For the second time in less than a year, state health officials plan to ask lawmakers to fast-track permitting authority over hundreds of miles of streams left unprotected after a 2020 Trump Administration rollback of federal Clean Water Act rules.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s move comes just weeks after a federal court denied Colorado’s effort to prevent the new federal rules from taking effect.
The CDPHE is holding work group sessions and seeking public comment on a proposed bill that is likely to be introduced in the next two weeks, officials said. The CDPHE declined to comment for this article.
Last May Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and won a temporary injunction against the new rules, which would have taken effect in June 2020. But a federal appeals court overturned that decision last month.
As a result, the rules are set to take effect in Colorado April 23. Though many expect the Biden Administration to alter the new rules, once again, state health officials say an interim rule is needed to ensure the state has the permitting authority and the funds needed to protect streams.
Major water interests, such as the nonpartisan Colorado Water Congress, are closely watching the latest legislative effort.
Colorado Water Congress Executive Director Doug Kemper said right now there is too much uncertainty around which streams and which activities will be overseen by federal and state agencies.
“It’s a big deal right now because you don’t really know what activity is covered and what is exempted,” said Kemper. His group has not taken a position on the CDPHE’s initiative, in part because a formal bill has yet to be introduced.
Environmentalists said it’s important that the state moves quickly to assume the permitting authority to protect streams and to allow millions of dollars in construction, dam and road projects to be properly reviewed and permitted.
Industry groups, however, believe new legislation isn’t required right now because the state has some discretion to act already and because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees much of the work on federally protected streams, also has some discretionary authority to review and issue permits.
“We’re concerned that the focus is solely on legislative options,” said John Kolanz, an attorney who represents the Colorado Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. He believes the state could make changes to its own rules, rather than enacting a new law.
“We don’t think it’s advisable to rush through legislation and a complicated rulemaking by the end of the year,” Kolanz said during a public work group meeting hosted by the CDPHE Monday.
Melinda Kassen, general counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership who tracks water quality regulation, disagreed, saying the CDPHE must be given new legal authority quickly in order to adequately monitor and fund stream protection work over the next one to two years.
“The biggest part of this legislation is getting some fees so that the [Colorado Water Quality Control] division can do its job and go out and see what’s happening on the ground,” Kassen said Monday.
At issue is what’s known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. The rule was designed to classify which streams are subject to federal rules and which activities must obtain permits from the Army Corps to ensure those streams are protected even when they are disturbed by home and road building, construction of new storm water systems, and other activities.
But WOTUS has been contested in courts for years 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, and what is allowable for industries and wastewater treatment plants to discharge into streams.
It has also been difficult to administer because the U.S. is home to such a wide variety of waterways.
In the East and Midwest massive rivers are filled with barge and shipping traffic and are clearly “navigable.” That was the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was considered navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 44 percent of Colorado’s streams are intermittent, meaning they are sometimes dry, and 24 percent are ephemeral, meaning they can be dry for months or years and appear only after extraordinary rain or snow. Just 32 percent of Colorado streams are classified as being perennial, meaning they flow year round.
Under the new federal rule only perennial and intermittent streams, or those deemed navigable, are regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states are no longer protected under the law.
If the CDPHE’s new legislative effort succeeds, it would give state health officials the authority to issue so-called dredge-and-fill permits on stream segments no longer protected by the federal law.
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.
From The Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: STATE WATER BOARD REPORT RECOMMENDS ALIGNING NEW WATER RIGHTS TO AN UPENDED HYDROLOGY
As California’s seasons become warmer and drier, state officials are pondering whether the water rights permitting system needs revising to better reflect the reality of climate change’s effect on the timing and volume of the state’s water supply.
A report by the State Water Resources Control Board recommends that new water rights permits be tailored to California’s increasingly volatile hydrology and be adaptable enough to ensure water exists to meet an applicant’s demand. And it warns that the increasingly whiplash nature of California’s changing climate could require existing rights holders to curtail diversions more often and in more watersheds — or open opportunities to grab more water in climate-induced floods.
The report says climate change will bring increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as atmospheric rivers and drought, prolonged fire seasons with larger fires, heat waves, floods, rising sea level and storm surges. Already, the state is experiencing a second consecutive dry year, prompting worries about drought. “The wet season will bring wetter conditions during a shorter period, whereas the dry season will become longer and drier,” the report said.
The State Water Board report catalogues 12 recommendations — inserting climate-change data into new permits, expanding the stream-gauge network to improve data and refining the means to manage existing water rights to ensure sufficient water is available to meet existing demands. At the same time, the report says, the State Water Board should build on its existing efforts to allow diverters to capture climate-driven flood flows for underground storage.
Because floods and the magnitude of the peak flows are expected to increase under many climate change projections, “there may be greater opportunity to divert flood and high flows during the winter to underground storage,” the report said. The State Water Board could build on the flood planning data used by the Department of Water Resources to help inform water availability analyses and to spell out conditions for the resulting water right permits for floodwater capture.
“The recommendations are a menu of options,” said Jelena Hartman, senior environmental scientist with the State Water Board and chief author of the report. The goal, she said, was to “clearly communicate what the water rights issues are and what we can do.”
The result of a 2017 State Water Board resolution detailing its comprehensive response to climate change, the report could be the first step toward a retooled permitting system for new water rights applications. (The Board has averaged about a dozen newly issued permits per year, mostly for small diverters, since 2010.) The State Water Board is seeking public comments on the report through March 31.
And while the report does not call for reopening existing permits, it does sound a warning for those permit holders: With droughts projected to become longer and more severe, the State Water Board may need to curtail water diversions more often and in more watersheds.
Time to ‘Reset Expectations’?
During a March 18 webinar on the report, Erik Ekdahl, the State Water Board’s deputy director for the Division of Water Rights, said it may be time to “reset expectations” regarding curtailments for water use permits, given that curtailments have only been implemented by the state in 1976-1977 and 2014-2015.
“That’s not an overuse of curtailments,” he said. “If anything, it’s an underuse. We may need to look at curtailment more frequently.”
Some water users fear the report could be the beginning of a move to restrict their access.
“To the extent climate change is incorporated into water rights administration, it should be to respond to a changing hydrology in a manner that is protective of existing users … and not to turn back the clock on water rights or to service new ambitions for instream flows that aren’t in the law,” said Chris Scheuring, senior counsel with the California Farm Bureau Federation.
The report notes that many of California’s existing water rights are based on stream gauge data drawn during a relatively wet period (since about 1955). Although California has had some of its most severe droughts on record since the 1970s, annual flow on many streams is highly variable due to California’s Mediterranean climate. Fluctuations in year-to-year precipitation are greater than any state in the nation, ranging from as little as 50 percent to more than 200 percent of long-term averages.
If climate conditions swing drier overall, the report says, it will be difficult for those existing water right holders to divert their permitted volume. Expanding the network of stream and precipitation gauges will be critical, the report says, to improving the accuracy of water availability analyses.
But the report’s focus is on new water rights applicants and the need to weave climate change data into their permits to provide a clear description of projected water availability. “We take the long view in asking if there is sufficient water available for a new appropriation,” Hartman said.
State Water Board leaders said the water rights response is part of the umbrella of actions needed to confront climate change.
“Water rights can either be something that helps us adapt and create resiliency … or it can really hinder us,” Chair Joaquin Esquivel said at the Board’s Feb. 16 meeting where the report was presented.
Writing Climate Change into New Permits
The fingerprints of climate change are increasingly evident in California’s seasonal weather. Extreme conditions are on the upswing. Peak runoff, which fuels the state’s water supply, has shifted a month earlier during the 20th century. The four years between 2014 and 2017 were especially warm, with 2014 the warmest on record. Annual average temperatures in California are projected to rise significantly by the end of the century.
“We are already experiencing the impacts of climate change,” said Amanda Montgomery, environmental program manager with the State Water Board. The continuous warming creates an “unambiguous trend” toward less snow, she said, and shifts in snowpack and runoff are relevant for water management and water rights.
Jennifer Harder, a water rights expert who teaches at the University of Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said integrating climate change considerations into water rights permits is good policy that aligns with the State Water Board’s mission of ensuring the highest and most beneficial use of water.
“It’s beyond dispute that the changes in precipitation and temperature patterns resulting from climate change will affect water availability,” she said.
Kimberly Burr, a Sonoma County environmental attorney and member of the North Coast Stream Flow Coalition, told the State Water Board at the Feb. 16 meeting that knowledge about the effects of climate change on water is sufficient enough to be incorporated into new water rights permits. It’s an important issue, she said, because the state must ensure adequate flows exist to protect endangered species, vulnerable communities and public needs under the public trust doctrine.
“There is a finite amount of water and we have to prepare for the worst and move forward with great caution,” she said.
A Challenging Water Rights System
Water rights in California are based on a permitting system that includes several specifics, such as season and point of diversion and who can continue taking water when there is not enough to supply all needs. Getting a water right permit can take from several months for a temporary permit to several years for a permanent right.
In deciding whether to issue permits, the State Water Board considers the features and needs of the proposed project, all existing and pending rights, and the necessary instream flows to meet water quality standards and protect fish and wildlife.
The priority of a water right is particularly important during a drought, when some water right holders may be required to stop diverting water according to the priority of their water right. Suspension of right is done through curtailments of the user’s ability to divert water.
If the State Water Board implemented the recommendations in the water rights and climate change report, critics say, it would add another component in a system that aims to meet the demand for additional water. Already, local groundwater agencies are lining up to get access to available water sources for aquifer recharge and groundwater banking so they can comply with the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
Some question whether putting the report’s recommendations into action would possibly hinder the permitting process.
“The concern I have is we have quite a big backlog already and it’s already challenging to get through the system,” said State Water Board Vice Chair Dorene D’Adamo, who serves as its agriculture member. “How do we incorporate all of this and still be nimble and move with deliberate speed?”
Incorporating a climate change response into new water rights permits would be complicated, but necessary, State Water Board member Tam Doduc said.
Striving For Complete Data
Adding climate change data to water rights permits applications is problematic because of questions about the precision of existing data and the degree to which it can be localized.
“Current climate change models have disparate findings, and many are calibrated for a global scale but not regional areas,” Lauren Bernadett, regulatory advocate with the Association of California Water Agencies, told the Board. “The recommendations insert significant uncertainty for any person or agency applying for a permit.”
Harder, the law professor, said good data is critical for determining water availability, but perfect data to achieve absolute certainty is unattainable. “There are many different facets of water management and it requires us to give careful thought into how we make decisions in the face of the data we have, knowing it will never be perfect and always be changing” she said.
Better streamflow data is crucial to knowing whether the water exists to support new permits. The report notes that the low number of gauges, particularly on the smaller stream systems in California, means there is often not enough information to accurately characterize hydrologic variability over years or decades. That significantly limits the ability to reliably estimate water availability.
The report says the state may need to rethink how it estimates water availability. It added that one way to improve accuracy may be temporary installation of portable stream gauges at requested diversion points.
Moving From Theoretical To Practical
Addressing how to respond to climate change in water rights permitting would be a substantial undertaking, particularly given the existing array of complex and controversial matters on the State Water Board’s agenda.
“We don’t have all the details yet and this won’t be an easy task,” Doduc said. “Too often we focus on our water quality activities because water rights are too difficult.”
Said Esquivel: “There is a lot of work to be done and it can seem overwhelming. But there is a lot of great groundwork and a commitment to making sure the water rights system is going to adapt and be here for us when we need it most.”
The State Water Board already has broad authority under existing law to take on climate change in water rights permits should it decide to do so, said Harder, with McGeorge Law School.
“What the board is trying to do,” she said, “is snap those tools together in a new way and polish up the edges.”
However the issue proceeds, Harder said, the state should recognize that water resources are best understood by the local agencies that have the most pertinent information about them.
“We need to approach this as a partnership as opposed to looking at it through the lens of … state power vs. local power,” she said. “There is an important role for both here.”
Reach Gary Pitzer: email@example.com, Twitter: @GaryPitzer.
Colorado Water Legislator Webinar, March 30, 2021, Zoom, 8 – 8:45 am, Mountain Time, Free
This event will be tailored for Colorado legislators, but all members of the public are welcome to join.
Clean and reliable water supplies are essential to our ways of life in Colorado. All of us depend on healthy flowing rivers: agricultural producers, cities and towns, businesses, recreation, and the environment. 2021 is a key year for Colorado water. Up ahead are the update of the Colorado Water Plan, the beginning of the renegotiation around the Colorado River, deepening drought, wildfire impacts, and performance of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans, a temporary yet broad agreement to reduce water use and ensure that Lakes Powell and Mead continue to provide a reliable water supply. One thing is clear. We all play a role in sustaining Colorado’s water future. Join us in discussing its course.
Despite the recent history-making blizzard on Colorado’s Front Range, statewide snowpack sits at 92 percent of average as of March 19, down from 105 percent of average at the end of February, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Just two river basins, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande, are registering above average at 101 percent and 106 percent respectively. Among the driest are the Gunnison Basin, at 86 percent of average, and the San Juan/Dolores, at 83 percent, both in the southwestern part of the state.
“The snowpack numbers are still below normal though they don’t look that bad,” said Peter Goble, a specialist with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. “But based on how dry soils were to start this accumulation season, we’re still pretty nervous about what water availability is going to look like.”
Those numbers are hard to believe for some, given that nearly 30 inches of snow fell in and around Denver the weekend of March 13, with some portions of the foothills and higher receiving more than three feet of snow. It is considered the fourth-largest storm in Denver’s history.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entire state remains mired in drought, with nearly half classified as being extremely or exceptionally dry, the most dangerous categories.
Mountain snowpack is watched closely in Colorado and other Western states because as it melts, it fills rivers and reservoirs to supply the state’s cities, farms and industries with water for the coming year.
Thanks to 2020’s severe drought, in November, for only the second time in its history, the Colorado Water Conservation Board activated its municipal emergency drought response plan in an effort to help cities cope with the dry conditions.
As part of that effort some 14 metro area cities have agreed to coordinate how they inform community members of potential drought restrictions.
“The biggest thing is we don’t want to be counter-messaging anybody,” said Greg Baker, spokesperson for Aurora Water. Aurora is one of the members of the new drought coordination group. “Towns that have robust storage like Denver and Aurora may not need restrictions. But there are about 50 water utilities across the Front Range.”
Those that don’t have hefty storage systems might have to declare drought emergencies, as many did in 2012 and 2013, Baker said.
And when, for instance, major TV stations broadcast that there are no restrictions in Denver or Aurora, it makes it difficult for communities that have to impose limits to help customers understand the vast differences in drought response, he said.
How this year will play out isn’t clear yet, Baker said. Aurora’s reservoirs are at 63 percent of capacity, the low end of normal. Aurora draws its water from the mountains in the Arkansas, Colorado and South Platte river basins.
“A lot of customers forget that we may have had some good snow down here but that is not where we collect our water. It happens up in the mountains,” Baker said.
Even as mountain snows approach the average mark, soils remain dry and therefore capable of absorbing much of the snow that will melt in the spring.
“We’re getting reports that soil moisture is 10 inches below normal,” Baker said. “Will runoff be sucked up? We don’t know.”
Of particular concern to hydrologists and water watchers across Colorado is the forecast for the seven-state Colorado River Basin. The river begins high in Rocky Mountain National Park and, together with tributaries in Colorado like the Gunnison, Yampa, and Dolores rivers, it supplies all of the state’s Western Slope’s water as well as roughly half of the water for Front Range cities and tens of thousands of acres of farms in the Eastern Plains.
As it flows south and west, the river supplies not only Colorado but also Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, a region known as the Upper Basin, and Nevada, Arizona and California, known as the Lower Basin. It also supplies Mexico.
The basin has two major storage reservoirs in the U.S. and they are filled almost entirely from the mountain snows generated in the Upper Basin. The forecast for the basin remains grim, with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimating that Lake Powell will see inflows of just 47 percent of average as of March 3, the most recent data available.
According to Reclamation, the last half of 2020 was one of the driest periods on record in the Colorado River Basin, and closely resembles the deep droughts of 2002, 2012, 2013 and early 2018. These are, according to the March 3 report, four out of the five driest years on record.
Levels in Powell and Mead are likely to drop low enough this year to trigger additional cuts in water deliveries to Lower Basin states. The recent blizzard in Colorado, because it did not benefit Colorado’s Western Slope and the headwaters of the river as much as it did the Eastern Slope, aren’t likely to change that, according to Reclamation.
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.
Unfortunately, recent snowstorms did very little to improve the mountain snowpack. And the near-term prediction for measurable precipitation isn’t promising.
That’s according to several sources of data and predictive models tracked by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service Colorado Snow Survey Program.
NRCS Hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer noted in his monthly snowpack report issued March 5 that, “While February snow accumulations did improve the snowpack in many parts of the state, snowpack still remains below normal levels in all major basins except the Rio Grande.”
At that time, the Colorado River Basin was at 84% of median snowpack, and just 71% of last year’s snowpack. Statewide, the median snowpack at that time was 85%, and only 77% of last year.
Then came the big one — sort of.
A major snowstorm the weekend of March 13 that mostly blanketed the the foothills and eastern Colorado with up to 2 feet of snow in places did have some impact on the high country snowpack. When it comes to Western Slope water, that’s where it mostly matters.
Just before that storm hit, on March 10, the Colorado River Basin was at 88% of median snowpack.
Likewise, one of the Colorado’s major drainages, the Roaring Fork River, with its headwaters on Independence Pass east of Aspen, was at 84% of median.
Afterwards, the area basin snowpack had improved to 91% and 90%, respectively.
As of Tuesday, with more localized snowfall in recent days, the Roaring Fork drainage had improved to 94% of median.
The summer and fall of 2020 was one of the driest periods on record in Colorado.
“This led to dry soil moisture conditions and the expectation is that snowmelt runoff will produce lower volumes than would commonly be observed with a similar snowpack,” Wetlaufer observed in his March 5 report.
Before winter even started, snow forecasters were saying Colorado would need multiple years of 150% to 200% of normal snowpack to improve the drought situation…
“There is currently a significant soil moisture drought that will consume a greater-than-average amount of snowmelt runoff, and leave less to streamflow runoff,” [Brian Domonkos] said. “To add to the complexity, low soil moisture means lower base flows in rivers and streams, which means more precipitation is needed to bring stream flows back to normal levels.”
From the Water Education Colorado Blog (Willow Cozzens, Samantha Grant, Amelia Nill, and Andrew Primo):
This is the second blog post in a series on diversity, equity and inclusion in Colorado agricultural water planning. Find the first post here.
As discussed in our previous post, Colorado has an exciting opportunity to create a truly sustainable future for residents by making its water plan update process more inclusive. There are at least three groups that have been historically excluded from Colorado statewide agricultural water planning: the Colorado Ute tribes, those who operate under acequia management systems, and urban agriculture producers. While these groups have been included at an interstate level and at the local level through the Basin Roundtables, intrastate coordination and statewide inclusion of these folks is in need of improvement.
The 2015 Colorado Water Plan (CWP) acknowledges federally recognized tribes within Colorado and their federally reserved water rights, these important topics are only covered at a high level without in-depth examination of more local nuances. Additionally, the term acequia is mentioned only once in the entire 2015 CWP, in a footnote of a farmer profile.
Colorado should thoughtfully integrate more explicit inclusion for these groups not only in the Colorado Water Plan 2022 update, but also within the Interbasin Compact Committee, the Colorado Water Congress, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). The CWCB has made efforts to initiate more inclusion in the CWP update process through the newly announced Equity Committee. This Committee will constitute two representatives from each of the nine river basins, plus one representative from each of the two Colorado Ute tribes. The true purposes and outcomes from this committee, however, remain to be seen. To create a more thoughtful and equitable Colorado water planning process, the equity committee must focus on creating robust measures for water justice in each element of the Colorado Water Plan Update.
This post will focus particularly on agricultural stakeholders who have been excluded from Colorado water planning. The following sections will provide background and discussion for the three groups identified. While these groups are related in that they were not adequately included in the 2015 CWP, each community is quite distinct. Both acequia water management systems and tribal water users have a rich history in Colorado that must not be ignored in planning discussions. Separately, urban agriculture, while not entirely novel, is a rapidly emerging practice in Colorado’s cities and may serve as an important tool not only to preserve agricultural viability but also to facilitate water stewardship and education. These three communities each have uniquely valuable and important perspectives on regional water issues in the state and should be given specific consideration in the planning process.
Acequias in Colorado
For communities in Colorado and northern New Mexico, an acequia is a physical system, an irrigation ditch, but it is also a deeply embedded philosophy of community and governance. The philosophy revolves around loyalty to the community and a common understanding that water is both a shared resource and a shared responsibility. This ideology has shaped relationships between humans and the environment for centuries in Colorado, creating a resilient natural and cultural system that supports families, communities, and the food system.
Acequia water management systems have been largely excluded in Colorado’s state water planning process, despite the fact that there are thousands of acres of acequias between Colorado’s Rio Grande and Arkansas River Basins. Among the Statewide Water Supply Initiatives, the 2015 Colorado Water Plan, the 2017 Technical Update, and the 2019 Ripple Effects Report, the word acequia is mentioned only once一in a footnote in the 2015 Plan. Acequias are briefly discussed in the 2015 Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan, and they are not mentioned in the 2015 Arkansas Basin Implementation Plan.
Acequia stakeholders are often absent from statewide planning process meetings and forums. The newly established Colorado Water Equity Task Force does not include any representation for acequia stakeholders. Excluding acequias from the Colorado water planning process shuns an entire population of Coloradans一primarily farmers of color一from statewide water planning and funding. Farmers and others who operate under acequia management must be recognized and included in the statewide planning process for the 2022 CWP update.
Colorado water planners may look to acequia management in New Mexico to model pathways for inclusion. Despite the similarities in culture and natural resource demands in the San Luis Valley, Colorado’s and New Mexico’s governance approaches to acequias are starkly different. Acequia recognition has been written into New Mexico law since the mid-19th century. Furthermore, throughout New Mexico’s statewide water plan, almost every time that agriculture or irrigation is discussed, so are acequias. For example, as mentioned above, the culture of shared scarcity that underlies acequias is crucial to farmers in times of drought. New Mexico’s Water Plan explicitly acknowledges this strength, illustrating that this type of water sharing should be encouraged to support holistic agricultural viability. Colorado water planning could benefit from a similar outlook on the resilience of acequias.
Though the 2009 Colorado Acequia Recognition Statute codified that acequias hold unique powers and rights under Colorado water law, the statute only allows acequias with written bylaws to have the special powers and unique rights recognized under Colorado law. This can be a barrier for acequia communities, as some producers may not have the means to hire a lawyer to draft legally acceptable bylaws. New Mexico’s Water Plan also discusses how the state supports acequia bylaw creation. Such programs are absent in Colorado, where acequia users rely on non-governmental organizations and academic institutions, such as the Getches-Wilkinson Center Acequia Assistance Project and the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, rather than on funds directly from the state.
Colorado water planners should consult with stakeholders within Colorado’s acequia communities on how to best include planning and funding for acequias in statewide water management. Historically, the relationship between acequia managers in the San Luis Valley and in the Arkansas Basin with the Colorado Water Conservation Board has not been the strongest. CWCB should be inclined to add another seat to the equity committee specifically for acequia representation to try to remedy this historic exclusion.
Colorado Ute Tribes
The Ute peoples are the oldest continuous inhabitants of the land now called Colorado. They have been intimately tied to the waters of the region for many centuries, long before incursion by European colonizers and settlers. However, beginning in the mid-19th century, the United States federal and Colorado state governments began systematically dispossessing the Ute people of their land and separating them from their sources of water.
By the end of the 19th century, the only three bands of Ute peoples remaining in the state had been relegated to its southwest corner, in what are now the Southern Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Ute reservations. Although the Ute people had been gradually pressured to adopt a settled agricultural lifestyle, they were removed to some of the least suitable lands for agriculture in the state.
Despite these setbacks, both tribes have fostered successful agricultural communities on their reservations; the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Farm and Ranch Enterprise, for instance, has been repeatedly recognized at both state and national levels for its products.
Much has been done in the last 30 years to address some of the historical inequities created by the separation of the Colorado Ute Tribes from their ancestral lands and traditional water sources. The 1988 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act and subsequent 2000 Amendments clarified and quantified the Tribes’ reserved rights and authorized a reduced Animas-La Plata Project as well as deliveries from McPhee Reservoir to provide a reliable source of water to the tribes. Both tribes are active members of the Southwest Basin Roundtable and are represented on the Colorado Water Equity Task Force, and the importance of Tribal reserved rights is addressed in the 2015 Water Plan.
Both tribes, however, still face significant supply and infrastructure challenges, as detailed in the 2018 Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study. Some of these infrastructure projects, such as the Pine River Indian Irrigation Project, are nominally maintained by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, although that agency’s budget and staffing challenges make adequate upkeep difficult.
As holders of federal reserved water rights, the Southern Ute Indian and the Ute Mountain Ute tribes are invaluable partners to the State of Colorado and the Southwest Basin in addressing water management challenges, particularly issues of interstate compact compliance. Much of the groundwork for this partnership has been laid in the Ten Tribes Partnership Study, which provides detailed data on the challenges faced by the Colorado Ute Tribes, as well as opportunities that working closely with the tribes can provide state and regional water planners. The study provides an excellent starting point for addressing the challenges faced by the tribes and highlights their importance in addressing the water challenges faced by the State and the region.
Given the challenges and opportunities posed by the tribes’ unique water rights and the long history of oppression and exclusion of Indigenous peoples by both the federal and state governments, particular considerations of equity and justice must be extended to the Colorado Ute Tribes in regards to water issues. This is particularly important because tribes’ vital cultural, spiritual, and ceremonial uses are often not adequately addressed in Western legal and economic structures.
Careful, intentional, and respectful consultation with the tribes一as well as inclusion in statewide deliberative water planning processes一is essential to developing a robust understanding of their needs, as well as the cultural significance and intended uses of water.
Urban agriculture (UA) is most simply defined as “all forms of agricultural production occurring within or around cities.” In any given urban area, this may include quite a variety of operations and projects, including ground-based outdoor gardens and farms, indoor hydroponic or aquaponic growing, rooftop gardens and farms, landscaping and nurseries, urban livestock, and more. The sector is growing as cities become home to more UA-focused organizations, citizens get more creative with urban landscapes, and policies incentivize green infrastructure. Such programs or policies are often intended to promote public health, economic development, and enhance socio-ecological relationships.
Over time, UA has taken on a new form and meaning. With connections now to social justice and environmental sustainability, urban farming has taken root in countless large and small city centers across the nation, oftentimes appearing in the form of community gardens, rooftop gardens, and greenhouses. UA is not recognized in the Colorado Water Plan, or many other western state water plans, despite its growing popularity across the nation. UA offers a multitude of exciting opportunities to foster resilience within western water planning and our food systems.
Regardless of the form it takes, all UA operations require water. Water resources may be utilized on a wide spectrum of UA irrigation tactics一from traditional flood irrigation in peri-urban fields to precision application in a vertical farm. The increasing prevalence of UA operations in Colorado cities requires more attention from water planners, especially as food production technology advances and local food becomes more popular among citizens. The CWP update should not only provide support for both existing operations, but also recognize the potential water-efficient food production in the future of UA. This will be especially important as Colorado could see a shifting food system in the face of climate change and urbanization. The current trajectory of UA could provide a significant contribution to water resilience planning and food production for Colorado.
Though this growth may represent an exciting shift in the food system, it is crucial to recognize UA’s capacity for exacerbating environmental injustices. Often, initiatives led by non-residents may be detrimental to local communities. This is especially prevalent when mostly young, white non-residents have led initiatives in predominantly Black and/or Latinx neighborhoods, “unintentionally excluding people of color from participating in or reaping the benefits of such efforts.” Furthermore, residents of lower-income communities and/or people of color are more likely to experience difficulty accessing land, funding, and political support for UA projects than white and middle class individuals or organizations. Therefore, in order to avoid perpetuating injustice, UA implementation must be nuanced and place-based. A successful and anti-racist CWP update will recognize possible inequities and provide support for urban residents to facilitate UA projects within their own neighborhoods.
This overview intends to provide the background and ethics necessary to integrate the Colorado Ute Tribes, acequias, and urban agriculture considerations into the Colorado Water Plan update. In an effort to begin the process of elevating voices of underrepresented communities, this research team hosted a virtual listening session and working meeting for water planning professionals and UA stakeholders. This event was meant to serve as a platform for stakeholder and administrator collaboration with the goal of creating a more equitable and inclusive CWP update. Our next post will detail the process and results of this meeting.
The massive storm that hit Colorado’s Front Range over the weekend didn’t do much to aid the local snowpack. And that snowpack continues to lag behind the 30-year median.
According to the latest numbers from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measurement sites at Vail, Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass, the snowpack, as measured in “snow water equivalent,” is 90% or less of the 30-year median. Copper Mountain is the closest measurement site to Vail Pass, and Fremont Pass is the closest measurement site to the headwaters of the Eagle River. Vail Mountain’s measurement is the lowest of the three, at 76% of the 30-year median…
This season’s accumulation at Vail has already passed the peak snowpack recorded in 2011-2012, the lowest year on record. Snowpack is near or past the peaks recorded in the lowest years on record at Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass…
More heat, more evaporation
Hannah Holm of the Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University said early snowmelt also exposes bare ground, which heats up more easily than snow. More heat means more evaporation, which also means less water flowing into streams.
And those dry years have become more and more frequent. Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, noted that three of the four lowest snow years on record have come in the past decade.
“We’re not just responding to a one-year drought,” Johnson said, adding that people in the water supply business are calling this 20-year drought cycle a “millennium drought.”
Johnson added that simple snowpack measurements are only part of a fairly complex equation for water supplies.
As Holm noted, it’s important how quickly snow melts in the spring. Johnson said that one of the lowest snow years on record, 2001-2002, had the benefit of a cool spring to keep the limited snowpack on hillsides.
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Join this annual community conversation about our water, threats & opportunities! Engage & learn how you can help sustain the agriculture, environment & economy of the San Luis Valley. This virtual event is free & open to the public.
The view from Music Pass in the Sand Creek drainage, where a multi-agency effort is unfolding to restore the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)
The Rio Grande cutthroat trout has dwindled in its native habitat. A multi-agency effort to restore it still can inspire anger and concern. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)
Workers administer the plant-based chemical compound rotenone at Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo range. The chemical kills all fish in the waterway so that Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a native species, had be restored to the habitat. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)
A center pivot irrigates a field in the San Luis Valley, where the state is warming farmers that a well shut-down could come much sooner than expected. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado
The West Fork fire complex of 2013 was composed of three fires that burned more than 109,000 acres on mostly public lands managed by the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests. Photo: Jonathan Coop, Western Colorado University via Colorado State University
The Rio Grande near Albuquerque in 2012. Photo credit: City of Albuquerque CC by 2.0 via The New Mexico Political Report
The Conejos River (right) joins the Rio Grande on the 3,200-acre Cross Arrow Ranch southeast of Alamosa. Photo By: John Fielder via Water Education Colorado
Side channels were excavated by the Bureau of Reclamation along the Rio Grande where it passes through the Rhodes’ property to provide habitat for the endangered silvery minnow. (Dustin Armstrong/U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation)
Kyler Brown rides along the Rio Grande River, where headgates divert water into irrigation canals. Coming up with a plan to reduce water use is the easy part, he says. Changing peoples’ behavior is trickier. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
The Rio Grande flowing through the Colorado town of Del Norte. Photo credit: USBR
The headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The drying riverbed of the Middle Rio Grande near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on April 4, 2018. Photo credit: USBR
A cottonwood forest in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Matthew Schmader/Open Space Division
Elephant Butte Dam is filled by the Rio Grande and sustains agriculture in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico. Sarah Tory
Nearly every mature spruce tree has been killed by spruce beetle in this area of the Rio Grande National Forest in southwest Colorado. (Credit: U.S. Forest Service; photo: Brian Howell)
Rio Grande River photo credit Wild Earth Guardians.
Kevin Terry, a project coordinator for Colorado Trout Unlimited, holds up a Rio Grande cutthroat trout at Upper Sand Creek Lake.
Rio Grande River March 2016 via Greg Hobbs.
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument via the Bureau of Land Management
Rio Grande River corridor near Del Norte.
Photo via the Rio Grande Restoration Project
A Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Photo courtesy Andrew Todd.
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia
Rio Grande Pyramid
Rio Grande River near South Fork via Division of Water Resources
When he first started farming in 1987, Curtis Sayles went through a new pair of cowboy work boots every year.
These days, he’s still wearing a pair he bought three years ago.
The difference? Sayles stopped using harsh fertilizers on his fields that ate through the leather of his boots. Sayles, a fourth-generation farmer with 6,000 acres near Seibert in eastern Colorado, now practices regenerative agriculture, a multi-faceted style of farming that advocates say has a host of benefits, including improved water efficiency, water quality and profitability.
Above all else, regenerative agriculture can help restore healthy, fertile soils — working with nature, instead of against it.
“I’m really tired of fighting nature — because she always wins. That’s her ace in the hole,” said Sayles, 64.
Farmers like Sayles — and those who want to get started with regenerative agricultural practices but could use some support — are getting a boost thanks to a renewed partnership between federal and state agencies.
In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Colorado State Conservation Board entered a five-year, $5 million agreement to help support regenerative agriculture, soil health, water conservation and urban farms.
The agreement itself is new, but is the result of a long-standing partnership between the two agencies, which have entered into similar agreements every five years for the last 15 or so years, according to Clint Evans, Colorado state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The most recent agreement provides funding for 25 existing conservation positions across Colorado. More specifically, the agreement funds district conservation technicians in some of Colorado’s 76 conservation districts, which date back to 1937 and represent private landowners’ interests in conservation-related work such as water quality, energy efficiency and habitat improvement.
District conservation technicians, which often work out of the USDA’s local service centers and collaborate with federal staffers, provide expertise to help farmers and ranchers address an array of questions or concerns ranging from water and wind erosion to irrigation distribution.
Under the agreement, federal dollars provide 75 percent of funding for those positions, while the remaining 25 percent is split between the state and local conservation districts, Evans said.
The agreement also provides funding for up to six new positions: five positions to support the state’s new effort to focus on soil health and one to support urban farmers with conservation practices.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture launched its new Soil Health Initiative in 2020, with an overarching goal of helping farmers and ranchers boost their land’s productivity and drought resiliency by improving soil health. Other soil health initiatives are also underway in Colorado, led by groups like the Colorado Collaborative for Healthy Soils and Farmers Advancing Regenerative Management Systems (FARMS).
Regenerative agriculture, which prioritizes soil health, has garnered renewed interest over the last 10 or so years as farmers and ranchers grapple with challenges like variable crop prices, climate change and increasing expenses, Evans said. Soil health also appeared throughout the 2018 farm bill, the federal legislation that encompasses a wide swath of agriculture-related issues and programs.
“A lot of producers have started looking at soil health as a way that, over the long term, can help improve their overall sustainability and resources on their farm or ranch and help them become more profitable,” Evans said.
Some of the most common tenets of improving soil health are minimizing soil disturbance while maximizing soil cover, biodiversity, and the presence of living roots. In practice, this means farmers stop tilling the land, or greatly reduce tilling, plant cover crops, grow a strategic rotation of diverse crops, add mulch, and introduce grazing livestock.
Performed together over several years, these practices can lead to rich, productive soil that naturally retains moisture, produces nutrient-rich crops, and staves off weeds and pests without the need for as many added chemicals. By reducing the use of energy, resources and chemicals, these practices also save farmers and ranchers time and money in the long run, Evans said.
According to the USDA, healthy soil practices can help reduce evaporation rates, while healthy soil itself can hold more available water, two outcomes that are especially helpful during drought. What’s more, reducing the use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides helps protect groundwater from chemical leaching. Healthy soil practices also reduce runoff and erosion, which keeps sediment out of lakes, rivers and streams.
Since they’re not tilling the land, farmers can make fewer trips using farm machinery, which leads to lower emissions and improved air quality. Healthy soil also sequesters carbon.
“Soil health could be the baseline to healthy forests, healthy rangelands, healthy croplands,” Evans said. “All across agricultural lands, it could really be the foundation for drought resiliency and higher productivity even as climate and rainfall cycles change.”
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which administers the water plan, worked with the Colorado Department of Agriculture to help develop the new soil health initiative to address water management issues across the state and help make progress on the water plan’s objectives, according to Sara Leonard, a spokesperson for the CWCB.
Now, the CWCB is actively promoting soil health as a water conservation tool. For example, the board recently awarded a Colorado Water Plan grant to San Miguel County to study expanding its Payment for Ecosystem Services program, which gives landowners incentives for adopting practices that improve soil health, water conservation, and other ecological goals.
“The water plan identifies soil health practices such as conservation tillage and mulching as promising practices to conserve water while providing other important co-benefits such as water quality enhancement, creating wildlife habitat and improving a producer’s bottom line,” Leonard said. “In particular, soil health practices show potential in enhancing resiliency to drought and reducing pressure on groundwater supplies by improving water-holding capacity and reducing evaporative losses.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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As land trusts conserve private land, they also protect water rights. Some of Colorado’s land trusts are going beyond the parcel-by-parcel approach to conservation and are tackling big water challenges in a regional way.
During this March 9 webinar, we’ll learn how land trusts work with water rights in Colorado. Then we’ll focus on two visionary projects: Colorado Open Lands and partners in the San Luis Valley are reimagining conservation easements and putting them to work to slow groundwater decline and encourage aquifer sustainability. And the Palmer Land Conservancy is protecting irrigated farmland east of Pueblo along the Bessemer Ditch with conservation easements and, thanks to a high-level landscape-scale analysis, Palmer is combatting the effects of buy and dry by keeping water on the area’s most productive ag land.
How are land trusts making these projects work? Why are they well-positioned to play such an important role in water management? Is there an opportunity for more land trusts to tackle water management challenges in these big, innovative ways? Join us to explore these questions and come prepared with your own.
Melissa Daruna, Keep It Colorado
Sarah Parmar, Colorado Open Lands
Ed Roberson, Palmer Land Conservancy
Presented in partnership by Water Education Colorado and Keep It Colorado
From Water Education Colorado (Willow Cozzens, Samantha Grant, Amelia Nill, and Andrew Primo):
Effective agricultural water planning is critical for a sustainable and resilient future in Colorado. Not only does the agricultural sector account for 86.7% of the state’s consumed water, but agriculture is also the crucial economic and cultural foundation for many communities. The 2015 Colorado Water Plan (CWP), a statewide roadmap for water management, is currently undergoing a multi-year update that includes new information, critical action items, and revised water planning schemes for all sectors. This update will be published in 2022. In order to foster lasting resilience, the CWP update must be more inclusive of all Coloradoans and provide comprehensive planning for historically underserved communities across the state.
True sustainability can not be divorced from empowering all communities. Studies show that systems with many sources of knowledge are generally more resilient. Just as farmers often plant several different crops to prepare for potential vulnerabilities, water planning must strive to be as diverse as possible to create a water resilient future.
Who has been excluded from agricultural water planning?
Colorado has an exciting opportunity to be more inclusive in water planning and subsequently create a truly sustainable CWP. But first, underserved groups must be identified throughout all sectors. This will necessitate nuanced outreach and calls to action. Three groups who have been historically excluded from Colorado water planning in agriculture are:
People who operate under acequia management systems. For communities in Colorado and northern New Mexico, an acequia is a physical system, an irrigation ditch, but it is also a deeply embedded philosophy of community and governance. These producers are primarily Hispanic or Latinx and reside in the San Luis Valley within the Rio Grande River Basin or in the Arkansas River Basin. The term “acequia” is mentioned only once in the entire 2015 CWP — in a footnote of a farmer profile.
Tribal water users. Two federally recognized tribes have designated land reservations within the borders of Colorado: the Southern Ute Indian Tribe (SUIT) and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe (UMUT). While it must be acknowledged that 48 contemporary tribal nations are historically tied to the lands that make up Colorado, the Ute tribes are holders of federal reserved water rights in the state. Both the SUIT and UMUT tribal reservations are located within the Southwest Basin (e.g. San Juan/Dolores), though the UMUT reservation also includes land in New Mexico and Utah. While the tribes have become more frequent partners in broader interstate negotiations, inclusion at the intrastate level is still limited to the Southwest Basin Roundtable. Given the Ute tribes’ status as the state’s original water users and the unique nature of their federally reserved rights, more efforts should be made to explicitly include tribal representatives in deliberative processes.
Urban agricultural producers. Urban agriculture in Colorado may include a variety of production methods and water uses, such as community gardens, hydroponic growing facilities, small-scale market farms, and more. It is important to note that there is not necessarily the same rich history or record of exclusion for urban agriculture as the above two groups. Rather, planning for water in urban agriculture could present an exciting opportunity to foster resilience in the food system and land use planning for the future of Colorado. Before defining demographics and practices within urban agriculture, a standard definition of urban agriculture in Colorado must be implemented.
Tribes are acknowledged in the Southwest Basin Implementation Plan, and acequias are acknowledged in the Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan. Urban agriculture is not mentioned in the 2015 CWP or in any of the Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs). The BIPs could serve as an opportunity to elevate underserved voices, given their regional focus, and create a space for them at the state level. An equitable and just water planning process at all levels, from local to basin to state, is critical for Colorado’s present and future water needs.
Paving the way toward more inclusivity in Colorado water planning
The Department of Natural Resources has recently announced the formation of a water equity committee, which is set to include representatives from each river basin and each tribal nation. Within this engagement process, Colorado water planners must make the effort to explicitly solicit input and feedback from underserved individuals and groups in agriculture and all other water sectors. Outreach efforts must be nuanced for each community, each conversation, and each stage in inclusive planning. Overall, CWCB should focus on elevating voices of change makers within historically underserved communities and solicit consistent feedback for a more inclusive, equitable, and holistic Colorado Water Plan.
This strategy should aim to advance diverse representation in natural resource planning and provide opportunities for more equitable funding. Explicit inclusion via community outreach may also encourage diversity in water planning schemes, which can in turn create a more sustainable future. The equity committee and the CWCB should reach out to representatives of underserved communities and facilitate dynamic and interactive working sessions where stakeholders can discuss water challenges and opportunities with the CWCB.
In partnership with CWCB and the University of Colorado – Boulder, we conducted an initial working session with a goal of establishing a more inclusive dialogue for producers. This work session, which focused on water issues among urban agriculture producers, will be discussed in a later blog post.
Ideally, such facilitated dialogues will lead to additional working sessions, inclusion in water planning procedures at the state level, participation in Basin Roundtables, submission of public comments, and general advocacy pointed toward agricultural water planning. This approach may foster a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive 2022 Colorado Water Plan, and a better water planning process into the future.
Imposing hefty taxes on speculative water sales, requiring that water rights purchased by investors be held for several years before they can be resold, and requiring special state approval of such sales are three ideas that might help Colorado protect its water resources from speculators.
The ideas were discussed Wednesday at a meeting of a special work group looking at whether Colorado needs to strengthen laws preventing Wall Street investment firms and others from selling water for profit in ways that don’t benefit the state’s farms, cities and streams.
The anti-speculation group was created last year by lawmakers and is charged with reporting back to them this August.
As prices for Colorado’s water have soared and Wall Street firms and others have begun buying up agricultural lands and their associated water rights, concern is rising that the state could lose control of its vast, though heavily used, streams and rivers.
“It’s a tough nut to crack,” said Joe Bernal, a rancher and work group member from the Grand Valley on the West Slope, where hedge funds are actively buying land and water.
Water has always been a scarce resource in Colorado. In the 1800s, as miners and farmers were moving in, the courts developed a system so that no one could hoard water, drive up its price, and profit from its sale. To combat the problem, they required that water rights be granted only to those who could put them to beneficial use, whether in farm fields or mines, or in people’s homes and businesses.
Under state law, water is considered a public resource. The legal right to claim it and use it for some beneficial purpose, such as farming or manufacturing or municipal use, must be approved in water court. Once obtained, water rights are considered a private property right and can be bought and sold, again with approval from the courts.
Colorado already has some of the strictest anti-speculation laws in the West.
But the rise in water prices and the purchase of water-rich farms and ranches on the West Slope by deep-pocketed, out-of-state investment firms, as well as in-state efforts to export water from the San Luis Valley, prompted lawmakers in late 2019 to call for more work on the issue.
The work group has yet to make any formal recommendations, but Alex Davis, an attorney for Aurora Water and work group member, said new ideas have to be considered because Colorado’s existing laws were written more than 100 years ago, long before hedge funds existed.
“This idea of appropriating water rights and not using them, we have that covered,” Davis said. “It’s well prevented by the laws that exist. It’s the financial speculation that we’re focused on here. How do you prevent it? It’s a very difficult question.”
Imposing a hefty tax on any profits made in a speculative sale, similar to a capital gains tax, could serve as a disincentive to investors, Davis said.
Still another work group member, Adam Reeves, an attorney with the Denver- and Durango-based firm Maynes, Bradford, Shipps and Sheftel, said forcing certain investors to hold onto water rights for several years before being allowed to sell them again could provide another powerful disincentive.
Still others suggested some kind of state approval by existing water courts or other state authorities could be required, effectively limiting any sales deemed speculative.
But key to any of these tools is defining what is and isn’t speculation.
“What are the criteria by which you determine that ‘x’ investment is speculative and ‘y’ investment is not?” Davis asked. “Any time anyone purchases an asset it’s an investment…when does it become an investment that is problematic or predatory? Is a Colorado billionaire different than a New York billionaire?”
Bernal said any definition of speculation should consider whether transactions in which cities are buying agricultural water with an intent to permanently remove it at some future date to serve a growing population could also be considered speculative and therefore subject to some limitation.
“The concern we all have here is where it might go and who will end up with it. Is it right, is it proper that it go to large municipalities?” Bernal asked. “Why are some of these transactions bad because of who they involve, and what limitations do we put on these transactions, and how does that affect people who’ve owned the water traditionally? Is there something we need to do that doesn’t interfere with private property transactions?”
Work group member Peter Fleming, a water attorney for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, said the state should be careful not to limit investment in ways that are harmful.
“There is no risk to Coloradans from a non-speculative investment in water,” Fleming said. “We need that to increase productivity and maximum utilization of the state’s water resources.”
The work group has six months to finish its research and craft recommendations for lawmakers to consider later this summer.
The group plans to meet next in March, though a date has not yet been set.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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For kids 7-11 years-old
Thursday, March 11, 2021 @ 4:00 PM
Raptors are found on almost every continent! In this session of Audubon Afterschool, youth explorers will learn about the variety of raptors found in North America and what makes each a unique hunter. From hawks and eagles to owls and falcons, raptors are some of the most charismatic and popular birds.
March 1 is the last day to register, only 20 spaces offered.
Please contact email@example.com for scholarship opportunities for this event.
Coloradans legally bet more than $1.1 billion on sports in 2020, exceeding expectations and funneling some cash to the Colorado Water Plan sooner than anticipated.
Colorado collected more than $3.4 million in sports betting taxes in 2020, with operators running from May through December. Voters agreed to legalize and tax sports betting in November 2019 with the passage of Proposition DD, which also directed much of the tax revenue to the Colorado Water Plan, a comprehensive vision for the state’s water future created in 2015.
Colorado’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, which makes the sports betting numbers even more promising, since December was only the halfway mark for the current fiscal year. From July to December 2020 — the first half of the current 2020-21 fiscal year — Colorado collected $3.1 million in sports betting tax revenue.
Even with six months remaining in the fiscal year — a span that includes big-time sporting events like the Super Bowl, March Madness, the Kentucky Derby and more — that $3.1 million is already double the gaming division’s initial projections of $1.5 million to $1.8 million for the full 2020-21 fiscal year. That means the Colorado Water Plan could see sports betting funds as soon as this fall, a year earlier than initially projected.
“We took a very conservative approach based on how fast the market would pick up, how fast people would embrace it, what effect we were going to have on moving people from the black market to the regular market, and we’ve just really blown all of those things out of the water — no pun intended for the water front,” said Dan Hartman, director of the Colorado Division of Gaming. “We really moved a lot of needles a lot further, a lot faster that we thought we were going to. We’re optimistic and really excited about where sports betting is and, ultimately, that there’s going to be better-than-projected amounts going to the water plan.”
Based on tax revenue collected in the first half of the current fiscal year, and factoring in the other ways sports betting tax revenue must be spent under the new law, the water plan so far stands to gain a little more than $1 million — and counting.
That’s still well short of the $100 million officials estimate they need each year in new funding to accomplish the water plan’s goals by 2050, but sports betting was never expected to fully fund the water plan — and every little bit counts, said Alec Garnett, D-Denver, the lead sponsor of the sports betting bill.
“We’ve always known that Coloradans love sports. We always knew that there was a black market and that people were already doing this,” Garnett said. “From a regulatory standpoint, I feel very strong and good about what these numbers mean for the market we created.”
If these early numbers are any indication, the sports betting program is likely to continue to grow in future years as the market matures and sports calendars get back to normal.
Though he has not created an official updated projection based on 2020’s wagers and tax revenue, Hartman said he believes annual sports betting tax revenue could double by next year.
“I’m comfortable in projecting that we’re probably on pace to do twice as much next year as we did this year,” Hartman said.
Sports betting got off to a slow start in Colorado, since it launched in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic when many sporting events were canceled. But as the sports betting program got underway and more live sporting events were held (often without fans in the seats), the tax revenue started growing.
Even so, before any of that money goes to the Colorado Water Plan, the gaming division must first pay back the $1.7 million lawmakers allocated from the state’s general fund to start the new sports betting program, which will likely happen at the beginning of March, Hartman said. The program’s ongoing operating costs are paid for with fees from licensed sports betting operators in the state, which now number 17.
The gaming division must also set aside 6 percent of tax revenue for a hold-harmless fund, provide $130,000 per year to the Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health, and give $30,000 per year to Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners to operate a gambling hotline.
Any remaining tax revenue can then go to the Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund, pending the approval of the Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission, according to Suzi Karrer, a spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Revenue.
“The gaming commission will take that up in one of their meetings in the fall,” Hartman said. “Legislatively, it’s been turned over to the commission to follow the formula and give [the funds] to the beneficiaries.”
The early sports betting numbers were also a small bright spot for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the state agency tasked with administering the water plan, which expects to be rationing much of its current funding over the next two years.
CWCB hasn’t received any of the sports betting tax revenue yet and, since it’s difficult to predict how much Coloradans will wager in future years, the agency hasn’t yet made plans for spending it.
“Based on what has been collected so far, sports betting revenue does look promising as an additional — and more permanent — funding source for the water plan and important water projects, but again, it is still new, and we really don’t know yet what the revenue generation capacity will be,” said Sara Leonard, CWCB spokesperson.
As of right now, the CWCB is not planning to ask the Colorado Legislature to allocate funding to the Colorado Water Plan for the next two years and will instead rely on the 2020-21 allocation of $7.5 million, according to Leonard and state budget officials speaking at recent CWCB meetings.
The approval of the new sports betting tax, which created a dedicated funding source for the Colorado Water Plan, was an accomplishment in a state where voters have historically rejected statewide water funding efforts. But it’s still not enough to meet the ambitious goals outlined in the plan.
To that end, state and local water leaders plan to re-start conversations about water funding this month. Those talks will begin at the Feb. 23 meeting of the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC), according to the committee’s director Russell George. The IBCC, created in 2005, is a statewide public board that helps set policy and coordinate talks between river basins.
“We’re going to re-ignite that large discussion and see where we can go,” said George during his Jan. 25 update to the CWCB. “I don’t have to tell you the need for an input, an infusion of capital, in all of the things that we’re trying to do…It’ll just be the beginning of a conversation that I think’s going to go on until we’ve succeeded.”
Garnett said he wasn’t aware of any upcoming legislation related to new funding sources for the water plan, but said he was happy that funding for Colorado’s water future remains in the public eye.
“There’s just a lot of focus on this area because of the pressures that are being put on our most precious natural resource,” he said. “It’s always hard to find dedicated revenue streams in Colorado and it was certainly a hard process to get Proposition DD passed. I’m sure everyone has their eyes wide open about the challenges.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s the release from the State of the Rockies Project at Colorado College (Katrina Miller-Stevens and Jacob Hay):
New Poll Shows Surge in Concern about Nature and Continued Bipartisan Support for Conservation Among Western Voters
11th annual Conservation in the West Poll reveals policy opportunities for new administration and Congress on public land conservation
Colorado College’s 11th annual State of the Rockies Project Conservation in the West Poll released today showed a marked increase in levels of support for conservation, with voters in the Mountain West calling for bold action to protect nature as a new administration and Congress consider their public lands agendas.
The poll, which surveyed the views of voters in eight Mountain West states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), found 61 percent of voters are concerned about the future of nature, meaning land, water, air, and wildlife. Despite trying economic conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, the level of concern for things like loss of habitat for fish and wildlife, inadequate water supplies, pollution in the air and water, the loss of pollinators, uncontrollable wildfires, and climate change outpaced the overall level of concern about unemployment.
“We are seeing strong voter concern for nature, which is translating into calls for bold action on public lands in the West,” said Katrina Miller-Stevens, Director of the State of the Rockies Project and an Assistant Professor at Colorado College.
“If federal and state policy leaders are looking for direction on public lands, the view from the West is clear.”
Westerners’ heightened concerns about their natural landscapes are matched with strong consensus behind proposals to conserve and protect the country’s outdoors.
● 77 percent support setting a national goal of conserving 30 percent of land and waters in America by the year 2030, which was recently announced in an Executive Order by the new Biden administration.
● 72 percent support making public lands a net-zero source of carbon pollution, meaning that the positive impacts of forests and lands to create clean air are greater than the carbon pollution caused by oil and gas development or mining.
● 66 percent support gradually transitioning to 100 percent of our energy being produced from clean, renewable sources like solar, wind, and hydropower over the next ten to fifteen years.
● 77 percent support restoring national monument protections to lands in the West which contain archaeological and Native American sites, but also have oil, gas, and mineral deposits.
● 84 percent support creating new national parks, national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and tribal protected areas to protect historic sites or outdoor recreation areas, in part because 77 percent of voters believe those types of protected public lands help the economy in their state.
● 91 percent of voters in the West agree that despite state budget problems, we should still find money to protect their state’s land, water, and wildlife.
Conservation intersects with equity concerns
The poll broke new ground this year in examining the intersection of race with views on conservation priorities. Results were separated by responses from Black, Latino, and Native American voters, along with combined communities of color findings. The poll included an oversample of Black and Native American voters in the region in order to speak more confidently about the view of those communities.
The poll found notably higher percentages of Black voters, Latino voters, and Native American voters to be concerned about climate change, pollution of rivers, lakes, and streams, and the impact of oil and gas drilling on our land, air, and water. The poll also found higher levels of support within communities of color for bold conservation policies like the 30 percent conservation by 2030 effort, transitioning to one hundred percent renewable energy, and making public lands a net-zero source of carbon pollution.
Furthermore, the poll showed a desire by strong majorities of Western voters for equitable access to public lands and to ensure local communities are heard. 73 percent of voters in the West support directing funding to ensure adequate access to parks and natural areas for lower-income people and communities of color that have disproportionately lacked them. 83 percent of voters in the West support ensuring that Native American tribes have greater input into decisions made about areas within national public lands that contain sites sacred to or culturally important to their tribe.
Concerns over climate and fires are growing and viewed as interconnected
More voters than in the past expressed deep concern over both climate and wildfires. 51 percent of voters in the West say climate change is an extremely or very serious problem in their state, compared to 27 percent when the survey began in 2011 and 47 percent as recently as 2020. Similarly, 60 percent of voters in the West say uncontrollable wildfires that threaten homes and property are an extremely or very serious problem in their state, which is up from 32 percent in 2016 and 47 percent in 2020. 71 percent of voters in the West say wildfires are more of a problem than ten years ago, with 42 percent saying the reason is changes in the climate and 40 percent citing drought.
Sights on a cleaner and safer energy future on public lands
With oil and gas drilling taking place on half of America’s public lands, Western voters are well aware of the harmful impacts and want to ensure their public lands are protected and safe. 91 percent of voters support requiring oil and gas companies to use updated equipment and technology to prevent leaks of methane gas and other pollution into the air and 93 percent support requiring oil and gas companies to pay for all of the clean-up and land restoration costs after drilling is finished.
Asked about what policy makers should place more emphasis on in upcoming decisions around public lands, 69 percent of Western voters pointed to conservation efforts and recreation usage, compared to 27 percent who preferred energy production.
Nearly three-fourths of Western voters want to significantly curb oil and gas development on public lands. 59 percent percent think that oil and gas development should be strictly limited on public lands and another 14 percent say it should be stopped completely. That is compared to 25 percent of voters in the West who would like to expand oil and gas development on public lands.
Growing support for water and wildlife protections
The level of concern among Westerners around water and wildlife issues is growing. 52 percent of voters in the West say loss of habitat for fish and wildlife is an extremely or very serious problem in their state, which represents a sharp increase compared to 38 percent in 2011 and 44 percent in 2020. 63 percent of voters in the West believe the loss of pollinators is an extremely or very serious problem. 54 percent of voters in the West also say pollution of rivers, lakes, and streams is an extremely or very serious problem in their state, up from 42 percent in 2011 and 54 percent in 2020.
Those concerns translate into strong support among Western voters for water and wildlife protections:
● 81 percent support designating portions of existing public lands where wildlife migrate each year as areas which should not be open to oil and gas drilling.
85 percent support restoring Clean Water Act protections for smaller streams and seasonal wetlands.
● 73 percent support restoring protections for threatened species under the Endangered Species Act that were removed.
● 67 percent support restoring limits on drilling or industrial activities that could negatively impact threatened wildlife on national public lands, such as sage-grouse.
● 94 percent support dedicating funding to modernizing older water infrastructure and restoring natural areas that help communities protect sources of drinking water and withstand impacts of drought.
This is the eleventh consecutive year Colorado College has gauged the public’s sentiment on public lands and conservation issues. The 2021 Colorado College Conservation in the West Poll is a bipartisan survey conducted by Republican pollster Lori Weigel of New Bridge Strategy and Democratic pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates.
The poll surveyed at least 400 registered voters in each of eight Western states (AZ, CO, ID, MT, NV, NM, UT, & WY) for a total 3,842-voter sample, which included an over-sample of Black and Native American voters. The survey was conducted between January 2-13, 2021 and the effective margin of error is +2.2% at the 95% confidence interval for the total sample; and at most +4.8% for each state. The full survey and individual state surveys are available on the State of the Rockies website.
Nathan Coombs, a burly alfalfa farmer in the San Luis Valley, never imagined he would trust an environmentalist, much less partner with one to improve habitat for fish in the region’s rivers and streams. As manager of the Conejos Water Conservancy District, Coombs cares first and foremost about supporting the livelihoods of agricultural water users in the upper Rio Grande Basin. As such, he had figured that more water for fish meant less water for farmers and ranchers.
And that was unthinkable.
But things took a surprising turn about seven years ago when Coombs met Kevin Terry, a fish biologist at Trout Unlimited. Terry, who manages the organization’s efforts in the Rio Grande Basin, approached Coombs with what seemed like an outlandish idea, if only because it had never been suggested before, at least not here: shift the timing of some water deliveries from storage reservoirs to provide enough water for trout to survive the winter, while still meeting the requirements of the Rio Grande Compact. Even a small boost in streamflows can be enough to significantly help trout and other fish hang on until the late-spring snowmelt naturally improves their ability to reproduce.
For decades reservoirs in the basin have only released water for agricultural, the basin’s primary water users, during the April-through-October irrigation season. As a result, many streams and ditches run dry or slow to a trickle in the winter.
What kept Coombs, whose district operates the Platoro Reservoir on the Conejos River, from rejecting Terry as just another antagonizing environmentalist or silver-spoon fly-fisherman, as he might have previously, was that Terry didn’t pontificate or try to persuade. Rather, he asked Coombs and other board members and residents what they needed to support their farms and ranches.
Terry then suggested a way to help them: Pay irrigators to re-time reservoir releases, providing them with cash, while giving native and wild fish a leg up.
Over the course of many discussions with Terry and heated debates among district board members, Coombs became convinced that this did not need to be a zero-sum proposition. About two years later, in 2015, he joined Terry in creating the Rio Grande Winter Flow Program. That same year the district board voted unanimously to change a longstanding rule to allow for the re-timing of water released from reservoirs.
The program works like this: Trout Unlimited pays participating water users to shift the release of a portion of their water allocation from the growing season to the winter months. Those landowners then pay a fraction of what they receive from TU to their local water conservancy district to release that amount of water from their storage reservoir, and they can keep the difference.
Dennis Moeller, for instance, owns a 2,000-acre ranch near the town of Antonito that stretches to the Conejos River in the southern San Luis Valley. Some 80 head of cattle roam the ranch in the winter, and another 400 graze on public land in the mountains. Now, the Conejos district releases a portion of Moeller’s allocated water from Platoro Reservoir into his ditch through the winter. Not only does this help the trout upstream of Moeller’s ranch, but he no longer needs to truck in winter water for his cattle. Trout Unlimited pays him $10 per acre-foot. Moeller pays the Conejos district $4.50 per acre-foot and pockets the $5.50 difference. For a total of about 84 acre-feet, he netted $462. Hardly a 401(k) plan, but it’s easy money. He said he still comes out net positive even if he needs to buy extra water to irrigate his meadow grass and alfalfa hay during the growing season.
And the collaboration is paying off across the valley.
“I promise you, I was considered the most anti-environmentalist in the room a few years ago,” said Coombs. “And the attitude of the board in the beginning was ‘no and hell no.’ But we realized that the [winter flow] program could benefit operators in the district, and that fish were a footnote. And we came to recognize that it also helps fisheries and tourism broadly in the region. The genius of this [program] is getting enough people in the room who understand what the common goal is, and enough trust.”
Five storage reservoirs in the basin participate in the program: Platoro, Continental, Terrace, Beaver Creek and Rio Grande. They operate on the Conejos, Rio Grande and Alamosa rivers.
For the voluntary program with an annual budget of about $80,000, Trout Unlimited does not set firm goals, but Terry noted that any additional water in the winter helps fish and their habitat. “The more the better, but we consider the program a success if we get any additional acre-feet of water for instream flows,” he said.
Last year was Colorado’s second-driest year on record, making precious little water available for additional instream flows.
The situation is also made more complicated by the Rio Grande Compact. Under this agreement, formalized in 1938, water users in the valley must make sure that certain amounts of water are delivered across the state border en route to New Mexico and Texas every year.
And the winter flow program, which works cooperatively with the water users, is able to work within the constraints of the compact.
Although Terry said Trout Unlimited’s goal to raise streamflows in the basin is not specific, the Conejos district set a goal of adding at least three cubic feet per second (cfs) per day, a 43 percent increase from its minimum required release of 7 cfs, in the non-irrigation season, amounting to roughly 900 acre-feet total to the program.
Last winter the Conejos far exceeded its goal—releasing an additional 4,345 acre-feet during the winter months. Overall, the winter flow program generated more than 5,000 acre-feet, according to Terry. And although it was not the most productive year, it was a pleasant surprise.
“The message is that we made a small portion of the [Rio Grande] Compact water do more work while it was still in Colorado, by re-timing some of it so that Colorado’s streams benefitted and we still paid the bill,” Terry said.
Estevan Vigil is an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife who has been researching fish populations and their habitat in the Conejos and Rio Grande rivers. He said the program has helped to restore and improve some trout and insect habitat, although low flows in the last two years especially have made it difficult to survey fish populations. Going forward, he said, climate change and drought will pose major slow-moving threats.
“Doing things like the winter flow program, where we’re keeping flows higher in rivers as often as we can, allows us to try to mitigate the impacts of those changes,” Vigil said.
Anecdotal evidence from fly-fishing outfitters suggests that the winter flows have helped bring more wild brown and other trout into local rivers and streams. Randy Keys, owner of Riffle Water LLC in Antonito, said the program has helped restore certain areas for fishing, drawing more anglers to the area. “It has made a huge difference,” he said. “For example, before the program the area right below the Platoro [Reservoir] was nothing but meadow water, with not a lot of holding places for trout. Now it’s great for fishing.”
As water in this region, and more broadly in the West, becomes increasingly scarce, the winter flow program may become one of many examples of how different water interests with seemingly competing priorities are reassessing their historic perspectives in order to figure out how to squeeze more out of every drop, for everyone.
“It’s one of those things where we’re just changing people’s mindsets,” said Craig Cotten, Division 3 engineer at the Division of Water Resources, which has been working with Trout Unlimited to administer water under the winter flow program. “We don’t have to do everything exactly like we did in the past. We can adjust it a bit to get multiple benefits.”
Susan Moran is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colo. She can be reached at email@example.com or @susan_moran.
This article was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
Drought conditions in Colorado and across the western United States aren’t expected to improve much, if any, in the coming year, prompting state and federal agencies to launch new efforts to help agricultural producers survive the growing drought problem.
Retta Brugger, Colorado State University range extension specialist, and Julie Elliott, a USDA rangeland management specialist, issued a bulletin earlier this week warning ranchers that they may want to lower their stocking on rangeland. The scientists cited a matrix of data called a “decision tree” that shows climate conditions are poised to continue the drought at least through the spring…
On Thursday morning the U.S. Drought Monitor showed serious to severe conditions are to persist across Colorado for the foreseeable future. In map after map and graph after graph, climatologists and forecasters show lower levels of precipitation, inadequate snowpack and rising temperatures. The Drought Monitor is produced through a partnership among the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska‐Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In the Midwest and High Plains sectors, which includes eastern Colorado up to the Foothills, little or no precipitation fell this week, outside parts of eastern North Dakota. Almost the entire region was unchanged compared to last week keeping most areas intact. Exceptions were found in eastern North Dakota, where light precipitation was sufficient to reduce the extent of drought conditions. Farther west, small areas of deterioration were noted in north-central Wyoming and the west-central Dakotas.
According to Brad Rippey, USDA meteorologist, around 46 percwent of the U.S. is experiencing moderate drought or worse. The seasonal drought outlook calls for continued dry conditions for nearly the entire western half of the U.S…
Meanwhile, state and federal officials are offering guidance, especially to agricultural producers, on how to survive the drought. In Colorado farmers and ranchers throughout the state can call or text (970) 988-0043 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to be connected to resources and a team to help address short and long-term drought conditions.
Colorado State University will offer a two-hour “Planning for Drought” presentation in early February.
Scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. on Feb. 2, the program will include presentations from legal, technical and planning professionals as well as grower-led drought preparation discussions and networking.
To participate, RSVP to email@example.com.
The program is in partnership with CSU Extension, Agricultural Experiment stations, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Colorado Ag Water Alliance and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Farmers and ranchers throughout the state can call/text (970) 988-0043 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to be connected to resources and a team to work with you to address short and long-term drought conditions.
Here’s a guest column from Patrick Stanko that’s running in the Steamboat Pilot & Today:
Do you know the critical water concepts? The Colorado State Water Education plan has identified six critical concepts that all Coloradans should understand about water.
The first concept is “The physical and chemical properties of water are unique and constant.” The physical properties of H2O are unique because its molecular structure gives rise to surface tension. The solid form of water, the white stuff so important to our community, is less dense than the liquid form allowing it to float.
The second concept states, “Water is essential for life, our economy and a key component of healthy ecosystems.” As we all know, there would be no life without water, and the ecosystems need clean water to survive. But the Routt County economy, both recreational and agricultural, depends upon water.
The Yampa Valley receives most of its water in the form of snow, the basin’s biggest reservoir, which is used by the recreational industry to ski and play on. When the spring melt happens, that water is used by agriculture to irrigate and produce the lush green hay fields we all have grown accustomed to, and of course, the river is used for fishing, boating and tubing.
The third and fourth concepts are “Water is a scarce resource, limited and variable” and “The quality and quantity of water, and the timing of its availability, are all directly impacted by human actions and natural events.” One only has to compare the last two years to see how variable and scarce water is in Colorado.
s the weather becomes drier and more variable and the population of Colorado continues to grow, water will become scarer. An update by the Colorado Water Plan predicts that the municipal and industrial gap in water supply will be in the range of 250,000 to 750,000 acre-feet of water annually. As a reference, the Dillon Reservoir holds approximately 250,000-acre feet.
The fifth concept is “Water cycles naturally through Colorado’s watersheds, often intercepted and manipulated through an extensive infrastructure system built by people.” Again, the biggest reservoir and storage of water in the Yampa Valley is snow.
In the spring the snow melts, some of the water returns to the atmosphere via sublimation, evaporation or transpiration. If the soil is dry, then most of the water will seep back into the ground filling the aquifers. The water that makes it to the river is used by the agriculture community to irrigate meadows for grazing and crops. Water is also captured in reservoirs, like Fish Creek Reservoir, that supplies Steamboat Springs with drinking water.
The sixth concept states “Water is a public resource governed by water law.” Colorado has a long doctrine of water laws dating back to the 1860s. A water right allows one to put a public resource to beneficial use as well as a place in line, where the junior water right may be curtailed to meet the needs of the senior water right, “first in time, first in right.”
A coalition of high-profile businesses, including Coors Seltzer and Coca-Cola, as well as the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust have signed up to add additional water for fish, farmers and hydropower generation to a key segment of the drought-stressed Colorado River known as the 15-Mile Reach.
This stream segment begins just east of Grand Junction, Colo., and ends west of town where the Gunnison River merges with the Colorado River.
For decades this reach has been under intense scrutiny, in part because it is a key source of water for Western Colorado ranchers and fruit growers, and it is also considered critical habitat for four endangered fish species: the razorback sucker; the humpback chub, the bonytail and the Colorado pikeminnow.
Dec. 15, the Colorado Water Trust unveiled a 10-year funding commitment from Business for Water Stewardship that will help ensure that there is more water in the river during dry times to keep irrigators, a small federal hydro plant, and the fish healthy.
The Colorado Water Trust is a Denver-based nonprofit dedicated to helping secure water rights through purchase, lease or donation to benefit the environment. Business for Water Stewardship is a program of the Portland, Ore.-based Bonneville Environmental Foundation that brings companies together to aid the environment.
Bringing in corporate funders, who have the resources to commit to a multi-year effort is key, according to Todd Reeve, the founder of Business for Water Stewardship. Danone and Intel Corp. are also funders.
“Companies are increasingly realizing the state of our water resources,” Reeve said. “And they are stepping up to support these environmental water solutions.
“This project stands up as an important example of all of these entities coming together. We’d like to see more of them,” Reeve said.
How much money and water will be provided under the agreement isn’t clear yet, according to the Colorado Water Trust, in part because it will depend on weather conditions and the condition of the river each year.
To date nearly $100,000 has been raised to buy water, according to the water trust.
Efforts to preserve Colorado’s 15-Mile Reach are coordinated by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a federal initiative launched in 1988 that also includes Utah and Wyoming. But because the river has multiple users, from growers to rafters and anglers, to power generators, dozens of other agencies, water users and towns are also involved, according to Kate Ryan, an attorney for the water trust.
The hope, according to Ryan, is that this long-term commitment to the area will build on and add more durability to what others have begun.
Under the agreement, the Colorado Water Trust each year will buy water from upstream sources for delivery to the Grand Valley Power Plant near Palisade. The power plant produces electricity to pump irrigation water to members of the Grand Valley Water Users Association and is operated by the Orchard Mesa Irrigation Company (OMIC).
After the water moves through the plant, it will continue downstream to the 15-Mile Reach.
“The water that comes down through the hydropower plant makes my system work better,” said Max Schmidt, OMIC’s manager. “But it’s also good for the fish.”
As the Colorado River Basin continues to dry out, natural flows in the river will have to be supplemented by water that can be obtained from those who have water in storage that they don’t need and are willing to sell or lease on a temporary or permanent basis.
Ryan said she is pleased the water trust was able to secure the agreements and funding that will allow it to be a long-term contributor to the health of the 15-Mile Reach.
“What was amazing and sobering this year is that the dry-year targets for flow are 650 cubic feet per second (cfs). But most of the summer they were down at 300 cfs,” Ryan said.
Despite the dire water forecasts, the potential for more cooperative efforts on the river appears to be growing.
Schmidt can reel off a list of cities, irrigation districts and water agencies that have stepped up in recent years to help, including the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado River District, and the cities of Aspen, Snowmass, Palisade and Grand Junction.
That doesn’t count the cash and operating support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the recovery program, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, or the new contributions from the Colorado Water Trust and Business for Water Stewardship.
“When everybody wins, everybody wins,” Schmidt said. “I don’t care if it’s power water, irrigation water or fish water, wet water in the river makes everybody’s lives better.”
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.
FromThe High Country News [December 22, 2020] (Jessica Grant):
University officials face pressure to address their history as the recipients of dispossessed Indigenous land.
When High Country News published “Land-Grab universities” last April, the two-year-long investigation shed new light on a dark open secret: One of the largest transfers of land and capital in the country’s history had masqueraded as a donation for university endowments.
HCN identified nearly 11 million acres of land, expropriated from approximately 250 tribes, bands and communities through more than 160 violence-backed treaties and land cessions. Now, in the wake of the investigation, land-grant universities across the country are re-evaluating the capital they built from these stolen Indigenous lands.
More than 150 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act — the legislation that transferred the lands — new discussions about the universities’ moral and ethical responsibilities have forced Americans to re-examine the law’s legacy. Land-grant institutions have long prided themselves on their accomplishments as beneficiaries: They used the proceeds generated by the land to broaden access to higher education, thereby contributing to economic development across the nation. But many of those institutions paid next to nothing for the public lands they received and sold.
By far the largest beneficiary was Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, which acquired almost 1 million acres from Ojibwe, Miwok, Yokuts, Dakota and other Indigenous nations through 63 treaties or seizures. The land came from 15 states, and by 1935, when the last parcel was sold, Cornell University had generated nearly $6 million for its endowment, the largest of any land-grant institution. Adjusted for inflation, it raised over $92 million.
Now, as the country reconsiders long-standing issues of racial equity and justice — focusing on everything from local political races to national legislation — students and faculty alike are pressuring administrators to address the investigation’s findings.
On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Oct. 12, 2020, members of Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell (NAISAC) put forward a list of 10 demands in the form of a petition. The demands include turning the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program into a university department; recruiting new Indigenous faculty and students, specifically Indigenous students affected and/or displaced by the Morrill Act; waiving tuition for those students; acknowledging the land of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’, or Cayuga Nation, before every Ithaca-based event; and reinstating an ad-hoc committee on Native American Affairs to oversee the approval of these demands.
“If the president’s office was responsible, then they would meet each of these demands to the extent that we’ve laid them out in our petition,” said Colin Benedict (Mohawk), the external relations chair for NAISAC. “Each of these demands in my mind is completely 100% justified and should already have been implemented by the university decades ago.”
As of Dec. 1, the petition had more than 900 signatures from students, staff, alumni and community members. The president’s office has yet to respond publicly, but in an email exchange, it stated, “The Office of the President is in receipt of the NAISAC petition, and the President is looking forward to working with the Native American and Indigenous community at Cornell on these issues.”
A faculty committee, headed by American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program Director Kurt Jordan, launched the Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Project. The project will research Cornell’s Morrill Act land history, identify the Indigenous communities affected, and foster discussion of possible remedies.
“We’ve had a number of statements that have been made by the administration in light of the George Floyd murder, Black Lives Matter, and all of the other things that have been happening this year about the need for Cornell to really address its legacy, its historical roots, its complicity in … to some degree, with white supremacy,” Jordan said. “Benefiting from stolen Indigenous land has to be part of that.”
History professor Jon Parmenter recently discovered that Cornell is in possession of over 420,000 acres of mineral rights in the Central and Southwestern U.S., a portion of which was retained through Morrill Act lands. In its petition, NAISAC urged the university to release a statement acknowledging the amount of land acquired, the interest accrued and mineral rights funds received, and pledging to refrain from mineral and resource extraction on those lands.
OVER 2,500 MILES WEST OF CORNELL, faculty and students at the University of California, Berkeley have also made strides. Established in 1868, the university received almost 150,000 acres from the Morrill Act. The land raised $730,000 for the university’s early endowment, and, adjusted for inflation, has generated over $13 million. The university paid nothing in return.
The presence and history of Indigenous people has been largely erased from the UC system, said Phenocia Bauerle (Apsáalooke), director of Native American Student Development at the University of California, Berkeley. Two years ago, Bauerle and the Native American Student Development center created a land acknowledgment to honor the Ohlone tribal lands that the university sits upon. However, the university has yet to adopt an official acknowledgment.
According to a California audit, UC Berkeley is the worst offender among the schools when it comes to complying with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which grants Indigenous nations the right to regain ancestral remains and objects from museums. UC Berkeley has only repatriated 20% of its 500,000-artifact collection. In comparison, the University of California Los Angeles has repatriated 96% of its collection.
“A lot of it comes down to, well, they see these issues as historical and not of the present because they see Natives as historical and not of the present,” Bauerle said. Since the dispossession occurred in the past, contemporary people don’t see themselves as responsible, and they feel no pressure to address the issue today. However, “ ‘Land-Grab’ gave us several concrete (points),” Bauerle said. “This dispossession of Native land that this whole country benefits from — here’s a specific way that we can show you that Berkeley actually played a part in it. These are the receipts. This is how much money you got.”
Bauerle partnered with Rosalie Z. Fanshel, a doctoral student in environmental science, policy and management and the program manager for the Berkeley Food Institute, to organize a conference on the Morrill Act and Indigenous land dispossession.
“The UC Land Grab: A Legacy of Profit from Indigenous Land” was held in two parts in September and October. The conference dug deep into the history of California’s genocide and the founding of the University of California. Participants called for action, including shared land stewardship, research opportunities and tuition options for Indigenous students.
More than 500 people attended both days of the conference. David Ackerly, dean of the Rausser College of Natural Resources in Berkeley, was among them. “I felt like I was learning so much that I had not been aware of,” he said. “This is part of our story, I want to be part of this. I want to learn. I want to figure out where we’re heading.”
Other attendees included staff from the office of UC President Michael V. Drake, the office of the chancellor at UC Berkeley and the governor’s office, as well as deans and administrators from various UC campuses and units.
One of the panelists, Brittani Orona, a doctoral candidate in Native American studies and human rights at UC Davis and a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, was surprised by how many people within the university system had no knowledge of the history of land-grant institutions. “I think with Native people and Native students, you know that our land, our places have been taken away from us, from many different institutions and at many different points of time,” Orona said.
At the conference, Orona spoke about the history of genocide in California. “Scholars of California Indian genocide will say it ended in 1873, but I argue it is a continuous process,” Orona said. “Many Native and Indigenous people in the state and across the world have been made promises since colonization, and they’ve been broken. It’s hard not to remember that legacy; I live in that legacy.”
Orona, who will complete her Ph.D. in the coming year, hopes that future Native and Indigenous students have a different experience than she did. “What does that mean, when you’re having California Native students pay out of pocket on land that has been dispossessed from them? I appreciate the discussions that are going on, but I’ll believe it when I see it — and when it moves beyond acknowledgment towards actual actionable items that make life easier for Native and Indigenous students and peoples.”
Orona, who will complete her Ph.D. in the coming year, hopes that future Native and Indigenous students have a different experience than she did. “What does that mean, when you’re having California Native students pay out of pocket on land that has been dispossessed from them? I appreciate the discussions that are going on, but I’ll believe it when I see it — and when it moves beyond acknowledgment towards actual actionable items that make life easier for Native and Indigenous students and peoples.”
As of Dec. 4, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ has yet to respond about the conference publicly. In an email, however, she wrote, “To achieve this inclusive campus culture, we must acknowledge how our history, including the Morrill Land Grant Act, impacts Indigenous people. Now more than ever, we, as a university, must take immediate action to acknowledge past wrongs, build trusting and respectful relationships, and accelerate change and justice for our Native Nations and Tribal communities.”
Jessica Douglas is a fellow at High Country News. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on December 22, 2020.”
Here’s the release from Reclamation (Patti Aaron and Linda Friar):
The Bureau of Reclamation today released a report intended to bring partners, stakeholders and the public to a common understanding of the effectiveness of the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The technical report documents conservation efforts and operations on the Colorado River since 2007 and provides an essential reference to inform future operations.
“The report presents a thorough review of operations and highlights that we have experienced historic collaboration among states, tribes, water users, non-governmental organizations and the international community in addressing issues affecting one of America’s most important rivers,” said Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Forty million people across seven states and Mexico depend on the Colorado River for life and livelihood, so it’s critical that our actions protect this resource now and into the future. Today’s report highlights both the historic steps taken in the basin, as well as the need for continued progress to meet the growing challenges in the years ahead.”
The report concluded:
– The 2007 Interim Guidelines were largely effective as measured against both their stated purpose and common themes as provided in the 2007 Record of Decision.
– Increasing severity of the drought necessitated additional action to reduce the risk of reaching critically low elevations in Lakes Powell and Mead.
Experience over the past 12 years provides important considerations:
– enhanced flexibilities and transparency for water users
– expanded participation in conservation and Basin-wide programs
– increased consideration of the linkage that occurs through coordinated reservoir operations, particularly with respect to the inherent uncertainties in model projections used to set operating conditions
– demonstrated need for more robust measures to protect reservoir levels
Oh no! The Water Desk has created a map index of their photos and other multimedia. Be careful clicking the link since browsing cool photos and such is probably not part of your written job description.
The State of Colorado has activated the municipal portion of its emergency drought plan for only the second time in history as several cities say they need to prepare for what is almost certainly going to be a dangerously dry 2021.
Last summer, the state formally activated the agricultural portion of the plan, calling on government agencies that serve farmers and livestock producers to begin coordinating aid efforts among themselves and with growers.
Now a similar process will begin for cities, according to Megan Holcomb, who oversees the drought work for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water policy agency.
Holcomb said the state’s decision to sound the alarm on municipal water supply came in response to requests from several cities, who believe the drought has become so severe that they need to prepare quickly for whatever 2021 may bring. Normally cities don’t make decisions about whether to impose watering restrictions until the spring, when it becomes clear how much water will melt from mountain snows and fill reservoirs.
But not this year.
“Even with an average snowpack we will still be in drought in the spring,” Holcomb said.
Colorado Springs, just last summer, enacted permanent three-days-per-week outdoor watering restrictions.
Kalsoum Abbasi oversees the city’s water delivery system and its reservoirs. She said the state’s decision to activate phase III drought planning makes sense.
“Personally I think it’s a good move for the state to move forward because it will help keep these drought conditions at the forefront of the conversation,” she said.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the state is now blanketed in drought, with more than two-thirds of its terrain classified as being in extreme or exceptional drought, the worst condition.
Colorado has experienced four severe droughts since 2000, but the trend has intensified with the drought of 2018 barely lifting before 2020 began seeing searing temperatures and dry weather again.
Going into 2021 soils across the state are desperately dry. As mountain snows melt and runoff makes its way to streams, a large share of the moisture will be absorbed by the thirsty landscape, leaving less for reservoirs and cities to collect.
“Soil moisture is a huge part of this story,” Holcomb said. “I also think 2020 is likely the hottest year on record globally. Long-term forecasts for temperatures show January through October of next year being extremely warm again.”
Colorado is divided into eight major river basins, with the four to the west of the Continental Divide feeding the bigger Colorado River Basin, which extends from the Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park to the Gulf of Mexico.
Federal forecasts for this system over the next several months have been dropping sharply. Paul Miller, a hydrologist for the Colorado River Basin Forecasting Center in Salt Lake City, said the amount of water predicted to be generated by this winter’s mountain snows dropped to 5.6 million acre-feet in December, down from 6.45 million acre-feet just one month earlier.
“Even before this recent change there was cause for concern because this past year was very dry and reservoir levels fell,” Miller said.
Local city water officials such as Jerrod Biggs, deputy director of utilities in Durango, said there is little time to waste.
Durango lies in the southwest corner of the state. The region has been hardest hit by the current drought and was similarly hard hit in 2018.
“All the groundwork we can lay today is worth it. Everybody hopes it’s not needed. But sticking our heads in the sand isn’t going to do anybody any good. It’s ugly and it’s getting uglier,” Biggs 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.
Developers often dropped by unannounced at the Allely farm to ask if the family would consider selling their 70-acre property south of Greeley at the confluence of the Big Thompson and South Platte rivers. The answer was always no — the Allelys did not want their land, which had been in the family since in the early 1960s, to be developed, now or in the future.
So when staff from Westervelt Ecological Services first approached the Allelys about creating a habitat preservation program on their farm roughly three years ago, the family was skeptical. But over the course of many months and long conversations, they began to warm to the idea and eventually agreed.
Instead of selling their property to the highest bidder or leaving it to the next generation, the family established a conservation easement — a permanent agreement to never develop the land — and, for a fee, allowed Westervelt to create the new Big Thompson confluence mitigation bank. The project broke ground in late October.
Now, a developer who disrupts wetlands or streams elsewhere along the Front Range and in parts of eastern Colorado can offset that impact by buying credits generated from floodplain and ecosystem restoration work completed on the Allelys’ land. Purchasing credits from this new mitigation bank allows developers to meet their obligations under the federal Clean Water Act.
“It’s a very important piece of property to us as a family,” said Zach Allely, the fifth-oldest of the six children who grew up on the farm. “If there’s an opportunity for us to say, ‘No, this is a place where native fauna, native flora can thrive forever,’ we’ll take that.”
Mitigation banks, explained
Mitigation banks are not new in Colorado — there are some 21 pending, approved, sold-out or suspended throughout the state, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ database — but this is the first new mitigation bank approved on the Front Range in 20 years.
Across the country, mitigation banks have become more popular since 2008, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressed a preference for mitigation banks (over other types of mitigation) and offered clearer guidance, standards and timelines for these projects.
Mitigation banks like this one are a byproduct of the federal Clean Water Act, first enacted in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and then expanded and reorganized in 1972. More specifically, they relate to Section 404 of the act, which aims to protect the country’s wetlands from the discharge of dredged or fill materials during the construction of dams, levees, highways, airports and other development projects.
Under Section 404, developers must take steps to avoid and minimize damage to wetlands and streams by adjusting the scope, location, design and type of project they wish to undertake. After avoidance and minimization, they must turn to a third mitigation type: compensatory mitigation.
Under compensatory mitigation, developers can restore, establish, enhance or preserve wetlands at the project site or somewhere else nearby. But this type of work isn’t always practical or possible, which is where mitigation banks come into play. Instead of going to all that trouble, a developer can pay for someone else to do the heavy lifting at a different, nearby location.
A mitigation banker, in this case Westervelt, pays for the upfront costs of finding a suitable piece of land, gaining approval from the right regulatory agencies, and doing the actual mitigation work. Then, depending on the scope and size of the project, the banker can sell a certain number of credits to offset the impacts of future development within the bank’s general vicinity.
Restoring historical floodplain
Today, crews are hard at work on the Allely property, re-establishing the historical floodplain to help restore the ecosystem for plants and animals and improve flood resiliency for nearby communities.
This restoration work also creates 34.76 wetland credits and 460 stream credits — released in phases — that developers, public agencies, mining companies and others can buy to help mitigate the unavoidable damage their projects will cause to other Colorado wetlands and streams.
Lucy Harrington, the Rocky Mountain region director for Westervelt Ecological Services, declined to say how much the company is charging for credits from the new 72.4-acre bank, citing variable pricing and bulk discounts.
But the Colorado Department of Transportation, which regularly buys credits from mitigation banks across the state, recently paid $200,000 for a credit from the new bank to help offset the impact of its Central 70 highway improvement project, said Becky Pierce, CDOT’s wetlands program manager.
To find potential mitigation bank sites, Westervelt staffers perform geographic information system (GIS) analyses that take into account a property’s proximity to streams, hydrology, oil and gas infrastructure, and proximity to other conserved properties, among other factors, Harrington said.
The company, which opened its newest regional office in Centennial in 2016, also looks at community-identified areas for wetland restoration and conservation, as was the case with the new Big Thompson confluence bank. Westervelt staff worked with the Middle South Platte River Alliance to understand local priorities and identify possible sites for the new bank. The alliance helped introduce Westervelt to the Allely family.
“It’s really a confluence of technical work, relationship-building and a little bit of luck, to be perfectly honest,” Harrington said.
Westervelt and other mitigation bankers often buy property outright. But in this case, Westervelt paid the Allely family an undisclosed amount to use their land for the mitigation bank and, in return, the Allelys protected the property in perpetuity with a conservation easement, which comes with its own tax benefits and incentives. Westervelt and the Allelys also established a long-term endowment for the site’s management with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
After creating a detailed plan and getting approval from regulatory agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and others, Westervelt began work.
Credits going fast
The company has released its first round of credits, which includes 8.69 wetland acres and 115 functional feet of stream credits. So far, the company has sold more than half of the wetland credits, Harrington said.
“Any project, whether it’s a highway widening that may cross a river, home development that may affect ephemeral or perennial drainage, a Walmart parking lot that’s expanding, a pipeline going in, any of those development items that could impact wetlands and streams, instead of having to provide a wetland offset themselves can just come to us, write a check and just walk away,” Harrington said. “We take on all the liability of the site in perpetuity.”
Meanwhile, the Allely family knows that their property will never be developed and is instead being restored to its historical conditions. They can also still access the land under the conservation easement, which is held by the nonprofit land trust Colorado Open Lands.
Staff at Colorado Open Lands say they hope the success of the Big Thompson mitigation bank will inspire other landowners to conserve their land.
“It’s just another tool, another way for us to look at getting creative about protecting open space in Colorado,” said Carmen Farmer, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. “Traditionally, we protect land throughout the state using state tax credits and federal tax deductions and incentives. Sometimes the traditional model doesn’t necessarily pencil out for landowners. This is another way for us to go about incentivizing landowners to help protect their properties and make sure they’re compensated for doing so.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
Western Water Spotlight: draft assessment of 2007 interim guidelines expected to provide a guide as talks begin on new river operating rules for the iconic southwestern river
Twenty years ago, the Colorado River Basin’s hydrology began tumbling into a historically bad stretch. The weather turned persistently dry. Water levels in the system’s anchor reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead plummeted. A river system relied upon by nearly 40 million people, farms and ecosystems across the West was in trouble. And there was no guide on how to respond.
So key players across the Basin’s seven states, including California, came together in 2005 to attack the problem. The result was a set of Interim Guidelines adopted in 2007 that, according to a just-released assessment from the Bureau of Reclamation, mostly worked. Stressing flexibility instead of rigidity, the guidelines stabilized water deliveries in a drought-stressed system and prevented a dreaded shortage declaration by the federal government that would have forced water supply cuts.
Those guidelines, formally called “Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” are set to expire in 2026 As stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin — including water agencies, states, Native American tribes and nongovernmental organizations — prepare to renegotiate a new set of river operating guidelines, Reclamation’s assessment is expected to provide a guide for future negotiations.
“We find that the guidelines were largely effective,” said Carly Jerla, modeling and research group manager with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River region and one of the report’s authors. However, the Interim Guidelines could not solve all of the challenges brought by what has become a two-decade-long drought in the Basin. Said Jerla: “We saw risk getting too high and needed additional assets.”
Preserving Lake Mead
With the guidelines as a foundation, those assets arrived in 2019 through drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basin – voluntary reduction commitments that built a firewall against the likelihood of Lake Mead dropping to critically low levels.
Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said the guidelines achieved their objective, considering that the drought has essentially persisted since 2000. Even with the severity and longevity of the drought, the guidelines kept the two reservoirs at about 50 percent of capacity since 2007.
“To my mind that’s a pretty good marker that we were generally successful,” Harris said.
Reclamation’s review of the Interim Guidelines was released for public comment in October. It is expected to be finalized in December. After that, discussions are expected to begin to hammer out a new set of operating rules that would be ready to take effect when the existing guidelines expire in 2026.
Reclamation’s review, which was required under the guidelines, focused solely on how effectively the Interim Guidelines managed water shortages and storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. It did not include existing environmental management programs such as the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program that are independent of the guidelines. The 2026 guidelines should take a broader view, said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Program.
“Not just looking at the two big buckets [reservoirs], but how do we ensure the river is healthy and has water for its environmental needs,” he said.
“How do we ensure that communities are considered, certainly the tribes, and how do we evaluate additional future demands, projects like the Lake Powell pipeline (a proposed project to deliver Lake Powell water to Southern Utah).”
Ensuring Tribal Participation
Tribal water rights are a key consideration to future Colorado River water use. Ten federally recognized tribes in the Upper and Lower Basins have reserved water rights, including unresolved claims, to divert about 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year from the river and its tributaries, according to Reclamation’s 2018 Tribal Water Study. These tribes anticipate diverting their full water rights by 2040.
Reclamation’s review emphasizes the need for listening to all voices, most notably tribes. Tribal representatives were largely overlooked in the development of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and tribes want to make sure their voices are heard when the next set of operating rules are drawn up.
“We hope that the review will remind Reclamation of the importance that Indian tribes have played in the stewardship of the Colorado River and underscore the importance of meaningful and sustained participation of the Lower Basin tribes in any future guidelines development regarding management of the Colorado River,” Jon Huey, chair of the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona, wrote in a letter to Reclamation.
Jerla said Reclamation recognizes how important it will be to include the tribes in future discussions.
“We definitely heard that loud and clear,” she said. “I think the critical role that tribes have played in the activities since the Guidelines … their desire to be more involved and more included, they will absolutely be a key part of efforts going forward, no question.”
Balancing Water Uses
There is inherent tension in balancing Colorado River water uses between the two basins. Part of the problem is users in the Lower Basin can use Lake Mead as a bank account, having water released downstream to them as they need it. Lake Powell, on the other hand, sits at the bottom of the Upper Basin’s drainage and water that flows into Powell is largely beyond reach of Upper Basin users.
“The guidelines have been partially successful in that they have achieved their principal objective of preventing Lower Basin shortage, as well as establishing a Lower Basin conservation mechanism and avoiding litigation in the Basin,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “However, from the standpoint of the coordinated operations of Lakes Powell and Mead, a secondary objective of the Guidelines, they have come up short.”
Haas pointed out that between 2015 and 2019, Lake Powell was required to release 9 million acre-feet of water annually under the Guidelines, even with poor inflows into Powell and below-average hydrology in the Upper Basin watershed. That’s more than has historically been required.
“Meanwhile, Lake Mead elevations have not substantially increased under the Guidelines due in large part to overuse in the Lower Basin, also known as the structural deficit,” she said. “These issues must be addressed in the post-2026 operational criteria.”
Protecting the Colorado River
Drought wreaked havoc on the Colorado River Basin between 2000 and 2004, with record dryness that depleted the combined storage of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Conditions worsened quickly. At the beginning of the 2000 water year, the review said, the combined storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead was 55.7 million acre-feet. After the worst five-year period of inflow on record ended in 2005, that storage fell to 29.7 million acre-feet – a striking loss of nearly half of the water in the two anchor reservoirs.
Something new had to be done. The business-as-usual approach of determining drought conditions for the Basin on a yearly basis was not going to provide long-term stability or prevent conflict under such historic dryness.
“Failing to develop additional operational guidelines would make sustainable Colorado River management extremely difficult,” Reclamation’s review said.
The Interim Guidelines in 2007 opened the door for Lower Basin water users and Mexico to get creative about how water is managed and used. One example that grew out of the guidelines is Intentionally Created Surplus, allowing downstream parties to bank water in Lake Mead that they could draw upon later.
“One result of this new flexibility was that critical Lake Mead elevations could be protected through the conservation of this water in the lake,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “The Basin states, meanwhile, continued to seek ways to protect reservoir levels and the health of the Colorado River system.”
Saving Intentionally Created Surplus water in Lake Mead turned out to be a critical drought response tool, said Reclamation’s Jerla, ensuring that the lake’s water level did not drop to where water users would be required to take cuts.
Reclamation’s review of the Interim Guidelines notes that there are other areas of interest beyond its scope that should be considered in future discussions, such as impacts of river operations to environmental, recreational and hydropower resources, and more meaningful engagement of Basin partners, stakeholders, tribes and states.
The review notes that since the Interim Guidelines were adopted, Reclamation has expanded its long-term modeling assumptions and worked to identify appropriate methods for analyzing uncertainty.
“Even though the true probability of any combination of conditions … cannot be assessed, a wider range of hydrology and demand assumptions and attention to those ranges … are useful for supporting a common understanding of system vulnerability,” the review says.
The Next Set of Guidelines
The 2007 Interim Guidelines have set the table for the next version of a Colorado River operations agreement. In retrospect, things have generally occurred as expected, Jerla said.
“In terms of where the reservoirs landed, what types of releases Powell made and how successful the Intentionally Created Surplus mechanism became, that is all within the range of what we were projecting,” Jerla said. “It’s informative to know that now and use that thinking about how risk influenced our decisions and how that translates into the next set of action levels.”
The Interim Guidelines instilled a degree of greater cooperation and innovation on the river and that has fostered partnerships, initiatives and actions that demonstrate what can be done in a Basin that is steadily getting drier.
“Those things have to continue,” Jerla said, adding that Reclamation’s review is one of many sources officials will consult as they draft the next set of guidelines.
Rice, with American Rivers, said he’s optimistic about the prospects of a broad group of stakeholders building the next set of Interim Guidelines.
“I am not suggesting that it’s going to be easy or straightforward by any means,” he said. “We certainly hope there will be greater participation from more stakeholders. The tribes are at the top of the list, but also nongovernmental organizations, which traditionally have not been part of these interbasin negotiations.”
The talks are likely to be frank and will explore thorny issues related to equitable water management.
Arriving at a satisfactory operational plan beyond 2026 means the Lower Basin’s structural deficit has to be addressed and balancing releases between Lake Powell and Lake Mead should be revisited to reflect actual hydrology, said Haas, with the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Also, the new guidelines should contain a mechanism whereby operations can be adapted and adjusted to meet changing conditions, something the current guidelines are not equipped to do.”
How the next set of river operating guidelines will take shape remains to be seen, but Reclamation’s review suggests the 2007 Interim Guidelines proved their worth in showing how water users can work together and think creatively, lessons that will be invaluable for the future.
The 2007 Interim Guidelines, the review said, “created the operational stability that became the platform for the collaborative decision-making that protected the Colorado River system from crisis.”
Here’s the release from Colorado State University:
Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Center, is retiring after over 30 years of service with Colorado State University. Waskom is a member of CSU’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, where he has worked on water-related research and outreach programs, in addition to overseeing the Extension Water Outreach program.
The Colorado Water Center is one of 54 Water Resources Research Institutes created by the Water Resources Act of 1964, which collectively form the National Institutes for Water Resources. As a division in the Office of Engagement and Extension, the Center aims to connect all water expertise in Colorado’s higher education system with research and education needs of the state’s water managers and users, building on the rich water history at Colorado State University.
“CSU has a long history in water-related research, education and outreach, areas that grow increasingly critical to our world every day,” said President Joyce McConnell. “Reagan’s deep wisdom and expertise as the director of the Colorado Water Center has been matched by his humanistic, thoughtful approach to this work. We are grateful to him for his incredible research and leadership, and we will continue the strong engagement he has modeled with the many water faculty, students, stakeholders and users across the state.”
“Reagan is a respected water expert and leader. Colorado has benefitted from his expertise, CSU is better from his service, and our future conversations on water are strong with our Center leadership and researchers,” said Blake Naughton, vice president of Engagement and Extension.
Gimbel interim director
With Waskom’s retirement, Jennifer Gimbel, currently a senior water policy scholar, will serve as interim director of the Water Center. At the center, Gimbel’s focus is on Colorado River issues and developing curriculum and teaching an interdisciplinary graduate class on Western water issues.
Gimbel was the principal deputy assistant secretary for water and science for the U.S. Department of Interior from 2014 to 2016, during which time she oversaw the department’s water and science policies and was responsible for the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Geological Survey. She also served as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board from 2008 to 2013. She brings unique skills and experience working with the water community at the state, regional and federal level, as well as a proactive and creative approach to problem-solving. She has a bachelor of science and Juris Doctorate from the University of Wyoming and a master of science from the University of Delaware, and has authored numerous articles and presentations on state and federal water law.
Supporting Gimbel in this role, Julie Kallenberger will serve as associate director, assisting in leading and ensuring execution of research and education programs, outreach activities, communications and operations in support of the center’s mission. She will work directly with the center’s senior research scientists, CSU Extension water specialists, and water experts to advance knowledge and solutions to priority water challenges. Since 2008, Kallenberger has served as a water education specialist. She holds a bachelor of science degree from South Dakota State University and a master of science from CSU.
Additional information on the search for the next director of the Water Center will be available in 2021.
The Symposium is hosted by Colorado State University and sponsored in part by the Colorado Dairy Farmers.
It’s the farmers like Chris Kraft of Kraft Family Dairies near Fort Morgan whose livelihoods depend on the increasingly scarce resource.
Kraft: “Without that, we don’t do what we do. So this is critically important for us.”
Kraft says times have changed with more people living in Colorado and a growing dairy industry making water issues more severe.
Kraft:” We’re interested in all the ways water is being discussed. A lot of the water that we use in on dairy farms in Colorado is historically old water rights, some of them going back to before statehood. Our industry doesn’t exist without that water. We have to have that water and we’re interested in making sure that we’re at the table when these kinds of discussions are going on.
Gary Knell, chairman of National Geographic Partners was asked for his focus on the power of storytelling. A panel discussion focused on how social movements, campaigns, and storytelling shape public sentiment.
A dialogue between Vilsack and Axelrod concluded the symposium.
Highlighting [John Wesley] Powell’s devotion to science, his foresightedness and his willingness to speak up was the starting point for the recent annual Water in the West Symposium, hosted by Colorado State University’s new SPUR campus in Denver. Keynote speaker Gary Knell, chairman of National Geographic Partners and former president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, related Powell’s story as he sketched out a history of how early exploration of the West led to formation of the National Park Service and an ethic of conservation that was soon interwoven into the American mindset.
“Facts belong in the domain of science, but the best stories make the facts relevant in ways people can visualize and identify with,” he said. “Embrace the power in your own story to change hearts and minds, and together we can change the world.”
Stories nestled within other stories is how this year’s symposium served to illustrate many of the ideas the speakers shared as they reflected on the role of storytelling to motivate change, address challenges and produce lasting results.
Water issues are complex, and perspectives are wide-ranging, which means listening and respecting is as important as speaking, for writers and photographers as well as influencers and advocates, Knell said…
Gary Hirshfield, co-founder and now “Chief Creative Officer” of Stonyfield Yogurt, emphasized repeatedly the importance of making the message “visceral,” by relying on ingenuity and originality.
“We launched an organic yogurt company in 1983 at a time when nobody was eating yogurt and no one knew what organic was,” he recalled.
Hirshfield had to come up with creative ways to persuade consumers to buy an unfamiliar product at a steep price premium to conventional brands.
“We had no money, but we had cows. So we came up this very simple idea that if you sent in five yogurt labels, you would get to adopt a cow,” he recalled.
He also used “moos-letters,” farm cams and Yo-Tube, his original version of a YouTube message channel, to sell a fun hip image, while reaching out to bloggers and influencers to spread brand recognition and enthusiasm to millions of followers.
“We had fun. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously but focused on keeping it upbeat, positive and funny,” he said.
Social media “is an artform now,” he added. “It’s highly refined and oversaturated, so how you cut through that is critical.”
Keep the message simple, don’t overwhelm with facts, be positive and solution-oriented, and listen instead of doing all the talking, he advised…
Justin Worland, a journalist covering energy, environment and climate for Time Magazine, talked about choosing to pursue articles that educate and move a larger conversation forward…
Sarah Soule is an academic researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and has written extensively on corporate responsibility and social movements.
“Why are some social movements successful when others are not? That’s one of the big research questions we study,” she said.
Key factors include how the issues are framed, the overall political environment, available resources and the role of media.
A Texas A&M AgriLife-led team will work with the Colorado Livestock Association and a large team of Colorado stakeholders to refine and evaluate management practices to reduce agricultural ammonia emissions into Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.
Agricultural operations along the northern Front Range of Colorado, including livestock operations, are believed to be a significant source of gaseous ammonia and other reactive nitrogen species in the atmosphere. Some of these may travel with air masses into Rocky Mountain National Park under so-called “upslope” conditions.
The Colorado Livestock Association, CLA, has been at the forefront of the nitrogen deposition issue for the last 15 years. Over that period of time, the association has acknowledged that animal agriculture is a source of ammonia and does contribute to ammonia deposition.
Last year, CLA conducted a survey of feedlot and dairy operations in Weld and Larimer counties to determine their use of best management practices recognized as effective in reducing ammonia emissions and the related barriers to adoption of those practices. Going forward, CLA is committed to communicating to the ag community and the public about the progress and results of the research.
Texas project outlined for Rocky Mountain work
Reducing ammonia emissions from livestock operations during upslope events will be the goal of the project led by Brent Auvermann, Ph.D., a Texas A&M AgriLife Research biological and agricultural engineer and Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center director, Amarillo.
“Upslope conditions bring rain and snow to the eastern side of the Continental Divide,” Auvermann said. Some of the reactive nitrogen in the atmosphere ends up dissolved in that precipitation and lands inside the national park, a process known as “wet deposition.”
Auvermann’s research team has operated a wet-deposition monitoring site on the rim of North Cita Canyon in Palo Duro Canyon State Park south of Amarillo since 2008.
“Our site is nearly identical to the monitoring sites in the (Rocky Mountain National) Park, where ecologists first discovered nitrogen enrichment changing the park’s vegetation and water chemistry,” he said.
Although not all of the atmospheric ammonia along the Front Range comes from agriculture, agriculture has an important role to play, he said.
“It doesn’t all come from Front Range sources either,” Auvermann said, noting that some of the nitrogen drifting into the national park comes from hundreds of miles away. “Still, we can make some good headway with the emitters nearby.”
Joining Auvermann on the research team are Ken Casey, Ph.D., AgriLife Research air quality engineer, Amarillo; and David Parker, Ph.D., research agricultural engineer and leader of the Livestock Nutrient Management Research Unit, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Bushland.
The research team has a lot of experience with ammonia from cattle feed yards and dairies, having developed the emissions-reporting mechanism that was adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2009 to 2019.
“EPA’s reporting instrument was based on research conducted right here in the Texas Panhandle,” Auvermann said. “Dr. Casey and Dr. Parker are widely known for their expertise in reactive nitrogen emissions.”
The new research project is funded by a Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service, NRCS.
Colorado’s “glidepath” approach
Stakeholders, consultants, and state and federal agencies have been working on a strategy to reduce nitrogen enrichment in Rocky Mountain National Park for nearly 20 years, Auvermann said.
Their ultimate goal is to return the national park’s nitrogen budget to where it was many years ago using a strategy called the “glidepath.” The glidepath’s goal is to reduce the rate of nitrogen wet deposition in the park to 1.5 kilograms per hectare, or 1.34 pounds per acre, per year by 2032, with milestones along the way.
“That’s a little less than half of what’s landing in the park right now,” Auvermann said.
The Colorado team designed an early warning system, EWS, to notify crop and livestock producers of weather events that are expected to move the atmospheric nitrogen from Colorado’s eastern plains toward the Continental Divide.
“With a little advance notice, we think producers can make short-term changes that will reduce nitrogen loads in the park,” said Auvermann. “Now we need to figure out how to optimize those changes and make them work cost-effectively.”
Auvermann said while the effectiveness of those practices is proven scientifically, their project will deal with timing, amount, frequency, mode and operational variations of those practices. These details have not been worked out within the specific context of the EWS and components such as the forecast timing, duration and intensity of the upslope conditions.
Details determine management practices success
“We plan to help develop a decision tool for the voluntary implementation of two key practices by livestock producers in northeastern Colorado, both of which are intended to reduce ammonia emissions,” Auvermann said.
The two tools are:
Applying water to open-lot pen surfaces via sprinklers or water trucks. Variations include timing, depth and frequency of application, plus injection of acidifying or enzyme-inhibiting agents.
Diluting irrigated wastewater with fresh water having a low concentration of dissolved nitrogen. Variations include the method of dilution – in-pipeline mixing, alternating effluent and freshwater applications – and injecting acidifying or other ammonia-suppressing agents.
Once the research is complete, the team will work with producers to optimize site-specific operational variables, and gain consensus for including those practices in cost-sharing programs, such as NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program, EQIP.
Some practices may be part of routine agricultural management and can be delayed or rescheduled due to the upslope conditions with little additional cost or management effort. Others, however, may be more labor-intensive or costly, in which case producers may incur significant costs in increased expenses and/or foregone revenue.
The team believes eligibility to receive EQIP cost-sharing funds to help defray the cost of implementation will increase the potential for voluntary adoption of those practices.
“Rocky Mountain National Park is the crown jewel of the national park system as far as I am concerned,” Auvermann said. “It’s a real privilege to be invited to help protect her.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A 2007 deal creating guidelines governing how Lake Powell and Lake Mead are operated in coordination isn’t scheduled to expire until 2026. But water officials in Colorado River Basin states are already beginning to talk about the renegotiations that will be undertaken to decide what succeeds the 2007 criteria.
“I think the guidelines have been a big success,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said Wednesday during the 10th annual Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum. The forum is put on by Colorado Mesa University’s Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center and this year is taking place online due to the pandemic.
The 2007 criteria dictate how much water must be released each year from Powell into Mead, in an effort to equalize water levels in the two reservoirs. The criteria are important to Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin because those states rely on Powell water storage for meeting long-term delivery obligations to downstream states based on a 1922 interstate compact.
Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents Upper Basin states, said she thinks the 2007 guidelines have reduced the “safe yield” of water for the Upper Basin. Even with low inflows into Powell, the guidelines resulted in releases of 9 million acre-feet a year of water from Powell every year from 2015-19, compared to the 8.3 million acre-feet negotiated average minimum objective, she said.
Entsminger called that a simplistic analysis that cherry-picks data. He says his entity’s modeling indicates that under the 2007 criteria there is more water in Powell and less in Mead than otherwise would have been the case.
Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that with the guidelines in places, Powell water levels largely have remained around 50% of capacity “through some horrendously dry years” and only three or four years of above-average inflows.
The criteria encourage water conservation and provide rules for determining water shortages and reducing water use by Arizona and Nevada.
Entsminger said the 2007 agreement increased cooperation and communication among states in the river basin, provided certainty by operating the two reservoirs together, and headed off litigation only two years after states were close to going to the Supreme Court over river water issues…
Those states are evaluating the possibility of demand management measures to temporarily curtail agricultural, municipal and other use during droughts. The goal is to bolster Powell levels with water that could be reserved for compact delivery obligations. But Haas said it’s important to assess the risk of curtailment of Upper Basin uses occurring as well. Such a curtailment has never happened.
The “bathtub ring” at Lake Powell evidences lower flows coming into the reservoir. According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the total inflow into Lake Powell for the 2020 water year was about 6 million acre-feet, just 55% of average. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The white bathtub ring along Lake Mead reflects the effects of years of drought in the Colorado River Basin. Source: Water Education Foundation
Water won big in Colorado on Election Day as voters in two multi-county districts approved property tax increases to fund water projects and programs.
Voters in two local water districts — the Colorado River Water Conservation District on the West Slope and the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District on the Front Range — said yes to ballot measures that will generate millions of dollars in new money for conservation, water education, stream health, storage and agriculture.
Based on vote totals as of 4:30 a.m. this morning, 72 percent of voters in the Colorado River District approved ballot issue 7A, with nearly 28 percent voting against the measure.
Meanwhile, 69 percent of voters in the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District approved a separate ballot issue 7A, with 31 percent voting against.
Though statewide funding for water projects has historically been a tough sell for Colorado voters, local initiatives with a more direct connection to residents are finding more success at the polls in recent years. These 2020 water funding ballot measures come on the heels of similar successes in 2018, when voters in Denver, Eagle, Chaffee and Park counties approved tax increases, new taxes, and tax extensions for water and land-focused initiatives.
“Passing any type of fiscal measures statewide in Colorado is going to continue to be an extreme challenge but it’s a much different story on the local level and the regional level,” said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado Basin Program for American Rivers, which supported the Colorado River District measure. “People in Colorado like to make their own decisions locally about fiscal issues, but also about how we manage and protect and restore our rivers for the environment, for agriculture and for local economies.”
In deciding to ask voters for more money this year, the two districts’ leaders cited factors like growing demand for water, drought, higher temperatures, population growth, declining oil and gas revenue, and declining property tax levels under the state’s Gallagher Amendment.
Those reasons resonated with voters on both sides of the political spectrum across the state. On the West Slope, for example, voters in right-leaning counties like Mesa and Montrose and left-leaning counties like Pitkin and Summit approved the ballot measure. (Of note: Nearly 80 percent of voters in Pitkin County approved the ballot measure, despite opposition by three county commissioners and the county’s representative on the district’s board.)
“It’s really a testament to what can happen if people put aside partisan differences on water issues,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District. “Voters in Colorado are seeing the effects of rising temperatures, changing climate and the impact it’s having on water resources, and they know that we need to adapt and mitigate and that it’s going to cost money to do that.”
West Slope says yes
In the large Colorado River District, which includes 15 counties and some 500,000 residents, voters approved a mill levy increase that will double the district’s budget by generating an additional $4.9 million every year starting in 2021.
The district spans an area that covers 28 percent of the state and encompasses the Colorado River and its major tributaries, which include the Yampa, the White, the Gunnison and the Uncompahgre rivers.
With the passage of the ballot measure, West Slope voters approved a median residential property tax increase of $7.03 per year for residents of Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Mesa, Delta, Ouray, Gunnison and parts of Montrose, Saguache and Hinsdale counties. The increase represents an additional $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of home value.
The district, which has 22 employees, will use the new funding for projects related to agriculture, infrastructure, water quality, conservation, efficiency, and other key priority areas determined by local communities and river basin roundtables.
District leaders say they will also stretch the extra money further by using it to solicit matching funds from state, federal and private sources.
Water funding on the Front Range
It was also a historic night for the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, where voters approved a property tax increase for the next 10 years. This is the first time in nearly 50 years — since its founding in 1971 — that the district has asked voters for more funding.
The district’s board thought long and hard about how best to approach voters — and whether this was the right year to do it. But in the end, their approach paid off.
“The discussions were good and essentially resulted in consensus and agreement with the board,” said Chris Smith, board vice president representing district 3, which encompasses northwest Longmont and parts of unincorporated Boulder County. “It was all done in a very thoughtful manner, which speaks a lot to having a board that represents, geographically, the entire watershed.”
Smith said he was happy to see the West Slope ballot measure pass, too.
“The people of Colorado have really keyed in on the importance of water,” he said. “There are so many new people moving to Colorado, it’s good to see that they’re carrying on that mantle of protecting our most important resource.”
The St. Vrain and Left Hand district encompasses some 500 square miles along the St. Vrain and Left Hand creeks in Boulder, Weld and Larimer counties. Voters agreed to a mill levy increase from 0.156 mills to 1.25 mills through 2030.
The tax increase will generate an additional $3.3 million per year for the district starting in 2021, up from the $421,000 generated annually by the current mill levy. On a $350,000 home, the tax increase represents an additional $2.61 per month; on a $500,000 commercial building, it’s an extra $15.10 per month.
District leaders say they will use the extra money for projects related to water quality, river and creek health, water education, agriculture, storage and conservation, among others.
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.
The summer days of 2019 in Castle Rock were hot and endless. School teacher Kirsten Schuman, pregnant with her second child, wearily watered her suburban yard only to see it go brown almost immediately, week after week.
But then a friend told her about a new city contest to win an $11,000 yard makeover, one that would remove the beleaguered bluegrass and install an array of low-water use plants, trees and grasses.
Prospects for her lawn suddenly took an exciting turn. In a matter of minutes, the Schuman family mobilized.
She and her husband, a high school football coach, painted slogans on their cars. They posted on neighborhood message boards, and on Facebook and Twitter. They made a video of their oldest child in an empty plastic pool.
“It was intense,” she said. “My husband and I are both very competitive.”
That fighting spirit paid off. They won and now have a low-water use landscape that blooms freely and costs less.
And that’s what it’s like to live in Castle Rock, a fast-growing community where water is scarce and the pressure to conserve runs high.
Conservation as buffer
Colorado water officials hope more communities follow in Castle Rock’s footsteps. The state wants to dramatically reduce water use in the next 30 years as a buffer against intense drought and looming water shortages caused by population growth.
But a new analysis of residential water use by Fresh Water News shows statewide savings in recent years may have stalled out, with some cities seeing conservation efforts pay off big, while for others use remains flat or is rising.
The analysis used data collected by the state from 2013 through 2018, the latest year for which complete data sets were available, and examined only metered, residential indoor and outdoor use. Under state law, data must be reported by water utilities and districts delivering more than 2,000 acre-feet of water annually, and who wish to borrow money from the state. Depending on the year, 40 to 45 communities report data. To see how much water your home town uses, click here.
Nine of those, including Denver, Castle Rock, Colorado Springs, Durango, and Grand Junction, among others, have succeeded in cutting residential water use since 2013. Castle Rock leads the state with a 12 percent reduction over the six-year period, while Denver saw its water use drop 8 percent. Grand Junction reduced its use 4 percent and Colorado Springs has ratcheted its use down 3 percent.
The struggle to conserve
At the same time, however, several communities, including ski towns and the fast-growing south Denver metro community of Parker, continue to struggle. Vail, for instance, saw its water use rise 17 percent between 2013 and 2018, while use at the Parker Water and Sanitation District rose 20 percent.
Statewide, when combining results for all 15 cities examined, per capita water use during that period showed virtually no reduction. Daily per capita use in 2013 registered at 73.66 gallons per person per day. By 2018 it was down to 73.13, a reduction of less than 1 percent.
At 73 gallons per capita per day (gpcpd), Colorado is likely the envy of other states, where that metric is often well over 100 gallons per day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which has tracked national water use data and reported on trends since 1950.
Tamara Ivahnenko, a water conservation researcher with the USGS in Pueblo, said Colorado has historically been a leader in reducing water use.
And she gives the state high marks for establishing the conservation database, something only a handful of states, such as Texas and California, have done.
“Especially in the West there are water-stressed cities. We really have to be careful,” she said.
Colorado’s data collection effort comes under a major conservation bill approved by state lawmakers in 2010. They sought to shed more light on water conservation practices and to encourage communities to reduce water as one tool in staving off shortages.
Bruce Whitehead, a former state senator from Durango, was a sponsor of that legislation. He said getting down to real numbers was and remains critical to successful conservation.
“Without having the law in place, the way things were being reported prior to that was inconsistent,” he said. “If you can start zeroing in on what these numbers are, it gives you a starting point.”
Kevin Reidy, water conservation specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, oversees the state’s conservation programs and the database.
The more recent data could indicate that things have stalled, he said. But he said it’s also difficult to gauge how much conservation is occurring in such a short period of time because of the high variability caused by wet and dry years. The state started collecting the data in 2013.
A technical update to the Colorado Water Plan released last year examined an earlier time period, from 2008 to 2015, and used data based on river basin geography rather than town-by-town. That analysis showed statewide water use had dropped roughly 5 percent, Reidy said.
Communities in Douglas County and other fast-growing areas are often served by water districts that have little if any control over how cities regulate development. That means that things such as lawn size and requirements for water-saving appliances are typically out of the water district’s control. Such is the case at the Parker Water and Sanitation District.
Billy Owens, who tracks the data for the district, said her district has worked hard to bring down water use, in part because it is fast-growing and it relies heavily on non-renewable groundwater. In addition to the town of Parker, the district serves parts of Lone Tree, Castle Pines and unincorporated Douglas County.
That 2018 was a hard-hitting drought year likely bumped up their use numbers, Owens said, as residents used more water on lawns and gardens. That same year the district also began serving several large new developments, where initial watering needs were high.
Reducing water use has also been a challenge for ski towns. Many have introduced elaborate conservation strategies, but the influx of visitors every winter and summer, and the prevalence of second homeowners who have lush landscapes to water and who may be less sensitive to high-priced water bills make it difficult to achieve savings, ski town officials said
All four ski towns in the analysis, Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge and Steamboat, have relative low per capita daily use, in part because their transient tourist populations are included in the equation even though tourists aren’t contributing year-round to those communities’ water use statistic.
But even at the lower per capita numbers, the analysis shows their water use has increased at varying levels since 2013.
For example, in 2013, the Vail region was using 77 gallons per person per day, according to the Fresh Water News analysis, a number that rose to 90 by 2018.
Jason Cowles, manager of engineering for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which serves the region, said the rise likely reflects the area’s ongoing struggle to manage second-home water use, climate change, and the dramatic influx in visitors every year.
In the region, more than 50 percent of homes are occupied by part-time residents, whose landscapes are watered even when owners aren’t in residence.
Because hot weather is arriving earlier and staying longer due to climate change, residents are turning on sprinkler systems in May and leaving them on into the fall, Cowles said.
The winning formula
Castle Rock has achieved significant savings with an innovative collection of initiatives, including aggressive water pricing, leading-edge construction technologies, and popular community outreach programs. The ColoradoScape Makeover, introduced in 2019, has helped lure hundreds of homeowners like the Schumans into the water-saving fold.
“When we bought our house, we realized we were dumping a lot of water into the front and back yards. But it didn’t look like we were doing anything and it was expensive,” Schuman said. “So the contest and makeover were amazing.”
Even more effective, according to Mark Marlowe, Castle Rock’s director of water, are the strict guidelines developers must follow if they want to build new homes. Lot sizes are sharply limited; bluegrass is no longer allowed; homeowners have custom water budgets; and development parcels that haven’t been grandfathered in must show how new technologies will reduce water use beyond existing baselines.
“We let developers tell us how they’re going to do better. We want them to be a little creative,” Marlowe said.
Castle Rock also offers generous rebates to homeowners who buy water-saving toilets and other appliances. But if they want a rebate, they have to go to special water conservation classes. And those routinely sell out, according to water conservation specialist Linda Gould. In recent years more than 3,300 people have gone through the city’s classes.
The city also takes a dim view of landscapes that don’t perform as promised. If a developer or homeowners’ association uses a registered landscaper and the system doesn’t perform properly, the landscaper can lose their license to work in the city.
Marlowe says the tight coordination between the planning department, the water resources division, and the city council are paying off.
“The council has been very supportive of everything we’ve been trying to accomplish, and our ratepayers are motivated,” he said.
Will Colorado reach its goal?
The Colorado Water Plan, an initiative coordinated by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) aimed at making sure Colorado has enough water for its cities, farms and environmental needs, has set a goal of conserving 400,000 acre-feet of water by 2050.
That’s part of a wider plan that also envisions developing new water supplies, as well as reusing and recycling more water to make supplies last longer.
Heather Cooley is director of research at the San Francisco-based Pacific Institute. She said communities across the West are making healthy strides in conserving water, and new technologies, as well as leak detection initiatives, should allow states such as Colorado to do much more.
“We think there is still significant opportunity to reduce use even further,” Cooley said.
Castle Rock hopes to cut its overall water use number to 100 gallons per capita per day by 2050, down from its current level of 115 gpcpd. This number includes commercial and industrial uses, not just residential uses, which Fresh Water News examined.
To help cities hit their goals, the CWCB has also launched an ambitious program to help utilities plug leaks in their systems, a problem that is common and wastes millions of gallons of water a year. At some utilities, that loss can be as high as 10 percent of delivered water.
Jeff Tejral, manager of water efficiency at Denver Water, said the state as a whole is making good progress on the water conservation front.
“I think that there are things to be done that we haven’t actually worked on yet, like how to engage fully with our customers. But some things are working. I take these numbers as a win,” Tejral said.
Cooley said technology is advancing rapidly as well, offering hope for even more savings. New devices continue to set low-use records. Clothes washers coming out this year are using even less water than those sold just five years ago. Homeowners can attach rain monitors to their houses that automatically shut down sprinklers when it rains. Almost anyone can now install an app on a cell phone that alerts them when their water use rises beyond a set level.
The CWCB’s Reidy said Coloradans are becoming more water savvy all the time.
“We’re definitely more engaged than we were a decade ago and way more engaged than we were 20 years ago,” Reidy said. “And we have 30 years to hit the goal. I think we’re on a good path.”
Former lawmaker Bruce Whitehead said he remains concerned, particularly about the ongoing disconnect between land used for new growth and water conservation plans.
He also thinks the pressure to conserve will continue to rise. And because Colorado sits at the top of the drought-stressed Colorado River system, the state needs to be able to demonstrate to its neighbors to the south that it can use each drop well.
“We need to know what’s actually taking place,” Whitehead said. “If we’re looking at taking additional water from the Colorado River [as some Colorado cities are], we should be doing everything we can statewide to put conservation practices in place.”
Data journalist Burt Hubbard contributed to this report.
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.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Tiana Nelson):
In its third year as an offering of the future Denver-based CSU Spur campus, opening in 2022, the Water in the West Symposium on Nov. 18-19 will bring together diverse experts to discuss water issues in the West and beyond — a topic of increasing importance as fires and droughts top headlines.
The Symposium has always highlighted water solutions and collaboration; yet, the 2020 Symposium will take that a step further and focus on igniting action.
“To fashion the creative solutions needed to assure the future water demands in Colorado and the West, a powerful story needs to be told that motivates us all to action,” said Tom Vilsack, advisor on the CSU Spur project and former U.S. secretary of agriculture.
“The Water in the West Symposium this year focuses on how to weave that powerful story that reaches hearts and minds,” Sec. Vilsack continued. “Learning from both messaging successes and failures during this year’s Symposium will better equip all those who attend to create a powerful and persuasive story about why now is the time for action on water in the West.”
The keynote address from Gary Knell, chairman of National Geographic Partners — who previously led National Public Radio and Sesame Workshop — will focus on the power of storytelling. How messages are shared will continue with a panel titled “Moving Minds: How Social Movements, Campaigns, and Storytelling Shape Public Sentiment,” featuring speakers from TIME, Stonyfield Organic, and Stanford University. A full list of speakers is available at csuspur.org/witw.
The event typically sells out, but the Symposium’s virtual format this year provides an opportunity for a greater number of attendees and for all geographically dispersed audiences to attend.
The Symposium will eventually be held at the CSU Spur campus’s Hydro building, which breaks ground Oct. 27 and will be complete in 2022. Hydro will be open to the public with educational exhibits, have a backyard space with access to a restored South Platte River, and also will be home to research labs and Denver Water’s water quality lab. Hydro is a building meant to create understanding of and connection to water, and the Symposium is meant to be a distinct convening of that conversation — neither focus is new to CSU.
“CSU has been a global leader in water issues and education for more than a century, and our Water in the West Symposium leverages that expertise to get us talking about the most pressing water challenges facing Colorado and the planet,” CSU System Chancellor Tony Frank said.
“The beauty of Water in the West is that it brings together policymakers, practitioners, nonprofit and government leaders, academics, scientists, and students to really engage in depth around issues that are core to our way of life. It’s part of our CSU System commitment to convene conversations around important global issues — and inspire the next generation to get involved and take action.”
The 2020 Symposium is sponsored by Colorado Dairy Farmers, CoBank, Leprino Foods, Swire Coca-Cola, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Mighty Arrow Family Foundation, Denver Water, and High Line Canal Conservancy. Learn more about this year’s sponsors at http://csuspur.org/witw.
The powerful, fast-moving, line of thunderstorms known as a derecho, blasted across Iowa Aug. 10 with extreme winds. The derecho did catastrophic damage to corn and soybean crops, caused widespread utility and property damage, and resulted in fatalities. NOAA estimates damage totals to be $7.5 billion, making it one of the most costly severe thunderstorm events in U.S. history.
To help officials in Iowa better understand the scale and scope of the disaster, a team of NASA researchers, led by Kris Bedka, a severe storm expert at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and colleagues at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama and the University of Oklahoma, analyzed the storm using data and imagery from multiple Earth-observing satellites and weather radars on the ground.
“We’re trying to understand and demonstrate how state-of-the-art satellite and radar data can be used to identify the most intense areas of the storm and the damage they produced,” said Bedka.
His team’s analysis is helping to reveal a layered picture of a storm that was historically intense — even for a derecho.
“There’s evidence based on damage patterns in pockets throughout the state of Iowa that they saw winds exceeding 140 mph, which is extremely uncommon in these derecho systems,” said Bedka. “I mean, 100 mph is usually kind of your upper end. When you get to 140, that’s just a whole new level.”
These winds weren’t sustained like they’d be in a hurricane, but even just a minutes-long burst of 140 mph wind is enough to do significant and lasting damage to vegetation and structures.
The imagery Bedka and his colleagues analyzed — visible in the compiled image series above, with the swath of the state that took the most damage outlined in white — showed remarkable agreement between what was happening in the clouds and the damage patterns the ground.
The first two images in the series are color composite synthetic aperture radar visualizations of ground vegetation taken by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite — the first before the storm, the second after. In the second image, the lighter green and some brown areas show large areas damaged by wind and, in some cases, hail, which can strip vegetation of its leaves.
The third image in the series superimposes ground wind reports, radar-detected swaths of possible hail and National Weather Service (NWS) wind estimates with the damage patterns visualized in the second image.
In the fourth image, which comes from several NWS NEXRAD Doppler weather radars, the maroon and pink represent areas of high reflectivity, a telltale signature of hail. Also, the pattern of the radar echoes changed as the derecho moved across Iowa, becoming more arc-shaped. The arc, often referred to by meteorologists as a “bow echo,” indicates where the strongest winds were occurring, which is aligned well with NWS estimates and damage evident in the Sentinel-1 data.
“Because of how the instrument aboard Sentinel-1 collects data, we were able to compare data acquired both pre- and post-derecho to understand how the structure of vegetation, especially mature agricultural crops, were impacted and changed,” said Jordan Bell, research scientist in the Earth Science Branch at Marshall. “Synthetic aperture radar is being used for more and more applications, so it was exciting to provide impactful analysis for this event.”
The cool blues in the next-to-last image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite East-16 (GOES-16) represent areas where tall, cold clouds that penetrated deep into the stratosphere were likely driving powerful wind downbursts. These are also areas where updrafts suspend water droplets long enough to form hail.
The warm yellows and reds in the final image, also from GOES-16, are areas of high lightning flash density, another indicator of storm intensity.
This layered analysis has been a valuable resource to Justin Glisan, state climatologist in the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, as he continues to unravel what happened.
“The remote sensing products produced by the NASA team have given us a tremendous set of tools to study the agricultural damage produced by the Aug. 10 derecho event that impacted 57 of Iowa’s 99 counties, one of the most significant weather events Iowa agriculture has experienced,” said Glisan. “As state climatologist of Iowa, having these additional and remarkable products in the toolbox will provide excellent guidance as we continue analyzing this catastrophic event.”
The analysis has even been useful to officials in neighboring Illinois, which also experienced severe weather from the derecho as it plowed east into the northern part of the state.
“In the several days after the event I was reaching out to folks around northern Illinois to try to determine the extent and severity of damage. Unfortunately, that kind of search usually turns up photos and reports of the most severe damage, but no context as to the extent of that damage,” said Trent Ford, climatologist with the Illinois State Water Survey at the University of Illinois. “The satellite data and analysis shared with me by Kris and his team were very valuable to both better understand the extent of derecho damage and confirm reports of severe damage in both northwest and northeast Illinois.”
This project was funded by NASA’s Earth Science Disasters Program.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Karina Puikkonen):
When southern Rocky Mountain forests are viewed from a distance these days, it may not look like much is left. Large swaths of dead, standing Engelmann spruce trees tell the tale of a severe regional spruce beetle epidemic in its waning stages. But among those dead trees, researchers have found good news. Zoom-in to the ground cover of these forests and there is life, even more abundant because of this disturbance.
New research led by Colorado State University and published online in Scientific Reports suggests that spruce beetle outbreaks may help create habitat for pollinator communities in wilderness settings. The research team found significant increases in floral abundance and wild bee diversity in outbreak-affected forests, compared to similar, undisturbed forest. Lead author Seth Davis said it may seem counterintuitive that landscape-level damage by one type of insect could still benefit another.
“Disturbances from bark beetles are typically regarded as undesirable for ecosystem function and human use,” said Davis, an assistant professor in the Forest and Rangeland Stewardship department. “But there is conservation value in post-outbreak forests; they appear to be the areas supporting more robust bee populations.”
This is good news for wild bee communities, which have been declining in recent years. The different bee species identified in this high-elevation study are made for harsh, cold environments. The fact that a natural disturbance can boost their presence is a boon to these rare, endemic creatures not found in warmer habitats. It’s also a benefit for these forests, because wild bees perform essential pollination services in ecosystems with very short growing seasons.
A serendipitous observation
Davis regularly works in high-elevation forests. A few years ago, during another research project with department colleagues, he noticed a correlation between the number and diversity of bees observed, and the structure of the forest. He has since opened up this new thread of bee diversity research by combining it with his training in bark beetles.
“Disturbance studies on bees have primarily focused on fire,” said Davis. “There hasn’t been a lot of research looking at bee responses to beetle outbreaks.”
For this new study, his team developed a natural experiment, collecting parallel data in 28 beetle-affected and undisturbed alpine sites in north-central Colorado. They collected bees for two years at three different times across each growing season, and also recorded standard tree measurements and understory, or ground cover, plant data at the collection sites.
A specimen captured in June. Photo credit: Seth Davis via Colorado State University
Davis holds a large Bombus (genus) queen and worker bee among his collection. Photo via Colorado State University
The team found that average floral abundance in spruce beetle-affected stands was 67 percent higher than in non-affected stands. The average number of bee species was also 37 percent greater in beetle-affected stands, with more species present in June than later in the growing season. Davis said the relationship between these insects and their surrounding vegetation may be more complex.
“It appears there are different controls over bee abundance and diversity,” Davis said. “Bee abundance was correlated to the floral species, while the diversity is more related to the forest structure, both of which are affected by bark beetles.”
In other words, bark beetles directly changed the forest structure which indirectly improved wild bee populations by providing a more robust food source for the buzzing insects on the ground.
Spruce beetle-affected forests offer a few advantages for understory plants and wild bees. Tree mortality typically opens up the forest canopy, allowing more light to reach plants and flowers on the forest floor. Dead trees also remain standing for up to 25 years after this disturbance. This offers more cavities for wild bees that nest in trees and dead wood.
Davis said he is interested in exploring this topic further to better understand these relationships over a longer time period and at a larger scale. As forests recover from outbreaks, he would like to see how long this benefit lasts. There is also the size disparity between small bee populations in one locale and the regional magnitude of these disturbances. It will be important to understand how well one small spot predicts these results at the landscape level.
While bees were captured for the purposes of this study, previous research has shown that the bee capture methods employed do not affect the overall bee community.
Colorado’s reservoirs are 25 percent lower than they were last year at this time, as a hot, dry summer continues into the fall.
Statewide reservoir levels are at 84 percent of average, according to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Sept. 30 report, well below last year’s mark, when they stood at 112 percent of average.
The 2020 water year, which began Oct. 1, 2019, and ended Sept. 31, is now Colorado’s third driest on record, trailing behind only 2018 and 2002 for lack of precipitation, according to Peter Goble, service climatologist and drought specialist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center.
“The water year was certainly drier than average. We finished it out with some pretty startling hot, dry conditions,” Goble said.
Colorado averaged 13.09 inches of precipitation in water year 2020, which was 72 percent of the 18.01-inch historical average, Goble said.
It was also the 12th warmest year on record, with much of that warmth concentrated in the summer and early fall during a poor monsoon season, Goble said.
August, in particular, was extremely hot — it was the hottest August on record in Colorado since 1895, when record-keeping began.
Denver Water’s storage system has held up reasonably well this year, thanks to standard watering restrictions and a strong snowpack in 2019.
Denver’s reservoirs are 82 percent full, not far below the 87 percent average for this time of year, according to Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s water supply manager.
Since 2002, Denver Water has implemented drought rules that prohibit outdoor watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and encourage residents to water no more than three days a week from May 1 to Oct. 1. The water utility also has tiered rates to encourage conservation.
“We’ve had one of the hottest, driest summers and, despite that, our customers have still been really careful with their water use. We didn’t see extreme demand this year, despite the extreme weather,” said Elder, who added that a strong 2019 water year carried over into 2020 storage.
In the southwestern part of the state, however, reservoir storage levels are much lower. In the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins, reservoir storage levels finished September at 59 percent of average; in the nearby Upper Rio Grande Basin, levels were 67 percent of average.
Much of the state continues to experience severe, extreme and exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The lack of precipitation, hot temperatures and high levels of evaporation have left Colorado’s soils very dry, which has made winter wheat farming and ranching a challenge, Goble said.
“A number of ranchers across the state have had to sell cattle, and winter wheat for the coming season has had to be drilled in in many locations because the soil moisture is too lacking to plant conventionally,” Goble said.
It has also been a bad year for wildfires, with two of the largest fires on state record — the Pine Gulch and Cameron Peak fires — occurring this year.
The record-breaking snowstorm much of Colorado saw on Sept. 8-9 was helpful, but didn’t ultimately make a big difference for drought conditions, even in places like the San Luis Valley, which logged up to 14 inches in some places.
“It was one of the biggest snowstorms on record in the Alamosa area, regardless of time of year, so it did improve drought conditions in the San Luis Valley, but in an ecosystem that’s so streamflow fed and reliant on seasonal snowpack, it didn’t provide the level of relief that a good seasonal snowpack would,” Goble said.
Looking ahead, climate scientists are forecasting weak La Nina conditions and warmer-than-average temperatures continuing into the fall and winter.
A weak La Niña likely means more snow for Colorado’s northern mountains and less snow for the southern mountains, Eastern Plains and Front Range, although the exact conditions are hard to predict, Goble said.
“Even a strong La Niña doesn’t guarantee us a good winter in the Northern Rockies,” he said. “We could still see anything from quite dry to quite wet. It tilts the scale a little bit on the wet side for places like up near Steamboat and even Summit County, but it’s not as strong a predictor in Colorado as it is in some other places, like the Pacific Northwest.”
Spring 2021 is likely to be a repeat of last year, with parched soils soaking up more runoff, according to Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the National Resources Conservation Service.
“It’s very, very dry and we do expect that to carry into the spring and how that affects our streamflow runoff next spring,” he said. “A lot of that snowmelt will be absorbed into the soil structure and may not make it to the streams. If we have a near-normal snowpack again, we would expect less-than-normal runoff with the severe drought that we’re going into winter with.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (Chris Arend):
The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced today a new initiative to increase public safety around low head dams which have caused a number of accidents and fatalities on Colorado rivers in recent years. The effort includes new and planned signage around targeted low head dam sites, emergency responder education, public outreach and partnerships with private and non-profit organizations, local municipalities, and landowners and the launch of a new interactive map and webpage on DNR’s website: https://dnr.colorado.gov/colorado-low-head-dams
“DNR’s 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, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “Colorado has seen an increase in outdoor recreation in recent years, particularly on our rivers and streams, but this has also led to tragic fatalities on some of our low head dam structures. These fatal accidents are avoidable and are a strong motivation for our Department to increase our public outreach and education initiatives. While some of our efforts are already underway, we know we need to do more to educate Coloradans to reduce these unfortunate accidents and ensure all Coloradans can safely recreate in our great outdoors.”
Low head dams are engineered structures built into and across Colorado’s stream and river channels for a variety of purposes, including to divert water from streams for agricultural purposes, protect stream channels from degradation and provide recreational amenities.
Low head dams, sometimes referred to as the quintessential “drowning machines,” can be dangerous because water flowing over dams produces recirculating currents that can trap recreators. Rafters, kayakers and those floating our rivers for recreation are often unaware of these structures and the dangers resulting from them.
Low head dams can be difficult to detect by river users approaching from upstream due to their height, and the fact that the relatively tranquil pool they create provides no indication of the dangers just beyond the visual horizon created by the dam and ponded water. This can limit reaction time and boaters’ ability to exit the river upstream of the dam.
“I appreciate the work being done by the Department of Natural Resources to address public safety at low head dams. Colorado rivers and streams are an enormous amenity for both water enthusiasts and fishermen,” said Ruth Wright, former Colorado legislator, public safety advocate and founder of Wright Family Foundation. “The low head dam initiative will provide valuable information to the public to help to prevent tragic and needless harm from the dangerous hydraulics of low head dams.”
Several high profile incidents in Colorado in recent years, including 4 fatalities, and 13 since 1986 point to the need for increased education and outreach efforts as well as closer coordination with local emergency responders. The average ages of those involved with low head dam-related incidents are between 13 and 30 years of age. DNR and a private ditch company recently installed warning signs at a low head diversion dam on the South Platte River adjacent to the Jean K. Tool State Wildlife Area. This diversion dam between Ft Morgan and Brush is the site of unfortunate drowning fatalities in 2016 and 2019.
“The Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance (DARCA) is proud to work alongside the Department of Natural Resources and the water community at large through this initiative,” remarked Amber Weber, DARCA Executive Director. “Some of DARCA’s members have been touched by the loss of life due to a low head dam structure, and irrigators know the dangers a low head dam has. DARCA is glad to take part in this effort as agriculturalists join with recreationalists to make our waters safe to traverse.”
In response to these incidents, the DNR formed the Colorado Low Head Dam Safety Steering Committee to address safety issues around low head dams. The team of experts included; Colorado Water Conservation Board, Division of Water Resources – Dam Safety Branch, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM), Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation, the Mile High Flood District, and Wright Water Engineers. The Steering Committee oversaw the inventory study of Colorado low head dam sites, which identified and digitized the locations of diversion, grade control, and recreational structures across Colorado.
The Low Head Dam webpage on DNR’s website includes an interactive map produced from the inventory study enabling Coloradans to research and locate potential low head dam structures before embarking on trips down their favorite river or stream. The webpage includes additional resources on low head dams, links to partner organizations, and a feedback form for Coloradans to help identify missed features on Colorado Rivers which could be included on the interactive low head dam map.
“American Whitewater has been pleased to partner with DNR on this low head dam inventory project. Safe enjoyment of our nation’s rivers is central to our mission,” said Hattie Johnson, Southern Rockies Stewardship Director, American Whitewater. “We hope to integrate the data into our web based national whitewater inventory to help river users plan for and avoid these hazards. We are hoping to help crowdsource information to prioritize low head structures and to find solutions to improve their safety.”
DNR’s low head dam outreach initiative is funded in part from a $31,250 Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Water Plan grant, matched with $20,000 from FEMA’s National Dam Safety Program state assistance grant and $15,000 of in-kind services from Wright Water Engineers, and a generous $20,000 donation from the Wright Family Foundation for additional signage. These donations will help future efforts including ongoing public education, increased outreach during spring months, when the Colorado recreation water season is in full swing, installation of warning signage both above and below highly visited low head dam structures, and additional outreach and education for emergency responders.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
The Colorado River District works across • The Lower Gunnison Project near Montrose,
the West Slope to improve infrastructure and restore rivers as part of its work to protect water supplies for all stakeholders.
During the District’s Annual Water Seminar: Zooming in on West Slope Water on Sept. 22, speakers highlighted three projects that with the help of many partners, advance the District’s mission to protect Western Colorado’s water security.
• The Elkhead Reservoir expansion near Hayden and Craig, completed in 2006, provides water for irrigators and the power industry while ensuring water is available to maintain river flow for endangered fish in the lower Yampa River.
• The Lower Gunnison Project near Montrose Delta and Hotchkiss, is a multi-benefit project spearheaded by the District to modernize irrigation delivery systems.
• The Windy Gap Bypass Channel Project in Grand County, still on the drawing board, will modify Windy Gap Reservoir to re- create a Colorado River channel and nearby flood plain.