Birds Are Telling Us to Act — Audubon #ActOnClimate

A Vermilion Flycatcher along the Laguna Grande Restauration Site in Baja California, Mexico. Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob

From Audubon (Elizabeth Gray):

The news on climate this summer has been grim. Not only did an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report paint a depressing future, the dire consequences of unchecked emissions are already wreaking havoc across the globe. Those effects include powerful storms across the eastern half of the United States, and brutal heat that seared the West, killing more than 200 people. It did a number on birds, too.

The temperatures, which exceeded 110°F in places where it rarely gets above 85°F, drove young birds to fling themselves from their nests in a desperate attempt to escape the heat. In Seattle, most of the chicks in a Caspian Tern colony leapt from their rooftop nesting site; Seattle Audubon and Audubon Washington worked with rehabbers to save as many birds as they could, but many chicks died of their injuries. In Portland, more than 100 young raptors—mostly Cooper’s Hawks—did the same, and Portland Audubon Society helped rescue those birds, too.

Compounding the effects of the increasing temperatures, a long-term megadrought now affects the western half of the United States. Water levels are at historic lows, threatening communities, public health, and birds as well as critical ecosystems. In August the Bureau of Reclamation declared reductions in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada, and the Republic of Mexico. This crisis is urgent for people—their businesses, their families—as well as for birds, a fact that they are telling us loud and clear.

But birds also tell us when we do something right.

The first water from the 2021 “pulse flow” is delivered at the Chausse restoration site in the Colorado River Delta.
Photo Credit: Jesús Salazar/Raise the River via the Walton Family Foundation

The Colorado River is flowing again in its delta. Thanks to the Colorado River binational agreement with Mexico, Minute 323, more than 11 billion gallons of water will be delivered to the area this year for restored habitat. As the latest issue of Audubon magazine reports, with a relatively small amount of water committed to the delta—less than 1 percent of its former annual flow—more than 42,000 acres of riparian forest and wetlands can be protected and restored. In fact, targeted flows through the delta in 2014 led to a 20 percent increase in bird abundance and a 42 percent increase in bird diversity.

Our current water and climate crises are decades in the making, but there is still time to take action and reduce the damage. Good planning is critical to maintaining reliable water supplies for people and nature alike. Focusing on policy changes, research, and on-the-ground actions, we can unify the needs of birds with the water needs of cities and agriculture by helping communities adapt to climate change, reducing pressure on water supplies, and investing in natural climate solutions that absorb carbon pollution. By working together with Indigenous communities, governments, water agencies, and landowners, we can collectively protect birds and create an equitable and sustainable future for us all.

This piece originally ran in the Fall 2021 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.

A Step Forward in Securing #Water for a Drying #GreatSaltLake — Audubon #aridification

Black-necked Stilt. Photo: Mick Thompson via Audubon

From Audubon:

As Great Salt Lake experiences alarmingly low water levels this year—dropping by nearly a foot below its previous historic low, the Utah Division of Water Rights this past week approved applications to deliver water to Farmington Bay of Great Salt Lake via the Jordan River. An innovative partnership is laying the groundwork to voluntarily share water for the lake to meet crucial needs for people, birds, and other wildlife.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Rio Tinto Kennecott, Central Utah Water Conservancy District, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, and Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission collaborated to achieve this important step in addressing Great Salt Lake’s declining water levels. Through two donations of water rights, up to approximately 21,000 acre-feet of water annually could be delivered to Farmington Bay over the next ten years, subject to seasonal water availability and priority of water rights.

Ensuring water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands over the long term is the single most important strategy to prevent further drying of the lake. The state’s 2019 Concurrent Resolution to Address Declining Water Levels of the Great Salt Lake (HCR010) clearly “recognized the critical importance of ensuring adequate water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands, to maintain a healthy and sustainable lake system.”

Keeping water flowing to Great Salt Lake’s wetlands and open water habitats is vital to maintaining important natural areas of international and hemispheric importance for birds, while also benefiting people. Recreational opportunities—including birding, hunting, and boating—as well as the minerals and brine shrimp industries that rely on the lake represent nearly $1.32 billion annually in economic activity. In addition to the economic, ecological, and cultural importance of a healthy lake, adequate water levels also protect public health from lakebed dust exposure, and contribute to Utah’s lake effect snow.

“The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is dedicated to conserving, enhancing and actively managing Utah’s protected wildlife populations, which include shorebirds, waterfowl and other waterbirds,” said Justin Shirley, Director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “We appreciate this donation that represents a significant milestone for the Division and its ability to manage water needs for wildlife in unimpounded areas of Great Salt Lake and support critical wetland habitat around its shores.”

Rather than leaving the Jordan River at the historical diversion points some 30 to 40 miles upstream, the water will flow down river into Great Salt Lake, where the Jordan River flows into Farmington Bay.

“The Great Salt Lake sits on Rio Tinto Kennecott’s doorstep. It’s always been essential to our operations and our employees who care about the lake,” said Gaby Poirier, managing director of Rio Tinto Kennecott, which is donating up to 18,387 acre-feet of water annually. “This is a significant win for the health of the Great Salt Lake and a first in water rights history that we’re able to contribute to the lake as a beneficial water use. We’re excited to be part of this collaborative partnership that allows us to share water resources that benefit wildlife, habitats, delicate ecosystems and the whole Salt Lake Valley.”

Great Salt Lake water levels vary seasonally and from year to year, but overall have been on a steady long-term decline the last 150 years due to water diversions, drought, and a changing climate. Low water flows have particularly affected Farmington Bay, which includes the second-largest wetlands area on Great Salt Lake, covering approximately 121,500 acres. Currently, much of the lakebed in Farmington Bay is dry and exposed.

The aim is to deliver water for beneficial use into Great Salt Lake through voluntary water transactions while not interfering with other water rights, largely held by duck clubs along the south shores of the lake. Importantly, partners worked to find ways to use existing laws and policies to achieve the transactions.

“We are pleased to join in this partnership and use some of our water rights to benefit Great Salt Lake and Farmington Bay and its wildlife, while building relationships with organizations that understand the complexities of sustaining both environmental and community water needs,” said Gene Shawcroft, General Manager of Central Utah Water Conservancy District (District), which donated 2,927 acre feet of water annually. “The District has made instream flow commitments in many areas of the District, including environmental flows in the Sixth Water, Diamond Fork, and tributaries of the Duchesne River. This collaboration also helps the District realize its efforts to support environmental needs in ways that can have long-lasting effects on policy and provide avenues for future District projects that benefit nature.”

Farmington Bay, one of five Globally Important Birds Areas at Great Salt Lake, is a key resource for migratory birds. The Bay provides habitat for a large number of the world’s bird populations, including American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, White-faced Ibis and Wilson’s Phalarope.

“The health of Farmington Bay is essential to the health and productivity of the adjacent wetlands, including Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary, and we are grateful for this collaboration and the generous contributions of our partners,” said Marcelle Shoop, director of the National Audubon Society’s Saline Lakes program. “We also believe this project lays the foundation for future water transactions that can benefit wetlands and open water habitats of the lake. Audubon will continue to look for creative ways to ensure flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands.”

In 2019, Audubon and The Nature Conservancy approached Wildlife Resources, Kennecott and the District to explore opportunities for using Jordan River water rights to benefit Great Salt Lake’s Farmington Bay and correspondingly, the Lower Jordan River.

“The Nature Conservancy in Utah (TNC) has spent years working to protect the health of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, which provides invaluable benefits to Nature and the people who live and work along the Wasatch front,” said Dave Livermore, Utah State Director for TNC. “Our Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, located at the edge of Farmington Bay, will also benefit from maintained flows into the Bay, and we greatly appreciate all the contributions of these partners in helping this project come to fruition.”

The Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission (Mitigation Commission), which is responsible for projects to offset the impacts to fish, wildlife and related recreation resources caused by federal water reclamation projects in Utah, also joined the collaboration.

“The Commission has implemented important wetlands mitigation and conservation projects on the Jordan River and Great Salt Lake and we are fortunate to have longstanding relationships with all these partners in our efforts,” said Mitigation Commission Executive Director Mark Holden. “We greatly appreciate water right donations from Kennecott and the District, as well as Wildlife Resources’ pivotal management role using the water to benefit wildlife and the public. Likewise, the leadership of Audubon and TNC in their outreach and deliberative approach to water management lays an important pathway for similar efforts to preserve Great Salt Lake’s future.”

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump down to 500 cfs October 4, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

View to the south into the snaking West Fork of the San Juan River as seen from US 160, halfway up to the summit of Wolf Creek Pass. By User:Erikvoss, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61976794

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs today, October 4th, at 12:00 PM. During this change, the Auxilary 4×4 release will be closed and all flow will be through the power plant.

Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

#Colorado Parks & Wildlife and Partners stock greenback cutthroat trout into the West Fork of #ClearCreek

Members from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Greenback Cutthroat Trout Recovery Team meet up by Jones Pass before stocking 6,000 greenback cutthroat trout into the West Fork of Clear Creek September 22, 2021. Photo credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Reid Armstrong and Jason Clay):

The USDA Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, and a host of volunteers stocked 6,000 greenback cutthroat trout fry into Upper West Fork Clear Creek near Jones Pass on Wednesday, Sept. 22.

This is the third location in the Clear Creek drainage where the Greenback Cutthroat Trout Recovery Team has stocked greenbacks into, joining Dry Gulch and Herman Gulch.

“Greenback cutthroat trout reintroductions such as the West Fork Clear Creek are really only able to occur due to the coordination and efforts of each cooperating agency and non-profit partners such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service and the Greenback Cutthroat Trout Recovery Team to name a few,” said Valerie Thompson, South Zone Fisheries Biologist for the Forest Service. “Each partner contributes in unique ways that enable the success of major conservation projects such as this one on West Fork Clear Creek, where over fourteen years of stream health data was collected, an old mine site was remediated, and stream banks were restored to allow for habitat that is suitable to sensitive aquatic life and now a new home to the Colorado State Fish, the Greenback Cutthroat Trout.”

The fact that this tributary was fishless to begin with made it a good candidate for the greenbacks, among other factors.

“We’ve done temperature monitoring and the temperatures are conducive to support natural reproduction,” said Paul Winkle, Aquatic Biologist for CPW. “It is a goal to get another population of fish on the landscape, so this is definitely an important thing for the recovery of greenbacks.”

This stretch of stream was fishless due to downstream barriers, such as a quarter-mile-long culvert underneath the Henderson Mine Site, among other natural barriers. That saved some heavy lifting, not requiring a reclamation of the stream to remove other non-native species of fish. Removal of all other species is necessary to ensure the successful reestablishment of greenbacks, which are native to the South Platte River basin.

“We knew that there were no fish in that section of Clear Creek and what a great thing to be able to put fish in without having to do a reclamation,” Winkle said. “The more streams of greenbacks we stock along the Front Range drastically improves the conservation status of the species.”

Today, the greenbacks are listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species. Greenbacks have previously been stocked into Herman Gulch, Dry Gulch, the East Fork of Roaring Creek and Zimmerman Lake. Those all reside within the South Platte River drainage. The sixth body of water in Colorado where the official state fish currently resides is in Bear Creek outside of Colorado Springs.

These rare fish, twice believed to be extinct, are descendants of the last wild population of native greenback cutthroat trout. Researchers from CU Boulder in partnership with CPW discovered in 2012 that the cutthroat in Bear Creek were the last remaining population of greenback cutthroat trout.

CPW’s Mount Shavano Hatchery in Salida is responsible for rearing and delivering all greenbacks that get stocked. They hatch fertilized eggs in its Isolation Unit. Extra milt collected from male greenbacks in Bear Creek goes to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Leadville National Fish Hatchery to fertilize eggs from the greenbacks in its brood stock.

The eggs are then taken to Salida to be hatched and eventually stocked onto the landscape at various sizes. Sometimes those fish are of fingerling lengths (one to two inches), sometimes they are fry. Fry is a recently hatched fish that has reached the stage where its yolk-sac has almost disappeared and its swim bladder is operational to the point where the fish can actively feed for itself.

“Trout Unlimited and our West Denver Chapter have a long history of supporting the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife in stewardship of the Clear Creek drainage,” said David Nickum, executive director of Trout Unlimited. “We are so pleased to see those efforts coming to fruition with our volunteers working side by side with our partners to finally return greenbacks to their home waters in the West Fork headwaters.”

Stocking Greenback cutthroat trout September 22, 2021. Photos credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Jackpot: #Colorado stimulus funds boost #water grants to $13M — @WaterEdCO

ooking west across the 445 acre-foot Windy Gap Reservoir, which straddles the Colorado River (Summer 2011). Photo By: Jeff Dahlstrom, NCWCD via Water Education Colorado

From Water Education Colorado (Allen Best):

Thanks to a major infusion of COVID-related state stimulus cash earlier this year, nearly $13M in grants was awarded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board on Sept. 16 to projects designed to improve irrigation systems, aid the environment, improve water storage, and reconnect a critical channel on the Colorado River in Grand County.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has historically dispensed $7.5 million annually in grants to assist projects that align with the goals of the 2015 Colorado Water Plan.

Thanks to the state stimulus funding, state legislators delivered $15 million in cash to the grant program, more than double last year’s amount. The funds must be awarded by July 2023.

In addition to supporting the water plan, the grants are designed to benefit multiple segments of the state’s economy, according to Anna Mauss, the CWCB’s chief financial officer.

“That can be hard to define,” she says, “but we are looking at solutions that benefit all sectors.”

The projects and their grants can be found here:

https://cwcb.colorado.gov/events/hybrid-board-meeting-september-15-16-2021

Environment and recreation projects represented the largest slice of the pie at $6.6 million. The second largest slice, at $4.2 million, went to water storage and supply projects. Four agriculture projects together got $1.5 million.

The largest recipient of grants funds, at $3.8 million, is the Windy Gap Dam bypass, a project that will reconnect a critical channel on the Colorado River in Grand County. It has federal, state and county funding and cash from conservation organizations and landowners, all working under the umbrella of the Northern Water Conservancy District, which oversees Windy Gap for its owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Proposed bypass channel for the Colorado River with Windy Gap Reservoir being taken offline, part of the agreements around Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming project.

The dam was constructed in the 1980s just below the confluence of the Fraser with the Colorado River west of Granby. Aquatic life has since diminished. The new channel is to reconnect the Colorado downstream from the dam with its upstream habitat.

According to the application, the project will expand the river’s gold medal trout fishery and make this segment more resilient in the face of increased water diversions, wildfires and climate change.

Center pivot sprinklers in the Arikaree River basin to irrigate corn. Each sprinkler is supplied by deep wells drilled into the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture got nearly $300,000 for a soil health project that will focus on the Republican River watershed for three years. Program directors expect 10 farmers to participate, incorporating water-saving actions into their land-use planning in a way that will conserve 47,000 acre-feet annually. In this way, according to the grant application, the project will also help sustain the Ogallala Aquifer.

Barr Lake State Park photo via Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Two other projects getting funding are on the Front Range. At Barr Lake, located along Interstate 76 northeast of Denver, the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Co. plans to enlarge the storage capacity. A new study of regional extreme precipitation by the Colorado Dam Safety found that raising the spillway culvert would safely accommodate 1,500 acre-feet of additional storage. This, however, will inundate structures in the surrounding state park. The $279,000 granted the company will provide partial funding to mitigate the higher water levels on the park facilities.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Trout Unlimited was awarded $300,000 for efforts to restore populations of the greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish, at the headwaters of the Cache la Poudre River. The species is native to the Eastern Slope, but the Poudre is augmented by diversions from the headwaters of the Colorado River in Rocky Mountain National Park. Most prominent of those diversions is the Grand River Ditch. The $300,000 granted to Trout Unlimited will go to creating a fish barrier in the Grand Ditch where it flows across the Continental Divide and into a tributary of the Poudre River.

David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said that the project will take about 10 years. The greenback is currently federally listed as threatened by the Environmental Protection Agency, but Trout Unlimited hopes that a recovery stronghold on the Poudre can result in delisting. The full project will provide connected habitat for the trout species to more than 38 miles of stream and more than 110 acres of lakes and reservoirs.

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

The Entire #ColoradoRiver Basin is in Crisis — Audubon #COriver #aridification

Western Grebe and Clark’s Grebe. Photo: Sunil Singh/Audubon Photography Awards

From Audubon (Karyn Stockdale):

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) shared alarming news this year about the unprecedented conditions on the Colorado River. The agency, which oversees federal water management across 17 western states, publishes some pretty wonky information, even for those of us who regularly interface with this agency and rely on its analyses.

However, in June, Reclamation shared its new, five-year projections for the Colorado River Basin. It shares these projections a few times every year to assist drought management within the Basin. This time, the news was big: the water situation on the Colorado River is worse than folks anticipated when adopting the shared shortage agreements called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) adopted in 2019.

To jump to the conclusion: Reclamation’s projections signal that we urgently need to do more than the DCPs envisioned because of the increasingly hot and dry conditions in the basin. Reclamation has continued to revise its projections throughout this shockingly dry spring, resulting in really dire projections for water storage and distribution. In other words, less water for people, and less water in streams that benefit birds, fish, and a robust recreational economy.

We’ve arrived at the time when the limits of the Colorado River are being reached.

What does this mean for birds? Birds rely on the riparian habitats of the Colorado River and its tributaries, and aquatic birds have come to rely on the big reservoirs on the river, too. Surveys of aquatic birds at Lake Powell have documented dabbling ducks, diving species, shorebirds, and more. American Coot and Western Grebe are common. Gadwall, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, and Green-winged Teal have also been observed. The habitats created by Lake Powell have existed for less than 60 years and can change with the lake level, which can affect birds.

Colorado River Basin Plumbing. Credit: Lester Doré/Mary Moran via Dustin Mulvaney and Twitter

You may recall that the main reservoirs on the highly-plumbed Colorado River—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—sometimes “equalize” in water accounting flows. Lake Powell is the receiving reservoir from the Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) meaning that it stores water that runs downstream from these states. Lake Mead is the distributing reservoir for the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) and Mexico meaning that water deliveries to each of these places comes from available water in this lake (and legal water rights, of course). The amount of water in Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country—determines how much water a state has available for its Colorado River water users.

Reclamation projects that Lake Mead water levels are, for the first time ever, so low that they will require cuts in water Lower Basin water deliveries, operating in a Tier 1 shortage. And the agency says there is a greater than 99 percent chance of this shortage continuing into 2022 and a high risk (greater than 80 percent probability) that Lake Mead will remain under shortage operations for at least the next five years, perhaps with even more aggressive cuts.

Severe drought conditions are also triggering an emergency response with the release of water from reservoirs further upstream to address declining water levels at Lake Powell and protect the ability of the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower. Representatives from Reclamation and the Upper Basin states just announced they will release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs.

If we have another bad water year, elevations at Lake Mead could even be lower than before Lake Powell was created. It’s getting to the bottom for both of these reservoirs.

Why does this matter? These unprecedented and exceptional drought conditions are a signal to all of us to take steps to ensure the river flows long into the future and address water security for people and wildlife. Climate change is here and the entire Colorado River Basin is in crisis.

We have a very limited window to begin implementing innovative tools that are at our disposal in order to adapt to and mitigate climate change. In addition to reductions in carbon emissions and other large-scale solutions for our planet, Audubon continues to focus on federal and state investments in climate resilient strategies that will help stabilize water supplies and better assist economic sectors and ecosystems adapt to changing conditions. Future water projections by Reclamation – and future agreements on the Colorado River – need to account for climate extremes.

The effects of prolonged drought and climate change affect everyone in the basin. Our ways of life are at stake—millions of acres of farmland and ranches, urban and rural communities, recreation on rivers and lakes, our economies, as well as incredible bird life. Our work is more urgent and more difficult.

Federal Agencies Are Ready To Loosen Protections On Certain Fish Native To The #ColoradoRiver — KUER #COriver #arifidification

Confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River. Climate change is affecting western streams by diminishing snowpack and accelerating evaporation. The Colorado River’s flows and reservoirs are being impacted by climate change, and environmental groups are concerned about the status of the native fish in the river. Photo credit: DMY at Hebrew Wikipedia [Public domain]
From KUER (Lexi Peery):

The razorback sucker fish could be downlisted from an endangered species to threatened in the next year or so, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This week, environmental groups sent the agency a letter in opposition to the move.

The letter argues the razorback sucker is still in trouble, despite recoveries it’s made in the last 30 years, which is when it was first listed as federally endangered. The fish is native to the Colorado River, which is facing historic shortages due to the west’s megadrought…

The USFWS proposed a change in the fish’s status because they said its situation has improved and threats to it have been reduced. Though, they said it will need to be continually managed.

The letter from environmentalists was submitted as a public comment on the reclassification process. A spokesperson for the USFWS said they received around 35 comments.

Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers program director at the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, said it’s “irresponsible” to downlist the species now.

“Until the ecosystem that they live in can support self-sustaining populations, we believe that those species should maintain their endangered status, which is the highest protection under the law,” she said.

The humpback chub, another Colorado River native fish, could also be downlisted. The USFWS proposed a reclassification last year.

Screen shot from the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program website August 28, 2021:

41st Annual #Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources Equity in the #ColoradoRiver Basin: How to Sustainably Manage a Shrinking Resource , September 29-October 1, 2021 #COriver #aridification

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona. Photo credit: Getches-Wilkinson Center

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

In any given year of late, demands for water in the Colorado River Basin exceed supply. Chronic drought, record heat, and rampant wildfires are already affecting the Basin’s overall health and resilience, and the historically low levels in Lakes Mead and Powell have caused an unprecedented call on the river. These historic challenges come at a time when several key components of the “Law of the River” are sunsetting in 2026. Key players are already revisiting the 2007 Interim Guidelines, Minute 323, and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. Relatedly, endangered fish recovery programs relevant to the region expire in 2023. Meanwhile, 48% of Tribal households in the U.S. do not have access to reliable water sources, clean drinking water, or basic sanitation. These harsh realities hasten the need to advance sustainable water management, improve watershed resilience, and ensure clean water access through collaborative decision-making. We look forward to bringing together diverse expertise and perspectives from across the region to draw the roadmap to an equitable future in the Colorado River Basin.

Part 1: Universal Access to Clean Water on Tribal Lands (Thursday morning)
Part 2: Ecosystem Health of the Colorado River Basin (Thursday afternoon)
Part 3: CRB Hydrology & Management Guideline Renegotiations (*Friday)

Opening Reception
Wednesday, September 29
5:30-7:30 p.m.
Wolf Law Building, Schaden Commons

We look forward to reconnecting with friends and colleagues, as well as
celebrating the 25-year career of Dr. Doug Kenney who retired at the end of 2020.

41st Annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources
Thursday, September 30 and Friday, October 1
9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Wolf Law Building, Wittemyer Courtroom

Conference Program

Conference Registration

Ouray County water project faces opposition from state, others: roposed reservoir, pipeline, exchange could have impacts to fish and environmental flows — @AspenJournalism

Ouray County Water Users Association wants to build a 260-foot dam at this location on Cow Creek that would hold about 25,000 acre-feet of water. One goal would be to lessen daily flow fluctuations, especially during spring runoff.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Water users in Ouray County are hoping to satisfy water shortages with what they say is a multi-beneficial reservoir and pipeline project. But the Ram’s Horn reservoir, Cow Creek pipeline and exchange are facing opposition from the state of Colorado and others.

The complicated, three-pronged project proposes to take water from Cow Creek and pipe it into Ridgway Reservoir, take water from local streams via ditches and store it in the reservoir, and build a new dam and reservoir on Cow Creek. This stored water would eventually be sent downstream to be used by the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA).

Ridgway Dam via the USBR

The project applicants — Ouray County, Tri-County Water Conservancy District, Ouray County Water Users Association and the Colorado River Water Conservation District — say they need 20 cubic feet per second of water from Cow Creek. Cow Creek is a tributary of the Uncompahgre River with headwaters in the Cimarron mountains. Cow Creek’s confluence with the Uncompahgre River is below Ridgway Reservoir, which is why an upstream pipeline would be needed to capture the water and bring it into the reservoir.

The applicants are also seeking to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reaches of Cow Creek, which would hold about 25,000 acre-feet of water behind a 260-foot-tall and 720-foot-long dam. Ram’s Horn would help regulate what are known as diurnal flows during spring runoff — streamflows are higher during the day as the snow melts with warming temperatures, and lower at night as snow re-freezes. UVWUA says they can’t adjust their headgates to capture the high point of this daily fluctuation in flows, leaving the water to run downstream unused. The project would capture these diurnal peaks.

Ouray County Water Users Association wants to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reach of Cow Creek, shown here. Colorado Parks and Wildlife opposes the project, in part, because of its potential impact to fish.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Goal to prevent a call

The goal of the project is to prevent the UVWUA — one of the big senior water rights holders in the Gunnison River basin — from placing a call on the river.

When the UVWUA, which owns the Montrose & Delta Canal and has a 1890 water right, is not able to get its full amount of water, it places a call on the river. This means upstream junior water rights holders, like Ouray County Water Users, have to stop using water so that UVWUA can get its full amount. According to a state database, the M&D Canal has placed a call three times this summer, most recently from July 12 to 22. In 2020, the call was on for nearly all of July and August. Under Colorado water law, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.

By releasing the water stored in either Ridgway or Ram’s Horn reservoirs to satisfy a UVWUA call, Ouray County Water Users Association would then be able to continue using its own water.

The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is a co-applicant of the project.

“This (project) is consistent with the River District’s goals and objectives with supporting our constituents and making sure they have a reliable water supply,” said Jason Turner, River District senior counsel.

Ridgway Reservoir, on the Uncompahgre River in Ouray County, is popular with boaters. A proposed pipeline project that would bring water from Cow Creek into the reservoir is being met with opposition for environmental reasons.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Potential impacts to fish, instream flows

But some state agencies, environmental groups and others have concerns about the project. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado Water Conservation Board have both filed statements of opposition to the application, which was originally filed in December 2019, amended in January and is making its way through water court. CPW claims that its water rights in the basin, which it holds for the benefit of state wildlife areas, fisheries and state parks, could be injured by the project. CPW owns nearly a mile of access to Cow Creek on the Billy Creek State Wildlife Area.

Between August 2019 and January 2020, CPW recorded water temperatures of Cow Creek and found they exceeded a state standard for trout. A report from CPW aquatic biologist Eric Gardunio says that the proposed project would likely cause an even bigger increase in water temperatures, resulting in fish mortality.

“The flow and temperature analysis for Cow Creek indicates that the water rights application has the likelihood to damage or eliminate the native bluehead sucker population as well as the rest of the fishery in the downstream end of Cow Creek through the degradation of water quantity and quality,” the report reads.

While less water in Cow Creek could result in temperatures that are too high for trout, water released from the proposed Ram’s Horn reservoir could be too cold for bluehead suckers.

“There’s going to be some changes to temperature and what our temperature data has outlined is that the species are at their extreme ends,” Gardunio said. “It’s nearly too cold for bluehead sucker and it’s nearly too warm for trout, so changes in temperature are going to have an impact to one or the other of the fishery.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board opposes the project because they said it could injure the state’s instream flow water rights. Instream flow rights are held exclusively by the CWCB to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. Ram’s Horn reservoir would inundate a section of Cow Creek where the CWCB currently holds an instream flow right.

“The application does not present sufficient information to fully evaluate the extent to which the CWCB’s instream flow water right may be injured,” the statement of opposition reads.

Environmental group Western Resource Advocates also opposes the project. Ram’s Horn Reservoir, with conditional water rights owned by Tri-County Water Conservancy District, is one of five reservoirs planned as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek Project, which dates to the 1950s. Ridgway Reservoir is the only one of the five that has been built.

This map shows the potential location of Ram’s Horn Reservoir, as well as other reservoirs originally conceived as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek Project. Only Ridgway Reservoir has been built.
CREDIT: MAP COURTESY WRIGHT WATER ENGINEERS

Complex exchange

The third piece of the proposed project is what’s known as an exchange, where water would be conveyed via existing ditches connecting tributaries above Ridgway Reservoir. The exchange water would be stored there and released when senior downstream water users need it, which would benefit upstream water users. In addition to Cow Creek, the applicants are proposing to take water from Pleasant Valley Creek, the East and West Forks of Dallas Creek, Dallas Creek and the Uncompahgre River to use in the exchange.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 4 Engineer Bob Hurford laid out the issues his office has with this exchange in his summary of consultation. He recommended denial on the exchange portion of the application until the applicants list the specific ditches participating in the exchange and their locations, and agree that they are responsible for enlarging the ditches so they can handle the increased capacity of water.

“I have to have actual ditch names, the owners of the ditches have to be willing to participate and it has all got to be tracked to a tenth of a cfs,” Hurford said. “It’s not a loosey-goosey thing. It has to be dialed in and defined precisely.”

Another criticism of the project is that it won’t provide water directly to water users in Dallas Creek, which according to a report by Wright Water Engineers, is the most water-short region of the Upper Uncompahgre basin. Even if Dallas Creek water users participate in the exchange, in dry years still there may not be enough water in local creeks for them to use.

“This project has been sold as the savior of agriculture in Ouray County but this project will not provide wet water that would not otherwise be available to anybody that is an ag producer,” said Ouray County water rights holder and project opponent Cary Denison. “I don’t know one irrigator who is saying we need to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir.”

The project application is making its way through water court and applicants say they are continuing to negotiate with opposers. A status report is due in October. Attorney for the Ouray County Water Users Association and River District board representative Marti Whitmore said they want to make sure it’s a multi-purpose project that benefits everyone.

“Fish flows and recreation uses are important, so we are just trying to work out terms and conditions that are a win-win for everyone,” she said.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

@ColoradoParksWildlife begins to stock pure #RioGrande Cutthroat Trout into Sand Creek Lakes

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (John Livingston):

Colorado Parks and Wildlife successfully stocked a small number of pure Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout into Upper and Lower Sand Creek Lakes via helicopter on Aug. 24.

The fish used to stock the lakes came from the nearby Medano Creek drainage, which is located in the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve in the San Luis Valley. That drainage was previously restored with Rio Grande cutthroat trout in the 1980s.

By pulling trout from Medano Creek, CPW aims to accelerate the restoration project in the Sand Creek drainage by stocking a small number of adult trout capable of producing a spawn as early as 2022.

After capturing Rio Grande cutthroat trout from Medano Creek, CPW coordinated with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control to stock Upper and Lower Sand Creek Lakes from a helicopter, using the same bucket a firefighting helicopter would use to dump water onto a fire.

CPW will stock another 500 fingerling Rio Grande cutthroat trout spawned at the Monte Vista Hatchery later this year. That stocking will be completed via airplane.

“This is a challenging project, but it will provide ideal and protected habitat for these fish,” said CPW Senior Aquatic Biologist John Alves. “We are on our way to rebuilding a conservation population of the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.”

Last year, CPW treated the Upper Sand Creek drainage to successfully remove non-native fish.

CPW, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Native American tribes have been working to re-establish Rio Grande cutthroats across their native range for more than 20 years. Currently, Rio Grande cutthroat can only be found in about 12% of its historic habitat. Mining, water development, intensive land-use, stocking of non-native fish and over-fishing have caused the trout’s populations to decline significantly during the last 150 years.

The Rio Grande cutthroat is one of three native trout indigenous to Colorado. The Colorado River cutthroat is found on Colorado’s Western Slope, and the Greenback cutthroat is found in the South Platte drainage. CPW is also working on a variety of projects to restore those populations.

For more information on Rio Grande cutthroat trout, go to https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/ResearchRioGrandeCutthroatTrout.aspx

Coalition offers help to parched #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Map credit: CWCB

Here’s the release (Kate Ryan, Mark Harris, Max Schmidt, Kevin McAbee, and Scott McCaulou):

Responding to drought and summer long low flow conditions on the Colorado River, a coalition of groups and funders led by the Colorado Water Trust, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, and the Grand Valley Water Users Association is acquiring and releasing 1800 acre feet (586 million gallons) of water from a West Slope reservoir. An anonymous donor came forward with this water supply just in time to keep the river flowing at healthier levels in the critical 15-Mile Reach just East of Grand Junction.

Partners in this emergency action include the Colorado Water Trust, Grand Valley Water Users Association, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, Colorado River District, Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and the Bureau of Reclamation. Philanthropic and funding partners include the anonymous donor and Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

The coalition has arranged for a release of water from Ruedi Reservoir to the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork, and Colorado rivers. The water will reach the Grand Valley Power Plant in Palisade on or around August 26. After generating clean energy, the water will return to the 15-Mile Reach where it will support healthier streamflow. At times over the next week and a half, the coalition’s contributions will make up almost a fifth of the streamflow in this critical location. The flows will support four species of endangered fish, including the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail, and razorback sucker, as well as supporting agricultural water deliveries and the regional recreational economy.

“The corporations and individuals that stepped up to allow us to make these large additions to the Colorado’s flow are the community-minded heroes of this drought year. In the future, ever more creative ways will have to be found to share the water that Nature gives us, with each other and with Nature itself,” says Andy Schultheiss, Executive Director of the Colorado Water Trust. “In the end, the villain is climate change, which isn’t going away anytime soon and we will have to find ways to adapt to it.”

This is the second time this summer, and the fourth time in the past three consecutive summers that Colorado Water Trust has purchased water stored in Ruedi Reservoir for release to the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River to help maintain healthier streamflow and water temperatures. Purchases since 2019 will result in delivering over 4500 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River. Colorado Water Trust works closely with Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District to identify when there is available capacity in the power plant canal. Colorado Water Trust also works closely with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program to determine when the 15-Mile Reach needs supplemental water most to support the fish. When these two conditions overlap, Colorado Water Trust releases the water purchased out of storage for delivery to the power plant and then the 15-Mile Reach.

“Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association have been collaborating with the Colorado Water Trust and their contributing partners for last several years. Our partnership helps those of us in the Grand Valley and 2200 other water diverters maintain Endangered Species Act compliance. We look forward to our continued collaboration with the Colorado Water Trust,” says Mark Harris, General Manager of Grand Valley Water Users Association.

“We are extremely grateful to the Colorado Water Trust for providing releases to support endangered fish during this challenging water year. These releases will improve habitat in the 15-Mile reach during an especially stressful time of year. The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program believes that collaborative conservation can enhance populations of endangered fish while also meeting water user needs. Efforts by the Colorado Water Trust, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, and Grand Valley Water Users demonstrate that with creative thinking and hard work, partnerships can find solutions that support humans and the environment,” says Kevin McAbee, Acting Program Director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy also helps to inform Colorado Water Trust of conditions on the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork Rivers to so that releases will complement flows on the stream sections between Ruedi Reservoir and the Colorado River. This year, the water released from Ruedi Reservoir will serve a few purposes before it supports the health of endangered, native fish in the Colorado River in the 15-Mile Reach. The water will bring flows in the Fryingpan River closer to their average, and will cool water temperatures on the Roaring Fork River. Finally, on the Colorado River, the water will generate hydropower, helping to produce clean energy.

Screen shot from the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program website August 28, 2021:

Dams Ineffective for Cold-Water #Conservation: Study of #California Streams Reveals Fish Give Dams the Cold Shoulder — UCDavis

Shasta Dam, north of Redding in California, is the only dam in the state a UC Davis study identified as being capable of replicating natural cold-water patterns for aquatic species. (Ron Lute/cc BY-NC 2.0)

Here’s the release from UC Davis (Kat Kerlin):

Knowing where cold water is likely to stay cold is critical for conservation. But “cold” is more than just a number on a thermometer. Dams do not adequately support cold-water ecosystems.

Dams poorly mimic the temperature patterns California streams require to support the state’s native salmon and trout — more than three-quarters of which risk extinction. Bold actions are needed to reverse extinction trends and protect cold-water streams that are resilient to climate warming, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE by the University of California, Davis.

The study helps identify where high-quality, cold-water habitat remains to help managers prioritize conservation efforts.

“It is no longer a good investment to put all our cold-water conservation eggs in a dam-regulated basket,” said lead author Ann Willis, a senior staff researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and a fellow for the John Muir Institute of the Environment. “We need to consider places where the natural processes can occur again.”

Joe Proudman / UC Davis
on the Little Shasta River, outside of Montague, Calif. on May 19, 2017.

The uncommon cold

Understanding where cold water is likely to stay cold is critical for conservation. But “cold” is more than just a number on a thermometer. The term represents the many factors that combine to create cold water capable of supporting aquatic ecosystems.

Water managers deliver cold water from reservoirs to streams to support aquatic life. But Willis said this assumes that all cold water is the same — akin to giving blood to another person without understanding their blood type and health status.

While previous studies have suggested that dams can be operated to achieve ideal temperatures, few tested that hypothesis against the temperature patterns aquatic ecosystems need.

The UC Davis study assessed stream temperature data from 77 sites in California to model and classify their “thermal regimes,” or annual temperature patterns. It found the state’s reservoirs do not adequately replicate natural thermal patterns, making them incapable of supporting cold-water species effectively.

“I’m an engineer; I thought we could operate ourselves into success, but the science doesn’t support that,” Willis said. “It’s not a question of whether we remove a dam, but which dam, and how we need to restructure how we manage water. Or we need to be willing to take responsibility to be the generation that says, ‘OK, we’re letting this ecosystem go extinct.’”

West Drought Monitor August 24, 2021.

What about the drought?

Drought often tempts people to double-down on hard-infrastructure solutions for water storage.

“We falsely equate dams with water security,” Willis said. “More storage does not mean more water. A giant, empty refrigerator doesn’t help you if you’re starving. The same is true for water.”

Of California’s 1,400 dams, only one very large and highly engineered dam — Shasta — stood out in the study as replicating natural cold-water patterns.

The study does not suggest removing all dams. However, considering removing “deadbeat dams” where there are critical ecosystems could help restore natural processes and support fish, people and biodiversity amid climate warming.

Mill Creek, a spring-fed creek that flows from the base of Mt. Lassen to the Sacramento Valley, is an important cold-water stream. (Ann Willis/UC Davis)

Cold comfort

Key cold-water conservation candidates include streams highly influenced by groundwater, such as in the Cascade Range, and places where water easily infiltrates the soil, such as Northern California’s Feather River.

“Classifying these streams and understanding their thermal regimes is an effective way to focus our time and money on the places most likely to make a difference,” Willis said.

The study’s co-authors include Ryan Peek and Andrew Rypel of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Funding for this research was provided by internal support from the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and the John Muir Institute of the Environment.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump to 800 cfs August 27, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridifcation

Aerial image of entrenched meanders of the San Juan River within Goosenecks State Park. Located in San Juan County, southeastern Utah (U.S.). Credits Constructed from county topographic map DRG mosaic for San Juan County from USDA/NRCS – National Cartography & Geospatial Center using Global Mapper 12.0 and Adobe Illustrator. Latitude 33° 31′ 49.52″ N., Longitude 111° 37′ 48.02″ W. USDA/FSA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs on Friday, August 27th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. This release change is calculated to be the minimum release required to maintain the minimum target base flow.

It wasn’t just I-70 that suffered after Glenwood Canyon slides. The #ColoradoRiver took a blow, too — The #Colorado Sun #COriver #ActOnClimate

Glenwood Canyon and the Colorado River. Photo credit: CDOT via Roads & Bridges

From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

Wildlife crews and water quality experts struggle to even assess the damage, as emergency management officials warn of threats to the western lifeline for years to come.

After decades of fierce arguments over damming up more of the water that rightfully belongs in the Colorado River, nature built a new dam in 5 minutes.

What happened to the fish? What happened to the river channel? What happened to drinking water downstream? Where did all the rafters go?

[…]

The relative silence about the river itself stems in part from immediate questions of who is in charge. For the highway, it’s CDOT. For the river, from the federal side, at least three different branch offices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have a say in any fixes, said emergency services director Mike Willis.

“Albuquerque, Sacramento and Omaha, just for a few miles’ stretch of the river,” Willis said,of the Army Corps involvement. Others who need to be consulted on any river rehab include the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and many more.

Sorting out changes to the river could take years, not just months, Willis said. The debris, from rockslides made worse by wildfires that burned up binding vegetation, blocked the Colorado River channel completely at Blue Gulch before the relentless river cut its way through the pile within minutes.

“The channel has changed now in several places. And so we have to be thoughtful about it, do we put the river back in its original channel or live with the channel as it is, and mitigate and protect the critical infrastructure downstream,” Willis said.

One of the first problems, Willis noted, is that the altered river flow may endanger the all-important highway. The changing channel has pushed debris up against the canyon’s complex bridge structures and overhangs, and the continual push of the water could undermine the road.

“In fact, the CDOT engineers have identified some areas where that is the case,” Willis said. “And so we need to assess that carefully and in those instances, we probably will push the river back to its original flow.”

[…]

As for wildlife recovery efforts in Glenwood Canyon, Willis said, the multi-agency task force dealing with the Colorado River has not given Parks and Wildlife full access in the slide area to start making detailed assessments…

Parks and Wildlife northwest division manager Matt Yamashita said biologists were still gathering information about the slide’s impact and waiting for full access to the river bed. But he’s concerned about mud smothering food and breeding spots for Colorado River species for miles downstream…

New plating at the Glenwood Springs water intake on Grizzly Creek was installed by the city to protect the system’s valve controls and screen before next spring’s snowmelt scours the Grizzly Creek burn zone and potentially clogs the creek with debris. (Provided by the City of Glenwood Springs)

The Colorado and its tributaries are also vital resources for humans living along the riverbanks, long before the waterway delivers farm water to Arizona or drinking water to Los Angeles. Glenwood Springs takes its drinking water out of Grizzly Creek and No Name Creek before they hit the Colorado, and sometimes from the Roaring Fork River, if necessary, city public information officer Bryana Starbuck said.

“All of our water source intakes are below burn scars (Grizzly Creek fire and Lake Christine fire) which means that the landscape is very sensitive to heavy rainfall, which causes these debris flows or high sediment-transport incidents,” Starbuck said in an email response to questions. “Given the nature of burn scars, stabilization of the land will take time and impacts will continue to develop.”

[…]

Just as highway engineers in the canyon are looking uphill to design ways to keep future slides off the highway, Willis said, naturalists will have to work with them to think of ways to keep new slides from cutting off the river itself for years to come.

“We do not feel like this is a one time deal,” Willis said. “It’s not a one and done.”

#Colorado Parks & Wildlife and partners hike miles in heat to stock state-endangered boreal toad tadpoles in effort to save species from deadly fungus

Squirming black boreal toad tadpoles feed on algae along the shore of Titan Lake above Leadville and just below the 13,209-foot summit of Homestake Peak. Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists, staff and partner agencies hiked them to the high alpine lake in an effort to rescue the state-endangered toad.
Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Bill Vogrin

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Bill Vogrin):

CPW and partners hike miles in heat to stock state-endangered boreal toad tadpoles

Under a blistering late July sun, a team of Colorado Parks and Wildlife native aquatic biologists, staff and volunteers hiked a steep mountain trail, each loaded with 30-pound bags of water filled with 100 or so squirming, black boreal toad tadpoles.

They were joined by other members of the Arkansas Basin Boreal Toad Team – an interagency workgroup created to coordinate conservation and management of the state-endangered Boreal toads within the Arkansas River basin in Colorado.

Besides CPW, the workgroup includes the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

In all, about 20 people hiked 7-plus miles, round trip, to deposit some 1,800 tadpoles into an alpine wetland along West Tennessee Creek at 11,500 feet elevation.

There, in the shallow waters of Titan Lake, they released their tadpoles, which immediately began swimming and feeding along its algae laden shores, beneath the jagged, snow-tipped summit of Homestake Peak at 13,209 feet.

The tadpole relocation project was done in consultation with the Colorado Boreal Toad Recovery Team. The interagency workgroup long ago identified the West Tennessee Creek drainage as a possible relocation site, given the quality of its wetlands and the potential for breeding and its history as a home to Boreal toads.

Similar parades of CPW biologists, staff and volunteers have recently taken place to high-altitude wetlands statewide as the agency pursues several avenues in its efforts to rescue the tiny brownish-black state-endangered toad.

Boreal toads once thrived in Colorado high country wetlands, but their numbers have been crashing due to a deadly “chytrid” skin fungus that is threatening amphibians worldwide.

The grueling hike was led by Paul Foutz, CPW native aquatic species biologist in the Southeast Region and Boreal Toad specialist. Partner teams were led by Jeni Windorski, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Leadville and Brad Lambert, a zoologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

The tadpoles were taken as eggs from the East Fork Homestake Creek boreal toad population in the Northwest Region, and grown (hatched & grown?) at the John Mumma Native Aquatic Restoration Facility hatchery in Alamosa, in the Southwest Region.

“With our partners, CPW is working hard to recover the state-endangered Boreal toad by creating new populations,” Foutz said. “The deadly chytrid fungus and other impacts to their natural habitat is causing this species to decline dramatically, and we’re doing everything we can to preserve them.

“We have just a few robust populations left on the landscape. They’ve been declining in recent decades. This is the first translocation in Lake County. We’re hoping the tadpoles we released today will survive and thrive, and in a few weeks metamorph into land-dwelling toadlets. We’ll continue to monitor this new population along with existing populations around the state in our effort to maintain boreal toads across the Colorado landscape for generations to come.”

Navajo Dam operations update (August 17, 2021): Releases to decrease to 800 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The San Juan River’s Navajo Dam and reservoir. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach and a forecast wetter weather pattern, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 900 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs on Tuesday, August 17th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

New Federal Bill Will Help Bring Birds Back — Audubon

Snowy Egret. Photo: Melissa James/Audubon Photography Awards

From Audubon (Matt Smelser):

“As Congress looks to build toward America’s future it should also help bring birds back,” said Sarah Greenberger, senior vice president of conservation policy, National Audubon Society. “The Migratory Bird Protection Act will strengthen baseline protections for birds at a critical time. We have lost 3 billion birds in North America since 1970 and climate change threatens extinction for two-thirds of bird species. Birds are telling us they are in trouble and we are running out of time to act.”

In an effort to strengthen the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a bipartisan group of co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), introduced the Migratory Bird Protection Act [July 29, 2021]. The new bill will reinforce longstanding bird protections that have been under attack while creating more certainty for business and creating incentives for innovation to protect birds. It was also introduced in the last Congress where it passed out of committee and gained more than 90 Democratic and Republican cosponsors.

The bill would secure protections for birds and direct the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to develop a permitting process for “incidental take” through which relevant businesses would implement best management practices and document compliance, further driving innovation in how to best prevent bird deaths.

“Under these changes, we’ll be able to reduce avoidable harm to birds from industrial hazards and improve our understanding of impacts to bird populations, all while providing businesses the certainty they want and need from the MBTA,” said Erik Schneider, policy manager for the National Audubon Society.

If passed, the MBPA would establish a new fee paid by industry that will increase funding for the conservation of birds impacted by these industrial hazards and an additional fund to establish a new federal research program that will study industry impacts on birds and best management practices.

The Biden administration is also pursuing a rulemaking process that similarly aims to reinstate “incidental take” protections stripped away by the previous administration. The change by the Trump administration was aimed at limiting the MBTA’s protections only to activities that purposefully kill birds, exempting all industrial hazards from enforcement. Any “incidental” death—no matter how inevitable, avoidable or devastating to birds—became immune from enforcement under the law. If this change had been in place in 2010, BP would have faced no consequences under the MBTA for the more than one million birds killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“This bill would build on the administration’s actions and strengthen the MBTA for the future,” added Schneider.

The reversal by the Trump administration generated widespread and bipartisan opposition. More than 25 states, numerous tribal governments, scientists, sportsmen, birdwatchers, and 250,000 people submitted comments opposing the proposed rule change, and several conservation organizations and eight attorneys general filed litigation to challenge the rule change.

“Over the last century the MBTA has been critical to protecting birds, including spurring the recovery of the Snowy Egret, the Sandhill Crane, and the Wood Duck,” said Schneider.

Facts and figures on industrial causes of bird mortality in the United States:

Navajo Dam operations update (August 14, 2021): Releases to bump to 900 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The San Juan River, below Navajo Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 900 cfs on Saturday, August 14th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Navajo Dam operations update (August 12, 2021) #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Conceptual framework, on the San Juan. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs for THURSDAY, August 12th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

As #LakePowell woes worry West, experts call for yet more reduced use — The #Montrose Daily Press #aridification #ColoradoRiver #COriver

A longer walk from the dock to the water is in store for boaters at the Elk Creek marina, Blue Mesa Reservoir. Blue Mesa is being drawn down to feed critically low Lake Powell, as continued dry weather and rising demand deplete the Colorado River.
(Courtesy photo/National Park Service) via the Montrose Daily Press

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

“The inescapable truth is that the Colorado River system is seeing declining flows and for the foreseeable future, is likely to continue on that trend. So we have to adjust expectations and water use accordingly,” [Andy Mueller] said…

Year after year of dry conditions hammered the river and, this year, dropped Powell so low that Blue Mesa Reservoir and others in the Upper Basin had to release water to keep Powell’s power turbines turning.

“It’s our water balance. Last year and this year have been terrible,” said Anne Castle, former assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science during the Obama Administration, during an Aug. 5 webinar hosted by the Colorado River District. Castle is currently senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado law School…

Given climate science predictions, the poor water years have not been a surprise, she said — but Powell dropped 50 feet last year, equating to 4 million acre feet of water no longer available. The reservoir is projected to drop within six months to the dreaded 3,525 feet elevation, the baseline for power generation and meeting the river compact requirements…

On top of it, the compact prohibits the Upper Basin from depleting more than 75 million acre feet over 10 years (so that it can deliver an average of 7.5 million acre feet a year to the Lower Basin)— a “guarantee,” as far as the Lower Basin sees things, while the Upper Basin’s perception is Lower Basin states are vastly overusing their water.

Under that rolling 10-year average, the Upper Basin has delivered 92 million acre feet, which is well above its obligation, but that is projected to drop to 82 million over 10 years and, if poor hydrology continues, could plunge even further, which stands to put the Upper Basin below its obligations…

Lake Powell not only provides a “savings account” to meet the Upper Basin’s compact obligations, but generates hydropower that is used throughout the basin, [Steve] Wolff said.

That hydropower in turn generates revenue, which flows back to the Upper Basin for infrastructure, Endangered Species Act compliance programs and salinity control…

Changing the rules will have ripple effects on both users and the economy, she said. Although the Upper Basin sees overuse by the Lower, the Lower Basin says it has cut use; is doing what the compact allows, and that the Upper does not have a plan for demand management, [Castle] also said.

“Everyone’s got their grievances and their legal theories. … There’s not enough water for any of the lawyers to be right 100%,” Castle said.

The task is to equitably manage use — and that means reducing it, she said.

Powell is sitting at 32% full and Mead, at 35% full, Mueller said…

The Colorado River Compact accords to the Lower Basin an additional 1 million acre feet. The Upper Basin’s argument is that this is supposed to account for use from the Gila River, a tributary. The 1.5 million acre feet to Mexico under treaty is to be provided from surplus, unless there is a shortage on the river.

What constitutes a shortage is a point of contention between Upper and Lower Basin states, but Mueller said it’s the Upper Basin’s position that the Lower Basin is undercounting its consumptive use.

The Upper Basin uses 4 million to 4.5 million acre feet per year, well below its allocation, while the Lower Basin and Mexico (most years) use their full allotments.

The Lower Basin has use of 2 million to 2.5 million acre feet in tributaries and loses another 1 million to 1.3 million acre feet in federal reservoir evaporation or loss during transit.

Mueller said that evap is not accounted for in the Lower Basin’s consumptive use, which even without it is at 7.5 million acre feet. Evaporation from the Upper Basin’s reservoirs, including Blue Mesa, is counted as consumptive use, and the Upper Basin is still only using 4.5 million acre feet of its allocation, Mueller said…

Through reservoir evap, transit losses, system losses, Lower Basin tributary consumption (excluding Mexico deliveries), species conservation and purported inefficiencies having to do the groundwater storage in Arizona, more than 1.1 to 1.3 million acre feet a year is being lost. Taking the low end of those estimates, over 10 years, more than 11 million acre feet of water would be available in the system had the overuse been addressed, Mueller said…

Climate change and rising temperatures concern everyone in the Southwest, [Mueller] also said.

“It’s not a political statement from me. It’s a fact we’re seen that temperature increase,” Mueller said Aug. 5, referring to data between 1895 – 2018.

For every 1 degree rise in temperature, streamflow in the Colorado River system decreases 3 to 8%, he said, citing U.S. Geological Survey data.

“The bottom line is, we have seen and should expect to continue to see decreasing flows in a system that is already stressed,” Mueller said…

For the Upper Basin, such parched conditions in areas that don’t operate below large federal reservoirs mean a cut in consumptive use — or even near-cessation. Upper sub-basin ranchers and farmers on direct flow ditches don’t have water…

The Uncompahgre and Grand Valley systems do have some reservoir storage above them and can continue to produce…

Farmers and ranchers have been feeling the pinch for the past two decades. They cull herds because there is insufficient water for cattle and/or to grow their feed.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

How low can Ruedi Reservoir go? — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The boat ramp at Ruedi Reservoir allows motor boats to access the water. The Bureau of Reclamation is projecting that the reservoir will fall to 55,000 acre-feet this winter.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Bureau of Reclamation warns of potential impacts to Aspen hydro plant, water contract holders

Water levels at Ruedi Reservoir could fall so low this winter that the city of Aspen could have difficulty making hydro-electric power and those who own water in the reservoir could see shortages.

That’s according to projections by the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir near the headwaters of the Fryingpan River. At the annual Ruedi operations meeting on Aug. 5, officials estimated the reservoir will fall to around 55,000 acre-feet this winter, what’s known as carry-over storage. According to Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation who manages operations at Ruedi, the lowest-ever carry-over storage for the reservoir was just over 47,000 acre-feet in 2002, one of the driest years on record. Last year’s carry-over was about 64,000 acre-feet.

At 55,000 acre-feet, the elevation of the water is about 7,709 feet. That’s about two feet lower than Aspen officials would like.

“We don’t like being below 7,711,” said Robert Covington, water resources/hydroelectric supervisor for the city.

That’s because the hydro plant needs a certain amount of water pressure to operate. The higher the water elevation, the more water pressure there is.

According to Covington, power providers Xcel Energy and Holy Cross Energy sometimes temporarily and quickly shut down the hydro-electric plant when there are problems with transmission lines or they need to do repairs.

“It’s very common for these types of plants to automatically shut down,” Covington said.

The problem is that restarting the plant requires a larger amount of water than the 40 cubic feet per second that is roughly the minimum amount required to operate the plant efficiently.

“It’s very difficult for us to get back online so we end up pushing more water through for a very short period of time,” he said.

If Aspen has to shut down the plant because flows are too low, the city could purchase more wind power to maintain its 100% renewable portfolio.

“When we go lower on hydro, we go with wind, which is generally the most cost-effective,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager with the city.

Anglers dock at Ruedi Reservoir on Aug. 5. Bureau of Reclamation officials project that low carry-over storage combined with another low runoff year could lead to shortages for water contract holders.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Shortages to contract holders

Another consequence of low carry-over storage means that Ruedi will start out even lower next spring when the snow begins to melt and the reservoir begins to fill again. That means if there is below-average runoff again, some contract holders who own water in Ruedi could have to take shortages, something that has never happened before, Miller said.

There are 32 entities that have “contract water” in Ruedi, which the bureau releases at their request. This is water that has been sold by the bureau to recover the costs of building and operating the reservoir. The contract pool is separated into two rounds and contract holders will take a previously agreed upon shortage amount depending on which round they are in.

“If we get another similar type of runoff this year, there will be shortages most likely to the contract pool,” Miller said.

The 15-Mile Reach is located near Grand Junction, Colorado

But there are still uncertainties in predicting how low the reservoir will go. The biggest of these is how much water will be released for the benefit of the endangered fish in the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction.

There is a 10,412 acre-foot pool available for the fish, but in dry years entities that store water in Ruedi will sometimes coordinate to release more fish water in the late summer and fall. This would draw down the reservoir even further. It’s still not clear how much water will be released this fall for the four species of endangered fish.

“The release defines the carry-over,” Miller said.

Despite initial bureau forecasts in April that projected Ruedi could probably fill to its entire 102,373 acre-foot capacity, Ruedi ended up only about 80% full this year. July 11 was the peak fill date at 83,256 acre-feet and an elevation of 7,745 feet.

“It was probably a little over-optimistic,” Miller said of the April forecast. “But at the time our snowpack was average. It was a reasonable forecast given the conditions.”

As climate change worsens the drought in the Western U.S., Ruedi is not the only reservoir to face water levels so low that they threaten the ability to produce hydroelectric power. Last month, the bureau began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs, including Blue Mesa on the Gunnison River, to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to produce hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam.

This story ran in the Aug. 10 edition of The Aspen Times.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump to 700 cfs August 7, 2021

Navajo Reservoir, New Mexico, back in the day.. View looking north toward marina. The Navajo Dam can be seen on the left of the image. By Timthefinn at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4040102

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs today, Saturday, August 7th, starting at 4:00 PM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump to 500 cfs August 6, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A kayaker makes her way down the San Juan River, which delivers water from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Friday, August 6th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Colorado reaches agreement on Chatfield Reservoir environmental water plan — @WaterEdCO #SouthPlatteRiver

A Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer heads out on patrol at Chatfield Reservoir. A $171 million redesign at the popular lake is now complete, providing more water storage for Front Range cities and farmers. Last week the Colorado Water Conservation Board approved a settlement that will pave the way for an environmental water plan to help offset the impacts of the new storage. Credit: Jerd Smith

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Colorado water officials have reached an agreement removing one of the last barriers to a new environmental water program in Chatfield Reservoir.

The agreement settles a dispute among water agencies about who could use storage space in a special environmental pool in the reservoir.

The agreement is one of the final steps in the re-operation of the recreational site just southwest of Denver and comes after years of permitting disputes and lawsuits.

The federally owned reservoir was built in 1967 and was initially designed for flood protection in years when the South Platte River surged beyond its banks.

But as drought and climate change, as well as population growth, increased pressure on urban and agricultural water supplies on the Front Range, federal, state and local agencies began working to convert a portion of Chatfield’s flood storage to municipal and agricultural water storage. The reallocated storage space totals 20,600 acre-feet, of which 2,100 acre-feet is designated as the environmental pool.

The new storage will give south Denver metro area cities such as Highlands Ranch more protection against drought and diminishing groundwater supplies, and will give farmers on the Eastern Plains the ability to use stored water to irrigate crops late in the season when flows in the South Platte River run low. Water from the environmental pool will be used for releases to boost streamflows downstream, improving water quality and providing other environmental and recreational benefits. Downstream irrigators will also benefit from those releases.

The physical work on the re-operation was completed last year after the project won federal approval and a major lawsuit against it failed.

The latest legal dispute stems from a disagreement between Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch, and the Greeley-based Central Colorado Conservancy District, over whose water rights could be used to fill the environmental storage space and whose space would be filled first.

Centennial’s and Central’s boards must still approve the settlement, according to Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which negotiated the deal. [Ris also serves on the Board of Trustees for Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.]

“There was a disagreement among the parties about which water rights could be used,” Ris said, with ultimately the Colorado Water Conservation Board giving up some of its storage space to settle the dispute between the water agencies.

Central officials could not be reached for comment.

Centennial Water Resources Manager Rick McLoud said his agency had spent millions of dollars and more than 20 years to ensure that the new Chatfield plan would serve Highlands Ranch well, and that its ability to store water there would not get bumped too far down the priority list.

“We spent 27 years working to get it and more than $55 million. We did not want to lose out,” McLoud said.

Environmentalists, including the Denver Chapter of the Audubon Society, had long battled the re-operation of the reservoir because it inundated the existing shoreline and resulted in a loss of bird habitat, among other issues.

New habitat has been set aside farther downstream for birds and other species, and water from the environmental pool will help maintain streamflows and habitat as it is released.

Abby Burk, an Audubon Society official, said her group is still deeply worried about the loss of habitat.

But she said the fierce drought and ongoing shortages of water for environmental purposes make the Chatfield habitat water critically important.

“Chatfield was a hard go. We lost some strong riparian areas for birds,” Burk said. “But anytime we can have environmental benefits, particularly in a challenging drought year, we have to go for it.”

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.

Two Wins for Rivers in a Dry Year — @AudubonRockies #WhiteRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado River headwaters near Kremmling, Colorado. Photo: Abby Burk via Audubon Rockies

From Audubon Rockies (Abby Burk):

Audubon secures protections for Colorado rivers.

As a result of Audubon’s engagement, leveraged with our partners, Big Beaver Creek and White River will quickly receive needed water and all of Colorado’s rivers will retain their water quality protections. All thanks to you! In this drought-stricken year, these victories are true causes for celebration. Read on to learn what your actions accomplished for rivers and the birds and communities that depend upon them.

Water Quality Antidegradation

Birds and people rely on clean water from healthy rivers. High-quality water in our rivers, streams, and wetlands is critical to the long-term health of our ecosystems, wildlife, communities, and economies across Colorado, from urban neighborhoods to headwater streams.

In late spring of 2021, we called upon our Colorado network to sign a petition to stop a proposed rule change by the Water Quality Control Commission (Commission) that would have allowed more pollution in Colorado’s rivers and streams. Because of the impact this potential rule change would have had on rivers, birds, and disadvantaged communities, we needed your engagement like never before. And you responded.

Audubon Rockies broke all our previous engagement records by collecting 2,735 unique signatures and combined with our coalition to total more than 4,700 signatures! During the June hearing, the Commission received unprecedented levels of public comments. Sixty people signed up to speak. Many impassioned public speakers showed up to oppose the proposed rule changes and to support their “home waters.” All but one of the comments opposed rule changes due to potential impacts on Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color; recreation in urban streams; and the right to clean water.

The Commission listened to you and delayed making any decision to amend the antidegradation rule until 2031. Current water quality protections will stay in place for at least the next 10 years!

We still have work to do with the Commission to ensure our rivers and streams are protected from harmful rule changes that could increase pollution. We must also resist industry’s pressure to establish a stakeholder process in which only their high-paid lawyers and consultants have the means to participate.

With advocates like you, we know we can continue to make progress. Healthy flowing rivers support our environment and all water uses and users.

Instream Flows on Big Beaver Creek and White River

After a multi-year, multi-stakeholder effort to expand Colorado’s existing program to loan water to the environment, an instream flow bill (HB20-1157) was signed into law by Colorado Governor Polis in March of 2020. Audubon’s network submitted 1,463 action alerts to state legislators to support this bill, which ultimately benefits our environment, wildlife, and local economies.

HB20-1157 expanded the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s short-term water loan program to benefit the environment. The bill provides a 100 percent voluntary, flexible, and expedited or longer-term option for water users to divert less or no water during dry years, allowing for more water to stay in a river. The statute’s “emergency” or expedited option is in motion for the first time!

On July 21, 2021, the Colorado Water Conservation Board voted unanimously to approve an expedited temporary instream flow lease to support 43 stream miles of benefits to Big Beaver Creek and White River in Rio Blanco County. In this extreme drought year, water is needed in these waterways quickly. Due to your engagement and support, a quick and responsive option to support environmental stream flows is a reality.

Colorado thrives when our rivers do. The decisions we make about water and river health impact all of Colorado—birds and people alike. Audubon’s legacy is built on science, education, advocacy, and on-the-ground conservation. We bring all of this together through you: our network. This combination of expertise and engagement makes Audubon an effective force for bird and freshwater habitat conservation. Thank you for standing with us.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to decrease to 400 cfs July 27, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Since the late 1980’s, this waterfall formed from interactions among reservoir levels and sedimentation that redirected the San Juan River over a 20-foot high sandstone ledge. Until recently, little was known about its effect on two endangered fishes. Between 2015-2017, more than 1,000 razorback sucker and dozens of Colorado pikeminnow were detected downstream of the waterfall. Credit: Bureau of Reclamation

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs on Tuesday, July 27th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Kremmling bird count studies how birds use irrigated agriculture — @AspenJournalism

Wildlife biologist Bill Vetter watches and listens for birds in irrigated fields outside of Kremmling. Vetter is part of an avian monitoring program run by Audubon Rockies that aims to learn more about how birds use irrigated agriculture.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

In the gray light of dawn, hundreds of swallows darted over a pool of standing water in an irrigated field along the Colorado River. The birds were attracted to the early-morning mosquitos swarming the saturated landscape. Bill Vetter, a wildlife biologist with Wyoming-based Precision Wildlife Resources, methodically counted the birds. For six minutes, he marked down every bird he saw or heard at eight different locations across the ranch, 250 meters apart.

Vetter is part of an avian-monitoring program, headed up by Audubon Rockies, which aims to learn more about how birds use irrigated agricultural lands. In 2020, the fields near Kremmling where Vetter counted purposely did not irrigate as part of a state-grant-funded study on water use in high-elevation pastures. This year, irrigators are back to watering their usual amount and Vetter is tracking the trends in bird species and numbers.

This year, Vetter counted four or five additional species, including the yellow-headed blackbird, white-faced ibis and sora.

“I can say that for sure we got additional species this year that we didn’t have last year, and those species are largely associated with water habitat,” he said.

Across the Western Slope, birds and other wildlife have come to depend on these artificially created wetlands, a result of flood irrigation. But as the state of Colorado grapples with whether to implement a demand-management program, which would pay irrigators to temporarily dry up fields in an effort to send more water downstream, there could be unintended consequences for the animals that use irrigated agriculture for their habitat.

Learning more about how birds use these landscapes is a key first step, according to Abby Burk, Western rivers regional program manager with Audubon Rockies.

“Wetlands are the unsung hero for all the ecological services and functions they provide for wildlife,” she said. “Those low-field wetlands are good habitat for birds, for breeding, for migratory stopovers.”

In 2020, the bird count turned up 1,285 birds, comprising 39 different species, including great blue herons, meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, an osprey, a peregrine falcon, and several types of swallows, warblers and sparrows. The numbers are not yet tallied for this year, but the general expectation is that more water means more birds.

“Birds have adapted to how we have created these different habitat types,” Burk said. “We’ve really got to look at the larger effects of how we use water can impact birds and other wildlife. Where there’s water, birds also do thrive.”

This pool of standing water in a field near the Colorado River is a result of flood irrigation. It’s also great habitat for mosquito-loving swallows.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Water-use study

The seven ranches where the avian monitoring is taking place are part of a larger water study that is evaluating conserved consumptive use in the upper Colorado River basin. Consumptive use is a measure of how much water is consumed by thirsty plants. Conserved consumptive use is the amount by which consumptive use is reduced as a result of changing irrigation practices.

Researchers from Colorado State University are studying the impacts of using less water on the high-elevation fields in Grand County and how long it takes them to recover once water returns. Researchers hope to fill in a data gap about the impacts of reducing irrigation water on high-elevation pastures.

In 2020, some participating landowners did not irrigate at all and some only irrigated until June 15. This year, landowners reverted to their historical irrigation practices. Remote sensors and ground-based instruments are monitoring the difference in plant and soil conditions, and will continue to do so through 2023. Early results found that the plants used about 45% less water in 2020 compared with the previous four years.

The first phase of the project received a $500,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) under its Alternative Agriculture Water Transfer Method program, which aims to find alternatives to “buy and dry” water transfers. The CWCB in September will consider another $60,000 grant request for Trout Unlimited to continue to do monitoring with a field technician.

This monitoring station is part of a research project by Colorado State University to track soil and plant conditions in irrigated pastures. The study aims to learn more about how using less water affects high-elevation fields.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Demand management

Although the project is not directly related to the state’s demand-management feasibility investigation, the results could have implications for any potential program that the state eventually comes up with.

“We are hoping all this information and research is going to be used down the road if a program does develop,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado water project legal counsel with Trout Unlimited. Trout Unlimited is helping to fund and implement the research project.

At the heart of a demand-management program is paying irrigators on a voluntary and temporary basis to not irrigate and to leave more water in the river in an effort to bolster levels in Lake Powell and help Colorado meet its downstream obligations.

Under the Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) must send 7.5 million acre-feet each year to the Lower Basin (California, Arizona and Nevada). Failure to meet this obligation could trigger a “compact call” where junior water users in the Upper Basin would have their water cut off. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre of land one foot deep.)

As rising temperatures due to climate change continue to rob the Colorado River and its tributaries of flows and increase the risk of a compact call, finding solutions to water shortages is becoming more urgent. Lake Powell, the river’s biggest reservoir, is just under 34% full and projected to decline further. Demand management would let the Upper Basin set aside up to 500,000 acre-feet in a special pool in Powell to help avoid a compact call.

Some still-unanswered questions remain: How much of the conserved consumptive water from high-elevation pastures would actually make it downstream to Lake Powell? And how much would local streams benefit from the added flows?

“One critical part of what we’re doing is looking at the stream and saying: Do we see any changes from one year to the next? How much water would actually make it to the stream?” Whiting said. “We are measuring to see if there’s any distinction between the year the conservation practices were applied and the following year.”

Wildlife biologist Bill Vetter and Western Rivers Regional Program Manager with Audubon Rockies Abby Burk walk along an irrigation ditch in Grand County. An avian monitoring program aims to learn more about how birds use irrigated agriculture.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Trade-offs

The unintended consequences of different irrigation patterns under a demand-management program could be many and far-reaching. In 2018, the CWCB formed nine workgroups to examine some of these issues, including one that looked at environmental considerations.

In notes submitted to the CWCB last July, the environmental workgroup acknowledged there could be trade-offs, sometimes among species. For example, reducing irrigation and leaving more water in rivers would benefit fish and riparian habitats, but might negatively impact birds or other species that use wetlands created by flood irrigation. And with full irrigation, birds may thrive, but to the detriment of river ecosystems.

David Graf, water-resource specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, participated in the environmental-considerations workgroup. He said irrigated agriculture provides a lot of diversity in forbes, grasses and insects — good sources of protein for birds. But fish need water too. And in the summer and fall, the more, the better. There is an environmental value in irrigated agriculture, but only if the streams aren’t suffering at its expense, Graf said.

“There is a whole bunch of wildlife that is dependent on irrigated agriculture,” he said. “I think we all recognize the value that irrigated agriculture brings to wildlife, but it’s at the expense of fisheries in a lot of cases. There’s a little bit of a trade-off on a local level. I think we get the balance wrong sometimes.”

This pool of standing water in a field near the Colorado River is a result of flood irrigation. It’s also great habitat for mosquito-loving swallows.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Birds as indicator

Burk acknowledged that the usefulness of the bird count is limited by the absence of baseline data, because there was no bird monitoring on the fields before 2020. But trends are still important and, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, birds can be an indicator of what’s happening on a landscape. Burk said she would like to do a bird-monitoring program on a larger scale at different locations around the Western Slope.

“As we learn more about how birds respond to water on the landscape, whether that’s in the river, in the fields, in the wetlands and adjacent habitats, it’s going to help give us a better picture of how the entire landscape and our natural systems are responding,” Burk said.

Colorado River water issues sometimes make for seemingly strange bedfellows. Nonprofit environmental groups such as Audubon are usually focused on keeping more water in the rivers, while irrigators traditionally take it out. In this case, interests align with keeping water on the landscape, with birds as the beneficiaries. Burk said those “us-versus-them” distinctions among water users are evaporating as people realize they are not facing the water crisis alone.

“When we drop the silos, drop the fences and walls between water users, we can see that this is one water — people, wildlife, the environment, the recreation industry — we all depend upon it,” Burk said. “So, how do we keep these natural systems so they can keep doing their job for everyone with reduced water? Water has to go further because there’s less of it.”

This story ran in The Aspen Times and the Craig Press on July 10.

Once a Rich Desert River, the #GilaRiver Struggles to Keep Flowing — Yale 360 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Gila River. Photo credit: Dennis O’Keefe via American Rivers

From Yale 360 (Jim Robbins). Click through for Ted Wood’s photo gallery:

The Gila was once a vibrant desert river, providing a lifeline for the riparian habitat and wildlife that depended on it in the U.S. Southwest. But population growth, agricultural withdrawals, and, increasingly, climate change have badly diminished the river and threaten its future.

The confluence of the tiny San Pedro River and the much larger Gila was once one of the richest locales in one of the most productive river ecosystems in the American Southwest, an incomparable oasis of biodiversity.

The rivers frequently flooded their banks, a life-giving pulse that created sprawling riverside cienegas, or fertile wetlands; braided and beaver-dammed channels; meandering oxbows; and bosques — riparian habitats with towering cottonwoods, mesquite and willows. This lush, wet Arizona landscape, combined with the searing heat of the Sonoran Desert, gave rise to a vast array of insects, fish and wildlife, including apex predators such as Mexican wolves, grizzly bears, jaguars and cougars, which prowled the river corridors.

The confluence now is a very different place, its richness long diminished. A massive mountain of orange- and dun-colored smelter tailings, left from the days of copper and lead processing and riddled with arsenic, towers where the two rivers meet. Water rarely flows there, with an occasional summer downpour delivering an ephemeral trickle.

On a recent visit, only a few brown, stagnant pools remained. In one, hundreds of small fish gasped for oxygen. An egret that had been feeding on the fish flew off. The plop of a bull frog, an invasive species, echoed in the hot, still air.

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

The Gila River, which was listed by the advocacy group American Rivers in 2019 as the nation’s most endangered river, drains an enormous watershed of 60,000 square miles. Stretches have long been depleted, largely because of crop irrigation and the water demands of large cities. Now, a warmer and drier climate is bearing down on ecosystems that have been deprived of water, fragmented, and otherwise altered, their natural resilience undone by human activities.

Other desert rivers around the globe — from the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates to the Amu Darya in Central Asia — face similar threats. Efforts are underway to restore some integrity to these natural systems, but it is an uphill battle, in part because desert rivers are more fragile than rivers in cooler, wetter places.

Last year was the second-hottest and second-driest on record in Arizona, where heat records are frequently broken. The last two years have seen fewer desert downpours, known locally as monsoons, an important source of summer river flow.

“We’re dealing with a rapidly changing climate that is becoming, overall, more dry and varied and warmer,” said Scott Wilbor, an ecologist in Tucson who studies desert river ecosystems, including the San Pedro. “We are in uncharted territory.”

Born of snowmelt and springs in the mountains of southern New Mexico, the Gila is the southernmost snow-fed river in the United States. It was once perennial, running 649 miles until it emptied into the Colorado River. As the climate warms, scientists predict that by 2050 snow will no longer fall in the Black and Mogollon ranges that form the Gila’s headwaters, depriving the river of its major source of water.

“We’re seeing a combination of long-term climate change and really bad drought,” said David Gutzler, a professor emeritus of climatology at the University of New Mexico. If the drought is prolonged, he said, “that’s when we’ll see the river dry up.”

The Gila River as it nears the Florence Diversion Dam in Arizona was almost dry by May this year. Photo credit: TED WOOD via Yale 360.

The same scenario is playing out on the once-mighty Colorado, the Rio Grande, and many smaller Southwest rivers, all facing what is often called a megadrought. Some research indicates that a southwestern U.S. megadrought may last decades, while other scientists fear the region is threatened by a permanent aridification because of rising temperatures.

Worldwide, said Ian Harrison, a freshwater expert with Conservation International, “pretty much where there are rivers in arid areas, they are suffering through a combination of climate change and development.”

Like the Gila, many of these rivers have high degrees of endemism. “Life is often highly specialized to those particular conditions and only lives on that one river, so the impacts of loss are catastrophic,” he said.

Rivers everywhere are important for biodiversity, but especially so in the desert, where 90 percent of life is found within a mile of the river. Nearly half of North America’s 900 or so bird species use the Gila and its tributaries, including some that live nowhere else in the U.S., such as the common blackhawk and northern beardless tyrannulet. Two endangered birds, the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo, live along the Gila and its tributaries, including the San Pedro and the Salt.

Desert rivers, of course, make life in the desert possible for people, too. Growing crops in the perpetual heat of the desert can be highly lucrative, especially if the water is free or nearly so thanks to subsidies from the federal government. Agriculture is where most of the water in the Gila goes.

A vermillion flycatcher perched near the Gila River in Safford, Arizona. Photo credit: TED WOOD via Yale 360

This spring, photographer Ted Wood and I made a journey along the length of the Gila, from the headwaters in New Mexico to west of Phoenix. In most of Arizona, the Gila is dry. Where it still flows, I was impressed by how such a relatively small river, under the right conditions, can be so life-giving. The trip brought home what desert rivers are up against as the climate changes, and also how much restoration, and what types, can be expected to protect the biodiversity that remains.

Our journey began at the river’s source, where Cliff Dweller Creek spills out of a shady canyon lined with Gambel oak in Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The creek is barely a trickle here. Above the creek, ancestral Puebloans, known as Mogollon, once lived in dwellings wedged into caves, making pottery and tending vegetable gardens. The Mogollon abandoned these canyons in the 15th century, perhaps done in by an extended drought.

From inside a Mogollon cave, I looked out at rolling hills, covered with ponderosa pine, pinyon and juniper trees. The green-hued water gains volume where three forks come together near here. Historically, the mountain snow melts slowly each spring, providing high steady flows through April and May. Flows slow to a trickle in June. In July and August, monsoons pass through and, along with frontal systems, cause flash flooding and a rise in water levels.

Flooding is a “disturbance regime,” not unlike a forest fire, that rejuvenates aging, static ecosystems. A healthy river in the mountains of the West is one that behaves like a fire hose, whipping back and forth in a broad channel over time, flash flooding and then receding, moving gravel, rocks, logs and other debris throughout the system. A flooding river constantly demolishes some sections of a river and builds others, creating new habitat — cleaning silt from gravel so fish can spawn, for instance, or flushing sediment from wetlands. A river that flows over its banks, recharges aquifers and moistens the soil so that the seedlings of cottonwoods, mesquite trees and other vegetation can reproduce. Along healthy stretches of the Gila, birds are everywhere; I spotted numerous bluebirds in the branches of emerald green cottonwoods.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument New Mexico, an ancestral Puebloan ruin at the headwaters of the Gila River. Photo credit: TED WOOD via Yale 360

The riparian ecosystem that lines the 80 or so miles of the New Mexico portion is largely intact because of the protections afforded by federal wilderness areas, the lack of a dam, and the river’s flow not being completely siphoned off for farming. This is an anomaly in a state that has lost many of its riparian ecosystems. “This is the last free-flowing river in New Mexico,” said Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition.

The future of the New Mexico stretch of the river is uncertain because of the possibility of more water withdrawals and the loss of snowpack. “We’ve seen flows in the last 10 years lower than we’ve ever seen,” Siwik said. This year, she said, set an all-time low on the river, with flow less than 20 percent of normal.

Undammed, the Gila River through New Mexico still floods, refreshing the Cliff-Gila valley, which contains the largest intact bosque habitat in the Lower Colorado River Basin. The valley is home to the largest concentration of non-colonial breeding birds in North America. The river is also a stronghold for threatened and endangered species, such as nesting yellow-billed cuckoos, the Gila chub, Chiricahua leopard frogs and Mexican garter snakes all live there.

At odds with efforts to keep the Gila wild are plans by a group of roughly 200 long-time irrigators in southwestern New Mexico. Each summer they divert water from the Gila to flood-irrigate pastures, which de-waters stretches of the river. The irrigators have been trying to raise money to build impoundments to take even more of their share of water, but so far have been unsuccessful, in part because of opposition from conservation groups.

Severe drought this spring combined with water overuse resulted in the drying of the Gila River in eastern Arizona and the death of the fish population. Photo credit: TED WOOD via Yale 360

Cattle are another threat to the river’s biological integrity here — both unfenced domestic cattle and feral cows. Cattle break down riverbanks, widen the stream and raise water temperatures. They eat and trample riparian vegetation, causing mud and silt to choke the flow, and destroy habitat for endangered species. The Center for Biological Diversity recently sued the U.S. Forest Service to force the agency to take action.

“We’re in a cow apocalypse,” said Todd Schulke, a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are even in the recovered Gila River habitat. It’s just heartbreaking.”

As the river enters Arizona, the riparian ecology remains largely intact, especially in the 23 miles of the Gila Box National Riparian Area. Here, 23,000 acres of bosque habitat is in full expression, with thick stands of cottonwoods, velvet mesquite trees and sandy beaches. It is one of only two national riparian areas in the country set aside for its outstanding biodiversity; the other is on the San Pedro River.

As the river leaves the riparian area, it undergoes a striking change: massive cotton farms near the towns of Safford, Pima, and Thatcher, first planted in the 1930s, cover the landscape. The dried, brown stalks of harvested cotton plants stand in a field, bits of fluff on top. Growing cotton in the desert — which uses six times as much water as lettuce — has long been seen as folly by critics, made possible only by hefty federal subsidies.

Farmers in Safford, Arizona, pump groundwater near the Gila River to irrigate their fields. Photo credit: TED WOOD via Yale 360

Much of the flood pulse ecology is lost here, as the river is diverted or subject to groundwater pumping. Instead of flooding, the river cuts deeper into its channel, lowering the water table, which many plants can no longer reach. The cottonwood stands and other riparian habitats have disappeared. “You want the groundwater within five feet of the ground, but it’s mostly 8 to 12 feet,” said Melanie Tluczek, executive director of the Gila Watershed Partnership, which has been doing restoration here since 2014.

It is a harsh place for new planting. The river is dry in long stretches. Tamarisk, a pernicious invasive tree also known as salt cedar, needs to be cut down and its stumps poisoned to prevent regrowth. Small willows and Fremont cottonwoods have been planted on barren desert ground. Wire cages over infant trees keep elk, beaver and rabbits from gobbling them up.

Meanwhile, tamarisk grows prolifically, slurping up water, changing soil chemistry and the nature of flooding, robustly outcompeting natives, and increasing the risk of wildfire.

“If you can do restoration here, you can do it anywhere,” Tluczek said. She said the Gila Watershed Partnership has removed 216 acres of tamarisk along the river and planted 90 acres with new native trees. But the Gila here will never look like it did. “We can’t restore the past,” Tluczek said. “We’re going to see a floodplain that has more dryland species and fewer floodplain species.”

The Coolidge Dam in Arizona forms the San Carlos Reservoir, which is now at historic lows. Photo credit: TED WOOD via Yale 360

Downstream, the Coolidge Dam forms a giant concrete plug on the Gila. Built in the 1920s by the federal government, it was the result of irrational exuberance about the amount of water on the Gila and meant to supply farmers with water. Today, however, the reservoir is usually dry. Built to hold 19,500 acres of water, this year the water in the lake covered just 50 acres.

From here to Phoenix and on to the Colorado, water only occasionally flows in the Gila. Yet even the small amount of water that remains is vital to wildlife. “Where there has been water near the surface, animals smell it and will dig down in the sand in the riverbed to free it up,” Wilbor said. “You set up a camera and it’s like an African watering hole, with species after species taking turns to come use the water.”

Will the Gila River through most of Arizona to the Colorado ever be restored to a semblance of the biological jewel it once was? The chances are slim. But two pioneering efforts have brought back elements of the desiccated river.

In 2010, Phoenix completed a $100 million, eight-mile restoration of the long-dewatered Salt River where it joins the Gila and Agua Fria rivers at Tres Rios. Fed by water from the city’s sewage treatment plant across the road, this constructed complex includes 128 acres of wetlands, 38 acres of riparian corridor, and 134 acres of open water. It is thick with cattails and other vegetation, an island of green around a lake amid the sere surrounding desert.

Ramona and Terry Button run Ramona Farms on the Gila River Indian Community, where some water allocated to the tribe is being released into the Gila. Photo credit: TED WOOD via Yale 360

On the nearby Gila River Indian Community, meanwhile, home to the Pima — or the name they prefer, Akimel O’othham, the river people — is something called a managed area recharge. The Akimel O’othham, who share their community with the Maricopa, are believed to be the descendants of the Hohokam, an ancient agricultural civilization with a vast network of irrigation canals that was largely abandoned centuries ago. The Akimel O’othham continued to farm along the Gila in historic times until their water was stolen from them in the late 19th century by settlers who dug a canal in front of the reservation and drained it away.

After a century of the Akimel O’othham fighting for their water rights, in 2004 the Arizona Water Settlement Act provided the tribe with the largest share of Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project, a share larger than the city of Phoenix’s allotment. The tribe is now water-rich, using much of that water to restore its tribal agricultural past, though with modern crops and methods.

Last year, some of the Colorado River water was released into the Gila to be stored in an underground aquifer and used to create a wetland.

Both of these projects, at Tres Rios and at the reservation, have created oases in a harsh desert landscape, bringing back an array of birds and wildlife, and — in the case of the Akimel O’othham — helping revitalize the cultural traditions of these river people.

“We’re not going to have rivers with native species in the Southwest unless we can protect and restore these systems,” especially with a changing climate, Siwik said. “Protecting the best, restoring the rest — or else we lose these systems that we need for our survival.”

Investigative drilling near Holy Cross Wilderness threatens imperiled species — Wild Earth Guardians

The investigative drilling proposed along Homestake Creek in Eagle County, Colorado could dewater and destroy valuable wetlands. Photo by Marjorie Westermann.

Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):

To safeguard irreplaceable wetlands and imperiled species in the headwaters of the Colorado River, a coalition of conservation groups today warned the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they will file a lawsuit in federal court if the agencies do not complete a comprehensive analysis of the effects of the planned and permitted geotechnical investigation on the greenback cutthroat trout and Canada lynx.

The Forest Service issued a special use permit for the Whitney Creek Geotechnical project on March 22, 2021. The feasibility assessment is the first step by the Cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora to build another large dam and reservoir in the Homestake Valley in the White River National Forest for diversion out of the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range.

“Nature’s bank account is severely overdrawn due to climate change and unsustainable use,” said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “The solution is not to build a bigger bank, but to conserve water, protect land and wildlife, and start living within the river’s means.”

The letter sent by WildEarth Guardians, Colorado Headwaters, Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund, Save the Colorado, the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Wilderness Workshop details how the agencies failed to consider the effects of the investigative drilling, as well as the forthcoming dam and reservoir project, on listed species in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Listed species identified that exist in or downstream of the project include the threatened Canada lynx, Greenback cutthroat trout, and Ute Ladies’-tresses orchid, and the endangered bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, and razorback sucker.

“After reviewing the record it’s clear that the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The real impacts to listed species, including lynx and cutthroat trout, haven’t been adequately considered or disclosed,” said Peter Hart, Staff Attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “Today’s letter puts the agencies on notice of the violations we’ve identified; they now have 60 days to respond. If the issues we’ve raised remain unresolved, we could pursue a legal challenge in federal court.”

In addition to the harm to imperiled species detailed in the notice letter, the investigative drilling proposed along Homestake Creek in Eagle County, Colorado could drain and destroy valuable wetlands. Further, the exploration will lay the foundation for a destructive reservoir that would inundate hundreds of acres in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area while stealing more water from the Colorado River to the thirsty front range for use by the Cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora.

The groups urge the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the effects of the geotechnical investigation and related activities on threatened and endangered species as required by the Endangered Species Act before any investigatory drilling or other activities are undertaken in the Homestake Valley. If the agencies fail to do so, the groups will file a lawsuit in federal court after the 60-day notice period is complete.

“Colorado has not seen a transmountain diversion in 45 years. With climate change and the Colorado River losing 1% of flows each year, the Aurora and Colorado Springs’ Homestake project will never be built,” said Jerry Mallett, President of Colorado Headwaters…

“It is unfortunate that the U.S. Forest Service has chosen to facilitate the construction of a dam near a wilderness area in order to transfer yet more water from the West Slope to cities in the Front Range. The proposed dam and reservoir would drown wetlands and riparian habitat, which are naturally rare in the arid west comprising just 2 percent of the landscape,” explained Ramesh Bhatt, Chair, Conservation Committee of the Colorado Sierra Club. “Despite their rarity, wetland ecosystems are needed by greater than 80 percent of our native wildlife during some phase of their life cycle. Building this dam would be another devastating blow to Colorado’s biodiversity, which is already in crisis. This action by the Forest Service is not only contrary to its mandate to protect natural areas but is also illegal because the Service chose to cut corners to make its decision.”

“The proposed Whitney Creek project starting with destructive drilling of the irreplaceable Homestake Creek wetlands is an environmental atrocity and must be abandoned. The permit for drilling must be revoked. It is premised on several fallacies: that it will not damage the wetlands, that it will determine that there is no geologic reason not to build the proposed Whitney Creek Reservoir, and that the reservoir will be built. None of these things are true,” said Warren M. Hern, Chairman, of Holy Cross Wilderness Defense Fund. “The permit assumes that Congress will approve a loss of 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness, which we will oppose, which the public will oppose, and which will not be approved by the Congress. Aside from irrevocable destruction of the Homestake Creek wetlands at and downstream from the proposed reservoir, the proposed reservoir is placed over a major geological fault, the Rio Grande Rift, which is a tectonic divergent plate boundary. Placing a reservoir at this site is pure madness and terminal stupidity. It would endanger the lives of those living downstream. We will oppose it by every legal means available.”

Wildlife, air quality at risk as Great Salt Lake nears low — The Associated Press

Sunset from the western shore of Antelope Island State Park, Great Salt Lake, Utah, United States.. Sunset viewed from White Rock Bay, on the western shore of Antelope Island. Carrington Island is visible in the distance. By Ccmdav – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2032320

From The Associated Press (Lindsay Whitehurst). Click through and read the whole article and for the photographs. Here’s an excerpt:

For years, though, the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River has been shrinking. And a drought gripping the American West could make this year the worst yet.

The receding water is already affecting the nesting spot of pelicans that are among the millions of birds dependent on the lake. Sailboats have been hoisted out of the water to keep them from getting stuck in the mud. More dry lakebed getting exposed could send arsenic-laced dust into the air that millions breathe…

The lake’s levels are expected to hit a 170-year low this year. It comes as the drought has the U.S. West bracing for a brutal wildfire season and coping with already low reservoirs. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, has begged people to cut back on lawn watering and “pray for rain.”

For the Great Salt Lake, though, it is only the latest challenge. People for years have been diverting water from rivers that flow into the lake to water crops and supply homes. Because the lake is shallow — about 35 feet (11 meters) at its deepest point — less water quickly translates to receding shorelines…

The waves have been replaced by dry, gravelly lakebed that’s grown to 750 square miles (1,942 square kilometers). Winds can whip up dust from the dry lakebed that is laced with naturally occurring arsenic, said Kevin Perry, a University of Utah atmospheric scientist.

Smog blankets Salt Lake City. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons.

It blows through a region that already has some of the dirtiest wintertime air in the country because of seasonal geographic conditions that trap pollution between the mountains…

Luckily, much of the bed of Utah’s giant lake has a crust that makes it tougher for dust to blow. Perry is researching how long the protective crust will last and how dangerous the soil’s arsenic might be to people…

Most years, the Great Salt Lake gains up to 2 feet (half a meter) from spring runoff. This year, it was just 6 inches (15 centimeters), Perry said.

“We’ve never had an April lake level that was as low as it was this year,” he said.

More exposed lakebed also means more people have ventured onto the crust, including off-road vehicles that damage it, Great Salt Lake coordinator Laura Vernon said…

Brine shrimp support a $57 million fish food industry in Utah but in the coming years, less water could make the salinity too great for even those tiny creatures to survive.

American White Pelicans flying in formation. Photo credit Missouri Department of Conservation.

“We’re really coming to a critical time for the Great Salt Lake,” said Jaimi Butler, coordinator for Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. She studies the American white pelican, one of the largest birds in North America.

They flock to Gunnison Island, a remote outpost in the lake where up to 20% of the bird’s population nests, with male and female birds cooperating to have one watch the eggs at all times.

“Mom goes fishing and dad stays at the nest,” Butler said.

But the falling lake levels have exposed a land bridge to the island, allowing foxes and coyotes to come across and hunt for rodents and other food. The activity frightens the shy birds accustomed to a quiet place to raise their young, so they flee the nests, leaving the eggs and baby birds to be eaten by gulls.

Utah Rivers map via Geology.com

Navajo Dam operations update: Release bump to 600 cfs Monday, July 5, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The outflow at the bottom of Navajo Dam in New Mexico. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Monday, July 5th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Low-flow research on #ColoradoRiver sheds light on eventual new normal for #GrandCanyon — Oregon State University

Quagga mussels: Glen Canyon photo by Jeremy Monroe, Freshwaters Illustrated/USGS

Here’s the release from Oregon State University (Steve Lundeberg and David A. Lytle):

Researchers from Oregon State University say ecological data gathered during a recent low-flow experiment in the Grand Canyon is a key step toward understanding Colorado River ecosystems as the amount of water in the river continues to decline.

Dave Lytle, professor of integrative biology, and Ph.D. students Angelika Kurthen and Jared Freedman teamed with scientists from the United States Geological Survey during the March 2021 project to examine the quantity and diversity of invertebrates in the river. Monitoring aquatic invertebrates is an important tool for keeping track of stream health.

“The Colorado River and its dams are important to cities throughout the Southwest, and as a result of that management the river experiences some pretty unusual flows,” Lytle said. “During the day in the Grand Canyon, river levels can rise several feet, then they can drop down several feet, stranding your boat if you’re not careful. That’s because there’s high electricity demand during the day and lower demand at night.”

The high flow during times of heavy demand for power is known as hydropeaking.

“Hydropeaking can cause trouble for ecosystems downstream, and with our collaborators we’re experimenting with ways to change river flows to make them more compatible with productive ecosystems,” Lytle said. “Invertebrates are food for fish, birds and bats, and we want to enhance that food base by testing out different flow regimes that mesh with management ideas.”

During the low-flow event, releases from Lake Powell through the Glen Canyon Dam were restricted so that the Colorado ran at 4,000 cubic feet per second compared to its usual flow of 8,000 to 15,000 CFS. Lytle’s team took samples to measure the quantity of invertebrates stranded by the low flows and environmental DNA samples to analyze the diversity of invertebrates in the water.

“During this spring’s low flow, gravel bars and parts of channels that had been submerged were exposed for the first time in decades,” Lytle said. “We saw really large areas of vegetation and invasive species like New Zealand mud snails and quagga mussels, which are there in high numbers at the expense of native invertebrates such as black flies, mayflies and midges that are better food sources for native fish.”

The Colorado River follows a 1,450-mile route generally southwest from north central Colorado to just east of Las Vegas. From there it turns south to form Arizona’s western border with Nevada and California, and then the border between Mexican states Sonora and Baja California before emptying into the Gulf of California.

Between the U.S. and Mexico, 40 million people depend on water from the Colorado. The snowmelt-fed river has seen its flows drop by 20% over the last 100 years as runoff efficiency – the percentage of precipitation that ends up in the river – has declined as summers have become hotter and drier, cooking the soil.

This year, for example, snowpack is 80% of average but sending just 30% of the average amount of water into the Colorado. Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam, is at an all-time low, and between them Lake Mead and Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, are projected to be just 29% full within two years.

Completed in 1966, Glen Canyon Dam is 710 feet high and 1,560 feet long and named for the series of deep sandstone gorges flooded by Lake Powell. The lake draws its name from John Wesley Powell, the leader of the first boat expedition to traverse the Grand Canyon.

“Typically the Colorado River is coming out of Lake Powell fast and cold, which is a hostile environment for desert adapted organisms,” Lytle said.

For the recent experiment, low flow was maintained from March 15 through March 20, and immediately after that there was a big release of water, known as a high-pulse flow event, intended to scour out areas and possibly create new habitat for native fish and their food sources.

“During the first part of the low flow, we were in the far upper reaches of the canyon, and as soon as we finished sampling, we packed up the truck and raced across the desert 200 river miles away to Diamond Creek, where you can access the Grand Canyon from a road, just in time to capture the low-flow event moving its way down a long, sinuous canyon,” Lytle said. “And a USGS team was taking samples by boat throughout the entire canyon, complementary to what our group was doing. It was a real team effort, with people measuring riparian vegetation, taking drift samples of invertebrates in water, checking respiration of aquatic plants, and also noting the effect on fish and fisheries.”

As the climate continues to warm and the amount of water available for humans continues to drop, low flows such as the one during this year’s experiment may become the new normal, he added.

“That presents challenges but also opportunities for research,” Lytle said. “Prior to there being any dams on the river, low-flow events were part of the normal annual cycle of flows. In the spring, the river could flood quite spectacularly in some years, and by late summer or early fall into winter, flows could get to 4,000 CFS or even lower than that.”

Lytle says that kind of variation amounts to “exercise” for the river, which needs it for health just like a person needs both activity and rest.

“One question we’re asking is whether there could be ecological benefits, at least at certain important times of year, to low flows,” he said. “Low flows allow the water temperature to increase and let more light to reach the benthic zone, where the productivity of algae and invertebrates occurs. It also might favor greater production of those important native black flies, mayflies and midges.”

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump to 500 cfs June 25, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Map credit: USBR

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Friday, June 25th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

The disappearing #DoloresRiver — The #Durango Telegraph #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Dolores River in southwestern Colorado on Memorial Day in 2009. Photo/Allen Best

From The Durango Telegraph (Jonathan Romeo):

Where once a river ran, the Dolores River has all but disappeared in its lower reaches below McPhee Dam this summer, another causality of an intense drought that has gripped Southwest Colorado.

Striking images of dried up streambeds, tepid pools filled with suffocating algae and vegetation encroaching into the historic channel of the Dolores River has incited deep concerns over the ecological collapse of an entire waterway.

“It’s pretty devastating,” Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said. “It’s going to be a tough year for fish.”

Farmers and ranchers that rely on water from the reservoir, too, are also coming up on the losing end. This year, most irrigators are receiving just 5% to 10% of usual water shares, with valves expected to be shut off by the end of the month, an incredibly early end to the growing season sure to have economic fallouts.

“Absolutely, it’s the worst in the project history,” Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, the agency that manages the dam, said of the situation on the Dolores River this year.

Completed in 1985, McPhee Dam bottlenecks the Dolores River in Southwest Colorado, just west of the town that bears its name. At the time, the project was sold as an insurance bank of water for both irrigators and the downstream fishery.

But in the years since, a crippling, 20-year drought has exposed intrinsic flaws within the management system put in place. And it all seems to have come to a head this summer after back-to-back poor water years, which has forced a reckoning among water users who rely on the strapped river…

Dam it

The Dolores River tumbles south out of the high country of the San Juan Mountains, and takes a sharp turn west near the town of Dolores before it heads more than 170 miles north to the Colorado River near Moab.

Near Dolores, the river skirts the edge of the Montezuma Valley, a different drainage basin where water is incredibly scarce. In the 1880s, Western settlers, looking to irrigate these arid fields, constructed a series of tunnels and large diversions to bring water over from the Dolores River.

This system, known as a transmountain diversion, brought a whole host of its own issues. Some years, flows were so erratic, that after spring runoff, agricultural needs reduced the Dolores River to a trickle. On top of concerns for the fishery below the dam, farmers and ranchers further out near Dove Creek also started to eye shares from the river. 4

So, by the mid-1900s, as was custom at the time, a dam was proposed. Much has been written and said about the concept of McPhee; even top-ranking Bureau of Reclamation officials have expressed on record the ill-advised nature of the water project in such an arid environment. Ranchers and farmers, however, came to hold water reserves in McPhee as an economic lifeline.

But, even a few years after completion, the dam started showing proverbially cracks in its plan after low-water years in the late 1980s…

Mcphee dam

“Deal with the devil”

McPhee’s first and foremost priority is to serve agriculture in the Montezuma Valley. Today, water out of the reservoir irrigates the fields of an estimated 1,500 farms, which range in size from small, three acre tracts to 1,000 acre operations.

Early on in the project’s management, however, low snowpack years in the mountains, which resulted in less available water supply coming into the dam, created tension among the competing interests for agricultural and the health of the river…

Ultimately, a “pool” of water was dedicated for releases out of the dam to support the fishery. But as the region increasingly dried out, shares have had to be reduced, and in some years the water sent down river has not provided enough habitat to sustain fish populations.

This summer, the fishery will receive just 5,000 acre feet of water, far below its 32,000 acre feet allotment. As a result, releases out of McPhee are expected to drop as low as 5 cubic feet per second, the lowest amount ever recorded (for reference, summer flows tend to be between 70 and 90 cfs).

Further downstream, the picture is even bleaker as water is lost to evaporation, sucked up by the soil and even in some cases used for irrigation. As of Wednesday, the stream gauge on the Dolores River at Bedrock, about 100 miles downstream of McPhee, was reading an inconceivable 0.45 cfs, virtually a nonexistent flow…

August 16, 2017: Colorado ParksWildlife and John Sanderson found imperiled bluehead sucker fry on Dolores River — a hopeful sign.

Short end of the stick

Thousands of fish are expected to die this year on the Dolores River.

For the first 10 miles or so downstream of McPhee Dam, the river boasts a robust trout fishery. Further on, as the river cuts toward the towns of Bedrock and Gateway, the waterway is home to many native fish, like the bluehead sucker and roundtail chub. Survival rates, as expected, are grim.

CPW’s White said that before the construction of the dam, spring runoff would replenish pools for fish to find refuge in. But that’s not the case in the post-dam world, and many fish will likely succumb to high water temperatures and the evaporation of pools in the hot summer months. And, conditions have set up perfectly for the invasive smallmouth bass to take over…

The Dolores River has been so changed and altered by the construction of McPhee Dam, and compounded by the effects of climate change, that it’s also prompted a multi-year study to understand the ecosystem’s new normal. Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center at Fort Lewis College, said vegetation is now growing in the river bed, and the channel is losing the diversification of flow that support so many species…

Montezuma Valley

Cutting off the tap

Explaining water rights is never an easy task for reporters with a word count.

But here we go: the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., formed in 1920 to consolidate the earliest water users, hold the most senior water rights. The next tiers in the pecking order are those served explicitly because of the construction of McPhee: farmers out near Dove Creek, the downstream fishery and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

With McPhee receiving just a quarter of normal inflows from the Dolores this year, MVIC irrigators had their allocations slashed 50%, Curtis said. But that’s not the worst: all other users had their water supply cut to 5% to 10% from normal years, the worst project allocation in its history.

(The water supply for the towns of Cortez and Towaoc, which serves about 20,000 people, also comes from McPhee Reservoir and is expected to receive a sufficient amount this year.)…

Because of shortages, the Ute Mountain Ute Farm & Ranching Enterprise was forced to abandon most of its alfalfa, a profitable yet water-intensive crop, and focus on corn, less water dependent but also less valued…

Drying out

All predictions show no signs of the drought in the Southwest reversing course, so what’s to become of a reservoir like McPhee that increasingly doesn’t have enough water to meet its own demands? It’s a question managers at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which also face record low levels, also are grappling with.

Curtis, for his part, said the water district is consumed with the emergency-response nature of this year’s drought. Montezuma County earlier this month declared a disaster emergency because of the lack of water, and funds are being sought to offset losses for farmers.

This fall, Curtis expects more serious, long-term conversations about the future of McPhee. Even further on the horizon, the dam’s Operating Agreement plan between DWCD and the Bureau of Rec expires in 2025, expected to reinvigorate the conversation. Still, Curtis doesn’t foresee any fundamental changes in the way the reservoir provides water to its customers.

“It’s not going to be fun, I can tell you that,” he said. “Fundamentally, the project didn’t anticipate this amount of shortages, so we’re having to think about what the longer-term implications are. I’m not authorized to make those decisions, no single party really is.”

By the end of the year, McPhee Reservoir is expected to drop to its lowest level since construction, at about 40% capacity. Most of that remaining water, Curtis said, is inaccessible because of topography issues.

Dolores River watershed

#Drought saps agricultural economy in Southwest #Colorado — The #Durango Herald #DoloresRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Montezuma Valley

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:

Irrigators tied to McPhee Reservoir contracts will receive just 5% to 10% of their normal supply, said Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

The shortages affect full-service users in the water district in Montezuma and Dolores counties, the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch and the downstream fishery.

The water district said no supplemental irrigation supplies will be available to the senior water-rights holders.

Alfalfa farmers are consolidating acreage to try to produce one small crop…

“Financial impacts will be hard on all agriculture producers,” said Dolores Water Conservancy District board president Bruce Smart, in a news release. “The recovery for producers, the Ute Mountain Tribe and the district will take years.”

The tribe’s Farm and Ranch Enterprise reports it will limit employment and cut back on buying farm supplies.

The 7,600-acre farm will only receive 10% of its normal water supply, tribal officials said.

The tribe will limit operations to growing corn for its Bow and Arrow Brand cornmeal mill, and to protect high-value alfalfa fields, said Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart…

The tribe intends to work closely with the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to protect the continued viability of the Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise.

Heart notes that the tribe’s participation in the Dolores Project is a result of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act. He said the tribe will exercise the settlement rights “in the fullest to protect our Farm and Ranch Enterprise.”

The economic impact of the irrigation water shortage will be widespread, as farmers expect a significant decrease in revenue that will trickle through the local economy, water officials said.

If next year’s supply doesn’t improve “multigenerational farm families may face bankruptcy,” said Curtis.

Unirrigated alfalfa fields will dominate the landscape this summer. Farmers noted that with some rain, the fallow fields can produce enough forage for cattle grazing. Ranchers have been contacting farmers to take advantage of the option, Deremo said.

Curtailed supply for Dove Creek

The town of Dove Creek depends on McPhee Reservoir water for its domestic water supply. The water is delivered via the Dove Creek Canal and into town reservoirs and a water treatment facility. But because of a shortened irrigation season, the canal will not run all summer, as it does during more normal water years.

The water district is working closely with Dove Creek officials to keep the town’s water reservoirs adequately stocked for the winter months, Curtis said.

During normal water years, the Dove Creek Canal runs to the first week in October, allowing Dove Creek to store 100 acre-feet that lasts them until May 1 the next year. This year, the canal is expected to shut off for irrigators before the end of June.

The other large irrigation supplier in the area, Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., also faces shortages. Customers will receive only half their normal allocation. The irrigation company has the most senior water rights on the Dolores River, and therefore the impact of the water shortage is somewhat less…

Montezuma Valley Irrigation has storage rights in McPhee Reservoir, and owns Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs.

Dolores River watershed

Runoff low in Dolores River

Poor winter snowpack the past two years and no monsoonal rain for the past three years have hurt reservoir levels and depleted soil moisture.

The winter snowpack failed to deliver at historical average, peaking at only 83% of normal snowpack on April 1, then dropping to 25% after another dry, windy and warm spring. Recent rains and snowfall on the high peaks were helpful, but not enough to significantly improve water supply.

As dry conditions continue, 2021 is shaping up to be the fourth-lowest recorded runoff in the Dolores River, after 1977, 2002 and 2018.

The Dolores River, below Slickrock, and above Bedrock. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Fish will suffer

As part of the McPhee Reservoir project, the downstream fishery is allocated 32,000 acre-feet of water during normal water years for timed releases downstream to benefit sport and native fish.

This year, the fish pool will receive 5,000 acre-feet of its normal allocation.

The Dolores River below McPhee dam will see flows of 10 cubic feet per second for a few months, then it will drop to a trickle of 5 cfs for eight months until spring.

The river below the dam faces significant trout and native fish population losses, said Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife…