Tattered Cover and Water Education Colorado present: Live Stream with Paolo Bacigalupi #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification @WaterEdCO @paolobacigalupi

Click the link to register and for the inside skinny:

Tattered Cover and Water Education Colorado are pleased to present this virtual event with Paolo Bacigalupi on May 11th at 6pm. This will be live streamed via YouTube Live. A link to view the stream will be emailed to you upon registration…

PAOLO BACIGALUPI is a Hugo, Nebula, and Michael L. Printz Award winner, as well as a National Book Award finalist. He is also a winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the John W. Campbell Award, and a three-time winner of the Locus Award. His short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and High Country News. He lives with his wife and son in western Colorado, where he is working on a new novel.

La Niña likely to continue, intensifying #drought, wildfires; #snowpack hits [86%] of average — @WaterEdCO

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

As warm spring winds whip the Eastern Plains, sapping soils of moisture, and the state’s reservoirs sit at below-average levels, water managers got more bad news Tuesday: this two-year drought cycle could continue through the summer and into the fall leading the state into its third year of below-average snowpack and streamflows and high wildfire danger.

Looking ahead the weather pattern known as La Niña, which has created the intense drought of the past two years, is likely to continue, according to Peter Goble, a climate specialist with Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center.

“La Niña is not letting go,” Goble said Tuesday at a meeting of the state’s Water Availability Task Force, a group charged with monitoring the state’s water supplies. “It may stick around for a third year and this will reduce our chances of any meaningful drought recovery this spring and summer.”

In Colorado, and other Western states, mountain snow levels are closely watched because when they melt in late spring, they supply the majority of water for cities and farms.

In January, holiday snows boosted the state’s snowpack to 119% of average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). But spring snows have not provided as much relief as hoped.

Now, statewide snowpack is at [86%] of average, according to the NRCS, an improvement over last year’s 79% of average mark at this time. But ultra-windy conditions and warm temperatures continue to rob the soils statewide of critical moisture, meaning a significant amount of the water from melting snow will be absorbed before it reaches streams.

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map April 20, 2022 via the NRCS.

At the same time the state’s stored water supplies are at just 76% of normal, according to Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist and assistant snow survey supervisor with the NRCS.

“We’re seeing some of the lowest storage levels in more than 30 years,” Wetlaufer said.

Blue Mesa Reservoir is Colorado’s largest reservoir, able to store some 800,000 acre-feet of water. But due to the drought, and an emergency release of 36,000 acre-feet last summer to aid Lake Powell, Blue Mesa is just over 40% full.

More releases to Lake Powell from the reservoir, a recreational hot spot, may be necessary this summer. And because runoff isn’t expected to be that high, Blue Mesa isn’t expected to recover much, if at all this year, officials said.

The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

“Blue Mesa is not expected to fill, and by the end of this year it will be right back to where it is now … it’s not looking good for this area,” said Beverly Richards, a water resources specialist with the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, which helps shape policy and management strategies for the river.

More releases to Lake Powell from the reservoir, a recreational hot spot, may be necessary this summer. And because runoff isn’t expected to be that high, Blue Mesa isn’t expected to recover much, if at all this year, officials said.

“Blue Mesa is not expected to fill, and by the end of this year it will be right back to where it is now … it’s not looking good for this area,” said Beverly Richards, a water resources specialist with the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, which helps shape policy and management strategies for the river.

On the Front Range, some cities, such as Thornton, expect their reservoirs to fill. The South Platte Basin is near normal for its snowpack and streamflow forecasts are healthier than others across the state.

But Swithin Dick, water resources manager for Centennial Water and Sanitation District in Highlands Ranch, said the outlook is worrisome.

“My gut meter is moving from cautious to concerned,” Dick said.

Denver Water, Colorado’s largest city water supplier, derives its supplies from the Upper Colorado River Basin on the West Slope, as well as the South Platte River. Its storage system is at 79% full, while snowpack in its mountain watersheds is measuring 79% to 80% full.

Some relief from the dry, windy weather could come in May if forecasts prove to be off track, Goble said.

“You want some million dollar rains on the Eastern Plains,“ Goble said. “But the deck is stacked against us.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Fast-growing Douglas County communities need more #water. Is a controversial San Luis Valley export plan the answer? — @WaterEdCO #Water22 #RioGrande

Construction workers build a single family home in Castle Rock. The community needs new surface water supplies to reduce its reliance on non-renewable groundwater. Credit: Jerd Smith

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith:

Castle Rock’s building boom has barely slowed over the past 20 years and its appetite for growth and need for water hasn’t slowed much either.

The city, which ranks No. 1 in the state for water conservation, will still need to at least double its water supplies in the next 40 years to cope with that growth. It uses roughly 9,800 acre-feet of water now and may need as much as 24,000 acre-feet when it reaches buildout.

With an eye on that growth and the ongoing need for more water, Douglas County commissioners are debating whether to spend $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to help finance a controversial San Luis Valley farm water export proposal.

Thirteen Douglas County and South Metro regional water suppliers say they have no need or desire for that farm water, according to Lisa Darling, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. [Editor’s note: Lisa Darling is president of the board of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News]

“It is not part of our plan and it is not something we are interested in,” said Mark Marlowe, director of Castle Rock Water. “We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in our long-term plan and we are pursuing the projects that are in that plan. The San Luis Valley is not in the plan.”

Renewable Water Resources, a development firm backed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Sean Tonner, has spent years acquiring agricultural water rights in the San Luis Valley. It hopes to sell that water to users in the south metro area, delivering it via a new pipeline. In December, RWR asked the Douglas County commissioners for $10 million to help finance the $400 million plus project.

Tonner did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but he has said previously that the water demands in south metro Denver will be so intense in the coming decades, that the San Luis Valley export proposal makes sense.

Opposition to the export plan stems in part from concern in the drought-strapped San Luis Valley about losing even a small amount of its water to the Front Range. But RWR has said the impact to local water supplies could be mitigated, and that the proposed pipeline could help fund new economic development initiatives in the valley.

Stakes for new water in Douglas County and the south metro area are high. In addition to demand fueled by growth, the region’s reliance on shrinking, non-renewable aquifers is putting additional pressure on the drive to develop new water sources.

Denver Basin Aquifer System graphic credit USGS.

Marlowe and other water utility directors in the region have been working for 20 years to wean themselves from the deep aquifers that once provided clean water, cheaply, to any developer who could drill a well. But once growth took off, and Douglas County communities super-charged their pumping, the aquifers began declining. Because these underground reservoirs are so deep, and because of the rock formations that lie over them, they don’t recharge from rain and snowfall, as some aquifers do.

At one point in the early 2000s the aquifers were declining at roughly 30 feet a year. Cities responded by drilling more, deeper wells and using costly electricity to pull water up from the deep rock formations.

Since then, thanks to a comprehensive effort to build recycled water plants and develop renewable supplies in nearby creeks and rivers, they’ve been able to take pressure off the aquifers, which are now declining at roughly 5 feet per year, according to the South Metro Water Supply Authority.

The goal among Douglas County communities is to wean themselves from the aquifers, using them only in times of severe drought.

Ron Redd is director of Parker Water and Sanitation District, which serves Parker and several other communities as well as some unincorporated parts of Douglas County.

Like Castle Rock, Parker needs to nearly double its water supplies in the coming decades. It now uses about 10,000 acre-feet annually and will likely need 20,000 acre-feet at buildout to keep up with growth.

Parker is developing a large-scale pipeline project that will bring renewable South Platte River water from the northeastern corner of the state and pipe it down to the south metro area. Castle Rock is also a partner in that project along with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Sterling.

Redd said the San Luis Valley export plan isn’t needed because of water projects, such as the South Platte Water Partnership, that are already in the works.

“For me to walk away from a project in which we already have water, and hope a third party can deliver the water, just doesn’t make sense,” Redd said.

The costs of building two major pipelines would also likely be prohibitive for Douglas County residents, Redd said.

“We would have to choose one. We could not do both.”

Steve Koster is Douglas County’s assistant planning director and oversees new developments, which must demonstrate an adequate supply of water to enter the county’s planning approval process.

Koster said small communities in unincorporated parts of the county reach out to his department routinely, looking for help in establishing sustainable water supplies.

He said the county provides grants for engineering and cost studies to small developments hoping to partner with an established water provider.

“All of them are working to diversify and strengthen their water systems so they are sustainable. Having a system that encourages those partnerships is what we’re looking at,” Koster said.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

Whether an RWR pipeline will play a role in the water future of Douglas County and the south metro area isn’t clear yet.

Douglas County spokeswoman Wendy Holmes said commissioners are evaluating more than a dozen proposals from water districts, including RWR, and that the commission has not set a deadline for when it will decide who to fund.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

USBR, #Pueblo Water, Southeastern #Colorado #Water district ink new deal to ease Lower Arkansas Valley water contamination — @WaterEdCO #ArkansasRiver

The Lower Arkansas River below Lake Cheraw. Credit: Jerd Smith

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Thousands of people in the Lower Arkansas Valley who’ve struggled to deal with contaminated water for more than 20 years will have access to clean water by 2024 under a new agreement signed by the federal government and two Colorado water agencies last week.

The Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC), as the clean water delivery project is known, will bring water from Pueblo Reservoir through the city of Pueblo and out to communities on the Eastern Plains, such as Avondale and Boone, by 2024, and other communities, such as La Junta, as soon as 2027.

Arkansas Valley Conduit map via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka) June 2021.

Water officials said the entire pipeline should be completed by 2035 if not sooner. The project will ultimately serve 50,000 people, officials said.

Under the agreements, signed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Pueblo Water Board, and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District March 18, some $40 million in federal and local funding will be available to launch construction, with subsequent funding for the $600 million project anticipated to come from Congress and local water agencies.

In addition, the agreement allows Reclamation and Southeastern to pipe the water through the city of Pueblo’s water system, rather than building a separate system to move the water out to the Eastern Plains. Officials said this new agreement will shave costs and several years off the project.

“This contract signing marks one of the most significant milestones to date towards making the AVC a reality and bringing clean water to communities that desperately need it. It advances the project over 14 miles east from Pueblo Reservoir which puts us much closer to our first participants in Avondale and Boone,” said Brent Esplin, regional director of the Missouri Basin and Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas Gulf regions for Reclamation, in a statement.

Naturally occurring selenium and lead, as well as radionuclides, have dogged the region’s water systems since the 1960s. Many of the communities face enforcement actions from the state health department because they don’t have the financial resources to treat the water for drinking and then to treat it again for discharge into the wastewater systems that discharge to the Lower Arkansas River and its tributaries, according to Chris Woodka, senior policy manager with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Southeastern operates the federal Fryingpan-Arkansas Project’s Pueblo Reservoir.

“This project will relieve some of the pressures that they face. They will get better quality drinking water and they will see improvements to their discharged water,” Woodka said.

Pueblo Reservoir

The idea is to deliver clean water from Pueblo Reservoir directly to the communities via the 34-mile pipeline, reducing and sometimes eliminating the contaminants that the water now picks up when it travels through streams and irrigation ditches.

The conduit has been on planning boards for more than 50 years but it wasn’t until a new federal law was approved in 2009 stipulating that the federal government would pick up 65% of the costs that the plan began to advance, Woodka said.

Since then the region has wrestled with getting federal cash to start work and convincing local water agencies and the communities who need the water to cooperate on design issues and costs, Woodka said.

“People are convinced it will get built,” Woodka said. “Now the questions are about affordability.”

And for small towns, those are big questions.

Tom Seaba is La Junta’s director of utilities. His city has comparatively clean water, with no radionuclides and a selenium issue that it is treating via reverse osmosis.

“It could be the silver bullet that everyone would like to take care of the contaminants that are in the water. The flip side is the cost,” Seaba said.

La Junta charges customer $2.50 per thousand gallons for water now, which includes treatment costs. The new water will cost $2.19 per thousand gallons, untreated, and La Junta will still have to find a way to recoup the cost to disinfect and treat the water.

“Now that we’re getting down to brass tacks, we need to see if the underlying reality will do for us what everyone hopes it will. If we can connect and that takes care of the problems we have, sign us up. But if it doesn’t, we will have to do something else,” Seaba said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Counting every drop: #Colorado approves $1.9M for high-tech snow, #water measuring program — @WaterEdCO #snowpack

Colorado and othehr Western states are hoping to increase the use of Aerial Snowborne Observatories to better measure the water content in moutain snowpacks. Credit: NASA Hydrological Services

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Colorado has approved a $1.9 million snow measuring initiative based on NASA technology that will help communities across the state better measure and forecast how much water each winter’s mountain snowpack is likely to generate, using planes equipped with sophisticated measuring devices.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has been testing the accuracy of the flight-based data measuring work since 2015, according to Erik Skeie, who oversees the program for the CWCB. The board approved funding for the new $1.9 million initiative at its March 16 board meeting.

The new collective, known as Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement group, includes utilities, irrigation districts and environmental groups, including Northern Water, Denver Water and the Dolores Water Conservancy District, among others. In all, 37 water-related groups wrote letters in support of the grant and the measuring program, Skeie said.

Northern Water, which supplies more than 1 million residential, commercial and farm customers on the Northern Front Range, is hopeful the grant will help create an annual monitoring and measurement effort.

”I think it’s a really good program if we can make it sustainable into the future,” said Emily Carbone, water resources specialist at Northern Water.

This map shows the snowpack depth of the Maroon Bells in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions. Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Airborne Snow Observatory technology uses planes equipped with LiDAR, a pulsing radar, to develop a grid that contains a deeply detailed picture of the ground when it isn’t covered by snow. Then, during the winter months, those planes fly the same terrain once or more each month when it is covered with snow. In this way, the instruments are able to measure snow depth and snow reflectivity. These data, combined with computer-based models, allow the ASO to generate precise readings on when the snow will actually melt and how much water the snowpack in different regions actually contains.

Traditional forecasts can be off by as much as 40%, and sometimes more. But ASO forecasts have been shown to have accuracy rates of 98%.

As the megadrought in the Colorado River Basin has intensified, and climate change has altered snowfall and traditional patterns of snowmelt, finding better ways to measure the water content of snow has become critical, said Taylor Winchell, a climate adaptation specialist at Denver Water who is overseeing the utility’s flight data program.

A flight from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory gathers data about the snowpack above Dillon Reservoir on a flight. Information gathered from the flight helped Denver Water manage reservoir operations. Photo courtesy of Quantum Spatial

Denver Water began using the technology in 2019.

“As the snowpack is changing, the more accurate measurements that we can have help us adapt our operations to a new water future and it helps us make the most of every drop in the system,” Winchell said.

Since the early 1930s, snowpacks have been measured manually and via remote ground-sensing by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. Colorado and other Western states use a network of dozens of snotel sites to collect on-the-ground data, but forecasts can change dramatically if the weather becomes volatile, as has been the case more often in recent years.

That volatility and the ongoing drought have made water forecasting even more critical for water agencies. If water supplies come in lower than forecasts indicated, cities and irrigation districts can come up short of water, causing disruptions in deliveries, among other problems.

But ASO technology is expensive. Denver Water spends about $145,000 for two flights, a cost that includes subsequent modeling as well. But the forecasts have proved to be so accurate that the utility is committed to its ongoing use.

California is spending roughly $7 million annually and that cost could grow to more than $20 million if the golden state opts to expand the geographic reach of its ASO program, according to Tom Painter, a former NASA scientist who helped develop the ASO technology and who is now the CEO of Airborne Snow Observatories Inc., the NASA spinoff that is commercializing the technology.

A similar program in Colorado, one expansive enough to cover all the critical mountain watersheds, could cost as much as $15 million annually, Painter said.

The work would include flying some 10 flights per year per river basin during January, February, March and April, with additional flights in late spring as the snow begins to melt. Then flight data would be incorporated into forecast models.

Predicting snowmelt and its water content as warm weather arrives has been a tricky issue for researchers and water utilities because it becomes highly variable.

“That’s when traditional models start to fall apart,” Painter said. “They can’t hold onto the snowpack well enough. So having the data from ASO is nice to keep the forecast accurate. It’s like looking at your checking account balance a couple of times a month.”

Skeie, of the CWCB, said the new approach to measuring what’s known as snow water equivalent, or the amount of water contained in the snow, will take much of the guess work out of annual water forecasts.

And he’s hopeful that the multi-million price tag can be covered by an array of agencies, including the water utilities, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and state governments, among others.

“It’s going to take all of that to make it sustainable,” Skeie said. And with the backing of the Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement group, it’s more likely to occur than it has been before.

Using ASO, in combination with snotel data, “is the difference between having someone describe a picture to you, and being able to see it in 4D,” he said. “It’s incredibly useful.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

National, local #water and fire officials plan new West Slope summit — @WaterEdCO

The East Troublesome Fire in Grand County burned down to the shore of Willow Creek Reservoir, one of the lakes in Northern Water’s collection system in Grand County. Dec. 13, 2020. Credit: Jerd Smith

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

As forecasters call for a warm summer ahead in Colorado, threatening to further weaken the state’s water supplies, water and fire officials plan a major two-day confab later this month in Grand Junction, in hopes of bringing more people together to understand and plan how best to protect the state’s vital mountain watersheds.

Like other Western states, Colorado derives the majority of its water for cities, farms and industry from mountain snowmelt, a resource that is coming under increasing pressure due to drought and climate change.

Before the Fire: Protecting the Water Towers of the West,” is designed “to frame the issue around challenges, and demonstrate the impacts of unhealthy watersheds and inaction,” said Christian Reece, executive director of Grand Junction-based Club 20, an economic development group that is sponsoring the conference.

Representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service, and other experts will be presenting at the conference, slated for March 24 and 25.

The summit comes as Colorado and other Western states prepare for what may become another rough wildfire season.

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map March 2, 2022 via the NRCS.

Colorado’s snowpack is resting at average for this time of year, and whether traditional spring snows will materialize to boost it above average remains unclear.

Peter Goble, a climate specialist with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, said the weather outlook for the spring could go either way, but warm summer temperatures could leave the state under fire threat again.

“There is not as clear a picture as we would like,” Goble said. And though the near-term forecasts for March indicate the state could receive good snow, the runoff forecasts for the spring and summer are likely to be lower than average.

“The way temperatures are trending, we’re more likely to have a warmer summer and we need to factor that in,” he said.

Colorado River Basin Drought Monitor snowpack basin-filled map March 1, 2022.

The seven-state Colorado River Basin, suffering under what is considered to be the worst drought in 1,200 years, will need several back-to-back years of mega snowpacks in order to recover, according to the Colorado Climate Center.

“The 1,200-year drought is not good news,” Reece said. “But it helps make the case for why watershed work is so critical.”

After the catastrophic Marshall Fire burned 25 miles north of Denver on Dec. 30, the state has been on edge, unnerved by the emergence of urban wildfires and a winter fire season.

“Here in Colorado, after our 2020 fire season and now the Marshall Fire, I truly believe we have to change how we tackle wildfires,” said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, via email. Gibbs will be presenting at the conference.

Among the topics on tap is how to utilize tens of millions of dollars in federal and state funding that is being set aside to reduce fuel loads in mountain watersheds and to help restore the water systems that lie within the burn areas.

“We’ll try to break down the silos and elevate the importance of watersheds,” Reece said. “We hope we inspire people so much that they leave the summit and decide that they want to take on watershed protection work when they get home.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Letter: San Luis Valley #water export proposal will harm wildlife and land — Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the letter on the Water Education Colorado website (Alexander Funk):

Douglas County Commissioners should not move forward with Renewable Water Resources’ (RWR) request to utilize American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) stimulus funds to export water from the northern San Luis Valley (SLV). The RWR proposal would significantly impact the economy, environment, and culture of the San Luis Valley, a unique region home to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and three national wildlife refuges, which collectively attract more than 600,000 visitors annually to the SLV. The SLV cities, farmers, and residents universally oppose the RWR proposal. The project would result in the “buy and dry” of agriculture, which has led to the devastation of other rural communities in Colorado.

Wet hay meadow on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in July 2008. By Fred Bauder – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11556466

As conservation organizations, we represent thousands of hunters and anglers in Colorado. Healthy wildlife habitats are necessary to sustain wildlife populations, and wetlands, riparian corridors, and mesic areas are critical in our arid state. The proposed RWR project would impact fish and wildlife habitats on multiple fronts. Groundwater and surface water resources in the SLV are connected, with aquifers sustaining streamflow, which supports habitat for cold-water fisheries. Therefore, removing water from the aquifers could negatively affect aquatic ecosystems important to the region. For example, the proposed wellfields of 22 to 25 groundwater pumping wells for the RWR project would neighbor the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, potentially impacting the wetland and aquatic ecosystems that support breeding and feeding grounds of migratory birds and waterfowl. Baca is also home to the state’s most viable population of Rio Grande Chub, a state species of concern. Other potentially affected species include the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout and Gunnison Sage Grouse. The RWR proposal would also require the dry-up of 20,000 irrigated acres in the valley. Impacts to irrigated agriculture in the SLV resulting from the RWR project would also negatively affect fish and wildlife since most of the SLV’s wetlands occur on private property and are sustained through irrigation and water delivery.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

The RWR plan runs contrary to the Colorado Water Plan. The plan, which guides state water planning and policy, establishes a conceptual framework for guiding negotiations around new transbasin diversion projects, including developing adequate measures to reduce socio-economic and environmental impacts on the basin of origin, which the RWR fails to accomplish meaningfully. The Colorado Water Plan also strongly condemns the practice of “buy and dry,” which has led to significant socio-economic and environmental impacts in rural communities and instead supports alternative approaches such as investments in conservation and smart land-use planning.

More cost-effective strategies exist, including investments in water conservation and water recycling/reuse. And there is no surplus water in the SLV to export. The SLV aquifers are over-appropriated and climatic trends point to less available water. Therefore, the RWR proposal presents a likely expensive, unpopular, and risky approach to meeting the growing water needs of Douglas County.

Denver Basin Aquifer System graphic credit USGS.

Our organizations recognize that Douglas County is growing and reliant on an unsustainable groundwater resource. We encourage Douglas County to use the federal funds to make needed investments to address water supply needs in a way that prioritizes local water supplies, promotes conservation, and creates jobs for the community rather than siphoning these funds to a speculative and costly water export proposal that will have significant impacts on rural Coloradans and the unique environment of the San Luis Valley.

Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Trout Unlimited

National Wild Turkey Federation

Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

Colorado Wildlife Federation

Alexander Funk is the director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Jeremy Bloom, Olympic skier, highlights snow-water connection in Water ’22 campaign — @WaterEdCO #water22

Screenshot from the http://water22.org website.

State #water education campaign focuses on individual actions — @AspenJournalism #Water22

Coyote Gulch at the Colorado Water Congress Annual Convention January 27, 2022.

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

State officials on [January 26, 2022] announced an education campaign aimed at water conservation that emphasizes the role of individual consumers in their everyday, in-home water use.

At the bi-annual meeting of the Colorado Water Congress, Governor Jared Polis unveiled the Water ’22 campaign, a year-long, statewide initiative that aims to educate Coloradans about one of the state’s most important resources. The program encourages conservation in the face of climate change-fueled drought by asking people to take a pledge to conserve water and protect water quality in their daily lives by taking part in 22 small actions.

Polis proclaimed 2022 the “Year of Water” in Colorado, marking the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact and an upcoming update to the state’s 2015 Water Plan.

“We have a shared responsibility to steward this incredible natural resource and make sure it’s there for our people, our places, our ecosystems, our industries that need it to thrive because it all starts here in Colorado with us,” he said.

Water ’22, which is being spearheaded by Water Education Colorado, lays out 22 simple things individuals can do to save 22 gallons of water a day. They include things like turning off the water while brushing your teeth, fixing leaky fixtures, watering outdoor lawns and landscaping at dawn or dusk and using phosphorus-free fertilizer. The initiative is an effort at education and engagement and is not designed to result in measurable water savings or improvements to water quality.

The campaign focuses on the voluntary actions of individual municipal water customers instead of policy changes to conserve water. And although the agriculture industry represents 86% of the state’s water use, according to numbers provided by Water Education Colorado, Water ’22 does not include ways for agriculture to conserve water.

“The main thrust of the campaign is targeting consumers at the domestic-use level,” said Jayla Poppleton, executive director of Water Education Colorado. “Our message to Coloradans is that they have a role to play. It’s up to all of us to do our part.”

According to its website, Water Education Colorado is a nonprofit organization charged with ensuring a sustainable water future by educating and engaging citizens around water. It also publishes the Fresh Water News website…

Jayla Poppleton, executive director of Water Education Colorado speaks at Colorado Water Congress at the announcement of the state’s new campaign Water ’22. The initiative is focused on individual actions and is not designed to result in measurable water savings. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Sponsors and supporters

Water ’22 promotional materials highlight the connection between climate change, drought, wildfires and water shortages.

“The Water ’22 campaign was created to educate Coloradans about how the state’s water is one of its most important resources and to encourage conservation and protection in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change, which has led to persistent drought conditions,” reads a press release.

There is no doubt climate change is robbing the Colorado River of water and driving shortages.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

Scientists Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck showed in a 2017 paper that rising temperatures are responsible for roughly one-third of declining flows. Hot temperatures and dry soils have contributed to record-low spring runoff in recent years and the basin’s two largest reservoirs — lakes Powell and Mead — stand at less than one-third full, their lowest levels ever. In 2021, federal officials declared the first-ever shortage in the lower basin and began emergency releases from upper basin reservoirs to prop up Lake Powell and maintain the ability to make hydroelectric power…

…presenting sponsors who have contributed $10,000 to the campaign include Molson Coors Beverage Company and Boulder-based cannabis edibles company Wana Brands. It is also being funded with $35,000 of state grant money from the Colorado Water Conservation Board…

Several environmental organizations prominent in the water sector are also participating in Water ’22. Water for Colorado, which represents a coalition of groups, including The Nature Conservancy, Western Resource Advocates, Audubon Rockies and American Rivers, is supporting it as well.

Water for Colorado Communications Coordinator Ayla Besemer said things in the Colorado River basin are dire and it’s important for Coloradans to know where their water comes from and do all they can to conserve on a personal level.

“Between the destructive wildfires, the first-ever basin shortage declaration, emergency reservoir releases, and ongoing megadrought, the need to support Colorado’s fragile water resources is so urgent as to rise above one, specific donor,” she said, referring to funding from Chevron. “We trust this campaign will have a positive effect on water and Coloradans’ understanding of the current situation, aiding in collaborative efforts to confront climate change.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story appeared in the Jan. 28 edition of The Aspen Times and the Craig Press, and the Jan. 29 edition of the Vail Daily and Sky-Hi News.

#Colorado officials gear up for “difficult conversations” on the #ColoradoRiver — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #cwcac2022

Some of the snowmelt flowing in the Blue River as it joins the Colorado River near Kremmling, Colo., will reach the Lower Basin states. Dec. 3, 2019. Credit: Mitch Tobin, the Water Desk

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Fifteen years ago, deeply worried that a continued drought on the Colorado River would cause a crisis sooner rather than later, the seven U.S. states that share the river’s flows made a historic agreement to jointly manage reservoirs and share shortages that might arise.

The agreement, known in shorthand as the 2007 interim guidelines, is set to be renegotiated beginning this year, ahead of its expiration in 2026.

Another critical set of agreements, known as the 2019 drought contingency plans, are also being re-examined this year as the crisis on the river deepens.

“We’re about to engage in some very difficult discussions,” said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Mitchell’s comments came Jan. 26 at the annual convention of the Colorado Water Congress, which represents hundreds of Colorado water users and utilities, in Aurora.

The Colorado River Basin includes the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada. It also includes 30 tribal nations and Mexico.

“One of the keys to our success is going to be that we are in line with the other basin states and the U.S. Department of the Interior, but that we are also working with other sovereigns and stakeholders to find solutions,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell and others credit the two agreements with keeping the system operational for much of the past 15 years.

“They were successful in that they slowed down the decline of the reservoirs and bought some time to see if hydrology improved,” she said. “News flash: It did not.”

Climate change, the 20-year megadrought affecting the basin, and population growth have super-charged the crisis, causing the river’s flows to decline faster than anyone anticipated, and lakes Mead and Powell to record their lowest levels since they were built, respectively, in the 1930s and 1960s.

The river system has deteriorated so quickly that last July the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation moved, within a matter of days, to begin emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs.

These turbines at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam are at risk of becoming inoperable should levels at Powell fall below what’s known as minimum power pool due to declining flows in the Colorado River. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The goal was to protect Lake Powell’s ability to produce hydropower, a green source of electricity that supplies more than 50 cities and electric companies in Colorado alone.

In addition, Lower Basin states have committed to reducing outflows from Lake Mead, a move that reduces some of the pressure on Lake Powell to the north. But few believe these actions will be enough to protect the river system as the weather forecast continues to deteriorate.

The majority of the mountain snows that feed the Colorado River fall in the Upper Basin. Although recent conditions have improved slightly, with snowpack reaching average or above average levels in the western half of Colorado, climate scientists say the runoff forecast is not matching up and attribute lower forecasts to the impact of badly depleted soil moisture caused by prolonged drought.

That has left Upper Basin state water officials wondering how much more water they will have to sacrifice to protect Lake Powell.

“The Secretary of Interior took action to release 150,000 acre-feet of water from Upper Basin reservoirs to protect Lake Powell levels. 36,000 acre-feet of that came from Blue Mesa. It left that unit at 27% full. We saw the harm that caused,” Mitchell said. “It’s difficult to think how much more we can provide.”

Lain Leoniak, an attorney and negotiator from the Colorado Attorney General’s office, said officials are hopeful that the new interim guidelines will contain a road map that hinges less on operating rules and more on weather forecasts.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

“We’re going to have to find a way to be responsive to extreme variability in hydrology,” Leoniak said. “We need flexibility built into any post-2026 guidelines, but we don’t want to be engaging in renegotiations every two to three years. That doesn’t work either.”

As teams from across the basin prepare to begin negotiating, Mitchell said Colorado and other Upper Basin states would push to ensure that no one state has to take on more of the burden than another, that all states, and such sovereign nations as the tribal nations and Mexico, as well as other parties, such as environmental groups, would be full participants in the negotiations.

Mitchell also said her negotiating team would push to ensure the Upper Basin states weren’t forced to give up more water than the downstream users on the system.

Under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states are each entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually. But any excess water received, or left unused, in the Upper Basin flows to the Lower Basin because much of it cannot be stored here. That situation has given Lower Basin states access to surplus water over the years that they have become reliant on, a fact that Mitchell and others say has to change if the river is going to be brought into balance in this drier world.

“The compact’s intention was that we all had that equal footing. The fact that there have been states that have been able to overuse while we are using less than our apportionment … we don’t want them to get used to that overuse. We have to be focused on making sure that they adjust to what is available to them,” Mitchell said.

As the 1922 compact approaches its 100th anniversary in November, Mitchell said she was hopeful that agreements will be reached in the coming months that will help balance the river and allow it to function well for the next century.

“Hopefully people will be sitting here in 100 years saying [of the negotiators], ‘They did a good job.’”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

#Colorado securities regulator sues Two Rivers Water & Farming LLC, alleging $19M scheme to defraud investors — @WaterEdCO

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters Magazine

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Colorado securities regulators have filed a $19 million fraud suit against a troubled Colorado water company, charging that it misled investors and sold shares in subsidiaries illegally.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 10 in Denver District Court, alleges that Denver-based Two Rivers Water & Farming LLC, failed to properly register its stock sales as required by law and misappropriated money.

The Two Rivers subsidiaries, including GrowCO, Inc. and TR Capital Partners, among others, were described to investors as cannabis businesses that planned to build high-tech greenhouses for growing hemp.

In court filings, however, the state securities commission alleges that only one $5 million greenhouse in southern Colorado was ever built, and that other funds raised were misappropriated.

In a Jan. 18 response to the state’s suit, former Two Rivers officers denied the state’s allegations, saying that in several instances cited by the state, the securities weren’t required to be registered and that during certain periods between 2014 and 2019, the defendants weren’t responsible for Two Rivers’ actions because they were not officers at the time.

The defendants, including John McKowen, Jan McCaffrey, George McCafffrey, Wayne Harding, Edward Wallick, Richard WiWi and Kirsty Cameron, asked that the state’s suit be dismissed.

Neither Colorado Securities Commissioner Tung Chan, or Martin Berliner, the attorney representing the Two Rivers’ defendants, responded to requests for comment.

A message left at Two River’s Denver office for current CEO Greg Harrington was not returned.

Two Rivers Farming and Water is listed under the symbol TURV on the Over The Counter (OTC) index. Unlike major stock exchanges, such as the New York Stock Exchange, OTC stocks aren’t closely regulated, nor are they required to provide as much financial information to investors.

TURV stock is listed as an OTC security on the website OTC Markets, but is flagged with warnings, in part because it has failed to file the required financial reports for several years.

In 2020, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), moved to foreclose on land and water rights in the Arkansas Valley owned by Two Rivers, to satisfy $1.4 million in delinquent loan payments and dam repair bills.

Last August, however, Two Rivers paid the state $161,000 to cover the late payments, causing the state to stop foreclosure proceedings, according to Kirk Russell, who oversees the CWCB’s loan program.

“When they came to us (in 2012) and desired to get ag land back into production, we thought it was a great idea,” Russell said. “But the organization was just a bad one to start with.”

How many people still own shares in the company isn’t clear. Its stock has traded for as little as 12 cents a share to more than 70 cents a share. In various debt offerings since 2012, the company has issued millions of shares of stock, often using them as collateral for loans from investors.

Chris Scott is a tax attorney and a Two Rivers shareholder. He, along with 55 other investors, is suing Two Rivers in a separate suit. He said it’s not clear what will happen as a result of the Colorado Securities Commission’s action. But he said he would like to see a new management team installed at the company.

“The only reason I invested was because people I formerly trusted told me what a great deal this was going to be,” he said.

Two Rivers’ next payment to the state is due March 1, Russell said. If that payment is missed, the CWCB has said it will resume legal proceedings against the company.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Click the link for more Two Rivers Water Company coverage.

Suburban #MarshallFire stuns #Colorado as statewide #wildfire protection efforts ramp up — @WaterEdCO

Lands in Northern Water’s collection system scarred by East Troublesome Fire. October 2020. Credit: Northern Water

From Water Education Colorado (Jason Plautz):

As J.T. Shaver, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, strolls through the Hutchison Ranch, a legacy cattle farm in Salida, Colo., it’s what he doesn’t see that excites him most.

Last year, the trees here were so dense you couldn’t see more than 20 feet away. The 11,713-foot peak of Methodist Mountain was obscured by piñon-juniper trees. Now, the trunks are pleasantly spaced out, letting in beams of sunlight. The ground is scattered with wood chips and stumps, feeding a healthy new bed of grasses.

“This looks completely different than this time last year,” Shaver says. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”

The landscape’s evolution was the result of a weeks-long treatment organized by Shaver’s office to help this 5,800-person town prepare for wildfire. By thinning the dense thickets of trees, any fire that does reach the ranch shouldn’t burn hot and fast in the crown of the trees. Instead, it should run along the ground with less intensity, burning more naturally. “We’re mimicking the behavior of a wildfire that would have occurred prior to European settlement,” Shaver’s colleague, Josh Kuehn, explains.

Over the past decade, Chaffee County’s once sleepy population has steadily grown as people seek refuge from the busier Interstate 70 corridor. In 2017, county leaders convened a master planning process but were surprised to learn that residents’ No. 1 concern wasn’t small business sustainability or housing prices or even traffic. It was wildfire.

“We knew about the beetle kill epidemic and saw that our forests were in poor health,” says Kim Marquis, project and outreach coordinator for Envision Chaffee County. “The first step to growth planning was taking on our wildfire risk.”

At that point, Chaffee County had been spared from the intense fires ravaging the state in recent decades, although the 2019 Decker Fire would soon burn just two miles south of Salida. But residents had embraced the frightening reality that few places in Colorado are safe from fires. Climate change and the decades-long drought have been fueling bigger and more dangerous fires, leaving devastation up and down watersheds.

The county assembled stakeholders, including state foresters, federal officials, local landowners and farmers, to work proactively to improve forest health. Aurora Water also joined the talks, since a fire near Salida could potentially pollute the headwaters of the Arkansas River, one of Aurora’s primary water sources. The partners thoroughly mapped the area, highlighting the properties and forests most at risk if a fire did come through the Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.

While local landowners could take their own preventative measures like shoring up buildings and removing dead trees, the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) also received funding for a more holistic treatment. The Methodist Front Wildland Urban Interface Forest and Watershed Health Restoration Project, funded through a RESTORE Colorado Program grant, along with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Salida and Poncha Springs, and a county fund, will treat 478 acres of public and private land, masticating trees to thin out the crowns and encourage healthier vegetation. Eventually, with the participation of enough landowners, the fuel break will stretch five miles, creating a buffer between the forest and the ranches, townhomes and small farms in Salida.

How fires went from healthy to hazardous

Decker Fire October 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

The Decker Fire, which burned nearly 9,000 acres, came in an unusually calm year in the midst of a decade that has reshaped how Coloradans see fire. Since 2012, six megafires, defined by the National Interagency Fire Center as fires larger than 100,000 acres, have burned in Colorado.

Looking towards Boulder at the Marshall Fire December 30, 2021 From 53rd and Stuart in Adams County.

Last week, the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, though just a few thousand acres in size, became the state’s most destructive, burning nearly 1,000 homes in Superior, Louisville and parts of unincorporated Boulder County.

During 2020’s Pine Gulch Fire, north of Grand Junction, Colo., hotshot firefighters watch and wait for the fire to burn through brush and move to grass fields, where the flames become less intense, before they can hold it back. Photo by Kyle Miller/Wyoming Hotshots, USFS, via National Interagency Fire Center
A helicopter drops water on the Cameron Peak Fire near CSU’s Mountain Campus. Photo credit: Colorado State University
A view from the highway of the massive East Troublesome wildfire smoke cloud near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado on October 16, 2020. Photo credit: Inciweb

2020 saw the state’s three largest recorded fires to date—Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch—and some 700,000 acres burned, more than 540,000 of which burned in those three fires alone. And the CSFS’s 2020 Forest Action Plan projects a 50% to 200% increase in the annual area burned in the state by 2050.

There’s no single factor making Rocky Mountain fires more intense. Bark beetle infestations swept through tens of millions of acres of forest in the West over the past two decades, leaving large stands of dead trees. A century of federal policy that squelched out all fires rather than letting them burn naturally led to a buildup of fuel stores in forests. Climate change is creating warmer and drier conditions, and an earlier snowmelt has extended the fire season.

Chuck Rhoades, a research biogeochemist at the USFS’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, says those “compound disturbances” have created a pattern of fires that are burning more intensely and in places and seasons that experts wouldn’t predict. Fires that once would have been a natural tool to clear dead fuel and encourage seeds to sprout are now a major threat to communities. Some, including Cameron Peak and East Troublesome, have ravaged high-elevation forests where fires used to be rare. A 2021 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that high-elevation forests in the Rocky Mountain region are burning more than at any point in the past 2,000 years.

That, Rhoades says, means land managers and cities are seeing impacts outside the scope of anything they’ve prepared for—with ripple effects throughout the environment.

“We often think that where we were before will help us predict where we’re going,” he says. “But there are a lot of question marks out there. It forces a little humility in that we can’t understand what we’re going to get next.”

One known, however, is that the higher-intensity wildfires are putting more Coloradans at risk as the state’s population booms. In 2020, the CSFS estimated that half of the state’s population lived in Colorado’s 3.2 million-acre wildland-urban interface area, known as the WUI, where human development intermingles with fire-prone vegetation. By 2050, CSFS says that area could triple in size to encompass more than 9 million acres, or more than 13% of the state.

The risks are especially profound for watersheds. As more intense fires clear out thick older trees, shrubs and grasses grow back in their place. Without dense roots and pine needle cover, the forest floor that typically acts as a sponge for snowmelt and precipitation is turning fragile and rocky. Those are prime conditions for erosion and flooding, with streams and rivers accumulating water faster and earlier than usual. According to USFS research, the risk of flooding and debris flow is higher for at least 3-5 years post-fire, often longer, and those floods can be as much as three times more severe than they would be otherwise.

Ash and silt pollute the Cache la Poudre River after the High Park Fire September 2012

Runoff from burn scars can run black, laden with ash, debris, nutrients and heavy metals from burned soil and biomass. If those contaminants reach utilities’ water infrastructure, they can clog water filters or settle in reservoirs, possibly fostering algal blooms and taking up valuable reservoir space.

The 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire and the 2002 Hayman Fire, the largest in Colorado’s history until 2020, each burned along the Upper South Platte River, immediately upstream of Strontia Springs Reservoir, which accommodates about 80% of Denver Water’s raw water supply and 90% of Aurora’s supply. The fires exacerbated erosion in the watershed, leading to sediment-laden flows that dumped debris and contaminants in the reservoir. More than a decade later, the reservoir’s capacity to store water remains reduced, and water quality is still impacted from sediment flows, even after $27.7 million worth of dredging, removal and recovery work. Last year’s fires caused water utilities across the state to shift their operations to protect their source water.

It’s clear, then, that the risks of fires no longer stay in the forest. Partnerships have sprung up from Boulder to Durango to protect valuable watersheds and water infrastructure, forcing water district managers to become just as interested in what happens to the forest around headwaters as what goes into their customers’ pipes.

All hands on deck

In 2020, the Colorado State Forest Service released its updated Forest Action Plan, identifying some 2.5 million acres—roughly 10% of the state’s forests—as being “in urgent need of treatment.” The highest priority forests were in the Front Range’s Arapaho-Roosevelt and Pike-San Isabel forests and in the San Juan Forest around Durango. “We have to prioritize those areas where we’re going to get the most bang for the buck,” says Weston Toll, watershed program specialist for the CSFS. Still, he says, with so much of the state at risk, “we’re paddling against the current.”

The Forest Action Plan’s priority map reflected a range of factors, including where fuel had built up, how close fires could get to human development, and the impact on wildlife and water. But those areas didn’t all line up with valuable headwaters, despite some water managers’ arguments that any waterways must be protected. Nor does the map give much direction on how to square the widespread needs with limited resources.

Wildfire mitigation used to be defined by what some experts call “random acts of restoration,” individual projects on small plots of land depending on the owner’s interest and availability. A National Forest might have dead trees removed and fuel treated for insect infestation, but neighboring land might be left untreated, doing little for the overall region’s safety.

Now, the USFS and others are promoting a philosophy of shared stewardship, bringing together a variety of partners ranging from federal land managers, local water districts, utilities, logging companies, recreationists and private landowners to collaborate on responsible forest management.

Toll says the state may still be paddling against the current, but “it helps to have everyone paddling in the same direction, which wasn’t happening until five or 10 years ago.”

Watershed Assessment Vulnerability Evaluation (WAVE) volunteers work to install silt fencing immediately above Northern Water’s Willow Creek Reservoir. Photo by Emanuel Deleon, Colorado State University

‘Mutual benefits’

After the runoff from the Buffalo Creek and Hayman fires poured sediment into Strontia Springs Reservoir, officials at Denver Water realized they could be spending less money and having a bigger impact by focusing on preventing fires and flooding before the effects reached their infrastructure. The utility formed the From Forests to Faucets partnership with USFS, a multi-year effort to fund forest health projects to boost resilience in priority areas within Denver Water’s collection system. In 2017, the program was expanded to include state and local authorities to stretch Denver Water’s forest health work to non-federal lands.

Fuel breaks played an important role protecting homes during the Buffalo Fire on June 12, 2018, in Summit County. Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service.

Fuel breaks around the Dillon Reservoir watershed funded by the program are credited with protecting nearly 1,400 homes near Silverthorne during the 2018 Buffalo Fire, despite red-flag drought conditions.

“There was this exciting realization that there were a lot of mutual benefits in funding these projects,” says Madelene McDonald, watershed planner at Denver Water. “Forest restoration projects not only bolster source water protection, but also improve wildlife habitat, expand recreation access, and can protect communities in the wildland urban interface.”

But it is also incumbent on communities to do their own preparation. That can include building codes that require fire-resistant building material or defensible space requirements to clear fuel from some established perimeter around buildings. Colorado does not have a state wildfire code or model ordinance, despite recommendations from a 2014 task force, but communities like Boulder and Colorado Springs have regulations governing new homes in at-risk areas.

“There’s a big educational component, but seeing a disaster happening right in our faces prepares people,” says Marquis of Envision Chaffee County. “We’re asking people to join this honestly heroic story to protect the community.”

Money matters

Addressing all of the CSFS’ Forest Action Plan’s priority areas is estimated to cost $4.2 billion, money that state agencies and local partnerships just don’t have. USFS spent $1.8 billion in fire suppression, fighting and responding to wildfires nationally in fiscal year 2020, but just $431 million on treatments to reduce fuel buildup through its Hazardous Fuels program, according to national spokesperson Babete Anderson. According to National Interagency Fire Center data, other federal government programs spent $510 million on fire suppression in 2020. According to a Colorado Department of Public Safety report, Colorado’s 2020 fire season cost the state an estimated $38 million in suppression costs and required another $248 million in federal funds. Those state figures don’t include suppression costs footed by local agencies or the costs of property loss, infrastructure damage, watershed impacts, or economic losses. Nor do they account for other private, local, county or federal wildfire expenses.

Photo credit: Cascade Timber Salvage Facebook page

The federal bipartisan infrastructure bill brings nearly $8 billion for wildfire risk reduction and forest restoration, including $90 million a year for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Landscape Restoration Partnership Initiative to support forest and grassland restoration secured by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.

Fire departments and forest managers can also cobble together money from grants from a variety of federal sources. In 2021, the Colorado legislature passed SB21-258, which authorized $25 million for wildfire mitigation, recovery and workforce development. In a statement, Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs said the bill would “quickly move resources to on-the-ground projects and mitigation teams,” a step up from previous efforts that “have lacked the coordination, landscape-scale focus and robust state investment required to properly address the size and behavior of catastrophic wildfires.”

Even with those funding sources, it can be a challenge to prioritize spending in areas with the biggest benefit, or even address the widespread impacts of fires. Studies have shown that up-front mitigation saves costs on fire suppression, but even that is daunting when the needs are so vast.

Shaver, the Salida forester, says his community seems to understand that narrative and is on board with the cost of mitigation, knowing that the worst risk could be coming during any upcoming fire season.

“Sometimes there’s a feeling that you wish a fire would come through to validate the work,” Shaver says. “But a lot of people say they feel safer, and that in and of itself makes the work successful. Feeling safe is a win whether or not anything ever burns.”

Camille Stevens-Rumann, a forestry researcher at Colorado State University, graduate assistant Zoe Schapira, and field technician Zane Dickson-Hunt gather data in 2019 at the 2018 Spring Creek Fire burn scar, near La Veta, Colo. Here, aspen and scrub oak have sprouted but all pine trees and cones were destroyed in the fire. Photo by Mike Sweeney

The megafire era gripping the West isn’t just a threat to human development. Fires now burn so intensely that they literally reshape forests, shift tree species, and turn calm waterways into devastating mudflows.

A 2017 University of Colorado study analyzing 15 burn scars left from fires in Colorado and New Mexico found that as many as 80% of the plots did not contain new seedlings. In a 2020 follow-up study project under different climate change scenarios, the most severe scenario, where climate change continues unabated through 2050, showed as many as 95% of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests would not recover after a fire. In a “moderate” scenario where emissions decline after 2040, more than 80% of the forest would be replaced by scrubby grassland.

That, said study author Kyle Rodman, could have serious implications for waterways, due to the lack of established trees to stabilize soil and reduce the risk of flooding.

“Just because there aren’t trees doesn’t mean there’s no vegetation. Grasses and shrubs can hold back the soil, but it won’t be the same,” says Rodman, now a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Wisconsin.

Nearly two decades later, the site of the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire, which burned in an area southwest of Denver in 2002, is still marred with patches of bare ground. That fire, according to a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) study, was so severe in areas that it consumed the canopy foliage as well as the seed bank for the forest’s ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, limiting regeneration. Overall, the study predicted “gradual return to preferred conditions” in the Hayman Fire area, though some of the worst-hit patches may see permanent vegetation changes.

Slopes above Cheesman Reservoir after the Hayman fire photo credit Denver Water.

In lower elevations, some of the heartier species, like the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, are having trouble regrowing because of the increased heat and months-long drought. A 2018 study found that even seedlings of those species that were given supplemental water in burned areas had lower survival rates than expected because of the harsh natural conditions.

“When you’re planting a garden, those first few days are so critical. The plants need water to establish their roots and get healthy,” Rodman says. “Trees work a much longer timescale. Those first few years should be cool and wet and we just don’t have those conditions too often.”

Some tree species, like the high-elevation lodgepole pine, generally rely on fire because the heat helps them open and release seeds. But recent fires are burning so intensely that even lodgepole cones are consumed.

A 2020 study in BioScience found that burned forests are showing “major vegetation shifts” and recovering more slowly than expected. In some cases, heartier species might give way to drier shrub-dominated vegetation that can burn more easily. The study found that, generally, those post-fire “forested areas will have climate and fire regimes more suited to drier forest types and non-forest vegetation.”

That means that hearty forests used to adapting to natural changes are now facing conditions “outside the realm of the disturbances that some forests can handle,” says lead author Jonathan Coop, a professor of environment and sustainability at Western Colorado University.

“We have this paradigm that fire is a natural part of the forest and that forests will always recover,” Coop adds. “These days, we shouldn’t count on that.”

That vegetation shift is especially worrisome for waterways. Normally, forest floors soak in rain and snowmelt, releasing it to waterways slowly throughout the spring and summer. Burn-scarred watersheds, however, have faster runoff and a lower water yield because of the loss of natural material and because of hydrocarbons from smoke permeating the soil. A USFS analysis found that more than 50% of wildfire-scarred land area in Colorado showed increased erosion potential, mudslide threats, and sediment in streams for at least 3-5 years after a fire.

Those effects can last even longer depending on natural conditions, says USFS research engineer Pete Robichaud. The wild seasonal swings from climate change are challenging forests by dumping more precipitation on less stable ground.

The aftermath of July 2021 floods in Poudre Canyon, west of Fort Collins. (Credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

“The drought cycle is bigger and the wet cycle is more intense,” Robichaud says. “The perfect storm is a high-severity fire followed by a high-intensity rainfall event.”

The harsh natural conditions, as well as widespread damage from bark beetles, has complicated typical recovery efforts. Some scientists say the rapid changes in forest conditions and fire characteristics make it hard to know what the best recovery strategy is. In some forests, for example, aspen trees that regenerate from low-ground structures rather than relying on seeds to sprout may dominate. Especially in low-elevation areas, shrubbier species like the Gambel oak may regrow faster in forests once driven by conifers.

While replanting is a natural step in recovery (USFS hosts six national nurseries that act as seed banks, although it has restrictions on where certain species can be planted), there are even concerns that the natural conditions should prompt a re-examination of how best to revitalize forests. Ultimately, Coop says, we should expect that forests may not look the same as they did in a pre-megafire era.

“I think this points to the need for all stakeholders and the public to start to think outside the box as far as how we evaluate the forests and ecosystems we depend on,” says Coop. “We might have to think about what ecosystems we are saving and under what circumstances we’ll have to let things go and let some changes unfold.”

A version of this article was first published in the Headwaters magazine Fall 2021 issue.

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.

How Megafires are Reshaping Forests — @WaterEdCO

Camille Stevens-Rumann, a forestry researcher at Colorado State University, graduate assistant Zoe Schapira, and field technician Zane Dickson-Hunt gather data in 2019 at the 2018 Spring Creek Fire burn scar, near La Veta, Colo. Here, aspen and scrub oak have sprouted but all pine trees and cones were destroyed in the fire. Photo by Mike Sweeney

From Water Education Colorado (Jason Plautz):

The megafire era gripping the West isn’t just a threat to human development. Fires now burn so intensely that they literally reshape forests, shift tree species, and turn calm waterways into devastating mudflows.

A 2017 University of Colorado study analyzing 15 burn scars left from fires in Colorado and New Mexico found that as many as 80% of the plots did not contain new seedlings. In a 2020 follow-up study project under different climate change scenarios, the most severe scenario, where climate change continues unabated through 2050, showed as many as 95% of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests would not recover after a fire. In a “moderate” scenario where emissions decline after 2040, more than 80% of the forest would be replaced by scrubby grassland.

That, said study author Kyle Rodman, could have serious implications for waterways, due to the lack of established trees to stabilize soil and reduce the risk of flooding.

“Just because there aren’t trees doesn’t mean there’s no vegetation. Grasses and shrubs can hold back the soil, but it won’t be the same,” says Rodman, now a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Wisconsin.

Nearly two decades later, the site of the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire, which burned in an area southwest of Denver in 2002, is still marred with patches of bare ground. That fire, according to a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) study, was so severe in areas that it consumed the canopy foliage as well as the seed bank for the forest’s ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, limiting regeneration. Overall, the study predicted “gradual return to preferred conditions” in the Hayman Fire area, though some of the worst-hit patches may see permanent vegetation changes.

In lower elevations, some of the heartier species, like the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, are having trouble regrowing because of the increased heat and months-long drought. A 2018 study found that even seedlings of those species that were given supplemental water in burned areas had lower survival rates than expected because of the harsh natural conditions.

“When you’re planting a garden, those first few days are so critical. The plants need water to establish their roots and get healthy,” Rodman says. “Trees work a much longer timescale. Those first few years should be cool and wet and we just don’t have those conditions too often.”

“When you’re planting a garden, those first few days are so critical. The plants need water to establish their roots and get healthy,” Rodman says. “Trees work a much longer timescale. Those first few years should be cool and wet and we just don’t have those conditions too often.”

Some tree species, like the high-elevation lodgepole pine, generally rely on fire because the heat helps them open and release seeds. But recent fires are burning so intensely that even lodgepole cones are consumed.

A 2020 study in BioScience found that burned forests are showing “major vegetation shifts” and recovering more slowly than expected. In some cases, heartier species might give way to drier shrub-dominated vegetation that can burn more easily. The study found that, generally, those post-fire “forested areas will have climate and fire regimes more suited to drier forest types and non-forest vegetation.”

That means that hearty forests used to adapting to natural changes are now facing conditions “outside the realm of the disturbances that some forests can handle,” says lead author Jonathan Coop, a professor of environment and sustainability at Western Colorado University.

“We have this paradigm that fire is a natural part of the forest and that forests will always recover,” Coop adds. “These days, we shouldn’t count on that.”

That vegetation shift is especially worrisome for waterways. Normally, forest floors soak in rain and snowmelt, releasing it to waterways slowly throughout the spring and summer. Burn-scarred watersheds, however, have faster runoff and a lower water yield because of the loss of natural material and because of hydrocarbons from smoke permeating the soil. A USFS analysis found that more than 50% of wildfire-scarred land area in Colorado showed increased erosion potential, mudslide threats, and sediment in streams for at least 3-5 years after a fire.

Those effects can last even longer depending on natural conditions, says USFS research engineer Pete Robichaud. The wild seasonal swings from climate change are challenging forests by dumping more precipitation on less stable ground.

“The drought cycle is bigger and the wet cycle is more intense,” Robichaud says. “The perfect storm is a high-severity fire followed by a high-intensity rainfall event.”

Pinon and juniper forests that burned in the early 2000s show little sign of regeneration. Pony Fire, Happy Camp, Siskiyou County, California. Photo credit AWeekOrAWeekend.com.

The harsh natural conditions, as well as widespread damage from bark beetles, has complicated typical recovery efforts. Some scientists say the rapid changes in forest conditions and fire characteristics make it hard to know what the best recovery strategy is. In some forests, for example, aspen trees that regenerate from low-ground structures rather than relying on seeds to sprout may dominate. Especially in low-elevation areas, shrubbier species like the Gambel oak may regrow faster in forests once driven by conifers.

While replanting is a natural step in recovery (USFS hosts six national nurseries that act as seed banks, although it has restrictions on where certain species can be planted), there are even concerns that the natural conditions should prompt a re-examination of how best to revitalize forests. Ultimately, Coop says, we should expect that forests may not look the same as they did in a pre-megafire era.

“I think this points to the need for all stakeholders and the public to start to think outside the box as far as how we evaluate the forests and ecosystems we depend on,” says Coop. “We might have to think about what ecosystems we are saving and under what circumstances we’ll have to let things go and let some changes unfold.”

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.

How Do We Live With Megafire? — @WaterEdCO

J.T. Shaver, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS), loads branches into a chipper. The CSFS’ Salida Field Office, along with stakeholders and partners, has been thinning and masticating trees for a healthier forest, creating a fuel break, and chipping trees and branches for landowners as they create defensible space around homes and other structures. Photo courtesy Envision Chaffee County

From Water Education Colorado (Jason Plautz):

As J.T. Shaver, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, strolls through the Hutchison Ranch, a legacy cattle farm in Salida, Colorado, it’s what he doesn’t see that excites him most.

Last year, the trees here were so dense you couldn’t see more than 20 feet away. The 11,713-foot peak of Methodist Mountain was obscured by piñon-juniper trees. Now, the trunks are pleasantly spaced out, letting in beams of sunlight. The ground is scattered with wood chips and stumps, feeding a healthy new bed of grasses.

“This looks completely different than this time last year,” Shaver says. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”

The landscape’s evolution was the result of a weeks-long treatment organized by Shaver’s office to help this 5,800-person town prepare for wildfire. By thinning the dense thickets of trees, any fire that does reach the ranch shouldn’t burn hot and fast in the crown of the trees. Instead, it should run along the ground with less intensity, burning more naturally. “We’re mimicking the behavior of a wildfire that would have occurred prior to European settlement,” Shaver’s colleague, Josh Kuehn, explains.

Over the past decade, Chaffee County’s once sleepy population has steadily grown as people seek refuge from the busier Interstate 70 corridor. In 2017, county leaders convened a master planning process but were surprised to learn that residents’ No. 1 concern wasn’t small business sustainability or housing prices or even traffic. It was wildfire.

“We knew about the beetle kill epidemic and saw that our forests were in poor health,” says Kim Marquis, project and outreach coordinator for Envision Chaffee County. “The first step to growth planning was taking on our wildfire risk.”

Decker Fire October 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

At that point, Chaffee County had been spared from the intense fires ravaging the state in recent decades, although the 2019 Decker Fire would soon burn just two miles south of Salida. But residents had embraced the frightening reality that few places in Colorado are safe from fires. Climate change and the decades-long drought have been fueling bigger and more dangerous fires, leaving devastation up and down watersheds.

The county assembled stakeholders, including state foresters, federal officials, local landowners and farmers, to work proactively to improve forest health. Aurora Water also joined the talks, since a fire near Salida could potentially pollute the headwaters of the Arkansas River, one of Aurora’s primary water sources. The partners thoroughly mapped the area, highlighting the properties and forests most at risk if a fire did come through the Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.

While local landowners could take their own preventative measures like shoring up buildings and removing dead trees, the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) also received funding for a more holistic treatment. The Methodist Front Wildland Urban Interface Forest and Watershed Health Restoration Project, funded through a RESTORE Colorado Program grant, along with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Salida and Poncha Springs, and a county fund, will treat 478 acres of public and private land, masticating trees to thin out the crowns and encourage healthier vegetation. Eventually, with the participation of enough landowners, the fuel break will stretch five miles, creating a buffer between the forest and the ranches, townhomes and small farms in Salida.

From the top of a hill on the Hutchinson Ranch, it’s easy to see why the treatment is essential. There are visible gaps between the trees on the ranch land, even though the trees don’t look overly manicured. Meanwhile, the untreated land just south is dense and wild, a potential path of destruction to a new condo development. In the distance, the Arkansas River that feeds Front Range communities is visible.

And to the west, just above the newly thinned forest, is a barren, charred burn scar from the 2019 Decker Fire, a chilling reminder to Shaver of how close Salida came to devastation and why it’s more essential than ever that the town prepare for the new era of fires.

How Fires Went From Healthy To Hazardous

The Decker Fire, which burned nearly 9,000 acres, came in an unusually calm year in the midst of a decade that has reshaped how Coloradans see fire. Since 2012, six megafires, defined by the National Interagency Fire Center as fires larger than 100,000 acres, have burned in Colorado. 2020 saw the state’s three largest recorded fires to date—Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch—and some 700,000 acres burned, more than 540,000 of which burned in those three fires alone. And the CSFS’s 2020 Forest Action Plan projects a 50% to 200% increase in the annual area burned in the state by 2050.

During 2020’s Pine Gulch Fire, north of Grand Junction, Colo., hotshot firefighters watch and wait for the fire to burn through brush and move to grass fields, where the flames become less intense, before they can hold it back. Photo by Kyle Miller/Wyoming Hotshots, USFS, via National Interagency Fire Center

There’s no single factor making Rocky Mountain fires more intense. Bark beetle infestations swept through tens of millions of acres of forest in the West over the past two decades, leaving large stands of dead trees. A century of federal policy that squelched out all fires rather than letting them burn naturally led to a buildup of fuel stores in forests. Climate change is creating warmer and drier conditions, and an earlier snowmelt has extended the fire season.

Chuck Rhoades, a research biogeochemist at the USFS’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, says those “compound disturbances” have created a pattern of fires that are burning more intensely and in places and seasons that experts wouldn’t predict. Fires that once would have been a natural tool to clear dead fuel and encourage seeds to sprout are now a major threat to communities. Some, including Cameron Peak and East Troublesome, have ravaged high-elevation forests where fires used to be rare. A 2021 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that high-elevation forests in the Rocky Mountain region are burning more than at any point in the past 2,000 years.

That, Rhoades says, means land managers and cities are seeing impacts outside the scope of anything they’ve prepared for—with ripple effects throughout the environment.

“We often think that where we were before will help us predict where we’re going,” he says. “But there are a lot of question marks out there. It forces a little humility in that we can’t understand what we’re going to get next.”

One known, however, is that the higher-intensity wildfires are putting more Coloradans at risk as the state’s population booms. In 2020, the CSFS estimated that half of the state’s population lived in Colorado’s 3.2 million-acre wildland-urban interface area, known as the WUI, where human development intermingles with fire-prone vegetation. By 2050, CSFS says that area could triple in size to encompass more than 9 million acres, or more than 13% of the state.

The risks are especially profound for watersheds. As more intense fires clear out thick older trees, shrubs and grasses grow back in their place. Without dense roots and pine needle cover, the forest floor that typically acts as a sponge for snowmelt and precipitation is turning fragile and rocky. Those are prime conditions for erosion and flooding, with streams and rivers accumulating water faster and earlier than usual. According to USFS research, the risk of flooding and debris flow is higher for at least 3-5 years post-fire, often longer, and those floods can be as much as three times more severe than they would be otherwise.

Ash and silt pollute the Cache la Poudre River after the High Park Fire September 2012

Runoff from burn scars can run black, laden with ash, debris, nutrients and heavy metals from burned soil and biomass. If those contaminants reach utilities’ water infrastructure, they can clog water filters or settle in reservoirs, possibly fostering algal blooms and taking up valuable reservoir space.

The 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire and the 2002 Hayman Fire, the largest in Colorado’s history until 2020, each burned along the Upper South Platte River, immediately upstream of Strontia Springs Reservoir, which accommodates about 80% of Denver Water’s raw water supply and 90% of Aurora’s supply. The fires exacerbated erosion in the watershed, leading to sediment-laden flows that dumped debris and contaminants in the reservoir. More than a decade later, the reservoir’s capacity to store water remains reduced, and water quality is still impacted from sediment flows, even after $27.7 million worth of dredging, removal and recovery work. Last year’s fires caused water utilities across the state to shift their operations to protect their source water.

It’s clear, then, that the risks of fires no longer stay in the forest. Partnerships have sprung up from Boulder to Durango to protect valuable watersheds and water infrastructure, forcing water district managers to become just as interested in what happens to the forest around headwaters as what goes into their customers’ pipes.

“We all share a mutual natural resource interest, whether it’s the forest or the fish of the water,” says Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District in Cortez. “As a water provider, we want to keep offering the same quality water we’ve had for 100 years down here. Now instead of thinking as a water protector, we’ve become part of the watershed protection.”

2020 Report on the Health of Colorado’s Forests cover

All Hands on Deck

In 2020, the Colorado State Forest Service released its updated Forest Action Plan, identifying some 2.5 million acres—roughly 10% of the state’s forests—as being “in urgent need of treatment.” The highest priority forests were in the Front Range’s Arapaho-Roosevelt and Pike-San Isabel forests and in the San Juan Forest around Durango. “We have to prioritize those areas where we’re going to get the most bang for the buck,” says Weston Toll, watershed program specialist for the CSFS. Still, he says, with so much of the state at risk, “we’re paddling against the current.”

The Forest Action Plan’s priority map reflected a range of factors, including where fuel had built up, how close fires could get to human development, and the impact on wildlife and water. But those areas didn’t all line up with valuable headwaters, despite some water managers’ arguments that any waterways must be protected. Nor does the map give much direction on how to square the widespread needs with limited resources.

Wildfire mitigation used to be defined by what some experts call “random acts of restoration,” individual projects on small plots of land depending on the owner’s interest and availability. A National Forest might have dead trees removed and fuel treated for insect infestation, but neighboring land might be left untreated, doing little for the overall region’s safety.

Now, the USFS and others are promoting a philosophy of shared stewardship, bringing together a variety of partners ranging from federal land managers, local water districts, utilities, logging companies, recreationists and private landowners to collaborate on responsible forest management.

Toll says the state may still be paddling against the current, but “it helps to have everyone paddling in the same direction, which wasn’t happening until five or 10 years ago.”

Take the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative (RMRI), a partnership co-convened by the USFS and the National Wild Turkey Federation that has brought together federal, state, local, private and nonprofit partners across Colorado for three targeted restoration projects. Tara Umphries, shared stewardship and RMRI project manager for USFS, says that leads to projects that focus on “consecutiveness,” crossing both physical boundaries and different partners’ priorities.

“Everyone brings their own expertise and their perspective to the table and has their own ideas on how to get this landscape work done,” Umphries says. “A watershed doesn’t just reside on Forest Service land and it doesn’t just provide benefits for one entity or user. To look at a discrete piece of land or a single agency for a solution, historically, has not yielded the results we need.”

RMRI was founded in 2019 as an evolution of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Shared Stewardship Strategy, which works across public and private lands on landscape protection. RMRI touts the four values shared by its partners: restore forests and habitat, protect communities, support recreation and tourism, and ensure clean and secure water.

In the first showcase project in Southwest Colorado, RMRI partners have done a variety of projects in and around the San Juan National Forest, including treating the forest land for dead trees, creating fuel breaks, clearing trails for recreation users, and conducting prescribed burns. At the end of 2020, RMRI partners had worked on more than 26,000 acres of forest, including high-priority areas around the Dolores River and the 381,000 acre-foot McPhee Reservoir.

“If we don’t have clean and secure water for people and our natural resources, you can’t get through much else,” says Jason Lawhon, southwest project manager for RMRI. “That’s often the place we start. Here in Southwest Colorado, water is the most important value.”

Lawhon says that bringing in those partners who can focus on the watershed impacts, whether they’re irrigators or district managers, has helped expand the scale of what the USFS could do alone through additional funding and strategy. “A lot of what we do is identify a project that’s already moving in the right direction, then we help it take the next step,” he says.

Curtis, who manages McPhee Reservoir, says the water managers’ role in Western communities makes it easy for them to act as “conveners,” bringing together federal, industrial and municipal partners. The reservoir, which provides irrigation water for 75,000 acres of land and supplies several towns and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, sits on the edge of the San Juan National Forest and would be at severe risk should a fire occur. Curtis says the reservoir has so far avoided serious sediment loading and flooding, and he wants to do as much as possible to keep it that way.

“Everybody out here has forest management plans and they all have implications for us as a water district,” Curtis says. While the Dolores Water Conservancy District can do tree thinning and other protection immediately around the reservoir, it takes more partners to fund and execute the work needed to keep the full headwaters area safe.

Besides RMRI, the Dolores Water Conservancy District is part of the Dolores Watershed and Resilient Forest (DWRF) Collaborative in Southwest Colorado, which includes the San Juan National Forest, five local water districts, conservationists and timber companies. The collective came out of a collaboration between Montezuma County and local timber companies to work on forest health. Organizers say the involvement of private companies is key to its success—not only does it bring their financial power to bear, but the timber industry can also use trees that are felled, providing additional financial incentive to doing the work.

Watershed Assessment Vulnerability Evaluation (WAVE) volunteers work to install silt fencing immediately above Northern Water’s Willow Creek Reservoir. Photo by Emanuel Deleon, Colorado State University

Holistic forest management also requires the help of private landowners whose property borders or includes the most at-risk forests. Blake Osborn of the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University says there’s no “established protocol” for how to take care of private lands like there is for public areas, leaving many landowners frustrated and clueless. In 2017, Osborn started the Watershed Assessment and Vulnerability Evaluation (WAVE) to help landowners get technical assistance and craft recovery plans, leaning on the USFS’s Good Neighbor Authority, which allows state forestry agencies to partner with the USFS to tackle projects on federal land.

The key, Osborn says, is that the plans can be tailored to the specific lands and owners’ priorities, whether that be heavy tree cover for privacy or a clean waterway stocked with fish. WAVE can also help connect private partners with the bigger public partners to ensure a truly holistic approach. Although no two landowners have ever shared identical goals, he says, the takeaway message is always the same.

“Something we’re always trying to communicate is that the risks cascade down the watershed, and issues up high may not materialize until you’re down at the city level,” Osborn says. “But everyone has their priorities at every point on the watershed. With such an interconnected system, putting some money on a project up here may help protect people miles away.”

‘Mutual Benefits’

After the runoff from the Buffalo Creek and Hayman fires poured sediment into Strontia Springs Reservoir, officials at Denver Water realized they could be spending less money and having a bigger impact by focusing on preventing fires and flooding before the effects reached their infrastructure. The utility formed the From Forests to Faucets partnership with USFS, a multi-year effort to fund forest health projects to boost resilience in priority areas within Denver Water’s collection system. In 2017, the program was expanded to include state and local authorities to stretch Denver Water’s forest health work to non-federal lands.

Fuel breaks played an important role protecting homes during the Buffalo Fire on June 12, 2018, in Summit County. Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service.

Fuel breaks around the Dillon Reservoir watershed funded by the program are credited with protecting nearly 1,400 homes near Silverthorne during the 2018 Buffalo Fire, despite red-flag drought conditions.

“There was this exciting realization that there were a lot of mutual benefits in funding these projects,” says Madelene McDonald, watershed planner at Denver Water. “Forest restoration projects not only bolster source water protection, but also improve wildlife habitat, expand recreation access, and can protect communities in the wildland urban interface.”

Northern Water also has a forest health program, the Colorado-Big Thompson Headwaters Partnership, working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, USFS, CSFS, the National Park Service, and the Western Area Power Administration to protect headwaters areas. It’s the kind of work that, two or three decades ago, might have seemed outside the scope of a water provider focused on bringing clean, safe water to its ratepayers, but has now become an accepted cost of doing business.

Even though the nature of fire has changed, the prevention strategies look similar to what foresters have done for more than a century. Clearing out dead fuel—either by cutting trees or prescribed burns—cuts off the material that would burn in a fire and keeps blazes from becoming as severe. Rather than suppressing all fire, under the right conditions, officials can manage fires in secluded locations that have started from natural means, like lightning strikes, and, during wetter years when winds are low, let them burn naturally.

Another key prevention strategy is the use of prescribed burns, where foresters deliberately set and manage a fire under specific weather and forest conditions. Considered one of the most effective mitigation strategies, prescribed burns can efficiently clear out fuel, mimicking a natural, healthy fire. However, Toll notes, those burns do come with risks, like the potential to get out of control and negative air quality impacts from added wildfire smoke.

“The risk is always going to be there no matter what, so the question is whether it’s worth taking that risk under the conditions that have a high likelihood of success,” Toll says. “[Prescribed burns] also have an educational component by showing that not all fire is bad.”

But it is also incumbent on communities to do their own preparation. That can include building codes that require fire-resistant building material or defensible space requirements to clear fuel from some established perimeter around buildings. Colorado does not have a state wildfire code or model ordinance, despite recommendations from a 2014 task force, but communities like Boulder and Colorado Springs have regulations governing new homes in at-risk areas.

Counties have developed their own mitigation and evacuation plans for areas in the WUI. Others are adapting their own emergency plans to account for the widespread effects of fires, including the greater risks of mudslides and sediment deposits. Chaffee County, for example, updated its wildfire community plan to account for community expansion into the WUI and the greater threat of fires to produce a document that didn’t just guide county-level mitigation work, but also individual landowners’ preparations.

“There’s a big educational component, but seeing a disaster happening right in our faces prepares people,” says Marquis of Envision Chaffee County. “We’re asking people to join this honestly heroic story to protect the community.”

Money Matters

Addressing all of the CSFS’ Forest Action Plan’s priority areas is estimated to cost $4.2 billion, money that state agencies and local partnerships just don’t have. USFS spent $1.8 billion in fire suppression, fighting and responding to wildfires nationally in fiscal year 2020, but just $431 million on treatments to reduce fuel buildup through its Hazardous Fuels program, according to national spokesperson Babete Anderson. According to National Interagency Fire Center data, other federal government programs spent $510 million on fire suppression in 2020. According to a Colorado Department of Public Safety report, Colorado’s 2020 fire season cost the state an estimated $38 million in suppression costs and required another $248 million in federal funds. Those state figures don’t include suppression costs footed by local agencies or the costs of property loss, infrastructure damage, watershed impacts, or economic losses. Nor do they account for other private, local, county or federal wildfire expenses.

Photo credit: Cascade Timber Salvage Facebook page

As of press time, Congress was still negotiating the bipartisan infrastructure bill and reconciliation bill. If passed, the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill includes about $8 billion for wildfire risk reduction and forest restoration, including $90 million a year for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Landscape Restoration Partnership Initiative to support forest and grassland restoration secured by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. The bill also spends $600 million to raise federal firefighter wages.

Fire departments and forest managers can also cobble together money from grants from a variety of federal sources. In 2021, the Colorado legislature passed SB21-258, which authorized $25 million for wildfire mitigation, recovery and workforce development. In a statement, Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs said the bill would “quickly move resources to on-the-ground projects and mitigation teams,” a step up from previous efforts that “have lacked the coordination, landscape-scale focus and robust state investment required to properly address the size and behavior of catastrophic wildfires.”

Even with those funding sources, it can be a challenge to prioritize spending in areas with the biggest benefit, or even address the widespread impacts of fires. Studies have shown that up-front mitigation saves costs on fire suppression, but even that is daunting when the needs are so vast.

“There’s just a disconnect between what we spend money on and the protection of watersheds and communities,” says Carol Ekarius of Coalitions & Collaboratives (COCO), a group that has been leading the way to foster collaborative conservation and restoration in Colorado headwaters and nationally. Ekarius’ work began more than two decades ago, as coordinator for the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), after the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire. When other regions also experienced burns in the 2000s, they reached out to CUSP for advice—COCO formed to mentor those organizations. “A fire could burn on federal land but the post-fire impacts are on the downstream communities,” says Ekarius.

Combining efforts through partnerships like RMRI can make every mitigation dollar go further, as can matching grant programs from the state and federal government. Summit County voters in 2018 passed a $1 million annual fund for wildfire mitigation backed by a mill levy rate adjustment. The timber industry has played an increasing role, with the state offering loans to encourage loggers to produce wood products—everything from lumber to pellet fuel—from forests that need thinning or dead trees that can be cleaned up and put to use.

In a 2019 issue paper, the International Association of Wildland Fire said that it is important to “frame a narrative” around fire that “looks to longer-term landscape outcomes.” That argument, the group wrote, “will eventually have to be won based on economics, as the suppression and recovery costs will by far exceed costs required to educate communities, undertake mitigation works and improve land use planning controls.”

Shaver, the Salida forester, says his community seems to understand that narrative and is on board with the cost of mitigation, knowing that the worst risk could be coming during any upcoming fire season.

“Sometimes there’s a feeling that you wish a fire would come through to validate the work,” Shaver says. “But a lot of people say they feel safer, and that in and of itself makes the work successful. Feeling safe is a win whether or not anything ever burns.”

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.

As winter wildfires burn, will they forever alter #Colorado’s forests, #water? — @WaterEdCO

Camille Stevens-Rumann, a forestry researcher at Colorado State University, graduate assistant Zoe Schapira, and field technician Zane Dickson-Hunt gather data in 2019 at the 2018 Spring Creek Fire burn scar, near La Veta, Colo. Here, aspen and scrub oak have sprouted but all pine trees and cones were destroyed in the fire. Photo by Mike Sweeney

From Water Education Colorado (Jason Plautz):

The megafire era gripping the West isn’t just a threat to human development. Fires now burn so intensely that they literally reshape forests, shift tree species, and turn calm waterways into devastating mudflows.

A 2017 University of Colorado study analyzing 15 burn scars left from fires in Colorado and New Mexico found that as many as 80% of the plots did not contain new seedlings. In a 2020 follow-up study project under different climate change scenarios, the most severe scenario, where climate change continues unabated through 2050, showed as many as 95% of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests would not recover after a fire. In a “moderate” scenario where emissions decline after 2040, more than 80% of the forest would be replaced by scrubby grassland.

That, said study author Kyle Rodman, could have serious implications for waterways, due to the lack of established trees to stabilize soil and reduce the risk of flooding.

“Just because there aren’t trees doesn’t mean there’s no vegetation. Grasses and shrubs can hold back the soil, but it won’t be the same,” says Rodman, now a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Wisconsin.

Nearly two decades later, the site of the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire, which burned in an area southwest of Denver in 2002, is still marred with patches of bare ground. That fire, according to a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) study, was so severe in areas that it consumed the canopy foliage as well as the seed bank for the forest’s ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, limiting regeneration. Overall, the study predicted “gradual return to preferred conditions” in the Hayman Fire area, though some of the worst-hit patches may see permanent vegetation changes.

In lower elevations, some of the heartier species, like the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, are having trouble regrowing because of the increased heat and months-long drought. A 2018 study found that even seedlings of those species that were given supplemental water in burned areas had lower survival rates than expected because of the harsh natural conditions.

“When you’re planting a garden, those first few days are so critical. The plants need water to establish their roots and get healthy,” Rodman says. “Trees work a much longer timescale. Those first few years should be cool and wet and we just don’t have those conditions too often.”

Some tree species, like the high-elevation lodgepole pine, generally rely on fire because the heat helps them open and release seeds. But recent fires are burning so intensely that even lodgepole cones are consumed.

A 2020 study in BioScience found that burned forests are showing “major vegetation shifts” and recovering more slowly than expected. In some cases, heartier species might give way to drier shrub-dominated vegetation that can burn more easily. The study found that, generally, those post-fire “forested areas will have climate and fire regimes more suited to drier forest types and non-forest vegetation.”

That means that hearty forests used to adapting to natural changes are now facing conditions “outside the realm of the disturbances that some forests can handle,” says lead author Jonathan Coop, a professor of environment and sustainability at Western Colorado University.

“We have this paradigm that fire is a natural part of the forest and that forests will always recover,” Coop adds. “These days, we shouldn’t count on that.”

That vegetation shift is especially worrisome for waterways. Normally, forest floors soak in rain and snowmelt, releasing it to waterways slowly throughout the spring and summer. Burn-scarred watersheds, however, have faster runoff and a lower water yield because of the loss of natural material and because of hydrocarbons from smoke permeating the soil. A USFS analysis found that more than 50% of wildfire-scarred land area in Colorado showed increased erosion potential, mudslide threats, and sediment in streams for at least 3-5 years after a fire.

Those effects can last even longer depending on natural conditions, says USFS research engineer Pete Robichaud. The wild seasonal swings from climate change are challenging forests by dumping more precipitation on less stable ground.

“The drought cycle is bigger and the wet cycle is more intense,” Robichaud says. “The perfect storm is a high-severity fire followed by a high-intensity rainfall event.”

The harsh natural conditions, as well as widespread damage from bark beetles, has complicated typical recovery efforts. Some scientists say the rapid changes in forest conditions and fire characteristics make it hard to know what the best recovery strategy is. In some forests, for example, aspen trees that regenerate from low-ground structures rather than relying on seeds to sprout may dominate. Especially in low-elevation areas, shrubbier species like the Gambel oak may regrow faster in forests once driven by conifers.

A nursery manager plants a whitebark pine at Glacier National Park in Montana in September 2019, part of an effort to restore vegetation following a wildfire. Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images via Pew Research

While replanting is a natural step in recovery (USFS hosts six national nurseries that act as seed banks, although it has restrictions on where certain species can be planted), there are even concerns that the natural conditions should prompt a re-examination of how best to revitalize forests. Ultimately, Coop says, we should expect that forests may not look the same as they did in a pre-megafire era.

“I think this points to the need for all stakeholders and the public to start to think outside the box as far as how we evaluate the forests and ecosystems we depend on,” says Coop. “We might have to think about what ecosystems we are saving and under what circumstances we’ll have to let things go and let some changes unfold.”

This article was first published in the Headwaters magazine Fall 2021 issue.

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.

Questions in North Park as #Colorado makes case for new rules to measure water diversions — @WaterEdCO

Ranchers and other water users gather at a stakeholder meeting in North Park on Oct. 22 to ask questions and provide input as state officials make case for measuring devices and recording. Credit: Allen Best

From Water Education Colorado (Allen Best):

As the gap between water supplies and demands narrows in northwestern Colorado, state officials want to ensure that, as best as reasonably can be done, every last drop gets measured and recorded.

They made their case to about 60 ranchers in North Park’s Walden, Colo., on Friday in the fifth of six stakeholder meetings during October that will conclude tonight with a meeting in Craig.

The proposed rules governing the Yampa, White and North Platte River basins would require that headgates, which allow water diversions into ditches, be supplemented with measuring infrastructure, either flumes or weirs, to track the amount of water being diverted. The rules would also institute protocols for reporting the measurements, for collection in state databases. Authority to require the measuring and reporting is clearly defined by state law, but the law leaves room for discretion about the particulars, hence the stakeholder process.

In an already drought-stricken region likely to become hotter and drier yet in the 21st century, those measurements will become ever-more important in administering water rights. The Yampa River this century has carried on average 6% less water than it did during the 20th century. On the White River, flows have fallen 19%.

Already, there is concern that Colorado will be forced to curtail diversions of water rights dated later than the 1922 Colorado River Compact if the aridification of the Colorado River Basin continues, said Kevin Rein, the state water engineer, at the outset of the meeting in Walden.

The compact specifies that Colorado along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico “will not cause the flow of the river” at Lee Ferry, at the top of the Grand Canyon, “to be depleted below an aggregate” of 75 million-acre feet for an period of 10 consecutive years. Colorado and the three other upper basin states are in relatively good shape—for at least the next couple of years. In the last decade, 92 million acre-feet have flowed past Lee Ferry toward Arizona, Nevada, California and, eventually, Mexico.

Kevin Rein, Colorado state water engineer, explains why Colorado needs stepped-up measuring of water diversions in the North Park and other rivers in Northwest Colorado while Erin Light, Division 6 engineer, looks on during a meeting in Walden on Oct. 22. Credit: Allen Best

But if below-average becomes the new normal, as climate scientists warn almost certainly will be the case, Colorado may be forced to defend its diversions in light of the compact. “When they come in and ask for water, we can’t refuse if we have no data,” said Mike Sullivan, the deputy state water engineer.

The state water officials pointed to the Aug. 2021 report Lessons Learned from Colorado Experiences with Interstate Compact Administration issued by the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University and MacIlroy Research and Consulting. “Confronting the limits of a water supply is a painful experience,” the report said after studying the Republican, Arkansas and Rio Grande basins. “Across each of the basins, earlier action to address potential compact and supply issues has enhanced the control communities have to develop and choose their own, less painful, options.”

The North Platte River does not flow into the Colorado River. It’s east of the Continental Divide but separated from the Front Range by the Medicine Bow and other mountain ranges. So why the need to measure water in North Park the same as in the Yampa and White river valleys?

Because it’s good to have the data should it be necessary as required by other interstate agreements, in this case involving Wyoming and Nebraska, said Sullivan.

But there’s another reason for more rigorous accounting of diversions, said the state water officials. Owners of water rights can best look out after their own interests by documenting their water use. This guards against those rights being placed on lists of abandoned water rights that state law requires be issued every 10 years. The most recent list for all river basins, including North Park, was issued last year.

Measuring devices also give those with more senior water appropriations the right to divert their legal entitlements in water-scarce years. And in the case of land sales with connected water rights, it gives owners the proof of water use to demonstrate value to potential purchasers.

In several river basins in Colorado, notably those east of the Continental Divide, measurements became crucial as early as the 19th century. In those river basins where water users experienced an earlier squeeze between supplies and demands, those with senior water rights began placing calls that required those with newer—and hence more junior— rights upstream to cease or cut back diversions.

In Water Division 6, which includes the North Platte, Yampa and White river basins, 54% of headgates had appropriate measuring devices as of April. This compares with upwards of 90% in several other water divisions of Colorado.

Overlapping the new rules is a proposal being considered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources to designate the Yampa River as over-appropriated. Most rivers in the state are already considered over-appropriated, in some cases over a century ago. Segments of the Yampa—including the river upstream from Steamboat Springs and several tributaries—already have been so designated. This designation will require irrigators drilling wells to have water that they can use to augment streamflows if there is a call on the river by a senior user. Improved measuring will assist in administration. Meetings to gather input were scheduled for Monday night in Craig and Thursday night in Hayden.

State officials hope to get the measurement rulemaking as well as the Yampa designation completed by early next year. Rules will be unique to the needs of Northwest Colorado, just as rules governing the Republican and Arkansas River basins are unique to the interstate water agreements and other circumstances governing water use in those basins.

North Park was particularly warm and dry last winter. One rancher after the Walden meeting recalled that it was possible to drive across his hay meadows all of last winter whereas many years he has to plow the driveway almost daily.

“It was pathetic, really,” said Keith Holsinger, standing on a bridge over the Michigan River east of Walden where he grows hay on 800 acres. One of his neighbors, who usually gets 500 to 600 tons of hay, got only 90 tons this year, he reported.

Holsinger has lived on the ranch all of his 77 years. His water rights range from among the oldest in North Park, an 1885 decree with a priority number of 32, to more junior rights of 240th in priority.

He remembers putting in the first measuring device sometime after the drought of 1977. His last device, a weir, he had installed last year.

Keith Holsinger has been installing measuring devices on ditches for his ranch along the Michigan River in North Park for several decades. Credit: Allen Best

During the meeting, some skepticism was voiced about the coming measurement rules. State representatives characterized the relationship between water users and state authorities as one of cooperation and trust. But one audience member pushed back. Implementation seemed to be discretionary, he said. “It’s a trust issue, and I’m sorry to say I don’t have a lot of faith.”

But as for the need for the rules, Holsinger is already persuaded. “If it’s free water in priority, if you want that water, you had better have a headgate and weir,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

The most significant discontent voiced in the background of the meeting agenda was about the high turnover in water commissioners. It’s a common problem across Colorado, say state water officials, as the job is by nature semi-seasonal. But in conversations after the meeting, North Park residents suggested that if the state wants water users to be partners in administration, the state needs to allow proper resources. A water commissioner has between 350 and 500 headgates to check, and there’s a learning curve.

Some people wanted to know why the state wanted the ability to lock headgates. State representatives said they rely primarily on voluntary compliance with water allocations but need the ability to force compliance if diverters take more than they are entitled to.

“In 20-some years, I have probably ordered a half-dozen headgates locked,” said Sullivan. “If we can’t get someone to keep their hands out of the cookie jar, we lock the cookie jar.”

As for the specific type of weir or flume, there are several formal varieties as well as less formal ones. They can be expensive, but none of the irrigators in Walden indicated that cost alone is an issue. Erin Light, the Steamboat Springs-based water engineer for Division 6, said she had seen a flume made of a road sign. It worked, she reported. Sullivan reported seeing one made of rock that worked effectively.

Said Sullivan, speaking to people mostly old enough to remember a bestselling small-model car in 1979 and 1980, “We don’t want to require a gold-plated Cadillac headgate when a Chevette will do.”

Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at allen@bigpivots.com and allen.best@comcast.net.

Map of the North Platte River drainage basin, a tributary of the Platte River, in the central US. Made using USGS National Map and NASA SRTM data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79266632

Special Report: As #LakePowell hits record lows, is filling a new drought pool the answer? — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River flows towards Horsethief Canyon west of Grand Junction, Colo. Credit: William Woody

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

The 96-degree heat has barely broken early on a September evening near Fruita, Colo. As the sun prepares to set, the ailing Colorado River moves thick and quiet next to Interstate 70, crawling across the Utah state line as it prepares to deliver billions of gallons of water to Lake Powell, 320 miles south.

This summer the river has been badly depleted—again—by a drought year whose spring runoff was so meager it left water managers here in Western Colorado stunned. As a result Lake Powell is just one-third full and its hydropower plants could cease operating as soon as July of 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“We’re looking at a very serious situation from Denver all the way to California and the Sea of Cortez,” said Ken Neubecker, an environmental consultant who has been working on the river’s issues for some 30 years. “I’ve never seen it in a worse state.”

The Colorado River Basin is made up of seven states. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico comprise the upper basin and are responsible for keeping Lake Powell full.

Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the lower basin and rely on Powell’s larger, downstream sister reservoir, Lake Mead, just outside Las Vegas, to store water for delivery to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and more than 1 million acres of farmland.

These are two of the largest reservoirs in the United States. Few believed Mead, built in the 1930s, and Powell, built in the 1960s when the American West had just begun a 50-year growth spurt, would face a future where they were in seeming freefall. The two reservoirs were last full in 2000. Two years ago they dropped to 50% of capacity. Now they are operating at just over one-third their original 51 million-acre-foot combined capacity.

First-ever drought accord

Two years ago, this unprecedented megadrought prompted all seven states to agree, for the first time, to a dual drought contingency plan—one for the upper basin and one for the lower. In the lower basin, a specific set of water cutbacks, all tied to reservoir levels in Mead, were put in place. As levels falls, water cutbacks rise.

Those cutbacks began this year in Arizona.

But in the upper basin, though the states agreed to their own drought contingency plan, they still haven’t agreed on the biggest, most controversial of the plan’s elements: setting aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special, protected drought pool in Lake Powell. Under the terms of the agreement, the water would not have to be released to lower basin states under existing rules for balancing the contents of Powell and Mead, but would remain in Powell, helping to keep hydropower operations going and protecting the upper basin from losing access to river water if they fail to meet their obligations to Arizona, Nevada and California.

Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

The pool was considered a political breakthrough when it was approved, something to which the lower basin states had never previously agreed.

“It was a complete reversal by the lower basin,” said Melinda Kassen, a retired water attorney who formerly monitored Colorado River issues for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

But the idea was controversial among some powerful upper basin agricultural interests. Ranchers, who use some 80% of the river’s water, feared they would lose too much control of their own water supplies.

Seeking volunteers

As proposed, the drought pool would be filled voluntarily, largely by farmers and ranchers, who would be paid to temporarily dry up their hay meadows and corn fields, allowing the saved water to flow down to Powell.

Two years ago, when the drought contingency plan was approved, the four upper basin states thought they would have several years to create the new pool if they chose to.

But Powell’s plunging water levels have dramatically shortened timelines. With a price tag likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars, confusion over whether saved farm water can be safely conveyed to Powell without being picked up by other users, and concerns over whether there is enough time to get it done, major water players are questioning whether the pool is a good idea.

“It was probably a good idea at the time and it’s still worth studying,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, the largest water utility in Colorado. “But it can’t be implemented in the short term. We don’t have the tools, we don’t have the money to pay for it, and we don’t have the water.”

Neubecker has similar concerns. “I fear it’s going to be Band-Aid on an endlessly bleeding problem…we need to do more.”

Since 2019 the State of Colorado has spent $800,000 holding public meetings and analyzing the legal, economic and water supply issues that would come with such a major change in Colorado River management.

Still no decisions have been made.

A call to act

Becky Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is overseeing the analysis.

Aware of frustration with the state’s progress on studying the drought pool’s feasibility, formally known as its demand management investigation, Mitchell said the work done to date will help the state better manage the river in a drier future with or without the drought pool.

“We’re still ahead of the game in terms of what we’ve done with the study. The other states are looking at feasibility investigations but ours has been incredibly robust,” Mitchell said. “If we’re going to do it we have to do it right and factor all these things in. Otherwise we’re going to be moving backward.”

One example of a step forward is that new tools to measure water saved from fallowing agricultural land are now being developed.

A large-scale experiment in a swath of high-altitude hayfields near Kremmling has demonstrated that ranchers can successfully dry their fields and deliver Colorado River water to the stream in a measurable way, and the data is considered strong enough that it could be used to quantify water contributions to the drought pool.

Ranchers Joe Bernal, left, and his son Bryan inspect a feed corn field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

But other regulatory and physical barriers remain.

Under Colorado’s water regulations, rivers are only regulated where they cross state boundaries when water is scarce and the state would otherwise be unable to meet the terms of agreements with downstream states. But this is not yet the case on the Colorado River and its tributaries, so rules for determining who would get what in the event of cutbacks haven’t been developed.

In addition, because there has never been a so-called “call” on the Colorado River, the state has yet to require that all those who have diversion structures pulling from the Colorado River system measure their water use.

The situation is changing fast, though, with the 20-year drought and the storage crisis at Powell and Mead increasing pressure on state regulators to take action.

Now the state is taking steps to better monitor the river and its tributaries, moving to require that all diversion structures have measuring devices so it has the data it needs to enforce its legal obligations to the lower basin. If, for instance, some water users had to be cut off to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the state could manage those cutbacks based on the water right decrees users hold that specify amount and priority date of use.

Such data would also be needed to administer a mass-fallowing program to help fill the Lake Powell drought pool.

Kevin Rein, Colorado’s State Engineer and top water regulator, said what’s known as the mainstem of the Colorado River is fairly well monitored but major tributaries, such as the Yampa and Gunnison, are not.

“A lot of tributaries don’t have the devices,” Rein said, adding that the state doesn’t know the extent of the problem. “But in important areas a lot of commissioners know there is a significant lack of measurement devices and that makes water administration difficult.”

Joe Bernal is a West Slope rancher whose family has been farming near Fruita since 1920. He has water rights that date back to 1898 and, like others in this rich agricultural region, he and his family have abundant water.

Bernal was an early supporter of the drought pool. He and his family participated in an experimental fallowing program in 2016, where they were paid to dry up their fields. He’s confident the problems can be solved.

But he’s also worried that the 500,000 acre-foot pool may not hold enough water to stabilize the river system and that it may not be done fast enough.

“We want to be sure the solution does some good, but the clock is ticking,” he said. “We don’t want to change the culture of this valley or our ability to produce food. But I think things need to move faster. We are taking too long implementing these solutions.”

Checking the averages

As Powell and Mead continue to drop—they were roughly half full just two years ago— Mitchell and Rein are quick to point out that Colorado remains in compliance with the 1922 Compact, which requires the upper basin to ensure 7.5 million acre-feet of water reaches the lower basin at Lee Ferry, Ariz., based on a 10-year rolling average. Right now the average is at roughly 9.2 million acre-feet, although it too is declining as the upper basin’s supplies continue to erode due to drought and climate change.

The Colorado River flows past fruit orchards near Palisade, Colo. Credit: William Woody

Climate scientist and researcher Brad Udall has estimated that the upper basin may not be able to deliver the base 7.5 million acre-feet in a year as soon as 2025. But the upper basin would remain in compliance with the 1922 Compact even then because the rolling average remains healthy.

Still, if the reservoirs continue to plummet as quickly as they have in the past two years, when they dropped from 50% to 30% full, the upper basin could face a compact crisis faster than anyone ever anticipated.

Major water users in the state, such as Denver Water, Northern Water and Pueblo Water, have water rights that post-date, or are junior to, the 1922 water compact, meaning their water supplies are at risk of being slashed to help meet lower basin demands.

The big dry out

Many river advocates hope the drought pool is approved because they believe it is an opportunity to test how the river and its reservoirs will work as the region continues to dry out.

“What we knew in 2018 [when the drought pool was conceived] is that we have more to do,” said Kassen. The drought pool, she said, “was a big win and offers a way of testing what the upper basin can do. It’s squandered if they don’t use it.”

Neubecker and others say it’s becoming increasingly clear that the river’s management needs to be re-aligned with the reality of this new era of climate change and multi-year drought cycles.

And that means that water users in the lower basin and upper basin will need to learn to live with how much water the river can produce, rather than how much a century-old water decree says they’re legally entitled too.

“We’re facing a 21st Century situation that was totally unforeseen by anyone,” Neubecker said, “and we no longer have the luxury of time.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

#Water planners pray for snow as 2022 forecast shows dry weather ahead — @WaterEdCO

A stock pond that is normally full of water stands dry because of drought on the Little Bear Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colo., on Aug. 11, 2021. Due to low snowpack, warming temperatures and dry soil during the past two years, followed by the same in 2021, Northwest Colorado is in a severe drought. Credit: Dean Krakel, special to Fresh Water News.

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Colorado’s water forecast, already strained by back-to-back drought years, is unlikely to brighten this fall and winter, as forecasts indicate more dry weather lies ahead.

Water planners use something known as the water year to track and predict snow and rain, as well as winds and soil conditions. It begins Oct. 1, leading into the period of critical mountain snows and the spring runoff they generate, and estimations of what it will yield help farmers, cities and others determine how much H20 they will have to work with.

But water year 2022 is getting off to another dusty, dry start.

“The seasonal outlook is not pointing in a favorable direction,” said Peter Goble, a climate specialist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center. “We’re a lot better off than we were a year ago. Having blue skies as opposed to smoke is a big improvement, but we are going into water year 2022 on shaky footing.”

Goble was referring to Colorado’s disastrous fire season during last year’s drought, when the state saw three of the largest wildfires in its history erupt in late summer and early fall.

Last week, at a meeting of the state’s Water Availability Task Force, forecasters said Colorado was likely to experience another La Niña this coming year, a weather pattern that can bring healthy moisture to the Northern Rockies but which often leaves the southwestern portion of the state dry. Because 2020 saw the same La Niña develop, this year’s may bring less moisture.

In the broader Colorado River Basin, water storage levels continue to drop, with total storage at lakes Powell and Mead down to a combined 39% full, below last year’s already low 49% full mark, according to an update released Sept. 22 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Colorado River Basin is made up of seven states. Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico comprise the Upper Basin, while Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the lower basin.

In July, Reclamation began a series of emergency water releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs in the Upper Basin to help bolster Lake Powell and protect its hydropower generating stations. But conditions there continue to deteriorate.

Lake Powell could see just 44% of average inflows starting in October. Without a snowy winter and spring, hydropower generation at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam could come to a halt as early as July 2022, according to Reclamation.

“The latest outlook for Lake Powell is troubling,” said Wayne Pullan, director of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Region.

Weather experts are also deeply worried about a phenomenon that continues to grow in intensity: the arrival of healthy snows that evaporate or seep into parched soils, never reaching streams in the volumes they once did.

Karl Wetlaufer, who is assistant snow survey supervisor at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said water planners have long relied on a solid connection between snow and subsequent water supplies, where healthy snowpacks were reflected in healthy streamflows.

But with Colorado and other Western states mired in a 20-year drought, where soils get drier and drier each year, streamflow forecasts are becoming less predictable.

“Snowpack [last winter] was not terrible, but with those dry soils and a warm and dry summer we really saw dramatically decreased streamflows,” said Wetlaufer, who is a member of the state’s Water Availability Task Force.

In Northwest Colorado’s Yampa River Basin, snowpack peaked at 90% of average last winter, but streamflows this spring and summer reached only 30% of average.

“As long as I can remember, this is the most dramatic example of the multi-decadal drought’s impact. We are really going to have to start paying closer attention to these dry soils,” Wetlaufer said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

#Colorado health officials hopeful after #Arizona court rejects Trump-era Clean Water Act rules — @WaterEdCO #DirtyWaterRule #WOTUS

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Credit: Jerd Smith

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Colorado state health officials said they’re hopeful a recent federal court ruling that effectively overturned Trump-era rules reducing oversight of Western rivers and streams will allow states to revert back to a more protective standard.

“We are aware of Arizona’s court decision and are following what it means for other states, especially arid states such as Colorado. We are hopeful the Arizona ruling will apply nationwide because it has the potential to allow states to revert back to standards that protected our state waters more,” said Trisha Oeth via email.

Oeth, who is the environmental health and protection policy director at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), also said the state understood the need to ensure that more certainty regarding the regulations was critical to protect all the interest groups affected by them.

The Trump rule sought to overturn Obama Administration rules that expanded the scope of the Clean Water Act. But Aug. 30, the Arizona court rejected it, saying it harmed streams in Western states and ignored important science. It has directed regulators across the country to use a set of rules developed prior to the Obama Administration’s actions until the Biden Administration can develop new regulations.

Since 2019, when the Trump-era rule was finalized, the CDPHE has been working, without success, on a proposed permitting program that lawmakers would have to approve. The permitting program would have covered streams and rivers left unprotected by the Trump rule. The so-called dredge-and-fill permits proposed by the state would be required when activities such as road and home building affect streams no longer covered by the Trump rule.

But farm interests, developers and contractors remain concerned that the Clean Water Act (CWA) rule, known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, will remain mired in legal battles and regulatory uncertainty, delaying projects and raising their costs.

“It’s a big fear of ours,” said Zach Riley, the Colorado Farm Bureau’s director of public policy. The organization, which has 23,000 members, had supported the narrower WOTUS rule.

The political seesaw has been going on for decades with the CWA legally hamstrung 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.

Administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, the CWA is credited with making U.S. waters some of the cleanest in the world. But it has also been difficult to administer, in part because the country is home to widely different geographies and because of numerous court cases that have altered how it is interpreted by different presidential administrations.

Western states have been particularly concerned because in the Midwest and East, for instance, major rivers that carry barge and shipping traffic are clearly “navigable,” the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was navigable, it was subject to federal law.

But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that often don’t flow year round and don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. Over the years many of those streams too became protected by the Clean Water Act.

The Trump administration’s WOTUS rule, however, excluded them, saying that only navigable streams would be regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states that don’t flow year round or carry commercial shipping traffic would no longer have been protected.

Whether Colorado can or should craft a new permitting regulation that will remove it from the political back-and-forth that has dogged WOTUS and provide industry and environmental groups with more certainty isn’t clear yet.

The CDPHE has not yet said what it plans to do, saying it is still analyzing the Arizona decision.

“At the state level, it will be interesting,” said Alex Funk, senior counsel and director of water with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which has advocated for a new state permitting program. “We’re still supportive of a state program to get out of this habit of having new WOTUS rules every four years…we need something that will survive at the federal level.”

Still others want the CDPHE to take a breather, to wait and see how the EPA and other agencies interpret this latest ruling before trying to create a new state regulation.

“Given the pace of change and the multiple rounds of litigation, the state could take more time to discuss what’s needed,” said Gabe Racz, an attorney who represents water utilities and industry at the Colorado Water Congress.

And Racz said he believes there is a chance that the Biden Administration will be able to craft new rules that can endure at the federal level, regardless of who is in the White House.

“The Biden Administration announced they planned to develop a durable rule. I’m hopeful. That’s a step in the right direction,” Racz said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

Electric costs in #Colorado set to surge as #LakePowell struggles to produce hydropower — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam is used to produce hydropower that is delivered over a 17,000-mile transmission grid, reaching six states and 5 million people. Photo courtesy Western Area Power Administration.

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

The federal agency that distributes electricity from hydropower plants in the Upper Colorado River Basin will ask its customers, including more than 50 here in Colorado, to help offset rising costs linked to Lake Powell’s inability to produce as much power due to drought.

The Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which distributes Lake Powell’s electricity, is gathering public comments and asking its customers how best to cope with long-term drought conditions that have pushed Powell and other reservoirs to historically low levels.

As flows in the Colorado River have declined due to climate change and a 20-year megadrought, there is less water in its storage reservoirs and, therefore, less pressure to power the turbines, causing them to generate less electricity.

WAPA has had to nearly double the amount of extra power it has had to buy this year to ensure it can meet its contract obligations to its customers.

“It’s all bad news, but it isn’t necessarily unexpected,” said WAPA spokesperson Lisa Meiman.

WAPA power is among the most sought-after in Western states because it is sold at cost and because it is a renewable power resource, something highly valued in places such as Colorado, where utilities are working to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

WAPA often buys extra power if for some reason its customers’ electricity needs don’t match up with its hydropower production on a given day. It delivers power over a 17,000-mile transmission grid to six states and 5 million people.

But as flows in the Colorado River have shrunk, those purchases have become larger and more frequent.

Last year it bought an extra 413,000 megawatts of power. This year it has already purchased 833,000 megawatts of additional power, according to Meiman, and the agency expects that number to grow this year and likely again next year as the drought continues with no relief in sight.

These turbines at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam are at risk of becoming inoperable should levels at Powell fall below what’s known as minimum power pool due to declining flows in the Colorado River. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

This year, because of the power demands of the West’s growing population and the need for air conditioning to combat ultra-high temperatures, power costs are already soaring.

Last year WAPA paid $25 per megawatt for its replacement power, Meiman said. This year it is paying $33 per megawatt, a 30% jump.

In Colorado, WAPA sells power to some of the state’s largest electric utilities, such as Tri-State Generation and Transmission, as well as cities, small towns and rural electric co-ops.

“We’re watching the situation closely,” said Natalie Eckhart, a spokesperson for Colorado Springs Utilities, which is a WAPA electric customer and which also draws a significant portion of its water from the Colorado River system.

“The bottom line is we care about this on all fronts,” Eckhart said.

Few expected power generation at Lake Powell to decline so quickly. The Colorado River Basin serves seven U.S. states and 30 Native American Tribes. For months, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have been nervously watching what’s known as the minimum power pool level at Powell, the lowest elevation at which power can be produced, which is 3,490 feet. If the reservoir drops lower than that, all hydropower production will stop.

In July, as water levels at Powell continued to plummet, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, as part of the Upper Basin’s Drought Contingency Plan, began emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs to boost levels and protect Powell’s hydropower production.

And while those releases are expected to help keep the turbines functioning, the releases won’t be enough to restore them to full production, leaving WAPA little choice but to look at restructuring the way it sells power and to raise its prices.

WAPA is forecasting a 35% increase in its costs, but is working to minimize the impact on utilities that purchase its power and anticipates a 12% to 14% rate increase as early as December. Some utilities are preparing to buy power elsewhere, when possible, to reduce their costs.

Holy Cross Energy, a rural electric co-op based in Glenwood Springs that is also a WAPA customer, has spent years converting its power portfolio from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources including wind, solar and biomass, as well as hydropower.

While WAPA electricity comprises just 3% of its power portfolio, Holy Cross CEO Bryan Hannegan is worried that this renewable, low-cost power source is in jeopardy if flows from the Colorado River into Lake Powell continue to decline, as they are projected to do.

“It’s one of the cleanest and lowest-cost sources of power for a whole range of utilities,” Hannegan said. “It’s been a bedrock on which we built the West. For it not to be available … it’s a big deal.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Back-to-back droughts choke Western #Colorado as winter forecast darkens — @WaterEdCO #drought #aridification

A stock pond that is normally full of water stands dry because of drought on the Little Bear Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colo., on Aug. 11, 2021. Due to low snowpack, warming temperatures and dry soil during the past two years, followed by the same in 2021, Northwest Colorado is in a severe drought. Credit: Dean Krakel, special to Fresh Water News.

From Water Education Colorado (Dean Krakel):

A low snowpack, absent monsoon rains, dry soils, record-high temperatures and thirsty crops made 2020 the third-driest year on record in Colorado, and, according to the Colorado Climate Center, it was the first time since 2012 that 100 percent of the state was in drought for some portion of the year.

A repeat of similar conditions in 2021 is making Colorado’s continuing drought across broad swaths of the state’s Western Slope even more devastating.

“At any given time you can find drought somewhere in our state,” said Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger during a state Drought Task Force tour in Northern Colorado last week. “This may not be the worst drought we’ve ever had, but what makes this year particularly bad is that it follows on the tail of two other droughts [in 2019 and 2020]. We don’t have enough time [between droughts] to recover from the previous drought before we’re in the next one.”

Nowhere is that more clear than in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, where Monday the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared the drought situation so extreme that for the first time in history Arizona and Nevada will see their annual water supplies drawn from Lake Mead dramatically reduced.

Closer to home in Colorado, west of the Continental Divide, the state has experienced 50 consecutive weeks of category D4 drought, the most extreme drought condition, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Whether the fall and winter will bring any relief isn’t clear yet.

“I’m not particularly optimistic, unfortunately, about the coming winter,” said Peter Goble, a climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center in Ft. Collins. Goble said La Niña conditions will return for the fall and winter, bringing the potential for more moisture in the north and western parts of the state, but there is little indication that the Four Corners region will get any benefit. In addition, because 2022 is shaping up to be a second La Niña year, “events tend to be warmer and dryer,” he said.

Bolinger described the Colorado River Basin as being at a breaking point and the current drought affecting Colorado, Utah and Arizona as “the final straw that might break the camel’s back.” Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the downstream catchalls, have dropped to historic low levels. The lakes will never be 100 percent full again, said Bolinger, “unless we have 10 amazing winters in a row. The amount of water we have isn’t enough to meet expected demands so in the next 5-10 years we’re going to have to rethink how all of these states are supposed to equally share the water.”

Ranchers across Western Colorado are witnessing water shortages never seen before.

Cattle and sheep are being sold off early. There hasn’t been enough water to grow enough hay. Normally full stock ponds are dry. Grasses are dying. Weeds and grasshoppers are rampant.

“In 40 years this is the first time we’ve had to haul water to our cattle,” said Chad Green, owner of the Little Bear Ranch in the Yampa River Basin. “Usually our irrigation water runs until July 1. This year it was shut off on May 29. We harvested our wheat crop for hay. The past two years have been bad. But this year,” Green paused, “this year is horrible.”

But it’s not just farmers who are suffering. Those who rely on the state’s iconic rivers for recreation are also seeing the devastation this multi-year drought cycle has imposed.

“This river is critical to our community’s health,” said Kara Stoller, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber. Like other mountain communities, Steamboat is home to an array of outdoor gear companies and tubing and rafting companies. And the ski resort relies on the river for snowmaking.

This summer the river has been closed to recreation on multiple occasions to relieve stress on the fish population.

“Our water resources are our lifeblood,” said Stoller.

Bolinger doesn’t feel the “doom and gloom on a state level” that she feels for the entire Colorado River Basin. “But when people talk about drought, they talk about the new normal. We haven’t gotten to the new normal yet. We’re on the climate change train and things are still changing. Where we land will ultimately dictate what things look like.”

A rancher digs a boot heel into the dry ground of the Little Bear Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colo., during the Northwest Colorado Drought Tour on August 11, 2021. Credit: Dean Krakel, special to Fresh Water News.

To Marsha Daughenbaugh, a 4th generation rancher near Steamboat Springs, the relentless dry spells are about much more than the condition of the local ranching economy.

“This is just one ranch, one county, one region, one state, but really, this is the story of the whole West,” Daughenbaugh said.

Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at dkrakel@gmail.com.

West Drought Monitor map August 17, 2021.

A “gut punch” as water rushes from #FlamingGorge to save #LakePowell’s hydropower system — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Boaters at Cedar Springs Marina on Flaming Gorge Reservoir. The reservoir’s levels are expected to drop 2 feet a month under an emergency release of water designed to keep Lake Powell’s hydropower system operating. July 22, 2021 Credit: Jerd Smith

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

John Rauch and his family have operated the Cedar Springs Marina here since 1986. But three weeks ago, when the federal government suddenly ordered millions of gallons of water to be released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir down the Green River to Lake Powell, Rauch wasn’t prepared.

“It was a total gut punch,” he said on a recent hot, sunny morning. As visitors trekked down to rent his pontoon boats, and others slid their fishing craft into the reservoir, Rauch and his employees were already planning which boat docks and ramps would have to be relocated to keep them afloat. The reservoir is projected to drop as much as 2 feet a month through the fall as water is released.

Drought has plagued the Colorado River Basin for 20 years, but it hit crisis proportions this summer, pushing lakes Powell and Mead to historic lows and triggering, for the first time, emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs.

All told, 181,000 acre-feet of water are to be sent to Lake Powell by the end of December. Powell has dropped so low that its hydropower plants, which supply millions of homes with electricity and generate revenue for such things as a critical Colorado River endangered species program, may stop operating as early as next year if water levels continue to drop as they have been. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates there is a 3 percent chance of this occurring next year and a 29 percent chance of this occurring in 2022. But given the speed of the Powell’s decline, no one wants to risk a hydropower shutdown.

Savings accounts

Since their construction in the 1960s these reservoirs, known as Reclamation’s Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs, have acted as a giant savings account, helping ensure that if a crisis erupted on the river, the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico would have enough water on hand to fulfill their legal obligation to deliver water to Nevada, Arizona and California, known as the Lower Basin states.

Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, part of the Aspinall Unit, is already low, at just 43 percent of capacity as of last month. Fed by the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, the reservoir is tourism hot spot on Colorado’s West Slope.

Kathleen Curry, a former Colorado lawmaker, sits on the Colorado River District Board. She said she understands the need for the releases, but she said the changes in the shoreline at Blue Mesa aren’t going unnoticed.

“It’s taking residents and visitors by surprise, just because I don’t think anyone was expecting it,” she said.

The releases come under a special Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan approved by Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in late 2018. A similar drought plan is in place for the Lower Basin, and they have been cutting back withdrawals from Lake Mead for the past two years.

Still the river system is drying out. And water leaders in Colorado are deeply worried that their carefully protected savings account is going to dry up too quickly to solve the Colorado River’s long-term problems.

Will it work?

“I understand and support the necessity of the Secretary [of the Interior] taking this action,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water. “The major concern I have is that Reclamation says the 181,000 acre-foot release will raise Lake Powell three feet. But I don’t know that they can even show that. I don’t know that they have accounted for transit losses and other losses.

“It’s important when these releases are made that they are accounted for, that we know where this water is going. If it doesn’t actually get down to [Lake Powell] to accomplish what it was designed to do, we should have kept it in that savings account,” Lochhead said.

Becki Bryant, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River region, said the agency is working to create a hydropower buffer in Lake Powell and believes the releases are adequate to accomplish that. But Reclamation is not yet doing the kind of precise tracking and accounting known as water “shepherding,” to ensure flows make it downstream, that Lochhead is requesting.

On Aug. 1, Lake Powell’s elevation stood at 3,553.8 feet above sea level. The action point, or so-called target elevation is 3,525. When that point came close in July, Reclamation moved quickly to order the emergency releases.

Powell’s hydropower plant stops generating power when it drops to 3,490 feet in elevation, according to Reclamation.

“Reclamation expects the additional release of water will be sufficient to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation through 2021. That target elevation provides a 35-vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.

“Shepherding water would be beneficial but is challenging on many levels for Colorado River Basin states,” said Bryant via email.

Bleak forecasts

Bryant said Reclamation will continue to consult with the Upper Basin states as it monitors reservoir levels and weather forecasts. Should conditions deteriorate further, the agency could examine whether to declare the releases futile and stop them, as it is allowed to do under the 2018 Drought Contingency Plan.

The water being released is so-called “system water,” meaning that it isn’t owned by a particular user.

Held by the federal government for the benefit of the Upper Basin states, the amounts of water specified in the release plan are jaw-dropping: 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge; 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa; and 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover one acre of land to a depth of 12 inches.

If that same amount of water were going to cities, it would be enough to serve more than 362,000 homes for one to two years. If going to farms, it could irrigate more than 113,000 acres, depending on the crop.

If the historic, 20-plus-year drought cycle doesn’t end soon, refilling those reservoirs is going to be difficult. And that has water managers worried.

“My level of concern is quite high,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water planning and policy agency. She also sits on the four-state Upper Colorado River Basin Commission, which advises Reclamation on river issues.

“And I can’t tell yet if [the releases] are going to do the trick,” she said. “But we have to respond to the levels in Powell.”

Cedar Springs Marina near Dutch John, Utah, on Flaming Gorge Reservoir in the early 1960s. In a first, emergency releases are being made under the 2018 Upper Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan. Photo courtesy of the Rauch family.

Legal reckoning?

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Colorado and the other Upper Basin states must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) [per year, 75 maf per 10 years] of water to the Lower Basin on a 10-year running average. Right now, the Upper Basin is delivering roughly 9.2 maf, Mitchell said, meaning that there is still time to help the system come back into balance before the Lower Basin states could legally call for more water than they currently receive.

Lake Powell is the Upper Basin’s largest storage pool on the system and is designed to be the four Upper Basin states’ major source of protection. Because of their legal obligations, Colorado water users are closely monitoring this year’s plunge in Powell, with the threat to hydropower production being seen as a dangerous antecedent to a compact call.

“That the system continues to deteriorate is concerning,” Lochhead said.

Roughly half of Denver Water’s supplies are derived from water rights it owns on the Colorado River system. While one portion of its portfolio dates back to 1921, and would therefore trump a 1922 compact call, several other rights were established later, meaning the utility might have to stop pulling from those water sources if Colorado were forced to cut back in order to meet compact obligations.

Other Front Range water providers, who also have Colorado River rights, are even more vulnerable, including the Pueblo-based Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

Southeastern’s rights date only to 1957.

Contingency v. reality

Lee Miller, Southeastern’s attorney, said the Colorado River crisis remains a long-term problem for his agency.

The rapid deterioration this year, however, is prompting everyone to rethink how much time they have to balance the massive river system as drought and a warming climate, as well as population growth, continue to sap its flows.

“Both the Upper and Lower Basin have now had to initiate elements of their drought contingency plans. When we passed it a couple of years ago everyone thought, “It’s good to have a contingency plan.’ But I don’t think anyone thought we would have to use the plans this quickly. It’s gone from being a contingency to being a reality, and that’s concerning.”

Back up at Flaming Gorge, John Rauch is watching the levels drop and making his own contingency plans.

“We are planning for the worst,” Rauch said. “For the foreseeable future, the outlook is dry. If it ends up that by the end of all of this that the reservoir becomes a river channel, we will be down there at water’s edge selling worms.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

2021 Sustaining #Colorado Watersheds Conference Oct. 5-7, 2021 — @WaterEdCO

Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

From email from Water Education Colorado:

We want to see you in October!

Registration is officially open for the 2021 Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference and we couldn’t be more excited to welcome you all back to Avon, Colorado, this fall.

As we’ve mentioned, this year’s conference will take place in a hybrid format, with the option to attend in person or virtually via the virtual conference platform. Whether you’ll join us in person or on screen, we’re thrilled to welcome you back as we convene Together Like Never Before.

2021 Conference Highlights & Details:

  • The conference structure this year is new and refreshed, with an in-depth (in-person) workshop day planned with experts for Tuesday, Oct. 5 that will include concurrent sessions
  • All conference attendees will gather (both in-person and virtually) on Wednesday, Oct. 6 as we hear from featured speakers and participate in interactive sessions as one group
  • Thursday, Oct. 7 will consist of off site field trips at various locations to be facilitated around the state
  • Oct. 5 workshop topics include: Funding, Fire & Resiliency, Water 22 Public Awareness, Watershed & Forest Health, Stream Health Evaluation Frameworks, Water Quality, Community Collaborations, Innovations, and Uncommon Partners
  • Oct. 6 topics include: Keynote and Featured Speakers, Colorado Water Plan 2.0, Adapting to Western Megafires, Including People for More Equitable Solutions, and closing remarks
  • Other elements of the conference will include favorite activities such as the Poster Social and Happy Hours as well as innovative ways to engage with each other with new events like guided Fireside Chats

An abbreviated conference agenda can be found HERE.

Register here.

Chatfield: Repurposing Flood Control for Water Storage — @WaterEdCO

In Chatfield State Park, restoration work on Plum Creek, which flows into Chatfield Reservoir, has included streambed stabilization, planting and seeding of riparian and wetland vegetation to control erosion and provide habitat, plus a new trail system beside the reclaimed creek. Courtesy Chatfield Reallocation Project via Water Education Colorado

From Water Education Colorado (Jason Plautz):

The Chatfield Reservoir south of Littleton was built as a flood control measure after the devastating floods in 1965 and is the centerpiece of a beloved state park. But it now serves a new purpose: providing more water storage for the Front Range without adding a major footprint. After a three-decade planning process, the reservoir level was raised 12 feet and storage space has been reallocated to add 20,600 acre-feet of storage, including an environmental pool of up to 2,100 acre-feet.

“At first blush, this doesn’t sound so complicated. You’re taking water storage that already exists and making it multi-purpose storage without any impacts to the dam itself,” says Charly Hoehn, general manager of the reallocation project. But it was the first project of its kind in the state, so Hoehn’s team had to act as “guinea pigs” on permitting and mitigation issues.

While the project didn’t require new dam construction, it was not without challenges. State park facilities had to be moved, and there were environmental concerns, like the removal of trees and wetlands to accommodate the higher water level. The Audubon Society of Greater Denver unsuccessfully sued to stop construction, citing impacts to birds and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. Polly Reetz, the Audubon conservation committee chairperson, says she continues to question “whether this would even work at all” with the project’s relatively junior water rights and doesn’t think it was worth impacting “a very important birding area.”

Other green groups worked with project organizers on a mitigation strategy that placed a value on each piece of land that would be affected (accounting for impacts to wetlands and animals), then found other areas to offset any damage. The result was significant restoration to flows on nearby Plum Creek and bank stabilization primarily upstream on the South Platte River to prevent erosion. The environmental pool will accommodate timed releases to help address some low-flow conditions downstream on the South Platte River. Final approval and the completion of mitigation work in 2020 allowed the new storage to begin, but Hoehn says that the low spring runoff allowed only a “marginal amount” to be stored in its first year.

The Way We Bank: Thinking Beyond the Dam — @WaterEdCO #COWaterPlan

Safety inspectors walk on top of the Crystal Dam in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in May 2008, when high snowpack and warm temperatures prompted reservoir managers to make more room through a managed release, or spill. The reservoir spilled most recently in May 2019. Photo by William Woody

From Water Education Colorado (Jason Plautz):

To address the water needs of a growing population amid shortages, the Colorado Water Plan in 2015 set a goal of attaining 400,000 acre-feet of new water storage by 2050.

Colorado is working its way toward that goal, but building new storage is easier said than done. Increasing environmental and social concerns, limited geographic locations, and even more limited water rights have made many traditional reservoir storage projects tougher to build. On top of that, long-range forecasting — to figure out how much water is going to be available to be stored — has become especially difficult as a result of climate change.

An April 2020 study published in the journal Science found that the American West’s current drought is as bad or worse than any in the past 1,200 years of tree-ring records. Ordinarily, storage would be the obvious solution to drought and dry years. You collect moisture in wet years and save it for times of need. But climate change has created a catch-22. Storage may be necessary, but it has become more challenging to build and less water is available to capture.

Dan Luecke, former director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Rocky Mountain office, says these challenges have upended a philosophy long built on risk analysis to one defined by “decision-making under uncertainty.”

“For a long time, we’ve known there’s risk but we could look to the historical record to manage it,” says Luecke. (Luecke also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). “With climate change, that record is called into question … The nature of the game has changed.”

The cascading challenges of climate change have led water managers to think creatively about alternatives to traditional infrastructure. Greeley, for example, replaced a plan to expand an existing reservoir with one that will store water underground. Front Range districts collaborated to reallocate the space in Chatfield Reservoir, a flood storage basin, raising the water level to add permanent water storage supply. As part of the Basin Implementation Plan for the Yampa/White/Green River Basin, water managers are exploring putting reservoirs high in the mountains to limit evaporative loss.

Decision-making under uncertainty makes it all the more complicated for water providers to meet Colorado’s water needs and has caused many to reexamine what a smart storage project is made of — one that can help meet water supply goals for many water users while respecting the environment, one that is also acceptable to stakeholders, and one with minimum impacts so that it can make its way through the permitting process. Water managers are growing increasingly innovative, out of necessity, to develop water storage projects that will work.

Reservoirs under Climate Change

It’s not simply a matter of how much water is available to store. Everything from the location and size of reservoirs to the timing for capturing runoff and for making releases is being reviewed. Various climate models, including those used by the Colorado Water Conservation Board for state water planning, project warmer temperatures that will affect evaporation rates in rivers and reservoirs and seasonal shifts in precipitation, including reduced mountain snowpack and earlier runoff. Earlier and reduced flows could, for instance, necessitate dams releasing water earlier to meet demand.

Temperature rise, too, makes storing water a challenge. Any pool will lose water through evaporation, and more during hot, dry times, but the loss is worse for reservoirs at lower elevations with more exposed surface area. The science used to estimate evaporative loss is imprecise — estimates could be off by as much as 20 to 30 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is conducting a study to refine its methods. Even so, a 2018 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society study estimated that losses from Lake Powell and Lake Mead could total as much as 15% of the annual upper basin allocation among Colorado River Basin states, or five to six times the annual water use of Denver. The same study said that summer evaporation rates may have risen by as much as 6% over the last 25 years.

The National Climate Assessment, published in 2018, states that climate change is fueling stronger storms that could overwhelm dams and infrastructure designed to capture more moderate storm surge flows. It’s also intensifying wildfires that destroy landscapes, load reservoirs with sediment, and threaten water delivery infrastructure.

The 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan lays out a number of alternatives to new traditional storage projects, including rehabilitating existing infrastructure, reallocating flood storage to active storage, and using below-ground aquifer storage alternatives. While the options are vast, the update says that to meet the state’s goals, “at least some new large reservoirs are needed.”

But building those reservoirs also requires water to fill them, says Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. Water rights are not as easy to come by in an era of constraint. Any new water rights claimed today are junior in the state’s legal priority system, making storage necessary to capture peak flows after all senior water rights are satisfied. But as climate change shifts the timing and magnitude of peak flows, reservoirs may not be as effective a tool for managing junior water rights.

“A dam is a bit like opening a bank account, there has to be something to put in it,” Udall says. “Ultimately, everything bends to the hydrological realities of what the supply is.”

The Jigsaw Puzzle

The era of uncertainty doesn’t just make individual storage projects a puzzle — the long-range plans that help utilities figure out what storage they need are now a tangle of variables. Balancing climate-complicated precipitation projections with population and water use trends, regulatory changes, and competition for resources can make the standard planning process a head-spinning endeavor.

When Colorado Springs Utilities started updating its 2017 Integrated Water Resource Plan (IWRP), the utility wanted a “comprehensive view” that would take a hard look at risk analysis, says water planner Kevin Lusk. Colorado Springs doesn’t sit on a major river system and relies on storage in remote watersheds to manage its variable supply. In the early 2000s, the utility’s water yield saw a 600% difference between the driest and wettest years.

Realizing that a backward-looking dataset might no longer apply to a present and future defined by climate change, the utility took a state-of-the-art new approach to its planning process. Recently, Colorado Springs partnered with the consulting firm Black and Veatch, which expanded the multi-objective evolutionary algorithm (MOEA) to utilities to help them assess the complexities in planning. The machine learning tool can project thousands of possible futures using precipitation, temperature and hydrological factors, then help planners narrow down their range of possible options.

“As these plans get so big, it’s hard for the human mind to comprehend them,” says Leon Basdekas, a private consultant who worked at Colorado Springs Utilities, then Black and Veatch, designing and managing the utility’s IWRP. “This tool allows you to evaluate complex planning options in ways that would be impossible to do otherwise.”

Leon Basdekas, pictured beside Monument Creek, worked with Colorado Springs Utilities using a machine learning tool to help the water provider assess complex future water supply and demand scenarios and evaluate where new water storage could be beneficial. Photo by Matthew Staver via Water Education Colorado

For Colorado Springs, the advanced IWRP process helped water planners see a range of climate and streamflow possibilities, then identify 14 storage options that could meet future water demand. Some, like a potential new reservoir on Williams Creek or one upstream of Rampart Reservoir, have been under discussion for years. Others are more general concepts without specific sites, such as gravel pit storage along the Arkansas River. Among those identified projects, Colorado Springs has also been exploring Eagle River storage options, including the potential Whitney Reservoir, to collect and store Western Slope water, although nearby towns and others have objected to possible impacts on the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. Lusk says Whitney Creek alternatives are “one of many possibilities” and that the IWRP analysis even considers “less tangible characteristics” like community values and opposition to any individual project when optimizing storage opportunities.

More than anything, Lusk says, the advanced modeling helped the utility gain a better appreciation for the full scope of storage and transmission. The “a-ha moment,” he says, is seeing how one individual new reservoir may not mean as much for the system as, say, shoring up existing pipelines to make the already-built system run more efficiently.

“We can’t just look at storage on its own, it’s a package deal with supply and conveyance,” Lusk says. “This is a complex jigsaw puzzle.”

When Mitigation Meets Enhancement

To the north, the Northern Integrated Supply Project, or NISP, has been moving through a decades-long process to obtain the necessary permits and to gain the favor of local stakeholders. NISP has been reshaped, with operational changes and environmental improvements now built in, in response to stakeholder concerns.

Northern Water’s project, if fully approved, will build two reservoirs, one northwest of Fort Collins off the Cache la Poudre River and another northeast of Greeley, to deliver nearly 40,000 acre-feet of water a year to 15 communities and irrigators along the Front Range. With the population of northern Colorado expected to double by 2050, backers say that such a large shared storage project is necessary to efficiently serve booming towns like Erie, Windsor and Severance. Through water exchanges with farmers — which will average about 25,000 acre-feet per year — and the purchase of conservation easements on farms, Northern Water says the project will also help farmers reduce the negative impacts of buy and dry by keeping water on farms while serving the growing Front Range population.

Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP) map July 27, 2016 via Northern Water.

But supplying those growing towns will necessarily require impacts. NISP will involve constructing the 170,000 acre-foot Glade Reservoir (to accommodate the reservoir, seven miles of U.S. Highway 287 will be relocated) and the 45,600 acre-foot Galeton Reservoir. Northern Water will also build another forebay reservoir, five pump plants, and 80 miles of pipeline.

That kind of construction naturally attracted opposition from environmentalists and some communities. Concerns include that taking water out of the already-stressed Poudre River could reduce its crucial spring peak flows, which flush sediment downriver and restore habitat.

Several environmental reviews as part of the permitting process concluded that the need for storage was there, even after accounting for planned water conservation savings. With so many communities involved, scrapping the collaborative project, as some environmental groups advocated for, would leave them all competing for limited resources.

“I think quite a few participants who saw [NISP] as a [potential] future supply are now looking at this as the future,” says Christopher Smith, general manager of the Left Hand Water District and chairman of the NISP participants committee. “I don’t think anyone is left who is speculating on this. It’s necessary.”

So Northern Water started looking for what project manager Carl Brouwer calls “the wow factor.”

“We really changed our perspective to thinking about how we could put water back and be a part of the preservation of the Poudre River,” Brouwer says.

Cache la Poudre River. Photo credit: Allen Best

Project proponents added an estimated $60 million in mitigation and enhancement measures, bringing the total estimated project cost to about $1.1 billion. The idea is that water would be released from Glade Reservoir year round and no water will be diverted to storage when flows dip below 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the summer and 25 cfs in the winter to eliminate spots where the river already dries up. Collection operations will be adjusted to keep peak flows in the Poudre River two out of every three years, and 90% of the time little or no diversion will take place during peak flows. Organizers will also build new fish passage structures and improve 2.4 miles of stream channel near a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) fish hatchery north of Fort Collins.

The mitigation and enhancement plan received unanimous approval from CPW and the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2017, and the Colorado Water Quality Control Division approved the project’s 401 Water Quality Certification in 2020. NISP has continued moving through the federal permitting process, with final approval expected this spring or summer.

Karlyn Armstrong, water project mitigation coordinator for CPW, says that the flow program will be a benefit to the river. “Currently the river goes dry in places — once the program comes online, the river will have water 365 days a year through the conveyance flow reach,” Armstrong says. “Aquatic life will benefit from sustained minimum flows.”

Critics remain. In August 2020, the Fort Collins City Council voted 5-1 to oppose the project, citing the potential loss of spring flows, and some environmentalists say communities should explore options with less of an environmental footprint.

But Brouwer says that the project, combined with Northern’s efforts on conservation and water exchanges, should set the new standard for infrastructure in the state with its environmental focus.

“What really changed was embracing the enhancement part of mitigation and enhancement. We can make it better,” Brouwer says. “We’ve set the bar pretty high and I do think this will become the norm.”

Addressing Demand

Improved or not, some still say a large storage project like NISP shouldn’t happen at all. Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates has been a long-time opponent of NISP and in 2012 released an alternative plan it said could meet the needs of Front Range communities without the footprint of new infrastructure. The nonprofit’s “Better Future” alternative included conservation tools that would offset 20,482 acre-feet of use by 2060 and apply reuse technology to another 4,905 acre-feet. Combined with flexible water sharing agreements between agricultural users and municipalities and more thoughtful expansion onto previously irrigated agricultural land that could come with water rights, WRA says their plan reimagines what adding supply could look like.

“We know we need more storage going forward, but new storage doesn’t have to be connected to new development,” says Laura Belanger, water resources engineer at Western Resource Advocates. “Alternative supply portfolios that include reuse or conservation can mean storage that optimizes existing supplies more efficiently.”

WRA’s plan as an alternative to NISP was rejected in 2018, as were all other alternatives proposed during the public comment period, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued NISP’s Environmental Impact Statement, saying that these options “did not meet the project’s purpose and need and practicability screening criteria.” WRA says it relies on different calculations than the economic reports backing NISP and has continued to update its alternative in a series of recent comments on the NISP proposal.

Whether or not it could replace NISP, the “Better Future” model represents how some are thinking about limiting demand as a way to reduce the need for additional storage. Aggressive conservation has started to decouple water use from population growth in some cities across the West; a survey of 20 Western cities published in the journal Water found that between 2000 and 2015, total water use dropped 19% while populations increased by 21% on average. Denver Water has reduced per capita water use by 22% over the past decade.

The City of Aurora has also made conservation and reuse a foundational part of its water plan, including more efficient landscaping requirements, rebates for low water-use appliances, and requirements that new developers make their buildings less wasteful. Tim York, the city’s water conservation supervisor, estimates that it costs about $600 in staff time and resources for each acre-foot of water conserved, compared to about $25,000 per acre-foot for water acquired on the open market.

That doesn’t mean Aurora isn’t looking for more storage. The city is moving ahead on the proposed Wild Horse Reservoir project, a 96,000 acre-foot storage site in Park County.

“There’s always going to be more to be done from conservation and efficiency. At the same time, you can only get so low,” says York. “You get to a point where you need storage. The mindset that you can conserve your way out of any drought is just not realistic.”

Many small- and medium-sized utilities don’t have the staff to mirror Aurora’s efforts, but Belanger says that the strain on resources under the drought makes it necessary for all municipalities to embrace conservation.

“The more efficient existing and new development is, the more water you can have in the supply,” Belanger says. “Managing the demands of your community produces sustainable savings.”

Can Restoration Double As Storage?

Some advocates say it’s time to think beyond cement and instead embrace natural watershed restoration as a storage solution.

In its 2016 Water Plan, the State of California declared that source watersheds would be considered “integral components of water infrastructure,” putting reviving watersheds on essentially the same level as building new dams or pipelines. While Colorado hasn’t adopted similar language yet (Montana is the only other state to do so), there is increased attention to restoring watersheds as an ecological tool with water storage benefits.

“Our water has so much to do, we should give it a longer reach and take advantage of all the benefits,” says Abby Burk of the Audubon Society. “When water is in rivers instead of sitting in reservoirs, there are so many more benefits that support healthy, thriving ecosystems.”

Snowmelt and storm events, for instance, flash quickly through incised streams that are disconnected from their floodplains. Healthier connected floodplain-riparian areas can restore plant life, recharge underground aquifers, preserve flows for aquatic species, and even reduce flood risk. Water in the ground also won’t evaporate like it does from reservoirs. However, it’s less clear if this restoration work can provide the kind of material storage benefits providers want to see.

“We’re careful about saying that restoration of floodplains and wetlands does not produce more water, but it can change the timing,” says Jackie Corday, a consultant working with American Rivers on healthy headwaters issues. “The water can be attenuated [by absorption into the restored floodplain], the runoff is slowed when it’s stored as groundwater, then it slowly gets released throughout the summer instead of all at once.”

A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Stretching natural runoff releases into the hot summer months could help farmers irrigate for longer growing seasons without storing water above ground, but little research has quantified that potential. Researchers are eyeing projects meant to mimic beaver structures to see how they change flows. A project that’s currently underway to restore floodplains and wetlands upstream of Grand County’s Shadow Mountain Reservoir could offer a good model; preliminary assessments from that project are expected by the end of the year.

According to Melinda Kassen, senior counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, restoration fits into a more natural philosophy of water systems. She hopes to see more municipalities begin to view natural infrastructure as just as valid as traditional infrastructure.

“You just have to remember that there is an alternative, and sometimes that’s hard when you’ve done something one way for 150 years,” Kassen says. “When we talk about water storage now, one of the first things we say is that we should be looking at green infrastructure instead of gray.”

Thinking System-Wide

A bigger way of thinking is taking hold in the South Platte River Basin, home to approximately 70% of the state’s population and its largest projected water supply gap. The South Platte Basin Implementation Plan, completed in 2015 to inform the state water plan, showed that, with a population expected to reach 6 million by 2050, there could be a maximum annual water supply gap of 540,000 acre-feet.

The “status quo” strategy to fill that gap for cities is buy and dry, says Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in northeastern Colorado. Frank has always worked on behalf of the water users in his district, but as water stresses increase, he is thinking more creatively about the future of agriculture by “providing water security for both” farms and cities.

There are more water rights on the South Platte River than there is water to fulfill them in most years, which is why buy and dry — where cities purchase senior agricultural water rights, drying up a farm and gaining the priority to divert that water when flows are low — has been attractive to municipalities. As an alternative, new storage might help. Some flows are available for capture, just not every year. The South Platte Storage Study, ordered by the Colorado Legislature in 2016 and completed in 2017, found that while flows were extremely variable between 1996 and 2015, a median flow of 293,000 acre-feet per year in excess of South Platte River interstate compact obligations crossed the state line into Nebraska. The amount of water that could be put to use in Colorado is much less, the study found, but additional South Platte storage could help with a variety of things — from compact compliance to water sharing agreements to river flows and to better utilizing reusable return flows from upstream municipalities. It also found that a combination of storage pools working conjunctively up and down the river could be more beneficial than individual reservoirs.

To explore ways to move beyond individual reservoirs to close the gap, Frank and other water managers throughout the basin are collaborating on the South Platte Regional Opportunities Water Group, or SPROWG, and working toward a system-wide approach to storage and water use.

A group called the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, or SPROWG, is proposing to store 175,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs on the South Platte River, from north of Denver to the Morgan County line. The project also includes a long pipeline to pump water from the river back to the metro area to be cleaned and re-used. Graphic credit: CWCB via Aspen Journalism

In a feasibility study published in March 2020, SPROWG members identified four alternative concepts that could help close the supply gap without diverting additional water from the Western Slope or buying up valuable water rights from local farmers. The study analyzed the potential to store between 215,000 and 409,000 acre-feet of water in various generalized locations between Denver and the Nebraska state line. New storage would rely on available flows not obligated to existing water rights, water that can be reused, or temporary lease agreements with farmers. Stored water would then be used locally, transported through a pipeline for regional use, or exchanged between locations.

The idea, said SPROWG advisory committee member Lisa Darling, was to think regionally instead of by district, to move water where it’s needed at any given time.

“Maybe there was this sort of older water buffalo thinking in the past, but I think we know now that we can’t develop projects in a vacuum anymore,” says Darling, the executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. (Darling also serves as president of Water Education Colorado’s Board of Trustees.) “There’s a holistic system and that’s the prism we have to look through now.”

Dan Luecke, who fought multiple large infrastructure projects across the state, says he’s been encouraged by an increase in innovation where cities and growers are thinking more collaboratively on both storage and use. In an era of constraints, he says, it will take all users — even those across state lines — working together to think about creative and efficient approaches to the storage dilemma.

“If we could get cities and irrigators to agree to some kind of combined management scheme, we might need more storage but we could look at it in a more integrated and efficient context,” Luecke says. “It’s not about storage for this user or that area, it’s about an entire system that’s more flexible.”

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.

Special Report: Just 53% of #Colorado cities use permanent watering restrictions, despite proven savings — @WaterEdCO

Video credit: Water Education Colorado

Disclaimer: I work for the City of Thornton which is mentioned in the article.

From Water Education Colorado (Sarah Kuta):

Despite a stubborn, 20-year drought and reservoirs whose supplies are below normal, Colorado communities remain split on whether to impose permanent outdoor watering restrictions, according to a Fresh Water News analysis of local watering rules.

According to the analysis, which examined rules in 15 cities representing the state’s different geographies and major population centers, eight of the cities surveyed have enacted permanent restrictions. Seven cities have not, opting instead to enact variable, temporary watering rules each year.

But when communities do impose permanent rules, rather than adjusting them each spring depending on snowpack and reservoir levels, significant savings occur, with some communities seeing reductions of more than 40 percent in peak summer water demand, according to a recent study by Alliance for Water Efficiency, a nonprofit representing water and wastewater utilities across North America.

Those kinds of statistics helped Steamboat Springs last spring make the move to permanent water restrictions. Steamboat limits customers to watering their lawns three days per week based on the last digit of their address — even numbers can water on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays, while odd numbers can water on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The new rules also limit outdoor watering to between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m.

After years of variable outdoor watering rules that fluctuated depending on drought conditions, Steamboat Springs residents embraced the new permanent schedule right away, according to Kelly Romero-Heaney, the city’s former water resource manager who earlier this month became Assistant Director for Water at the Department of Natural Resources.

“Coloradans are ready to take this step,” said Romero-Heaney. “There really is no reason to water irrigated sod every day, unless it’s getting heavy use like you would see at a soccer field or a community park. It just makes perfect sense. We also recognize that it’s not fair for us to say to the Front Range utilities, ‘You need to conserve more, you need to conserve more, that’s your problem,’ if we’re not conserving ourselves. We wanted to lead by example.”

For its permanent watering rules, Steamboat Springs drew inspiration from the handful of other Colorado cities — both on the Front Range and in the mountains — that have made outdoor watering rules the norm, instead of the exception.

Some city and utility leaders say the watering rules help residents to permanently change their outdoor watering behaviors, given the aridification of the West and the accelerating pace of climate change. Others continue to monitor drought conditions throughout the summer months and adjust their watering rules depending on the current severity.

Permanent watering rules have indeed helped some Colorado cities reduce their outdoor water use, which can represent as much as half of all domestic water use. Castle Rock, for example, has seen a 20 percent reduction in per-person, per-day water use since enacting its permanent watering rules in 1985.

But city leaders also view permanent watering rules as just one tool in a broader water conservation toolbox, along with education and outreach, water-wise landscape and fixture incentives, tiered rate structures, and strict enforcement measures.

Conservation experts agree, noting that permanent watering rules aren’t a silver bullet and that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to water supply and demand management.

“You can’t prescribe a blanket strategy across every water provider typically,” said Bill Christiansen, director of programs for the Alliance for Water Efficiency. “It’s not fair to say a certain strategy would work for every water provider. You have to do what makes sense for your area.”

Why watering rules?

In the broadest sense, watering rules — both permanent and temporary — help utilities manage peak demand, the period of time when water use is the highest. In most communities, peak demand occurs during the summer, when residential and commercial customers water their lawns and gardens. These rules help ensure that utilities have enough supply to meet the needs of their customers. During drought, when water supply is low, many communities enact or tighten watering rules to help lower the demand for water.

“Outdoor water use can often represent a very large percentage of a water provider’s portfolio, and the capacity of a system is built to meet peak water use,” Christiansen said. “If outdoor water use can be reduced, it can be a very effective way to reduce water consumption. It can also be very helpful if a community is facing the need to expand their capacity — they can lower that peak and avoid or downsize any capacity or expansion projects. That can save ratepayers a lot of money if a large investment can be avoided.”

In a recent study, the alliance found that mandatory watering restrictions of all kinds lead to significant decreases in water demand. Some cities involved in the study saw up to a 42 percent reduction in peak monthly demand. Meanwhile, voluntary watering restrictions produced no statistically significant difference in water demand.

When comparing permanent versus temporary watering rules, the study found that water demand rebounded after cities lifted temporary drought restrictions, while cities that made watering restrictions permanent saw very low levels of rebound. Strong messaging and enforcement, as well as drought surcharges, were also important for reducing demand.

“Increasing rates is often the most effective tool for achieving water savings,” according to the study.

“New” water supply for development

Some growing Colorado cities view permanent watering rules and other conservation measures as a “new” source of water, because these measures help buy them more time before they have to seek out other, often costly new water supplies in advance of future development.

That’s been the case for Aurora since 2002, when the city first enacted its permanent rules limiting residents to watering no more than three days a week and, from May 1 to Sept. 30, to watering before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m.

But watering rules are just one piece of the puzzle in Aurora. The city also has a tiered rate structure, enforcement measures for violators and many financial incentives for water-conserving landscaping and devices; Aurora also re-uses much of its water through its innovative Prairie Waters system. These and other conservation efforts appear to be working, too. Since the early 2000s, Aurora’s water use has declined 36 percent, resulting in some of the lowest per-person water use on the Front Range.

“Aurora is not fully developed,” said Marshall Brown, general manager of Aurora Water. “We’ve got water supplies that are conservatively or easily able to meet the demand of our existing population. But we do have to continue to acquire supplies to meet future growth and demands that we know are coming our way. So with that, probably the easiest water supply we have is to extend our existing supplies. That’s the least costly option for us.”

“Sustained nutrition”

Other city leaders view permanent watering rules as a way to change their residents’ and businesses’ behaviors. Instead of flip-flopping between various watering schedules and rules throughout the summer, residents simply adapt to the new norm and move forward.

That was one big reason Thornton adopted permanent watering rules in March, where watering is limited to three days per week between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. At the same time, the city also updated its code to include beefed-up enforcement measures for leaks and other water-wasting behaviors.

“Planning for drought is one thing — we’ve got these short-term strategies where we reduce demand or grab extra water, but one of the real strains on all of our systems is the aridification of the region,” said Emily Hunt, deputy infrastructure director for Thornton Water, which also has a tiered rate structure and various water-wise incentive programs. “We’re becoming progressively drier and warmer and that’s a challenge to plan for. We have to be able to rely on consistent behavior change from our customers and just a consistent ethic and not this, ‘Oh, we’re in a drought we’re in an emergency,’ like the crash-dieting approach. We need more of a sustained nutrition approach.”

The same is true for Colorado Springs, which enacted its permanent watering rules in January 2020. After years of messaging and education around droughts, the city’s customers immediately adapted to the new watering rules, said Julia Gallucci, water conservation supervisor for Colorado Springs Utilities.

“We started communication on May 1 and by the first week in July, we could see by usage that the majority of our customers were all watering no more than three days a week, which was really encouraging,” Gallucci said.

In the first year under the new rules, Colorado Springs saw a 1 percent reduction in commercial irrigation and a 4 percent to 5 percent reduction in residential irrigation, Gallucci said. Those initial numbers were right on target with the city’s goal of contributing 11,000 to 13,000 acre-feet to its supply through conservation over the next 50 years through the watering rules and other measures.

“This is one of the best ways to implement a water conservation ethic across the community, because instead of being really mindful of drought in drought years, we’re mindful of it year after year,” Gallucci said. “Unlike drought response, when you’re trying to manage a dearth in water supply for a shorter period of time, these are planning well out into our future. It was kind of amazing how quickly and supportively our community responded to our water-wise rules last year.”

Storage questions

Of course, if cities are conserving water for future use, they need to have somewhere to store it, Gallucci pointed out. Water storage projects can be expensive and unpopular among some residents, but they’re an important piece of the equation.

“Conservation can only contribute so much to supply,” Gallucci said. “If you use none, you’ll have all of that to use later. But when you curb your water use by 5 percent each year, you have to have the storage to keep that additional water to use later on. Conservation and storage is this really careful and important balance in Colorado. Every large provider is considering different ways to expand their storage as a form of taking care of their supply.”

That’s the main reason Durango has not enacted permanent watering rules, according to Jarrod Biggs, the city’s assistant utilities director.

“We did a pretty thorough and thoughtful evaluation of this when we were developing our drought management plan,” Biggs said. “It seems like a rational exercise, it drives conservation. But we’re a surface supply city, we don’t have significant reservoir space to speak of and so if we enact watering restrictions, we’re just letting the water go by us. There’s the old adage that canals move water in space and reservoirs move water in time. We don’t have enough of that time machine in the City of Durango and we’ve built our policies around that.”

That’s not to say that Durango encourages residents to use water needlessly. In fact, the city has some “pretty punitive” tiered pricing for heavy users, Biggs pointed out. In the meantime, Biggs is pursuing other ways to boost supply in Durango, including using water from Lake Nighthorse, part of the Animas-La Plata Project.

“I’ve got a two-pronged approach,” Biggs said. “Let’s push and strive and discuss and encourage conservation because that will push out the investment that we need to make in additional water supplies, but at the same time, let’s pursue those investments in water supplies because we know they’ll only be more expensive in the future.”

The City of Boulder also continues to make outdoor watering decisions each spring, looking at drought indicators and the city’s water supply status after May 1. Instead of permanent watering rules, the city relies on tiered water prices, customized water budgets for customers, and incentives and education to encourage conservation.

“So far, while current conditions are drier than normal, our snowpack and reservoir levels are looking sufficient enough to not require restrictions,” said Kim Hutton, Boulder’s water resources manager. Still, she said, “Due to drier conditions, we continue to encourage water customers to use water efficiently.”

Looking ahead

Since Colorado communities are at different points in their water conservation journey and are facing their own unique challenges, the path forward will look different for every city.

Some communities are installing automated metering infrastructure systems, which they hope will help water users track and better manage their water use in real-time. Others are providing grants to homeowners’ associations and working with developers to encourage more water-friendly landscaping in neighborhoods.

But according to conservation experts, even those cities with the most robust water-saving initiatives underway must keep working, as a good water year here and there isn’t likely to alleviate the West’s long-term drought.

“All the strategies we have at our disposal for water conservation and efficiency fall along a spectrum,” says Waverly Klaw, director of resilient communities and watersheds for the Sonoran Institute, a Tucson-based conservation organization. “It’s important to keep moving in the same direction of greater and greater water savings. Some communities might have permanent watering schedules and that’s great, and that will save them a certain amount of water, but they should continue to look forward and look at additional opportunities and strategies to go beyond that. One tool or strategy doesn’t solve the whole problem.”

Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at sarahkuta@gmail.com.

How many “boatable” days does a #Colorado river possess? We’re about to find out — @WaterEdCO #GunnisonRiver

River rafters, fishermen and SUP users float on the Gunnison River on June 20, 2021. The Boatable Days Web Tool developed by Kestrel Kunz, American Whitewater’s Southern Rockies associate stewardship director, along with the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District and Trout Unlimited, forecasts flows for an upcoming boating season based on historic wet and dry years and will help river managers better manage rivers in a time of drought and climate change. Credit: Dean Krakel via Water Education Colorado

From Water Education Colorado (Dean Krakel):

Kestrel Kunz is surfing, Colorado style, in her kayak among the waves at the Gunnison Whitewater Park a few miles west of town. The waves are more than recreational play for Kunz. Flowing water is an important part of the work she does for American Whitewater as the organization’s Southern Rockies associate stewardship director. For Kunz, the Gunnison River is like a watery crystal ball that gives her a glimpse into a future increasingly threatened by drought and climate change.

Kunz is the mastermind behind a prototype web tool developed by American Whitewater and the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District that may change the future of river management across Colorado and eventually the West. The tool, the Upper Gunnison Basin Boatable Days Web Tool, is based on historical wet and dry year flows and other data and gives river users and water managers the ability to check an entire season’s flow forecast.

The Boatable Days Web Tool, Kunz said, “shows the relationship between river flow and recreational opportunities. With a little research we can use historic flows to project how a dry or wet year, a new diversion project, a climate change scenario, or reservoir operations can positively or negatively impact river recreation opportunities and thus Colorado’s robust outdoor economy.”

Being able to look ahead is an especially important feature for the state’s fishing and rafting outfitters, Kunz said. “The web tool will give an estimation on what flows are going to look like and how that is going to affect the number of commercial operating days in an upcoming season and help them plan in advance.” If outfitters know they’re not going to have sufficient boatable flows in September and October they might bring employees in earlier or may have to shift the way they do business and when they do it.

Kunz sees the tool as an opportunity for water managers both locally and at the state level to use the information to better balance flows for recreation with other needs. “This tool provides an important snapshot into how recreation opportunities are going to be impacted by drought. The web tool in no way is going to solve our drought problem, but it’s a critical piece of the puzzle that’s been missing before now.”

Kestrel Kunz surfs in her kayak at the Gunnison Whitewater Park in Gunnison, Colo. on May 24, 2021. Kunz is American Whitewater’s Southern Rockies associate stewardship director and is the creator of the Boatable Days Web Tool, which helps forecast river flows. Credit: Dean Krakel via Water Education Colorado

Kunz and American Whitewater are currently working to fit other pieces of Colorado’s river puzzle together by finalizing boatable days studies on the Roaring Fork, Crystal, and Poudre rivers and creating similar web tools.

“I think the biggest thing the tool does is give us a perspective on how climate change and drought are impacting our rivers,” said Sonja Chavez, general manager of The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. Chavez believes the next step will be to gain a better understanding of how changing river flows affect the local economy.

“Gunnison has been discovered,” Chavez said. “We have a lot of people visiting and a lot more people on the river.” As river flows drop, rafters, boaters, and other water users are concentrated into certain segments of the river with more frequency, impacting the fishery and wildlife, boat ramps, wetlands and the boating experience. You can see in water short years how that recreation season is shortened and that’s important for a community like Gunnison that is dependent on recreation.

This web tool is going to be a good model for how communities can come together and identify how their rivers are functioning,” said Trout Unlimited’s Dan Omasta. Omasta was TU’s grassroots coordinator during the development stage of the Boatable Days Water Tool and worked with Kunz and American Whitewater to identify ideal flow ranges for fishing and floating, and the high and low thresholds for navigation.

“When is the river too low to float for a dory or raft with clients?” said Omasta. “The tool will especially help identify sections of river that become unnavigable at certain flows. The Taylor and Gunnison rivers are seeing a lot of pressure. They get busier every year and one of the ways to tackle that challenge is to spread people out and encourage them to be floating and fishing different sections.

“More people are recreating on rivers and that’s awesome to see. We just need to be smarter about how we manage it and hopefully this tool can play a part in that,” Omasta said.

Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at dkrakel@gmail.com.

Colorado Journalists: Join Your Peers to Strengthen Your Coverage of Water in the West — @WaterEdCO

Wallace Stegner. Ed Marston/HCN file photo

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.

Learn more and apply by June 23

Friend of Coyote Gulch Chris Woodka past water reporter extraordinaire. Photo credit The High Country News

2021 #ColoradoSprings Urban Water Cycle, June 11 or 12, 2021 — @WaterEdCO

Photo credit: Water Education Colorado

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!

    Shaped By #Storage: The How and Why of Storing #Water in #Colorado — Headwaters Magazine

    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.)

    Farview Reservoir Mesa Verde NP

    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.

    Standley Lake sunset. Photo credit Blogspot.com.

    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.

    Grays and Torreys, Dillon Reservoir May 2017. Photo credit Greg Hobbs.

    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.

    Graphic credit: RogerWendell.com

    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.

    The Spring issue of Headwaters Magazine is hot off the presses from @WaterEdCO

    Click here for all the inside skinny:

    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.

    Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

    Water Leadership program builds skills, confidence to tackle escalating #water challenges — @WaterEdCO

    Water Education Colorado’s 2021 Water Leaders May 2021.

    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.”

    For more information about the program visit: http://www.wateredco.org/programs-events/water-leaders/.

    About Water Education Colorado

    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.