is one of those in addition to being a young mother. She says that the prevailing vision in the communities is of developing an economy more strongly reliant on tourism. Tourism has its weaknesses, she says, but it’s not boom or bust. And, if far off the beaten paths of Colorado, Nucla and Naturita have much to work with.

Telluride lies an hour to the east, and some in the community work there or have businesses catering to the Telluride economy. Moab lies 90 minutes to the west, and Grand Junction a little longer to the north.

There are slickrock canyons of the San Miguel River, the eye-pleasing forests of the Uncompahgre Plateau. In the west end of Montrose County, a place with 2,500 residents in the 2010 census, there is a place called Bedrock, located in the Paradox Valley, so-named for its queer geology. It is bisected by the Dolores River.

There’s also a place called Uravan, from which the uranium used by Madame Curie in her experiments during the 1920s was mined.

The Manhattan Project of World War II spurred a boom in uranium mining. That boom petered out in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving widows who, as Peter Hessler documented in his 2010 piece in the New Yorker (and this writer learned in a 2006 visit), pined for the good old days and a return to uranium mining. It hasn’t happened yet. See: “The Uranium Widows

With this focus on tourism, not uranium, the effort is on drawing visitors for events such as the dark skies festival, scheduled for June. In this, the community will be in the company of Idaho’s Sun Valley and Canada’s Banff resort communities in celebrating dark skies.

Canyon country abounds west and north of Nucla and Naturita. Photo/West End Economic Development Corporation via The Mountain Town News

Another multi-hatted community doer is Aimee Tooker, the president of the West End Economic Development Corporation since its founding in 2014.

“We have been working on economic development ever since then,” she says. In 2017, the group got a $836,000 economic development grant to pay for programming funding., but that grant will be exhausted within the next year. She hopes that Colorado funding will continue to put wind into the sails of this effort.

The coal plant’s closing was done two years earlier than expected. Tri-State was paying $2 million in property taxes to local jurisdictions. That’s not a huge sum in many places, but these are small places. The population of Nucla is 644, and that of Naturita is 486.

“This is 67% of the tax base of our emergency services district,” says Tooker.

Tri-State is providing a $500,000 grant to the communities over the course of five years to West End Pay It Forward Trust. It’s welcome but not enough, say those in the Nucla-Naturita community trying to build a bridge to a new, more diversified economy.

How will state funding help these two communities? “By keeping our boots on the ground,” replies Tooker. She cites a plan to beautify the main street in Nucla.

Paul Major has worked with the Nucla-Naturita community. Until recently, he operated the Telluride Foundation, a philanthropy. He remains on Colorado’s Just Transition advisory committee.

He credits Tooker, Backman, and others for their drive and ambition. Instead of whining about the closing of the plant, he says, they’re working hard to make their community a great place to live. “It’s a cliché, but they are really leaning into it,” he says.

Warm weather, wind evaporates irrigation season — The #Cortez Journal #DoloresRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Farmers expected to receive just a fraction of normal supply

Runoff from below-average snowpack is forecast to result in the lowest project irrigation supply in McPhee Reservoir history.

According to most probable forecast, Dolores River Basin snowmelt is expected to deliver 95,000 acre-feet of water to McPhee Reservoir, just 32% of the average 295,000 acre-feet average, reports the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center. The forecast could also continue to drop.

Full-service farmers of the Dolores Project are expected to receive just 1 inch per acre of irrigation water, or 4.5% of the 22 inches per acre provided when the reservoir fills, reports Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages McPhee.

The forecast of 1 inch per acre is “the wost ever” for the Dolores Project, he said. The reservoir first filled in the late 1980s.

The previous worst irrigation seasons for McPhee Reservoir were in 2013 and 2002, when farmers received 6 inches per acre.

The amount of water predicted for this year is not enough for even one normal crop of alfalfa. With a full supply farmers typically get three to four crops of alfalfa per year. Farmers will be forced to consolidate crops into smaller acreage to produce anything on the limited water.

This year’s forecast shows McPhee Reservoir will fill less than 40% of its 229,000 acre-feet active capacity, according to forecast models. The reservoir had no significant carryover supply from last year’s water season.

Water shortages are across the board, except for domestic supplies for municipalities.

Ute Farm and Ranch on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation is predicted to receive about 2,000 acre-feet, or 8.5% of the 23,300 acre-feet delivered when the reservoir has a full supply.

The water supply for downstream fish habitat dropped to less than 5,000 acre-feet of the 32,000 acre-feet provided when the reservoir fills.

Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, said snowpack in the Dolores Basin took hits from multiple angles.

With the exception of a few good snowstorms, the basin experienced an extended dry period since April 2020, she said.

No monsoonal precipitation last summer dried out soils, which will cause snowmelt to be absorbed into the ground before it hits the river and McPhee.

Below-normal snowpack further suffered from warm weather and high winds in April, plus dust on snow that sped up evaporation.

April precipitation at the Lizard Head Pass Snotel is below normal, showing 0.2 inches, or 15% of the average 1.4 inches for the month…

On March 29, the Dolores Basin snowpack showed 83% of average for snow-water equivalent. On April 19, snowpack water equivalent had dropped to 32%.

Low flows on #DoloresRiver will hurt fish — The #Cortez Journal #snowpack #runoff

Dolores River snowpack
April 16, 2021 via the NRCS.

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Below-average snowpack and ongoing drought will hurt flows and fish habitat below McPhee Dam going into spring and summer, reports Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Water releases from the dam are expected to be under 15 cubic feet per second and could possibly drop as low as 3 cfs, said Jim White, a CPW aquatic biologist, in a April 14 news release.

During normal snowpack years, McPhee Reservoir fills, and the allocated fish pool allows for a sustained dam release of 60 cfs in summer.

Fish flows increase if snowpack runoff exceeds reservoir capacity, which prompts a recreational boating release. But a recreational water release will not happen this year because of below average snowpack and low reservoir carryover from last water season.

As of April 13, Snotels in the Dolores Basin reported 39% of average snowpack for snow water equivalent.

Trout and native fish will be adversely impacted by the water shortage below the dam, White said.

The 12-mile section of river that flows through the Lone Dome State Wildlife Area from below the dam to Bradfield Bridge is a popular tail-water fishery. Most trout fishing is done within the first 6 miles.

White said the lower flows will shrink the river habitat, and many brown and rainbow trout likely will die. The water coming out of the dam is about 42 degrees Fahrenheit, which is an ideal temperature for trout. But with such a low flow the water will warm quickly as it moves downstream…

Roundtail chub

The low flows will also affect native fish that live in the lower reaches of the Dolores River ─ the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub. The fish, listed by CPW as species of concern, have adapted to warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.

White is concerned about lower sections of the river drying up or being connected by only tiny rivulets of water.

Making the problem worse is the smallmouth bass, an invasive non-native fish that thrives in the lower Dolores River but preys on young native fish. Anglers are encouraged to fish for smallmouth bass; they are abundant, fairly easy to catch, tasty and have no bag or possession limit.

As drought continues to grip the West, more and more rivers will face the same scenario — this year and beyond.

“All of this is a result of three things: low snowpack, dry soil that will absorb runoff and no carryover water in the reservoir from last year,” White said.

Dolores River watershed

Southwest #Colorado livestock meeting addresses grazing, wolves — The #Cortez Journal

Montezuma Valley

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

As snow and rain fell outside, about 50 audience members gathered at the indoor arena of the Montezuma County Fairgrounds for the morning meeting session to hear presentations, some broadcast via Zoom…

State House bills

Republican Marc Catlin, state representative for the 58th District, listed some bills he plans to introduce.

A watershed mitigation bill proposes to provide funding for cities and counties for timber thinning projects on private land. A water rights bill would protect the water rights of mutual ditch companies. Another bill would allow tribes to operate their own foster homes so Native American foster children could grow up in their culture. Catlin said a bill providing a tax exemption for the removal of beetle-killed trees in forests would be an incentive to remove the fire-prone dead trees.

Shakeup at the Southwestern Water Conservation District brings in new face to deal with old problems — The Durango Herald #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Amy Novak Huff. Photo via Colorado Water & Land Law, LLC and LinkedIn

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

A fresh face was appointed to the Southwestern Water Conservation District to bring new ideas to decades-old problems surrounding water in the arid Southwest – at least that’s the hope of La Plata County officials.

In January, La Plata County commissioners Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff, in their last meeting before leaving office, along with commissioner Clyde Church, appointed local water attorney Amy Novak Huff to the district.

The move ousted longtime board member Bob Wolff, who has represented La Plata County on the commission for more than 10 years.

Lachelt, speaking to The Durango Herald, said commissioners will sometimes replace people who have served long bouts of time to bring in new perspectives about various issues facing the county…

Huff was raised in Southern California, but went to school at the University of Colorado-Boulder and never looked back. After teaching high school in Durango and Mancos, she went to law school at the University of Denver while working at Denver Water, where she became drawn to water law.

After she passed the bar exam, Huff was selected for a judicial clerkship in Division No. 1 Water Court and then worked for a water law firm in Denver. All those years on the Front Range, where water is scarce, allowed her to experience firsthand the contentious water issues…

Huff said she has now been practicing water law for 18 years, the majority of which has been in Southwest Colorado where water issues abound, exacerbated by drought, increasing demand and tricky multi-state compacts…

Huff, for her part, will take a seat at her first board meeting Tuesday. She said she understands the gravity of the moment and how important local decisions will affect water availability and people’s way of life.

“We’re going to be faced with water restrictions, changing landscapes and people are going to be forced to learn (about water issues),” she said. “It’s a lot more complicated than people think.”

A look at the Lone Cone Ditch and Reservoir Company — The Telluride Daily Planet

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Candy A. Meehan):

In 1888, local farmers and ranchers got together to start a formal ditch company. For this, there would have to be an official survey. The original survey map that was made in July through August of 1888 was measured by hand with 100-foot links of chain. Once completed, the Lone Cone Ditch Company was formed on Wright’s Mesa for irrigation purposes on July 30, 1889.

Shortly after that, on Oct. 29, 1889, the State of Colorado awarded its certificate of incorporation. The original eight owners of the Lone Cone Ditch Company were Roger Williams, Charles Hotchkiss, Charles Traux, Jeremiah Foster, R.A. Peers, J.W. Winkleman, L.W. White and J.W. Fraser.

Approximately 12 to 13 years later, land was donated for a reservoir. The company took the opportunity to grow, and the Lone Cone Ditch Company then became the Lone Cone Ditch and Reservoir Company on June 21, 1902. The reservoir was excavated using a Fresno machine pulled by horses. The reservoir floor was compacted after excavation by running a sheep herd back and forth through it. It was built to hold 1,800-acre feet of water…

Every year, the size of the water shares depends on Mother Nature. Snowmelt, rain, wind and heat all contribute to the factors of water dispersed to each shareholder annually. Lone Cone Ditch does not have a ditch rider. Given that there are approximately 14 miles of upper ditch and 32 miles of lower ditch, water shares are taken on an honor system with divider boxes made and placed by each shareholder. This ditch system is not an “on call” system. It is “all on” or “all off.”

According to Colorado SNOTEL Snowpack Update report for Jan. 24, the Lone Cone is at 6.1 inches of water and 64 percent of it median. These numbers are low and could be an indicator of what our water circumstances could be for the upcoming irrigation season. Conservation practices can become highly effective habits.

The Lone Cone Ditch and Reservoir Company is currently working on the mechanics of the dam structure that is in need of maintenance and repairs. Their engineer is diligently completing his assessment and report. The existing water outlet has held strong and true for many, many years. But, like with all things, it is in need of replacement. At that time, regular maintenance will be performed to ensure that it is functioning to capacity. Once the assessment is complete, grant funding will be the next step.

One of the most profound statements I have ever heard before was from a Wright’s Mesa farmer and rancher: “Gold runs clear.”

#Dolores #water and sewer rates to increase — The Cortez Journal

Dolores

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Funds will upgrade plants, replace aging pipelines

An increase in monthly water and sewer service rates in Dolores will go into effect in January.

The base water rate will increase by $5 to $30.84 per month, up from $25.84.

The base sewer rate will increase by $2.50 to $31.16 per month, up from $28.66.

Rate increases were approved by the town board in March, but implementation was delayed until 2021 because of economic challenges due to the pandemic.

The last time water and sewer rates were raised was in 2015. The town is reviewing a senior, income-based exemption from the latest rate increase.

Inflation and the need for infrastructure upgrades are the reasons for the rate increase, said Mayor Chad Wheelus.

While both the sewer plant and water plant are in good condition, outdated pipelines are deteriorating and need replacement.

Many water service pipelines are more than 50 years old, and their 4-inch diameter size is insufficient. The undersized pipes puts limitations on fire protection needs.

Wheelus said the town has replaced aging leaking water and sewer collection lines, more needs to be done…

Priority needs for the water and wastewater pipeline system in Dolores are estimated to cost $2.7 million, according to a recent assessment from SGM Engineering.

Rate increases will help cover current and future repairs and upgrades at the water and sewer plants over several years, town officials said during recent budget discussions.

In the fall, 10 deteriorated water lines passing under Colorado Highway 145 were replaced. The job was a priority because the highway through town is scheduled to be repaved by Colorado Department of Transportation in 2021. An upgrade to the water treatment plant also was completed this year.

To cover the approximate $800,000 cost, the town secured a $292,363 grant from the Department of Local Affairs, and a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Remaining costs were covered from town reserves and a loan from Dolores State Bank.

The water rate increase will go toward paying off the loan…

According to town documents, there are numerous other infrastructure needs pending within the next 5 to 10 years in Dolores. The rate increase will help build up the reserve to pay for future water and sewer upgrade and maintenance projects.

The increase will also help offset ordinary inflation of costs to operate and maintain water and sewer utilities, officials said.

Dolores has significant remaining capacity in both treatment plants, they said, and both plants are also meeting state standards for water quality. Regarding water quantity, SGM said water supply, and the water and sewer treatment systems are sufficient, and the plants have capacity to meet growth in town without major repairs or expansion.

@USBR chooses “no action” alternative for the Paradox Valley brine injection well

From the Paradox Valley Unit website (USBR):

Environmental Impact Statement

Because the existing brine injection well is nearing the end of its useful life, the Bureau of Reclamation investigated alternatives for disposing of the brine. Reclamation has prepared and released a Final Environmental Impact Statement. The FEIS review period is from December 11, 2020 to January 11, 2021. Alternatives analyzed in the FEIS include a new injection well, evaporation ponds, zero liquid discharge technology, and no action.

After weighing the benefits and impacts of the alternatives analyzed in the FEIS, the Bureau of Reclamation has identified the no action alternative as the preferred alternative.

The no action alternative achieves the best balance among the various goals and objectives outlined in the FEIS, including: optimizing costs; minimizing adverse effects on the affected environment; minimizing the use of nonrenewable resources; consistency with Bureau of Land Management Resource Management Plans; and being in the best interest of the public, including considerations of health and safety.

The Paradox Valley Unit injection well will continue to operate until it becomes infeasible. New technically, environmentally and economically viable alternatives may be investigated in the future to continue salinity control at Paradox Valley.

Strong #LaNiña decreases chances for storms in #FourCorners — The #Durango Herald #ENSO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Nathan Fey, seen here paddling the Lower Dolores River. The lower Dolores River depends on a deep snowpack for boating releases from McPhee Reservoir. (Photo courtesy Nathan Fey)

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:

Sorry skiers, ranchers and kayakers: Weather observers see no relief in sight for a persistent drought that has gripped the Four Corners.

A strong La Niña weather pattern has helped shift the jet stream farther north, which keeps storms from reaching the Four Corners, officials said.

“It’s the strongest La Niña in 10 years,” said Jim Andrus, a weather observer for the National Weather Service. “Even when we do get storms that dip down our way, they are weak at most.”

[…]

The long-term forecast for the Four Corners is below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures, said Norv Larson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

High pressure and a dry air mass are generally blocking storms from reaching and forming in the area, he said…

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map December 9, 2020 via the NRCS.

Snowpack is well below average in Southwest Colorado.

Snotel stations in the mountains that measure snowfall, show the Dolores and San Miguel river basins are 48% of normal as of Dec. 7.

The Animas River Basin is at 38% of normal, and the Gunnison River Basin is at 53% of normal.

The Telluride Ski Resort reports a 21-inch base, and Purgatory Resort has a 16-inch base.

As of Dec. 3, Southwest Colorado and most of the Western Slope were in “exceptional” drought, the worst level out of five, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most of Utah and Arizona also were in exceptional drought.

Colorado Drought Monitor December 1, 2020.

The Water Information Program September 2020 Newsletter is hot off the presses

Mancos and the Mesa Verde area from the La Plata Mountains.

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

The Southwestern Water Conservation District (“District”), based in Durango, Colorado, is seeking candidates for the General Manager position. The District was created by Colorado statute in 1941 to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of the water of the San Juan and Dolores River basins for the welfare of the District, and to safeguard for Colorado all waters of the basin to which the state is entitled. The District encompasses all of La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, San Juan, San Miguel and Dolores counties and parts of Montrose, Hinsdale and Mineral counties. The District has a nine-member board of directors with an appointee from each board of county commissioners.

The General Manager serves as the chief executive and management official of the organization reporting directly to the District’s Board of Directors. The General Manager is responsible for all business operations (administrative, financial, technical and external affairs) and manages a small team of staff and contractors. The General Manager must be able to lead the team, delegate, and play to the strengths of others, and must possess strong oral and written communication skills and be capable of clearly communicating difficult issues with candor. The General Manager works collaboratively to bring together groups of diverse interests in complicated and sometimes contentious matters, and is expected to offer creative solutions to the Board that take into consideration the varying water-related priorities and perspectives of the District’s diverse constituency. The General Manager represents the District’s broad range of constituents and priorities at conferences, speaking engagements and on local, statewide, and national matters, as directed by the Board.

All application materials should be submitted electronically (PDF preferred) to generalmanager@swwcd.org by Friday, September 25, 2020 at 5:00 PM. Applicants are encouraged to apply promptly and are responsible for ensuring that application materials are received by the District before the closing date and time listed above.

For more information and full job desctiption go to: https://swwcd.org/about-us/careers/.

June/July 2020 Newsletter is hot off the presses from The Water Information Program

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Basin Implementation Plan Update
Ed Tolen, SW Basin 1st Vice Chair, explained that in January a sub-committee was set up to select a local expert to work with the SW Basin Roundtable on updating the Basin Implementation Plan (BIP). From the proposals received the committee chose Harris Water Engineers to be local expert. Steve Harris (Harris Water Engineering) will no longer participate on the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) or the SW Basin Roundtable, and Carrie Padgett, P.E. of Harris Water will also step down from the SW Basin Roundtable. Roundtable elections will take place in October, Officer elections will take place in July.

There will be a team approach to working on the BIP update that will include the SW Basin Roundtable, the Local Experts (Harris Water Engineers), who work with the General Contractor (Brown and Caldwell) and the CWCB.

Matt Lindberg with Brown/Caldwell, the General Contractor, gave a presentation on next steps regarding the BIP review process. The purpose of the review and update is to improve project data, unpack technical update, revisit goals and objectives and invest in process efficiency.

The timeline for the BIP update is as follows:

  • March – August 2020 – Local Expert Workshops, Work Plans and Project lists.
  • September – December 2020 – Basin Analysis/Study
  • January – December 2021 – Update the Basin Implementation Plan
  • December to March 2022 – Incorporate Updated BIP’s into the Water Plan Update
  • To view the full Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan go here.

    River restoration project underway — The Telluride Daily Planet

    Photo via TellurideValleyFloor.org

    From The Telluride Daily Planet (Suzanne Cheavens):

    Valley Floor tailings to be capped

    A river rechanneling and tailings recap project on the west end of the Valley Floor has been put in motion this week after a year’s delay.

    Originally green-lighted by Telluride Town Council last year, the project was put on hold when abundant winter snowpack made for what town project manager Lance McDonald called “abnormally high flows in June and July.” But this year, conditions are ideal and the project’s first phase — the creation of an access road off the Spur west of Eider Creek — kicked off Tuesday. The ambitious plan includes capping the tailings on the northwest end of the Valley Floor and rerouting the river where it runs near those tailings.

    The tailings pile (the Society Turn Tailings Pile No. 1) spans 23 acres and sits south of the abandoned railroad grade on either side of the river. It is subject to a cleanup agreement between Idarado Mining Company and the State of Colorado that calls for capping and revegetating the contaminated area in place. The Remedial Action Plan allows the landowner — the town — to offer an alternative plan, which the town has done….

    “It’s very large, on a landscape scale,” [Lance] McDonald said. “It’s not like building a building. It’s working across an entire landscape.”

    Remediating the tailings area has long been in the town’s sights, McDonald said.

    “It’s been in the works for 25 years,” he said. “It’s great to see it happening now.”