A rancher-led group is boosting the health of the #ColoradoRiver near its headwaters — @WaterEdFdn #COriver

From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):

Western Water Spotlight: a Colorado partnership is engaged in a river restoration effort to aid farms and fish habitat that could serve as a model across the west

Strategic placement of rocks promotes a more natural streamflow that benefits ranchers and fish. (Source: Paul Bruchez)

“What used to be a very large river that inundated the land has really become a trickle,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado counsel for Trout Unlimited. “We estimate that 70 percent of the flow on an annual average goes across the Continental Divide and never comes back.”

Ranchers on the river who once relied on floodwater from the Colorado River to irrigate their hayfields now must pump from the river to irrigate. The river is shallow, sandy and warm in spots. Irrigation ditches have sloughed. The stretch of the river near Kremmling has not been working well for ranchers or the environment.

Now, a partnership of state, local and conservation groups, including Trout Unlimited, is engaged in a restoration effort that could serve as a template for similar regions across the West. Centered around the high plateau near Kremmling, a town of about 1,400 people in northern Colorado about 100 miles west of Denver, the partnership aims to make the river function better for people and the environment.

Rancher and fly fishing guide Paul Bruchez (Source: Russell Schnitzer, used with permission)

Paul Bruchez, a fifth-generation rancher of 6,000 acres near Kremmling who also runs fly fishing expeditions for tourists, sees the river’s challenges from both perspectives.

“Some of us involved with fly fishing care deeply about the environmental conditions within the river corridor,” said Bruchez. “Other landowners are more focused on the agricultural sustainability. But the one thing we agreed about is that things were collapsing.”

Restoring a Healthier River

The partnership, known as the Irrigators of the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK), obtained grant funding in 2015 to start the process of assessing the river’s conditions and identifying possible pilot projects, such as stabilizing riverbanks and reviving irrigation channels across a meandering 12-mile stretch of the Colorado River. As projects are identified, ILVK members attempt to prioritize them and apply for grants with the project costs evenly divided between grantors and landowners, Bruchez said.

River improvements often have immediate benefits for irrigation infrastructure.

“Many of our irrigation laterals had washed into the river system and there was no large-scale look at the system as a whole and how it connects,” Bruchez said. “A lot of these simple bank stabilization projects not only create habitat but are literally safeguarding some of our irrigation laterals that we all rely on to deliver the water to our crops.”

The key, he said, is realizing that less can be more in re-establishing a proper flow regime. “You set the stage for the river then you let the river do the work itself instead of getting in there and manipulating everything,” he said.

Story continues below slideshow.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Trout Unlimited is a full partner in the project. It applied for all the funding and is the fiscal agent and manager of the grants. Whiting and Bruchez consult on project management, retention of consultants and scope of work.

“It’s a complete win for everybody. It’s just a question of money,” Whiting said. “It’s been so successful and such a good story and so far, we have been able to draw quite a bit of funding and turn that into impressive improvements for the river and the ranchers.”

The partnership has obtained $2.6 million in grants from funders such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($500,000), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service ($2 million) and the Gates Family Foundation ($120,000).

Four miles downstream from Bruchez, the Colorado River becomes a smaller river with warmer temperatures that have spurred algae growth. “The minimum stream level of the Colorado River at Kremmling is 150 cubic feet per second,” said rancher Bill Thompson. “That’s not much.”

Thompson, who ranches about 400 acres, moved to Kremmling in 1959. He said he’s spent about $200,000 to match grant funding for two grade-control projects that have raised the river channel 18 inches near his property. While helping him get the water he needs, the structures also help create fish habitat.

“I speed the water up, I’ve got them [fish] more oxygen and I’ve cooled [the water] down,” he said. “It’s a healthier river now because of it.”

River projects are undertaken to be cost-effective. “We are trying to do this in a capacity where it is more affordable,” Bruchez said. “These are not people that live on limitless budgets that are doing this for building Disneyland fish habitat. These are multigeneration ag producers that just want to be able to irrigate.”

Overcoming Skeptical Landowners

Moving water great distances helps meet Colorado’s water supply demand. The Continental Divide spans the length of the state, with watersheds on the west side flowing toward the Pacific Ocean and those on the east feeding the Atlantic Ocean. The more rural Western Slope of the Rockies gets most of Colorado’s precipitation, about 80 percent, and a vast network of storage and conveyance infrastructure moves water to major cities like Denver, Boulder and Aurora.

That diversion has come at the expense of the Colorado River in the area near Kremmling. “Where you had a very large river there is now a very small river,” Whiting with Trout Unlimited said. “It doesn’t have enough water; it is overly wide and shallow, and it gets really hot.”

Prior to the diversions, the Colorado River’s floodwaters washed over the land and helped prepare it for planting.

“You didn’t even need a water right,” said Thompson, the longtime rancher. “All you had to do was take your rake out there and scrape off the logs and the willows and start haying.”

Getting to a place where landowners agreed to commit themselves to projects took time. “It’s fair to say most landowners were pretty skeptical,” Bruchez said. “These are people that like private lives. They don’t like public dollars; they don’t like meetings and they don’t like talking about stuff. They like doing their thing.”

Eventually a cost-sharing structure emerged that focused on improving the condition of the river, with grant funding helping to cover the gap beyond out-of-pocket expenses for traditional repairs. River fixes run the gamut, from rebuilding lost banks to altering the channel with rock that makes the current meander, ebb and flow. This, in turn, stimulates the production of insects that fish feast on. Bruchez said anglers tell him the results are “off the charts.”

Calming Suspicions

A restored Colorado River means good things for the ranchers near Kremmling and the trout that thrive in its waters. How much further work happens and at what scale remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the merits have been demonstrated. For her part, Whiting said the next challenge and hard conversation will entail finding ways to leave more water in the river.

Beyond the physical improvements to the river, the interaction between stakeholders has also worked well, Bruchez said, especially with trans-mountain diverters such as Denver Water. “We all view it now as a one-river thing, and when we all work together and are able to talk about the issues, we can solve problems,” he said. “If we all go to our corners and put up our fists, it doesn’t work so well.”

The Upper Colorado River meanders through the high plateau around Kremmling, Colorado. (Source: Russell Schnitzer, used with permission)

Whiting said partnerships between landowners and outside agencies work best when people like Bruchez are there to serve as a bridge.

“They can go in and say, ‘These guys are not coming to take your water, they are not here to take your land,’” she said. “All these suspicions can be calmed when you have a trusted source who walks stakeholders through it.”

As 2019 moves toward 2020, more bank and river channel work is scheduled. Centered at the swirl of activity, Bruchez said he wants to keep things in perspective.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do and we are trying to not get too big for our britches,” he said. “We also recognize there are river-system challenges all over the country, especially in the Southwest, and we are hoping as a collective group that this project is enough of a success that we can really try and demonstrate to others how people can come together and accomplish a successful project, especially by reasonably affordable techniques of installation.”

Reach Gary Pitzer: gpitzer@watereducation.org, Twitter: @gary_wef
Know someone else who wants to stay connected with water in the West? Encourage them to sign up for Western Water, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Click here to read Coyote Gulch posts about Paul Bruchez’s influence.

After the devastating 2013 flood, a river, a town, the farmers and fish find a silver lining — @WaterEdCO

A new type of irrigation diversion structure that uses gates rather than solid walls to dam the river, has been installed on a stretch of the South Platte near Evans. The $3.3 million project modernized the diversion system, restored the river, created a fish passageway and provides future protection from flooding. May 22, 2019 Credit: Jerd Smith

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

On the Rocky Mountains’ eastern flank, just southwest of Evans, Colo., and along the banks of the South Platte River, mud-caked pickup trucks share the back roads with battered, dusty hybrid cars.

In many places, farmers and environmentalists often clash over rivers, but not on this stretch of the South Platte.

That’s because people like Jim Park, president of a 149-year-old irrigation ditch company, convinced his fellow farmers to collaborate with a new-era river coalition, helping replace a major irrigation diversion system, restore a segment of the Middle South Platte River for fish and canoes, and make the region safer in the event of future floods.

Evans Colorado September 2013 via TheDenverChannel.com

It all started after 2013, when Evans saw homes, roads and riverside parks wiped away by flood waters of historic proportions. When the the city began planning for its recovery, it knew that the Lower Latham Ditch Company would be a key player in the work.

The Lower Latham is one of the largest diverters of farm water on the Middle South Platte, which stretches some 20 miles and includes the river as it travels through Milliken, La Salle and Evans. The Lower Latham is a crucial economic force in a region that is heavily agricultural. Its primary dam and diversion structure, damaged during the flood, for decades had spanned nearly the width of the river, trapping tons of sediment and back-waters that inundated the lands immediately upstream during times of high flows.

The City of Evans, along with Jeff Crane, a river restoration consultant, and the Middle South Platte River Alliance (MSPRA), convinced the ditch company to join them in their quest to restore the river by modernizing its historical diversion structure. With the aid of $3.3 million in federal funds, they installed a new kind of dam, one that doesn’t rely on a tall concrete barrier, but which uses a set of highly flexible gates that can be remotely lowered, when the rivers’ waters are running dangerously high, or raised, when its flows are lower, so that farmers can still capture the water they need to irrigate.

They installed another structure that captures sediment before it enters the massive irrigation ditch, keeping the sediment in the river, where fish and other aquatic life need it, rather than clogging the irrigation system’s ditches.

They also created a fish passage that skirts the irrigation structure, one which recreation consultants believe will help restore aquatic life while also making it possible for canoers and kayakers to navigate the river.

And perhaps most importantly, it gives Evans and area farmers the flexibility they will need to protect themselves when the next massive flood comes, as it inevitably will.

The ditch and river restoration project is the largest to date in the river basin and the most expensive, according to Crane, who served as a technical consultant for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), helping plan and oversee the restoration work. DOLA served as the conduit and administrator for the federal money that funded the project.

“We consider this project the showcase,” said Crane, because of its scope but also because of its diverse set of beneficiaries.

After the 2013 flood, several new watershed groups, including the MSPRA, formed in the South Platte River Basin, serving as planners for the massive restoration work that needed to be done. The historic flood slammed Boulder, Weld and Larimer counties causing $4 billion in damage, wiping out thousands of homes and destroying hundreds of miles of roads.

Planners knew, in order to be successful, that the restoration effort would have to take a wholistic approach, one that included farmers, cities, as well as environmental and recreational interests.

But it wasn’t easy. Jim Park knew his fellow farmers well. They have one of the oldest water rights on the river — dating to 1869 — and can divert so much water that at times they dry up that reach of the Middle South Platte.

Park said the farmers were interested in updating their structure, but they were deeply wary of allowing the federal government into their operations.

“The big thing about this was that the government was going to give us the money to do it. That throws up a lot of red flags,” he said, with members worried there would be years of interference and delays, even lawsuits, if things went wrong.

Still, Park persisted. “Last November, when we were getting ready to start construction, we had a meeting in Kersey and about 50 people showed up. It went on for three hours. A couple of guys were really against it. But I thought it was an awfully good opportunity for us.”

Members of the Middle South Platte River Alliance believe the project, which was completed this month, could become a template for the South Platte River. It is perhaps the hardest-working waterway in the state, serving millions of city dwellers even as it irrigates Colorado’s largest farm economy.

The river faces major challenges due to the immense growth on the Northern Front Range. Since 2013, nearly 62,500 people have moved to the area, an 11 percent increase, according to the Colorado State Demography Office. But that pales in comparison to what is to come, with demographers estimating the region’s population will nearly double by 2050, surging past the 1.24 million mark, up from roughly 648,000 today.

Billy Mihelich is the engineer for the Greeley-based Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, a major player in the farm water world on the Eastern Plains. He too sees potential for these kinds of projects to gradually bring the river into a new era, where farmers increasingly will live side-by-side with urban residents who also consider the river an environmental and recreational asset.

“A lot of these structures were built 100 to 150 years ago,” Mihelich said. “They’ve been maintained, of course, but I think there will be pressure on these ditch companies to install environmentally friendly structures because so many people are moving into what have been historically agricultural areas.”

For Evans, the five and a half years since the flood have been transformative, according to Kalen Myers, a management analyst for the city who also serves as secretary of the MSPRA.

“The flood was devastating,” Myers said. “Riverside Park was completely decimated, two mobile home parks were completely wiped out, hundreds of homes were lost. Happily there was no loss of life [in Evans].”

But since then, Myers said, the city has been able to rebuild homes and the park and to begin envisioning a time when there will be trails along the river and when the park could serve as base camp for those who would like to take their canoes or kayaks to Fort Morgan.

Is it far-fetched to think of an old industrial, agricultural river becoming a haven for bird watchers and boaters?

River lovers don’t think so, although the work would be staggering, said Lauren Bond, founder of The River’s Path, a Longmont company that leads canoe trips on the St. Vrain River and who has studied the South Platte in hopes that eventually it will become passable. “There are hundreds of dams [that would have to be modernized], but we have to start somewhere,” she said.

Looking ahead, Jim Park believes such projects will become more common, because aging farm diversion structures will need to be replaced as time goes on, and the use of environmentally friendly structures will become more accepted.

“There was certainly some trepidation” Park said. “But it has worked out well for us.”

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

No longer a ‘boys club’: in the world of water, women are increasingly claiming center stage — @WaterEdFdn

Brenda Burman photo credit Wikimedia.

From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer).:

Western Water Notebook: since late 2017, women have taken leading roles at Reclamation, DWR, Metropolitan Water District and other key water agencies.

The 1992 election to the United States Senate was famously coined the “Year of the Woman” for the record number of women elected to the upper chamber.

In the water world, 2018 has been a similar banner year, with noteworthy appointments of women to top leadership posts in California — Karla Nemeth at the California Department of Water Resources and Gloria Gray at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

On the national level, Jayne Harkins was appointed in September to lead the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) for the United States and Mexico. And in July, Amy Haas was named executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, the first woman to hold that title in its 70-year history. They followed Brenda Burman’s appointment in late 2017 to become the first female commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in its 116-year history.

Women have had their hands in water issues for a long time, but their presence has been spotlighted by those key appointments and the understanding that in what’s traditionally been a male-dominated field, women are seizing the opportunity to contribute to the discussion and have their voices heard.

“Since 2001, when I arrived in California, I’ve met so many great women doing impactful work at the local, state and national levels, both in agencies and in the nonprofit and business sectors,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. “What’s really striking now is how many women are in leadership positions — a trend I hope to see continue.”

Women engaged in water policy issues say their work is a tribute to those who entered the field previously.

“There is a trend of more women going into the field of water policy/law because of a sustained effort by women who have pioneered going into this field to reach back and pull more women with them,” said Kim Delfino, California program director with Defenders of Wildlife and former California Water Commission member. “I think that the trajectory has been always pointed toward an increase in women coming into this field. It is now more noticeable because the numbers have finally added up to a more substantial showing. Further, social media makes it easier to communicate and show the numbers of women in the field of water.”

Click through for the great photo gallery timeline highlighting women in water.