The 37th Annual Water Seminar will be kicked off by SWCD’s new executive director, Frank Kugel. He has a strong track record of building partnerships and leveraging local resources for collaborative water solutions. Frank will speak to some of the challenges SWCD sees facing water management in southwestern Colorado, and opportunities for our communities to proactively address them.
Anxious for winter storms? First, we’ll hear about the forecast from KKTV meteorologist Brian Bledsoe, and cutting-edge methods for snowpack measurement from Jeff Deems of the National Snow & Ice Data Center.
No water seminar in 2019 would be complete without a discussion of the state’s current feasibility investigation of a demand management program. Mark Harris, Grand Valley Water Users Association, will moderate a panel of heavy hitters on the topic: Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell, The Nature Conservancy Water Projects Director Aaron Derwingson, and Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller.
Further expanding on the subject, we’ll hear a proposal from local economist Steve Ruddell and consultant Dave Stiller which challenges the notion that a successful *and* voluntary, temporary, compensated demand management program would be impossible. State Senator Don Coram and State Representative Marc Catlin will react to this proposal and provide their thoughts more generally on funding water management in Colorado.
And if you haven’t heard the latest results of the West Slope Risk Assessment, John Currier, Colorado River District, will be summarizing the report for southwestern Colorado and taking questions. Jayla Poppleton, Water Education Colorado, will also preview several exciting programs and content making waves across the state. Watch your inbox for the final program, coming soon!
Reserve your seat now. Registration includes catered breakfast and lunch. Click here to register or call 970-247-1302.
Colorado residents sobered by years of drought are learning to take shorter showers and use low-flow toilets, water-saving habits that have helped the state reduce its domestic water use 5 percent, according to a new report released last week by the state’s lead water agency.
The report, a technical update to the Colorado Water Plan, shows that household water use statewide has dropped from an average of 172 gallons per person per day in 2010 to 164 gallons per day in 2015, the latest year for which data was analyzed.
Those numbers could continue to drop under various planning scenarios developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, with one scenario indicating that the statewide average for individual water use could fall as low as 143 gallons per person per day by 2050 as the public continues to embrace conservation and as water-saving technologies improve.
The idea behind the new water study is to help better guide the state’s efforts via the state water plan to stave off water shortages over the next 30 years, and to understand the impact of climate change on various population growth scenarios.
Despite the decline in average daily use, the state still faces future water shortages that could surge to more than 750,000 acre-feet annually if the economy and climate heat up dramatically.
But under a hypothetical scenario where the economy slows significantly and climate change moderates somewhat, Colorado’s urban areas could face shortages of just 245,000 acre-feet each year.
“We looked at five different scenarios, taking into effect climate change,” said Becky Mitchell, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which sets state water policy. “It’s a creative and innovative way to be looking at our [water supply] gaps,” she said.
So how much water do these shortage forecasts represent? A lot.
Right now, most urban households in Colorado use about ½ acre-foot a year, so a 245,000 acre-foot shortfall equals the amount 490,000 homes would use annually, while a 750,000 acre-foot shortfall equals the amount 1.5 million homes would use in that same time period.
Shortages are also projected for the state’s farms, with irrigated agriculture facing massive shortfalls ranging from 2.2 million acre-feet to 3.4 million acre-feet, depending on how population, economic growth and climate change play out.
But that’s not the case in the South Platte River Basin, where 85 percent of Colorado residents live. Though agricultural water use statewide is growing overall, in the South Platte that use is projected to shrink as cities expand onto neighboring farm lands. According to the new forecast, the South Platte’s farm economy uses about 774,000 acre-feet of water annually. But under all five planning scenarios, that number drops. Under the most extreme, “hot growth” scenario, for instance, agricultural water use in that river basin would decrease to 665,400 acre-feet annually.
In the Arkansas Basin, which is home to Colorado Springs and the state’s second-largest farm economy, agricultural water use is projected to drop under two scenarios, and increase under three. Under the “hot growth” scenario, for instance, demands for farm water are expected to surge to 819,500 acre-feet, up from 617,300 currently, a 33 percent jump, primarily because crops will consume more water as conditions become drier and growing seasons lengthen.
The report also examines how Colorado’s fish and rivers will cope as water shortages become more pronounced. Streams across the state are likely to see spring runoff from snowmelt come earlier, leaving the late summer months much drier than they are now.
And that’s bad news for fish, increasing the risk to both cold water and warm water species, the report said. But on streams where dams and reservoirs exist, some of the damage could be offset by intentional releases from reservoirs.
The state has been criticized in the past for failing to focus adequately on the water needs of the environment in its planning. A new tool the state has developed, which is designed to help analyze stream water needs by region and season, among other things, is a step in the right direction, but will need more refinement, according to Mely Whiting, an attorney for Trout Unlimited.
“I’m pleased that the tool and the review of the environmental and recreational [E&R] needs continues to be updated. But we still have a lot of catching up to do in understanding those needs,” Whiting said.
That understanding, she said, “will help us focus our efforts on cooperative projects that benefit not only E&R, but agricultural, and municipal and industrial needs as well.”
Still to come in the effort to quantify looming water shortages is work at the local level, where nine public river basin roundtables will now take the new data and tools and determine how best to reduce any forecasted regional shortages. Their work will eventually feed into an update of the Colorado Water Plan, first released at the end of 2015 and scheduled to be updated by 2022.
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.
Denver Water is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a rare exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act, the latest move in the utility’s long-running legal dispute with state health officials over how best to keep lead out of its customers’ tap water.
In exchange for the exemption, the water utility, which serves 1.4 million people in metro Denver, is offering to spend more than $300 million replacing up to 90,000 lead service lines.
Though lead isn’t present in Denver’s treated water, it can leach into water as it is delivered to homes via these older, customer-owned water pipes. The contaminant, even in small amounts, is considered unsafe, especially for children.
In addition to replacing the lines, Denver Water has also offered to alter its water treatment protocols, conduct an extensive public education campaign, and provide free lead filters to customers whose water supplies are at risk of contamination.
The EPA will begin public hearings next month to consider the utility’s request and determine whether its proposed approach is as good or better than using an additive called orthophosphate to control corrosion from lead pipes. The state health department, backed by the EPA, ordered the utility to use orthophosphate as a corrosion-control measure last year and gave the utility until March of 2020 to implement the new treatment process.
Within weeks of the state’s order, which came in March of 2018, the City of Aurora, the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District, and the Denver Greenway Foundation sued to stop the order, saying that the addition of orthophosphate to drinking water could cause millions of dollars in damage to the South Platte River watershed and would cause wastewater treatment costs to rise. Denver Water eventually joined the suit. Settlement talks since then have failed to yield an agreement.
Denver Water said it believes the alternate approach it is proposing has merit.
“We would attack the source of the problem and ultimately, at the end of the day, we believe that this could be a more effective approach than adding orthophosphate,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead.
Thousands of Denver-area homes built prior to 1951 are at risk of having lead-contaminated water due to aging service lines. A map compiled by Denver Water shows more than a dozen neighborhoods, including parts of Berkeley, Washington Park and Montclair, as being most at risk. Dozens of other neighborhoods on the map are less likely to face contamination, based on an analysis Denver Water has done which looks at such variables as the years in which neighborhoods were constructed and results of past water sampling.
Denver Water has been monitoring and testing customers’ tap water since 2012, when a routine sampling project showed lead in some taps that exceeded allowable levels.
Since then, the utility has conducted a series of studies to determine the best method for ensuring its water is not corrosive, and had previously offered to adjust the PH balance of its water to mitigate the problem. Up until now, it had also offered to replace a few hundred lead lines a year as maintenance on its system required, leaving any other replacement activity to homeowners and developers.
At that rate, it would have taken up to 50 years before all of Denver’s lead service lines were replaced.
The issue is complex for water providers. Adding orthophosphate is a highly effective way to eliminate lead because it dramatically reduces the corrosion in pipes, making it more difficult for lead to leach into drinking water. But as drinking water is used and then flushed into the wastewater treatment system, the phosphorous must be removed because it causes algal blooms and other environmental issues in waterways. Wastewater treatment operators are required to remove it before they return treated wastewater to streams.
In the seven years since Denver Water became aware of the problem, thousands of Denver residents have continued to be exposed to lead, but the extent of the problem isn’t clear. As part of its monitoring program, the utility has processed 5,600 customer requests for lead testing, with 2,000 of these showing lead levels of at least 1 part per billion, indicating the likely presence of lead service lines, according to Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires education and treatment when levels exceed 15 parts per billion.
What Denver is experiencing is much less severe than in some cities, such as Flint, Mich., where lead levels in tap water were hundreds of times higher before being discovered in 2015. Still, like other older urban areas, such as New York City and Washington, D.C., Denver must find a way to eliminate the lead or face legal action from the state and federal government.
Tyson Ingels, lead drinking water engineer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said his agency would consider the evidence Denver Water presents to the EPA in August before it makes a decision about whether to support Denver’s exemption request. The EPA has so far supported the state’s orthophosphate order.
“Denver is seeking to demonstrate that this alternative is as good or maybe better at reducing lead at customers’ taps. The CDPHE is going to evaluate the evidence when it is submitted,” Ingels said.
Whether the utility will win the exemption isn’t clear. According to the CDPHE, just two exemptions in this area have been granted by the EPA.
“It’s going to be difficult,” said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “It would have been tough before Flint, and it’s tougher now.”
Denver public health officials said they are supportive of the utility’s exemption request because it offers a more holistic solution to the problem, one that encompasses public health and the environment.
Elizabeth Scherer, air and water manager at the Denver Department of Public Health, said education and follow-up on the problem are a critical part of what Denver Water is proposing. “Denver Water and the city understand that education is a big component of the process and that outreach to non-English speakers and low-income communities will need to occur to make sure folks are comfortable with this approach.”
The EPA will hold hearings next month to gather the public’s input on the issue and is slated to make a decision by October. If the EPA does not grant the variance, then Denver will proceed with adding orthophosphate to its drinking water.
The fields of Sterling, Colo., in May are a dependable trio of colors: yellow with the dried remnants of last year’s harvest; the deep brown of freshly tilled earth; and green from new growth. Another hue mars this palette in places, an unwelcome one: white. The color of salt. To crops, it’s the color of death.
There aren’t many patches of dead land. But there are enough to worry farmers and water officials that the same fate that has felled civilizations could befall cities along the South Platte River: that the land will become too salty to support plant life.
“Salinity is always a concern in agriculture,” said Grady O’Brien, a Fort Collins-based hydrologist who has been tapped to lead a study of salinity along the South Platte this year. Colorado Corn, a group representing farmers in the state, is sponsoring the study, with a $39,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
It’s too soon to tell if salinity is a problem on the South Platte. Preliminary sampling by Colorado Corn in September showed worrying signs. Measures were taken at a dozen points along the river from above Denver to the Colorado state line. As the water flowed downstream, its purity dipped noticeably.
Salt is actually a catch-all term for total dissolved solids, or TDS. TDS can include a number of things other than what the general population knows as salt, sodium chloride. In the world of water, “salt” can be magnesium chloride, uranium, selenium — any minerals, salts, metals, and ions that have dissolved in the water.
In samples taken last year near Waterton Canyon, TDS was measured at 162 parts per trillion. Samples taken near Julesberg, much farther down the river on the Eastern Plains, came in at 1,310 parts per trillion, according to data provided by O’Brien.
“Once the testing got down around Sterling, it was pretty darn toxic in terms of salt,” said Mark Sponsler, chief executive officer of Colorado Corn. “Those numbers gave us enough of a concern to want to do a more in-depth look.”
The full study will review historical datasets from a handful of organizations, including several water districts, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Decades of information should reveal if the South Platte has gotten saltier over time, identify seasonal variations, and uncover potential sources of increased salt.
Salinization is not a new problem; it is as old as civilization itself. What is today Iraq, sometimes called the Cradle of Civilization, was once known as the Fertile Crescent. Centuries of irrigation concentrated salts in the soil to such a degree that nothing would grow.
A study released in early 2018 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 37 percent of drainage basins in the United States have been altered by salinity over the past century.
“The greatest threat to irrigated agriculture in the world is salinization,” said Timothy Gates, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado State University. Gates has worked on the Arkansas River, Colorado’s saltiest, for years.
All water, even rainwater, contains salt. When applied to crops (or urban lawns and gardens), plants absorb the water and leave the salts behind, which accumulate over time. In the modern world, agricultural runoff contributes to salinity, as does the increasing use of de-icing compounds on roads.
But it may be in part state water policies that are driving salinization on the South Platte. As drought-prone Colorado focuses on conservation, water is reused more and more. Each use adds a certain amount of salt to the water it pulls from upstream. And while water quality regulations exist for things like uranium, selenium and nitrogen, there are no guidelines for TDS and their effects on agriculture, O’Brien and Gates said.
When Denver gets its water from mountain snowpacks, it is almost as pure as it can be, O’Brien said, at about 100-200 parts per million of TDS. By the time the city pumps treated wastewater back into the South Platte, it’s closer to 500-600 ppm. (Denver Water and the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District declined to confirm TDS levels.)
Downstream of Denver, on its way to Nebraska, the South Platte winds its way past hundreds of miles of roads, farm fields, stockyards, and oil and gas wells. It passes near or through the towns of Brighton, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Fort Morgan, and Brush before it reaches the corn, bean and alfalfa fields of Sterling.
Each city, each wastewater treatment plant, each roadway “keeps adding to that salt load,” O’Brien said. “Salinity is increasing all the way through the basin.”
But Jim McQuarrie, director of strategy and innovation at Metro Wastewater, said wastewater treatment plants can and do improve the quality of the water they treat. For instance, the water Metro puts back into the South Platte has less magnesium and chloride than the water it takes in. “We actually net improve [those] salts.”
McQuarrie said discussions are ongoing about how to improve on all fronts when it comes to salinity: “Wherever there are opportunities for us to avoid unnecessary addition of TDS, we are working on that now.”
By some measures water coming from upstream has improved over the years, said Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District. In his region, nitrates from fertilizers used to cause algae and moss growth in rivers and reservoirs, but the problem has dissipated in recent years.
“With increased regulation on municipal effluent,” said Yahn, referencing the outflow that comes from upstream wastewater treatment plants, “the water quality is better in a lot of ways.”
And despite the few crusty patches of field surrounding Sterling, he said farmers aren’t yet worried, though they are looking forward to what the data has to say.
The study is scheduled to be completed in late October.
Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
Colorado lawmakers wrapped up the 2019 session last week, approving five water bills this year which address the Colorado River drought, funding for the state’s water plan, Republican River compact issues, severance taxes and hard-rock mining.
It put off for now another bill that would have expanded the state’s nationally recognized instream flow program, which allows water for fish and aquatic habitat to be left in streams.
Colorado River Drought and Water Plan Funding
Faced with a 19-year drought that has seen storage in the Colorado River’s two largest reservoirs—Powell and Mead—drop below half full, the legislature took a first step in reducing water use to ensure compliance with the Colorado River Compact. Although it did not adopt new policy, it appropriated $1.7 million as part of Senate Bill 212 for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to explore a demand management program that would incentivize voluntary cutbacks of Colorado River use, where saved water could be stored in Lake Powell as a hedge against future shortfalls. It also set aside $8.3 million to fund the Colorado Water Plan. The combined $10 million lawmakers approved is far less than the $30 million Governor Jared Polis had requested, but the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) pared that figure due to competing demands from other big ticket items. Senator Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale), the bill’s chief sponsor and a JBC member, noted that the remaining $20 million in Polis’ original request “was really meant to be a contingency plan against demand management in the future and so it could probably wait until next year to be appropriated.” That is if revenue forecasts allow.
Still Rankin said the funding is an important step forward for the water plan. “This is the first time we’ve started to put general fund money against the water plan.”
Republican River Compact
The General Assembly also opted to approve a measure that redraws the boundary of the Republican River Water Conservation District to include more wells that reduce the flow of the Republican River in violation of a compact with Kansas and Nebraska. The legislature created the district in 2004. Its original boundary was drawn at the topographic boundary of the Republican River and did not accurately reflect the impact of groundwater pumping outside the district on the river’s flows.
House Bill 1029 incorporates the groundwater boundary agreed to by Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado in a Supreme Court settlement and allows the district to assess the same fee on those well owners that it does on all irrigators in the district. Those fees help to pay for a pipeline that transports conserved groundwater to the river to ensure compact compliance.
The district borrowed $62 million to buy water rights and build the pipeline, and has assessed farmers $14.50 per acre annually to repay the loan. Absent the legislation, wells that do not have water augmentation, or replacement, plans to mitigate their surface water depletions could face curtailment under new rules issued by the state engineer; now they are automatically part of the district’s approved augmentation plan.
The General Assembly passed another bill that changes the timing of severance tax allocations that support several water programs to allow for better planning and budgeting. Currently the tax revenue is transferred three times a year to the CWCB based on revenue forecasts; if the actual tax collections are less than forecasted (which has often been the case), funds have to be taken back. Senate Bill 16 bases allocations on the amount collected in the previous fiscal year and consolidates three payments into one for distribution the following year. Because tax collections in 2018 exceeded forecasts, there’s enough revenue available to avoid any funding gap moving forward.
Water Quality Impacts of Hard-Rock Mining
The General Assembly passed a bill to protect water quality from the impacts of hard-rock mining. House Bill 1113 requires reclamation plans for new or amended hard-rock mining permits to demonstrate a “reasonably foreseeable end date” for water quality treatment to ensure compliance with water quality standards. It also eliminates the option of “self-bonding”—an audited financial statement demonstrating that the mine operator has sufficient assets to meet reclamation responsibilities—and requires a bond or other financial assurance to guarantee adequate funds to protect water quality, including treatment and monitoring costs.
Representative Dylan Roberts, (D-Eagle), the bill’s prime sponsor, emphasized that it applies only to hard-rock mining—not to coal or gravel mining—and “aligns statute with what’s already happening in current practice by the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety…so that we can avoid creating more chronically polluting mines.” The bill was similar to one that passed the House but failed in the Senate last year.
The Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee set aside a bill that would have expanded an existing program to protect streamflows for environmental purposes, but with a commitment to study the issue further this summer. Under current law, a water right holder can loan water to the CWCB to boost instream flows in stream reaches where the CWCB holds an instream flow water right. The loan may be exercised for no more than three years in a single 10-year period. House Bill 1218, which had passed the House earlier in the session, would have increased the number of years the loan could be exercised from three to five, and permitted a loan applicant to reapply to the state engineer for two additional 10-year periods.
Opposition to the bill centered on concerns that expanding the number of years would reduce irrigation return flows to other farmland dependent on them for crop production and risk damaging soils. Senator Kerry Donovan (D-Vail), the bill’s sponsor and a rancher, asked the committee to postpone it with an understanding that the Interim Water Resources Review Committee would study it further this summer. She noted that with “some of the concerns that have been raised, as well as the level of attention that this issue deserves, we need to get this right, and I’m not sure we have consensus on a way forward today.”
In May 2019, Water Education Colorado recognized Jennifer Pitt with the Diane Hoppe Leadership Award.
Jennifer Pitt joined Audubon in December 2015 to advise the organization’s strategies to protect and restore rivers throughout the Colorado River Basin. At Audubon she leads the United States–Mexico collaboration to restore the Colorado River Delta. She serves as the U.S. co-chair of the bi-national work group whose partners will, through 2026, implement existing treaty commitments providing environmental flows and habitat creation.
Prior to joining Audubon, Jennifer spent 17 years working to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems in the Colorado River Basin at the Environmental Defense Fund. With partners, she led efforts to prioritize and implement restoration of the Colorado River Delta, including work coordinating the Pulse Flow of 2014 that brought water into dried-up stretches of Colorado River Delta across the border. She also worked with Colorado River stakeholders to produce the unprecedented Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study, the first federal assessment of climate change impacts in the basin and the first basin-wide evaluation of the impacts on water supply reliability and river health.
In May 2019, Water Education Colorado recognized Celene Hawkins with its Emerging Leader Award.
Celene Hawkins serves as the Western Colorado Water Project Director for the Colorado Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. She coordinates and implements projects with agricultural partners, federal, state, tribal, and local governments, and local conservation organizations to help optimize the use of water in western and southwestern Colorado, and she fosters project work that supports water transactions that benefit environmental values while also supporting agriculture and other traditional water uses. In 2017, Celene was appointed to serve on the Colorado Water Conservation Board for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Rivers and she is currently vice-chairman of that board.