Since the 1970s, scientists have been interested in how runoff in the Colorado River Basin (CR Basin) would change as the climate warms. Many of these studies strongly suggested that the Colorado River (CR) would lose flow
with warming, but in the last few years, scientists have been able to analyze a de- clining 22-year flow record, the ongoing 2000-2021 “Millennium Drought”. Multiple studies since 2016 have now found human fingerprints on the nearly 20% loss in flow since 2000 and attribute up to half of that loss to the approximately 1.2°C or more warming that has occurred during the last century. This article summarizes six key peer-reviewed studies related to the topic of CR flow loss. These studies have found declines in runoff efficiency, investigated the causes of flow loss, and in some cases made projections about future flow declines based on the 21st-century climate model projected temperatures.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register for the information session on June 10, 2021:
Water Education Colorado and Fresh Water News are excited to partner with the Colorado News Collaborative, Gates Family Foundation and Colorado Media Project to bring this new opportunity: “Water Fluency for Journalists!”
Interested journalists are invited to apply by June 23 to increase your water knowledge and receive a $1,000 stipend toward participation.
Colorado’s water future is at risk now more than ever. Facing a growing population, warmer climate, longer growing season, decreased snowpack, and earlier runoff, the state’s water supplies are increasingly taxed to serve competing interests. Hundreds of thousands of residents are new to Colorado and unaware of the fundamental challenges faced by their new home state. Even for Coloradans who consider themselves “natives,” many grew up in urban areas with little or no awareness of where their water comes from, how it is managed, or the risks to and opportunities for ensuring a sustainable future.
Strong water journalism is vital for developing more knowledgeable and engaged Coloradans. Yet as the number of professional journalists has been cut nearly in half over the past 15 years, there are fewer and fewer Colorado reporters dedicated to covering this important issue. Today many journalists covering water for local news outlets are generalists, and may not feel confident covering the often complex topics of water management, water rights, water policy, drought, climate change, forest health, demand management, agricultural water innovations and more.
That’s why Water Education Colorado is proud to co-develop and offer this 2021 Water Journalism Fellowship opportunity for working Colorado journalists.
The five-month fellowship features a series of four “Water Fluency for Journalists” workshops presented by Fresh Water News and Water Education Colorado, plus coaching support for individual and collaborative reporting projects from Fresh Water News and the Colorado News Collaborative. The fellowship experience and $1,000 stipends are made possible through support from the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, through its Natural Resources program.
For more information about the fellowship opportunity and eligibility requirements, visit the CMP website.
Interested applicants should also join us for an information session on Thursday, June 10, to hear more. Register for the meeting now.
Click here for all the inside skinny and register:
Join the Colorado River District for the Gunnison State of the River webinar on Thursday, June 10 at 6 pm! Our experts and special guests will be presenting on river forecasts, landmark accomplishments, project opportunities, and the impacts of and on recreation for the Gunnison.
One of the major tributaries of the Colorado River, your Gunnison River provides the life force for local West Slope communities. Learn more about the river’s hydrology and water supply as we enter another drought year, celebrate a Lower Gunnison victory that’s been years in the making, and hear from David Dragoo, founder of Mayfly, about the West Slope recreation economy and its impacts.
You’ll also receive information on exciting new funding for Gunnison River Basin water projects and plans to sustain flows throughout the basin as conditions shift to hotter, drier seasons.
If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive an emailed webinar recording for later viewing!
Welcome – Marielle Cowdin & Zane Kessler, Director of Public Relations and Director of Government Relations, Colorado River District (CRD)
Your Gunnison River, a Water Supply Update – Bob Hurford, Division 4 Engineer, Colorado Department of Natural Resources
The Lower Gunnison Project: Modernization in Action – Dave “DK” Kanzer, Director of Science and Interstate Matters, CRD
A Victory for the Lower Gunnison – Raquel Flinker, Sr. Water Resources Engineer/Project Manager, CRD and Ken Leib, Office Chief of the Colorado Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey
Rivers on the Fly, Recreation Economy and Impacts – David Dragoo, Founder of Mayfly
Community Funding Partnership – Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships, CRD
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
Join us June 11 or 12 along Cottonwood Creek for the inaugural Urban Water Cycle Bike Tour in Colorado Springs!
Join us for a fun, free regional bike tour along Cottonwood Creek in Colorado Springs. This tour will connect community members to local water and recreation resources through an approximately 9-mile (mostly downhill) ride.
Both tour days start at Frank Costello Park, with a short ride to Cowpoke Flood Detention and Development. You will then ride downhill all the way to a creek restoration site on Monument Creek. With a short ride back uphill, you will end at Crit Cafe for our final speakers, networking and refreshments on your own.
Tour topics include:
What are the Cottonwood Creek, Fountain Creek, and Arkansas River watersheds?
Why water quality is important? What is stormwater? What is point source and nonpoint source pollution?
How is Colorado Springs conserving water and planning for its future water supply?
How are community partners connecting neighborhoods to trails and creeks?
How can maintaining pipes allow us to restore creeks?
How do we ensure our water is clean and safe?
How can you protect stream health?
We thank our supporters at Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, Colorado Springs Utilities, El Pomar Foundation, and Fountain Creek Watershed District. In addition, our partners at the Trails and Open Space Coalition and the City of Colorado Springs Stormwater Enterprise (SWENT) and Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services made this tour possible. We look forward to a fun and educational day along Cottonwood Creek!
Here’s an excerpt from the Spring 2021 issue of Headwaters Magazine (Caitlin Coleman):
INTO THE MODERN STORAGE ERA
Most Coloradans rely on some form of water storage in order to live. Water is collected when available and later released when and where it’s needed. Water storage is a necessity, providing year-round access to water that would otherwise come in a rush each spring as snow melts into runoff and flows hurriedly out of state.
“If we were to leave it up to the natural systems, we would be dry for a big part of the year,” says Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. (Ris also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.)
The Ancestral Puebloans, who once inhabited the Four Corners region, knew this and relied on water storage like Morefield Reservoir, which anthropologists indicate was used between 750-1100 A.D. and is still evidenced by mounds in Mesa Verde National Park.
Years later, upon settlement by non-native populations including land grant recipients, homesteaders and miners, reservoir construction proved vital to sustain a larger population. Dams were rapidly constructed in the late 1800s through 1910, primarily for agricultural water needs. In the early 1900s some 290 dams were built in Colorado, the most dams erected in a single decade.
The 1930s through 1970s brought a boom of reservoir construction to meet the demands of the state’s growing municipal water needs. Toward the end of this municipal era, the 1960s saw the greatest water storage volume constructed in any decade, with more than 1.8 million acre-feet, including two of the state’s largest water bodies: Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison and Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir.
The rapid construction of big storage projects in Colorado and the West slowed starting in the 1970s as environmental laws and community concern about environmental impacts grew stronger and project permits became more difficult to obtain. The 1980s Two Forks dam and reservoir project debate and subsequent veto, where local community groups raised enough opposition to stop a planned 615-foot dam southwest of Denver, was a turning point. Two Forks marked the very end of the era in which big reservoirs were the primary answer to Colorado’s water supply, and the start to substantial community involvement.
The past 10 years have brought the fewest new dams and least amount of new storage volume in 120 years. Yet the call for storage from stakeholders across the state continues. Through the 2015 statewide water planning process, basin roundtables — stakeholder groups who have been working together on a regional, river-basin-wide scale to develop water priorities, assessments and goals — developed Basin Implementation Plans. All of the eight plans identified the need for new, restored or better-maintained storage.
In the issue, read about the cornerstone role that water storage has played in Colorado for more than a century, the Colorado Water Plan goal to develop additional storage by 2050, challenges and opportunities with specific projects, and some of the many ways that Coloradans are looking toward the next era of storage.
Here’s the release from Water Education Colorado (Jayla Poppleton):
Water Education Colorado kicks off its 15th Water Leaders Program May 27, 2021].
Sixteen up-and-coming water leaders from a diverse range of communities and water sectors across Colorado have been selected to participate in this intensive personal and professional development opportunity. They come from both private and public sector organizations, from state agencies, water districts and nongovernmental organizations.
“This is an invaluable investment that we are making, that our participants are making, to ready themselves for the incredible challenges that we as a state are facing around water,” said Jayla Poppleton, executive director for Water Education Colorado. “We are equipping leaders with the confidence and skills to effect change, to work collaboratively across interest areas, and to feel rewarded in what they do as they lead their teams to innovate and craft water solutions.”
Established in 2006, the Water Leaders Program has produced nearly 200 graduates.
Several notable alumni include current Colorado Ag Commissioner Kate Greenberg, Esther Vincent, director of environmental services at Northern Water, and Matt Lindburg, managing principal for Brown and Caldwell who is supporting the state on its 2022 update to the Colorado Water Plan.
Participants are selected based on proven commitment to Colorado water and demonstrated potential for increased leadership roles. Many class members are civically active, serving in a wide range of volunteer roles such as on boards and commissions, in addition to their day jobs.
Molson Coors is a title sponsor of the 2021 program. The company has been brewing beer using Colorado water since 1873 and invests in variety of water sustainability initiatives, ranging from improved efficiency to protection of source watersheds.
“Molson Coors is proud to sponsor the Water Leaders program and ensure a bright future for Colorado by supporting our future water leaders,” said Kayla Garcia, community affairs manager for the company.
Throughout the four-month program, which culminates with a graduation ceremony on Sept. 24, the group will undergo a variety of self-assessments as well as an external, 360-degree feedback review from peers, supervisors, and direct reports. Facilitators will challenge participants to be vulnerable with their hopes and aspirations as well as their fears and perceived limitations as they confront complex issues for Colorado water management and protection in the face of climate change, population growth, and widely diverse community values around resource protection and use across Colorado.
“We have seen individuals break out of their shell and find their calling in the water community in ways that they never even thought possible,” said Stephanie Scott, leadership programs manager for Water Education Colorado. “Seeing graduates stretch beyond their wildest dreams, both personally and professionally, is the true magic of the Water Leaders Program.”
Water Education Colorado is a 501c3 nonprofit providing policy-neutral news and informational resources, engaging learning experiences, and empowering leadership programs. We work statewide to ensure Coloradans are knowledgeable about key water issues and equipped to make smart decisions for a sustainable water future.
WEco offers a variety of digital content and also produces two print publications: Headwaters magazine and the Citizen’s Guide reference series. These publications are distributed to policy makers, water professionals, agricultural and environmental organizations, university students, business leaders, and community groups.
In addition to the Water Leaders Program, WEco runs two other leadership programs: 1) Water Fluency – a comprehensive water literacy course for decision makers without a professional water background, and 2) the Water Educator Network – an affiliate program for fellow water educators to improve their practice.
WEco also provides a variety of other educational and outreach opportunities, including tours, forums, workshops, and the annual Sustaining Colorado Watersheds conference, held in October each year in Avon, Colo.
In June 2018, WEco launched Fresh Water News, a nonprofit news initiative dedicated to providing nonpartisan news coverage of the water issues that define Colorado and the American West.
Water Leaders Program sessions are held across Colorado to highlight local water challenges and leadership lessons.
The 2019 Water Leaders Program class celebrating its graduation .
Liz Roberts is digging into snow-soaked dirt just above the banks of Grizzly Creek in western Colorado. With bare fingers she sifts through the dark soil, looking for life amid the ruins of last summer’s devastating Grizzly Creek fire.
When she finds tiny dormant roots, she smiles and exposes more soil to show visitors that this ground, just two or three inches down, is filled with plant matter that will grow and bloom in the summer when the snow melts.
But farther along this same trail, in the White River National Forest just east of Glenwood Springs, there is thick ash beneath the snow, and few dormant roots. This means the soil was so injured by the fire, which burned for more than four months, that it has become disconnected from the mountainside, and the ash lying unrooted above it will be carried into the creek this spring as the water melts.
In unburned forests, the spring snowmelt is a glorious, annual event.
But not this year.
Roberts and other forest experts know that the spring runoff will carry an array of frightening heavy metals and ash-laden sediment generated in the burned soils, posing danger to the people of Glenwood Springs, who rely on Grizzly Creek and its neighbor just to the west, No Name Creek, for drinking water.
Raging wildfires…are easy to see. But what is rarely seen is the devastation to the natural mountain collection systems, where water starts as snow before melting in the spring and flowing down into creeks and eventually into water systems for towns and agricultural lands.
As soils burn, naturally occurring substances that would normally be locked in place are released.
“Sometimes we see lead, mercury, cadmium, possibly arsenic,” said Justin Anderson, Roberts’ colleague and a U.S. Forest Service hydrologist. “They can be dangerous, especially in high concentrations.”
Like other Western states, Colorado is in red alert mode this year, in part because these new megafires, triggered by drought and climate change, ravaged not just Glenwood Springs’ water system, but other major systems as well. Northern Water, for example, manages the Colorado Big-Thompson Project, which serves more than 1 million people and hundreds of farms on the northern Front Range and Eastern Plains. Burning at the same time as the Grizzly Creek fire, the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires rampaged through the project’s mountain collection system, affecting water supplies for Fort Collins, Greeley, Boulder, Broomfield and Loveland, among others.
Even as communities across the state keep their eyes on a 2021 fire season expected to be as bad as that of 2020, when the state saw the largest fires in its history explode, they are racing to create high-tech water treatment programs capable of filtering out the toxins now present in their once-pristine water, and replacing the pipes, intake flumes and grates damaged beyond repair last year.
Esther Vincent, Northern Water’s director of environmental services, expects the agency to spend more than $100 million over the next three to five years, restoring hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand County and along the Front Range in Boulder and Larimer counties. That is nearly triple the agency’s $40 million reserve fund.
Ravaged pipes, reservoirs
“Over half of our major watersheds were affected,” Vincent said. “In some of them 90 percent is burned. Because there is no option to bypass the runoff that is going to come into our system, it will enter our reservoirs and affect all of our infrastructure on the West Slope.”
Restoring forests is an undertaking that requires decades of work and whole new industries to execute effectively.
Mike Lester is Colorado State Forester. Thanks to Colorado’s rapid recovery from the Covid-19 budget crisis and federal relief funds expected later this year, his agency has more money than it’s ever had to help restore forests.
”We’re going to be pretty well supported this year,” Lester said. The state added $6 million this past year for restoration work and it is expecting another $8 million July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
Colorado has some 24 million acres of forest, most of which is owned by the federal government, and to a lesser extent, private landowners. Roughly 10 percent of those acres are in need of immediate attention to protect towns and homes in the wildland urban interface, Lester said. Colorado’s wildland urban interface, also known as the WUI, has become increasingly populated, creating greater risk to lives and infrastructure and complicating forest management.
Repairing the forests, thinning trees so the fires don’t burn with such intensity, and stabilizing hundreds of thousands of scarred mountain slopes requires skilled personnel and methods for utilizing the downed timber.
“We’re way short of resources,” Lester said. “We don’t have a huge amount of logging and professional forestry in Colorado. There is only so much money you can spend well before you run into capacity issues.”
In the short-term communities are focused on doing what they can now to keep their water systems safe.
Matt Langhorst is Glenwood Springs’ director of public works. When the Grizzly Creek fire ignited last August, he could tell almost immediately that the flames were going to engulf the water system’s intake structures in the White River National Forest high above the town at the top of Grizzly and No Name creeks.
“The second I saw the smoke coming over the hill, I knew it was right around our two watersheds. I picked up the phone and called the fire department and said, ’We’re going to have a problem.’”
A massive loss
Nine months later, Langhorst and his crews have reworked the high mountain intake structures and they’ve finished a complete rebuild of the town’s small water treatment plant so that it can remove the pollutants expected to contaminate its once-clear waters, and filter out massive sediment loads that are already beginning to come down into the creeks as they enter the Colorado River just east of town along I-70.
“We are expecting it to change the water quality for three to seven years, but it could be longer than that,” Langhorst said. “It is a massive loss.”
And costly. Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes said the work needed to repair and rebuild its water system, and create a safe evacuation route if Glenwood Canyon is shut down again as it was last summer, will likely cost three times its annual operating budget of $19 million.
“It’s something we can’t afford,” Godes said. “But we can’t afford not to do it.”
In response, state agencies are rethinking how they provide emergency funds as natural disasters such as these megafires happen more frequently.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), last fall, was able to offer Glenwood Springs $8 million in a matter of days so that Langhorst and his crews could get into the high country to do critical construction work before winter snows arrived.
Kirk Russell oversees the CWCB’s loan funds. He said the agency was able to move quickly because it had seen the damage done and the loan delays that occurred after the state’s catastrophic floods of 2013. Back then, federal emergency funds took months to reach devastated Front Range communities and farm irrigation systems that were blown out by powerful flood waters.
“Fast forward to the wildfires that we saw last year and we foresaw there was going to be a need to respond quickly,” Russell said.
Now the agency has new emergency rules that provide for quick approvals on three-year, no-interest loans when water systems are harmed by wildfires.
“Do we need more money and more flexibility? Absolutely,” Russell said.
The state also needs a more cohesive response to managing and restoring forests and the water systems embedded in them. Key to that effort is a two-year-old initiative called the Colorado Forest and Water Alliance, an advocacy group that includes federal and state forest officials, water utilities, logging industries and environmental groups.
Ellen Roberts, a former state lawmaker from Durango, has helped spearhead the fledgling effort and is working on other local initiatives designed to work effectively across city and county boundaries, as well as private, public and federal lands.
Colorado’s lawmakers and the federal government have pledged more than $20 million this year to quickly jumpstart the work.
“I am very encouraged by that,” Roberts said. “A good chunk of the money will need to go to immediate post-fire work, but we need to shift gears soon to put the money in at the front end [to thin the over-grown forests]. Hopefully we will be seeing both with the money that has been set aside. This is not a one-and-done investment. It has to be viewed as being chapter one of a very, very long book.”
Water comes down
Back out in the White River National Forest, the annual snowmelt above Grizzly and No Name creeks has begun.
And Matt Langhorst is waiting, hoping that the residents of Glenwood Springs, who have enjoyed more than 115 years of clear mountain water, won’t notice any difference in how their water tastes.
He got hundreds of calls last August when the town was forced to shut off its fire-engulfed water system and use an emergency source temporarily.
Each call was roughly the same, he said.
“Everyone wanted to know, ‘What happened to my water?’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Colorado’s rivers and streams are rising after a year of pandemic quarantine and social distancing, and the anticipation of rafters and kayakers is rising as well. But water resource experts and outfitters are cautioning that the second year in a row of below-average and unseasonably warm spring temperatures will contribute to a short float season.
“We’ve had another dry year. Last year wasn’t that great either,” said Aldis Strautins, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “The summer was dry. Fall was dry. Soil moisture is very dry. This doesn’t bode well for rafting and kayaking. Things can change but we’re not seeing any indication of that right now.”
As of last week, Strautins said the moisture content of snowpack remaining in the Upper Colorado River Basin is 79 percent of normal, while the Rio Grande and Yampa basins stand at 78 percent, the Gunnison basin is at 73 percent, and the San Miguel, Dolores and San Juan rivers are at 66 percent.
The exceptions are the Arkansas and South Platte river basins. In the Arkansas, snowpack is at 84 percent of normal, and due to some late winter storms, the South Platte Basin is close to 100 percent of normal.
Kyle Johnson, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Adventures in Fort Collins, said the near-normal snowpack in the South Platte Basin will provide his company with enough snowmelt to keep customers on the Poudre River happy this summer.
“We currently have the best snowpack in the state,” Johnson said. “The Poudre has been at runnable levels for the past three weeks. Although we definitely don’t anticipate high water, we’re looking forward to a nice, even flow season.”
Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon Outfitters in Cañon City, said the COVID-19 pandemic provided a tough learning experience for his operation and other outfitters.
“We’re using 2020 as a North Star. We learned things. We were washing paddles. Now we know that was an unnecessary precaution,” Neinas said.
But the company continues to be vigilant, especially in protecting its workers. “Here at Echo Canyon any team member that wants to be tested or vaccinated can do it on the clock. We’re giving our team members a $100 bonus for getting vaccinated.”
Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, said the his basin’s stored water supplies, though well below normal, are holding up and will help ensure rafters have enough liquid to float. “We’re not going to have any problems with water. It won’t be too high but it’ll be sufficient. We’ve seen a pretty good early start already.”
Coping with COVID-19 in 2020 was one of the greatest challenges in Colorado’s commercial rafting history, according to a new report by the Colorado River Outfitters Association. Commercial river use declined by more than 20 percent in 2020, with visitor spending dropping from nearly $185 million in 2019 to $148 million last year.
“We had a lot of anxiety in the rafting business,” Hamel said. “But once we got going, people were ready to get outside. We saw that everywhere on public lands. Rafting was no surprise. We survived last year and we’re appreciative that we’re still in business.”
Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Although Brian Werner has served on the WEco Board of Trustees for just over a year, he was involved with helping found the organization nearly 20 years ago. Now retired from his 38-year career as the Communications Department Manager and Public Information Officer at Northern Water, and still a life-long water historian, Brian has written and given hundreds of presentations on the role of water in the settlement and development of Colorado and the West. We spoke with Brian about Northern Water’s storage, the impacts of fire on water storage, permitting, and more.
How long have you been on the WEco board?
I’ve been involved with WEco since WEco has been around. I was involved with the first couple incarnations of water education efforts in Colorado in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and then I helped when WEco came into being in 2002. I was never on the board, until a couple of years ago. It was something I wanted to do towards the end of my career and I retired just last year in January 2020. Luckily I was appointed to the board and I’ve truly enjoyed it.
What kind of experience do you bring to the group?
I think the fact that I had a 38-year career in the water business with Northern Water is an asset. At Northern Water, I’d established relations with people from all over the state and I also coordinated probably 150 to 200 different children’s water festivals, so clearly I was into education. I’m really a big believer in the trickle up theory of water knowledge. Where if you can educate the kids, that knowledge is going trickle up to mom and dad, and those kids will somebody be parents themselves. Ultimately, I’ve been trying to build that ethic in what I’ve been about for most of my career.
How would you describe your experience being on the board?
I’ve really enjoyed being on the board. I’ve watched it and been very much involved for a long time. Both Nicole Seltzer and Jayla Poppleton worked with me at Northern Water, so I have a personal vested interest in them succeeding, and they really have. Nicole moved the organization in a wonderful direction and Jayla has just been top-notch in where she has taken WEco. It has been really interesting because we have a diverse board, and I have enjoyed getting to know people who I didn’t know previously.
I understand you recently retired from Northern Water, can you tell me what your role with them was and maybe what Northern Water does in a general sense?
Northern Water is the largest water conservancy district in the state of Colorado and operates a large Bureau of Reclamation project that is one of the largest in the entire western United States; the Colorado-Big Thompson project. It brings a quarter-million acre-feet a year from the West Slope into Northeastern Colorado to supplement both urban and rural supplies, meaning that it is both a municipal as well as an agricultural water supply. Now there are well over a million people that get a portion of their water supply from that project, but back in 1937, there were only 50,000 people living within Northern Water’s boundaries. So, nobody could have foreseen the growth that occurred since then. This growth has brought all sorts of issues and concerns, but Northern Water is one of the top water agencies in the state and I certainly had a wonderful career there and couldn’t have asked for anything better.
Personally, I was a public information officer for 35 of those 38 years. My role, in essence, was to be the public face of Northern Water and so I talked about Northern Water and its activities all the time. I was able to use my historical training, I have a master’s degree in history, to discuss the historical background of both water development and Northern Water. I focused very much on education, but ultimately, I spent my entire career talking all things water, which was a lot of fun.
I was also the manager of our communications department as we expanded and grew. As we grew, we brought on writers and pushed publications and annual reports, and then we got into the social media craze. So, for some time I managed that department. But really, it was about telling people what Northern Water was all about.
The map above displays estimates of the likelihood of debris flow (in %), potential volume of debris flow (in m3), and combined relative debris flow hazard. These predictions are made at the scale of the drainage basin, and at the scale of the individual stream segment. Estimates of probability, volume, and combined hazard are based upon a design storm with a peak 15-minute rainfall intensity of 24 millimeters per hour (mm/h). Predictions may be viewed interactively by clicking on the button at the top right corner of the map displayed above. Map credit: USGS
Perhaps a topical question, but how have the numerous forest fires affected the work that Northern Water does in trying to ensure water storage?
That is going to be Northern Water’s principal focus this coming year. Both of our major watersheds burned last year, the Upper Colorado with the East Troublesome wildfire, and then the Poudre watershed with the Cameron Peak wildfire. And both of these watersheds are where we get the vast majority of our water. Luckily, Northern Water had been looking at forest water management for years. Northern Water has been working with the U.S. Forest Service, the counties, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Parks Service. It wasn’t that these fires hit us and Northern Water had no idea what to do. We learned quite a lot from Denver Water after the Hayman Fire, with all of the issues that they had centering around water quality. Northern Water isn’t pleased, but we are certainly going to see some water quality impacts because of these fires.
We went in with our eyes open and with some plans in place for post-fire activities. We always said, ‘it’s not if, it’s when those fires hit.’
What do these fires mean for water supply and water quality now, as well as moving into the future?
One of the things that we see from these fires is a greater level of awareness in terms of forest management, not just if you have a house in a forest or nearby, but for those people living in major metropolitan areas, too. Those people in Denver, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs are all paying attention now, because they saw the two largest fires in Colorado history and what it did to our environment. And I think now there will be a lot more attention focused on the post-fire impacts, which obviously include water. People will certainly be paying attention to the water piece of the post-fire mitigation and clean-up. Overall, I think moving into the future we will have a better awareness, which is always a good thing. There is no way around it, it is going to take money, and where we are at with COVID-19 that discussion is not easy, but the state is making a concerted effort to put monetary resources and people into handling the situation.
How the present or future storage planning is different than what the state has done historically?
One thing I would point out is that the Federal government is no longer in the water storage building business. For years Reclamation, which had been established in 1902 helped jumpstart and build water projects, as they did the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The Federal government neither has the resources nor are they paying for water storage anymore. Now, water storage is something that is having to be more or less self-funded. Meaning that the growing cities are trying to figure out how they can finance additional water for their future citizens.
We are also now looking at the multiple uses of water. Nowadays, water is being used for environmental purposes, which means that we are looking to make sure that there is enough to release into the rivers to help the aquatic habitat. This is a much larger part of the picture today. At a base level of awareness, we want people to understand why we need storage reservoirs. It is a dry year, and it sure looks like we are only getting drier, and when you have the drier years you better make sure that you store when you have the wetter periods to carry you through. I think we are going to have difficulties trying to match up the storage, which we are going to continue to need, with all the environmental issues and issues surrounding the development of water infrastructure.
In the past 20 years, Northern has been in permitting so can you talk about that process?
We say water project permitting works at a glacial pace. When I started working on the Northern Integrated Supply Project permitting at Northern Water, I told my wife that I thought we would have a permit in around 5 years … I’m now retired. Northern Water is going on 17 years later, and they still haven’t received that permit. That’s frustrating. This wasn’t for lack of energy; I mean we were really working hard to secure that permit. These things take much longer than you would probably expect. You have to have a lot of perseverance because the process can really drive you crazy, but my hope is that in the future this process will become much better for all parties involved.
One farmer claimed to have learned more in one day of master irrigator training than he had in five years of farming on his own.
For another, the light bulb came on when he realized by making one simple change he could save $10,000 a year.
Colorado Master Irrigator program manager Brandi Baquera was thrilled to share those glowing endorsements during a panel presentation at the virtual Ogallala Aquifer Summit in late March. She always believed the program’s “one-stop shop” format was exactly what the region’s irrigated farmers needed.
The first class of the master irrigator program, which was held a little over a year ago, offered 32 hours of instruction to 25 producers who collectively farm 20,000 acres across multiple counties in the Republican River Basin…
While program participation is currently limited to the Republican Basin, Baquera is eager to see the concept spread and get adopted by other advisory teams and coordinators across the state…
How to conserve water, without putting farmers out of business or harming the local economy, has always made it difficult to translate talk into action.
“Conservation has been a conversation out here for so long,” Baquera said. “It’s not for lack of trying, it’s just finding the right formula. It’s about connecting all the dots.”
Farmers taking the training don’t just sit through a class on theory; they learn about water use efficiency practices and technologies immediately applicable to their farms.
The curriculum is developed by an advisory committee consisting of local experts, with emphasis on the unique features of the basin. Participants are awarded a $2,000 stipend, along with a package of additional incentives that include free energy audits, discounts from local businesses and service providers, and prioritization for cost-share grants through the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Most importantly, it emphasizes peer-to-peer interaction, discussion and learning…
The point of the program is that using less groundwater doesn’t necessarily mean lower yields or lower profits, it’s more a matter of understanding the tools available and knowing how to use them, she said.
Beavers, known for their work ethic, tenacity and sometimes destructive instincts, are making a comeback in the worlds of science and water as researchers look for natural ways to restore rivers and wetlands and improve the health of drought-stressed aquifers.
“The concept of beavers and their ability to restore streams is not new,” said Sarah Marshall, an ecohydrologist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program who has been studying these semi-aquatic rodents for years. “Now we have a body of groundwater and sediment capture studies that have really resonated with folks who are managing water, especially with these nagging problems of drought and earlier snowmelt.”
This fall, Colorado Headwaters, a nonprofit that advocates for protecting and restoring headwater regions in the state, is sponsoring a beaver summit, a conference designed to unveil some of the latest ecological research on creatures once valued only for their glossy fur.
“The idea is to drive the knowledge to the general public and legislators so they have a better handle on how to address this,” said Jerry Mallett, Colorado Headwaters founder and president.
Beaver advocates would like to see more funding for research, new programs, such as a beaver census, and better integration of wetland restoration efforts in headwaters areas.
Before beavers were nearly trapped out of existence in the mid-1800s, they inhabited high mountain wetlands and river basins across Colorado and the West. They played an important ecological role, according to Marshall. Their dams trapped water, allowing it to flood wetlands and soak into underground aquifers. Those same dams also trapped sediment, enhancing habitat for fish and other wildlife.
But beavers also did their fair share of damage as the West was settled, garnering a reputation for damming irrigation ditches and flooding culverts and roads, angering ranchers and city dwellers alike.
Even in urban areas, beavers are considered a nuisance because their never-ending dam building often floods city parks and harms trees.
But Marshall is hopeful that events such as the upcoming summit as well as ongoing education of policy makers and the public on the benefits of the water-related work beavers do will help improve their reputation.
“One of the most important things about how beavers help streams is that they are very dynamic. They don’t just create a dam. They move around in watersheds creating systems that are constantly changing.
“By creating a series of dams they do everything from refilling alluvial aquifers to physically trapping sediment and creating physical habitat for rare species such as boreal toads and trout,” she said.
Carlyle Currier, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said beavers remain a sore topic in the agricultural world because their dams often harm expensive irrigation systems and cause flooding.
“Certainly they can be a nuisance if they’re in the wrong place,” Currier said.
There is also concern that if beavers significantly alter how water moves through a stream, it could injure water rights.
Currier said he and his ranching colleagues are willing to listen to what the beaver scientists are recommending.
“The devil is always in the details,” he said. “But in headwaters areas, you could argue that they do more good than harm.”
The Colorado conference, slated for Oct. 20 and 22 in Avon, comes on the heels of similar confabs that have been held recently in California and New Mexico, Mallet said.
As drought and climate change cause widespread reductions in river flows and aquifer levels, researchers and others are re-evaluating how wetlands and rivers evolved. They are hopeful that the furry architects and general contractors who originally helped shape them can be restored and put to work again in a way that aids everyone, Marshall said.
“We built all of this infrastructure and managed land in a context that did not include beavers. As we’re changing how we view them culturally, there is an opportunity for co-existence,” Marshall said.
“People are starting to realize that when you have beavers in a stream reach you have nice green grass growing along the banks for your cattle. It’s a fascinating path that we are on. People are starting to see them in a new light,” Marshall said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
This year’s event will include panels and presentations on climate change, Colorado landscaping aesthetics, social change, community education programs, and much more! There will be a special keynote address from Leander Lacy, Interim Alliance Director of Denver Metro Nature Alliance and host of The Green Mind podcast.
Watershed Summit 2021, or “Shed ’21” as we like to call it, is produced through a collaborative partnership between the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Denver Water, Aurora Water, the One World One Water (OWOW) Center, Resource Central and Denver Botanic Gardens.
As the coronavirus pandemic stretches past a year, the world has become accustomed to facing problems we rarely, if ever, anticipated before. These new challenges extend beyond logistical work-from-home issues to graver concerns: For example, how do we keep our water systems safe from hackers?
In Florida, a water treatment plant ran into that very issue in February when a hacker breached its remote system. The hacker, who is still unknown, reportedly adjusted the sodium hydroxide — added to alkalize water and limit lead leaching from pipes — in the city’s water to poisonous levels. While the threat was quickly addressed, the incident highlighted the weaknesses of remote access operations.
The Florida water plant is far from the only utility that’s fallen victim to a cyberattack. Similar threats have happened in Colorado, too. For example, in 2019, hackers demanded a ransom from the Fort Collins Loveland Water District and South Fort Collins Sanitation District. (The districts were able to resolve the issue on their own).
And just last month, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division warned of recent phishing attempts at various water utilities.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, works to help organizations bolster their technology and counter cyberattacks. “Water utilities face the same types of cyberattacks as any other organization: phishing schemes, ransomware attacks and other malware designed to steal credentials,” said Dave Sonheim, Colorado CISA cybersecurity advisor. “While technology creates many advantages, it also brings with it the risk of cybercrime, fraud and abuse.”
COVID-19 has intensified the problem, he said, because it necessitated remote work, making operations for many utilities more vulnerable.
“What we know is that breaches in cybersecurity can knock on a bazillion doors electronically until one opens,” explained John Thomas, professor of engineering practice at the University of Colorado. To prevent cyber threats from escalating, Thomas says it’s important to consider as many challenging scenarios as possible and work backward to build a more adaptable system.
Cyber issues predate the pandemic but because water utilities typically use electronic control systems that were developed in the 1960s, their technology tends to be older, too. Older tech combined with pandemic conditions exacerbated an already existing weakness.
“Systems are still outdated and not really designed to be operated on the internet, and with all the issues surrounding COVID-19 suddenly requiring remote administration and access — it’s kind of a perfect storm,” Thomas said.
As hacks have increased, regulators have responded with more explicit guidance. The Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center offers 15 cybersecurity fundamentals targeted for the water sector. Additionally, the Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 requires larger water utilities to conduct risk and resilience assessments of their cybersystems. These kinds of threats have long been on the radar of utilities like Denver Water, which follows the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s best practices to stop cyberattacks before they begin.
“Denver Water has a designated cybersecurity team, along with an emergency preparedness program, that investigates the best ways to detect, defend, respond to and recover from cybersecurity attacks, including those similar to the one that occurred in Florida,” said Denver Water spokesperson Todd Hartman. Hartman said Denver Water follows guidelines set by CISA.
But these policies may not be enough. A recent paper on how COVID-19 might transform infrastructure resilience noted that “older best practices that focus on efficiency and stability are becoming increasingly insufficient.” That presents a new opportunity to rethink how infrastructure operates and how it can be designed to respond to unexpected situations.
Emily Bondank, a science and technology fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and one of the paper’s authors, said current guidelines are limited to what utilities can imagine as a future threat. But what about things they can’t imagine, like a global pandemic?
“COVID impacted us in an interesting way because it wasn’t recognized as being a threat to infrastructure at all,” Bondank said. “Even though people know cybersecurity is an issue for the water sector, it just hasn’t been invested in enough for them to really understand the vulnerabilities and threats around it.”
Alejandra Wilcox is a journalist currently based in northern Colorado. Her work has been broadcast on KGNU and has appeared in the Huffington Post, among other outlets.
On Friday, April 23 — the day after Earth Day — a quarter or more of Colorado’s streams, rivers, and wetlands lost critical protections as the Navigable Waters Protection (NWP) Rule went into effect in the state following a year of legal efforts to prevent it.
Until this week, Colorado remained the only state to successfully avoid application of the Trump administration rule, which last year rolled back key protections in the Clean Water Act — the bedrock environmental law protecting our drinking water from pollution. A judicial stay issued as a result of a legal challenge by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has kept the state’s waterways protected until now. The appeals court recently lifted the stay, so the NWP Rule will take effect in Colorado Friday, April 23.
The NWP Rule will impact the protections of critical sources of drinking water and leaves at least 25% of Colorado’s streams and 22% of wetlands vulnerable to pollution. The rule hits “ephemeral” streams, those that flow seasonally, particularly hard, curtailing critical safeguards for waterways that respond primarily to precipitation events — which make up 68% of waters in Colorado. It also threatens the safety and reliability of clean drinking water, which 94% of Westerners say is essential. Below maps developed by Water for Colorado Coalition partner’s Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy illustrate the extent to which this policy will threaten Colorado’s water.
“In a state known for its work to conserve the natural resources that are vital to so many Coloradans’ well-being and livelihoods, it is shocking that this rollback is drifting by so quietly,” said Josh Kuhn, Water Advocate for Conservation Colorado, a Water for Colorado Coalition partner. “Colorado serves a vital national role as a headwaters state, and we need our lawmakers to take action now protecting our rivers, streams, and wetlands from irreversible harm.”
It is now up to the legislature to prevent this dangerous rule from taking effect and removing safeguards for water sources. Colorado needs state policies protecting clean drinking water and our waterways more broadly regardless of who is in the White House. While policy changes in the new federal administration could reestablish protections, that will take years — by then, the damage done to our waters will be irreparable. If Colorado leadership doesn’t step in, streams and wetlands could be filled with construction debris, subject to polluted runoff from nearby development sites or obliterated by bulldozers.
“We need immediate legislative action to ensure our water is treated as the precious natural resource it is,” said Melinda Kassen, Sr. Counsel, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The Colorado Legislature has prioritized critical funding for the Colorado Water Plan — but if they don’t protect our streams and wetlands from pollution, what are we funding? Our streams, rivers, and wetlands need safeguards from activities that would release pollutants into them. Without this, unregulated construction may impair sources of drinking water and the streams and wetlands that support hunting and angling in Colorado.”
The Water for Colorado Coalition has environment, legal, and policy experts available to discuss the implications of this rule’s implementation, and the need for immediate state action.
About the Water for Colorado Coalition
The Water for Colorado coalition is a group of nine organizations dedicated to ensuring our rivers support everyone who depends on them, working toward resilience to climate change, planning for sustained and more severe droughts, and enabling every individual in Colorado to have a voice and the opportunity to take action to advocate for sustainable conservation-based solutions for our state’s water future. The community of organizations that make up the Water for Colorado Coalition represent diverse perspectives and share a commitment to protecting Colorado’s water future to secure a reliable water supply for the state and for future generations.
From email from the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association (Phil Brink):
Topics and Presenters:
1) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding for ditch and irrigation companies: For the first time, ditch and irrigation companies can now apply for USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding. What types of improvements are eligible for funding, and what are the payment rates and eligibility requirements?
2) Mountain Meadow Deficit Irrigation (early) Results: During the summer of 2021, irrigated meadows in the Kremmling area were deficit irrigated to learn more about the effects of deficit irrigation on forage production, soils, and the amount of water that could be conserved.
Presenter: Dr. Perry Cabot, Irrigation and Water Resources Leader, CSU Western Colorado Research Center, Fruita, CO.
3) How to Secure your Water Right and Navigate Division of Water Resources (DWR) Records for Information: Water rights are valuable. You will learn how to access information about your water rights via the DWR HydroBase online resource AND the steps needed to help secure your water rights.
Presenters: John Rodgers, P.E., Colorado DWR HydroBase Coordinator and
Colorado’s water storage reservoirs, struggling after two years of severe drought, are holding just 86 percent of their average supplies for this time of year, down dramatically from last year’s 107-percent-of-average mark.
The South Platte Basin, home to the metro Denver area, has been blessed with heavy spring snows and its reservoirs are the fullest in the state, measuring 99 percent of average at the end of March, the latest data available from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But the rest of the state’s storage pools are dangerously low.
And it is the state’s farmers who are suffering the most due to last summer’s ultra-dry weather and a weak winter mountain snowpack. Hardest hit is the southwestern corner of the state, where the San Juan/Dolores River Basin’s reservoirs stand at just 59 percent of average, a dramatic drop from last year, when those storage pools were at 104 percent of average, according to the NRCS.
“It’s terrible,” said Don Schwindt, a grower near Dolores who sits on the Southwestern Water Conservation District Board as well as the board of the Family Farm Alliance.
“We emptied virtually all of our [local] reservoirs last year,” he said, which means that there is little water to start the irrigation season if the spring runoff fails to deliver.
Schwindt said growers in his region were already worried last fall after the summer monsoon rains failed to arrive. Those rains are key to adding moisture to the soil ahead of winter, and when they don’t come, the dry soil under the snow absorbs much of the spring runoff.
In the Upper Rio Grande Basin, conditions are similarly dire, with growers preparing to reduce the number of acres they plant as the water forecast deteriorates.
“On our family farm we will have to cut back half of our plantings if we don’t start getting runoff,” said Kit Caldon, an ag producer in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. “There is no way we will plant everything we have even if we have a great runoff because our reservoirs are so low.”
Colorado, like other Western states, remains mired in a drought cycle that has seen four major droughts in the past two decades. The dry weather has sapped soils, raised wildfire danger, and drained underground aquifers on which farmers also rely.
Kathleen Curry is a former lawmaker, a lobbyist and a rancher in the Upper Gunnison River Basin, where reservoirs are also running low on supplies.
“Because we are high up in the basin, we are likely to be okay. But folks farther down are not going to be as lucky,” Curry said, referring to lower-altitude streams where spring flows are projected to be ultra low.
In response to the increasingly alarming conditions, a year ago, the state activated its emergency drought action plan for the agricultural sector, a move that frees up of some federal funds to provide farm relief.
But that federal help, while welcome, isn’t enough to offset the costs of what is shaping up to be another major drought year for Colorado’s farmers.
“Whatever has been provided, no matter how good it is, it is inadequate for this kind of water supply year,” said Schwindt. “Poke down through the snow and you will find dust instead of mud. This is going to be a tough one to recover from.”
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.
Beginning in 1970, Americans and later citizens across the globe have celebrated Earth Day on April 22. It’s a day dedicated annually to civic action, volunteerism and other activities to support and promote environmental protection and green living.
This year, Fresh Water News is using Earth Day as an opportunity to highlight a handful of Colorado projects and businesses that are moving the needle on water conservation and sustainability. Here are their stories.
Booze that doesn’t “destroy the planet”
In 2010, Connie Baker attended distilling school somewhat on a whim — she’d always loved vodka and thought learning more about how it’s made would be a fun week-long vacation.
In the end, though, Baker fell in love with distilling and, along with her husband, Carey Shanks, began planning to open a new distillery not far from their home in Carbondale, Colo.
But after touring distilleries around the country for inspiration, they began to fully understand just how resource-intensive — and wasteful — distilling as an industry often was. Traditional distilleries send tens of thousands of gallons of clean water down the drain during the production process — water that could easily be reused, if only they had the right setup.
“I love vodka, but I don’t want to destroy the plant to make it,” said Baker.
Instead of accepting the status quo, Baker and Shanks decided to design and build their own sustainable distillery from the ground up. Their crown jewel? A custom water energy thermal system, WETS for short, that recaptures 100 percent of the water and energy used during the distillation process.
They officially opened Marble Distilling in 2015. Ever since, their WETS system has saved more than four million gallons of water and 1.8 billion BTUs of energy per year. The recaptured energy is enough to heat and cool the distillery, which includes a five-room boutique hotel on the second floor, and to power much of the distilling process.
The distillery’s water bill is regularly less than $100 a month. While most distilleries use the equivalent of 100 bottles of water to produce one bottle of vodka, Marble uses the equivalent of just one bottle of water per bottle of vodka. (They also make bourbon, whiskey and liqueurs.)
“The only water we’re using for the spirit is what’s in the bottle,” Baker said.
Baker and Shanks also freely share information about their WETS system and other sustainable elements with anyone and everyone who’s curious, including and especially other distilleries.
“We don’t want to own this information,” Baker said. “We want to be leaders in the industry for change. We have proven over the course of six years that it absolutely can be done. It makes sense not only from a sustainability standpoint but from an economic standpoint. There’s no reason not to do it. It’s not any harder, so why wouldn’t you do it?”
Sustainability at 14,000 feet
The infrastructure atop the iconic 14,115-foot Pikes Peak is getting a refresh — and one that’s particularly friendly to water.
Construction crews are finishing up work on the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex, which includes a visitor center, a high-altitude research laboratory, and a municipal utility facility.
Visitors to the summit number upwards of 750,000 annually, and the previous facilities that welcomed them at the top were deteriorating. Replacing them created an opportunity to do things differently. The 38,000-square-foot complex, which is set to open around Memorial Day, aims to be net-zero for energy, waste and water consumption; it also hopes to become the first Living Building Challenge-certified project in Colorado, a rigorous green building standard created by the International Living Future Institute.
The project, which is expected to cost $60 million to $65 million when complete, incorporates a number of water-saving and conservation features, including a pioneering on-site wastewater treatment plant, a vacuum toilet system, low-flow fixtures, and a rainwater harvest system for potential future use.
Even with increased visitor numbers, the new complex is expected to use 40 to 50 percent less water than the 1960s-era Summit House it will replace. That water has to be hauled up the mountain, a 40-mile round trip.
In 2018, crews hauled 600,000 gallons of fresh water to the summit, according to Jack Glavan, manager of Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain, a self-supporting enterprise of the City of Colorado Springs. (Colorado Springs operates the Pikes Peak Recreation Corridor, which includes the Pikes Peak Highway and related facilities, through a special use permit granted by the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land.) The new facility should cut that down to between 300,000 and 350,000 gallons a year, Glavan said.
“In the past, we used roughly a gallon to 1.2 gallons per person, and with this water system, we’re figuring we’re going to cut that down to 0.4 to 0.5 gallons per person,” said Glavan.
Similarly, the water-savvy upgrades will allow the facility to halve the amount of wastewater it hauls down to the Las Vegas Street Wastewater Treatment Plant, which requires an 80-mile round trip.
On top of the water efficiencies, the upgrades will also reduce vehicle trips and associated emissions. Freshwater trips are expected to drop from 127 to 72 per year, and wastewater trips from 174 to 69.
The building also aims to be one of the first in Colorado to reuse water that’s been treated on-site. But for final approval from the state, complex managers must first prove that the wastewater system works, a process that will likely involve about a year of sampling, Glavan said. Assuming all goes according to plan, the facility will use reclaimed water for toilets and urinals.
All told, the facility’s leaders hope that these and many other sustainable design features — undertaken as part of the highest-altitude construction project in the United States, on top of the mountain that inspired the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” — encourage others to reduce their impact on the environment in whatever way possible.
“We’re proud to be doing it,” Glavan said. “It does cost a little bit more incrementally but we are America’s mountain and we’re hoping we’re setting an example for everyone. If we can do it up here at 14,000 feet, people should be able to do it at lower altitudes.”
While working as a hotel engineer at the ART Hotel in Denver several years ago, Mac Marsh noticed that whenever he responded to a maintenance request in the kitchen, the faucet was almost always running. But why?
After some investigating, he found out that running cold water over frozen food was the industry standard when it wasn’t possible to defrost it in the refrigerator. These food-safety defrosting guidelines, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and followed by local health officials, are intended to keep restaurants’ guests safe and healthy, since keeping food cool as it defrosts helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and pathogens.
But it takes one hour to defrost one pound of meat under cold water, which equates to about 150 gallons of water per pound. When he began to think about all the restaurants and all the food they defrosted on a daily basis, Marsh realized he had to act.
He invented a novel solution to the problem: a device that can recirculate cold water in a sink or basin. His Boss Defrost device, which plugs into a power outlet, is also equipped with a thermometer, which helps users ensure the water stays below the recommended 71 degrees Fahrenheit. The Denver company began manufacturing the devices, now used in more than 25 states, in January 2020.
The company’s leaders say Boss Defrost can reduce a restaurant’s defrosting water use to about 450 gallons per month on average, a sharp decline from the approximately 32,000 gallons that an average commercial kitchen uses to defrost food each month.
“This water waste is food service’s skeleton in the closet,” said Diana López Starkus, who’s a partner in the business along with her husband, Chris Starkus, an award-winning Denver chef and farmer. “It happens all along the food chain, from fast food to fine dining, K-12 schools, college campuses, hospitals, hospice and state and federal buildings.”
Though the pandemic — and ensuing restaurant shutdowns and capacity limits — slowed down the company’s growth, it also gave them an opportunity to expand into grocery meat and seafood departments.
Sales picked up again when restaurants began to reopen, since their owners were looking for every possible way to save money as they recovered from the pandemic. Starkus said the device generally pays for itself in water bill savings in one to three months.
“We like to say it’s a win-win-win,” Starkus said. “Good for the earth, good for your wallet and the easiest sustainability measure to initiate in 2021. “We’re passionate about empowering ourselves and others to create positive change toward a better future. That’s why we call it Boss Defrost, because every prep cook in the nation can become an environmental boss, someone that’s working optimally, respecting the resources at their fingertips and staying financially sound.”
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1973, Colorado broke new legal ground by establishing water rights solely for the protection of streams, fish and wildlife. Prior to that, water could be diverted only for things like farming, manufacturing and residential water use.
When the state moved to establish these environmental water rights, it was one of the first states in the American West to do so.
This year it will dramatically expand that ground-breaking effort as three new laws, passed in 2020, take effect. One involves the use of temporary water loans, a second adds protection for ranchers who divert water for cattle in stream segments where special environmental flows have been designated, removing an important obstacle to establishing new environmental flows, and a third creates a new tool for environmental flows once only available to cities and farmers.
Zane Kessler, director of public affairs for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, said the changes represent an important evolution in protecting environmental flows while balancing the needs of Colorado’s ranchers and cities with those of the environment.
“Good policy helps us evolve to meet changing needs and priorities over time,” Kessler said.
How the new laws work
The expanded temporary loan program authorizes emergency loans and allows loans of water for five years in three separate 10-year periods. Previously those same loans could be used only for three years in a single 10-year period.
This provides relief for several regions, including the Yampa River Basin, where an instream flow loan had been used to its fullest extent under the old law, even though drought has continued to harm the Yampa River. The new longer-running loan program will provide critical flows to the river.
The stock water law, though it doesn’t directly add water to streams, writes specific rancher protections into law, paving the way for more stream segments to be considered for the program.
And the third law, which advocates believe may have the most significant impact of the three, allows something known as an augmentation plan to incorporate environmental flows to help protect streams.
Advocates, such as the Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit that spearheaded the new approach, say the tools can be used as templates across other river basins, where older water rights are already spoken for.
“In the long run, this could be more impactful,” said Kate Ryan, an attorney for the Colorado Water Trust.
Across Colorado nearly 40,000 miles of streams flow year-round and, as a result, have the potential to receive protection under the state’s Instream Flow Program. To date, the state has been able to establish environmental flows on nearly one-quarter of these, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which manages the program. The CWCB is the only entity legally allowed to hold these environmental water rights in Colorado.
Who gets to choose
Anyone can go to the CWCB and ask that it protect a certain stream segment, but whether it’s a member of the public, the U.S. Forest Service, or The Nature Conservancy, the entity must be able to show that there is enough water in the stream to support a new water right. They must also show that, by decreeing an instream flow on that segment, the stream’s existing conditions will be preserved or, where possible, improved.
To accomplish this, extensive engineering and measurements must be conducted. Once an instream flow case has been researched and documented, the state must go to a special water court to have the right legally established. The court must also hear any challenges that other water rights holders on the stream segment may raise if they fear their own water rights could be harmed. The process often takes several years to complete.
Linda Bassi oversees the Instream Flow Program for the CWCB.
“It’s difficult because there are a lot of competing interests for water,” Bassi said. “On some streams, if the state wants to obtain a water right to protect flows there are a lot of other entities with water rights that may feel threatened. Or there are other entities that might have plans to develop a water right on that same segment who are made uneasy by the fact that we are coming in to establish one [an instream flow water right].”
In Colorado, water rights follow what’s known as the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, or “first in time, first in right.”
That means that a water right claimed in, say, 1894 will get its water before one claimed in 1905 during periods of drought, when there isn’t enough water for everyone who has a right to water in a given stream.
A late start
Because the state environmental program was established 100 years after water users had claimed much of the water in the states’ rivers, the water rights the state has managed to claim are very young, or junior to other more senior rights. That means that in drought years, when they are needed the most, these rights frequently go unfulfilled.
As a result, the state has changed its laws to allow older, senior water rights to be loaned or donated to the state. When it has enough money, the state can actually purchase older water rights that are more likely to receive water during dry years.
When proponents of the 2020 expansion went to lawmakers in 2019 to seek support for the new laws, they faced significant opposition from agricultural interests and cities. It took months of negotiations to craft the bills that finally won near unanimous bipartisan support at the Colorado State Capitol in 2020.
Getting to “yes”
The Colorado River District represents 15 Western Slope counties, many of which are heavily dependent on ranching. Historically any efforts to add new water rights for protecting streams have been viewed with deep skepticism.
This time was no different, Kessler said, but rural lawmakers were able to add enough protections into the new laws that the district’s board ultimately came out in support of the expansions.
One important measure gives the state engineer, Colorado’s top water regulator, the authority to oversee ranchers’ rights to their so-called stock water.
“During the winter months, ranchers with an irrigation water right [tied to] the summer season will often pull small amounts of water from the stream to keep their animals alive,” Kessler said. “With that [protection] in hand, we became a lot more malleable about how we approached the Instream Flow Program.”
A third part of the expansion, allowing the use of augmentation plans to restore environmental flows, could be among the most important part of the expansion effort, according to Ryan.
Farmers and cities have long used augmentation plans to repay the river when they divert out of turn. Now under the new law, this same tool can be used to help streams.
On the Front Range, for instance, the first environmental augmentation plan is getting ready to launch, with the cities of Fort Collins, Thornton and Greeley offering up water they own and already store under an existing augmentation plan. These “seed” flows will be added above various stretches on the Poudre River that dry up every year. As the new water flows downstream, it will restore habitat for fish and wildlife, and eventually travel down to a segment of the river that these cities are presently legally required to restore.
And though most environmental water deals require individual trips to water court, an expensive, time-consuming process, the new law allows existing augmentation plans to be used, which means proper quantities, times of diversion, and water right dates are already in place.
“There are those who believe that prior appropriation as it is practiced in Colorado is too rigid,” said Sean Chambers, Greeley’s water resources manager. “But I think this is an example of how we can use existing statues, tools and programs to meet the needs of municipalities, irrigators, agricultural interests, and the ecological and recreational needs of the river. And it’s a template that can be used in other [river] basins.”
How many more miles of streams could still be protected under the Instream Flow Program isn’t clear, according to Bassi, because the state’s priorities and its ability to buy water rights change.
But every year there are victories.
For decades, fish experts believed that a certain line of endangered cutthroat trout known as the San Juan lineage cutthroat had been extinct. But then they discovered them in a remote part of the San Juan River Basin and, last year, the CWCB was able to establish an instream flow on a critical stream segment there, helping ensure the endangered fish will survive.
“Priorities change, whether it’s [water for] a gold medal fishery, which helps the recreation industry, or to protect a declining species. We don’t have a set quota. We’re just trying to help these organizations achieve their goals through our program,” Bassi 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.
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 I