State engineers developing measurement rules for water diversions — @AspenJournalism #COleg

This Parshall flume, which was installed in the Yampa River basin in 2020 and is shown in this August 2020 photo, replaced the old, rusty device in the background. State engineers are developing rules for measuring devices, which would apply to the entire Western Slope.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

State officials are preparing for a future with less water by developing rules and guidance for water users to measure how much they are taking from streams.

State Engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein is planning a rule-making process on measurement devices that includes stakeholder input. Although state engineers in each water division have the authority to enforce the requirement of measurement devices, Rein said drafting more formal rules through an administrative rule-making process, instead of an ad hoc push like in the Yampa River basin, would affirm that authority. Rules would also include specific technical guidance on the best types of flumes, weirs and meters to use for different types of diversions.

“The idea about rule-making is that we would have consistent guidance across the basin, developed through a formal process,” Rein said. “One thing I’ve found is that when you have stakeholder involvement in the development, then you have stakeholder buy-in during the implementation.”

Sprinklers and a ditch irrigate this section of Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale on Wednesday. According to state officials, about 95% of diversions in the Crystal and Roaring Fork River basins already have measuring devices.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Yampa/White/Green river basin

Division 6 Engineer Erin Light is still taking a lenient stance with water users in the White and Green river basins while the measurement rules are developed. In fall 2019, Light ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use and initially received some push-back from agricultural water users unaccustomed to measuring their diversions.

In March 2020, Light issued notices to water users in the White and Green, but decided to delay sending formal orders after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the economy. Orders are still on pause while Rein’s office develops the measurement rules, which would apply across the Western Slope.

“It made more sense to wait for the measurement rules to at least get started, maybe not necessarily get completed, but allow Kevin to get out and start doing the stakeholder meetings and encourage these structures to be installed without orders,” Light said.

Compliance is gradually increasing across the basin, but at a slower pace than Light would like. In January 2020, 49% of diversions in the Yampa River basin did not have a measuring device; as of April 2021, 42% were still without one. White River basin compliance has improved from 83% without a measuring device to 68% over the same time period; water users in the Green have gone from 69% to 49%. As a whole, Division 6 has gone from 55% of diversions without measuring devices to 46%.

“I would have hoped that we would have had more compliance at this point,” Light said. “I look at those numbers and think we still have some work in front of us and how are we going to accomplish our goal, which is to assure that all of these structures that we maintain records on have operable headgates and measuring devices.”

In some basins on the Western Slope, nearly all diversions already have measuring devices. For example, in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins, about 95% of the structures have devices, according to Colorado Department of Natural Resources Communications Director Chris Arend. That’s because there has traditionally been more demand and competition for water in these basins, he said.

Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch in this August 2020 photo. Compliance with measuring device requirements has been moving more slowly than state engineers would like.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Water shortages drive measurement push

The push for Western Slope diverters to measure their water use comes down to impending water shortages. Division 6, in sparsely populated northwest Colorado, has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as climate change tightens its grip on the West, there is less water to go around. Calls by senior water users have gone from unheard of to increasingly common in just the last few years.

“We definitely have systems on call that have never been on call,” Light said of current conditions in the Yampa.

A call occurs when a senior water rights holder is not getting their full amount they are entitled to. They place a call with state engineers, who shut off more junior water rights users so the senior user can get their full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.

“If you don’t have a measuring device during a call, we are shutting you off, period,” Light said.

As the threat of a Colorado River Compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.

A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.

If a compact call were to play out, measuring devices would be crucial, because as Rein says, you can’t administer what you can’t measure.

“We need to better measure what has been diverted, so having measurement rules and therefore measuring devices in place will be critical to prepare for and implement compact administration, should it happen,” he said.

The state is also currently exploring a potential demand management program, which would temporarily pay irrigators to not irrigate and leave more water in the river. The goal would be to boost water levels in Lake Powell and avoid a compact call. But in order to participate in the voluntary program, feasibility of which is still being evaluated, irrigators need to first measure their water diversions.

“We would have to know how much they were using in the years before, before we can give them credit for not using it,” Rein said.

Sprinklers irrigate this section of Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale on July 14, 2021. State engineers are creating rules that will lay out guidelines for water users to install measurement devices for their diversions from the river.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Low interest in grant funding

One of the reasons Light originally paused enforcing the measurement device requirement in the White River basin was to give conservancy districts time to secure grant money to help irrigators pay for the potentially expensive infrastructure. But there was not much interest from water users in getting grant money, according to Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River & Douglas Creek Conservation Districts.

“We did not proceed with (securing grants),” she said. “We didn’t hear from very many people that they were seeking funding.”

The story was similar on the Yampa. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District had a $200,000 pot of money — half of it state grant money and half from the district — to reimburse water users for installing measuring devices. Irrigators can get 50% of their costs covered, up to $5,000 through the first tier of the grant program. According to Public Information and External Affairs Manager Holly Kirkpatrick, despite a very simple application process, the program has doled out just under $40,000 so far for about 20 projects.

“I had certainly hoped to have more interest in the first year of the program,” she said.

As Rein plans for webinars and meetings with water users later this summer and fall, the situation in the Colorado River basin grows more dire. The Bureau of Reclamation this week began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell to try to maintain the ability to produce hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon Dam.

“I recognize the value in having measurement rules as soon as possible because, yes, they would be extremely helpful if we need to take measures toward compact administration,” Rein said. “Having more data sooner rather than later is important.”

Aspen Journalism covers waters and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

Governor Polis Signs #MuddySlideFire Executive Order

A day on the Muddy Slide Fire #wildlandfire #muddyslidefire Photo by firefighter David Cottrell

Here’s the release from Governor Polis’ office:

Governor Jared Polis today signed an Executive Order memorializing a verbal disaster declaration from June 23, 2021, for the Muddy Slide Fire in Routt County. The Executive Order enables State agencies to coordinate for fire suppression, response, consequence management, and recovery efforts.

#Drought, worst in history, hits Summit County, #Utah ranchers — The Park Record

From The Park Record (Alexander Cramer):

The images that define this drought are etched into the creek beds and hillsides of Summit County, their importance drawn out by experienced eyes that know how the land should look.

For one Summit County rancher whose operations cover vast swaths near Wyoming, the emblem might be the bare creek that’s never run dry this early, or the grass last year that grew so dry and brittle it blew away with the wind.

For a dairyman in Hoytsville, it might be the yellowing field that’s next to a still-green one, the result of hard choices after irrigation water was cut off earlier than in memory.

For a South Summit rancher and water official, it might be the hay they’re harvesting at almost half the yield of what it should be, or the low reservoirs that just keep emptying.

That official, Dave Ure, speaking just after a tour of waterworks facilities in Summit County, put the situation in stark terms.

“We are in the worst drought in the state of Utah’s history right now, and the only thing compared to it is the droughts back in 1895 and 1933,” Ure said.

The Ures have been in South Summit for 135 years. Dave Ure is a former politician and current trustee of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which oversees many of the water sources in Summit County.

Ure said water will still flow from household taps, contending that the situation isn’t close to threatening culinary water, at least for those who are connected to a larger municipal system. Water will be diverted from agriculture users long before that happens, Ure said.

But that doesn’t mean the impacts will be confined to farmers and ranchers. Food prices can be expected to go up, Ure said, and wildfire risk will likely remain elevated. The drought might change the landscape itself, possibly hastening a trend of developing farmland into subdivisions.

Those impacts remain on the horizon, for now, but the impacts on farmers and ranchers are already here…

[Jeff] Young traced the current shortages to last summer. He said the 2019-2020 winter provided good water, but that it stopped raining in June and didn’t start snowing until November. A summer and fall without water was something he hadn’t seen before…

The dryness persisted into the winter, and even though there was a below-average snowpack, the season total was not devastating. But the drought was waiting underneath, with soils as dry as had ever been measured.

Ure said there is normally about 500,000 acre-feet of runoff water in the entire Weber Basin catchment area…

Young said the higher-elevation springs on the ranch are still producing, but that the lower areas are bone dry. He said the drought was already beginning to affect the underground aquifers.

Earlier this season, he went to the creek to fix what he thought was a problem with the water-capturing infrastructure.

“I was naive. I thought I had to fix the diversion, but there was nothing to get,” he said…

The Browns have water stored in a reservoir dug by their ancestors in 1883. But that reservoir was down significantly this year, and once that water is used, their fields will no longer be irrigated.

They won’t be able to grow as much feed for their cattle as they normally can, meaning they’ll have to buy it.

Hay prices have skyrocketed, they said, driven up by the lack of supply as well as the number of people who are in the market for feed.

Mike Brown flipped his phone over and showed a social media post from a friend asking if anyone had hay for sale…

With the drought forcing ranchers across the region to sell off portions of their herds, animals don’t fetch the same prices they once did.

All three said they had or were planning to sell significant portions of their stock.

Mike Brown said he has to call days ahead to reserve an appointment to send animals to slaughter. The packing plants are full, he said.

Liquidating the stock might get the ranchers out of debt, but it might not raise enough capital to restart a ranching or farming operation after the drought passes.

Moving the animals comes with transportation costs and the added challenge of finding areas unaffected by the drought, which stretches across much of the West…

Challenges to come

There aren’t many small ranching operations left in Summit County, Ure and others said, and this drought might just drive them out.

Young said it would likely change who’s in the ranching business, possibly opening the door to larger agriculture operations.

Ranchers could also opt to sell to housing developers…

Farmland that may have been profitable might not be so now, and the real estate market is red hot. Ure said he’d heard of several recent transactions in the Kamas area in which land sold for “outrageous prices.”

Summit County Councilor Chris Robinson, who owns or co-owns hundreds of thousands of acres in Utah and elsewhere, including Ensign Ranches, said one silver lining of what he called the “megadrought” is that it’s putting the appropriate level of scrutiny on water use…

Ure predicted that over the course of the summer, governments would start announcing water-conservation regulations. Some options include reducing the amount of grass installed in new development and incentivizing a switch to drought-resistant landscaping.

Young, Ure and Mike and Glen Brown agreed that if the drought persisted into next year, it would compound the problem to perhaps unmanageable levels.

Utah Rivers map via Geology.com

Reclamation’s July 24-Month Study implements contingency operations in the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver #SanJuanRiver #GunnisonRiver

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron):

The Bureau of Reclamation today released the July 24-Month Study, confirming declining hydrologic conditions for the Colorado River system. To protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the study incorporates the implementation of drought operations under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA).

The July 2021 Operation Plan for Colorado River System Reservoirs 24-Month Study (July 24-Month Study) shows that the Lake Powell water year 2021 predicted unregulated inflow volume has decreased 2.5 million acre-feet in the six-month period between January and July 2021. The current forecast for WY2021 is 3.23 maf (30% of average).

In addition, 5-year projections released by Reclamation last week predicted a 79% chance that Lake Powell would fall below the DROA target elevation of 3,525 feet within the next year. That target elevation provides a 35 vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam and meet current operational obligations to the Lower Basin States of Arizona, California and Nevada.

Consistent with DROA provisions to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the July 24-Month Study includes adjusted releases from the upstream initial units of the Colorado River Storage Project Act to deliver an additional 181 thousand-acre feet of water to Lake Powell by the end of December 2021. The additional releases are anticipated to be implemented on the following schedule:

Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) planned releases July 16, 2021. The “Last Flush”. Data credit: USBR

The releases detailed above are in addition to the already established releases determined by operational plans for each of the identified facilities. The additional delivery of 181 kaf is expected to raise Lake Powell’s elevation by approximately three feet. The additional releases from the upstream initial units do not change the annual volume of water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead in WY2021, as those volumes are determined by the 2007 Interim Guidelines.

Reclamation publishes a 24-Month Study for Colorado River System reservoirs each month. The August 24-Month Study will set the operating conditions for Lake Mead and Lake Powell for the upcoming year. Reclamation will also release an update to the 5-year projections in early September.

Reclamation and the Colorado River Basin states continue to work together cooperatively to closely monitor projections and conditions and are prepared to take additional measures in accordance with the DROA.

Reclamation remains committed to reducing the collective risk of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead falling to critical elevations and will continue to work with entities in the Colorado River Basin to ensure that both facilities continue to function as authorized to meet the natural, municipal and agricultural needs of the basin.

To view the July and prior 24-month studies, visit http://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/studies.

Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

The #ColoradoRiver is drying up faster than federal officials can keep track. Mandatory water cuts are looming — The #Colorado Sun #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround #YampaRiver #GreenRiver

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam. Lake Mead last month fell to its lowest level since the Hoover Dam was built in 1936. The shoreline has dropped 45 meters since the reservoir was last full in 2000. Photo by Ken Neubecker via American Rivers

From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

Plummeting reservoir levels at Mead and Powell solidify Arizona cutbacks next year and near-future threats to all the Compact states, from Colorado to California

blunt new report based on June runoff conditions from the Colorado River into Lake Powell and Lake Mead shows the reservoirs fast deteriorating toward “dead pool” status, where stored water is so low it can’t spin the massive hydroelectric power generators buried in the dams, and large swaths of Arizona farmland going fallow.

The enormous, life-sustaining buckets of water in the drought-stricken West are emptying so fast that the Bureau of Reclamation added a new monthly report – on top of three already scheduled this year – to keep up with the dam

The bureau said the loss of water is accelerating, confirming projections that massive water restrictions will begin in 2022 for the three Lower Basin states in the seven-state Colorado River Compact. Conservation groups believe Arizona will lose more than 500,000 acre-feet of water usually delivered by the Colorado in 2022 through voluntary and mandatory cuts, forcing significant reductions to irrigated farming in the desert state. Some, but not all, of Arizona’s share will be replaced in trades using water already “banked” in the reservoirs.

The bureau’s report for June, added on to previously scheduled reservoir updates for January, April and August, paints a dire picture. As snowpack runoff disappeared into dry ground instead of hitting the reservoirs, engineers calculated a 79% chance Lake Powell will fall below its minimum target water height of 3,525 feet above sea level next year.

That minimum provides only a 35-foot cushion for the minimum water level of 3,490 feet needed to spill water into the electric turbines. The bureau said there is now a 5% chance Lake Powell falls below the minimum needed to generate any power in 2023, and a 17% chance in 2024 — the odds are going up with each new report.

Lake Mead, which feeds the three Lower Basin compact states of Nevada, California and Arizona, is in even worse shape. The compact requires declaration of restriction-triggering “shortage condition” if Mead hits 1,075 feet or lower. Mead is falling now, and the bureau affirmed the shortage declaration will happen in August. Las Vegas, a short drive from Mead and Hoover Dam, hit 117 degrees on July 10, and longtime local users are alarmed at how fast the pool is evaporating into desert skies.

Mead is also in great danger of hitting “critical” elevations of 1,025 feet, a sort of emergency-stop minimum, and the minimum pool for generating power at 1,000 feet, the bureau’s new report said. The chances of draining past the minimum by 2025 are now 58%, and the chances of falling below a power pool that year are 21%.

Weather plus climate change

Long-term climate change is being exacerbated by a short-term drought lasting more than 20 years in the West, scientist and water engineers say. Even with a future snowpack bonanza – not currently in the forecast – the compact reservoirs will remain in deep trouble, said John Berggren, water policy analyst for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates.

The Colorado River basin’s latest snowpack was just about 100% of normal, Berggren noted, but delivered only 50% of normal runoff into the river and the giant reservoirs. Water is soaking into parched ground or evaporating entirely before it can contribute to stream flows.

“It’s startling how with each new projection, you had thought it can’t possibly get worse,” Berggren said. “Even just a year or two ago, most people would have thought these projections are pretty far away from ever happening.”

Major water cutbacks for the Lower Basin states are now an unavoidable reality, Berggren said. “This just shows that we no longer have the luxury of thinking it’s a decade down the road.”

“The June five-year projections for the Colorado River System reaffirm this is a serious situation,” Wayne Pullan, Upper Colorado Basin regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation, said in a statement about the latest river modeling. “We are actively engaged with the Colorado River Basin states and other partners to respond to changing conditions to avoid critical elevations at Lake Powell.”

The original compact between Upper Basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – and the Lower Basin was negotiated in 1922. It was given real teeth in 2019 with a Drought Contingency Plan that first penalizes Lower Basin states if levels and inflows into Powell and Mead fall below trigger points.

hobbs
Lake Mead December 2017. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

Upper Basin states face future cutbacks in water use as well if they can’t deliver agreed-upon amounts of water to the basin separation point at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, just above the Grand Canyon. Colorado water engineers, agricultural interests and utilities are in ongoing discussions and experiments on how best to leave more in the Colorado should those downstream treaty calls eventually come.

Mexico is also part of the historic compact. Some states are negotiating with Mexico to build ocean water desalinization plants near the Pacific Ocean, so that Mexico could use that water and the states could keep more river water.

Stagecoach Reservoir. Photo credit Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District.

Colorado tries to refill the Yampa

Colorado water managers, meanwhile, are working quickly to mitigate some of the intense near-term impacts of recent drought, including along the severely depleted Yampa River in northwest Colorado, which is a tributary of the Colorado River.

On July 8, the Colorado Water Trust bought 1,000 acre-feet of water in Stagecoach Reservoir, with an option to buy 1,000 more, for releases over the rest of the summer into the Yampa to keep fish alive and keep the river basin healthier in hot temperatures. The Water Trust has made similar purchases in other years, but will likely have to release the water far earlier than usual this season in order to prevent high water temperatures and stagnant flow that stress fish and hurt their spawning chances.

After spending about $46,000 on the July purchase, the trust has spent just under $500,000 to buy water from Stagecoach’s reserve since 2012. In announcing the deal, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District noted the late-May stream flow into Stagecoach was at less than 10 cubic feet per second, when it should have been more than 100 cfs. The district said it has separately released more than 1,500 acre-feet of its own water from Stagecoach so far this year in order to support river health.

Cash donors to buy the Stagecoach water include the Yampa River Fund, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, among others. Tri-State operates coal-fired electricity generating units down the Yampa to the west of Stagecoach.

#Yellowstone and #Warming: An Iconic Park Faces Startling Changes — Yale 360 #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Old Faithful at sunset. As water reserves decline, the geyser is expected to erupt less frequently. NEAL HERBERT / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE via Yale 360

From Yale 360 (Adam Popescu):

A new report details global warming’s impact on Yellowstone Park, changes that have begun to fundamentally alter its famed ecosystem and threaten everything from its forests to Old Faithful geyser. Such troubling shifts are occurring in national parks across the U.S. West.

In 1872, when Yellowstone was designated as the first national park in the United States, Congress decreed that it be “reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, and sale and … set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Yet today, Yellowstone — which stretches 3,472 square miles across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho — is facing a threat that no national park designation can protect against: rising temperatures.

Since 1950, the iconic park has experienced a host of changes caused by human-driven global warming, including decreased snowpack, shorter winters and longer summers, and a growing risk of wildfires. These changes, as well as projected changes as the planet continues to warm this century, are laid out in a just-released climate assessment that was years in the making. The report examines the impacts of climate change not only in the park, but also in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — an area 10 times the size of the park itself.

The climate assessment says that temperatures in the park are now as high or higher as during any period in the last 20,000 years and are very likely the warmest in the past 800,000 years. Since 1950, Yellowstone has experienced an average temperature increase of 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, with the most pronounced warming taking place at elevations above 5,000 feet.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY MAP BY JOSHUA STEVENS, USING DATA FROM THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE AND THE U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE via Yale 360

Today, the report says, Yellowstone’s spring thaw starts several weeks sooner, and peak annual stream runoff is eight days earlier than in 1950. The region’s agricultural growing season is nearly two weeks longer than it was 70 years ago. Since 1950, snowfall has declined in the Greater Yellowstone Area in January and March by 53 percent and 43 percent respectively, and snowfall in September has virtually disappeared, dropping by 96 percent. Annual snowfall has declined by nearly two feet since 1950.

Because of steady warming, precipitation that once fell as snow now increasingly comes as rain. Annual precipitation could increase by 9 to 15 percent by the end of the century, the assessment says. But with snowpack decreasing and temperatures and evaporation increasing, future conditions are expected to be drier, stressing vegetation and increasing the risk of wildfires. Extreme weather is already more common, and blazes like Yellowstone’s massive 1988 fires — which burned 800,000 acres — are a growing seasonal worry.

The assessment’s future projections are even bleaker. If heat-trapping emissions are not reduced, towns and cities in the Greater Yellowstone Area — including Bozeman, Montana and Jackson, Pinedale, and Cody, Wyoming — could experience 40 to 60 more days per year when temperatures exceed 90 degrees F. And under current greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, temperatures in the Greater Yellowstone Area could increase by 5 to 10 degrees F by 2100, causing upheaval in the ecosystem, including shifts in forest composition.

At the heart of the issues facing the Greater Yellowstone Area is water, and the report warns that communities around the park — including ranchers, farmers, businesses and homeowners — must devise plans to deal with the growing prospect of drought, declining snowpack and seasonal shifts in water availability.

“Climate is going to challenge our economies and the health of all people who live here,” said Cathy Whitlock, a Montana State University paleoclimatologist and co-author of the report. She hopes “to engage residents and political leaders about local consequences and develop lists of habitats most at-risk and the specific indicators of human health that need to be studied,” like the connection between the increase in wildfires and respiratory illness. Sounding the alarm isn’t new, but the authors of the Yellowstone report hope their approach, and the body of evidence presented, will convince those skeptical about climate change to accept that it’s real and intensifying.

The report describes a scenario that is now all too common across the American West and in the region’s renowned national parks, from Grand Canyon in Arizona, to Zion in Utah, to Olympic in Washington state. Record warming and extreme drought mean there is not enough fall and winter moisture, leading to steadily declining mountain snowpack. Many iconic venues may soon lose the very features they were named for. Most striking is Glacier National Park in Montana, where, since the late 19th century, the number of the park’s glaciers has declined from 150 to 26. The remaining glaciers are expected to disappear this century.

In Joshua Tree National Park in California’s Mojave Desert, extreme heat — coupled with a prolonged drought — has wreaked havoc on the eponymous species. Because of drought and wildfire, the park is poised to lose 80 percent of its renowned Joshua trees by 2070.

Swaths of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado have suffered massive die-offs of white pine and spruce as warming-related bark-beetle infestations have killed an estimated 834 million trees across the state. And in Yosemite National Park in California, the rate of warming has doubled since 1950 to 3.4 degrees F per century. Yosemite is experiencing 88 more frost-free days than it did in 1907. The park’s snowpack is dwindling. Its remnant glaciers are fast disappearing. And wildfires are becoming more common. In 2018, the park was closed for several weeks because of dense smoke from a fire on its border. The National Park Service says that temperatures could soar by 6.7 to 10.3 degrees F from 2000 to 2100, with profound impacts on the Yosemite ecosystem.

Yellowstone River. Snowpack in the Yellowstone area is melting earlier, leading to a decline in summer streamflows. JACOB W. FRANK / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE via Yale 360

The Yellowstone assessment paints a detailed portrait of the past, present and future impacts of climate-related changes.

“This is one of the first ecosystem-scale climate assessments of its kind,” said co-author Charles Drimal, water program coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “It sets a benchmark for how the climate has changed since the 1950s and what we are likely to experience 40 to 60 years from now in terms of temperature, precipitation, stream flow, growing season and snowpack.” Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Montana State University and the University of Wyoming were the lead scientists on the report.

The report’s study of snowpack and its link to water offer the biggest takeaways for Westerners who might question how or why they’re impacted. Rocky Mountain snowmelt provides between 60 to 80 percent of streamflow in the West, and hotter temperatures mean reduced snowfall and less water for cities as far afield as Los Angeles. For the millions of people living in cities across the West, many of whom are reliant on runoff from the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, these trends jeopardize already insufficient supplies. The dangers are starkly evident this summer, as years of drought and soaring temperatures have left the West facing a perilous wildfire season and water shortages, from Colorado to California.

“All that snow becomes water that goes into the three major watersheds of the West — some of it goes as far as L.A. — and that comes together in the southern edge of Yellowstone National Park,” said Bryan Shuman, a report co-author and geologist at the University of Wyoming. “Looking at projections going forward, that snowpack disappears.”

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

The Yellowstone, Snake and Green rivers all have headwaters in the Greater Yellowstone Area, feeding major tributaries for the Missouri, Columbia and Colorado rivers that are vital for agriculture, recreation, energy production and homes. Regional agriculture — potatoes, hay, alfalfa — and cattle ranching depend on late-season irrigation, and less snow and more rain equals less water in hot summer months.

Then there are the rapidly growing tourism and hospitality industries that rely on Yellowstone’s world-class rivers and ski areas for angling and black diamond runs. Fishing is now regularly restricted because of high water temperatures that stress fish.

“Even mineral and energy resource extraction need to be part of this discussion,” said Whitlock, referring to Wyoming’s oil and gas industry, heavily reliant on large amounts of water. Industry may be the slowest to evolve, but it’s among the most at-risk, she said.

Many locals do quietly acknowledge the reality of what’s happening, she said, but community buy-in remains tough in this culture war hotspot, where many farmers and ranchers have long opposed government land intervention.

The land in the Greater Yellowstone Area, comprising 34,000 square miles, is among the last, largely intact temperate ecosystems in the United States and includes two national parks (Grand Teton in Wyoming is the other), five national forests, and half a dozen tribal nations. It’s also home to 10,000 hydrothermal features, including 500 geysers. Recent research has shown that in periods of extreme heat and drought, geysers such as Yellowstone’s renowned Old Faithful have shut down entirely.

The current conditions do have some historical precedent. In the last 10,000 years, Yellowstone has experienced periods of dryness equal to or greater than present, said Whitlock.

Electric Peak in Yellowstone National Park. Snowfall in the Yellowstone region has declined as a result of climate change. NEAL HERBERT / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE via Yale 360

“That’s a lens to look at the past,” said Shuman, who once trekked the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail to get a sense of the land. “If you add just a few degrees, you fundamentally alter things. When you walk across these high mountains, you can see they used to be covered in glaciers. It’s like walking in the ruins of Ancient Rome. That Ice Age world was only 5- to 7-degrees F colder than the pre-industrial era.”

“The water in those mountains is the water supply of the West and it’s drying up,” said Shuman.

In Yellowstone, the threat to human health and livelihoods may be the strongest incentive to take steps to soften the blows from climate change.

“Water is the thing everyone is most concerned about, and in general, people are receptive,” said Shuman. “Our economic future depends on adjusting.”

Just how the residents of the Greater Yellowstone Area will adapt is an open question, but researchers say that acknowledging the myriad problems that are now daily realities for many, from ranchers to anglers, is the first step toward a productive dialogue.

As the West experiences a growth surge, Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent, writes in the report that “the strength of local and regional economies” hangs in the balance if no steps are taken to rein in global warming.

Said Whitlock of Montana State, “When you think about the temperature curve that looks like a hockey stick, my parents pretty much lived on the flat part of the curve, I’m on the base, and my grandkids are going to be on the steep part. Our trajectory depends on what we do about greenhouse gases now. By 2040, 2050, we can flatten the curve. But the business-as-usual trajectory, 10 to 11 degrees of warming in Yellowstone and much of the West — what we do in the next decade is critical.”

@COParksWildlife enacts voluntary fishing closure on section of #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Travis Duncan):

Due to extremely low flows and warm water temperatures, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is asking anglers to voluntarily avoid fishing on the Colorado River between Kremmling and Rifle.

Effective Wednesday, July 7, CPW is placing a full-day voluntary fishing closure on the Colorado River beginning at the Highway 9 bridge in Kremmling downstream to the Highway 13 bridge in Rifle. The voluntary closure will remain in effect until further notice, with a possibility of a mandatory emergency closure to all fishing if conditions worsen.

“We know that anglers care deeply about this fishery,” said CPW Aquatic Biologist Lori Martin. “We need their help to conserve this resource.”

Because of the ongoing drought, flows are down in the river. The USGS gauge on the Colorado River at Catamount Bridge typically measures between 1,500 and 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The gauge has been measuring 600 – 700 cfs, about half what is historically expected there. The USGS gauge on the Colorado River near Dotsero is running at 1,250 cfs, down from an expected 3,000 – 4,000 cfs.

CPW’s aquatic biologists on the West Slope are concerned about critically high water temperatures and possible low dissolved oxygen. Some fish mortality has already been observed this summer. In addition to these issues, another factor unique to this year has been multiple mudslides and flash flood events resulting from last year’s fires. This has increased the sediment load in some river sections.

“With the high sediment load, the fish can’t find clear water,” said CPW Aquatic Biologist Kendall Bakich “They’ve got to sit through those conditions. And at nighttime, the temp isn’t coming down enough, so there’s no recovery for those fish right now. They’ve just got to hang on.”

These conditions aren’t just limited to the Colorado River.

“We’re likely looking at moving into a voluntary fishing closure on the Yampa River from the upstream boundary of the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area downstream to the west city limits of the town of Steamboat Springs,” said CPW Aquatic Biologist Bill Atkinson. “Water temps surpassed 75 degrees on Tuesday, so if it hits 75 degrees on Wednesday, the closure will be implemented.”

Biologists are also closely monitoring the Fraser and upper Colorado Rivers in Grand County, another area where temperatures are edging toward dangerous levels for trout.

Anglers should be aware that most of the major rivers on Colorado’s Western Slope are experiencing adverse conditions heading into the hottest days of summer. Follow the Leave No Trace Principle to “Know Before You Go” to the West Slope this summer and check out conditions related to mandatory and voluntary fishing closures: https://cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/Pages/StatewideFishingConditions.aspx

Tips for anglers
CPW is encouraging trout anglers to consider fishing early in the day and in higher altitude lakes and streams as hot, dry conditions and reduced water levels increase stress to trout populations.

Heat, drought, and low water levels are contributing to elevated water temperatures in much of Colorado, depleting oxygen levels and leaving trout vulnerable. Trout are cold-water fish that function best in 50-60 degree waters. When temperatures exceed 70 degrees, they often stop feeding and become more susceptible to disease. Warm temperature and low water levels can also lead to algae blooms in rivers and reservoirs which cause oxygen levels to drop when algae die and decompose.

Anglers are asked to carefully consider the water and weather conditions when they go fishing for trout. If water seems too warm or fish appear lethargic, it would be best to leave the fish undisturbed. During mid-summer, try to fish early in the morning when the water is coolest.

“Get out early to avoid the higher water temperatures commonly seen in the afternoon and evening,” Martin said. “Anglers are also encouraged to seek out high-elevation trout lakes and streams, where water temperatures are more suitable and fishing doesn’t potentially add additional stress.”

Martin also urged anglers to add a hand-held thermometer to their fishing kits so they can test the waters they intend to fish.

“Anglers should monitor water temperatures and stop fishing when water temperatures start to approach 70 degrees,” she said. “If trout have difficulty recovering after being caught and are acting lethargic, it’s a good decision to call it quits for the day.”

Other suggestions include using heavier tippet and line to quickly reel in and release the fish, always wetting your hands before handling a fish, and to keep the fish submerged while unhooking and releasing it. Avoid taking the fish out of the water even for a quick photo in these conditions.

The #YampaRiver is overdrawn and running out of #water. And it’s hardly the only one — The #Colorado Sun #ActOnClimate #aridification

Yampa River below Oakton Ditch June 14, 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

Cross Mountain Ranch, a sprawling cattle, guest and hunting operation near Maybell and the Yampa’s confluence with the Little Snake River, needed water to flood meadows for sheep and other livestock.

But there was nothing left to divert into the ranch’s ditch at Lily Park. A state official’s snapshot from the time shows no Yampa there at all — just a gravel bar with a stagnant puddle at the base.

The ranch may be far down river, but it’s high in priority. Under Colorado water law, that means the ranch long ago secured water rights that are vastly senior to many other users on the river. So if the ranch needs it, the state water engineer has to put a “call” on the Yampa and tell junior holders upriver to stop using, letting their water flow on toward Cross Mountain and the Utah border.

Yampa division engineer Erin Light did just that for the first time ever in 2018. She has an 80-page list of descending water rights holders on the Yampa. The ranch is on page one.

The easiest way to find enough water to meet the ranch’s rights was to call Craig Generating Station, a massive coal-fired electricity plant holding a variety of river rights and reservoir shares in the Yampa basin. The power station, managed by Tri-State Generation and owned by a variety of Western utilities, has been cooperative on water issues, Light said, and quickly sent more water downstream.

Then it happened again in 2020. Drought. A nearly dry river by the time the Yampa neared Dinosaur National Monument. And an official state call.

Yampa River at Stagecoach Res Inlet 10 CFS 5-24-21 May 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

This year, the Yampa is looking severely troubled again. It’s no longer a fluke, but a trend. And so Light has asked her boss, state engineer Kevin Rein, to approve her 15-page memorandum and request declaring the Yampa officially “over appropriated.”

Too many users have divided up the river’s dwindling water too many ways, and future ditch diggers and well drillers need to be warned. Dozens of new water rights applications hit the water court for Yampa claims every year, she added…

Yampa not alone under drought pressure

The Yampa isn’t the first Colorado river to suffer the indignity of an official declaration of over appropriation. In fact, most of the major rivers were divided too many ways decades ago and therefore need to be managed down to the drop, from the South Platte on the Front Range, to the Arkansas and the Poudre.

But the fact it’s happening to the Yampa, long running relatively wild and free through the thinly-populated open range of northwest Colorado, is a clear danger sign, according to state officials and conservation groups. Drought in the short term and climate change in the long term are overlaid by relentless economic growth throughout Colorado, turning debates over water use from a distant worry into a current event…

West Drought Monitor map June 29, 2021.

Light’s detailed memo justifying the over appropriation declaration for the Yampa noted that water volume delivered by the river has fallen in recent decades from a norm of 1.5 million acre-feet a year to 1.1 million acre-feet. At the U.S. Geological Survey’s Maybell gauge on the Yampa on Friday, the river flowed at about 340 cubic feet per second, less than 16% of the median figure for that day in 105 years of recordkeeping…

So what would state approval of the over appropriation designation mean in practical terms for northwestern Colorado counties? Developers seeking to drill a new well in the Yampa Basin will see new state scrutiny of their plans to make sure they are not drawing down river water already owned by a senior rights holder. If Light thinks there would be damage, she can require the developer to augment the loss with a different supply, such as stored reservoir water or a pond capturing water during higher runoff periods…

Anyone with an improperly permitted well will also face new reviews, and demands for augmentation. Because of the way Colorado’s rivers and water tables behave, state engineers consider wells to be drawing down river water just as if they were taking it from the river’s surface.

People could still apply for new surface rights from the Yampa, but they will be warned, Light said, that their supply is likely to run out by August or September when senior rights holders put in their call to protect what they need.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

#LakePowellPipeline plans to tap #water promised to the Utes. Why the tribe sees it as yet another racially based scheme — The #SaltLake Tribune

Lake Powell Pipeline map via the Washington County Water Conservancy District, October 25, 2020.

From The Salt Lake Tribune (Emma Penrod):

The following story was supported by funding from The Water Desk and was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Utah politicians and water officials have for years insisted that there is ample water in the Colorado River to fill its planned 140-mile Lake Powell pipeline to St. George in the southwestern corner of the state.

Despite impacts from climate change that have resulted in an 18% decline in river flows during the past two decades and a drop in Lake Powell’s level to just 35% of capacity, they might just be right.

Utah’s consistent argument that it has nearly 400,000 acre-feet (roughly 130 billion gallons) of undeveloped water in the river is disputed by hydrologists who say it’s using all its allotted share under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Even so, legal experts and engineers point out that there could be room for additional development — if the state is willing to buy or take the water from someone else.

“If there is going to be a new pipeline,” Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District, said in an interview, “let’s not pretend that it’s going to be using new water. If they build a new pipeline, they’re going to get that from irrigation water.”

The most likely candidate is irrigation water from the Uinta Basin, said Kuhn, co-author of “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.”

And that is exactly what Utah plans to do.

There’s one problem: The water the state plans to tap for the Lake Powell pipeline was previously promised to the Ute Indian Tribe, which is now suing to get back its water and asserting that the misappropriation is one of a decades-long string of racially motivated schemes to deprive it of its rights and property.

Graphic credit: Central Utah Project

Pulling the plug on the Central Utah Project

The dispute dates to the 1950s and the origins of the Central Utah Project (CUP), a series of pipelines and reservoirs that channels Colorado River water over the Wasatch Mountains to Utah’s population centers in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

Utah water managers at the time leveraged Ute tribal water rights to cut a deal for construction of the CUP. In exchange for the destruction of lands and fisheries essential to the Ute way of life, state and federal governments agreed to extend the project to tribal lands.

But once the first phases of the project were complete, Utah and its federal partners abandoned plans to build dams and pipelines for the Utes, citing excessive costs and underwhelming benefits.

“It is unclear why the costs and benefits varied so significantly,” the tribe’s 2020 federal lawsuit said, referring to the completed CUP phases delivering water to the Wasatch Front compared to the originally proposed tribal phases. “However, it is clear that as an exclusively tribal project — that is, as a project for the delivery of the Tribe’s Reserved Water Rights — [the Bureau of Reclamation] found poor economics, but when non-Indians were included as part of the project, the economics drastically improved.”

These decisions significantly curtailed the tribe’s expected economic benefits from the project, guaranteeing it would not grow as quickly as other communities that received CUP water, the complaint said. It cited, for example, a 2018 attempt by the tribe to enter into a contract with an oil and gas development company, which ultimately fell through because the tribe lacked access to sufficient water to make the project happen.

Moreover, in what the tribe sees as an illegal betrayal and violation of its rights, the state has reassigned the promised water to a variety of other projects, including the Lake Powell pipeline.

Starting in 1996, the Utah Board of Water Resources divvied up the unused CUP water, awarding tens of thousands of acre-feet to the Uintah Water Conservancy District, the Duchesne County Water Conservancy District, and other public and private water developers. Two final divisions plan to split the remainder. Roughly 86,000 acre-feet will be assigned to the 140-mile Lake Powell pipeline — a $1 billion-plus project that still awaits federal approval — and the last 72,641 acre-feet of water has been allotted to a conservation and storage project called the Green River Block.

In a statement to The Utah Investigative Journalism Project, the tribe called the approval of the Green River Block a “sham contract” that lacks “any legal authority.”

According to the tribe’s 2020 federal lawsuit, which names the Green River Block specifically but does not include the as-yet unfinalized Lake Powell pipeline transfer, Utah appears to derive its claimed authority to execute these transfers from the Central Utah Project Completion Act of 1992.

The congressionally approved compact, which required ratification of the state and Ute Tribe, has never won approval of the Utes, rendering it null and void in their eyes. The state Legislature only recently endorsed it.

The act, while promising protection for the tribe’s water rights and future financial compensation for economic losses associated with the incomplete portion of the CUP, said the Bureau of Reclamation no longer would fund the construction of pipelines and dams needed to store and access the water — a provision unacceptable to the tribe.

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

State moves forward despite tribe’s objections

In 1996, even as the Utes were still trying to negotiate a deal to help pay for the needed infrastructure, the bureau determined that the pledged water had not been put to beneficial use and deeded it to the Utah Board of Water Resources. This transfer took place, the tribe told The Utah Investigative Journalism Project, “without any prior notice to, or consultation with, the Tribe.”

[…]

When Utah lawmakers in 2018 finally decided to officially ratify and put into statute the congressional compact, state leaders were aware that the tribe objected to it but chose to move forward with SB98 regardless, records show. A month before the final legislative passage, the tribe sent a letter to then-Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, the bill’s sponsor, to express its view that the terms of the compact were “unacceptable to the Ute Indian Tribe in that it was substantially amended without any input from the Tribe.” The only saving grace of the congressional action that created it, the letter said, was that Congress “made the compact contingent upon ratification by the Ute Tribal members before it became a valid document.”

“We therefore request that your bill be withdrawn until such time as the Ute Tribe and the state of Utah have come to a compromise on the water compact that can be approved by both the state of Utah and the Ute Tribe and its members,” Ute Tribal Business Committee Chairman Luke Duncan wrote to Van Tassell.

Van Tassell responded in a letter dated Feb. 27, 2018, saying he had asked the tribe for proposed amendments to the compact that would address its concerns and expressed disappointment that it had not done so. He said he intended to move ahead with his bill.

“Please know I’m happy to continue to work with you and the rest of the Ute Tribal Business Committee throughout this year to improve the statute and address your concerns,” he wrote the same day the bill cleared its first Senate vote.

A few days earlier, Christine Finlinson, assistant manager of the CUP, appeared before a Senate committee to endorse SB98. “We’re anxious,” she said, “to have this part of our history concluded.”

The bill passed the Legislature without a dissenting vote — and with no testimony from any member of the tribe…

Utes seek a seat at the table

After the Ute Tribe watched the Utah Legislature act unilaterally to try to solidify and codify the never-ratified compact of 1992, it decided to pursue another avenue for defending its rights on the Colorado River. A few months after SB98 passed and was signed by then-Gov. Gary Herbert, Chairman Duncan sent a letter to the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission seeking appointment of a tribal representative to the body.

“We have studied the law of the Colorado River and its management, and we conclude that there will never be effective management of the river unless the Commission establishes a relationship with the Ute Tribe,” Duncan wrote in the July 24, 2018, missive. “This relationship must recognize that the Tribe has a sovereign, governmental interest in its apportionment of water in the Colorado River Basin with senior, reserved water rights that are held in trust by the United States for the Tribe, as the beneficial owner of these water rights.”

The letter requested a meeting at Ute Indian tribal headquarters in Fort Duchesne. Amy Haas, executive director of the commission, subsequently forwarded the letter to other members, saying she was suggesting some alternative locales. She signed off with a sarcastic quip: “Good thing we have nothing else going on!”

Representatives from the tribe met in December of that year with commissioners in Las Vegas. In his report back to the Utah Division of Water Resources, Eric Millis, then-division director and Utah’s representative on the river commission, noted the tribe’s request for its own member but disagreed with its argument.

“The Upper Basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah — believe that any tribe within any of the states’ boundaries are already and best served by their state representative on the Colorado River,” Millis wrote to his colleagues. “For the Ute Tribe, that is Eric Millis, Utah’s Upper Colorado River Commissioner. This has been expressed to the Tribe.”

(Gene Shawcroft, who was appointed in January by Gov. Spencer Cox to replace Millis as Utah’s Upper Colorado River commissioner, did not respond to questions regarding his position on the tribe’s request.)

Not surprisingly, the tribe had a different view:

“State representatives are not in a position to represent tribal interests, which is largely why we continue to face issues related to Indian water rights recognition, development, and water management today. … Time and time again, we are made aware of situations and decisions where the Tribe is not involved in discussions which have direct implications for our most valuable tribal trust resource — water.”

USGS Report: Assessment of Streamflow and Water Quality in the Upper #YampaRiver Basin, Colorado, 1992–2018

Click here to read the report (Natalie K. Day). Here’s the abstract:

The Upper Yampa River Basin drains approximately 2,100 square miles west of the Continental Divide in north-western Colorado. There is a growing need to understand potential changes in the quantity and quality of water resources as the basin is undergoing increasing land and water development to support growing municipal, industrial, and recreational needs. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with stakeholders in the Upper Yampa River Basin water community, began a study to characterize and identify changes in streamflow and selected water-quality constituents, including suspended sediment, Kjeldahl nitrogen, total nitrogen, total phosphorus, and orthophosphate, in the basin. This study used streamflow and water-quality data from selected U.S. Geological Survey sites to provide a better understanding of how major factors, including land use, climate change, and geological features, may influence streamflow and water quality.

Analysis of long-term (1910–2018) and short-term (1992–2018) records of streamflow at main-stem Yampa River and tributary sites indicate downward trends in one or more streamflow statistics, including 1-day maximum, mean, and 7-day minimum. Long-term downward trends in daily mean streamflow in April (22 percent overall) at Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, correspond to observed changes in streamflow documented across western North America and the Colorado River Basin that are predominately associated with changes in snowmelt runoff and temperatures. During the short-term period of analysis, decreases in streamflow at main-stem Yampa River and some tributary sites are likely related to changes in consumptive use and reservoir management or, at sites with no upstream flow impoundments, changes in irrigation diversions and climate.

Concentrations of water-quality constituents were typically highest in spring (March, April, and May) during the early snowmelt runoff period as material that is washed off the land surface drains into streams. Highest concentrations occurred slightly later, in May, June, and July, at Yampa River above Stagecoach Reservoir, Colo., and slightly earlier, in February and March at Yampa River at Milner, Colo., indicating that these sites may have different or additional sources of phosphorus from upstream inputs. Yampa River at Milner, Colo., and Yampa River above Elkhead Creek, Colo., had the highest net yields of suspended sediment, Kjeldahl nitrogen, and total phosphorus, and are likely influenced by land use and erosion as the basins of both of these sites are underlain by highly erodible Cretaceous shales.

Upward trends in estimated Kjeldahl nitrogen and total phosphorus concentrations and loads were found at Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, Colo. From 1999 to 2018, the Kjeldahl nitrogen concentration increased by 10 percent or 0.035 milligram per liter, and load increased by 22 percent or 26 tons. Total phosphorus concentration increased by 20 percent or 0.0081 milligram per liter, and loads increased by 41 percent or 6.2 tons. Decreases in streamflow and changes in land use may contribute to these trends.

During multiple summer sampling events at Stagecoach Reservoir, the physical and chemical factors indicated conditions conducive to cyanobacterial blooms, including surface-water temperatures greater than 20 degrees Celsius and total phosphorus and total nitrogen concentrations in exceedance of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment interim concentrations for water-quality standards. Local geological features (predominately sandstones and shales) and additional inputs from upstream land use likely contribute to the elevated nutrient conditions in Stagecoach Reservoir.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

#Craig betting on #YampaRiver to help transition from #coal economy — @AspenJournalism #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

The Lefevre family prepares to put their rafts in at Pebble Beach for a float down the Yampa River to Loudy Simpson Park on Wednesday. From left, Marcie Lefevre, Nathan Lefevre, Travis Lefevre and Sue Eschen.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journlism (Heather Sackett):

With the impending closure of coal mines and power plants in northwest Colorado, Craig officials and river enthusiasts are hoping a long-overlooked natural resource just south of town can help create economic resilience.

The city has applied for a $1.8 million grant from the federal Economic Development Agency for the Yampa River Corridor Project, which will refurbish boat ramps, add parking areas and a whitewater park, in an effort to develop the Yampa River as a source of outdoor recreation and local pride. The project is part of a multi-pronged approach to help rural Moffat County transition from an extraction-based economy to one that includes outdoor and river recreation as one of its main pillars.

“(River use) has definitely grown in the last couple of years,” said Jennifer Holloway, executive director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce. “Awareness that the river could be part of our future has grown. It had just not been on our radar as a town. We had the coal mines, we had the power plants. People tubed the river and fished in it sometimes, but it was not looked at as an economic asset until the last few years.”

An August 2020 preliminary engineering report by Glenwood Springs-based consultant SGM laid out the project components. The first phase of the proposed project would include improvements to Loudy Simpson Park on the west end of town, including a boat ramp, parking, a picnic area and vault toilet. The park is often a take-out point for tubers and boaters who float from Pebble Beach, just a few miles upstream. The project would also create better waves, pool drops with a fish passage, two access points and a portage trail at what’s known as the Diversion Park, as well as improve the city’s diversion structure.

The total project cost is roughly $2.7 million. A second project phase, which is still conceptual, would include bank stabilization and a trail connecting the river to downtown Craig.

Project proponents see the river as one of the town’s most under-utilized amenities and say it can add to the quality of life in the town of about 9,000.

Josh Veenstra is the owner of Good Vibes River Gear in Craig. The company rents paddle boards, rafts and tubes, runs shuttles on the Little Yampa Canyon and sells hand-sewn, mesh bags and drying racks, which are popular among the boating community. This is the fourth season for his company and Veenstra said the momentum is unbelievable.

“What it’s going to do is give Craig a sense of identity,” he said.

This boat ramp at Loudy Simpson Park will be replaced by a new one about a quarter-mile downstream as part of the Yampa River Corridor Project. The park is a popular place to take out after a day float from Pebble Beach.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Transitioning from coal

Two of the region’s biggest employers and energy providers, Tri State Generation and Transmission and Xcel Energy, announced in 2020 that they would be closing their coal-fired plants and mines. Tri-State, whose plant is supplied by two local mines, Trapper and Colowyo, plans to close all three of Craig’s units by 2030. Xcel, whose plant is located in nearby Hayden, plans to close both its units by the end of 2028.

According to Holloway, the closures represent about 800 lost jobs.

“All of our restaurants survive off the power plant workers, all of our retail, all the rest of our businesses,” she said. “Most of our small businesses downtown are run by women whose husbands work in the mine. So I think we are going to see a mass changeover of people leaving.”

Holloway is focusing on ag-tourism, the arts and outdoor recreation as industries that can help replace lost jobs. Although she recognizes that tourism jobs generally don’t pay the high wages of extraction industries, outdoor recreation has been identified as an industry with a large potential for growth and is identified as a priority in Moffat County’s Vision 2025 Transition Plan.

In addition, the pandemic has shown that many white-collar workers can work remotely from anywhere that has internet. It has also increased interest in outdoor recreation. Project supporters say improving the river corridor could help attract a new demographic interested in the outdoors but who don’t want to pay the premiums of a resort community, like nearby Steamboat Springs.

“Entrepreneurs in the rec industry would be a great fit,” Holloway said. “A warehouse here would be so much cheaper than Steamboat. If we could get some of those entrepreneurs, that would attract those that have a remote job or business elsewhere but that want the rural outdoor lifestyle.”

This small section of rapids known as the diversion wave will get upgraded into a whitewater park as part of the Yampa River Corridor Project. The city of Craig is betting on river recreation to help fill the economic void as local coal-fired power plants shut down in the coming years.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Recreation water right

Although city officials are moving forward with plans to build the whitewater park, they are — for now at least — forgoing a step that could help protect their newly built asset and keep water in the river.

Many communities in Colorado with whitewater parks, including Glenwood Springs, Basalt, Durango, Silverthorne and Vail, have a water right associated with the man-made waves, known as a recreational in-channel diversion or RICD. This type of water right ties an amount of water necessary for a reasonable recreational experience to the river features.

A RICD can help make sure there is enough water in the river for boating, but it also has the potential to limit future upstream water development. Under Colorado water law, known as the prior appropriation system, older water rights have first use of the river and therefore, a RICD does not affect existing senior water rights.

“It’s something that we have had some discussion about and we are looking closely at; it can be kind of political,” said Craig City Manager Peter Brixius. “I have not personally heard from folks, but I know people are opposed to it.”

Brixius said the conversation about a RICD is on hiatus at least until the fall.

Without a water right, which would secure the whitewater park’s place in line, future upstream water development could jeopardize having enough water for the park.

Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said that while he can’t speak specifically for Craig, it makes sense for a municipality to protect its place in the prior appropriation system with a water right.

“If there may be some risk in the future that somebody is going to develop some water upstream that would either reduce or eliminate entirely the benefit of this expenditure, then yeah, you go to water court and try to protect this investment you have made,” he said. “Even if you don’t see anything on the horizon that is going to impact you, who knows what’s going to happen in 20 years.”

Craig has applied for a $1.8 million grant from the federal Economic Development Agency for the Yampa River Corridor Project, which will refurbish boat ramps, add parking areas and a whitewater park, in an effort to develop the Yampa River as a source of outdoor recreation and local pride.

Looking to the future

The city expects to find out if it got the EDA grant in early fall. The project has also received funding from Moffat County, Friends of the Yampa, Trapper Mine, Northwest Colorado Parrotheads, the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, Resources Legacy Fund and the Yampa River Fund.

City officials are hoping the Yampa River Corridor Project will attract visitors, contribute to marketing efforts to rebrand northwest Colorado and build morale around the area’s economic future. For river gear shop owner Veenstra, that future can’t come fast enough. He hopes to hold swift water rescue courses and do environmental education using the new river corridor area.

“Craig is one of the coolest little towns,” he said. “The closure of the power plant, everybody says it’s going to be the downfall of Craig. It’s the best thing that could ever happen to us because it made people snap out of it and go, ‘oh, we need to do something different.’ That’s why the whitewater park is getting built. It was a blessing in disguise.”

This story ran in the Craig Press on June 11.

#WhiteRiver State of the River, June 15, 2021 #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The White River, in the vicinity of the proposed Wolf Creek Reservoir. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

Join the Colorado River District for the White River State of the River webinar on Tuesday, June 15 at 6 p.m.! Our experts and special guests will be presenting on the issues that affect your water supply throughout the White River Basin.

Learn more about the river’s hydrology and water level forecasts as we enter another drought year. Hear updates on management plans to provide water for endangered fish species and learn about current efforts to study the impact of algae blooms in the river.

If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive an emailed webinar recording to watch later!

Agenda:

Welcome – Colorado River District Staff

The Community Funding Partnership – Amy Moyer, Colorado River District, Director of Strategic Partnerships

Water Supply and Drought in the White River Basin – Becky Bolinger, Colorado Assistant State Climatologist

Measurement and Abandonment on the White River – Erin Light, Colorado Division of Water Resources, Division 6 Engineer

Water Management Planning in the White River Basin – Callie Hendrickson, Executive Director, White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts

Algae Issues on the White – Natalie Day, Biologist, Colorado Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey

Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District Update – Alden Vanden Brink, Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, District Manager

Fish Tales: The White River Basin and the Endangered Fish Recovery Program – Jojo La, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Endangered Species Policy Specialist

Jun 15, 2021 06:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)

White River Basin. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69281367

Mount Werner #Water to begin major infrastructure project June 14 — The Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

From Mount Werner Water & Sanitation via The Steamboat Pilot & Today:

Beginning June 14, Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District is making major infrastructure improvements that will install 3,000 liner feet of new sewer pipe as part of the second phase of its sewer interceptor replacement project set to begin Monday.

“This project brings significant enhancements to the overall system,” said Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District General Manager Frank Alfone in a news release. “While there will be impacts to both vehicular and pedestrian traffic at times, the finished project will benefit the community for decades to come.”

The interceptor project consists of replacing approximately 5,600 liner feet of existing sanitary sewer trunk collection main and associated structures, approximately 25 manholes and a sanitary sewer junction box. The new pipe material is composed of polyvinyl chloride or PVC.

This project will require a closure and detour of the sidewalk along the Yampa River Core Trail south of Fetcher Pond to Alpine Lumber. An additional closure of the sidewalk at U.S. Highway 40 and Mount Werner Road will also be implemented in late July. Both set of closures and detours will run through the duration of the work into mid-October.

The design parameters for the project were provided by Civil Design Consultants. Engineering and design plans were prepared by Landmark Consultants, Inc., and Native Excavating Inc. will serve as the project’s general contractor.

The Official June 1, 2021 Unregulated Inflow Forecast to #LakePowell for the April through July period is: 1800kaf, 23% of average — #Colorado Basin River Forecast Center #ColoradoRiver #COriver #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #aridification

Graphic credit: Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

Scott Hummer sent these photos via email showing the conditions in the Upper Yampa River Basin. The Yampa River is a major tributary of the Green River and therefore the Colorado River. He added, “Inflow at Stagecoach this morning was 8.88 CFS.”

The Yampa River below the Stafford Ditch June 3, 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer
Watson Creek at Ferguson Ditch Headgate June 3, 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

As iconic #YampaRiver flows drop, #Colorado moves to tighten oversight — @WaterEdCO #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Yampa River, June 29, 2019. Credit: Kelsey Ray, CU News Corps, The Water Desk

From Water Education Colorado (Sara Kuta):

With drought and climate change continuing to dry the American West, the state of Colorado is moving to declare one of its last, mostly free-flowing rivers, the Yampa, over-appropriated.

The action, initiated in March, is emblematic of the water situation across Colorado and the West: growing demand, shrinking supplies.

“It’s a sign of the times, that is, it’s happening in the context of lower flows and increased demand — and we’re seeing that all over the West,” said Anne Castle, senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School. “The majority of the problem in the Yampa is created by a decrease in flows, although there has been some increase in demand.”

According to a recent analysis by the state, the Yampa’s flows have dropped roughly 25 percent over the past 100 years, from 1.5 million acre-feet to 1.12 million acre-feet annually, a change attributed to sustained drought and climate change.

“The combination of continued adjudication of new water rights and the potential for a hotter, drier climate will likely cause the trend of declining streamflows to continue,” wrote Erin Light, the top water regulator in the region, in her report detailing why she’s recommending the over-appropriation designation.

The river is important not just because of its key role in Northwestern Colorado, but also because it is one of the largest tributaries to the drought-stressed seven-state Colorado River system.

Kevin Rein, the state engineer and Colorado Division of Water Resources director, is still considering Light’s March 17 recommendation, which encompasses the Yampa River and all of its tributaries upstream of its confluence with the Little Snake River to the town of Steamboat Springs. If approved, the designation will affect 2,321 total square miles, which includes 148 miles of the Yampa itself.

Credit: Chas Chamberlin via Water Education Colorado

At a virtual meeting in March, some Yampa-area stakeholders expressed concerns about the quick pace of the process and the lack of in-person conversations. They also asked for more information and more time to understand the implications and potential ripple effects of the designation.

Before he makes his decision, Rein said he wants to be able to meet in person with the basin’s residents, something the COVID-19 pandemic has so far prevented. He said he did not yet have an anticipated timeline.

“I’m not confident that people understand some of the nuances, and so I want people to be believers in why we’re doing this,” Rein said. “I want to be out there meeting with people in person, answering all the hard questions before we make a decision that sets things in motion.”

Over-appropriation, explained

The state uses the over-appropriation designation when it has determined that there’s not enough water in a stream system, some or all of the time, for all of the people and organizations who hold water rights in the system.

Over-appropriation is the norm in Colorado — other portions of the Yampa system are already designated as over-appropriated, as are the majority of other stream systems in the state.

Still, the recommendation to designate this new section of the basin as over-appropriated is a major change to the status quo in this region, where water has historically been so abundant and demand so low that a majority of water users never measured what they took from the stream.

Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch. Hummer said most water users in the Yampa are complying with a state order issued 2019 that requires measuring devices. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

To more accurately glean the full water picture in the Yampa Basin, the state ordered water users there to install measuring devices in September 2019. Though installation was initially slow-going, the state and several local community groups have been working with water users in the intervening months, which has brought the proportion of water users with measuring devices up to 58 percent as of April 2021, according to state officials.

“It’s normal for people to want to be able to continue the water use they’ve enjoyed in the past, but the hydrology is changing,” Castle said. “The overall balance of the system is different and that means that the way we do business in terms of administering water has to change as well. It’s quite understandable that people may not be welcoming this kind of additional state regulatory overlay that they are used to doing without.”

For divvying up the state’s water, Colorado uses a “first in time, first in right” system known as prior appropriation. This means that the people or organizations with the oldest decreed water rights, known as senior water rights, get priority over later-decreed, or junior, water rights.

When there isn’t enough water to satisfy those senior water rights, the state can stop or slow the flow for junior water rights, a measure known as a call or a curtailment.

This temporary action, taken to ensure that senior water rights holders can get all of the water they’re legally entitled to, is becoming more and more common in the Yampa River Basin. State officials have implemented calls in two of the last three years — in 2018 and 2020.

There would likely have been additional calls in the basin, but the community avoided them by sharing water, getting by with less, and releasing stored water from reservoirs into the river and allowing it to remain there rather than diverting it for irrigation or drinking water, according to Light.

“We have many stream systems where water rights are not fully met but owners opt to not request our office to place a call,” Light wrote in her recommendation. “While their cooperative approach to ‘make do’ with water they have and/or share it among their neighbors is admirable, it is yet one more indicator that, more and more frequently, the water supply of the Yampa River Basin cannot support the … demand.”

Groundwater vs. surface water

The overarching goal of the over-appropriation designation is to protect the rights of senior water rights holders moving forward, Light said.

If the designation is applied, people will still be able to obtain new surface water rights, for instance to take water from streams and rivers for approved uses like irrigation, but they should be aware that there may not be enough water available to satisfy those rights, Light said.

The over-appropriation designation would also affect groundwater rights, or water pumped up from below ground. More specifically, the designation will affect residents’ ability to drill new wells and bring into compliance existing wells with unpermitted uses.

Under the designation, landowners who want permission to drill a new well would need to meet stricter criteria and might need to be prepared to replenish that well water to the river, a process known as augmentation.

The reason for the distinction between surface and groundwater? Groundwater diversions like wells have a delayed impact on rivers and streams, whereas surface water diversions like ditches have a more immediate impact.

When water is in short supply, state officials can simply stop the flow to junior ditches to ensure there’s enough water for senior water rights holders. They can’t do that as easily with wells, which is where plans for augmentation come into play.

For some landowners in the proposed over-appropriation region, creating an augmentation plan will be a difficult process, one requiring lawyers, court filings and engineers. For others, it will be as simple as reaching out to a nearby reservoir manager and paying for stored water to meet the augmentation needs.

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, for example, has a blanket augmentation plan that covers some of the proposed over-appropriation area. Landowners within the plan’s boundaries can apply to the district for augmentation water, which costs from $212.54 to $248 per acre-foot, according to district spokesperson Holly Kirkpatrick.

Meanwhile, augmentation is less straightforward for water users who live outside of those bounds.

“The community really has a choice of whether to continue with the status quo where people have to have their individual augmentation plans … or come together and implement some sort of blanket augmentation plan to remove that barrier to water development,” said Hunter Causey, senior water resources engineer for the Colorado River District, during the 2021 Yampa Valley State of the River meeting in May.

Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at sarahkuta@gmail.com.

Millions needed for next steps to maintain local drinking water — Steamboat Pilot & Today

Fish Creek Falls. By Roy Brumback – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4099590

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Suzie Romig):

Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District is currently seeking funding for $6.5 million in improvement projects set for completion in 2022 and 2023 at the Fish Creek Water Treatment Plant that processes drinking water for Steamboat Springs.

The district received the final Water Treatment Facility Master Plan report in April from Carollo Engineering, which outlines 20 years of recommended work in four implementation phases at a substantial cost of $53 million, said Frank Alfone, general manager at Mount Werner Water.

The first phase of improvements addresses operational needs and updated regulatory requirements issued within the past five years from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment related to copper and lead rules, as well as measurement of residual chlorine in the water, Alfone said…

The district is working with the financing arm of Carollo to investigate funding options, such as loans, grants and possible customer rate hikes. The district board will decide this fall if the necessary work will lead to future rate increases for customers of the district, which serves the city south of Fish Creek. Alfone said the district rates will not increase in 2021, also noting that current rates are, on average, lower than the statewide average.

Following the required regulatory improvements, the next phase in the master plan would be $6.5 million for work in 2028 to boost efficiencies in water filtering and processing capabilities for sediment and taste and odor issues from increased debris flow in the case of wildfire in the Fish Creek Watershed, Alfone said.

Fire experts say the Fish Creek Watershed represents one of the highest wildfire risks in Routt County due to the topography and fuel types…

The topography upstream from the water treatment plant includes the forested Fish Creek drainage that is a steep canyon several hundred feet deep. The canyon normally stays very wet, but during dry years, a fire in the canyon could be very destructive. The box canyon could function as a powerful funnel for flames during wildfires, said Drew Langel, a local forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.

#Water worries abound as #drought wears on — The #Montrose Daily Press #runoff #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GreenRiver #DoloresRiver #GunnisonRiver

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Blue Mesa [Reservoir] is at about 345,000 acre feet and sits at 42% full, based on May data, which predict the reservoir will only hit just above 50-percent full — “not very good,” as Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Erik Knight put it.

“We’re lower than we were at any time in 2020. In 2018, we were below 250,000 acre feet by the end. We’re not projecting to go that low yet, but we’re heading in that direction, that’s for sure,” Knight said Friday.

“The reservoir is pretty low. Runoff hasn’t really kicked into gear, although I think that is starting now,” he added.

Although the Uncompahgre River is a bit bouncier and swelling with some snowmelt, Montrose County and the western side of the state remain locked in drought.

Colorado Drought Monitor map May 25, 2021.

Conditions in the county range from extreme drought to exceptional — the two worst levels — according to US Drought Monitor data.

So far, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which serves about 3,500 shareholders, has been able to fill its contracts at 70%. The association’s storage “account” at Taylor Park Reservoir — which with Blue Mesa and other reservoirs is part of the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit — is full, UVWUA manager Steve Anderson said. (Taylor itself is not expected to fill at 100%, but UVWUA anticipates it will receive the full amount to which it is entitled from the reservoir.)

Taylor Park Reservoir

“I expect our account at Taylor to refill,” Anderson added. “We are storing second-fill water in Taylor right now and my expectation is for us to wind up the season with a full reservoir at Taylor. That means a lot to us, but that’s 100,000 acre feet and we need 600,000 acre feet to run the project. But that’s a good start.”

Ridgway Dam via the USBR

The storage account at Ridgway Reservoir is close to full, Anderson also said — of 21,000 acre feet of association water, a bit more than 300 acre feet have been used…

The water picture for the Grand Mesa and North Fork is worse than it is for Montrose, he said, and also pointed to the south, to the Dolores River.

Mcphee Reservoir

McPhee Reservoir, which the river feeds, is well below average and, the Cortez Journal reported Wednesday, irrigators with contracts for its water have been told to expect between 5 and 10% of their ordinary fulfillments.

“The Dolores is just horrible,” Anderson said. Only one-sixth of the water would ordinarily be delivered from McPhee is coming to users, he said. “That’s pretty sad. We’re fortunate in that respect, that we’re not in those kind of dire straits.”

[…]

Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

[Lake] Powell’s levels are within a whisker or two of being too low to sustain hydropower generation. If Powell drops below 3,490 feet elevation, that’s the danger zone, Anderson said in January. As of May 14, Powell was projected to end the water year at 3,543 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, although the agency also noted “significant uncertainty” at the time…

Flaming Gorge Reservoir July 2020. Photo credit: Utah DWR

Flaming Gorge has enough storage right now that it can bail out Powell in an absolute emergency, as it could release 2 million acre feet, Anderson said…

Back at home, the Aspinall Unit also has drought contingency plans that kick in as needed to maintain baseflows and satisfy the requirements of legal records of decision.

In dry years, flow targets are dropped and that helps keep Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs in the unit from running dry, Knight said.

#Runoff news (May 26, 2021): #YampaRiver stream flows see possible peak — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):

There are two spots on Mount Werner that Erin Light looks at each spring to get a rough estimate about when the Yampa River may see peak stream flow.

“A lot of times, it is very close. When those two spots come together, it is probably within a day or two that it will peak,” said Light, the regional division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “Looking at the Steamboat (stream flow) gauge, I would say we are probably done.”

Stream flows for the Elk and Yampa rivers likely have already peaked, Light said, pointing to high flow marks Friday and Sunday. It is possible this isn’t the peak, as a spring storm could bolster water levels, but Light said it seems unlikely that is the case this year…

…ranchers in the county are preparing for the worst, irrigating earlier than normal and contemplating taking measures like bringing livestock water in tanks and even selling off part of their herd, because they don’t have enough pasture land with water flowing through it to raise them all…

There is more water flowing out of Stagecoach right now than going in, which happens every year but rarely this early. There are already calls on various ditches in the Yampa Valley, and Light said she expects more.

Light is relatively confident there will be a call on the Elk River, which has happened almost every year since 2012. As for the Yampa, it could be different, as the Colorado River District has a $50,000 grant for strategic releases to hopefully avoid a call on the river. Without that, a call would almost be certain, Light said…

Yampa River flows below Stafford Ditch May 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

The upper basin is particularly tough right now, said Hagenbuch, who is the director and agricultural agent for the Routt County CSU Extension Office. He said he hopes return flows from irrigation will boost water levels in the coming weeks, but he doesn’t have an optimistic outlook…

[Kelly] Romero-Heaney said there is enough water to support municipal customers in town, but the more they use, the less there is in Fish Creek, which is an important spawning stream for mountain whitefish. She said she hopes Steamboat residents minimize outdoor watering to take some pressure off the resource.

#Colorado Parks and Wildlife enacts emergency fishing closure on heavily fished portion of #YampaRiver below Stagecoach Reservoir #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Stagecoarch Reservoir outflow June 23, 2019. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Travis Duncan):

Due to critically low water flow caused by dry conditions and minimal snowpack levels, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) will implement a mandatory fishing closure on a 0.6-mile stretch of the Yampa River between the dam at Stagecoach State Park downstream to the lowermost park boundary.

The closure begins May 25 and will continue until further notice.

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

CPW works closely with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District (UYWCD), who owns and operates Stagecoach Reservoir, to stay informed on reservoir releases and monitor drought conditions. UYWCD is finalizing a contract with the Colorado Water Trust for environmental releases later in the year.

“Timing (environmental releases) is critical to the health of the river system,” said UYWCD General Manager Andy Rossi. “We manage the reservoir and collaborate with our partners to ensure that water is available and legal mechanisms are in place to release water when the river needs it most. Unfortunately, flows are already low, but hot and dry summer months are still to come,” said Rossi.

Water releases are currently only at 20% of average, and will be dropping to less than 15% of average for this time period. When water flows are minimal, fish become concentrated in residual pool habitat and become stressed due to increased competition for food resources. The fish become much easier targets for anglers, an added stressor that can result in increased hooking mortality.

“We are trying to be as proactive as possible to protect the outstanding catch-and-release fishery we have downstream of Stagecoach Reservoir,” said CPW Area Aquatic Biologist Bill Atkinson. “This stretch of the river receives a tremendous amount of fishing pressure, especially in the spring when other resources might not be as accessible. This emergency closure is an effort to protect the resource by giving the fish a bit of a reprieve as they can become quite stressed during these extreme low-flow conditions. This spring we have not witnessed a spike in flows, which can offer fish protection and allow them to recoup energy following the spring spawn season.”

CPW advises anglers to find alternative areas to fish until the order is rescinded. Many other local areas will become more fishable soon as runoff tapers down. Several area lakes are also opening and should be fishing well.

CPW asks for cooperation from anglers, who should be aware the mandatory fishing closure will be enforced by law with citations issued for anyone violating the order.

Wildlife officials warn when a fish population is significantly affected by low stream flows or other unfavorable environmental conditions, it could take several years for it to fully recover if not protected. Given the extreme drought conditions we are currently faced with, other stretches of river in this area may be subject to additional closures this season.

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

“We ask for the public’s patience and cooperation,” said Stagecoach State Park Manager Craig Preston. “It is very important that we do what we can to protect this unique fishery, not only for anglers, but for the communities that depend on the tourism these resources support.”

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

Upper Yampa River Water Commissioner, Scott Hummer, sent these photos via email this morning to show the conditions above Stagecoach Reservoir. He writes, “Not much water being produced in the Yampa headwaters in South Routt County. Photo of inflow at Stagecoach Inlet yesterday = 10 CFS / 9% of the historic iflow rate! This morning [May 25, 2021] Stagecoach inflow = 7.9 CFS! The photos depict the story in the upper Yampa…”

Exceptional #drought conditions across W. Slope — The Rio Blanco Herald-Times #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Rio Blanco Herald-Times (Lucas Turner):

April 2021 was “exceptionally dry” according to the latest statistics from the USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service. NRCS Hydrologist Joel Atwood noted “Many SNOTEL sites reported record low precipitation for April west of the Continental Divide. Snowpack has also declined in all basins except the South Platte, due to higher temperature and below-average precipitation.”

West Drought Monitor map May 18, 2021.

According to the U.S. Drought monitor, the region is experiencing D4 drought level classified as “exceptional drought,” the highest level under extreme (D3), severe (D2), moderate (D1) and abnormally dry (D0).

Despite the well-below-average precipitation levels in the Yampa–White River Basin last month, reservoir storage is sitting at 106% of average. NRCS’ latest report notes however that consistent dry conditions since last summer combined with last month’s lack of precipitation compounded drought conditions. Atwood said, “With much of the snowpack in many basins already melted out, persistent dry soil conditions, and little hope for substantial precipitation moving into summer, runoff volumes will continue to be meager.” Streamflow volumes for all basins west of the Continental Divide are projected between 34 and 73 percent this summer…

Severe to exceptional drought conditions persist across much of the state, with many Western Slope counties seeing the most significant decreases in precipitation and available water in storage. As an example, SNOTEL sites in the San Juan region are reporting just 40% median snowpack.

Statewide, apart from the South Platte River Basin (which has 102% median snowpack), all other basins are reporting less than 80% average snowpack. Snowpack in the Yampa/White River basin is at 73% of median for this time of year.

#Maybell Project Restores Hope for Irrigators and Endangered Fish — The Nature Conservancy #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From the Nature Conservancy:

As our climate changes, rising temperatures and drought conditions have intensified across the Colorado River Basin. This overstretched river system is also seeing rapid growth in the population that relies on it. Overuse has impacted agricultural water availability, native fish and many birds and plants that rely on streamside habitat and the river itself.

Problems like these can seem daunting from a bird’s eye view. Solutions must come from within the communities themselves—and through many innovative, thoughtful collaborations along the way.

That’s where the Maybell diversion comes in. Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. The diversion structure, built in 1896, channels water through a broken, antiquated headgate into the Maybell Ditch, an 18-mile canal that flows roughly in line with the river and irrigates hay pasture and ranchlands.

MAYBELL DIVERSION Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. © The Nature Conservancy

The Maybell Diversion

The Maybell reach of the Yampa is home to abundant wildlife, including four endangered fish species, whose free movement depends on healthy river flows. While boaters enjoy paddling through Juniper Canyon, the reach of river with the Maybell diversion is known for hazardous conditions at high and low flows. Landslides and large boulders block the river, creating challenges for inexperienced boaters. Drought conditions exacerbate low flows and create awkward conditions for passage of boats and fish alike.

“Maybell is the largest diversion on the Yampa and it was a high priority for the community to address the need for infrastructure improvements,” explains Diana Lane, director of Colorado’s Sustainable Food and Water program at TNC.

In partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, The Nature Conservancy is working to rehabilitate the diversion and modernize the headgate, ensuring that the diversion provides water to the users who need it. At the same time, TNC is coordinating with the recreation community to ensure safe passage of watercraft through the new diversion. As a result of this project, we hope that the Yampa will see increased ecological connectivity and resilience to climate change and that the irrigators will have improved control of their irrigation system.

Upgrading the Ditch, Headgate and Diversion

The three parts of the project—lining the ditch, replacing the headgate and rehabilitating the diversion—will improve efficiency, water flow and habitat for native fish. Ditch lining, completed in November of 2020, repaired a section that was previously unstable, erosive and leaky.

The next two steps occur together. Replacing the headgate with a new, remotely operated one will allow more flexibility for adjusting flows based on irrigators’ needs and local flow conditions. For example, when supplemental water is released from Elkhead Reservoir upstream for the benefit of endangered fish, the new headgate can be adjusted to ensure the water stays in the critical habitat reach. At the same time, diversion rehabilitation will repair the damage that’s been done by historic erosion and improve passage for boats and fish.

“This is an exemplary multi-benefit project with agricultural, environmental and recreational elements that were brought to our attention by the community,” notes Jennifer Wellman, TNC’s project manager. “Working directly with the water users, we have an opportunity to rectify the diversion while paying attention to what the river needs. Drought conditions highlight that everyone benefits from flows in the river.”

Through our partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, these projects create a better future for the diversion. Partnerships like these are crucial to cementing a better future for the Yampa River.

This project is supported by strong local partnerships with Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, Moffat County and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program and potential grants from other agencies help support the multi-benefit project overall. The mosaic of public and private funds contribute to much-needed improvements to the Yampa River that mesh with community-driven solutions to drought and river protection. By modernizing the Maybell diversion and ditch operations, the Yampa River will see improved flows and function for years to come.

RAZORBACK SUCKER The Maybell ditch is home to four endangered fish species [the Humpback chub (Gila cypha), Bonytail (Gila elegans), Colorado pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius), and the Razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus)] © Linda Whitham/TNC

One Piece of a Larger Puzzle

The success of this project is tied to the larger story of the Colorado River Basin. As rivers throughout the basin are being stretched to a breaking point, the 30 native fish species that are found nowhere else in the world face an increasingly uncertain future. These waters also feed habitat that supports an amazing array of the West’s wildlife.

While one ditch in northwest Colorado may seem like a drop in the bucket, its story provides hope for the whole system. Bringing together agricultural, recreational and environmental interests is necessary if we hope to see positive change for this river system.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve. I think if we all work together, we can come to a solution. If we don’t do that, then the next generation might not have the water they need,” says Camblin, of the Maybell Irrigation District.

As work continues on the Maybell Ditch, it represents a win for agriculture, recreation and the environment that the economy relies on, and for the fish that have called this river home for thousands of years.

The gaging station in the Yampa River near Maybell has documented declined flows in the last century that have led to a state proposal to designate the river as over-appropriated. The designation, if approved, will affect permits for some new wells in the basin.
CREDIT: ALLEN BEST/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From the Community Agriculture Alliance (Andy Baur) via The Craig Daily Press:

The Yampa River Fund steering committee recently awarded $200,000 to six projects during its 2021 grant cycle. As designed, the YRF funded projects that enhance river flows, restore riparian and instream habitat, and improve infrastructure for a healthier river. One of the projects, permitting for the Maybell Diversion Restoration Project, is an excellent example of how the YRF supports multibenefit projects that help water users while benefiting river health and recreation as well. When completed, the Maybell Diversion Project will result in significant positive impact to the Maybell agricultural community, endangered and native fish habitat, and recreation interests. What makes the Maybell project a great fit for the YRF is it stands to create a positive impact in all river users, the economy and the environment for decades to come.

The project is moving forward through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Maybell Irrigation District (MID). The goal is to reconstruct the historic Maybell diversion and modernize the headgates in the lower Yampa River. TNC, MID, Friends of the Yampa and other partners are committed to increasing water users’ control of irrigation water while improving aquatic habitat by removing impediments to flow as well as facilitating boat and fish passage at the Maybell diversion. Safer and reliable water infrastructure will bring increased economic benefits to the communities in the lower Yampa basin. In addition, this project supports recovery of four endangered fish while meeting agricultural irrigation needs and increasing ecological connectivity, water security and resilience to climate change.

Located in the designated critical habitat reach of the Yampa, downstream of Juniper Canyon, the MID currently withdraws water through two broken and antiquated headgates into the Maybell Ditch. Built in 1896, the ditch is approximately 18 miles long and is one of the largest diverters on the Yampa River. Though the diversion infrastructure historically served the users well, it is impacted by critically low flows during times of drought and water scarcity.

Stakeholders and community members view the project as critical to remedying chronic low-flow and obstacles to boat and fish passage in the lower Yampa. The project received funding in 2019 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to finalize engineering designs, specifications and permitting for construction to begin in 2022. TNC and partners are in the process of fundraising and working with the Maybell community to schedule construction and develop a path forward.

You can learn more about the Maybell Diversion Project at http://Nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/colorado/stories-in-colorado/maybell-water-diversion-project. In addition, you can learn more about the Yampa River Fund and other funded projects at http://YampaRiverFund.org.

Yampa Valley State of the River, May 19, 2021 #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Yampa River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Click here to register:

Join the Colorado River District and the Community Agriculture Alliance for the Yampa Valley State of the River to learn more about current issues in the Yampa River Basin, from the Flattops to Dinosaur.

Understand more about your river, your water, the potential for a call on the river this summer and what the proposed over appropriation designation on the Yampa means for your water use. In presentations and discussions at the meeting, speakers will also give information about funding for Yampa River Basin water projects and updates on our water supply as we enter another summer of drought. Attendees will also hear about plans to manage the watershed and keep water flowing in the Yampa in hot, dry years.

If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive a recording of the webinar in your email inbox to watch later.  

Agenda:

Welcome – Colorado River District and Community Agriculture Alliance

Colorado River District’s Partnership Project Funding Program – Colorado River District Director of Strategic Partnerships Amy Moyer

Water Supply Updates and Drought in the Yampa River Basin – Colorado Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger

Integrated Watershed Planning – Yampa IWMP Chair Doug Monger

Updates from the Division of Water Resources – Division 6 Engineer Erin Light

What does the over appropriation mean for water users? – Colorado River District Senior Water Resources Engineer Hunter Causey

Keeping Water in the River in Dry Years – Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller and the Colorado Water Trust

May 19, 2021 06:00 PM

#Runoff news: Yampa Valley creeks and rivers on the rise; prepare for high water — #SteamboatSprings Pilot & Today

From the Streamboat Pilot & Today:

While peak flows can vary, the Yampa River generally peaks in late May to early June, while Butcherknife Creek, Burgess Creek, Spring Creek, Soda Creek and Walton Creek can peak significantly earlier in the year. This past week, the Yampa River increased to nearly 700 cfs.

The Streets Division will supply sand and sandbags for residential properties that need them on a case-by-case basis. Sandbags will need to be filled and placed by the homeowner. Contact the Streets Division at 970-879-1807 during normal office hours or dispatch at 970-879-1144 after hours to request this service. Commercial properties and residential neighborhoods with frequent needs must acquire their own sandbags. Those experiencing a flooding emergency should call 911.

Rainy start to May not yet enough to stem #YampaRiver Valley’s #water concerns — The #SteamBoatSprings Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):

Steamboat Springs has been seeing some much needed rain to start the month of May, which is historically the wettest month of the year for the Yampa Valley.

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, which is a collection of volunteers that submit data to the Colorado Climate Center, have observed about 0.3 inches of rain in Steamboat since Sunday…

Despite recent rain, however, water experts say it’s not enough.

“There hasn’t been a tremendous amount of rain, and it is pretty standard for us to get some spring rain, so I don’t think it is going to overcome the deficit that we were already in,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

Light placed water restrictions on the river last year and in 2018, but it is still too early to know if that will be needed this year. She said they are working with the Colorado River District to find ways to avoid a call, potentially releasing water from Elkhead Reservoir.

If a call is avoided, Light said it would likely be because of this collaboration. Still, reservoir releases don’t necessarily fix the problem.

“It doesn’t eliminate the fact that there may be no more stream flow left in the river,” Light said. “It is very possible that we are going to get to a point where our natural stream flow runoff has gone to nothing, and the only thing we are seeing in the river is reservoir water at certain locations.”

This is what happened at the end of summer 2020 and in 2018 to trigger the call.

Light said she is mainly looking at stream flows particularly farther down the river. She focuses on the gauges near Maybell and Deerlodge Park that are both in Moffat County, downstream from many irrigators that pull from the Yampa River west of Steamboat.

“You can only put so many straws in the river before you start to run out of water,” Light said, adding that both of the gauges have hit record lows in recent weeks…

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, both gauges showed flows were only about 20% as strong as they were this time last year. When looking at three-month outlooks, it suggests this summer will be both hotter and drier than normal, Light said.

Steamboat typically receives about 2.5 inches of rain in May, according to the 30-year average from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

#YampaRiver flow has business owners concerned — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From Steamboat Pilot & Today (John F. Russell):

Despite his outward enthusiasm, Peter Van De Carr admits he is preparing for the worst as he looks over SNOTEL data collected by the National Resource Conservation Service that shows snowpack in the Yampa and White river basins is about 80% of normal.

“You know if things turned around, and we started getting wetter than average kind of system coming in, it might turn around, “ Van De Carr said. ”We should be seeing rafts and kayaks, but it’s not worth going right now.”

Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, agrees the river flow is eye opening for this time of year.

“I’m surprised at how low the river is right now,” Romero-Heaney said. “I think it’s an indication that there is not a lot of snow remaining in the valley, because it melted off so quickly. I believe it got soaked up by the ground, because the soil was already so dry after last year.”

Van De Carr, who has owned Backdoor Sports for more than 30 years, said most years, the Yampa River peaks twice. First, when the snow in the lower valley melts fueling the Yampa’s spring flow and then again as the snow from the higher peaks melts and makes its way into the river below.

“We usually have this valley runoff surge, and the river will come up to 1,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). Then it’ll start going down, and everybody thinks its peaked,” Van De Carr said. “It does not peak until there’s almost no snow left on Mount Werner.”

But this year, that valley surge wasn’t as strong, and like Romero-Heaney, Van De Carr believes most of that moisture soaked into the dry ground before reaching the river…

Unfortunately, for Backdoor Sports and many other businesses that rely on the river to generate cash flow the outlook for this summer is challenging…

Hall said not having the river will hurt traffic on Yampa Street and his retail business, which rents paddleboards and gear…

Johnny Spillane, owner of Steamboat Flyfisher, said while the snowpack is important, the most vital thing for his business is getting moisture in the spring and summer…

Hall is also hoping the Yampa River Fund, which has been used in the past to purchase stored water, will be used to bring water into the Yampa later in the season if the valley doesn’t see wet, cool spring weather.

New dust-on-snow monitoring technology coming to #SteamboatSprings lab, expanding a growing #snowpack data network — @AspenJournalism #runoff #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From Aspen Journalism (Natalie Keltner-McNeil):

Phenomenon drives earlier, more-intense spring runoff

The first automated dust-on-snow monitoring technology in the mountains of Northwest Colorado is expected to be installed this fall to study the impact of dust from arid landscapes on downwind mountain ecosystems in the state and in Utah.

McKenzie Skiles, who is a hydrologist and a University of Utah assistant professor, will use close to $10,000 from a National Science Foundation grant to purchase four pyranometers, which measure solar radiation landing on, and reflected by, snow.

These instruments will be placed on a data tower at Storm Peak Lab, a research station above Steamboat Springs that studies the properties of clouds, as well as natural and pollution-sourced particles in the atmosphere. The lab sits at 10,500 feet near the peak of Mount Werner at the top of Steamboat Resort in the Yampa River basin. Starting next winter, live information will be transmitted to MesoWest, a data platform at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

This station will be the latest added to a growing network of dust-on-snow monitoring towers across the state and Utah. Such stations offer key insights to researchers studying how dust impacts the timing and intensity of snowpack melt, Skiles said.

“My goal is to have a network of dust-on-snow observation sites that spans a latitudinal gradient in the Rockies and headwaters of the Colorado River,” Skiles said.

The Atwater study plot in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, pictured in January, began transmitting data in 2019 and is operated by the Snow Hydro Lab at the University of Utah.
CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY MCKENZIE SKILES

Five towers spread around Colorado and Utah currently take in data on the solar energy absorbed and reflected by the snow. Dust particles darken the snow’s surface then absorb more energy than clean snow does. Such a process changes light frequencies recorded by the pyranometers. Researchers take this frequency data and run it through models to quantify how much surface dust heats snow and speeds snowmelt.

Of the currently operating stations, one is near Crested Butte; one sits on Grand Mesa above Grand Junction; two are near Silverton; and one is in the Wasatch Mountains near Alta, Utah. The sites are run, respectively, by Irwin Mountain Guides; by the U.S. Geological Survey and a collaborative user group; by the nonprofit Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies; and by University of Utah researchers.

Stations were first established in the Senator Beck Basin, near Silverton in the San Juan Mountains, which is the Colorado range most immediately downwind from the deserts of the Colorado Plateau and receives the first dust — and the most dust. In analyzing data from the two radiation towers there, Skiles and colleagues revealed that dust on snow shortened the cover by 21 to 51 days and caused a faster, more-intense peak-snowmelt outflow. In a 2017 study that also analyzed data from Senator Beck Basin, Skiles showed that it was dust, not temperature, that influenced how fast snowpack melted and flowed into rivers downstream.

The Steamboat station will fill a gap in the locations of radiation towers, Skiles said.

“We know that a lot of dust comes from the southern Colorado Plateau and impacts the southern Colorado Rockies, but we don’t understand dust impacts as well in the northern Colorado Rockies,” she said.

Since there isn’t a data station in the northwest portion of the state, “The only way to know if there’s dust there is to go and dig a snow pit,” said Jeff Derry, executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.

CSAS runs the Colorado Dust on Snow program, or CODOS, which includes the two radiation towers in Senator Beck Basin.

University of Colorado hydrology students dig a snow pit in front of Storm Peak Lab in March 2013. The lab hosts research groups and students from around the world to study atmospheric and snow science.
CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY GANNET HALLAR

Three times a year, usually in mid-March, April and May, CSAS staffers tour Colorado, digging snow pits at mountain locations to assess dust conditions statewide. Since dust events continue into May, this year’s conditions are currently hard to quantify, Derry said.

So far, this spring has been dustier than 2020; five dust events have hit the Senator Beck Basin as of April 14, compared with the three total dust events last year. As in years past, Senator Beck Basin has experienced more dust events than have the sites to the northeast, according to Derry in the latest CODOS update. Yet, a recent April storm distributed dust on all sites in the state.

Unlike the past few years, Rabbit Ears Pass — the CODOS sampling site closest to Steamboat Springs and located northwest of Bear Mountain along U.S. Highway 40 — has received at least as much dust as the Senator Beck Basin has, according to the CODOS update. As of the April 12 to 14 CODOS tour, two dust layers of moderate severity are present on the pass. That amount probably came from storms in the Uintah basin, in the Four Corners region and in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, Derry said.

These dust layers will warm the snow and have an impact on snowmelt timing this runoff season, Derry said. In order to quantify that effect, radiation data from dust-on-snow study plots, like the one planned for Storm Peak, is needed.

Dust in arid landscapes — often disturbed by human activity — travels in wind currents during storms and is deposited on downwind mountains, Skiles said. The number of dust events and mass of dust carried in storms vary from year to year depending on wind speed, the intensity of drought and the frequency of human activities that disturb surface soils, said Janice Brahney, an assistant professor at Utah State University who studies nationwide dust composition and deposition patterns.

For instance, Senator Beck Basin experienced a peak in dust events from 2009 through 2014 and a decline in recent years. This decline is probably due to storms and winds that are not strong enough to carry and deposit dust into Colorado mountains, Brahney said.

“My sense is that a lot of the storms that are occurring in the southern United States are still occurring — they’re just not always reaching Colorado,” she said.

Dust covering snow near the Grand Mesa study plot on April 26, 2014. The Grand Mesa study plot was the third to be added to the network of dust on snow monitoring stations, and began transmitting solar radiation data in 2010.
CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY THE CENTER FOR SNOW AND AVALANCHE STUDIES

Dust data will provide future insights for Steamboat water policy and management.

Skiles’ lab isn’t the only entity interested in the Storm Peak Lab dust-on-snow data. Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, anticipates using the data in the city’s next water-supply master plan.

“We update our water supply master plan at least every 10 years,” Romero-Heaney said. “So, even if it’s another eight years of data that’s needed before we can see measurable trends, by the time we update our models, we’ll be able to integrate that data.”

The most current plan, released in 2019, includes forecasts for Steamboat Springs’ water supply 50 years into the future. The plan — factoring in historic streamflow data and stressors to water supply such as climate change, wildfire and population growth — concluded that the city will meet its demands through 2070.

“One thing we’re fortunate in is that we have a relatively small community for a relatively large snowy water basin,” Romero-Heaney said.

Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District supplies the city with its water, derived primarily from Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoirs, said District General Manager Frank Alfone. In the summer months, the district also treats water from the Yampa River to meet irrigation demands, he said.

In order to predict Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoir levels, Alfone relies on data from the Buffalo Pass snowpack station, which is run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and on monthly water-supply forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Alfone says dust on snow and the city’s water supply have “an impact now and more so in the future,” Alfone said.

Indeed, dust levels are expected to rise throughout the West. A 2013 study revealed that since 1994, dust deposition has increased in the region, with the majority of dust lifting from deserts in the Southwest and West, along with regions in the Great Plains and Columbia River Basin. This increase, according to the study, is probably due to heightened human disturbance of dry soils, which includes off-road-vehicle use, gas drilling, grazing and agriculture.

Increasing dust accelerates snowpack entrance into rivers, Skiles said. This earlier runoff lengthens the period when water can evaporate from rivers and lower streamflow, impacting water supply in the warmer months, according to her study,

“What we’re finding is that runoff is happening earlier and earlier each year, and that has real implications for us come August and September, particularly if we get very little rain throughout the summer season,” Romero-Heaney said.

Data from the widening dust-on-snow-monitoring network will aid water-resource managers and researchers in predicting how dust will shape future snowpack across Colorado.

“Dust does play a really significant role in hydrology. And that’s really important in the Western states, where we rely on the mountain snowpack not just for our own drinking water, but for our own functioning ecosystem,” said Brahney, lead author of the 2013 dust study.

“We anticipate some challenges for the whole basin, although we will still be able to reliably supply our customers with drinking water,” Romero-Heaney said.

This story ran in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on April 23.

#SteamboatSprings City Council begins exploring #stormwater utility fee — Steamboat Pilot & Today

City of Steamboat Springs. Photo credit: American Rivers

From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Alison Berg):

As the city’s infrastructure grows older and federal and state governments increase their standards for environment and watershed health, the city’s general fund has faced a significant strain in trying to keep up, Steamboat Water Resourced Manager Kelly Romero-Heaney and Steamboat Public Works Director Jon Snyder told council members Tuesday…

The idea is still under consideration, but if council chose to move forward, Steamboat residents would pay a small fee that would go toward protecting water quality. While an exact amount has not been decided yet, Romero-Heaney said the fee would be less than what residents currently pay for water and sewer bills. Aspen and Silverthorne recently enacted a storm water utility fee, and Romero-Heaney said the city would likely look to those communities for guidance.

Tuesday was the first time council members discussed such a move, and their first step would be to hire a consultant to study whether or not the idea is feasible in Steamboat…

City staff estimated the consultant would cost between $50,000 and $100,000, which could either be included in the 2022 budget proposal, or if the council would like to move sooner, could be added as a supplemental ordinance to the 2021 budget…

Council members tabled the discussion until their July work session.

Work to boost #SteamboatSprings #water supply redundancy continues — Steamboat Pilot & Today

Yampa River. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Suzie Romig):

City of Steamboat Springs officials know the municipality’s primary fresh water supply is increasingly at risk from potential wildfire danger in the Fish Creek watershed, so work will continue this summer to boost water supply redundancy.

The city along with Mount Werner Water District are proceeding with construction of enhanced and expanded “infiltration galleries,” or shallow wells that are filled by ground water near the Yampa River, to increase the volume of secondary water supply intake. Water collected through the Yampa well field, which is located near where Walton Creek meets the Yampa River, is piped to the nearby Yampa Water Treatment Plant

Frank Alfone, water district general manager, said the district’s work should be complete by Dec. 1 for a third shallow well and new raw water transmission line located about a quarter mile south of the district’s two existing wells. The additional well will push intake capacity for 2022 from 1.8 million gallons per day to 2.8 million.

The Yampa Water Treatment Plant, built in 1972, has about half the capacity of the primary Fish Creek Filtration Plant. The Yampa plant was updated in 2018 to be able to process more gallons per day and is used primarily to process water for the outdoor watering season from June through September, Alfone said.

Kelly Romero-Heaney, city water resources manager, said the city will open up bids in 2022 for construction of four additional Yampa River shallow wells to increase the overall intake capacity in the location to 3.5 million gallons per day, which would be available by 2023.

The secondary water intake improvements are part of the city’s updated Water Supply Master Plan, completed in 2019, and a key component of the overall supply plan is the updated Water Conservation Plan approved in May, Romero-Heaney said. The goal of the 10-year Water Conservation Plan is to reduce the amount of water used per household by 10%…

[Romero-Heaney] said the city accomplished six key water conservation measures in 2020. Steamboat Springs City Council and the district adopted regulations that permanently limit outdoor watering to between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. three days per week based on the last digit of a street address. The city replaced 619 feet of aging and possibly leaking water lines, fixed five water main breaks and replaced irrigated sod in front of City Hall with a low water use demonstration garden.

The city updated the water distribution infrastructure master plan to prioritize water line replacements to mitigate leaks and water loss…

Screenshot from the linked Steamboat Pilot & Today article April 7, 2021.

The updated conservation plan, posted on the city’s Water Conservation webpage, notes the city is actively engaged in meeting a variety of challenges to ensure a reliable water supply. Those challenges include drought, wildfire, need for more water treatment capacity, uncertainty of Colorado River Compact call, aging infrastructure, low flows in Fish Creek, growth in the west Steamboat Springs area and the uncertainty of climate change that has increased the statewide annual average temperatures by 2.5 degrees through the past 50 years…

The plan looks to preserve the health of Fish Creek and the Yampa River and protect drinking water supplies while reducing the use of chemicals and the energy intensive carbon footprint of treating fresh water and waste water. The plan also factors in the water requirements of the estimated 400,000 to 500,000 visitors to the city each year.

Steamboat’s primary source of treated water comes from snowmelt from the 22-square-mile Fish Creek watershed. Those supplies are stored in Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoirs and treated at the Fish Creek Filtration Plant.

Questions about the water conservation plan can be emailed to kromeroheaney@steamboatsprings.net.

Dry soil last fall, low snow this winter adds stress to the #YampaRiver Valley #water supply — #SteamboatSprings Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado Drought Monitor March 23, 2021.

From Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):

One of the wetter spots in Colorado, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, is east over the mountains from Steamboat Springs in Larimer County.

Much of that county is in the lowest level of drought, called “abnormally dry,” thanks in part to historic snowfalls on the Front Range earlier this month. If Larimer County is dry, the trek west to Routt County — through part of the state that saw several record wildfires in 2020 — might test which drought-related adjectives apply.

The drought monitor goes with “extreme” and “exceptional” to describe drought conditions in Routt County. Most of the Western Slope is looking at a similar situation, with the western third of Colorado being shades of ruby red and maroon on the latest map released by drought officials last Thursday.

After having a call put on it for the second time in three years in 2020, state water officials are now considering whether the Yampa River has enough water to fulfill rights held by people downstream of Steamboat Springs. What is most concerning to officials isn’t just the low amount of snow seen this winter, but also how dry the ground was before it started falling.

Yampa, White, and Little Snake River basins snowpack March 29, 2021 via the NRCS.

In the Yampa and White River Basins in Northwest Colorado, the snowpack is about 87% of average in terms of snow water equivalent, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, but there isn’t much snow forecasted for the next few weeks, and the average peak in the snowpack generally comes around April 10…

Rain is key at maintaining soil moisture, Romero-Heaney said. Because the soil was so dry last fall, she anticipates a lot of the melting snow will be soaked up and water runoff will be lower than normal.

This means stream flows will be lower, likely requiring release of water from Stagecoach Reservoir to support the health of the Yampa River later in the season. Romero-Heaney said more often then not, since 2013, they have needed to release water into the Yampa.

If enough of that spring and summer rain does not come, Romero-Heaney said the valley could see a summer much like the last, and “we start to run out of water for all the uses in the basin.”

Municipal customers running out of water is not a concern at this point. Whether there will be enough water for all the agricultural uses in the basin while also keeping the river healthy is in question though, Romero-Heaney said…

Despite lower snow totals, Andy Rossi, general manager at the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said he anticipates they will be able to fill Stagecoach Reservoir this year. That said, Rossi is not expecting to be able to fill Yamcolo Reservoir, which is primarily used for agriculture…

In repeated dry years, it can be increasingly hard to fully recover a reservoir until that streak ends, and there is a wetter year. In these dry years, potentially this summer, it can become difficult to meet the need of all the agricultural water diversions, Rossi said.

How a warming #climate has crimped flows in #Colorado’s #YampaRiver — The Mountain Town News #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridifcation

Yampa River. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

In 2018, Erin Light did something that had never before been done on the Yampa River downstream from Steamboat Springs. She placed a call.

As district water engineer, Light was responsible for administering Colorado’s complex matrix of water rights. Rights are ranked by date and volume, from earliest decreed and hence most senior to most recent and hence junior. A senior water-rights holder on the Yampa River at Lily Park, near the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, had called to say he was not getting the water decreed to that property for irrigation of the hay meadows.

The call she placed that summer lasted 21 days, causing the most junior of users upstream to cease diversions until that senior right was met. Then came another hot and dry summer in 2020, and she placed another call, this one lasting 9 days. It was a paradigm shift for the Yampa, a river that through the 20th century always had had enough water for anybody who wanted to dip a straw into it.

If foreign to the Yampa River, such calls have long been commonplace on Colorado rivers. The premise is water scarcity, the idea that there just isn’t enough water for all who want it, at least all the time.

Colorado’s hierarchy of seniors and juniors, older and younger, is commonly traced to the development of irrigation agriculture in the Poudre Valley between Fort Collins and Greeley. The Greeley irrigators were first, but then came new irrigators upstream near Fort Collins. In a drought year, their new diversions had an effect on what was available downstream. Within a decade, soon after Colorado became a state, the first calls were placed on that river.

The Yampa River near the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument in the summer of 2018, the first year a call was administered on the Yampa River downstream from Steamboat Springs. Photo/Erin Light

It took little time for scarcity to be understood on all of Colorado’s rivers east of the Continental Divide. Scarcity was slower to be understood on the Western Slope, where there was more water and, even in the days of feverish gold- and silver-mining, fewer people. Yet over the decades, the Colorado and other rivers came to be fully appropriated.

The Yampa, though, stood alone among major rivers in Colorado in its relative plentitude. It routinely delivered water to all who wanted it. Even its reservoirs, modest in size, came relatively late in the 20th century, to help moderate flows.

The Yampa’s relative isolation played a role in this. It’s two mountain ranges distant from the Front Range, two significant fences to hop for Front Range cities and Great Plains farmers.

Climate also played a role. You can’t grow corn in the Yampa Valley with any reliability. You can grow hay, but the geography makes even that problematic.

Now that climate is shifting. Not enough to grow corn but enough to cause the Yampa to be marginally less robust and, as the 21st century has shown in 2018 and 2020, but also in other years before that, unable to deliver.

This has led to Light recommending that the Yampa be designated as “over-appropriated.” It’s a legal phrase that suggests something more odious than is actually the case. It sounds like the theater has been oversold and some people will be escorted from their seats to stand outside.

Over-appropriated doesn’t mean that. It does have implications for those wanting to drill large-capacity wells along the river. They must show the ability to deliver augmentation water, which is commonly purchased from an upstream reservoir. Most of Colorado’s rivers long ago were designated as over-appropriated.

In my reporting for a story commissioned by Aspen Journalism, which can be seen here and has more of the detail of interest to a local audience, I talked several times with Light. She chose her words carefully. She didn’t talk about climate change, only the direct evidence, the water years of 2018 and 2020. But there were other bad years, too, including 2012 and also 2002.

A gaging station in the Yampa River near Maybell has documented 1.5 million acre-feet a century ago to 1.1 million acre-feet now, with one recent year showing only 500,000 acre-feet. Photo/Allen Best

Light wasn’t the district engineer in 2002, and only recently did the downstream irrigator near Dinosaur explain why he hadn’t demanded his water that summer and fall. He just didn’t have the heart to cause so much pain upstream in that year of scorching temperatures, forest fires, and meager winter snows eviscerated by spring winds.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence from Light were these statistics, drawn from the U.S. Geological Survey gaging station at Maybell, located along the Yampa River (and Highway 40), between Craig and Dinosaur National Monument. A century ago, the gauging station recorded an average annual 1.5 million acre-feet. That has declined to 1.1 million in the 21st century. And, of course, some years are worse, including one year in the last decade of 500,000 acre-feet.

At a recent meeting of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, a representative of Boulder County mentioned drought caused by climate change in support of regulations to control methane emissions. One of the AQCC commissioners, Randy Ahrens, of Broomfield, wanted to know why, if the ski areas could talk about what wonderful record-breaking snows we had, we could still be in drought.

In that question I think I heard some skepticism, perhaps a wondering whether enviros were just a little too chicken-littlish. It was a legitimate question, though.

This roof in Craig in early March 2020 was testament to an above-average winter. Three months later, the snow-water equivalent had swooped from 116% of median to 69% of median. Photo/Allen Best

I saw the answer during my three trips to the Yampa Valley in 2020. In early March I visited Steamboat and then Craig, seeing evidence of a big snow year, reminiscent of the winter and spring I had spent there in 1979. I got skilled that winter at chaining up my Ford Pinto in the dark during a snowstorm while crossing Rabbit Ears Pass.

But those heavy snows I saw in March 2020 soon disappeared in a warm, dry spring.

Kelly Romero-Heaney, the water resources manager for Steamboat Springs, laid it out for me. The snow-water equivalent—a measure of the snowpack—showed 116% of median on March 1. It was down to 69% by June 1.

Then came summer, hot and dry, a record in both categories during August against 130 years of measurements.

That heat and lack of precipitation, Romero-Heaney told me, drove a measure called the SPEI, or Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index. “The combination

of heat and lack of precipitation drove an SPEI figure that far exceeded drought years, such as 2002, 2012, and 2018,” she said.

Last August, when I returned again to explore the Little Snake River, it felt like an oven. Stopping for a sandwich in Steamboat on the return to the Front Range, it felt Denver hot. That afternoon I continued eastward across Cameron Pass then drove past Long Draw Reservoir and toward the headwaters of the Colorado River. A week later, it was afire.

That Cameron Peak Fire was still in advancing in early October when we returned to Craig a third time. It was a smoky time there—and everywhere.

On that October trip I drove up the Elk River northwest of Steamboat Springs to see Jay Fetcher. His ranch a few miles from Steamboat Lake had been his parents’ ranch when they arrived from Philadelphia in 1949 and he was a toddler. His parents had kept a record through their years of when the last snow disappeared from the meadow. His father died just a few years ago, a legend in Steamboat and beyond, partly because he was a co-founder of the ski area, but also because of his work in water.

Jay has continued the work of his parents, charting the withering of the winter snowpack. And the chart he gave me showed a clear progression toward earlier springs, particularly during the 21st century. There’ still great variability, but now more so. The “snow off meadow” date arrives an average one day earlier every five years. That means longer summers.

Jay Fetcher at his ranch along the Elk River northwest of Steamboat Springs in the hay meadow where he, and before that, his parents have carefully tracked the last disappearance of snowbanks each spring. Photo/Allen Best

The story here is that last year was emblematic of what has been happening in the Yampa River. There’s no longer enough water for everybody who wants it all the time. It’s not because of additional new diversions, although there are some. But that does not tell the story. The longer, hotter summers may cause ranchers to divert more water to irrigate. That could be part of the story.

The largest story is of the warming weather, the shifting climate.

Light has submitted her proposal for over-appropriation to her boss, Kevin Rein, the state water engineer. In an interview, he had also chosen his words about climate change carefully. Approving this, he said, would not be a prediction of a climate to come, only a recognition that the hydrological balance has shifted.

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

Fair enough. But there’s the weight of evidence, almost crushing, that climate change has started playing a heavy hand in the Colorado River. There are the studies by Udall, et al, that point to the “hot drought” as the story, with roughly half the recorded declines due to temperature and not precipitation. There are, of course, the enduring images of the bathtub ring at Lake Mead. And there are the models that predict much more warmth is yet to come.

Climate change is not just the future. It’s here, it’s now. And from all available evidence, the climate scientists were too conservative in their predictions.

This was published in the March 18, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine. For a free subscription, go to http://BigPivots.com.

Grant advances stalled plans for 280-foot-high dam on the #LittleSnakeRiver — WyoFile.com #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GreenRiver #YampaRiver #aridification

Little Snake River watershed S. of Rawlins, Wyoming via the Wyoming Water Development Office.

From WyoFile.com (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

Wyoming’s efforts to build a 280-foot-high dam above the Little Snake River near the border of Colorado are “picking … back up,” after backers received a $1.2 million federal grant, the director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission said last week.

The funds, to be matched by Wyoming, will help consultants prepare federal environmental reviews. Planned for the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County, the estimated $82 million dam and 10,000-acre-foot reservoir would be constructed in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.

The Little Snake River as it passes under Wyoming Highway 70 near Dixon. Photo credit: Wikimedia

The dam on the tributary of the Little Snake River would serve 67 to 100 irrigators by providing late-season water. Irrigators are unable to finance the project, so 91% of the costs would be borne by Wyoming, a formula backers say is justified because the structure would produce $73.7 million in public benefits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service in 2019 approved a $1.25 million grant to the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District and the neighboring Colorado Pothook Water Conservancy District to boost the project, according to federal records. The grant requires a matching contribution.

“It became a little bit dormant for a while,” Water Development Office Director Brandon Gebhart told members of the state water commission Thursday as he described the project. The grant will help consultants decide whether to pursue a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service or try to construct and operate the facility through permits.

Previously rebuffed

The project faced scrutiny and criticism in the Legislature in 2018 when backers sought $40 million in construction funds. Lawmakers appropriated only $4.7 million, requiring none of the money be spent until two conditions were met.

One was securing “additional funding commitments from project beneficiaries in both Wyoming and Colorado on a pro-rata basis.” The second string the legislature attached required legislative approval before any of the 2018 appropriation be spent…

In addition to the $4.7 million 2018 appropriation, the West Fork account had some $6 million already appropriated in 2013, for a total of $10.9 million. The earlier appropriation did not include requirements for cost sharing with Colorado or for further legislative approval…

Lawmakers became wary of the dam project because of its cost, its location and the small number of Wyoming irrigators it would serve. Critics said it would only irrigate an additional 2,000 acres or so…

A Feb. 24 memo to commission members described Wyoming’s historic engagement with Colorado officials but with a contemporary revision. “All entities expressed support for additional storage in the Little Snake/Yampa River drainages and support for the West Fork project,” the memo reads.

But that statement mischaracterizes Colorado’s position, said Cody Perry, vice president of Friends of the Yampa. The Little Snake River flows along the Wyoming/Colorado border and into the Yampa, a tributary of the Green River.

Wyoming tried to get the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to endorse the project in 2018. But that group would not sign a proposed letter backing the dam and reservoir.

Instead, the Roundtable said it would need to see the dam proposal “in a final format, after [National Environmental Policy Act analysis] has been completed.”

“The [Roundtable] membership would like to be clear that this is not support of the reservoir itself, only the process of the exploration…” the Colorado group’s letter stated.

Three members of the Colorado roundtable said the group’s position has not changed since 2018…

The Water Development Commission last week extended a planning contract for the project through the end of 2022. It had been set to expire June 30, 2021.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

@DWR_CO Seeks Public Input on Designating #YampaRiver as “Over-appropriated”

The second-ever call on the Yampa River ended September 6, 2020. Here it flows near the diversion from the Hayden Generating Station on Aug. 3. Photo credit: Allen Best/Aspen Journalism

Here’s the release from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Chris Arend):

The Colorado Division of Water Resources announced the commencement of a public comment process today on a proposed plan to designate the main stem of the Yampa River in Northwest Colorado 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.

Colorado water law is driven by a system of “prior-appropriation” or a first in time, first in right water right system. The system is designed for Colorado’s semi-arid climate to fairly and efficiently distribute the state’s limited water supply for the beneficial use of Coloradans. If a river system, such as the Yampa River, at times has insufficient supply to provide water to all decreed uses, then additional measures to protect those decree uses are necessary.

“The Yampa River is an incredibly important resource for Northwest Coloradans. It sustains our communities, farms, ranches, wildlife, outdoor recreation and power supplies,” said Erin Light, Division Engineer, Water Division 6, Colorado Division of Water Resources. “However, the combination of continued diversions by senior water rights and recent appropriations, along with recent climatic conditions, such as sustained drought, indicates a strong potential that the mainstem of the Yampa River meets the criteria of being “over-appropriated” and requires more careful administration to ensure senior water right holders are able to properly use their legal water rights. We want to make sure our water users and community are knowledgeable on this change in the river and are educated on the potential changes that may occur as water is developed in the Yampa River valley.”

The effect of this designation is the requirement that new well permits in the affected area will require an evaluation of their potential to cause injury to surface water rights and in many cases will need to secure a replacement supply of water to mitigate the impacts of their pumping through an “augmentation plan” before being issued a well permit by the Division of Water Resources.

“We understand this new well permitting process will be a change for water users and those looking to develop water in Yampa Valley,” Light added. “I want to assure community members that my office and our Division is here to assist you in these new measures as we all work towards equitably managing our scarce but critical water resources.”

Following the formal notice of this recommendation, which involves notifying members of the Division 6 Substitute Water Supply Plans (SWSP) Notification List and additional community input, the State Engineer and Director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, will work with Erin Light to determine next steps, which may include additional public outreach. Rein will not make a final determination on the proposed “over-appropriated” designation until he is satisfied that the water users fully understand the effect of the designation.

Having a river system designated as “over-appropriated” is not a new concept in Colorado. In fact, only a small minority of river systems in Colorado are not considered to be over-appropriated. The South Platte, Rio Grande, and Arkansas River systems with their heavy agricultural and municipal and industrial water users have long been considered “over-appropriated.”

To submit comments on or any questions about the proposed plan please contact Erin Light, Division Engineer, Water Division 6, at erin.light@state.co.us or 970-879-0272 Ext. 3.

A copy of the proposed plan can be found here on the Division of Water Resources website.

#Colorado proposes a new paradigm for #YampaRiver — @AspenJournalism #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

An angler in the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs in early March 2020. Designating part of the Yampa River as over-appropriated would require some water users with wells to have an augmentation plan.
CREDIT: ALLEN BEST/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best):

Colorado water officials are considering whether to designate the increasingly stressed Yampa River from Steamboat Springs downstream to near its entrance into Dinosaur National Monument as over-appropriated.

If approved by the state water engineer, the designation would require augmentation plans for larger-volume wells along the river from Steamboat to Lilly Park, where the Little Snake River flows into the Yampa.

Augmentation plans document how the water used will be replaced to satisfy senior water rights. Such water is typically delivered from upstream reservoirs, both large and small.

The proposal comes amid growing evidence that the Yampa River can no longer deliver water to all users all the time as they wish. There have been two “calls” on the river in the past three years, limiting diversions of users with later — or junior — diversion decrees until those of older or more senior decrees are satisfied.

The changed hydrology of the river can best be understood at the gauging station along U.S. Highway 40 near Maybell. There, according to Division 6 Engineer Erin Light, annual flows a century ago of 1.5 million acre-feet annually have declined to 1.1 million acre-feet annually. The gauge during one year in the past decade recorded only 500,000 acre-feet.

Light is proposing the over-appropriation designation. When the comment period will begin and how long it will extend has not been determined.

“An existing water right is not going to be injured by this over-appropriation designation,” Light said on a video conference meeting Monday evening with more than 100 viewers. “They would be protected.”

Colorado law considers all groundwater to be tributary to the stream system unless proven otherwise. As Light recently explained to the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, when a stream system is over-appropriated, drawing water from a well can deplete the stream during times when the water in the stream is insufficient to satisfy all decreed water rights.

The Yampa River famously long had sufficient flows such that it lacked the close supervision of many of the state’s rivers, including all of those on the east slope.

“If you look at the South Platte, the Rio Grande and the Arkansas, these are basins where the surface water was over-appropriated 100-plus years ago,” said Kevin Rein, the state engineer. He will be making the decision whether to approve Light’s recommendation.

Only a few of Colorado’s rivers, mostly on the flanks of the San Juan Mountains, remain free of restrictions that require augmentation plans for wells along rivers as are now proposed for the Yampa.

Regulation of large-capacity wells began in Colorado during the 1960s. The laws were adopted in response to conflicts in the South Platte River Valley between farmers diverting water directly from the river and those drilling wells. State legislators clarified the legal rights of each. The key breakthrough was acceptance that groundwater was, in many cases, part of the same water system as the surface flows.

In the Yampa River valley, this designation would primarily impact new residential wells located on lots less than 35 acres and wells used for purposes other than domestic uses.

Permits for new wells located on lots of less than 35 acres in existing subdivisions may be issued for in-house use. If the well serves additional purposes, such as for livestock watering or a pond that intercepts groundwater on a lot less than 35 acres, then an augmentation plan must be in place before a well permit will be issued.

Well permits may be issued for as many as three single-family dwellings, irrigation of as much as 1 acre of lawn and garden, and for watering of domestic animals, on lots greater than 35 acres.

Based on her experience after designations of the Elk River and the Yampa River upstream of Steamboat Springs in the past decade, Light expects to see no major impacts.

“I have just not seen a tremendous impact on people because of this designation,” she said.

Stagecoach Reservoir, near Oak Creek, has several thousand acre-feet of its 36,000 acre-feet of storage capacity available for augmentation. YamColo, a smaller reservoir located on the Bear River, upstream from Yampa, has lesser quantities available. Both are administered by the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, whose boundary goes to but does not include Craig.

How much augmentation water will be needed from upstream reservoirs will depend upon the use, explained Holly Kirkpatrick, external affairs manager for the district. Does the well provide for livestock water, for example, and if so how many animals?

The conservancy district has enough water in the two reservoirs, especially Stagecoach, to provide for all needs, at least in the near term.

“Individual augmentation plans are of very small magnitude,” said Andy Rossi, general manager. “We might be talking about less than one acre-foot up to three acre-feet” (annually), he said of augmentation plans for new wells.

Traditional agriculture water users would normally seek storage rights in the reservoirs for larger volumes.

The gaging station in the Yampa River near Maybell has documented declined flows in the last century that have led to a state proposal to designate the river as over-appropriated. The designation, if approved, will affect permits for some new wells in the basin.
CREDIT: ALLEN BEST/ASPEN JOURNALISM

New paradigm

It will still be possible to file for new water rights in the Yampa subject to Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right pecking order. But the proposal signals a new paradigm for the full Yampa River Basin.

“It should be a clear indicator to those individuals establishing a new appropriation that water may not be available all of the time every year to meet their water needs,” Light said.

One of the key water rights in determining water use upstream are those at Lilly Park.

Twice in the past three years those rights have triggered “calls” on the Yampa River upstream, causing Light, as the water engineer, to require more junior users upstream to end their diversions. That same call could have been made in 2002, but the owner of the water rights at Lilly Park recently confided to Light that he didn’t want to cause the problems upstream in that notoriously dry year.

Enlargement of Elkhead Reservoir, near Hayden, has also allowed more water to be delivered downstream, forestalling the need for the designation of over-appropriation.

The Yampa River upstream of Steamboat Springs and many of its tributaries were previously designated as over-appropriated after a water decree for a recreational in-channel diversion for the kayak park in Steamboat Springs was granted in 2006.

For Steamboat Springs, one consequence was the need to create an augmentation plan for the wells along the Yampa River supplying its water treatment plant. The water from Stagecoach will be needed only if the river downstream is on call, meaning that Steamboat’s water diversions must be curtailed to meet needs of senior users.

Will the over-appropriation designation downstream of Steamboat impact the city’s water supplies?

“No, not that I’m aware of,” said Kelley Romero-Heaney, the city’s water resources manager.

The designation of over-appropriation “just means there’s more accountability” to ensure that new diversions don’t injure existing water users and water-right holders, Romero-Heaney said.

The state also designated the Elk River, north of Steamboat, as over-appropriated Jan. 1, 2011, just a few months after the first call. Water is available from Steamboat Lake for augmentation.

Small reservoirs have also been constructed to deliver augmentation water in the Elk River basin. Small augmentation reservoirs may be needed for new development downstream from Craig, such as for new rural subdivisions.

Light, in recommending the over-appropriation designation, identified no single trigger.

There were the two calls, critical low-flows in other years, and the increasing importance of juggling reservoir releases. She said the most important signal of a new era came in 2018, when the first call was placed on the river.

“I think you could make a good case of climate change and different ecological conditions,” said Rossi. Snowfall remains highly variable, but runoff has consistently arrived earlier followed by more intense heat and, perhaps, a later arrival of winter.

Soil moisture may also be a factor. If soils are dry going into winter, they’ll soak up more of the runoff.

“Start the season with dry soils, and that is the first bucket that needs to be filled when the snow starts melting,” Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist for Colorado, explained last week in The Washington Post.

These changes were evident in 2020. Winter snows were healthy and the snow water equivalent, or the amount of water in the snow once it has melted, was 116% of median. Then came spring, early and warm. By June, the snow-water equivalent of the remaining snowpack had dropped to 69%.

Then came summer, hot and mostly absent rain. August broke records for both the hottest and driest summer month on the 130-year record. This combination of heat and lack of precipitation actually made 2020 worse than the other notorious drought years of recent memory: 2002, 2012 and 2018, according to Romero-Heaney

Designation of over-appropriation, however, would not forecast the climate in the Yampa Valley, cautioned Rein.

“It just recognizes what has been happening recently,” he said.

Climate change has started playing a significant role in declining river flows and falling reservoir levels in the Colorado River basin. These declines have led to concerns in Colorado during the last 20 years that requirements of the compact governing the Colorado River and its tributaries in the seven basin states could force curtailment of water use within Colorado.

From his perspective in Denver, Rein sees the proposed designation on the Yampa being neutral. All groundwater is already considered tributary to the river and hence should have no additional impact on compact compliance matters.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the March 10 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

New report confronts tough choices for the future of the #ColoradoRiver: “Dire situations require solutions far from historic norms” — @AmericanRivers #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon in 1873, near the confluence of the Colorado and San Juan Rivers. By Timothy H. O'Sullivan – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17428088

From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle & Page Buono):

It’s time for hard conversations about what kind of future we want for the Colorado River and all who depend upon it.

The Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University recently published a preprint edition of their new white paper titled, “Alternative Management Paradigms for the Future of the Colorado and Green Rivers.” The authors of the paper include Kevin Wheeler, Jack Schmidt, Brad Udall, and former Colorado River District General Manager, Eric Kuhn, among a few notable others in the climate modeling and Colorado River management space (Disclosure: Jack Schmidt and Eric Kuhn both serve voluntarily on American Rivers’ Science and Technical Advisory Committee.) The new publication builds upon a 2020 white paper, “Strategies for Managing the Colorado River in an Uncertain Future.” Wheeler et. al ran scenarios for various planning strategies on one of the most managed rivers in the world, the Colorado, to better understand the implications of those decisions in a hotter and drier future. Using the same computer modeling tools used by basin managers (the Bureau of Reclamation CRSS model), they integrated new climate and river flow data and looked out decades into the future to explore and predict water supply conditions under various scenarios.

The outcome of the study, in short: we’ve got to be more creative, and we need to have some hard conversations about what kind of future we want for the Colorado River and all who depend upon it. American Rivers has been engaged with the authors of the study, and we’re coming up to speed with its prescient findings. But even more important than that, our desire is to spark a conversation with you about what kind of future lies before us, what this new science tell us about various realities on the river, and how can we design solutions for the river, together.

John Fleck, author of a pair of recent books on western water, recently posted his take on the study, including some of the key highlights. He underscored that “Under a relatively optimistic scenario (things don’t get any drier than they’ve been in the first two decades of the 21st century), stabilizing the system would require:

  • The Upper Basin to not increase its uses beyond its current ~4-million-acre feet per year of water use.
  • The Lower Basin to adjust to routinely only getting ~6-million-acre feet of water.
  • Basically, that means adapting to living in a 10-12 million-acre-foot (MAF) river, rather than a 17 MAF river as the Colorado River Compact assumes. Obviously, this stuck out to us too. While the Law of the River (the Colorado River Compact) essentially promised 7.5 MAF for the Upper Basin and 8.5 MAF for the Lower Basin (then added in Mexico’s allocation later), the Alternative Management Paradigms study makes clear that this is now an unattainable, and unwise, ambition.

    Fleck points out that “Upper Basin water users have averaged about 4-million-acre feet/year since the 1980’s, but with plans to use more. The Lower Basin has reduced their use from the allowable 7.5 MAF to 6.9 MAF on average over the last five years. So to balance things out, Upper Basin use can’t grow, and Lower Basin use needs to shrink. More than it already has.”

    The authors write that “the primary purpose of this White Paper is to provide provocative new ideas,” and they warn that “the current management approach that allows only incremental changes to the Law of the River may be insufficient to adapt to the future conditions of the basin.”

    With both the warning and the desire for new ideas and thoughtful conversation in mind, we wanted to share some of the top conclusions from the study as an invitation for further conversation:

  • The Colorado River has been profoundly altered from its highest reaches to its delta. In the highly constructed and managed basin—complete with numerous transbasin diversions and large dams—the native river ecosystem has been profoundly altered, the Upper Basin less so than the Lower, but still to significant degree.
  • Unrealistic future depletion projections for the Upper Basin confound planning. There simply isn’t enough water to meet the aspirations for growth of the Upper Basin. “Unreasonable and unjustified estimations create the impression that compact delivery violations…are inevitable. Such distortions mislead the public about the magnitude of the impending water supply crisis and make identifying solutions to an already difficult problem even harder.”
  • Climate change is causing flow declines and additional declines are likely to occur. 2000-2018 flows in the Colorado River are nearly 20% less than during the 20th century. Even accounting for this decline is not sufficient for future planning—increased temperatures and the resulting aridity will likely precipitate further decline.
  • The Colorado River exists in a tenuous balance between supplies, demands and storage. Unplanned changes in this balance are likely to lead to highly undesirable outcomes. The Colorado River is already stretched. Any actions that decrease the inflows or increase demand are untenable. “If the Millennium Drought conditions continue and the 2007 UCRC future depletion projections materialize, the Colorado River’s water supply cannot be sustainably managed.”
  • Likely lower inflows and/or any increases to Upper Basin consumptive uses will result in a difficult basin-wide reckoning. Future reductions in water supply are likely, due to the effects of climate change, exacerbating tensions between the Upper and Lower Basin, especially if the Upper Basin increases its demand. Negotiations are already massively difficult. Planning for a supply that science suggests will not be realized makes difficult processes profoundly more difficult.
  • Lake Mead in 2017. Photo: Karen, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    In addition to those “difficult reckonings” it is clear that unless something is done, the environment—the river itself—has the most to lose. But in addition to those, the study outlined these additional takeaways that are key to understanding the expansive challenge facing the Colorado River:

  • Lower Basin shortage triggers based on combined Lakes Powell and Mead storage are more logical and clearer than existing triggers (and different from simply looking at the individual lake levels on their own)
  • Neither a Fill Mead First nor Fill Powell First scheme promotes or improves Lower Basin water security
  • Flaming Gorge Reservoir releases provide little Upper and Lower Basin Risk Protection
  • Humans have significant control over demands but little control over inflows
  • Dire situations require solutions far from historic norms
  • As Kuhn, Fleck and others have stated for years, the study demands a reimagining of what we want versus what we need when it comes to water, and it grounds us in future-looking predictions of what we’re likely to have, which isn’t more and will likely be less. This is, perhaps, the epitome of inconvenient science, but it’s important science nonetheless, and if history has taught us anything, it is science that we can’t ignore. Doing so will cost us greatly.

    You can read the study HERE, and you can learn more by staying engaged with us as we continue the work of distilling and contextualizing this research through additional blog posts, and other outreach, in the near future. We hope to catalyze a dialogue here—dare we say, a movement—and we look forward to your reactions, comments and ideas.

    Rio Blanco secures water right for dam-and-reservoir project — @AspenJournlism #WhiteRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    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

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    Six years after the application was filed, a judge has granted a water conservancy district in northwest Colorado a water right for a new dam-and-reservoir project that top state engineers had opposed.

    Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District now has a 66,720 acre-foot conditional water right to build a dam and reservoir between Rangely and Meeker, known as the White River storage project or the Wolf Creek project. 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 from the White River.

    But the decree, while granting Rangely-based Rio Blanco the amount of storage it was seeking, doesn’t allow the district all the water uses that it initially wanted. The decree grants 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.

    For more than five years, state engineers had argued that the project was speculative and that Rio Blanco couldn’t prove a need for the water. Engineers had asked the court to dismiss Rio Blanco’s entire application in what’s known as a motion for summary judgment. Division 6 Water Judge Michael O’Hara III agreed in part with state engineers and dismissed some of Rio Blanco’s requested water uses in an order filed Dec. 23. That left the fate of just three water uses to be determined at trial: Colorado River Compact augmentation, endangered fish and hydroelectric power.

    After seeing his order, the parties asked O’Hara if they could postpone the trial, which was scheduled for Jan. 4, while they hammered out a settlement agreement. The final decree and a stipulation, filed Thursday night, cancel and replace O’Hara’s Dec. 23 order and let the parties avoid a trial.

    “When you come to agreements, you are much more likely to live with those than having the judge force you to do things you didn’t really want to do,” O’Hara told the parties in a Dec. 31 conference call.

    Both sides said they are happy with the terms of the decree. Conservancy district Manager Alden Vanden Brink said that after six years of working out issues, the decree brought a sense of elation and a sigh of relief to the community of Rangely. The district is very pleased with the final result, he said.

    “Folks kept holding their breath,” Vanden Brink said. “And now we’ve got a step forward for drought resiliency.”

    This map shows the potential locations of the proposed White River storage project, also known as the Wolf Creek project, on the White River between Rangely and Meeker. Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District on Jan. 7 secured a conditional water storage right for 66,720 acre-feet. Credit: Colorado Division of Water Resources via Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    Settlement and stipulation

    The main issue for state engineers, who were the sole remaining opposer in this case, was whether Rio Blanco could prove it needed the water. According to Colorado water law, new conditional water rights cannot be granted without a specific plan and intent to put the water to beneficial use. State engineers maintained that the conservancy district had not proven that water rights it already owned wouldn’t meet its demands.

    But Rio Blanco said its existing water rights in their current locations were insufficient and that it needed a new reservoir on Wolf Creek to meet current and future needs. And district officials said they were wary of seeking to transfer these rights and uses to a new reservoir because that requires a water-court process whose outcome is not guaranteed; therefore they needed the new conditional storage right. Even if a water court approved the changes, Rio Blanco still said there was not enough storage in the White River basin to meet demands during a drought or for future uses.

    State engineers and Rio Blanco disagreed about how much, if any, water Rio Blanco needed for Rangely, irrigation, endangered fish and other uses. Rio Blanco agreed to give up two of the three water uses left to be determined at trial: Colorado River Compact augmentation and endangered fish.

    According to the decree, if Rio Blanco in the future is successful at moving any of their existing water rights to the Wolf Creek project, the same portion of water granted by the decree will be canceled, eliminating duplicate water rights in the reservoir.

    A stipulation agreed to by both parties lays out further restrictions on the water use.

    According to the stipulation, annual releases from the reservoir will be limited to 7,000 acre-feet for municipal and in-basin augmentation uses. Up to 20,720 acre-feet of water can be used for mitigation of the environmental impacts of building the project. But once the exact amount of water needed for future mitigation is determined, the difference between that amount and the 20,720 acre-feet will be canceled, reducing the total amount of water decreed.

    A view of the White River between Meeker and Rangely. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District on Jan. 7 secured a conditional water storage right for 66,720 acre-feet for the Wolf Creek Reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Garndner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Compact compliance

    State Engineer Kevin Rein said the final decree is a good outcome, reached in the spirit of cooperation. Even so, state engineers were never willing to compromise on giving Rio Blanco water for Colorado River Compact compliance.

    “That’s something that we would have held fast on in trial and we held fast on discussing it with them,” Rein said. “It’s more a matter of something that does not legally occur right now with the state of Colorado water law.”

    Rio Blanco had proposed that 11,887 acre-feet per year be stored as “augmentation,” or insurance, in case of a compact call. Releasing this replacement water stored in the reservoir to meet downstream compact obligations would allow other water uses in the district to continue and avoid the mandatory cutbacks in the event of a compact call.

    Many water users in the White River basin, including the towns of Rangely and Meeker, have water rights that are junior to the 1922 interstate compact, meaning these users could bear the brunt of involuntary cutbacks. Augmentation water would protect them from that.

    State engineers said augmentation use in a compact-call scenario is not a beneficial use under Colorado water law and is inherently speculative. This doesn’t seem to be a settled legal issue, and O’Hara said in his motion that he would not rule on whether compact augmentation was speculative.

    “We believe the augmentation for compact compliance was very difficult to allow just due to the complexities of the Colorado River Compact and the Upper Colorado River compact, and it’s gratifying that Rio Blanco listened to us and we were able to get a final decree that didn’t include that component,” Rein said.

    The water-right decree represents just the first step toward constructing the project, which will need approvals from federal agencies. Every six years, in what’s known as a diligence filing, Rio Blanco must show the water court that it is moving forward with the dam and reservoir in order to keep its water right. Fort Collins-based environmental group Save the Colorado has already said it will oppose the project.

    Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Jan. 9 edition of The Aspen Times.

    Wolf Creek Reservoir #water right approved — The Craig Daily Press #WhiteRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver

    This map shows the potential locations of the proposed White River storage project, also known as the Wolf Creek project, on the White River between Rangely and Meeker. A water court judge has dismissed several of the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s claims for water. Credit: Colorado Division of Water Resources via Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    From The Craig Daily Press (Joshua Carney):

    [Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District], Colorado State and Division 6 Engineers agree on water right for the Reservoir

    A little over two weeks after Division 6 Water Judge Michael O’Hara III dismissed several water uses, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the Colorado Division of Water Resources reached an agreement on a conditional water right decree for Wolf Creek Reservoir, Jan. 7.

    That settlement led to a decree for the storage right in Wolf Creek Reservoir that was signed by the Division 6 Water Judge, Michael O’Hara III on January 7. As part of his rulings, Judge O’Hara vacated his December 23, 2020 order on summary judgment motions.

    The decree will give the District the right to store 66,720 acre-feet of water in a new reservoir that will be constructed in Rio Blanco County near the White River and Wolf Creek confluence, approximately 15 miles upstream of the District’s Kenney Reservoir and 17 miles northeast of Rangely, according to the agreement.

    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

    The preferred reservoir site is off-channel on the normally dry Wolf Creek, with water to be delivered to the reservoir from a proposed pump station on the nearby White River.

    Decreed uses for water stored in the new reservoir will include municipal water for the Town of Rangely and replacement water that can be released to offset future water uses within the District boundaries and within the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District (YJWCD), the conservancy said in a press release…

    The District says it continues to work with the Upper Colorado River Recovery Program, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Nature Conservancy, the State of Utah, and the Ute Indian Tribe to determine the water needs for the recovery of endangered fish as part of the White River Management Plan…

    The new reservoir will allow a small portion of the White River runoff water volume to be stored in the reservoir each year. This water will then be released from storage to offset reduced river flows during periods of droughts, meet the needs of the District’s constituents, and to help offset the effects of climate change on future river diversions.

    The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District includes about 1,300 square miles of land in western Rio Blanco County. The District is responsible for protecting and conserving water within its boundaries.

    White River Basin. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69281367

    Reservoir clears hurdle due to legal settlement — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel #WhiteRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    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

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    A legal settlement this week has allowed the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District to clear a major early hurdle in its attempt to build a large reservoir 17 miles northeast of Rangely.

    The agreement reached between the district and state Division of Water Resources averted a trial that was scheduled for this week and led to a decree that was signed by Division 6 Water Judge Michael O’Hara III on Thursday. It gives the district the right to store 66,720 acre-feet of water in a reservoir that would be constructed in Rio Blanco County near the White River and Wolf Creek confluence, approximately 15 miles upstream of the district’s Kenney Reservoir.

    The district’s preferred reservoir site would be on Wolf Creek, with water to be delivered to the reservoir from a proposed pump station on White River.

    The proposal still faces major challenges, from federal permitting, to financing, to challenges from environmentalists. But water attorney Alan Curtis, who has been representing the district on the project, said getting the water right is necessary before federal regulatory agencies will consider approving a reservoir proposal…

    Decreed uses for water stored in the reservoir include municipal water for the town of Rangely, and replacement water that can be released to offset future water uses within the district boundaries and within the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District, which includes portions of eastern Rio Blanco County, Moffat County and the town of Meeker. Use of the water also is allowed to mitigate environmental impacts associated with the reservoir, and for hydroelectric power generation. In-reservoir use is allowed for recreation, fisheries and wildlife habitat.

    Under the settlement, the Rio Blanco district dropped its proposal for some of the water to be used to benefit endangered fish in rivers. Kevin Rein, state engineer for the Division of Water Resources, said the state was concerned with preventing water speculation, which is prohibited in Colorado. To get a water right appropriated requires having a good, nonspeculative plan to put the water to beneficial use, he said. He said the district proposal lacked things such as a formal agreement with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program or a specified amount of water that would be involved.

    The water district also had proposed to store water so in-basin diversions could continue should local water have to be released to downstream states if Upper Colorado River states including Colorado ever fall out of compliance with water delivery obligations under an interstate compact. The district dropped that proposal under the settlement.