From the Eagle River Watershed Council (James Dilzell) via The Vail Daily:
One hundred and 28 percent.
That’s the average snowpack the Upper Colorado River Basin saw for the 2019 winter season, which comprises the Western Slope of Colorado, eastern Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico.
In Colorado, our local watersheds experienced snowpack at 134% of average through the season, and many late-season storms contributed to areas in the state being above 400% for the month of June. Though, we don’t need numbers to confirm what we already knew — 2019 brought a ton of snow and with that a fantastic ski season. The powder came early and stayed late, allowing for turns at Thanksgiving and on the Fourth of July.
The gift of powder last winter came in part from the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, a climate cycle connected to the Pacific Ocean. El Niño occurs when the ocean’s surface has a warm-year cycle, creating a low-pressure zone in the Pacific. This event pushes and extends the Pacific jet stream down, creating the path for amplified storms across the southern United States. That said, the winter we experienced last year wasn’t guaranteed, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation merely increased the probability.
2019’s El Niño event was paired with randomness, transporting warm, wet air from the Pacific Northwest inland to Utah and Colorado. When that arrived in the high country, it was met with near-normal cold temperatures. This combination allowed for storm after storm and precipitated into a lot of snow midseason. SNOTEL sites throughout the state showed record-setting precipitation in February and March. Overall, 2019 was the second wettest season since 1900.
One hundred and 20 percent.
That’s the peak flow of rivers in the upper basin compared to average. Here in the Eagle River Valley, we saw high flows and a late-season peak when the Eagle River reached 7,490 cubic feet per second on July 1. The second highest in recent years was in 2012 when the river peaked just above 6,000 cfs in early June. Again, we don’t need numbers to tell us about the incredible summer the river had. But what the numbers can tell us is that we are not in the clear when it comes to the water in our western rivers.
While 120% is a strong runoff, the complete story is that we are not seeing the same efficiencies in snowmelt reaching the rivers. At the Water Seminar in Grand Junction, hosted by the Colorado River District, it was repeated over and over that runoff efficiencies are far lower now than in the 1950s and 60s. This is due to the extended drying of the west, the lack of consistent precipitation to bring the soil moisture up, and the increasing average temperatures.
This winter did allow for a moisture recharge, pulling Colorado out of a 19-year drought, but we are not in the clear. Our winter was the second wettest, but June through August was the eighth-driest on record, and our summer fell into the top 10 of warmest on record.
The Winter 2019 feast after the famine was welcomed and needed, but it is a part of the increasingly unpredictable, unsteady and inconsistent hydroclimate. As climate cycles alter and average temperatures increase, we don’t know what the future of water in the West is. Uncertainty is the only thing we can count on — and it is up to us to stay ahead of the changes in our climate. Consider writing a letter to the current administration to stand up for rivers or join the Watershed Council in local planning efforts to ensure the future of water for our community.
James Dilzell is the Education & Outreach Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406.
The Homestake Project is a trans-mountain raw water collection, storage, and delivery system co-owned and operated by the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora, Colo.
The Homestake Arkansas River Diversion (ARD), between Granite and Buena Vista, Colo., was constructed in 1964 as the original intake for the Otero Pump Station. Water is now primarily withdrawn from Twin Lakes, however the ARD remains an alternate point of diversion. The ARD has deteriorated and requires repair. The ARD was not originally designed as a navigable facility.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) manages the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) which includes the site of the ARD. CPW expressed interest in partnering with Springs Utilities on a rehabilitation project to include a boat chute for downstream navigation as this location is currently considered the only non-navigable reach of the Arkansas River between Leadville and Canon City, Colo.
The Upper Arkansas River is both one of the most heavily used rivers in the United States for whitewater recreation and is a Gold Medal Trout Fishery. The river is managed to support multiple objectives including water supply and delivery and outdoor recreation.
The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are constructing a rehabilitation project that will replace the intake and diversion, provide a boat chute for downstream navigation, and provide upstream fish passage for spawning of brown and rainbow trout. The project also included improving river safety for recreational users and providing whitewater boat portage. User safety was an extremely important design consideration.
A physical model was constructed to test and refine hydraulic elements to optimize performance, maximize user safety and meet design guidelines for recreational whitewater for all three components: boat chute, fish passage and the new intake structure.
The $9 million construction cost of the project is being jointly funded by the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs. $1.2 million in grants is coming from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Water Conservation Board through grant funding to support the Colorado Water Plan (Water Supply and Demand Gap and Environmental and Recreation Grant Programs). The Pueblo Board of Waterworks is donating the easements necessary to construct and maintain the diversion.
Here’s a report from Jason Blevins writing for The Colorado Sun:
But just below the former riverside mining camp of Granite, where a dilapidated dam built in 1964 has long blemished the Arkansas River’s beauty, rebar jutted from concrete blocks, preventing raft passage and spawning trout battled the steep wall of blasted rocks to reach upstream pools.
“Not a lot of thought went into recreation or fish when this dam was built,” said Ronald Sanchez, an engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities.
A lot of thought is going into fish and recreation now, as water managers in Colorado Springs and Aurora join the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in rebuilding the diversion that directs water to the Front Range.
The $9.1 million project will make the entire river from Leadville to Cañon City navigable for rafts for the first time in at least 55 years.
It’s part of the vast Colorado Springs- and Aurora-owned Homestake Project that brings Eagle River Basin water from the Holy Cross Wilderness to the Arkansas River Basin, through the Homestake, Turquoise and Twin Lakes reservoirs for delivery to the Front Range cities.
The cities started construction of the Arkansas River diversion in July 2018, creating three distinct channels below a rebuilt intake that serves as a backup water diversion to the Otero Pump station downstream of Twin Lakes Dam. Before the Twin Lakes Dam was built in the late 1970s, the diversion was the original intake that collected and directed water to the Otero Pump station for delivery to Aurora and Colorado Springs.
One channel is a fish ladder for spawning brown and rainbow trout. Another channel is a spillway to accommodate flood-level flows like the ones that swelled the Arkansas River this spring. And a third is a series of six drops allowing rafts safe passage.
The project marks a new era of collaboration between the diverse interests on the Arkansas River between Leadville and Cañon City, one of the most recreated stretches of river in the U.S.
“For me the coolest thing about it is that you have these large water utilities in Colorado going above and beyond to do the right thing for the next 50 years,” said Salida-based whitewater park engineer Mike Harvey.
Ten years ago, Harvey helped the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area craft a report urging Aurora and Colorado Springs to consider recreation and fish when it came time to rebuild the Granite Dam diversion…
The Arkansas River accounts for more than $74 million of the $177 million in economic impact created by commercial rafting in Colorado. The 102 miles of river in the Upper Arkansas River Valley also ranks among the 322 miles of Colorado waterways that qualify as Gold Medal Fisheries that can yield a dozen large trout per acre. It also supplies a large percentage of water to Colorado Springs and Aurora via the 66-inch pipeline that runs from the Otero Pump Station.
Rebecca Mitchell, the executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the project exemplifies the collaboration of the Colorado Water Plan, which gathered perspectives from all types of water users in the state to create a policy roadmap for future water planning across the state.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the conservation board provided $1.2 million in funding through Colorado Water Plan grant programs.
Here’s a guest column about water projects for the upper Eagle River Valley, from Jack Holmes, that’s running in theThe Vail Daily:
There are at least five water-related project proposals being considered for the Upper Eagle River Valley from Dowd Junction to the top of Tennessee Pass in the next 50 years. These include several tributaries of the Eagle River.
One combined project could take care of all major stakeholders and turn the area into a model for the future. The alternative will be five decades of litigation and a patchwork of projects that will be costly to all communities.
It is not about who will get the water. That is settled by Colorado Water Law and the 1989 Memorandum of Understanding. It is about whether the parties involved will work together, which happened during the drought of the early 2000s, or go in separate directions, which was the case during the middle 1950s.
The common project would be an Upper Eagle Pipeline and Storage Co. from Dowd Junction to Tennessee Pass. Storage, if needed, could be at Bolts Lake and Camp Hale. The 20-mile-long pipeline would follow the route of the Eagle River, the Railroad, the U.S. 24 highway or some combination thereof depending on what works and preserves the existing scenic corridor between Dowd Junction and Tennessee Pass.
That is the lowest continental divide pass in the Central Rockies. Those wanting to move or store water would need to pay accordingly. A trench and bury pipeline approach would seem to a good approach.
This proposal would give all major parties what they need at a reasonable cost. Memorandum of Understanding obligations could be met. To be sure, this would require some compromise. Camp Hale restoration might need to shift from some limited and expensive wetland restorations to a series of small reservoirs but probably would get more visitors to honor the 10th Mountain Division. Extensive wetlands are a few miles away on Homestake Creek in the original Camp Hale boundaries.
Building the one project pipeline and reservoirs would require funding, but it should cost less than tunnels, which are problematic to begin with because of potential seismic activity that would destroy the tunnels. In fact, the concept could be sold as a demonstration project worthy of grant funding.
While moving of water is not attractive to environmentalists, the concentration of project impacts in a well-established corridor makes sense. To be sure, the rail corridor would need to be preserved for possible future use, but an adjoining pipeline could be helpful in this regard.
If Front Range communities are more willing to pay for initial construction than Western Slope entities, the first phase of the project could start at the junction of Fall Creek and the Eagle River.
A major environmental question is how much effort should be spent to erase existing environmental impacts in the Eagle River and its Homestake Creek tributary basins above their lower Red Cliff junction. Such actions could merely shift impacts to the other basin at great public and environmental expense.
Anybody familiar with these issues knows that this proposal is a simplified summary. However, it also is known that 50 years in court and countless engineering and field hours can be curtailed by working together. The public has every right to insist that every attempt be made to arrive at a unified approach. While there are some good studies of limited areas, consideration of the larger area is missing at this point.
Jack Holmes is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and vice-chair of the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund. He has backpacked in the Holy Cross Wilderness since 1959 and is a summer resident on Homestake Creek above Red Cliff. For many years, he taught a summer course on wilderness politics.
Minturn turned down a proposal Wednesday that would have provided enough water for substantial growth within the town, including the Battle Mountain developer’s proposal to build up to 712 homes near Maloit Park and Tigiwon Road.
The Minturn Town Council voted 7-0 to deny the proposed deal between Minturn, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Battle Mountain developer.
Most residents who spoke at the meeting opposed the deal.
“We need to control our water,” said Minturn resident Woody Woodruff. “We can’t turn over that control to somebody else, because water is going to set the future of this town.”
The developer had asked for a decision to approve or deny the deal Wednesday.
Earle Bidez, mayor pro tem, cited continued concerns on the part of Minturn with the agreement — as well as an increasingly “negative” tone from the developer.
“We have not been able to reach a deal with the district,” he said. “We didn’t get far enough with Battle Mountain to know what we would have ended up with. But I don’t think we can get there from listening to (residents) for the last few months. The negotiation would have to change very much to get there.”
Minturn currently provides its own water from Cross Creek, separate from the rest of the valley’s supply. But the water from Cross Creek is limited — more water is needed if the town wants to grow significantly.
Under the proposal, the developer would have paid for a $5.6 million water pipe, or “interconnect,” that would have connected the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District’s water supply to Minturn’s, providing more water for growth and a redundant supply in case of emergency. The developer also offered more than $3 million in other infrastructure improvements for Minturn, whose aging water system is in need of significant repairs.
The deal also would have allowed the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District to build a $48 million reservoir at Bolts Lake, which is now dry.
It would have been contingent upon the developer receiving the approvals it needs to build the 712 homes.
On Thursday, representatives from Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Eagle River Watershed Council, the Town of Gypsum, the Buckhorn Valley Metropolitan District and Scott Green Excavating raised a toast to the completion of a pipeline from the creek which replaces a more than 100-year old ditch…The more than $1 million project hinges on the fish screen and the data collection station. If water levels aren’t recording properly, Buckhorn Valley won’t know when they’re able to divert, as they’ve agreed to take water only when stream levels are above 1.25 cubic feet per second.
That agreement saw some referee action in water court, said attorney Steve Bushong, who helped the metro district obtain a judge’s decree which confirmed that the project can go forward without impacting the metro district’s water rights. The decree came through in November after a slight holdup from the city of Aurora, which diverts water out of Eagle County to the Front Range via Homestake Reservoir.
“Aurora stipulated out of that case; they just asked for some kind of no precedent language, which we were able to work out and include,” Bushong said…
Another complicated part of the project is the diversion point itself — if it doesn’t allow fish to pass through safely from both sides, the whole project will have been in vain.
Designed by hydraulic/fish passage engineer Brent Mefford, the Abrams Creek fish screen benefits from Mefford’s many years of research with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation studying screen layout, orientation to channel flow, debris management and use of isolation gates.
“Having a fish person design a screen, they understand fish behavior,” said Kendall Bakich with Colorado Parks & Wildlife. “The way this screen is designed, it allows the fish to swim on the screen if it gets in there.”
On Thursday, members of Colorado Parks & Wildlife witnessed the fish screen working properly from both directions.
“Within 10 minutes (of arriving at the site) we had a fish in here,” Bakich said while examining the fish screen on Thursday. “It worked just like it should.”
Local officials say damming a creek between Leadville and Minturn — and routing water normally flowing into the Colorado River — is necessary to sate the future thirsts of a city growing on land where water is scarce.
Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities recently applied together for a permit to drill underground near the creek and test where a large Whitney Reservoir would be best situated.
For the dam, the utilities are eyeing four possible locations about six miles southwest of Red Cliff.
But damming Homestake Creek would also require moving the boundary of the Holy Cross Wilderness, affecting ancient, pristine wetlands.
Greg Baker, Aurora Water’s manager of public relations, said the Whitney Reservoir could be built in 25 years if key steps such as test drilling on Forest Service land are approved.
Baker said it’s another creative step to make sure that Aurora doesn’t go dry.
“You don’t leave anything on the table when you’re in Colorado, because most of the water has been appropriated in river basins,” he said.
Baker said the reservoir could eventually hold anywhere from 9,000 acre-feet to 19,000 acre-feet of water. The water would then be pumped near Leadville and travel to the Front Range through tunnels to the South Platte River basin.
Currently, only Aurora and Colorado Springs would benefit, Baker said.
The project is another alliance between Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities. The two cities — the state’s largest behind Denver — are both growing quickly. Baker said the new reservoir could help ensure the taps keep flowing, especially in an era with snowpack decreases that imperil creeks and rivers.
The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are increasing their efforts to develop a reservoir on lower Homestake Creek in the Eagle River basin that would hold between 6,850 acre-feet and 20,000 acre-feet of water.
The two Front Range cities, working together as Homestake Partners, have filed an application with the U.S. Forest Service to drill test bores at four potential dam sites on the creek, renowned for its complex wetlands.
They briefed members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation in April about federal legislation they are drafting that would adjust the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the dam sites.
And Aurora spent $4.1 million in 2018 to purchase a 150-acre private inholding parcel that accounts for about half the surface area of the 20,000-acre-foot version of the reservoir, removing one obstacle in the way of submitting a comprehensive land-use application to the Forest Service.
“We are in preparation to permit this overall project, to try and get that larger application in, so every piece of the project has had more time and effort spent on it,” said Kathy Kitzmann, a water resources principal with Aurora Water.
Eagle River MOU
The Whitney Reservoir project is defined in part by the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, a 1998 agreement that gives Aurora and Colorado Springs a basis to pursue 20,000 acre-feet of water from the Western Slope.
Parties to the MOU include Aurora, Colorado Springs, Climax Molybdenum Co., Colorado River Water Conservation District, Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and Vail Associates.
Peter Fleming, the River District’s general counsel, told the district’s board in a July 1 memo that the River District is “not participating in any Homestake Creek based alternative at this time, this effort is now being carried forward solely by the Homestake Partners.”
Under the MOU, various parties can pursue projects on their own, and the other parties are bound to support those efforts, but only to the degree that a proposed project meets the objectives of the MOU, including whether a project “minimizes environmental impacts.”
Whitney Reservoir takes its name from Whitney Creek, which flows into Homestake Creek just above the four potential dam alignments now being studied. The dam that would form Whitney Reservoir would stand across Homestake Creek, not Whitney Creek. Homestake Creek flows into the Eagle River at Red Cliff.
Asked how serious the two cities are about the Whitney Reservoir project, Kevin Lusk, the principal engineer at Colorado Springs Utilities, said, “We’ve been serious about it for the last 20 years.”
And he said the recent drilling application “is another step in the continuum from concept to reality.”
On June 25, the two cities submitted an application with the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District for permission from the White River National Forest to drill 13 test bores 150 feet to explore the geology under the four sites.
The sites are clustered on the creek between 3 and 5 miles above the intersection of U.S. 24 and Homestake Road, shown as Forest Road 703 on most maps. The intersection is not far below Camp Hale, between Minturn and Leadville.
The drilling application says Aurora and Colorado Springs are conducting “a fatal-flaw level reservoir siting study” that “comprises subsurface exploration to evaluate feasibility of dam construction on lower Homestake Creek.”
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said review of the drilling application itself is “fairly standard stuff.”
“We’ll definitely send out a scoping statement, asking for public comment, but it won’t be about a dam,” he said. “It will be about drilling the holes.”
Each of the 13 borings would take up to five days to drill, so there could be 65 days of drilling this fall or, if the application is not approved this year, in 2020, according to Lusk.
The project includes taking a “track-mounted drill rig or a buggy-mounted drill rig,” a “utility vehicle pulling a small trailer” and a “track-mounted skid steer” onto public lands along 10-foot-wide “temporary access routes.”
The drill rigs are about 8 feet wide, 22 feet long and 8 feet high. To get the rigs to drilling sites, some wetlands may need to be crossed and trees will be cut as necessary.
The information about the geology under the four sites will help determine the size of a dam on a given alignment and how much water a reservoir would hold, Lusk said. And that could affect how much wilderness area might be encroached on.
Given that Aurora and Colorado Springs are still working through various options, it’s not clear yet how big of an adjustment to the wilderness boundary they might ultimately seek from Congress.
The current proposed legislation developed by the cities asks to remove 497 acres from the wilderness boundary, but it is also expected to include a reversion provision so if all 497 acres are not needed, the boundary adjustment could be reduced.
According to Lusk, in one the of the alternatives studied, about 80 acres would need to be removed from the wilderness area if Whitney Reservoir was to hold 20,000 acre feet of water. However, the cities have yet to rule out the option of building an alternate reservoir below the Whitney Reservoir location – Blodgett Reservoir – which could require a larger boundary adjustment, although not the full 497 acres.
An adjustment to a wilderness boundary requires an act of Congress and the president’s signature. In April, representatives from the two cities described the potential boundary change to staffers of U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton, Jason Crow, Joe Neguse and Doug Lamborn.
Fitzwilliams said Monday the Forest Service won’t accept a full-blown land-use application for Whitney Reservoir until the wilderness boundary issue has been worked out through federal legislation, if that is still needed after the final version of the reservoir is better defined.
Kitzmann said she is reaching out to stakeholders to continue to refine the legislative language and the map showing the extent of the proposed boundary change.
Wetlands and fens
On another front, Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities staffers are hosting a tour this week for the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board of the Homestake Plant and Fen Relocation Project, near Leadville.
The CWCB directors, holding their July meeting in Leadville, also will hear a presentation at their meeting about the fen-relocation effort, which consists of moving “fen-like organic soils and plant life” from one location in blocks or bales to another location and “reassembling them in a specially prepared groundwater-fed basin.”
Many regulatory agencies do not believe it’s possible to re-create complex fen wetlands, according to a CWCB staff memo, but that regulatory stance “may be related to the lack of scientific investigation on fen mitigation.”
A 2016 study estimated between 26 and 180 acres of wetlands on lower Homestake Creek would be impacted by Whitney Reservoir.
“This is one of the finest wetlands we can find on our forest — it’s unbelievable,” Fitzwilliams said. “From an environmental impact standpoint, this would not be a project that we would be favorable to.”
But Lusk said the fen-relocation project near Leadville is “proof of concept” that replacing fens, while “a tough nut to crack,” can be done.
Fitzwilliams may be hard to persuade.
“You can mitigate,” he said, “but you can’t replace 10,000 years of work.”
Forebay and pumping
Despite the wetlands and wilderness challenges, Lusk and Kitzmann said no fatal flaws have been found yet in what they view as an important future element of their water-supply systems.
The new reservoir would serve as a collection point for water brought in via tunnels from the Eagle River and Fall and Peterson creeks, and for water captured from Homestake Creek.
The reservoir would also serve as a forebay, as the water captured in Whitney Reservoir would be pumped 7 miles up to Homestake Reservoir. Once there, it can be sent through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir, near Leadville, and then on to Aurora and Colorado Springs.
The two cities own and manage Homestake Reservoir, the upper end of which is in Pitkin County. The reservoir opened in 1967 and normally stores 43,600 acre-feet of water from seven high-mountain creeks behind a 231-foot-tall dam. About 25,000 acre-feet a year is sent through the Homestake Tunnel each year to the Front Range.
Homestake Partners also has a conditional water-storage right from 1995 to store 9,300 acre-feet of water behind a potential 110-foot-tall dam in what is called Blodgett Reservoir, located on Homestake Creek below the Whitney Reservoir sites. Blodgett Reservoir also has a longer history, and has been viewed as an alternate location for older water rights – appropriated in 1952 and adjudicated in 1962 – that are tied to Homestake Reservoir.
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. This version includes a clarification concerning the size of the adjustment to the wilderness boundary and the date of the water rights for Blodgett Reservoir.