Milestone #ColoradoRiver management plan mostly worked amid epic drought, review finds — @WaterEdFdn #COriver #aridification

From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):

Western Water Spotlight: draft assessment of 2007 interim guidelines expected to provide a guide as talks begin on new river operating rules for the iconic southwestern river

At full pool, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States by volume, but two decades of drought have dramatically dropped the water level behind Hoover Dam as can be seen in this photo. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

Twenty years ago, the Colorado River Basin’s hydrology began tumbling into a historically bad stretch. The weather turned persistently dry. Water levels in the system’s anchor reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead plummeted. A river system relied upon by nearly 40 million people, farms and ecosystems across the West was in trouble. And there was no guide on how to respond.

So key players across the Basin’s seven states, including California, came together in 2005 to attack the problem. The result was a set of Interim Guidelines adopted in 2007 that, according to a just-released assessment from the Bureau of Reclamation, mostly worked. Stressing flexibility instead of rigidity, the guidelines stabilized water deliveries in a drought-stressed system and prevented a dreaded shortage declaration by the federal government that would have forced water supply cuts.

Carly Jerla, one of the review’s authors. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

Those guidelines, formally called “Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” are set to expire in 2026 As stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin — including water agencies, states, Native American tribes and nongovernmental organizations — prepare to renegotiate a new set of river operating guidelines, Reclamation’s assessment is expected to provide a guide for future negotiations.

“We find that the guidelines were largely effective,” said Carly Jerla, modeling and research group manager with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River region and one of the report’s authors. However, the Interim Guidelines could not solve all of the challenges brought by what has become a two-decade-long drought in the Basin. Said Jerla: “We saw risk getting too high and needed additional assets.”

Preserving Lake Mead

With the guidelines as a foundation, those assets arrived in 2019 through drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basin – voluntary reduction commitments that built a firewall against the likelihood of Lake Mead dropping to critically low levels.

Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said the guidelines achieved their objective, considering that the drought has essentially persisted since 2000. Even with the severity and longevity of the drought, the guidelines kept the two reservoirs at about 50 percent of capacity since 2007.

“To my mind that’s a pretty good marker that we were generally successful,” Harris said.

Matt Rice, who directs American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program, argues that future river operating guidelines should factor in environmental considerations. (Source: American Rivers)

Reclamation’s review of the Interim Guidelines was released for public comment in October. It is expected to be finalized in December. After that, discussions are expected to begin to hammer out a new set of operating rules that would be ready to take effect when the existing guidelines expire in 2026.

Reclamation’s review, which was required under the guidelines, focused solely on how effectively the Interim Guidelines managed water shortages and storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. It did not include existing environmental management programs such as the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program that are independent of the guidelines. The 2026 guidelines should take a broader view, said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Program.

“Not just looking at the two big buckets [reservoirs], but how do we ensure the river is healthy and has water for its environmental needs,” he said.

“How do we ensure that communities are considered, certainly the tribes, and how do we evaluate additional future demands, projects like the Lake Powell pipeline (a proposed project to deliver Lake Powell water to Southern Utah).”

Ensuring Tribal Participation

Tribal water rights are a key consideration to future Colorado River water use. Ten federally recognized tribes in the Upper and Lower Basins have reserved water rights, including unresolved claims, to divert about 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year from the river and its tributaries, according to Reclamation’s 2018 Tribal Water Study. These tribes anticipate diverting their full water rights by 2040.

Reclamation’s review emphasizes the need for listening to all voices, most notably tribes. Tribal representatives were largely overlooked in the development of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and tribes want to make sure their voices are heard when the next set of operating rules are drawn up.

“We hope that the review will remind Reclamation of the importance that Indian tribes have played in the stewardship of the Colorado River and underscore the importance of meaningful and sustained participation of the Lower Basin tribes in any future guidelines development regarding management of the Colorado River,” Jon Huey, chair of the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona, wrote in a letter to Reclamation.

Jerla said Reclamation recognizes how important it will be to include the tribes in future discussions.

“We definitely heard that loud and clear,” she said. “I think the critical role that tribes have played in the activities since the Guidelines … their desire to be more involved and more included, they will absolutely be a key part of efforts going forward, no question.”

Balancing Water Uses

There is inherent tension in balancing Colorado River water uses between the two basins. Part of the problem is users in the Lower Basin can use Lake Mead as a bank account, having water released downstream to them as they need it. Lake Powell, on the other hand, sits at the bottom of the Upper Basin’s drainage and water that flows into Powell is largely beyond reach of Upper Basin users.

Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, shows the effects of persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

“The guidelines have been partially successful in that they have achieved their principal objective of preventing Lower Basin shortage, as well as establishing a Lower Basin conservation mechanism and avoiding litigation in the Basin,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “However, from the standpoint of the coordinated operations of Lakes Powell and Mead, a secondary objective of the Guidelines, they have come up short.”

Haas pointed out that between 2015 and 2019, Lake Powell was required to release 9 million acre-feet of water annually under the Guidelines, even with poor inflows into Powell and below-average hydrology in the Upper Basin watershed. That’s more than has historically been required.

“Meanwhile, Lake Mead elevations have not substantially increased under the Guidelines due in large part to overuse in the Lower Basin, also known as the structural deficit,” she said. “These issues must be addressed in the post-2026 operational criteria.”

Protecting the Colorado River

Drought wreaked havoc on the Colorado River Basin between 2000 and 2004, with record dryness that depleted the combined storage of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Conditions worsened quickly. At the beginning of the 2000 water year, the review said, the combined storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead was 55.7 million acre-feet. After the worst five-year period of inflow on record ended in 2005, that storage fell to 29.7 million acre-feet – a striking loss of nearly half of the water in the two anchor reservoirs.

Something new had to be done. The business-as-usual approach of determining drought conditions for the Basin on a yearly basis was not going to provide long-term stability or prevent conflict under such historic dryness.

“Failing to develop additional operational guidelines would make sustainable Colorado River management extremely difficult,” Reclamation’s review said.

The Interim Guidelines in 2007 opened the door for Lower Basin water users and Mexico to get creative about how water is managed and used. One example that grew out of the guidelines is Intentionally Created Surplus, allowing downstream parties to bank water in Lake Mead that they could draw upon later.

“One result of this new flexibility was that critical Lake Mead elevations could be protected through the conservation of this water in the lake,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “The Basin states, meanwhile, continued to seek ways to protect reservoir levels and the health of the Colorado River system.”

The Colorado River Compact divided the basin into an upper and lower half, with each having the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre-feet of river water annually. (Source: U.S. Geological Survey via The Water Education Foundation)

Saving Intentionally Created Surplus water in Lake Mead turned out to be a critical drought response tool, said Reclamation’s Jerla, ensuring that the lake’s water level did not drop to where water users would be required to take cuts.

Reclamation’s review of the Interim Guidelines notes that there are other areas of interest beyond its scope that should be considered in future discussions, such as impacts of river operations to environmental, recreational and hydropower resources, and more meaningful engagement of Basin partners, stakeholders, tribes and states.

The review notes that since the Interim Guidelines were adopted, Reclamation has expanded its long-term modeling assumptions and worked to identify appropriate methods for analyzing uncertainty.

“Even though the true probability of any combination of conditions … cannot be assessed, a wider range of hydrology and demand assumptions and attention to those ranges … are useful for supporting a common understanding of system vulnerability,” the review says.

The Next Set of Guidelines

The 2007 Interim Guidelines have set the table for the next version of a Colorado River operations agreement. In retrospect, things have generally occurred as expected, Jerla said.

“In terms of where the reservoirs landed, what types of releases Powell made and how successful the Intentionally Created Surplus mechanism became, that is all within the range of what we were projecting,” Jerla said. “It’s informative to know that now and use that thinking about how risk influenced our decisions and how that translates into the next set of action levels.”

Sustaining Lake Mead for the benefit of downstream water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin has been a key objective of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. (Source: Lighthawk via The Water Desk)

The Interim Guidelines instilled a degree of greater cooperation and innovation on the river and that has fostered partnerships, initiatives and actions that demonstrate what can be done in a Basin that is steadily getting drier.

“Those things have to continue,” Jerla said, adding that Reclamation’s review is one of many sources officials will consult as they draft the next set of guidelines.

Rice, with American Rivers, said he’s optimistic about the prospects of a broad group of stakeholders building the next set of Interim Guidelines.

“I am not suggesting that it’s going to be easy or straightforward by any means,” he said. “We certainly hope there will be greater participation from more stakeholders. The tribes are at the top of the list, but also nongovernmental organizations, which traditionally have not been part of these interbasin negotiations.”

The talks are likely to be frank and will explore thorny issues related to equitable water management.

Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, says the Lower Basin’s structural deficit must be addressed. (Source: UCRC)

Arriving at a satisfactory operational plan beyond 2026 means the Lower Basin’s structural deficit has to be addressed and balancing releases between Lake Powell and Lake Mead should be revisited to reflect actual hydrology, said Haas, with the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Also, the new guidelines should contain a mechanism whereby operations can be adapted and adjusted to meet changing conditions, something the current guidelines are not equipped to do.”

How the next set of river operating guidelines will take shape remains to be seen, but Reclamation’s review suggests the 2007 Interim Guidelines proved their worth in showing how water users can work together and think creatively, lessons that will be invaluable for the future.

The 2007 Interim Guidelines, the review said, “created the operational stability that became the platform for the collaborative decision-making that protected the Colorado River system from crisis.”

Can a grand vision solve the #ColoradoRiver’s challenges? Or will incremental change offer best hope for success? #COriver #aridification

From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):

WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: WITH TALKS LOOMING ON A NEW OPERATING AGREEMENT FOR THE RIVER, A DEBATE HAS EMERGED OVER THE BEST APPROACH TO ADDRESS ITS CHALLENGES

Some Colorado River water users in 2020 will begin taking voluntary reductions to protect the water elevation level at Lake Mead. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

The Colorado River is arguably one of the hardest working rivers on the planet, supplying water to 40 million people and a large agricultural economy in the West. But it’s under duress from two decades of drought and decisions made about its management will have exceptional ramifications for the future, especially as impacts from climate change are felt.

The issues facing water users are many, complex and span the entirety of the 1,450-mile river and its tributaries. The Colorado is overallocated, meaning more water is committed to water users as a whole than is available in an average year. Adding more pressure, the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico want to develop their full allocations. American Indian tribes, meanwhile, are asserting their rights to more of the river’s waters.

Amid these challenges, and with critical negotiations looming for an agreement that will chart how the river is operated and managed possibly for decades, a debate is emerging: Should stakeholders pursue a visionary “grand bargain” to wrap their arms around the host of challenges facing the Colorado River? Or is an incremental approach – solving the puzzle piece by piece instead of the whole puzzle at once — the best path toward getting disparate stakeholders to reach a consensus?

READ: EDITOR’S NOTE: Exploring Different Approaches for Solving the Colorado River’s Myriad Challenges

Colorado River Basin. Map credit: The Water Education Foundation

The stakes are high. Parties with an interest in the river will renegotiate the 2007 Interim Guidelines for shortage sharing and river operations that expire in 2026. The landmark 2007 deal spelled out Lower Basin shortage guidelines and rules to store conserved water in Lake Mead and equalize storage in both Mead and Lake Powell. Those issues have become even more critical as a two-decade drought and a structural deficit continue to drop the level in Lake Mead.

The debate surfaced anew in September at the Water Education Foundation’s Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, N.M. Panelists representing major stakeholders across the basin repeatedly invoked the idea of an incremental vs. a visionary approach as key interests prepare for those guideline negotiations, expected to begin in late 2020.

David Palumbo, the Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy commissioner, challenged the notion of a dividing line between incrementalism and grand visionary, suggesting to symposium participants that the two can coexist and are not mutually exclusive.

“Incrementalism is not small,” he said. “It is visionary and … maybe … we can purge our vernacular from this idea of incrementalism, at least the connotation that it’s small, that it’s not visionary.”

In a region that has seen its share of big projects and prolonged drought, some have said the time is right to take unprecedented problem-solving steps such as reopening the terms of the Colorado River Compact, the landmark 1922 document that divided the river into two basins and apportioned its waters.

Obstacles and Challenges

Since the Compact was signed in 1922 and then ratified by Congress in 1928, Colorado River water users have successfully navigated obstacles by a variety of means. Those include landmark deals for shortage sharing and voluntary use reductions to help protect Lake Mead’s water level and keep it from reaching dead pool – the point at which no water could pass Hoover Dam for downstream water users. Set to expire in 2026, the current operating guidelines for water deliveries and shortage sharing are designed to prevent disputes that could provoke conflict.

There is a sense among some that a big plan is needed for 2026 and beyond.

“We need to be more creative in our work and I think incrementalism should be thrown out of the dictionary and we should all become visionary,” Ted Kowalski, senior program officer with the Walton Family Foundation, said at the symposium. He formerly served as chief of the Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Kowalski does not advocate reopening the Compact but believes creativity is needed in all aspects of the river’s operating agreements to support a vision that reconnects it with the Sea of Cortez, such as what occurred through a U.S.-Mexico agreement in 2014.

Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman supports collaboration and cooperation between Basins within the confines of the Compact. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

Advocates of incrementalism say it makes sense to maintain the course of collaboration and cooperation, staying within the existing framework of the Law of the River – the all-encompassing term that describes the compacts, federal laws, court decisions and decrees, and contracts and regulatory guidelines that oversee the use and management of the river among the seven basin states and Mexico.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman is no fan of reopening the Colorado River Compact to forge a grand bargain.

“I see all these challenges on the river, but I don’t see a clear or a better outcome for this Basin by assuming that all of these challenges could be easily addressed if we were simply to rip up our founding document, the Compact, and start over,” she said at the symposium.

Former Interior Secretary and Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt echoed that sentiment, saying at the symposium that it’s not the time to begin a big negotiation about the Compact prior to 2026.

“I’m not a Compact modifier because every time I read that I say, ‘Man, if you can’t find your way to a consensus past that document, you better go back to school, because there’s all kinds of possibilities out there of reconciling these differences rather than stacking them up and sending out our respective advocates to build anticipatory cases,” he said.

Big River, Big Vision

Much of the discussion about Colorado River water use involves semantics. Can the many agreements enacted through years be categorized as incremental progress or evidence of a grander vision? Or is that characterization even the right way to view all the actions that have built dams and aqueducts, solidified water sharing agreements and provided for environmental needs.

Long-time policy participants say the scale and scope of what’s occurred in the past century has not been done piecemeal.

“The Colorado River Compact was not incremental,” Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer and manager of Denver Water, said at the symposium. “It was based on a huge idea of a major dam on the river and the All-American Canal. And it was premised on a lot of structural development in the Upper Basin.”

Bruce Babbitt, former secretary of the Interior and Arizona governor, said modifying the Colorado River Compact is not necessary for long-lasting solutions. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

On the flip side, he said, there have been environmental actions — the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act — that created a legacy of stewardship and balance on the river.

Babbitt said stakeholders can be locked into a narrow focus on the river and their relationship with it.

“All of us have tended for these vision discussions to be compartmentalized into sort of Lower Basin/Upper Basin, as if there’s kind of a virtual curtain across the basin line in which our best efforts at vision tend to look into our basin,” he said.

Major players “need to be out there in this basin, working the vision not via a negotiation, but by some real outreach to talk about the future,” Babbitt said.

One possible element of a bold, visionary approach that has been talked about would remove the Lower Basin’s legal right to “call” for water during dry times that was established by the Compact. Under the Compact, the Upper Basin cannot cause flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75 million acre-feet for any period of 10 consecutive years.

According to a November white paper called “The Risk of Curtailment Under the Colorado River Compact,” a debate has swirled since the drafting of the Compact as to whether this imposes a delivery obligation on the Upper Basin states, or merely a requirement that those states not deplete the flows of the river beyond that amount. That debate has intensified as projections of a drying basin have raised concerns that the water won’t be there to meet the obligation to the Lower Basin.

“A delivery obligation (as opposed to a non-depletion obligation) would mean the Upper Basin must absorb any climate change reductions to the flows in the Colorado River … even if that requires curtailing existing uses,” says the paper, written by Anne Castle, senior fellow with the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado Law School, and John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.

Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis advocates early engagement of tribes in the decision-making process. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

Meanwhile, American Indian tribes in the Colorado River Basin want access to water allocations that are rightfully theirs, but which have not been developed. Combined, tribes have rights to more water than some states in the Basin. That means inclusion, collaboration and cooperation are crucial.

“What I’m advocating for is that the Basin states engage with tribes early on and incorporate them into the decision-making process,” Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community said at the symposium. “Especially if tribes can bring something meaningful and innovative to the table to help address the difficult challenges we all face in managing our water resources.”

Looking Ahead to 2026

Because the task of creating a revised framework for the operation of the Colorado River in 2026 is so monumental, leadership from key players is critical, said Michael Cohen, senior researcher with the Pacific Institute, a water think tank that promotes sustainable water policy.

Through the years, Colorado River water users have deployed several tools to hone water use accounting and conducted mutually beneficial interstate sharing agreements, actions that were previously unheard of and far from incremental in nature, he said.

“There’s been significant changes in the river to date, and we like to call them incremental, and that’s how they’re framed,” Cohen said. “But what we’ve seen is dramatic change.”

The 2007 Interim Guidelines to better coordinate the operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead are an example of the dramatic change that’s enabled users to prevent Lake Mead dropping to levels that crash the system. Forged from long-standing water accounting issues between the Upper and the Lower Basins, including the obligation to meet water deliveries to Mexico, the imbroglio resulted in then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton essentially strong-arming the Basin states to get together and resolve their disputes.

Former Reclamation Commissioner Robert Johnson said at the symposium that Norton warned stakeholders that if they didn’t solve the problem, she would.

“She was basically throwing down the gauntlet, an approach that Bruce Babbitt took frequently when he was secretary,” Johnson said. “That was the start of the 2007 guidelines, and true to form, the Basin states came through. They went far beyond just defining on an interim period. I’m sure that the disagreement over the legal aspects of the delivery to Mexico is still there, but the interim guidelines solved that problem for 20 years by putting operational procedures in place.”

Chuck Cullom, manager of Colorado River programs with the Central Arizona Project, said programs such as the 2007 guidelines, compensated conservation programs and voluntary use reductions demonstrate what can happen within the existing framework of laws and regulations to achieve resiliency.

There is a “false choice” between visionary focus and incrementalism, he said, adding that he describes it as incremental transformation. That transformation is evident in interstate and intrastate agreements in which people invested their time and resources to take concepts from development to implementation.

“It is not possible to understand all of the intended and unintended costs of an incremental transformation without testing it first,” Cullom said. “Metropolitan Water District took that concept in the early 90s to demonstrate that water could be saved in Lake Mead by investing with Palo Verde Irrigation District. There was no clear accounting framework to make all that happen, but they created a pathway for intentionally created surplus to be something that we’re all using on the river today.”

Incremental Progress

The challenges facing Colorado River water users are varied and complicated. The decline of water levels in Lake Mead spurred Basin states to sign on to a Drought Contingency Plan in May after more than five years of discussion. Yet Imperial Irrigation District, the river’s largest water rights holder, walked away from the agreement because it failed to address air and water quality issues of a shrinking Salton Sea.

Robert Johnson served as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation between 2006 and 2009. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

If the past is a reliable indicator, the answers going forward will build on the legacy of cooperation and innovation while steering away from precedent-setting action.

“There’s lots of increments that have gotten us to where we are today,” Palumbo with Reclamation said. “And those are visionary actions that were taken. They were visionary at the time and as we reflect on them, they’re visionary today.”

Water providers are “too humble” in describing the collective efforts taken to brace against the conditions caused by drought and an overallocated system, Cullom said. “We talk about increments,” he said. “We need to say these are visionary. The system conservation project (in which agricultural users were compensated for conserving water) is a visionary thing instead of an incremental approach to protecting Lake Mead.”

Reclamation Commissioner Burman said she believes there is much left to be done to solidify river management between the Upper and Lower basins.

“I don’t think we’re even close to being done with innovation and flexibility,” she said. “We have tools we haven’t invented yet and we have so much still to learn and do and cooperate and collaborate on this river.”

Does that mean renegotiating the Colorado River Compact is off the table?

“If you merely asked should we reopen the Compact, perhaps everyone can imagine that outcome would be better for their interest group, but I really question how could it be simultaneously better for all of our interest groups?” Burman said. “Looking for a panacea in that Compact renegotiation is just the wrong investment of time and talent.”

Castle with the University of Colorado Law School said the time is now for communities to bolster themselves against a future supply shock through varying responses, including clarifying shortage sharing rules and setting up voluntary, compensated water conservation programs.

“We think that any of those discussions need to be based on an objective risk assessment that could lead to either incremental or more radical approaches to Colorado River management,” she said in an email, referring to herself and Fleck, her research paper coauthor.

Castle, who served as assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior in the Obama administration, believes there is a false dichotomy between the incremental and visionary characterization of river management.

“I suggest that the best way to proceed is to have an articulated visionary goal with specific incremental steps to get there,” she wrote. “The vision is needed to guide choices along the way, but it’s not either desirable or realistic to suddenly make big changes in operations on the river, precipitously undermining investments and reliance on the previous status quo.”

Scientists warn that a drying climate means Colorado River flows could diminish substantially in the next 50 years. The prospect of steep declines in flows adds a sense of urgency because of the potential impacts to the environment, cities and agriculture.

Looking downstream at the Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam tailrace. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

“This river can turn on a dime, and we need to be prepared for it as a Basin,” said Lochhead, with Denver Water. “If we take too incremental of an approach, we could be caught short. We need to be aspirational in terms of what we think we can achieve and reach for that and get as far as we can in this next set of negotiations.”

Kowalski, with the Walton Family Foundation, urged stakeholders to be innovative and not be afraid to act.

“We need to remember the river in all of this,” he said. “It’s critically important to take care of the river as well as your service requirements. I want to challenge you … as we’re looking at the renegotiations, how do we do that and not just have it be for the benefit of the system but for the benefit of the river that sustains us all?”

Reach Gary Pitzer: gpitzer@watereducation.org, Twitter: @gary_wef
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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.

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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
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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.