Low water volumes due to #drought could affect #ColoradoRiver recreational activities — The #GlenwoodSprings Post-Independent

From The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent (Shannon Marvel):

Water volumes along the Colorado River are 55% of average for the amount of volume that would normally be seen from April to July, according to Aldis Strautins, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

That’s due to drought conditions that have persisted over the last year.

The Eagle River’s water volume is also at 55% of the average, and the Roaring Fork River is at 51% of the normal average volume, Strautins said…

Paula Stepp, executive director for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, said the drought will likely impact the Glenwood Springs area in many ways.

Stepp said there are concerns about how the drought and lower water volumes along the Colorado River will impact agriculture, recreation and aquatic habitat.

Water use by agricultural producers is already stressed by the drought, Stepp said…

Stepp said she’s already heard that there’s not a lot of water available and there’s a need to be conservative with water usage.

On the recreational side of things, Stepp said there could be a much shorter rafting season.

Eagle County water providers look at Bolts Lake renewal — The #Vail Daily #EagleRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #ariification

Mountains reflect off of Bolts Lake, back in the day, as seen from US 24 S in Colorado. Photo via
LessBeatenPaths.com.

From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):

Possible reservoir a key element of [water] providers’ long-term plans

The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority — separate entities that share offices — is looking at a possible plan to create a reservoir on the lake site just south of Minturn. The plan, if it comes to pass, could take 10 years to complete, at a still-unknown cost.

The water providers currently have a purchase contract for the lake site with the Battle North LLC, which owns the property, and has for some time envisioned housing near the site.

During the contract period — about 12 months — the district and authority will conduct feasibility studies for the lake.

District Director of Engineering and Water Resources Jason Cowles said that work will include soils testing and other evaluation. If the evaluation provides the right answers, the water providers will buy the site and get to work.

The current idea is to roughly triple the size of the old lake by digging down about 30 feet from the current empty lake bottom. That would keep the size of the new dam reasonable. The old dam was breached in the early 1990s for safety reasons. In addition, digging that much material would provide plenty of clean fill dirt to use for other purposes, including capping tailings from the Eagle Mine.

A near-perfect site

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District General Manager Linn Brooks said if the evaluation bears fruit, Bolts Lake is a nearly-perfect site for a reservoir.

The site is on private land, is the right size and is off the main channel of the Eagle River, Brooks said, adding that the environmental impacts would be minimal…

The upper valley’s water providers have long been looking for more water storage within the Eagle River basin. The providers get most of their water from streamflows…

Since the Bolts Lake reservoir wouldn’t take water directly from the river, Brooks said the reservoir would still keep streamflows whole. And, like the providers’ other reservoirs, the water would be used to augment streamflows in the river, which helps river health.

In an email, Tim McGuire of Battle North wrote that the company is excited to work with the water providers on the project.

Whitewater race series starts Tuesday — The #Vail Daily #GoreCreek #EagleRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Kayaking Gore Creek via Vail Recreation

Here’s the release from the Vail Recreation District via The Vail Daily:

The 2021 Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Vail Whitewater Race Series is almost here.

The Vail Recreation District offers five events on Gore Creek on Tuesdays from May 11 to June 8. This is a chance to test your paddling skills and compete against others. Register for individual races or the whole series.

For 2021, the Vail Recreation District is excited to introduce a new title sponsor for the series, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.

“The Vail Whitewater Race Series is a great example of how our community thrives on water. Whether it’s snow, our rivers, or the safe water we deliver to homes and businesses every day, clean water is vital to our quality of life,” said Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s Diane Johnson. “As stewards of our rivers, we encourage everyone to reduce their impact on local streams by reducing their outdoor water use.”

The Vail Recreation District also partners with the Town of Vail and Alpine Quest Sports to put on these exciting races, held at the Vail Whitewater Park on Tuesday evenings beginning at 5:30 p.m. The first four races start at the Covered Bridge in Vail Village and end at International Bridge.

The last race on June 8 will start at the Ampitheater Bridge in Ford Park. Overall series prizes will be awarded following the final race.

The races will be divided between three categories including kayak (under 9-feet-6), two-person raft (R2) and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) with different course challenges every week. Open to paddlers ages 16 and up with intermediate to expert abilities, the skills to run Class III whitewater in your chosen craft are required. The two-round format will consist of an individual time trial with results determining the seeding for the second round, a head-to-head race.

Please note that for 2021 the Vail Recreation District has limited rafts for use, so the R2 category will be limited to 15 teams. Preregistration is highly encouraged.

An after-party will also be hosted in Vail Village each week with prizes awarded to the winners of all three categories. For the first race on Tuesday, the after-party will take place at the Altitude Bar & Grill. All race participants over 21 will receive free beer courtesy of New Belgium Brewing Company!

Registration is available at http://www.vailrec.com/register. Series registration for kayak and SUP participants is $60 and series registration for R2 participants is $80 per team.

Individual race registration for kayak and SUP participants is $15 preregistered or $20 day-of, and $20 preregistered or $30 day-of for R2 teams. Preregistration is highly encouraged and ends at 5 p.m. the day before each race. If space is still available, on-site, day-of registration will begin at 4:30 p.m. at the Vail Whitewater Park and all participants should be present at the safety talk at 5:15 p.m.

Every registered participant at each race will be entered to win a $1,000 gift certificate from Hala Gear that can be used towards a board and paddle package of their choice. The winner will be drawn after the final race so make sure you attend that last after-party!

The Vail Recreation District will be following all state and county COVID-19 guidelines for this upcoming race season.

For more information, visit vailrec.com, call the VRD Sports Department at 970-479-2280 or email sports@vailrec.com.

Homestake Reservoir release proves tricky to track — @AspenJournalism

Two men fish the Eagle River just above its confluence with the Colorado River in Dotsero. Homestake Partners released 1,667 acre-feet of water down Homestake Creek and into the Eagle River in September to test how a release would work in a compact call.
CREDIT: BETHANY BLITZ/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sacket):

Getting water to state line would be key in compact call

In September, Front Range water providers released some water downstream — which they were storing in Homestake Reservoir — to test how they could get it to the state line in the event of a Colorado River Compact call.

But accurately tracking and measuring that water — from the high mountain reservoir in the Eagle River watershed all the way through the Colorado River at the end of the Grand Valley — turned out to be tricky, according to a recently released report from the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

From Sept. 23 through Sept. 29, Colorado Springs Utilities, Aurora Water and Pueblo Board of Water Works released a total of 1,667 acre-feet of water, which would have otherwise been diverted to the Front Range, from the reservoir into Homestake Creek, a tributary of the Eagle River. The release gradually ramped up from about 25 cubic feet per second to 175 cfs and then gradually back down over the seven days.

But officials were unable to put a number on how much of that water made it to the state line.

In their attempt to quantify the actual amount of reservoir release delivered to the state line, state engineers ran into challenges that caused uncertainty, they said in an email.

Although they couldn’t measure how many acre-feet officially made it, State Engineer Kevin Rein said that the exercise was still a success and that all the water, minus transit losses, crossed into Utah.

“We have heard this is a failure because not everything worked perfectly, but in my mind, this was an opportunity under non-stress conditions to find out what we need to do to ensure that things will work,” Rein said.

A goal of this project, known as the State Line Delivery Pilot Reservoir Release, was to see if the water could be “shepherded” downstream without senior water-rights holders diverting the extra water. This required Division 5 water commissioners to actively administer some headgates, especially on Homestake Creek and the Eagle River.

According to the report, the water took about 2½ days to make the journey from the reservoir to the gage on the Colorado River near Cameo — about 16 hours longer than predicted by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. Along the way, about 10% of the water either evaporated or was soaked up by thirsty streamside soils and vegetation — processes known collectively as transit loss.

Making sure water could get to the state line would be essential in the case of a compact call.

This scenario, the chances of which increase as climate change continues to reduce river flows, could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement.

A compact call could be especially problematic for Front Range water providers since most of their rights that let them divert water over the Continental Divide from the Western Slope date to after the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That means mandatory cutbacks in water use could fall more heavily on the post-compact water rights of Front Range water providers.

Colorado Springs Utilities and Aurora Water, operating together as Homestake Partners, said the problem was that the rate of release was too low. It was more a matter of flow volume than administration. Even in a dry year, a release of 175 cfs was not high enough to reliably track the water, especially when it reaches the Colorado River, which has a much higher volume of water than Homestake Creek or the Eagle River, and the reservoir release is a smaller fraction of its overall flow.

In an email to Aspen Journalism, Homestake Partners said: “A bigger pulse of water would overcome some of the issues that DWR had in tracking the release. This sort of result is exactly what we wanted to explore — it tells us that if we, or anyone else in the state, chooses to make a state line release in the future, a higher volume of water will probably need to be released to be reliably tracked.”

State engineers also had to deal with a river that was constantly in flux. Upstream reservoir releases and changes to irrigation diversions made for additional challenges.

State officials said it was hard to separate the reservoir release from the rest of the Colorado River’s flow at the state line because of numerous ungaged streams and return flows from irrigation that enter the river between Palisade and the state line.

“The ungaged inflows could not be subtracted from the total flow in the river, therefore the separated flows were too large and did not allow for the initial waves of the reservoir release to be identified,” officials said in an email.

The total flows at the state line at the time of the reservoir release’s arrival were around 2,500 cfs, according to DWR.

The total flows at the state line at the time of the reservoir release’s arrival were around 2,500 cfs, according to DWR.

River District concerns

The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, which protects Western Slope water interests, had several concerns about the reservoir release.

“I think it’s important that the public and the state recognize that they released 1,600 acre-feet of water during an incredibly dry period and they couldn’t actually track it to the state line,” said River District general manager Andy Mueller.

But Mueller’s concerns go beyond the trouble with tracking. He said the state engineer did not reach out to Western Slope water users who had the potential to be injured by the release. He also doesn’t trust that the cities won’t just refill the hole created by the release with more Western Slope water.

The River District’s main concern is that in a water-collection system as complex as Homestake Partners — with several different transmountain diversions bringing water from the Western Slope to the Front Range — it’s hard for the state to make sure they won’t take more water to replace the pool they released.

“From our perspective, it’s very difficult for the state to verify that they haven’t just brought the water over from a different part of their diversion system,” Mueller said. “So it leaves us with a lot of skepticism, and we voiced that in several discussions.”

To address some of these concerns, the cities are required to submit a verification plan to the state to prove three things: that they had enough space available in reservoirs on the east side of the divide to store the water, and they weren’t just releasing water downstream they couldn’t use anyway; that they actually decreased water taken through the Homestake Tunnel by the same amount as the pilot release; and that they didn’t create additional space in Homestake Reservoir to allow for greater storage this year.

“In essence, we brought the ‘hole’ we created in our storage in Homestake Reservoir through to the East Slope when we operated the tunnel in February and March,” the Homestake Partners’ email reads. “This was accomplished by not drawing down Homestake Reservoir quite as much as we otherwise could have this winter in preparation for spring runoff.”

Homestake Creek flows from Homestake Reservoir near Red Cliff. A pilot reservoir release to test how to get water to the state line in the event of a Colorado River Compact Call proved hard to track for state engineers.
CREDIT: BETHANY BLITZ/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Demand management

The reservoir release also could have implications for a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently investigating. At the heart of a demand- management program is a reduction in water use on a temporary, voluntary and compensated basis in an effort to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster water levels in the giant reservoir — which spans Utah and Arizona — and, indirectly, to meet Colorado River Compact obligations.

Under such a program, agricultural water users could get paid to temporarily fallow fields and leave more water in the river. Front Range water providers could participate by releasing water stored in Western Slope reservoirs.

Rein was careful to say that the Homestake pilot release was in no way connected to demand management. Still, the experiment may have revealed potential problem areas should a demand-management program become reality.

“The ability to track water that is conserved consumptive use all the way to the state line is really critical for the success of that program,” Mueller said. “And if you can’t track a slug of 1,600 acre-feet of water to the state line, how are you going to track the voluntary reduction in use of a small ditch on the West Slope that maybe they are saving 15 acre-feet?”

Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with the Vail Daily and The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 16 edition of the Vail Daily and The Aspen Times.

Vail melt is upon us after snow-water peak occurs in March this season — The #Vail Daily #ColoradoRiver #COrver #aridification

From The Vail Daily (John LoConte):

Readings top out 3.5 weeks earlier than average

Vail Mountain has seen quite a melt over the last two weeks, and snow telemetry data shows the area snow water equivalent to have peaked on March 31.

While there’s more moisture on the way, it’s unlikely to push the readings on the Vail Mountain snow telemetry site back over the March 31 recordings at Vail, said Eagle River Water and Sanitation District spokesperson Diane Johnson.

The Vail Mountain site is located at an elevation of 10,300 feet, and peaked March 31 at 14.6 inches of water within the snowpack, known as snow water equivalent.

The March 31 peak at 14.6 inches is 65% of normal peak SWE and 3.5 weeks ahead of the normal April 25 peak, Johnson said.

Johnson said while the rain and snow in the forecast is very welcome given the conditions, “it’s unlikely to affect the peak since Vail has already dropped so much.”

The April 12 reading on Vail Mountain is 11.5 inches, down 3.1 inches in two weeks…

Copper Mountain’s SWE peaked April 2, nearly four weeks ahead of its normal April 28 peak. The site recorded 12.4 inches of water within the snowpack, which is 80% of its normal peak. The Copper Mountain snow telemetry site is at 10,550 feet and is the closest official measurement site to the headwaters of Gore Creek, which runs through Vail Village.

At Fremont Pass, which is the site closest to the headwaters of the Eagle River, an April 5 reading shows 13.4 inches of water within the snowpack, which could be the peak, although it’s still too early to tell, Johnson said. The April 12 reading at Fremont Pass shows 13.2 inches…

The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District says the extreme drought which started in August 2020 is likely to continue into this summer.

Forest Service approves test drilling for Whitney Reservoir site — @AspenJournalism #EagleRiver

These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

OK is first step toward dam and reservoir on Homestake Creek

The U.S. Forest Service on Monday approved an application from the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs for geotechnical drilling in the Homestake Valley, one of the first steps toward building a new dam and reservoir on Homestake Creek.

The approval allows the cities, operating together as Homestake Partners, to drill 10 bore samples up to 150 feet deep and for crews on the ground to collect geophysical data. The goal of the work, which is expected to begin in late summer and last 50 to 60 days, is a “fatal flaw” feasibility study to determine whether the soil and bedrock could support a dam and reservoir.

The project, known as Whitney Reservoir, would be located near the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which is six miles south of Red Cliff. Various configurations of the project show it holding between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet of water. The area is home to a rare kind of groundwater-fed wetland with peat soils known as a fen.

Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis approved the project despite receiving a total of 775 comments on the drilling proposal during the scoping period. According to the public scoping comment summary, the most common topics commenters had concerns about included the potential loss of wilderness, the destruction of fens and wetlands, impacts to water quality and disturbance to wildlife.

But just 80 letters — about 10% — were individual comments that the Forest Service considered substantive and specific to the geotechnical investigation. Most comments were form-letter templates from organizations such as Carbondale-based conservation group Wilderness Workshop or pertained to concerns about the Whitney Reservoir project as a whole, not the geotechnical drilling.

“A lot of the public comments were pertaining to a reservoir, and the proposal is not for a reservoir; it’s for just those 10 geotechnical bore holes,” Veldhuis said.

Many commenters also said the level of analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act wasn’t appropriate and questioned why the proposal was granted a categorical exclusion, rather than undergoing the more rigorous Environmental Analysis typical of big projects on Forest Service land. Veldhuis said the geotechnical investigation, a common occurrence on public lands, didn’t rise to the level of an EA; that could come later with any reservoir proposal.

“If the future holds any additional sort of proposal, then that would trigger a brand-new analysis with additional rounds of public comments,” she said. “Any future proposals for anything more would undergo an even bigger environmental analysis than this underwent.”

Homestake Creek flows from Homestake Reservoir near Red Cliff. Starting Wednesday, Homestake Partners will be releasing water out of the reservoir to make sure that water can get to the state line as another option to fulfill the state’s upstream duties of delivering water to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

Whitney Reservoir

The proposed Whitney Reservoir would pump water from lower Homestake Creek back to Homestake Reservoir, about five miles upstream. Then it would go through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir, near Leadville, and then to the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs. The idea of expanding the intrastate plumbing system to take more water from the headwaters of the Colorado River over to thirsty and growing Front Range cities doesn’t sit well with many people and organizations.

Wilderness Workshop issued a news release saying it would oppose the reservoir project every step of the way. The organization also launched an online petition Monday to rally opposers, which had already garnered more than 200 signatures as of Monday evening.

“We would like to see the Forest Service change course,” said Juli Slivka, Wilderness Workshop’s conservation director. The decision was discouraging, she said, but Wilderness Workshop will continue pressuring the federal agency. “The idea of moving water from the Western Slope to the Front Range is not very appreciated out here.”

A map from Colorado Springs Utilities that shows how tunnels could bring water to Whitney Reservoir from Fall and Peterson creeks, and from the Eagle River. The map also shows the route of a pipeline to pump water from Whitney Reservoir to Homestake Reservoir.

Eagle River MOU

But Front Range municipalities are not the only ones set to benefit from a new water-storage project. The Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding lays out a plan for both Front Range and Western Slope entities to develop water in the upper Eagle River basin. The agreement, signed in 1998, provides 20,000 acre-feet of water a year to Homestake Partners and 10,000 acre-feet a year to the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Vail Resorts, known collectively in the MOU as the “Reservoir Company.”

The Reservoir Company is not an applicant in the drilling proposal and none of the Western Slope entities that are parties to the MOU submitted comments on the drilling proposal.

Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, said the water provider supports Homestake Partners’ right to pursue an application for their water.

“We trust the permitting process to bring all impacts and benefits to light for the community to consider and weigh in total,” Johnson said in an email.

The Forest Service also determined that impacts to wetlands from the drilling are negligible. Homestake Partners plans to place temporary mats across wetland areas to protect vegetation and soils from the people and machinery crossing Homestake Creek. In a June letter, a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the work did not require a permit from that agency.

The Forest Service also conducted a biological assessment and found that the drilling would not impact endangered Canada lynx.

This story ran in the March 23 edition of The Vail Daily and The Aspen Times.

Aurora, #ColoradoSprings clear hurdle on Whitney Reservoir in Eagle County — The #Aurora Sentinel #EagleRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Aurora Sentinel (Grand Stringer):

U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis approved the cities’ plan Monday to drill into the high-alpine Homestake Valley and test whether the underlying geology could support a reservoir diverting water from the Colorado River to the growing municipalities.

It’s an early, key step in the effort to build the new reservoir, which would be called the Whitney Reservoir, in the National Forest about six miles southwest of the town of Red Cliff.

The cities have long held the water rights to build the new reservoir and divert the water, usually destined for the beleaguered Colorado River, to thirsty residents in Aurora and Colorado Springs.

With approval in tow, Aurora and Colorado Springs have the green light to test for several possible reservoir sites in the Homestake Valley.

Greg Baker, Aurora Water’s manager of public relations, told the Sentinel last year the reservoir could be built in about 25 years if the complicated approval process pans out. The new reservoir in the Homestake Valley could hold between 6,850 acre-feet and 20,000 acre-feet of water, according to the Forest Service…

Notably, the project requires environmental impact studies and possibly an act of Congress, according to Baker, to shave up to 500 acres from the popular Holy Cross Wilderness. However, he added that the plan is far from set in stone.

The plan has drawn scrutiny from conservation groups concerned about devastating the ancient wetland habitant that retains water — an increasingly scare commodity in the West. Various endangered fish species would be downriver from the dam.

The Colorado River itself has seen reduced flows in recent decades, in part because of human-induced climate change. Many environmentalists argue that as much water as possible should be left in the river, which multiple states and Mexico rely on…

Baker said in an email that the drilling study is “routine.”

“We value the collaborative process involved in exploring alternatives that minimize environmental impacts, are cost effective, can be permitted by local, state, and federal agencies, and which will meet the water requirements of the project partners,” he said.

As reported by Colorado Public Radio, the project has also run into early opposition from central Colorado and Western Slope communities.

Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan represents seven counties that include communities like Aspen and Crested Butte. In a letter opposing the project, Donovan wrote that, “she can’t express how sternly the people in her district dislike water diversion projects to the front range,” according to CPR.

From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth and Jason Blevins):

The decision to let the Front Range water utilities move forward in taking more Western Slope water is only one of countless regulatory hurdles for a future Whitney Reservoir, but conservation groups say they are adamantly against any new water transfers to suburban water users across the Continental Divide and will oppose every approval step.

Colorado Headwaters, which opposes any new dams and water transfers, said it expected the approval but remains steadfast against any progress on the project. “We don’t think it will ever be built,” president Jerry Mallett said. “They haven’t done a transmountain diversion in 45 years. Water on the Colorado River is dropping from climate change. We don’t want to lose those natural resources.”

The decision from White River said the approval applies only to drilling 10 test bore holes the utilities applied for, and does not have bearing on any future decisions should the cities pursue the dam north of Camp Hale. The proposed reservoir would hold about 20,000 acre feet…

The cities partnered with Eagle County, the Colorado Water Conservation District, Vail Resorts and other Western Slope water users in 1998 in a deal that gave water rights to Eagle River communities and developed the 3,300 acre-foot Eagle Park Reservoir on the Climax Mine property.

The 1998 Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding included plans for possible reservoirs along Homestake Creek. The agreement — which brought together a diverse group of downstream users as “Homestake Partners” in the Eagle River Joint Use Water Project — also affirmed that no partner could object to a new reservoir plan if it met the memorandum’s agreement to “minimize environmental impacts” and could be permitted by local, state and federal agencies.

The proposed Whitney Reservoir project is not new and “represents our continued pursuit to develop water rights in existence for many years,” Colorado Springs Utilities spokeswoman Jennifer Kemp said.

Kemp said the cities have developed alternatives to building a new reservoir in the Homestake Creek drainage but those other options have not been proposed or discussed publicly. The results of the test boring and geotechnical work will help the two cities vet possible alternatives…

Environmental groups oppose new dams on Homestake in part because they would take water out of tributaries that feed the already-depleted Colorado River. But they are also focused on preserving complex wetlands called “fens” that develop over the long term and support diverse wildlife. They say fens cannot easily be recreated in any mitigation work that utilities traditionally include in dam proposals.

The headwaters group also questions why the Forest Service would encourage any steps when completion of a dam appears impossible. The utility proposals include shrinking the size of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area to create dam access, “which Congress will never approve,” Mallett said.

#Aurora and #ColoradoSprings Want More #Water. The Proposed Solution — A New Reservoir — Would Have Far-Reaching Impacts — #Colorado Public Radio

This map shows the location of test holes Homestake Partners plans to drill as part of its geotechnical investigation into the feasibility of a dam site in the Homestake Creek valley. The Forest Service has received more than 500 comments, most of them in opposition to, the drilling and the overall reservoir project. Credit: USFS via Aspen Journalism

From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

Aurora and Colorado Springs want to bring more of that water to their growing cities, which are the state’s largest after Denver. To do that, they want to dam up Whitney Creek in Eagle County south of Minturn and create a reservoir that could supply water for thousands of new homes…

There are a few different spots along the creek that could be the home to the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The largest of the potential sites would hold about 20,000 acre-feet of water…

Tension between protecting wetlands and securing more water for growing cities

[Jerry] Mallett’s group works to restore and protect areas like this one — a wetland with fox and moose tracks in the snow.

Mallett has fought Aurora and Colorado Springs before. After these cities teamed up and built Homestake Reservoir in the 1960s, they tried to build the reservoir Homestake II. That project was shut down in the 1990s.

“We’re not saying you shouldn’t grow or that you’ve got to control the population, that’s your issue,” Mallett said. “Ours is protecting the natural resources for other values.”

Aurora and Colorado Springs are working together because they have the same problem: Planners don’t think they have enough water where they are to support the cities’ expected growth. If the cities get their way and dam up Homestake Creek, it would reduce the amount of water that ends up in the Colorado River — which the Front Range and some 40 million people have come to rely on over the decades…

That’s changed, Mallett said. West Slope communities now see water as a crucial part of keeping their economies alive and now fight for it to stay. Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan represents seven counties that include communities like Aspen and Crested Butte. In a letter opposing the project, Donovan wrote that, “she can’t express how sternly the people in her district dislike water diversion projects to the front range.

“West Slope is not in a position I think today where they’re going to roll over and say, ‘Fine, we’ll lose that water,’” Mallett said. “I think they’ve got the political clout now, it’s a new game.”

If Colorado Springs and Aurora secure permits to build the Whitney Reservoir, it would be the first major trans-mountain water diversion project in decades…

These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Environmentalists are concerned about losing these wetlands, which are threatened by climate change. Delia Malone, an ecologist and wildlife chair of the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club, said most animals rely on wetlands…

Malone said the proposed reservoir locations could include areas that are home to fens, a type of wetland that is rare in the arid West and supports plant biodiversity. Fens have layers of peat, require thousands of years to develop and are replenished by groundwater. Fens also trap environmental carbon, improve water quality and store water…

Colorado and other states are obligated to send a certain amount of water downstream to states like California because of a century-old agreement. As the Colorado River dries with climate change, and more demand is put on the river, Udall said there’s higher risk for what’s called a “compact call,” a provision that gives downstream states like California authority to demand water from upstream states like Colorado for not sending enough water down the Colorado River.

If that happens, Udall said newer Colorado water projects — including the proposed Whitney Reservoir — could have to cut their usage to make sure enough water is sent downstream.

[Brad] Udall said the best available science is needed to answer the question: Is this water better left in the river or sent to Aurora and Colorado Springs?

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

“The science really does need to be heard here,” Udall said. “It’s somewhat disturbing and is very different from the science that we used in the 20th century to assess the value and benefits of these kinds of projects.”

Officials in Colorado Springs and Aurora declined CPR News’ interview requests.

Before the cities can move towards building the reservoir, the U.S. Forest Service has to sign off on structural testing and surveying which requires drilling test holes in the wetlands. A decision is expected later this month on that permit, which has received more than 500 public comments, with most arguing against the drilling and the project as a whole.

#Vail-area #snowpack still lags behind historic median levels — The Vail Daily #runoff

From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):

The massive storm that hit Colorado’s Front Range over the weekend didn’t do much to aid the local snowpack. And that snowpack continues to lag behind the 30-year median.

According to the latest numbers from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measurement sites at Vail, Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass, the snowpack, as measured in “snow water equivalent,” is 90% or less of the 30-year median. Copper Mountain is the closest measurement site to Vail Pass, and Fremont Pass is the closest measurement site to the headwaters of the Eagle River. Vail Mountain’s measurement is the lowest of the three, at 76% of the 30-year median…

This season’s accumulation at Vail has already passed the peak snowpack recorded in 2011-2012, the lowest year on record. Snowpack is near or past the peaks recorded in the lowest years on record at Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass…

More heat, more evaporation
Hannah Holm of the Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University said early snowmelt also exposes bare ground, which heats up more easily than snow. More heat means more evaporation, which also means less water flowing into streams.

And those dry years have become more and more frequent. Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, noted that three of the four lowest snow years on record have come in the past decade.

“We’re not just responding to a one-year drought,” Johnson said, adding that people in the water supply business are calling this 20-year drought cycle a “millennium drought.”

Johnson added that simple snowpack measurements are only part of a fairly complex equation for water supplies.

As Holm noted, it’s important how quickly snow melts in the spring. Johnson said that one of the lowest snow years on record, 2001-2002, had the benefit of a cool spring to keep the limited snowpack on hillsides.

#EagleRiver Watershed Council: Let’s take a serious look at water efficiency — The #Vail Daily

Here’s a guest column from the Eagle River Watershed Council (James Dilzell) that’s running in The Vail Daily:

In the final week of February, Eagle River Watershed Council had a snowshoe hike planned on a new trail at Brush Creek Valley Ranch & Open Space to teach residents about snow science basics. It’s a trail I came to love this fall and winter – a quick jaunt from town, plenty of parking and not busy with other visitors. It winds along a small creek, through fields of junipers and swaths of scrub oak. In the four times I had visited there since November, the creek had always been at least partially frozen, and the entire trail covered in a gorgeous layer of snow.

The day of our event, I arrived first and quickly noticed that the layer of snow had disappeared and exposed a bare-soil parking area. I took a few steps up the trail for a better view, hoping the drainage would have been protected from our intense sun and still covered in at least a small bit of snow for our snow science hike. Alas, the snowshoes filling up my Subaru wagon were entirely unnecessary, and our group simply walked up the exposed trail.

I may be repeating some things we already know as residents of the arid West, but our lack of consistent snowpack this year is truly concerning. Yes, February brought some good storms, and our water year precipitation to date is hovering around 84% — but what we aren’t getting are those daily refills that are critical to sustain healthy snowpack through the entire winter. When graphed, our snowpack data looks like a sin-wave, melting out before another refill, rather than a semi-consistent uptick.

The effect of this drought goes beyond a sub-par ski season. Stephen Jaouen and Maggie Guinta – both Natural Resources Conservation Service staff who joined our event – shared with the group that 80% of Colorado’s water comes from snowpack. This once-reliable reservoir of frozen matter melts out and sends water down the Eagle, into the Colorado River and on to 40 million users in seven states and Mexico. Reduced snowpack means reduced flows for recreation, drinking water and agriculture all the way down the line.

Using data points like snow density and depth, along with snow-water equivalent calculations, which are gathered from automated Snow Telemetry sites and boots-on-the-ground snow surveys, the NRCS is able to share monthly forecasts for basins throughout the West. For us in Eagle County, the February forecast was bleak. Even if we were to see the best snowfall in 30 years over the next two months, the Eagle River still won’t hit average flows from April through July.

There are other issues plaguing this water year, too. You might remember this fall, when the Eagle River flows were nearing 60% of average and almost our entire county was in D4 drought – the most severe. Our monsoon season was non-existent, and so we started off the snowy season with a deficit of soil moisture content.

Reduced snowpack means reduced flows, and Mother Nature will snag some of that water to recharge groundwater and soil moisture before releasing water into our rivers and streams. To use a financial metaphor: some of our paycheck will be gone before it even hits the bank.

While this seems like all doom and gloom, I’m not writing this article to be an alarmist. In fact, we’ve all heard these messages and warnings for years. Positive changes are being made, like new legislation allowing for the temporary donation of water rights and new water efficiency programs popping up around the state and in our community.

I am instead writing this article to inspire our community to take action and take water efficiency seriously.

We are not able to control the amount of water available in the mountains surrounding our towns, but we can choose to use our water wisely. In years like this, it’s up to all of us to prioritize those in-stream flows that fuel our recreation economy, keep fish and wildlife happy and allow us to thrive in this incredible place we call home.

As we begin the transition to spring and summer, consider creating an at-home water efficiency plan with your family or roommates. Take your car to a commercial car wash instead of washing it at home. Or perhaps change up your landscaping by removing water-thirsty turf grass, replacing it with native and drought-tolerant tall grasses, flowers and shrubs.

It’s going to take a village to collectively reduce our water use, and it’s about time we take better care of our river so that it can take better care of us. For more resources and actions to take, visit erwc.org/drought.

James Dilzell is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit http://erwc.org.

Vail-area #snowpack is lagging behind averages — The Vail Daily #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):

The latest data from snow measurement sites on Vail Mountain, Copper Mountain — the nearest measurement site to Vail Pass — and Fremont Pass — the closest site to the headwaters of the Eagle River — shows snowpack is far below the 30-year averages.

The Vail Mountain site is at just 69% of the average “snow water equivalent” snowpack. Copper Mountain Mountain and Fremont Pass are better, but not by much.

Upper Colorado River River Basin High/Low graph January 14, 2021 via the NRCS.

Johnson noted that the snowpack at this point in the season was worse in 2012, 2013 and 2018. But, she added, this year so far makes four significant low-snow years since 2010. There have been several other drought years since 2000.

“This comes back to the aridification of Colorado and the Colorado River Basin,” Johnson said.

What that means is that the district — which serves the upper valley west to Edwards — has to continue to work to change customers’ behavior. That means being more efficient about outdoor watering and ultimately using less water for that purpose.

“We’re always reminding folks of where we live,” Johnson said, adding that this part of Colorado always has been a semi-arid zone…

“We need water in local streams, to take care of the community and to take care of those streams,” Johnson said. “The water in the streams is so important… we know already it’s going to be tough.”

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 19, 2021 via the NRCS.

Decision looms on Holy Cross reservoir exploration permit — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #EagleRiver

Mystic Island Lake, Holy Cross Wilderness Area, south of Eagle, Colorado. By CoMtMan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12260170

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

The U.S. Forest Service said it is just weeks away from deciding whether a high-profile request to explore the geological feasibility of a new reservoir site in Colorado’s Eagle County that would capture water flowing from the iconic Holy Cross Wilderness should be granted.

The request comes from Aurora and Colorado Springs, among others, who want to be able to capture more of the water flowing from the wilderness area to meet their own growing needs.

David Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said a decision is expected “early this year.”

Proponents had hoped for a decision late last summer, but Boyd said the delay wasn’t unusual and was triggered in part by last summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire.

Aurora and Colorado Springs, which own and operate the only reservoir in the area, Homestake I, hope to demonstrate that they can divert more water and build another reservoir to serve Front Range and West Slope interests without damaging the delicate wetlands and streams in the mountain forests there.

But in advance of any request to build an actual reservoir, they have asked the Forest Service for a special use permit to survey the area and to bore several test holes to determine soil conditions and areas best suited to build the proposed Whitney Reservoir.

If a reservoir were to be built, it would also require that the 122,000-acre-plus wilderness area shrink by 500 acres, an action that will require congressional approval.

Significant opposition to the exploratory permit erupted almost as soon as the proposal became public last year. The U.S. Forest Service received more than 500 comments on the proposal last summer. The majority of those were opposed to it, citing the need to protect the wilderness and the need to preserve as much of the region’s water as possible. The Eagle River, a part of the Colorado River system, is fed in large part by the Holy Cross watershed.

Warren Hern, a co-founder of the Defenders of the Holy Cross Wilderness, said the plan would do irrevocable damage to the rare bogs and wildflowers that populate the area.

He also noted that the proposed reservoir site lies along a major fault line.

“We will do everything in our power to stop this,” Hern said.

Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora Water, said his agency is well aware of the special relationship thousands of Coloradans have with the Holy Cross and its spectacular wetlands and hiking trails.

Baker declined to comment for this article, saying the agency would wait until the Forest Service issues a decision.

But in a recent interview, Baker said the cities had little choice but to pursue additional water supplies to meet growing demand.

“Water is a rare commodity and it needs to be used very carefully,” Baker said.

He also said any environmental damage that might occur could be successfully mitigated.

“What you do is wetlands rehabilitation, where you develop wetlands in other areas on a two- or three-to-one basis so you’re restoring additional wetlands for those you may lose,” Baker said.

The new proposal comes under a 1998 agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, which allows the reservoir proponents to develop enough water to serve environmental, municipal and industrial interests.

Parties to the 1998 agreement include Aurora, Colorado Springs, the Colorado River District, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority.

Located west of Vail between Minturn and Leadville, the Holy Cross Wilderness Area was the subject of a significant battle in the 1980s when Aurora and Colorado Springs sought to build a second major reservoir there known as Homestake II.

After the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Homestake II was defeated in 1994.

In exchange, however, the cities were granted permission to develop a smaller amount of water in the future in partnership with Western Slope interests, resulting in the permit request now being considered by the Forest Service.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Vail Associates as a participant in the Whitney Reservoir proposal.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Local regs loom large in dam battle as #Colorado cities seek more Western Slope water — The Rocky Mountain Post #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Here’s a deep-dive into the proposed Whitney Reservoir Project from David O. Williams that’s running in The Rocky Mountain Post. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

With Wednesday’s move by the Trump administration to weaken one of the nation’s bedrock conservation laws – the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – all eyes will increasingly be on local opposition and regulation when it comes to major infrastructure on federal lands.

That’s pretty much what Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry told me when I asked about the proposed Whitney Reservoir project currently being scoped out by the U.S. Forest Service along Homestake Creek in southeastern Eagle County. The reservoir is being proposed by Colorado Springs and Aurora to pump Western Slope water to the Front Range.

All that’s currently being considered by the Forest Service is a test-drilling project to detect fatal flaws and see if one of four possible dam configurations is feasible, at which point an actual proposal for Whitney Reservoir would be submitted and considered by the feds, including a possible request to shrink the Holy Cross Wilderness by up to 500 acres to realign the road.

The Forest Service was flooded with more than 500 online comments opposing the drilling and the reservoir, demanding higher levels of environmental scrutiny for a special use permit for the drilling project that could be issued under what’s known as a “categorical exclusion.” Opponents are demanding an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)…

What didn’t make it into my Vail Daily story due to space constraints was the Eagle County angle. It’s important because way back in the 1990s, when I first moved to the Vail area, there was a huge battle going on over what was then called Homestake II – a reservoir proposed for the same area by the same cities, which still hold 20,000 acre-feet of water rights here.

Eagle County used its 1041 permitting powers, which give counties some degree of local control over infrastructure projects with regional or statewide impacts, to deny Homestake II – a move that wound up in court and went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court before Eagle County ultimately won. Those 1041 regulatory powers were granted by a state law in the 1970s.

All of that led to the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that outlines how all the various stakeholders in the Eagle River Basin would work together going forward to resolve their issues. But one important thing remains true: Eagle County, not a signatory to the MOU, still has 1041 permitting authority.

So Chandler-Henry, the water leader on the board, had some important things to say last spring. First, on any proposal that would require redrawing the boundaries of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area: “I can tell you that’s not anything that we would ever be supportive of is moving wilderness boundaries.” Then, on the importance of local permitting power:

Chandler-Henry points out that federal protections have been stripped away by the current administration, with fens and ephemeral streams recently being removed from the definition of Waters of the United States by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those changes, she said, are making it much easier for water providers to get their federal permits in place.

“Which means 1041 is all the more important for local considerations,” Chandler-Henry said, adding she believes her constituents oppose a dam. “I think that that is going to be a huge public sentiment, that we don’t want anything there.”

That being said, the county has to be somewhat diplomatic on both the test drilling and a possible future reservoir. Eagle County officials said they are working with the Forest Service on the test drilling proposal and may comment later…

“Eagle County cannot take a position regarding, and will not be commenting on, any future reservoir project because of its permitting authority powers,” county officials said in an email. “Eagle County must avoid prejudging a file based upon this authority.

“Eagle County plans to meet with the USDA USFS to discuss procedural questions regarding the proposed Whitney Creek Geotechnical Investigation project. Depending upon the outcome of that conversation, Eagle County may or may not choose to provide comment [to the Forest Service],” officials added.

Chandler-Henry, who talked to me well before the formal test drilling application and the recent Trump move to gut NEPA, said the county is keeping an open mind on 1041 permitting for whatever proposal eventually comes before the board. However, she reiterated that shrinking the Holy Cross boundary – something Congress would have to approve – is a non-starter.

“Sen. [Michael] Bennett’s office says that whenever they’re approached by Aurora Water about moving those boundaries in Holy Cross, they say, ‘You need to go see what Eagle County thinks.’” Chandler-Henry added. “To date they have not done that because I think they know what we think about that.”

An official with Bennet’s office confirmed they are aware of the wilderness adjustment plan but are not supportive of pulling back boundaries to make room for a proposed reservoir because there is not broad local backing. Bennet has been a strong advocate of wilderness expansion, not shrinkage…

Conservation groups see this as a key issue, linking the test drilling to an eventual dam proposal that could lead to less wilderness. The original Homestake II proposal would have been in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area…

Chandler-Henry said Eagle County is firm on the wilderness issue but staying openminded on 1041 so any proposal can be weighed fairly on its merits.

“One of the things that we’re doing, which is going to be really useful, is trying to tie our 1041 permitting in with the community water plan that [Eagle River Watershed Council] is working on … because a 1041 allows us to look at environmental impact, economic impact, infrastructure,” Chandler-Henry said, adding the utility has been modeling for future growth.

“Those are always our concerns with any sort of 1041 permit,” Chandler-Henry added. “What happens if water is dammed up in a reservoir? Then what happens to the Eagle River, to the environment, to the subdivisions that are relying on that water, to the recreation economy?”

Chandler-Henry said Aurora Water has been a part of that planning process…

These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The U.S. Forest Service has been inundated with more than 500 online comments in opposition to a geotechnical and drilling study by the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs to determine the feasibility of a second reservoir in the Homestake Creek drainage six miles southwest of Red Cliff, including objections from nearby towns and a local state senator…

Operating together as Homestake Partners, Aurora and Colorado Springs own water rights dating back to the 1950s that, under the 1998 Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), ensure them 20,000 more acre-feet of average annual water yield. They’ve been studying four potential dam sites in the Homestake Valley several miles below the cities’ existing Homestake Reservoir, which holds 43,600 acre-feet…

Western Slope signatories of the Eagle River MOU were tight-lipped on the geophysical study and drilling. Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District, declined to comment on the investigatory test work, saying only, “Yes, we have signed the MOU. That said … we are not participating in the Whitney Creek effort.”

Diane Johnson,communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said: “The short answer is we – [ERWSD] and Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority — support [Homestake Partners’] right to pursue an application for their yield. We trust the permitting process to bring all impacts and benefits to light for the community to consider and weigh in total.” Neither organization submitted a comment to the Forest Service…

Two prominent local conservation groups – the Eagle Valley Land Trust and the Eagle River Watershed Council – both submitted comments to the Forest Service expressing serious reservations about both the drilling and the possibility of a dam…

The Eagle River MOU was drawn up after a lengthy court battle that ended in the 1990s when Eagle County rejected the cities’ Homestake II reservoir proposal using its 1041 powers under a state law passed in the 1970s that gives counties permit authority over certain outside infrastructure projects that could impact the local economy and environment.

Besides Homestake Partners (the two cities), the MOU was signed by the Colorado River District, Climax Molybdenum Company, and the Vail Consortium consisting of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Vail Associates (now Vail Resorts).

The two private companies signed onto the MOU – Vail Resorts and Freeport-McMoRan (Climax) – declined to comment on either the drilling study or Whitney Reservoir.

Any proposed water storage project by any of the signatories has to meet the objectives of the MOU, which are, “Develop a joint use water project in Upper Eagle River basin that minimizes environmental impacts, is cost-effective, technically feasible, can be permitted by local, state and federal agencies, and provides sufficient yield to meet the water requirements of project participants as hereinafter defined.”

ERWSD’s Johnson said the water provider can’t comment on Whitney Reservoir because its environmental impacts have yet to be defined, but she did have overall praise for the MOU.

“To date, water users in the Eagle River basin have received great benefits from the MOU,” Johnson said. “It has been the basis to develop key elements of the local municipal and snowmaking water supplies that have been essential to the economic vitality of our community.”

The MOU provides 20,000 acre-feet for the cities, 10,000 acre-feet of firm water yield for the Vail Consortium (meaning if there’s a shortage, those needs are met first), and 3,000 acre-feet of water storage for Climax. About 2,000 acre-feet were already developed with Eagle Park Reservoir, but that leaves 28,000 acre-feet of yield and 3,000 of storage undeveloped.

Homestake Partners participate pilot project in #EagleRiver — Aurora Water #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Eagle River Basin

Here’s the release from Aurora Water (Greg Baker):

Reservoir release being made in cooperation with State Engineers Office

Beginning Wednesday, September 23, 2020, the Homestake Partners, which is comprised of Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, will make a one-time release of approximately 1,800 acre feet of water from Homestake Reservoir in Eagle County. The objective of this reservoir release is to determine the effectiveness of current administrative practices in shepherding released water from Homestake Reservoir, located south of Minturn, CO, downstream to the Colorado State Line.
This pilot project was developed by the Front Range Water Council and utilizes water contributed by Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, as well as by the Pueblo Board of Water Works. This water will be released from Homestake Reservoir into Homestake Creek, which is tributary to the Eagle River and the Colorado River.

The pilot release protocols were developed cooperatively with the Colorado State Engineer’s Office, with the release expected to provide the State and Division Engineers, as well as water users on the West Slope and East Slope, with valuable information related to compliance with the Colorado River Compact and the Upper Colorado River Compact. The project will test important aspects of administration practice. It will also provide data on hydrologic influences that would affect the timing and amount of the arrival of the released water at the state line.

“For municipalities that rely either wholly or partially on the Colorado River for their drinking water, it’s critical to understand all of the potential aspects a compact curtailment could have on our supplies,” said Pat Wells, General Manager for Water Resources and Demand Management for Colorado Springs Utilities. “Gathering this data before we get to that point will help us all plan for the future.”

As the water is released into Homestake Creek and travels downstream to the Eagle River and the Colorado River, the State Division of Water Resources will “shepherd” or facilitate the released water to the state line. The release of 1,800 AF represents contributions of 600 AF each by Colorado Springs Utilities, Pueblo Board of Water Works, and Aurora Water. This will not put any of the entities’ storage at risk; for example, 600 AF represents less than 0.3% of current system-wide storage in Colorado Springs Utilities’ raw water system and less than 0.4% of Aurora’s storage.

“The timing is perfect for this sort of investigation,” stated Alexandra Davis, Deputy Director for Water Resources for Aurora Water “Our reservoirs are well positioned at this time, even with the current drought conditions, and the lower flows in the rivers mean we will generate valuable information regarding protocols and practices currently in place for releasing stored water.”

The release is scheduled to occur Sept 23 – Sept. 30 and will produce flows of less than 175 cfs (cubic feet/second). These flows are higher than normal for this time of year in Homestake Creek and Eagle River, but within normal spring/summer runoff levels. There is no inundation concern for property adjacent to the tributaries.

The project also has the support by Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates.

“We are pleased these Front Range communities are taking a proactive step to address questions about conserving municipal water and shepherding saved water downstream,” Laura Belanger, senior water resources engineer and policy advisor with Western Resource Advocates said. ”This test release will help us understand potential benefits for water security and streams and demonstrates that all Colorado communities have an important role to play in ensuring a sustainable water future for Colorado.”

Eagle County 1041 authority looms large in proposed Whitney Reservoir debate as feds slash more regs — Real Vail

These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Real Vail (David O. Williams):

With Wednesday’s move by the Trump administration to weaken one of the nation’s bedrock conservation laws – the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – all eyes will increasingly be on local opposition and regulation when it comes to major infrastructure on federal lands.

That’s pretty much what Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry told me when I asked about the proposed Whitney Reservoir project currently being scoped out by the U.S. Forest Service along Homestake Creek in southeastern Eagle County. The reservoir is being proposed by Colorado Springs and Aurora to pump Western Slope water to the Front Range.

All that’s currently being considered by the Forest Service is a test-drilling project to detect fatal flaws and see if one of four possible dam configurations is feasible, at which point an actual proposal for Whitney Reservoir would be submitted and considered by the feds, including a possible request to shrink the Holy Cross Wilderness by up to 500 acres to realign the road.

The Forest Service was flooded with more than 500 online comments opposing the drilling and the reservoir, demanding higher levels of environmental scrutiny for a special use permit for the drilling project that could be issued under what’s known as a “categorical exclusion.” Opponents are demanding an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)…

in the 1990s, when I first moved to the Vail area, there was a huge battle going on over what was then called Homestake II – a reservoir proposed for the same area by the same cities, which still hold 20,000 acre-feet of water rights here.

Eagle County used its 1041 permitting powers, which give counties some degree of local control over infrastructure projects with regional or statewide impacts, to deny Homestake II – a move that wound up in court and went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court before Eagle County ultimately won. Those 1041 regulatory powers were granted by a state law in the 1970s.

All of that led to the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that outlines how all the various stakeholders in the Eagle River Basin would work together going forward to resolve their issues. But one important thing remains true: Eagle County, not a signatory to the MOU, still has 1041 permitting authority.

So Chandler-Henry, the water leader on the board, had some important things to say last spring. First, on any proposal that would require redrawing the boundaries of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area: “I can tell you that’s not anything that we would ever be supportive of is moving wilderness boundaries.” Then, on the importance of local permitting power:

Chandler-Henry points out that federal protections have been stripped away by the current administration, with fens and ephemeral streams recently being removed from the definition of Waters of the United States by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those changes, she said, are making it much easier for water providers to get their federal permits in place.

“Which means 1041 is all the more important for local considerations,” Chandler-Henry said, adding she believes her constituents oppose a dam. “I think that that is going to be a huge public sentiment, that we don’t want anything there.”

That being said, the county has to be somewhat diplomatic on both the test drilling and a possible future reservoir. Eagle County officials said they are working with the Forest Service on the test drilling proposal and may comment later.

“Eagle County cannot take a position regarding, and will not be commenting on, any future reservoir project because of its permitting authority powers,” county officials said in an email. “Eagle County must avoid prejudging a file based upon this authority.

“Eagle County plans to meet with the USDA USFS to discuss procedural questions regarding the proposed Whitney Creek Geotechnical Investigation project. Depending upon the outcome of that conversation, Eagle County may or may not choose to provide comment [to the Forest Service],” officials added.

Chandler-Henry, who talked to me well before the formal test drilling application and the recent Trump move to gut NEPA, said the county is keeping an open mind on 1041 permitting for whatever proposal eventually comes before the board. However, she reiterated that shrinking the Holy Cross boundary – something Congress would have to approve – is a non-starter…

Western Slope signatories of the Eagle River MOU were tight-lipped on the geophysical study and drilling. Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District, declined to comment on the investigatory test work, saying only, “Yes, we have signed the MOU. That said … we are not participating in the Whitney Creek effort.”

Diane Johnson,communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said: “The short answer is we – [ERWSD] and Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority — support [Homestake Partners’] right to pursue an application for their yield. We trust the permitting process to bring all impacts and benefits to light for the community to consider and weigh in total.” Neither organization submitted a comment to the Forest Service…

Impacts from fatal-flaw drilling

If approved by the Forest Service for a special use permit, Homestake Partners would send in crews on foot to collect seismic and other geophysical data later this summer or fall. Then crews with heavy equipment would drill 10 bore holes of up 150 feet deep in three separate possible dam locations on Forest Service land.

Crews would use a standard pickup truck, a heavy-duty pickup pulling a flatbed trailer, and a semi-tractor and trailer that would remain on designated roads and parking areas, with some lane closures of Homestake Road (703) and dispersed campsites possible.

For off-road boring operations, crews would use a rubber-tracked drill rig, a utility vehicle (UTV) pulling a small trailer, and a track-mounted skid steer. The drill rigs are up to 8 feet wide, 22 feet long, and 8 feet high and can extend up to 30 feet high during drilling, requiring possible tree removal in some areas. The rigs would also have to cross Homestake Creek and some wetland areas, although crews would use temporary ramps or wood mats to mitigate impacts.

According to a technical report (pdf) filed by Homestake Partners, the subsurface work is expected to take up to five days per drilling location, or at least 50 days of daytime work only. However, continuous daytime noise from the drilling could approach 100 decibels, which is equivalent to an outboard motor, garbage truck, jackhammer or jet flyover at 1,000 feet. If work is not done by winter, crews have up to a year to complete the project and could return in 2021.

The drilling process would use several thousand gallons of Homestake Creek water per day that engineers say “would have negligible impacts on streamflow or aquatic habitat. Water pumped from Homestake Creek during drilling would amount to less than 0.01 [cubic feet per second], a small fraction of average flows.”

Homestake Partners would avoid wetlands as much as possible during drilling, but “where temporary wetland or waters disturbance is unavoidable, applicable 404 permitting would be secured from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps).” Crossing of Homestake Creek would occur in late summer or fall when stream flows are low, and no drilling would occur in wetlands.

While no permanent roads would be built for the drilling, temporary access routes would be necessary and reclaimed as much as possible. “Access routes would be selected to reduce surface disturbance and vegetation removal, and to avoid identified or potential unexploded ordnances (UXOs) discovered during field surveys.” The famed 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army used the area for winter warfare training during World War II.

Forest Service flooded with comments opposing Whitney Reservoir, drilling — @AspenJournalism

These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (David O. Williams):

The U.S. Forest Service has been inundated with more than 500 online comments — the vast majority in opposition — to a geophysical study and drilling by the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs to determine the feasibility of a second reservoir in the Homestake Creek drainage, including objections from nearby towns and a local state senator.

The geophysical study and the drilling are the next step in the lengthy process of developing a reservoir on lower Homestake Creek.

The mayors of Red Cliff and Minturn signed and submitted separate but identical letters questioning the legality of drilling 10 boreholes on Forest Service land near the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which is six miles southwest of Red Cliff, to see whether soil and bedrock can support a dam for what would be known as Whitney Reservoir. Avon’s attorney has asked for a public comment extension to Aug. 4 so that it can hold a hearing.

“A Whitney Reservoir would irreparably change and harm our community,” Minturn Mayor John Widerman and Red Cliff Mayor Duke Gerber wrote in their letters, submitted June 30. “We are paying close attention to these proposals, other moves by Homestake Partners and the public controversy. This categorical exclusion is rushed, harmful and unlawful.”

Operating together as Homestake Partners, the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs own water rights dating to the 1950s that, under the 1998 Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), give them the basis to pursue developing 20,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Western Slope. They’ve been studying four potential dam sites in the Homestake Valley several miles below the cities’ existing Homestake Reservoir, which holds 43,600 acre-feet of water.

The smallest configuration of Whitney Reservoir, if deemed feasible and ultimately approved, would be 6,850 acre-feet, and the largest would be up to 20,000 acre-feet. The reservoir, on lower Homestake Creek, would pump water up to Homestake Reservoir, about five miles upstream, then through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville.

In 2018, Homestake Partners paid $4.1 million for 150 acres of private land, which it leases back to the former owner for a nominal fee. That land, which would be inundated to accommodate a large portion of Whitney Reservoir’s surface area, is braided with streams and waterfalls and is lush with fens and other wetlands. It’s also home to a cabin once used as an officers quarters for the famed 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army. The site is not far from Camp Hale, between Red Cliff and Leadville, where soldiers trained for mountain warfare during World War II.

This cabin, once used by the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, sits on a 150-acre parcel owned by Homestake Partners. The site of the proposed Whitney Reservoir is near Camp Hale, between Red Cliff and Leadville. Photo credit: David O. Williams/Aspen Journalism

Eagle River MOU

The Eagle River MOU is an agreement between Aurora and Colorado Springs and a bevy of Western Slope water interests. The Colorado River Water Conservation District, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and Vail Resorts are collectively defined in the MOU as the Reservoir Company. None of those entities submitted comments to the Forest Service on the drilling proposal. And according to Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the ERWSD and UERWA, none are helping to pay for the feasibility study and none are involved in the reservoir project, except to the degree that it is tied to the MOU.

The MOU provides for 20,000 acre-feet of average annual yield for the cities. “Yield” refers to a reliable supply of water. In some cases, yield equates to storage in a reservoir, but yield can also be created by other methods, such as pumping water uphill from a smaller, refilled reservoir, which is an option being studied by the cities on lower Homestake Creek. The MOU also provides for 10,000 acre-feet of “firm dry year yield” for the Western Slope entities in the Reservoir Company, and firm dry year yield means a reliable supply even in a very dry year. Those entities have developed about 2,000 acre-feet of that allocated firm yield in Eagle Park Reservoir, and it’s not yet clear whether the Whitney Reservoir project would help them realize any additional yield.

“The short answer is we support (Homestake Partners’) right to pursue an application for their yield,” Johnson said. “We trust the permitting process to bring all impacts and benefits to light for the community to consider and weigh in total.” .

Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the River District, declined to comment on the investigatory test work, saying only, “Yes, we have signed the MOU. That said, … we are not participating in the Whitney Creek effort.”

Besides Homestake Partners and the Reservoir Company, the MOU was signed by the Climax Molybdenum Company. The two private companies signed onto the MOU — Vail Resorts and Freeport-McMoRan (Climax) — also declined to comment on either the drilling study or Whitney Reservoir.

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.”

Many of the 520 online comments as of the June 30 deadline objected to testing for the possibility of a dam, expressing concern for the complex wetlands in the area, but most of the comments also strongly condemn the overall project: a potential future Whitney Reservoir.

The cities are trying to keep the focus on the test drilling.

“This is simply a fatal-flaw reservoir siting study that includes subsurface exploration, and it’s basically just to evaluate feasibility of a dam construction on lower Homestake Creek,” said Maria Pastore, Colorado Springs Utilities’ senior project manager for water resource planning. “It’s simple exploratory work to determine if we can even go ahead with permitting and design.”

Marcia Gilles, acting ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross District, said her office will continue accepting comments at any time during the ongoing analysis of the geophysical study despite the June 30 deadline. She added that if the Forest Service concludes there are no “extraordinary circumstances,” she can render a decision using what is known as a categorical exclusion and then issue a special-use permit as soon as August. A categorical exclusion requires less environmental scrutiny than other forms of analysis.

“At this time, the proposed action appears to be categorically excluded from requiring further analysis and documentation in an environmental assessment (EA) or environmental impact statement (EIS),” Gilles said. “Should the environmental analysis find extraordinary circumstances, the Forest Service would proceed to analyzing the project in an EA or EIS.”

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat, disagrees. She wrote to the Forest Service on June 30: “I … strongly urge you not to categorically exclude this project from (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis. I cannot express how sternly the citizens of my district oppose water diversion projects to Front Range communities.” Her district encompasses seven Western Slope counties, including Eagle, where the dam would be located.

Donovan called the proposed investigation — which would require temporary roads, heavy drilling equipment, continuous high-decibel noise, driving through Homestake Creek and use of its water in the drilling process — an affront to the “Keep It Public” movement, which advocates for effective federal management on public lands.

These wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley are near the site of the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The Forest Service is considering whether to issue a permit for drilling and a geotechnical study to test whether the site would support a dam. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Drilling impacts

If approved by the Forest Service for a special-use permit, Homestake Partners would send in crews on foot to collect seismic and other geophysical data later this summer or fall. Crews with heavy equipment would then drill 10 boreholes up to 150 feet deep in three possible dam locations on Forest Service land. The drilling would take place on Forest Service land but not in a wilderness area.

Crews would use a standard pickup truck, a heavy-duty pickup pulling a flatbed trailer, and a semi-truck and trailer that would remain on designated roads and parking areas, with some lane closures of Homestake Road and dispersed campsites possible.
For off-road boring operations, crews would use a rubber-tracked drill rig, a utility vehicle pulling a small trailer, and a track-mounted skid steer. The drill rigs are up to 8 feet wide, 22 feet long and 8 feet high, and can extend up to 30 feet high during drilling, possibly requiring tree removal in some areas. The rigs would also have to cross Homestake Creek and some wetland areas, although crews would use temporary ramps or wood mats to mitigate impacts.

According to a technical report filed by Homestake Partners, the subsurface work is expected to take up to five days per drilling location, or at least 50 days of daytime work only. However, continuous daytime noise from the drilling could approach 100 decibels, which is equivalent to either an outboard motor, garbage truck, jackhammer or jet flyover at 1,000 feet. If work is not done by winter, crews have up to a year to complete the project and could return in 2021.

The drilling process would use several thousand gallons of Homestake Creek water per day that engineers say “would have negligible impacts on streamflow or aquatic habitat. Water pumped from Homestake Creek during drilling would amount to less than 0.01 (cubic feet per second), a small fraction of average flows,” according to a technical report included with application materials.

Homestake Partners would avoid wetlands as much as possible during drilling, but “where temporary wetland or waters disturbance is unavoidable, applicable 404 permitting would be secured from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.” Crossing of Homestake Creek would occur in late summer or fall when streamflows are low, and no drilling would occur in wetlands.

While no permanent roads would be built for the drilling, temporary access routes would be necessary and reclaimed as much as possible.

“Access routes would be selected to reduce surface disturbance and vegetation removal, and to avoid identified or potential unexploded ordnances (UXOs) discovered during field surveys,” according to the technical report. The 10th Mountain Division used the area for winter warfare training during WWII.

Another concern cited in the report is the potential impact to Canada lynx. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, “only Canada lynx has potential habitat in the vicinity of the project area,” according to the report. “No impacts on lynx are anticipated from the proposed work because much of the activity would occur near Homestake Road, a well-traveled recreation access road. Work would be conducted over a short period (approximately five to six weeks) and impacts on potential habitat would be negligible.”

The vast majority of comments from a variety of environmental groups and concerned citizens focused on potential impacts to the area’s renowned wetlands and peat-forming fens, which the project proponents say they will avoid as much as possible. So far, Gilles said she is not aware of any legal challenges to the project.

Two prominent local conservation groups — Eagle Valley Land Trust and Eagle River Watershed Council — submitted comments to the Forest Service expressing serious reservations about both the drilling and the possibility of a dam.

“Geophysical exploration has an obvious significant nexus and direct relation to additional future actions, i.e., dam construction, which may in time massively impact the Eagle River watershed — regardless of whether the future actions are yet ripe for decisions,” ERWC officials wrote.

This map shows the location of test holes Homestake Partners plans to drill as part of its geotechnical investigation into the feasibility of a dam site in the Homestake Creek valley. The Forest Service has received more than 500 comments, most of them in opposition to, the drilling and the overall reservoir project. Credit: USFS via Aspen Journalism

Wilderness boundary

Even if the test drilling returns favorable results for a reservoir project, there is another obstacle that Homestake Partners will have to clear if they want to move forward with two iterations of the project: a wilderness-boundary change, which would require an act of Congress and the president’s signature.

The Whitney Reservoir alternatives range from 6,850 to 20,000 acre-feet and in some configurations would require federal legislation, which the cities are working to draft, requesting a boundary adjustment for the nearby Holy Cross Wilderness Area. The largest Whitney proposal would require an 80-acre adjustment, while an alternative location, lower down Homestake Creek, would require a 497-acre adjustment.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams discounts the notion that his agency should reject outright the test-drilling application, as some environmental groups have suggested, until the wilderness-boundary issue is determined. Although some local and state lawmakers have said they are against shifting a wilderness boundary, Fitzwilliams said it’s still too soon for him to take up the wilderness issue.

“These are test holes,” Fitzwilliams said of the drilling, which is intended to see whether the substrata are solid enough for a dam and reservoir. “Going to get a (wilderness) boundary change is not a small deal for them, so why would you do it if you find fatal flaws? That’s a red herring.

“I understand it; nobody wants to see a dam in the Homestake drainage. I get that. But it just seems prudent to do (the drilling) to see if there’s any reason to go further.”

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story was published online by Vail Daily on July 9, 2020 and in its print edition on July 10. The early online version of the story was edited to clarify aspects of the Eagle River MOU.

Hundreds of comments submitted over Holy Cross Wilderness water export proposal — @WaterEdCO

A map prepared by Aurora Water that shows a potential 500-acre adjustment to the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the potential Whitney Reservoir on lower Homestake Creek. The map as current as of July 16, 2019.

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Forty years after the Holy Cross Wilderness Area was created, an early effort to explore tapping its water supplies has generated more than 500 comments to the U.S. Forest Service.

Aurora and Colorado Springs, which own and operate the only reservoir in the area, Homestake I, hope to demonstrate that they can divert more water and build another reservoir to serve Front Range and West Slope interests without damaging the delicate wetlands and streams in the mountain forests there.

But first, they are asking the Forest Service for a special use permit to survey the area and to bore several test holes to determine soil conditions and areas best suited to build the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The public comment period closed June 30, although the Forest Service said it will continue to accept comments.

If a reservoir were to be built, it would also require that the 122,000-acre-plus wilderness area shrink by 500 acres, an action that will require congressional approval.

Significant opposition to the permit request is already building, with the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund threatening legal action to stop the surveying and drilling of test holes into soils, according to comments submitted to the Forest Service.

Also opposing the process, among others, is Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan, who represents several West Slope counties. “Our wilderness areas are afforded the highest levels of protection and to begin action that disturbs them today begins a process of destroying them forever,” she said. [Editor’s note: Donovan is on the Board of Trustees of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News].

In addition, she wrote, “With drought conditions becoming the new normal…it is imperative we protect high altitude water resources and keep each drop in the basin it was born in.”

The Eagle River is a tributary to the drought-stressed Colorado River, whose flows have already begun a serious decline.

Eagle River Basin

Jerry Mallet is president of Colorado Headwaters, an environmental advocacy group. The fight to stop the proposal, he said, “will be as big as the Two Forks fight was several years ago,” referring to the successful effort to stop Two Forks Reservoir from being built on the South Platte River in 1990.

Aurora and Colorado Springs point to their legal obligations to develop a project that serves multiple interests, and which also protects the environment, while ensuring their citizens have access to water in the future.

“The studies…will provide the factual data necessary to identify and evaluate feasible reservoir alternatives to provide critical water supplies for human and environmental purposes,” said Colorado Springs spokesperson Natalie Eckhart. “We recognize the necessity to partner with other agencies throughout this process and are committed to working collaboratively with other communities and agencies to best manage our shared water resources.”

The proposal comes under a 1998 agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, which allows the reservoir proponents to develop enough water to serve environmental, municipal and industrial interests. Aurora and Colorado Springs hope to develop 33,000 acre-feet of water, an amount roughly equal to that used annually by 66,000 homes.

Under the proposal, Aurora and Colorado Springs would receive 20,000 acre-feet, West Slope interests would receive 10,000 acre-feet, and 3,000 acre-feet would be set aside for the Climax Molybdenum Company.

Parties to the 1998 agreement include Aurora, Colorado Springs, the Colorado River District, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, the Upper Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, as well as Vail Associates.

Diane Johnson, spokesperson for the two Eagle River districts, said the agencies haven’t yet taken a position on the proposal, citing the need for the analysis required for the special use permit as well as any actual construction of a reservoir to be completed.

Located west of Vail between Minturn and Leadville, the Holy Cross Wilderness Area was the subject of a significant battle in the 1980s when Aurora and Colorado Springs sought to build a second major reservoir there known as Homestake II.

After opponents successfully took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Homestake II was defeated in 1994.

In exchange, however, the cities were granted permission to develop a smaller amount of water in the future in partnership with Western Slope interests, resulting in the project that is now being proposed to the Forest Service.

To submit your comments or to get more information about the survey and drilling proposal, visit this U.S. Forest Service’s web page.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Growing thirst from Front Range cities threatens Holy Cross Wilderness — The Vail Daily #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Vail Daily (John LaConte):

The public’s chance to comment ends Tuesday in the U.S. Forest Service’s consideration of a permit that would allow the first action in a process which could create a new reservoir in the Homestake Valley near Red Cliff.

The special use permit would allow the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs to build roads and drill holes in an area of the White River National Forest which is near the Holy Cross Wilderness, 6 miles southwest of Red Cliff.

Ultimately, if constructed, a 20,000-acre-foot reservoir would flood a corner of the wilderness area and would also relocate Homestake Road, requiring the removal of 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness area.

But at this time, the Forest Service is only seeking comments on the impacts of the drilling, not the dam. The drilling would give crews information about the feasibility of dam sites, but the drilling in itself would have impacts to the forest as 8-foot-by-22-foot drill rigs could cross wetlands and cut down trees in the path to their drilling destination, where holes of 150 feet would be dug…

In soliciting comments in June, “we are focusing solely on the potential impacts from this preliminary geophysical work,” said Marcia Gilles, acting Eagle-Holy Cross district ranger. “Any further proposals that might be submitted after this information is collected would be evaluated separately.”

[…]

“They’re calling this the Whitney Project; I’m calling it Homestake III,” said Mike Browning, a former water attorney in Colorado who is now the chair of the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance.

The “Homestake III” handle is in reference to the project known as Homestake II, in the early 1980s, which bears a strong resemblance to the Whitney Creek effort. The Homestake II project also sought to build another reservoir beneath the existing Homestake Reservoir, which was constructed in 1964. The Homestake II idea was eliminated in large part to Hern’s efforts.

“(Hern) was really the spokesperson and really the leader of that movement in the 1980s,” Browning said. “The Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund was marshaling the local comments and local opposition.”

In his Sunday letter to the Forest Service, Hern said the Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, which he co-founded In 1982, has not changed its stance on the project.

“The people of Colorado love this wilderness and have supported our efforts for over forty years to establish it and preserve it,” Hern wrote. “You should not underestimate the intensity of these feelings and the attitudes of the public in this matter.”

[…]

ERO Resources Corporation and RJH Consultants, Inc., which prepared the technical report for the special use permit application, referenced the memorandum of understanding in its report.

“The objective of this study is to evaluate opportunities to construct reservoir storage to develop a portion of the yield contemplated in the (memorandum of understanding),” according to the report, which was published in November. “Specifically, the subsurface explorations described below would provide valuable information regarding the suitability of the area for reservoir development. The cities are currently considering and evaluating multiple reservoir sizes with potential storage capacities between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet.”

#Drought task force activates, Colorado Springs Utilities looks to reservoirs — The #ColoradoSprings Independent #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

US Drought Monitor June 23, 2020.

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

As drought conditions deepen, Colorado Governor Jared Polis on June 23 sought activation of the state’s Drought Task Force and Phase 2 of the State Drought Mitigation and Response Plan.

The governor’s office said in a release the drought spans 81 percent of the state, with severe and extreme conditions affecting a third of the state, including El Paso County.

Colorado’s Drought Task Force includes officials with the departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Local Affairs and Public Safety, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The second phase of the plan means the task force will assess initial damages and impacts of drought in areas experiencing severe or extreme drought and recommend mitigation measures. In addition, the Agricultural Impact Task Force is activated to make an assessment on physical and economic impacts.

Meantime, there doesn’t appear to be any plan to further restrict water use in Colorado Springs where customers have been under restrictions since May to water their lawns no more than three times a week…

Colorado Springs currently has more than two years’ worth of water in storage, which is good news for gardeners, because more severe water restrictions wouldn’t be triggered until the amount in storage falls to a 1.5-year supply, [Pat] Wells says.

View from the Pitkin County end of Homestake Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Utilities recently completed land acquisition for the 30,000-acre-foot Gary Bostrom Reservoir, the second phase of SDS, which is planned for construction near Bradley Road southeast of the city in the next decade. Another project, called the Eagle River project in the mountains, will create another reservoir, hopefully by 2040 to 2050, Wells says…

Some years, snowpack fills reservoirs to the brim and rainfall reduces demand, but not every year.

“What we’re seeing is a lot more variability in the swings,” Wells says, noting that water managers study tree rings, climate change models and other data to try to predict what lies ahead.

“While our demand has flattened and we’re serving more customers with the same amount of water,” he says, “our supplies are becoming more variable.”

As Wells quips, quoting baseball legend Yogi Berra, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Take the Colorado River, which provides water to multiple states and Mexico. It’s been in drought conditions for 20 years and provides 60 to 70 percent of Colorado Springs Utilities’ supply.

Climate change is causing the Southwest aridify. (Left) Since the 1930s, increasing temperatures have caused the percentage of precipitation going to evapotranspiration (ET) to increase at the expense of precipitation going to Colorado River flow, resulting in an unprecedented and still ongoing megadrought (shading) starting in 1999 (8). (Right) Higher temperatures have already reduced Colorado River flow by 13%, and projected additional warming, assuming continued high emissions of greenhouse gases, will increase ET while reducing river flow even more through the 21st century. Data on Left are 20-y running means from ref. 5, and data on Right are calculated from Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) 8.5 multimodel Coupled Model Intercomparison Project–Phase 5 (CMIP5) ensemble temperature increases projected for the Upper Colorado River Basin combined with temperature sensitivity of −9.3%/°C estimated by ref. 5, assuming no change in precipitation. Graphic credit: Jonathan Overpeck/Brad Udall

“We are going to reach a point, as demand continues to grow in the West and supplies become uncertain, we’re going to have to use water more efficiently and cut back some of our demand on the Colorado River,” he says.

At present, Utilities is capable of delivering 95,000 acre feet of water on demand, but that demand is forecast to rise to 136,000 acre feet in the decades to come.

That’s why Utilities is pursuing a multi-pronged approach to expanding its water supply.

“With a growing population, we have to bring in more supplies,” Wells says. “Our storage needs grow as our cities grow.”

Besides storage, Utilities wants to work more deals with agricultural users like it did in the Arkansas Valley in 2018. Another strategy might be to expand the number of non-potable systems used for irrigation. But ultimately, Utilities, like other water providers in the West, likely will be confronted with re-treating and recycling water back into its domestic delivery system.

“In the next 30 to 50 years it may become more technically feasible to do direct potable reuse,” he says, noting that the Colorado Water Conservation Board has approved a grant for a Utilities reuse demonstration project in partnership with Aurora, Denver and Colorado School of Mines.

From The Associated Press via The Aurora Sentinel:

Polis’ order follows dwindling mountain snowpack, a warmer-than-average spring and far less precipitation than normal, Colorado Politics reported Wednesday. It also comes as the U.S. Drought Monitor reported this week that extreme drought expanded in northern New Mexico and eastern Colorado.

The order also activates an state agricultural task force to determine the drought’s potential crop and cattle damage impact and the possible economic fallout for the state’s $8 billion farming industry.

Abnormally dry conditions affect mountain and plains regions and roughly 80% of the state’s landmass is in some form of drought.

Winter snowfall was low in most of Colorado and May precipitation was less than half of normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Reservoir levels are dwindling in southern and southwestern Colorado, including the agricultural San Luis Valley and the Gunnison River Basin, the service said.

Becky Bolinger, a climatologist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center, said high winds, low humidity, high temperatures and lack of precipitation have produced a “flash drought” situation with higher than normal water evaporation in much of the state that particularly affects agriculture.

The summer promises higher temperatures and low rainfall and the summer monsoons that deliver rain from the southwest won’t make up for current conditions, Bolinger said.

Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Agriculture (Sara Leonard):

Governor Jared Polis requested activation of Colorado’s Drought Task Force and Phase 2 of the State Drought Mitigation and Response Plan this week as drought conditions deepen, reaching more than 81% of the state, with severe and extreme drought conditions in 33% of the state (40 counties).

Colorado’s Drought Task Force – which includes leadership from the Departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Local Affairs, Public Safety, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board – determined the need to activate Phase 2 of the Drought Plan on June 18 after a third of the state reached extreme drought conditions. “Phase 2” indicates officially directing the Drought Task Force to assess initial damages and impacts of drought in areas experiencing severe or extreme drought and to recommend mitigation measures. This Phase also activates the Agricultural Impact Task Force, which will conduct an initial assessment on physical and economic impacts and recommend opportunities for incident mitigation.

Counties impacted by abnormally dry (D0) and moderate (D1) drought will continue to be closely monitored. The 40 counties currently experiencing severe (D2) and extreme (D3) drought include: Alamosa, Archuleta, Baca, Bent, Chaffee, Cheyenne, Conejos, Costilla, Crowley, Custer, Delta, Dolores, Eagle, El Paso, Elbert, Fremont, Garfield, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Huerfano, Kiowa, Kit Carson, La Plata, Las Animas, Lincoln, Mesa, Mineral, Montezuma, Montrose, Otero, Ouray, Pitkin, Prowers, Pueblo, Rio Grande, Saguache, San Miguel, San Juan, Washington, and Yuma.

To stay informed on Colorado drought issues, sign up for the State’s Drought Updates or visit the Colorado Water Conservation Board website.

From The Sterling Journal Advocate (Jeff Rice):

The extreme northern tier of counties, including Logan County, has so far been spared from the ongoing drought. South Platte Basin reservoir levels are at 89 percent of capacity basin-wide, down a percentage point from the same time last year. In the lower reaches, irrigation reservoirs are between 76 percent of capacity at Empire and 97 percent capacity at North Sterling, again each a few percentage points down from a year ago.

West Drought Monitor June 23, 2020.

USFS solicits comments on proposed #Aurora dam near Holy Cross — The Aurora Sentinel

A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Aurora Sentinel (Grand Stringer):

The White River National Forest opened a public comment period last week concerning the next phase of a would-be reservoir project dubbed the Whitney Reservoir. Water authorities in Colorado Springs and Aurora plan to divert water near the Vail Valley — normally destined for the Colorado River — to the Front Range by way of pumps and tunnels.

Greg Baker, Aurora Water’s manager of public relations, said in November the Whitney Reservoir could eventually hold between 9,000 acre-feet and 19,000 acre-feet of water.

For comparison, Cherry Creek Reservoir stores more than 134,000 acre-feet.

Aurora Water and its southern counterpart, Colorado Springs Utilities, applied for a Special Use Permit to do so. Geologists would conduct ground-level seismic analyses of the ground below and also drill up to 150 feet below the surface. Currently, the operation proposes ten drilling sites.

The water could help Aurora meet the needs of a rapidly-expanding city while capturing water rights Aurora already holds, Baker said. He estimated the reservoir could be completed in 25 years if key steps were met, including a geological analysis.

The Whitney Reservoir project drew early attention from Colorado River conservationists and a fishing association concerned for the health of local fish habitats and the river system. Prolonged drought and existing diversions have already diminished Colorado River flows in recent decades.

The project could also impact pristine wetland ecosystems and would also require cutting near 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness.

Members of the public can find more information about the project on the U.S. Forest Service website. Comments can be made any time but will be “most helpful” if submitted before June 30, 2020, the Forest Service said in an information release…

To comment on the project, or propose a different course of action, submit a comment online at https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?Project=58221.

Vail looks to pass a tougher stream protection ordinance — The Vail Daily

Gore Creek is healthy as it emerges from the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, but has problems soon after, via The Mountain Town News. All photos by Jack Affleck.

From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):

Town officials say private property owners are needed to see more improvements in Gore Creek water quality

The Vail Town Council on Tuesday told staff to draft a stream protection ordinance that would apply to private property in town. The creek in 2013 landed on a state list of “impaired waterways,” along with many other mountain towns. The town, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and other organizations have been working since then to improve water quality in the creek.

Much of that work starts with cleaning up what runs into the creek, including runoff from paved areas, pesticides and other pollutants.

In an April 7 presentation, town watershed education coordinator Pete Wadden reminded council members that after a few years of improvement, the creek’s scores regarding macroinvertebrate populations — the bottom of the creek’s food chain — dipped in 2018. Most of that was due to a change in the way those populations are counted, but those are the figures used by state officials.

Wadden noted that the town has made “huge progress” on its own property along the stream, but not as much on private property.

Wadden said the ordinance the staff is recommending includes a two-tiered setback, with more stringent rules closer to the stream.

Wadden added that the ordinance could restrict pesticide use in town, but the Colorado Legislature will have to pass a law that allows towns to pass those regulations.

How Colorado’s water conversation has shifted in the 21st century — The Mountain Town News

Xeriscape landscape

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Water providers have shifted their focus

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the primary water-policy agency for the state, met last week in Westminster, and afterward I had dinner with a friend. The friend, who has long worked in the environmental advocacy space, spoke of some matter before the board, and added this: “Twenty years ago this conversation never would have happened.”

Water politics in Colorado have undergone a Big Pivot. As the century turned, environmental issues had made inroads into the conversation, but water development remained a dominant theme. Then came the drought of 2002, which more or less changed everything. So has the growing realization of how the changing climate will impact the already over-extended resources of the Colorado River.

Instead of a deep, deep bucket, to be returned to again and again, the Colorado River has become more or less an empty bucket.

Jeff Tejral. Photo via The Mountain Town News

Those realizations were evident in a panel discussion at the Colorado Water Congress about water conservation and efficiency. Jeff Tejral, representing Denver Water, spoke to the “changes over the last 20 years” that have caused Denver Water and other water utilities to embrace new water-saving technology and altered choices about outdoor water use.

Denver Water literally invented the word xeriscaping. That was before the big, big drought or the understandings of climate change as a big, big deal. Twenty years ago, the Colorado Water Congress would never have hosted panels on climate change. This year it had several.

Tejral pointed to the growth in Denver, the skyscrapers now omnipresent in yet another boom cycle, one that has lifted the city’s population over 700,000 and which will likely soon move the metropolitan area’s population above 3 million. That growth argues for continued attention to water efficiency and conservation, as Denver—a key provider for many of its suburbs—has limited opportunities for development of new supplies. “The other part of it is climate change,” he said. “That means water change.”

Denver Water has partnered with a company called Greyter Water Systems on a pilot project involving 40 homes at Stapleton likely to begin in June or July. It involves new plumbing but also water reuse, not for potable purposes but for non-potable purposes. John Bell, a co-founder of the company, who was also on the panel, explained that his company’s technology allows water to be treated within the house and put to appropriate uses there at minimal cost.

“It makes no sense to flush a toilet with perfectly good drinking water, and now with Greyter, you don’t have to,” he said.

For decades Denver has had a reuse program. Sewage water treated to high standards is applied to golf courses and other landscaping purposes. Because of the requirements for separate pipes—always purple, to indicate the water is not good for drinking—its use is somewhat limited.

A proposal has been moving though the Colorado Department of Public Health rule-making process for several years now that would expand use of greywater and set requirements for direct potable reuse. The pilot project at Stapleton would appear to be part of that slow-moving process.

Greyter Water Systems, meanwhile, has been forging partnerships with homebuilders, the U.S. Department of Defense, and others in several small projects.

“It seems like 40 homes in Colorado is a small step,” said Tejral, “but a lot of learning will come out of that, which will open the door for the next 400, and then the next 4,000.”

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

There are limits to this, however, as water cannot be recycled unless it’s imported into a basin. Water users downstream depend upon releases of water from upstream. Water in the South Platte River Basin is estimated to have 6 or 7 uses before it gets to Nebraska.

In the Eagle River Valley, the streams gush with runoff from the Gore and Sawatch ranges, but there can be pinches during years of drought. That area, said Linn Brooks, who directs the Eagle River Water and Sanitation Districts, has a population of between 35,000 and 60,000 between Vail and Wolcott, “depending where we are during our tourist year.”

Water efficiency programs can make a big difference in what flows in the local creeks and rivers. Brooks pointed to 2018, a year of exceptionally low snowfall. New technologies and policies that put tools into the hands of customers reduced water use 30% during a one-month pinch, resulting in 8 cubic feet per second more water flowing in local creeks and rivers. During that time, Gore Creek was running 16 cfs through Vail. It flows into the Eagle River, which was running 25 cfs. “So saving 8 cfs was really significant,” she said.

Many of Eagle Valley’s efficiency programs focus on outdoor water use. That is because the water delivery for summer outdoor use drives the most capacity investment and delivery expenses. “Really, that is the most expensive water that we provide,” Brooks said.

Tap fees and monthly billings have been adjusted to reflect those costs. One concept embraced by Eagle River Water and Sanitation is called water budgeting. “Our hope is that water budgeting will continue to increase the downward trend of water use per customer that we’ve had for the last 20 years for at least another 10 years,” she said.

Linn Brooks. Photo via The Mountain Town News

Eagle River also has tried to incentivize good design. The district negotiates with real estate developers based on the water treatment capacity their projects will require. “That is a way to get them to build more water-efficient projects, especially on the outdoors side,” explained Brooks. “When we execute these agreements, we put water limits on them. If they go over that, we charge them more for their tap fee. That can be a pretty big cost. We don’t like to do that, but we have found that in those few cases where new developments go over their water limits, we have gone back to them and said, we might have to reassess the water tap fees, but what we really want you to do is stay within your water budget.” That tactic, she added, has usually worked.

In this concept of water budgeting, she said, “I don’t think we have even begun to scrape the surface of the potential.”

Outdoor water use has also been a focal point of efforts by Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the agency created to deliver water to customers from the trans-mountain diversion at Grand Lake. Municipalities from Broomfield and Boulder north to Fort Collins and Greeley, even Fort Morgan, get water from the diversion.

Frank Kinder was recently hired away from Colorado Springs Utilities to become the full-time water efficiency point person for Northern. Part of the agency’s effort is to introduce the idea that wall to wall turf need not be installed for a pleasing landscape. Instead, Northern pushes the idea of hybrid landscapes and also introduces alternatives for tricky areas that are hard to irrigate. The ultimate goal falls under the heading of “smiles per gallon.” Some of the district’s thinking can be seen in the xeriscaping displays at Northern’s office complex in Berthoud.

Kevin Reidy, who directs water conservation efforts for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the Colorado Water Plan posited a goal of reducing water use by 400,000 acre-feet. Don’t get caught up in that precise number, he advised. “It’s really about trying to figure out a more stable water future for our cities,” he said.

Readers might well be confused by an agency named “water conservation” having an employee with the title of “water conservation specialist.” The story here seems to be that the word conservation has changed over time. In 1937, when the agency was created, water conservation to most people meant creating dams and other infrastructure to prevent the water from flowing downhill. Now, conservation means doing as much or more with less.

On why Eagle River Water takes aim at outdoor use

The amount of water used outdoors is generally twice that used for indoor purposes, and only about 15% to 40% of water used outdoors makes its way back to local waterways.

None of this water is returned to local streams through a wastewater plant. Most of the water is consumed by plant needs or evaporation; what is leftover percolates through the ground and may eventually make its way to a local stream.

— From the Eagle River Water website

This was originally published in the Feb. 18, 2020, issue of Big Pivots.

Eagle River Watershed Council’s Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Program update

Streets and other artificial impervious areas result in rapid runoff of pollutants into the creek. Photo via The Mountain Town News and Jack Affleck.

From The Vail Daily (James Dilzell):

Eagle River Watershed Council’s Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Program provides the foundation for this [Water Quality Report Card]. This collaborative effort collects data at nine fixed sites along the Eagle River and its tributaries. WQMAP allows our community to see threats as they emerge, monitor changes to river health and make guided decisions on priority areas to protect and preserve.

Collected data is compared to state standards set by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Water Quality Control Commission. This allows for an understanding of current river health and highlights areas of success as well as areas of needed improvement.

Bill Hoblitzell with Lotic Hydrologic, which coordinates WQMAP for the Watershed Council, shared the findings and explained the importance of this program for the community. It is critical that decisions regarding our watershed are backed by science…

The 2019 Water Quality Report Card has outlined three major challenges to the watershed: Urban runoff and degradation of aquatic life, highway impacts to Black Gore Creek from traction sand, and water chemistry impacts from the Eagle Mine Superfund Site.

Land development poses a threat due to increased impervious surfaces, such as roads and roofs, that water cannot pass through. We might think of our community as a small and rural place, but Hoblitzell points out that “development densities and impervious surfaces in near-stream areas of Vail, Avon, and Edwards currently resemble much larger cities.” These developed surfaces allow contaminated water to rush into the river during rainstorms or spring snowmelt. Polluted water flowing into streams impacts sensitive insects that fish depend on for food.

Traction sand is a necessary part of winter, as it helps keep us safe and in control when traveling over Vail Pass. However, there are negative effects felt in Black Gore Creek due to the buildup of this sediment. It reaches the channel by way of runoff or snow thrown from plows.

Eagle Mine

A constant challenge to the Eagle River is the Eagle Mine Superfund Site. While the river has experienced improvement since cleanup efforts began, metal concentrations regularly increase during spring runoff and impact fish. Local stakeholders continue to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state on this cleanup effort.

None of these issues are new or unknown, but their identification as key challenges in the 2019 Report Card supports continued efforts to address them…

Review the full, interactive report and list of partners at http://erwc.org/research.

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 or visit http://erwc.org.

Eagle River Basin

The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the #EagleRiver Watershed Council

Photo credit: Eagle River Watershed Council

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

Cloud Seeding Discussion with Colorado River District

A big thank you to our presenters, Dave Kanzer with the Colorado River District and Eric Hjermstad with Western Weather Consultants for a great community discussion. We had about 50 folks join us at Loaded Joe’s to learn about the weather modification tool being implemented locally.

Missed it? You can watch a recorded version here thanks to High Five Access Media and the underwriting of Eagle River Water & Sanitation District!

Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters

River diversion will eliminate portaging — The Leadville Herald

A river project, partially funded by the CWCB on the Arkansas River at Granite. The project was removing a river-wide diversion structure and replacing it with a new diversion structure that will allow unimpeded boating through Granite. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Chaffee County Times (Max R. Smith) via The Leadville Herald:

In the mid-1960s, a partnership between the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora installed a diversion dam in the Arkansas River south of Granite near Clear Creek Reservoir as part of a pipeline system bringing water from the western slope of the Continental Divide to the Front Range.

The presence of the diversion dam caused that portion of the river to be non-navigable, requiring portaging of one’s raft or kayak.

By the end of this year, however, Colorado Springs Utilities is on schedule to complete a three-year project to build a new river diversion that will allow boaters to float right through, meaning that the 2020 rafting season will be the first in over 50 years in which the entirety of the Arkansas can be travelled without portage.

“We’ll see how the snow treats us over the next couple weeks, but we’re really down to some final boulder work in the river and general site cleanup at this point,” said CSU project manager Brian McCormick.

The intake that pumped water out of the Arkansas (which, legally speaking, comes from the Eagle River Basin as part of the Homestake Project), destined for Aurora and Colorado Springs, “as with anything in the river for 50-plus years, it took some wear and tear,” McCormick said. “By about the mid-2000s, the cities recognized we needed to rehabilitate this structure to keep it as a reliable facility and ensure safety of the river users.”

Construction on the new $9.1 million diversion project began in 2016 after a number of years of planning, budgeting, and engineering. Support for the project included $1.2 million in grant funding from the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Water Conservation Board…

Significant to water consumers in Colorado Springs and Aurora, the project utilizes a new intake and piping structure to send water to the Otero pump station, he said.

Significant to boaters is a chute constructed of boulders and mortar with six two-foot drops that will allow them to pass the intake facility without exiting the river. McCormick said that CSU put the call out to members of Colorado’s river recreation community to participate in a trial run down the chute in November, testing the Arkansas’s newest whitewater feature…

Significant to the scaled, Omega-3 rich denizens of the Arkansas who swim upstream to spawn every year, the new diversion also features a fish ladder: a sequence of weirs and pools that give brown and rainbow trout a route to move up the river to their spawning grounds.

Efforts to relocate an ancient wetland could help determine the fate of a water project on Lower Homestake Creek — @AspenJournalism

A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Sarah Tory):

One morning last month, Brad Johnson arrived at a patch of rippling yellow grasses alongside U.S. 24, a few miles south of Leadville in the upper Arkansas River valley. Sandwiched among a cluster of abandoned ranch buildings, a string of power lines and a small pond, it is an unassuming place — except, of course, for its views of 14,000-foot peaks rising across the valley.

But appearances can be deceiving. The rather ordinary-looking property was a fen, which is a groundwater-fed wetland filled with organic “peat” soils that began forming during the last ice age and that give fens their springy feel.

“It’s like walking on a sponge,” Johnson said, marching across the marshy ground, stopping every now and then to point out a rare sedge or grass species.

Johnson was visiting the fen to record groundwater measurements before winter sets in. As the lead scientist for the Rocky Mountain Fen Research Project, Johnson is part of an effort spearheaded and paid for by Aurora Water and the Board of Water Works of Pueblo to study new ways to restore fens.

The research could help facilitate future water development in Colorado, such as the potential Whitney Reservoir project, part of a 20-year water-development plan from Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities for the upper Eagle River watershed. The utilities, working together as Homestake Partners, are looking at building the reservoir in the Homestake Creek valley, south of Minturn, in an area that probably contains fens, which could hinder the project.

Aurora and Colorado Springs are working together on the reservoir project, and Aurora and Pueblo are funding the fens research. Although the Whitney project is not directly tied to the fen project, if the research efforts are successful, they could help Aurora and Colorado Springs secure a permit approval for the reservoir — and maybe alter the fate of an ecosystem.

Brad Johnson, a wetland ecologist for the Rocky Mountain Fen Research Project, takes groundwater measurements at the research site near Leadville, while his dogs, Katie and Hayden watch. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Sarah Tory/Aspen Journalism

Irreplaceable resources

If you’ve walked through Colorado’s high country, chances are you’ve walked by a fen, which are among the state’s most biodiverse and fragile environments. To protect fens, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency drafted a “fen policy” in 1996. The policy, amended in 1999, determined that fens are irreplaceable resources because their soils take so long to regenerate. “On-site or in-kind replacement of peatlands is not possible,” the policy reads.

Inside the Fish and Wildlife Service, however, a different interpretation emerged. “Irreplaceable” became “unmitigable,” making it difficult or impossible to secure approval for any project that would severely impact fens.

Although Johnson is in favor of fen conservation, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “unmitigable” interpretation bothered him. Not only was that status not supported by the fen policy itself, he believes saying “no” all the time is not in the best interest of fens.

“My fear is that if we don’t have the means of mitigating our impacts, we’ll just impact them,” he said.

Eventually, Johnson believes, conservationists will have to make some concessions to development. But by researching better mitigation techniques, he hopes he can help preserve fens in the long run.

Fen soils are made of a rich, organic peat material that take thousands of years to form and require a constant groundwater source to survive. At the Rocky Mountain Fen Research Project, scientists transplanted fen soils from another site to the “receiver” site south of Leadville where they restored a groundwater spring to sustain the transplanted soils. Photo credit: Sarah Tory/Aspen Journalism

An organ transplant

For water utilities, fens have been particularly troublesome. Fens like to form in high-alpine valleys, the places best suited for dams and water reservoirs that take water from rivers mostly on the Western Slope and pump it over the mountains to supply the Front Range’s growing population.

But the fen policy has stymied many of the utilities’ plans to develop new water projects. Those defeats helped spur Front Range utilities to start researching new mitigation strategies that would help them comply with environmental regulations — and get around the fen policy.

“They wanted to figure out how to do this right so they could actually permit their projects,” Johnson said.

Through the fen-research project, Aurora and Pueblo saw an opportunity to address the fen policy’s requirement that a project offset unavoidable impacts to a fen by restoring an equivalent amount of fen elsewhere.

Since the fen project began 16 years ago, Aurora and Pueblo have invested $300,000 and $81,500 in the research, respectively. More recently, other funders have joined the effort, including Denver Water, Colorado Springs Utilities at about $10,000 each and the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($100,000).

After a number of fits and starts, Johnson three years ago settled on a design for the research that would test whether it’s ecologically possible to transplant fen soils from one location to another. First, Johnson restored the original groundwater spring at the old Hayden Ranch property. Then, he and a team of helpers removed blocks of soil from another degraded fen site and reassembled them, like an organ transplant, at the “receiver” site, where the restored spring now flows through veinlike cobble bars and sandbars, feeding the transplanted fen.

Brad Johnson, the lead scientist for the Rocky Mountain Fen Research Project, at the project site in the Upper Arkansas River Valley. Launched by two Front Range water utilities in 2003, the project is studying a new way to mitigate potential impacts to fens, an ecologically rich and fragile wetland found throughout Colorados’ high country. Photo credit: Sarah Tory/Aspen Journalism

Positive signs

It’s still too early to know whether the project could eventually serve as a fen-mitigation strategy for a new reservoir, but Johnson is optimistic about the results thus far. In 2017, after just one growing season, he was shocked to discover 67 different plant species growing at the transplanted fen site — compared with just 10 at the donor site. He was thrilled by the news. The data showed that the transplanted fen ecosystem is thriving.

That’s good news for utilities such as Aurora, too.

A week after Johnson visited the Rocky Mountain Fen Project site, Kathy Kitzmann gave a tour of the wetland-filled valley formed by Homestake Creek where Aurora and Colorado Springs are planning to build Whitney Reservoir.

Kitzmann, a water resources principal for Aurora Water, drove down the bumpy, snow-covered road that winds along the valley bottom, pointing to the two creeks that would — along with Homestake Creek and the Eagle River, near Camp Hale — help fill the reservoir. A pump station would send the water upvalley to the existing Homestake Reservoir and then through another series of tunnels to the Front Range.

In the lower part of the valley, Kitzmann stopped at the first of four potential reservoir sites — ranging in size from 6,000 acre-feet to 20,000 acre-feet — that the utilities have identified for the project and the wetlands it would inundate.

“You can sort of see why it wouldn’t be the best, just given the vastness of the wetlands,” Kitzmann said.

Farther along, the valley becomes more canyonlike, with higher rocky walls and fewer wetlands — probably offering a better reservoir site, said Kitzmann, although the permitting agencies won’t know for sure until they complete their initial feasibility studies.

In June, Aurora and Colorado Springs submitted a permit application to the U.S. Forest Service to perform exploratory drilling and other mapping and surveying work, but the agency has not yet approved the permit.

Potential fen impacts are just one of several environmental hurdles facing the project. One of the Whitney alternatives would encroach on the Holy Cross Wilderness. Aurora and Colorado Springs have proposed moving the wilderness boundary, if necessary, to accommodate the reservoir.

It’s also likely that the wetlands in the Homestake Valley contain fens, but until the utilities conduct wetland studies around the proposed reservoir sites next summer, the scope of the impacts remains uncertain.

Environmental groups including Colorado Headwaters, a nonprofit, oppose the Whitney Reservoir project, arguing that it would destroy one of the state’s most valuable wetlands, as well as an important habitat for wildlife and rare native plants.

In the meantime, Aurora is hopeful that Johnson’s research might one day help solve some of the environmental problems around new water development. “We are excited about proving that you can restore and rehabilitate fens,” Kitzmann said.

The dam in the Eagle River headwaters that forms Homestake Reservoir, which diverts water to the Front Range. If the wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley contain ancient peat bogs called fens, it could hinder the progress of the Whitney Reservoir project. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journailsm

Inevitable impacts

But is a transplanted fen as good as not touching one in the first place?

A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said fens are still designated a “Resource Category 1,” which means that the appropriate type of mitigation is avoidance, or “no loss.”

White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams echoed the spokesperson’s statement, noting that land managers place a high emphasis on protection for fens: “It’s really hard to replace a wetland in these high elevations.”

Johnson, asked whether he was worried that his research into fen mitigation might end up facilitating the kinds of projects that are most damaging to fens. He sighed. “I’m sensitive to that,” he said.

But like it or not, Johnson believes that more impacts to fens are inevitable. As Colorado’s population grows, water utilities will have to build new reservoirs, the state will need new roads and ski resorts will want to expand.

“I can’t argue with whether they should get built,” he said. “I’m just a wetlands guy.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 18 print edition of the Vail Daily.

Eagle River Watershed Council: Big snow and high flows don’t tell the whole story

Eagle River Basin

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.

Fish ladders and boat chutes part of a massive dam rebuild on the #ArkansasRiver — @ColoradoSun

Homestake Arkansas River Diversion. Photo credit: Colorado Springs Utilities

From Colorado Springs Utilities:

Project Overview / Background

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.

Jack Holmes: One solution to numerous water projects — The Vail Daily “Valley Voices”

Eagle River Basin

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 councillors say no to water project

Mountains reflect off of Bolts Lake, back in the day, as seen from US 24 S in Colorado. Photo via
LessBeatenPaths.com.

From The Vail Daily (Edward Stoner):

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.

Cross Creek Trail. By Photo credit: Kim Fenske, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12597269

Piping a +100 year-old ditch will leave 40% more water in Abrams Creek for fish #EagleRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

From The Vail Daily (John LaConte):

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…

Mefford screen
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.”

Learn more about the project at tu.org.

Aurora, Colorado Springs move toward building additional Homestake reservoir — The Aurora Sentinel

A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. Aurora and Colorado Springs, seeking to build the reservoir, have recently submitted a drilling application to the U.S. Forest Service to search for fatal flaws in the geology under four potential dam alignments. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Aurora Sentinel (Grant Stringer):

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.

Aspen Journalism first reported the early step to build the reservoir.

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.

A map prepared by Aurora Water that shows a potential 500-acre adjustment to the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the potential Whitney Reservoir on lower Homestake Creek. The map as current as of July 16, 2019.

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

The two partners in the transmountain Homestake project have applied to the U.S. Forest Service to drill for soils testing at four potential dam sites.

The Aspen news agency also reported the partners must obtain congressional and presidential approvals to adjust the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary to accommodate a dam.

If the reservoir is built, water would be pumped through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir at Leadville and on to the two cities.

Turrquoise Reservoir, which stores water brought under the Continental Divide from the Eagle, Fryingpan and Roaring Fork river headwaters.

#Aurora, #ColoradoSprings seek to drill on lower Homestake Creek dam sites — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #EagleRiver #CORiver #aridification

Homestake Creek, flowing toward the Eagle River, near the Alternative A dam site being studied by Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, about three miles up Homestake Road from U.S. 24. The photo was taken on July 13, 2019. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

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.

One of four potential dam sites on lower Homestake Creek, about four miles above U.S. 24, between Minturn and Leadville. From this location, the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir higher up the creek can be seen. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

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.”

A view, from the Alternative A dam site, of the Homestake Creek valley. The triangle shape in the distance is the dam that forms Homestake Reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Serious intent

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.

A map prepared by Aurora Water that shows a potential 500-acre adjustment to the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the potential Whitney Reservoir on lower Homestake Creek. The map as current as of July 16, 2019.

Wilderness boundary

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.

A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. Aurora and Colorado Springs, seeking to build the reservoir, have recently submitted a drilling application to the U.S. Forest Service to search for fatal flaws in the geology under four potential dam alignments. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

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.”

A map from Colorado Springs Utilities that shows how tunnels could bring water to Whitney Reservoir from Fall and Peterson creeks, and from the Eagle River. The map also shows the route of a pipeline to pump water from Whitney Reservoir to Homestake Reservoir.
Homestake Reservoir, which is partially in Pitkin County, but mainly in Eagle County. Below the reservoir the Homestake Creek valley is visible, as well as short section of what’s known as Homestake Road. Water held in the potential Whitney Reservoir would be pumped up to Homestake Reservoir and then sent to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

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.

Town of Vail Issues Caution Regarding Use of Pesticides

Gore Creek is healthy as it emerges from the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, but has problems soon after, via The Mountain Town News. All photos by Jack Affleck.

Here’s the release from the Town of Vail:

Many of the pesticides used to protect trees in Vail can unintentionally kill beneficial insects, both on land and in Gore Creek. As a way to reduce the negative impacts of pesticide use, town officials are asking homeowners, property managers and commercial applicators to carefully consider what they are spraying and how it is being applied, and to implement the use of Integrated Pest Management practices for all pest control.

The town’s Public Works and Environmental Sustainability departments have produced resource guides available for download here and at LoveVail.org that provide important recommendations regarding the use of pesticides in Vail. “Careful Where You Point that Thing,” a pocket guide to safe landscaping practices, fertilizer and pesticide use, is available at LoveVail.org or in print at the town offices. Homeowners can reduce the use and impacts of pesticides by considering some of the following recommendations:

  • Now that the mountain pine beetle epidemic is behind us, lodgepole pines no longer need annual spraying.
  • At the same time, a new insect, spruce beetle, is attacking natural spruce trees along Gore Creek. Attaching MCH pheromone packets to susceptible trees and removing affected trees before spring can slow their spread without the use of harmful sprays.
  • Work with a licensed applicator and request trunk and root applications over foliar applications. Improper pesticide use can be particularly harmful to aquatic insects, and can quickly wipe out sensitive species like mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies for an entire season.
  • The Town of Vail encourages Integrated Pest Management techniques that include mechanical, cultural and biological pest control options over the use of chemicals whenever possible. These integrated resources can be found online from the Colorado State Extension office at CSU IPM.
  • Gregg Barrie, senior landscape architect, is encouraging property owners to take a few minutes to review the pesticide practices resource guides, then share your concerns about stream health to your commercial applicator and help get Gore Creek off of the list of impaired waterways.

    For more information, contact Barrie at 970-479-2337 or email gbarrie@vailgov.com.

    GoPro Mountain Games recap

    Steep Creek Championship 2016 1st Place Alec Voorhees. Photo Caleb Chicoine/Downriver Media

    From The Vail Daily (John LaConte) via The Summit Daily:

    Dane Jackson has been called the world’s best kayaker and, on Thursday, he bested boaters from all over the globe to prove the title true.

    Jackson was the only American man in the top five at the Steep Creek Championship, a timed race down Homestake Creek that doubles as the kick off to the GoPro Mountain Games every year.

    International competitors outnumbered Americans in the women’s event, with only four female competitors completing both of their preliminary round runs through the tight section of class-5 whitewater.

    Adriene Levknecht, of Greenville, South Carolina, was the fastest woman on the day.

    Colorado was well represented in the competition, with Glenwood Springs paddlers Kenny and Dally Kellogg, Peter Farmelo of Silverthorne and Alex Tansey of Kremmling holding it down as the most local kayakers in the 37-person field.

    Tansey said if they had any “home water” advantage, it was the fact that they were already acclimated to the elevation and the cold water.

    “Some of these folks aren’t used to true snowmelt water,” Tansey said. “As cold as cold can get.”

    Traveling to Colorado for the first time from Costa Rica, Arnaldo Cespedes said the water nearly paralyzed him at first.

    “Even though I was wearing a wet suit, I thought that I was going to get frozen,” he said.

    Cespedes said as a result, he didn’t perform as well as he was expecting…

    Paddlers from Chile, Argentina, Canada, France and Norway also competed.

    Second-place Gerd Serrasoles, a native of Catalonia, now calls the Columbia River Gorge home in White Salmon, Washington…

    The Ultimate Mountain Challenge tests competitors across six events of their choosing, with at least one biking and paddling event mandatory. It wraps up on Sunday with the Pepi’s Face Off, also mandatory, which sets a clock to 30 minutes and pits runners against each other in a challenge to see who can complete the most laps up the steep, 40% grade ski run at the base of Gondola One in Vail.

    #Snowpack/#Runoff news: “Why does Eagle River Water & Sanitation District care so much about local streams?” — Diane Johnson

    Here’s a column about snowpack and runoff from Diane Johnson that’s running in The Vail Daily. Click through and read the whole column to learn about the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District priorities during drought. Here’s an excerpt:

    As the water provider for homes and businesses from Vail through Edwards, we welcome each snowfall. Specifically, we focus on the water content — or “snow water equivalent” (SWE) — of our local snowpack. Statewide SWE is currently about 140 percent of normal and local snow measuring sites are similarly high.

    Above normal SWE generally bodes well for summer water supply. However, we need the snowpack to linger well into May. The federal snow measuring site on Vail Mountain normally peaks on April 25, then the melt starts. The Fremont Pass site near the headwaters of the Eagle River normally peaks on May 6, followed by a six-week melt. A slower melt lets water seep into soils — which were parched entering winter due to drought in 2018. While good winter snow should mean good summer river flows, some of that snowmelt will replenish soil moisture and not be part of spring runoff. Winter may be over, but the Eagle River valley needs April (snow) showers to bring May (river) scours.

    Why does Eagle River Water & Sanitation District care so much about local streams? Because they serve as the supply for us to provide you with clean, safe drinking water, irrigation water, and fire protection. The amount of water used by our customers affects local stream levels. Since healthy waterways are critical to our natural environment and recreation-based economy, we strive to balance the water needs of our customers with the rivers’ needs.

    In July 2018, as drought caused local waterways to drop to low levels, we prioritized river water over customers’ use of water for outdoor purposes. Outdoor areas use much more water than indoor areas and landscape irrigation has a greater impact on streamflows than indoor and fireflow use. Our staffcontacted hundreds of customers who were using excessive amounts of water that disproportionately impacted our community’s limited water resource. Nearly all customers who were contacted responded positively, which helped to preserve streamflows.

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    …the moisture March has been delivering to Colorado has put an exclamation point on a stellar snowpack season. The state has experienced a remarkable turnaround from last year when poor snowpack and meager rainfall left the state deep in drought.

    “There are lingering effects (of that drought) for sure, but as far as the snowpack goes, it’s really the best that we can hope for,” said Taryn Finnessey, climate change risk management specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

    As of Wednesday, statewide snowpack averaged 140 percent of median.

    “It’s been a very good water year,” Dennis Phillips, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said of the 12-month hydrological period that began last Oct. 1.

    He said conditions have been particularly good in the southern mountains, where snowpack levels have been at 275 to 300 percent of where they were a year ago and already are well above their average seasonal peak amounts…

    According to a March drought update produced by the board, since Feb. 1 the San Juan Mountains have received 15 inches of precipitation, nearly equal to the entire total they received during the 2018 water year that ended Sept. 30.

    River basins in far-southwest Colorado on Tuesday had a combined median snowpack of 161 percent of average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Gunnison Basin, which was water-starved last year, is at 154 percent of median, and the upper Colorado River Basin is at 136 percent.

    The Weather Service is reporting that precipitation so far this month in Grand Junction has totaled 2.28 inches, just 0.08 inches behind the record of 2.36 set more than a century ago, in 1912. Local weather records date back to 1893.

    The current water year got off to a wet start in Grand Junction in October, which was the fourth-wettest on record for the city, with 2.76 inches of precipitation…

    Record-setting or not, such moisture in Colorado has gone far to alleviate drought conditions in the state. Three months ago two-thirds of the state was experiencing some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That was down to just under a third of the state as of March 12, and about 7 percent as of the latest drought report last week, with drought conditions remaining in parts of southern Colorado.

    Mesa County and much of western Colorado are now ranked as abnormally dry but not in drought. But officials are recommending removing that abnormally dry designation for Mesa County and much of the surrounding region in the next drought map, scheduled for release today…

    Blue Mesa Reservoir

    Erik Knight, a hydrologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Grand Junction, said the outlook at Blue Mesa Reservoir is “a lot better than a few months ago, that’s for sure.”

    The massive, 940,700 acre-foot reservoir’s level has fallen to around 30 percent of capacity, and hasn’t been that low since 1977.

    Now, Knight said, it’s looking like it may get to 85 percent of full this year…

    Now Colorado snowpack levels are high enough that water officials are at least considering the potential for flooding this spring.

    “Right now we’re not overly alarmed. We’re just going to see how it plays out,” Finnessey said.

    She said streamflow forecasts are average to just above average at this point.

    “Typically snowmelt is rather well behaved in Colorado,” she said.

    She said most of the state’s flooding results from rain, not snowmelt runoff. In addition, it remains to be seen how much of the runoff goes toward refilling reservoirs versus swelling streams. But Finnessey said officials are looking forward to the ecosystem and reservoir benefits the snowmelt will provide.

    But she said the drought’s impacts aren’t over, as in the case of ranchers who had to sell livestock last year. Poor hay-growing and range forage conditions took a heavy toll on many of them.

    From 9News.com (Allison Levine):

    Denver Water’s reservoirs are already in good shape with some, like Eleven Mile, over capacity…

    What does that mean for Denver Water customers?

    Hartman: It means we have a healthy water supply. It means, going into the summer, we’re going to be in our standard watering rules. We’ve seen, over the years, our customers become so good with their water use and we expect to see the same from them this summer…

    There is still a lot of snow that has to melt. How will that impact reservoir capacity?

    Hartman: We will be able to fill our reservoirs and we’ll be able to use that water throughout the summer. We’re in late March right now, it’s obviously always difficult to predict how things will unfold. We could, say for example, have a warm April. A warm April would melt that snow off more quickly.

    Because of a number of dry years in the last 10 and 20 years, we have low soil moisture and Mother Nature gets dibs on that water. So, even with that great snowpack, some of that’s going to get eaten up by that very thirsty soil.

    You can always get evaporation if the weather gets very hot, or we could have a cooler April, which we hope for. That slows the melt off and sort of sustains the reservoir that is the snow. We consider the snowpack one giant reservoir. We are optimistic that we will continue to see these weather patterns that keep the snowmelt happening in a slower, more predictable, and more manageable way.

    #EagleRiver Watershed Council: Planning for our community’s water future

    The Eagle River roils with spring runoff in June 2011 near Edwards, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

    From the Eagle River Watershed Council (Lizzie Schoder) via The Vail Daily:

    In low snow years like last year, the effects to our community can be felt immediately from the loss of revenue from ski tourism to low flows in our rivers in the following hot summer months leading to voluntary fishing closures and a lackluster whitewater season. Our angling, boating, recreation, wildlife and aquatic communities all feel the impact. While it seems Ullr has different plans this year, as we are in the midst of back-to-back storm cycles refreshing our snowpack and currently putting us at about 136 percent of normal, we aren’t nearly in the clear of the drought in the Colorado River Basin, or its long-term companion, aridification.

    Research shows earlier runoff timing, higher ambient air temperatures, the dust-on-snow effect, and lower flows aren’t just periodic concerns, but more a representation of our new normal. The Eagle River and its tributaries support a wide array of uses inextricably tied to the wellbeing of our local economies and our high quality of life, not limited to: drinking water, agriculture, boating, angling, wildlife and biodiversity, aesthetics, lawns and gardens, snowmaking, and industry and power production. The effects of climate change, coupled with increasing demand from our ever-growing population, and the likelihood of future water storage projects, underline the need to plan for our community’s water future.

    The Eagle River Watershed Council — with the help of its many community partners and stakeholders — has undertaken an exciting initiative to be on the forefront of water management planning and engage the community through the Eagle River Community Water Plan. While the council has undertaken successful planning and assessment initiatives in the past, including the Eagle River Watershed Plan and the Colorado River Inventory & Assessment, these completed plans have largely focused on water quality issues in our watershed. The Community Water Plan will place a greater focus on future water quantity issues and will address increasing demand shortage scenarios.

    What is a community water plan?

    Colorado’s Water Plan, adopted by the state in 2015, set a goal of communities implementing community water plans, also known as stream management plans, on 80 percent of Colorado’s locally prioritized streams by the year 2030. The plan seeks to identify the desired environmental and recreational flows in our watershed and will provide the opportunity to safeguard the environmental, recreational, agricultural, tourism, and municipal uses of the river. In other words, the plan will allow for the protection of river health as well as the other uses of water the community values.

    Focusing on the entire length of the Eagle River, from its headwaters on Tennessee Pass to the confluence with the Colorado River in Dotsero, the plan will consider past, present, and future human and river health values to identify opportunities to correct historical degradation and mitigate against non-desirable future conditions due to stressors such as climate change and population growth.

    The plan’s diverse stakeholder group includes: local governments, fishing and rafting guide companies, the Eagle County Conservation District, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, American Rivers, the National Forest Foundation, the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, and the Eagle River MOU partners, including Climax Molybdenum Company, Vail Resorts, the Colorado River District, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and the partners in Homestake Reservoir (the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora).

    The plan will culminate in a set of recommendations for projects, policies or management actions that can be used to mitigate stressors and encourage land and water management actions that promote ecosystem health.

    The stakeholder group is committed to striving for equitable outcomes through engaging and listening to a broad range of community members. Community meetings will be held throughout the planning process to provide an opportunity for the community to engage in the process. Although the first round of community meetings were held in late February with presentations about the plan and current river conditions, the opportunity to submit formal input through online surveys still exists.

    To have a truly representative Community Water Plan, members of the community are encouraged to complete these surveys that inquire about how the community uses the river, and which degraded segments of and threats to the river are most concerning. A recording of the presentations, surveys (in English and Spanish) and more information are available online at http://www.erwc.org. The Watershed Council and its partners encourage the community to make their voice heard in this important planning process and to stay tuned for future community meetings planned for this summer.

    Eagle River 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. To learn more, call (970) 827-5406 or visit http://www.erwc.org.

    The Vail Town Council awards Glenn Porzak their 2019 Trailblazer Award

    Rainbow trout release at Black Lakes via CPW.

    From City of Vail via The Vail Daily:

    Glenn Porzak, the water rights attorney who has worked tirelessly through the decades to advance and protect water rights for Vail and the Western Slope, has been selected as the recipient of the 2019 Vail Trailblazer Award.

    Presented by the Vail Town Council, the award has been established as an annual civic recognition to honor those who contribute their time and talent to make Vail a great resort community.

    Porzak will be formally recognized at the March 5 evening Vail Town Council meeting. A mayor’s proclamation honoring his vast contributions will be read into the public record. Recognition will also take place during the Vail Annual Community Meeting, to be held March 12 at Donovan Pavilion.

    Porzak has been a fixture in the Vail community since the 1970s when he served as the water law counsel for Vail Associates (now Vail Resorts) and later for the current and predecessor entities of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and Vail Water sub-district, which provides water and wastewater treatment services to the greater Vail community. His nomination for the Trailblazer Award carries the endorsement of five former mayors as well as past and present members of the board of directors of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.

    PIONEERING CONTRIBUTIONS

    Nominators cited numerous examples of Porzak’s pioneering contributions in creating the water infrastructure essential for Vail’s successful growth as a resort community. For example, in the 1990s he led the effort to negotiate and secure approvals for construction of the Eagle Park Reservoir, located at the headwaters of the Eagle River. This in-basin water storage has been instrumental in supporting snowmaking capabilities on Vail Mountain as well as accommodating Vail’s growth through the decades while ensuring adequate 12-month streamflows in Gore Creek and the Eagle River. The complicated water and storage rights for Vail Mountain’s snowmaking water help to ensure quality skiing and snowboarding, even in the driest of years — such as last year.

    Porzak helped continue the development of Black Lakes, which are located at the headwaters of Black Gore Creek near the Interstate 70 Vail Pass exit and are part of the district’s water supply system. The two cold-water reservoirs serve as in-basin water storage and reservoir releases enhance streamflows in Gore Creek. They also support fishing, wildlife habitat and recreation through a partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

    Porzak was largely responsible for expanding Vail’s recreational amenities by making it possible to build Vail’s whitewater park, which serves as a major venue for the annual Mountain Games. Located at the Gore Creek promenade in Vail Village, the park opened in 2000 after Porzak authored a new recreational in-channel diversion category as a test case under Colorado water law.

    The park withstood a series of legal challenges and the game-changing decree was eventually upheld in a ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court. The 2003 judgment has since been used to create other whitewater parks throughout the state.

    PROTECTING SUPPLIES

    As the founding partner of Porzak Browning & Bushong LLP, a Boulder-based firm representing water and land use interests, Porzak is well-known for his expertise in the protection of existing water supplies. In an unprecedented move to protect the water interests of Vail and the upper Eagle Valley, Porzak led negotiations in 1998 that limited the amount of water the Front Range cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs could divert from the Eagle River basin, forever protecting local stream flows and fisheries from out-of-basin development interests.

    He spearheaded the litigation and subsequent negotiations that resulted in the 2007 abandonment of the Eagle-Piney Water Project for which Denver Water owned extensive water rights. The agreement and abandonment forever protect local stream flows and fisheries from trans-basin development. That water project would have taken hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water each year from Gore Creek and the Upper Eagle River and transported that water through a planned tunnel below Vail Pass to Dillon Reservoir.

    In announcing Porzak as the 2018 Trailblazer Award recipient, Vail Mayor Dave Chapin said Porzak’s underlying contributions are both vast and visible in almost everything we do.

    “From the water that comes out of our tap, to the amazing recreational amenities we have in this valley, to the protection of our streams from massive transmountain diversions, we owe our gratitude to Glenn for having the courage and the wherewithal to challenge the status quo,” Chapin said.

    Porzak said he was “speechless” when notified of the award. “It has truly been an honor to represent the greatest recreational-based community, Vail, for over four decades,” said Porzak.

    Throughout his career, Porzak has participated in over 120 water court trials and over 30 Colorado Supreme Court appeals. He has been named a Colorado Super Lawyer by 5280 magazine every year from 2006 to 2019.

    In his spare time, Porzak has been a world-class climber, having summited Mount Everest and three of the world’s other 8,000-meter peaks. He was one of the first people to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the world’s seven continents. He is a past president of the American Alpine Club and the Colorado Mountain Club.

    Porzak has also been the president of the Manor Vail Homeowners Association and led the effort to remodel the hotel and condominium complex at the base of Golden Peak.

    The Vail Trailblazer Award was established during the town’s 50th birthday celebration in 2016. Porzak is the fourth recipient to be honored and was selected by a town council committee from among other deserving nominations.

    For more information about the Vail Trailblazer Award and the nomination process, go to http://www.vailgov.com/trailblazeraward.

    Eagle whitewater park ready for #runoff

    From The Vaily Daily (Randy Wyrick) via The Aspen Times:

    The river part of Eagle’s ambitious river park is done, and even the fish appear to be happy about it.

    Hobbs Excavating crews recently finished the fourth of four in-river features.

    S2O Design, one of the world’s premier river engineering and whitewater design companies, designed the in-river features.

    “This setting matches the river’s natural morphology and utilizes the existing river channel really well,” said Scott Shipley, the founder and president of S2O Design. “It will surely be a new focal point for the town.”

    […]

    The in-river part of the project took two years to build, but the process started long before that with a feasibility study, then design and a detailed hydraulic modeling. The first two features were built last winter and spring when the water was low.

    Crews were back in the water last fall, and finished the other two river features in late December. The features create waves, eddies, chutes, and drops to play in for anything from tubes to surfing, standup-up paddling and kayaking.

    The park was the first built with S2O’s RapidBlocs that allows the features to be fine-tuned depending on water flows. That will lengthen the boating season in the park…

    S2O also designed the riverbank improvements, and included a bypass channel around the two upper features serving as a recreational safe route and a fish migration pathway, and mid-stream fish channels in the lower section so fish can migrate upstream.

    After Colorado Parks and Wildlife expressed some concerns about fish migration, the two features built this winter were modified, with crews installing concrete half hemispheres to make it easier for the fish to move…

    In 2016 Eagle voters approved a 0.5 percent sales tax to pay for the park and trail improvements. The entire park is scheduled for completion later this spring.

    @USFSRockyMtns opposes Fry-Ark conditional water rights in Holy Cross Wilderness — @AspenJournalism

    Pristine Halfmoon Lake, shown here under hazy skies in August 2018, is on Lime Creek within the Holy Cross Wilderness and is near the location for a potential diversion dam and tunnel back toward the existing Fry-Ark Project to the south. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

    The U.S. Forest Service is questioning whether the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District ever will be able to get approval to build six potential diversion dams and related tunnels and conduits in the Fryingpan River basin that are located on USFS land above 10,000 feet within the Holy Cross Wilderness.

    In a statement of opposition filed last month in Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs, attorneys for the USFS said it “cannot authorize development of these six conditional water rights … because they lie within a congressionally designated wilderness. Only the president has authority to approve water developments within the Holy Cross Wilderness.”

    The USFS statement of opposition, which was the only one filed in the case (18CW3063), also said “as currently decreed, the subject water rights raise questions as to whether they can and will be perfected within a reasonable time.”

    The opposition statement was submitted July 31 in response to a periodic diligence application filed with the water court by Southeastern on May 28.

    Southeastern is seeking to maintain its conditional water rights that are part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. The rights were decreed in 1958. Six of the rights are within the Holy Cross Wilderness, which was designated in 1980, but most are outside of it.

    Southeastern, which is based in Pueblo, owns and manages the water rights for the Fry-Ark Project, which was built by the Bureau of Reclamation.

    A detail of map of the Fry-Ark Project prepared by the Colorado River District, showing potential diversion points as purple circles. The map does not show the wilderness boundary.
    A map prepared as part of a study by Wilson Water Group showing the locations of six potential diversion dams in the Holy Cross Wilderness, shown in light purple. The diversion points would be connected with tunnels and conduits and connected to the existing Fry-Ark Project system at Carter Creek, the most northern dam and tunnel in the existing system.
    A map filed as part of Southeastern’s diligence application that shows the extent of the Fry-Ark Project. On its southern end, it diverts water from creeks near Aspen. The conditional rights within the Holy Cross Wilderness are on its northern end.

    375 cfs

    The six diversion dams inside the Holy Cross Wilderness would allow for the diversion of 10 cubic feet per second from an unnamed tributary of the North Fork of the Fryingpan River, for diversion of 135 cfs from Last Chance Creek and for 10 cfs from an unnamed tributary to Last Chance Creek, for 85 cfs from a creek called Slim’s Gulch and for 85 cfs from an unnamed tributary of Slim’s Gulch, and for 50 cfs from Lime Creek.

    In all, the six conditional rights in the wilderness would allow for 375 cfs of additional diversions in the Fry-Ark Project.

    The diversion structure on Lime Creek would be near pristine Halfmoon Lake, which is above Eagle Lake.

    Chris Woodka, who is the issues management coordinator at Southeastern, said the conditional water rights in the wilderness “are like a bargaining chip that we really don’t want to give up.”

    “If they could be developed at some point, we would still be interested in developing them, as far as getting the yield from there,” Woodka said. “But can we get more of a yield from the system using the mechanisms we have in place? Probably.”

    The entrance to the Chapman Tunnel on the creek in Chapman Gulch, part of the existing Fry-Ark diversion system.

    Maximizing limited yield

    The Fry-Ark Project today includes 16 diversion dams and 26 miles of tunnels and conduits on the Western Slope that move water from the Hunter Creek and Fryingpan River basins to the centrally located Boustead Tunnel, which can divert as many as 945 cfs under the Continental Divide.

    The water is sent to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville and then farther into the Arkansas River basin for use by cities and irrigators.

    The six potential dams and tunnels in the Holy Cross Wilderness would connect to the existing Fry-Ark Project at the Carter Creek dam and tunnel, which is the most northerly point of the system. It was completed in 1981.

    James DuBois, an attorney in the environment and natural resources division at the Justice Department and who filed the USFS statement of opposition, said he could not discuss the case.

    DuBois filed a similar statement of opposition in a 2009 diligence filing for Southeastern’s conditional rights.

    In that case, the USFS eventually agreed, in a 2011 stipulation, that Southeastern would study “the potential for moving its conditional water rights off of wilderness lands” during the next six-year diligence period, which ended in May.

    It also would look at other ways to increase the project’s “authorized yield.”

    A view of the Slim’s Gulch area in the upper Fryingpan River basin. The Lime Creek basin is on the other side of the jagged ridge in the background, and a tunnel under the mountain would move water from Lime Creek to Slim’s Gulch.

    Yield limits

    Under the project’s operating principles, the authorized yield of the Fry-Ark Project is limited to diverting 120,000 acre-feet in any one year, and to diverting no more than 2.35 million acre-feet over a 34-year rolling average, or an annual average of 69,200 acre-feet.

    From 2010 to 2015, the project diverted an average of 63,600 acre-feet, indicating there is more yield to be gained.

    This year, a dry year, about 39,000 acre-feet was diverted. In 2011, the last really wet year, 98,900 acre-feet was diverted, according to an annual report on the Fry-Ark Project prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation.

    A view of the Last Chance Creek basin in the upper Fryingpan River basin. The main stem of Last Chance Creek wraps around the forested mountain in the middle of the photo, and a tributary to the south is off to the right, just out of view in the photo. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

    Improving existing facilities

    In accordance with the 2011 stipulation, a study on how to get more water out of the system was done by Wilson Water Group and presented to Southeastern in April.

    In the presentation slides, Wilson Water told Southeastern’s board of directors that “analysis indicates contemplated project yield could be met through existing infrastructure and software upgrades.”

    Another option studied was to move the six rights in the Holy Cross Wilderness downstream and out of the wilderness. However, Wilson Water said it would require pumping stations to lift the water back up to Fry-Ark system and the “cost per-acre feet is likely prohibitive.”

    Despite the finding that improving the existing system would increase the yield on the project, Southeastern voted in April to file for diligence on the six conditional rights within the wilderness, along with other conditional rights, telling the court that “while the construction of certain conditionally decreed project features has not yet been started, there is no intent to abandon these features or any of the conditional water rights … .”

    A sign marking the boundary of the Holy Cross Wilderness in the Last Chance Creek basin. The trail up the basin does not see a lot of hiking traffic. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

    ‘Inappropriate location’

    Upon learning of the diligence application this week, Will Roush, the executive director of Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale, said “the Holy Cross Wilderness is a completely inappropriate location” for the development of the conditional water rights.

    “Lime Creek, Last Chance Creek and the surrounding lands and tributaries provide amazing opportunities for solitude and the rare opportunity to experience a landscape and alpine watershed free of human infrastructure and without the diversion of water,” Roush said.

    An informational memo on the diligence case was presented to the Southeastern board of directors on Aug. 16, and there was no discussion of the case by the board.

    An initial status conference in the diligence case has been set for Sept. 18.

    Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering the Roaring Fork and Colorado river basins in collaboration with The Aspen Times. The Times published this story on Saturday, August 19, 2018. This version of the story corrected the date of the earlier stipulation between Southeastern and USFS, which was reached in 2011, not 2012, when the case was closed.

    #Drought news: The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District is asking its customers to cut back on outdoor water use

    West Drought Monitor July 17, 2018.

    From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):

    In a memo to the district’s elected board, communications and public affairs manager Diane Johnson wrote that streamflows measured on Gore Creek, the Eagle River near Minturn and the Eagle River at Avon are all running significantly below seasonal norms.

    As of July 22:

    • Gore Creek was running at 36 cubic feet per second, 38 percent of the normal flow.

    • The Eagle River near Minturn was running at 49 cfs, 43 percent of normal.

    • The river at Avon was running at 108 cfs, 36 percent of normal.

    Those readings are among the lowest on record. Only the drought years of 2002 and 2012 showed lower streamflows from April 1 to July 22. Even in those drought years, the graph lines show the occasional bump, when rainfall temporarily boosted streamflows.

    This year, those bumps haven’t developed.

    North American Monsoon graphic via Hunter College.

    THE MISSING MONSOON

    The short boosts to streamflow in those other years started coming in about mid-June, the result of the annual “monsoon” flow that generally brings some significant moisture to the area.

    The U.S. Climate Prediction Center in late spring predicted a better-than-average change of precipitation into the summer. That hasn’t developed so far this year.

    Tom Renwick, a forecaster at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said the monsoonal flow in Western Colorado usually develops when a high-pressure system sets up over Texas and Oklahoma and a low-pressure system develops over the desert Southwest United States. When that happens, moisture is sucked up from the south and ends up being deposited in Western Colorado.

    Renwick said high pressure has been setting up in the wrong place so far this year.

    That high pressure usually means dry conditions. At the moment, high pressure is farther west than it needs to be to bring rain.

    “It’s basically on top of us,” Renwick said.

    While Western Colorado hasn’t been getting its usual summer rainfall, Renwick said other areas are seeing seasonal precipitation. The monsoons have hit Mexico.

    CONCERN FOR AQUATIC LIFE

    Locally, the lack of the monsoon rains is starting to concern water providers.

    In an email, Johnson wrote that the district and other water providers “are now back to a bit worried about how our streams will do during the normal low-flow months of August on.”

    That said, there are adequate supplies for domestic use.

    Aquatic life can be hard-hit by low streamflows, especially when those low flows are combined with warm temperatures.

    Colorado Parks and Wildlife last week called for a voluntary fishing closure on portions of the Eagle, Colorado, Crystal and Roaring Fork rivers. Anglers are asked to stop fishing from 2 p.m. to midnight on stretches of those streams. Water temperatures near or above 70 degrees Fahrenheit can be damaging to fish that are caught and released back into the water.

    Rainfall and cooler water temperatures are good for both aquatic life and landscaping. Until those rains come, though, district customers are being asked to let their landscaping dry out a bit.

    When the monsoonal flow might develop remains an open question, but Renwick said he’s optimistic.

    There’s a possible monsoonal pattern developing later this week for New Mexico, the Front Range and parts of Wyoming, but not Western Colorado.

    CPW is implementing voluntary fishing closures on sections of the Eagle River, Colorado River, Crystal River, and Roaring Fork River in northwest Colorado.

    Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

    Due to high water temperatures and low flows, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is implementing voluntary fishing closures between 2 p.m. – 12 a.m. on sections of the Eagle River, Colorado River, Crystal River, and Roaring Fork River in Northwest Colorado. The fishing closure is effective immediately, until further notice.

    Although anglers are not legally prohibited from fishing in these stretches, CPW is asking anglers to fish early in the day and find alternative places to fish until conditions improve.

    Sections for the voluntary fishing closures include:

    Eagle River from Wolcott downstream to its confluence with the Colorado River

    Colorado River from State Bridge downstream to Rifle

    Crystal River from Avalanche Creek downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River

    Roaring Fork River from Carbondale downstream to its confluence with the Colorado River.

    “We appreciate the patience of our angling community as we work through some tough climate conditions,” said Northwest Regional Manager JT Romatzke. “Conserving our state’s fisheries is critical, not just for anglers, but for the local communities and businesses that rely on these resources for their livelihoods.”

    CPW will place signs along the four sections of rivers to notify anglers and encourage them to consider fishing at higher elevation lakes and streams where env