@H2OTracker: Gaming Gravity: How Farmers and Ranchers Are Using the Flow of Water to Power Operations on Their Land

Hydropower sprinkler system via Homelink Magazine

Click here to listen to the podcast from H2O Radio. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript:

Agriculture uses a lot of water. But what if that water were used for more than growing food? What if it could generate energy—renewable energy? It can, and a program in Colorado is helping farmers harness hydropower to lower costs, save time—and conserve the water itself.

[…]

Tyler Snyder ranches just outside Yampa, Colorado, in the northwest part of the state, and he has several hundred acres that were part of several old homesteads. Back in the early 1900s, farmers grew potatoes, head lettuce, and strawberries on his fields by flooding meadows with diverted water.

Snyder is pretty impressed that those early settlers dug ditches in these rocky conditions using only picks and mules pulling plows—partly because he recently spent months digging miles of trench himself. It was slow going and time-consuming because he had to screen out rocks to make sure nothing would sit against pipe he was laying.

More than a century later, Snyder has installed pipelines that move water differently on his property than those historic ditches—a move that is saving him time, labor, and money—plus conserving the water itself.

A whooshing sound pierces the air as water starts to flow through the pipe. It’s going to a “center pivot” in the meadow where we’re standing. A center pivot is a way of irrigating that makes those bright green circles you see from airplanes. Water comes up in the middle of a field and motorized wheels move a long arm with sprinklers around in a circle.

But Snyder’s center pivot is different that ones you might see in other parts of the country. It’s a “hydro-mechanical” center pivot for irrigation. It’s called hydro-mechanical because it’s powered by moving water—no diesel or electricity are required to make it work—just gravity. The pressure that builds as the water is piped down the hillside is great enough to spin a turbine, which provides energy for its hydraulic motors.

After the pivot pressurizes, water starts to spray out of nozzles strung along the long arm that stretches over a quarter of a mile out into Snyder’s field, putting the droplets exactly where they need to go.

Snyder says that flood irrigation uses only about 30-40 percent of the water in order to grow the same quality crop as you do with an efficiency project that uses all the water that you put on because it doesn’t run off. He says when he was flood irrigating the water would collect at the bottom of his fields, often leaving the top land burnt and dry.

Due to low water flow, @COParksWildlife enacts emergency fishing closure on heavily fished portion of Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir

Photo credit Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District.

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Mike Porras):

Due to critically low water flow caused by dry conditions and minimal snowpack levels, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will close a 0.6-mile stretch of the Yampa River between the dam at Stagecoach State Park down to the lowermost park boundary.

The closure begins June 14 and will continue until further notice.

“Should the flow rate increase substantially for a continuous period of time, CPW will re-evaluate the emergency fishing closure,” said Senior Aquatic Biologist Lori Martin. “But for now, we need to take this course of action because of the current conditions at this popular fishery.”

When water flows are minimal, fish become concentrated in residual pool habitat and become stressed due to increased competition for food resources. The fish become much easier targets for anglers, an added stressor that can result in increased hooking mortality.

“We are trying to be as proactive as possible to protect the outstanding catch and release trout fishery we have downstream of Stagecoach Reservoir,” said Area Aquatic Biologist Bill Atkinson. “This stretch of the river receives a tremendous amount of fishing pressure, especially in the spring when other resources might not be as accessible. This emergency closure is an effort to protect the resource by giving the fish a bit of a reprieve when they are stressed like they are right now.”

CPW advises anglers to find alternative areas to fish until the order is rescinded. Many other local areas are now fishable, with tributaries contributing water to maintain various fisheries. Several area lakes are also open and fishing well.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife asks for cooperation from anglers; however, the closure will be enforced by law with citations issued for anyone violating the order.

Wildlife officials warn when a fish population is significantly affected by low flows or other unfavorable environmental conditions, it could take several years for it to fully recover if not protected.

Like many rivers and streams in western Colorado, the Yampa River offers world-class fishing and attracts thousands of anglers each year, providing a source of income to local businesses that depend on outdoor recreation.

“We ask for the public’s patience and cooperation,” said Atkinson. “It is very important that we do what we can to protect this unique fishery, not only for anglers, but for the communities that depend on the tourism revenue this area provides for local businesses.”

For more information, contact Stagecoach State Park at 970-736-2436, or CPW’s Steamboat Springs office at 970-870-2197.

Northwest Colorado Food Coalition: Protecting Yampa River more than just recreation

The headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From the Northwest Colorado Food Coalition via Steamboat Today:

his time of year embodies the pastoral landscapes the Yampa Valley is known for. The change of seasons brings the return of the familiar sights and sounds of geese, cranes and other migratory birds. People, too, flock from around the world to celebrate this rebirth, as our valley sheds its winter coat and begins to bloom.

While many in our community are watching the weather to see how long they can continue to ski, when bike trails will be dry and how high the river will be for the 38th annual Yampa River Festival, another group of valley residents is tuned into the weather for another reason.

Our agriculture community is tracking the same indicators that skiers, bikers, rafters and fisherman are watching: snowpack, water flows and historical averages. Area farmers and ranchers need this crucial data to determine how long they will be able to irrigate their fields.

Without the extensive use of irrigation on area ranches, our landscape would be very different. Irrigated land provides numerous benefits beyond agricultural yields: It provides habitat for migratory birds, feeds riparian zones along the Yampa and increases late-season flows.

Friends of the Yampa, or FOTY, has done a lot of growing during the past several years. FOTY received its nonprofit status in 2008 and has been hard at work ever since. Branching into roles beyond building recreational features, we now facilitate projects that address noxious weeds, late season flows and other issues specific to the Yampa River.

The Leafy Spurge Project, for example, aims to address a weed that is threatening agricultural and riparian lands throughout the West. Leafy spurge, for those who are not familiar, is an invasive weed that is becoming more prevalent each year. Through partnerships with public and private landowners, state and federal agencies and other advocacy groups, FOTY and its partners hope to address this growing threat.

FOTY continues to support exploring innovative options to provide late season flows through Steamboat Springs. Options such as Alternative Transfer Methods, headed by the Colorado Water Trust and the State Engineer’s Office, provide water-rights holders the ability to lease water to downstream users for up to three years in a 10-year period, while still retaining original rights.

Similarly, FOTY is excited about research into the creation of a water fund. Groups, including the Nature Conservancy, are exploring this concept, which could be used to finance and implement similar transfers to benefit the health of the river into the future.

It is through these collaborative efforts that FOTY hopes it can continue to be a helpful resource for water users throughout the basin. Agriculture, recreation, municipal and industrial users are in this together. Using strategic partnerships and innovative water use practices, we can insure a vibrant river community for generations to come.

Learn more about this and all our work at friendsoftheyampa.com. See you on the river.

#SteamboatSprings: Community discussion, “The Yampa Basin: Snow Weather, Water and our Future”

Geologic time, Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Steamboat Today (Frances Hohl):

Steamboat Springs area residents will soon get a chance to pick the brains of scientists and conservationists on how to prevent the Yampa River from being ravaged by extreme weather conditions.

A community discussion, “The Yampa Basin: Snow, Weather, Water and Our Future,” will be offered on Wednesday night at the end of a weekend workshop, which is being hosted by Colorado Mountain College and the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The Yampa River Rendezvous on June 5 and 6 will involve about 80 graduate students, post-doctoral scholars, researchers and water resource experts, who are traveling to Steamboat to study the Yampa River’s unique role in the Colorado River system as one of its wildest tributaries.

“In San Diego, we get about 70 percent of our tap water from the Colorado River,” said Atmospheric Scientist Leah Campbell, a postdoctoral researcher with UC, San Diego and a scholar at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes. About 20 post-graduate students will be attending the workshop with Campbell.

IF YOU GO
What: Community discussion: “The Yampa Basin: Snow Weather, Water and our Future”

When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 6

Where: Albright Auditorium at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, 1275 Crawford Ave.

@USBR announces path forward for expanded operational capacity at Fontenelle Reservoir

Fontenelle Dam and power plant. Photo credit: USBR

Here’s the release from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Marlon Duke):

On May 24, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, together with Wyoming Governor Matthew H. Mead, Senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi, and Representative Liz Cheney, announced collaborative plans to expand operational capacity at Fontenelle Reservoir. Governor Mead developed the Wyoming Water Strategy in 2015, which highlighted the Fontenelle Project.

For several years, Wyoming has sought to place riprap (rock or other material that protects against erosion) to expand the operating capacity of Fontenelle. The expansion will increase flexibility in operating the dam and reservoir – bolstering the region’s ability to resist frequent droughts in the arid West – all without increasing the footprint of the reservoir. Additional reservoir capacity will also make possible the creation of new water supplies which would be available for contracting and sale.

“Water is Wyoming’s most important natural resource,” said Governor Mead. “It is critically important to not only Wyoming but to our country. We need to address water challenges using all the best tools – like conservation, planning and infrastructure. As a headwaters state we recognize the need to protect and develop our water.”

“I applaud Commissioner Burman’s announcement that the Bureau of Reclamation will increase operational flexibility at Fontenelle Reservoir in southwest Wyoming,” said Senator Barrasso. “For years, I’ve been working to expand storage at Fontenelle. This announcement brings us one step closer to that goal. In order to start construction on this project, we must pass the Fontenelle Reservoir legislation. As chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, I included this bill in the bipartisan America’s Water Infrastructure Act. I’m confident we will pass this important water infrastructure legislation and make sure that communities in Wyoming have access to a reliable source of water.”

“I am glad that the Bureau of Reclamation and Wyoming are working together to help expand capacity at the Fontenelle Reservoir,” Senator Enzi said. “Water storage projects like this are vital to meet today’s water needs and keep water supplies secure and flexible into the future. I am also hopeful that Congress will act soon and Pass the Wyoming delegation’s legislation designed to help further along the Fontenelle project.”

“I’m pleased the Bureau of Reclamation is moving forward to expand the operational capacity of the Fontenelle Reservoir to help protect one of Wyoming’s most important resources,” Representative Cheney said. “The Fontenelle Reservoir expansion will help combat the effects of drought, help ensure our water infrastructure is properly developed and provide the potential for new commerce and recreation activity by creating new water supplies to be available for contracting and sale. This decision by the Bureau of Reclamation is an important and welcome step for Wyoming.”

Under existing law, Wyoming can apply for project funding under the Colorado River Storage Project Basin Fund Memorandum of Agreement. On April 30, Reclamation concluded that it would consider funding the project under this authority, and invited Wyoming to submit a funding request. Under the MOA, many Western water storage projects have received funding from Reclamation for operation, maintenance, and replacement activities. This federal funding can only be used to improve Colorado River Storage Project facilities and operations.

As an alternative to expanding operational flexibility under MOA funding, Wyoming is seeking Congressional approval to create additional water supply for contracting. Two bills which would authorize this plan, Senate Bill 199 and House Resolution 648, have been introduced by the members of the Wyoming Congressional Delegation.

“Reclamation is pleased to be a partner in the state and the delegation’s efforts to upgrade crucial water infrastructure at the Fontenelle Project,” said Commissioner Burman. “Improving access to reliable water supplies is a key priority for Reclamation and the Administration.”

“This is a great project,” said Governor Mead. “I am pleased to see it move forward.”

Green River Basin

Agricultural resiliency in the face of #drought

The headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From the CSU Extension Office (Todd Hagenbuch) via Steamboat Today:

If it feels dry and warm this winter, it’s because it is. While our snowpack water equivalent is lower than average in Northwest Colorado, it’s the warm temperatures that make it feel like even less snow as it has melted and condensed the snow considerably. In fact, every point west of the Continental Divide, from Idaho to New Mexico, has experienced unseasonably warm temperatures all winter, further exacerbating our low moisture levels.

When comparisons are made on percentage of snow level or temperatures, they are measured against an average, even if it is sometimes listed as a percentage of normal. The reality in our area is that normal weather is variable, really variable.

So how do landowners and agricultural producers make themselves resilient to dramatic weather?

  • Make a grazing plan for the longterm. Plan to have enough pasture for your animals no matter what happens. Yes, you may not use it all to maximum effectiveness every year, but having land in reserve for dry periods pays dividends in the longterm. Range grasses overgrazed even one year will lead to long-term, decreased production. Stressed grasses take even longer to recover from grazing, so allowing plenty of time for grass to rest during the growing season is critical, too.
  • Cull animals as appropriate while preserving genetics. If times get tough and you need to reduce the amount of forage consumed on your property, it may be time to cut numbers. Older, larger animals take more resources than smaller, younger ones, so consider that when culling. If you’ve raised your own replacement livestock, then keeping heifers/ewes and young bulls/rams with the same genetic makeup as the older animals allows you to keep the genes you’ve worked hard on promoting while reducing the forage required to keep the herd going.
  • Take advantage of moisture when it’s more likely to come. Consider taking on seeding projects and fertilization in the fall, when winter snows are more likely to guarantee moisture than unpredictable spring rains. Fertilizer depends on moisture, so move it into the soil profile quickly after application. Applying it right before snow-up helps guarantee it will move into the soil before dry air can cause volatilization of the nitrogen you’re trying to supply to your plants.
  • Use water wisely, for conservation sake and for better grass. Grass plants do not want to be wet all of the time, but do need water. Thoroughly soaking grass then letting it dry for a period of time before wetting it again helps grass remain resilient and helps your pasture retain the grasses that are best for grazing, not sedges and other water-loving plants. If you have little water, you’ll be more likely to manage it well if you’ve been practicing your irrigation skills in times of plenty.
  • Always plan for the unthinkable. Forest fires and other natural disasters can happen any summer. Be prepared with an evacuation plan for yourself, family and animals. Share the plan with your family and neighbors, and find out what their plans are. Practice when possible and make sure that everyone is on the same page so when the time comes, you’re ready.
  • There is only so much one can do to thwart the challenges Mother Nature throws at us. But thinking through possible scenarios and having a drought mitigation plan in mind before disaster strikes is paramount. Weather variability and extreme events are here to stay, and by planning ahead, you can assure that you can weather whatever comes our way.

    Todd Hagenbuch is the interim county director and agriculture agent for the CSU Extension office.

    Aaron Million’s proposed project and the #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    The blues. On the Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):

    “It’s a plumbing project,” Million said. “We’re just looking at a small piece of the surpluses to bring new water supplies over.”

    But others say it isn’t so simple; it’s not clear that there actually is extra water. More than 30 protests have been filed with the Utah Division of Water Rights. Many of these come from organizations that think Million’s team is skirting some major issues.

    “What you’re doing is putting everyone at great risk,” said Andy Mueller, executive director of the Colorado River District, which is tasked with safeguarding Colorado’s water supply. Much of that comes from the Colorado River Basin.

    That’s a big, complex system that feeds 40 million people across seven states and part of Mexico. The Green River is part of that; it connects to the Colorado River in Utah. So when you pull water from the Green, it affects a delicate balance that has been in the works for nearly a century.

    The Colorado River Compact

    In 1922, seven states signed the Colorado River Compact, a legally binding agreement. The four upper basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — agreed to let a set amount of water flow downriver into the lower basin, comprised of Arizona, Nevada and California.

    But it’s really dry in these states and climate change means there’s even less water in the river. So when new players like Million try to jump in the game, it adds some real tension.

    In the worst-case scenario — a serious, long-term drought — the lower basin states can cash in on that agreement, the so-called compact call.

    As Zane Kessler with the Colorado River District explained, we’ve never been through that before, but he thinks a proposal this big would push us closer to the edge.

    “We don’t know what’s on the other side of that cliff, because we’ve never been through it,” Kessler said. “We do know that it could cause chaos on a number of different levels, and that’s the biggest concern for a lot of us.”

    But Million isn’t too concerned about a compact call. He’s said basically it’s an empty threat, and he points blame for any shortages at the lower basin states, saying they use more than their share. Plus, he said, this water is needed right here in Colorado.

    “We shouldn’t let the water go to the lower basin when we are faced with the impacts we are on the upper basin,” Million said.

    The River District thinks he’s over-simplifying, because it’s actually not totally clear how much water Colorado has left to claim. Mueller explained that recent studies have shown the state is probably already using its full share.

    “We think that we are at a point where we no longer have water to develop in the state of Colorado in the Colorado river system,” Mueller said.

    He said the key to managing water in this complex system is working together; it’s what has worked so far.

    “The entire river system is short of water, and we’re all watching this very careful balance,” he said. “That’s the biggest concern, I think, is that [Million is] going around this developed consensus in our state.”

    The consensus surrounds all kinds of water users, concerning everything from how to conserve water in cities to how to protect fish. Bart Miller is with Western Resource Advocates, which opposes Million’s project on environmental grounds.

    “The Green River is really a stronghold, has been a stronghold, for some of these endangered fish, and so it’s a place that I think a lot of folks are concerned about the impacts of a large quantity of water being taken out,” he said.

    Plus, Miller said, it’s not clear how exactly the diverted water will be used and that breaks the anti-speculation rules in water law.

    Million has said the water would be used for hydropower, irrigating agricultural lands and for municipal uses, like drinking water. But he hasn’t said specifically who would use it in those ways…

    “There aren’t any identified users of the water,” he said. “And in both Utah and Colorado, speculation — developing water just so you can have it — is highly discouraged.”

    That could set the foundation of a legal fight. For now, it’s up to the Utah Division of Water Rights to decide if the project moves forward.