How water works: An important series by the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable
The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable does a great job of explaining how water works in the San Luis Valley and across Colorado with a running series of articles that are published monthly on AlamosaCitizen.com. The latest article looks at the Yampa River. Past articles have gone in depth on water augmentation in the San Luis Valley and work being done to improve snowpack and refined streamflow forecasting.
You can find all the articles here and watch for more each month. They are educational and beneficial in understanding the water puzzle of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and other critical river basins in the state.
The state has closed a heavily fished stretch of the Yampa River south of Steamboat Springs in an emergency move to protect the river’s health and fish from low streamflows. The mandatory closure, once rare, has become more common in recent years as decades of climate change-fueled drought continues to plague the West and the Colorado River Basin. The Yampa River feeds the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people across the West. The fishing closure covers about a half-mile section of the Yampa River downstream of Stagecoach Reservoir. In 2021, the same stretch of the river was closed from late May until November. Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Billy Atkinson said the section has cool, clear water released from the lake that attracts a lot of fishing.
Atkinson said water releases from Stagecoach would drop to 15 percent of what’s normal for this time of year because of how little water is flowing into the reservoir. He said Stagecoach was down about 12 feet going into the winter of 2021, which he said is about three times lower than normal. Not enough snow collected in the Yampa River Basin to greatly improve streamflows or water supplies this year. Snowpack numbers climbed to above-average in early January but dropped and stayed below average through May. Recent snowstorms improved snowpack conditions, but Atkinson said years of intense drought has dried out the soil. As the snow melts, the soil takes much of the water before it reaches streams and reservoirs.
Flaming Gorge is clearly a marvel of engineering, from pendulum-like “plumb lines” that help Reclamation employees ensure the 60-year-old concrete structure isn’t moving around too much, to “weep holes” that reduce pressure buildup by allowing water to seep through fissures in the canyon walls on either side of the dam. Electric lines extend upward from the blockish power plant, soaring out of the canyon through a series of transmission towers that send carbon-free energy to the Black Hills, Burbank and beyond…
The Biden administration said this month it would release an extra 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir over the next year, as part of a desperate effort to stop Powell from falling so low that Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate power. That’s on top of the 125,000 acre-feet that Flaming Gorge contributed to Powell in a first-of-its kind series of releases last year…
Hydropower has long been a backbone of the Western power grid, with rivers from the Colorado to the Columbia fueling the growth of cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix and Seattle. And even as some environmental activists campaign to demolish certain dams and restore the ecosystems they destroyed, hydropower turbines have become an increasingly valuable tool for keeping the lights on after sundown, when solar panels stop generating electricity. The threat of power shortages is real — especially on stiflingly hot summer evenings when the entire West is baking, and people have no choice but to keep blasting their air conditioners after sundown. Those are the kinds of conditions that prompted rolling blackouts in California in August 2020, with state officials warning that the potential for outages could be worse this summer.
A new agreement calls for Western states to leave their drinking water in the reservoir — and act as if they didn’t.
Late last week, the states agreed to forfeit their water from Lake Powell in order to ensure that the reservoir can still produce power. The deal puts a finger in the metaphorical dike, postponing an inevitable reckoning with the years-long drought that has parched the Colorado River — and a wrenching tradeoff between power access and water access for millions. It does so, in part, through an unusual act of hydrological accounting.
The deal has two parts. The first and more straightforward part is that the federal government will move 500,000 acre-feet of water (about 162 billion gallons) from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir into Lake Powell, bumping up water levels in the latter body. Flaming Gorge, which stretches across Wyoming and Utah, is mostly used for water recreation, so the immediate effects of the transfer will be minimal. The feds could do more of these water transfers later in the year if things get worse, drawing on water from other nearby reservoirs.
The second part is more complicated — and less helpful. In ordinary circumstances, the Bureau of Reclamation releases water from Lake Powell into an even larger reservoir called Lake Mead, from which it then flows to households and farms across the Southwest. As part of the deal, the states that rely on Mead water are agreeing to leave about 480,000 acre-feet of that water in Lake Powell, thus lowering the water levels in Mead. (Reclamation already announced earlier this year that it would delay the release of 350,000 acre-feet of water in Powell in anticipation of spring snow runoff.)
Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Dustin Bleizeffer):
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will release an extra 500,000 acre feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to help maintain hydroelectric generation at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam amid drought conditions that have parched the West for more than two decades.
The action will draw down Flaming Gorge Reservoir’s surface about 10 feet by August and possibly a total of 15 feet later in the fall, according to the BOR. News of the Flaming Gorge release follows calls on two other river systems in Wyoming in April. Those actions were also prompted by “supply side” water shortages due to persisting drought and lower snowpack.
Flaming Gorge Reservoir, on the Green River, straddles the Wyoming-Utah border south of Rock Springs. The Flaming Gorge dam, on the Utah side, was completed in 1964 and is a critical component of the Colorado River water storage system. The Green River, the chief tributary to the Colorado River, originates in the Wind River Range, flows to Flaming Gorge Reservoir, then connects with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
Flaming Gorge Reservoir, the largest in Wyoming with a storage capacity of nearly 3.8 million acre feet of water, is well-suited to provide extra flows to help address supply shortages on the Colorado River, according to former Wyoming State Engineer Patrick Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
“There will be no additional regulation for municipalities or irrigators or industry in the Wyoming part of the [Colorado River] basin because of what’s going on at Flaming Gorge,” Tyrrell said. “However, we have to be vigilant.”
‘Unprecedented’ conservation measures
The release from Flaming Gorge is part of an “unprecedented” water conservation effort on the Colorado River, which serves tens of millions of people in the American southwest and northern Mexico.
In addition to the release from Flaming Gorge, the BOR will withhold 480,000 acre feet of water in Lake Powell, while Colorado River Lower Basin users have agreed to increased water conservation measures. The Upper Colorado Basin 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan will remain in effect until early 2023.
“We have never taken this step before in the Colorado River Basin,” Interior Department Assistant Secretary Tanya Trujillo said during a press call on Tuesday. “The conditions we see today, and the potential risks we see on the horizon, demands that we take prompt action.”
The surface elevation at Lake Powell recently fell to 3,522 feet, the lowest since construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. Water intake ducts at the dam’s hydroelectric power station would no longer function if the lake’s surface level reaches 3,490 feet, according to the BOR.
The rebalancing of water supplies between the Upper Basin — which includes Wyoming — and Lower Basin stakeholders is necessary to ensure hydroelectric generation and water supply for the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation and the city of Page, Ariz., the BOR said. Stakeholders in all seven Colorado River Basin states, along with partners in Mexico, agreed to BOR’s conservation actions for this year through a process spelled out in the Colorado River 2019 Drought Contingency Plan.
Although the BOR’s authority over the Colorado River water storage system didn’t require Wyoming’s approval for the drought contingency actions, Wyoming supports the effort, said Tyrrell, adding that it is also in the state’s interest.
“We can’t sit by and just keep [Flaming] Gorge full while everybody else below us is drying up,” Tyrrell said. “Protecting the power pool Lake Powell is really an ultimate goal for all of us — from compact compliance, to the power grid, to funding for reclamation, to environmental programs. Lake Powell is a very key component in that river.”
Click the link to read the article on the 9News.com website (Cory Reppenhagen). Here’s an excerpt:
The Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) identifies an elevation of 3,525 feet as a target level to take action because a level of 3,490 feet would threaten the infrastructure and hydropower resources at Glen Canyon Dam.
“We are concerned, we are watching,” said Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Governor Polis’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “There are significant challenges facing the Colorado River system.”
She said that two unprecedented measures are being taken to help prevent Lake Powell from hitting that critical level of 3,490 feet. One, which has already been approved, is to move an unprecedented 500,000 acre-feet of water out of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in northern Utah and southern Wyoming, into Lake Powell over the next 12 months. A second proposal, which [was approved by the basin states this week], is to withhold nearly 480,000 acre-feet of water that is scheduled to be released from Lake Powell and sent to Lake Mead.
The Pankey family’s resilience was put to a test when a wildfire burned nearly half of their ranch in 2018. Among the devastating impacts of the fire was livestock and wildlife could no longer drink from ponds because they were covered in ashes.
Keith and Shelley Pankey raise beef cattle with their sons, Kevin and Justin and their families, in Moffat and Routt counties. They have a history of doing right by their land. Following the fire, they cleaned the ponds and aerially reseeded native grasses on 900 acres in the fire’s path. It’s not the first time investing in conservation practices has paid off for this family and the landscape they share with livestock and wildlife.
Keith’s great grandfather homesteaded an area of high desert known as Great Divide. The Pankeys are still able to graze cattle in the drought-prone region from spring through fall thanks to improved water distribution and rotational grazing systems.
They replaced windmill-powered wells with solar pumps. New water storage tanks and nearly three miles of natural flow pipelines were also added. By expanding the number of watering stations (from six to 12) the Pankeys increased their ability to properly graze cattle while creating wildlife habitat across the ranch.
Precipitation, range conditions, and animal performance all impact how the Pankeys plan pasture rotations and stocking rates. They analyze pasture rotations to determine which areas benefit from early, middle or late season grazing. They’ve also found that some areas benefit from longer or shorter periods of grazing, while others benefit from being grazed twice in the same season.
When cattle widely disburse themselves, the Pankeys find that grass recovers at a faster rate, and taller grass is left behind when the cattle are rotated to another pasture. The ranch’s wildlife populations have greatly increased thanks to rotational grazing and the improved water system. By working with neighbors to control noxious weeds, desirable grasses have become dominant across the ranch.
Pankey Ranch borders Colorado’s largest Greater sage-grouse lek, a breeding ground for this declining species. The Pankeys hosted Colorado State University students to study grasses, insects, and Greater sage-grouse habitat in the Great Divide range. Their study was helpful in determining which conservation practices to adopt. The Pankeys fenced off a large area around a natural spring to provide cover. They also equipped water storage tanks with overflows that provide water and prolonged green vegetation to encourage production of insects that grouse chicks consume.
The Pankeys are involved with a large-scale conservation effort led by Trout Unlimited to stabilize Elk Head Creek’s riparian corridor. They have installed rock toe and erosion control mats, and reseeded stream banks to prevent erosion. Hundreds of willow trees have been planted in corridors to preserve wetlands and fish habitat. Less erosion in the creek means cleaner water downstream in the Elk Head Reservoir and Yampa River. This family’s leadership in raising awareness of the creek’s impaired health, and commitment to on-the-ground conservation practices, is inspiring other landowners to follow suit.
The Pankeys also provide public hunting opportunities on their land. In 2011, they obtained a conservation easement on their Routt County property through the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to ensure future agricultural uses on the land. As a longtime volunteer with the Moffat County Fair, Keith shares his land ethic and conservation practices with youth, neighbors and the general public.
Click the link to read “Pankey Ranch’s conservation efforts earn attention from Colorado Cattlemen’s Association” on the Craig Press website (Amber Delay). Here’s an excerpt:
According to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Leopold Award was created in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold to recognize farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who inspire others with their voluntary conservation efforts on private, working lands…
The Pankeys will be presented with the award June 13 at the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Convention in Colorado Springs…
To mention a few who have contributed in addition to Trout Unlimited were: The National Resources Conservation Services, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of Craig, The Yampa-White-Green-Basin Roundtable and The Lower Colorado River Habitat Partnership Program.
The amount of water in the snowpack blanketing the Yampa River Basin started declining on Friday, March 25, potentially marking the earliest peak since 2017…Erin Light, engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, has put the river under administration three of the last four years. At the Colorado River District’s State of the Yampa River event last week, she said 2022, so far, is tracking in line with other dry years over the last two decades.
This year’s snowpack is rivaling that of 2002 and 2012 — two of the driest years during the current 22-year drought that is the worst ever recorded, Light said…Snowpack is important, but precipitation in the spring and late summer is also a key metric, and it seems harder to come by…
The Yampa is one of most free flowing rivers in Colorado. Of the five main reservoirs feeding into the Yampa, Light estimated that at least two and maybe three of them won’t fill up this year. Stillwater Reservoir is the farthest upstream and was sitting at about 310 acre-feet when it was last measured in October. Light said there was water released last year for both agricultural purposes and for work on the dam. Farther downstream, Yamcolo Reservoir was about 45% full, and Stagecoach reservoir was 75% full as of late last week. Two reservoirs in the basin — Fish Creek Reservoir on Buffalo Pass, where Steamboat Springs gets much of its water, and Elkhead Reservoir near the Routt and Moffat county line — are both likely to fill, Light said.
A story of transition and renewal in the rural west, Craig, America shares the many perspectives that encompass a community upheld by coal but looks towards a future without it. It brings to life the unique story of Craig, Colorado, and how its people, economy, and community are both resilient and adaptive.
Craig, Colorado is a small town in Northwest Colorado, about 40 miles west of Steamboat Springs. While Craig lies in the high mountain plains above the meandering Yampa River, it is a case study as a town, and region, that is in transition. Craig has traditionally been a town defined by the extraction of fossil fuels and ranching. There are multiple coal mines, and energy generating stations (power plants) in the area. Under pressure from environmental groups and government agencies state-wide and nationally, the owners of Craig Station voted unanimously to close all three units of Craig Station, one of Colorado’s largest coal-fired power plants, by 2030. The decision to close the plant will send waves of change across the city of Craig and surrounding Moffat Country for decades to come, costing the region hundreds of high-paying jobs, removing an estimated 60% of the town’s tax revenue, and forcing a reckoning with its future.
Fortunately, Craig sits in a region of abundant beauty, and accessible opportunities for outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing, rafting, hiking and mountain biking and other pursuits or plentiful. As the recreation economy grows, Craig is in an ideal position to make that transition as well. As Jennifer Holloway, the new Executive Director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce puts it, “Craig is a community with a lot of opportunities, and in a unique moment to seize them.” As the town reckons with the closure of the plant and surrounding mines, a growing coalition of leaders and community advocates are working to save their town and move from a extraction based economy to one focused in recreation, tourism, and that centers the health and well being of our planet and its inhabitants.
This situation in Craig is one in which we are currently seeing across the United States. As renewable sources of energy continue to grow in demand and the profitability of coal continues to plummet in tandem with its role in climate change, small towns and cities that depend on these industries are questioning their future. The story of Craig can be a moment of hope for many regions across the country, and potentially a guidepost for how they can embrace the natural beauty of their regions, rather than think of them only for extraction and consumption.
The Routt County Conservation District (RCCD) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are looking at the basin from a watershed health perspective and developing programs to improve and protect the private lands that catch the precipitation in much of the basin.
The foundation of a healthy watershed is healthy soils. Not only do soils allow vegetation to grow, but they can act as a sponge that absorbs and stores precipitation. They provide the nutrients that allow life to flourish. At its base, soil is a combination of sand, silt and clay, but it’s much more than that. A single teaspoon of soil can contain billions of living organisms that make up an entire ecosystem. When this ecosystem is thriving, it provides the glues that hold the soil particles in place as water rushes through them, it cycles nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable for plant growth and it helps to build organic matter in the soil. Keeping a healthy soil ecosystem can help increase plant productivity, increase drought resilience and decrease the need for additional inputs.
NRCS has developed five principles that can be followed to maintain and develop healthy soils.
The first is to minimize soil disturbance. Plowing the soil not only destroys the habitat that these microorganisms have created, but it negates all of the benefits that they provide.
The second is to keep the soil covered with plant residue. Residue increases infiltration and decreases erosion.
The third is to maximize plant diversity. Just like any ecosystem, soil ecosystems benefit from diversity, and diversity above ground means diversity below ground.
The fourth principle is to maintain a continuous growing root in the soil. We are limited by a short growing season, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep a live root in the soil year-round.
The fifth and final principle is to integrate livestock into the growing system. Livestock play a critical role in nutrient distribution and residue cycling.
A good first step to improving soil health on your property is to get a soil test that will give you a baseline to better understand where nutrients are limited or in abundance. The Routt County Conservation District has a grant program available that can pay for a soil test on fields that have the ability and intention of implementing management changes that could improve soil health.
Lyn Halliday is the Board President of the Routt County Conservation District, and the Upper Yampa River Watershed coordinator. Clinton Whitten is the resource team lead with the National Resource Conservation Service. For more about the Community Agriculture Alliance, go to CommunityAgAlliance.org.
Conservation groups sued the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, challenging its approval of a new rail line designed to quadruple oil production in northeast Utah’s Uinta Basin and send most of the crude to Gulf Coast refineries.
“It’s appalling that the board approved this climate-killing project and deeply undermined President Biden’s commitment to address the climate emergency,” said Deeda Seed, senior public lands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We can’t make progress toward a more stable climate when our government keeps lighting fuses on giant carbon bombs. The board’s action completely ignored the pollution that will directly result from this filthy railway, and that’s illegal.”
Flanked by the Uinta Mountains to the north and the Book Cliffs to the south, the Uinta Basin of northeast Utah is a spectacular expanse of wild high desert with extensive public lands, open spaces, and unique fish and wildlife. Oil and gas exploitation in the Uinta Basin has already extensively damaged public lands, polluted the region’s air and water, and released massive amounts of climate pollution.
Today’s [February 11, 2022] lawsuit confronts the U.S. Surface Transportation Board’s failure to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. In approving the Uinta Basin Railway, the Board failed to address the fact the proposed Uinta Basin Railway will spur increased oil production in the Uinta Basin — estimated at an additional 350,000 barrels a day — and carry up to 10 two-mile-long oil trains daily through the Colorado Rockies to the Gulf Coast.
“The Uinta Basin oil railway promises only economic and environmental ruin,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “It will fuel more air and climate pollution, endanger clean water and undermine our transition to a clean and sustainable clean energy economy. While it may line fossil fuel industry executives’ pockets, it will leave Utahns and many others to shoulder the cost.”
The board ignored the fact that extracting and processing this oil would add 53 million tons of carbon dioxide per year to the atmosphere, conflicting with its December conclusion that the railway is in the public interest.
“We need a full accounting of the climate cost of fossil fuel infrastructure projects like the Uinta Basin Railway,” said Dan Mayhew, conservation chair for the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Millions of dollars of public money that could be funding social programs and municipal services are instead benefitting a select few fossil fuel extraction companies, without accountability to the local community. Utahns deserve accountability and an adequate analysis of the impact on our climate and communities.”
In 2020 conservation groups sued a Utah state agency for improperly diverting nearly $28 million in public funds from community projects to aid the oil railway. That lawsuit is pending in Utah district court.
In addition to climate damage, the railway will harm public lands, rare plants and wildlife habitat. According to a federal environmental analysis, the 88-mile-long railway would dig up more than 400 Utah streams and strip bare 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat, including crucial areas that pronghorn and mule deer need to survive. In Emma Park, a remote sagebrush valley known to birdwatchers, bulldozers and train traffic could drive imperiled greater sage grouse out of their mating and nesting grounds.
Today’s lawsuit also challenges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to protect rare plants protected by the Endangered Species Act that the rail line will destroy.
“If ever there was a project to walk away from, this is it,” said John Weisheit, conservation director for Living Rivers in Moab, Utah. “Imagine all the expense and consumption to perform deep, horizontal drilling techniques, to bring a waxy crude to the surface. Then to transport that crude over sensitive landscapes, then process it at distant coastal refineries. And then ship all that oil to transoceanic markets. All of this, at every step, creates more climate disruption for our living communities.”
Nearly all the railway through Ashley National Forest in Utah — 12 miles with plans for five bridges and three tunnels — would be on public lands protected by the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The oil trains would increase the risk of fires and oil spills along the route through Colorado, including the vulnerable Colorado River corridor. Ramped-up fossil fuel production in the Uinta Basin would likely increase smog in western Colorado.
“The proposed Uinta Basin Railway would harm all Utahns, as well as communities across the country and around the world,” said Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “The railway would roughly quadruple oil production in the Uinta Basin, resulting in dire consequences for air quality, public health, water use and quality, public safety and climate change.”
Click the link to read the article “Utah rail line could bring 10 crude oil trains through Denver daily, drawing concern across Colorado” on the Denver Post website (Conrad Swanson). Here’s an excerpt:
The proposed 85-mile line would allow drilling operations in northeastern Utah’s Uinta Basin to expand and connect to refineries in Texas and Louisiana, rolling through Colorado in the process, likely alongside Interstate 70 and the Colorado River. Work on the new line could begin as early as next year but the project faces new hurdles after Eagle County and several conservation groups sued to require a deeper environmental investigation. Dozens of other cities and counties in Colorado have also asked the state’s U.S. senators to intervene.
Drilling for more fossil fuels is the wrong move as the American West suffers from a decades-long megadrought, record-setting wildfires and other consequences of climate change, Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes told The Denver Post. And rolling massive quantities of crude oil through the heart of his city, through the heart of the state, presents even more immediate risks…
Utah’s Uinta Basin is notoriously inaccessible, undeveloped and wild, Seed said. So a group of Utah counties, called the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, proposed the rail line in 2019 to help companies move the waxy crude out of the basin and to expand drilling operations…
Eagle County officials agreed and sued the board in federal appeals court in Washington D.C., last month to try and force another environmental study…Ted Zukoski, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said his organization, alongside the Sierra Club and three other conservation groups also sued last month. Their case has since been consolidated with Eagle County’s, he said. Forty-two Colorado cities, 11 counties and 20 water sanitation districts also voiced their opposition to the project, asking senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper to help stop the work.
The community-based collaborative Yampa River Fund is accepting applications through April 4 for $195,000 in funds available for conservation and restoration activities that positively impact Yampa River basin flows and support natural resource-based livelihoods including agriculture and recreation.
Eligible applicants include state and local government entities, public districts, irrigation entities, mutual ditch companies, homeowner associations and nonprofit organizations. The grant guidelines and application are posted at YampaRiverFund.org/grants. Technical support is available for applicants to help develop grant proposals.
The Yampa River Fund, which launched in September 2019, is dedicated to identifying and funding activities that protect the water supply, aquatic habitat and multi-beneficial opportunities provided by the Yampa River. The fund was created through a partnership of 21 public, private and nonprofit entities representing the Yampa River basin. Total grants for $200,000 from the endowment fund were awarded to six projects in 2021 stretching along the Yampa River from Maybell to Craig and Steamboat Springs to Oak Creek. In 2020, five projects were awarded a total $200,000.
Northern Colorado rancher Jay Fetcher looked out over the snowy fields of his family’s sprawling ranch 20 miles north of Steamboat Springs.
Cows grazed on hay on a bright, frigid February morning in the tiny settlement of Clark. Fetcher has been ranching the 1,400 acres of hay meadows and pastures in view of the Mountain Zirkel Wilderness for most of his life.
Fetcher’s late father, John, was a legend in the Steamboat area, who moved there to ranch in 1949. A founder of the Steamboat Ski Resort, he was also on the board of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“He was crazy passionate about water,” Fetcher said.
One of his legacies was putting the family ranch under a conservation easement, meaning the land would never be developed.
“If we chose to develop it, we could put 70 homesites, but now, it will stay open space forever,” Fetcher said. “It feels good knowing there won’t be golf courses out here.”
The land also has ample water rights. The ranch is flood-irrigated by a system of ditches that pull water from Sand Creek, McPhee Creek, Cottonwood Creek and the Elk River. But Fetcher is facing a complicated situation regarding one of the smaller, more junior rights in the portfolio that state officials believe has been “abandoned.”
Abandonment is the official term for one of Colorado’s best-known water adages and concepts: “use it or lose it.” Every 10 years, engineers and water commissioners from the Colorado Division of Water Resources review every water right — through diversion records and site visits — to see whether it has been used at some point in the previous decade. If they don’t see evidence of use, they could place the water right on the abandonment list and a water court could make it official.
Abandonment means the right to use the water is essentially canceled and ceases to exist. The water right goes back to the stream where another user can file an application to claim it and put it to beneficial use.
Fetcher’s water right that is in jeopardy is 2.5 cubic feet per second from the Hoover Jacques Ditch that dates to 1972. This ditch pulls water from the Elk River and flood-irrigates a pasture. In a letter to Fetcher, officials from the Colorado Division of Water Resources say that aerial imagery and their data suggest that the land has not been irrigated in quite some time.
Fetcher admits that it has been challenging to get water from the diversion point to the pasture five miles away through an unlined ditch, and the 40-acre pasture that it irrigates doesn’t produce much hay anyway. Fetcher often couldn’t take his full amount because the water just wasn’t available, but he hesitated to place a call because it didn’t seem worth it, he said.
Water users who aren’t receiving their total share can place what’s known as a call, which forces upstream junior users to cut back so the senior water right can get its full amount. Older water rights get first use of the river.
“It was really hard to get water through all our neighbors to actually use it,” he said. “By the time water gets there, it’s a trickle. And we just didn’t have time to run up there and irrigate a little bit of pasture.”
The Fetcher property has eight different ditches, and a huge amount of work is necessary to maintain them, he said.
“We want to make sure we don’t fall on the abandonment list with these other ditches,” he said. “We try to limit the labor on the ranch to make it profitable, so how does someone taking care of 800 cows have time to run around and make all of them work?”
Click the link to read the article on Big Pivots (Allen Best):
A bill proposing study of nuclear energy in Colorado was killed in an obscure legislative committee last week by the majority Democrats.
This debate isn’t over, though, nor will it be until we’ve learned how to store our bounty of renewable energy for weeks or even months.
We have made huge strides since voters in 2004 mandated Colorado’s largest utilities achieve 10% of their generation from renewables by 2015. Xcel Energy now expects to achieve 86% penetration of renewables by 2030. Nearly all other utilities, large and small, expect to be close behind, or like the Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy, further ahead.
Sharing of renewables across broad, multi-state areas will be imperative. Smaller, incremental approaches will help. For example, new programs will help us run our dishwashers and charge our electric cars when renewable energy is most abundant.
This gets utilities to maybe 90% emissions-free electricity without imperiling reliability or jacking up costs. It’s that last 10% that perplexes.
Possible paths include molten-salt storage. Xcel Energy considers this an option at Hayden, in northwestern Colorado, when it closes those coal units by 2028. Tri-State, operator of the three coal units at Craig, has indicated an openness to all options, including green hydrogen, which is made from renewable electricity and water in a still-expensive process. Some hope for improved batteries.
Another answer may be pumped-storage hydro, as Xcel has been thinking about in Unaweep Canyon, in western Colorado. Others have similar hydro thoughts for the Yampa Valley.
State Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, represents Craig and Hayden. An electrical engineer by training, Rankin had a career in technology, including a stint managing the aerospace division of Ford Motors. He pitched nuclear energy last week to members of the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee as necessary for Colorado to meet its decarbonization goals.
That a Republican representing coal country accepts that coal is not coming back is itself noteworthy. In Wyoming, many have not.
The second major component of the bill was the most telling. Rankin initially wanted Colorado’s economic development agency to commission the $500,000 study (pared to $250,000 before the vote). The Colorado Energy Office, the more obvious choice, was too strictly focused on wind and solar, he said.
That’s not entirely accurate. Wind and solar have been major successes, but just weeks before, the energy office released a study about the legal framework Colorado needs for carbon capture and storage. Carbon capture would allow continued burning of natural gas—a possible way to get to 100%—or, for that matter, burning of coal.
Rankin was absolutely on target in describing nuclear power as being a way to make use of existing infrastructure, both the coal plant sites at Hayden and Craig and transmission. Nuclear could also produce jobs and tax base for those communities. Just as 100% emissions-free energy (at an affordable price) remains elusive, so do the answers for Craig’s economy once the coal plants close. For the same reasons, commissioners in Pueblo County last summer quietly began pushing the idea of nuclear energy.
Cost is the conversational crux of nuclear. The technology has a history of high costs for construction. A new generation of small, modular reactors, if done in many places, may be more economical. One such reactor backed financially by Bill Gates is proposed for a Wyoming coal town, but it’s years from breaking ground. It may be the future—but it’s a big gamble.
Climate change is an even larger, more costly gamble. That’s one reason nuclear power does not fall neatly along a Republican/Democratic divide. One person who testified in support of Rankin’s bill identified himself as a card-carrying Democratic activist.
Democrats were unpersuaded, even after Rankin moved the study to the energy office. He never explained exactly what answers this study would have delivered that couldn’t be found elsewhere. The bill seemed more intent on making a political statement than delivering useful information. But then Democratic legislative leaders had made a statement themselves by not assigning the bill to the energy committee.
Had the bill advanced, we would have heard from State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat and a key architect of Colorado’s energy transition. Growing up in a Kansas farm town, Hansen became enamored of nuclear energy. Even as he earned a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, though, he pivoted his studies to economics, capping it with a Ph.D. The economics of nuclear energy, he told me last June, is why he believes the technology won’t be a major answer to the climate emergency.
Until we get to 100% renewables, though, it’s likely to be on the table.
Click the link to read the article on The Craig Press (Eliza Noe). Here’s an excerpt:
As industries across the Western Slope continue to watch snow and water levels as the days until summer close in, the Colorado River District hosted water experts Tuesday to discuss what certain data points mean and how they reflect the current state of Colorado’s water levels…
Before Monday, snow in 2022 had been sparse for the northwest corner of the state. According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the White and Yampa River Basin is currently at 86% of the median snowpack level since 1991. To get this median, the NRCS takes all of the snow patterns over the past 30 years and finds the middle of all of the peaks and snowpack levels. This median is often used as a standard to measure how dry a year is…
This winter, snow water equivalent (SWE) levels for the White-Yampa Basin are currently at 13.4 inches as of Tuesday (the latest available data). SWE is a commonly used measurement used by hydrologists and water managers to gauge the amount of liquid water contained within the snowpack. In other words, it is the amount of water that will be released from the snowpack when it melts.
The SWE median for that same date is 15.5 inches, and this year is slightly behind last winter’s levels, which was at 14.4 inches. The median peak of these levels (meaning the highest amount of SWE levels before they dip) usually happens around April 8. During the most recent drought, this peak has happened earlier in the year, and it sometimes does not reach that average peak, either. In 2021, the peak of snowpack happened during the last week of March, topping at 18 inches. The median peak is 23.1 inches…
“One thing to keep in mind is that the percentage of normal numbers based on the SNOTEL network and snow course measurements are used for runoff prediction,” [Jeffrey] Deems said. “They are not a SWE volume measure. And so they’re used in a statistical forecasting method by the NRCS to project April through July runoff.”
Across the entire western part of the United States, the trend of a multi-decadal drought is continuing. Gov. Jared Polis visited Craig last summer to speak with local ranchers about the drought’s impact on the Yampa Valley. Currently, agriculture workers in different facets of the industry are looking to see if 2022 might provide some relief.
Here’s the memorandum from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Kevin Rein):
On March 17, 2021, Erin Light submitted a letter request to me on the subject of Designation of the Yampa River as Over-Appropriated (“Report”). The Report contains climate, hydrologic, and administrative call information to support a description of the Yampa River and its tributaries upstream of its confluence with the Little Snake River as over- appropriated and requests that I make a formal determination that the Division of Water Resources (“DWR”) designate that reach of the river and its tributaries as over-appropriated and treat them accordingly for the purposes of administration. For the purposes of the DWR’s administration and well permitting decisions, a stream is considered over-appropriated when “at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of said stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system”1 (“Over-Appropriated”). The Report is comprehensive and shows that the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River is Over-Appropriated. The Report is available for review at this link.
Based on my review of the Report, I have determined that, effective March 1, 2022, the reach of the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River, including all of its tributaries, as more clearly shown on Attachment A (“Affected Area”), is Over-Appropriated. My determination (”Designation”) recognizes the climate, hydrologic, and administrative call conditions that are now present on the Yampa River for the Affected Area. The Designation does not impact the legal ability to appropriate water from the Yampa River nor does it change administration of surface water rights on the Yampa River.
The purpose of the Designation is to provide the formal basis for DWR to consider the injurious impacts of wells during DWR’s evaluation of new applications for well permits.
Evaluation of Well Permit Applications
For applications for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.
Beginning March 1, 2022, DWR staff will treat the Affected Area as Over-Appropriated for the purpose of evaluating applications, filed on or after March 1, 2022, for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.
For applications to permit existing wells, where the well and its uses existed prior to March 1, 2022.
To allow a reasonable period of time for the owners of existing wells to obtain a well permit, for wells where the well owner can demonstrate that the well and its uses existed prior to this Designation date of March 1, 2022, DWR will accept applications to permit those existing wells and evaluate the applications without treating their impacts as injurious through December 31, 2022. Such wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere. For applications for such existing wells filed on or after January 1, 2023, DWR staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells for the purpose of evaluating the applications.
For these two categories of well permit applications, effective on the dates shown above, DWR staff will presume that the well will materially injure the vested water rights of others and the well permit application must be denied unless the well qualifies for a statutory presumption of no injury or other provision in statute, alone or in combination with State Engineer Policy and/or Guideline, or the well permit applicant has obtained a plan for augmentation decreed by the water court or a substitute water supply plan approved by the State Engineer.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
A growing demand for a shrinking water supply in northwest Colorado has led state water officials to officially declare most of the Yampa River as over-appropriated. The designation is a formal recognition there’s no longer enough water for everyone who wants it. That triggers changes in how the state will grant permits for new wells in the area.
Smaller sections of the upper Yampa and some of its tributaries have already been deemed over-appropriated, including the upper Yampa River when increased development in Steamboat Springs put more demand on the river. But as climate change and extended periods of drought continue to dry up the West, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein said it was necessary to expand the designation to the lower part of the river, too.
The declaration will change how permits for groundwater wells are approved but doesn’t affect how the water that flows on the surface of the Yampa River and its tributaries is managed and used, Rein said…
Augmentation plans are obtained through water court, a process Rein said can be difficult for individuals to navigate. Rein said the Great Northern Water Conservancy District plans to create a blanket augmentation plan that water users could sign up for, like the Upper Yampa River Conservancy District has done in recent years.
The decline in the Yampa River’s flows has also prompted the state to now require water users in the area to measure how much water they use, as decades of climate change-fueled drought have diminished supplies on the Western Slope.
It was a miserable start to runoff season in the Yampa River Basin owing to ongoing low precipitation and a snowpack that melted out early or sublimated as it will sometimes do. In late July 2021 Coyote Gulch sat down with Scott Hummer the Division of Water Resources boots on the ground in the Upper Yampa River Basin at the inlet to Stagecoach Reservoir. I wanted to get an understanding of what is was like for a water commissioner to administer the streams under his purview in the horrible dry times. Below are his written answers to a couple of questions and then some quotes from our couple of hours together.
Coyote Gulch: What memories stand out since the start of water year 2021?
Scott Hummer: Absolutely no runoff whatsoever! Placing calls on streams that had never been on call previously, ever! A quote from one on my water users…”My family has been here for 135 years, and there has never been a year like this ever”…”and we have written records”!
CG: Who do you have conversations with regularly?
SH: Erin Light daily. Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District staff, daily. For nearly a month I talked daily, with a former colleague and predecessor water commissioner, as he holds the senior right per the Hunt Creek system that was under Call for the first time ever as a “system” with five tributaries in play to meet senior rights at the bottom of the system as two senior rights from the Yampa River that were potentially impaired per actual streamflow available early in the season. Contact as needed with water users on drainages never under Call in order to explain matters and ensure proper administration and compliance.
CG: What memories stand out from prior years prowling Colorado River Headwaters streams?
SH: None, in my 26 year career with DWR there are no years that can compare to 2021, in my opinion.
All across Colorado the snowpack map didn’t look so bad on April 1, 2021, but snowmelt did not make it to the streams in some watersheds, particularly the Colorado River Basin.
This was due to the dry soils and early snowmelt from drought conditions. Note the peaks in the hydrograph showing precipitation.
Back to Scott:
“As we are sitting here on the 22nd of July, the look of the Upper Yampa valley above Stagecoach is a different hue than it was 30 days ago. We’ve been the beneficiary locally of what I would call monsoonal moisture, more traditional summer time monsoonal moisture. Really the first moisture that we’ve seen in months in any significance. I’m not saying that the storms have been significant it’s that they’ve been a little bit consistent. The green here is nice to see but kind of gives the false illusion that we are in a place with our water supply that we’re actually not.”
“#1 [runoff] hit me right between the eyes. Absolutely no runoff whatsoever, none. That is just the most shocking thing for myself and the longtime locals. I mean multi-generational ranching families are experiencing that, they never have, they never even contemplated that they would, that they could.”
“Placing calls on streams that have never been on call previously, ever. Understanding the severity of the situation by listening to my water users and one quote that really caught my ear here recently per a meeting we had some local water users and the CWCB in regards to some instream flow issues. The question was posed to the water user, ‘What are you seeing this year?’ And his reply was, quote, ‘My family has been here for a 135 years and there has never been a year like this, ever.'”
“For example, in a normal year, instead of the 20 cfs passing by us over to our left, it would be closer to a 100 cfs so I have a ditch that’s about 2.5 miles up the river from where we’re sitting right now, has a water right for 5.4 cfs. I was there yesterday and it was only pulling about a little over a foot and a half but there was plenty of water in the river. But they lost some of the pressure at their check dam on the river so they need to get back in the river to re-construct their check to keep water moving and pressured up on their headgate. That has been an issue throughout the season on every drainage that we have. Some of the photos that I sent to you early in the season where the river was pretty much being swept like at the Stafford Ditch or the Oakton Ditch. For the last 30 days it was a different picture, there was much more water there, but we’re now starting to trim back to where we were back in late May going back into mid-May and I’m afraid that by, in a month, in another 30 days…I’m not optimistic about what the flow regimes will be like. I think we’ll continue to see streamflows drop back to levels that we saw previously in the season and maybe lower. Especially on the side tribs.”
“If you went back to CO-131 and you drive up the river towards Yampa keep your view on the east side of the valley from basically Oak Creek to Toponas. On the east side of the valley here none, and I literally mean none, of the tributaries that came off the east side of the valley up high on the west facing slopes, none of those streams had any water in them on the first of May. I mean, so little that it was a trickle. It wasn’t enough to fill…there’s a number of small reservoirs on the east side of the valley that came nowhere near to filling, no where near being even a quarter full. And there are meadows that would usually be irrigated from runoff off the streams on the east side of the valley that never saw water this year. And, if you drove back to the south and looked up high you would see those dry meadows, they stick out like a sore thumb.”
“[There was a diverter] whose headgate was leaking and the measuring device was non-functional and you know they may not have [that maintenance on the schedule] prior to the start of the season, we were simply in a position that, based on never having to administer that system before had to have every device functioning properly. Luckily that particular user got right on it, fixed the headgate, fixed the device, and I was able turn his water back on to him in a fairly timely manner. But I think that a lot of folks, if they haven’t, are going to be paying more attention to the necessity of measurement.”
“One of the biggest concerns to my local ag users, stock producers, is going to be the availability of stock water as we move into the late summer and the fall. We have people all over S. Routt County, and when I say S. Routt County, that includes the portion of the county that is outside my jurisdiction that is actually in Water Division 5, the headwaters of the Colorado River. We have had people down around McCoy hauling stockwater since May and I’ve noticed more water tanks running up and down highway 131, between Oak Creek and Yampa hauling water as well.”
“Not only for stock but also for domestic potable purposes. Some folks still have hand-dug wells for example. And because of a lack of tailwater and runoff some of those hand-dug wells have actually gone dry at some of the older ranch homes. I know for a fact that there are at least two older ranch homes that have traditionally been served by springs and the springs have gone dry. And they’re looking perhaps at replacing their springs with a well and cost of doing that, of course.”
“The other concern for stock growers in this area right now and throughout the summer irrigation season is the lack of pasture. Lots of stock growers are pasturing animals on meadows that they normally would have irrigated to grow hay on all summer long. They have cows out on meadows that normally you wouldn’t see them on this time of year.”
“So when you came from Oak Creek for example, the old depot, the red depot, down there…You can actually park right there and get cell service. It’s spotty around here, yeah.”
FromBoise Public Radio (Alex Hager, Nate Hegyi, Lexi Peery):
A big conference about the shrinking Colorado River – the main source of water for millions of people in the Southwest – began this week in Las Vegas. Discussions among dozens of scientists and government officials focused on the West’s historic drought.
The Colorado River Basin is in dire straits. Opening remarks at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting focused on the severe and prolonged drought that’s brought two of the nation’s largest reservoirs to their lowest levels on record.
The first day of the three-day conference also heard calls for more collaboration and less infighting among Western states and tribes who rely on the river. But Christopher Tabbee, a councilman for the Ute Indian Tribe, said that currently isn’t the case in his home state of Utah…
The Utes have treaty rights to a significant amount of Colorado River water. But Tabbee said Utah is ignoring those rights and using some of that water. A new report from the nonprofit environmental group Utah Rivers Council suggests the state is using about half of the tribes’ allocated water…
Shawcroft also noted that the state has created a new agency devoted to the crisis, the Colorado River Authority, and would invite tribes to join advisory councils, which have not been formed yet. Critics have pointed out that the agency doesn’t include any tribal members on its board.
Across the Colorado River Basin – home to 30 federally recognized Native American tribes – tribal leaders are pushing for a more significant seat at the table in water negotiations. In October, as the White House hosted a summit of tribal nations, a group of 20 tribes within the basin wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland asking for an “integral role” in the next round of river negotiations.
In the letter, tribal leaders said they were “cautiously optimistic” that they’ll be recognized as separate sovereigns on the same footing as states in the basin. Those 30 tribes hold rights to about a quarter of the river’s average annual flow, though many lack the infrastructure or funding to use their full allotments.
In Las Vegas on Tuesday, Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said her state is committed to involving tribes in future negotiations. Looming over this conference is the need to establish new guidelines for managing the river, as the current set of rules expires in 2026.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Dana Dallavalle) and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District (Holly Kirkpatrick):
Steamboat Springs, Co., (November 18, 2021) – On Wednesday November 17th, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District (UYWCD) board of directors approved a 10-year contract with the Colorado Water Trust (Water Trust) for the purchase of stored water in Stagecoach Reservoir. The water supply contract, deemed for environmental, instream and recreational use, is the first long-term contract that extends beyond temporary one-year contracts between UYWCD and the Water Trust in years past.
Since 2012, the Water Trust has purchased and released 14,500 acre-feet of water into the Yampa River from Stagecoach Reservoir. Water Trust releases help maintain healthy streamflow and water temperature from Stagecoach Reservoir downstream through the City of Steamboat Springs during hot and dry summer months.
Historically, UYWCD and the Water Trust have worked together to negotiate contract terms as needed on an annual basis using state legislation that allowed for environmental water releases to be loaned for instream flow use in 3 out every 10 years.
In 2020, Colorado House Bill 20-1157 was passed, allowing for the establishment of amended rules governing the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s (CWCB) Instream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program, previously governed by the 3 in 10 rule. Effective March 17, 2021, the amended rules provide potential for increased flow rates and expand the temporary loan of water rights for instream flow use from 3 years to 5 years out of every 10 in addition to potential loan renewals for up to three 10-year periods.
Renewable loans through the program could allow environmental releases to bolster flows in the Yampa River for up to 15 out of 30 years if needed.
For the past year, UYWCD and the Water Trust have been working towards a longer-term contract that could help support the Yampa River during low flows and utilize the new state legislation. The new 10-year contract ensures 100 acre-feet of water in the general supply pool of Stagecoach Reservoir will be allocated to the Water Trust each year if supply is available. The contract also allows for the Water Trust to purchase additional water from two other contract pools in Stagecoach Reservoir at various volumes as needed. Payment for water contracted outside of the general supply pool will only be collected if the water is released.
“As drought conditions and water scarcity continue to challenge our basin, having this 10-year contract in place will help minimize some of the recurring challenges we typically face each year when we revisit temporary contracts without constraining UYWCD water supplies or Water Trust funds. Developing longer- term solutions frees up time and money for all our partners to be even more innovative in their collaboration to keep the river flowing,” said Andy Rossi, General Manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
UYWCD and the Water Trust will be one of the first in the state to utilize the newly amended statute and rules when they present the 10-year contract as part of their joint application to the CWCB program, which is anticipated to take place in January of 2022. Following completion of the CWCB application review, UYWCD and the Water Trust hope to secure a loan of water rights for instream flow use by spring of 2022, making the first 10-year contract effective through 2032.
“UYWCD and the Water Trust have forged something new here. It’s a big step forward for the Yampa River Project and collaborative water management in general. We can now focus our efforts on the new instream flow loan application, and if we are successful, to expanding the Project’s benefits downstream of the instream flow reach where it can benefit even more of the river and all those who rely upon it,” commented Alyson Meyer Gould, Staff Attorney for the Water Trust.
The success of the Yampa River Project involves many partners and dedicated donors including: The Yampa River Fund, Yampa Valley Community Foundation, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, and individual donors as well as key project partners: The City of Steamboat Springs; Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District; Catamount Development, Inc.; Catamount Metropolitan District; Colorado Parks and Wildlife; Colorado Water Conservation Board; and the Colorado Division of Water Resources. Without these generous donations and the collaborative work of numerous local and statewide entities, water releases to support the health of the Yampa River would not be possible.
No matter your background, water plays a vital role in your day-to-day life. Like other necessities, it can be easy to take for granted, but a lack of it will quickly impact every facet of life. Businesses, for instance, can’t operate without reliable running water, lawns/fields go brown as municipal and agricultural users alike cut back on irrigation to prioritize critical needs, industrial operations weigh costs of doing business, and regional ecological health suffers as stream flows drop below levels sustainable for aquatic organisms.
In Rio Blanco County, the primary source of water is, well, the Rio Blanco, Spanish for “White River.” Historically, the White River has been “un-managed” compared to many other streams and rivers in the state.
Though irrigators, industrial users and municipalities are still expected to abide by mandated water allocations, residents in the Northwest Colorado region have so far enjoyed water use that is loosely monitored, if at all. Due to state legislation, declining precipitation/stream flows and Colorado’s obligation to deliver a certain amount of water to lower-basin western states, that state of affairs is set to change.
“The White River is part of a bigger system,” said Liz Chandler, coordinator of the Planning Advisory Committee for the White River Integrated Water Initiative (WRIWI). The locally-driven effort, which involves community stakeholders aims to establish a framework to guide future water use decisions and maintain some level of local control over water. Chandler explained the importance of the process amid mounting pressure on the Colorado River, its tributaries and by extension 40 million Americans who rely on its water as a result of declining snowpack/runoff and record low water levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
“Those big river issues may come back upstream into the White River,” said Chandler, “and so the more people [that] can be involved in this water initiative, the more control the White River basin is going to have of its own water,” said Chandler…
“‘The future is unknown, and yet with that given, we need to be prepared,’ said [Kari] Brennan, adding ‘whether you are involved in agriculture, or just use it municipally in your home, recreational, any of that, it’s good to know what’s going on, and also have a voice. This is the opportunity to have a say in what the White River Basin does with our water.'”
The White River Integrated Water Initiative is now in its second phase, and comes as a result of the 2016 Colorado Water Plan, which among other things, set a goal to have 80% of the state’s rivers, streams and critical watersheds under “management plans” by 2030…
The four goals of the initiative.
• Protect and preserve existing water rights and other beneficial water uses.
• Protect and enhance water quantity and quality through promoting best management practices for a) forest health b) riparian health c) rangeland health d) favorable conditions of streamflow.
• Identify opportunities for creation of infrastructure to support efficient consumptive and non consumptive uses.
• Support the development and maintenance of efficient and necessary long term storage solutions that will improve, enhance and ensure irrigation, river health, water quantity, water quality and native/recreational fisheries…
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (Chris Arend):
The Colorado Division of Water Resources (DWR) is announcing a virtual Measurement Rules Rulemaking stakeholder meeting to present an update of the draft Measurement Rules for Water Division 6 (North Central and Northwest Colorado for the Yampa, White, and North Platte River basins) and gather feedback and comment. DWR conducted in-person stakeholder meetings during October 2021 in Steamboat Springs, Oak Creek, Rangely, Meeker, Walden, and Craig, CO.
DWR invites participants from those meetings, as well as those who have not been to an in-person public meeting, to attend.
The purpose of the rulemaking is to develop consistent, stakeholder-driven standards for the implementation of DWR’s statutory authority for requiring measuring devices for water diversion and storage and reporting of records.
FromThe Colorado Springs Gazette (Carol McKinley and Marianne Goodland):
The Colorado Water Trust is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, with two decades of efforts to restore flows in Colorado rivers. But the trust’s next 20 years will likely face greater challenges of climate change and population growth that are already taking a toll on the state’s waterways.
The trust’s main focus is to improve instream flows, the flows and water levels in a stream or river.
Back in 1973, the Colorado General Assembly recognized the need for a statewide instream flow program. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) was given the authority to acquire water rights, or lease them, for instream flow purposes. Instream flow water rights, one of the beneficial uses under Colorado’s water rights law, are the exclusive authority of the CWCB.
While the original purpose of the legislation was to “protect the natural environment,” the instream flow program has expanded to address “water requirements for declining, sensitive, and threatened and endangered species, and protection of macroinvertebrate populations and rare riparian vegetation assemblages,” according to the CWCB.
Since 1973, the CWCB has appropriated instream flow rights for 1,700 stream segments covering more than 9,700 miles of stream.
But the instream flow program got off to a slow start, and drought was becoming an increasing problem in Colorado. One of the first big droughts was in the winter of 1976-77, which “sent shock waves through Colorado’s economy and state government.”
There was a gap. The CWCB had the authority over junior water rights for instream flows, but nothing in place to acquire senior water rights.
Those junior rights are useful very high up in the mountains where there aren’t a lot of other rights, said Andy Schultheiss, the trust’s executive director. Senior water rights, on the other hand, are more secure, but the state needed an outside group to scout opportunities for the state to buy or lease those senior water rights.
In 2000, water engineers, water lawyers and conservationists began discussions on how to bolster the instream flow program, and that led to the formation of the trust in 2001.
Like most new water programs in Colorado, the trust faced suspicion from water rights holders early on, especially farmers and ranchers. According to the Colorado Water Exchange, 80% of the state’s water goes toward irrigation, and that’s mostly for agriculture.
“It took us eight or nine years to develop our first project,” Schultheiss said. “There’s a lot of reluctance to try anything new.”
That first major project came in 2009, when Pitkin County and the CWCB signed an agreement, brokered by the trust, to allow the county to lend water for the instream flow program.
Since then, the trust has directed 13.5 million gallons of water through 588 miles of Colorado waterways.
The approach today works like this: The Trust goes to a rancher and says, “How about you stop irrigating, say Aug. 1, and we compensate you for the days you’re missing, and we give the rest of your water to the state to lease it to use in an instream flow reach?” That’s a classic kind of trust project, Schultheiss said.
In an apparently groundbreaking permanent water sharing agreement in 2014, said to be the first in the West, the trust purchased a portion of the water rights on the McKinley Ditch to restore flows to a three-mile segment of the Little Cimarron River, a tributary of the Gunnison River. In spring and summer, the water is available for agricultural irrigation. Late summer and fall, the water heads down the Little Cimarron…
The trust has been trying to improve instream flows on the Yampa since the 2012 drought, according to Schultheiss. In some years, the water they buy from Stagecoach Reservoir represents a third or more of the water in the river, he said.
Back in 2012, the trust recognized that there was water sitting in Stagecoach with very few customers.
“And we said, ‘Why not? Why can’t we just buy water and release water from Stagecoach? There’s an in-stream flow reach just below the dam, and then there’s the city farther down.’”
By 2021, the releases from Stagecoach have been institutionalized, according to Schultheiss. Thanks to the Yampa River Fund, a collaboration between the Steamboat Springs and the Nature Conservancy, and with a $4.5 million endowment to pay for it, the river got a record-breaking 2,000 acre-feet of water from Stagecoach. In a year with severe drought in northwestern Colorado, it was enough to keep the water temperatures down and avoid fish kills and other environmental damage…
“We are a market-based organization. … Our whole reason for being is that we participate in the market on behalf of the environment, and we need money to be able to do that.” — Andy Schultheiss
As the gap between water supplies and demands narrows in northwestern Colorado, state officials want to ensure that, as best as reasonably can be done, every last drop gets measured and recorded.
They made their case to about 60 ranchers in North Park’s Walden, Colo., on Friday in the fifth of six stakeholder meetings during October that will conclude tonight with a meeting in Craig.
The proposed rules governing the Yampa, White and North Platte River basins would require that headgates, which allow water diversions into ditches, be supplemented with measuring infrastructure, either flumes or weirs, to track the amount of water being diverted. The rules would also institute protocols for reporting the measurements, for collection in state databases. Authority to require the measuring and reporting is clearly defined by state law, but the law leaves room for discretion about the particulars, hence the stakeholder process.
In an already drought-stricken region likely to become hotter and drier yet in the 21st century, those measurements will become ever-more important in administering water rights. The Yampa River this century has carried on average 6% less water than it did during the 20th century. On the White River, flows have fallen 19%.
Already, there is concern that Colorado will be forced to curtail diversions of water rights dated later than the 1922 Colorado River Compact if the aridification of the Colorado River Basin continues, said Kevin Rein, the state water engineer, at the outset of the meeting in Walden.
The compact specifies that Colorado along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico “will not cause the flow of the river” at Lee Ferry, at the top of the Grand Canyon, “to be depleted below an aggregate” of 75 million-acre feet for an period of 10 consecutive years. Colorado and the three other upper basin states are in relatively good shape—for at least the next couple of years. In the last decade, 92 million acre-feet have flowed past Lee Ferry toward Arizona, Nevada, California and, eventually, Mexico.
But if below-average becomes the new normal, as climate scientists warn almost certainly will be the case, Colorado may be forced to defend its diversions in light of the compact. “When they come in and ask for water, we can’t refuse if we have no data,” said Mike Sullivan, the deputy state water engineer.
The state water officials pointed to the Aug. 2021 report Lessons Learned from Colorado Experiences with Interstate Compact Administration issued by the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University and MacIlroy Research and Consulting. “Confronting the limits of a water supply is a painful experience,” the report said after studying the Republican, Arkansas and Rio Grande basins. “Across each of the basins, earlier action to address potential compact and supply issues has enhanced the control communities have to develop and choose their own, less painful, options.”
The North Platte River does not flow into the Colorado River. It’s east of the Continental Divide but separated from the Front Range by the Medicine Bow and other mountain ranges. So why the need to measure water in North Park the same as in the Yampa and White river valleys?
Because it’s good to have the data should it be necessary as required by other interstate agreements, in this case involving Wyoming and Nebraska, said Sullivan.
But there’s another reason for more rigorous accounting of diversions, said the state water officials. Owners of water rights can best look out after their own interests by documenting their water use. This guards against those rights being placed on lists of abandoned water rights that state law requires be issued every 10 years. The most recent list for all river basins, including North Park, was issued last year.
Measuring devices also give those with more senior water appropriations the right to divert their legal entitlements in water-scarce years. And in the case of land sales with connected water rights, it gives owners the proof of water use to demonstrate value to potential purchasers.
In several river basins in Colorado, notably those east of the Continental Divide, measurements became crucial as early as the 19th century. In those river basins where water users experienced an earlier squeeze between supplies and demands, those with senior water rights began placing calls that required those with newer—and hence more junior— rights upstream to cease or cut back diversions.
In Water Division 6, which includes the North Platte, Yampa and White river basins, 54% of headgates had appropriate measuring devices as of April. This compares with upwards of 90% in several other water divisions of Colorado.
Overlapping the new rules is a proposal being considered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources to designate the Yampa River as over-appropriated. Most rivers in the state are already considered over-appropriated, in some cases over a century ago. Segments of the Yampa—including the river upstream from Steamboat Springs and several tributaries—already have been so designated. This designation will require irrigators drilling wells to have water that they can use to augment streamflows if there is a call on the river by a senior user. Improved measuring will assist in administration. Meetings to gather input were scheduled for Monday night in Craig and Thursday night in Hayden.
State officials hope to get the measurement rulemaking as well as the Yampa designation completed by early next year. Rules will be unique to the needs of Northwest Colorado, just as rules governing the Republican and Arkansas River basins are unique to the interstate water agreements and other circumstances governing water use in those basins.
North Park was particularly warm and dry last winter. One rancher after the Walden meeting recalled that it was possible to drive across his hay meadows all of last winter whereas many years he has to plow the driveway almost daily.
“It was pathetic, really,” said Keith Holsinger, standing on a bridge over the Michigan River east of Walden where he grows hay on 800 acres. One of his neighbors, who usually gets 500 to 600 tons of hay, got only 90 tons this year, he reported.
Holsinger has lived on the ranch all of his 77 years. His water rights range from among the oldest in North Park, an 1885 decree with a priority number of 32, to more junior rights of 240th in priority.
He remembers putting in the first measuring device sometime after the drought of 1977. His last device, a weir, he had installed last year.
During the meeting, some skepticism was voiced about the coming measurement rules. State representatives characterized the relationship between water users and state authorities as one of cooperation and trust. But one audience member pushed back. Implementation seemed to be discretionary, he said. “It’s a trust issue, and I’m sorry to say I don’t have a lot of faith.”
But as for the need for the rules, Holsinger is already persuaded. “If it’s free water in priority, if you want that water, you had better have a headgate and weir,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The most significant discontent voiced in the background of the meeting agenda was about the high turnover in water commissioners. It’s a common problem across Colorado, say state water officials, as the job is by nature semi-seasonal. But in conversations after the meeting, North Park residents suggested that if the state wants water users to be partners in administration, the state needs to allow proper resources. A water commissioner has between 350 and 500 headgates to check, and there’s a learning curve.
Some people wanted to know why the state wanted the ability to lock headgates. State representatives said they rely primarily on voluntary compliance with water allocations but need the ability to force compliance if diverters take more than they are entitled to.
“In 20-some years, I have probably ordered a half-dozen headgates locked,” said Sullivan. “If we can’t get someone to keep their hands out of the cookie jar, we lock the cookie jar.”
As for the specific type of weir or flume, there are several formal varieties as well as less formal ones. They can be expensive, but none of the irrigators in Walden indicated that cost alone is an issue. Erin Light, the Steamboat Springs-based water engineer for Division 6, said she had seen a flume made of a road sign. It worked, she reported. Sullivan reported seeing one made of rock that worked effectively.
Said Sullivan, speaking to people mostly old enough to remember a bestselling small-model car in 1979 and 1980, “We don’t want to require a gold-plated Cadillac headgate when a Chevette will do.”
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 email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Growers in the West have persisted through the ups and downs of dry years for a long time, but a two-decades-long trend of drought in the region is now entrenching itself with no clear end in sight.
This year is unlikely to bring any major relief.
Forecasters say this winter will be shaped by “La Niña,” a weather phenomenon during which cold water off the Pacific coast alters temperature and precipitation patterns over the Western U.S. Its effects are hardly guaranteed, but typically mean a colder, wetter winter for the northwestern portion of the country, and a warmer, drier winter in the Southwest. The dividing line often falls in the middle of Colorado.
“In general it means towards the northern mountains would be more likely to have a better winter season and the southern mountains — the San Juan Mountains, the Sangre de Cristos — might not be able to get as much,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist at Colorado State University.
She cautioned that weather is hard to predict with a high degree of certainty, describing the area’s erratic patterns as “a crapshoot,” but historical records suggest it will likely leave the Colorado River basin warmer and drier than normal this coming winter.
“While we do depend on the (summer) monsoon season,” Bolinger said, “especially to help fill up those soils before we enter the cold season, we really need that snowpack to kind of really dig out like Arizona did with its monsoon season.”
Bolinger was alluding to this year’s historically wet summer in Arizona — where parts of a state with millions of Colorado River water users were drenched with record-setting rain totals. Tucson, for example, saw its wettest calendar year in recorded history. July was the state’s second-wettest month of all time…
And in the grand scheme of the Colorado River basin, wet seasons in Arizona are literally a drop in the bucket. Before going on to feed farms and taps all the way down to Mexico, the majority of the river’s water starts as rain and snow high in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. In the long term, Bolinger says climate change will bring shorter winters, warmer temperatures and drier soil…
Turning things around in the Colorado River basin and bringing more water to the people who depend on it will take years of above-average rain and snow where it matters most.
In January, Rio Blanco secured a water right for a 66,720-acre-foot reservoir between Rangely and Meeker. The conservancy district is proposing an off-channel reservoir with a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long, with water that will be pumped into the Wolf Creek drainage from the White River.
Rio Blanco said it will use the funds for the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process, which will be administered by the Bureau of Land Management, using a third-party contractor. Rio Blanco estimates the permitting will take three to five years at a cost of $6 to $10 million.
In its application, Rangely-based Rio Blanco said that the River District’s support of the permit phase is essential for the eventual development of the project.
“The project provides a desperately needed new storage reservoir for the White River basin,” the application reads. “The White River basin currently does not have adequate storage to meet the current water needs during drought conditions or any additional future water needs within the basin.”
No River District directors voted against the funding. Rio Blanco County representative Alden Vanden Brink abstained from voting because he is the general manager of the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District.
“I support this concept,” said Gunnison County representative Kathleen Curry. “Investing in a permitting process is wise right now.”
Moffat County representative Tom Gray wondered if funding this request would mean the River District has a moral obligation to approve future funding requests for the Wolf Creek project. But River District General Manager Andy Mueller encouraged board members to look at it as a one-time request because the future of the overall project is still uncertain.
“It is possible that this applicant could have the whole permitting process blow up on them,” Mueller said. “Something beyond our control may occur. … Think of it on an application-at-a-time basis.”
The Wolf Creek project will also need permits from the State Historical Preservation Office, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a consultation under the Endangered Species Act.
Rio Blanco has budgeted a minimum of $250,000 per year to contribute to the permitting process. Since planning first began in 2013, Rio Blanco and its funding partners, including the Colorado Water Conservation Board, have spent $2.1 million on the project. The project has the support of Rio Blanco and Moffat counties and the Town of Rangely, but so far these governments have not made funding commitments. Rio Blanco estimates the total cost to build the reservoir at $142 million.
Securing the water right for the project took longer than Rio Blanco expected because for five years, Colorado’s top engineers at the Department of Water Resources argued the project was speculative because Rio Blanco could not prove a need for the water. The water right that was eventually granted after years of back-and-forth in water court gave Rio Blanco the amount of water it was seeking, but does not allow the district all the water uses it initially wanted.
The decree granted Rio Blanco a water right for municipal use for the town of Rangely; augmentation within its boundaries; mitigation of environmental impacts; hydroelectric power; and in-reservoir use for recreation, piscatorial and wildlife habitat. The conservancy district will not be able to use the water for irrigation, endangered fish or augmentation in the event of a compact call.
Vanden Brink said there is a sense of urgency to build the Wolf Creek project. He said he is thrilled at the River District’s grant.
“We think it’s a great partnership with the River District,” he said. “It’s critical that this thing gets done.”
The River District’s Community Funding Partnership was established last year when voters passed ballot measure 7A, increasing the River District’s mill levy. Eighty-six percent of the revenue from the tax hike goes toward funding water projects in five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers.
The site of the potential off-channel Wolf Creek Reservoir on the White River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The White River, in the vicinity of the proposed Wolf Creek Reservoir. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.
One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
Taylor Draw Dam holds back the White River to form Kenney Reservoir, located near Rangely. The reservoir is silting in, and a water conservancy district is proposing building a bigger, upstream, off-channel reservoir, a project that is opposed by the state of Colorado. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
A view of the White River foreground, and the Wolf Creek gulch, across the river. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State of Colorado have reached a settlement for a reservoir and dam project at this site. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith
A view looking downstream of the White River in the approximate location of the potential White River dam and reservoir. The right edge of the dam, looking downstream, would be against the brown hillside to the right of the photo. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith
One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
The White and Yampa rivers traditionally supply a comfortable amount of water compared with other waterways across the state, according to Jeff Lukas, a Lafayette climate consultant and former water scientist with the University of Colorado Boulder. But that’s not as much the case recently.
“The whole Colorado River system is on the wrong side of the knife’s edge in the first part of the 21st century,” Lukas said.
Over the last two decades, the Yampa’s average flow decreased by about 6% from its 20th-century average, Lukas said. And the White’s average flow decreased by about 19%.
So officials with Colorado’s Division of Water Resources want to better track who’s taking water from the rivers — and its tributaries — and how much. Better tracking there would bring the division’s northwest region into line with the rest of the state, where that type of data collection is already more common.
Division officials are hosting stakeholder meetings in the region to develop rules by which water usage will be measured and hope to have the process finished by the end of next year, state Engineer Kevin Rein said. And as more data flows in, the state can better allocate water to those legally allowed to take it, an increasingly precise task as droughts continue to plague the Western Slope.
And in the bigger, and unprecedented, picture, if Colorado is called to work with upper- and lower-basin states because not enough water is passing southwest through the Colorado River, it will need that concrete data in hand, Rein said.
“We just need to know where it’s going,” Brain Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, said. “Every drop counts when it comes to water.”
The process underway in northwest Colorado is part of an increasing nationwide trend to better track water use as droughts become more common, Fuchs said…
One key indicator that water is tighter in northwest Colorado is that senior water rights holders along the Yampa River are more frequently calling state engineers to shut off supply for junior rights holders until their thirst is quenched, according to Erin Light, water division engineer for the region.
The first ever call like that on the Yampa came in 2018, Light said. Another followed in 2020 and then another this year, both of which only ended after Colorado River conservation officials agreed to release water from the Elkhead Reservoir, northeast of Craig.
Water shortages and calls like those can spell trouble not only for those in Colorado but also millions more downstream.
Water from the Yampa and White rivers flows into the [Green River then the] Colorado River and ultimately into Lake Powell, making up to a fifth of the reservoir’s water supply each year, Lukas said.
The reservoir, which sank to its lowest level on record this year, supplies water to about 35 million people, irrigates millions of acres of cropland and generates billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.
While calls from senior water rights holders come each year — even in non-drought years — along the Arkansas, Rio Grande and South Platte rivers, Rein said “it’s a new thing to the Yampa.”
Not only are those rivers drying due to climate change but more water is allocated from them than the rivers actually have to offer. And now the historically water-abundant Yampa, which is also over-allocated, appears to be joining those ranks, Light said…
Accounting for water
As Colorado’s rivers dry up, like the Ogallala Aquifer on the eastern plains…for example, governments across the country are working to take better inventory of their water supply, Fuchs said. When those water shortages arise, people start to ask where the water went and who took it.
“All of a sudden these questions are starting to be asked and (governments) can’t really put those cards on the table because they don’t have them,” Fuchs said.
The same logic applies when states strike deals with each other over rivers that cross their borders, Fuchs added. The states not only want to make sure they’re following the agreements but also that they’re keeping as much water as possible.
Colorado’s northwest region represents a gap in the state’s inventory.
As of April, only about 54% of the structures used by water rights holders in Light’s region, which covers Craig and Steamboat Springs, have devices to measure their water usage.
For comparison, about 95% of the structures in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins to the southeast have measuring devices, [Aspen Journalism] reported.
In late 2019, Light ordered hundreds of water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices and then in March 2020 she issued formal notices for others along the White and Green rivers to follow suit, the Summit Daily reported. And Light’s office is now holding stakeholder meetings this month across the region as they look to cement consistent rules for what kinds of devices can be used, how they should be maintained and how they measure water use.
Rein said he hopes that the rule-making process could be finished by the end of next year, but he doesn’t want to rush it.
From email from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (Chris Arend):
The Colorado Division of Water Resources and Community Agriculture Alliance are partnering to educate the community and solicit public comment about the proposal to designate the Yampa River Basin as over-appropriated.
An over-appropriated stream system is one in which at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of a stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system. Two public meetings will be held to outline how the over-appropriation proposal affects new and existing residential well permits.
A recording will be available after the Moffat County event for those who are unable to attend in-person.
Drought isn’t a new thing in the West, but right now, much of the region is gripped in a historic drought. An unusually dry year coupled with record-breaking heat waves has strained water resources in the West this year. In fact, water levels are so low that the Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage on the Colorado River basin for the first time ever in mid-August. There are a lot of ideas for how to relieve the drought and ease its impacts—some more feasible than others. But when you think about water in the West, you have to think about scarcity too.
“You’re really thinking about, well, why is it scarce? Is it too little supply? Or is it too much demand? And in the case of water, it’s both, right?” said Jason Shogren, an economist at the University of Wyoming (UW). “You have a drought, and that is going to restrict the supply of water. And you have an increase in demand because people are moving more and more to the Rocky Mountain region, moving more and more to the west coast.”
And as Shogren pointed out, a lot of people move to the West and expect to keep parts of their lifestyles from where they came from, like lawns of lush green grass. But those require a lot of water. And Shogren said we have to think about all the different demands.
“And since we have a lot of demand for water in Southern California, Phoenix, Las Vegas. We have a lot of demand for water in agriculture production, whether it’s crops, or whether it’s nuts, or whether it’s wine,” he said. “And on the supply side, the question is, ‘Who gets what water? And why?'”
He added property rights over water are different by state and deciding how water rights are allocated and how they can be used gets tricky fast…
And with climate change intensifying extreme weather like droughts and flooding, there’s one potential solution that would help solve both problems. Dr. Tom Minckley said it involves moving water.
“We could say, ‘Oh, well, the western states are in drought. So we could take water from, say, the Mississippi or the Missouri River, and when it floods, we could capture that floodwater, and then basically return it to the head of the watershed,'” he said.
Dr. Minckley is a Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming. He studies water in the West and how it’s managed. He said piping water from a flooded place to a place in drought is an idea that’s becoming much more popular. State governments already transfer water between some states in the west…
But because of Wyoming’s high elevation, moving water here from almost anywhere else would mean fighting gravity. It would require a lot of energy because water is actually quite heavy. Not to mention the logistics of where a pipeline would even go and how much it would cost – water is valued by the acre-foot.
“On average, it’s about $2,000 per acre-foot. And some of the Colorado River water in the state of Colorado is running for $85,000 an acre-foot. So, like, there’s these crazy, really big numbers out there,” said Minckley. “And the question is if we start moving water from where it is to where we want it to be, how do we pay for it?”
The idea has been researched and despite its growing popularity, the Bureau of Reclamation found its implementation highly unlikely because of the cost and logistics.
Another idea that’s been floated is cloud seeding…
[Bart] Geerts said farming communities in the High Plains have financially supported seeding operations in thunderstorms for decades, but it can be really hard to prove that kind of seeding actually worked. But, he said it is a lot easier to demonstrate that it worked when they seed winter clouds. Which can be more useful in the High Plains anyway.
Because there’s natural variability between the years, you can’t pinpoint exactly how much more snowfall there was due to seeding and they work with averages. Geerts said a common belief is that cloud seeding keeps moisture from falling in other places where it’s needed.
“It’s really not understood. There is that possibility but in general, these wintertime clouds are not very efficient,” he said. “Essentially water vapor condenses, you extract it, make it into snow, and thereby you reduce the downstream amount of water vapor to some extent. But that amount is so, so small, so insignificant compared to the total water vapor content.”
But Geerts added on the flip side of that, some of the seeding materials may float downwind and increase snowfall on the next mountain range.
“So it can work either way. We don’t really have an answer,” he said.
It seems like a lot of ideas and conversations about this topic end with that – “we don’t really have an answer.” But as droughts intensify, driven by climate change, those conversations continue to happen. And some may lead to more viable solutions.
The city of Steamboat Springs is exploring a way to help it stay in compliance with state regulations and also cool down chronically high temperatures in an impaired stretch of the Yampa River.
A program called water-quality trading could allow the city to meet the requirements of its wastewater-treatment facility’s discharge permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by cooling other areas of the river by planting trees.
The Yampa River flows through downtown Steamboat, where several parks and the Core Trail have been built along its banks. The river, a vital and cherished amenity for the Steamboat community, is popular with tubers and anglers. According to a 2017 survey of citizens, 75% of respondents ranked the management and health of the Yampa as essential or very important.
But low flows and high temperatures, made worse in recent years by climate change, have impacted the public’s ability to use one of their favorite amenities. In July, the city closed the river to commercial use because of high temperatures — over 75 degrees. The city also recommended a voluntary closure for noncommercial users of the river.
The entire 57-mile segment of the Yampa from above the confluence with Oak Creek to above the confluence with Elkhead Creek often has temperatures that are too high during the summer months, and in 2016 the segment was designated as impaired for temperature under the Clean Water Act. For July, August, September and November, stream temperatures exceed state standards for a cold-water fishery.
Because the river is classified as impaired, city officials expect that when CDPHE issues a future discharge permit for the city’s wastewater-treatment plant, it will include more-stringent water temperature standards. The wastewater-treatment plant may not be able to meet these standards unless it cools the effluent before releasing it back into the river. The city’s current discharge permit expires at the end of the year.
According to CDPHE Marketing and Communications Specialist Eric Garcia, Steamboat’s next permit will likely not have temperature limits, but will have temperature monitoring requirements. The soonest the city would have temperature limits for the wastewater treatment plan is Jan. 1, 2027.
“These monitoring requirements are included so that we have a full understanding of the temperature issues in the Yampa River and at the plant before we set any temperature limits,” Garcia said in an email.
FromThe Steamboat Pilot & Today (Gene Hinkemeyer):
Did you know the Colorado Department of Natural Resources calls for 80% of prioritized rivers to be covered by a stream management plan by 2030? Yes, that includes our Yampa River Basin.
The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable — YWG BRT — is one of nine grassroots water policy roundtables throughout Colorado working to develop locally driven, collaborative solutions to water supply challenges. The YWG BRT has been working on an integrated water management plan for the past several years.
The overall goal of the integrated water management plan is to use science, data and community input to build a healthy, productive water future in the Yampa basin for all water users. A committee of volunteers selected by and reporting to the YWG BRT coordinates the project.
Over the past two years, the integrated water management plan has focused on four geographic segments in the basin: upper, middle and lower main stem of the Yampa and the Elk River. Stakeholder interviews were conducted of agricultural, environmental/recreational and municipal/industrial water stakeholders in the basin. Interviews were conducted to learn about stakeholder’s operation and diversion infrastructure, water and riparian land management related concerns and opportunities for improvement.
Diversion assessments were also conducted to identify, evaluate and recommend multibenefit projects. The diversion infrastructure assessment report, which can be found at http://YampaWhiteGreen.com, represents the findings of the structures assessed. The primary goal of the diversion assessments was to gain an understanding of infrastructure used for diversions and to identify locations where infrastructure improvements could provide multiple benefits to the river and water users. These assessments evaluate opportunities that could benefit the structure owner(s), fish passage, recreational boating and overall river health.
So, what do we do with all this information? The integrated water management plan volunteer committee organized three focus areas around key topics to learn more and help identify projects for future work: ag infrastructure; riparian habitat/wetland/natural bank stability; and flows/shortages. A few projects are already in the works, with other projects to begin later this year.
The ag infrastructure work group has identified an initial set of agricultural diversion infrastructure projects that the integrated water management plan hopes to support and fund starting in 2022. Using data collected from interviews, the riparian focused work group has identified landowners with concerns related to erosion, bank stability and riparian habitat. Follow up interviews over the next few months are planned to better characterize their concerns and learn more about potential solutions.
Additional work has been completed, including a remote assessment that provided geomorphic, hydrological and ecological context for the integrated water management plan planning effort. This broad characterization applies remote sensing and GIS-based tools and techniques to assess moderate-resolution data sets across watershed and planning segment scales to identify and map trends and characteristics in physical and biological functions within the basin. Field assessments are underway to ground truth and verify the remote assessment findings.
A fluvial hazard mapping project is also in progress to delineate areas vulnerable to sediment and debris impacts spurred by rainfall or rapid snowmelt. As a final product, these maps can be used to inform land use planning, stream interventions and to identify and prioritize the conservation or restoration of natural geomorphic floodplains, wetlands and river corridors within the basin.
The integrated water management plan volunteer committee has been busy and continues to work hard on community driven plans for the Yampa Basin. We can only be successful with input and ideas from all stakeholders. If you would like to learn more, please visit our website, http://YampaWhiteGreen.com/iwmp.
Gena Hinkemeyer is segment coordinator of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable.
A thin haze appeared in the afternoon between our rubber boats and distant fins of burnt-orange rock, while a hot wind touched our faces, hands—any skin not taking refuge beneath cool, wet cloth. Later, the haze thickened, mixed with cirrus clouds and gave the golden-hour light a reddish tint.
The river still rushed by, and vibrant leaves in our camp’s young cottonwood gallery fluttered above me. The voice of the yellow-breasted chat that had berated us from cliff walls echoed in my mind, along with the scent of sage and sumac from a lunchtime visit to petroglyphs up a tributary canyon. I was fully immersed in this place, Desolation Canyon on the Green River in eastern Utah. No internet, no phone reception, no news or other distractions. Just the river, the canyon, and my companions on this week-long writing retreat.
But the sky’s tint and the hot wind hinted at what was happening outside the sheltering canyon walls. Record-breaking heat and nearby wildfires, starting early this year. The river itself gave more clues, to those who knew how to recognize them. Low flows and tame rapids, in June. A bear and cub were by the river when they should have been finding forage at higher elevations. We followed a long, irregular stripe of mineral crust punctuated by half-dead clumps of grass on the eastern wall. An extended seep that wasn’t seeping, the ghosts of hanging gardens.
Extended drought—or more accurately, aridification—is making its mark on the landscape and on people’s lives. News that I didn’t read during those days on the river was about ever shrinking forecast inflows into Lake Powell and how the states that share the Colorado River might manage reduced water supplies within a legal framework based on imagined bounty.
I write about these things, too, but on the river, I was trying to find words beyond my habitual short-hand to describe our hydrology and water policy developments. For over ten years, I’ve been learning and communicating about how people built an unbalanced system in the Colorado River Basin, constructing the plumbing for demands to exceed supplies, and how we can worm our way out of the worst consequences of that fundamental problem for fish and farms. I still think that matters, and I still think we have options.
But the river showed me that the transformation in our landscape is bigger than that, beyond the reach of our tinkering. Even far from ditches and diversions, seeps go dry and forage for bears thins out. We can micromanage irrigation water to get the most from every drop, clean up toilet water to a pristine state, and adjust reservoir releases to help endangered fish. We can pay farmers to fallow fields. But we can’t pay the hot wind to stop taking water from the sage, the sumac and the dirt. There’s no negotiating on this point, and no escape, not even in one of the most remote canyons in the lower 48.
Aridification carries a heavier emotional weight when I see it on the land than when I read papers about it or watch presentations in windowless conference rooms. It’s hard to see things change, irrevocably. To walk through a sick forest and know that it won’t grow back the same. To know that going away from people and the things we’ve built can’t actually take me back to a less damaged state of nature.
Since that trip down Desolation Canyon, back home in Grand Junction, Colorado, the temperatures have eased from the 100s into the 90s, and the summer rains we’ve missed for a couple of years have come back. It’s a welcome respite, and the dwarf ash and pinyon pines I see on my trail runs look perkier than they have in ages. I know these rains aren’t enough to reverse the harsh trend we’re in, but they lift my spirits and give all living things a break, a chance to gather strength before facing the next onslaught of hot wind.
We can’t turn back the clock and we can’t run away, but we can gather strength from an unexpected storm. We can diligently tinker where tinkering can work. And we can dip cloth into cool water, feel it dribble across our skin, and listen to the birds as we drift down the river.
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.
Governor Mark Gordon’s Colorado River Working Group will hold its first meeting from 9 am to noon on Sept. 7 in Rock Springs. The group will discuss important Colorado River matters and monitor potential impacts to Wyoming. The kickoff meeting will be open to the public and led by the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office.
The formation of the Working Group comes in response to continuing drought conditions in the Colorado, Green and Little Snake River basins and associated issues concerning Colorado River Basin management. The Governor’s charge to the Working Group is to discuss and share Colorado River information with interested stakeholders in the Green and Little Snake River Basins. It is a continuation of a coordinated and proactive outreach effort that has been underway in Wyoming since 2019.
This group is made up of representatives of key water use sectors in the Green and Little Snake River Basins. Working Group members are:
Ben Bracken — Green River/Rock Springs/Sweetwater Joint Powers Board (retired)
Brad Brooks — Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities
Senator Larry Hicks — Senate District 11
Representative Albert Sommers — House District 20
Jen Lamb — The Nature Conservancy
Aaron Reichel — Genesis-Alkali
Ron Wild — PacifiCorp
The September 7th meeting will be held at Western Wyoming Community College in Business Office Room #3650 A&B in Rock Springs. More information, including background materials and future meeting agendas, will be posted on the Colorado River Working Group web page on the Wyoming State Engineer’s website: https://seo.wyo.gov/interstate-streams/wyoming-colorado-river-working-group.
As coal mining fades, a diverse coalition of Moffat County residents and leaders is planning for the next chapter with a focus on protecting resources while managing recreation and tourism.
How can northwest Colorado entice and manage visitors, protect natural landscapes like the Green River’s stunning Gates of Lodore and prop up an economy girding for the looming departure of coal mining?
“As our coal leaves, what do we have left?” asks Jennifer Holloway, the executive director of the chamber of commerce in the town of Craig, where she grew up. “We have an amazing experience that can change lives. How can we share that, but also protect it?”
Three years ago, Moffat County “had some challenges with our identity,” Holloway says, describing how her father, when she was little, walked away from the family farm to work in the better-paying coal mines. “Not everyone had a coal job, but we focused on coal and neglected other things.”
Those other things — like tourism, agriculture and outdoor recreation — are no longer being neglected. It’s been a year since Tri-State Generation and Transmission and Xcel Energy announced they would be closing their coal-fired electrical plants and nearby coal mines starting in 2028. The closures will cost northwest Colorado as many as 800 jobs.
A community-based transition plan focuses on growing the region’s tourism and recreational amenities while protecting agricultural heritage and natural resources. The communities of Moffat County, downstream from the bustling resort of Steamboat Springs, are essentially a blank slate. They are taking cues from other Western Slope communities, hoping to glean lessons on what works and what does not. And the wheels are turning.
“Our community is on the cusp of doing great things, transformational things,” Holloway says.
Craig has applied for a $1.8 million federal grant for the roughly $2.7 million Yampa River Corridor Project, which hopes to revamp boat ramps and add a whitewater park as part of an effort to bolster the region’s appeal with river runners and paddlers. An additional phase of the plan would build a trail connecting Craig to the Yampa River…
First in line for state’s new rural assistance program
Nathan Fey, the head of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office has joined the Office of Economic Development and International Trade in recruiting students from the University of Colorado to map recreational assets in Moffat County as well as business infrastructure.
That case study will inform a larger project that will include local residents in shaping how northwest Colorado is presented to both visitors and outdoor recreation businesses. That larger project is part of Colorado’s new Rural Technical Assistance Program, or RTAP, which offers rural communities technical education that deploys online tools to help community leaders identify needs and build a plan for future growth. The second phase of the rural program involves technical assistance for planning and finally the state will help the community implement its strategic plan.
Moffat County is among the first communities to go through the new Rural Technical Assistance Program.
Say, for example, a snowmobile business or manufacturer approaches the state with an idea about relocating to Colorado. Fey can suggest Craig and Moffat County, offering maps of snow trail systems where the company can test designs as well as insights into supply chain management, broadband and commercial space. And residents in the community would already have expressed interest in welcoming that kind of business.
As he gazes up at massive sandstone cliffs above the Green River near its confluence with the Yampa River, [Andrew Grossman] riffs on what a shifting valuation for tourism economies might look like. Is it attracting wealthier visitors who leave more money in the community? But what if those high-rollers arrive on a private jet and emit that much more carbon than a less affluent visitor? One thing that is going away: the former yardstick for measuring success that was based solely on numbers of visitors.
“Maybe it’s time we apply a triple bottom line that considers resident sentiments, carbon footprints and economic benefit?” Grossmann says. “We have to reshift our value proposition.”
Julie Baxter, a senior planner with the city of Steamboat Springs, has accepted a new position just across the way from the planning department.
Baxter has been tapped as the new water resources manager following Kelly Romero-Heaney’s departure from the role.
“I wanted to get back into the water world, into water resources, planning for climate change, drought and wildfires and those types of issues,” Baxter said. “Those are the things that I’m more passionate about.”
Before joining the city as a senior planner, Baxter worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency based in Denver, managing six states in the Rocky Mountain region.
While in that position, Baxter worked on long-range planning to help communities reduce their risk of wildfires, earthquakes and other disasters in the region. After the 2013 floods that devastated Colorado’s Front Range, leaving nine dead and $4 billion in damages, Baxter worked closely with state and municipal governments in long-term flood recovery.
“Climate change and those impacts with drought and wildfires are really pushing us into more uncharted territory in the water resources management,” Baxter said, who noted the city has been doing long-range planning for those issues over the past few years.
The main job of the city’s water resources manager is to manage the city’s water rights portfolio and protect the city’s stretch of the Yampa River, which fuels several aspects of Routt County’s economy, including, tourism, recreation and agriculture.
With lower, warmer water levels in the Yampa River during this extreme drought year, town of Hayden employees are carefully watching operations at the water plant this summer to continue to alleviate taste or odor issues for the town’s 1,100 water taps…
[Bryan] Richards said the usual time of heightened summer concern for low water levels and thus increased algae is lasting longer this year, starting about one month earlier than usual in early July rather than the normal early August. Water levels have dropped at the intake on the Yampa River at the water plant north of town, and water temperatures at the intake have increased by 3 to 5 degrees above normal, rising as high as 75 degrees. Lower, slower, warmer water leads to more algae production…
Fortunately, major improvements to the Hayden water treatment plant during the past three years are working to help mitigate the algae increases, said Town Manager Mathew Mendisco. He said the town spent a total of $2.3 million in water system and plant upgrades with half of the funding coming from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and other funding from a citizen-approved bond measure. The plant was first built in 1978…
Town of Hayden water users have been under outdoor water restrictions this summer that mimic city of Steamboat Springs restrictions and resulted in a 3% decrease in overall water use compared to the past three years, even though the watering season started earlier this dry year, Richards said. Hayden water users will need to continue water conservation efforts when the town’s 1 million gallon water tank on hospital hill goes offline for a planned refurbishment starting with the tank drained by the end of August through project completion Oct. 20, Richards said.
Mendisco said the town secured $989,000 in low-interest financing to upgrade the tank through a state revolving loan fund managed by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The town qualified for a 1.5% interest rate based on its status as a “disadvantaged community” dealing with the impacts of the transition from coal.
The town has a 500,000-gallon water tank near Yampa Valley Regional Airport, so officials do not anticipate impacts to water customers when the larger water tank is off line.
As federal water managers declared the first-ever official Colorado River water shortage last week, a top official said he’s confident Wyoming will responsibly implement its plans to store and divert even more flows from the troubled waterway.
The Department of the Interior on Aug. 16 said it would reduce water diversions to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in 2022 after a scheduled August review set the restrictive sideboards for releases next year.
Despite that curtailment, Wyoming plans to corral another 115,000 acre-feet annually by building and modifying dams and their operations to potentially allow more diversions.
At the same time, Wyoming is fleshing out its Drought Contingency Plan and a “demand management” program that could see voluntary reductions in diversions before users in the state might be cut off. Wyoming doesn’t expect curtailments to happen next year, unless drought, aridification and climate change unexpectedly exacerbate the decline in Lake Powell.
In a press call announcing the downstream diversion reductions, a regional Bureau of Reclamation director appeared unfazed by the potential impacts of Wyoming’s dam-building plans.
“Wyoming has exercised foresight in the work of their Wyoming Water Development Commission,” said Wayne Pullan, the BOR’s director for the Upper Colorado River Basin, “and with our long history with Wyoming we’re confident that they’ll pursue any future projects responsibly, fully aware of the context of the hydrology and the difficulties on the Colorado River.”
Wyoming’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission, which will decide how any curtailments in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico will be borne, said his cohorts are “very concerned about the hydrology this basin faces.” A Drought Contingency Plan that’s been adopted in skeleton form “does provide the tools to help manage what we’re seeing now, as troubling as that is,” commission member Pat Tyrrell said at the press call.
Wyo forges ahead with dams…
Pullan would not comment on specific ongoing Wyoming projects, at least five of which in the Green River and Little Snake River basins would collectively control an additional 115,000 acre-feet at an estimated cost of $123 million.
“It is worth noting that one of the purposes of the Colorado River storage project is to assist states, making use of their apportionment under the [1922 Colorado River] Compact,” Pullan said. Wyoming has not developed or appropriated its full share of the water entitled under that historic agreement, state officials have said.
The compact and apportionment among the seven states and Mexico, however, is based on an annual supply of at least 15 million acre-feet, an amount experts say the river basin no longer produces. Further, Wyoming believes the lower basin’s Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico have historically overused their share while upper division states have not exploited their full rights.
At least one group has called for a moratorium on new storage or diversion projects in the basin until the seven states and Mexico can address what’s widely seen as claims to flows that no longer exist. Wyoming still deserves its share, state officials believe.
“We aren’t obligated to sustain overuse anywhere else,” Tyrrell said in an interview, “to the detriment of our existing demands here in Wyoming.”
Tyrrell offered one scenario where an ongoing dam project could be immediately affected by less runoff. At the Big Sandy Dam in Sublette County, the Bureau of Reclamation is raising the structure to impound an additional 12,900 acre-feet for irrigation.
“That’ll come under a more recent priority date,” Tyrrell said, meaning the new storage area will be among the first to be cut off if lower-basin shortages creep upstream. The doctrine of prior appropriation that governs water use in Wyoming recognizes the first-in-time water appropriation to be first-in-right when shortages occur.
“If we are, for example, under any kind of curtailment,” Tyrrell said, Big Sandy “won’t be allowed to fill.
“It will put no more additional stress on the system if it’s not allowed to fill up,” he told WyoFile.
Other new dams, reservoir enlargements or operational changes that would give Wyoming access to more water would be subject to separate sideboards depending on whether they are built, what priority of appropriation they might impound, who owns them and other factors.
The amount of water involved in the Wyoming projects is “very small in comparison to Lake Powell,” Tyrrell said. Powell holds some 20 million acre-feet of what’s called active storage — the amount that can actually be used.
The downstream reductions — 18%, 7% and 5% of Arizona, Nevada and Mexico’s annual apportionments respectively — amount to 613,000 acre-feet. That’s about 3% of Powell’s storage or, seen another way, about 10% more than Wyoming’s average annual usage of basin flows.
The impact of any additional consumptive use in Wyoming — which could approach the 115,000 acre-feet contemplated in Wyoming’s dam plans — “is very, very small in comparison to what might be stored in Lake Powell,” Tyrrell said.
“I believe the environmental impact statement for Big Sandy found there would be no significant impact to reservoir elevations downstream by an enlargement,” he said.
Wyoming’s legal team stands behind water developers, assistant attorney general Chris Brown said as he echoed Tyrrell’s overview. “We are certainly not obligated to sustain overuse in other places in the basin on the backs of Wyoming water users, either current or future.”
Water developers, including Wyoming itself, understand the priority system and risks associated with constructing impoundments to hold back flows. In the face of dwindling supply, some wonder whether new structures might become stranded assets — facilities built under one scenario that can’t be used as intended in a new reality.
A professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School expressed skepticism about Wyoming’s basin-wide plans. “That seems like a bad investment,” Mark Squillace said in an interview.
… and plans for curtailments
Already the Bureau of Reclamation has activated provisions under its Drought Response Operations Agreement to release water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah. Pullan called the action a “small ‘e’” emergency release that will help keep the level at Powell high enough to continue generating valuable electricity.
The Flaming Gorge releases and others also help the four upper-basin states meet their water-flow obligations under the 1922 compact, Wyoming’s Tyrrell said. The dwindling flows, he said, “threaten to get worse.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
During his tenure as Utah governor, Gary Herbert repeatedly stressed that water is the only limiting factor to the state’s growth.
That day is here for the nation’s fastest-growing state, and water managers are scrambling.
Drought is gripping 17 states in 95% of the service area of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and half of that area is experiencing severe or extreme conditions.
Those states stretch from the West, into the Southwest and the Great Plains region of the United States. Aside from Utah, victims of this megadrought are Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, California, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
It has become so severe at Utah’s Lake Powell, emergency releases were instituted from three upstream reservoirs to prop up its levels and to help keep power generation functioning at Glen Canyon Dam, which produces enough electricity for 336,000 households. On top of that, Colorado River allocations were reduced for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico due to the first water shortage in history being declared for the river.
In a five-year period, the nation’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — saw their capacity drop by half. They are now the lowest they’ve been since they started filling decades ago.
When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced the 18% reduction for Arizona, the 7% cut for Nevada and the 5% curtailment for Mexico, the historic first underscored how dismal the situation is in the Colorado River Basin.
“The announcement today is a recognition that the hydrology planned for years ago that we hoped we would never see is here,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, the bureau’s deputy commissioner…
According to the latest information from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 60 million people across nine states in the West are having their lives touched by what’s been described as a 100-year drought…
The Upper Colorado River Basin, which covers Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, is experiencing its driest 22 years on record.
Lake Powell dropped 145 feet from 2000 to 2005, directly attributed to a record low runoff in 2002 of just 24% of average.
The Great Salt Lake slipped below its lowest recorded elevation, documented in 1963.
Utah water managers are dipping into emergency supplies in the state’s reservoirs and most, if not all, irrigation companies are cutting the season short by weeks.
Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District that operates multiple northern Utah reservoirs, said conditions are dire…
Flint fears as the spigots for secondary water are turned off — and if September ends up hot and dry — households and businesses will turn to using treated water for landscaping needs…
How did we get here?
“It’s been pretty dramatic in how bad meteorologically it has been from an impacts point of view,” said Jon Meyer, a climate scientist with Utah State University’s Utah Climate Center.
Meyer said last year the drought was severe — with the driest summer and fall on record — but reservoirs were able to “buffer” that dryness in urban areas particularly.
When last winter’s below average snowpack began to melt, record dry soils stole the moisture…
Echoing Herbert’s concerns on water and growth, water law expert Melissa Reynolds warned if conditions persist, cities and the state throughout the arid West will face tough choices.
“We could see restrictions on new connections,” said Reynolds, an attorney with Holland & Hart. “I do think if we continue to see conditions like we have in 2021, more and more water providers may consider stopping new water connections. Lack of source capacity is a limiting factor on development.”
With even some “first in time” or the oldest, most senior water rights going dry or getting curtailed this year, Reynolds said impacts are widespread for the economy…
Agriculture and water
When it comes to Utah consumption, some critics point to the agricultural community as a big water waster in a state that is the second-driest in the nation.
They complain about the water it takes to grow alfalfa, admittedly a cash crop but one that is critical to support Utah’s ranching community.
Craig Buttars, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, editorialized in the Deseret News that what most people don’t realize is that due to the Utah drought, farmers and ranchers have had their water cut from 70% to 75% this year compared to last.
He warned those reductions have forced ranchers to sell off cattle and resulted in crop yields far below normal, which will mean higher food prices…
Utahns’ love affair with green lawns has been a target of water providers as they push people to replace water-sucking turf with vegetation more suitable to the state’s climate…
How much vegetation must remain — an issue of aesthetics for some communities — varies from area to area, however. That has led some conservation-minded residents to question why there is a requirement at all…
Meyer, from USU, said as periods of extended and intense drought continue to persist, Utah may have to come to grips with abandoning its concerns over aesthetics and being more mindful of water use.
Drought may very well change how Utah looks, and how it grows.
Driving throughout New Mexico and Arizona, Meyer noted, there is an absence of lush green turf. In its place, there is vegetation that is more practical in an era of climate change.
The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is releasing up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions…
Various agencies and water groups have worked to keep restrictions or “calls” off of the Yampa River for junior water rights holders, but if the drought persists as it has in recent weeks, there is potential that a call may be inevitable. The last call was placed on July 29, the third call in the river’s history, though it was later rescinded on Aug. 2.
Marielle Cowdin, director of public relations at the Colorado River District, said that the release was made possible by the Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, which received $50,000 in funding.
“We have been managers at Elkhead Reservoir of certain pools of water that exist there,” Cowdin said. “So when the call came on the Yampa, earlier this month, we worked in partnership with the Department of Water Resources and their division engineers to release some water to take the call off the Yampa — at least for a temporary time — so that junior water users would not have their water rights curtailed for that short amount of time.”
Because of potential calls in the future, the River District has a financial partnership with the CWCB to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin. The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in 2021, specifically for crop and livestock production.
Cowdin also said that because it is only August, the Yampa region still has weeks of potentially hot and dry weather, which could lead to another call. She added that the Colorado River District worked with the state of Colorado and the CWCB to provide contracts with local ranchers and farmers to access the 677 acre-feet of water.