Planning for an Uncertain Future: #Drought Contingency Planning, Demand Management and the West Slope October 23, 2018

Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

On October 23, 2018 Grand Valley Water Users Association is providing an opportunity for West Slope agricultural producers and irrigation providers to hear directly from water officials concerning current and upcoming policy issues that will impact the future of water management and agriculture on the western slope. Please see the attached agenda to see the complete list of confirmed influential decision makers who will be joining us. At the top of the list is Amy Haas, the new Director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, who will share an Upper Basin perspective. Ms. Haas will be followed by representatives from the State of Colorado and some of our regional Water Conservation District Managers. Between the two perspectives Eric Kuhn will provide an update on the Basin Risk Study III and the potential implications of the results.

We hope you can join us for this unique opportunity to hear from a very well informed group of water community professionals who have the tough task of hammering out solutions to ever increasing pressures on Colorado River water supplies in Colorado and the Upper Basin. The solutions that are created and implemented will affect us all.

Our focus is on agricultural water users. So Irrigation District, Association, Ditch Company, and agricultural organization managers, staff, boards of directors, members, and stockholders are all welcome. Farmers and ranchers are particularly welcome.

You can find a complete agenda here.

Please register no later than October 15 to let us know you are coming, and spread the word.

Thanks and we hope see you on October 23.

Mark Harris, General Manger
Grand Valley Water Users Association

Luke Gingerich, P.E
J-U-B Engineers
Grand Valley Water Users Association Conserved Consumptive Use Pilot Project

The latest E-Newsletter is hot off the presses from @WaterCenterCMU

Recreational moment on the Colorado River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

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

Upper Colorado Basin Forum, “Bridging Science, Policy & Practice,” November 7-8, 2016

The program for the 2018 Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum: Bridging Science, Policy and Practice, Nov 7-8 at CMU in Grand Junction, continues to fill in. Check it out and register here! Sponsorship opportunities are also available.

Gunnison: #Colorado Water Workshop recap

Western State Colorado University Gunnison

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dave Buchanan):

Which brings us to today’s topic: How do we prepare tomorrow’s decision-makers today, when we can’t be sure what tomorrow is going to look like?

This is the trial facing the Colorado Water Workshop held annually at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison. This spring the workshop marked its 44th gathering by asking a select group of participants, most with long ties to the workshop, to look to the future and decide possible options for the workshop to follow.

Even though the WSCU gathering is older than most, if not all, of its competitors, there are plenty of the latter. At last estimate, 11 similar workshops are conducted around the state. And they all (but for one or two notable exceptions) are cookie-cutter reproductions of “water geeks talking to other water geeks,” as one CWW participant said this year.

And why attend the WSCU conference if it doesn’t provide something different?

Workshop director and WSCU environmental studies professor Jeff Sellen admitted this year that although the Colorado Water Workshop is a “different kind of workshop, we recognize the need for change.”

He called it a “retooling” of the workshop aimed at increasing involvement of WSCU students and connecting them to established water leaders and those water managers (a very broad category) early in their careers.

It’s an opportunity, Sellen said, to design a “future for western water that acknowledges new challenges.”

Which eventually boiled down to the existentialist question of why and for what does the conference exist? OK, that’s two existentialist questions.

This year’s pared-down conference included in its invitation-only audience not only the well-experienced (including conference founder and longtime Gunnison water attorney Dick Bratton) as well as a half-dozen or more present-day WSCU students in Sellen’s environmental studies program…

The 30 or so participants seemed to agree that inviting “water geeks” (and you know who you are) to talk arcane language and hydrologic philosophy to similarly inclined devotees has its place and certainly provides opportunities for education, although perhaps only to like-minded adherents.

But does it reflect the best option for Western State and its role in the future of water education and management?

Education seems to be the key and that, said John Hausdoerffer, director of the school’s Center for Environment and Sustainability, remains the provenance and function of Western State Colorado University.

“What is it we add to the conversation?” Hausdoerffer asked during a thoughtfully taxing presentation.

Focusing on the generations of students that will be needed to make effective decisions, Hausdoerffer urged the conference to explore at least 10 years ahead, developing the tools and skill sets needed to deal with climate change and similarly perplexing hurdles.

These include communicating with the public, dealing with rapid environmental and climatic changes, and most of all, continuing to learn and adapt.

“Who have we been educating and who do we want to educate?” posed George Sibley, author and former Colorado Water Workshop director and a well-respected voice in Colorado’s water matters. Education, he said, necessarily involves breaking away from the old regimes and means involving new voices.

Some of those voices were heard from the handful of past and current WSCU students at the workshop, predominantly female and well-spoken on what they need to be successful in what is a mostly male-dominated field.

“Speak to all levels” of water knowledge and “push for education disciple,” urged Sara Porterfield, former WSCU student and newly minted Ph.D (history). “The purpose of a discipline is to challenge assumptions.”

And don’t be afraid to “cross-pollinate” among academic disciplines with collaboration and the sharing of educational resources, said Hannah Holm, coordinator for the Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center at the Colorado Mesa University.

“We don’t want (to seek answers in) traditional continuity,” added George Sibley. “What we’ve been doing won’t work for the future.”

In closing, Jeff Sellen said educational institutions sometimes must “swim upstream against cultural currents” in developing answers to present and expected conditions.

“I’m excited for the future of the Western Water Conference,” he said. “We just don’t yet know what it is.”

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

Rodeo Rapid on the upper Colorado River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

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

Colorado Basin Roundtable Integrated Water Management Planning Framework Project

The Colorado Basin Roundtable’s Integrated Water Management Planning Framework Project created guidance and on-line data tools to build a foundation for conducting comprehensive integrated water management plans in the mainstem Colorado River Basin in Colorado. The purpose of these plans is to identify ways to provide water for environmental needs in conjunction with the needs of agricultural, domestic and industrial water users. The Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University coordinated the project, and most of the technical work was conducted by Lotic Hydrological.

The Final Report for this project is available for review here.

The website that houses the on-line tools referred to in the report is here.

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.