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

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:

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.

The latest @WaterCenterCMU E-Newsletter is hot off the presses #ColoradoRiver #COriver

The confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers, fall 2016. If water makes it here, it’s bound for the lower Colorado River basin, so just how much water gets to this point matters to people in seven states. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism.

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

This year’s Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum featured a wide range of excellent presenters. You can review their slides and posters here and review the live twitter stream from the Forum here. Next year’s forum is scheduled for Nov 7-8, 2018.

#UpperColoradoForum Day 2 recap #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Colorado River water use, data courtesy USBR. Graphic via John Fleck.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Gary Harmon):

A social contract on water use in the Colorado River Basin is needed — this time one between cities and rural areas — as the Colorado River Compact approaches its second century, a University of New Mexico professor said Thursday.

“We need to rethink the social contract on how we manage the (Colorado) River,” John Fleck told more than 100 people at the Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum at Colorado Mesa University on Thursday.

Despite being based on “bad science,” the original contract is the 1922 compact among seven states and the federal government that shaped the way the southwest has developed, Fleck said.

Fleck studies the workings of science and political and policy processes and is the author of the 2016 book, “Water is For Fighting Over and Other Myths About Water in the West.”

The authors of the 1922 agreement relied on estimates that oversold the amount of water in the Colorado River system, Fleck said.

“We built a lot of stuff based on old, bad science,” Fleck said.

Science, however, also is changing the how water use is understood, he said.

While it has become more clear over decades that the water available in the 108,000 square-mile basin, it’s becoming clear that the demand for water also was overstated, Fleck said.

Even as the population of the basin has grown — the river is now a source of water for 49 million people — economies and populations also have grown.

That trend is evident from Albuquerque to Denver and Los Angeles to Phoenix, Fleck said.

“Everybody is using less water,” even as gross regional products are on the rise, he said, noting that water use in the upper Colorado River basin is lower now than its was in the 1980s.

“This suggests that (growth in the face of scarcity) is a real phenomenon,” Fleck said.

That’s true for agriculture, as well as municipal and industrial use, he said.

It’s important to better understand the realities of how water is used, especially in the face of scarcity, Fleck said, noting that fights already are breaking out in California between rural and urban water users.

“Otherwise, the risk is that rich and politically powerful cities” such as Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and others “will start throwing sharp elbows” at rural water-rights holders as the cities search for water to meet the supposed needs of growing populations, Fleck said. “That sends a really wrong and dangerous message.”

Any new social contract use on water management also should take into account the segments of American society that were ignored the last go-round, he said, pointing to the Navajo and other tribes whose water needs weren’t included in the 1922 pact.

Detailed Colorado River Basin map via the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin Forum recap @WaterCenterCMU #COriver

Colorado River Trail near Fruita September 2014

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):

There are many ways to use the Colorado River other than just relying on its water, a panel of local people who have been working to create more public access to the river told participants at a water conference Wednesday.

As recently as 30 years ago, the community was like many others in the nation, the panelists told participants at the 2017 Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum at Colorado Mesa University. The forum continues today.

“We didn’t do a great job of treating the river with respect,” said Stacy Beaugh, executive director of the Tamarisk Coalition, who moderated a panel of five local residents who have, in their own ways, been working on ways to help revitalize the riverfront.

“There was no public access to the river for boating or anything 30 years ago,” said Beaugh, who also is co-chairwoman of the Colorado Riverfront Commission. “We had a bunch of junk cars and uranium mill tailings all over the river. It was pretty gross.”

The panel — Brian Mahoney, Colorado Riverfront Commission and Foundation board member; Cindy Enos-Martinez, a Riverside neighborhood resident and former Grand Junction mayor; Traci Wieland, Grand Junction’s recreation superintendent; Thaddeus Shrader, part owner of Bonsai Design; and Jen Taylor, owner of Mountain Khakis — talked about the work they and others have done since then to clean up the riverfront.

Over those years, the city, the commission, the Grand Junction Lions Club and many other groups and individuals have dedicated their time and money on various projects to, first, clean up the river, and then to provide public access to it.

Lately, that access has now included development of Las Colonias Park along with a business park along a two-mile section where the Colorado and Gunnison rivers meet.

It all began thanks to many people, but particularly to Mahoney and the Lions Club, who have been working on revitalization of the riverfront since the 1980s.

“In 1986, this project actually started in the minds of many people at the Lions Club,” Mahoney said. “In 1986, it was almost the bottom of the oil shale bust, the economy had gone to hell in a hand basket, and there were 1,400 home foreclosures. They could have put a sign up on the edge of town, ‘The last one out, turn out the lights.’”

The six talked about how the effort snowballed over the years, and attracted not only many volunteers, but also state and local grant money to get things done. What needs to happen next, the group said, is more of the same.

“More and more over the past few years, more community members were coming together,” Shrader said. “There’s change in the air. There’s an amazing opportunity here.”