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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 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 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
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
University of Colorado Law School
October 1, 2021
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.
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.
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 email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
FromThe 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].
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.
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.
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…
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.
Colorado’s water forecast, already strained by back-to-back drought years, is unlikely to brighten this fall and winter, as forecasts indicate more dry weather lies ahead.
Water planners use something known as the water year to track and predict snow and rain, as well as winds and soil conditions. It begins Oct. 1, leading into the period of critical mountain snows and the spring runoff they generate, and estimations of what it will yield help farmers, cities and others determine how much H20 they will have to work with.
But water year 2022 is getting off to another dusty, dry start.
“The seasonal outlook is not pointing in a favorable direction,” said Peter Goble, a climate specialist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center. “We’re a lot better off than we were a year ago. Having blue skies as opposed to smoke is a big improvement, but we are going into water year 2022 on shaky footing.”
Goble was referring to Colorado’s disastrous fire season during last year’s drought, when the state saw three of the largest wildfires in its history erupt in late summer and early fall.
Last week, at a meeting of the state’s Water Availability Task Force, forecasters said Colorado was likely to experience another La Niña this coming year, a weather pattern that can bring healthy moisture to the Northern Rockies but which often leaves the southwestern portion of the state dry. Because 2020 saw the same La Niña develop, this year’s may bring less moisture.
In the broader Colorado River Basin, water storage levels continue to drop, with total storage at lakes Powell and Mead down to a combined 39% full, below last year’s already low 49% full mark, according to an update released Sept. 22 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Colorado River Basin is made up of seven states. Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico comprise the Upper Basin, while Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the lower basin.
In July, Reclamation began a series of emergency water releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs in the Upper Basin to help bolster Lake Powell and protect its hydropower generating stations. But conditions there continue to deteriorate.
Lake Powell could see just 44% of average inflows starting in October. Without a snowy winter and spring, hydropower generation at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam could come to a halt as early as July 2022, according to Reclamation.
“The latest outlook for Lake Powell is troubling,” said Wayne Pullan, director of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Region.
Weather experts are also deeply worried about a phenomenon that continues to grow in intensity: the arrival of healthy snows that evaporate or seep into parched soils, never reaching streams in the volumes they once did.
Karl Wetlaufer, who is assistant snow survey supervisor at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said water planners have long relied on a solid connection between snow and subsequent water supplies, where healthy snowpacks were reflected in healthy streamflows.
But with Colorado and other Western states mired in a 20-year drought, where soils get drier and drier each year, streamflow forecasts are becoming less predictable.
“Snowpack [last winter] was not terrible, but with those dry soils and a warm and dry summer we really saw dramatically decreased streamflows,” said Wetlaufer, who is a member of the state’s Water Availability Task Force.
In Northwest Colorado’s Yampa River Basin, snowpack peaked at 90% of average last winter, but streamflows this spring and summer reached only 30% of average.
“As long as I can remember, this is the most dramatic example of the multi-decadal drought’s impact. We are really going to have to start paying closer attention to these dry soils,” Wetlaufer said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
A thin haze appeared in the afternoon between our rubber boats and distant fins of burnt-orange rock, while a hot wind touched our faces, hands—any skin not taking refuge beneath cool, wet cloth. Later, the haze thickened, mixed with cirrus clouds and gave the golden-hour light a reddish tint.
The river still rushed by, and vibrant leaves in our camp’s young cottonwood gallery fluttered above me. The voice of the yellow-breasted chat that had berated us from cliff walls echoed in my mind, along with the scent of sage and sumac from a lunchtime visit to petroglyphs up a tributary canyon. I was fully immersed in this place, Desolation Canyon on the Green River in eastern Utah. No internet, no phone reception, no news or other distractions. Just the river, the canyon, and my companions on this week-long writing retreat.
But the sky’s tint and the hot wind hinted at what was happening outside the sheltering canyon walls. Record-breaking heat and nearby wildfires, starting early this year. The river itself gave more clues, to those who knew how to recognize them. Low flows and tame rapids, in June. A bear and cub were by the river when they should have been finding forage at higher elevations. We followed a long, irregular stripe of mineral crust punctuated by half-dead clumps of grass on the eastern wall. An extended seep that wasn’t seeping, the ghosts of hanging gardens.
Extended drought—or more accurately, aridification—is making its mark on the landscape and on people’s lives. News that I didn’t read during those days on the river was about ever shrinking forecast inflows into Lake Powell and how the states that share the Colorado River might manage reduced water supplies within a legal framework based on imagined bounty.
I write about these things, too, but on the river, I was trying to find words beyond my habitual short-hand to describe our hydrology and water policy developments. For over ten years, I’ve been learning and communicating about how people built an unbalanced system in the Colorado River Basin, constructing the plumbing for demands to exceed supplies, and how we can worm our way out of the worst consequences of that fundamental problem for fish and farms. I still think that matters, and I still think we have options.
But the river showed me that the transformation in our landscape is bigger than that, beyond the reach of our tinkering. Even far from ditches and diversions, seeps go dry and forage for bears thins out. We can micromanage irrigation water to get the most from every drop, clean up toilet water to a pristine state, and adjust reservoir releases to help endangered fish. We can pay farmers to fallow fields. But we can’t pay the hot wind to stop taking water from the sage, the sumac and the dirt. There’s no negotiating on this point, and no escape, not even in one of the most remote canyons in the lower 48.
Aridification carries a heavier emotional weight when I see it on the land than when I read papers about it or watch presentations in windowless conference rooms. It’s hard to see things change, irrevocably. To walk through a sick forest and know that it won’t grow back the same. To know that going away from people and the things we’ve built can’t actually take me back to a less damaged state of nature.
Since that trip down Desolation Canyon, back home in Grand Junction, Colorado, the temperatures have eased from the 100s into the 90s, and the summer rains we’ve missed for a couple of years have come back. It’s a welcome respite, and the dwarf ash and pinyon pines I see on my trail runs look perkier than they have in ages. I know these rains aren’t enough to reverse the harsh trend we’re in, but they lift my spirits and give all living things a break, a chance to gather strength before facing the next onslaught of hot wind.
We can’t turn back the clock and we can’t run away, but we can gather strength from an unexpected storm. We can diligently tinker where tinkering can work. And we can dip cloth into cool water, feel it dribble across our skin, and listen to the birds as we drift down the river.
Colorado state health officials said they’re hopeful a recent federal court ruling that effectively overturned Trump-era rules reducing oversight of Western rivers and streams will allow states to revert back to a more protective standard.
“We are aware of Arizona’s court decision and are following what it means for other states, especially arid states such as Colorado. We are hopeful the Arizona ruling will apply nationwide because it has the potential to allow states to revert back to standards that protected our state waters more,” said Trisha Oeth via email.
Oeth, who is the environmental health and protection policy director at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), also said the state understood the need to ensure that more certainty regarding the regulations was critical to protect all the interest groups affected by them.
The Trump rule sought to overturn Obama Administration rules that expanded the scope of the Clean Water Act. But Aug. 30, the Arizona court rejected it, saying it harmed streams in Western states and ignored important science. It has directed regulators across the country to use a set of rules developed prior to the Obama Administration’s actions until the Biden Administration can develop new regulations.
Since 2019, when the Trump-era rule was finalized, the CDPHE has been working, without success, on a proposed permitting program that lawmakers would have to approve. The permitting program would have covered streams and rivers left unprotected by the Trump rule. The so-called dredge-and-fill permits proposed by the state would be required when activities such as road and home building affect streams no longer covered by the Trump rule.
But farm interests, developers and contractors remain concerned that the Clean Water Act (CWA) rule, known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, will remain mired in legal battles and regulatory uncertainty, delaying projects and raising their costs.
“It’s a big fear of ours,” said Zach Riley, the Colorado Farm Bureau’s director of public policy. The organization, which has 23,000 members, had supported the narrower WOTUS rule.
The political seesaw has been going on for decades with the CWA legally hamstrung over murky definitions about which waterways fall under its jurisdiction, which wetlands must be regulated, what kinds of dredge-and-fill work in waterways should be permitted, what authority the CWA has over activities on farms and Western irrigation ditches.
Administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, the CWA is credited with making U.S. waters some of the cleanest in the world. But it has also been difficult to administer, in part because the country is home to widely different geographies and because of numerous court cases that have altered how it is interpreted by different presidential administrations.
Western states have been particularly concerned because in the Midwest and East, for instance, major rivers that carry barge and shipping traffic are clearly “navigable,” the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that often don’t flow year round and don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. Over the years many of those streams too became protected by the Clean Water Act.
The Trump administration’s WOTUS rule, however, excluded them, saying that only navigable streams would be regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states that don’t flow year round or carry commercial shipping traffic would no longer have been protected.
Whether Colorado can or should craft a new permitting regulation that will remove it from the political back-and-forth that has dogged WOTUS and provide industry and environmental groups with more certainty isn’t clear yet.
The CDPHE has not yet said what it plans to do, saying it is still analyzing the Arizona decision.
“At the state level, it will be interesting,” said Alex Funk, senior counsel and director of water with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which has advocated for a new state permitting program. “We’re still supportive of a state program to get out of this habit of having new WOTUS rules every four years…we need something that will survive at the federal level.”
Still others want the CDPHE to take a breather, to wait and see how the EPA and other agencies interpret this latest ruling before trying to create a new state regulation.
“Given the pace of change and the multiple rounds of litigation, the state could take more time to discuss what’s needed,” said Gabe Racz, an attorney who represents water utilities and industry at the Colorado Water Congress.
And Racz said he believes there is a chance that the Biden Administration will be able to craft new rules that can endure at the federal level, regardless of who is in the White House.
“The Biden Administration announced they planned to develop a durable rule. I’m hopeful. That’s a step in the right direction,” Racz said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
The federal agency that distributes electricity from hydropower plants in the Upper Colorado River Basin will ask its customers, including more than 50 here in Colorado, to help offset rising costs linked to Lake Powell’s inability to produce as much power due to drought.
The Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which distributes Lake Powell’s electricity, is gathering public comments and asking its customers how best to cope with long-term drought conditions that have pushed Powell and other reservoirs to historically low levels.
As flows in the Colorado River have declined due to climate change and a 20-year megadrought, there is less water in its storage reservoirs and, therefore, less pressure to power the turbines, causing them to generate less electricity.
WAPA has had to nearly double the amount of extra power it has had to buy this year to ensure it can meet its contract obligations to its customers.
“It’s all bad news, but it isn’t necessarily unexpected,” said WAPA spokesperson Lisa Meiman.
WAPA power is among the most sought-after in Western states because it is sold at cost and because it is a renewable power resource, something highly valued in places such as Colorado, where utilities are working to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
WAPA often buys extra power if for some reason its customers’ electricity needs don’t match up with its hydropower production on a given day. It delivers power over a 17,000-mile transmission grid to six states and 5 million people.
But as flows in the Colorado River have shrunk, those purchases have become larger and more frequent.
Last year it bought an extra 413,000 megawatts of power. This year it has already purchased 833,000 megawatts of additional power, according to Meiman, and the agency expects that number to grow this year and likely again next year as the drought continues with no relief in sight.
This year, because of the power demands of the West’s growing population and the need for air conditioning to combat ultra-high temperatures, power costs are already soaring.
Last year WAPA paid $25 per megawatt for its replacement power, Meiman said. This year it is paying $33 per megawatt, a 30% jump.
In Colorado, WAPA sells power to some of the state’s largest electric utilities, such as Tri-State Generation and Transmission, as well as cities, small towns and rural electric co-ops.
“We’re watching the situation closely,” said Natalie Eckhart, a spokesperson for Colorado Springs Utilities, which is a WAPA electric customer and which also draws a significant portion of its water from the Colorado River system.
“The bottom line is we care about this on all fronts,” Eckhart said.
Few expected power generation at Lake Powell to decline so quickly. The Colorado River Basin serves seven U.S. states and 30 Native American Tribes. For months, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have been nervously watching what’s known as the minimum power pool level at Powell, the lowest elevation at which power can be produced, which is 3,490 feet. If the reservoir drops lower than that, all hydropower production will stop.
In July, as water levels at Powell continued to plummet, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, as part of the Upper Basin’s Drought Contingency Plan, began emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs to boost levels and protect Powell’s hydropower production.
And while those releases are expected to help keep the turbines functioning, the releases won’t be enough to restore them to full production, leaving WAPA little choice but to look at restructuring the way it sells power and to raise its prices.
WAPA is forecasting a 35% increase in its costs, but is working to minimize the impact on utilities that purchase its power and anticipates a 12% to 14% rate increase as early as December. Some utilities are preparing to buy power elsewhere, when possible, to reduce their costs.
Holy Cross Energy, a rural electric co-op based in Glenwood Springs that is also a WAPA customer, has spent years converting its power portfolio from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources including wind, solar and biomass, as well as hydropower.
While WAPA electricity comprises just 3% of its power portfolio, Holy Cross CEO Bryan Hannegan is worried that this renewable, low-cost power source is in jeopardy if flows from the Colorado River into Lake Powell continue to decline, as they are projected to do.
“It’s one of the cleanest and lowest-cost sources of power for a whole range of utilities,” Hannegan said. “It’s been a bedrock on which we built the West. For it not to be available … it’s a big deal.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
AT THE END OF A UNIQUE WATER YEAR, COMES A UNIQUE WATER SEMINAR.
Water year 2021 was a wake-up call for water users across the Western Slope of Colorado. Extreme or exceptional drought conditions persisted for months as dry soils and historic high temperatures lowered streamflow. Agricultural users faced impossible choices while local municipalities dealt with aging water infrastructure in the wake of devastating wildfires. Downstream, Lake Powell dominated national headlines with plummeting levels, and the Drought Contingency Plan played a role years earlier than most expected.
Yet many of the stories which came out of this incredibly difficult year were ones of innovative solutions and never-before-seen partnerships. Collaborative projects upgraded irrigation infrastructure, increased streamflow, and even delisted 66 river miles from the Impaired Waters list.
Setting historic precedents in hydrology, 2021 also did much to highlight the ability of water users to reach across their differences in order to build a future for West Slope water together.
Wake-up Call on the Colorado River is a seminar which will face the harsh economic and environmental realities of this past year, along with a study of practical solutions and future collaboration.
Hannah Holm, the director of the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University co-wrote a Colorado River study in collaboration with Kelsea MacIlroy and The Nature Conservancy
As a headwaters state, Colorado has many interstate compacts that set rules for how the state must share the rivers that originate within its borders with downstream states. On several of these rivers, water users have had to modify their water use to meet compact requirements. That day may be coming for the Colorado River. A new report explores what Colorado River water users can learn from experiences with compact administration on other rivers.
Interviewees warned against relying on courts to rule in Colorado’s favor in compact cases or on optimistic estimates of water availability. They also described how communities have developed their own, proactive measures to promote compact compliance and address other water supply challenges in ways that have fewer negative impacts than externally imposed mandates. Necessary conditions for doing so include an ability to work well together, precise water-use measurement and initiating action well in advance of a court order. On a more technical front, interviewees emphasized how accurate measurement of all water use was necessary for enhanced water management, as well as making the Colorado’s case for its own water use in discussions with other states.
This study was conducted by Kelsea MacIlroy, co-written by Hannah Holm and funded by The Nature Conservancy. MacIlroy is a PhD candidate in sociology from Colorado State University and the principal of MacIlroy Research and Consulting, LLC. Hannah Holm directs the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.
The report was presented at the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference in Steamboat Springs on August 24, 2021, and will be presented at the September Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting.
“Across Colorado and the West, communities are experiencing greater frequency and extent of drought leading to increased variability in streamflows. As water managers grapple with the consequences of changing water supplies, there is great value in looking toward neighboring communities for lessons learned,” Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservation District and the Rio Grande Basin’s representative to the Colorado Water Conservation Board said. “The report detailing “Lessons Learned from Colorado Experiences with Interstate Compact Administration” relies on voices of water users and administrators to detail personal and regional experiences including what has gone well and where they would do things differently if given the chance. While the focus of the report is on compact administration, the lessons learned touch on broader water management topics and highlight how communities are better off when stakeholders are working toward a common goal. Therefore, I feel this report is a must read for all Coloradoans that care about our collective water future.”
Alex Funk, agriculture and rural resiliency policy specialist for the Interstate, Federal, and Water Information Section at the Colorado Water Conservation Board also commented on the recent report.
“The stories shared in this report highlight the value of proactive dialogue and actions on water management challenges ranging from climate change to compact compliance.,” Funk said. “Collaborative, proactive actions and solutions give local communities and water users more agency and opportunities to adapt to changing conditions in ways that provide long-term benefits for all water users.”
On the question of water measurement, John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District said, “A valuable takeaway from the report is recognizing the importance of accurate measurement. That is a good lesson for Colorado River water users as the State Engineer commences measurement rule making.”
A low snowpack, absent monsoon rains, dry soils, record-high temperatures and thirsty crops made 2020 the third-driest year on record in Colorado, and, according to the Colorado Climate Center, it was the first time since 2012 that 100 percent of the state was in drought for some portion of the year.
A repeat of similar conditions in 2021 is making Colorado’s continuing drought across broad swaths of the state’s Western Slope even more devastating.
“At any given time you can find drought somewhere in our state,” said Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger during a state Drought Task Force tour in Northern Colorado last week. “This may not be the worst drought we’ve ever had, but what makes this year particularly bad is that it follows on the tail of two other droughts [in 2019 and 2020]. We don’t have enough time [between droughts] to recover from the previous drought before we’re in the next one.”
Nowhere is that more clear than in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, where Monday the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared the drought situation so extreme that for the first time in history Arizona and Nevada will see their annual water supplies drawn from Lake Mead dramatically reduced.
Closer to home in Colorado, west of the Continental Divide, the state has experienced 50 consecutive weeks of category D4 drought, the most extreme drought condition, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Whether the fall and winter will bring any relief isn’t clear yet.
“I’m not particularly optimistic, unfortunately, about the coming winter,” said Peter Goble, a climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center in Ft. Collins. Goble said La Niña conditions will return for the fall and winter, bringing the potential for more moisture in the north and western parts of the state, but there is little indication that the Four Corners region will get any benefit. In addition, because 2022 is shaping up to be a second La Niña year, “events tend to be warmer and dryer,” he said.
Bolinger described the Colorado River Basin as being at a breaking point and the current drought affecting Colorado, Utah and Arizona as “the final straw that might break the camel’s back.” Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the downstream catchalls, have dropped to historic low levels. The lakes will never be 100 percent full again, said Bolinger, “unless we have 10 amazing winters in a row. The amount of water we have isn’t enough to meet expected demands so in the next 5-10 years we’re going to have to rethink how all of these states are supposed to equally share the water.”
Ranchers across Western Colorado are witnessing water shortages never seen before.
Cattle and sheep are being sold off early. There hasn’t been enough water to grow enough hay. Normally full stock ponds are dry. Grasses are dying. Weeds and grasshoppers are rampant.
“In 40 years this is the first time we’ve had to haul water to our cattle,” said Chad Green, owner of the Little Bear Ranch in the Yampa River Basin. “Usually our irrigation water runs until July 1. This year it was shut off on May 29. We harvested our wheat crop for hay. The past two years have been bad. But this year,” Green paused, “this year is horrible.”
But it’s not just farmers who are suffering. Those who rely on the state’s iconic rivers for recreation are also seeing the devastation this multi-year drought cycle has imposed.
“This river is critical to our community’s health,” said Kara Stoller, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber. Like other mountain communities, Steamboat is home to an array of outdoor gear companies and tubing and rafting companies. And the ski resort relies on the river for snowmaking.
This summer the river has been closed to recreation on multiple occasions to relieve stress on the fish population.
“Our water resources are our lifeblood,” said Stoller.
Bolinger doesn’t feel the “doom and gloom on a state level” that she feels for the entire Colorado River Basin. “But when people talk about drought, they talk about the new normal. We haven’t gotten to the new normal yet. We’re on the climate change train and things are still changing. Where we land will ultimately dictate what things look like.”
To Marsha Daughenbaugh, a 4th generation rancher near Steamboat Springs, the relentless dry spells are about much more than the condition of the local ranching economy.
“This is just one ranch, one county, one region, one state, but really, this is the story of the whole West,” Daughenbaugh said.
Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
The Bureau of Reclamation has declared the first-ever official shortage for the lower Colorado River basin, which requires delivery cuts to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico under the 2007 Interim Guidelines for operating Lakes Mead and Powell. The determination was made in response to the Mead elevation projected in the August 24-month Study. This Fact Sheet by the Bureau explains how the declaration was made, how much deliveries will be reduced and details about drought response operations. Under the shortage, Arizona will lose about 18% of its Colorado River supplies, the largest cut. This Central Arizona Project page has details on how the cuts will be allocated and how the state is responding.
More than 50 people ranging from legislative aides to state department heads participated in an on-the-ground opportunity to learn about the extreme drought in Northwest Colorado during this week’s Drought Impacts Tour in the Yampa and White River Basins.
On two warm, hazy days, state and local leaders conversed during bumpy bus rides and educational stops at ranches, lakes and the Yampa River in Routt and Moffat counties. During the tour, participants and educators discussed many aspects of drought impacts such as agricultural livelihood, recreation, tourism, wildlife, water, wildfires and forest management.
“I have been learning way more than I ever expected on this drought tour. Hearing directly from ranchers and the things that they are experiencing is truly eye-opening and wonderful,” said Becky Bolinger, Ph.D., assistant state climatologist who works at the Colorado State University Colorado Climate Center. “We do know that the climate is warming, and with that warming climate, we are experiencing more frequent droughts, more severe droughts. These are things that all Coloradans are going to have to deal with.”
Bolinger said a key point people need to realize is how to make the connection between climate science information and residents’ own changes in work practices, especially in agricultural and tourism businesses. Bolinger said the facts of the shifting climate need to translate into changes in business practices and seasonal offerings in order to prepare for a warmer, drier future in Colorado.
“Knowing that they are already prepared by improving their management practices and other things to mitigate the impacts but also to adapt, hopefully it’s not always going to be this doom and gloom situation when we are talking about climate change,” Bolinger said.
The atmospheric scientist said Coloradans should focus on “always working on actionable solutions and getting through this together.”
The tour was organized by the Colorado Drought Task Force, which includes directors of multiple state departments such as natural resources and agriculture. The task force operated in past times of drought and was activated again by the governor in 2020. Task force information listed online (http://cwcb.colorado.gov/drought) notes that water year 2020 concluded as the 12th warmest water year on record in Colorado since 1895 and the third driest water year on record, trailing only 2002 (driest) and 2018 (second driest)…
Gov. Jared Polis joined for part of the tour on Wednesday in Moffat County including a picnic at Loudy-Simpson Park south of Craig…
One message from the tour is that drought-related financial assistance and grant opportunities are broad and plentiful at this time. Leonard encouraged agencies, nonprofits and agricultural producers to review funding options found at http://cwcb.colorado.gov/drought-assistance.
For example, the Colorado Department of Agriculture is promoting new stimulus funding available as of July 1, including $2.5 million to expand market opportunities for funding for Colorado Proud producers, $5 million to expand agricultural efficiency and soil health initiatives, $30 million for agricultural revolving loan and grant programs including for individual farmers and ranchers, and more than $1.8 million for agriculture drought resiliency activities that promote the state’s ability to anticipate, prepare for, mitigate, adapt to or respond to drought.
The CWCB Agricultural Emergency Drought Response Program has a $1 million fund available on a rolling basis that provides immediate aid for emergency augmentation water during drought years in the form of loans or grants.
The Division of Water Resources is holding a webinar on a number of West Slope water issues and water issues of concern to all Coloradans, including upcoming measurement rules and consideration of establishing the Yampa River Basin in certain select areas as over-appropriated.
The webinar will discuss the phases and timing of measurement rulemaking and how the public and interested parties can provide comments or participate in upcoming stakeholder events. Also to be discussed are explanations of short-term and medium-term activities and plans to prepare for potential rulemaking for Compact Administration Rules. Time will be left towards the end of the webinar for questions and answers from participants.
WHO: State Engineer, Kevin Rein and Deputy State Engineer, Mike Sullivan, Colorado Division of Water Resources
WHAT: Webinar on Upcoming West Slope Measurement Rules and other water issues WHEN: Thursday, August 19, 2021, 6 PM to 7 PM
From the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association via The Sterling Journal-Advocate:
The Colorado Conservation Tillage Association will offer certified crop adviser credits for 29 sessions at the High Plains No-Till Conference on Aug. 24-25 in Burlington. One continuing education credit for licensed qualified supervisors, certified operators, and private applicators will also be available.
Geared toward supporting producers in the High Plains region, this year’s event will take place at the Burlington Community and Education Center. Joni Mitchek, CCTA Coordinator, said the crop adviser credits approved include seven in Nutrient Management, three in Soil and Water Management, one in Integrated Pest Management, 15 in Crop Management, and three in Professional Development.
“We are excited to be able to offer this selection of credits and educational sessions for this year,” Mitchek said. “Whether attendees would like to learn more about cover crops and grazing management or carbon markets and estate planning, there will be a great slate of speakers to hear from throughout the conference.”
Among the speakers scheduled to present at the event are keynotes Alejandro Carrillo, Loran Steinlage, and Dr. James White. Carrillo specializes in adaptive grazing in brittle environments, while Steinlage is a no-till producer from Iowa, and Dr. White is a professor of plant biology at Rutgers University.
Other highlights for the High Plains No-Till Conference include an ag-specific trade show, outdoor equipment display, and Beer & Bull Social. A full schedule and more information about the High Plains No-Till Conference can be found online at http://www.HighPlainsNoTill.com.
Online registration is available through Aug. 20, and walk-ins are welcome for the event. The $180 registration fee includes lunches, snacks, and access to all sessions and the trade show for both days.
Additional questions may be directed to Joni Mitchek at 1-833-466-8455 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Rauch and his family have operated the Cedar Springs Marina here since 1986. But three weeks ago, when the federal government suddenly ordered millions of gallons of water to be released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir down the Green River to Lake Powell, Rauch wasn’t prepared.
“It was a total gut punch,” he said on a recent hot, sunny morning. As visitors trekked down to rent his pontoon boats, and others slid their fishing craft into the reservoir, Rauch and his employees were already planning which boat docks and ramps would have to be relocated to keep them afloat. The reservoir is projected to drop as much as 2 feet a month through the fall as water is released.
Drought has plagued the Colorado River Basin for 20 years, but it hit crisis proportions this summer, pushing lakes Powell and Mead to historic lows and triggering, for the first time, emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs.
All told, 181,000 acre-feet of water are to be sent to Lake Powell by the end of December. Powell has dropped so low that its hydropower plants, which supply millions of homes with electricity and generate revenue for such things as a critical Colorado River endangered species program, may stop operating as early as next year if water levels continue to drop as they have been. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates there is a 3 percent chance of this occurring next year and a 29 percent chance of this occurring in 2022. But given the speed of the Powell’s decline, no one wants to risk a hydropower shutdown.
Since their construction in the 1960s these reservoirs, known as Reclamation’s Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs, have acted as a giant savings account, helping ensure that if a crisis erupted on the river, the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico would have enough water on hand to fulfill their legal obligation to deliver water to Nevada, Arizona and California, known as the Lower Basin states.
Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, part of the Aspinall Unit, is already low, at just 43 percent of capacity as of last month. Fed by the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, the reservoir is tourism hot spot on Colorado’s West Slope.
Kathleen Curry, a former Colorado lawmaker, sits on the Colorado River District Board. She said she understands the need for the releases, but she said the changes in the shoreline at Blue Mesa aren’t going unnoticed.
“It’s taking residents and visitors by surprise, just because I don’t think anyone was expecting it,” she said.
The releases come under a special Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan approved by Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in late 2018. A similar drought plan is in place for the Lower Basin, and they have been cutting back withdrawals from Lake Mead for the past two years.
Still the river system is drying out. And water leaders in Colorado are deeply worried that their carefully protected savings account is going to dry up too quickly to solve the Colorado River’s long-term problems.
Will it work?
“I understand and support the necessity of the Secretary [of the Interior] taking this action,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water. “The major concern I have is that Reclamation says the 181,000 acre-foot release will raise Lake Powell three feet. But I don’t know that they can even show that. I don’t know that they have accounted for transit losses and other losses.
“It’s important when these releases are made that they are accounted for, that we know where this water is going. If it doesn’t actually get down to [Lake Powell] to accomplish what it was designed to do, we should have kept it in that savings account,” Lochhead said.
Becki Bryant, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River region, said the agency is working to create a hydropower buffer in Lake Powell and believes the releases are adequate to accomplish that. But Reclamation is not yet doing the kind of precise tracking and accounting known as water “shepherding,” to ensure flows make it downstream, that Lochhead is requesting.
On Aug. 1, Lake Powell’s elevation stood at 3,553.8 feet above sea level. The action point, or so-called target elevation is 3,525. When that point came close in July, Reclamation moved quickly to order the emergency releases.
Powell’s hydropower plant stops generating power when it drops to 3,490 feet in elevation, according to Reclamation.
“Reclamation expects the additional release of water will be sufficient to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation through 2021. That target elevation provides a 35-vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.
“Shepherding water would be beneficial but is challenging on many levels for Colorado River Basin states,” said Bryant via email.
Bryant said Reclamation will continue to consult with the Upper Basin states as it monitors reservoir levels and weather forecasts. Should conditions deteriorate further, the agency could examine whether to declare the releases futile and stop them, as it is allowed to do under the 2018 Drought Contingency Plan.
The water being released is so-called “system water,” meaning that it isn’t owned by a particular user.
Held by the federal government for the benefit of the Upper Basin states, the amounts of water specified in the release plan are jaw-dropping: 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge; 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa; and 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover one acre of land to a depth of 12 inches.
If that same amount of water were going to cities, it would be enough to serve more than 362,000 homes for one to two years. If going to farms, it could irrigate more than 113,000 acres, depending on the crop.
If the historic, 20-plus-year drought cycle doesn’t end soon, refilling those reservoirs is going to be difficult. And that has water managers worried.
“My level of concern is quite high,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water planning and policy agency. She also sits on the four-state Upper Colorado River Basin Commission, which advises Reclamation on river issues.
“And I can’t tell yet if [the releases] are going to do the trick,” she said. “But we have to respond to the levels in Powell.”
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Colorado and the other Upper Basin states must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) [per year, 75 maf per 10 years] of water to the Lower Basin on a 10-year running average. Right now, the Upper Basin is delivering roughly 9.2 maf, Mitchell said, meaning that there is still time to help the system come back into balance before the Lower Basin states could legally call for more water than they currently receive.
Lake Powell is the Upper Basin’s largest storage pool on the system and is designed to be the four Upper Basin states’ major source of protection. Because of their legal obligations, Colorado water users are closely monitoring this year’s plunge in Powell, with the threat to hydropower production being seen as a dangerous antecedent to a compact call.
“That the system continues to deteriorate is concerning,” Lochhead said.
Roughly half of Denver Water’s supplies are derived from water rights it owns on the Colorado River system. While one portion of its portfolio dates back to 1921, and would therefore trump a 1922 compact call, several other rights were established later, meaning the utility might have to stop pulling from those water sources if Colorado were forced to cut back in order to meet compact obligations.
Other Front Range water providers, who also have Colorado River rights, are even more vulnerable, including the Pueblo-based Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
Southeastern’s rights date only to 1957.
Contingency v. reality
Lee Miller, Southeastern’s attorney, said the Colorado River crisis remains a long-term problem for his agency.
The rapid deterioration this year, however, is prompting everyone to rethink how much time they have to balance the massive river system as drought and a warming climate, as well as population growth, continue to sap its flows.
“Both the Upper and Lower Basin have now had to initiate elements of their drought contingency plans. When we passed it a couple of years ago everyone thought, “It’s good to have a contingency plan.’ But I don’t think anyone thought we would have to use the plans this quickly. It’s gone from being a contingency to being a reality, and that’s concerning.”
Back up at Flaming Gorge, John Rauch is watching the levels drop and making his own contingency plans.
“We are planning for the worst,” Rauch said. “For the foreseeable future, the outlook is dry. If it ends up that by the end of all of this that the reservoir becomes a river channel, we will be down there at water’s edge selling worms.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Registration is officially open for the 2021 Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference and we couldn’t be more excited to welcome you all back to Avon, Colorado, this fall.
As we’ve mentioned, this year’s conference will take place in a hybrid format, with the option to attend in person or virtually via the virtual conference platform. Whether you’ll join us in person or on screen, we’re thrilled to welcome you back as we convene Together Like Never Before.
2021 Conference Highlights & Details:
The conference structure this year is new and refreshed, with an in-depth (in-person) workshop day planned with experts for Tuesday, Oct. 5 that will include concurrent sessions
All conference attendees will gather (both in-person and virtually) on Wednesday, Oct. 6 as we hear from featured speakers and participate in interactive sessions as one group
Thursday, Oct. 7 will consist of off site field trips at various locations to be facilitated around the state
Oct. 5 workshop topics include: Funding, Fire & Resiliency, Water 22 Public Awareness, Watershed & Forest Health, Stream Health Evaluation Frameworks, Water Quality, Community Collaborations, Innovations, and Uncommon Partners
Oct. 6 topics include: Keynote and Featured Speakers, Colorado Water Plan 2.0, Adapting to Western Megafires, Including People for More Equitable Solutions, and closing remarks
Other elements of the conference will include favorite activities such as the Poster Social and Happy Hours as well as innovative ways to engage with each other with new events like guided Fireside Chats
An abbreviated conference agenda can be found HERE.
The Chatfield Reservoir south of Littleton was built as a flood control measure after the devastating floods in 1965 and is the centerpiece of a beloved state park. But it now serves a new purpose: providing more water storage for the Front Range without adding a major footprint. After a three-decade planning process, the reservoir level was raised 12 feet and storage space has been reallocated to add 20,600 acre-feet of storage, including an environmental pool of up to 2,100 acre-feet.
“At first blush, this doesn’t sound so complicated. You’re taking water storage that already exists and making it multi-purpose storage without any impacts to the dam itself,” says Charly Hoehn, general manager of the reallocation project. But it was the first project of its kind in the state, so Hoehn’s team had to act as “guinea pigs” on permitting and mitigation issues.
While the project didn’t require new dam construction, it was not without challenges. State park facilities had to be moved, and there were environmental concerns, like the removal of trees and wetlands to accommodate the higher water level. The Audubon Society of Greater Denver unsuccessfully sued to stop construction, citing impacts to birds and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. Polly Reetz, the Audubon conservation committee chairperson, says she continues to question “whether this would even work at all” with the project’s relatively junior water rights and doesn’t think it was worth impacting “a very important birding area.”
Other green groups worked with project organizers on a mitigation strategy that placed a value on each piece of land that would be affected (accounting for impacts to wetlands and animals), then found other areas to offset any damage. The result was significant restoration to flows on nearby Plum Creek and bank stabilization primarily upstream on the South Platte River to prevent erosion. The environmental pool will accommodate timed releases to help address some low-flow conditions downstream on the South Platte River. Final approval and the completion of mitigation work in 2020 allowed the new storage to begin, but Hoehn says that the low spring runoff allowed only a “marginal amount” to be stored in its first year.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Karina Puikkonen):
Ranches are critical to the Rocky Mountain region, serving as the West’s water towers, food providers, land stewards and hubs of local economies and communities. With ranch managers now in high demand but in short supply, Colorado State University’s new Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship program is designed to help fill the gap and preserve this critical role.
The new graduate-level program in the Warner College of Natural Resources builds on the expertise of college researchers, faculty and staff. Warner College professors have worked on sustainability and improving rangelands and the environment with ranchers, farmers and herders around the world, from Colorado to Mongolia.
“CSU and our college provide the perfect starting points for this new program,” said Dean John Hayes. “We have an incredibly strong group of researchers in several departments, including ecosystem science and sustainability, forest and rangeland stewardship and in the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory in the Warner College. It’s an honor to have been approached by members of the ranching community to launch this program and to partner with them.”
A business, natural resource and place of retreat and respite
Ranch owners view the forests and rangelands on their properties through multiple lenses: as a business growing traditional and non-traditional livestock, as a place offering hunting and fishing opportunities, as a natural resource with forest management and preservation needs, and as a place of retreat for themselves and guests. Managing all these values requires a unique combination of knowledge, skills and experiences.
Photo credit: Paul Evangelista via Colorado State University
Photo credit: Tony Vorster via Colorado State University
The new program features academic and research components across the university, according to CSU Research Scientist Paul Evangelista.
A new Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship specialization for the master’s degree in natural resource stewardship is housed in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship. A second facet fosters research on these working landscapes with the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory (NREL) at CSU. The third leg is a partnership with CSU Extension and ranching-affiliated organizations to develop an apprenticeship program that builds knowledge and skills for a working ranch manager.
CSU Research Ecologist Paul Evangelista assisted with creating the new program. He said ranchers recognize that today’s values, needs and technologies are different in many ways from those of their grandparents.
“Every rancher knows they have to diversify their operations to live with the land,” said Evangelista, also an assistant professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. “This program is founded on establishing a basic ecological understanding of the land itself before deciding how to manage for it.”
The additional knowledge and pool of managers this program will produce can ensure that ranching practices continue working in tandem with ongoing changes in the land and in society.
A collaborative approach
The Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship program is unique in that it is largely informed by the Rocky Mountain ranching community. Tim Haarmann, a manager at the Banded Peak Ranch near Chromo, Colorado, saw the need for a specially trained Western ranch manager because of the region’s diverse climate, ecology and natural resources.
“Colorado and the surrounding states are unique because of the Rockies,” Haarmann said. “We have a lot of ranches with varied elevations and topographies. These high elevation areas provide a unique set of challenges and opportunities for ranching.”
Haarmann earned a doctoral degree in ecosystems ecology from the University of New Mexico, worked for the federal government as a land manager, operated a personal cattle business and has been a ranch manager for the last 15 years. It’s unlikely that anyone more qualified could have approached Evangelista and CSU Professor Emeritus Bill Romme about organizing a formal program to develop ranch managers with a breadth of knowledge and experience.
This connection between ranchers and scientists became the first step in figuring out how to develop a community-led program that benefitted the landscapes and livelihoods of the ranching community while also fulfilling the university’s land-grant mission.
“CSU is doing an excellent job in providing a hands-on approach to experiential education,” Haarmann said. “Ranchers don’t usually have the resources or ability to conduct the needed training or research and the university can offer this.”
The ranching community and CSU have already formed a unique partnership: All members of the program’s steering committee work in or with the ranching community and will provide expertise, offer their land as classrooms, and even help fund the program through private donations, while the university provides the education and training for students.
“That says a lot about how invested the ranching community is with this program in belief and need,” Evangelista said.
A natural resource-ranching experience
Offering the program at the master’s degree level allows students to apply the backgrounds they’ve gained from past ecology, agriculture and natural resource courses and experiences directly on these ranches.
“Ranch management is multifaceted and complex,” said Tony Vorster, a postdoctoral fellow in NREL who helped to develop the program. “It forces you to bring all these different disciplines together. Ranch management and ecosystem stewardship can be intimidating topics, but all backgrounds add knowledge to these conversations and skills to related solutions.”
Vorster and Evangelista have firsthand experience applying their own scientific expertise while developing ranching skills during the program’s development. This varied from conducting a thorough landscape assessment to learning how to repair broken fences and equipment.
This exchange of knowledge is at the core of how the Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship program will develop the modern Western ranch manager. Ranchers, natural resource professionals and academics will all learn something new. Evangelista said these private lands offer new and exciting conservation and management opportunities for land stewardship.
“The ranch owners we are working with are always finding new ways of doing things,” Evangelista said. “It’s a great way for science and management to come together.”
To address the water needs of a growing population amid shortages, the Colorado Water Plan in 2015 set a goal of attaining 400,000 acre-feet of new water storage by 2050.
Colorado is working its way toward that goal, but building new storage is easier said than done. Increasing environmental and social concerns, limited geographic locations, and even more limited water rights have made many traditional reservoir storage projects tougher to build. On top of that, long-range forecasting — to figure out how much water is going to be available to be stored — has become especially difficult as a result of climate change.
An April 2020 study published in the journal Science found that the American West’s current drought is as bad or worse than any in the past 1,200 years of tree-ring records. Ordinarily, storage would be the obvious solution to drought and dry years. You collect moisture in wet years and save it for times of need. But climate change has created a catch-22. Storage may be necessary, but it has become more challenging to build and less water is available to capture.
Dan Luecke, former director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Rocky Mountain office, says these challenges have upended a philosophy long built on risk analysis to one defined by “decision-making under uncertainty.”
“For a long time, we’ve known there’s risk but we could look to the historical record to manage it,” says Luecke. (Luecke also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). “With climate change, that record is called into question … The nature of the game has changed.”
The cascading challenges of climate change have led water managers to think creatively about alternatives to traditional infrastructure. Greeley, for example, replaced a plan to expand an existing reservoir with one that will store water underground. Front Range districts collaborated to reallocate the space in Chatfield Reservoir, a flood storage basin, raising the water level to add permanent water storage supply. As part of the Basin Implementation Plan for the Yampa/White/Green River Basin, water managers are exploring putting reservoirs high in the mountains to limit evaporative loss.
Decision-making under uncertainty makes it all the more complicated for water providers to meet Colorado’s water needs and has caused many to reexamine what a smart storage project is made of — one that can help meet water supply goals for many water users while respecting the environment, one that is also acceptable to stakeholders, and one with minimum impacts so that it can make its way through the permitting process. Water managers are growing increasingly innovative, out of necessity, to develop water storage projects that will work.
Reservoirs under Climate Change
It’s not simply a matter of how much water is available to store. Everything from the location and size of reservoirs to the timing for capturing runoff and for making releases is being reviewed. Various climate models, including those used by the Colorado Water Conservation Board for state water planning, project warmer temperatures that will affect evaporation rates in rivers and reservoirs and seasonal shifts in precipitation, including reduced mountain snowpack and earlier runoff. Earlier and reduced flows could, for instance, necessitate dams releasing water earlier to meet demand.
Temperature rise, too, makes storing water a challenge. Any pool will lose water through evaporation, and more during hot, dry times, but the loss is worse for reservoirs at lower elevations with more exposed surface area. The science used to estimate evaporative loss is imprecise — estimates could be off by as much as 20 to 30 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is conducting a study to refine its methods. Even so, a 2018 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society study estimated that losses from Lake Powell and Lake Mead could total as much as 15% of the annual upper basin allocation among Colorado River Basin states, or five to six times the annual water use of Denver. The same study said that summer evaporation rates may have risen by as much as 6% over the last 25 years.
The National Climate Assessment, published in 2018, states that climate change is fueling stronger storms that could overwhelm dams and infrastructure designed to capture more moderate storm surge flows. It’s also intensifying wildfires that destroy landscapes, load reservoirs with sediment, and threaten water delivery infrastructure.
The 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan lays out a number of alternatives to new traditional storage projects, including rehabilitating existing infrastructure, reallocating flood storage to active storage, and using below-ground aquifer storage alternatives. While the options are vast, the update says that to meet the state’s goals, “at least some new large reservoirs are needed.”
But building those reservoirs also requires water to fill them, says Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. Water rights are not as easy to come by in an era of constraint. Any new water rights claimed today are junior in the state’s legal priority system, making storage necessary to capture peak flows after all senior water rights are satisfied. But as climate change shifts the timing and magnitude of peak flows, reservoirs may not be as effective a tool for managing junior water rights.
“A dam is a bit like opening a bank account, there has to be something to put in it,” Udall says. “Ultimately, everything bends to the hydrological realities of what the supply is.”
The Jigsaw Puzzle
The era of uncertainty doesn’t just make individual storage projects a puzzle — the long-range plans that help utilities figure out what storage they need are now a tangle of variables. Balancing climate-complicated precipitation projections with population and water use trends, regulatory changes, and competition for resources can make the standard planning process a head-spinning endeavor.
When Colorado Springs Utilities started updating its 2017 Integrated Water Resource Plan (IWRP), the utility wanted a “comprehensive view” that would take a hard look at risk analysis, says water planner Kevin Lusk. Colorado Springs doesn’t sit on a major river system and relies on storage in remote watersheds to manage its variable supply. In the early 2000s, the utility’s water yield saw a 600% difference between the driest and wettest years.
Realizing that a backward-looking dataset might no longer apply to a present and future defined by climate change, the utility took a state-of-the-art new approach to its planning process. Recently, Colorado Springs partnered with the consulting firm Black and Veatch, which expanded the multi-objective evolutionary algorithm (MOEA) to utilities to help them assess the complexities in planning. The machine learning tool can project thousands of possible futures using precipitation, temperature and hydrological factors, then help planners narrow down their range of possible options.
“As these plans get so big, it’s hard for the human mind to comprehend them,” says Leon Basdekas, a private consultant who worked at Colorado Springs Utilities, then Black and Veatch, designing and managing the utility’s IWRP. “This tool allows you to evaluate complex planning options in ways that would be impossible to do otherwise.”
For Colorado Springs, the advanced IWRP process helped water planners see a range of climate and streamflow possibilities, then identify 14 storage options that could meet future water demand. Some, like a potential new reservoir on Williams Creek or one upstream of Rampart Reservoir, have been under discussion for years. Others are more general concepts without specific sites, such as gravel pit storage along the Arkansas River. Among those identified projects, Colorado Springs has also been exploring Eagle River storage options, including the potential Whitney Reservoir, to collect and store Western Slope water, although nearby towns and others have objected to possible impacts on the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. Lusk says Whitney Creek alternatives are “one of many possibilities” and that the IWRP analysis even considers “less tangible characteristics” like community values and opposition to any individual project when optimizing storage opportunities.
More than anything, Lusk says, the advanced modeling helped the utility gain a better appreciation for the full scope of storage and transmission. The “a-ha moment,” he says, is seeing how one individual new reservoir may not mean as much for the system as, say, shoring up existing pipelines to make the already-built system run more efficiently.
“We can’t just look at storage on its own, it’s a package deal with supply and conveyance,” Lusk says. “This is a complex jigsaw puzzle.”
When Mitigation Meets Enhancement
To the north, the Northern Integrated Supply Project, or NISP, has been moving through a decades-long process to obtain the necessary permits and to gain the favor of local stakeholders. NISP has been reshaped, with operational changes and environmental improvements now built in, in response to stakeholder concerns.
Northern Water’s project, if fully approved, will build two reservoirs, one northwest of Fort Collins off the Cache la Poudre River and another northeast of Greeley, to deliver nearly 40,000 acre-feet of water a year to 15 communities and irrigators along the Front Range. With the population of northern Colorado expected to double by 2050, backers say that such a large shared storage project is necessary to efficiently serve booming towns like Erie, Windsor and Severance. Through water exchanges with farmers — which will average about 25,000 acre-feet per year — and the purchase of conservation easements on farms, Northern Water says the project will also help farmers reduce the negative impacts of buy and dry by keeping water on farms while serving the growing Front Range population.
But supplying those growing towns will necessarily require impacts. NISP will involve constructing the 170,000 acre-foot Glade Reservoir (to accommodate the reservoir, seven miles of U.S. Highway 287 will be relocated) and the 45,600 acre-foot Galeton Reservoir. Northern Water will also build another forebay reservoir, five pump plants, and 80 miles of pipeline.
That kind of construction naturally attracted opposition from environmentalists and some communities. Concerns include that taking water out of the already-stressed Poudre River could reduce its crucial spring peak flows, which flush sediment downriver and restore habitat.
Several environmental reviews as part of the permitting process concluded that the need for storage was there, even after accounting for planned water conservation savings. With so many communities involved, scrapping the collaborative project, as some environmental groups advocated for, would leave them all competing for limited resources.
“I think quite a few participants who saw [NISP] as a [potential] future supply are now looking at this as the future,” says Christopher Smith, general manager of the Left Hand Water District and chairman of the NISP participants committee. “I don’t think anyone is left who is speculating on this. It’s necessary.”
So Northern Water started looking for what project manager Carl Brouwer calls “the wow factor.”
“We really changed our perspective to thinking about how we could put water back and be a part of the preservation of the Poudre River,” Brouwer says.
Project proponents added an estimated $60 million in mitigation and enhancement measures, bringing the total estimated project cost to about $1.1 billion. The idea is that water would be released from Glade Reservoir year round and no water will be diverted to storage when flows dip below 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the summer and 25 cfs in the winter to eliminate spots where the river already dries up. Collection operations will be adjusted to keep peak flows in the Poudre River two out of every three years, and 90% of the time little or no diversion will take place during peak flows. Organizers will also build new fish passage structures and improve 2.4 miles of stream channel near a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) fish hatchery north of Fort Collins.
The mitigation and enhancement plan received unanimous approval from CPW and the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2017, and the Colorado Water Quality Control Division approved the project’s 401 Water Quality Certification in 2020. NISP has continued moving through the federal permitting process, with final approval expected this spring or summer.
Karlyn Armstrong, water project mitigation coordinator for CPW, says that the flow program will be a benefit to the river. “Currently the river goes dry in places — once the program comes online, the river will have water 365 days a year through the conveyance flow reach,” Armstrong says. “Aquatic life will benefit from sustained minimum flows.”
Critics remain. In August 2020, the Fort Collins City Council voted 5-1 to oppose the project, citing the potential loss of spring flows, and some environmentalists say communities should explore options with less of an environmental footprint.
But Brouwer says that the project, combined with Northern’s efforts on conservation and water exchanges, should set the new standard for infrastructure in the state with its environmental focus.
“What really changed was embracing the enhancement part of mitigation and enhancement. We can make it better,” Brouwer says. “We’ve set the bar pretty high and I do think this will become the norm.”
Improved or not, some still say a large storage project like NISP shouldn’t happen at all. Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates has been a long-time opponent of NISP and in 2012 released an alternative plan it said could meet the needs of Front Range communities without the footprint of new infrastructure. The nonprofit’s “Better Future” alternative included conservation tools that would offset 20,482 acre-feet of use by 2060 and apply reuse technology to another 4,905 acre-feet. Combined with flexible water sharing agreements between agricultural users and municipalities and more thoughtful expansion onto previously irrigated agricultural land that could come with water rights, WRA says their plan reimagines what adding supply could look like.
“We know we need more storage going forward, but new storage doesn’t have to be connected to new development,” says Laura Belanger, water resources engineer at Western Resource Advocates. “Alternative supply portfolios that include reuse or conservation can mean storage that optimizes existing supplies more efficiently.”
WRA’s plan as an alternative to NISP was rejected in 2018, as were all other alternatives proposed during the public comment period, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued NISP’s Environmental Impact Statement, saying that these options “did not meet the project’s purpose and need and practicability screening criteria.” WRA says it relies on different calculations than the economic reports backing NISP and has continued to update its alternative in a series of recent comments on the NISP proposal.
Whether or not it could replace NISP, the “Better Future” model represents how some are thinking about limiting demand as a way to reduce the need for additional storage. Aggressive conservation has started to decouple water use from population growth in some cities across the West; a survey of 20 Western cities published in the journal Water found that between 2000 and 2015, total water use dropped 19% while populations increased by 21% on average. Denver Water has reduced per capita water use by 22% over the past decade.
The City of Aurora has also made conservation and reuse a foundational part of its water plan, including more efficient landscaping requirements, rebates for low water-use appliances, and requirements that new developers make their buildings less wasteful. Tim York, the city’s water conservation supervisor, estimates that it costs about $600 in staff time and resources for each acre-foot of water conserved, compared to about $25,000 per acre-foot for water acquired on the open market.
That doesn’t mean Aurora isn’t looking for more storage. The city is moving ahead on the proposed Wild Horse Reservoir project, a 96,000 acre-foot storage site in Park County.
“There’s always going to be more to be done from conservation and efficiency. At the same time, you can only get so low,” says York. “You get to a point where you need storage. The mindset that you can conserve your way out of any drought is just not realistic.”
Many small- and medium-sized utilities don’t have the staff to mirror Aurora’s efforts, but Belanger says that the strain on resources under the drought makes it necessary for all municipalities to embrace conservation.
“The more efficient existing and new development is, the more water you can have in the supply,” Belanger says. “Managing the demands of your community produces sustainable savings.”
Can Restoration Double As Storage?
Some advocates say it’s time to think beyond cement and instead embrace natural watershed restoration as a storage solution.
In its 2016 Water Plan, the State of California declared that source watersheds would be considered “integral components of water infrastructure,” putting reviving watersheds on essentially the same level as building new dams or pipelines. While Colorado hasn’t adopted similar language yet (Montana is the only other state to do so), there is increased attention to restoring watersheds as an ecological tool with water storage benefits.
“Our water has so much to do, we should give it a longer reach and take advantage of all the benefits,” says Abby Burk of the Audubon Society. “When water is in rivers instead of sitting in reservoirs, there are so many more benefits that support healthy, thriving ecosystems.”
Snowmelt and storm events, for instance, flash quickly through incised streams that are disconnected from their floodplains. Healthier connected floodplain-riparian areas can restore plant life, recharge underground aquifers, preserve flows for aquatic species, and even reduce flood risk. Water in the ground also won’t evaporate like it does from reservoirs. However, it’s less clear if this restoration work can provide the kind of material storage benefits providers want to see.
“We’re careful about saying that restoration of floodplains and wetlands does not produce more water, but it can change the timing,” says Jackie Corday, a consultant working with American Rivers on healthy headwaters issues. “The water can be attenuated [by absorption into the restored floodplain], the runoff is slowed when it’s stored as groundwater, then it slowly gets released throughout the summer instead of all at once.”
Stretching natural runoff releases into the hot summer months could help farmers irrigate for longer growing seasons without storing water above ground, but little research has quantified that potential. Researchers are eyeing projects meant to mimic beaver structures to see how they change flows. A project that’s currently underway to restore floodplains and wetlands upstream of Grand County’s Shadow Mountain Reservoir could offer a good model; preliminary assessments from that project are expected by the end of the year.
According to Melinda Kassen, senior counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, restoration fits into a more natural philosophy of water systems. She hopes to see more municipalities begin to view natural infrastructure as just as valid as traditional infrastructure.
“You just have to remember that there is an alternative, and sometimes that’s hard when you’ve done something one way for 150 years,” Kassen says. “When we talk about water storage now, one of the first things we say is that we should be looking at green infrastructure instead of gray.”
A bigger way of thinking is taking hold in the South Platte River Basin, home to approximately 70% of the state’s population and its largest projected water supply gap. The South Platte Basin Implementation Plan, completed in 2015 to inform the state water plan, showed that, with a population expected to reach 6 million by 2050, there could be a maximum annual water supply gap of 540,000 acre-feet.
The “status quo” strategy to fill that gap for cities is buy and dry, says Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in northeastern Colorado. Frank has always worked on behalf of the water users in his district, but as water stresses increase, he is thinking more creatively about the future of agriculture by “providing water security for both” farms and cities.
There are more water rights on the South Platte River than there is water to fulfill them in most years, which is why buy and dry — where cities purchase senior agricultural water rights, drying up a farm and gaining the priority to divert that water when flows are low — has been attractive to municipalities. As an alternative, new storage might help. Some flows are available for capture, just not every year. The South Platte Storage Study, ordered by the Colorado Legislature in 2016 and completed in 2017, found that while flows were extremely variable between 1996 and 2015, a median flow of 293,000 acre-feet per year in excess of South Platte River interstate compact obligations crossed the state line into Nebraska. The amount of water that could be put to use in Colorado is much less, the study found, but additional South Platte storage could help with a variety of things — from compact compliance to water sharing agreements to river flows and to better utilizing reusable return flows from upstream municipalities. It also found that a combination of storage pools working conjunctively up and down the river could be more beneficial than individual reservoirs.
To explore ways to move beyond individual reservoirs to close the gap, Frank and other water managers throughout the basin are collaborating on the South Platte Regional Opportunities Water Group, or SPROWG, and working toward a system-wide approach to storage and water use.
In a feasibility study published in March 2020, SPROWG members identified four alternative concepts that could help close the supply gap without diverting additional water from the Western Slope or buying up valuable water rights from local farmers. The study analyzed the potential to store between 215,000 and 409,000 acre-feet of water in various generalized locations between Denver and the Nebraska state line. New storage would rely on available flows not obligated to existing water rights, water that can be reused, or temporary lease agreements with farmers. Stored water would then be used locally, transported through a pipeline for regional use, or exchanged between locations.
The idea, said SPROWG advisory committee member Lisa Darling, was to think regionally instead of by district, to move water where it’s needed at any given time.
“Maybe there was this sort of older water buffalo thinking in the past, but I think we know now that we can’t develop projects in a vacuum anymore,” says Darling, the executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. (Darling also serves as president of Water Education Colorado’s Board of Trustees.) “There’s a holistic system and that’s the prism we have to look through now.”
Dan Luecke, who fought multiple large infrastructure projects across the state, says he’s been encouraged by an increase in innovation where cities and growers are thinking more collaboratively on both storage and use. In an era of constraints, he says, it will take all users — even those across state lines — working together to think about creative and efficient approaches to the storage dilemma.
“If we could get cities and irrigators to agree to some kind of combined management scheme, we might need more storage but we could look at it in a more integrated and efficient context,” Luecke says. “It’s not about storage for this user or that area, it’s about an entire system that’s more flexible.”
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.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources:
The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) launched a statewide public safety and digital media campaign around low head dams on Colorado rivers and streams.
Low head dams are engineered structures built into and across streams and river channels and represent a serious drowning hazard causing several accidents and fatalities in recent years.
“Led by the Department of Natural Resources, the low head dam initiative is a positive step to increase public safety and awareness around low head dams across Colorado,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director of Colorado DNR.
Low Head Dam Safety Campaign Awareness
Designed to educate the public about the presence and necessary safety precautions surrounding low head dams to convey the drowning dangers that low head dams present to river users. Public safety at low head dams is becoming an increasingly important issue as the population of Colorado increases and citizens recreate more and more on waterways within the state.
“Together with our partners, the goal of this campaign is to improve public safety and encourage river users to know their risks before they enter a Colorado waterway,” stated Bill McCormick, P.E., P.G., Chief of the Division of Water Resources Dam Safety Branch and chair of the Colorado Low Head Dam Safety Steering Committee, a multi-agency effort formed in 2019 in the interest of river safety.
The safety campaign takes aim at Colorado’s river recreationists and visitors. It includes radio, digital and social media education and awareness content. Other elements of the effort will include training for first responders who conduct rescues at low head dams and signage at selected low head dam sites to direct river users to safety before going over the dams.
The official kick-off was held at River Run Park in Sheridan, CO. It included representatives from the Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance (Amber Weber), American Whitewater (Hattie Johnson), Mile High Flood District (Laura Kroeger), Public Safety Advocate and former State Legislator (Ruth Wright), Wright Water Engineers (Andrew Earles), and first responders specializing in swift water rescue (Technician Kyle Purdy, Denver Rescue One).
What is a Low Head Dam?
Low head dams are engineered to divert streams and rivers for agricultural, municipal, and industrial uses; to prevent erosion and degradation of stream channels (grade control structure); and in recent years have been engineered to provide recreational amenities for boating, rafting, and tubing. An example of a recently constructed combination grade control and recreational structure is at River Run Park in Sheridan, CO. Diversion structures can be difficult to detect by uneducated river users approaching from upstream. Once river users go over a diversion structure low head dam, they can become trapped, and it can be extremely difficult to get out. Unfortunately, this situation has resulted in many drownings.
Despite a stubborn, 20-year drought and reservoirs whose supplies are below normal, Colorado communities remain split on whether to impose permanent outdoor watering restrictions, according to a Fresh Water News analysis of local watering rules.
According to the analysis, which examined rules in 15 cities representing the state’s different geographies and major population centers, eight of the cities surveyed have enacted permanent restrictions. Seven cities have not, opting instead to enact variable, temporary watering rules each year.
But when communities do impose permanent rules, rather than adjusting them each spring depending on snowpack and reservoir levels, significant savings occur, with some communities seeing reductions of more than 40 percent in peak summer water demand, according to a recent study by Alliance for Water Efficiency, a nonprofit representing water and wastewater utilities across North America.
Those kinds of statistics helped Steamboat Springs last spring make the move to permanent water restrictions. Steamboat limits customers to watering their lawns three days per week based on the last digit of their address — even numbers can water on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays, while odd numbers can water on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The new rules also limit outdoor watering to between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m.
After years of variable outdoor watering rules that fluctuated depending on drought conditions, Steamboat Springs residents embraced the new permanent schedule right away, according to Kelly Romero-Heaney, the city’s former water resource manager who earlier this month became Assistant Director for Water at the Department of Natural Resources.
“Coloradans are ready to take this step,” said Romero-Heaney. “There really is no reason to water irrigated sod every day, unless it’s getting heavy use like you would see at a soccer field or a community park. It just makes perfect sense. We also recognize that it’s not fair for us to say to the Front Range utilities, ‘You need to conserve more, you need to conserve more, that’s your problem,’ if we’re not conserving ourselves. We wanted to lead by example.”
For its permanent watering rules, Steamboat Springs drew inspiration from the handful of other Colorado cities — both on the Front Range and in the mountains — that have made outdoor watering rules the norm, instead of the exception.
Some city and utility leaders say the watering rules help residents to permanently change their outdoor watering behaviors, given the aridification of the West and the accelerating pace of climate change. Others continue to monitor drought conditions throughout the summer months and adjust their watering rules depending on the current severity.
Permanent watering rules have indeed helped some Colorado cities reduce their outdoor water use, which can represent as much as half of all domestic water use. Castle Rock, for example, has seen a 20 percent reduction in per-person, per-day water use since enacting its permanent watering rules in 1985.
But city leaders also view permanent watering rules as just one tool in a broader water conservation toolbox, along with education and outreach, water-wise landscape and fixture incentives, tiered rate structures, and strict enforcement measures.
Conservation experts agree, noting that permanent watering rules aren’t a silver bullet and that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to water supply and demand management.
“You can’t prescribe a blanket strategy across every water provider typically,” said Bill Christiansen, director of programs for the Alliance for Water Efficiency. “It’s not fair to say a certain strategy would work for every water provider. You have to do what makes sense for your area.”
Why watering rules?
In the broadest sense, watering rules — both permanent and temporary — help utilities manage peak demand, the period of time when water use is the highest. In most communities, peak demand occurs during the summer, when residential and commercial customers water their lawns and gardens. These rules help ensure that utilities have enough supply to meet the needs of their customers. During drought, when water supply is low, many communities enact or tighten watering rules to help lower the demand for water.
“Outdoor water use can often represent a very large percentage of a water provider’s portfolio, and the capacity of a system is built to meet peak water use,” Christiansen said. “If outdoor water use can be reduced, it can be a very effective way to reduce water consumption. It can also be very helpful if a community is facing the need to expand their capacity — they can lower that peak and avoid or downsize any capacity or expansion projects. That can save ratepayers a lot of money if a large investment can be avoided.”
In a recent study, the alliance found that mandatory watering restrictions of all kinds lead to significant decreases in water demand. Some cities involved in the study saw up to a 42 percent reduction in peak monthly demand. Meanwhile, voluntary watering restrictions produced no statistically significant difference in water demand.
When comparing permanent versus temporary watering rules, the study found that water demand rebounded after cities lifted temporary drought restrictions, while cities that made watering restrictions permanent saw very low levels of rebound. Strong messaging and enforcement, as well as drought surcharges, were also important for reducing demand.
“Increasing rates is often the most effective tool for achieving water savings,” according to the study.
“New” water supply for development
Some growing Colorado cities view permanent watering rules and other conservation measures as a “new” source of water, because these measures help buy them more time before they have to seek out other, often costly new water supplies in advance of future development.
That’s been the case for Aurora since 2002, when the city first enacted its permanent rules limiting residents to watering no more than three days a week and, from May 1 to Sept. 30, to watering before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m.
But watering rules are just one piece of the puzzle in Aurora. The city also has a tiered rate structure, enforcement measures for violators and many financial incentives for water-conserving landscaping and devices; Aurora also re-uses much of its water through its innovative Prairie Waters system. These and other conservation efforts appear to be working, too. Since the early 2000s, Aurora’s water use has declined 36 percent, resulting in some of the lowest per-person water use on the Front Range.
“Aurora is not fully developed,” said Marshall Brown, general manager of Aurora Water. “We’ve got water supplies that are conservatively or easily able to meet the demand of our existing population. But we do have to continue to acquire supplies to meet future growth and demands that we know are coming our way. So with that, probably the easiest water supply we have is to extend our existing supplies. That’s the least costly option for us.”
Other city leaders view permanent watering rules as a way to change their residents’ and businesses’ behaviors. Instead of flip-flopping between various watering schedules and rules throughout the summer, residents simply adapt to the new norm and move forward.
That was one big reason Thornton adopted permanent watering rules in March, where watering is limited to three days per week between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. At the same time, the city also updated its code to include beefed-up enforcement measures for leaks and other water-wasting behaviors.
“Planning for drought is one thing — we’ve got these short-term strategies where we reduce demand or grab extra water, but one of the real strains on all of our systems is the aridification of the region,” said Emily Hunt, deputy infrastructure director for Thornton Water, which also has a tiered rate structure and various water-wise incentive programs. “We’re becoming progressively drier and warmer and that’s a challenge to plan for. We have to be able to rely on consistent behavior change from our customers and just a consistent ethic and not this, ‘Oh, we’re in a drought we’re in an emergency,’ like the crash-dieting approach. We need more of a sustained nutrition approach.”
The same is true for Colorado Springs, which enacted its permanent watering rules in January 2020. After years of messaging and education around droughts, the city’s customers immediately adapted to the new watering rules, said Julia Gallucci, water conservation supervisor for Colorado Springs Utilities.
“We started communication on May 1 and by the first week in July, we could see by usage that the majority of our customers were all watering no more than three days a week, which was really encouraging,” Gallucci said.
In the first year under the new rules, Colorado Springs saw a 1 percent reduction in commercial irrigation and a 4 percent to 5 percent reduction in residential irrigation, Gallucci said. Those initial numbers were right on target with the city’s goal of contributing 11,000 to 13,000 acre-feet to its supply through conservation over the next 50 years through the watering rules and other measures.
“This is one of the best ways to implement a water conservation ethic across the community, because instead of being really mindful of drought in drought years, we’re mindful of it year after year,” Gallucci said. “Unlike drought response, when you’re trying to manage a dearth in water supply for a shorter period of time, these are planning well out into our future. It was kind of amazing how quickly and supportively our community responded to our water-wise rules last year.”
Of course, if cities are conserving water for future use, they need to have somewhere to store it, Gallucci pointed out. Water storage projects can be expensive and unpopular among some residents, but they’re an important piece of the equation.
“Conservation can only contribute so much to supply,” Gallucci said. “If you use none, you’ll have all of that to use later. But when you curb your water use by 5 percent each year, you have to have the storage to keep that additional water to use later on. Conservation and storage is this really careful and important balance in Colorado. Every large provider is considering different ways to expand their storage as a form of taking care of their supply.”
That’s the main reason Durango has not enacted permanent watering rules, according to Jarrod Biggs, the city’s assistant utilities director.
“We did a pretty thorough and thoughtful evaluation of this when we were developing our drought management plan,” Biggs said. “It seems like a rational exercise, it drives conservation. But we’re a surface supply city, we don’t have significant reservoir space to speak of and so if we enact watering restrictions, we’re just letting the water go by us. There’s the old adage that canals move water in space and reservoirs move water in time. We don’t have enough of that time machine in the City of Durango and we’ve built our policies around that.”
That’s not to say that Durango encourages residents to use water needlessly. In fact, the city has some “pretty punitive” tiered pricing for heavy users, Biggs pointed out. In the meantime, Biggs is pursuing other ways to boost supply in Durango, including using water from Lake Nighthorse, part of the Animas-La Plata Project.
“I’ve got a two-pronged approach,” Biggs said. “Let’s push and strive and discuss and encourage conservation because that will push out the investment that we need to make in additional water supplies, but at the same time, let’s pursue those investments in water supplies because we know they’ll only be more expensive in the future.”
The City of Boulder also continues to make outdoor watering decisions each spring, looking at drought indicators and the city’s water supply status after May 1. Instead of permanent watering rules, the city relies on tiered water prices, customized water budgets for customers, and incentives and education to encourage conservation.
“So far, while current conditions are drier than normal, our snowpack and reservoir levels are looking sufficient enough to not require restrictions,” said Kim Hutton, Boulder’s water resources manager. Still, she said, “Due to drier conditions, we continue to encourage water customers to use water efficiently.”
Since Colorado communities are at different points in their water conservation journey and are facing their own unique challenges, the path forward will look different for every city.
Some communities are installing automated metering infrastructure systems, which they hope will help water users track and better manage their water use in real-time. Others are providing grants to homeowners’ associations and working with developers to encourage more water-friendly landscaping in neighborhoods.
But according to conservation experts, even those cities with the most robust water-saving initiatives underway must keep working, as a good water year here and there isn’t likely to alleviate the West’s long-term drought.
“All the strategies we have at our disposal for water conservation and efficiency fall along a spectrum,” says Waverly Klaw, director of resilient communities and watersheds for the Sonoran Institute, a Tucson-based conservation organization. “It’s important to keep moving in the same direction of greater and greater water savings. Some communities might have permanent watering schedules and that’s great, and that will save them a certain amount of water, but they should continue to look forward and look at additional opportunities and strategies to go beyond that. One tool or strategy doesn’t solve the whole problem.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Join us in Northern Colorado this summer as we visit areas impacted by the states worst wildfires. We will also view ongoing infrastructure projects and water operations using innovative approaches to meet future demands.
Kestrel Kunz is surfing, Colorado style, in her kayak among the waves at the Gunnison Whitewater Park a few miles west of town. The waves are more than recreational play for Kunz. Flowing water is an important part of the work she does for American Whitewater as the organization’s Southern Rockies associate stewardship director. For Kunz, the Gunnison River is like a watery crystal ball that gives her a glimpse into a future increasingly threatened by drought and climate change.
Kunz is the mastermind behind a prototype web tool developed by American Whitewater and the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District that may change the future of river management across Colorado and eventually the West. The tool, the Upper Gunnison Basin Boatable Days Web Tool, is based on historical wet and dry year flows and other data and gives river users and water managers the ability to check an entire season’s flow forecast.
The Boatable Days Web Tool, Kunz said, “shows the relationship between river flow and recreational opportunities. With a little research we can use historic flows to project how a dry or wet year, a new diversion project, a climate change scenario, or reservoir operations can positively or negatively impact river recreation opportunities and thus Colorado’s robust outdoor economy.”
Being able to look ahead is an especially important feature for the state’s fishing and rafting outfitters, Kunz said. “The web tool will give an estimation on what flows are going to look like and how that is going to affect the number of commercial operating days in an upcoming season and help them plan in advance.” If outfitters know they’re not going to have sufficient boatable flows in September and October they might bring employees in earlier or may have to shift the way they do business and when they do it.
Kunz sees the tool as an opportunity for water managers both locally and at the state level to use the information to better balance flows for recreation with other needs. “This tool provides an important snapshot into how recreation opportunities are going to be impacted by drought. The web tool in no way is going to solve our drought problem, but it’s a critical piece of the puzzle that’s been missing before now.”
Kunz and American Whitewater are currently working to fit other pieces of Colorado’s river puzzle together by finalizing boatable days studies on the Roaring Fork, Crystal, and Poudre rivers and creating similar web tools.
“I think the biggest thing the tool does is give us a perspective on how climate change and drought are impacting our rivers,” said Sonja Chavez, general manager of The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. Chavez believes the next step will be to gain a better understanding of how changing river flows affect the local economy.
“Gunnison has been discovered,” Chavez said. “We have a lot of people visiting and a lot more people on the river.” As river flows drop, rafters, boaters, and other water users are concentrated into certain segments of the river with more frequency, impacting the fishery and wildlife, boat ramps, wetlands and the boating experience. You can see in water short years how that recreation season is shortened and that’s important for a community like Gunnison that is dependent on recreation.
This web tool is going to be a good model for how communities can come together and identify how their rivers are functioning,” said Trout Unlimited’s Dan Omasta. Omasta was TU’s grassroots coordinator during the development stage of the Boatable Days Water Tool and worked with Kunz and American Whitewater to identify ideal flow ranges for fishing and floating, and the high and low thresholds for navigation.
“When is the river too low to float for a dory or raft with clients?” said Omasta. “The tool will especially help identify sections of river that become unnavigable at certain flows. The Taylor and Gunnison rivers are seeing a lot of pressure. They get busier every year and one of the ways to tackle that challenge is to spread people out and encourage them to be floating and fishing different sections.
“More people are recreating on rivers and that’s awesome to see. We just need to be smarter about how we manage it and hopefully this tool can play a part in that,” Omasta said.
Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Since the 1970s, scientists have been interested in how runoff in the Colorado River Basin (CR Basin) would change as the climate warms. Many of these studies strongly suggested that the Colorado River (CR) would lose flow
with warming, but in the last few years, scientists have been able to analyze a de- clining 22-year flow record, the ongoing 2000-2021 “Millennium Drought”. Multiple studies since 2016 have now found human fingerprints on the nearly 20% loss in flow since 2000 and attribute up to half of that loss to the approximately 1.2°C or more warming that has occurred during the last century. This article summarizes six key peer-reviewed studies related to the topic of CR flow loss. These studies have found declines in runoff efficiency, investigated the causes of flow loss, and in some cases made projections about future flow declines based on the 21st-century climate model projected temperatures.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register for the information session on June 10, 2021:
Water Education Colorado and Fresh Water News are excited to partner with the Colorado News Collaborative, Gates Family Foundation and Colorado Media Project to bring this new opportunity: “Water Fluency for Journalists!”
Interested journalists are invited to apply by June 23 to increase your water knowledge and receive a $1,000 stipend toward participation.
Colorado’s water future is at risk now more than ever. Facing a growing population, warmer climate, longer growing season, decreased snowpack, and earlier runoff, the state’s water supplies are increasingly taxed to serve competing interests. Hundreds of thousands of residents are new to Colorado and unaware of the fundamental challenges faced by their new home state. Even for Coloradans who consider themselves “natives,” many grew up in urban areas with little or no awareness of where their water comes from, how it is managed, or the risks to and opportunities for ensuring a sustainable future.
Strong water journalism is vital for developing more knowledgeable and engaged Coloradans. Yet as the number of professional journalists has been cut nearly in half over the past 15 years, there are fewer and fewer Colorado reporters dedicated to covering this important issue. Today many journalists covering water for local news outlets are generalists, and may not feel confident covering the often complex topics of water management, water rights, water policy, drought, climate change, forest health, demand management, agricultural water innovations and more.
That’s why Water Education Colorado is proud to co-develop and offer this 2021 Water Journalism Fellowship opportunity for working Colorado journalists.
The five-month fellowship features a series of four “Water Fluency for Journalists” workshops presented by Fresh Water News and Water Education Colorado, plus coaching support for individual and collaborative reporting projects from Fresh Water News and the Colorado News Collaborative. The fellowship experience and $1,000 stipends are made possible through support from the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, through its Natural Resources program.
For more information about the fellowship opportunity and eligibility requirements, visit the CMP website.
Interested applicants should also join us for an information session on Thursday, June 10, to hear more. Register for the meeting now.
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Join the Colorado River District for the Gunnison State of the River webinar on Thursday, June 10 at 6 pm! Our experts and special guests will be presenting on river forecasts, landmark accomplishments, project opportunities, and the impacts of and on recreation for the Gunnison.
One of the major tributaries of the Colorado River, your Gunnison River provides the life force for local West Slope communities. Learn more about the river’s hydrology and water supply as we enter another drought year, celebrate a Lower Gunnison victory that’s been years in the making, and hear from David Dragoo, founder of Mayfly, about the West Slope recreation economy and its impacts.
You’ll also receive information on exciting new funding for Gunnison River Basin water projects and plans to sustain flows throughout the basin as conditions shift to hotter, drier seasons.
If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive an emailed webinar recording for later viewing!
Welcome – Marielle Cowdin & Zane Kessler, Director of Public Relations and Director of Government Relations, Colorado River District (CRD)
Your Gunnison River, a Water Supply Update – Bob Hurford, Division 4 Engineer, Colorado Department of Natural Resources
The Lower Gunnison Project: Modernization in Action – Dave “DK” Kanzer, Director of Science and Interstate Matters, CRD
A Victory for the Lower Gunnison – Raquel Flinker, Sr. Water Resources Engineer/Project Manager, CRD and Ken Leib, Office Chief of the Colorado Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey
Rivers on the Fly, Recreation Economy and Impacts – David Dragoo, Founder of Mayfly
Community Funding Partnership – Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships, CRD
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Join us June 11 or 12 along Cottonwood Creek for the inaugural Urban Water Cycle Bike Tour in Colorado Springs!
Join us for a fun, free regional bike tour along Cottonwood Creek in Colorado Springs. This tour will connect community members to local water and recreation resources through an approximately 9-mile (mostly downhill) ride.
Both tour days start at Frank Costello Park, with a short ride to Cowpoke Flood Detention and Development. You will then ride downhill all the way to a creek restoration site on Monument Creek. With a short ride back uphill, you will end at Crit Cafe for our final speakers, networking and refreshments on your own.
Tour topics include:
What are the Cottonwood Creek, Fountain Creek, and Arkansas River watersheds?
Why water quality is important? What is stormwater? What is point source and nonpoint source pollution?
How is Colorado Springs conserving water and planning for its future water supply?
How are community partners connecting neighborhoods to trails and creeks?
How can maintaining pipes allow us to restore creeks?
How do we ensure our water is clean and safe?
How can you protect stream health?
We thank our supporters at Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, Colorado Springs Utilities, El Pomar Foundation, and Fountain Creek Watershed District. In addition, our partners at the Trails and Open Space Coalition and the City of Colorado Springs Stormwater Enterprise (SWENT) and Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services made this tour possible. We look forward to a fun and educational day along Cottonwood Creek!
Here’s an excerpt from the Spring 2021 issue of Headwaters Magazine (Caitlin Coleman):
INTO THE MODERN STORAGE ERA
Most Coloradans rely on some form of water storage in order to live. Water is collected when available and later released when and where it’s needed. Water storage is a necessity, providing year-round access to water that would otherwise come in a rush each spring as snow melts into runoff and flows hurriedly out of state.
“If we were to leave it up to the natural systems, we would be dry for a big part of the year,” says Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. (Ris also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.)
The Ancestral Puebloans, who once inhabited the Four Corners region, knew this and relied on water storage like Morefield Reservoir, which anthropologists indicate was used between 750-1100 A.D. and is still evidenced by mounds in Mesa Verde National Park.
Years later, upon settlement by non-native populations including land grant recipients, homesteaders and miners, reservoir construction proved vital to sustain a larger population. Dams were rapidly constructed in the late 1800s through 1910, primarily for agricultural water needs. In the early 1900s some 290 dams were built in Colorado, the most dams erected in a single decade.
The 1930s through 1970s brought a boom of reservoir construction to meet the demands of the state’s growing municipal water needs. Toward the end of this municipal era, the 1960s saw the greatest water storage volume constructed in any decade, with more than 1.8 million acre-feet, including two of the state’s largest water bodies: Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison and Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir.
The rapid construction of big storage projects in Colorado and the West slowed starting in the 1970s as environmental laws and community concern about environmental impacts grew stronger and project permits became more difficult to obtain. The 1980s Two Forks dam and reservoir project debate and subsequent veto, where local community groups raised enough opposition to stop a planned 615-foot dam southwest of Denver, was a turning point. Two Forks marked the very end of the era in which big reservoirs were the primary answer to Colorado’s water supply, and the start to substantial community involvement.
The past 10 years have brought the fewest new dams and least amount of new storage volume in 120 years. Yet the call for storage from stakeholders across the state continues. Through the 2015 statewide water planning process, basin roundtables — stakeholder groups who have been working together on a regional, river-basin-wide scale to develop water priorities, assessments and goals — developed Basin Implementation Plans. All of the eight plans identified the need for new, restored or better-maintained storage.
In the issue, read about the cornerstone role that water storage has played in Colorado for more than a century, the Colorado Water Plan goal to develop additional storage by 2050, challenges and opportunities with specific projects, and some of the many ways that Coloradans are looking toward the next era of storage.
Here’s the release from Water Education Colorado (Jayla Poppleton):
Water Education Colorado kicks off its 15th Water Leaders Program May 27, 2021].
Sixteen up-and-coming water leaders from a diverse range of communities and water sectors across Colorado have been selected to participate in this intensive personal and professional development opportunity. They come from both private and public sector organizations, from state agencies, water districts and nongovernmental organizations.
“This is an invaluable investment that we are making, that our participants are making, to ready themselves for the incredible challenges that we as a state are facing around water,” said Jayla Poppleton, executive director for Water Education Colorado. “We are equipping leaders with the confidence and skills to effect change, to work collaboratively across interest areas, and to feel rewarded in what they do as they lead their teams to innovate and craft water solutions.”
Established in 2006, the Water Leaders Program has produced nearly 200 graduates.
Several notable alumni include current Colorado Ag Commissioner Kate Greenberg, Esther Vincent, director of environmental services at Northern Water, and Matt Lindburg, managing principal for Brown and Caldwell who is supporting the state on its 2022 update to the Colorado Water Plan.
Participants are selected based on proven commitment to Colorado water and demonstrated potential for increased leadership roles. Many class members are civically active, serving in a wide range of volunteer roles such as on boards and commissions, in addition to their day jobs.
Molson Coors is a title sponsor of the 2021 program. The company has been brewing beer using Colorado water since 1873 and invests in variety of water sustainability initiatives, ranging from improved efficiency to protection of source watersheds.
“Molson Coors is proud to sponsor the Water Leaders program and ensure a bright future for Colorado by supporting our future water leaders,” said Kayla Garcia, community affairs manager for the company.
Throughout the four-month program, which culminates with a graduation ceremony on Sept. 24, the group will undergo a variety of self-assessments as well as an external, 360-degree feedback review from peers, supervisors, and direct reports. Facilitators will challenge participants to be vulnerable with their hopes and aspirations as well as their fears and perceived limitations as they confront complex issues for Colorado water management and protection in the face of climate change, population growth, and widely diverse community values around resource protection and use across Colorado.
“We have seen individuals break out of their shell and find their calling in the water community in ways that they never even thought possible,” said Stephanie Scott, leadership programs manager for Water Education Colorado. “Seeing graduates stretch beyond their wildest dreams, both personally and professionally, is the true magic of the Water Leaders Program.”
Water Education Colorado is a 501c3 nonprofit providing policy-neutral news and informational resources, engaging learning experiences, and empowering leadership programs. We work statewide to ensure Coloradans are knowledgeable about key water issues and equipped to make smart decisions for a sustainable water future.
WEco offers a variety of digital content and also produces two print publications: Headwaters magazine and the Citizen’s Guide reference series. These publications are distributed to policy makers, water professionals, agricultural and environmental organizations, university students, business leaders, and community groups.
In addition to the Water Leaders Program, WEco runs two other leadership programs: 1) Water Fluency – a comprehensive water literacy course for decision makers without a professional water background, and 2) the Water Educator Network – an affiliate program for fellow water educators to improve their practice.
WEco also provides a variety of other educational and outreach opportunities, including tours, forums, workshops, and the annual Sustaining Colorado Watersheds conference, held in October each year in Avon, Colo.
In June 2018, WEco launched Fresh Water News, a nonprofit news initiative dedicated to providing nonpartisan news coverage of the water issues that define Colorado and the American West.
Water Leaders Program sessions are held across Colorado to highlight local water challenges and leadership lessons.
The 2019 Water Leaders Program class celebrating its graduation .
Liz Roberts is digging into snow-soaked dirt just above the banks of Grizzly Creek in western Colorado. With bare fingers she sifts through the dark soil, looking for life amid the ruins of last summer’s devastating Grizzly Creek fire.
When she finds tiny dormant roots, she smiles and exposes more soil to show visitors that this ground, just two or three inches down, is filled with plant matter that will grow and bloom in the summer when the snow melts.
But farther along this same trail, in the White River National Forest just east of Glenwood Springs, there is thick ash beneath the snow, and few dormant roots. This means the soil was so injured by the fire, which burned for more than four months, that it has become disconnected from the mountainside, and the ash lying unrooted above it will be carried into the creek this spring as the water melts.
In unburned forests, the spring snowmelt is a glorious, annual event.
But not this year.
Roberts and other forest experts know that the spring runoff will carry an array of frightening heavy metals and ash-laden sediment generated in the burned soils, posing danger to the people of Glenwood Springs, who rely on Grizzly Creek and its neighbor just to the west, No Name Creek, for drinking water.
Raging wildfires…are easy to see. But what is rarely seen is the devastation to the natural mountain collection systems, where water starts as snow before melting in the spring and flowing down into creeks and eventually into water systems for towns and agricultural lands.
As soils burn, naturally occurring substances that would normally be locked in place are released.
“Sometimes we see lead, mercury, cadmium, possibly arsenic,” said Justin Anderson, Roberts’ colleague and a U.S. Forest Service hydrologist. “They can be dangerous, especially in high concentrations.”
Like other Western states, Colorado is in red alert mode this year, in part because these new megafires, triggered by drought and climate change, ravaged not just Glenwood Springs’ water system, but other major systems as well. Northern Water, for example, manages the Colorado Big-Thompson Project, which serves more than 1 million people and hundreds of farms on the northern Front Range and Eastern Plains. Burning at the same time as the Grizzly Creek fire, the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires rampaged through the project’s mountain collection system, affecting water supplies for Fort Collins, Greeley, Boulder, Broomfield and Loveland, among others.
Even as communities across the state keep their eyes on a 2021 fire season expected to be as bad as that of 2020, when the state saw the largest fires in its history explode, they are racing to create high-tech water treatment programs capable of filtering out the toxins now present in their once-pristine water, and replacing the pipes, intake flumes and grates damaged beyond repair last year.
Esther Vincent, Northern Water’s director of environmental services, expects the agency to spend more than $100 million over the next three to five years, restoring hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand County and along the Front Range in Boulder and Larimer counties. That is nearly triple the agency’s $40 million reserve fund.
Ravaged pipes, reservoirs
“Over half of our major watersheds were affected,” Vincent said. “In some of them 90 percent is burned. Because there is no option to bypass the runoff that is going to come into our system, it will enter our reservoirs and affect all of our infrastructure on the West Slope.”
Restoring forests is an undertaking that requires decades of work and whole new industries to execute effectively.
Mike Lester is Colorado State Forester. Thanks to Colorado’s rapid recovery from the Covid-19 budget crisis and federal relief funds expected later this year, his agency has more money than it’s ever had to help restore forests.
”We’re going to be pretty well supported this year,” Lester said. The state added $6 million this past year for restoration work and it is expecting another $8 million July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
Colorado has some 24 million acres of forest, most of which is owned by the federal government, and to a lesser extent, private landowners. Roughly 10 percent of those acres are in need of immediate attention to protect towns and homes in the wildland urban interface, Lester said. Colorado’s wildland urban interface, also known as the WUI, has become increasingly populated, creating greater risk to lives and infrastructure and complicating forest management.
Repairing the forests, thinning trees so the fires don’t burn with such intensity, and stabilizing hundreds of thousands of scarred mountain slopes requires skilled personnel and methods for utilizing the downed timber.
“We’re way short of resources,” Lester said. “We don’t have a huge amount of logging and professional forestry in Colorado. There is only so much money you can spend well before you run into capacity issues.”
In the short-term communities are focused on doing what they can now to keep their water systems safe.
Matt Langhorst is Glenwood Springs’ director of public works. When the Grizzly Creek fire ignited last August, he could tell almost immediately that the flames were going to engulf the water system’s intake structures in the White River National Forest high above the town at the top of Grizzly and No Name creeks.
“The second I saw the smoke coming over the hill, I knew it was right around our two watersheds. I picked up the phone and called the fire department and said, ’We’re going to have a problem.’”
A massive loss
Nine months later, Langhorst and his crews have reworked the high mountain intake structures and they’ve finished a complete rebuild of the town’s small water treatment plant so that it can remove the pollutants expected to contaminate its once-clear waters, and filter out massive sediment loads that are already beginning to come down into the creeks as they enter the Colorado River just east of town along I-70.
“We are expecting it to change the water quality for three to seven years, but it could be longer than that,” Langhorst said. “It is a massive loss.”
And costly. Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes said the work needed to repair and rebuild its water system, and create a safe evacuation route if Glenwood Canyon is shut down again as it was last summer, will likely cost three times its annual operating budget of $19 million.
“It’s something we can’t afford,” Godes said. “But we can’t afford not to do it.”
In response, state agencies are rethinking how they provide emergency funds as natural disasters such as these megafires happen more frequently.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), last fall, was able to offer Glenwood Springs $8 million in a matter of days so that Langhorst and his crews could get into the high country to do critical construction work before winter snows arrived.
Kirk Russell oversees the CWCB’s loan funds. He said the agency was able to move quickly because it had seen the damage done and the loan delays that occurred after the state’s catastrophic floods of 2013. Back then, federal emergency funds took months to reach devastated Front Range communities and farm irrigation systems that were blown out by powerful flood waters.
“Fast forward to the wildfires that we saw last year and we foresaw there was going to be a need to respond quickly,” Russell said.
Now the agency has new emergency rules that provide for quick approvals on three-year, no-interest loans when water systems are harmed by wildfires.
“Do we need more money and more flexibility? Absolutely,” Russell said.
The state also needs a more cohesive response to managing and restoring forests and the water systems embedded in them. Key to that effort is a two-year-old initiative called the Colorado Forest and Water Alliance, an advocacy group that includes federal and state forest officials, water utilities, logging industries and environmental groups.
Ellen Roberts, a former state lawmaker from Durango, has helped spearhead the fledgling effort and is working on other local initiatives designed to work effectively across city and county boundaries, as well as private, public and federal lands.
Colorado’s lawmakers and the federal government have pledged more than $20 million this year to quickly jumpstart the work.
“I am very encouraged by that,” Roberts said. “A good chunk of the money will need to go to immediate post-fire work, but we need to shift gears soon to put the money in at the front end [to thin the over-grown forests]. Hopefully we will be seeing both with the money that has been set aside. This is not a one-and-done investment. It has to be viewed as being chapter one of a very, very long book.”
Water comes down
Back out in the White River National Forest, the annual snowmelt above Grizzly and No Name creeks has begun.
And Matt Langhorst is waiting, hoping that the residents of Glenwood Springs, who have enjoyed more than 115 years of clear mountain water, won’t notice any difference in how their water tastes.
He got hundreds of calls last August when the town was forced to shut off its fire-engulfed water system and use an emergency source temporarily.
Each call was roughly the same, he said.
“Everyone wanted to know, ‘What happened to my water?’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Colorado’s rivers and streams are rising after a year of pandemic quarantine and social distancing, and the anticipation of rafters and kayakers is rising as well. But water resource experts and outfitters are cautioning that the second year in a row of below-average and unseasonably warm spring temperatures will contribute to a short float season.
“We’ve had another dry year. Last year wasn’t that great either,” said Aldis Strautins, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “The summer was dry. Fall was dry. Soil moisture is very dry. This doesn’t bode well for rafting and kayaking. Things can change but we’re not seeing any indication of that right now.”
As of last week, Strautins said the moisture content of snowpack remaining in the Upper Colorado River Basin is 79 percent of normal, while the Rio Grande and Yampa basins stand at 78 percent, the Gunnison basin is at 73 percent, and the San Miguel, Dolores and San Juan rivers are at 66 percent.
The exceptions are the Arkansas and South Platte river basins. In the Arkansas, snowpack is at 84 percent of normal, and due to some late winter storms, the South Platte Basin is close to 100 percent of normal.
Kyle Johnson, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Adventures in Fort Collins, said the near-normal snowpack in the South Platte Basin will provide his company with enough snowmelt to keep customers on the Poudre River happy this summer.
“We currently have the best snowpack in the state,” Johnson said. “The Poudre has been at runnable levels for the past three weeks. Although we definitely don’t anticipate high water, we’re looking forward to a nice, even flow season.”
Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon Outfitters in Cañon City, said the COVID-19 pandemic provided a tough learning experience for his operation and other outfitters.
“We’re using 2020 as a North Star. We learned things. We were washing paddles. Now we know that was an unnecessary precaution,” Neinas said.
But the company continues to be vigilant, especially in protecting its workers. “Here at Echo Canyon any team member that wants to be tested or vaccinated can do it on the clock. We’re giving our team members a $100 bonus for getting vaccinated.”
Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, said the his basin’s stored water supplies, though well below normal, are holding up and will help ensure rafters have enough liquid to float. “We’re not going to have any problems with water. It won’t be too high but it’ll be sufficient. We’ve seen a pretty good early start already.”
Coping with COVID-19 in 2020 was one of the greatest challenges in Colorado’s commercial rafting history, according to a new report by the Colorado River Outfitters Association. Commercial river use declined by more than 20 percent in 2020, with visitor spending dropping from nearly $185 million in 2019 to $148 million last year.
“We had a lot of anxiety in the rafting business,” Hamel said. “But once we got going, people were ready to get outside. We saw that everywhere on public lands. Rafting was no surprise. We survived last year and we’re appreciative that we’re still in business.”
Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Although Brian Werner has served on the WEco Board of Trustees for just over a year, he was involved with helping found the organization nearly 20 years ago. Now retired from his 38-year career as the Communications Department Manager and Public Information Officer at Northern Water, and still a life-long water historian, Brian has written and given hundreds of presentations on the role of water in the settlement and development of Colorado and the West. We spoke with Brian about Northern Water’s storage, the impacts of fire on water storage, permitting, and more.
How long have you been on the WEco board?
I’ve been involved with WEco since WEco has been around. I was involved with the first couple incarnations of water education efforts in Colorado in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and then I helped when WEco came into being in 2002. I was never on the board, until a couple of years ago. It was something I wanted to do towards the end of my career and I retired just last year in January 2020. Luckily I was appointed to the board and I’ve truly enjoyed it.
What kind of experience do you bring to the group?
I think the fact that I had a 38-year career in the water business with Northern Water is an asset. At Northern Water, I’d established relations with people from all over the state and I also coordinated probably 150 to 200 different children’s water festivals, so clearly I was into education. I’m really a big believer in the trickle up theory of water knowledge. Where if you can educate the kids, that knowledge is going trickle up to mom and dad, and those kids will somebody be parents themselves. Ultimately, I’ve been trying to build that ethic in what I’ve been about for most of my career.
How would you describe your experience being on the board?
I’ve really enjoyed being on the board. I’ve watched it and been very much involved for a long time. Both Nicole Seltzer and Jayla Poppleton worked with me at Northern Water, so I have a personal vested interest in them succeeding, and they really have. Nicole moved the organization in a wonderful direction and Jayla has just been top-notch in where she has taken WEco. It has been really interesting because we have a diverse board, and I have enjoyed getting to know people who I didn’t know previously.
I understand you recently retired from Northern Water, can you tell me what your role with them was and maybe what Northern Water does in a general sense?
Northern Water is the largest water conservancy district in the state of Colorado and operates a large Bureau of Reclamation project that is one of the largest in the entire western United States; the Colorado-Big Thompson project. It brings a quarter-million acre-feet a year from the West Slope into Northeastern Colorado to supplement both urban and rural supplies, meaning that it is both a municipal as well as an agricultural water supply. Now there are well over a million people that get a portion of their water supply from that project, but back in 1937, there were only 50,000 people living within Northern Water’s boundaries. So, nobody could have foreseen the growth that occurred since then. This growth has brought all sorts of issues and concerns, but Northern Water is one of the top water agencies in the state and I certainly had a wonderful career there and couldn’t have asked for anything better.
Personally, I was a public information officer for 35 of those 38 years. My role, in essence, was to be the public face of Northern Water and so I talked about Northern Water and its activities all the time. I was able to use my historical training, I have a master’s degree in history, to discuss the historical background of both water development and Northern Water. I focused very much on education, but ultimately, I spent my entire career talking all things water, which was a lot of fun.
I was also the manager of our communications department as we expanded and grew. As we grew, we brought on writers and pushed publications and annual reports, and then we got into the social media craze. So, for some time I managed that department. But really, it was about telling people what Northern Water was all about.
The map above displays estimates of the likelihood of debris flow (in %), potential volume of debris flow (in m3), and combined relative debris flow hazard. These predictions are made at the scale of the drainage basin, and at the scale of the individual stream segment. Estimates of probability, volume, and combined hazard are based upon a design storm with a peak 15-minute rainfall intensity of 24 millimeters per hour (mm/h). Predictions may be viewed interactively by clicking on the button at the top right corner of the map displayed above. Map credit: USGS
Perhaps a topical question, but how have the numerous forest fires affected the work that Northern Water does in trying to ensure water storage?
That is going to be Northern Water’s principal focus this coming year. Both of our major watersheds burned last year, the Upper Colorado with the East Troublesome wildfire, and then the Poudre watershed with the Cameron Peak wildfire. And both of these watersheds are where we get the vast majority of our water. Luckily, Northern Water had been looking at forest water management for years. Northern Water has been working with the U.S. Forest Service, the counties, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Parks Service. It wasn’t that these fires hit us and Northern Water had no idea what to do. We learned quite a lot from Denver Water after the Hayman Fire, with all of the issues that they had centering around water quality. Northern Water isn’t pleased, but we are certainly going to see some water quality impacts because of these fires.
We went in with our eyes open and with some plans in place for post-fire activities. We always said, ‘it’s not if, it’s when those fires hit.’
What do these fires mean for water supply and water quality now, as well as moving into the future?
One of the things that we see from these fires is a greater level of awareness in terms of forest management, not just if you have a house in a forest or nearby, but for those people living in major metropolitan areas, too. Those people in Denver, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs are all paying attention now, because they saw the two largest fires in Colorado history and what it did to our environment. And I think now there will be a lot more attention focused on the post-fire impacts, which obviously include water. People will certainly be paying attention to the water piece of the post-fire mitigation and clean-up. Overall, I think moving into the future we will have a better awareness, which is always a good thing. There is no way around it, it is going to take money, and where we are at with COVID-19 that discussion is not easy, but the state is making a concerted effort to put monetary resources and people into handling the situation.
How the present or future storage planning is different than what the state has done historically?
One thing I would point out is that the Federal government is no longer in the water storage building business. For years Reclamation, which had been established in 1902 helped jumpstart and build water projects, as they did the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The Federal government neither has the resources nor are they paying for water storage anymore. Now, water storage is something that is having to be more or less self-funded. Meaning that the growing cities are trying to figure out how they can finance additional water for their future citizens.
We are also now looking at the multiple uses of water. Nowadays, water is being used for environmental purposes, which means that we are looking to make sure that there is enough to release into the rivers to help the aquatic habitat. This is a much larger part of the picture today. At a base level of awareness, we want people to understand why we need storage reservoirs. It is a dry year, and it sure looks like we are only getting drier, and when you have the drier years you better make sure that you store when you have the wetter periods to carry you through. I think we are going to have difficulties trying to match up the storage, which we are going to continue to need, with all the environmental issues and issues surrounding the development of water infrastructure.
In the past 20 years, Northern has been in permitting so can you talk about that process?
We say water project permitting works at a glacial pace. When I started working on the Northern Integrated Supply Project permitting at Northern Water, I told my wife that I thought we would have a permit in around 5 years … I’m now retired. Northern Water is going on 17 years later, and they still haven’t received that permit. That’s frustrating. This wasn’t for lack of energy; I mean we were really working hard to secure that permit. These things take much longer than you would probably expect. You have to have a lot of perseverance because the process can really drive you crazy, but my hope is that in the future this process will become much better for all parties involved.