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

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

CALL FOR ABSTRACTS – DUE 6/30

The Hutchins Water Center at CMU will hold the 8th annual Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum on Nov 7-8, with the theme “Bridging Science, Policy and Practice.” In the interest of promoting fresh, lively and informative discussion, we encourage presentation proposals from from water managers, engineers, policy makers, scholars, policy analysts, citizen groups, industry representatives, farmers, water attorneys, graduate and undergraduate students, artists and writers. Please submit by June 30. The Call for Abstracts is here; general information and programs and presentations from past Forums are here.

Planning for #drought, or planning for a drier future? — Hannah Holm

From the Hutchins Water Center (Hannah Holm) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

Looking up at the Grand Mesa from Grand Junction in early April, it’s good to see snow on its flanks. For too much of this past winter, they have been bare. Skiers felt the pain of the dry winter early; fish and ranchers will feel it this summer.

In Grand Junction, the impacts of this year’s drought will likely be eased by last year’s bounty, stored in reservoirs upstream. More troubling is the trend we’ve been seeing since 2000, which scientists are warning could signal a shift to a more arid climate.

Since 2000, we’ve had a lot more dry years than wet years in the Colorado River Basin. In a report released in March, the Colorado River Research Group warns that it may be more accurate to see this succession of dry years as a process of aridification, rather than a drought: we shouldn’t assume that it will end any time soon.

The group points to several recent studies showing that warmer temperatures have already led to a larger portion of our snowpack evaporating or getting taken up by plants before it has a chance to reach streams. 2017 was a case in point, with a very large snowpack converted into only moderately above-average inflows into Lake Powell.

Water managers and policymakers have not failed to notice this drying trend, reflected most obviously in dropping levels in Lakes Powell and Mead. Water users in the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada have reigned in their water use a bit, managing to keep Lake Mead just barely above official shortage levels for the past few years. In the upper basin states of Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado, water leaders have been conducting modeling exercises to assess the risk of critical shortages and experiments to test options for responding.

The Colorado River Risk Study, spearheaded by the Colorado River District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District, has modeled several hydrology and water demand scenarios to assess the risk of Lake Powell dropping too low to reliably generate hydropower (somewhere between elevations of 3,490 and 3,525 feet above sea level). If Powell drops much further, it could also become difficult to release enough water through the dam to meet downstream obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. If that happens, cities could rush to purchase water rights from farms, potentially drying up much of the agriculture on the Western Slope.

Using historical hydrology from 1988–2012 and demand numbers that roughly track current use trends, modeling indicates a 20 percent chance of Powell dropping to elevation 3,525 between now and 2036 if we don’t significantly change how water is managed. Using the same demand and hydrology data, that risk could be cut in half if major reservoirs like Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge release extra water to Powell, and the lower basin states implement their own plans to protect Lake Mead water levels. The risk drops further if conservation activities generate water that can be stored in a “bank” and released as needed. However, major benefits would come only after such a bank has had time to accumulate a significant amount of water.

Meanwhile, the Upper Colorado River Commission has been giving out grants to test whether paying willing water users to temporarily reduce their use could help boost water levels in Powell. Such temporary reductions, rotated between different water users, are seen as an alternative to the permanent “buy and dry” of agricultural water rights.

Participants in the grant program include the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which chose several farmers by lottery to temporarily fallow their land in exchange for payment, and farmers in the North Fork and Uncompahgre Valleys who reduced irrigation or grew alternative crops under the program.

The Commission’s report on the program concluded that it could work, but several hurdles would have to be overcome. For example, it is unclear if sufficient legal tools currently exist to ensure that water conserved by one user could make it to Lake Powell without being picked up by someone else along the way. Measuring the amount of water saved through modified irrigation practices is also technically challenging. And the cost could be high — at the rates used by the program in 2017, it would cost $40 million to conserve about 200,000 acre feet of water.

As drought planning has been discussed at Western Slope water meetings, concerns have been raised about how to ensure fairness, with a strong desire to ensure that cities share the pain of any use cuts with farmers. There is also concern that proactive conservation could simply facilitate new drains on the Colorado River system, rather than protect existing users from drier conditions.

The data clearly demonstrate that we face the risk of a drier future, in which past ways of managing water will not continue to be viable. There are ways to mitigate the impact on our communities, but they are likely to be expensive and will certainly be complicated. This makes it all the more important to press forward now. The sooner we can find equitable, feasible mechanisms for adapting to drier conditions, the more smoothly we will be able to handle both temporary droughts and drier conditions over the long term.

Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.

Paonia Reservoir dramatic example of widespread water infrastructure needs — Hannah Holm

Paonia Reservoir

From the Hutchins Water Center (Hannah Holm) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

In the fall of 2017, workers navigated sloppy mudflats in the bottom of the drained Paonia Reservoir in an urgent effort to prevent catastrophe: a damaged bulkhead threatened to break apart and damage the Paonia Dam’s outlet works, which would have made it impossible to control releases from the reservoir. This would have made the reservoir useless for delivering irrigation water and for flood control.

A temporary fix for the bulkhead problem was completed within budget and ahead of schedule, but reservoir managers still face longer-term challenges with managing sediment and keeping the reservoir functioning to sustain North Fork Valley agriculture over the long term. Related challenges are shared by many other water managers in western Colorado as they try to maintain aging infrastructure and respond to changing social values related to water management.

The completion of the Paonia Dam in 1962 enabled the continued growth of agriculture in the North Fork Valley. A beneficial micro-climate makes the valley well-suited for high-value fruit orchards — as long as there is sufficient water. Prior to the construction of the dam, many crops failed due to demand outstripping the supply of irrigation water in late summer. The dam currently provides water to irrigate approximately 15,300 acres of land.

When the dam was constructed, on the aptly-named Muddy Creek, it had a 50-year “sediment design life.” The designers expected the reservoir to fill with mud and become inoperable before now. Current constraints on what to do next weren’t anticipated, however. We are no longer in an era where new reservoirs can easily be constructed to replace old ones. Even fixing up old ones is complicated by legal constraints that didn’t exist in 1962, such as the need to ensure that the work does not have significant negative impacts on environmental, recreational or cultural resources.

The question of what to do next, within current constraints, can’t be avoided much longer. The mud has come close to overwhelming the intake structure that controls releases to the stream below the dam and has reduced the reservoir’s active storage capacity from 18,150 acre-feet to about 15,000 acre-feet.

The total volume of mud is staggering: the creek has been depositing an average of over 100 acre-feet/year of sediment to the reservoir since its construction in 1962. That’s about one football field buried 100 feet deep accumulating every year — a lot more than a whole convoy of dump trucks could haul off and sell as topsoil.

Intake structure during construction in 1961. Photo Credit Reclamation.

In recent years, the dam has been operated to pass a higher amount of sediment downstream, but the net inflow is still higher than the outflow. Finding a way to turn that around will require design changes to the dam outlet works and operations and careful assessment of potential impacts downstream of different release scenarios.

While streams below dams have often been described as “sediment starved,” with long-term, negative impacts to channel structure and aquatic habitat, too much sediment at once or at the wrong time can negatively impact the bugs at the bottom of the food chain and ruin fish spawning habitat.

These are tricky challenges, which Bureau of Reclamation staff are wrestling with now. And whatever fix is found is unlikely to be cheap. Doing nothing is not really an option, however, either for the agricultural life of the North Fork Valley or, in the long term, for the environmental health of the stream.

The same can be said for many of our aging dams, diversion structures and canals across western Colorado. Some of these are decades older than Paonia Dam. Examples include ailing dams on the Grand Mesa, leaking ditches, and inadequate control structures.

Numerous projects to address these problems are included in the basin implementation plans developed by basin roundtables of water managers and stakeholders in 2015 as part of a statewide water planning process. However, funding to implement such projects in the future has come into question as state severance taxes on oil and gas development, which have long provided funding for water projects in Colorado, have diminished substantially.

As this year’s dry winter underscores how tenuous our water supplies can be, it is worth the effort to carefully assess all the water infrastructure we rely on and determine how we can maintain it and improve it to optimize the benefits from every inch of snowpack we get.

Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles on water issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.

Stream management planning offers promise, complications — Hannah Holm

Summary of Observed Wet & Dry Surface Water Hydrology via SCW

From The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):

On a bright, early fall day in 2017, members of the Colorado Basin Roundtable stood on the banks of the Colorado River watching water slide smoothly over the Bill and Wendy Riffles near Kremmling. Willows glowed gold on the banks, and new sprouts poked up through the cobble at the water’s edge.

Most riffles don’t have names, but then most riffles aren’t constructed as part of a multi-million dollar plan to remake a damaged river. The Bill and Wendy Riffles, named after the resident ranchers, were designed to raise the level of the river back up to where it used to be so that irrigation pumps, left high and dry by a depleted river, could function. Trout habitat and riparian vegetation have also benefited.

Upstream, plans are afoot to reshape Windy Gap reservoir, which currently blocks the free movement of fish, sediment and water. The construction of a new channel around the reservoir is planned to reconnect those reaches of the river and breathe new life into the ecosystem.

These projects in Grand County are part of a multi-pronged effort to compensate for the impacts of drastic flow reductions resulting from diversions from headwaters streams across the Continental Divide to the Front Range. On average, around 300,000 acre feet of water per year crosses the divide from Grand County, dropping average annual flows at Kremmling by more than 60 percent. These numbers will go up further with the completion of a pair of recently approved projects to increase these diversions.

The prospect of increased diversions, while exacerbating the overall problem of less water in the river, also provided the leverage for Grand County to demand the resources to address problems created by decades of previous trans-mountain diversions, as well as the new ones. This involved both negotiating for more water to be left in streams at certain times and the resources to reshape portions of the river’s channel.

Early on, Grand County commissioned a detailed Stream Management Plan to define environmental flow needs. This study then guided its negotiations and project prioritization. Since the completion of the study, projects to improve flows for both irrigators and the environment, such as the Bill and Wendy Riffle project, have drawn funding from numerous sources. These include the Colorado Basin Roundtable and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), as well as the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. Denver Water and Northern Water have also contributed. Local irrigators have played a leading role in developing and guiding projects, as have conservation organizations such as Trout Unlimited.

The Grand County example has demonstrated that water management does not have to be a zero-sum game, with some interests benefiting only at the expense of others. The approach has inspired related efforts across Colorado, a goal in the Colorado Water Plan, and a statewide grant program to promote stream management planning.

Stream management plans exist or are underway currently for the Poudre River, the Crystal River, the Roaring Fork River, the North Fork of the Gunnison, the Upper Gunnison Basin, and the San Miguel River. New planning efforts have been proposed for the Yampa River, the Eagle River, Ouray County, the Upper San Juan River, and the middle section of the Colorado River.

In addition, the Colorado Basin Roundtable has initiated a framework project to provide tools and guidance for such efforts across the basin. The author of this article is coordinating the framework project.

As these initiatives have spread, it has become clear that environmental and agricultural water needs don’t always align as neatly as they do in Grand County, where all local water interests were affected by reduced flows. Each river basin has its own dynamics, both hydrologically and socially, that affect the approaches taken and prospects for success.

The guidance for the CWCB’s Stream Management Planning grant program focuses on assessing environmental and recreational flow needs, which have historically been less well-understood than needs for agricultural, municipal and industrial uses. However, any plan to address environmental water needs will likely require cooperation from other water users, as well. These water users need a reason to come to the table.

A growing recognition of the importance of addressing the interests of all water users from the beginning of the planning process is reflected in the names of several projects funded through the Stream Management Planning grant program. The Colorado Basin Roundtable chose the term “integrated water management plan” rather than “stream management plan” for its framework project, and the Upper Gunnison project is called a “Watershed Management Planning” project.

Inclusive labeling is not enough to bring and keep diverse stakeholders at the table, however. In order to achieve that, agricultural water users and others that rely on stream diversions need to trust that their interests are genuinely being respected. They also need a sense of common cause with their planning partners. Current planning efforts appear to be attempting to respond to these needs.

Trust levels are influenced by who leads the project as well as the stated project goals. On the middle section of the Colorado River, between Glenwood Canyon and De Beque, local conservation districts have decided to take the lead on gathering information on agricultural water needs, in order to ensure that their constituents are adequately represented. The Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which kicked off the planning effort, has welcomed their involvement.

Cultivating a sense of common cause, the Upper Gunnison Watershed Management Planning Group asserts that its mission is “to help protect existing water uses and watershed health in the Upper Gunnison Basin as we face growing pressure from increased water demands and permanent reductions in overall water supply.”

The Crystal River Plan sought to “identify, prioritize and guide management actions that honor local agricultural production, preserve existing water uses, and enhance the ecological integrity of the river.” The completed plan includes a detailed accounting of agricultural water shortages along with information on the ecological state of the river. The project on the North Fork of the Gunnison River has assessed opportunities for diversion structure upgrades that could benefit irrigators and improve safety for boaters.

These are complicated processes, with many opportunities for conflict and failure. However, the potential payoffs of healthier streams and more water security, as well as enhanced mutual understanding across the whole community of water users, could make these projects well worth the effort.

Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Learn more at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.

Hutchins Water Center: “2018 Water Course,” February 13, 20, and 27 #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Tamarisk Coalition: Riparian Restoration Conference, February 6 and 7, 2018

Colorado National Monument from the Colorado River Trail near Fruita September 2014

Click here to for the Inside skinny and to register:

Join Tamarisk Coalition and the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University for the 16th annual Riparian Restoration Conference in Grand Junction, Colorado, a premier destination on Colorado’s Western Slope.

@WaterCenterCMU: The latest E-Newsletter is hot off the presses from the Hutchins Water Center

No Name Rapid, Class V, mile 10, Upper Animas River, Mountain Waters Rafting.

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

PLANNING FOR LOWER FLOWS
So far, 21st century flows in the Colorado River are on average significantly lower than 20th century flows. Updates on how climate change is reducing flows in the Colorado River and “drought contingency plan” negotiations are provided in this recent article in The Desert Sun and this KUNC story.