Pitkin County and West Slope close to securing 1,000 AF of water for upper Roaring Fork

The upper Roaring Fork River, east of Aspen, near the river’s confluence with Difficult Creek. The stretch of river between Difficult Creek and Maroon Creek is often plagued by low flows in late summer and fall.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

As a way to settle a 2009 state water court case led by Pitkin County and the Colorado River District, the Front Range city of Aurora has agreed to let as much as 1,000 acre-feet of water run down the upper Roaring Fork River each year instead of diverting the water under Independence Pass.

The pending settlement could mean that about 10 to 30 cubic feet per second of additional water could flow down the river through Aspen in summer and fall.

It’s an amount of water that Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said would be “visibly noticeable” and would help bolster flows in the often water-short stretch of the Roaring Fork between Difficult and Maroon creeks.

“It’s exciting,” Ely said. “It’s not very often you get to put water into the upper Roaring Fork. These opportunities are pretty limited, and I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one.”

A June 13 memo from Ely on the agreement states that “the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board has long recognized this reach of the Roaring Fork as one of the most stressed reaches of the Roaring Fork” and that “the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s State of the Watershed report identifies the upper Roaring Fork just above Aspen and heading into town as being severely degraded.”

The Pitkin Board of County Commissioners is expected to approve the settlement in the form of an intergovernmental agreement with Aurora on Wednesday.

Aurora’s city council also is expected to approve the agreement, as is the Colorado River District board of directors at its July meeting. A Water Court judge has set a July 20 deadline for the parties to file the settlement.

Officials with Pitkin County and the Colorado River District see the deal with Aurora as a victory, especially as some estimates, according to Ely, place the value of water in Aurora at $50,000 an acre-foot, which makes the 1,000 acre-feet of water potentially worth $50 million.

The settlement is also of high value to officials at the Colorado River District, who led the efforts of the West Slope entities in the case.

“I think it’s a big deal,” said Peter Fleming, the general counsel for the Colorado River District, which represents 15 counties on the Western Slope. “I think it’s going to be a good deal for Pitkin County, the Roaring Fork River, and the West Slope as a whole. And frankly, I think it’s a pretty good deal for Aurora, as well.”

But Tom Simpson, a water resource supervisor with Aurora, said it’s a “bittersweet” deal for the growing Front Range city.

“We’ve worked hard on this agreement over the last year,” Simpson said. “It is bittersweet, but we are happy that we are finally there.”

The deal lets Aurora retain its current use of 2,416 acre-feet of water it diverts on average each year from the top of the Fryingpan River Basin, but Aurora also is giving up 1,000 acre-feet of water it now diverts from the top of the Roaring Fork River Basin.

Aurora also is agreeing to abide by operating protocols and future potential use of the senior water rights on the Colorado River now tied to the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon. That agreement could limit the amount of additional water Aurora can divert in the future from the Colorado River Basin.

The provisions of the agreement relating to the Shoshone water right also include an acknowledgement that the senior water right might someday be changed to include an instream flow right rather than the water being diverted out of the river and sent to the hydropower plant.

“Aurora will not oppose an agreement between a West Slope entity or entities, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and any other entity entered for the purpose of adding instream flow as an additional use of the senior hydropower right,” the agreement states.

Simpson agreed the overall deal represented a “haircut” for Aurora’s water rights in the Colorado River Basin.

“Yes, we’re going to get the 2,416 acre-feet out of Busk, but we’re going to make these other deliveries on the Roaring Fork, and we might lose just a little bit of water on the Shoshone protocol,” he said. “It’s a haircut, absolutely.”

On the other hand, Simpson said “while this agreement is not perfect, we feel like it is a good agreement, and preserves some of our Busk-Ivanhoe water and lets us all move forward.”

A view of Ivanhoe Reservoir, where water from the upper Fryingpan River headwaters is collected before being sent under the divide to Busk Creek, Turquoise Reservoir, and then the Front Range.

Started in 2009

In December 2009, Aurora filed a water rights application in Division 2 Water Court in Pueblo to change the use of its water rights in the Busk-Ivanhoe transmountain diversion system in the Fryingpan River headwaters.

The system, built in the 1920s, gathers water from Ivanhoe, Pan, Lyle, and Hidden Lake creeks and diverts the water through the Ivanhoe Tunnel to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville before it is sent to East Slope cities. The system was built to deliver water to irrigators in the lower Arkansas River basin.

The water rights to the system carry appropriation dates from 1921 to 1927, which makes them junior to the senior water rights on the Colorado River near Grand Junction known as the “Cameo call.”

The Pueblo Board of Water Works bought half of the Busk-Ivanhoe system in 1972, and Aurora gradually secured its half-ownership in the system between 1986 and 2001.

In its 2009 application, Aurora told the water court it wanted to change the use of its water in the Busk-Ivanhoe system from irrigation to municipal use.

However, it also conceded it had already been using the Busk-Ivanhoe water for municipal purposes in Aurora, even though its water-right decree limited the use of the water to irrigation in the lower Arkansas River valley. It also came to light that Aurora was first storing the water in Turquoise Reservoir without an explicit decreed right to do so.

That caught the attention of Pitkin County, the Colorado River District, a host of other Western Slope water interests, and the state engineer’s office, which administers water rights.

As Ely put it in a June 13 memo to the Pitkin County commissioners, “In 1987, Aurora began using Busk-Ivanhoe water for undecreed municipal and residential purposes in an undecreed area, the South Platte Valley, after storing the water in an undecreed manner in Aurora system reservoirs.”

Aurora’s stance was that since the water had been diverted under the Continental Divide, it didn’t matter how it used or stored the water, as it should make no difference to the West Slope. But an array of West Slope entities, including the Colorado River District, disagreed with Aurora’s position.

In July 2013 the Western Slope entities and the state took Aurora to a five-day trial in Div. 2 Water Court in Pueblo, arguing that Aurora should not get credit for its 22 years of undecreed water use and storage.

“It was always an issue of fact at trial as to how much water was in play because it depends on how you calculate the yield of the project,” Ely said.

In 2014, thought, the district court judge in Division 2 ruled in Aurora’s favor, and the West Slope interests then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The appeal process prompted a host of entities on both sides of the Continental Divide to come forward and argue aspects of the case before the court. It also prompted a scolding of Aurora by former Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs over the use of undecreed water rights.

In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, ruled in favor of the Western Slope, and remanded Aurora’s original change application back to the lower court.

“The Supreme Court wrote that notwithstanding the fact that the change application and original decree concerned developed transmountain water, water used for undecreed purposes cannot be included in a calculation for historic consumptive use and is therefore excluded from water available for change of use,” Ely wrote in his June 13 memo.

So, rather than going back to Water Court and continuing to fight over the potential size of the Busk-Ivanhoe rights, which the West Slope now saw as being between zero and well-less than 2,416 acre-feet, Aurora began negotiating in January 2017 with the Western Slope entities still in the case, which included Pitkin County, Eagle County, the Colorado River District, the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the Basalt Water Conservancy District, Eagle County, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, and Ute Water Conservancy District.

Today, each of those entities is also a party to the intergovernmental agreement expected to be submitted to the water court in July, along with a proposed decree for Aurora’s Busk-Ivanhoe rights.

Ely said Pitkin County didn’t start out in the case with an eye on securing 1,000 acre-feet for the Roaring Fork, but did have a local interest in the operation of the Busk-Ivanhoe project.

“We weren’t doing it to obtain an end result, we were doing it because the [Busk-Ivanhoe] project is in our backyard and we felt it was the right thing to do,” Ely said. “And all the other dialogue developed after the trial and the Supreme Court decision.”

At the time of the 2016 Colorado Supreme Court decision, Pitkin County had spent $353,000 in legal and other fees in the case, using money brought in by a tax to fund the county’s Healthy River and Streams program, which includes litigation in water court.

Since then, Ely said the county had spent an additional $27,300 for hydrology and engineering work, but had not spent more on additional outside legal help, as he and Assistant County Attorney Laura Makar handled the settlement negotiations for the county.

The dam across the main stem of the upper Roaring Fork that diverts water from Lost Man Creek and the Roaring Fork into a tunnel under Green Mountain and, eventually, into Grizzly Reservoir and the tunnel under Independence Pass to the Arkansas River basin. Some of the water owned by Aurora will be bypassed at this point to run down the Roaring Fork.

Pan, or Fork?

For Pitkin County and other Western Slope entities, it made more sense to negotiate with Aurora for some of the water it owns in the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system rather than the Busk-Ivanhoe system, as any water bypassed by the Busk-Ivanhoe system would be scooped up by the Fry-Ark Project, which sits below the Busk-Ivanhoe system in the upper Fryingpan valley and also diverts water to the East Slope.

Aurora owns 5 percent of the shares in the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which operates the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System. Its share of the water diverted each year from the top of the Roaring Fork equals about 2,100 acre-feet a year, so the 1,000 acre-feet of water equals about half of Aurora’s water in the Twin Lakes company.

In the 10 years from 2007 through 2016, Twin Lakes Co. diverted a total of 485,762 acre-feet of water from the upper Roaring Fork River Basin through its diversion system, putting the 10-year average for that period at 48,567 acre feet. 2011 was the biggest year of diversions since 2007, with 67,463 acre-feet diverted, and 2015 was the lowest year since 2007, with 18,374 acre-feet diverted.

Colorado Springs owns 55 percent of the shares in Twin Lakes Co., Pueblo 23 percent, Pueblo West 12 percent, and Aurora 5 percent. There are also other minority shareholders, holding 5 percent of the shares, still using the water from the system for agriculture.

Twin Lakes is not a party to the intergovernmental agreement between Aurora and the West Slope entities, but it is willing to work with all involved to make the water deliveries as beneficial as possible for the Roaring Fork River.

Ely said Pitkin Country was grateful for the willingness of the Twin Lakes Co. to work with the county and the Colorado River District to release the water in a way that benefits the river, even if it means more work for the operators of the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system.

According to Kevin Lusk, the president of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and a senior engineer at Colorado Springs Utilities, the company is simply responding to the desires of a shareholder in the company, Aurora.

He also said it’s legal under a 1976 water-rights decree held by Twin Lakes to bypass water for use on the West Slope instead of diverting it under the Continental Divide.

“The decree allows for this type of operation and so really all we’re doing as a company is accommodating the request of one of our shareholders to do something that was contemplated and provided for in the decree,” Lusk said.

And as part of the agreement, representatives from Pitkin County, the Colorado River District, Aurora, and Twin Lakes will meet each year to agree on a delivery schedule for the water that describes the “desired rate, timing, amount, location and ultimate use of the water, as well as the operational needs and constraints” of the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes diversion system.

In a letter attached to the agreement laying out how Aurora and the Twin Lakes Co. plan to manage the releases, Aurora said it “would prefer the water to be delivered at times of the year and at locations that will provide the most benefit to the Roaring Fork River stream flow. Typically this will be in the second half of the summer, beginning July 15, through the fall season.”

And Pitkin County feels the same way, according to Ely.

“We would like it delivered later in the year when the flows of the river start to go down,” he said.

However, Lusk at Twin Lakes said if the West Slope entities wait too long in the season to bypass the water, it may not be there to bypass.

“I know that there is a great interest in saving a lot of this water and bypassing it at the end of the season,” Lusk said. “But it’s going to be a bit of a balancing act. You’ve got to take the water when it’s there, because if you don’t take advantage of it there won’t be any to release later.”

Lusk also said that if the West Slope really wanted to take full advantage of the water, it might consider building a reservoir above Aspen to store the water at peak runoff and then release it later in the season.

Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek, well above its confluence with the Roaring Fork River at Lincoln Gulch Campground. The reservoir briefly stores water before it is diverted under the Continental Divide.

Flows on the Fork

According to a draft resolution to be voted on by the Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday, there were several factors that went into the county’s goal of acquiring 1,000 acre-feet per year of water for the upper Fork, including “the expected amount of yield for Aurora in the Busk-Ivanhoe system; existing in-basin and out-of-basin diversions from the Roaring Fork River between Independence Pass through the City of Aspen; potential future demand on the river; extent of existing conditional water rights; and the results of a stream analysis and channel measurement study.”

If the deal is approved, as soon as next year 700 acre-feet of Aurora’s water is expected to be captured briefly in the Independence Pass system, which includes dams on Lost Man Creek, the main stem of the Roaring Fork River, and on Grizzly Creek, and then released down either the Fork or Lincoln Creek toward Aspen.

Another 200 acre-feet of Aurora’s Twin Lakes water will be held in Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek, which holds 570 acre-feet of water. That water will then be released late in the year, after most transmountain diversions have stopped, to bolster late-season flows in the river.

“So it’s actually reservoir release of previously stored water, while the [700 acre-feet] is a true bypass of water that would have gone through the tunnel that day to the other side,” Lusk said. “It’s new for us. We typically don’t operate the reservoir that way. Typically we would run that reservoir quite a bit lower, just for safety-of-dam reasons. But this change in operation is going to be holding the reservoir up much fuller for a lot longer, and we just need to watch the behavior of the dam.”

Another 100 acre-feet of water could also eventually be left in the Roaring Fork each year after a complicated exchange-of-water arrangement is worked out with Aurora and other parties on the Fryingpan River, which brings the potential total water left in the Fork to 1,000 acre-feet.

There is also a drought contingency provision which will allow Aurora to bypass 100 acre-feet less than they would have under the deal if the water level in their system of reservoirs falls below 60 percent on April 1 in a given year. So in a dry year, that could bring additional flows in the Roaring Fork back to 900 acre feet.

The upper Roaring Fork River at the Cascades at about 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 16, 2016, after Lincoln Creek surged into the Fork, about an hour after the Twin Lakes Tunnel was closed. When the Twin Lakes system is closed for whatever reason, as it has been the past several seasons, the Roaring Fork River leaps to life with renewed intensity.

Other provisions

The pending Busk-Ivanhoe settlement also includes a provision that allows the Basalt Water Conservancy District to store 50 acre-feet of water in Ivanhoe Reservoir, which holds 1,200 acre-feet of water and serves more as a forebay for the Ivanhoe Tunnel diversions than a storage reservoir.

And, in a provision to Aurora’s benefit, the West Slope entities, including Pitkin County, have agreed not to fight, at least on a wholesale basis, the permitting of two potential reservoirs that Aurora is working on, Wild Horse Reservoir in South Park and Box Creek Reservoir, which could hold between 20,000 and 60,000 acre-feet on private land on the south flank of Mt. Elbert.

“Any participation in the permitting processes by the West Slope Parties will not seek to prevent the project in its entirety and comments or requests may be raised only for the purpose of addressing water related impacts caused directly by either of the two above specified projects on the West Slope,” the draft agreement between Aurora and the West Slope says.

The concession from the West Slope is significant as Box Creek Reservoir will be able to store water from the West Slope.

The West Slope entities also agree not to oppose changes in diversion points tied to the Homestake transmountain diversion system in the Eagle River Basin, not to oppose Aurora’s efforts to repair the Ivanhoe Tunnel, which is also called the Carlton Tunnel. The tunnel was originally built as a railroad tunnel, and then used as a highway tunnel.

Finally, the parties to the deal have agreed, in what’s called a “diligence detente,” not to challenge in water court for 15 years a list of conditional water rights, held by both East Slope and West Slope entities, that are required to periodically file due-diligence applications with the state.

The list of conditional water rights includes rights held by Aurora tied to the Homestake project and rights by the Southeastern Water Conservancy District tied to the Fry-Ark Project. They also include rights held by the Colorado River District on a number of West Slope water projects, including the potential Iron Mountain Reservoir near Redcliff and the Wolcott Reservoir near Wolcott.

Notably, the agreement does not include provisions to legally shepherd the water from the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system all the way to the confluence of Maroon Creek, so it’s possible that diverters on the river near Aspen, such as the Salvation Ditch, could pick up the water left in the river.

However, Ely said the county will seek cooperation from diverters on the river near Aspen.

“We’ve had some conversations with water users on this side of the hill, and we’ve had conversations with the Division 5 engineer’s office, and we’re hopeful that when the water is being bypassed and put in the river and there is an increase of flow, folks won’t take advantage of that and we’ll be able to get it down through Aspen,” Ely said. “And eventually, you know things will change, and we hope to have that water associated with its own water right, so we can call it further down, but that won’t be the case right away.”

An additional benefit to the deal, according to Ely, is that the management of the 1,000 acre-foot pool of water from Aurora may also lead to better management of a 3,000 acre-foot pool of water also available in the Independence Pass-Twin Lakes system.

That pool was created to mitigate the impacts to the Roaring Fork River from diversions by the Fry-Ark Project on Hunter, Midway, and No Name creeks, which drain into the Fork in central Aspen. And while Twin Lakes releases the water down the Roaring Fork, releases from the Fry-Ark Project replace the water in Twin Lakes Reservoir, where both transbasin diversion systems can send water.

For years, the water from the 3,000 acre-foot pool has been released at a rate of 3 cfs on a year-round basis and has not been timed to help bolster low-season flows. Now, given the greater cooperation over the management of the 1,000 acre-foot pool from Aurora, how the 3,000 acre-foot pool from Fry-Ark is managed may also change, to the benefit of the river.

Aspen Journalism is collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water with The Aspen Times. The Times ran a shorter version of this story on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.

Eagle River “State of the River” meeting, May 9, 2018 #ColoradoRiver #COriver

From email from the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District (Diane Johnson):

Join us Wednesday, May 9 at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards for the annual Eagle River Valley State of the River community meeting!

Presented by the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, the Colorado River District, and the Eagle River Watershed Council, this annual community meeting is free and open to the public.

A casual reception begins at 5:15 p.m. with light dinner, soft drinks, and information tables that include the town of Vail’s Restore the Gore program. Presentations will follow from 6 to 8 p.m. You may RSVP via Evite, but none is required.

Colorado’s assistant state climatologist, Becky Bolinger, will address what this winter’s snowpack means for rivers and water supply, both locally and downstream in the Colorado River system. Colorado River basin inflow into Lake Powell is projected to be less than 45 percent, while levels at lakes Powell and Mead continue an overall downward trend. Brent Newman with the Colorado Water Conservation Board will discuss how the seven basin states involved in the 1922 Colorado River Compact have been working to mitigate shrinking supplies.

Andy Mueller will speak about West Slope water priorities: how the Shoshone Power Plant keeps flows in the Eagle River basin and how western slope agriculture provides recreational and environmental flows throughout the Colorado River basin. In January, Mueller became general manager of the Colorado River District, an 81-year old organization that works to protect Western Colorado water throughout its 15-county service area.

Local experts will discuss how water needs in the upper Eagle River valley are met and what steps are being taken to better understand water resources within the county. Eagle River Water & Sanitation District staff will discuss the downward trend in local water use and how the Eagle River regional water efficiency plan will help valley residents and businesses waste less water and support stream health.

Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological will present an overview of the Eagle River Watershed Council’s exciting new project, the Eagle River integrated water management plan. The multi-year project is just beginning and has broad support and funding from local municipalities, Eagle County, Homestake Water Project, Climax Mine, Vail Resorts, Colorado River District, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Agenda:
5:15 p.m. Reception: Light dinner and soft drinks

6:00 p.m. Welcome and Overview: Diane Johnson, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District

6:05 p.m. Water Year 2018: Colorado snowpack, streamflow, and climate update
Becky Bolinger, Colorado Climate Center, Colorado State University

6:25 p.m. Colorado River water supply and demand – what‘s happening
Brent Newman, Colorado Water Conservation Board

6:50 p.m. Western Slope water challenges and priorities
Andy Mueller, Colorado River District

7:15 p.m. Meeting water needs in the upper Eagle River valley

· More people using less water – the Eagle River regional water efficiency plan Linn Brooks, Amy Schweig, Maureen Mulcahy, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District

7:40 p.m. The Eagle River Integrated Water Management Plan
Seth Mason, Eagle River Watershed Council

8:00 p.m. Adjourn

For more information, contact Diane Johnson at 970-477-5457.

State grants flowing into Colorado, Roaring Fork, and Eagle rivers — @AspenJournalism

The Colorado River, flowing west at the wave in Glenwood Springs. The river, from Dotsero at the upper edge of Glenwood Canyon to DeBeque Canyon, is being studied as part of an integrated water management plan being prepared by the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Five water plans or projects concerning the Roaring Fork, Colorado and Eagle rivers are on track to receive $337,000 in state funds to study water users’ needs, plan for future water use and restore river ecosystems.

The efforts include a web-based information system about the Roaring Fork River watershed, restoration work on the Crystal River near Carbondale, an agricultural-water study in Garfield County and funding for two integrated water management plans for the Eagle River basin and a section of the Colorado River.

All five of the projects are part of a bigger effort toward stream management planning and list that goal in their grant applications. An objective of the 2015 Colorado Water Plan is to cover 80 percent of rivers with stream management plans.

Such plans already exist, or are in process, for the Poudre River, the Crystal River, the North Fork of the Gunnison, the Upper Gunnison Basin and the San Miguel River and have been proposed on the Eagle, Yampa, Upper San Juan and Middle Colorado rivers.

Looking upstream toward the confluence of the Roaring Fork River, left, and the Crystal River, right, just below Carbondale. More information about these and other rivers will be made available to the public with the help of a recent $37,000 state grant to the Roaring Fork Conservancy. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Roaring info, Crystal headgate

Last month the Colorado River basin roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs and reviews and votes on water-project grant requests before sending them to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, approved a $37,000 request from the Roaring Fork Conservancy to create a $50,000 public interactive map and information system.

Anyone from school kids to scientists would be able to access, search and sort data about the Roaring Fork. The project will organize the information contained in the 145-page Roaring Fork Watershed Plan so it’s easier for the public to find and understand.

In March, the CWCB approved a $20,700 grant from the town of Carbondale to restore and enhance a half-mile stretch of the Crystal River near the state fish hatchery, as well as make improvements to the town-owned Weaver Ditch headgate and diversion structure.

The project aims to restore ecological health by reconnecting the river with its flood plain, improve river channel stability and enhance a riverfront park with signs and trails. The project, at a total cost of $200,000, also is being funded by the town, Great Outdoors Colorado, and Aspen Skiing Co.’s environmental fund.

The CWCB also approved grants last month to the Eagle River Watershed Council and the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. Both groups received funding for their respective stream management plans, which emphasize collaboration among water users. Eagle received approval for $75,000 and the Middle Colorado for $103,800.

A rafter on the Colorado River looking upstream toward Glenwood Springs. The Middle Colorado Watershed Council has recently received a $104,000 state grant for its $415,000 integrated water management plan for the Colorado River between Dotsero and DeBeque. It will look at recreational and environmental flows, as well as consumptive use of water by ag and cities. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

The Middle reach

The Middle Colorado stream management plan will cover the main stem of the Colorado River from Dotsero to DeBeque. It will identify water needs for non-consumptive uses, like the environment and recreation, which depend on sufficient water left in a river or stream.

The state funding will be used to evaluate ecosystem health and water quality, and to develop hydrologic flow models.

“The question is if we see any issues that are flow-related and what additional flows do we need to attain a healthier ecosystem,” said Laurie Rink, executive director of the Middle Colorado Watershed Council.

Rink will soon be moving into a project management position so she can devote more time to developing the stream management plan, and the watershed council will hire a new executive director.

In addition to $103,800 from the state, the council is seeking funding from Garfield County, Rifle, Glenwood Springs, the Colorado River District, and the Tamarisk Coalition for a project total of about $415,000.

An irrigation ditch south of Silt, and the Colorado River, moves water toward a field. The state of irrigated agriculture in Garfield County is expected to get a closer look as part of an integrated water management plan being prepared by the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Ag water

A key to understanding the Middle Colorado River and its tributaries is also understanding agriculture’s use of water from the river system. But the ag community has historically been hesitant to participate in studies that focus on recreation and environmental concerns. This study aims to bring them into the fold of stream management planning.

To help get consumptive users involved, three regional conservation districts, the Bookcliff, South Side and Mount Sopris districts, have teamed up to do their own study of ag’s use of water.

“We really want to understand for our watershed both the consumptive and non-consumptive uses we have and what gaps exist,” Rink said.

At its March meeting the Colorado basin roundtable approved a $100,000 grant request for the three conservation districts to create an “agriculture water plan” for Garfield County that will inform the stream management plan being done by the Middle Colorado council.

That grant request now goes to the CWCB in May.

“The dry year is the immediate impetus, and the future of our water rights,” said Liz Chandler, program coordinator of the ag-water study. “With the looming prospect of a compact call, the agriculture community needed to get much more involved with a planning process to make sure agriculture’s voice is heard loudly and clearly.”

The ag-water study would focus on ag lands between Glenwood Springs and DeBeque, and aims to determine the current irrigated acreage and to conduct an inventory of irrigation ditches.

The study also would determine water needs for the crops and develop a plan to protect agriculture water.

A sprinkler irrigating a pasture north of New Castle. Three conservation districts have secured a $100,000 grant from the Colorado River basin roundtable to study consumptive use of water by ag, and cities, between Glenwood and DeBeque. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

“100 percent public”

In 2016, the Eagle County Conservation District completed a similar irrigation asset inventory, the results of which officials said should remain private, although the study was paid for with public funds.

But unlike that study, Chandler said the results of the Garfield County study will be “100 percent public information.”

“The end goal of our project is very different from Eagle,” Chandler said. “They wanted to get shovel-ready projects for their diverters. We want to create an integrated water plan. And we have so much more agriculture down here than Eagle does.”

The dam in the Eagle River headwaters that forms Homestake Reservoir, which diverts water to the Front Range. The Eagle River Watershed Council was granted $75,000 from the CWCB last month toward an integrated water management plan for the Eagle River basin, which faces more transmountain diversions. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith

Eagle River Watershed

A few miles upstream, the Eagle River Watershed Council is developing its own stream-management plan.

Its plan aims to develop water management recommendations based on three factors the watershed will face in the coming years: increased municipal demand for water that comes from population growth, climate change, and still-to-be-developed projects related to the “Eagle River MOU” project, which could include new or expanded reservoirs and transmountain diversions to the Front Range.

“Collaboration is absolutely critical to this plan,” said Holly Loff, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council. “In creating the scope of work, we reached out to all the people we thought should be participating as a stakeholder and clumped them together in six different groups: local government, agriculture, recreation, conservation, federal and state agencies, East Slope water interests and West Slope water interests.”

Loff said she expects the entire stream-management planning process will take three years to complete.

In addition to the $75,000 from the state, the Eagle River Watershed Council also expects to receive money and in-kind donations from Vail Resorts, Homestake Water Project Partners (Aurora and Colorado Springs), the towns of Avon, Gypsum, Vail and Minturn, Eagle Park Reservoir Company, Climax Mine, Eagle County, and the Colorado River District for a combined total project cost of nearly $390,000.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of rivers and water with the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, and The Aspen Times. The Times and the Post Independent published this story on Monday, April 9, 2018.

The Eagle Valley Land Trust and the Eagle River Watershed Council hope that area businesses will collect 1% fee for streams

Eagle River Basin

From The Vail Daily (Pam Boyd):

The 1% for Land and Rivers initiative is pretty self-explanatory. The organizations are reaching out to area merchants willing to impose a voluntary 1 percent fee on transactions, with the money going to the two sponsoring nonprofits. Participating businesses will display signs noting their participation in the program, and customers will have the option to opt out of the payment at the time of purchase.

Jim Daus, executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, was inspired to launch the program in Eagle County after studying similar efforts in the Crested Butte and Buena Vista areas. Program participants in those communities told Daus that customers were overwhelmingly supportive of their programs and, during their operation, only one or two people a year ask to opt out of paying the 1 percent fee.

“This is a way for everyone in the community to give a little bit,” Daus said. At 1 percent, the fee is a penny on a $1 purchase, a dime on a $10 percent or a dollar and on $100.

Every type of business is welcome to participate, and the Land Trust and Watershed Council are willing to help get the program started. In addition to providing signs for both the business front entry and cash register area that announce participation in 1% for Land and Rivers, program volunteers can work with business owners to launch the effort. Program literature notes that point-of-sale setup should be very simple, but if a merchant has issues, then the program can provide a $100 credit if a business needs to contact its bookkeeper or other professional point-of-sale representative.

“Don’t overthink the opt-out. It is very rare that people opt out (typically less than one customer per five years). There are several simple ways other businesses handle this. For businesses that provide bids and invoices, we’ll provide sample language showcasing your support of land and rivers,” the program statement says.

All donations received from 1% for Lands and River will be used directly by the Land Trust and the Watershed Council within the Eagle River and Colorado River watersheds to help fund their objectives of promoting clean water and responsible growth through preservation of open space, agricultural operations, fish and wildlife habitat, public recreation, scenic vistas and significant natural resources. The organizations are proud to share the work they have done with landowners and local, state and federal agencies to help identify and protect land and water with key values.

More than 7,700 acres of Eagle County land have been placed in conservation easements, while many projects are currently underway that will significantly add to this acreage. More than 40 miles of stream banks and fish habitat have been restored and protected. Every year, more than 5,000 points of water quality data are collected and analyzed in an effort to stay ahead of threats to stream health.

Drought response preparations becoming more ‘routine’ for Eagle River Basin — @AspenJournalism

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District staff members with Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority board members and representatives of the town of Avon, Mountain Star Association, and contractors involved in developing and constructing the 270,000-gallon water storage tank in Mountain Star.

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Winter in the Eagle River Basin has gotten off to a slow start, leading water managers to keep a close eye on snowpack and spring streamflow predictions.

As of Wednesday, Jan. 17, the Upper Colorado River headwaters were at 84 percent of normal precipitation for this water year, which runs from October 2017 through September 2018. The current snow totals could have big implications for the region’s water provider, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.

The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District monitors three snow telemetry, or SNOTEL, snow-measurement sites: Vail Mountain, Copper Mountain, and Fremont Pass. The Vail and Copper sites indicate what spring runoff might look like in Gore Creek and the town of Vail, according to district Communications and Public Affairs Manager Diane Johnson.

The Fremont Pass site is near the headwaters of the Eagle River, which indicates what runoff might look like in Avon and Edwards. As of Tuesday, Jan. 16, the Vail SNOTEL site was at 49 percent of normal, while the Copper and Fremont sites were at 87 percent and 100 percent, respectively.

“As a local water provider, where we want to see what might be available for our customers is right here in our basin,” Johnson said.

The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District is the second-largest water provider on the Western Slope. While most of the water for Colorado’s Front Range is stored in large reservoirs, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District reservoirs are augmentation and not used for direct supply.

‘Paying closer attention’

Streams need to flow to supply water to customers. That’s why Eagle River Water & Sanitation District is keeping a close eye on snowpack levels and streamflow predictions.

“We are paying closer attention,” Johnson said. “By the end of February, we might move a little bit more on that.”

According to the January Natural Resources Conservation Service Streamflow Forecast Summary, the Eagle River below Gypsum is predicted to have a streamflow that is 79 percent of average. No forecast point in the state is predicting above-normal streamflows.

“Eagle looks to be reasonably well set up to have potentially near-average streamflows,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service snow survey. “Eagle is kind of in the middle of the pack, but in general, that region is faring as well as anywhere in the state.”

While Johnson said the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District does not feel either anxious or optimistic yet, staff members have been reviewing procedures from 2012, should 2018 turn out to be another drought year.

One of the biggest water savings comes from reducing outdoor use such as watering lawns and landscaping. According to Johnson, about 95 percent of water used indoors returns to the river after it’s been treated and somewhere between 15 percent and 40 percent of water used outdoors returns to the river.

“Indoor use has much less of an effect on the overall streamflow,” Johnson said. “So for us, that is a really huge thing around how we operate in low water years.”

In 2012, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District held stakeholder meetings throughout the spring, so water users were aware they might be asked to cut back. The goal was to find a healthy balance between using less water but not negatively impacting the economy or home values, part of which is having aesthetically pleasing greenery and landscaping.

Watering schedule

An outdoor watering schedule that permits watering three days a week before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. is in effect year-round. Unlike other water providers, where restrictions may be triggered when a reservoir dips below a certain level, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District does not have a specific threshold when more stringent regulations would be implemented.

Johnson said the district made some operational changes to respond to the 2012 drought, such as reassigning staff, closely monitoring streamflows, and fireproofing the valley’s 50 water storage tanks and booster pump systems.

Although they are not switching gears just yet, if dry conditions continue in Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s service area again this year, then the water provider will respond much as it has in years past, Johnson said.

“I would say we are prepared,” Johnson said. “We have done this before. It’s kind of a bummer that it was only six years ago. I think as the new normal is established, a lot of this is becoming routine. We did not have water regulations prior to the 2000 drought, but by 2012, the regulations were known. We are investing a little bit of time now, but it’s too early to go full force.”

The statewide stats are stark. According to Wetlaufer, as of Tuesday, the 2018 water year has received just five inches of snow-water equivalent to make for the third-lowest snowpack statewide on record. Only 1980 and 2000 were drier, with 3.7 inches and 4.8 inches of snow-water equivalent, respectively.

Not even last week’s storms made much of a difference on a Colorado River Basin-wide scale. But snowpack totals vary by region, with the northern part of the state generally doing better than the southern half.

“The San Juans have seen it the most with very minimal precipitation for the last four months. … We are dealing with a pretty substantial deficit at this point,” Wetlaufer said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily, The Glenwood Springs Post Independent, and The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Vail Daily published this story on Friday, Jan. 19, 2017.

Colorado Drought Monitor January 30, 2018.

The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the Eagle River Watershed Council

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.

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

Where does all the traction sand go on Vail Pass?

The arrival of snow means traffic on I-70 over Vail Pass bustles with skiers and visitors to and from the Front Range, with cars braving storms and bumper-to-bumper traffic in search of a powder day. Without the help of traction sand or de-icers, our ability to constantly travel across the state would not be possible.

Roughly 5,000 tons of traction sand are laid down on Vail Pass each year, but where does all that sand end up? Originating from aggregate mines from the Western Slope and stored in the igloo tent atop Vail Pass, the sand is sprinkled along the highway corridor to ensure safer travel along the pass. Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) enlists contractors each year to come through in the late summer with vacuum trucks to suck up the remaining sand on the road ways and median. The used sand is then brought down to the berms that line the north side of the highway in East Vail. Sand is also flushed by rain and snow over the embankments and carried into sediment-catch basins or into Black Gore Creek, which closely parallels about 10 miles of the interstate from its headwaters at Vail Pass to the confluence of Gore Creek.

Extensive sediment loading to Black Gore Creek from nearly three decades of I-70 operations have severely impaired the stream, resulting in losses of aquatic habitat, impacts to wetlands and an overall reduction in water quality. In addition, the accumulation of sediment in Black Lakes near Vail Pass encroaches upon the storage capacity of water supply reservoirs that serve Vail and are used to maintain instream flows.

Black Gore Creek Steering Committee’s Efforts

Since 1997, the Black Gore Creek Steering Committee (BGCSC), headed by Eagle River Watershed Council, has worked to mitigate the impacts to Black Gore Creek and the health of its aquatic life. The committee is made up of a number of important partners in the community, including Eagle River Watershed Council, Colorado Department of Transportation, Eagle County, U.S. Forest Service, Town of Vail, Eagle County, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Lotic Hydrological, River Restoration, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, and concerned citizens.

In 2002, Black Gore Creek was listed on the State’s 303(d) list of impaired waters for sediment—which is different than Gore Creek’s more recent listing in 2012 for aquatic life impairment. Although the State has yet to come out with a limit of how much traction sand can enter the creek, CDOT, in collaboration with the other BGCSC partners, has taken great initiative to address these issues over the past 10 years.

Recent Accomplishments

To date, CDOT is picking up nearly the same amount of traction sand as they are putting down annually, which has improved since the years when no cleanup occurred, and the basins slowly filled.

Besides capital improvement projects such as repaving the medians and bike path enhancements, one of the most significant improvement projects has been the identification of a long-term maintenance solution for the Basin of Last Resort. A 3-acre section of Black Gore Creek around mile marker 183 on I-70, the Basin is a control structure that traps sediment missed by upstream catch basins. There has been concern with its effectiveness as the basin fills with sediment. In the fall of 2017, construction of a road allowing for easier access to excavate the basin more regularly and efficiently was finalized.

More work is to be done, however, as the goal is to have less sediment reach the Basin of Last Resort in the first place. Through field assessments, mapping activities, and sediment transport modeling, consultants to Eagle River Watershed Council, namely River Restoration and Lotic Hydrological, are working to identify opportunities for capturing traction sand before it leaves the highway corridor and enters the creek.

Traction Sand vs. Mag Chloride

CDOT has also installed sophisticated software in their plowing vehicles that senses how much traction sand or de-icer they should be applying on any given segment of the highway. The increased prevalence of de-icers, commonly referred to as “mag(nesium) chloride,” has been an inevitable outcome from the pressure on CDOT to reduce the amount of traction sand applied. Although very effective at melting snow and preventing ice formation, de-icers aren’t without their downsides. Studies have shown that elevated levels of chloride in rivers can be detrimental to aquatic life. The Watershed Council and CDOT both conduct chloride-loading studies to understand how chloride concentrations differ in Black Gore Creek and Gore Creek and whether they are approaching harmful levels.

“We don’t see the kinds of widespread impairments of the biological communities on Black Gore Creek that you would expect if they were really being negatively impacted by chloride. The health of those communities may be somewhat limited, but they do not meet the Colorado State definition for impairment right now,” reports Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological. That is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about chloride levels in Black Gore Creek. While macroinvertebrate communities in Black Gore Creek may look better than those on Gore Creek through Vail, they may be stressed by elevated chloride concentrations and more vulnerable to other impacts on the creek. While more studies chloride’s effects are needed, the BGCSC is committed to not replacing one pollutant with another.

Related to Gore Creek’s Woes?

With all the recent attention on the Restore the Gore effort surrounding Gore Creek, some long-time locals believe the impacts from Black Gore Creek are at fault. Up until 2012, the State associated high sediment levels automatically with impaired aquatic life. In conducting macroinvertebrate sampling in our watershed, we are finding that aquatic bug scores on Black Gore Creek are healthier than those in the highly developed sections of Gore Creek through Vail. This along with other evidence leads to the belief that stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces in town and the loss of riparian areas along Gore Creek from development are a greater contributor to Gore Creek’s impairments.

The important efforts on Vail Pass have not slowed–in fact CDOT has spent about $7 million since 2013 to clear out the catch basins and sweep our roadways. The Watershed Council will continue the collaborative dialogue and mitigation efforts of the stakeholders to ensure the important progress continues in keeping our waterways healthy and clean.

#Snowpack news: High hopes for February

Screenshot of the NRCS interactive SWE map for major sub-basins on January 29, 2018.

From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):

February will tell us a lot about a couple of things.

The first thing is whether there’s any chance of getting even sort-of caught up with the area’s annual snowpack.

The second thing is whether there’s any chance of getting even sort-of caught up with visitor numbers.

Both of those things are intertwined, of course. Snowpack is essential for water for the coming spring, summer and fall. Snowpack is also essential to bring snow-riding visitors…

“Without (a strong) February, I don’t know if we can catch up,” [Chris Romer] said. Those numbers may tell lodging and other businesses if there’s still high demand or if owners and managers need to adjust their revenue and expenses — staffing and purchasing — to adjust.

February’s snowfall will also tell us a lot about the water year to come.

Andrew Lyons, a forecaster in the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office, said a ridge of high pressure — either over California’s Pacific coast or in the desert Southwest — has for the past few months been forcing storm tracks to the north of Colorado.

The northern part of the state has done better regarding snowfall, Lyons said. Still, virtually the entire state is in some form of drought on the U.S. Drought Monitor — from “abnormally dry” to “moderate drought.”

As is usually the case in years when a La Nina pattern is established in the Pacific Ocean — even like this season’s weak pattern — Southern Colorado has borne the brunt of the dry conditions.

Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger said “there’s almost zero chance” that the San Juan Mountains will catch up to anything resembling normal snowfall this season.

Still, reservoir storage around the state is in good shape to weather a one-season drought.

But water supplies in the Eagle River Valley are dependent more on streamflows than reservoir storage. The good news, Bolinger said, is that snowpack figures at higher elevations tend to be stronger than those at lower elevations.

The highest-elevation measurement site for the Eagle River is at nearby Fremont Pass, located above 11,000 feet. The snowpack there is currently at just more than 100 percent of the 30-year median snowfall amount.

Still, the current outlook is sobering for the entire Colorado River basin.

According to the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center the forecast for stations at Eagle and Gypsum is for spring runoff to be roughly 66 percent of the 30-year medians.

There’s still time to make up ground in terms of snowpack, Bolinger said — March and April are the snowiest months. Still, she said, a lot of snow is needed.

Lyons said historical patterns lean toward more snowy patterns in March and April. But, he said, the longterm outlook is for lower-than-average precipitation and warmer-than-average temperatures.