Platte River: Protected species make water projects especially important — The Kearney Hub

The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.
The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.

From The Kearney Hub (Lori Potter):

Nebraska has a unique role among the four partners in the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, according to Nebraska Department of Natural Resources Director Jeff Fassett.

“All the (protected) species and all the habitat are in Nebraska,” he said.

The Central Platte Valley is the target area for least terns, piping plovers and whooping cranes, while pallid sturgeon are in the Lower Platte River.

All the water options for a proposed program extension, which will focus on reducing river depletions by another 40,000 [acre-feet] or more, are in Nebraska to be as close as possible to the target habitat.

Fassett said that with a major reservoir project now off the table, new projects will include groundwater recharge, facilities to hold water for retimed releases and water leasing.

He noted Tuesday at the annual convention of the Nebraska State Irrigation and Nebraska Water Resources associations that initial water projects were completed by all three states toward meeting the program’s first-increment goal to reduce river depletions by 130,000-150,000 [acre-feet].

However, more recent projects and those being considered for the future are only in Nebraska. “There is hydrologic logic about that,” Fassett said, because projects hundreds of miles from the target habitat are not as effective.

Nebraska’s benefits include regulatory stability the program provides for the Platte Basin. Projects in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming that must comply with the federal Endangered Species Act can do so through the program instead of individually, he said.

Another issue for Nebraska is its own demands to enhance water in the river. Fassett said state laws for the overappropriated area of the Platte Basin west of Elm Creek require “moving the train backward” to mitigate new water uses since 2007.

#ColoradoRiver: Inside the Glen Canyon Dam during a high-flow experiment #COriver — #Arizona Daily Sun

The generator building of Glen Canyon hydro power plant in Arizona via Wikimedia.
The generator building of Glen Canyon hydro power plant in Arizona via Wikimedia.

From The Arizona Daily Sun (Taylor Hartman):

In an attempt to restore some natural flow to the Colorado River, high flow experiments are conducted from Glen Canyon Dam. Taking tips from Mother Nature, these experiments mimic natural floods that occurred before the construction of the dam. On Monday, November 7, one such experiment began, freeing a large quantity of water from Lake Powell reservoir over the span of five days.

During the controlled flood, the view from the steel bridge changes: the awakened Colorado River thrashes in the canyon below. Water flows through the hydroelectric generators and erupts from four river outlet tubes, with its roar reverberating off the canyon walls and mist sparkling under the warm November sun. Dazzling white due to immense pressure, 36,000 cubic feet of water bursts from the dam every second. This peak flow is four to six times greater than usual discharge, and lasted for 92 hours.

While the bridge offers an incredible view of the dam, canyon, river and reservoir, tours bring visitors inside the dam daily. From within the cold walls of the dam, the sound of rushing water is accompanied by the rhythm of generators turning at 150 rounds per minute. During the experiment, these generators still produce hydroelectric power, but less than usual. The Bureau of Reclamation says that all power demands will still be met.

The ground floor of the dam tour is at river level, and the 710-foot dam is even more impressive when viewed from the bottom. At this level, the sound of water overpowers all other noise, and wild emerald waves crash against concrete and sandstone. As floodwaters leave the dam and travel through Grand Canyon, sediment is picked up from tributary rivers and suspended in the tumultuous flow. The experiment is timed to follow an influx of sand from the Paria River, enabling the flood to redistribute it throughout the river corridor.

Downstream, the river corridor is cleansed: low vegetation is ripped from riverbanks, beaches are submerged, and sand is suspended and deposited. The flood affects campers and rafters through Grand Canyon. People recreating near or on the Colorado River were encouraged to be on alert, camp on high, stable beaches, and practice leave-no-trace ethics. On the other side of the dam, water level at Lake Powell has dropped more than three feet.

This flood is the latest release in a series of high flow experiments since 1996. Controlled floods have the potential to enlarge sandbars and beaches downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, which could provide ecological and recreational benefits. These benefits include: improving the habitat of native fish such as the endangered humpback chub, reducing erosion of archaeological sites, restoring vegetation, and increasing the size of beaches.

As the flood ramps down, the river returns to its usual controlled flow condition. The promising white blast from the outlet tubes subsides, and the buzzing of the generators recaptures the soundscape at Glen Canyon Dam. Scientists will continue to monitor Colorado River conditions in order to understand how this flow affects downstream ecosystem and resources, and to plan future floods. The Bureau of Reclamation says that the occurrence and intensity of future high flow experiments will depend on weather, sediment influx from tributaries, and other resource conditions.

November 2012 High Flow Experiment via Protect the Flows
November 2012 High Flow Experiment via Protect the Flows

#ColoradoRiver: @CWCB_DNR approves $90 million loan for Windy Gap project — Aspen Daily News #COriver

Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.
Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Daily News:

The board of directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board gave conceptual approval Wednesday to a $90 million loan to help finance the $400 million Windy Gap Firming Project, which will divert more water from the Colorado River.

The CWCB, charged with facilitating water supply projects in Colorado, has both a loan program and a grant program. And while its grant program is being challenged by a sharp drop in severance tax revenue from the oil and gas sector, the agency’s loan program remains robust, especially as Aurora just repaid a $70 million loan ahead of schedule.

The $90 million loan to Northern Water, which is developing Windy Gap, is the largest in the agency’s history. It will help facilitate a project that is more popular on the Eastern Slope than the Western Slope, given it will increase the level of water sent under the Continental Divide.

The loan, which still needs final approval from the CWCB board, will be part of a financing package for a new reservoir near Loveland called Chimney Hollow Reservoir, which will cost $400 million to construct.

Eric Wilkinson, the general manager of Northern Water, said he expects the project to be approved in 2017, that test drilling has begun at the dam site — next to Carter Lake Reservoir in Larimer County — and design work is well underway. Gov. Hickenlooper has also endorsed the Windy Gap project, even though final federal approval is still outstanding.

Wilkinson also said that the prospect of a CWCB loan has galvanized financing discussions among the 12 different entities – including 10 cities from Broomfield north to Greeley — who are involved in the project as members of the Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict.

“The difference that this has made cannot be overstated,” Wilkinson told the CWCB board about the loan.

Savings needed to backfill drop in severance tax funding

The $90 million loan makes up a big chunk of this year’s “projects bill,” which is submitted annually by the CWCB to the state Legislature for approval. This year’s projects bill is $165 million in all, which makes it the largest annual spending request in the history of the CWCB, which dates back to 1937.

Another big part of the projects bill is $55 million for an array of grants and loans spurred by the Colorado Water Plan, which was approved a year ago by the CWCB board and presented to the governor.

Of the $55 million, $10 million is for projects to be funded at the discretion of the CWCB directors, and $5 million is specifically for watershed restoration efforts and stream management plans, which is a nod to environmental interests in the state.

Another $10 million is used to fund the agency’s Water Supply Reserve Fund, which helps fund local water supply projects identified and approved by the nine basin roundtables around the state, including the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs.

Site of Chimney Hollow Reservoir via Northern Water.
Site of Chimney Hollow Reservoir via Northern Water.

Funding for roundtable projects is supposed to come from severance taxes paid by oil and gas producers in the state to the tune of $10 million a year. But the combination of the slowdown in the gas patch and property tax rebates given to the industry means that the CWCB is only going to see about a quarter of the severance tax revenue this year that it normally receives.

As such, the CWCB is asking the Legislature to let it spend severance tax revenue it has tucked away from the good years. That approach, however, is fraught with danger, as the Legislature is busy trying to figure out how to fill a $500 million to $800 million hole in the state’s budget, which must be balanced each year by law.

James Eklund, director of the CWCB, said the Legislature will be looking in all nooks and crannies for funds, but he’s hopeful that the approval of the state water plan last year will help convince lawmakers that the CWCB has a legitimate need for the money it has set aside for future projects.

Also in the $55 million bucket in the projects bill is a $30 million “loan guarantee fund” to help water suppliers with varying credit ratings to gain better interest rates when funding new projects together.

Eklund is sensitive to criticism that not enough has been achieved after the publication of the Colorado Water Plan a year ago, which itself was the product of an intense two-year collaborative effort among water interests in the state.

On Wednesday, he told the CWCB directors that while the Water Plan was now a year old, it was “only five days old in water years.”

“We are moving forward aggressively,” Eklund said. “And I don’t think slowly at all, especially if you look at it in water time.”

Board renews Ruedi fish-water lease

Also at last week’s CWCB meeting, Eklund said that the Ute Water Conservancy District in Grand Junction has offered to once again lease 12,000 acre-feet of water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir to the CWCB, so the agency can help maintain flows in the Colorado River, as it has done the last two years.

While the water from Ruedi benefits endangered fish in a critical 15-mile reach of the Colorado, it has also kicked up river levels in the lower Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir in the late summer and fall to the consternation of some anglers.

The CWCB board also approved a $1.7 million loan for improvements to the Grand Valley Power Plant, which controls one of the senior water rights that make up the “Cameo Call” on the Colorado River above Grand Junction.

The loan to the Grand Valley Water Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District will help cover the costs of a $5.2 million project to modernize the hydropower plant, which was built in the 1930s.

Contracts were also finalized this week with a bevy of water consultants to prepare the next edition of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI, which is a more technical version of the state water plan.

The SWSI plan is slated to be finished by December 2017 and is designed to inform regional water plans created by the basin roundtables, known as “basin implementation plans,” as well as provide a base of data for the next version of the more policy-driven Colorado Water Plan.

Also, State Engineer Dick Wolfe informed the CWCB board he’ll be retiring in June 2017 at age 55, after nine years in his role as the state’s top water cop.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water in Colorado. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

Center for #ColoradoRiver Studies: Fill Mead first — A Technical Assessment #COriver

fillmeadfirstatechnicalassessment

Click here to the Denver for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University for all the inside skinny on the report. Here’s the executive summary:

The Fill Mead First (FMF) plan would establish Lake Mead reservoir as the primary water storage facility of the main-stem Colorado River and would relegate Lake Powell reservoir to a secondary water storage facility to be used only when Lake Mead is full. The objectives of the FMF plan are to re-expose some of Glen Canyon’s sandstone walls that are now inundated, begin the process of re-creating a riverine ecosystem in Glen Canyon, restore a more natural streamflow, temperature, and sediment-supply regime of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon ecosystem, and reduce system-wide water losses caused by evaporation and movement of reservoir water into ground-water storage. The FMF plan would be implemented in three phases. Phase I would involve lowering Lake Powell to the minimum elevation at which hydroelectricity can still be produced (called minimum power pool elevation): 3490 ft asl (feet above sea level). At this elevation, the water surface area of Lake Powell is approximately 77 mi2, which is 31% of the surface area when the reservoir is full. Phase II of the FMF plan would involve lowering Lake Powell to dead pool elevation (3370 ft asl), abandoning hydroelectricity generation, and releasing water only through the river outlets. The water surface area of Lake Powell at dead pool is approximately 32 mi2 and is 13% of the reservoir surface area when it is full. Implementation of Phase III would necessitate drilling new diversion tunnels around Glen Canyon Dam in order to eliminate all water storage at Lake Powell. In this paper, we summarize the FMF plan and identify critical details about the plan’s implementation that are presently unknown. We estimate changes in evaporation losses and groundwater storage that would occur if the FMF plan was implemented, based on review of existing data and published reports. We also discuss significant river-ecosystem issues that would arise if the plan was implemented.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

Making Lake Mead the primary water storage facility on the Colorado River isn’t as simple as it might seem and would require more study than it’s been given so far, says a study released Thursday.

Backers of the Fill Mead First idea said the study underscores the need to move ahead with studies and a spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District said the discussion ignores a significant element: the need for Colorado and other states to save water in Powell.

The Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University said more study of evaporation from Lake Powell is needed, as well as a study of groundwater into the reservoir and of the fine sediment that would be released should Lake Powell be drained.

That would be a good start, said Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, which drafted the idea of filling Lake Mead instead of storing water in Powell so as to reduce water lost to evaporation.

The Interior Department has so far “written off” the idea, Balken said.

“Now is the time to initiate new measurement programs of (evaporation) losses at Lake Powell and Lake Mead so that future policy discussions have access to less uncertain data regarding evaporation and groundwater storage,” Balken said in an email.

The idea ignores Lake Powell’s “primary purpose,” which is to serve as a savings account for the upper Colorado River Basin states to deliver an average 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin, said Chris Treese of the River District.

The amount is set in the 1922 compact that governs the use of the river, which provides water to millions of people in the arid Southwest.

Advocates of draining Lake Powell tend to write off the upper basin concerns by saying it’s “with a wave of the hand that you’d have to ‘make a few changes’,” to the compact, Treese said, “As if it’s simple and desirable to open up the Colorado River Compact.”

The Fill Mead First idea proposes draining Lake Powell in a three-stage process and storing the water in Lake Mead, 300 miles downstream.

“It is surprising how much uncertainty there is in estimating losses associated with reservoir storage,” said Jack Schmidt of the Center for Colorado River Studies, who served as chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Research and Monitoring Center from 2011 to 2014.

Evaporation losses at Lake Mead are measured by the U.S. Geological Survey in a state-of-the-science program, but there have been no efforts to measure evaporation at Lake Powell since the mid-1970s, Schmidt said.

Using the most recent data, researchers showed the Fill Mead First plan might reduce evaporation losses slightly, but noted that such a prediction is uncertain.

The Interior Department should conduct a thorough scientific investigation of evaporation and seepage losses at lakes Powell and Mead, as the Utah State study suggests, Balken said.

Delph Carpenter's 1922 Colorado River Basin map with Lake Mead and Lake Powell
Delph Carpenter’s 1922 Colorado River Basin map with Lake Mead and Lake Powell

#ColoradoRiver: High Flow Experiment at Glen Canyon Dam — @USBR #COriver

November 2012 High Flow Experiment via Protect the Flows
November 2012 High Flow Experiment via Protect the Flows

Here’s the release from the US Bureau of Reclamation (Marlon Duke):

The Bureau of Reclamation will increase water releases from Glen Canyon Dam beginning on Monday, November 7, 2016 to support a high flow experiment (HFE) in partnership with the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey. This high flow experiment will include a peak magnitude release of approximately 36,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) for 96 hours to move accumulated sediment downstream to help rebuild beaches and backwater habitats. The decision to conduct this HFE was made following substantial consultation with Colorado River Basin states, American Indian tribes and involved federal and state agencies.

Reclamation and National Park Service officials remind recreational users to use caution along the Colorado River through Glen and Grand Canyons during the entire week of November 7. Flow level information will be posted at multiple locations in both Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park. Note that it will take several hours following the beginning and end of the HFE for high flow waters to reach and then recede at downstream locations in the canyons.

High flow experiments benefit the Colorado River ecosystem through Glen and Grand Canyons by moving sand in the river channel and re-depositing it in downstream reaches as sandbars and beaches. Those sandbars provide habitat for wildlife, serve as camping beaches for recreationists and supply sand needed to protect archaeological sites. High flows may also create backwater areas used by young native fishes, particularly the endangered humpback chub.

The HFE will not change the total annual amount of water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. Releases later in the water year will be adjusted to compensate for the high volume released during this high flow experiment.

Members of the media who wish to view the high flow experiment should contact Marlon Duke at 385-228-4845 or mduke@usbr.gov.

Additional information about this high flow experiment will be posted and updated online at: http://www.usbr.gov/uc/rm/gcdHFE/index.html.

Humpback chub
Humpback chub

Dolores River: @CWCB_DNR instream right calls out Groundhog Reservoir diversion until November 1

View to southwest, looking down on Groundhog Reservoir. Photo via dcasler.com.
View to southwest, looking down on Groundhog Reservoir. Photo via dcasler.com.

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The call was initiated to satisfy in-stream flow rights below McPhee Dam of 78 cubic feet per second, but local water managers say the water will never get there.

In-stream flow rights are administered by the water board to preserve the natural environment in state rivers to a reasonable degree. They are a priority water right senior to some, but junior to others.

A call is made to maintain a water right’s priority in the Colorado system of prior appropriation, commonly referred to as “first in line, first in right.”

Because of the call initiated this month, a man-made ditch diverting water from Little Fish creek and Clear creek to Groundhog was shut off, allowing the creeks to flow naturally into the Dolores River via the West Fork.

Marty Robbins, District 32 water commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources, said the call caused water administrators to enforce Groundhog’s one-time fill system that legally allows the reservoir to only fill from Nov. 1 to May 1. Groundhog Reservoir, owned by the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., typically diverts the streams into the reservoir year-round.

“Just because it has been done before, does not mean it can when there is a call,” Robbins said. “These calls may happen more regularly.”

On Nov. 1, the reservoir will go back on priority for filling, and the diversion ditch will be reopened, officials said.

The administrative call sends the creek water into the upper Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir, managed by the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

But Dolores Water Conservation District general manager Mike Preston says the extra water will stay in the reservoir and not flow through the dam to the lower Dolores River.

“McPhee’s water rights are senior to that in-stream flow right, and we have a storage right that allows for refill,” he said.

The in-stream flow water right on the Lower Dolores River is intended to preserve habitat for native fish, including the round-tail chub, bluehead sucker, and flannelmouth sucker. Federal and state biologists have reported that an increase in flows below the dam is needed to improve native fish habitat.

But the unexpected call by the state for delivery of in-stream water rights had an unintended consequence of threatening trout elsewhere, said Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla.

The diversion ditch from Clear Creek to Groundhog Reservoir supports trout population, he said, but they became doomed when the water was cut off.

“Explain to me how water can be diverted for native fish, but is allowed to hurt trout?” he said.

Brandon Johnson, manager for the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., said the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s administrative “call presents issues at Groundhog we were not anticipating.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board also made administrative calls for in-stream flows rights on other rivers in the state to establish that the rights exist and to reveal if any water users are out of priority, officials said. The calls were made after irrigation season so they would be the least disruptive.

The additional water flowing into McPhee as a result of the call will be divided among allocation holders in 2017, Dolores Water Conservation District officials said.

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed