As #drought shrinks the #ColoradoRiver, a S. #California giant seeks help from river partners to fortify its local supply — The #Water Education Foundation #COriver #aridification

Metropolitan Water District’s advanced water treatment demonstration plant in Carson. (Source: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)

Metropolitan Water District’s wastewater recycling project draws support from Arizona and Nevada, which hope to gain a share of metropolitan’s river supply

Momentum is building for a unique interstate deal that aims to transform wastewater from Southern California homes and business into relief for the stressed Colorado River. The collaborative effort to add resiliency to a river suffering from overuse, drought and climate change is being shaped across state lines by some of the West’s largest water agencies.

Southern California’s giant wholesaler, Metropolitan Water District, claims a multi-billion-dollar water recycling proposal will not only create a new local source for its 19 million customers, but allow it to share part of its Colorado River supply with other parched river partners already facing their own cutbacks. To advance what would become the nation’s largest wastewater recycling facility, Metropolitan is securing financial aid from other major Colorado River users in Nevada and Arizona in return for giving them portions of its river supply. Amid critically low reservoir levels and the first-ever shortage declaration on the Colorado River, water managers and experts are touting the interstate deal as a prime example of the team effort required to safeguard the future of this iconic Southwestern river and the people who rely on it.

“It’s a really interesting and innovative approach around partnerships,” said Heather Cooley, research director with the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based water policy center. “Something we haven’t yet seen.”

Thus far the project appears long on support, but there are some potential impediments, such as whether the next set of river operating guidelines due in place by 2026 will allow the partners’ proposed long-term interstate water exchanges. Additionally, California regulators must clear the way for Metropolitan and others in the state to put the recycled supply directly into the drinking water system.

Drought in the Colorado River Basin has pushed the water level in Lake Mead, Southern Nevada’s main water source, to a historic low. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Aid for the Struggling Colorado

Metropolitan pitched the ambitious wastewater recycling proposal more than a decade ago, but the project gained steam recently amid increasingly dry conditions across two of its key water sources in California’s Sierra Nevada and Colorado River Basin. Water interests along the lower Colorado River Basin have for several years discussed how they might augment the river’s shrinking flows. As it turned out, the Lower Basin’s next potential augmentation project is being hatched more than 200 miles away near the coast of California.

Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Project and the Arizona Department of Water Resources have agreed to spend up to a combined $12 million to assist Metropolitan with environmental review, almost half of the total planning cost. If the project isn’t built, or if operating agreements aren’t finalized, Metropolitan would refund the agencies’ contributions. However, if the Nevada and Arizona agencies stay on to help build the final project, they will gain to-be-determined slices of Metropolitan’s annual share of Colorado River water.

The partnering agencies are currently grappling with major cuts to their own Colorado River supply, and more are on the horizon.

Last summer, the Bureau of Reclamation declared a first-ever shortage in the Lower Colorado Basin, requiring Arizona to slash its annual take of the river by 18 percent and Nevada by 7 percent in 2022. But the mandated cuts have done little to protect water levels at the river’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and now federal officials are on the verge of implementing a fresh round of unprecedented reductions that stand to affect supply for the Lower Basin states.

Metropolitan’s assistant general manager calls the deal a win-win for Southern California and the Southwest.

“The idea of the program is that in return for their co-investment to make this facility a reality, we would back off some of our Colorado supply,” Deven Upadhyay said. “It becomes one component of potential augmentation on the river to help others out.”

Boosting Water Security

At full capacity, Metropolitan’s wastewater recycling plant could produce up to 168,000 acre-feet a year. However, Upadhyay said Metropolitan doesn’t plan to make a corresponding amount of its river share available to the out-of-state investors.

But gaining even a sliver of Metropolitan’s Colorado River supply could boost water security for arid Arizona and Nevada.

“We’re at a point in this Basin where we can’t afford to not look at reasonable ideas,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Contract details haven’t been finalized but Pellegrino estimates SNWA could secure between 25,000-35,000 additional acre-feet annually, or around 10 percent of its yearly river apportionment. In Las Vegas, one acre-foot of water is enough to serve two households for more than a year, though officials are continually striving to reduce per capita water use.

Meanwhile SNWA, which relies heavily on Lake Mead to serve its more than 2 million customers in the fast-growing Las Vegas area, appears wholly interested in seeing the project through. It has already earmarked up to $750 million for Metropolitan’s proposal or other recycling projects. Such a major investment would require a long-term operating contract potentially in the 20- to 30-year range, Pellegrino said.

The partnership also figures to afford some long-term water security for Arizona, which takes the biggest hit of any state when shortages are declared on the Colorado River. Currently Arizona is grappling with how to cut 512,000 acre-feet and it faces further reductions if Lake Mead’s elevation drops below 1,045 feet and a Tier 2 shortage is triggered, a scenario the Bureau of Reclamation projects could happen by May 2023.

Gaining reliable access to Metropolitan’s river allotment could help Arizona address growing demand from municipal and industrial users, said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. Porter applauded the multi-state collaboration, saying the recycling project and other augmentation ideas, like a proposed binational desalination plant along the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, could add flexibility to a system that serves 40 million people from Denver to San Diego and irrigates more than 4 million acres of farmland.

“It’s a huge amount of water,” Porter said of the potential yield of Metropolitan’s project for urban Southern California. “That’s one more community that relies on the Colorado River that has another degree of resilience.”

Graphic showing how purified wastewater is expected to flow to various locations in urban Southern California.
Water from Metropolitan Water District’s Advanced Water Treatment Plant would flow to various sites for use in replenishing groundwater or delivery to water treatment plants for distribution to ultimate users. (Source: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)

A Promising Leap in Reuse

California already has a rich legacy of turning wastewater into high-quality water suitable for a variety of uses including agricultural, groundwater recharge and outdoor irrigation. In 2020 the state used more than 700,000 acre-feet in recycled water, much of it going to golf courses, farms and some indirect potable uses. But experts say California can greatly expand the output through a recycling technology Metropolitan is currently ginning up support for.

Filtration pipes at Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s wastewater recycling demonstration plant. (Source: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)

Direct potable reuse, however, is not currently permitted in California, but the State Water Resources Control Board is expected to finalize regulations by December 2023. To prove to regulators and the public that the process is safe and viable, Metropolitan has been compiling water quality data from a demonstration facility in Carson since 2019.

The technology is a great match with a county like Los Angeles where most of the treated wastewater currently goes into the ocean, said Cooley, with the Pacific Institute. With imported water becoming increasingly unreliable, she said it was critical for Southern California to pursue new recycling projects, noting the region currently reuses only 29 percent of its effluent.

“There are lots of opportunities if we start thinking outside the box more and really look beyond individual agency service areas,” Cooley said. “We’re going to have to do more of that to address the challenges that we now face.”

Once California gives the green light, Metropolitan says it will build a facility near the demonstration facility in Carson that could produce up to 150 million gallons a day of potable water or enough to serve more than 500,000 households, using wastewater from a nearby plant operated by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. Purified water from the new recycling plant would be delivered to four of the region’s groundwater basins for later use and two of Metropolitan’s existing treatment plants via approximately 60 miles of new pipelines for further distribution in its service area.

Metropolitan Water District’s advanced water treatment demonstration plant in Carson. (Source: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)

Overcoming Sticker Shock

Neither construction nor the new water will be cheap.

In 2018 Metropolitan pegged construction costs at $3.4 billion, but inflation could spike the final price tag to $4 billion by the 2032 projected completion date. As for water prices, Metropolitan currently charges its member agencies around $1,100 per acre-foot of treated water; the new supply will likely run more than $1,800 per acre-foot.

Upadhyay, the Metropolitan official, downplayed the difference by saying cost concerns are relatively minor compared to the damaging effects climate change is having on the Colorado River and Sierra Nevada watersheds it relies on for imported water. He added the agency is hoping to reduce the impact on member agencies with contributions from the out-of-state partners. In addition, it has asked the California Legislature to contribute $500 million. Metropolitan also is exploring the possibility of similar partnerships with users of California’s State Water Project, but no contracts have been signed, Upadhyay said.

“It’s not like we can go out and acquire more imported supply,” Upadhyay said. “Going forward, we really need to be looking here at home.”

That sentiment is shared among some agricultural interests in the basin, including Bart Fisher, vice president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District Board of Trustees. Fisher, who farms on the west side of the Colorado River near Blythe, Calif., called urban water recycling efforts the “wave of the future” and noted Palo Verde farmers have been utilizing water reuse techniques for decades.

“These urban projects have major implications for the Lower Basin,” he said. “It will alleviate some of the pressure we are feeling.”

Finding Ways to Work Together

It’s unclear whether current operating guidelines for the river allow the sort of interstate exchange being proposed. But the partners say the concept shares ties with the intent of previously enacted conservation programs like the 2007 Intentionally Created Surplus, a water banking program intended to boost storage in Lake Mead. They hope guidance for interstate exchanges will be explicitly included in the next set of river operating guidelines that have to be finalized by 2026.

“It would behoove all of us to have a candid conversation in the renegotiations about that, make sure we have the rules spelled out,” said Pellegrino, SNWA deputy general manager.

The 20-plus year megadrought is forcing all users in the Lower Basin to get creative in developing ways to stretch their shares of the Colorado River. And the clock is ticking.

Last month water levels at Lake Powell fell to a historic low and are still hovering near the minimum elevation level at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate electricity for more than 5 million homes and businesses across the West. The Bureau of Reclamation expects the combined storage at Lake Powell and Lake Mead to drop below 30 percent by late 2022 due to declining inflows of runoff.

Metropolitan’s wastewater recycling plant won’t cure all the Lower Basin’s myriad water troubles. But Colorado River veterans say the proposal is a welcome sign of progress, nonetheless.

“It’s good to see this multi-state collaboration and that’s what we do need,” said Porter, with Arizona State’s Kyl Center. “It’s better for everyone if we can find these ways to work together.”

Reach Writer Nick Cahill at ncahill@watereducation.org, and Editor Doug Beeman at dbeeman@watereducation.org.

Report: Insights Gained on Agricultural #Water #Conservation for Water Security in the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin — Hutchins Water Center #COriver #aridification

Photo from http://trmurf.com/about/

Click the link to read the report on the Hutchins Water Center website (Hannah Holm). Here’s the introduction:

A series of hot, dry years in the Upper Colorado River Basin has led to increasing concern about the security of water supplies at region-wide and local scales for the following purposes and sectors:

• Maintaining compact compliance and preventing Lake Powell’s water level from dropping too low to generate power.
• Maintaining agricultural production and the vitality of rural communities.
• Maintaining municipal and industrial water security.
• Maintaining river ecosystems.

Without a strategic, collaborative approach to addressing these issues, there is a risk that individual entities will act independently to secure their water supplies against climate and legal uncertainties. This could lead to more permanent transfers from agriculture, with detrimental impacts on rural communities and unpredictable impacts on river ecosystems.

Over the past several years, there have been numerous explorations into new approaches to meeting community and environmental needs in the Upper Basin, including deliberate, temporary, and compensated reductions in water use in order to help balance supply and demand in the Colorado River system, share water supplies between agriculture and cities, and aid troubled streams.

This report distills insights from these explorations that can help illuminate how such deliberate, temporary reductions in water use could play a role in:

• Enhancing long-term water security for farms, municipalities, industries and rivers in the Upper Basin (upstream objectives).
• Compact compliance and protection of power generation capacity in Lake Powell (downstream objectives).

In this report, the term “strategic conservation” will be used to describe these deliberate reductions in water use to meet specific goals.

The insights covered in this report focus on the following topics:

• Water user interest
• Agronomic impacts of reducing water use
• Monitoring and verification of saved water
• Shepherding and conveyance of conserved water
• Pricing considerations
• Environmental considerations
• Additional considerations

For each topic, key insights and remaining uncertainties are highlighted and illustrative research, experiences and resources are described. Links to documentation are provided wherever possible.

Tattered Cover and Water Education Colorado present: Live Stream with Paolo Bacigalupi #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification @WaterEdCO @paolobacigalupi

Click the link to register and for the inside skinny:

Tattered Cover and Water Education Colorado are pleased to present this virtual event with Paolo Bacigalupi on May 11th at 6pm. This will be live streamed via YouTube Live. A link to view the stream will be emailed to you upon registration…

PAOLO BACIGALUPI is a Hugo, Nebula, and Michael L. Printz Award winner, as well as a National Book Award finalist. He is also a winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the John W. Campbell Award, and a three-time winner of the Locus Award. His short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and High Country News. He lives with his wife and son in western Colorado, where he is working on a new novel.

La Niña likely to continue, intensifying #drought, wildfires; #snowpack hits [86%] of average — @WaterEdCO

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

As warm spring winds whip the Eastern Plains, sapping soils of moisture, and the state’s reservoirs sit at below-average levels, water managers got more bad news Tuesday: this two-year drought cycle could continue through the summer and into the fall leading the state into its third year of below-average snowpack and streamflows and high wildfire danger.

Looking ahead the weather pattern known as La Niña, which has created the intense drought of the past two years, is likely to continue, according to Peter Goble, a climate specialist with Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center.

“La Niña is not letting go,” Goble said Tuesday at a meeting of the state’s Water Availability Task Force, a group charged with monitoring the state’s water supplies. “It may stick around for a third year and this will reduce our chances of any meaningful drought recovery this spring and summer.”

In Colorado, and other Western states, mountain snow levels are closely watched because when they melt in late spring, they supply the majority of water for cities and farms.

In January, holiday snows boosted the state’s snowpack to 119% of average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). But spring snows have not provided as much relief as hoped.

Now, statewide snowpack is at [86%] of average, according to the NRCS, an improvement over last year’s 79% of average mark at this time. But ultra-windy conditions and warm temperatures continue to rob the soils statewide of critical moisture, meaning a significant amount of the water from melting snow will be absorbed before it reaches streams.

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map April 20, 2022 via the NRCS.

At the same time the state’s stored water supplies are at just 76% of normal, according to Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist and assistant snow survey supervisor with the NRCS.

“We’re seeing some of the lowest storage levels in more than 30 years,” Wetlaufer said.

Blue Mesa Reservoir is Colorado’s largest reservoir, able to store some 800,000 acre-feet of water. But due to the drought, and an emergency release of 36,000 acre-feet last summer to aid Lake Powell, Blue Mesa is just over 40% full.

More releases to Lake Powell from the reservoir, a recreational hot spot, may be necessary this summer. And because runoff isn’t expected to be that high, Blue Mesa isn’t expected to recover much, if at all this year, officials said.

The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

“Blue Mesa is not expected to fill, and by the end of this year it will be right back to where it is now … it’s not looking good for this area,” said Beverly Richards, a water resources specialist with the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, which helps shape policy and management strategies for the river.

More releases to Lake Powell from the reservoir, a recreational hot spot, may be necessary this summer. And because runoff isn’t expected to be that high, Blue Mesa isn’t expected to recover much, if at all this year, officials said.

“Blue Mesa is not expected to fill, and by the end of this year it will be right back to where it is now … it’s not looking good for this area,” said Beverly Richards, a water resources specialist with the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, which helps shape policy and management strategies for the river.

On the Front Range, some cities, such as Thornton, expect their reservoirs to fill. The South Platte Basin is near normal for its snowpack and streamflow forecasts are healthier than others across the state.

But Swithin Dick, water resources manager for Centennial Water and Sanitation District in Highlands Ranch, said the outlook is worrisome.

“My gut meter is moving from cautious to concerned,” Dick said.

Denver Water, Colorado’s largest city water supplier, derives its supplies from the Upper Colorado River Basin on the West Slope, as well as the South Platte River. Its storage system is at 79% full, while snowpack in its mountain watersheds is measuring 79% to 80% full.

Some relief from the dry, windy weather could come in May if forecasts prove to be off track, Goble said.

“You want some million dollar rains on the Eastern Plains,“ Goble said. “But the deck is stacked against us.”

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.

The #Water Information Program Presents #WaterLaw in a Nutshell, April 22, 2022

San Juan Mountains December 19, 2016. Photo credit: Allen Best

Click the link for all the inside skinny and to register on the Water Information Program website:

A half day virtual educational seminar explaining the complicated and often confusing issues surrounding water in SW Colorado.

About this event

Water Law in a Nutshell Workshop

Led by Mr. Aaron Clay, Attorney at Law and former 26-year Water Referee for the Colorado Water Court, Division 4

Friday, April 22, 2022
9:00 AM to 1:00 PM
Virtual Live On-Line Course

**Details and link access will be sent directly to you after you register and a couple days prior to the start of the course.

Continuing Education Credits Available:

Realtors: 4 hours CE
Attorneys: 4 hours CLE

Once again we are pleased to present the Water Law in a Nutshell course. A great opportunity to learn with Aaron Clay in an online setting about all aspects of the law related to water rights and ditch rights as applied in Colorado. Subject matter includes the appropriation, perfection, use, limitations, attributes, abandonment and enforcement of various types of water rights. Additional subject matter will include special rules for groundwater, public rights in appropriated water, interstate compacts and more.
From his 26 years as a water referee at the Colorado Water Court, Clay brings his wealth of knowledge that earned him a reputation as one of the top experts in water law to this “Water in a Nutshell” course.

Even if you have done this course before, it is a great refresher as there is so much information to absorb!
We welcome EVERYONE, from anywhere in Colorado, including landowners, realtors, lawyers, water district employees, and anyone else interested in water law.

Fast-growing Douglas County communities need more #water. Is a controversial San Luis Valley export plan the answer? — @WaterEdCO #Water22 #RioGrande

Construction workers build a single family home in Castle Rock. The community needs new surface water supplies to reduce its reliance on non-renewable groundwater. Credit: Jerd Smith

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith:

Castle Rock’s building boom has barely slowed over the past 20 years and its appetite for growth and need for water hasn’t slowed much either.

The city, which ranks No. 1 in the state for water conservation, will still need to at least double its water supplies in the next 40 years to cope with that growth. It uses roughly 9,800 acre-feet of water now and may need as much as 24,000 acre-feet when it reaches buildout.

With an eye on that growth and the ongoing need for more water, Douglas County commissioners are debating whether to spend $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to help finance a controversial San Luis Valley farm water export proposal.

Thirteen Douglas County and South Metro regional water suppliers say they have no need or desire for that farm water, according to Lisa Darling, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. [Editor’s note: Lisa Darling is president of the board of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News]

“It is not part of our plan and it is not something we are interested in,” said Mark Marlowe, director of Castle Rock Water. “We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in our long-term plan and we are pursuing the projects that are in that plan. The San Luis Valley is not in the plan.”

Renewable Water Resources, a development firm backed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Sean Tonner, has spent years acquiring agricultural water rights in the San Luis Valley. It hopes to sell that water to users in the south metro area, delivering it via a new pipeline. In December, RWR asked the Douglas County commissioners for $10 million to help finance the $400 million plus project.

Tonner did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but he has said previously that the water demands in south metro Denver will be so intense in the coming decades, that the San Luis Valley export proposal makes sense.

Opposition to the export plan stems in part from concern in the drought-strapped San Luis Valley about losing even a small amount of its water to the Front Range. But RWR has said the impact to local water supplies could be mitigated, and that the proposed pipeline could help fund new economic development initiatives in the valley.

Stakes for new water in Douglas County and the south metro area are high. In addition to demand fueled by growth, the region’s reliance on shrinking, non-renewable aquifers is putting additional pressure on the drive to develop new water sources.

Denver Basin Aquifer System graphic credit USGS.

Marlowe and other water utility directors in the region have been working for 20 years to wean themselves from the deep aquifers that once provided clean water, cheaply, to any developer who could drill a well. But once growth took off, and Douglas County communities super-charged their pumping, the aquifers began declining. Because these underground reservoirs are so deep, and because of the rock formations that lie over them, they don’t recharge from rain and snowfall, as some aquifers do.

At one point in the early 2000s the aquifers were declining at roughly 30 feet a year. Cities responded by drilling more, deeper wells and using costly electricity to pull water up from the deep rock formations.

Since then, thanks to a comprehensive effort to build recycled water plants and develop renewable supplies in nearby creeks and rivers, they’ve been able to take pressure off the aquifers, which are now declining at roughly 5 feet per year, according to the South Metro Water Supply Authority.

The goal among Douglas County communities is to wean themselves from the aquifers, using them only in times of severe drought.

Ron Redd is director of Parker Water and Sanitation District, which serves Parker and several other communities as well as some unincorporated parts of Douglas County.

Like Castle Rock, Parker needs to nearly double its water supplies in the coming decades. It now uses about 10,000 acre-feet annually and will likely need 20,000 acre-feet at buildout to keep up with growth.

Parker is developing a large-scale pipeline project that will bring renewable South Platte River water from the northeastern corner of the state and pipe it down to the south metro area. Castle Rock is also a partner in that project along with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Sterling.

Redd said the San Luis Valley export plan isn’t needed because of water projects, such as the South Platte Water Partnership, that are already in the works.

“For me to walk away from a project in which we already have water, and hope a third party can deliver the water, just doesn’t make sense,” Redd said.

The costs of building two major pipelines would also likely be prohibitive for Douglas County residents, Redd said.

“We would have to choose one. We could not do both.”

Steve Koster is Douglas County’s assistant planning director and oversees new developments, which must demonstrate an adequate supply of water to enter the county’s planning approval process.

Koster said small communities in unincorporated parts of the county reach out to his department routinely, looking for help in establishing sustainable water supplies.

He said the county provides grants for engineering and cost studies to small developments hoping to partner with an established water provider.

“All of them are working to diversify and strengthen their water systems so they are sustainable. Having a system that encourages those partnerships is what we’re looking at,” Koster said.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

Whether an RWR pipeline will play a role in the water future of Douglas County and the south metro area isn’t clear yet.

Douglas County spokeswoman Wendy Holmes said commissioners are evaluating more than a dozen proposals from water districts, including RWR, and that the commission has not set a deadline for when it will decide who to fund.

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.

The latest “E-Newsletter” is hot off the presses from the Hutchins #Water Center

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the newsletter on the Hutchins Water Center website. Here’s an excerpt:

NEW REPORTS

The Hutchins Water Center recently completed two reports: Insights Gained on Agricultural Water Conservation for Water Security in the Upper Colorado River Basin distills insights from recent studies and experiences related to using strategic agricultural water conservation in order to help balance supply and demand in the Colorado River system, share water supplies, and aid troubled streams. The other report, Grand Valley Water Workforce Needs & Related Opportunities at Colorado Mesa University, summarizes local water workforce skill and knowledge needs and outlines how current CMU offerings respond, as well as opportunities for improvement.

USBR, #Pueblo Water, Southeastern #Colorado #Water district ink new deal to ease Lower Arkansas Valley water contamination — @WaterEdCO #ArkansasRiver

The Lower Arkansas River below Lake Cheraw. Credit: Jerd Smith

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Thousands of people in the Lower Arkansas Valley who’ve struggled to deal with contaminated water for more than 20 years will have access to clean water by 2024 under a new agreement signed by the federal government and two Colorado water agencies last week.

The Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC), as the clean water delivery project is known, will bring water from Pueblo Reservoir through the city of Pueblo and out to communities on the Eastern Plains, such as Avondale and Boone, by 2024, and other communities, such as La Junta, as soon as 2027.

Arkansas Valley Conduit map via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka) June 2021.

Water officials said the entire pipeline should be completed by 2035 if not sooner. The project will ultimately serve 50,000 people, officials said.

Under the agreements, signed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Pueblo Water Board, and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District March 18, some $40 million in federal and local funding will be available to launch construction, with subsequent funding for the $600 million project anticipated to come from Congress and local water agencies.

In addition, the agreement allows Reclamation and Southeastern to pipe the water through the city of Pueblo’s water system, rather than building a separate system to move the water out to the Eastern Plains. Officials said this new agreement will shave costs and several years off the project.

“This contract signing marks one of the most significant milestones to date towards making the AVC a reality and bringing clean water to communities that desperately need it. It advances the project over 14 miles east from Pueblo Reservoir which puts us much closer to our first participants in Avondale and Boone,” said Brent Esplin, regional director of the Missouri Basin and Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas Gulf regions for Reclamation, in a statement.

Naturally occurring selenium and lead, as well as radionuclides, have dogged the region’s water systems since the 1960s. Many of the communities face enforcement actions from the state health department because they don’t have the financial resources to treat the water for drinking and then to treat it again for discharge into the wastewater systems that discharge to the Lower Arkansas River and its tributaries, according to Chris Woodka, senior policy manager with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Southeastern operates the federal Fryingpan-Arkansas Project’s Pueblo Reservoir.

“This project will relieve some of the pressures that they face. They will get better quality drinking water and they will see improvements to their discharged water,” Woodka said.

Pueblo Reservoir

The idea is to deliver clean water from Pueblo Reservoir directly to the communities via the 34-mile pipeline, reducing and sometimes eliminating the contaminants that the water now picks up when it travels through streams and irrigation ditches.

The conduit has been on planning boards for more than 50 years but it wasn’t until a new federal law was approved in 2009 stipulating that the federal government would pick up 65% of the costs that the plan began to advance, Woodka said.

Since then the region has wrestled with getting federal cash to start work and convincing local water agencies and the communities who need the water to cooperate on design issues and costs, Woodka said.

“People are convinced it will get built,” Woodka said. “Now the questions are about affordability.”

And for small towns, those are big questions.

Tom Seaba is La Junta’s director of utilities. His city has comparatively clean water, with no radionuclides and a selenium issue that it is treating via reverse osmosis.

“It could be the silver bullet that everyone would like to take care of the contaminants that are in the water. The flip side is the cost,” Seaba said.

La Junta charges customer $2.50 per thousand gallons for water now, which includes treatment costs. The new water will cost $2.19 per thousand gallons, untreated, and La Junta will still have to find a way to recoup the cost to disinfect and treat the water.

“Now that we’re getting down to brass tacks, we need to see if the underlying reality will do for us what everyone hopes it will. If we can connect and that takes care of the problems we have, sign us up. But if it doesn’t, we will have to do something else,” Seaba said.

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.

Counting every drop: #Colorado approves $1.9M for high-tech snow, #water measuring program — @WaterEdCO #snowpack

Colorado and othehr Western states are hoping to increase the use of Aerial Snowborne Observatories to better measure the water content in moutain snowpacks. Credit: NASA Hydrological Services

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Colorado has approved a $1.9 million snow measuring initiative based on NASA technology that will help communities across the state better measure and forecast how much water each winter’s mountain snowpack is likely to generate, using planes equipped with sophisticated measuring devices.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has been testing the accuracy of the flight-based data measuring work since 2015, according to Erik Skeie, who oversees the program for the CWCB. The board approved funding for the new $1.9 million initiative at its March 16 board meeting.

The new collective, known as Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement group, includes utilities, irrigation districts and environmental groups, including Northern Water, Denver Water and the Dolores Water Conservancy District, among others. In all, 37 water-related groups wrote letters in support of the grant and the measuring program, Skeie said.

Northern Water, which supplies more than 1 million residential, commercial and farm customers on the Northern Front Range, is hopeful the grant will help create an annual monitoring and measurement effort.

”I think it’s a really good program if we can make it sustainable into the future,” said Emily Carbone, water resources specialist at Northern Water.

This map shows the snowpack depth of the Maroon Bells in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions. Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Airborne Snow Observatory technology uses planes equipped with LiDAR, a pulsing radar, to develop a grid that contains a deeply detailed picture of the ground when it isn’t covered by snow. Then, during the winter months, those planes fly the same terrain once or more each month when it is covered with snow. In this way, the instruments are able to measure snow depth and snow reflectivity. These data, combined with computer-based models, allow the ASO to generate precise readings on when the snow will actually melt and how much water the snowpack in different regions actually contains.

Traditional forecasts can be off by as much as 40%, and sometimes more. But ASO forecasts have been shown to have accuracy rates of 98%.

As the megadrought in the Colorado River Basin has intensified, and climate change has altered snowfall and traditional patterns of snowmelt, finding better ways to measure the water content of snow has become critical, said Taylor Winchell, a climate adaptation specialist at Denver Water who is overseeing the utility’s flight data program.

A flight from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory gathers data about the snowpack above Dillon Reservoir on a flight. Information gathered from the flight helped Denver Water manage reservoir operations. Photo courtesy of Quantum Spatial

Denver Water began using the technology in 2019.

“As the snowpack is changing, the more accurate measurements that we can have help us adapt our operations to a new water future and it helps us make the most of every drop in the system,” Winchell said.

Since the early 1930s, snowpacks have been measured manually and via remote ground-sensing by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. Colorado and other Western states use a network of dozens of snotel sites to collect on-the-ground data, but forecasts can change dramatically if the weather becomes volatile, as has been the case more often in recent years.

That volatility and the ongoing drought have made water forecasting even more critical for water agencies. If water supplies come in lower than forecasts indicated, cities and irrigation districts can come up short of water, causing disruptions in deliveries, among other problems.

But ASO technology is expensive. Denver Water spends about $145,000 for two flights, a cost that includes subsequent modeling as well. But the forecasts have proved to be so accurate that the utility is committed to its ongoing use.

California is spending roughly $7 million annually and that cost could grow to more than $20 million if the golden state opts to expand the geographic reach of its ASO program, according to Tom Painter, a former NASA scientist who helped develop the ASO technology and who is now the CEO of Airborne Snow Observatories Inc., the NASA spinoff that is commercializing the technology.

A similar program in Colorado, one expansive enough to cover all the critical mountain watersheds, could cost as much as $15 million annually, Painter said.

The work would include flying some 10 flights per year per river basin during January, February, March and April, with additional flights in late spring as the snow begins to melt. Then flight data would be incorporated into forecast models.

Predicting snowmelt and its water content as warm weather arrives has been a tricky issue for researchers and water utilities because it becomes highly variable.

“That’s when traditional models start to fall apart,” Painter said. “They can’t hold onto the snowpack well enough. So having the data from ASO is nice to keep the forecast accurate. It’s like looking at your checking account balance a couple of times a month.”

Skeie, of the CWCB, said the new approach to measuring what’s known as snow water equivalent, or the amount of water contained in the snow, will take much of the guess work out of annual water forecasts.

And he’s hopeful that the multi-million price tag can be covered by an array of agencies, including the water utilities, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and state governments, among others.

“It’s going to take all of that to make it sustainable,” Skeie said. And with the backing of the Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement group, it’s more likely to occur than it has been before.

Using ASO, in combination with snotel data, “is the difference between having someone describe a picture to you, and being able to see it in 4D,” he said. “It’s incredibly useful.”

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.

National, local #water and fire officials plan new West Slope summit — @WaterEdCO

The East Troublesome Fire in Grand County burned down to the shore of Willow Creek Reservoir, one of the lakes in Northern Water’s collection system in Grand County. Dec. 13, 2020. Credit: Jerd Smith

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

As forecasters call for a warm summer ahead in Colorado, threatening to further weaken the state’s water supplies, water and fire officials plan a major two-day confab later this month in Grand Junction, in hopes of bringing more people together to understand and plan how best to protect the state’s vital mountain watersheds.

Like other Western states, Colorado derives the majority of its water for cities, farms and industry from mountain snowmelt, a resource that is coming under increasing pressure due to drought and climate change.

Before the Fire: Protecting the Water Towers of the West,” is designed “to frame the issue around challenges, and demonstrate the impacts of unhealthy watersheds and inaction,” said Christian Reece, executive director of Grand Junction-based Club 20, an economic development group that is sponsoring the conference.

Representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service, and other experts will be presenting at the conference, slated for March 24 and 25.

The summit comes as Colorado and other Western states prepare for what may become another rough wildfire season.

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map March 2, 2022 via the NRCS.

Colorado’s snowpack is resting at average for this time of year, and whether traditional spring snows will materialize to boost it above average remains unclear.

Peter Goble, a climate specialist with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, said the weather outlook for the spring could go either way, but warm summer temperatures could leave the state under fire threat again.

“There is not as clear a picture as we would like,” Goble said. And though the near-term forecasts for March indicate the state could receive good snow, the runoff forecasts for the spring and summer are likely to be lower than average.

“The way temperatures are trending, we’re more likely to have a warmer summer and we need to factor that in,” he said.

Colorado River Basin Drought Monitor snowpack basin-filled map March 1, 2022.

The seven-state Colorado River Basin, suffering under what is considered to be the worst drought in 1,200 years, will need several back-to-back years of mega snowpacks in order to recover, according to the Colorado Climate Center.

“The 1,200-year drought is not good news,” Reece said. “But it helps make the case for why watershed work is so critical.”

After the catastrophic Marshall Fire burned 25 miles north of Denver on Dec. 30, the state has been on edge, unnerved by the emergence of urban wildfires and a winter fire season.

“Here in Colorado, after our 2020 fire season and now the Marshall Fire, I truly believe we have to change how we tackle wildfires,” said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, via email. Gibbs will be presenting at the conference.

Among the topics on tap is how to utilize tens of millions of dollars in federal and state funding that is being set aside to reduce fuel loads in mountain watersheds and to help restore the water systems that lie within the burn areas.

“We’ll try to break down the silos and elevate the importance of watersheds,” Reece said. “We hope we inspire people so much that they leave the summit and decide that they want to take on watershed protection work when they get home.”

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.

Letter: San Luis Valley #water export proposal will harm wildlife and land — Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the letter on the Water Education Colorado website (Alexander Funk):

Douglas County Commissioners should not move forward with Renewable Water Resources’ (RWR) request to utilize American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) stimulus funds to export water from the northern San Luis Valley (SLV). The RWR proposal would significantly impact the economy, environment, and culture of the San Luis Valley, a unique region home to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and three national wildlife refuges, which collectively attract more than 600,000 visitors annually to the SLV. The SLV cities, farmers, and residents universally oppose the RWR proposal. The project would result in the “buy and dry” of agriculture, which has led to the devastation of other rural communities in Colorado.

Wet hay meadow on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in July 2008. By Fred Bauder – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11556466

As conservation organizations, we represent thousands of hunters and anglers in Colorado. Healthy wildlife habitats are necessary to sustain wildlife populations, and wetlands, riparian corridors, and mesic areas are critical in our arid state. The proposed RWR project would impact fish and wildlife habitats on multiple fronts. Groundwater and surface water resources in the SLV are connected, with aquifers sustaining streamflow, which supports habitat for cold-water fisheries. Therefore, removing water from the aquifers could negatively affect aquatic ecosystems important to the region. For example, the proposed wellfields of 22 to 25 groundwater pumping wells for the RWR project would neighbor the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, potentially impacting the wetland and aquatic ecosystems that support breeding and feeding grounds of migratory birds and waterfowl. Baca is also home to the state’s most viable population of Rio Grande Chub, a state species of concern. Other potentially affected species include the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout and Gunnison Sage Grouse. The RWR proposal would also require the dry-up of 20,000 irrigated acres in the valley. Impacts to irrigated agriculture in the SLV resulting from the RWR project would also negatively affect fish and wildlife since most of the SLV’s wetlands occur on private property and are sustained through irrigation and water delivery.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

The RWR plan runs contrary to the Colorado Water Plan. The plan, which guides state water planning and policy, establishes a conceptual framework for guiding negotiations around new transbasin diversion projects, including developing adequate measures to reduce socio-economic and environmental impacts on the basin of origin, which the RWR fails to accomplish meaningfully. The Colorado Water Plan also strongly condemns the practice of “buy and dry,” which has led to significant socio-economic and environmental impacts in rural communities and instead supports alternative approaches such as investments in conservation and smart land-use planning.

More cost-effective strategies exist, including investments in water conservation and water recycling/reuse. And there is no surplus water in the SLV to export. The SLV aquifers are over-appropriated and climatic trends point to less available water. Therefore, the RWR proposal presents a likely expensive, unpopular, and risky approach to meeting the growing water needs of Douglas County.

Denver Basin Aquifer System graphic credit USGS.

Our organizations recognize that Douglas County is growing and reliant on an unsustainable groundwater resource. We encourage Douglas County to use the federal funds to make needed investments to address water supply needs in a way that prioritizes local water supplies, promotes conservation, and creates jobs for the community rather than siphoning these funds to a speculative and costly water export proposal that will have significant impacts on rural Coloradans and the unique environment of the San Luis Valley.

Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Trout Unlimited

National Wild Turkey Federation

Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

Colorado Wildlife Federation

Alexander Funk is the director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Jeremy Bloom, Olympic skier, highlights snow-water connection in Water ’22 campaign — @WaterEdCO #water22

Screenshot from the http://water22.org website.

DARCA 2022 Conference February 24-25, 2022 #DARCA2022

The Culebra-Sanchez Canal, a feeder ditch in the acequia system in the San Luis Valley.
Luna Anna Archey

Click here to register. (Amber Weber says in email if you have trouble registering through the website contact her at darcaconference@gmail.com.)

Here’s the agenda:

Adams State University’s Salazar Center to host 2022 #RioGrande State of the Basin Symposium: In Scarcity, Opportunity for Community

Water sustains the San Luis Valley’s working farms and ranches and is vital to the environment, economy and livelihoods, but we face many critical issues and uncertainties for our future water supply. (Photo by Rio de la Vista.)

Here’s release from Adams State University (Linda Relyea, Rio de la Vista):

“In Scarcity, Opportunity for Community” is the theme for the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center hosted Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium this year. These words, from the pen of the late Justice Greg Hobbs, are as timely as ever, as the San Luis Valley faces water scarcity from several directions. In the past, whenever we’ve faced risks, this community comes together to protect our water future. This is the opportunity ahead, if we are able to rise to it.

What is the status of our water supply, current threats and opportunities? We’ll provide updates, information and future forecasts for 2022 at the fourth annual “Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium.” It will be held virtually, Saturday, February 26th, from 9 am to 1 pm. Co-hosted by the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center at Adams State University and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the event is free and open to the public. The Symposium is also a featured program of the Adams100 series, celebrating the first 100 years of Adams State University. Register on-line here to receive a Zoom link to the event.

Keynote Speaker for the 2022 Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium:
Dr. Maria E. Montoya. Photo credit: Adams State University

Dr. Maria E. Montoya to be Keynote Speaker
“We’re looking forward to hearing a new voice and a global perspective on water scarcity and communities from our keynote speaker this year, historian Dr. Maria E. Montoya in her presentation, ‘A Look at Water Scarcity Globally: From the American West to China’,” said Salazar Center Director Rio de la Vista. With family roots in the San Luis Valley and the southwest, Maria E. Montoya is a Global Network Associate Professor of History at New York University and the Dean of Arts and Sciences at NYU Shanghai. She earned her BA, MA and PhD degrees at Yale University. Her research explores how workers and families in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have used natural resources to make a living and make their homes in particular places in the American West, with numerous books and articles published on these topics. Dr. Montoya is currently working on another book project about the scarcity of water in the American Southwest and the Rio Grande.

Symposium Agenda Overview
“We’re very pleased to have long time Adams State business professor and newly appointed State Director for the USDA’s Colorado Office of Rural Affairs, Armando Valdez as our Master of Ceremonies,” said de la Vista, “As a multigenerational farmer/rancher from the Capulin area, a water leader, educator and now statewide leader, he brings his valuable perspective to the whole event.”

The morning will begin with a report on the current “State of the Basin,” including the latest data on snowpack measurements and flow forecasts by Division Engineer, Craig Cotten with the Colorado Division of Water Resources. He will also provide information about the state of our groundwater and related challenges. Given the various aspects of community and water scarcity facing our community now and in the time ahead, the Symposium agenda will address three key causes of water scarcity and the community’s response to them: the state of the Valley’s aquifers and subdistricts, the current threat of water exportation, and the changes being experienced due to climate change.

The session on “What’s up with the aquifers?” will include a panel addressing the status of the aquifers and the work of the Groundwater Management Subdistricts to achieve ground water sustainability. Amber Pacheco from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, George Whitten, rancher and water leader in Saguache County, and Charlie Goodson of Colorado Open Lands will answer questions on these issues.

For the session on “What’s up with the water exportation threat?”, Heather Dutton, Manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District will give an update on the latest developments with the proposal to move SLV water to Douglas County. Michael Carson of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District will let participants know how they can learn and engage in the collective effort to prevent exportation and the collaborative protectsanluisvalley.com information source.

“What’s happening with climate change?” will be addressed by well known journalist and author Laura Paskus, drawing from here recent book, “At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate,” which was published in September 2020 by the University of New Mexico Press. Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Paskus is the environment reporter for New Mexico PBS, and produces the monthly series, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future.”

The program will also include information about the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable’s newly completed Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan from Emma Reesor of the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project. Becky Mitchell, Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board will update on the new version overall Colorado Water Plan. State Senator Cleave Simpson will share the latest on water bills at the Colorado State Legislature. The program will also provide information about the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center’s upcoming water education programs for Adams State and the community.

Hosts and Sponsors
The Salazar Center and the Rio Grande Water Conservation District are co-hosts of the annual Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium, with generous support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Symposium sponsorships from the SLV Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Conejos Water Conservancy District, the SLV Irrigation District, the SLV Water Conservancy District, Colorado Open Lands, Headwaters Alliance and generous individual donors all help make this event possible and free to the community.

To register and for more information about the 2022 Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium, click here. Interested citizens can also follow the Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center on Facebook for regular updates on water issues and get information about Water Education program at Adams State University at http://www.adams.edu/about/salazar-center/ or contact them directly at salazarriograndecenter@adams.edu.

To learn even more about water issues in the Rio Grande, videos of previous year’s presentations from the 2019, 2020, and 2021 Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposiums and other past water talks are all available online at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLM1XIDdQr4T5uncIUerKvQUhESIzAcfoO. The 2022 Symposium recordings will be posted there as well, as part of the Salazar Center’s on-going work to develop a Rio Grande Library of water information and resources.

San Luis People’s Ditch March 17, 2018. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

The latest E-Newsletter is hot off the presses from the Hutchins Water Center #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

January 2022 percent of normal precipitation. Credit: Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

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

SNOWPACK DIMINISHES

A dry January has brought a decrease to the spring water supply outlook for the Upper Colorado River Basin. The February 3 Colorado Basin River Forecast Center Water Supply Forecast Discussion has details.

State #water education campaign focuses on individual actions — @AspenJournalism #Water22

Coyote Gulch at the Colorado Water Congress Annual Convention January 27, 2022.

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

State officials on [January 26, 2022] announced an education campaign aimed at water conservation that emphasizes the role of individual consumers in their everyday, in-home water use.

At the bi-annual meeting of the Colorado Water Congress, Governor Jared Polis unveiled the Water ’22 campaign, a year-long, statewide initiative that aims to educate Coloradans about one of the state’s most important resources. The program encourages conservation in the face of climate change-fueled drought by asking people to take a pledge to conserve water and protect water quality in their daily lives by taking part in 22 small actions.

Polis proclaimed 2022 the “Year of Water” in Colorado, marking the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact and an upcoming update to the state’s 2015 Water Plan.

“We have a shared responsibility to steward this incredible natural resource and make sure it’s there for our people, our places, our ecosystems, our industries that need it to thrive because it all starts here in Colorado with us,” he said.

Water ’22, which is being spearheaded by Water Education Colorado, lays out 22 simple things individuals can do to save 22 gallons of water a day. They include things like turning off the water while brushing your teeth, fixing leaky fixtures, watering outdoor lawns and landscaping at dawn or dusk and using phosphorus-free fertilizer. The initiative is an effort at education and engagement and is not designed to result in measurable water savings or improvements to water quality.

The campaign focuses on the voluntary actions of individual municipal water customers instead of policy changes to conserve water. And although the agriculture industry represents 86% of the state’s water use, according to numbers provided by Water Education Colorado, Water ’22 does not include ways for agriculture to conserve water.

“The main thrust of the campaign is targeting consumers at the domestic-use level,” said Jayla Poppleton, executive director of Water Education Colorado. “Our message to Coloradans is that they have a role to play. It’s up to all of us to do our part.”

According to its website, Water Education Colorado is a nonprofit organization charged with ensuring a sustainable water future by educating and engaging citizens around water. It also publishes the Fresh Water News website…

Jayla Poppleton, executive director of Water Education Colorado speaks at Colorado Water Congress at the announcement of the state’s new campaign Water ’22. The initiative is focused on individual actions and is not designed to result in measurable water savings. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Sponsors and supporters

Water ’22 promotional materials highlight the connection between climate change, drought, wildfires and water shortages.

“The Water ’22 campaign was created to educate Coloradans about how the state’s water is one of its most important resources and to encourage conservation and protection in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change, which has led to persistent drought conditions,” reads a press release.

There is no doubt climate change is robbing the Colorado River of water and driving shortages.

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

Scientists Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck showed in a 2017 paper that rising temperatures are responsible for roughly one-third of declining flows. Hot temperatures and dry soils have contributed to record-low spring runoff in recent years and the basin’s two largest reservoirs — lakes Powell and Mead — stand at less than one-third full, their lowest levels ever. In 2021, federal officials declared the first-ever shortage in the lower basin and began emergency releases from upper basin reservoirs to prop up Lake Powell and maintain the ability to make hydroelectric power…

…presenting sponsors who have contributed $10,000 to the campaign include Molson Coors Beverage Company and Boulder-based cannabis edibles company Wana Brands. It is also being funded with $35,000 of state grant money from the Colorado Water Conservation Board…

Several environmental organizations prominent in the water sector are also participating in Water ’22. Water for Colorado, which represents a coalition of groups, including The Nature Conservancy, Western Resource Advocates, Audubon Rockies and American Rivers, is supporting it as well.

Water for Colorado Communications Coordinator Ayla Besemer said things in the Colorado River basin are dire and it’s important for Coloradans to know where their water comes from and do all they can to conserve on a personal level.

“Between the destructive wildfires, the first-ever basin shortage declaration, emergency reservoir releases, and ongoing megadrought, the need to support Colorado’s fragile water resources is so urgent as to rise above one, specific donor,” she said, referring to funding from Chevron. “We trust this campaign will have a positive effect on water and Coloradans’ understanding of the current situation, aiding in collaborative efforts to confront climate change.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story appeared in the Jan. 28 edition of The Aspen Times and the Craig Press, and the Jan. 29 edition of the Vail Daily and Sky-Hi News.

#Colorado officials gear up for “difficult conversations” on the #ColoradoRiver — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #cwcac2022

Some of the snowmelt flowing in the Blue River as it joins the Colorado River near Kremmling, Colo., will reach the Lower Basin states. Dec. 3, 2019. Credit: Mitch Tobin, the Water Desk

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Fifteen years ago, deeply worried that a continued drought on the Colorado River would cause a crisis sooner rather than later, the seven U.S. states that share the river’s flows made a historic agreement to jointly manage reservoirs and share shortages that might arise.

The agreement, known in shorthand as the 2007 interim guidelines, is set to be renegotiated beginning this year, ahead of its expiration in 2026.

Another critical set of agreements, known as the 2019 drought contingency plans, are also being re-examined this year as the crisis on the river deepens.

“We’re about to engage in some very difficult discussions,” said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Mitchell’s comments came Jan. 26 at the annual convention of the Colorado Water Congress, which represents hundreds of Colorado water users and utilities, in Aurora.

The Colorado River Basin includes the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada. It also includes 30 tribal nations and Mexico.

“One of the keys to our success is going to be that we are in line with the other basin states and the U.S. Department of the Interior, but that we are also working with other sovereigns and stakeholders to find solutions,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell and others credit the two agreements with keeping the system operational for much of the past 15 years.

“They were successful in that they slowed down the decline of the reservoirs and bought some time to see if hydrology improved,” she said. “News flash: It did not.”

Climate change, the 20-year megadrought affecting the basin, and population growth have super-charged the crisis, causing the river’s flows to decline faster than anyone anticipated, and lakes Mead and Powell to record their lowest levels since they were built, respectively, in the 1930s and 1960s.

The river system has deteriorated so quickly that last July the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation moved, within a matter of days, to begin emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs.

These turbines at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam are at risk of becoming inoperable should levels at Powell fall below what’s known as minimum power pool due to declining flows in the Colorado River. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The goal was to protect Lake Powell’s ability to produce hydropower, a green source of electricity that supplies more than 50 cities and electric companies in Colorado alone.

In addition, Lower Basin states have committed to reducing outflows from Lake Mead, a move that reduces some of the pressure on Lake Powell to the north. But few believe these actions will be enough to protect the river system as the weather forecast continues to deteriorate.

The majority of the mountain snows that feed the Colorado River fall in the Upper Basin. Although recent conditions have improved slightly, with snowpack reaching average or above average levels in the western half of Colorado, climate scientists say the runoff forecast is not matching up and attribute lower forecasts to the impact of badly depleted soil moisture caused by prolonged drought.

That has left Upper Basin state water officials wondering how much more water they will have to sacrifice to protect Lake Powell.

“The Secretary of Interior took action to release 150,000 acre-feet of water from Upper Basin reservoirs to protect Lake Powell levels. 36,000 acre-feet of that came from Blue Mesa. It left that unit at 27% full. We saw the harm that caused,” Mitchell said. “It’s difficult to think how much more we can provide.”

Lain Leoniak, an attorney and negotiator from the Colorado Attorney General’s office, said officials are hopeful that the new interim guidelines will contain a road map that hinges less on operating rules and more on weather forecasts.

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

“We’re going to have to find a way to be responsive to extreme variability in hydrology,” Leoniak said. “We need flexibility built into any post-2026 guidelines, but we don’t want to be engaging in renegotiations every two to three years. That doesn’t work either.”

As teams from across the basin prepare to begin negotiating, Mitchell said Colorado and other Upper Basin states would push to ensure that no one state has to take on more of the burden than another, that all states, and such sovereign nations as the tribal nations and Mexico, as well as other parties, such as environmental groups, would be full participants in the negotiations.

Mitchell also said her negotiating team would push to ensure the Upper Basin states weren’t forced to give up more water than the downstream users on the system.

Under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states are each entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually. But any excess water received, or left unused, in the Upper Basin flows to the Lower Basin because much of it cannot be stored here. That situation has given Lower Basin states access to surplus water over the years that they have become reliant on, a fact that Mitchell and others say has to change if the river is going to be brought into balance in this drier world.

“The compact’s intention was that we all had that equal footing. The fact that there have been states that have been able to overuse while we are using less than our apportionment … we don’t want them to get used to that overuse. We have to be focused on making sure that they adjust to what is available to them,” Mitchell said.

As the 1922 compact approaches its 100th anniversary in November, Mitchell said she was hopeful that agreements will be reached in the coming months that will help balance the river and allow it to function well for the next century.

“Hopefully people will be sitting here in 100 years saying [of the negotiators], ‘They did a good job.’”

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.

#Colorado securities regulator sues Two Rivers Water & Farming LLC, alleging $19M scheme to defraud investors — @WaterEdCO

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters Magazine

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Colorado securities regulators have filed a $19 million fraud suit against a troubled Colorado water company, charging that it misled investors and sold shares in subsidiaries illegally.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 10 in Denver District Court, alleges that Denver-based Two Rivers Water & Farming LLC, failed to properly register its stock sales as required by law and misappropriated money.

The Two Rivers subsidiaries, including GrowCO, Inc. and TR Capital Partners, among others, were described to investors as cannabis businesses that planned to build high-tech greenhouses for growing hemp.

In court filings, however, the state securities commission alleges that only one $5 million greenhouse in southern Colorado was ever built, and that other funds raised were misappropriated.

In a Jan. 18 response to the state’s suit, former Two Rivers officers denied the state’s allegations, saying that in several instances cited by the state, the securities weren’t required to be registered and that during certain periods between 2014 and 2019, the defendants weren’t responsible for Two Rivers’ actions because they were not officers at the time.

The defendants, including John McKowen, Jan McCaffrey, George McCafffrey, Wayne Harding, Edward Wallick, Richard WiWi and Kirsty Cameron, asked that the state’s suit be dismissed.

Neither Colorado Securities Commissioner Tung Chan, or Martin Berliner, the attorney representing the Two Rivers’ defendants, responded to requests for comment.

A message left at Two River’s Denver office for current CEO Greg Harrington was not returned.

Two Rivers Farming and Water is listed under the symbol TURV on the Over The Counter (OTC) index. Unlike major stock exchanges, such as the New York Stock Exchange, OTC stocks aren’t closely regulated, nor are they required to provide as much financial information to investors.

TURV stock is listed as an OTC security on the website OTC Markets, but is flagged with warnings, in part because it has failed to file the required financial reports for several years.

In 2020, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), moved to foreclose on land and water rights in the Arkansas Valley owned by Two Rivers, to satisfy $1.4 million in delinquent loan payments and dam repair bills.

Last August, however, Two Rivers paid the state $161,000 to cover the late payments, causing the state to stop foreclosure proceedings, according to Kirk Russell, who oversees the CWCB’s loan program.

“When they came to us (in 2012) and desired to get ag land back into production, we thought it was a great idea,” Russell said. “But the organization was just a bad one to start with.”

How many people still own shares in the company isn’t clear. Its stock has traded for as little as 12 cents a share to more than 70 cents a share. In various debt offerings since 2012, the company has issued millions of shares of stock, often using them as collateral for loans from investors.

Chris Scott is a tax attorney and a Two Rivers shareholder. He, along with 55 other investors, is suing Two Rivers in a separate suit. He said it’s not clear what will happen as a result of the Colorado Securities Commission’s action. But he said he would like to see a new management team installed at the company.

“The only reason I invested was because people I formerly trusted told me what a great deal this was going to be,” he said.

Two Rivers’ next payment to the state is due March 1, Russell said. If that payment is missed, the CWCB has said it will resume legal proceedings against the company.

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.

Click the link for more Two Rivers Water Company coverage.

The latest E-Newsletter is hot off the presses from the Hutchins Water Center #snowpack

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map January 12, 2022 via the NRCS.

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

IT SNOWED!

After a very dry November, a series of December storms significantly boosted the Colorado Basin snowpack. The January 6 Colorado Basin River Forecast Center Water Supply Forecast Discussion has details. It also notes that fall soil moisture levels, which affect runoff efficiency, were better in 2021 than in 2020, although still below average.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 13, 2022 via the NRCS.

Snowtography Handbook Snowtography: #Snowpack & Soil Moisture Monitoring Handbook — Western Water Assessment

Western Water Assessment/Nature Conservancy/USDA Snowtography guide cover January 2022.

Click here to access the handbook. If you’re not a water provide it will be a primer into the business of water supply:

Western Water Assessment, in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, has produced a snowtography handbook to support resource managers, researchers, and practitioners working in forested headwater settings where the arrangement and density of trees, or the size and severity of disturbances, affect snowpack persistence and soil moisture availability.

The snowtography handbook guides readers through the process of establishing their own snowtography and soil moisture monitoring stations. It offers guidance on site selection, snowtography options, equipment requirements, and installation. The instructions are based on snow-forest research and hands-on experience at multiple sites in Arizona, and in the San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado.

Download the handbook pdf here.

The Nature Conservancy hosts a companion webpage with additional information and examples of supplies and equipment at its website.

This project was supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation to The Nature Conservancy.

A headgate on an irrigation ditch on Maroon Creek, a tributary of the Roaring Fork River. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

South Platte Update will provide information on the state of the river: Program will cover the river’s condition, new projects within the basin — The #Sterling Journal-Advocate #SouthPlatteRiver

The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

A South Platte River Water Update will be held in Brush on Wednesday [January 12, 2022]. The half-day program includes updates on the Master Irrigator Program, the Northern Integrated Supply Project, salinity in the South Platte and the Platte Valley Water Partnership project.

The update will be held at the Riverview Event Center, 19201 County Road 24, near Brush. It will begin at 8:50 a.m. and run until noon. Lunch will be served.

The Colorado Master Irrigator program offers farmers and farm managers advanced training on conservation- and efficiency-oriented irrigation management practices and tools. The program is the product of efforts led by several producers, district management representatives, and others interested in conserving groundwater in eastern Colorado. The program is modeled on the award-winning Master Irrigator program created and run since 2016 by the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District in the Texas panhandle.

Greg Peterson of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and Roxy McCormick, Master Irrigator in the Republican River Basin, will present the information.

[Brad] Wind, general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, will provide an update on NISP. Construction has been under way for several month on the project, which will provide about 40,000 acre-feet of new, reliable water supply. The project consists of two reservoirs, Glade and Galeton, a forebay reservoir, three pump plants, pipelines to deliver water for exchange with two irrigation companies and for delivery to participants, and improvements to an existing canal to divert water off the Poudre River near the canyon mouth.

Grady O’Brien, CEO of Neirbo Hydrology, will present information on salinity in the lower reaches of the South Platte River. Salinity has been a growing problem as urban development and agricultural irrigation have added to the river’s saltiness. The water doesn’t taste salty – it contains only 0.12 percent salts compared with ocean water’s 3.5 percent – but the increasing salinity does have a negative impact on the soil. Salt in the soil suppresses the level of potassium, which is necessary for plants to take up nitrogen and create new plant material.

Old-fashioned flood irrigation used to leach the salts out of the soil, but more efficient irrigation methods don’t put enough water on the ground to do that. And, while the amount of salt in the river at Sterling seems miniscule, it is nearly twice the amount in the Denver area, just above Broomfield, and more than six time the salinity of the river above Denver.

Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, will talk about the Platte Valley Water Partnership. It is a joint water supply project by the LSPWCD and the Parker Water and Sanitation District to use a new water right that the two entities are developing along the South Platte River near Sterling.

The project will use new and existing infrastructure to store and transport water for agricultural use in northeastern Colorado and municipal use along the Front Range. The partnership involves the phased development of the water right. The early phases would involve a pipeline from Prewitt Reservoir in Logan and Washington counties to Parker Reservoir, which supplies the City of Parker. Later developments would see a 4,000-acre-foot reservoir near Iliff on land owned by Parker, and a 72,000-acre-foot reservoir near Fremont Butte north of Akron. A pipeline, pump stations, and treatment facility will also be built as part of the project.

Anyone wanting to attend the update presentations can register by contacting Madeline Hagan, morganconservationdistrict@gmail.com (970) 427-3362 or Amber Beeson, centennialcd1@gmail.com (970) 571-5296.

Suburban #MarshallFire stuns #Colorado as statewide #wildfire protection efforts ramp up — @WaterEdCO

Lands in Northern Water’s collection system scarred by East Troublesome Fire. October 2020. Credit: Northern Water

From Water Education Colorado (Jason Plautz):

As J.T. Shaver, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, strolls through the Hutchison Ranch, a legacy cattle farm in Salida, Colo., it’s what he doesn’t see that excites him most.

Last year, the trees here were so dense you couldn’t see more than 20 feet away. The 11,713-foot peak of Methodist Mountain was obscured by piñon-juniper trees. Now, the trunks are pleasantly spaced out, letting in beams of sunlight. The ground is scattered with wood chips and stumps, feeding a healthy new bed of grasses.

“This looks completely different than this time last year,” Shaver says. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”

The landscape’s evolution was the result of a weeks-long treatment organized by Shaver’s office to help this 5,800-person town prepare for wildfire. By thinning the dense thickets of trees, any fire that does reach the ranch shouldn’t burn hot and fast in the crown of the trees. Instead, it should run along the ground with less intensity, burning more naturally. “We’re mimicking the behavior of a wildfire that would have occurred prior to European settlement,” Shaver’s colleague, Josh Kuehn, explains.

Over the past decade, Chaffee County’s once sleepy population has steadily grown as people seek refuge from the busier Interstate 70 corridor. In 2017, county leaders convened a master planning process but were surprised to learn that residents’ No. 1 concern wasn’t small business sustainability or housing prices or even traffic. It was wildfire.

“We knew about the beetle kill epidemic and saw that our forests were in poor health,” says Kim Marquis, project and outreach coordinator for Envision Chaffee County. “The first step to growth planning was taking on our wildfire risk.”

At that point, Chaffee County had been spared from the intense fires ravaging the state in recent decades, although the 2019 Decker Fire would soon burn just two miles south of Salida. But residents had embraced the frightening reality that few places in Colorado are safe from fires. Climate change and the decades-long drought have been fueling bigger and more dangerous fires, leaving devastation up and down watersheds.

The county assembled stakeholders, including state foresters, federal officials, local landowners and farmers, to work proactively to improve forest health. Aurora Water also joined the talks, since a fire near Salida could potentially pollute the headwaters of the Arkansas River, one of Aurora’s primary water sources. The partners thoroughly mapped the area, highlighting the properties and forests most at risk if a fire did come through the Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.

While local landowners could take their own preventative measures like shoring up buildings and removing dead trees, the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) also received funding for a more holistic treatment. The Methodist Front Wildland Urban Interface Forest and Watershed Health Restoration Project, funded through a RESTORE Colorado Program grant, along with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Salida and Poncha Springs, and a county fund, will treat 478 acres of public and private land, masticating trees to thin out the crowns and encourage healthier vegetation. Eventually, with the participation of enough landowners, the fuel break will stretch five miles, creating a buffer between the forest and the ranches, townhomes and small farms in Salida.

How fires went from healthy to hazardous

Decker Fire October 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

The Decker Fire, which burned nearly 9,000 acres, came in an unusually calm year in the midst of a decade that has reshaped how Coloradans see fire. Since 2012, six megafires, defined by the National Interagency Fire Center as fires larger than 100,000 acres, have burned in Colorado.

Looking towards Boulder at the Marshall Fire December 30, 2021 From 53rd and Stuart in Adams County.

Last week, the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, though just a few thousand acres in size, became the state’s most destructive, burning nearly 1,000 homes in Superior, Louisville and parts of unincorporated Boulder County.

During 2020’s Pine Gulch Fire, north of Grand Junction, Colo., hotshot firefighters watch and wait for the fire to burn through brush and move to grass fields, where the flames become less intense, before they can hold it back. Photo by Kyle Miller/Wyoming Hotshots, USFS, via National Interagency Fire Center
A helicopter drops water on the Cameron Peak Fire near CSU’s Mountain Campus. Photo credit: Colorado State University
A view from the highway of the massive East Troublesome wildfire smoke cloud near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado on October 16, 2020. Photo credit: Inciweb

2020 saw the state’s three largest recorded fires to date—Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch—and some 700,000 acres burned, more than 540,000 of which burned in those three fires alone. And the CSFS’s 2020 Forest Action Plan projects a 50% to 200% increase in the annual area burned in the state by 2050.

There’s no single factor making Rocky Mountain fires more intense. Bark beetle infestations swept through tens of millions of acres of forest in the West over the past two decades, leaving large stands of dead trees. A century of federal policy that squelched out all fires rather than letting them burn naturally led to a buildup of fuel stores in forests. Climate change is creating warmer and drier conditions, and an earlier snowmelt has extended the fire season.

Chuck Rhoades, a research biogeochemist at the USFS’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, says those “compound disturbances” have created a pattern of fires that are burning more intensely and in places and seasons that experts wouldn’t predict. Fires that once would have been a natural tool to clear dead fuel and encourage seeds to sprout are now a major threat to communities. Some, including Cameron Peak and East Troublesome, have ravaged high-elevation forests where fires used to be rare. A 2021 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that high-elevation forests in the Rocky Mountain region are burning more than at any point in the past 2,000 years.

That, Rhoades says, means land managers and cities are seeing impacts outside the scope of anything they’ve prepared for—with ripple effects throughout the environment.

“We often think that where we were before will help us predict where we’re going,” he says. “But there are a lot of question marks out there. It forces a little humility in that we can’t understand what we’re going to get next.”

One known, however, is that the higher-intensity wildfires are putting more Coloradans at risk as the state’s population booms. In 2020, the CSFS estimated that half of the state’s population lived in Colorado’s 3.2 million-acre wildland-urban interface area, known as the WUI, where human development intermingles with fire-prone vegetation. By 2050, CSFS says that area could triple in size to encompass more than 9 million acres, or more than 13% of the state.

The risks are especially profound for watersheds. As more intense fires clear out thick older trees, shrubs and grasses grow back in their place. Without dense roots and pine needle cover, the forest floor that typically acts as a sponge for snowmelt and precipitation is turning fragile and rocky. Those are prime conditions for erosion and flooding, with streams and rivers accumulating water faster and earlier than usual. According to USFS research, the risk of flooding and debris flow is higher for at least 3-5 years post-fire, often longer, and those floods can be as much as three times more severe than they would be otherwise.

Ash and silt pollute the Cache la Poudre River after the High Park Fire September 2012

Runoff from burn scars can run black, laden with ash, debris, nutrients and heavy metals from burned soil and biomass. If those contaminants reach utilities’ water infrastructure, they can clog water filters or settle in reservoirs, possibly fostering algal blooms and taking up valuable reservoir space.

The 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire and the 2002 Hayman Fire, the largest in Colorado’s history until 2020, each burned along the Upper South Platte River, immediately upstream of Strontia Springs Reservoir, which accommodates about 80% of Denver Water’s raw water supply and 90% of Aurora’s supply. The fires exacerbated erosion in the watershed, leading to sediment-laden flows that dumped debris and contaminants in the reservoir. More than a decade later, the reservoir’s capacity to store water remains reduced, and water quality is still impacted from sediment flows, even after $27.7 million worth of dredging, removal and recovery work. Last year’s fires caused water utilities across the state to shift their operations to protect their source water.

It’s clear, then, that the risks of fires no longer stay in the forest. Partnerships have sprung up from Boulder to Durango to protect valuable watersheds and water infrastructure, forcing water district managers to become just as interested in what happens to the forest around headwaters as what goes into their customers’ pipes.

All hands on deck

In 2020, the Colorado State Forest Service released its updated Forest Action Plan, identifying some 2.5 million acres—roughly 10% of the state’s forests—as being “in urgent need of treatment.” The highest priority forests were in the Front Range’s Arapaho-Roosevelt and Pike-San Isabel forests and in the San Juan Forest around Durango. “We have to prioritize those areas where we’re going to get the most bang for the buck,” says Weston Toll, watershed program specialist for the CSFS. Still, he says, with so much of the state at risk, “we’re paddling against the current.”

The Forest Action Plan’s priority map reflected a range of factors, including where fuel had built up, how close fires could get to human development, and the impact on wildlife and water. But those areas didn’t all line up with valuable headwaters, despite some water managers’ arguments that any waterways must be protected. Nor does the map give much direction on how to square the widespread needs with limited resources.

Wildfire mitigation used to be defined by what some experts call “random acts of restoration,” individual projects on small plots of land depending on the owner’s interest and availability. A National Forest might have dead trees removed and fuel treated for insect infestation, but neighboring land might be left untreated, doing little for the overall region’s safety.

Now, the USFS and others are promoting a philosophy of shared stewardship, bringing together a variety of partners ranging from federal land managers, local water districts, utilities, logging companies, recreationists and private landowners to collaborate on responsible forest management.

Toll says the state may still be paddling against the current, but “it helps to have everyone paddling in the same direction, which wasn’t happening until five or 10 years ago.”

Watershed Assessment Vulnerability Evaluation (WAVE) volunteers work to install silt fencing immediately above Northern Water’s Willow Creek Reservoir. Photo by Emanuel Deleon, Colorado State University

‘Mutual benefits’

After the runoff from the Buffalo Creek and Hayman fires poured sediment into Strontia Springs Reservoir, officials at Denver Water realized they could be spending less money and having a bigger impact by focusing on preventing fires and flooding before the effects reached their infrastructure. The utility formed the From Forests to Faucets partnership with USFS, a multi-year effort to fund forest health projects to boost resilience in priority areas within Denver Water’s collection system. In 2017, the program was expanded to include state and local authorities to stretch Denver Water’s forest health work to non-federal lands.

Fuel breaks played an important role protecting homes during the Buffalo Fire on June 12, 2018, in Summit County. Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service.

Fuel breaks around the Dillon Reservoir watershed funded by the program are credited with protecting nearly 1,400 homes near Silverthorne during the 2018 Buffalo Fire, despite red-flag drought conditions.

“There was this exciting realization that there were a lot of mutual benefits in funding these projects,” says Madelene McDonald, watershed planner at Denver Water. “Forest restoration projects not only bolster source water protection, but also improve wildlife habitat, expand recreation access, and can protect communities in the wildland urban interface.”

But it is also incumbent on communities to do their own preparation. That can include building codes that require fire-resistant building material or defensible space requirements to clear fuel from some established perimeter around buildings. Colorado does not have a state wildfire code or model ordinance, despite recommendations from a 2014 task force, but communities like Boulder and Colorado Springs have regulations governing new homes in at-risk areas.

“There’s a big educational component, but seeing a disaster happening right in our faces prepares people,” says Marquis of Envision Chaffee County. “We’re asking people to join this honestly heroic story to protect the community.”

Money matters

Addressing all of the CSFS’ Forest Action Plan’s priority areas is estimated to cost $4.2 billion, money that state agencies and local partnerships just don’t have. USFS spent $1.8 billion in fire suppression, fighting and responding to wildfires nationally in fiscal year 2020, but just $431 million on treatments to reduce fuel buildup through its Hazardous Fuels program, according to national spokesperson Babete Anderson. According to National Interagency Fire Center data, other federal government programs spent $510 million on fire suppression in 2020. According to a Colorado Department of Public Safety report, Colorado’s 2020 fire season cost the state an estimated $38 million in suppression costs and required another $248 million in federal funds. Those state figures don’t include suppression costs footed by local agencies or the costs of property loss, infrastructure damage, watershed impacts, or economic losses. Nor do they account for other private, local, county or federal wildfire expenses.

Photo credit: Cascade Timber Salvage Facebook page

The federal bipartisan infrastructure bill brings nearly $8 billion for wildfire risk reduction and forest restoration, including $90 million a year for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Landscape Restoration Partnership Initiative to support forest and grassland restoration secured by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.

Fire departments and forest managers can also cobble together money from grants from a variety of federal sources. In 2021, the Colorado legislature passed SB21-258, which authorized $25 million for wildfire mitigation, recovery and workforce development. In a statement, Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs said the bill would “quickly move resources to on-the-ground projects and mitigation teams,” a step up from previous efforts that “have lacked the coordination, landscape-scale focus and robust state investment required to properly address the size and behavior of catastrophic wildfires.”

Even with those funding sources, it can be a challenge to prioritize spending in areas with the biggest benefit, or even address the widespread impacts of fires. Studies have shown that up-front mitigation saves costs on fire suppression, but even that is daunting when the needs are so vast.

Shaver, the Salida forester, says his community seems to understand that narrative and is on board with the cost of mitigation, knowing that the worst risk could be coming during any upcoming fire season.

“Sometimes there’s a feeling that you wish a fire would come through to validate the work,” Shaver says. “But a lot of people say they feel safer, and that in and of itself makes the work successful. Feeling safe is a win whether or not anything ever burns.”

Camille Stevens-Rumann, a forestry researcher at Colorado State University, graduate assistant Zoe Schapira, and field technician Zane Dickson-Hunt gather data in 2019 at the 2018 Spring Creek Fire burn scar, near La Veta, Colo. Here, aspen and scrub oak have sprouted but all pine trees and cones were destroyed in the fire. Photo by Mike Sweeney

The megafire era gripping the West isn’t just a threat to human development. Fires now burn so intensely that they literally reshape forests, shift tree species, and turn calm waterways into devastating mudflows.

A 2017 University of Colorado study analyzing 15 burn scars left from fires in Colorado and New Mexico found that as many as 80% of the plots did not contain new seedlings. In a 2020 follow-up study project under different climate change scenarios, the most severe scenario, where climate change continues unabated through 2050, showed as many as 95% of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests would not recover after a fire. In a “moderate” scenario where emissions decline after 2040, more than 80% of the forest would be replaced by scrubby grassland.

That, said study author Kyle Rodman, could have serious implications for waterways, due to the lack of established trees to stabilize soil and reduce the risk of flooding.

“Just because there aren’t trees doesn’t mean there’s no vegetation. Grasses and shrubs can hold back the soil, but it won’t be the same,” says Rodman, now a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Wisconsin.

Nearly two decades later, the site of the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire, which burned in an area southwest of Denver in 2002, is still marred with patches of bare ground. That fire, according to a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) study, was so severe in areas that it consumed the canopy foliage as well as the seed bank for the forest’s ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, limiting regeneration. Overall, the study predicted “gradual return to preferred conditions” in the Hayman Fire area, though some of the worst-hit patches may see permanent vegetation changes.

Slopes above Cheesman Reservoir after the Hayman fire photo credit Denver Water.

In lower elevations, some of the heartier species, like the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, are having trouble regrowing because of the increased heat and months-long drought. A 2018 study found that even seedlings of those species that were given supplemental water in burned areas had lower survival rates than expected because of the harsh natural conditions.

“When you’re planting a garden, those first few days are so critical. The plants need water to establish their roots and get healthy,” Rodman says. “Trees work a much longer timescale. Those first few years should be cool and wet and we just don’t have those conditions too often.”

Some tree species, like the high-elevation lodgepole pine, generally rely on fire because the heat helps them open and release seeds. But recent fires are burning so intensely that even lodgepole cones are consumed.

A 2020 study in BioScience found that burned forests are showing “major vegetation shifts” and recovering more slowly than expected. In some cases, heartier species might give way to drier shrub-dominated vegetation that can burn more easily. The study found that, generally, those post-fire “forested areas will have climate and fire regimes more suited to drier forest types and non-forest vegetation.”

That means that hearty forests used to adapting to natural changes are now facing conditions “outside the realm of the disturbances that some forests can handle,” says lead author Jonathan Coop, a professor of environment and sustainability at Western Colorado University.

“We have this paradigm that fire is a natural part of the forest and that forests will always recover,” Coop adds. “These days, we shouldn’t count on that.”

That vegetation shift is especially worrisome for waterways. Normally, forest floors soak in rain and snowmelt, releasing it to waterways slowly throughout the spring and summer. Burn-scarred watersheds, however, have faster runoff and a lower water yield because of the loss of natural material and because of hydrocarbons from smoke permeating the soil. A USFS analysis found that more than 50% of wildfire-scarred land area in Colorado showed increased erosion potential, mudslide threats, and sediment in streams for at least 3-5 years after a fire.

Those effects can last even longer depending on natural conditions, says USFS research engineer Pete Robichaud. The wild seasonal swings from climate change are challenging forests by dumping more precipitation on less stable ground.

The aftermath of July 2021 floods in Poudre Canyon, west of Fort Collins. (Credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

“The drought cycle is bigger and the wet cycle is more intense,” Robichaud says. “The perfect storm is a high-severity fire followed by a high-intensity rainfall event.”

The harsh natural conditions, as well as widespread damage from bark beetles, has complicated typical recovery efforts. Some scientists say the rapid changes in forest conditions and fire characteristics make it hard to know what the best recovery strategy is. In some forests, for example, aspen trees that regenerate from low-ground structures rather than relying on seeds to sprout may dominate. Especially in low-elevation areas, shrubbier species like the Gambel oak may regrow faster in forests once driven by conifers.

While replanting is a natural step in recovery (USFS hosts six national nurseries that act as seed banks, although it has restrictions on where certain species can be planted), there are even concerns that the natural conditions should prompt a re-examination of how best to revitalize forests. Ultimately, Coop says, we should expect that forests may not look the same as they did in a pre-megafire era.

“I think this points to the need for all stakeholders and the public to start to think outside the box as far as how we evaluate the forests and ecosystems we depend on,” says Coop. “We might have to think about what ecosystems we are saving and under what circumstances we’ll have to let things go and let some changes unfold.”

A version of this article was first published in the Headwaters magazine Fall 2021 issue.

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.

As water levels fall, collaborative partnerships rise — The La Junta Tribune-Democrat

From The Ag Journal (Candace Krebs) via The La Junta Tribune-Democrat:

A central theme of every Colorado Ag Water Summit is collaboration, and the latest gathering was no exception. A series of panels discussed how to work collectively to foster more water storage, ensure future funding opportunities and support beneficial policies that will keep the water flowing in agriculture even as an ominous regional drought persists.

Welcome snow greeted participants at the in-person event in Winter Park the same day as Denver received its latest first snowfall on record. Winter snow accumulation has been alarmingly low across much of the West in recent years, with the state’s designated Colorado River compact negotiator, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy John McClow, sharing sobering graphs of plunging inflows into reservoirs Mead and Powell since 2000.

With challenges so immense, strategic partnerships — between urban and rural interests and even between regions and states — are no longer a luxury but an imperative, according to many of the speakers on the two-day program that was simultaneously broadcast online.

Indicative of this trend was a panel moderated by Terry Fankhauser, chief executive of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, which included colleagues from the environmental community, including Aaron Citron, senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy; Ted Kowalski, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation; and Brian Jackson, senior manager of western water for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Fankhauser said the group had been meeting informally for four or five years to explore how to use collective resources and political clout to gain support for water improvement projects with multi-purpose benefits. Getting to know each other personally while hashing out various positions was essential to building trust, he said…

Along with collaboration, another theme was creativity.

New reservoirs to capture surplus water have long been on the wish list of many agriculturalists, but the water storage of the future will probably look different than the storage of the past, according to one panel.

Scott Lorenz, senior project manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, said converting old gravel pits across the Lower Arkansas basin into water holding facilities had turned a former liability into a positive…

Combining the new pits with rehabilitation of existing structures could create a more dynamic, flexible system better suited to dealing with the droughts of the future, he said.

One benefit is the ability to move water from lower elevations in the winter to higher elevations in the summer to reduce evaporative losses, he said.

On-farm micro-storage is also becoming more popular in the Arkansas basin, he added, noting that many individual farmers are obtaining federal EQIP (environmental quality incentive) conservation funds to help make improvements.

Asked about underground storage, in which treated water is pumped into aquifers, the panelists said it was not a cheap or easy replacement for surface storage but could help augment it.

With limits on water, existing water users will need to find creative ways to share it. Municipal water managers emphasized their interest in working with irrigation districts to keep land in production.

Parker Water and Sanitation District Director Ron Redd said his district’s environmental mitigation efforts were focused on preserving rural culture rather than trout streams or whitewater rapids. Parker recently formed a partnership with the Lower Platte district, which will involve capturing excess spring runoff in Prewitt Reservoir in northeastern Colorado and then piping the water to Parker Reservoir. The goal is to reduce the fast-growing suburb’s reliance on non-renewable aquifer water while also supporting smaller municipalities along the way by helping them build new treatment plants…

That project centers on developing a new water right rather than just sharing some of the water back to where it originated, such as a Colorado Springs program that returns water to farmers along the Lower Arkansas five years out of ten.

McClow said ongoing river compact negotiations by the seven states that share the Colorado River would also require give-and-take.

One existing bone of contention is that the upper basin, which includes Colorado and Wyoming, is charged for evaporative losses, while the lower basin is not.

How Megafires are Reshaping Forests — @WaterEdCO

Camille Stevens-Rumann, a forestry researcher at Colorado State University, graduate assistant Zoe Schapira, and field technician Zane Dickson-Hunt gather data in 2019 at the 2018 Spring Creek Fire burn scar, near La Veta, Colo. Here, aspen and scrub oak have sprouted but all pine trees and cones were destroyed in the fire. Photo by Mike Sweeney

From Water Education Colorado (Jason Plautz):

The megafire era gripping the West isn’t just a threat to human development. Fires now burn so intensely that they literally reshape forests, shift tree species, and turn calm waterways into devastating mudflows.

A 2017 University of Colorado study analyzing 15 burn scars left from fires in Colorado and New Mexico found that as many as 80% of the plots did not contain new seedlings. In a 2020 follow-up study project under different climate change scenarios, the most severe scenario, where climate change continues unabated through 2050, showed as many as 95% of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests would not recover after a fire. In a “moderate” scenario where emissions decline after 2040, more than 80% of the forest would be replaced by scrubby grassland.

That, said study author Kyle Rodman, could have serious implications for waterways, due to the lack of established trees to stabilize soil and reduce the risk of flooding.

“Just because there aren’t trees doesn’t mean there’s no vegetation. Grasses and shrubs can hold back the soil, but it won’t be the same,” says Rodman, now a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Wisconsin.

Nearly two decades later, the site of the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire, which burned in an area southwest of Denver in 2002, is still marred with patches of bare ground. That fire, according to a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) study, was so severe in areas that it consumed the canopy foliage as well as the seed bank for the forest’s ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, limiting regeneration. Overall, the study predicted “gradual return to preferred conditions” in the Hayman Fire area, though some of the worst-hit patches may see permanent vegetation changes.

In lower elevations, some of the heartier species, like the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, are having trouble regrowing because of the increased heat and months-long drought. A 2018 study found that even seedlings of those species that were given supplemental water in burned areas had lower survival rates than expected because of the harsh natural conditions.

“When you’re planting a garden, those first few days are so critical. The plants need water to establish their roots and get healthy,” Rodman says. “Trees work a much longer timescale. Those first few years should be cool and wet and we just don’t have those conditions too often.”

“When you’re planting a garden, those first few days are so critical. The plants need water to establish their roots and get healthy,” Rodman says. “Trees work a much longer timescale. Those first few years should be cool and wet and we just don’t have those conditions too often.”

Some tree species, like the high-elevation lodgepole pine, generally rely on fire because the heat helps them open and release seeds. But recent fires are burning so intensely that even lodgepole cones are consumed.

A 2020 study in BioScience found that burned forests are showing “major vegetation shifts” and recovering more slowly than expected. In some cases, heartier species might give way to drier shrub-dominated vegetation that can burn more easily. The study found that, generally, those post-fire “forested areas will have climate and fire regimes more suited to drier forest types and non-forest vegetation.”

That means that hearty forests used to adapting to natural changes are now facing conditions “outside the realm of the disturbances that some forests can handle,” says lead author Jonathan Coop, a professor of environment and sustainability at Western Colorado University.

“We have this paradigm that fire is a natural part of the forest and that forests will always recover,” Coop adds. “These days, we shouldn’t count on that.”

That vegetation shift is especially worrisome for waterways. Normally, forest floors soak in rain and snowmelt, releasing it to waterways slowly throughout the spring and summer. Burn-scarred watersheds, however, have faster runoff and a lower water yield because of the loss of natural material and because of hydrocarbons from smoke permeating the soil. A USFS analysis found that more than 50% of wildfire-scarred land area in Colorado showed increased erosion potential, mudslide threats, and sediment in streams for at least 3-5 years after a fire.

Those effects can last even longer depending on natural conditions, says USFS research engineer Pete Robichaud. The wild seasonal swings from climate change are challenging forests by dumping more precipitation on less stable ground.

“The drought cycle is bigger and the wet cycle is more intense,” Robichaud says. “The perfect storm is a high-severity fire followed by a high-intensity rainfall event.”

Pinon and juniper forests that burned in the early 2000s show little sign of regeneration. Pony Fire, Happy Camp, Siskiyou County, California. Photo credit AWeekOrAWeekend.com.

The harsh natural conditions, as well as widespread damage from bark beetles, has complicated typical recovery efforts. Some scientists say the rapid changes in forest conditions and fire characteristics make it hard to know what the best recovery strategy is. In some forests, for example, aspen trees that regenerate from low-ground structures rather than relying on seeds to sprout may dominate. Especially in low-elevation areas, shrubbier species like the Gambel oak may regrow faster in forests once driven by conifers.

While replanting is a natural step in recovery (USFS hosts six national nurseries that act as seed banks, although it has restrictions on where certain species can be planted), there are even concerns that the natural conditions should prompt a re-examination of how best to revitalize forests. Ultimately, Coop says, we should expect that forests may not look the same as they did in a pre-megafire era.

“I think this points to the need for all stakeholders and the public to start to think outside the box as far as how we evaluate the forests and ecosystems we depend on,” says Coop. “We might have to think about what ecosystems we are saving and under what circumstances we’ll have to let things go and let some changes unfold.”

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.

2 library research grant applications now open — #Colorado State University

Members of the Colorado River Commission, in Santa Fe in 1922, after signing the Colorado River Compact. From left, W. S. Norviel (Arizona), Delph E. Carpenter (Colorado), Herbert Hoover (Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of Commission), R. E. Caldwell (Utah), Clarence C. Stetson (Executive Secretary of Commission), Stephen B. Davis, Jr. (New Mexico), Frank C. Emerson (Wyoming), W. F. McClure (California), and James G. Scrugham (Nevada)
CREDIT: COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY WATER RESOURCES ARCHIVE via Aspen Journalism

Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Corinne Neustadter):

Colorado State University Libraries’ Water Resources Archive and Friedman Feminist Press Collection recently opened research assistance grants to applications for 2022.

Water scholars wanted

The Water Resources Archive is accepting applications for the Water Scholar Award to researchers who are studying topics related to western water. Grants of up to $1,500 will be awarded to researchers whose work would benefit from extensive use of the archive’s primary sources and other materials.

The archive contains a range of documents that shed light on the histories of irrigation, civil engineering, water management and interstate compacts with a central focus on Colorado.

Projects that focus on interstate water compacts – particularly the Colorado River Compact – are of special interest for 2022.

Grants can be used to offset travel expenses to visit the archive and costs associated with publishing scholarly products. Specific references to the collection’s holdings and their relation to the applicant’s area of research must be included.

Applications are due to CSU Libraries Water Resources Archivist Patty Rettig by Jan. 31, 2022.

Click here for more information on the Water Scholar Award and how to apply.

Explore the Friedman Feminist Press Collection

The Friedman Feminist Press Collection offers research grants of up to $1,750 for gender or women-focused projects that draw upon its extensive resources, which make up the largest collection of feminist press-published books and other materials in the Rocky Mountain West.

Named for CSU alumna June Friedman, the unique collection features a host of second-wave feminist literature and publishing materials that shed light into the development of the feminist movement.

Applications should include specific references to the collection’s sources and second-wave feminism topics. The grant is intended to support research visits and publishing scholarly products.

The first grant was awarded to postdoctoral researcher and CSU alumna Kianna Middleton in 2020, who recently presented her research on Black feminist writers.

Applications are due to CSU Libraries Coordinator for Digital and Archive Services Mark Shelstad by Jan. 21, 2022.

Click here for more information on the Friedman Feminist Press Collection grant and how to apply.

How Do We Live With Megafire? — @WaterEdCO

J.T. Shaver, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS), loads branches into a chipper. The CSFS’ Salida Field Office, along with stakeholders and partners, has been thinning and masticating trees for a healthier forest, creating a fuel break, and chipping trees and branches for landowners as they create defensible space around homes and other structures. Photo courtesy Envision Chaffee County

From Water Education Colorado (Jason Plautz):

As J.T. Shaver, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, strolls through the Hutchison Ranch, a legacy cattle farm in Salida, Colorado, it’s what he doesn’t see that excites him most.

Last year, the trees here were so dense you couldn’t see more than 20 feet away. The 11,713-foot peak of Methodist Mountain was obscured by piñon-juniper trees. Now, the trunks are pleasantly spaced out, letting in beams of sunlight. The ground is scattered with wood chips and stumps, feeding a healthy new bed of grasses.

“This looks completely different than this time last year,” Shaver says. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”

The landscape’s evolution was the result of a weeks-long treatment organized by Shaver’s office to help this 5,800-person town prepare for wildfire. By thinning the dense thickets of trees, any fire that does reach the ranch shouldn’t burn hot and fast in the crown of the trees. Instead, it should run along the ground with less intensity, burning more naturally. “We’re mimicking the behavior of a wildfire that would have occurred prior to European settlement,” Shaver’s colleague, Josh Kuehn, explains.

Over the past decade, Chaffee County’s once sleepy population has steadily grown as people seek refuge from the busier Interstate 70 corridor. In 2017, county leaders convened a master planning process but were surprised to learn that residents’ No. 1 concern wasn’t small business sustainability or housing prices or even traffic. It was wildfire.

“We knew about the beetle kill epidemic and saw that our forests were in poor health,” says Kim Marquis, project and outreach coordinator for Envision Chaffee County. “The first step to growth planning was taking on our wildfire risk.”

Decker Fire October 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

At that point, Chaffee County had been spared from the intense fires ravaging the state in recent decades, although the 2019 Decker Fire would soon burn just two miles south of Salida. But residents had embraced the frightening reality that few places in Colorado are safe from fires. Climate change and the decades-long drought have been fueling bigger and more dangerous fires, leaving devastation up and down watersheds.

The county assembled stakeholders, including state foresters, federal officials, local landowners and farmers, to work proactively to improve forest health. Aurora Water also joined the talks, since a fire near Salida could potentially pollute the headwaters of the Arkansas River, one of Aurora’s primary water sources. The partners thoroughly mapped the area, highlighting the properties and forests most at risk if a fire did come through the Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.

While local landowners could take their own preventative measures like shoring up buildings and removing dead trees, the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) also received funding for a more holistic treatment. The Methodist Front Wildland Urban Interface Forest and Watershed Health Restoration Project, funded through a RESTORE Colorado Program grant, along with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Salida and Poncha Springs, and a county fund, will treat 478 acres of public and private land, masticating trees to thin out the crowns and encourage healthier vegetation. Eventually, with the participation of enough landowners, the fuel break will stretch five miles, creating a buffer between the forest and the ranches, townhomes and small farms in Salida.

From the top of a hill on the Hutchinson Ranch, it’s easy to see why the treatment is essential. There are visible gaps between the trees on the ranch land, even though the trees don’t look overly manicured. Meanwhile, the untreated land just south is dense and wild, a potential path of destruction to a new condo development. In the distance, the Arkansas River that feeds Front Range communities is visible.

And to the west, just above the newly thinned forest, is a barren, charred burn scar from the 2019 Decker Fire, a chilling reminder to Shaver of how close Salida came to devastation and why it’s more essential than ever that the town prepare for the new era of fires.

How Fires Went From Healthy To Hazardous

The Decker Fire, which burned nearly 9,000 acres, came in an unusually calm year in the midst of a decade that has reshaped how Coloradans see fire. Since 2012, six megafires, defined by the National Interagency Fire Center as fires larger than 100,000 acres, have burned in Colorado. 2020 saw the state’s three largest recorded fires to date—Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch—and some 700,000 acres burned, more than 540,000 of which burned in those three fires alone. And the CSFS’s 2020 Forest Action Plan projects a 50% to 200% increase in the annual area burned in the state by 2050.

During 2020’s Pine Gulch Fire, north of Grand Junction, Colo., hotshot firefighters watch and wait for the fire to burn through brush and move to grass fields, where the flames become less intense, before they can hold it back. Photo by Kyle Miller/Wyoming Hotshots, USFS, via National Interagency Fire Center

There’s no single factor making Rocky Mountain fires more intense. Bark beetle infestations swept through tens of millions of acres of forest in the West over the past two decades, leaving large stands of dead trees. A century of federal policy that squelched out all fires rather than letting them burn naturally led to a buildup of fuel stores in forests. Climate change is creating warmer and drier conditions, and an earlier snowmelt has extended the fire season.

Chuck Rhoades, a research biogeochemist at the USFS’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, says those “compound disturbances” have created a pattern of fires that are burning more intensely and in places and seasons that experts wouldn’t predict. Fires that once would have been a natural tool to clear dead fuel and encourage seeds to sprout are now a major threat to communities. Some, including Cameron Peak and East Troublesome, have ravaged high-elevation forests where fires used to be rare. A 2021 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that high-elevation forests in the Rocky Mountain region are burning more than at any point in the past 2,000 years.

That, Rhoades says, means land managers and cities are seeing impacts outside the scope of anything they’ve prepared for—with ripple effects throughout the environment.

“We often think that where we were before will help us predict where we’re going,” he says. “But there are a lot of question marks out there. It forces a little humility in that we can’t understand what we’re going to get next.”

One known, however, is that the higher-intensity wildfires are putting more Coloradans at risk as the state’s population booms. In 2020, the CSFS estimated that half of the state’s population lived in Colorado’s 3.2 million-acre wildland-urban interface area, known as the WUI, where human development intermingles with fire-prone vegetation. By 2050, CSFS says that area could triple in size to encompass more than 9 million acres, or more than 13% of the state.

The risks are especially profound for watersheds. As more intense fires clear out thick older trees, shrubs and grasses grow back in their place. Without dense roots and pine needle cover, the forest floor that typically acts as a sponge for snowmelt and precipitation is turning fragile and rocky. Those are prime conditions for erosion and flooding, with streams and rivers accumulating water faster and earlier than usual. According to USFS research, the risk of flooding and debris flow is higher for at least 3-5 years post-fire, often longer, and those floods can be as much as three times more severe than they would be otherwise.

Ash and silt pollute the Cache la Poudre River after the High Park Fire September 2012

Runoff from burn scars can run black, laden with ash, debris, nutrients and heavy metals from burned soil and biomass. If those contaminants reach utilities’ water infrastructure, they can clog water filters or settle in reservoirs, possibly fostering algal blooms and taking up valuable reservoir space.

The 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire and the 2002 Hayman Fire, the largest in Colorado’s history until 2020, each burned along the Upper South Platte River, immediately upstream of Strontia Springs Reservoir, which accommodates about 80% of Denver Water’s raw water supply and 90% of Aurora’s supply. The fires exacerbated erosion in the watershed, leading to sediment-laden flows that dumped debris and contaminants in the reservoir. More than a decade later, the reservoir’s capacity to store water remains reduced, and water quality is still impacted from sediment flows, even after $27.7 million worth of dredging, removal and recovery work. Last year’s fires caused water utilities across the state to shift their operations to protect their source water.

It’s clear, then, that the risks of fires no longer stay in the forest. Partnerships have sprung up from Boulder to Durango to protect valuable watersheds and water infrastructure, forcing water district managers to become just as interested in what happens to the forest around headwaters as what goes into their customers’ pipes.

“We all share a mutual natural resource interest, whether it’s the forest or the fish of the water,” says Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District in Cortez. “As a water provider, we want to keep offering the same quality water we’ve had for 100 years down here. Now instead of thinking as a water protector, we’ve become part of the watershed protection.”

2020 Report on the Health of Colorado’s Forests cover

All Hands on Deck

In 2020, the Colorado State Forest Service released its updated Forest Action Plan, identifying some 2.5 million acres—roughly 10% of the state’s forests—as being “in urgent need of treatment.” The highest priority forests were in the Front Range’s Arapaho-Roosevelt and Pike-San Isabel forests and in the San Juan Forest around Durango. “We have to prioritize those areas where we’re going to get the most bang for the buck,” says Weston Toll, watershed program specialist for the CSFS. Still, he says, with so much of the state at risk, “we’re paddling against the current.”

The Forest Action Plan’s priority map reflected a range of factors, including where fuel had built up, how close fires could get to human development, and the impact on wildlife and water. But those areas didn’t all line up with valuable headwaters, despite some water managers’ arguments that any waterways must be protected. Nor does the map give much direction on how to square the widespread needs with limited resources.

Wildfire mitigation used to be defined by what some experts call “random acts of restoration,” individual projects on small plots of land depending on the owner’s interest and availability. A National Forest might have dead trees removed and fuel treated for insect infestation, but neighboring land might be left untreated, doing little for the overall region’s safety.

Now, the USFS and others are promoting a philosophy of shared stewardship, bringing together a variety of partners ranging from federal land managers, local water districts, utilities, logging companies, recreationists and private landowners to collaborate on responsible forest management.

Toll says the state may still be paddling against the current, but “it helps to have everyone paddling in the same direction, which wasn’t happening until five or 10 years ago.”

Take the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative (RMRI), a partnership co-convened by the USFS and the National Wild Turkey Federation that has brought together federal, state, local, private and nonprofit partners across Colorado for three targeted restoration projects. Tara Umphries, shared stewardship and RMRI project manager for USFS, says that leads to projects that focus on “consecutiveness,” crossing both physical boundaries and different partners’ priorities.

“Everyone brings their own expertise and their perspective to the table and has their own ideas on how to get this landscape work done,” Umphries says. “A watershed doesn’t just reside on Forest Service land and it doesn’t just provide benefits for one entity or user. To look at a discrete piece of land or a single agency for a solution, historically, has not yielded the results we need.”

RMRI was founded in 2019 as an evolution of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Shared Stewardship Strategy, which works across public and private lands on landscape protection. RMRI touts the four values shared by its partners: restore forests and habitat, protect communities, support recreation and tourism, and ensure clean and secure water.

In the first showcase project in Southwest Colorado, RMRI partners have done a variety of projects in and around the San Juan National Forest, including treating the forest land for dead trees, creating fuel breaks, clearing trails for recreation users, and conducting prescribed burns. At the end of 2020, RMRI partners had worked on more than 26,000 acres of forest, including high-priority areas around the Dolores River and the 381,000 acre-foot McPhee Reservoir.

“If we don’t have clean and secure water for people and our natural resources, you can’t get through much else,” says Jason Lawhon, southwest project manager for RMRI. “That’s often the place we start. Here in Southwest Colorado, water is the most important value.”

Lawhon says that bringing in those partners who can focus on the watershed impacts, whether they’re irrigators or district managers, has helped expand the scale of what the USFS could do alone through additional funding and strategy. “A lot of what we do is identify a project that’s already moving in the right direction, then we help it take the next step,” he says.

Curtis, who manages McPhee Reservoir, says the water managers’ role in Western communities makes it easy for them to act as “conveners,” bringing together federal, industrial and municipal partners. The reservoir, which provides irrigation water for 75,000 acres of land and supplies several towns and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, sits on the edge of the San Juan National Forest and would be at severe risk should a fire occur. Curtis says the reservoir has so far avoided serious sediment loading and flooding, and he wants to do as much as possible to keep it that way.

“Everybody out here has forest management plans and they all have implications for us as a water district,” Curtis says. While the Dolores Water Conservancy District can do tree thinning and other protection immediately around the reservoir, it takes more partners to fund and execute the work needed to keep the full headwaters area safe.

Besides RMRI, the Dolores Water Conservancy District is part of the Dolores Watershed and Resilient Forest (DWRF) Collaborative in Southwest Colorado, which includes the San Juan National Forest, five local water districts, conservationists and timber companies. The collective came out of a collaboration between Montezuma County and local timber companies to work on forest health. Organizers say the involvement of private companies is key to its success—not only does it bring their financial power to bear, but the timber industry can also use trees that are felled, providing additional financial incentive to doing the work.

Watershed Assessment Vulnerability Evaluation (WAVE) volunteers work to install silt fencing immediately above Northern Water’s Willow Creek Reservoir. Photo by Emanuel Deleon, Colorado State University

Holistic forest management also requires the help of private landowners whose property borders or includes the most at-risk forests. Blake Osborn of the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University says there’s no “established protocol” for how to take care of private lands like there is for public areas, leaving many landowners frustrated and clueless. In 2017, Osborn started the Watershed Assessment and Vulnerability Evaluation (WAVE) to help landowners get technical assistance and craft recovery plans, leaning on the USFS’s Good Neighbor Authority, which allows state forestry agencies to partner with the USFS to tackle projects on federal land.

The key, Osborn says, is that the plans can be tailored to the specific lands and owners’ priorities, whether that be heavy tree cover for privacy or a clean waterway stocked with fish. WAVE can also help connect private partners with the bigger public partners to ensure a truly holistic approach. Although no two landowners have ever shared identical goals, he says, the takeaway message is always the same.

“Something we’re always trying to communicate is that the risks cascade down the watershed, and issues up high may not materialize until you’re down at the city level,” Osborn says. “But everyone has their priorities at every point on the watershed. With such an interconnected system, putting some money on a project up here may help protect people miles away.”

‘Mutual Benefits’

After the runoff from the Buffalo Creek and Hayman fires poured sediment into Strontia Springs Reservoir, officials at Denver Water realized they could be spending less money and having a bigger impact by focusing on preventing fires and flooding before the effects reached their infrastructure. The utility formed the From Forests to Faucets partnership with USFS, a multi-year effort to fund forest health projects to boost resilience in priority areas within Denver Water’s collection system. In 2017, the program was expanded to include state and local authorities to stretch Denver Water’s forest health work to non-federal lands.

Fuel breaks played an important role protecting homes during the Buffalo Fire on June 12, 2018, in Summit County. Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service.

Fuel breaks around the Dillon Reservoir watershed funded by the program are credited with protecting nearly 1,400 homes near Silverthorne during the 2018 Buffalo Fire, despite red-flag drought conditions.

“There was this exciting realization that there were a lot of mutual benefits in funding these projects,” says Madelene McDonald, watershed planner at Denver Water. “Forest restoration projects not only bolster source water protection, but also improve wildlife habitat, expand recreation access, and can protect communities in the wildland urban interface.”

Northern Water also has a forest health program, the Colorado-Big Thompson Headwaters Partnership, working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, USFS, CSFS, the National Park Service, and the Western Area Power Administration to protect headwaters areas. It’s the kind of work that, two or three decades ago, might have seemed outside the scope of a water provider focused on bringing clean, safe water to its ratepayers, but has now become an accepted cost of doing business.

Even though the nature of fire has changed, the prevention strategies look similar to what foresters have done for more than a century. Clearing out dead fuel—either by cutting trees or prescribed burns—cuts off the material that would burn in a fire and keeps blazes from becoming as severe. Rather than suppressing all fire, under the right conditions, officials can manage fires in secluded locations that have started from natural means, like lightning strikes, and, during wetter years when winds are low, let them burn naturally.

Another key prevention strategy is the use of prescribed burns, where foresters deliberately set and manage a fire under specific weather and forest conditions. Considered one of the most effective mitigation strategies, prescribed burns can efficiently clear out fuel, mimicking a natural, healthy fire. However, Toll notes, those burns do come with risks, like the potential to get out of control and negative air quality impacts from added wildfire smoke.

“The risk is always going to be there no matter what, so the question is whether it’s worth taking that risk under the conditions that have a high likelihood of success,” Toll says. “[Prescribed burns] also have an educational component by showing that not all fire is bad.”

But it is also incumbent on communities to do their own preparation. That can include building codes that require fire-resistant building material or defensible space requirements to clear fuel from some established perimeter around buildings. Colorado does not have a state wildfire code or model ordinance, despite recommendations from a 2014 task force, but communities like Boulder and Colorado Springs have regulations governing new homes in at-risk areas.

Counties have developed their own mitigation and evacuation plans for areas in the WUI. Others are adapting their own emergency plans to account for the widespread effects of fires, including the greater risks of mudslides and sediment deposits. Chaffee County, for example, updated its wildfire community plan to account for community expansion into the WUI and the greater threat of fires to produce a document that didn’t just guide county-level mitigation work, but also individual landowners’ preparations.

“There’s a big educational component, but seeing a disaster happening right in our faces prepares people,” says Marquis of Envision Chaffee County. “We’re asking people to join this honestly heroic story to protect the community.”

Money Matters

Addressing all of the CSFS’ Forest Action Plan’s priority areas is estimated to cost $4.2 billion, money that state agencies and local partnerships just don’t have. USFS spent $1.8 billion in fire suppression, fighting and responding to wildfires nationally in fiscal year 2020, but just $431 million on treatments to reduce fuel buildup through its Hazardous Fuels program, according to national spokesperson Babete Anderson. According to National Interagency Fire Center data, other federal government programs spent $510 million on fire suppression in 2020. According to a Colorado Department of Public Safety report, Colorado’s 2020 fire season cost the state an estimated $38 million in suppression costs and required another $248 million in federal funds. Those state figures don’t include suppression costs footed by local agencies or the costs of property loss, infrastructure damage, watershed impacts, or economic losses. Nor do they account for other private, local, county or federal wildfire expenses.

Photo credit: Cascade Timber Salvage Facebook page

As of press time, Congress was still negotiating the bipartisan infrastructure bill and reconciliation bill. If passed, the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill includes about $8 billion for wildfire risk reduction and forest restoration, including $90 million a year for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Landscape Restoration Partnership Initiative to support forest and grassland restoration secured by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. The bill also spends $600 million to raise federal firefighter wages.

Fire departments and forest managers can also cobble together money from grants from a variety of federal sources. In 2021, the Colorado legislature passed SB21-258, which authorized $25 million for wildfire mitigation, recovery and workforce development. In a statement, Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs said the bill would “quickly move resources to on-the-ground projects and mitigation teams,” a step up from previous efforts that “have lacked the coordination, landscape-scale focus and robust state investment required to properly address the size and behavior of catastrophic wildfires.”

Even with those funding sources, it can be a challenge to prioritize spending in areas with the biggest benefit, or even address the widespread impacts of fires. Studies have shown that up-front mitigation saves costs on fire suppression, but even that is daunting when the needs are so vast.

“There’s just a disconnect between what we spend money on and the protection of watersheds and communities,” says Carol Ekarius of Coalitions & Collaboratives (COCO), a group that has been leading the way to foster collaborative conservation and restoration in Colorado headwaters and nationally. Ekarius’ work began more than two decades ago, as coordinator for the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), after the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire. When other regions also experienced burns in the 2000s, they reached out to CUSP for advice—COCO formed to mentor those organizations. “A fire could burn on federal land but the post-fire impacts are on the downstream communities,” says Ekarius.

Combining efforts through partnerships like RMRI can make every mitigation dollar go further, as can matching grant programs from the state and federal government. Summit County voters in 2018 passed a $1 million annual fund for wildfire mitigation backed by a mill levy rate adjustment. The timber industry has played an increasing role, with the state offering loans to encourage loggers to produce wood products—everything from lumber to pellet fuel—from forests that need thinning or dead trees that can be cleaned up and put to use.

In a 2019 issue paper, the International Association of Wildland Fire said that it is important to “frame a narrative” around fire that “looks to longer-term landscape outcomes.” That argument, the group wrote, “will eventually have to be won based on economics, as the suppression and recovery costs will by far exceed costs required to educate communities, undertake mitigation works and improve land use planning controls.”

Shaver, the Salida forester, says his community seems to understand that narrative and is on board with the cost of mitigation, knowing that the worst risk could be coming during any upcoming fire season.

“Sometimes there’s a feeling that you wish a fire would come through to validate the work,” Shaver says. “But a lot of people say they feel safer, and that in and of itself makes the work successful. Feeling safe is a win whether or not anything ever burns.”

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.

As winter wildfires burn, will they forever alter #Colorado’s forests, #water? — @WaterEdCO

Camille Stevens-Rumann, a forestry researcher at Colorado State University, graduate assistant Zoe Schapira, and field technician Zane Dickson-Hunt gather data in 2019 at the 2018 Spring Creek Fire burn scar, near La Veta, Colo. Here, aspen and scrub oak have sprouted but all pine trees and cones were destroyed in the fire. Photo by Mike Sweeney

From Water Education Colorado (Jason Plautz):

The megafire era gripping the West isn’t just a threat to human development. Fires now burn so intensely that they literally reshape forests, shift tree species, and turn calm waterways into devastating mudflows.

A 2017 University of Colorado study analyzing 15 burn scars left from fires in Colorado and New Mexico found that as many as 80% of the plots did not contain new seedlings. In a 2020 follow-up study project under different climate change scenarios, the most severe scenario, where climate change continues unabated through 2050, showed as many as 95% of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests would not recover after a fire. In a “moderate” scenario where emissions decline after 2040, more than 80% of the forest would be replaced by scrubby grassland.

That, said study author Kyle Rodman, could have serious implications for waterways, due to the lack of established trees to stabilize soil and reduce the risk of flooding.

“Just because there aren’t trees doesn’t mean there’s no vegetation. Grasses and shrubs can hold back the soil, but it won’t be the same,” says Rodman, now a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Wisconsin.

Nearly two decades later, the site of the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire, which burned in an area southwest of Denver in 2002, is still marred with patches of bare ground. That fire, according to a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) study, was so severe in areas that it consumed the canopy foliage as well as the seed bank for the forest’s ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, limiting regeneration. Overall, the study predicted “gradual return to preferred conditions” in the Hayman Fire area, though some of the worst-hit patches may see permanent vegetation changes.

In lower elevations, some of the heartier species, like the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, are having trouble regrowing because of the increased heat and months-long drought. A 2018 study found that even seedlings of those species that were given supplemental water in burned areas had lower survival rates than expected because of the harsh natural conditions.

“When you’re planting a garden, those first few days are so critical. The plants need water to establish their roots and get healthy,” Rodman says. “Trees work a much longer timescale. Those first few years should be cool and wet and we just don’t have those conditions too often.”

Some tree species, like the high-elevation lodgepole pine, generally rely on fire because the heat helps them open and release seeds. But recent fires are burning so intensely that even lodgepole cones are consumed.

A 2020 study in BioScience found that burned forests are showing “major vegetation shifts” and recovering more slowly than expected. In some cases, heartier species might give way to drier shrub-dominated vegetation that can burn more easily. The study found that, generally, those post-fire “forested areas will have climate and fire regimes more suited to drier forest types and non-forest vegetation.”

That means that hearty forests used to adapting to natural changes are now facing conditions “outside the realm of the disturbances that some forests can handle,” says lead author Jonathan Coop, a professor of environment and sustainability at Western Colorado University.

“We have this paradigm that fire is a natural part of the forest and that forests will always recover,” Coop adds. “These days, we shouldn’t count on that.”

That vegetation shift is especially worrisome for waterways. Normally, forest floors soak in rain and snowmelt, releasing it to waterways slowly throughout the spring and summer. Burn-scarred watersheds, however, have faster runoff and a lower water yield because of the loss of natural material and because of hydrocarbons from smoke permeating the soil. A USFS analysis found that more than 50% of wildfire-scarred land area in Colorado showed increased erosion potential, mudslide threats, and sediment in streams for at least 3-5 years after a fire.

Those effects can last even longer depending on natural conditions, says USFS research engineer Pete Robichaud. The wild seasonal swings from climate change are challenging forests by dumping more precipitation on less stable ground.

“The drought cycle is bigger and the wet cycle is more intense,” Robichaud says. “The perfect storm is a high-severity fire followed by a high-intensity rainfall event.”

The harsh natural conditions, as well as widespread damage from bark beetles, has complicated typical recovery efforts. Some scientists say the rapid changes in forest conditions and fire characteristics make it hard to know what the best recovery strategy is. In some forests, for example, aspen trees that regenerate from low-ground structures rather than relying on seeds to sprout may dominate. Especially in low-elevation areas, shrubbier species like the Gambel oak may regrow faster in forests once driven by conifers.

A nursery manager plants a whitebark pine at Glacier National Park in Montana in September 2019, part of an effort to restore vegetation following a wildfire. Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images via Pew Research

While replanting is a natural step in recovery (USFS hosts six national nurseries that act as seed banks, although it has restrictions on where certain species can be planted), there are even concerns that the natural conditions should prompt a re-examination of how best to revitalize forests. Ultimately, Coop says, we should expect that forests may not look the same as they did in a pre-megafire era.

“I think this points to the need for all stakeholders and the public to start to think outside the box as far as how we evaluate the forests and ecosystems we depend on,” says Coop. “We might have to think about what ecosystems we are saving and under what circumstances we’ll have to let things go and let some changes unfold.”

This article was first published in the Headwaters magazine Fall 2021 issue.

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.

@CSUSpur water symposium shares scaleable solutions — @ColoradoStateU

Screenshot from the Water in the West Symposium November 3, 2021.

Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Tiana Kennedy):

One key takeaway: The situation around water is dire – more dire than it has ever been before.

Yet, as the Fourth Annual CSU Spur Water in the West Symposium convened experts from across the country on Wednesday, the focus was on learning from one another’s successes and finding solutions at-scale to water issues.

“As in past years, the Symposium will touch on the challenges that face us in water, but we won’t dwell there – instead we’ll spend most of our time on the solutions to these challenges. This year we have the opportunity to link these solutions to one another in specific ways – across scales at which these solutions have been applied to-date,” said Dr. Tony Frank, Chancellor of the CSU System. “Our hope is that today you will listen with an ear toward features of water solutions that you might be able to apply at the scale at which you work.”

The Water in the West Symposium was launched in 2018 as an early offering of the CSU Spur campus, set to open its first public-facing building in Denver this January. The Symposium is an example of the kinds of convenings and conversations that will happen at the CSU Spur campus.

The 2021 Symposium, hosted virtually, began with CSU Native American Cultural Center Director Ty Smith sharing the CSU land acknowledgement, recognizing that the lands of the university’s founding came at a dire cost to Native Nations, and sharing a commitment toward education and inclusion.

Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

Water is a common thread

Water connects all things, all people, all lands. It’s at the heart of basic human needs of water, food, habitability, equity … and there is much work to be done.

Keynote speaker Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for Water and Science for the U.S. Department of the Interior, noted that nearly 90% of the West is experiencing some level of drought conditions – with Lake Mead and Lake Powell making recent headlines for being at all-time lows – and that water issues require collaborative solutions and solutions that have a “solid foundation in science.”

Water solutions also require ongoing optimism, perseverance, patience, and a focus on relationship building – “we’re looking for win-wins and patience,” she said.

“We have seen over the past 20 years great examples of being able to work among constituencies in individual states and to determine solutions to conflicts from an interstate perspective,” Trujillo said.

“The Colorado River Basin is one where we have been able to bring diametrically opposed perspectives together.”

The difference between the terms equality equity and liberation illustrated. Credit: Shrehan Lynch https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340777978_The_A-Z_of_Social_Justice_Physical_Education_Part_1

Water in Climate & Equity

Climate challenges and equity often go hand-in-hand, and Symposium panelists reiterated that water is no different.

Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, outlined the efforts of Metropolitan and noted the focus on sustainability and climate resiliency and efforts to build the plans into a holistic One Water infrastructure. Water recycling is the future, he noted – showcasing that they are building one of the largest water recycling programs in the nation – recycling, reusing, and returning water to the ground – which will create 150 million gallons of recycled water a day, equivalent to water for 500,000 households. It’s a regional solution that California, Southern Nevada, and Arizona are collaborating on, and the federal government is helping to fund.

Metropolitan covers 5,200 square miles and six counties, which include diverse and underserved communities.

“I believe strongly that we need to do something that can help everyone. And to me the future is One Water — One Water is a holistic solution, a solution that brings everyone together,” Hagekhalil said.

Andrew Lee, acting general manager, Seattle Public Utilities, reiterated that point.

“Community centered, One Water, zero waste, that’s the heart of our statement. We believe that water and wastewater services are a platform for greater social good,” Lee said, acknowledging that equity work is a constant learning process of empowering voices, listening to people, and finding places where underrepresented communities have power to make decisions that impact them.

“Equity is at the heart of all of it,” he continued.

Water, while seemingly accessible to all, is actually an area where equity is a large issue.

Native American homes are 19 times more likely than white homes to lack indoor plumbing; Black and Latinx homes are twice as likely to not have drinking water, said Bidtah Becker, associate attorney of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. She noted that there have been some successes when it comes to Tribal water but shared that she has unprecedented hope for the future.

In addition to subsidizing residential water usage, the biggest outcomes can come through policy changes, John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, noted. He said that Nevada expects its gallons per capita/day to increase by nine gallons, simply due to the increasing temperatures.

“We’ve added over 800,000 new residences to Southern Nevada, using 23% less water in that same timeframe— and we’re not done yet,” he said. “In the next five years, the Nevada Legislative Assembly Bill 356 will prohibit the use of Colorado River water for watering nonfunctional turf.”

Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director of the National Audubon Society, showed a photo of the dried-up Colorado River Delta.

“Not everyone fully appreciates that the Colorado River trickles to its end in the sand between the U.S. and Mexico,” Pitt said. “It’s the beginning of the end of the Colorado River’s Delta.”

The 2015 Colorado Water Plan, on a shelf, at the CU law library. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The Colorado Water Plan brings a shared vision to water and water in Colorado, which is designed to be a living document that will seek input on its next version in June 2022.

“We did imagine that the future would look different than the past,” said Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board Becky Mitchell. “Colorado has to come together to solve its challenges.”

“These are challenging times,” Mitchell said. “[For instance] we also want to avoid the risk of curtailment in the upper Basin, because if there is a curtailment situation on the Colorado River, every Coloradan will be affected whether they know it or not. That would have a heavy impact economically, socioeconomically.”

While the issues are clear and vast, panelists – whether from national, regional, state, or local interests – reiterated the importance of innovating on the path toward increasingly smarter and more sustainable solutions, and of working together and using learnings from each other to scale these solutions.

“By putting more than just the usual suspects … by including other stakeholders at the table, the solution sets grew because we had more to talk about,” Pitt said. “Adaptation in this Basin, creating climate resilience, is going to take a generational investment, no question about it.”

How #ClimateChange is Affecting the Hydrology of the River — #Colorado Law

How Climate Change is Affecting the Hydrology of the River Joint presentation with the Colorado River Districts | GWC 41st Annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources

Equity in the Colorado River Basin: How to Sustainably Manage a Shrinking Resource

Part Three: CRB Hydrology & the Future of Management Guidelines

Speakers:
Brad Udall Senior Water and Climate Research Scientist/Scholar Colorado State University
Gigi Richard (Remote Presentation from the Colorado River District Seminar) Director, Four Corners Water Center Instructor of Geosciences Fort Lewis College

Getches-Wilkinson Center
University of Colorado Law School
October 1, 2021

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

Questions in North Park as #Colorado makes case for new rules to measure water diversions — @WaterEdCO

Ranchers and other water users gather at a stakeholder meeting in North Park on Oct. 22 to ask questions and provide input as state officials make case for measuring devices and recording. Credit: Allen Best

From Water Education Colorado (Allen Best):

As the gap between water supplies and demands narrows in northwestern Colorado, state officials want to ensure that, as best as reasonably can be done, every last drop gets measured and recorded.

They made their case to about 60 ranchers in North Park’s Walden, Colo., on Friday in the fifth of six stakeholder meetings during October that will conclude tonight with a meeting in Craig.

The proposed rules governing the Yampa, White and North Platte River basins would require that headgates, which allow water diversions into ditches, be supplemented with measuring infrastructure, either flumes or weirs, to track the amount of water being diverted. The rules would also institute protocols for reporting the measurements, for collection in state databases. Authority to require the measuring and reporting is clearly defined by state law, but the law leaves room for discretion about the particulars, hence the stakeholder process.

In an already drought-stricken region likely to become hotter and drier yet in the 21st century, those measurements will become ever-more important in administering water rights. The Yampa River this century has carried on average 6% less water than it did during the 20th century. On the White River, flows have fallen 19%.

Already, there is concern that Colorado will be forced to curtail diversions of water rights dated later than the 1922 Colorado River Compact if the aridification of the Colorado River Basin continues, said Kevin Rein, the state water engineer, at the outset of the meeting in Walden.

The compact specifies that Colorado along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico “will not cause the flow of the river” at Lee Ferry, at the top of the Grand Canyon, “to be depleted below an aggregate” of 75 million-acre feet for an period of 10 consecutive years. Colorado and the three other upper basin states are in relatively good shape—for at least the next couple of years. In the last decade, 92 million acre-feet have flowed past Lee Ferry toward Arizona, Nevada, California and, eventually, Mexico.

Kevin Rein, Colorado state water engineer, explains why Colorado needs stepped-up measuring of water diversions in the North Park and other rivers in Northwest Colorado while Erin Light, Division 6 engineer, looks on during a meeting in Walden on Oct. 22. Credit: Allen Best

But if below-average becomes the new normal, as climate scientists warn almost certainly will be the case, Colorado may be forced to defend its diversions in light of the compact. “When they come in and ask for water, we can’t refuse if we have no data,” said Mike Sullivan, the deputy state water engineer.

The state water officials pointed to the Aug. 2021 report Lessons Learned from Colorado Experiences with Interstate Compact Administration issued by the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University and MacIlroy Research and Consulting. “Confronting the limits of a water supply is a painful experience,” the report said after studying the Republican, Arkansas and Rio Grande basins. “Across each of the basins, earlier action to address potential compact and supply issues has enhanced the control communities have to develop and choose their own, less painful, options.”

The North Platte River does not flow into the Colorado River. It’s east of the Continental Divide but separated from the Front Range by the Medicine Bow and other mountain ranges. So why the need to measure water in North Park the same as in the Yampa and White river valleys?

Because it’s good to have the data should it be necessary as required by other interstate agreements, in this case involving Wyoming and Nebraska, said Sullivan.

But there’s another reason for more rigorous accounting of diversions, said the state water officials. Owners of water rights can best look out after their own interests by documenting their water use. This guards against those rights being placed on lists of abandoned water rights that state law requires be issued every 10 years. The most recent list for all river basins, including North Park, was issued last year.

Measuring devices also give those with more senior water appropriations the right to divert their legal entitlements in water-scarce years. And in the case of land sales with connected water rights, it gives owners the proof of water use to demonstrate value to potential purchasers.

In several river basins in Colorado, notably those east of the Continental Divide, measurements became crucial as early as the 19th century. In those river basins where water users experienced an earlier squeeze between supplies and demands, those with senior water rights began placing calls that required those with newer—and hence more junior— rights upstream to cease or cut back diversions.

In Water Division 6, which includes the North Platte, Yampa and White river basins, 54% of headgates had appropriate measuring devices as of April. This compares with upwards of 90% in several other water divisions of Colorado.

Overlapping the new rules is a proposal being considered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources to designate the Yampa River as over-appropriated. Most rivers in the state are already considered over-appropriated, in some cases over a century ago. Segments of the Yampa—including the river upstream from Steamboat Springs and several tributaries—already have been so designated. This designation will require irrigators drilling wells to have water that they can use to augment streamflows if there is a call on the river by a senior user. Improved measuring will assist in administration. Meetings to gather input were scheduled for Monday night in Craig and Thursday night in Hayden.

State officials hope to get the measurement rulemaking as well as the Yampa designation completed by early next year. Rules will be unique to the needs of Northwest Colorado, just as rules governing the Republican and Arkansas River basins are unique to the interstate water agreements and other circumstances governing water use in those basins.

North Park was particularly warm and dry last winter. One rancher after the Walden meeting recalled that it was possible to drive across his hay meadows all of last winter whereas many years he has to plow the driveway almost daily.

“It was pathetic, really,” said Keith Holsinger, standing on a bridge over the Michigan River east of Walden where he grows hay on 800 acres. One of his neighbors, who usually gets 500 to 600 tons of hay, got only 90 tons this year, he reported.

Holsinger has lived on the ranch all of his 77 years. His water rights range from among the oldest in North Park, an 1885 decree with a priority number of 32, to more junior rights of 240th in priority.

He remembers putting in the first measuring device sometime after the drought of 1977. His last device, a weir, he had installed last year.

Keith Holsinger has been installing measuring devices on ditches for his ranch along the Michigan River in North Park for several decades. Credit: Allen Best

During the meeting, some skepticism was voiced about the coming measurement rules. State representatives characterized the relationship between water users and state authorities as one of cooperation and trust. But one audience member pushed back. Implementation seemed to be discretionary, he said. “It’s a trust issue, and I’m sorry to say I don’t have a lot of faith.”

But as for the need for the rules, Holsinger is already persuaded. “If it’s free water in priority, if you want that water, you had better have a headgate and weir,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

The most significant discontent voiced in the background of the meeting agenda was about the high turnover in water commissioners. It’s a common problem across Colorado, say state water officials, as the job is by nature semi-seasonal. But in conversations after the meeting, North Park residents suggested that if the state wants water users to be partners in administration, the state needs to allow proper resources. A water commissioner has between 350 and 500 headgates to check, and there’s a learning curve.

Some people wanted to know why the state wanted the ability to lock headgates. State representatives said they rely primarily on voluntary compliance with water allocations but need the ability to force compliance if diverters take more than they are entitled to.

“In 20-some years, I have probably ordered a half-dozen headgates locked,” said Sullivan. “If we can’t get someone to keep their hands out of the cookie jar, we lock the cookie jar.”

As for the specific type of weir or flume, there are several formal varieties as well as less formal ones. They can be expensive, but none of the irrigators in Walden indicated that cost alone is an issue. Erin Light, the Steamboat Springs-based water engineer for Division 6, said she had seen a flume made of a road sign. It worked, she reported. Sullivan reported seeing one made of rock that worked effectively.

Said Sullivan, speaking to people mostly old enough to remember a bestselling small-model car in 1979 and 1980, “We don’t want to require a gold-plated Cadillac headgate when a Chevette will do.”

Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at allen@bigpivots.com and allen.best@comcast.net.

Map of the North Platte River drainage basin, a tributary of the Platte River, in the central US. Made using USGS National Map and NASA SRTM data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79266632

Special Report: As #LakePowell hits record lows, is filling a new drought pool the answer? — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River flows towards Horsethief Canyon west of Grand Junction, Colo. Credit: William Woody

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

The 96-degree heat has barely broken early on a September evening near Fruita, Colo. As the sun prepares to set, the ailing Colorado River moves thick and quiet next to Interstate 70, crawling across the Utah state line as it prepares to deliver billions of gallons of water to Lake Powell, 320 miles south.

This summer the river has been badly depleted—again—by a drought year whose spring runoff was so meager it left water managers here in Western Colorado stunned. As a result Lake Powell is just one-third full and its hydropower plants could cease operating as soon as July of 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“We’re looking at a very serious situation from Denver all the way to California and the Sea of Cortez,” said Ken Neubecker, an environmental consultant who has been working on the river’s issues for some 30 years. “I’ve never seen it in a worse state.”

The Colorado River Basin is made up of seven states. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico comprise the upper basin and are responsible for keeping Lake Powell full.

Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the lower basin and rely on Powell’s larger, downstream sister reservoir, Lake Mead, just outside Las Vegas, to store water for delivery to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and more than 1 million acres of farmland.

These are two of the largest reservoirs in the United States. Few believed Mead, built in the 1930s, and Powell, built in the 1960s when the American West had just begun a 50-year growth spurt, would face a future where they were in seeming freefall. The two reservoirs were last full in 2000. Two years ago they dropped to 50% of capacity. Now they are operating at just over one-third their original 51 million-acre-foot combined capacity.

First-ever drought accord

Two years ago, this unprecedented megadrought prompted all seven states to agree, for the first time, to a dual drought contingency plan—one for the upper basin and one for the lower. In the lower basin, a specific set of water cutbacks, all tied to reservoir levels in Mead, were put in place. As levels falls, water cutbacks rise.

Those cutbacks began this year in Arizona.

But in the upper basin, though the states agreed to their own drought contingency plan, they still haven’t agreed on the biggest, most controversial of the plan’s elements: setting aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special, protected drought pool in Lake Powell. Under the terms of the agreement, the water would not have to be released to lower basin states under existing rules for balancing the contents of Powell and Mead, but would remain in Powell, helping to keep hydropower operations going and protecting the upper basin from losing access to river water if they fail to meet their obligations to Arizona, Nevada and California.

Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

The pool was considered a political breakthrough when it was approved, something to which the lower basin states had never previously agreed.

“It was a complete reversal by the lower basin,” said Melinda Kassen, a retired water attorney who formerly monitored Colorado River issues for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

But the idea was controversial among some powerful upper basin agricultural interests. Ranchers, who use some 80% of the river’s water, feared they would lose too much control of their own water supplies.

Seeking volunteers

As proposed, the drought pool would be filled voluntarily, largely by farmers and ranchers, who would be paid to temporarily dry up their hay meadows and corn fields, allowing the saved water to flow down to Powell.

Two years ago, when the drought contingency plan was approved, the four upper basin states thought they would have several years to create the new pool if they chose to.

But Powell’s plunging water levels have dramatically shortened timelines. With a price tag likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars, confusion over whether saved farm water can be safely conveyed to Powell without being picked up by other users, and concerns over whether there is enough time to get it done, major water players are questioning whether the pool is a good idea.

“It was probably a good idea at the time and it’s still worth studying,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, the largest water utility in Colorado. “But it can’t be implemented in the short term. We don’t have the tools, we don’t have the money to pay for it, and we don’t have the water.”

Neubecker has similar concerns. “I fear it’s going to be Band-Aid on an endlessly bleeding problem…we need to do more.”

Since 2019 the State of Colorado has spent $800,000 holding public meetings and analyzing the legal, economic and water supply issues that would come with such a major change in Colorado River management.

Still no decisions have been made.

A call to act

Becky Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is overseeing the analysis.

Aware of frustration with the state’s progress on studying the drought pool’s feasibility, formally known as its demand management investigation, Mitchell said the work done to date will help the state better manage the river in a drier future with or without the drought pool.

“We’re still ahead of the game in terms of what we’ve done with the study. The other states are looking at feasibility investigations but ours has been incredibly robust,” Mitchell said. “If we’re going to do it we have to do it right and factor all these things in. Otherwise we’re going to be moving backward.”

One example of a step forward is that new tools to measure water saved from fallowing agricultural land are now being developed.

A large-scale experiment in a swath of high-altitude hayfields near Kremmling has demonstrated that ranchers can successfully dry their fields and deliver Colorado River water to the stream in a measurable way, and the data is considered strong enough that it could be used to quantify water contributions to the drought pool.

Ranchers Joe Bernal, left, and his son Bryan inspect a feed corn field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

But other regulatory and physical barriers remain.

Under Colorado’s water regulations, rivers are only regulated where they cross state boundaries when water is scarce and the state would otherwise be unable to meet the terms of agreements with downstream states. But this is not yet the case on the Colorado River and its tributaries, so rules for determining who would get what in the event of cutbacks haven’t been developed.

In addition, because there has never been a so-called “call” on the Colorado River, the state has yet to require that all those who have diversion structures pulling from the Colorado River system measure their water use.

The situation is changing fast, though, with the 20-year drought and the storage crisis at Powell and Mead increasing pressure on state regulators to take action.

Now the state is taking steps to better monitor the river and its tributaries, moving to require that all diversion structures have measuring devices so it has the data it needs to enforce its legal obligations to the lower basin. If, for instance, some water users had to be cut off to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the state could manage those cutbacks based on the water right decrees users hold that specify amount and priority date of use.

Such data would also be needed to administer a mass-fallowing program to help fill the Lake Powell drought pool.

Kevin Rein, Colorado’s State Engineer and top water regulator, said what’s known as the mainstem of the Colorado River is fairly well monitored but major tributaries, such as the Yampa and Gunnison, are not.

“A lot of tributaries don’t have the devices,” Rein said, adding that the state doesn’t know the extent of the problem. “But in important areas a lot of commissioners know there is a significant lack of measurement devices and that makes water administration difficult.”

Joe Bernal is a West Slope rancher whose family has been farming near Fruita since 1920. He has water rights that date back to 1898 and, like others in this rich agricultural region, he and his family have abundant water.

Bernal was an early supporter of the drought pool. He and his family participated in an experimental fallowing program in 2016, where they were paid to dry up their fields. He’s confident the problems can be solved.

But he’s also worried that the 500,000 acre-foot pool may not hold enough water to stabilize the river system and that it may not be done fast enough.

“We want to be sure the solution does some good, but the clock is ticking,” he said. “We don’t want to change the culture of this valley or our ability to produce food. But I think things need to move faster. We are taking too long implementing these solutions.”

Checking the averages

As Powell and Mead continue to drop—they were roughly half full just two years ago— Mitchell and Rein are quick to point out that Colorado remains in compliance with the 1922 Compact, which requires the upper basin to ensure 7.5 million acre-feet of water reaches the lower basin at Lee Ferry, Ariz., based on a 10-year rolling average. Right now the average is at roughly 9.2 million acre-feet, although it too is declining as the upper basin’s supplies continue to erode due to drought and climate change.

The Colorado River flows past fruit orchards near Palisade, Colo. Credit: William Woody

Climate scientist and researcher Brad Udall has estimated that the upper basin may not be able to deliver the base 7.5 million acre-feet in a year as soon as 2025. But the upper basin would remain in compliance with the 1922 Compact even then because the rolling average remains healthy.

Still, if the reservoirs continue to plummet as quickly as they have in the past two years, when they dropped from 50% to 30% full, the upper basin could face a compact crisis faster than anyone ever anticipated.

Major water users in the state, such as Denver Water, Northern Water and Pueblo Water, have water rights that post-date, or are junior to, the 1922 water compact, meaning their water supplies are at risk of being slashed to help meet lower basin demands.

The big dry out

Many river advocates hope the drought pool is approved because they believe it is an opportunity to test how the river and its reservoirs will work as the region continues to dry out.

“What we knew in 2018 [when the drought pool was conceived] is that we have more to do,” said Kassen. The drought pool, she said, “was a big win and offers a way of testing what the upper basin can do. It’s squandered if they don’t use it.”

Neubecker and others say it’s becoming increasingly clear that the river’s management needs to be re-aligned with the reality of this new era of climate change and multi-year drought cycles.

And that means that water users in the lower basin and upper basin will need to learn to live with how much water the river can produce, rather than how much a century-old water decree says they’re legally entitled too.

“We’re facing a 21st Century situation that was totally unforeseen by anyone,” Neubecker said, “and we no longer have the luxury of time.”

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.

Get To Know Your River Basins — #Water for #Colorado

From Water for Colorado:

Our rivers are the lifeblood of the American West, and we all know that river and water management are both fundamentally important and infinitely complex, governed through a dizzying network of boards and contracts, local entities and statewide groups, individual expertise, and communal understanding.

Known as the “Mother of Rivers,” Colorado’s water impacts everyone and everything. It’s important that Coloradans from across the state have their voices heard as decisions about our critical waterways are made.

Photo Credit: Russ Schnitzer

It’s especially important to engage right now. The Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) — locally driven documents identifying goals and actions in each of Colorado’s nine river basins — are undergoing updates and will help inform the update of the state’s Water Plan, due to be final in late 2022. The public comment period for BIPs begins next week and represents a critically important opportunity to learn more, engage in local conversations, and help shape the content of these plans which inform how water is managed at a local level. Before the comment period begins, Water for Colorado has prepared this blog to help you and your community understand the world of river basins and roundtables, and how you can speak up to protect healthy rivers for all who depend on them.

Basins: In order to facilitate conversations around managing our water, Colorado developed nine unique Basins that encompass multiple rivers, natural or artificial boundaries, and watersheds. Each basin has its own governing body called a “basin roundtable” composed of local volunteers who plan and make decisions about how to manage precious water resources.

So why are there nine basins and basin roundtables? The concerns of the Arkansas Basin — from the San Luis Valley to the Eastern Plains, where agriculture reigns supreme — are different from the concerns of the Metro South Platte — where rapid growth and a booming population are key challenges — which are different from the concerns of the Colorado — where the conversations around America’s hardest working river are both intensely local and surprisingly broad. As such, having governing bodies familiar with the unique concerns and opportunities in each basin helps ensure that the management within each basin is driven by locals. This process allows for decisions to be discussed and decided by locals who deeply engage with the rivers that support our environment, economies, and Colorado way of life.

You can check out a map below to determine your river basin; and engage with the graphics at the bottom of this post to learn more about how each basin’s economy is impacted by the recreation in the area.

The eight major river basins, plus the Denver metro area, are shown on this map from the South Platte River Basin Roundtable. Each basin has its own roundtable, made up of volunteers, to address local water issues.
Credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

Basin Roundtable: The basin roundtables were developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2005 to “facilitate discussions on water management issues and encourage locally driven collaborative solutions” (CWCB Basin Roundtables). These roundtables are composed of local volunteer members who represent a variety of interests including basin agriculture, environment,and recreation. Each basin has its own bank account and funds local projects. Monthly meetings are open to the public, and are where funding and other strategic decisions are made. This means you, and others who care about water conservation can participate and help influence the decision making process. Better yet, you can join these meetings virtually from the comfort of your home.

Basin Implementation Plan: Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs) are developed by basin roundtables to help frame regional issues as part of the overall creation of Colorado’s statewide water plan. While the Colorado Water Plan seeks to address statewide water concerns, BIPs are more focused on local needs, plans, projects, and goals. The BIPs are developed by basin roundtable members with support from the community and ultimately help inform the statewide water plan as well as direct spending priorities for the Roundtables.

Yampa River. Photo Credit: Sinjin Eberle

Colorado Water Plan: In 2015, then-governor John Hickenlooper ordered the creation of a plan to help coordinate and manage Colorado water. That moment was the impetus for our nine partner organizations to come together to form the Water for Colorado Coalition. The Water Plan was written and developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board with support from stakeholders, interest groups, and the general public, who submitted 30,000 comments (which Water for Colorado played a major role in gathering) to inform the plan. The core values of the plan are designed to support a productive economy, create efficient water infrastructure, and protect the state’s diverse ecosystems. Colorado’s Water Plan remains a living piece of guidance that undergoes regular updates, the next of which is coming up in June 2022 — and is therefore already underway.

Want to learn more about where your water comes from? Check out our partner organization American Rivers’ Report, “Do You Know Your Colorado Water?”

Local engagement: Here’s where you come in!

The first step toward responsibly managing water is working to ensure the public helps shape these plans. Members of the public need to speak up ensuring environmental concerns are addressed in the BIP updates. There’s no one better suited to inform local planning than people like you, who live, work, and recreate in the basins and understand the critical role that water and healthy rivers play in our economy, environment, and everyday lives. In the coming weeks, Water for Colorado will share opportunities for you to engage in the update process for the Basin Implementation Plans during the public comment phase that runs from October 13 through November 15. This is a critical opportunity for you to make your voice heard! Until then, we hope that you share this blog with members of your community to help all Coloradans understand the role they can play in supporting Colorado’s rivers and water!

Interior official concerned by threat of falling water levels to #LakePowell operations — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #DCP

Lees Ferry streamgage and cableway downstream on the Colorado River, Arizona. (Public domain.)

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

An Interior Department official speaking Friday at a local forum voiced concern about continuing falling Lake Powell water levels that now pose the possibility of threatening hydroelectric power production at Glen Canyon Dam as early as next year.

Tanya Trujillo, Interior assistant secretary for water and science, addressed the topic during the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar, which was held at Colorado Mesa University and also in a virtual format. Some of the events involved simulcast presentations with the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School, which also was holding its own water conference this week.

Trujillo noted that last week, the Bureau of Reclamation indicated the potential of water levels at Lake Powell falling below the minimum power pool level of 3,490 feet above sea level as early as next July if the current streak of extremely dry hydrology continues into next year.

Beyond next year, Reclamation says there’s a 25-35% chance of Powell falling below that level over the next few years. Trujillo also noted that there is about a 90% chance that Powell’s water level over the next year will fall below the 3,525-foot elevation established to provide a protective buffer above the minimum power pool amount needed to produce electricity.

Trujillo called that prediction “very concerning” and said she’s particularly nervous about concerns related to the operational integrity at the dam due to low water levels.

“The engineers use words like cavitation and that gets my attention,” she said.

Cavitation can occur when oxygen mixes with water as levels drop, posing a threat of damage to power turbines. Lost power production also would result in lost revenue that pays for programs like salinity control and endangered-fish recovery in the Colorado River Basin. Also, if water could be released only through the dam’s bypass tubes and not through the power plant, that could threaten the ability of water to be delivered to downstream states at volumes required by a 1922 [Colorado River Compact].

Signing ceremony for the Colorado River upper and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans. Back Row Left to Right: James Eklund (CO), John D’Antonio (NM), Pat Tyrell (WY), Eric Melis (UT), Tom Buschatzke (AZ), Peter Nelson (CA), John Entsminger (NV), Front Row: Brenda Burman (US), and from DOI – Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Tim Petty. Photo credit: Colorado River Water Users Association

Under provisions of a 2019 agreement, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs with the goal of providing up to 181,000 acre-feet of water to Powell by the end of this year. Trujillo said she’s happy that talks continue among Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin regarding additional drought-response measures…

Below-average precipitation last winter was aggravated this year by factors such as warmer temperatures and dry soil conditions that resulted in even worse runoff levels. Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center and an instructor at Fort Lewis College, said at Friday’s forum that the region is starting to experience novel forms of drought, such as ones where, due to higher temperatures, drought conditions prevail after a normal amount of seasonal snowpack accumulation.

Colorado Basin River Forecast Center Drought Monitor 24 week change map ending September 27, 2021.

Thankfully, she said, monsoonal moisture this summer relieved drought conditions in the region somewhat.

A La Niña climatological pattern that is setting up for this winter could result in storms tracking further north, which Richard said might mean less precipitation in Colorado, but she said individual storms still can result in a significant amount of moisture in a given year.

Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain

Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist/scholar at Colorado State University, said reductions in annual precipitation in the months of March and April are aggravating the increased aridification occurring in the region, setting up a process of further drying out land in the summer when there are higher temperatures and reduced precipitation.

He’s also concerned by what he sees as a general trend of more aggravated declines in average streamflows in more southern river basins in the region during this century when compared to the period of 1906-1999. Flows in the San Juan River at Bluff, Utah, have fallen 30%, and flows of the Dolores River near Cisco, Utah, have fallen 21%.

Flows for the mainstem of the Colorado River are down around 5%, he said…

Trujillo said the federal government will be advocating for water conservation in all sectors, with opportunities ranging from more water reuse/recycling to irrigation efficiency…

Mrs. Gulch’s Blue gramma “Eyelash” patch August 28, 2021.

Andy Mueller, general manager of the river district, mentioned conservation opportunities ranging from replacing Kentucky bluegrass lawns with native vegetation, to farmers and ranchers potentially being willing to remove irrigation from marginal lands.

He called on various interests not to turn against each other as sometimes happens in societies when a resource gets scarce.