The court said that Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser had met the requirements for a temporary injunction to be granted. The decision came as a federal court in California rejected a similar request that was nationwide in scope and backed by several states including California and New York, according to Bloomberg business news.
The decision means the state will have more time to set up a new regulatory program to replace at least a portion of the protections lost under the new Waters of the U.S. rule, or WOTUS, as it is known.
During this May 8, 2020 webinar we heard an update on progress and current thinking around demand management in Colorado. Speakers discuss what “equity” might mean and how a pilot project slated to begin this summer could help answer some technical questions around feasibility. Join us to hear from leaders around the state working to move this exploration forward.
Amy Ostdiek, Deputy Chief of the Federal, Interstate and Water Information Section, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Paul Bruchez, Reeder Creek Ranch and Outfitter
Kyle Whitaker, Water Rights Manager, Northern Water
Mark Harris, General Manager, Grand Valley Water Users Association
Chatfield Reservoir, one of the largest liquid playgrounds in the Denver metro area, will take on a new role this year, storing water under an innovative $171 million deal completed last month between the state, water providers, environmental groups and the federal government.
For millions of boaters, campers, cyclists, runners and bird watchers, the 350,000 acre-foot reservoir that sits southwest of the city is a year-round recreational hot spot, with 1.6 million annual visitors.
But for thirsty Front Range communities and farmers nearby and downstream, including Highlands Ranch, Castle Rock, the Greeley-based Central Colorado Water Conservancy District and six other water providers, Chatfield represents a rare opportunity to transform a reservoir once designed strictly for flood protection into a much-needed water storage vessel, a key goal of the Colorado Water Plan.
Thanks to the redesign, the reservoir will be able to hold an additional 20,600 acre-feet of water, an amount sufficient to serve more than 40,000 new homes or irrigate roughly 10,000 acres of farm land, while maintaining its ability to protect the metro area from flooding, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“It is cool to see it done,” said Randy Ray, manager of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District and president of the Chatfield Reservoir Mitigation Company, Inc., which oversees the project. “It will be better when it fills up with water.”
Originally built by the Army Corps in 1975 to help control the South Platte River during floods, by the 1990s water agencies and others began looking at ways to actually store water there.
It wasn’t easy. To raise the shore level, hundreds of acres of land along the reservoir’s banks were revegetated to replace low-lying areas that will be inundated as water is stored. The cove that houses the marina was dredged, new boat ramps were built, and new habitat for birds was created downstream in Douglas County.
A 2,100 acre-foot pool of water for environmental purposes was also set aside. It will be used to provide water for recreation and improve flows for the South Platte River through Denver, Ray said.
Though the project has been praised for its multi-purpose nature, it also triggered a long-running battle with the Denver chapter of the Audubon Society, which feared the construction damage to bird habitat would not be adequately repaired in the reservoir’s new design.
The society’s lawsuit to stop the project ultimately failed. But Polly Reetz, the chapter’s conservation chair, said they plan to closely monitor how habitat and birds respond.
“We’re still not convinced it’s going to work,” Reetz said. “They’ve done some good work out there. Plum Creek is much better. But we plan to watch it very carefully and see what happens.”
The project’s $171 million price tag was paid by the cities and farmers who will store water there, with additional funds provided by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the federal government.
“This project is a great example of federal, state and local authorities working together to address vital water supply issues along the Front Range,” said Army Corps Omaha District Commander Col. John Hudson in a statement.
That the reservoir is a highly valued part of the outdoor recreation scene in metro Denver was clear Monday morning. More than two dozen cars waited patiently to enter the park, campgrounds were brimming with visitors, and paddle boaters and sailors were already gliding across the lake.
Elizabeth Jorde and her son Jeremiah were waiting at the marina, hoping to reserve a slip for their family pontoon boat on Father’s Day.
Jorde said she’s looking forward to seeing what a fuller reservoir will look like on the many days she and her family come out to relax. But she also said the $171 million price tag seemed steep for the amount of water the project will store.
“I was flabbergasted,” she said. “It will be interesting to see if it is worth it.”
For Randy Ray the project will provided 4,274 acre-feet of critical new storage space for the farmers in his district, who anteed up $20 million to help get the deal done.
And he said it is proof that collaborative solutions to Colorado’s looming water shortages can be found.
“We rolled up our sleeves, put our differences aside and got this thing built,” Ray said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
Click here to read the statement From Water Education Colorado:
In January 2020, the Board of Trustees of Water Education Colorado adopted a set of Equity Principles to guide our programs. These principles followed meetings with Black and Latino colleagues. We learned from their personal experiences how racism devastates people of color and their families. The recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery shockingly demonstrate how Black people and other People of Color continue to suffer from institutionalized racism and crimes perpetrated against them. We stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in its insistence for justice and equity.
In our conversations, we are trying to listen more than we speak. We hear from our Black, Latino, and other non-white friends, neighbors and colleagues about the inequities they are more likely to experience in terms of access to education, access to outdoor recreation, and access to equal representation in decision making bodies, all of which affect their ability to influence the future of water for our state. With our Equity Principles (also in Spanish), we established our clear commitment to breaking down barriers to participation and providing opportunities for equipping all Coloradans, regardless of background, race or demographic, with the knowledge and skills needed to engage in making smart decisions for a sustainable water future.
In 2002, WEco’s formation was catalyzed by an act of the General Assembly providing startup funds and a legislative mandate to “help Colorado citizens understand water as a limited resource and make informed decisions.” We believe this mandate includes ALL people who call Colorado home.
For the past 18 years, we have worked to provide reliable, trustworthy, impartial water reporting and educational opportunities that help advance democratic systems for water management and protection. We have done so according to our values (read them here), which include that “Water is Life,” and therefore necessary to every person and living thing, and that “Information is for All,” and should be accessible to anyone who wants to understand and engage.
We are making strides to ensure our programs are available to assist diverse community members in understanding water well enough that they can confidently participate in the discourse around water issues at local, regional and state levels, for the benefit of current and future generations.
We recognize these small steps on our part are merely a start, but we hope they ripple through the Colorado water community as we work with our members, partners and program participants to be an agent for change. We are committed to scrutinizing our internal policies and procedures to ensure they are equitable and inclusive, and to continuing to listen and learn.
With warming temperatures in Colorado’s mountains and spring runoff in full swing, the whitewater boating season should be off to a roaring start.
But Colorado’s stringent COVID-19 travel and recreation restrictions are forcing commercial rafting companies to create social distance on unruly rivers and face the potential for smaller crowds.
“The snowpack’s in good shape,” said John Kreski, rafting coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Arkansas River Headwaters Area. “But the phones aren’t ringing. This is very frustrating.”
Colorado’s highest flows, as of mid-May, are in the northern part of the state, with the Poudre and North Platte at 100 to 120 percent of normal, according to Aldis Strautins, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
The upper Colorado, Gunnison, Green and lower Colorado rivers are all flowing at between 70 to 80 percent of normal, while the Arkansas River, from Buena Vista to the Royal Gorge, is flowing at 80 percent of normal.
Because of an unusually warm and dry April, flows are trending downward in the central and southern mountains.
The South Platte River and Clear Creek are running at 64 to 70 percent of normal, while the Rio Grande and San Juan River are just 45 percent of normal.
Northern Colorado rivers, such as the Poudre, will have enough snowmelt to extend flows for boating into late summer. Elsewhere in the state the best floating will occur from May into early July. “Get down into that 70 to 75 percent and you’re looking at a reduced season,” Strautins said. “There’s just not enough snow to extend it.”
Hoping to maximize the early season flows, outfitters are anxiously waiting to see how many visitors will show, according to Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, a trade group.
“Who’s going to travel? Who’s got money? Will we even be traveling or flying to destinations?” he asked.
Still, Hamel is hopeful that the state’s waterways can be opened for commercial use by early June, bringing some much-needed economic activity to the state.
Colorado’s rafting industry is the No. 2 contributor to the state’s recreation economy, behind skiing. Centered on the Colorado, Rio Grande, Arkansas and Platte rivers, it contributed nearly $188 million to the state’s economy, according to a report of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. Visitors spent an average of $135 on a river adventure, including food, lodging, gas and souvenirs.
These numbers don’t include hundreds of homegrown rafters and kayakers who recreate on Colorado’s rivers or the large numbers of boaters from out of state that bring their own gear to the hallmark waterways.
How COVID-19 will impact the industry this summer isn’t clear yet, though major changes are underway.
“Every river floating company will have to adapt their own safety procedures to the kind of trips that they offer,” said Hamel. “A half-day trip down the Taylor River can’t be handled the same as a multi-day trip down the Gunnison Gorge. Some rafts are bigger. Some are smaller. The rafting industry can’t do a one size fits all.”
One set of COVID-19 rafting guidelines developed by Mark Schumacher, owner of Three Rivers Resort in Almont, Colo., includes daily screening of employees, non-touch guest check-in, and hand sanitizer in all office and retail areas.
In addition, directional signs will guide visitors to wherever they need to go, with group size monitored by employees. The number of people on a raft will be reduced to maintain proper social distancing, with spaced seating and open windows on vans and shuttles, disinfection of equipment after each use, and instructions to clients to bring their own water bottles and food.
Andy Neinas, a river running veteran with Echo Canyon Outfitters in Cañon City, said the rafting industry is well-equipped to handle the COVID-19 restrictions.
“All of us are juggling things to make it all work. We’re going to being doing it differently, but nobody does it better than Colorado,” Neinas said.
Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Alex Zorn):
According to the National Weather Service, rising temperatures this week led to rising river levels.
In fact, in the past week, river flows at the Colorado/Utah border have climbed from just over 7,000 cubic feet per second to nearly 13,000 cfs, according to flow data from the United States Geological Survey.
NWS service hydrologist Aldis Strautins said warmer days and nights helped the snowpack melt in the beginning of the week, resulting in higher river flows.
“Most sites will stay below any flood concerns. A few areas in the northwest part of Colorado, including the Yampa Basin and some of the smaller rivers, may reach higher levels,” he said. “We’re monitoring it right now.”
Wednesday’s river flow data for the Colorado River at the Utah border had the river flowing at 12,900 cfs. The average for May 20 at that spot in the river is more than 15,100 cfs.
Colorado and other Western states will be hard pressed to shield their rivers and streams under a new federal Clean Water Act rule finalized last month, largely because hundreds of shallow Western rivers are no longer protected, and writing new state laws and finding the cash to fill the regulatory gap will likely take years to accomplish, officials said.
“We are pleased the final rule protects important agriculture exemptions and provides continued assurance that states retain authority and primary responsibility over land and water resources…However, the federal government’s decision to remove from federal oversight ephemeral waters, certain intermittent streams, and many wetlands is based on flawed legal reasoning and lacks a scientific basis,” Weiser said in a statement.
Whether Colorado will seek an injunction to stop the new rule from being enforced and whether it will join other Western states in a legal challenge isn’t clear. Weiser and Pfaltzgraff declined to discuss their legal strategy, other than vowing to take action.
The Colorado Water Congress, which represents hundreds of water agencies and agricultural interests, had been largely supportive of the new rule before it was finalized. But Executive Director Doug Kemper said the group hasn’t finished its analysis of the final version.
Formally adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency April 21, the move to significantly revise the WOTUS rule began after President Trump took office and vowed to reverse policies established under the Obama Administration.
The new rule has already triggered a handful of lawsuits seeking to stop the EPA from enforcing them. One was filed by cattle growers in New Mexico alleging that the rule is still too onerous, and at least two others have been filed by environmental interests in South Carolina and Massachusetts, who say the rule leaves too many streams unprotected.
And more are expected.
The Clean Water Act (CWA) has been legally hamstrung for years 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, and what is allowable for industries and wastewater treatment plants to discharge into streams.
One rule never fits all
Administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA, the CWA, now nearly 50 years old, is credited with making U.S. waters some of the cleanest in the world. But it has also been, at times, fiendishly difficult to administer, in part because of the nation’s widely different geographies.
Go to the East or Midwest, and massive rivers, such as the Ohio and Missouri, are filled with barge and shipping traffic and are clearly “navigable.” That was the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was considered navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 44 percent of Colorado’s streams are intermittent, meaning they are sometimes dry, and 24 percent are ephemeral, meaning they can be dry for months or years and appear only after extraordinary rain or snow. Just 32 percent of Colorado streams are classified as being perennial, meaning they flow year round.
Under the new rule, only perennial and intermittent streams, or those deemed navigable, will be regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states would no longer be protected under the law.
A financial quandary
And that worries state water quality officials who are responsible for protecting Colorado’s streams.
They warn that writing state rules and finding millions of dollars in new cash to enforce water quality protections will be difficult, especially as the COVID-19 budget crisis unfolds. Officials of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which includes the Water Quality Control Division, say that until state rules are in place, new housing developments and other projects could be stopped because there is no mechanism yet to issue the permits that were once issued by the federal government.
“While the specific impacts of this rule still are being determined, there’s no question this rollback removes huge swaths of Colorado’s waters from federal jurisdiction—the most of any administration since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The state will need to put in significant resources to determine how to continue to protect these waters and to determine how this rule will be implemented as the rule is unclear as written,” the CDPHE said in an email.
“Specific construction projects and associated permitting processes that were originally covered…won’t be able to move forward without doing so illegally and harming the environment,” the CDPHE said.
Melinda Kassen, general counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said it would make sense to pursue an injunction to give the state time to set up its own regulations and find a way to fund them.
“If you read the economic analysis that accompanies the rule, there are assumptions that the states will step up and take this over. The potential is for it to be really dysfunctional. We’ve got to get something set up,” Kassen said.
EPA officials have said they don’t expect federal funding to enforce the Clean Water Act will be reduced, even though the new WOTUS rule is smaller in scope and governs fewer waterways.
Still the CDPHE and most opponents of the new rule believe millions of dollars will be needed to fill in any regulatory gap.
How far Colorado will go to challenge the new rule isn’t clear. The CDPHE’s Pfaltzgraff said his agency is still analyzing its next steps.
“It is now up to the state to provide the necessary protection of both Colorado’s economy and the environment,” Pfaltzgraff said in a statement. “We are going to do everything we can, while also addressing the impacts from COVID-19, to ensure Coloradans live in the healthy state they deserve.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
We’ve been sending a weekly “Six Feet in Solidarity” email on Thursdays to stay connected and continue serving up resources to build your water knowledge around different topics while social distancing. We’ve been pulling from our library of publications, news stories, webinars, videos, radio programs, and more, and also sharing key resources produced by others in the water community.
Thus far we’ve sent emails focused on land use and water, stream management plans in Colorado, environmental justice and equity in the water sector, water reuse, alternatives to ag transfers or ATMs, forest and watershed health, and climate change and its projected impacts on Western water.
After eight weeks, as Colorado’s stay-at-home order is replaced with its new safer at home, we bring you the last in our Six Feet in Solidarity series. This week is Drinking Water Week, which recognizes the vital role tap water plays in daily life, the infrastructure that is required to carry it to and from homes and businesses, and the important behind-the-scences work of water professionals. To celebrate, we’re focusing our final solidarity email on drinking water. Read on to learn more. Continue to be well and don’t stop social distancing!
This guide discusses how groundwater is formed, regulated and used in Colorado. It explores the factors threatening groundwater supplies in some areas and illuminates how the role of groundwater could be expanded in Colorado’s water future.
Even before COVID-19 swept across Colorado and other states, concern over the cost of water had begun to rise.
Nearly 12 percent of American households lack access to affordable water, a number that is expected to triple in the next five years, according to a 2018 study from Michigan State University (MSU).
The good news: Western states are still able to provide relatively affordable water, but that could change as utilities try to recoup losses associated with the pandemic and begin to pay for the massive repairs and upgrades to their systems that were on the drawing board before COVID-19 struck.
In Colorado, newer infrastructure and conscious rate-setting has kept water largely affordable, as in most Western states. The MSU study found that less than 8 percent of Colorado’s census tracts were at “high risk” of an affordability crisis based on income, better than all but 12 other states. (“High risk” tracts were defined with a median income of less than $32,000, where rate increases would disproportionately affect ratepayers’ budgets.) Among the regions identified in the study as at risk were Denver, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and Alamosa in the San Luis Valley.
Water systems built in the mid-century infrastructure boom or to comply with the Clean Water Act requirements of the 1970s are reaching the end of their useful life. That’s on top of the massive programs to replace lead and copper lines, the need to procure more water in drought-prone areas, and the cost of adapting infrastructure to cope with extreme weather from climate change.
According to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), water rates have risen faster than inflation since 2002.
And for customers on fixed incomes, even small increases can make a huge difference for their budgets.
“When we think about affordability, we’re not concerned about whether it’s expensive for someone to water their lawn. We want to know that people can cook, shower, clean, flush their toilets…the basic necessities,” says Manny Teodoro, an associate professor in the political science department at Texas A&M University.
According to Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman, most households the utility serves pay less than 1 percent of their income for water. Denver Water does not have specific numbers on how many households pay more than 1 percent for drinking water, Hartman says, but added that, “Socioeconomic conditions in the Denver Water service area compare favorably to U.S. averages and have continued to improve in recent years.”
But with costly repairs coming due, it will take a concerted effort to maintain high-quality infrastructure and deliver quality water, while keeping rates from ballooning in a way that disproportionately affects lower-income families.
In Colorado, drinking water infrastructure needs are estimated at more than $10 billion, according to the 2020 Colorado Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, with a chunk of that cost going back to ratepayers. That’s prompted discussions about how to best fund those repairs—and how to make sure that no customer feels an unfair burden when utilities need more capital.
“The question of the [utility] bill has always been there, but it’s becoming more and more significant,” says Andrew Rheem, a senior manager with the Colorado-based consulting firm Raftelis, which has worked with utilities in Boulder, Greeley and Denver. “How it gets addressed is going to continue to evolve, but right now a lot of communities are just wondering how to find any solution.”
The cost of water
When water affordability enters the national conversation, it’s usually because of a crisis.
In 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department took an extraordinary step: In order to recoup unpaid bills, it shut off running water to more than 30,000 low-income households who were behind on payments. As the utility worked to put customers on a payment plan and restore service, the action drew a rebuke from around the world; even the United Nations sent a delegation to the city and deemed it “contrary to human rights.”
Traditionally, governments and utilities, including Denver Water, determine affordability with the EPA calculation that compares water and wastewater bills to a region’s median household income (MHI). If drinking water doesn’t exceed 2.5 percent of MHI and wastewater doesn’t exceed 2 percent, they are considered affordable.
According to Texas A&M’s Teodoro, the working poor are paying roughly 10 percent of their income on water nationally. That number could rise if economic trends continue.
“In a lot of communities, things like rent and energy are going up faster than incomes are,” Teodoro says. “Both the numerator and the denominator are going in the wrong direction.”
Most of the pain, however, is likely to be felt in the American South, where incomes are lower and infrastructure is in more desperate need of repair. Cities in the Northeast, where pipes can date back to the early 1900s and the income gap is wider, are also in greater danger.
Elizabeth Mack, who authored the MSU study, says affordability is posed to be a “burgeoning crisis.” It already weighs on households that are struggling with high rents, energy bills and food costs, but could soon rise even more.
“You can start seeing problems affecting households we consider lower-middle income,” Mack says. “These households are already squeezed from a variety of perspectives. If incomes were going up a lot, this might not be an issue, but they’re just not.”
The crisis also breaks along color lines. In a 2019 report, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People found “a clear connection between racial residential segregation and black access to water systems,” including rising rates that disproportionately affected black neighborhoods.
The West, however, has largely avoided those problems. In Teodoro’s national analysis, he found that Western states had, on balance, more affordable rates than the rest of the country. NACWA’s annual Cost of Clean Water Index found that EPA Region 8 (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota) had the lowest average wastewater charge of any region, with a $289 annual average compared to the $504 national figure.
That’s in part because of less urgent infrastructure needs. Although much of Colorado’s water infrastructure dates back to at least the 1960s, it’s still in better shape than pipes and treatment plants in other parts of the country. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that Colorado needs $10.19 billion in drinking water infrastructure improvements over the next two decades, a huge bill but less than other states like Pennsylvania ($16.77 billion), Alabama ($11.26 billion), and Ohio ($13.41 billion).
Even areas where income levels could signal affordability challenges have kept water rates low. The San Luis Valley was a high-risk tract in Mack’s study, based on median income, but rates in the City of Alamosa are not a serious burden for residents. Heather Brooks, city manager for Alamosa, said the city has, if anything, kept rates too low to cover capital costs. A half-cent sales tax dedicated to water infrastructure has helped defray those costs.
Pueblo Water spokesman Joe Cervi likewise said that the utility has lowered costs by keeping a lean staff and planning ahead for major repairs. According to city data, the average bill for 11,000 gallons is $53.15, well below the Front Range average of $62.82.
A helping hand
Often, affordability can butt up against one of the biggest priorities for Colorado utilities: conservation. In 2014, Longmont Water decided to encourage conservation by charging customers based on use, rather than the lifeline rate that charged everyone the same amount for their first 2,000 gallons. There was concern, however, that the change could punish families who need lots of water to shower and cook, says Becky Doyle, a rate analyst and manager for the City of Longmont’s Department of Public Works and Natural Resources.
“A grandma who lives by herself can keep the water bill low, but that’s not the only kind of low-income household composition we need to be worrying about,” Doyle says. “Low-income households aren’t all low water users.”
Longmont already had a rebate program for fixed-income seniors, but extended that benefit to any household eligible for the Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP). But, in a sign that water isn’t top of mind for many households, only two additional applicants signed up in the first year. Expanded outreach has garnered about 130 participants, but Doyle acknowledged that’s still not everyone.
Facing much-needed infrastructure repairs, other utilities across the state have sought to blunt the impact to customers with their own expanded assistance programs. Denver Water, for example, has some 140 projects planned for the next five years, which call for higher customer bills. After a rate increase in 2019 that added roughly 55 cents per month for urban customers (the increase was between $1.90 and $3.40 per month for suburban households), the board has approved another increase for 2020 that will add about a dollar more per month. (For suburban households, the increase will be between $1.15 and $1.36.)
The increases to the fixed monthly charge, which is associated with the meter size, are being done slowly to even out revenues year to year, and to limit the impact on the community, the utility says. Denver also uses a three-tiered charge and assesses indoor use, such as flushing toilets, cooking and bathing, at the lowest rate to reduce the burden on low-income families that, say, won’t pay for watering a lawn. The lowest rate is also measured during the winter, reflecting “essential, nondiscretionary usage,” Denver Water says.
Denver Water also offers assistance, like a one-time courtesy cancellation and payment extension for water shutoffs after delinquent payments and a pilot partnership with Mile High United Way to provide one-time bill relief and like other utilities has pledged to suspend shutoffs to help protect those who’ve lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
Elsewhere, utilities are exploring income-based structures that would ensure that the poorest families face the lowest cost burden. Philadelphia in 2017 rolled out a first-in-the-nation structure that charged lower rates for households at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty line, which some experts predicted would actually increase revenues by reducing missed or late payments. Baltimore, where some poor black residents have complained of triple-digit bills, has also debated a similar structure, and advocates are watching closely to see if the model could be expanded to more cities that are facing payment crises.
Is there a fix?
For utilities, providing service without raising rates would be easiest with an influx of federal funding. Washington has been talking about water infrastructure assistance, including through the proposed LIFT Act (Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act), and under some of the COVID-19 relief measures, money may be provided to help utilities offset their infrastructure costs.
And all the while, drinking water standards and infrastructure costs will only pile up. That, says MSU’s Mack, means utilities need to start planning to avoid the worst impacts.
“We can’t say what’s going to happen, but there could be some big spikes in bills if all this deferred investment comes up at one time. The risk is when that gets to households that are already being squeezed,” she says.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Headwaters magazine.
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.
Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
Gov. Jared Polis, even as COVID-19 swept across the state, gave his stamp of approval to five major pieces of water legislation, paving the way for everything from more water for environmental streamflows to a new study on how to limit water speculation.
Lawmakers announced March 13 that they would temporarily suspend work to comply with stay-at-home orders, and now plan to return May 18 to complete the session.
Signed into law in late March and early April, the new measures represent months if not years of negotiations between farm, environmental and legal interests that came to fruition this year thanks to hard-fought bipartisan agreements.
Three of the new laws address water for streams, fish and habitat, allowing more loans of water to bolster environmental flows, protecting such things as water for livestock from being appropriated for instream flows, and using an existing water management tool, known as an augmentation plan, to set aside water rights for streams.
Expanded instream flow loans
House Bill 1157 expands the state’s existing instream flow loan program, which allows a water right holder to loan water to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to preserve flows on streams where the state agency already holds an instream flow water right. The CWCB is the only entity in Colorado that can legally hold such rights, intended to benefit the environment by protecting a stream’s flows from being diverted below a certain level. Under existing law, a loan may be exercised for just three years in a single 10-year period.
The new law, however, expands the loan program by authorizing a loan to be used to improve as well as preserve flows, and increases the number of years it can be exercised from three to five, but for no more than three consecutive years. It also allows a loan to be renewed for two additional 10-year periods.
“This bill becoming law is crucial for our state’s rivers, our outdoor recreation businesses, and downstream agricultural users who depend on strong river flows,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon. After a similar bill he sponsored failed to pass last year, he said, “I knew I needed to work to bring more people to the table and improve the bill so we could garner the support we needed, and that is what we did. I am thrilled that we were able to get this done with strong bipartisan support.”
To ensure protection of existing water rights, House Bill 1157 increases the comment period on loan applications from 15 to 60 days; allows appeal of the State Engineer’s decision on a loan application to water court; and requires the CWCB to give preference to loans of stored water over loans of direct flow water where available.
“There’s no injury to other water uses. And there’s a methodology if someone feels they are injured they can go to the water referee in an expedited manner,” said Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle and one of the bill’s sponsors.
Protecting existing water uses
House Bill 1159 provides a means for existing water uses, such as water for livestock, that have not been legally quantified to continue when an instream flow right downstream is designated. Current law is unclear as to whether preexisting uses that lack a court decree are protected. To provide clarity, the bill requires the State Engineer to confirm any claim of an existing use in administering the state’s instream flow program.
Augmentation of instream flows
House Bill 1037 authorizes the CWCB to use an acquired water right, whose historic consumptive use has been previously quantified and changed to include augmentation use, to increase river flows for environmental benefits. Farmers have long used so-called augmentation water to help offset their water use, particularly of groundwater, when that use is not in priority within Colorado’s water rights system. Now that same water can be used to boost environmental flows.
Anti-speculation study and water conservation in master planning
Beyond instream flows, Gov. Polis signed Senate Bill 48, which requires the Colorado Department of Natural Resources to form a working group to explore ways to strengthen anti-speculation laws. The agency must report its recommendations to the interim Water Resources Review Committee by Aug. 15, 2021.
Also signed into law was House Bill 1095, which authorizes counties and municipalities that have adopted master plans that contain a water supply element to include state water plan goals and conservation policies that may affect land development approvals.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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From Water Education Colorado (Laura Paskus and Caitlin Coleman):
When Water Justice is Absent, Communities Speak Up
Two years ago, a company that analyzes property data crunched the numbers on more than 8,600 zip codes in the United States and found that America’s most polluted neighborhood was in northeast Denver. The study, from ATTOM Data Solutions, shows that Denver’s 80216 zip code, which includes Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and River North, topped its “environmental hazard index.” As of 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory reported that 22 facilities were still releasing toxic chemicals in 80216, chemicals such as nickel, lead, methanol, creosote and more.
“The neighborhood is parked between gas refineries, the former airport, and then, also, what was at one time an Army base making mustard gas,” says University of Denver law professor Tom Romero, II, who has spent his career dissecting the factors behind environmental injustices in Colorado. There are two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites in 80216, plus the knot of Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 severs the neighborhood from the rest of Denver and increases pollution from highway traffic. The area is also home to a predominantly low-income, Hispanic and Latinx community, says Candi CdeBaca, Denver City Councilwoman for northeast Denver’s District 9.
Last year, CdeBaca became the first person from the neighborhoods to represent on the Denver City Council, ever. She points to an opposition campaign to the Central 70 Project as the beginning of the neighborhood rallying to achieve representation against environmental inequities.
The Central 70 Project broke ground in 2018 to widen the highway through Denver. It will demolish the viaduct that carries I-70 over Elyria-Swansea, replacing it with a below-grade highway. Residents had a list of worries: losing their homes to eminent domain, living even closer to the highway, and unearthing a Superfund site, which they feared would re-expose harmful heavy metals and increase health risks, CdeBaca says.
Their opposition campaign didn’t stop the highway work, but the community came together and won in one sense—the Colorado Department of Transportation will pay for a long-term health study, collecting data to determine whether toxins in the air, soil and water are making residents sick. They also gained a louder voice. “Those losses were the first start of me galvanizing some community power around environmental racism,” says CdeBaca. “Now we have this amplification of groups who never had representation in our government from the neighborhoods that were polluted.” She points to the importance of local voice and representation in all issues, particularly for communities that want to bring about environmental justice. “There is nothing that I support more than activating people power,” CdeBaca says.
With water affordability, access and quality challenges—all of which can translate into health impacts—the role of water in Colorado isn’t always one of fostering healthy communities, yet it could and should be. What contributes to these less-than-whole communities? And what does it take to recognize the issues and how they evolved, address power imbalances, engage the community, and restore equity where it’s been missing?
What is Environmental Justice?
Environmental injustices in Colorado, or anywhere, can span cities and suburbs, sovereign tribal lands, and rural communities. They have their roots in narratives of immigration, development and industry, and political power dynamics, further influenced by evolving legal and regulatory frameworks.
In 1990, EPA Administrator William Reilly created an Environmental Equity Workgroup to assess evidence that “racial minority and low-income communities bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population.” The agency, which went on to establish an Environmental Equity office in 1992, later changing its name to the Office of Environmental Justice in 1994, defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” It has since expanded to offer a range of programs that provide services from grant funding to technical assistance and training. It also runs a National Environmental Justice Hotline.
Another early definition of environmental justice came from University of Michigan professor Bunyan Bryant, who said it refers to places “where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential.”
Scholars add additional layers to the term—it’s not just about identifying who is or isn’t harmed but includes some form of restitution, says Kelsea MacIlroy, an adjunct professor and PhD candidate in the sociology department at Colorado State University.
“There are a lot of different ways to talk about justice that aren’t just about who and how but also about a long-term social justice component,” MacIlroy says. “Does the community actually have an authentic seat at the table in addressing the ills?”
80216 may feel it all. “Denver was segregated, and that segregation manifested itself in a variety of ways in terms of water,” Romero says. “It meant that Denver’s communities of color, particularly African Americans and Mexican Americans, were living in close proximity to the areas with heavy industry, where the affordable housing is.” That’s a pattern and practice, he says, that was established in the 20th century and continues today. Many environmental justice cases have similar roots, as repeated practices that ultimately create winners and losers.
When Government Fails
Americans watched one of the most high-profile environmental justice cases unfold in Flint, Michigan, in 2015 and 2016 when corroded lead pipes poisoned the population.
To save money, in April 2014, the city switched its drinking water source and began supplying residents with Flint River water that wasn’t treated under federal anti-corrosion rules. The population was predominantly black, and more than 40 percent of residents were below the poverty threshold. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, no level of lead exposure is safe but higher lead exposure leads to more health challenges including anemia, kidney and brain damage, heart disease, decreased IQ and more. In children, the impacts are especially toxic.
Residents began noticing a rusty tint to their tap water in the summer of 2015, but it wasn’t until October 2015 that the governor ordered Flint’s water source switched. By then, though the new water was safe, the plumbing wasn’t—corroded pipes continued to leach lead into drinking water. Bottled water and free faucet filters to remove lead at the point of use were distributed.
More than five years after the crisis in Flint began, the city and its residents are still recovering. The city’s FAST Start program is removing and replacing lead and galvanized steel service lines across the city, but it’s a big, expensive job. FAST Start has been funded with $25 million from the State of Michigan and $100 million allocated by Congress through the Federal Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act of 2016. As of December 2019, less than 40 percent of the city’s pipes had been replaced, with many residents still relying on faucet filters or bottled water.
Fifteen state and local officials were charged with various crimes, including involuntary manslaughter—some took plea deals and most cases were dropped. Residents now mistrust their water and water providers. That mistrust has flooded the nation, with many more communities now coping with elevated lead levels and lead pipe replacement.
According to the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s final report, released in 2016, breakdowns in protocol, dismissal of problems, and failure to protect people occurred at nearly every level of government. Not only were customers supplied with unsafe drinking water, government officials were slow to acknowledge the problems and rectify the issue by providing safe water. According to the 2016 report, the Flint water crisis is a “story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental justice.” Had there been local control of resources and decisions, they write, the problems wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.
Coping with Forever Chemicals
Flint’s toxic water is not unlike the water quality issues discovered in 2016 in the Colorado towns of Fountain and Security-Widefield. That’s when water providers and residents learned that PFAS chemicals, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, were detected at levels above EPA’s new 2016 health advisory levels. The source of the chemicals: firefighting foam used for decades to extinguish training fuel fires at the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force now uses a replacement foam at the base, and in 2019, the Colorado Legislature enacted restrictions and bans on PFAS foam, but the damage has been done. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they bioaccumulate and remain in the environment for a long time, with half lives (the amount of time it takes the chemical to decrease to half its original value) in humans of two to eight years, depending on the chemical. They have been linked to cancers, liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, low infant birth weight, and other ailments.
“We ended up having 16 family members that lived within that area that had cancer, and five of them died of kidney cancer,” said Mark Favors, during a public event on PFAS at Colorado School of Mines in January 2020. Favors is a former resident of Security, a U.S. Army veteran, a PFAS activist, and member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition. “A lot of [my family] are military veterans. One of my cousins, while he was doing two combat tours in Iraq, the Air Force was contaminating their drinking water. That’s the crazy part. How they’ve admitted it and it’s just hard to get any type of justice on the issue,” Favors says.
These southern El Paso County towns aren’t home to what are often considered disadvantaged populations—the poverty rate is between 8 and 9 percent, slightly less than the statewide average; about 60 percent of residents are white, and about 20 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. However, census numbers don’t represent military personnel who temporarily reside in the area. According to El Paso County’s Health Indicators report, published in 2012, four military bases in the county employ 40,500 military personnel and about 21,000 contract personnel.
When EPA tightened its health advisory levels in 2016, they were 10 times more restrictive than what the agency had previously advised, and water providers realized they had a problem. They acted quickly to provide residents with free bottled water and water filling stations while they suspended use of the aquifer, then worked to broker deals to purchase clean water from other municipalities. Some of those deals were only temporary. Since June 2018, the City of Fountain has worked to get back on its groundwater supply, treating the groundwater with granular activated carbon units provided by the Air Force. Now it is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a full, permanent groundwater treatment plant. The story in Security is similar—the Security Water and Sanitation District has been importing water, primarily from Pueblo Reservoir, to meet the needs of its residents since 2016, which involved building new pipelines and purchasing extra water from Colorado Springs Utilities—an added cost. Security avoided raising water rates for a time, paying those costs out of its cash reserves. By 2018, residents had to absorb a 15 percent rate increase, with another 9.5 percent increase in 2019.
The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a treatment facility in Security, too, which should be complete by the end of 2020. Once the plant is finished, Security will switch back to a combination of groundwater and surface water, and rates should stabilize once the costs of those pipelines are recovered, says Roy Heald, general manager at Security Water and Sanitation Districts.
Who pays to protect the health of those who rely on this water? “What responsibility did [the Air Force] have in rectifying this? What about the local sanitation districts? They have to deal with this. It’s not their fault but they’re tasked with giving clean water,” says MacIlroy at Colorado State University.
“The Air Force really has stepped up,” Heald says. But they may have to step up further—in 2019, the Security Water and Sanitation Districts and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, another affected entity, sued the Air Force to recoup the costs of purchasing and piping in clean water. Their lawsuit cites negligence for disposal of chemicals, remediation of contamination, and breaching a responsibility to prevent dangerous conditions on the defendant’s property. Heald wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, but says, “As long as [cash] reserves are at an adequate level, if we received a windfall there would be no place else for it to go besides back to our customers.” Those recouped costs would likely take the form of lower or stabilized rates.
Residents are also pushing for justice through a class-action lawsuit brought by the Colorado Springs-based McDivitt Lawfirm, which has teamed up with a personal injury law firm in New York to file against 3M, Tyco Fire Products, and other manufacturers of the firefighting foam.
“There’s going to have to be some sort of accountability and justice for these people who unknowingly, for years, drank colorless, odorless high amounts of PFAS,” says Favors. He calls for better oversight and demands that polluters are held accountable.
As for coping with PFAS-related health challenges, there are still a lot of unknowns, but El Paso County was selected to participate in two national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies to better assess the dangers of human exposure to PFAS, and to evaluate exposure pathways.
Locally, the study and lawsuits might help recoup some financial damages—but PFAS-related water contamination isn’t isolated to these Colorado communities. In July 2019, the Environmental Working Group mapped at least 712 documented cases of PFAS contamination across 49 states. Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, hoping to implement a national PFAS drinking water standard, estimate the number is even higher: 1,400 communities suffer from PFAS contamination. A U.S. Senate version of a PFAS-regulating bill has yet to be introduced. But in February, EPA released a draft proposal to consider regulating PFOS and PFOA, just two of the thousands of PFAS.
Justice through Water Rights
Environmental justice isn’t exclusively an urban issue. Injustices involving pollution, public health, access, affordability and water can be wrought anyplace—including rural and suburban areas. For rural communities, the issue comes to a head when people, organizations or entities in power seek more water for their needs at the cost of others.
In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, acequia communities fought for years to protect their water rights and way of life. Acequias are an equity-based irrigation system introduced by the original Spanish and Mexican settlers of southern Colorado. “What it means is that the entire community is only benefitted when all resources are shared,” says Judy Lopez, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. There, Lopez works with landowners to preserve wildlife habitat, forests, culturally significant lands, and ag lands—including those served by acequias.
The Town of San Luis, the heart of Colorado’s acequia community, is one of the most economically disadvantaged in the state. It’s in Costilla County, where more than 60 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latinx—more than any other county in Colorado—and 25 percent of the population live in poverty, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. But the people there are long-time landowners, never separated from the land their ancestors settled, four to seven generations back, Lopez says. They have the state’s original water rights to match, including Colorado’s oldest continuously operated water right, the San Luis People’s Ditch, an acequia established in 1852.
Prior to statehood, the territorial government recognized acequia water rights. But when the Colorado Constitution established the right of prior appropriation, the priority scheme of “first in time, first in right” became the law, challenging communal rights.
“It was very difficult for [acequias] to go to water court and say, ‘This guy is taking my water,’” Lopez says. “It was very difficult to quantify the use and who was using it.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that the Colorado Legislature passed the Acequia Recognition Law. The law was developed by Rep. Ed Vigil with the help of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, an entity that represents more than 73 acequias and 300 families who depend on them. Amended in 2013, the law solidifies the rights of acequia users. According to the Colorado Acequia Handbook, it allows “acequias to continue to exercise their traditional roles in governing community access to water, and also strengthens their ability to protect their water.”
In order to be recognized under the Acequia Recognition Act, acequias needed bylaws. Over the past six years, Colorado Open Lands, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, and the University of Colorado Boulder have partnered to help 42 acequias write bylaws, thereby protecting their water. “The bylaws were still based, in large part, on those oral traditions,” Lopez says, “and included protective language that said, ‘If a water right is sold, or a piece of land is sold, that acequia gets the first right to purchase those rights.’”
Even having water rights doesn’t guarantee water access: Over the past few decades, the federal government has settled longstanding water rights cases with sovereign tribes, in many cases backdating tribal water rights to the dates of their reservations’ establishment. Although the tribes now have the nation’s oldest established water rights, they haven’t always, and they still come up against structural and financial barriers that prevent them from developing water and getting the real benefit of those rights.
Of the more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, as of 2019 only 36 tribal water rights settlements had been federally approved. The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes in Colorado are among that small number, but despite their long journey, the tribes still don’t have access to all the water they own.
Tribal water rights have their roots in the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 case which established tribal water rights based on the date the federal government created their reservations—thereby moving tribal water rights to “first in line” among users.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the U.S. government filed and worked through claims on behalf of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes to surface waters in southwestern Colorado. In the 1980s, Congress approved a settlement between the tribes, the federal government and other parties; in 2000, the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act was amended, entitling tribes to water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP), as well as from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir. Construction on A-LP began in 2001, and the project’s key feature, Lake Nighthorse—named for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell—began filling in 2009.
Prior to the Dolores Project, many people living in Towaoc, on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, did not have running water and instead trucked it in to fill water tanks at their homes, says Ernest House, Jr., senior policy director with the Keystone Policy Center and former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. His late father, Ernest House, Sr., was pivotal in that fight for water. “I was fortunate, my father was able to see A-LP completed. I think he probably, in his own right, couldn’t believe that it would have been done and could be done,” he says. But even today, some Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute communities still lack access to water, and aging infrastructure from the 1980s needs updating and repairs.
“Our tribes as sovereign nations cannot maintain or move forward without access to water,” House says. “We have to remind people that we have tribal nations in Colorado, and that we have other tribes that continue to call Colorado home, that were removed from the state, either by treaty or forced removal,” he says, adding that acknowledging the difficult past must be a part of conversations about the future.
Those conversations include state, regional, and federal-level water planning. The Colorado tribes are engaged in Colorado’s basin roundtable process, with both tribes occupying seats on the Southwest Basin Roundtable, says Greg Johnson, who heads the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Planning Section (and serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). Through the roundtables, local stakeholders conduct basin-wide water planning that is eventually integrated into the statewide Colorado Water Plan. However, until recently, tribal involvement in regional Colorado River negotiations between the seven U.S. basin states and federal government has been nonexistent. Change is brewing—a 2018 federal Tribal Water Study highlighted how tribal water resources could impact Colorado River operations, while a new Water and Tribes Initiative is working to build tribal capacity and participation in water negotiations throughout the basin.
“The Utes have been in what we call Colorado for the last 10,000 to 12,000 years,” House says. “It would be a shame if we were left out of the conversations [about water].”
The External Costs of Industry
Government is vital to addressing the legacy of environmental injustice, and preventing future problems, but finding solutions also demands reconsidering how business is done.
Consider Colorado’s relationship with the extraction industry, visible in the 19th-century mines that pock mountain towns, uranium-rich communities like Nulca, and the escalation of oil and gas drilling today. Colorado is an “epicenter” of extraction and environmental justice issues, says Stephanie Malin, associate professor at Colorado State University and a sociologist who studies energy development and extraction.
Lack of local control in the past has been especially frustrating, Malin says, since private corporations earn profits off the resources but then outsource the impacts. In the end, extractive industries have a track record of leaving communities and governments to bear the costs of cleanup.
Take Gold King Mine as one high-profile example. In August 2015, wastewater from an abandoned mine in San Juan County contaminated the Animas River between Silverton and Durango. Contractors hired by EPA accidentally caused 3 million gallons of mine waste, laden with heavy metals, to wash into the Animas. New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation all filed to sue EPA, with farmers reporting that they couldn’t water their crops and others saying they had to truck in alternative water supplies. But those responsible for the contamination were long-gone. Like tens of thousands of other mines in the region, the Gold King Mine was abandoned in the early 20th century.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—more commonly called Superfund—which Congress passed in 1980, was originally set up as a “polluter tax” on oil, gas and chemical companies at risk of contaminating communities or the environment. But Congress never reauthorized the tax, which expired in 1995. By the early 21st century, the fund was bankrupt. Today, these cleanups are funded entirely by taxpayers.
“It’s part of a bigger pattern of privatizing profit and nationalizing, or socializing, risk,” Malin says. “Then, communities and the environment are left holding the ‘external’ costs.” Those external costs, she says, are nearly unquantifiable: “The intergenerational impacts in particular are so hard to gauge, in terms of what the communities are absorbing.”
While these problems can seem intractable, there are solutions, Malin says. For example, the bond amounts companies are required to pay up-front should better reflect the actual cost of cleanup, she says. Last year, Colorado lawmakers made strides to unburden taxpayers in just that way, with an update to Colorado’s old mining law.
The new Colorado law, HB19-1113, makes sure water quality impacts from mining are accounted for and long-term impacts are avoided. The law says that the industry can no longer self bond—a practice that allowed mine operators to demonstrate they had the financial resources to cover clean-up costs rather than providing the resources up front. Without self bonding, taxpayers won’t be left paying for remediation if the company goes bankrupt. It also requires mine operators to factor water quality protection costs into their bond—and requires most to develop a water quality treatment plan. This means that reclamation plans must include a reasonable end date for any needed water quality treatment, hopefully ensuring Colorado will avoid new perpetually polluting mines.
State lawmakers are currently looking at a more encompassing environmental justice bill, HB20-1143, introduced in January 2020. At press time the bill was still under consideration. If it moves forward as introduced, the bill would increase the maximum civil fine for air and water quality violations—from $10,000 per day to $47,357 per day, which would be adjusted annually according to the consumer price index—reallocating some of the financial burden back on polluters. It would also authorize the use of the money in the state’s water quality improvement fund, which is where those water quality violation fines go, to pay for projects addressing impacts to communities. The bill would also bolster the state’s environmental justice efforts, with a new environmental justice advisory board and environmental justice ombudsperson who would run the advisory board and advocate for environmental justice communities.
Speaking up for Tomorrow’s Climate
Environmental justice can’t be about a single issue, says Lizeth Chacón, executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial-justice, member-led organization based in Denver and Pueblo. That means looking at water-focused environmental justice alongside related issues such as climate change, racial justice, inequities, poverty, housing, power dynamics, and more.
“When we are talking to our members, we are talking to them about the fact that they are working two jobs and still cannot put dinner on the table in the week, talking that they live in fear of being deported and being separated from their families, talking about the fact that they are sick, or have headaches, or have to spend money on water because they can’t drink the water coming out of their tap like other people can,” she says. “It can’t be seen as one issue … This work has to be holistic.”
Currently, the Colorado People’s Alliance is working on a climate campaign directed by its members in Commerce City. “They said, ‘This is something that’s impacting all of us, regardless of where we’re from, whether we’re undocumented or documented, what our economic status is,’” she says. The Alliance is focused on greenhouse gas emissions, which have immediate health impacts and long-term water effects.
Another approach in northeast Denver is proceeding thanks to an EPA environmental justice grant, in which organizers will convene youth, local leaders, and scientists to create a community science project that leads to a more fishable and swimmable Denver South Platte River. The river flows through Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, but it used to be a dumping ground, with a landfill beside its banks. Clean ups and improved recreational access, much of which has been spearheaded by the nonprofit Greenway Foundation since its founding in 1974, have created opportunities for kayakers downtown, but river access in northeast Denver, beyond the popular Confluence Park, is limited. In addition, E. Coli levels are often high, making swimming inadvisable. Access to a healthy waterway makes communities more vibrant and whole, supporting health, wellbeing, recreation, and cultural and spiritual practices, but also connection. This may be the only recreational water access available to some urbanites.
“Rivers are one of the major pathways to healing the environment and healing ourselves,” said Jorge Figueroa at an initial workshop for this project in December 2019, where they began to establish a youth advisory board. Figueroa runs El Laboratorio, an organization that brings people together from different disciplines and cultures to creatively solve environmental challenges. (He is also on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) He’s working on this project with Lincoln Hills Cares, a nonprofit that provides outdoor education, recreation and experiences to youth who may not otherwise have these opportunities; and Colorado State University, which is developing a new campus at the National Western Center, called Spur, in the neighborhood. The partners expect to have a plan ready by the end of 2020, and the project should begin in 2021.
Figueroa, who grew up and has family in Puerto Rico, also witnessed, up close, the wave of climate refugees who left his home state after Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017.
“It’s critical for us to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and in the reliability of our municipal potable water systems,” Figueroa says. “But from an equity perspective, we need to ensure that the more than a trillion dollars that will be invested in the nation’s public water systems provide the most benefit to the most people.” His suggestion to build climate resiliency in an equitable way: water conservation. “Water conservation can be a supreme water equity tool: It provides cheaper water for the community and more resiliency and reliability for the system. It’s not only an ideal climate change adaptation strategy but also is one of the top, by far, equity water strategies.” When you don’t consider equity in water decisions, you can make vulnerable communities more vulnerable, he says.
Whether working to improve environmental justice structurally and physically through conservation and resiliencies, or politically and financially through new regulations, bonding or taxation, there are many opportunities to do better. But there are also social justice elements to work on. Chacón recommends involving community members at the beginning of a process—not at the end. She says it’s important to listen—and to not dismiss people when they disagree.
Looking forward, it’s up to everyone in positions of power to actively create space for disadvantaged communities to lead, says Chacón. “To us, the people who are closest to the pain are the ones closest to the solution because they know what’s happening in their community best of anyone.”
Some of the principles of engaging communities in these situations are “almost universal,” says Colorado’s Michael Wenstrom, an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s Environmental Justice Program. Wenstrom worked in Flint over the course of a year following the water emergency, “assisting them to connect with processes, in understanding what their rights are, and helping them learn how to raise their voices effectively,” he says.
He says that where communities and families are already overburdened—with poverty, crime, racism—they often don’t have time, expertise or resources to recognize the problems, nevermind address them. “In addition, people in low-income communities may be less inclined to raise their voices for various reasons,” Wenstrom says. Reasons could include racism, job discrimination, or, for some, the fear of being identified as an illegal resident.
He says officials like him who come into communities as outsiders must be careful, persistent, and work to build trust. “As trust builds, we can then start pointing people toward tackling issues related to pollution or public health,” he says. But, Wenstrom cautions, if people don’t believe they can make a difference, they won’t raise their voices in the first place.
Laura Paskus is a reporter in Albuquerque N.M., where her show, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future,” airs on New Mexico PBS. Caitlin Coleman is editor of Headwaters magazine.
Colorado mountain snows, the primary source of the state’s annual water supplies, hit 102 percent of average this week, a bit of good news that hydrologists and forecasters were glad to embrace.
“If folks are looking for something to be grateful for now, a healthy water situation is on the list,” said Peter Goble, climate specialist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center.
Snowpack is measured across the state’s eight primary river basins. The highest numbers this week were found in the South Platte River Basin, home to such major cities as Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins. Here snowpack measured 112 percent of average.
The lowest readings occurred in southwestern Colorado, where snowpack in the San Miguel/Dolores Basin measured just 93 percent of average, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) snow survey.
Colorado’s reservoirs are also showing strength, with most projected to fill. Storage levels this month were registering at 107 percent of average statewide.
Thanks to the pandemic, the teams of hydrologists who normally climb high into the mountains to manually measure the snow each month were tied to their desks, observing the stay-at-home order and relying on the state’s remote SNOTEL sites for data. Under normal circumstances, NRCS staff combine remote sensing data and field data to compile the critical monthly snow reports.
But Karl Wetlaufer, who leads the NRCS snow survey effort in Colorado, said his team was able to use additional modeling to help fill in the data gaps this month, and they’re working on a contingency plan for compiling their last major readings May 1.
“The mountain communities were among the hardest hit [by COVID-19], so we discontinued the manual measurements for April 1 to minimize any potential spread,” he said.
While snowpack and reservoirs are strong, forecasts for streamflows, which build as melting snow reaches streams, are expected to be below normal across southwestern and southeastern parts of the state.
Snowmelt that normally would reach the streams in a healthy water year is likely to be captured by soils that have dried out, thanks to ultra-dry weather late last summer and into the fall.
“We’re a bit worried about southeastern Colorado. Dryland farm operators are struggling because it was dry last fall and they had a dry winter,” Goble said, meaning there was little moisture to help crops such as winter wheat, produced without supplemental irrigation, grow.
In the Rio Grande River Basin, where snowpack is registering at 94 percent of average, farmers are hoping they will see more moisture in the spring to compensate for the below-average snowpack and dry soils.
“Streamflows are forecast at 70 percent of normal,” said Cleave Simpson, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa. “It’s still better than 2018, but it’s not great.”
The broader Colorado River Basin, which stretches beyond state lines all the way into Mexico, is also expected to see below-normal streamflows, impacting major regional storage reservoirs, such as Blue Mesa in Colorado and Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, which are likely to receive just 50 percent to 70 percent of normal inflows, respectively.
As a result, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the April-July inflow into Lake Powell is forecast to be just 78 percent of average. This is a critical number because it determines how Lake Powell will be managed this year, including how much water will be released to Arizona, California and Nevada and when.
Looking ahead, Goble said, forecasts indicate a slightly higher chance of drier, rather than wetter, weather from April through June, making it unlikely that those regions which are already beginning to dry out will see much relief.
Thanks to the lingering dry conditions, more than half of Colorado remains in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with portions of the southeastern and southwestern parts of the state classified as being in severe drought.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
For decades, Colorado has been recycling water for landscaping purposes. More recent has been indirect potable reuse, where treated wastewater flows through an environmental buffer, such as a river, before being extracted for further treatment to make it suitable for drinking and other domestic uses.
Now, Colorado and several other water-stressed states are moving toward direct potable reuse. “Widespread development of potable reuse will be an important facet of closing the future water supply-demand gap,” said the Colorado Water Plan, published in 2015 in Chapter 6.3.2, the Water Supply Management-Reuse chapter, which includes information on reuse beginning on page 6-75.
Potable reuse most certainly won’t be a cure-all for Colorado’s water shortages. It’s just one potential tool in a kit, applicable for specialized settings. But wide adoption of direct potable reuse relies, at least in part, on adoption of state standards governing treatment processes and monitoring protocols. Read about it in “Purified” from our Fall 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine, which focused on water reuse.
Is Colorado working on state regulations to govern direct potable reuse?
Yes. A new report, crafted by a National Water Research Institute-organized panel of reuse experts, details potential Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regulations for direct potable reuse (DPR), which isn’t addressed in current regulations.
The report is part of WateReuse Colorado’s efforts to follow up on the water plan, which said Colorado needed a clear regulatory framework on reuse if reuse is to help address the future water supply-demand gap.
Getting this framework in place will give utilities the certainty they need to pursue DPR, which is critical for optimizing supplies they already have, says Laura Belanger from Western Resource Advocates.
Read what the report says and next steps in Colorado in the story “Getting Closer to Governing Direct Potable Reuse” from the new Spring 2020 issue of Headwaters magazine.
How does reuse optimize water supplies?
Check out the graphic below to conceptualize the multiplying effect of reuse:
Is water reuse on the rise?
In February, 2019, WEco offered a webinar exploring this question. Watch it to hear local experts discuss why more communities are turning toward water reuse and what regulations, policies, or other next steps need to fall into place for water recycling to grow. Watch it
If Colorado decides to join in an historic Colorado River drought protection effort, one that would require setting aside as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell, can it find a fair way to get the work done? A way that won’t cripple farm economies and one which ensures Front Range cities bear their share of the burden?
That was one of the key questions more than 100 people, citizen volunteers and water managers, addressed last week as part of a two-day meeting in Denver to continue exploring whether the state should participate in the effort. The Lake Powell drought pool, authorized by Congress last year as part of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, would help protect Coloradans if the Colorado River, at some point in the future, hits a crisis point, triggering mandatory cutbacks.
But finding ways to set aside that much water, the equivalent of what roughly 1 million people use in a year at home, is a complex proposition. The voluntary program, if created, would pay water users who agree to participate. And it would mean farmers fallowing fields in order to send their water downstream and cities convincing their customers to do with less water in order to do the same. The concept has been dubbed “demand management.”
Among the key issues discussed at the joint Interbasin Compact Committee and demand management work group confab last week is whether there is a truly equitable way to fill the drought pool that doesn’t disproportionately impact one region or sector in the state.
In addition, a majority of participants reported that they wanted any drought plan to include environmental analyses to ensure whichever methods are selected don’t harm streams and river habitat.
Some pointed to the need to identify “tipping points” when reduced water use would create harmful economic effects in any given community, and suggested that demand management be viewed as a shared responsibility.
Flipping the narrative of shared responsibility, participants said sharing benefits equally was important as well. They want to ensure that people selected to participate would do so on a time-limited basis, so that a wide variety of entities have the opportunity to benefit from the payments coming from what is likely to be a multi-million-dollar program.
“People are starting to get it,” said Russell George. George is a former lawmaker who helped create the 15-year-old public collaborative program which facilitates and helps negotiate issues that arise among Colorado’s eight major river basins and metro area via basin roundtables. He chairs the Interbasin Compact Committee, composed of delegates from those roundtables.
“It’s understood that we have to be fair about this and we have to share [the burden] or it won’t work. I think we’re making great progress,” George said.
The Colorado River is a major source of the state’s water, with all Western Slope and roughly half of Front Range water supplies derived from its flows.
But growing populations, chronic drought and climate change pose sharp risks to the river’s ability to sustain all who depend on it. The concept behind the drought pool is to help reduce the threat of future mandatory cutbacks to Colorado water users under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
The public demand management study process, facilitated by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has caused concern among different user groups, including farmers. Because growers consume so much of the state’s water, they worry that they are the biggest target for water use reductions, which could directly harm their livelihoods if the program isn’t implemented carefully and on a temporary basis.
In early 2019 the seven states that comprise the Colorado River Basin—Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin, and Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the Upper Basin—agreed for the first time to a series of steps, known as the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, to help stave off a crisis on the river.
And while Lower Basin states have already begun cutting back water use in order to store more in Lake Mead, the four Upper Basin states are still studying how best to participate to shore up Lake Powell. For the drought pool program to move forward, all four states would need to agree and contribute to the pool. George pointed to Colorado as a leader among the four states, saying it would likely be responsible for contributing as much as 250,000 acre-feet to the pool.
“We appreciate the focus, dedication and collaboration of our work group members,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell in a statement. “This workshop was the next step in sharing ideas for Colorado’s water future, and positioning our state as a national leader for cooperative problem solving.”
The eight major volunteer work groups, addressing such topics as the law, the environment, agriculture and water administration, will continue meeting throughout the year, with a mid-point report based on their findings to date due out sometime this summer.
Travis Smith, a former CWCB board member from Del Norte who is now participating on the agriculture work group, said he is hopeful that the work groups will be able to come up with a plan the public will endorse. Any final plan will likely have to be approved by Colorado lawmakers.
“Coming together to address Colorado’s water future is something we’ve been practicing through the [nine river basin roundtables] for years. Will we get there? Absolutely,” Smith said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Each spring, Water Education Colorado invites friends and colleagues to our President’s Reception — an evening of celebration, networking and awards as we honor water leadership and raise money for our work at one of the best water events of the year.
Join us for the President’s Reception on May 8, 2020 at Balistreri Vineyards.
This year, the first-ever Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan is set to launch, and water officials expect 2020 to bring unprecedented changes to the way the river is run, including cutbacks in water use by some states.
Drought and climate change are expected to play a leading role in determining how to reduce water use and bring the stressed river system into a sustainable, balanced state of being.
After historically low levels were reached last year in Lakes Powell and Mead, Arizona and Nevada are now poised to implement their first-ever cuts in water diversions, while Colorado and the other upper basin states are working to explore ways to conserve water and bank it in Lake Powell’s new drought pool to avoid future shortages.
Brad Udall, a senior climate scientist at Colorado State University’s water center, said the river’s operations are set for a major rework.
2019, he said, was “a really big [water] year, so I think everybody’s happy, but to think somehow the drought is over and climate change isn’t happening—or to hope for the best and ignore the lessons of the last 19 years—I think these high temperatures will remind people, ‘This is not the same old game we used to play in the 20th century.’”
A look back
A lot has changed since the Colorado River Compact first divvied up the river’s waters in 1922. Today, more than 40 million people in two countries rely upon the river, which originates on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains in northern Colorado, and is fed by major tributaries like the Green, Gunnison and San Juan rivers. Cities from Denver to San Diego, though geographically outside of the natural river basin, divert water from the river for drinking and industry, and farmers irrigate 5.5 million acres of everything from alfalfa to melons.
The Colorado River Basin is also now more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the twentieth century average—with “hotter” droughts depleting river flows. By necessity, as the climate continues to change, bringing continued warming and drying, shortage-sharing agreements on the river must continuously be updated to keep changing, too. The Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) was needed as a stop-gap until a new set of operating guidelines, due by 2026, are written.
The DCP’s predecessor
The DCP’s origins lie with the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. Written in 2007, the operating guidelines were designed to address the Colorado River’s deteriorating storage levels. They identify how to operate the river’s two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, under hotter, drier conditions, and to share the risk of shrinking water supplies between the upper and lower basins.
But the 2007 interim guidelines, while temporarily keeping the basin out of crisis, did not anticipate the extent of drought that the basin would experience. In 2013, then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell directed states to consider additional measures or face unilateral federal action to avoid a potential crisis. With its own interests to protect, including water deliveries to contractors and tribal water rights, the federal government needed states to put a more robust plan in place.
That led to the latest temporary plan, the DCP, which negotiators say provides some security in avoiding a potential crash of the Colorado River system.
Six years in the making, the DCP includes two plans, hammered out separately by the lower and upper basin states. The upper basin plan focuses on flexibility in reservoir operations during drought conditions, investigating how to reduce water demands—including with voluntary water conservation programs—and weather modification to augment precipitation. In the lower basin, the process needed to move more quickly because water use already exceeds allocations. Cities and farms in Arizona, California and Nevada agreed to scale back and take deeper cuts as Lake Mead reaches threshold elevations that trigger those cutbacks. This summer, the first threshold was triggered, so Arizona and Nevada will implement their cutbacks this year.
Developing plans for each basin was tricky considering that within each state there are also individual tribes, competing interests, and conflicts between urban and rural water users. But, pushed by a deadline from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, in March 2019, the seven states asked Congress to provide necessary authorizations to execute their final plans. In an era when Congress spends much of its time at an impasse, legislators on both sides of the aisle recognized the need for drought planning. In April, federal legislators passed the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act and the following month, on May 20, representatives from the seven basin states and Department of the Interior signed completed upper and lower basin drought contingency plans.
Not a new problem
As Eric Kuhn and John Fleck write in their new book, “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” even during compact negotiations in the 1920s, records showed the river’s annual flows were lower than the total 17.5 million acre-feet allocated to the seven states and Mexico. In fact, three different studies during the 1920s estimated natural river flows at Lee Ferry at between 14.3 million acre-feet and 16.1 million acre-feet.
Planners chose to ignore that information, Fleck says, and with it, they ignored convincing evidence showing the basin regularly experienced long periods of drought. “We have rules written down on paper, allocating water across the basin, that essentially allocate more water than the river actually has—and this manifests itself quite differently in the lower basin than the upper basin,” says Fleck, director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico. Fleck’s co-author Kuhn is the now-retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
In the lower basin, California, Nevada and Arizona have long overused their share of the river (approximately 7.5 million acre-feet annually, averaged over 10-year rolling cycles), Fleck says, whereas the upper basin states have yet to use more than around 4 million acre-feet (of the “remaining” 7.5 million acre-feet originally intended, but not necessarily guaranteed, for them). But everyone needs to come to terms with the fact that there is less water in the basin, Fleck says. “And that’s what the DCP is,” he says. “The first steps toward a long-term plan for everyone to use less water.”
Today, Kuhn and Fleck note, the river’s average flow between 2000 and 2018 has been only 12.4 million acre-feet—16 percent lower than the 1906-2017 average of 14.8 million acre-feet per year.
To use less water, the two basins need their own strategies. In the lower basin, the DCP sets rules to scale back use of lower basin allocations as Lake Mead drops, or until storage conditions improve. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will see cuts this year, while California could follow in future years if reservoir storage declines continue. Over the past few years, water users already started scaling back voluntarily, and, says Fleck, “The DCP gives the structure that gives us the confidence [the cutbacks] will continue,” he says.
The upper basin occupies a precarious position of its own, even though it uses less water than it technically could under the compacts that govern its use—use in the upper basin has remained flat, at around 4 million acre-feet per year, since 1990. Because upper basin states must not interfere with a specific quantity of water flowing downstream, they’ll take on much of the burden of dealing with declining flows in a warmer future, Fleck adds. “That means the upper basin has to be sure it has the tools in place to make sure it can continue to meet its compact obligations, to send water out of Lake Powell,” he says. “And it may have to figure out how to conserve water below 4 million acre-feet.”
Challenges of a warming world
Any planning on the Colorado River—from the crops farmers plant, to the ways in which cities incentivize conservation among customers, to the DCP’s successor—must address the fact that the basin is facing a hotter, drier future.
Rainfall records, reconstructed from tree ring chronologies that stretch back more than a thousand years, reveal past patterns of southwestern droughts, marked by dry conditions associated with natural climate variability. Today’s droughts in the basin are different. They are notable not just for a lack of precipitation, but also for warmer temperatures, which spur changes in snowpack, increase transpiration in forests and fields, and boost evaporation from reservoirs.
The U.S. Global Change Program’s Fourth National Climate Assessment in 2018 painted a troublesome picture of reduced water supplies and future food insecurity in the region. It also identified risks to southwestern tribes from drought and wildfire, and challenges to the region’s infrastructure and energy supplies.
More localized studies of the Colorado River Basin also show that as climate change continues to heat and dry the region, the river’s flows will keep dropping. A 2017 study by Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University and Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, showed that flows between 2000 and 2014 averaged 19 percent below the 1906-1999 average, with one-third of those losses due to higher temperatures, versus changes in precipitation. If warming continues, according to that 2017 study, Colorado River flows could decline by 20 to 35 percent by 2050 and 30 to 55 percent by the end of the century.
A study published the following year by Udall and others reiterated that “unprecedented basin-wide warming” was responsible for the declines, this time looking at 1916 through 2014, when the river’s flows dropped by 16.5 percent during that period, even though annual precipitation had increased slightly. The study also revealed the entire basin’s sensitivity to shifts in precipitation patterns—that it matters whether precipitation comes as rain or snow, and also where it falls. Snowfall in the upper basin is more beneficial to the system, for example, than rainfall in southern Arizona. And the future doesn’t look promising: The 2018 study forecasts a future decline in snowfall within four sub-basins in Colorado.
Healthier snowpack this past winter offered everyone a bit of a reprieve, but the Colorado River Basin’s problems aren’t over. At the end of the water year, total system storage was at only 53 percent, according to Reclamation, though that’s up from just under 47 percent in October 2018.
Colorado’s farm water use remains stubbornly high, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, despite millions of dollars spent on experimental water-saving programs and a statewide push to conserve water.
Farm water is critical to Colorado’s effort to balance a growing population with a water system stressed by drought and climate change. Farmers are the largest users of water in Colorado and other Western states. On the Front Range, for instance, growers use about 89 percent of available supplies, according to the Colorado Water Plan, while cites and industry consume less than 10 percent.
State water officials and environmentalists have long called for finding ways to use less water on farms as one way to make Colorado’s drought- and growth-pressured supplies go further.
Although some individual operations are finding success in improving water efficiency, the new report shows little progress has been made on a statewide level. While the national average has gone steadily down since 2003, Colorado’s ag water use has not changed, remaining almost exactly where it was 17 years ago, according to the USDA’s Irrigation and Water Management Survey, which is conducted every five years.
Colorado growers applied an average of 1.6 acre-feet of water per acre in 2018, according to the USDA, slightly above the 1.5 acre-foot-per-acre average nationwide.
Bill Meyer, Colorado director of the USDA program that produces the survey, said it wasn’t clear why the numbers aren’t showing a reduction. “You would assume that with better technologies and farming practices that it would have gone down.”
A complex beast
But Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg said the USDA report doesn’t capture the layered realities of Western water.
“These surveys and charts don’t tell the whole story,” Greenberg said. “It’s an incredibly complex beast, both from the legal and hydrologic perspective.”
The new report comes at the same time Colorado cities, such as Denver, have become remarkably savvy in cutting water use, saving more than 20 percent in the last decade. They’ve done this largely by shrinking lawns, offering incentives to use water-saving plants, and enacting price increases, strategies that are largely unavailable to farmers.
And Colorado isn’t the only state struggling.
Seven arid states comprise the Colorado River Basin—Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California—and all exceed the national average for farm water use, with the exception of Wyoming, which uses 1.5 acre-feet of water per acre, in line with the national average.
While it comes as no surprise that arid states would use more water than rain-rich states like Nebraska and Missouri, it doesn’t make the problem any less urgent, water officials said.
The pressure is on
Water managers are well aware of the public call for conservation.
“There is no doubt that with climate change and urbanization, the pressure is on [to reduce the use of] ag water,” said Aaron Derwingson, a farm water expert with The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Project. “A lot of people are saying, ‘If ag got more efficient we wouldn’t have [these looming shortages] this problem.”
Numerous programs are aimed at further improving farm water efficiency and conserving water that could eventually be freed up to share with cities or to benefit the environment while preserving farm economies.
Derek White Heckman farms 1,200 acres near Lamar in southeastern Colorado. In an effort to become more efficient with his water use, he is experimenting with cover crops, which when grown after a major crop such as corn is harvested help boost soil nutrients and, equally important, help keep moisture in the soil. Because rain is so scarce in this region, he’s willing to try almost anything to make sure he uses every drop of water that comes through his irrigation ditch.
And none of the work is easy, Greenberg said.
“Producers have been making progress in using new efficient technologies, but just because they are getting more efficient, doesn’t mean that they are going to divert less,” Greenberg said. “The legal liability for water right holders is that if they don’t use the full amount, they risk losing it.”
She is referring to Colorado’s prior appropriation system, in which the right to use water can be maintained only if it continues to be put to beneficial use. Water rights are subject to complex quantification analyses in the event of a transfer or sale. Although the only part of the water right that is transferable is the part that is technically “consumed” to grow the crop, much misconception remains around the notion of “use it or lose it.” Farmers who divert less, as they’re being encouraged to do, often don’t, because they fear losing their full water right, Greenberg said.
Ancient v. modern irrigation
Decades ago, the majority of Colorado farm fields were watered using flood irrigation, a simple, but labor-intensive method that fills field furrows with water to saturate adjacent rows. It is considered only 50 percent efficient. Today, less than half of those fields are watered using flood irrigation, with the majority now using a much more efficient technology that sprinkles fields, allowing water to be applied more precisely and reducing evaporation, according to the USDA report.
Still, the most modern, efficient systems for irrigating crops, subsurface or drip irrigation, are used on fewer than 1 percent of Colorado fields, according to the USDA, in part because they are much more expensive than traditional methods and because they don’t fit well with Colorado’s crop mix.
Nationwide roughly 10 percent of farm fields use these modern systems, according to the USDA survey.
Drip systems work best with high-dollar crops, such as vegetables, which comprise a small portion of Colorado’s farm economy.
The vast majority of Colorado farmers grow corn, wheat and hay, whose low commodity prices don’t justify pricey high-tech watering technologies, Greenberg said.
Installation of one sprinkler system, for instance, can cost $700 per acre, while a subsurface drip irrigation system can cost nearly twice that amount, at $1,331, according to research done at Kansas State University.
The lack of progress frustrates farm conservation experts. They say that changes to Colorado’s laws to remove conservation disincentives may be needed as well as more funding to modernize farm ditches and diversion structures.
“It’s a tough situation,” said Joel Schneekloth, regional water resource specialist with the Colorado State University Extension Service.
Finding just enough
Colorado’s scenic, historic irrigation ditches lose significant amounts of water to seepage and evaporation, some of which actually enhances wildlife habitat and streams and helps ensure farmers downstream have enough water (via return flows) to fulfill their own water rights.
“It takes a certain amount of water just to run a canal system,” Schneekloth said. “Often you can’t reduce that amount unless you line the canals, but then you run into reduced return flows farther downstream.”
“We would like to get to a point where we are putting on just enough water, but not excess water,” Schneekloth said.
Clint Evans is Colorado State Conservationist with the USDA. His agency spent $45 million in 2019 on some 600 farm water conservation projects, all with the hope of helping Colorado farmers use their water more efficiently. And the projects have shown some success.
One project in the Grand Valley has lined and piped miles of irrigation ditches, allowing some 30,000 acre-feet of previously diverted water to remain in the Colorado River.
Still, given the vast amounts of water used, these small programs have yet to move the needle significantly, according to the report.
Food or development?
Even as Colorado considers new ways to conserve farm water, some fear that across-the-board cuts in farm water use could cripple local farm economies, hurt streams and wetlands that have come to rely on the excess water that flows off of irrigated fields, and eventually limit Colorado’s ability to grow food.
“The most common way I’ve seen the narrative framed is, ‘If ag uses 80 percent of the water, and we could get that down to 70 percent, the Front Range could grow [urbanize] as much as it wants,” Greenberg said, “meaning that growth has a greater value than water used in farming.
“What we could choose to say, instead, is that we value our farmers and ranchers, and we value being able to produce our own food just as much as the rampant development that is gobbling up ag land and ag water,” Greenberg said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
1. “WEco recognizes the presence of physical, economic, and cultural barriers that influence access to water education and lead to a lack of diverse representation and overall participation in the water sector.
2. WEco acknowledges a broad and diverse range of relationships and interdependencies of different people and cultures with water and the natural environment.
3. WEco will strive to be more effective by building a leadership team and network of partners that are represented of Colorado’s diverse population and which fosters an inclusive, safe, equitable and supportive environment, full of learning and sharing and free of harassment, prejudice, and discrimination.
4. WEco commits to responsible and ethical collection and use of data and information gathered for all projects.”
This four-part series contrasts the processes behind the Colorado Water Plan with four other recent Western Water Plans: California, Texas, Montana and Oregon.
The future holds infinite numerous possibilities and, with it, the imperfect understanding of future natural hazard impacts and society’s adaptations to those changes. An increasingly arid climate and rapid population growth in the Western U.S. underlies and exacerbates challenges in water policy and future planning.
Why is uncertainty important to consider in planning?
Considering uncertainty in planning allows for the development of stronger (e.g. more “resilient”) strategies that can accommodate the inevitability of future change. From varying perspectives, the term “uncertainty” could imply doubt, a lack of sufficient data to draw precise conclusions, or a lack of understanding. In the specific context of planning, uncertainty is defined as an unknown future full of varying future conditions. The unknown is a hard thing to plan for! But when a multitude of possibilities is accepted by planners as reality, it simply makes sense to prepare for a reasonable range of solutions.
No one holds a crystal ball. Despite sometimes causing decision paralysis, the presence of uncertainty should not prompt inaction. A discussion or quantification of uncertainty can help support evidence-based adaptation and planning. Science, technology and research are used to mitigate and adapt to conditions such as climate change and allow for the opportunity to quantify variables, reduce issues, and communicate data.
Policymakers, scientists and public stakeholders may frame uncertainty in water management in different ways. For example, effectively communicating climate data to a stakeholder that accepts climate change and is invested in adaptive practices may look different than effective communication tailored to stakeholders less familiar or receptive to adaptive measures.
Engaging with stakeholders and audiences on uncertainty is an opportunity to change the conversation—uncertainty will always be a part of science, modeling and future planning efforts. If people are frequently reminded of the many possibilities the future holds, they may be able to improve their engagement with and comprehension of planning under uncertainty.
How is it being incorporated into Western water planning?
Stakeholders and the public must be engaged to successfully incorporate uncertainty into water policy. The public can help planners understand how uncertainty should be considered in planning documents and their involvement can help establish expectations around how and why policy may require updates or changes as natural systems shift. Many Western states are beginning to utilize adaptive management into future water planning.
Adaptive Management: an approach to uncertainty
For planning purposes, strategies must be dynamic as conditions change or lessons are learned. The most widespread water management regime is a ‘prediction and control’ regime where the water system’s behavior and response to events may be predicted and optimal control strategies can be subsequently designed. Decisions made from this mechanistic approach tend to be shaped by a regulatory framework that involves technical norms or legal prescriptions. To address the challenge of uncertainty and climate change, there must be a shift from this common method to a more adaptive and flexible approach in water management.
Adaptive management refers to a systematic process for continually improving management practices and policies by learning from the outcomes of implemented management strategies. This form of management has been proven to be effective as it allows for management regimes to experiment by comparing selected practices and policies and then evaluating the alternative hypothesis for the system being managed. Here is an example of Texas utilizing adaptive management in their water planning process:
The Texas Water Plan 2017 explicitly addresses uncertainty around project implementation (Chapter 8). The plan articulates sources of uncertainty, including permitting timelines and financial processes. Regarding ecological and climate uncertainty, the Texas Water Plan recommends implementing a combination of water management strategies that could provide more water supplies than are required to meet projected needs. The Texas Water Plan encourages an adaptive process and cites the five-year update cycle as a response to changes and uncertainties.
Given the uncertainties of future hydrology and climate, water planning efforts can be strengthened by incorporating risk and uncertainty into water resource management planning. Advancing adaptive practices can occur through learning by doing, stakeholder engagement, and sharing best practices and data. Effectively communicating risk and uncertainty improves the likelihood that adaptive practices will be successfully implemented.
Water agencies can drive innovation in policy with scenario planning. Although scenario planning will reveal unfavorable future scenarios, the ability to prepare for likely futures and to adapt to uncertainty will provide a foundation for better planning. Managing uncertainty is far from a new challenge, however, in these modern times, tools exist to ensure water leaders can help illuminate the best paths forward. See how uncertainty was incorporated into water planning for the Colorado Water Plan on next week’s post!
Bianca Valdez is a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder pursuing a Masters in Environmental Policy. Bianca has a passion for water resources and intends to continue to immerse herself in the water policy space. Bianca holds a B.S. in Hydrogeology from the University of Texas at Austin.
Steamboat Springs: Hundreds of ranchers in the scenic Yampa Valley have ignored a state request to begin measuring the water they use, putting them on a collision course with regulators that will land many of them in court this summer if they don’t relent.
Division Engineer Erin Light, the top water chief in the region, said roughly 70 percent of irrigators in this remote part of northwestern Colorado have not installed measuring devices, meaning that millions of gallons of water are being consumed without oversight, something that is routine on other river systems.
“I sent out a notice in March saying, ‘I’m going to issue an order if you don’t install them now,’” she said. “It was a friendly gesture.”
No one responded.
“We have not been impressed with the response,” Light said.
On Sept. 30, she issued a formal order to 550 ranchers, which, if ignored, could result in fines of up to $500 a day and court action.
The deadline to respond this time was Nov. 30. Few did so, Light said.
Under the terms of the order, ranchers who don’t install measuring flumes or other devices to track diversion rates from the river into their irrigation systems will be cut off if they try to irrigate in the spring. They will also likely face prosecution, Light said.
“We’ll be working with the attorney general’s office to begin court proceedings,” she said.
The issue reflects an end to a gentleman’s agreement that dates back to the late 1800s, a consensus that said these tough, resourceful ranchers could manage their own water, that the state did not need to issue a direct order, and that the hay meadows, and cattle and sheep operations, could continue diverting their irrigation water as they always had.
And that’s largely because of the Yampa River’s amazing flows. Unlike almost any other place in Colorado and the West, water here was once so abundant that there was almost always plenty to go around. Measurements weren’t needed, and the state rarely had to step in to resolve disputes among water users, allowing Mother Nature free rein.
But chronic drought, climate change, and population demands have begun eroding the Yampa’s once bountiful supplies. For the first time ever, in the desperately dry summer of 2018, Light was forced to step in, cutting off some irrigators because more senior water rights holders weren’t getting their legal share of water. That sent a shock across the valley but triggered little action.
These days the Yampa River has the distinction of being the only one of Colorado’s eight major river basins that remains largely unmeasured and unregulated.
But Light said the issue has become too critical, and water too scarce, to allow that to continue.
Mike Camblin, whose family has been ranching here for more than 100 years, said he will comply with the order. But he and many of his colleagues feel the state has been too heavy handed in its approach.
“What I don’t like about the order is that it’s forcing people to install those or they are going to get fined $500 a day to run water even if it’s a free river,” he said. The term free river means that there is enough water in the stream to satisfy all water rights, and under normal circumstances people can divert as much of the excess as they want.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Dave Seely, a long-time rancher who has 11 different irrigation ditches that span Moffat and Routt counties.
Many of his ditches already have measuring devices, but the order means he will have to install at least five new ones at a total cost of more than $10,000, he estimates.
Light is aware of the anger in the ranching community and said she understands the financial burden the order will place on many irrigators.
“I’ve been trying to encourage my water users to understand that there is a value to them in measuring how much water they divert. Water is often a rancher’s most valuable asset. But many don’t want to hear that,” she said.
Seely plans to comply with the order so that he can divert in the spring. But there is a lingering resentment and sense of loss for an era that is ending.
“Historically there was never a call on the river, but now there is,” Seely said. “Now we’re under the jurisdiction of the state engineer forever.”
This four-part series contrasts the processes behind the Colorado Water Plan with four other recent western water plans: California, Texas, Montana and Oregon.
The production cycle of the Colorado Water Plan is a three-phase process, which involves regional engagement and project planning through basin roundtables and Basin Implementation Plans; statewide modeling, published in the Technical Update, and the publication of a comprehensive statewide plan. Not all states directly involve regional groups in state water plan development. Within the five Western water plans researched for this series, two states mandated the production of a high-level statewide policy document; while three states, including Colorado, mandated a regional or “basin” planning effort to inform statewide processes.
These approaches can be described as “top-down” and “bottom-up.” A top-down approach produces a water plan entirely directed and developed through state agencies, with designated periods for public comment. The final product of a top-down approach, exemplified by the California and Oregon state water plans, is described by state agencies as a high-level policy plan. In contrast, a bottom-up approach is rooted in the recruitment of regional planning groups. These groups develop unique basin plans that directly inform the content and directives of the state water plan. Examples of this planning approach include Colorado, Montana and Texas. The product of a regional approach constitutes multiple products: multiple basin plans and a single comprehensive state water plan. This idea is embodied in the figure below, which features Colorado’s nine Basin Roundtable boundaries.
A legacy of collaboration
The choice to pursue one strategy or another is rooted in the history of each states’ water governance, as well as contemporary policy and budgetary requirements. The Colorado Water Plan’s mandate for regional planning directly builds on the legacy of the basin roundtable process. The basin roundtable process was established in 2005 by the passage of House Bill 05-1177, “Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act.” This bill codified a deeply collaborative approach to addressing regional water concerns and visions for the future. This legislation also established the Interbasin Compact Committee to operate as a statewide forum for basin roundtables. The success of these volunteer groups directly informed the engagement efforts mandated in the 2013 gubernatorial executive order that called for the production of Colorado’s first statewide water plan.
Trends across Western water plans: expanding regional engagement, water education, and data accessibility
Regardless of the degree of regional authorship within a state water planning process, there is interest across Western state water plans in investing in locally identified water projects. For example, documents associated with California’s most recent “2018 Update” underscore a state interest in funding regional priorities. The report “Funding Mechanism Inventory and Evaluation” identifies watershed or river basin assessments as a potential vehicle for the state of California to fund locally-identified management actions.
This trend in regional engagement is concurrent with an effort to expand water education programming and water policy accessibility. To this end, state water plans including Texas, California, and Colorado have developed (or are currently developing, in the case of Colorado!) interactive online components that will accompany their water plans. While the 2019 Utah Water Plan was not explicitly examined for this blog series, it will notably prioritize a new webpage interface over traditional printing.
Recently published Western state water plans reflect an increasing emphasis on data transparency and accessibility, as well as state planning processes that better integrate stakeholder and regional perspectives into state water policy.
Hannah O’Neill is a graduate student at CU-Boulder studying environmental policy and western water management. Hannah is a fifth generation Coloradan and Denver native, who has a professional background in fossil exploration and National Environmental Policy Act compliance. Hannah obtained a BS in Geology-biology from Brown University in 2014.
Water sufficient for more than 1 million homes on the Front Range could be lost, and thousands of acres of farm land on both the Eastern and Western Slopes could go dry, if the state can’t supply enough water from the drought-stricken Colorado River to downstream states as it is legally required to do, according to a new study.
Among the study’s key findings:
+ In the next 25 years, if the state does nothing to set more water aside in Lake Powell, the Front Range could lose up to 97 percent of its Colorado River water.
+ All but two of the state’s eight major river basins, under that same “do nothing” scenario, also face dramatic water cutbacks.
+ If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico increase their water use by as little as 11.5 percent, as predictions indicate they will by 2037, the risk of a legal crisis spurring such cutbacks on the river doubles, rising from 39 percent to 78 percent, under one scenario, and 46 percent to 92 percent under another.
“Every water user in every river basin [linked to the Colorado] faces some risk,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, one of the sponsors of the Colorado River Risk Study, as it is known. The Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District also sponsored the work.
“That’s an important takeaway because when you begin to realize the extent of potential damage, whether it is on the West Slope or the Front Range, then we all come to the realization that we have a shared risk,” Mueller said.
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s supplies are divided between the four Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) and three Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona). The compact dictates that cities and farmers in the Upper Basin whose water rights were obtained after the compact was signed would have to give up some or all of their water to the Lower Basin if there isn’t enough water in Lake Powell to meet the terms of the compact. Colorado uses the most water of all the Upper Basin states and therefore faces the most risk.
The study was conducted by Boulder-based Hydros Consulting and released in June. It looked at different scenarios for the way river conditions and reductions to diversions could play out, as well as ways to reduce the risk cities and farms face, including spreading the cutbacks proportionately among all the river basins, something that isn’t typically done.
Front Range water utilities are wary of the study and have begun a new round of analysis to determine if they agree with the results.
Alex Davis is a water attorney for the City of Aurora. At a recent forum on the risk study, she said that the chances of a Colorado River crisis were being exaggerated. And the study acknowledges that under some scenarios the risk of such a legal crisis is low.
“All of this talk is helpful to get people to think about the issue, but it also seems like a bit of scare tactics. If the Lower Basin states did try to do something, there would be a whole number of reasons [they would not get far],” she said.
Including the fact that they continue to overuse their share of the river by about 1.2 million acre-feet a year. Before Colorado and its northern neighbors were asked to cut back, the Lower Basin would have to do additional cutbacks as well, she said.
West meets east
Though the Colorado River flows west, and originates in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, a large chunk of its flows, more than 530,000 acre-feet, are pumped east over the Continental Divide to the state’s Front Range cities, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Boulder, Fort Collins and Broomfield, among others. That’s enough water to supply 1.06 million homes or to irrigate more than one-half million acres of crops.
Because these water users built their tunnels and reservoirs decades after the 1922 Compact was signed, they could be among the first to be cut off. Denver’s largest storage pool, Dillon Reservoir, was completed in the 1960s. East Slope cities and farmers would lose 97 percent of their Colorado River supplies if those diversions were completely shut down, according to the study.
“You have to start with the fact that 50 percent of the water on the Front Range comes from the West Slope. Should the Upper Basin fail to meet its delivery obligation, half of water use on the Front Range would be curtailed. That’s an enormous problem,” said Brad Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.
Other parts of the state also face risk, some more than others. The Yampa River Basin, home to Steamboat Springs, would lose slightly more than 70,000 acre-feet of water, or 30 percent of its Colorado River supplies.
The Gunnison Basin, where agriculture controls historic water rights that pre-date the compact, is better protected, with the potential to lose just over 57,000 acre-feet of water, or 10 percent of its share of the river.
But a large swath of the southwestern part of the state would also be hard hit. Despite the historic farm water rights in this region, several small communities and irrigation districts built reservoirs after the compact was signed, just as cities did on the Front Range, meaning that those stored water supplies are also at high risk. In this basin, 178,000 acre-feet of water, roughly 36 percent of its Colorado River supplies, could be lost, according to the study.
The likelihood of ongoing drought and hotter summers only deepens the uneasiness over the river’s ability to produce the amount of water the state once relied on.
“We don’t expect to see cooler temperatures in the future, we expect to see warmer temps,” Mueller said. “If that is true, then we have to plan on reduced water supplies within our state.”
Saving more water?
The study comes as the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the lead water policy agency in the state, is examining whether to launch a massive, voluntary conservation program that would allow the state and its neighbors to save some 500,000 acre-feet of water and store it in a newly authorized drought pool in Lake Powell. The pool, to be used only by the Upper Basin states, could help protect Colorado and its neighbors if drought and climate change continue to sap the river’s flows.
Michelle Garrison is a modeler with the CWCB who has analyzed the study’s results. She said the scenarios it considered are important for comparative purposes and may help the West Slope and Front Range collaborate on any water cutbacks, something that hasn’t always occurred in the past.
“It’s a tough one,” she said. “The hydrology in the Colorado River has always been extremely variable and it’s predicted to become even more variable. But I’m really pleased to see them sharing their results.”
In places like the Yampa Basin, if the state cut back water use based strictly on prior appropriation, where water right dates determine who gets water first in times of shortage, Stagecoach Reservoir, the most significant storage pool in the valley, could be shut off because its storage rights date only to the 1980s. And residents would be hard pressed to cope if another long-term drought drained the river and their only source of stored water was no longer able to refill.
Kevin McBride is manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns Stagecoach. He, like dozens of other water managers across the state, is still contemplating the options. (Editor’s note: McBride serves on the board of Water Education Colorado, which houses Fresh Water News.)
“Generally being safe from drought is what it’s all about,” McBride said. “But how do you get there?
“It’s complicated and it comes down to how it’s done.”
McBride and others on the West Slope are asking for another round of modeling that would examine more equitable ways to cut back water use, so that no one takes the brunt of the reductions.
With insurance, or without?
Others have suggested that the state should let the rules embedded in the 1922 Compact and Colorado’s water rights system play out, rather than creating an expensive, legally complex water conservation program.
Anne Castle is a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources who specializes in Colorado River issues. Going without a major conservation program carries its own set of very high risks, such as decades of expensive lawsuits or unplanned water shortages.
Over the next several months, the state will continue to examine how best to protect its Colorado River water as part of drought planning work it is engaged in with the other Upper Basin states. Late next year, all Colorado River Basin states will begin negotiating a new set of operating guidelines for the entire river system, designed to bring it back into balance and slash the risk of major cutbacks.
“Truly one of the points of this risk study is to make sure that anyone who is at risk understands the risk,” Mueller said. “If you’re a water planner, it may set off some alarm bells. But we don’t want people to panic. The hope is people will look at this and say, ‘Our community is at risk…what are we going to do about it?’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
While the ink was still drying on the final draft of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), policy makers in Colorado were turning their attention to the bigger challenge ahead.
With the agreement’s signing in May 2019, the state and its neighboring upper Colorado River Basin states of New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming were granted the ability to bank conserved water in Lake Powell and other upper basin reservoirs in case of a future water crisis—but only if the states agree on an upper basin demand management program. Getting all the parties on the Colorado River to agree to that so-called “drought pool” in Lake Powell was difficult, but designing the demand management program to get water into the pool will be much harder. Determining when to release water from the pool could also prove challenging.
Demand management is water conservation on such a large scale that it reduces the amount of water drawn from the river in a significant, measurable way. If the upper basin states develop a demand management program, they will collectively use less water, then track, deliver and bank those savings in upper basin reservoirs. That water could be sent downstream when flows are low to meet the upper basin’s commitment to the lower basin states and Mexico, as outlined under the 1922 Colorado River Compact and subsequent agreements.
The compact stipulates that the upper basin states must not deplete the flow of the river at Lee Ferry below 75 million acre-feet based on a 10-year running average. Although the upper basin is a long way from running out of water, if the future brings more dry years and low reservoir levels, as is projected, it will become increasingly difficult to send water downstream while still meeting upper basin water needs. If the lower basin does not receive its share of water, a legal battle could ensue, threatening water rights in the upper basin—so the upper basin complies with the compact to maintain control over its own water supply.
The DCP lays out processes for how this might be achieved but is only in effect through 2026, at which time the federal government, in consultation with all Colorado River Basin states, will reconsider how the system should be operated.
Exploring demand management is just one of the upper basin’s commitments under the DCP—the other two elements include a new plan to move water from smaller upper basin reservoirs to Lake Powell, and finally, water supply augmentation. As a whole, the upper basin’s DCP aims to maintain storage volumes at Lake Powell, enabling continued hydropower generation, thereby funding continued operation of the reservoir system and use of Colorado River water in the upper basin. But demand management could be part of the upper basin’s strategy. So work is underway to determine what demand management might look like, if a program is developed. “There are still a lot of big ifs,” said Brent Newman, the former interstate and federal section leader for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, during a presentation in August.
Newman was addressing about a dozen people gathered in the Summit County Library in Silverthorne for the first meeting of the Economic and Local Governments Working Group on demand management. The group of county commissioners, lawyers, consultants and utility managers will spend the next year identifying critical issues for the feasibility of a demand management program.
As the meeting closed, the group filled three large boards with sticky notes of questions and possible problems with demand management, issues to be hashed out in the coming months. Similar brainstorming sessions are playing out across the state in eight other working groups, each dedicated to exploring demand management from a different perspective, like agriculture and the environment. Simultaneously, each of the other upper basin states is also examining how it could approach demand management. Unless all four upper basin states agree, there will be no demand management program.
This massive planning effort from four different states will cost millions of dollars and require tough negotiations. And while each upper basin state is putting its best foot forward to create a plan, there is no guarantee that conditions will get bad enough that it will be needed. There’s also no guarantee that a demand management plan will be adopted—and even if adopted, will it be adopted in time to make a difference?
The DCP and Colorado
Over the last 20 years, the Colorado River has experienced extreme drought, unprecedented in modern history. Now, states throughout the West are planning for a future with less water, and for good reason—modeling shows an increasing likelihood of water shortage in the basin. According to Phase III of the Colorado River Risk Study, an effort completed in June 2019, the upper basin faces a 45 percent chance of a water shortage in the next 25 years at current water use levels. If upper basin water use increases by just 11.5 percent, that risk doubles, creating a 90 percent chance of coming up short, the study says. Instead of tumbling unprepared into shortage, representatives from the seven states that rely on the Colorado River created the DCP to stave off a future water crisis by readying for dry times.
The objective of the DCP, which is really two plans, one for the upper basin and one for the lower, is to prevent water in the river system and its two primary reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead —from dropping too low. Reaching these critical levels would trigger a crisis-level response in the region with some states taking significant reductions in their water allocations and some areas losing access to clean power due to the loss of production from the reservoirs’ hydroelectric dams. The revenue earned from hydropower contracts is used to fund conservation for rivers and programs like endangered fish recovery. The loss in funding would also limit the government’s ability to run the dams and distribute any water remaining in storage.
The lower basin’s DCP laid out cuts in lower basin water use that are tied to projected reservoir levels. But the upper basin is in a different position. Its DCP gives the upper basin tools to manage its water supply in case of shortage, which should help it meet its obligations under the 1922 compact and avoid involuntary cutbacks. The first of these tools, which is really the basin’s first line of defense in protecting Lake Powell’s storage levels, is a new mechanism to move water from upstream reservoirs down to Powell when Lake Powell is facing a critically low level, what is known as the Drought Response Operations Agreement. The second is a 500,000 acre-foot storage pool in upper basin reservoirs, which the basin can use to store water from a demand management program, if such a program is deemed feasible and adopted. The third, known as augmentation, which is already in use, is a combination of cloud seeding to stimulate precipitation, and the control of phreatophytes like tamarisk and Russian olive, which are deep-rooted non-native plants that soak up water from riverways.
Over the next several years, the upper basin will use these tools and determine whether to bank water for shortage. While the upper basin’s work is just beginning, it could shift the way water has been managed in the West for more than a century.
This possible shift matters to water users across Colorado, that’s why the scene of the demand management workgroup in Summit County yielded three boards covered in questions and concerns. The Colorado River starts as snow high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. In the spring, it melts down into a web of tributaries that flow across the upper basin states into the river’s mainstem. Each of the basin states relies heavily on water from the river, but Colorado, in particular, plays an outsized role in how the Colorado River water system works. Colorado snowmelt contributes about 70 percent of the total flow of the Colorado River.
But Colorado also gets the lion’s share of the upper basin’s water—it can use 51.75 percent of the upper basin’s allocation per the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948. Colorado’s average annual consumptive use of Colorado River water is about 2.5 million acre-feet, according to the Colorado River Risk Study. And though only about 20 percent of the state’s population lives in the greater Colorado River Basin—which in Colorado includes not only the Colorado Basin but all West Slope rivers such as the Gunnison, Yampa, White, San Juan, San Miguel, and other smaller tributaries—more than 570,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water is piped across the Continental Divide each year, reaching the Rio Grande, South Platte and Arkansas basins. More than 80 percent of the state’s population lives along the Front Range, where transbasin diversion water accounts for about 60 percent of water use. Users of Colorado River water range from municipalities to farmers to industrial users like oil and gas operations.
If a severe water shortage resulted in the upper basin not meeting its compact obligations, water rights across the state would be at risk of curtailment. Although no curtailment procedure has been decided upon, water rights adjudicated after 1922, the year the compact was signed, are often considered to be more at risk than pre-1922 rights. In Colorado, transbasin diversions serving the state’s population center constitute more than half of the state’s post-compact depletions, which means that Front Range municipal water users, though geographically disconnected from the Colorado, have an extreme interest in protecting the river and Lake Powell reservoir levels—thus in seeing the upper basin DCP succeed. If the actions in the upper basin’s DCP aren’t sufficient to protect reservoir levels in Lake Powell and if releases below Lee Ferry were too low and violated the compact, a compact deficit could result and lead to involuntary curtailment.
Drought Response Operations Agreement
Rather than a step-by-step plan, the upper basin’s DCP is all about process. The new elements of the DCP, the Drought Response Operations Agreement and demand management, are plans to create a plan if conditions warrant it. The plan first lays out strategies to maintain water levels in Lake Powell during a drought. If those operations are not enough, the agreement describes how water from the three federal storage projects in the upper basin—Fontenelle in Wyoming, Flaming Gorge in Wyoming and Utah, Navajo in New Mexico and Colorado, and the Aspinall Unit which is composed of Blue Mesa, Crystal and Morrow Point reservoirs in Colorado—could be used to bolster storage volumes in Lake Powell.
The agreement does not designate how much water will be sent downstream or specify which reservoir will make the release, it simply says those negotiations will begin once the Bureau of Reclamation’s 24-month study models indicate that Lake Powell might fall below the target elevation of 3,525 feet mean sea level.
The three reservoir units, along with Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, were authorized with the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) Act in 1956 to stabilize the upper basin’s water supply against variability in the Colorado River. Since the CRSP units were built, their water has been used to fulfill water rights throughout the upper basin, satisfy increasing water demand, and meet environmental standards for river flows. The U.S. Interior Secretary oversees the reservoirs and determines their operations every year.
While the original CRSP Act was designed with the idea of storing and releasing water to meet the compact agreements, it does not clarify the states’ roles in this process. By laying out this process in the Drought Response Operations Agreement, the upper basin states and the federal government clarified how they would interact—hopefully avoiding future conflict—if reservoir releases become necessary to protect Lake Powell storage.
“But if we have 10 years of hydrology just like this [year], it may never come to pass”, says Amy Haas, the executive director and secretary of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
The agreement also sets ground rules for how those negotiations would play out. First, any water releases from the reservoirs would need to fit within the existing records of decision and biological opinions, including each reservoir’s existing environmental impact study in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Any reservoir releases also must come with a plan to refill the water that was released to Lake Powell once hydrological conditions improve. The agreement also stipulates that if a facility makes a release one year, the other two facilities will be considered first if further need arises, before tapping the same reservoir twice.
The Drought Response Operations Agreement is the first plan of attack for the upper basin in case of a shortage. While this could be executed without too much controversy, there are still some concerns with the agreement.
The first concern is that while the agreement places three of the upper basin’s federal water storage projects on the table for water releases, both the Aspinall Unit and Navajo Reservoir have very little additional water available each year. This puts a burden on Flaming Gorge as the reservoir most likely to make a release. The second issue is that, while all of the states’ attorney general’s offices call for actions taken under the Drought Response Operations Agreement to fit in existing NEPA permitting, some believe that a new environmental impact study under NEPA might be required before releases can be made to Lake Powell. Even with these issues, the Drought Response Operations Agreement is mostly uncontested. It’s the second element of the Upper Basin DCP—demand management—that could mark a paradigm shift in Western water law.
When people think of water conservation, they typically think of home-grown efforts to take shorter showers. But with a demand management program, the upper basin states would work collectively to use less water and bank those savings in Lake Powell or other CRSP reservoirs. If necessary, that water could be sent to the lower basin to comply with the compact. Although this may seem like a common-sense solution, it’s complicated by the laws surrounding water rights.
“The reason that it is a problem legally is that our whole water law framework is set up to encourage maximum utilization of water,” says Anne Castle, senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment and former assistant secretary for water and science with the Department of the Interior. “So the way our laws work is that if you’re not using your full entitlement of water then other people get to use it.”
Because of the legal framework surrounding Western water, water conservation is not simply a matter of turning off the taps. Large-scale conservation only occurs when conserved water is accounted for and, in the case of demand management, that water must also reach its target area without being diverted by a downstream user, a process known as shepherding. This is more complicated when moving water through multiple states, as the water authorities in each state must shepherd the water downstream. Calculating the quantity of conserved water is also challenging. Some of the water saved through demand management will evaporate or be lost through transit as it moves down the river, and lost water isn’t considered conserved.
These legal and technical issues must be solved before a demand management program is implemented, but the DCP didn’t create a program, the DCP simply makes exploring such a program possible.
Before diving into the details of how to conserve water, the upper basin needed the ability to bank its savings in a CRSP reservoir. While there is room in Lake Powell—which has been hovering at around 50 percent full—prior to the DCP, any water in Lake Powell was considered unused by the upper basin and therefore was subject to release to the lower basin. But the DCP authorized a pool of up to 500,000 acre-feet for the upper basin to store water in CRSP reservoirs to be used, if needed, to comply with the compact. This water can be tracked and accounted for, and cannot be called for by the lower basin.
“This is a big change to the Law of the River, and a new wrinkle in the way the river is managed,” says Newman, who was leading the demand management work for the CWCB. “But there is a lot to do before one drop of water can be stored in that pool.”
First, each state must assess the feasibility of a demand management program. The states are considering everything from specifying how much water each state would need to contribute to the pool, to identifying what laws to modify, if any. Each state also needs to ensure that water users participating in the program can do so voluntarily and temporarily and will be compensated for the water they conserve. The costs of such a program are still unclear, but the four-year System Conservation Pilot Program, which ended in 2018 and can be likened to demand management, paid an average of $205 per acre-foot for conserved water. The pilot program was implemented on the ground in various places, including with the Grand Valley Water Users Association, where 10 members took more than 1,000 acres of land out of production and, in 2017, received $560 per acre to help make up for the crops they would have grown otherwise. That year, the project returned an estimated 3,200 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River—a drop in the bucket.
That program and the Colorado River Water Bank Workgroup, which started in 2009 and has since evolved, gave Colorado a head start into considering some of these questions. But there’s more to learn, says Taylor Hawes, Colorado River Program Director for The Nature Conservancy, who has long been involved with these water banking discussions.
Even after years of studies, the workgroup made the most significant progress when the System Conservation Pilot Program put water banking to the test on the ground. So Hawes recommends piloting demand management. “It’s in our best interest to have a program up and running, to see what the kinks are and what the critical needs are, to be in a better position to negotiate for that,” Hawes says. Negotiations to determine what will happen in 2026 could begin next year, so there’s reason for Colorado and the other upper basin states to get practice. “We could easily overcomplicate it. We need to be really systematic in our thinking on how to work through these issues. It is feasible so I hope we can put a plan in place and start to test it a little bit to make sure it can work for all sectors in the long run.”
In addition to the technical logistics, the upper basin states must account for attitudes about demand management. “There’s a general curiosity about what demand management will or could be,” says Kelsea Macilroy, a Ph.D candidate in Sociology at Colorado State University. Macilroy, in a project for The Nature Conservancy, spoke with 34 West Slope agricultural stakeholders in May 2019 to hear about perceptions and barriers to demand management. She heard from an equal number of people who said they would never participate in a demand management program and people who were excited about it. She heard people question if demand management is an opportunity, a burden, or both.
She also unveiled cultural beliefs that shape how the West Slope responds to the idea of demand management. “When the demand management conversation arises, it triggers these historical injustices,” Macilroy says, like loss of other natural resource industries such as logging in southwestern Colorado, for example. “I heard, almost unanimously, people referencing buy and dry. Not only that water could be taken away but that a way of life is under attack. That this is just the next thing that threatens the way that we live that’s coming from the Front Range,” she says.
But Front Range water managers are eager to share in demand management. “From a Front Range perspective, this problem of reducing demand is not a Front Range [versus] West Slope issue. It’s a whole state issue. It’s an upper basin issue,” said Jim Lochhead CEO/manager of Denver Water at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in October 2019. Denver Water, which receives about 50 percent of its supply from Colorado River sources developed after the 1922 compact and serves about a quarter of the state’s entire population, has a lot to lose if supplies are curtailed without a plan in place. Thus, the utility plans to cut water use along with other water users if a demand management program is created. “Our participation is not just funding someone else to use less water,” Lochhead says. “Our obligation is to participate equitably with other geographic regions in Colorado to create wet water that will get to Powell.”
Questions around demand management are deep and many, but for the time being, each state has separated to internally assess whether a program is feasible. In Colorado, the process is with the CWCB’s nine workgroups. The CWCB has $1.7 million for demand management at its disposal, which will be used for meeting logistics, for commissioning some consulting work to study feasibility for demand management, and for other relevant needs. This first round of funding expires in June 2020.
As every state conducts its own process, interstate issues are also being discussed through the Upper Colorado River Commission. If any one state decides that demand management is not feasible, it could serve as a veto for the entire basin.
While there is no hard deadline for the formation of a demand management program, the DCP agreements expire in 2026, and the availability of the 500,000 acre-foot conservation pool arrangement for upper basin use is only guaranteed until then.
If the states reach consensus and create a program, it will be reviewed by the lower basin, and subject to approval from the Upper Colorado River Commission and the Department of the Interior. The DCP also requires the upper basin to create a plan for verifying the amount of water conserved by demand management. The plan could then move forward only if the Upper Colorado River Commission determines that conservation is necessary in order to maintain compact compliance.
If the region has another series of wet years, the plan may never go forward. But in the face of climate change, many believe demand management is critical.
As demand and prices for Colorado water rise, state lawmakers are concerned that Wall Street investment firms and even local finance groups may seek to circumvent state laws designed to prevent water profiteering.
Last month, the Colorado Legislature’s Interim Water Resources Review Committee initially approved a bill authorizing a study to determine whether the state’s anti-speculation laws, already considered among the strongest in the West, need to be further strengthened.
“The reason I drafted it is because I’m hearing stories from the West Slope and the San Luis Valley of outside groups coming in and buying water rights. While we’re not entirely sure if this is speculation, some of these companies are more like financial and hedge fund institutions instead of agricultural interests. That seems to have the color of water speculation,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat who represents several West Slope counties and who is chair of the interim committee. (Editor’s note: Sen. Donovan sits on the board of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.)
Under Colorado law, water is considered a public resource, but the legal right to take it and use it toward some beneficial purpose must be approved in water court. Once obtained, water rights are considered a private property right, one that can be bought and sold as long as water courts approve the transaction.
Water has always been a scarce resource in Colorado and in the 1800s, as miners and farmers were moving in, the courts developed a system so that no one could hoard water and profit from its sale. To combat the problem, they required that water rights be granted only to those who could put them to beneficial use, whether in farm fields or mines, or in people’s homes and businesses.
The anti-speculation laws have been challenged and upheld many times in water court, leading several water experts to question the need to amend them.
Dave Taussig, a Denver water attorney, said he was surprised to see lawmakers move in this direction.
“This is one of the few areas of Colorado [water] law that is pretty well defined and established,” Taussig said. “I don’t see the need for this.”
For many transactions, as long as the water is being put to use, the deal is not considered speculative.
On the West Slope for instance, New York City-based Water Asset Management has purchased ranches with valuable, senior water rights. Right now, the company continues to operate the farms and the water is still being used as it had been before the purchase, so it is not considered speculative. That’s because, under existing law, there is nothing to prevent someone from buying water rights with an eye toward a future sale, where the interim use is just a placeholder.
Water Asset Management could not be reached for comment. But its website spells out a clear investment strategy that includes acquiring Western farm water and holding onto it until it appreciates in value, at which point it could be leased or sold for a profit.
Closer to home, Denver-based Renewable Water Resources has assembled an investment group which intends to purchase farm water in the San Luis Valley and pipe it to the Front Range.
Sean Tonner, a principal in RWR, said the proposal isn’t a buy-low, sell-high proposition because his company is offering $2,500 to $2,800 an acre-foot for the farm water, which normally sells locally for much less, around $65 to $200 an acre-foot, according to San Luis Valley water officials.
Tonner declined to provide a sales price, but Front Range developers routinely pay $20,000 an acre-foot and more for water.
RWR has not yet identified an end-user for the project, but has committed to do so before it seeks approval from state water court.
“Colorado has great anti-speculation laws. If there is a way to make them stronger, I’m all for it,” Tonner said. “But I would disagree with the assertion that what we’re doing is buy-low, sell-high.”
Still lawmakers are concerned. Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, is also on the interim water committee and said the state needs to be vigilant about how its agricultural water rights are being bought and sold.
“Yes we do have strong anti-speculation laws,” Coram said, “but hedge funds also have very good attorneys. There are ways to work around [the laws].”
According to the initial bill draft, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources would form a work group next year to examine what the state can do to ensure its market-based water management system isn’t manipulated by moneyed interests. The bill directs the group to report back to lawmakers in August of 2021.
The committee will vote Oct. 24 on whether the bill should advance further. If approved, it will be introduced during the regular session that opens Jan. 8, 2020.
Donovan is hopeful the process will uncover new tools, even beyond the anti-speculation laws, to help the state prevent profiteering.
“Water speculation is something we need to ensure we have a firm grip on as a state. I expect there will be a lot of conversations in upcoming years about how we make sure that water isn’t exploited and doesn’t become a way for people to make a quick dollar,” Donovan said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
The 37th Annual Water Seminar will be kicked off by SWCD’s new executive director, Frank Kugel. He has a strong track record of building partnerships and leveraging local resources for collaborative water solutions. Frank will speak to some of the challenges SWCD sees facing water management in southwestern Colorado, and opportunities for our communities to proactively address them.
Anxious for winter storms? First, we’ll hear about the forecast from KKTV meteorologist Brian Bledsoe, and cutting-edge methods for snowpack measurement from Jeff Deems of the National Snow & Ice Data Center.
No water seminar in 2019 would be complete without a discussion of the state’s current feasibility investigation of a demand management program. Mark Harris, Grand Valley Water Users Association, will moderate a panel of heavy hitters on the topic: Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell, The Nature Conservancy Water Projects Director Aaron Derwingson, and Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller.
Further expanding on the subject, we’ll hear a proposal from local economist Steve Ruddell and consultant Dave Stiller which challenges the notion that a successful *and* voluntary, temporary, compensated demand management program would be impossible. State Senator Don Coram and State Representative Marc Catlin will react to this proposal and provide their thoughts more generally on funding water management in Colorado.
And if you haven’t heard the latest results of the West Slope Risk Assessment, John Currier, Colorado River District, will be summarizing the report for southwestern Colorado and taking questions. Jayla Poppleton, Water Education Colorado, will also preview several exciting programs and content making waves across the state. Watch your inbox for the final program, coming soon!
Reserve your seat now. Registration includes catered breakfast and lunch. Click here to register or call 970-247-1302.
Colorado residents sobered by years of drought are learning to take shorter showers and use low-flow toilets, water-saving habits that have helped the state reduce its domestic water use 5 percent, according to a new report released last week by the state’s lead water agency.
The report, a technical update to the Colorado Water Plan, shows that household water use statewide has dropped from an average of 172 gallons per person per day in 2010 to 164 gallons per day in 2015, the latest year for which data was analyzed.
Those numbers could continue to drop under various planning scenarios developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, with one scenario indicating that the statewide average for individual water use could fall as low as 143 gallons per person per day by 2050 as the public continues to embrace conservation and as water-saving technologies improve.
The idea behind the new water study is to help better guide the state’s efforts via the state water plan to stave off water shortages over the next 30 years, and to understand the impact of climate change on various population growth scenarios.
Despite the decline in average daily use, the state still faces future water shortages that could surge to more than 750,000 acre-feet annually if the economy and climate heat up dramatically.
But under a hypothetical scenario where the economy slows significantly and climate change moderates somewhat, Colorado’s urban areas could face shortages of just 245,000 acre-feet each year.
“We looked at five different scenarios, taking into effect climate change,” said Becky Mitchell, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which sets state water policy. “It’s a creative and innovative way to be looking at our [water supply] gaps,” she said.
So how much water do these shortage forecasts represent? A lot.
Right now, most urban households in Colorado use about ½ acre-foot a year, so a 245,000 acre-foot shortfall equals the amount 490,000 homes would use annually, while a 750,000 acre-foot shortfall equals the amount 1.5 million homes would use in that same time period.
Shortages are also projected for the state’s farms, with irrigated agriculture facing massive shortfalls ranging from 2.2 million acre-feet to 3.4 million acre-feet, depending on how population, economic growth and climate change play out.
But that’s not the case in the South Platte River Basin, where 85 percent of Colorado residents live. Though agricultural water use statewide is growing overall, in the South Platte that use is projected to shrink as cities expand onto neighboring farm lands. According to the new forecast, the South Platte’s farm economy uses about 774,000 acre-feet of water annually. But under all five planning scenarios, that number drops. Under the most extreme, “hot growth” scenario, for instance, agricultural water use in that river basin would decrease to 665,400 acre-feet annually.
In the Arkansas Basin, which is home to Colorado Springs and the state’s second-largest farm economy, agricultural water use is projected to drop under two scenarios, and increase under three. Under the “hot growth” scenario, for instance, demands for farm water are expected to surge to 819,500 acre-feet, up from 617,300 currently, a 33 percent jump, primarily because crops will consume more water as conditions become drier and growing seasons lengthen.
The report also examines how Colorado’s fish and rivers will cope as water shortages become more pronounced. Streams across the state are likely to see spring runoff from snowmelt come earlier, leaving the late summer months much drier than they are now.
And that’s bad news for fish, increasing the risk to both cold water and warm water species, the report said. But on streams where dams and reservoirs exist, some of the damage could be offset by intentional releases from reservoirs.
The state has been criticized in the past for failing to focus adequately on the water needs of the environment in its planning. A new tool the state has developed, which is designed to help analyze stream water needs by region and season, among other things, is a step in the right direction, but will need more refinement, according to Mely Whiting, an attorney for Trout Unlimited.
“I’m pleased that the tool and the review of the environmental and recreational [E&R] needs continues to be updated. But we still have a lot of catching up to do in understanding those needs,” Whiting said.
That understanding, she said, “will help us focus our efforts on cooperative projects that benefit not only E&R, but agricultural, and municipal and industrial needs as well.”
Still to come in the effort to quantify looming water shortages is work at the local level, where nine public river basin roundtables will now take the new data and tools and determine how best to reduce any forecasted regional shortages. Their work will eventually feed into an update of the Colorado Water Plan, first released at the end of 2015 and scheduled to be updated by 2022.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Denver Water is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a rare exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act, the latest move in the utility’s long-running legal dispute with state health officials over how best to keep lead out of its customers’ tap water.
In exchange for the exemption, the water utility, which serves 1.4 million people in metro Denver, is offering to spend more than $300 million replacing up to 90,000 lead service lines.
Though lead isn’t present in Denver’s treated water, it can leach into water as it is delivered to homes via these older, customer-owned water pipes. The contaminant, even in small amounts, is considered unsafe, especially for children.
In addition to replacing the lines, Denver Water has also offered to alter its water treatment protocols, conduct an extensive public education campaign, and provide free lead filters to customers whose water supplies are at risk of contamination.
The EPA will begin public hearings next month to consider the utility’s request and determine whether its proposed approach is as good or better than using an additive called orthophosphate to control corrosion from lead pipes. The state health department, backed by the EPA, ordered the utility to use orthophosphate as a corrosion-control measure last year and gave the utility until March of 2020 to implement the new treatment process.
Within weeks of the state’s order, which came in March of 2018, the City of Aurora, the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District, and the Denver Greenway Foundation sued to stop the order, saying that the addition of orthophosphate to drinking water could cause millions of dollars in damage to the South Platte River watershed and would cause wastewater treatment costs to rise. Denver Water eventually joined the suit. Settlement talks since then have failed to yield an agreement.
Denver Water said it believes the alternate approach it is proposing has merit.
“We would attack the source of the problem and ultimately, at the end of the day, we believe that this could be a more effective approach than adding orthophosphate,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead.
Thousands of Denver-area homes built prior to 1951 are at risk of having lead-contaminated water due to aging service lines. A map compiled by Denver Water shows more than a dozen neighborhoods, including parts of Berkeley, Washington Park and Montclair, as being most at risk. Dozens of other neighborhoods on the map are less likely to face contamination, based on an analysis Denver Water has done which looks at such variables as the years in which neighborhoods were constructed and results of past water sampling.
Denver Water has been monitoring and testing customers’ tap water since 2012, when a routine sampling project showed lead in some taps that exceeded allowable levels.
Since then, the utility has conducted a series of studies to determine the best method for ensuring its water is not corrosive, and had previously offered to adjust the PH balance of its water to mitigate the problem. Up until now, it had also offered to replace a few hundred lead lines a year as maintenance on its system required, leaving any other replacement activity to homeowners and developers.
At that rate, it would have taken up to 50 years before all of Denver’s lead service lines were replaced.
The issue is complex for water providers. Adding orthophosphate is a highly effective way to eliminate lead because it dramatically reduces the corrosion in pipes, making it more difficult for lead to leach into drinking water. But as drinking water is used and then flushed into the wastewater treatment system, the phosphorous must be removed because it causes algal blooms and other environmental issues in waterways. Wastewater treatment operators are required to remove it before they return treated wastewater to streams.
In the seven years since Denver Water became aware of the problem, thousands of Denver residents have continued to be exposed to lead, but the extent of the problem isn’t clear. As part of its monitoring program, the utility has processed 5,600 customer requests for lead testing, with 2,000 of these showing lead levels of at least 1 part per billion, indicating the likely presence of lead service lines, according to Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires education and treatment when levels exceed 15 parts per billion.
What Denver is experiencing is much less severe than in some cities, such as Flint, Mich., where lead levels in tap water were hundreds of times higher before being discovered in 2015. Still, like other older urban areas, such as New York City and Washington, D.C., Denver must find a way to eliminate the lead or face legal action from the state and federal government.
Tyson Ingels, lead drinking water engineer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said his agency would consider the evidence Denver Water presents to the EPA in August before it makes a decision about whether to support Denver’s exemption request. The EPA has so far supported the state’s orthophosphate order.
“Denver is seeking to demonstrate that this alternative is as good or maybe better at reducing lead at customers’ taps. The CDPHE is going to evaluate the evidence when it is submitted,” Ingels said.
Whether the utility will win the exemption isn’t clear. According to the CDPHE, just two exemptions in this area have been granted by the EPA.
“It’s going to be difficult,” said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “It would have been tough before Flint, and it’s tougher now.”
Denver public health officials said they are supportive of the utility’s exemption request because it offers a more holistic solution to the problem, one that encompasses public health and the environment.
Elizabeth Scherer, air and water manager at the Denver Department of Public Health, said education and follow-up on the problem are a critical part of what Denver Water is proposing. “Denver Water and the city understand that education is a big component of the process and that outreach to non-English speakers and low-income communities will need to occur to make sure folks are comfortable with this approach.”
The EPA will hold hearings next month to gather the public’s input on the issue and is slated to make a decision by October. If the EPA does not grant the variance, then Denver will proceed with adding orthophosphate to its drinking water.
The fields of Sterling, Colo., in May are a dependable trio of colors: yellow with the dried remnants of last year’s harvest; the deep brown of freshly tilled earth; and green from new growth. Another hue mars this palette in places, an unwelcome one: white. The color of salt. To crops, it’s the color of death.
There aren’t many patches of dead land. But there are enough to worry farmers and water officials that the same fate that has felled civilizations could befall cities along the South Platte River: that the land will become too salty to support plant life.
“Salinity is always a concern in agriculture,” said Grady O’Brien, a Fort Collins-based hydrologist who has been tapped to lead a study of salinity along the South Platte this year. Colorado Corn, a group representing farmers in the state, is sponsoring the study, with a $39,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
It’s too soon to tell if salinity is a problem on the South Platte. Preliminary sampling by Colorado Corn in September showed worrying signs. Measures were taken at a dozen points along the river from above Denver to the Colorado state line. As the water flowed downstream, its purity dipped noticeably.
Salt is actually a catch-all term for total dissolved solids, or TDS. TDS can include a number of things other than what the general population knows as salt, sodium chloride. In the world of water, “salt” can be magnesium chloride, uranium, selenium — any minerals, salts, metals, and ions that have dissolved in the water.
In samples taken last year near Waterton Canyon, TDS was measured at 162 parts per trillion. Samples taken near Julesberg, much farther down the river on the Eastern Plains, came in at 1,310 parts per trillion, according to data provided by O’Brien.
“Once the testing got down around Sterling, it was pretty darn toxic in terms of salt,” said Mark Sponsler, chief executive officer of Colorado Corn. “Those numbers gave us enough of a concern to want to do a more in-depth look.”
The full study will review historical datasets from a handful of organizations, including several water districts, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Decades of information should reveal if the South Platte has gotten saltier over time, identify seasonal variations, and uncover potential sources of increased salt.
Salinization is not a new problem; it is as old as civilization itself. What is today Iraq, sometimes called the Cradle of Civilization, was once known as the Fertile Crescent. Centuries of irrigation concentrated salts in the soil to such a degree that nothing would grow.
A study released in early 2018 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 37 percent of drainage basins in the United States have been altered by salinity over the past century.
“The greatest threat to irrigated agriculture in the world is salinization,” said Timothy Gates, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado State University. Gates has worked on the Arkansas River, Colorado’s saltiest, for years.
All water, even rainwater, contains salt. When applied to crops (or urban lawns and gardens), plants absorb the water and leave the salts behind, which accumulate over time. In the modern world, agricultural runoff contributes to salinity, as does the increasing use of de-icing compounds on roads.
But it may be in part state water policies that are driving salinization on the South Platte. As drought-prone Colorado focuses on conservation, water is reused more and more. Each use adds a certain amount of salt to the water it pulls from upstream. And while water quality regulations exist for things like uranium, selenium and nitrogen, there are no guidelines for TDS and their effects on agriculture, O’Brien and Gates said.
When Denver gets its water from mountain snowpacks, it is almost as pure as it can be, O’Brien said, at about 100-200 parts per million of TDS. By the time the city pumps treated wastewater back into the South Platte, it’s closer to 500-600 ppm. (Denver Water and the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District declined to confirm TDS levels.)
Downstream of Denver, on its way to Nebraska, the South Platte winds its way past hundreds of miles of roads, farm fields, stockyards, and oil and gas wells. It passes near or through the towns of Brighton, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Fort Morgan, and Brush before it reaches the corn, bean and alfalfa fields of Sterling.
Each city, each wastewater treatment plant, each roadway “keeps adding to that salt load,” O’Brien said. “Salinity is increasing all the way through the basin.”
But Jim McQuarrie, director of strategy and innovation at Metro Wastewater, said wastewater treatment plants can and do improve the quality of the water they treat. For instance, the water Metro puts back into the South Platte has less magnesium and chloride than the water it takes in. “We actually net improve [those] salts.”
McQuarrie said discussions are ongoing about how to improve on all fronts when it comes to salinity: “Wherever there are opportunities for us to avoid unnecessary addition of TDS, we are working on that now.”
By some measures water coming from upstream has improved over the years, said Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District. In his region, nitrates from fertilizers used to cause algae and moss growth in rivers and reservoirs, but the problem has dissipated in recent years.
“With increased regulation on municipal effluent,” said Yahn, referencing the outflow that comes from upstream wastewater treatment plants, “the water quality is better in a lot of ways.”
And despite the few crusty patches of field surrounding Sterling, he said farmers aren’t yet worried, though they are looking forward to what the data has to say.
The study is scheduled to be completed in late October.
Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
Colorado lawmakers wrapped up the 2019 session last week, approving five water bills this year which address the Colorado River drought, funding for the state’s water plan, Republican River compact issues, severance taxes and hard-rock mining.
It put off for now another bill that would have expanded the state’s nationally recognized instream flow program, which allows water for fish and aquatic habitat to be left in streams.
Colorado River Drought and Water Plan Funding
Faced with a 19-year drought that has seen storage in the Colorado River’s two largest reservoirs—Powell and Mead—drop below half full, the legislature took a first step in reducing water use to ensure compliance with the Colorado River Compact. Although it did not adopt new policy, it appropriated $1.7 million as part of Senate Bill 212 for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to explore a demand management program that would incentivize voluntary cutbacks of Colorado River use, where saved water could be stored in Lake Powell as a hedge against future shortfalls. It also set aside $8.3 million to fund the Colorado Water Plan. The combined $10 million lawmakers approved is far less than the $30 million Governor Jared Polis had requested, but the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) pared that figure due to competing demands from other big ticket items. Senator Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale), the bill’s chief sponsor and a JBC member, noted that the remaining $20 million in Polis’ original request “was really meant to be a contingency plan against demand management in the future and so it could probably wait until next year to be appropriated.” That is if revenue forecasts allow.
Still Rankin said the funding is an important step forward for the water plan. “This is the first time we’ve started to put general fund money against the water plan.”
Republican River Compact
The General Assembly also opted to approve a measure that redraws the boundary of the Republican River Water Conservation District to include more wells that reduce the flow of the Republican River in violation of a compact with Kansas and Nebraska. The legislature created the district in 2004. Its original boundary was drawn at the topographic boundary of the Republican River and did not accurately reflect the impact of groundwater pumping outside the district on the river’s flows.
House Bill 1029 incorporates the groundwater boundary agreed to by Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado in a Supreme Court settlement and allows the district to assess the same fee on those well owners that it does on all irrigators in the district. Those fees help to pay for a pipeline that transports conserved groundwater to the river to ensure compact compliance.
The district borrowed $62 million to buy water rights and build the pipeline, and has assessed farmers $14.50 per acre annually to repay the loan. Absent the legislation, wells that do not have water augmentation, or replacement, plans to mitigate their surface water depletions could face curtailment under new rules issued by the state engineer; now they are automatically part of the district’s approved augmentation plan.
The General Assembly passed another bill that changes the timing of severance tax allocations that support several water programs to allow for better planning and budgeting. Currently the tax revenue is transferred three times a year to the CWCB based on revenue forecasts; if the actual tax collections are less than forecasted (which has often been the case), funds have to be taken back. Senate Bill 16 bases allocations on the amount collected in the previous fiscal year and consolidates three payments into one for distribution the following year. Because tax collections in 2018 exceeded forecasts, there’s enough revenue available to avoid any funding gap moving forward.
Water Quality Impacts of Hard-Rock Mining
The General Assembly passed a bill to protect water quality from the impacts of hard-rock mining. House Bill 1113 requires reclamation plans for new or amended hard-rock mining permits to demonstrate a “reasonably foreseeable end date” for water quality treatment to ensure compliance with water quality standards. It also eliminates the option of “self-bonding”—an audited financial statement demonstrating that the mine operator has sufficient assets to meet reclamation responsibilities—and requires a bond or other financial assurance to guarantee adequate funds to protect water quality, including treatment and monitoring costs.
Representative Dylan Roberts, (D-Eagle), the bill’s prime sponsor, emphasized that it applies only to hard-rock mining—not to coal or gravel mining—and “aligns statute with what’s already happening in current practice by the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety…so that we can avoid creating more chronically polluting mines.” The bill was similar to one that passed the House but failed in the Senate last year.
The Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee set aside a bill that would have expanded an existing program to protect streamflows for environmental purposes, but with a commitment to study the issue further this summer. Under current law, a water right holder can loan water to the CWCB to boost instream flows in stream reaches where the CWCB holds an instream flow water right. The loan may be exercised for no more than three years in a single 10-year period. House Bill 1218, which had passed the House earlier in the session, would have increased the number of years the loan could be exercised from three to five, and permitted a loan applicant to reapply to the state engineer for two additional 10-year periods.
Opposition to the bill centered on concerns that expanding the number of years would reduce irrigation return flows to other farmland dependent on them for crop production and risk damaging soils. Senator Kerry Donovan (D-Vail), the bill’s sponsor and a rancher, asked the committee to postpone it with an understanding that the Interim Water Resources Review Committee would study it further this summer. She noted that with “some of the concerns that have been raised, as well as the level of attention that this issue deserves, we need to get this right, and I’m not sure we have consensus on a way forward today.”
In May 2019, Water Education Colorado recognized Jennifer Pitt with the Diane Hoppe Leadership Award.
Jennifer Pitt joined Audubon in December 2015 to advise the organization’s strategies to protect and restore rivers throughout the Colorado River Basin. At Audubon she leads the United States–Mexico collaboration to restore the Colorado River Delta. She serves as the U.S. co-chair of the bi-national work group whose partners will, through 2026, implement existing treaty commitments providing environmental flows and habitat creation.
Prior to joining Audubon, Jennifer spent 17 years working to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems in the Colorado River Basin at the Environmental Defense Fund. With partners, she led efforts to prioritize and implement restoration of the Colorado River Delta, including work coordinating the Pulse Flow of 2014 that brought water into dried-up stretches of Colorado River Delta across the border. She also worked with Colorado River stakeholders to produce the unprecedented Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study, the first federal assessment of climate change impacts in the basin and the first basin-wide evaluation of the impacts on water supply reliability and river health.
In May 2019, Water Education Colorado recognized Celene Hawkins with its Emerging Leader Award.
Celene Hawkins serves as the Western Colorado Water Project Director for the Colorado Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. She coordinates and implements projects with agricultural partners, federal, state, tribal, and local governments, and local conservation organizations to help optimize the use of water in western and southwestern Colorado, and she fosters project work that supports water transactions that benefit environmental values while also supporting agriculture and other traditional water uses. In 2017, Celene was appointed to serve on the Colorado Water Conservation Board for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Rivers and she is currently vice-chairman of that board.
Join us for a fun and interactive day learning about the history of the South Platte River Urban Corridor Waterway and efforts to reclaim it. Explore this waterway by bicycle along with citizen leaders, scientists, planners and water managers.
Urban Water Cycle Tour Route: This roughly 10-mile route begins at Johnson Habitat Park, travels downstream along the Platte to Shoemaker Plaza at Confluence park, then on to the Globeville/National Western Complex area, ending at Metro Wastewater with lunch included. See the map and full itinerary on the reverse side of the page.
Registration is open! Registration will be capped at 30 participants per flight. Helmet required to ride. Sunscreen, water, and a small backpack are recommended.
Audubon’s Colorado River Program Director Jennifer Pitt will receive an award for her leadership on the Colorado River this weekend. Water Education Colorado named her the 2019 recipient of the Diane Hoppe Leadership award (see here).
This is an annual award bestowed on a Coloradan who has a body of work in the field of water resources benefiting the Colorado public; strong reputation among peers; commitment to balanced and accurate information; among other qualities.
In particular, Dan Luecke, one of the organization’s board members commented on Pitt’s leadership on the United States–Mexico collaboration to restore the long-desiccated Colorado River Delta.
“Jennifer is imaginative, committed, quick, and fearless,” Luecke said. “What she and her bi-national colleagues have accomplished is awe inspiring. It was clear, almost from the beginning, that she was going to make a difference. There are few like her.”
Pitt is the first recipient who works for a conservation NGO. Other recent notable recipients include former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who is now running for President, and Eric Kuhn, recently retired from the role of general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
Colorado Water Stories – Learning from our past, reimagining our future
Friday, April 19th
7:30 am to 5:30 pm
Mount Vernon Canyon Club
24933 Club House Circle
Golden, CO 80401
Come join us for an informative day of Colorado water stories and discussions. Speakers will include:
Amy Beatie (Deputy Attorney General for Natural Resources and the Environment)
Becky Mitchell (Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board)
Interactive presentation on conflict resolution by Todd Bryan
Stories from retired State and Division Engineers, moderated by KUNC reporter Luke Runyon
This year’s conference will cover a range of topics from both a technical and policy perspective, including a deep-drill into ASR, geophysical applications, and how Coloradans are reimagining the river. The day will end with happy hour and a silent auction to benefit the AWRA Colorado and CGWA scholarship programs.
From the Urban Waters Learning Network (Maria Brodine):
Like many American cities, Denver grew up on the banks of its local river, the South Platte. In May 1858, in Cheyenne and Arapaho territory, a small party of settlers set off the Colorado Gold Rush when they turned up gold at the mouth of Little Dry Creek. The resulting trading and mining encampment, located at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, is now marked by the sprawling Confluence Park, nestled in the heart of Denver and offering a variety of recreation opportunities for city dwellers, including biking, kayaking, and fishing.
The Platte’s headwaters emerge in the South Park highland meadow basin, then flow north and east through several major reservoirs. Just after entering the Chatfield Reservoir and State Park, it flows through the outlying cities of Littleton and Englewood before entering Denver city limits. By the time it reaches the Confluence at Denver’s heart, it has already picked up a number of pollutants from point and non-point sources, including stormwater runoff from nearby buildings. For the past 15 years, regular water quality testing at the Confluence and at other sites have revealed high levels of E coli bacteria, especially during the summer. Drought years—such as 2017, when the river was too low to support the normal popular tubing activities—exacerbate these problems, as nutrients and other pollutants build up and deplete oxygen levels. To add to these challenges, Denver is one of the fastest growing cities in America. Rapid development, trying to keep pace with the burgeoning population and industrial growth, has added to the burden of polluted stormwater runoff and put additional pressures on the low-income, underserved, and indigenous communities that already feel the brunt of local environmental and economic challenges.
The South Platte Urban Waters Partnership
In total, the South Platte watershed drains 28,000 square miles on its way to the Missouri River; includes one million acres of public lands; is home to numerous threatened and endangered species; functions as the primary source of drinking water for the Front Range of Colorado (or about three quarters of Colorado’s residents); and is renowned for its “gold-medal” fishing. The South Platte River Urban Waters Partnership (SPRUWP) focuses on the headwaters and the Denver metropolitan area, and consists of over seventy organizations, including Federal and state government, municipalities, universities, NGOs and private businesses, all collaborating to address the problems facing the South Platte and improve this vital waterway for current and future generations — as well as those who live downstream of Denver. Below are two case studies highlighting some of the impacts of the Partnership.
Groundwork Denver: Bearing the Banner at Bear Creek
A previous Impact Story (2015) covered the genesis of Groundwork Denver’s water program at Bear Creek, which flows through several cities before it feeds into the South Platte at Englewood. Groundwork Denver leads water quality monitoring and community engagement efforts along Lower Bear Creek, primarily in the working class and low-income town of Sheridan, where many people play in or near the creek and bear the brunt of effects from pollutants that enter the creek upstream. Lower Bear Creek carries high quantities of E.coli, mostly from non-point sources. While E.coli is likely not the only contaminant present, it is an indicator of overall water health, and it is easy to train youth and community members in the process of testing and monitoring for this particular pathogen. In addition to water quality monitoring, Groundwork’s community engagement efforts include public education campaigns, trash cleanups, and canvassing area schools.
Groundwork Denver maintains seventeen regular water quality testing sites in Bear Creek—with most sites located in Sheridan and Denver and one in Lakewood at the headwaters—in order to track how many contaminants the creek picks up on its way downstream. Through its Green and Blue Team job training program, Groundwork Denver trains and employs youths to conduct the sampling approximately two times per month in the winter and four times per month during hotter summer months. Professional and young scientists have discovered that the water quality degrades significantly on its way to Sheridan. The purpose of the ongoing research is to create an overall picture of how the creek becomes contaminated and, more widely, to understand how the South Platte watershed is becoming contaminated and how best to address the problem. These data can serve to identify major outfall sources, inform targeted cleanup and prevention efforts, and drive public education campaigns to advise people about the safety of fishing and recreating in certain areas.
In the future, Groundwork hopes to become involved in the development and maintenance of larger green infrastructure projects. Certification of Green Team members through Colorado State University will create opportunities for youth to lead future ventures in the area of green infrastructure design and maintenance. In 2018, Groundwork Denver—in partnership with Home Depot, River Network, Colorado State University, River Watch, area city governments, and more—received a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Five Star and Urban Waters Grant to install green infrastructure on residential properties, organize volunteer projects to remove trash and invasive species from Bear Creek, and restore the Creek’s habitat by planting native species.
Water Education Colorado: Speaking Fluent Water
In the words of Water Education Colorado (WEco)’s Executive Director Jayla Poppleton, “Our role as a collaborator [in the SPRUWP] is much the same as most of the other partners. We show up, we listen, we share our resources, we highlight opportunities we have coming up that others might want to take advantage of, and we try to be responsive to the needs identified by the group.” WEco programs include educational publications and radio broadcasts, webinars and workshops, leadership courses, an annual conference called Sustaining Colorado Watersheds, and for the past eight years, Urban Waters Bike Tours, which are open and free to the public and are put together collaboratively with a variety of other organizations including the Barr Lake and Milton Reservoir Watershed Association, the Colorado Stormwater Council, and the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District. Though WEco has a statewide mission and focus, the organization is based in Denver, with the bulk of programming taking place in the Denver metro area. To extend its reach, WEco hosts educational tours and workshops in rural and mountain communities and partners with other statewide organizations. WEco also offers extensive training courses and resources for water professionals, community leaders, educators, and non-water professionals. WEco estimates that it reached 156,377 people in 2018.
As members of the Partnership, WEco has been able to build new connections, extend the reach of its programs, learn about additional funding opportunities, and secure additional funding for the Urban Waters Bike Tours through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division. Going forward, WEco is committed to advancing awareness and understanding of water issues among a wider variety of citizens and decision makers. In 2019, WEco will be leading development of a Statewide Water Education Action Plan working with other water educators from around the state. The goal of the plan is to build a collective vision and set of goals and metrics that water educators can build on to achieve greater results. WEco is also dedicated to increasing focus on advancing public awareness, including a new initiative called Fresh Water News that provides weekly, up-to-the minute reporting on Colorado water issues, as well as more workshops on topics including community-level watershed health, water quality protection, and water conservation.
Tools and Technologies
In an effort to make water quality and environmental data more accessible to decision-makers and the general public, members of the Partnership—including Federal, state, local governments, and non-profits—have worked together to develop useful interactive tools that can be used in classrooms, community meetings, and more.
Water Quality Assessment Tool
In 2016, the Water Quality Working Group—chaired by Groundwork Denver—pooled resources to develop the Water Quality Assessment Tool (WQAT). The WQAT provides mobile-compatible online access to interactive maps, graphs and narratives users can bring into the field to explore water quality in the South Platte River basin. Educational tools include “storylines,” which are lesson modules covering E-coli, nutrient levels, dissolved solids, and more. Users can also map or graph contaminant levels at specific water quality testing sites, adjusting dates to look at discrete periods of time or analyze trends over a period of years. Instructors can easily use these tools to teach students how to read and analyze maps and graphs; scientists and advocates can use them to share the information with stakeholders in real time.
Natural Capital Asset Map and Decision Support Tool
This ecosystem services valuation tool provides interactive access to data about green infrastructure sites in the headwaters, Denver metro area, and the plains. Data are provided by forty public, private, and non-profit stakeholders. The project aims to equip decision-makers with the best available information about local natural capital—including city parks and forested regions—and their relative importance to public health and the economy. Ranks of importance were determined using forty-eight different studies combined with local data. Users can view maps of these assets by region or neighborhood. The methodology used to create the map combines approaches from multiple green infrastructure mapping efforts throughout the U.S., including Strategic Green Infrastructure Planning (Firehock, 2015) and ESRI’s Green Infrastructure for the U.S. Advanced users with their own GIS programs can download the data and view them in greater detail. Stakeholders interested in conducting additional, more detailed analysis can download the project data and use it within their own GIS interface. SPRUWP stakeholders have used the tool to rank and apply for funding for reforestation projects.
The South Platte River Urban Waters Partnership: Looking Ahead
Partners meet on a quarterly basis to highlight salient partner projects, research findings, and collaborative opportunities. Past highlights included the Denver Parks and Recreation river-front master planning process, Denver’s 2017 Green Roof Initiative (requiring all buildings greater than 25,000 square feet to dedicate a portion of their rooftop to green space), and efforts on the Upper South Platte to conduct landscape-scale forest resilience watershed restoration projects. 2019 presentations will include topics such as green infrastructure for urban stream restoration, automated stormwater sampling systems, and water quality analysis opportunities for students along the South Platte River. Sub-committees will meet on a more regular basis to focus on critical projects and tasks within the spheres of education/outreach and science/data related to the health of the river. The SPRUWP hopes to continue to facilitate the development of powerful partnerships that advance the vision of revitalizing Denver’s urban waters and the surrounding communities.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
2019 President’s Reception May 3
Join us for our annual awards dinner and fundraiser as we honor Jennifer Pitt with the Diane Hoppe Leadership Award and Celene Hawkins with the Emerging Leader Award. Enjoy a sit-down dinner and fun-filled evening in celebration of water education and water leadership in Colorado.
State health officials and Colorado’s largest water utilities have agreed for a second time to hit pause on a major lawsuit over how to keep lead out of Denver’s drinking water, citing progress in talks that began last fall.
“The main point is that everyone has rolled up their sleeves and is working hard to come up with the best solution that we can that minimizes the lead that folks will be ingesting in their tap water,” said Ron Falco, safe drinking water program manager at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Last April, the City of Aurora, the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, and the Denver Greenway Foundation sued the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to block an order it issued directing Denver Water to install a phosphate-based treatment system to reduce corrosion in old lead pipes. That corrosion can put lead into drinking water in homes and businesses served by lead supply lines and in-house fixtures. Denver Water joined the suit weeks later.
Avoiding lead contamination in drinking water is of paramount importance for water providers and state health officials, as no level is considered safe to ingest. But heightened levels of phosphates in wastewater and irrigation runoff create issues for reservoirs, lakes and streams. This prompted Metro Wastewater and other entities who must treat the phosphate-heavy water to sue, citing damage to the environment and dramatically higher treatment costs.
Denver Water had proposed an alternative, after several years of pilot studies, to use chemicals that would adjust the PH levels of its drinking water, something which the CDPHE determined did not reduce lead corrosion enough to meet the federal standards it is required to uphold.
Among the plaintiffs’ concerns is that phosphate levels in water that is discharged to the South Platte River have to be tightly controlled under provisions of the Clean Water Act. If phosphate levels in treated drinking water rise, wastewater treatment protocols would have to be changed to correct the problem, potentially costing millions of dollars, if not more, according to a report by the Denver-based, nonpartisan Water Research Foundation.
From an environmental perspective, any increased phosphate in the South Platte River makes fighting such things as algae blooms, which are fueled by nutrients including phosphorous, much more difficult and could make the river less habitable for fish.
Denver Water, and other plaintiffs, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. But in a statement, Denver Water Chief Executive Officer Jim Lochhead said, “We are committed to taking the right steps to reduce the risk of lead leaching into water through customers’ plumbing…As we are fully committed to protecting public health, we are also looking for opportunities to minimize downstream impacts from the use of orthophosphate.”
After filing the suit, last summer the parties agreed to engage in talks, placing the lawsuit on hold, giving themselves until last November to agree on a set of treatment protocols.
When that deadline passed, the utilities and the CDPHE requested more time to work, citing progress in the talks. In January, a Denver District Court judge agreed to give everyone until September 20, 2019 to find an acceptable solution.
Under the CDPHE’s original order, Denver must begin using the new treatment protocol by March 20, 2020. To ensure it can meet that deadline, Denver Water is spending $1.2 million to upgrade its water treatment plants so they can implement the new treatment protocols.
Denver is not in violation of the federal law that governs lead in drinking water, but it has been required to monitor and test its system regularly since 2012 after lead was discovered in a small sample of water at some of its customers’ taps.
Lead has continued to appear at taps in some customers’ homes, according to court filings.
Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. There is no lead in the water supply when it leaves Denver Water’s treatment plants. But it can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through lead delivery lines and pipes in older homes. Denver has 58,000 lead service lines in its system and is gradually replacing them. It also advises customers whose homes are serviced by lead lines to use filters to remove any potential contamination.
It is the ongoing concerns about lead that have prompted the state to push for the phosphate treatment, because it reduces lead that reaches customers by 74 percent, compared to less than 50 percent using a PH-based process, according to court filings.
Despite the environmental concerns, the CDPHE maintains that its first job is to protect the health of the thousands of children served by Denver Water in the metro area. Children are most vulnerable to lead contamination.
Falco said he is optimistic that a solution can be found. New pilot studies underway indicate that Denver Water may be able to use roughly one-third the amount of phosphates originally thought were needed and still achieve the same level of lead reduction, CDPHE officials said.
“We have a very engaged group of stakeholders working hard to develop the best solution. This this is going to come to a resolution, certainly by March of 2020. We are going to get there,” Falco said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Colorado will launch a far-reaching $20 million conservation planning effort this spring designed to ensure the state can reduce water use enough to stave off a crisis in the drought-choked Colorado River Basin.
The money, likely to be spent over a period of two to three years, will pay for a major public, consensus-based initiative to determine how to equitably set aside enough water to protect Colorado’s share of the river and how to pay farmers and potentially cities to reduce their use.
The river is critical to Colorado’s water supply, with roughly half of the supplies for the Denver metro area coming from its annual flows and even larger amounts fueling the state’s farms.
The initiative will include at least seven technical and public work groups examining the legal, economic, and environmental issues inherent in such a demand management program, according to Brent Newman, head of the Interstate and Federal water section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). Demand management is the term water officials use to describe water conservation. It will also include a feasibility study and several pilot programs.
State staffers expect the work to take more than a year to complete as they iron out whether and where to cut back use, how to measure those reductions, and how to protect the environment, local economies, and the legal rights of water users while the program is in effect.
“We’re going to do this one bite at a time,” Newman said. “It’s not something that can be slammed together.”
Water users on both the West Slope and Front Range are gearing up for the project, hopeful that a proactive conservation program will provide a sort of insurance policy should a full-blown crisis erupt on the river.
“We’re pretty anxious,” said Brad Wind, general manager of the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which manages the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. The project diverts Colorado River water from the West Slope for farmers and cities on the Northern Front Range. “We realize it’s going to take some time, but we would feel better having a little insurance than having nothing and having everything implode.”
Seven states comprise the Colorado River Basin, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming forming the Upper Basin and Arizona, Nevada and California making up the Lower Basin.
Last October, after nearly four years of work, the seven states agreed to a broad, preliminary set of drought guidelines, known as the DCP, or drought contingency plan, that begin to spell out how cutbacks will occur on the river.
Under those agreements, Colorado and its Upper Basin neighbors could set aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special drought pool in Lake Powell. That’s enough water to serve roughly 1 million homes for a year.
In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will be allowed to release up to 1 million acre-feet of water from three Upper Basin state reservoirs that, together with Powell, are part of the Colorado River Storage Project, to boost storage in Lake Powell if it reaches critical lows. Two of those are located at least partially in Colorado.
How much time Colorado and the other states have to refine these drought plans and put them into action isn’t clear yet.
On Feb. 1, after California and Arizona failed to hit a federal deadline for finishing their drought plans, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it was moving forward to impose its own water-saving plan on the region.
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said she would halt that federal initiative only if Arizona and California complete their work by March 4. If that deadline isn’t met, the states may have to incorporate the federal government’s directives into their own work.
Equally concerning is the weather.
The drought has pushed Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two primary storage buckets, to critical lows. If the region endures another year as desperately dry as 2018, Lake Powell’s ability to produce hydropower, the major source of revenue for complying with the Endangered Species Act, could be in jeopardy. If utilities don’t have the money to comply with the ESA, the federal government can shut down their water diversions, as it has done in the past in places such as the Klamath Basin in Oregon in 2001.
Even though early snows have helped boost mountain snowpacks across the region, they aren’t likely to be deep enough to pull the region back from the brink of a major water crisis. Inflows into Lake Powell this year, for instance, are projected to be just 64 percent of average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, well below the super-sized numbers needed for it to begin to refill.
At that rate, by August of this year, Powell will be shockingly close — within about 81 feet — of hitting its minimum power pool, a level it flirted with in 2012 and 2013, according to Heather Patno, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Salt Lake City.
In the Lower Basin, Lake Mead is already so low that Arizona is facing mandatory water cutbacks this year.
“We need as much time and space to craft and sharpen these tools as we can get,” said James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Knock on wood we’ll get a reprieve from the hydrology for a while.”
If not, Newman said that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation may release water from the Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado to boost levels in Powell, giving Colorado and other states more time to figure out how to execute these unprecedented conservation measures.
Water users across the state are closely watching this new water-saving initiative, with farm interests on the West Slope and out on the Eastern Plains intent on ensuring that any water cutbacks that may occur are done only on a paid, voluntary basis and that all water users shoulder the reductions equally.
At the same time large urban water users, most of whom have less favorable water rights than the state’s farmers do, want to ensure their municipal supplies aren’t radically reduced.
“We are at a point where the Upper Basin does have some time to get this demand management right,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District. Looking for ways to reduce water use, he said at a meeting of the Colorado Water Congress earlier this month, “is an incredibly threatening concept to West Slope water users. But the River District is committed to proactively engaging and working with the CWCB to figure out how we can stand a program up that truly protects all of us.”
A clearer outline of the state’s approach to developing the demand management initiative will be presented at a meeting of the CWCB March 20-21. Depending on the outcome of that meeting, the various task forces could begin work in April or May, Newman said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Colorado River drought planning as well as the funding dilemma behind the state’s ambitious water plan, are among the water issues likely to win stage time at the Colorado State Capitol this year.
When the session opens Friday, Democrats will control both chambers, having retained the majority in the House of Representatives and taken control of the Senate as a result of the November elections.
The two committees where most water bills originate have new leadership as a result of the political shift. Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail) is now chair of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Dylan Thomas (D-Avon) is now chair of the House Rural Affairs Committee.
800-Pound Gorilla in the Room
There is one major issue that will loom over this session even without legislation—the Colorado River drought. In November, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water policy and planning agency, adopted a critical policy statement supporting a Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). Once the plan is finalized, a process that could take months, it may require lawmakers to act.
The policy comes in response to a 19-year drought in the Colorado River Basin that has seen storage in its two largest reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—drop below 50 percent of capacity. Continued drought could lead to water cutbacks in the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins in order to comply with the 1922 Colorado River Compact and related agreements. The Upper Basin comprises Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin states include Arizona, California and Nevada.
Included in the DCP is discussion of a far-reaching conservation effort in Colorado and the other Upper Basin states that would free more water for storage in a protected pool in Lake Powell to ensure Lower Basin states receive their legal allotment.
Under the new policy adopted by all four Upper Basin states and the Upper Colorado River Commission, any demand management program would emphasize voluntary, temporary and compensated reductions in water use, and would not be implemented without an extensive public review process.
If it comes to actual cutbacks, water users across the state would share the pain, including Front Range communities, under the new policy.
Despite these assurances, there is a great deal of legislative concern, especially over the potential role of the federal government in deciding if and when to release water from Upper Basin reservoirs to replenish Lake Powell. Sen. Don Coram (R-Montrose) likened it to “depositing money into a bank account [Lake Powell] and authorizing someone else [the Bureau of Reclamation] to make withdrawals.”
The crisis on the Colorado River is likely to serve as context for several water policy discussions this session, though Rep. Roberts said, “There won’t be any rush to legislation.”
Donovan said lawmakers would be fully briefed on the drought plan, “and then we will be able to proceed to consider appropriate actions to put the state in the best position to comply with the Colorado River Compact.”
Colorado’s Water Plan
Another high priority will be examining ways to fund Colorado’s Water Plan (CWP). The CWP was prepared by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) at the direction of Governor John Hickenlooper and adopted in 2015. It contains eight measurable objectives—including new water storage, maintaining agricultural productivity, and improving watershed health. It also includes critical actions to achieve them.
The plan cites a need to raise $100 million annually over 30 years—or $3 billion from 2020-2050—to sustainably fund its implementation. It suggests a loan repayment guarantee fund and “green” bonds for environment, recreation, conservation, agriculture and education activities. Not all funding would come from the state; storage projects often rely on ratepayers to cover the costs of water development and delivery.
Legislators are expected to explore funding options for structural and nonstructural projects. The CWCB has included $20 million for CWP implementation in the 2019 “Projects Bill” that will be submitted to the legislature for approval. That is $9 million more than in 2018.
Republican River Compact
Another bill that has been forwarded to lawmakers from the 2018 interim Water Resources Review Committee would redraw the boundary of the Republican River Water Conservation District in eastern Colorado to include more wells that reduce the flow of the Republican in violation of a compact with Kansas and Nebraska. The bill would allow the district to assess the same fee on those well owners that it does on all irrigators in the district to pay for a pipeline that transports water to the river to ensure compact compliance. The district borrowed $62 million to buy water rights and build the pipeline, and has assessed farmers $14.50 per acre to repay the loan.
Lawmakers will also consider a bill that would change the timing of severance tax allocations for several CWCB water programs, to allow for better planning. The state collects severance taxes from oil and gas producers and other extractive industries, some of which is used to support water-related activities.
Currently the state’s severance tax revenue is transferred three times a year to the CWCB based on revenue forecasts; if the actual tax collections are below forecasts (which is often the case), funds are “clawed” back. This bill would base allocations on the amount collected in the previous fiscal year and consolidate three payments into one for the following year. Because tax collections in fiscal year 2018 exceeded forecasts, “it gives us a moment in time to do this,” Donovan said, avoiding any gap in funding.
Still another issue likely to surface is how to encourage more deficit irrigation, a strategy that applies less water than optimally needed by a crop in order to free up water for other uses. One proposal that did not make it out of the summer interim water committee would have added deficit irrigation to land fallowing as a type of pilot project the CWCB could approve, with the conserved water being available for short-term lease. Although the bill received support from a majority of committee members, it did not garner the two-thirds necessary to advance as a committee-sponsored bill. It may be considered again this year. (A similar bill—HB 1151—passed the House in 2018 but was withdrawn by its senate sponsor for additional study.)
There is also interest in legislation that could expand the state’s instream flow pilot program, where water right holders forego diversions, instead leaving their water in the stream on a short-term basis for fish and habitat protection without jeopardizing their water right. The program is voluntary, temporary, and can provide financial compensation. It may involve “split-season” use, where a farmer irrigates his or her crops early in the season and then leases the water to a nonprofit (in partnership with CWCB) to maintain instream flows later in the year. Although the committee did not report out a bill on this issue, there is reportedly interest in legislation that would encourage additional voluntary leasing while protecting agricultural water use.
Water Quality and Hard-rock Mining
And last but not least, the General Assembly is expected to renew consideration of a measure it rejected in 2018. Lawmakers considered HB 1301, which would have required reclamation plans for new or amended hard-rock mining permits to demonstrate an “end date” for water quality treatment to ensure compliance with water quality standards. The bill also would have eliminated the option of “self-bonding”—an audited financial statement that the mine operator has sufficient assets to meet reclamation responsibilities—and required a bond or other financial assurance to guarantee adequate funds to protect water quality, including treatment and monitoring costs. It passed the House but was defeated in a Senate committee. Rep. Roberts, the primary sponsor last year, expects a bill on the same topic this session.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at email@example.com
Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed here.
Four Colorado counties next week will ask voters to approve new or to extend existing taxes to preserve land, and to protect and improve waterways.
Denver, Park and Chaffee county initiatives involve sales taxes, while Eagle County voters will be asked to extend an existing property tax.
If all measures are approved, it would mean more than $50 million annually in new funds for these land and water efforts.
“It just demonstrates the importance that rivers and open space and parks have in Colorado,” said Fay Augustyn, American Rivers’ conservation director for the Colorado River Basin. “Counties continue to recognize the importance of protecting this.”
Denver’s Ballot Question 2A asks voters to raise the city and county sales tax .25 percent, or 25 cents on a $100 purchase, with funds dedicated to acquiring and improving park lands and restoration of waterways. If approved it would raise an estimated $45 million annually.
Eagle’s County’s Ballot Question 1A asks voters to extend a 1.5 mill property tax to protect working farms, wildlife habitat, wetlands, floodplains and public access points to rivers and streams. The existing tax generates $4 million to $4.5 million annually, according to Matt Scherr, a backer of the campaign.
Chaffee County Ballot Question 1A is seeking a new sales tax of .25 percent or 2.5 cents on a $10 purchase. If approved the new tax would generate $1.2 million annually, a portion of which would help to protect watersheds in the region.
And in Park County Ballot Question 1A seeks to extend an existing 1 percent sales tax through 2028 and 1B seeks authorization to use those tax dollars to preserve, acquire, lease, improve and maintain water rights, along with water systems and infrastructure, among other items. The existing tax raises $850,000 annually.
“They all take a slightly different angle,” said Gini Pingenot, legislative director at Colorado Counties Inc. Given that nearly one-third of Colorado’s 64 counties are seeking some kind of tax hike, she said it was surprising to see land and water issues landing a spot on the ballot.
“Knowing the amount of stress [counties] are under, I found it intriguing that they would be seeking voter approval for natural resource protection. It probably plays into their recognition that it is part of the lifeblood of their community. Clearly their residents are valuing it,” she said.
Anti-tax forces, however, believe the call for new taxes may be premature. Opponents, of the Denver measure, point out that the city is facing its longest ballot in history with four requests for new taxes, including 2A.
Mike Krause, public affairs director for the Independence Institute in Denver, said the local tax measures are in keeping with Colorado’s TABOR Amendment, which requires local approval of any new taxes. “That’s working the way it should,” he said. But he cautioned that Denver’s 2A, would add unneeded revenues to Denver’s healthy tax coffers.
“The Denver city budget is already growing faster than inflation and population growth. We see 2A as a way to avoid having to use existing revenue to expand the parks, even though they could do it if they really want to,” Krause said.
Denver City Council President Jolon Clark said he hopes voters give the city the go ahead, in part because Denver is one of the only counties in the state that doesn’t have its own open space tax. And, he said, preserving water is key to protecting other green spaces in the city.
“Forty years ago, the South Platte was largely dead ecologically, but today we have trout that are thriving. If you look at the reach between Overland and Grant Frontier [parks, south of downtown Denver], we were able to re-channelize that whole stretch of the river to create high flow and low flow channels because the water had become so slow moving and wide that it would heat up and kill everything in that stretch. Those are the kinds of projects that 2A will help fund,“ Clark said.
The tax questions come as Colorado water officials are researching how best to raise money to help implement the state’s water plan, an effort with a price tag of roughly $20 billion. The money would help create water conservation programs, environmental programs and some water storage projects to stave off future shortages.
Whether these initiatives will serve as an indicator of voters’ willingness to fund bigger projects isn’t clear. Pingenot said counties, traditionally, are much better at convincing residents to tax themselves to reach community goals. Statewide taxing questions are a tougher sell.
“We will know more after November,” Pingenot said. “But I think it is probably instructive for the legislature to observe the sentiment and the desire by communities to protect their resources.”
The idea of asking local residents to pay up to protect regional watersheds isn’t new. In 2003, the state approved the Colorado Healthy Rivers Fund income-tax check-off. After falling into dormancy, it came back in 2016 and was broadened to accept non-income tax related donations. To date the fund has raised nearly $1.5 million, according to Casey Davenhill, executive director of the Colorado Watershed Assembly, which administers the fund.
But it is Pitkin County that has created the most far-reaching watershed tax. In 2008, voters approved the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Fund, which has generated $8 million for water projects. To date, it has helped build a recreational in-channel diversion on the Roaring Fork River, among dozens of other projects.
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said the initiative’s backers hoped other counties would follow suit.
“We always thought other counties would join in but it has been slow,” he said. “It’s nice to see other people joining us now.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Click here to read the latest “Fresh Water News” from Water Education Colorado.
Click here to go to Water Education Colorado (Rachel Champion) and read the whole interview. Here’s an excerpt:
Lisa Darling, Water Education Colorado’s trusted board president, has years of experience working with water reuse—we sat down with her to learn more. Lisa works as executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority (SMWSA), an organization that formed in 2004 when rapidly-growing south metro communities reliant on declining non-renewable groundwater realized they had to shift their water portfolios if they were to be sustainable. Now SMWSA relies on the Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency Partnership (WISE) between Denver Water, Aurora Water, and 13 SMWSA members, reusing water from Aurora’s Prairie Waters Project—which Lisa worked on for Aurora before moving to SMWSA in 2017. An excerpt of the interview is available in the fall 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine, but you can follow along with the full interview here!
Conceptual project would capture and store flows before they cross into Nebraska.
Colorado is expected to add 3 million new residents by 2050, and many of them will likely settle along the northern Front Range. That growth will spur a massive mismatch between water supply and demand—a gap of roughly 500,000 acre-feet per year by midcentury, according to Colorado’s Water Plan. Since 2015, a group of Front Range water providers called the South Platte Regional Opportunity Working Group (SPROWG) has been looking for ways to bridge that future gap through collaborative multi-purpose water projects, without diverting more water from Colorado’s Western Slope or drying up eastern Colorado farmland in the process.
“[This is] about making our water systems as efficient as we possibly can, and then seeing how large the remaining supply gap is and what the next steps will be,” says Lisa Darling, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, a member of SPROWG, and president of Water Education Colorado’s board.
Along with South Metro, SPROWG includes representatives from Denver Water, Aurora Water, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, the North Sterling Irrigation District and the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District. The group is seeking to capitalize on a surplus of untapped reusable water in the lower South Platte River near the Nebraska border, which accumulates there through return flows from the Denver Metro area and farms upstream. According to the South Platte Storage Study, an effort funded by the Colorado legislature and completed in early 2018, Colorado sent an annual median volume of 293,000 acre-feet more water to Nebraska than the South Platte River Compact requires between 1996 and 2015. SPROWG aims to enable the reuse and exchange of more of that water before it leaves the state.
“The central problem is that [future] demand will largely materialize in growing communities located roughly along the north-south axis of Interstate 25, while data and modeling tell us that available water supplies in the basin generally occur much further downstream where the river traverses the plains,” says Doug Robotham, a consultant who helped initiate SPROWG and facilitates the group’s discussions.
The conceptual project that SPROWG is now pursuing would remedy that mismatch through the creation of about 175,000 acre-feet of new water storage in three locations: 50,000 acre-feet near Henderson, 100,000 acre-feet downstream near Kersey, and 25,000 acre-feet further east near Snyder. The concept could also involve the construction of a pipeline from the Snyder-area reservoir back to the South Platte River north of Denver. This would enable the storage, reuse and exchange of several types of water, including native South Platte River flows in wet years, and legally reusable water supplies. Reusable supplies include transbasin diversion water, unconnected well water, and other sources imported into the South Platte system.
SPROWG’s analysis suggests the concept would generate 54,600 acre-feet of dependable “firm yield” every year. That’s only about one-tenth of the South Platte Basin’s looming water supply gap, but Joe Frank of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District says the concept would have added benefits for farmers and ranchers in eastern Colorado.
“It provides a viable alternative to buy and dry that has and continues to threaten lands within our boundaries,” says Frank. The economies of many eastern Colorado towns are dependent on irrigated agriculture and will suffer if acres are removed from production by cities acquiring agricultural water to support growth, Frank says.
Much research remains before SPROWG’s concept solidifies into an actual water project. SPROWG partners recently received $155,000 in funding from the Metro and South Platte Basin roundtables, and at press time they were waiting on approval for an additional $195,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Reserve Account. Over the next year, they’ll use those funds, together with $120,000 of their own money, to hone in on which municipal, agricultural and recreational water users could benefit from the SPROWG concept. They’ll also study how the concept would be funded and governed, and the exact size and location of the proposed storage facilities and water reuse pipeline.
Click here to read the whole issue of Headwaters and while you are there become a member and support water education in Colorado.
Click here to read the newsletter from Water Education Colorado. Here’s an excerpt:
Dozens of public water systems on state watch list for lead contamination (Jerd Smith)
Forty small communities, school districts and day care centers serving 51,000 people statewide are being monitored by state health officials because of concerns about potential lead contamination.
It does not mean that these entities are violating rules governing lead contamination, only that small amounts of lead have been detected in their water samples at some point, according to Nicole Graziano, a water quality specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Once that occurs, under state and federal guidelines, water suppliers must embark on a rigorous sampling program that sometimes requires new water treatment and replacement of lead service lines.
“If they’re on our list, it means they are active in our process, “ Graziano said. The rule has a long timeline, meaning that water providers can remain on the list for years as the problem is monitored, treated, and then monitored again to ensure treatment is working.
The CDPHE regulates some 2,000 public water systems statewide. Roughly 1,000 of these are subject to the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), Graziano said.
Concern over the issue has risen dramatically since 2015, when Flint, Michigan, switched water sources, pushing millions of gallons of highly corrosive water through aging lead pipes, leading to a wave of contamination and a public health crisis.
Under the LCR, more than 90 percent of samples must show lead levels of 15 parts per billion (ppb) or higher in order to trigger an action order. During the Flint crisis, lead levels of 27 ppb were found, with one sample registering 158 ppb, according to published reports.
These numbers are concerning, according to public health officials, because lead isn’t considered safe at any level, particularly for children, and levels as low as 5 ppb can be dangerous. Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Often these metals aren’t found in water once it leaves a treatment plant. But they can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through copper pipes as well as lead service lines in older homes and schools. To learn more about protecting your home or office from lead contamination here.
By far the largest entity on Colorado’s watch list is Denver Water. The utility serves some 1.4 million customers in metro Denver and has been required to sample water from its customers’ taps, conduct extensive public education efforts on protecting against lead contamination, and change out thousands of lead service lines, which are major contributors to the problem.
Earlier this year Denver Water, along with Aurora Water, the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District and the Denver Greenway Foundation, sued the state health department over a new requirement that it add phosphorous to its water treatment processes to reduce the potential for lead contamination. Denver Water has asked the state to use a PH-based protocol instead. Talks to settle the lawsuit are underway now.
Dozens of small communities are confronting the same problem, often with limited resources and big fears that a new, likely tougher, set of federal lead regulations is coming in response to the crisis in Flint. A draft set of these new rules is set to come out early next year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
According to the CDPHE, the systems on its watch list serve more than 51,000 Coloradans.
Among them is the scenic Idaho Springs, population 1,746. Lead showed up in its tap water more than a decade ago, according to Dan Wolf, manager of the town’s water and wastewater system.
Since being directed by the state in 2008 to boost the PH levels in its water treatment system, lead and copper levels in routinely collected samples of its tap water have been negligible, according to state records.
But the higher PH levels are causing problems with other aspects of the system, Wolf said. Increasing the PH, for instance, has created an organic reaction with the chlorine used for disinfection, resulting in a set of carcinogenic byproducts known as haloacetic acids (HAAs).
“Lead is not a significant issue for us anymore,” Wolf said. “But treating for lead and copper is causing higher levels of disinfection byproducts.”
In response, Idaho Springs has asked the state to allow it to operate at a lower PH level, a request the state hasn’t ruled on yet, Wolf said.
Two other entities on the list, Elk Creek Elementary School in Pine and Bearly Tawl Day Care Center in Evergreen, have shown elevated levels of lead at some locations in their buildings in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and both are being closely watched. Subsequent tests at both facilities have shown lead levels well below the action targets, according to state records.
Bearly Tawl did not return a call seeking comment. But Jefferson County Schools’ spokeswoman Diana Wilson said the school district has moved quickly to replace faucets and drinking fountains at Elk Creek and other schools to reduce lead levels and that all of its schools are now on a rotating sample schedule so that any elevated lead levels can be identified and addressed.
Like hundreds of other school districts across the state and the nation, Jefferson County opted to use state grant money to test for lead.
“We were concerned about the age of our buildings,” said Diana Wilson, executive director of communications at Jefferson County Public Schools. “Most of them are more than 50 years old.”
In general, 50 years ago is when lead piping was outlawed, due to health concerns. Buildings constructed since then aren’t likely to have lead pipes, although some may contain copper pipe fittings.
As drinking water concerns continue to echo across the state, some communities have opted to move forward and replace all lead service lines even though they are not on the watch list. Two years ago, the town of Paonia in Delta County, which relies on underground springs for its water, saw its water source reclassified under a new set of regulations designed to address concerns over groundwater contamination.
The new classification meant it had to redo a significant portion of its water system, using bonds and grants. As part of that $4 million redo, it opted to go ahead and replace all of its lead service lines, according to Paonia Town Administrator Ken Knight.
“In a lot of small communities, their infrastructure is at the end of its life expectancy. But the fact of the matter for us is that we are going to be in very good shape.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt (Jerd Smith):
Upper Colorado River restoration project entangled in bitter lawsuit
A rare river restoration project in the Upper Colorado River Basin near Grand Lake is in danger of being stopped because of a lawsuit by environmentalists.
The restoration project has been proposed to compensate the West Slope for environmental damages to the Upper Colorado River caused by a large Front Range water storage project known as Windy Gap Firming.
Sponsored by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the new storage project would bring more Colorado River water from Grand County to rapidly growing, water-short towns on the Front Range, including Lafayette, Longmont, Louisville and Broomfield, among others.
The restoration project would reconnect a section of the Upper Colorado River severed by the original Windy Gap dam Northern Water built years ago. But Northern Water said it may halt the restoration work because Save The Colorado, an environmental group, is seeking to stop the large reservoir project in U.S. District Court in Denver.
With the future of the reservoir now in doubt, Northern Water officials said it may not make sense to proceed with restoring the river channel.
“It’s painful,” said Jeff Drager, Northern Water’s director of engineering.
The reservoir has been under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, Grand County and others for 15 years. The project was within months of starting when the lawsuit was filed last October.
Save The Colorado has been challenging the project for years, saying that no more water should be diverted from the drought-stressed, over-used Colorado River. According to a number of different estimates, more than 65 percent of flows in the river’s headwaters region are already being diverted across the Continental Divide to the Front Range, endangering the river’s health.
For his part, Save The Colorado Executive Director Gary Wockner disagrees with Northern Water’s assessment of the restoration project’s future, saying that a number of agencies and stakeholder groups, including his, will have to weigh in on the project’s fate.
The original Windy Gap Project began supplying Colorado River water to the Front Range in 1985. But it has never been able to deliver the full amount of water it has rights to because storage space in its collection system on the West Slope isn’t always available. The new $570 million reservoir, called Chimney Hollow, would be near Carter Lake in Larimer County.
Environmental groups such as Trout Unlimited, along with several mountain communities and other stakeholder groups, spent years working with Northern Water to develop a set of environmental projects that would help restore the Upper Colorado River watershed. Reconnecting the river channel near Grand Lake was among those environmental projects.
In an open letter to Save The Colorado last December, Trout Unlimited’s Kirk Klancke, president of the group’s Colorado Headwaters Chapter, urged the litigants not to interfere in the decade-long negotiations that have given Western Slope communities more water for streams and helped restore habitat for fish and the bugs they feed on.
“It took 10 years of fighting to get a package of measures that will restore our rivers and prevent additional impacts. The viability of those solutions depends on Windy Gap Firming Project moving forward,” Klancke wrote. Klancke could not be reached for comment this week.
Connecting the channel would make it easier for trout to migrate and would help restore miles of streambed where critical sand and gravel had long been trapped by the dam at Windy Gap Reservoir, supporters say.
But it is the larger question – how to prevent more water from being taken out of the headwaters of the drought-stressed Colorado River – that prompted the lawsuit by Save The Colorado.
The lawsuit is being litigated by the University of Denver’s Environmental Law Clinic, where students overseen by faculty members take on cases that have national environmental implications for free.
The suit is one of three major efforts by environmental groups to halt new water projects that would serve the Front Range. Just last week Save The Colorado filed a “notice of intent” to sue Denver Water over the proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County. This project too would bring additional water from the Upper Colorado River headwaters over to the metro area.
And four years ago, the Environmental Law Clinic filed an unsuccessful suit to stop a project that would free up space in Denver’s Chatfield Reservoir to store more water for metro area cities and South Platte farmers. The students represented the Audubon Society, which argued that the project would remove too many wetlands that provide critical bird habitat. The Audubon Society lost the case last year, but it is currently on appeal in the U.S. District Court in Denver.
Kevin Lynch, the supervising professor for the DU law students, said the law clinic’s work is critical to ensuring that groups that are not politically powerful have their day in court. “We see that as a vital role, giving these groups clout and giving them the opportunity to engage in these processes. And it gives students a chance to work on meaningful real-world litigation,” he said.
That some groups from the environmental community are backing the river channel restoration project doesn’t mean Save The Colorado shouldn’t proceed with its broader mission to stop any additional water from being diverted from the headwaters, Lynch said.
Regardless of the lawsuit, “There is no reason that [Windy Gap proponents] couldn’t do the project anyway…Doing a bypass would be great. They don’t need to further drain the Colorado River to do that,” Lynch said.
But Northern Water’s Drager said the $15 million channel project’s primary reason for being was to mitigate the impact of Windy Gap’s Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
“We don’t have a plan to do the channel project if Windy Gap doesn’t move forward,” Drager said.
Drager said Windy Gap proponents will decide by February whether to proceed with the channel or to halt the design work that is underway now.
Bart Miller, an attorney with the Boulder-based conservation group Western Resource Advocates, declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit. But he said the channel project is important not just because of its restorative effects, but because it demonstrates the power of collaboration between water interests, cities and towns, and environmentalists.
“When we have an extremely dry year like this one, and going forward we’re going to have more of them, this cooperative effort between conservation groups and water providers and interests like Grand County is a very good example of efforts to address these pressing challenges. I hope the effort can continue,” Miller said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith. Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado.
Join Water Education Colorado on September 18 for a 5th anniversary, full-day tour of the 2013 flood-affected zone along the Front Range (to begin and end in Loveland). Jump on the bus with lawmakers, water managers, attorneys, engineers and members of the public to get an up-close look at various recovery projects. Participants will learn about the initial actions that were taken to protect lives and property as well as the subsequent projects that were undertaken to recover and build resilience. View the draft agenda here, then hurry and reserve your spot today. Seats are limited!
Denver Water and three other organizations are seeking to overturn a state order that directs Denver to adopt a strict new treatment protocol preventing lead contamination in drinking water.
Denver is not in violation of the federal law that governs lead, but it has been required to monitor and test its system regularly since 2012 after lead was discovered in a small sample of water at some of its customers’ taps.
In March of this year, after Denver completed a series of required tests and studies, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) ordered the utility to implement a treatment protocol that involves adding phosphates to its system. It has until March of 2020 to implement the new process.
Denver, which serves 1.4 million people in the metro area, has proposed instead using an approach that balances the PH levels in its treated water and expands a program replacing lead service lines in the city. Old lead service lines are a common source of lead in drinking water.
Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. In Denver, for instance, there is no lead in the water supply when it leaves the treatment plant. But it can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through lead delivery lines and pipes in older homes. Denver has 58,000 lead service lines in its system. Lead has continued to appear in samples it has taken at some customers’ taps, according to court filings, though not at levels that would constitute a violation of the federal law.
Eighty-six samples taken since 2013 have exceeded 15 micrograms per liter, including one tap sample which measured more than 400 micrograms per liter, according to court filings. The 15-microgram-per-liter benchmark is the level at which utilities must take action, including public education, corrosion studies, additional sampling and possible removal of lead service lines.
In response to the state’s order, the City of Aurora, the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District and the nonprofit Greenway Foundation, which works to protect the South Platte River, sued to overturn it, concerned that additional phosphates will hamper their ability to meet their own water treatment requirements while also hurting water quality in the South Platte. Denver joined the suit in May.
Because Denver Water services numerous other water providers in the metro area and participates in a major South Metro reuse project known as WISE, short for Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency, anything that changes the chemical profile of its water affects dozens of communities and the river itself.
Among the plaintiffs’ concerns is that phosphate levels in water that is discharged to the river have to be tightly controlled under provisions of the Clean Water Act. If phosphate levels in domestic water rise, wastewater treatment protocols would have to be changed, potentially costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, according to a report by the Denver-based, nonpartisan Water Research Foundation.
From an environmental perspective, any increased phosphate in the South Platte River would make fighting such things as algae blooms, which are fueled by nutrients including phosphorous, much more difficult and could make the river less habitable for fish.
But in its statement to the court, the CDPHE said the state’s first job is to protect the health of the thousands of children served by Denver Water in the metro area.
“The addition of orthophosphate will reduce lead at consumers’ taps by approximately 74 percent, as opposed to the cheaper treatment favored by plaintiffs [PH/Alkalinity], which will only reduce levels by less than 50 percent,” CDPHE said in court documents. “This is a significant and important public health difference, particularly because there is no safe level of lead in blood…Even at low levels, a child’s exposure to lead can be harmful.”
How much either treatment may eventually cost Denver Water and others isn’t clear yet, according to state health officials, because it will depend in part on how each process is implemented.
Denver, Aurora and Metro Wastewater declined to comment for this story, citing the pending lawsuit.
The Greenway Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
In late July, all parties agreed to pause the legal proceedings while they examine water treatment issues as well as the environmental concerns raised by higher levels of phosphorous in Denver Water’s treated water supplies. If a settlement can’t be reached by Nov. 1, the lawsuit will proceed.
Jonathan Cuppett, a research manager at the Water Research Foundation, said other utilities across the country may be asked to re-evaluate their own corrosion control systems under a rewrite of the Lead and Copper Rule underway now at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The newly proposed federal rule is due out for review later this year or by mid-2019.
Cuppett said the changes may lean toward more phosphate-based treatment for lead contamination. In fact, the EPA issued a statement in March in support of the CDPHE’s order to Denver Water.
“Within the [Lead and Copper Rule] there are a variety of changes that may be made. Depending on what those changes are other utilities may have to evaluate their strategy again or more frequently. And if that is the case, we may see more of this issue where someone is pushing for phosphorous for control for public health, creating a conflict of interest with environmental concerns,” Cuppett said.
Colorado public health officials said they’re hopeful an agreement can be reached, but that they have few options under the federal Safe Water Drinking Act’s Lead and Copper Rule.
“The [Lead and Copper Rule] is a very prescriptive, strict rule,” said Megan Parish, an attorney and policy adviser to CDPHE. “It doesn’t give us a lot of discretion to consider things that Metro Wastewater would have liked us to consider.”
Join Water Education Colorado on September 18 for a 5th anniversary, full-day tour of the 2013 flood-affected zone along the Front Range (to begin and end in Loveland). Jump on the bus with lawmakers, water managers, attorneys, engineers and members of the public to get an up-close look at various recovery projects. Participants will learn about the initial actions that were taken to protect lives and property as well as the subsequent projects that were undertaken to recover and build resilience. Read the draft agenda here, then hurry and reserve your spot today. Seats are limited!
Aurora’s futuristic recycled water project — Prairie Waters— is running at full-tilt for the first time in its eight-year history, a move designed to make the city’s water supplies last longer in the face of severe drought conditions.
“We’re pushing it as hard as we can,” said Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora Water.
In February, as mountain snows failed to accumulate, Baker said the city began mobilizing to ramp up plant operations, knowing its reservoirs would likely not fill this summer. “We were very worried.”
By April, Prairie Waters was running at full speed, generating 9.7 million gallons a day (MGD), up from 5.1 MGD last summer, a 90 percent increase in production.
“We could possibly push it to 10 MGD,” said Ann Malinaro, a chemist and treatment specialist with Prairie Waters, “but we consider 9.7 MGD full capacity.”
“Prairie Waters was huge, not just in terms of volume, but also because it’s really helped us advance as a state in accepting potable [drinkable] reused water,” Belanger said. “Historically, there has been a yuck factor. But Prairie Waters has helped folks understand how systems can be designed so they are safe and effective.” [Laura Belanger]
Twenty-five Colorado cities, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Louisville, operate recycled water facilities, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, but that water is used primarily to water parks, golf courses and to help cool power plants, among other nonpotable, or non-drinkable, uses.
But Aurora, faced with fast-growth and a shortage of water, realized more than a decade ago that reusing its existing supplies and treating them to drinking water standards was the only way to ensure it could provide enough water for its citizens.
Completed in 2010, the Prairie Waters Project recaptures treated wastewater from the South Platte River and transports it back to Aurora through a series of underground wells and pipelines. As the water makes its 34-mile journey from a point near Brighton back to the metro area through subsurface sand and gravel formations, it undergoes several rounds of natural cleansing.
Once it reaches the Prairie Waters treatment facility near Aurora Reservoir, it runs through a series of high-tech purification processes using carbon filters, UV light and chlorine, among other chemicals. Then, before it is delivered to homes, the reused water is mixed with the city’s other supplies, which derive from relatively clean mountain snowmelt that is carried down from the mountains.
It’s official! We are excited to announce the launch of our new website! We are confident that this innovative and user-friendly site will make interacting with Water Education Colorado easier and more useful!
Meanwhile, here’s the link to their latest “Fresh Water News” newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Drought worsens in Colorado
Fourteen people gathered around a table in a Denver conference room deep within the confines of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife complex and showed one another chart, after chart, after chart.
Lines depicting vanishing snowpack fell farther and farther toward zero on their graphs and deep red stains on maps outlining the boundaries of this year’s dry season grew brighter and larger.
It was mid-June and those members of Colorado’s Water Availability Task Force (WATF) gathered in Denver could see what was becoming clearer each week. That 2018 was shaping up to mirror three other alarming drought years this century that nearly brought Colorado to its knees: 2002, 2012 and 2013. The task force, a group of water managers, scientists and hydrologists, is charged with monitoring water supplies for farms, cities and industry statewide.
Peter Goble, a staffer with Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center and a member of the WATF, had been anxiously watching precipitation levels for weeks. May, he reported, was the second driest May on record, based on measurements dating back to 1895. The absolute driest May occurred in 1934, the fourth year of the Dust Bowl.
“It’s pretty startling,” said Taryn Finnessey, senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and chair of the WATF.
Summer temps soar
Though reservoirs are fairly full this year, demand is rising quickly in dry spots such as the Arkansas and Southwest Basins. And even on the Front Range, where snowpack was close to normal, weeks of searing 90-plus degree days have sprinklers running at full force and reservoir levels dropping quickly.
In May, after a recommendation by Finnessey and the task force, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper activated the state’s drought response plan for 34 southern counties, making them eligible for millions of dollars in federal drought relief, among other forms of assistance.
Within weeks, wildfires began chasing one another across the state, spreading at rates never seen in the dry southwestern counties. The Spring Creek fire is on track to becoming one of the largest ever in the state, while the 416 fire outside Durango temporarily shut down some of the state’s most treasured tourist spots, including the scenic Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
But unlike the earlier drought years of this century, 2018 is no longer viewed as a standalone event. It’s been given a much chewier title. Scientists and water managers call it an entry into a multi-decadal drought period, and some worry it may signal a transformation of Colorado’s climate. Where this was once considered a semi-arid region, this 18-year dry spell may signal a dramatic change in the landscape—one in which Colorado becomes known largely as an arid, rather than semi-arid region.
Aridification is the term Brad Udall likes to use to describe what’s been going on since 2000, if not earlier. Udall is a scientist with Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute and a member of the multi-state Colorado River Research Group, based at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Finding the right word
“Using old terminology, we could call it a drought,” Udall said. But he believes the term aridification is more accurate because of the ongoing reductions in snowpacks and subsequent river flows that have been seen this century.
Here’s what Udall and others find worrisome:
The Colorado River, whose headwaters lie in the Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, has seen a 20 percent reduction in flows since 2000, the date many use to describe the beginning of this multi-decadal drought period, according to the Colorado River Research Group.
In the same period, only five years have delivered above average flows into Lake Powell, which along with Lake Mead, serves as one of the two largest reservoirs on the river.
Three of the four driest years on record in the Colorado River Basin have occurred during this 18-year period, with 2012 and 2013 being the driest consecutive years since 1906, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico are responsible for delivering roughly 8.23 million acre-feet (MAF) of water to the lower basin states each year by releasing it from Lake Powell. But since 2000, inflows into Lake Powell, where those deliveries are stored, have averaged just 5.74 MAF annually, meaning trying to keep up with the required deliveries is now a losing game.
Shrinking river flows
Adding to those concerns is this river-busting year of 2018, when just 2.64 MAF is expected to flow into Powell, 37 percent of average, according to data from the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City.
“2018 will not be remembered as a good water supply year for the Colorado River Basin,” Finnessey said.
Why should Coloradans care so much about the Colorado River? Because it keeps huge tourist, fishing and farm economies on the West Slope alive, it delivers roughly half the water used on Colorado’s Front Range, and it serves millions of people in Arizona, Nevada and California.
If the hydrology is changing permanently, it means most of the state’s water users will be forced to use less, and in some years, if Colorado can’t deliver enough to Arizona, Nevada and California, as the law requires, they might have to do with a lot less.
The grim scenario isn’t lost on Jesse Kruthaupt. He and his family operate a small 500-acre ranch outside Gunnison. For decades its luscious hay meadows have flourished along the banks of Tomichi Creek. Typically the creek will go dry late in the summer. “But right now,” he said, in late June “our diversion is totally dry.”
Kruthaupt will see his hay production drop this year but at least he will have a crop and enough to feed his cows and calves. “I know we will be short,” he said. “I just don’t know by how much.”
On the urban Front Range, 2018 has been a year to count blessings. In Highlands Ranch, Water Resources Administrator Swithin Dick watched his district’s reservoirs fill nicely, because in the South Platte Basin, which serves metro Denver and much of the urban north, snowpack came in at nearly normal levels.
“The South Platte Basin is the place to be this year,” Dick said. Still, the district has permanent conservation measures in place that prohibit its 96,000 residents from watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., among other things.
“Our snowpack was diminished, but it’s not dire like it is for southern Colorado and southwestern Colorado,” he said.
Looking ahead, if 2019 delivers the same brand of dry as this year did, it will be much harder to tolerate because reservoirs from Durango to Denver will be depleted and will struggle to refill.
Front Range communities that lucked out this year, may not next year.
Thirsty urban customers
Denver Water, the largest municipal water utility in the state, has seen conditions deteriorate since April. It thought then that its reservoirs would fill completely, thanks to late spring snows.
But that didn’t occur, and Greg Fisher, Denver Waters manager of demand planning, said the super hot temps this summer have everyone at the agency keeping a close watch on the weather and how much water customers are using.
“We find ourselves in extremely hot, dry conditions and our use is up for sure,” Fisher said.
To date there hasn’t been a huge spike in demand and as a result the agency does not intend to impose water restrictions.
“We got very, very lucky this year,” Fisher said. “But the fact that our system didn’t fill is concerning. That often marks the start of a drought cycle for us.”
Despite the growing frequency of dry years, Udall sees some cause for optimism. “We’ve learned a lot in the last 15 years in terms of how to work with each other and how to come up with solutions that benefit everybody. Colorado has more going on in water in a good way than anywhere else in the West,” he said.
The state has, for instance, created nine regional roundtables representing its river basins and the metro area. These groups operate to address their own water issues, while working with other basins with whom they share supplies.
Those collaborative efforts are evident every month at the Water Availability Task Force meetings, where Eastern Plains ranchers weigh in with West Slope water managers and others representing Denver Water, Colorado Springs Utilities and Aurora Water, among others.
Still this year the work has been grueling. When one scientist asked if the group wanted to look at one more water supply index last month, John Stulp, Gov. Hickenlooper’s water policy adviser, smiled and said no, not really.
“I think we’re depressed enough,” he said. And he was only half joking.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, at jerd@watereducationcolorado, and @jerd_smith on Twitter.