Drought isn’t a new thing in the West, but right now, much of the region is gripped in a historic drought. An unusually dry year coupled with record-breaking heat waves has strained water resources in the West this year. In fact, water levels are so low that the Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage on the Colorado River basin for the first time ever in mid-August. There are a lot of ideas for how to relieve the drought and ease its impacts—some more feasible than others. But when you think about water in the West, you have to think about scarcity too.
“You’re really thinking about, well, why is it scarce? Is it too little supply? Or is it too much demand? And in the case of water, it’s both, right?” said Jason Shogren, an economist at the University of Wyoming (UW). “You have a drought, and that is going to restrict the supply of water. And you have an increase in demand because people are moving more and more to the Rocky Mountain region, moving more and more to the west coast.”
And as Shogren pointed out, a lot of people move to the West and expect to keep parts of their lifestyles from where they came from, like lawns of lush green grass. But those require a lot of water. And Shogren said we have to think about all the different demands.
“And since we have a lot of demand for water in Southern California, Phoenix, Las Vegas. We have a lot of demand for water in agriculture production, whether it’s crops, or whether it’s nuts, or whether it’s wine,” he said. “And on the supply side, the question is, ‘Who gets what water? And why?'”
He added property rights over water are different by state and deciding how water rights are allocated and how they can be used gets tricky fast…
And with climate change intensifying extreme weather like droughts and flooding, there’s one potential solution that would help solve both problems. Dr. Tom Minckley said it involves moving water.
“We could say, ‘Oh, well, the western states are in drought. So we could take water from, say, the Mississippi or the Missouri River, and when it floods, we could capture that floodwater, and then basically return it to the head of the watershed,'” he said.
Dr. Minckley is a Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming. He studies water in the West and how it’s managed. He said piping water from a flooded place to a place in drought is an idea that’s becoming much more popular. State governments already transfer water between some states in the west…
But because of Wyoming’s high elevation, moving water here from almost anywhere else would mean fighting gravity. It would require a lot of energy because water is actually quite heavy. Not to mention the logistics of where a pipeline would even go and how much it would cost – water is valued by the acre-foot.
“On average, it’s about $2,000 per acre-foot. And some of the Colorado River water in the state of Colorado is running for $85,000 an acre-foot. So, like, there’s these crazy, really big numbers out there,” said Minckley. “And the question is if we start moving water from where it is to where we want it to be, how do we pay for it?”
The idea has been researched and despite its growing popularity, the Bureau of Reclamation found its implementation highly unlikely because of the cost and logistics.
Another idea that’s been floated is cloud seeding…
[Bart] Geerts said farming communities in the High Plains have financially supported seeding operations in thunderstorms for decades, but it can be really hard to prove that kind of seeding actually worked. But, he said it is a lot easier to demonstrate that it worked when they seed winter clouds. Which can be more useful in the High Plains anyway.
Because there’s natural variability between the years, you can’t pinpoint exactly how much more snowfall there was due to seeding and they work with averages. Geerts said a common belief is that cloud seeding keeps moisture from falling in other places where it’s needed.
“It’s really not understood. There is that possibility but in general, these wintertime clouds are not very efficient,” he said. “Essentially water vapor condenses, you extract it, make it into snow, and thereby you reduce the downstream amount of water vapor to some extent. But that amount is so, so small, so insignificant compared to the total water vapor content.”
But Geerts added on the flip side of that, some of the seeding materials may float downwind and increase snowfall on the next mountain range.
“So it can work either way. We don’t really have an answer,” he said.
It seems like a lot of ideas and conversations about this topic end with that – “we don’t really have an answer.” But as droughts intensify, driven by climate change, those conversations continue to happen. And some may lead to more viable solutions.
The city of Steamboat Springs is exploring a way to help it stay in compliance with state regulations and also cool down chronically high temperatures in an impaired stretch of the Yampa River.
A program called water-quality trading could allow the city to meet the requirements of its wastewater-treatment facility’s discharge permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by cooling other areas of the river by planting trees.
The Yampa River flows through downtown Steamboat, where several parks and the Core Trail have been built along its banks. The river, a vital and cherished amenity for the Steamboat community, is popular with tubers and anglers. According to a 2017 survey of citizens, 75% of respondents ranked the management and health of the Yampa as essential or very important.
But low flows and high temperatures, made worse in recent years by climate change, have impacted the public’s ability to use one of their favorite amenities. In July, the city closed the river to commercial use because of high temperatures — over 75 degrees. The city also recommended a voluntary closure for noncommercial users of the river.
The entire 57-mile segment of the Yampa from above the confluence with Oak Creek to above the confluence with Elkhead Creek often has temperatures that are too high during the summer months, and in 2016 the segment was designated as impaired for temperature under the Clean Water Act. For July, August, September and November, stream temperatures exceed state standards for a cold-water fishery.
Because the river is classified as impaired, city officials expect that when CDPHE issues a future discharge permit for the city’s wastewater-treatment plant, it will include more-stringent water temperature standards. The wastewater-treatment plant may not be able to meet these standards unless it cools the effluent before releasing it back into the river. The city’s current discharge permit expires at the end of the year.
According to CDPHE Marketing and Communications Specialist Eric Garcia, Steamboat’s next permit will likely not have temperature limits, but will have temperature monitoring requirements. The soonest the city would have temperature limits for the wastewater treatment plan is Jan. 1, 2027.
“These monitoring requirements are included so that we have a full understanding of the temperature issues in the Yampa River and at the plant before we set any temperature limits,” Garcia said in an email.
FromThe Steamboat Pilot & Today (Gene Hinkemeyer):
Did you know the Colorado Department of Natural Resources calls for 80% of prioritized rivers to be covered by a stream management plan by 2030? Yes, that includes our Yampa River Basin.
The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable — YWG BRT — is one of nine grassroots water policy roundtables throughout Colorado working to develop locally driven, collaborative solutions to water supply challenges. The YWG BRT has been working on an integrated water management plan for the past several years.
The overall goal of the integrated water management plan is to use science, data and community input to build a healthy, productive water future in the Yampa basin for all water users. A committee of volunteers selected by and reporting to the YWG BRT coordinates the project.
Over the past two years, the integrated water management plan has focused on four geographic segments in the basin: upper, middle and lower main stem of the Yampa and the Elk River. Stakeholder interviews were conducted of agricultural, environmental/recreational and municipal/industrial water stakeholders in the basin. Interviews were conducted to learn about stakeholder’s operation and diversion infrastructure, water and riparian land management related concerns and opportunities for improvement.
Diversion assessments were also conducted to identify, evaluate and recommend multibenefit projects. The diversion infrastructure assessment report, which can be found at http://YampaWhiteGreen.com, represents the findings of the structures assessed. The primary goal of the diversion assessments was to gain an understanding of infrastructure used for diversions and to identify locations where infrastructure improvements could provide multiple benefits to the river and water users. These assessments evaluate opportunities that could benefit the structure owner(s), fish passage, recreational boating and overall river health.
So, what do we do with all this information? The integrated water management plan volunteer committee organized three focus areas around key topics to learn more and help identify projects for future work: ag infrastructure; riparian habitat/wetland/natural bank stability; and flows/shortages. A few projects are already in the works, with other projects to begin later this year.
The ag infrastructure work group has identified an initial set of agricultural diversion infrastructure projects that the integrated water management plan hopes to support and fund starting in 2022. Using data collected from interviews, the riparian focused work group has identified landowners with concerns related to erosion, bank stability and riparian habitat. Follow up interviews over the next few months are planned to better characterize their concerns and learn more about potential solutions.
Additional work has been completed, including a remote assessment that provided geomorphic, hydrological and ecological context for the integrated water management plan planning effort. This broad characterization applies remote sensing and GIS-based tools and techniques to assess moderate-resolution data sets across watershed and planning segment scales to identify and map trends and characteristics in physical and biological functions within the basin. Field assessments are underway to ground truth and verify the remote assessment findings.
A fluvial hazard mapping project is also in progress to delineate areas vulnerable to sediment and debris impacts spurred by rainfall or rapid snowmelt. As a final product, these maps can be used to inform land use planning, stream interventions and to identify and prioritize the conservation or restoration of natural geomorphic floodplains, wetlands and river corridors within the basin.
The integrated water management plan volunteer committee has been busy and continues to work hard on community driven plans for the Yampa Basin. We can only be successful with input and ideas from all stakeholders. If you would like to learn more, please visit our website, http://YampaWhiteGreen.com/iwmp.
Gena Hinkemeyer is segment coordinator of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable.
A thin haze appeared in the afternoon between our rubber boats and distant fins of burnt-orange rock, while a hot wind touched our faces, hands—any skin not taking refuge beneath cool, wet cloth. Later, the haze thickened, mixed with cirrus clouds and gave the golden-hour light a reddish tint.
The river still rushed by, and vibrant leaves in our camp’s young cottonwood gallery fluttered above me. The voice of the yellow-breasted chat that had berated us from cliff walls echoed in my mind, along with the scent of sage and sumac from a lunchtime visit to petroglyphs up a tributary canyon. I was fully immersed in this place, Desolation Canyon on the Green River in eastern Utah. No internet, no phone reception, no news or other distractions. Just the river, the canyon, and my companions on this week-long writing retreat.
But the sky’s tint and the hot wind hinted at what was happening outside the sheltering canyon walls. Record-breaking heat and nearby wildfires, starting early this year. The river itself gave more clues, to those who knew how to recognize them. Low flows and tame rapids, in June. A bear and cub were by the river when they should have been finding forage at higher elevations. We followed a long, irregular stripe of mineral crust punctuated by half-dead clumps of grass on the eastern wall. An extended seep that wasn’t seeping, the ghosts of hanging gardens.
Extended drought—or more accurately, aridification—is making its mark on the landscape and on people’s lives. News that I didn’t read during those days on the river was about ever shrinking forecast inflows into Lake Powell and how the states that share the Colorado River might manage reduced water supplies within a legal framework based on imagined bounty.
I write about these things, too, but on the river, I was trying to find words beyond my habitual short-hand to describe our hydrology and water policy developments. For over ten years, I’ve been learning and communicating about how people built an unbalanced system in the Colorado River Basin, constructing the plumbing for demands to exceed supplies, and how we can worm our way out of the worst consequences of that fundamental problem for fish and farms. I still think that matters, and I still think we have options.
But the river showed me that the transformation in our landscape is bigger than that, beyond the reach of our tinkering. Even far from ditches and diversions, seeps go dry and forage for bears thins out. We can micromanage irrigation water to get the most from every drop, clean up toilet water to a pristine state, and adjust reservoir releases to help endangered fish. We can pay farmers to fallow fields. But we can’t pay the hot wind to stop taking water from the sage, the sumac and the dirt. There’s no negotiating on this point, and no escape, not even in one of the most remote canyons in the lower 48.
Aridification carries a heavier emotional weight when I see it on the land than when I read papers about it or watch presentations in windowless conference rooms. It’s hard to see things change, irrevocably. To walk through a sick forest and know that it won’t grow back the same. To know that going away from people and the things we’ve built can’t actually take me back to a less damaged state of nature.
Since that trip down Desolation Canyon, back home in Grand Junction, Colorado, the temperatures have eased from the 100s into the 90s, and the summer rains we’ve missed for a couple of years have come back. It’s a welcome respite, and the dwarf ash and pinyon pines I see on my trail runs look perkier than they have in ages. I know these rains aren’t enough to reverse the harsh trend we’re in, but they lift my spirits and give all living things a break, a chance to gather strength before facing the next onslaught of hot wind.
We can’t turn back the clock and we can’t run away, but we can gather strength from an unexpected storm. We can diligently tinker where tinkering can work. And we can dip cloth into cool water, feel it dribble across our skin, and listen to the birds as we drift down the river.
The razorback sucker fish could be downlisted from an endangered species to threatened in the next year or so, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This week, environmental groups sent the agency a letter in opposition to the move.
The letter argues the razorback sucker is still in trouble, despite recoveries it’s made in the last 30 years, which is when it was first listed as federally endangered. The fish is native to the Colorado River, which is facing historic shortages due to the west’s megadrought…
The USFWS proposed a change in the fish’s status because they said its situation has improved and threats to it have been reduced. Though, they said it will need to be continually managed.
The letter from environmentalists was submitted as a public comment on the reclassification process. A spokesperson for the USFWS said they received around 35 comments.
Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers program director at the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, said it’s “irresponsible” to downlist the species now.
“Until the ecosystem that they live in can support self-sustaining populations, we believe that those species should maintain their endangered status, which is the highest protection under the law,” she said.
The humpback chub, another Colorado River native fish, could also be downlisted. The USFWS proposed a reclassification last year.
Governor Mark Gordon’s Colorado River Working Group will hold its first meeting from 9 am to noon on Sept. 7 in Rock Springs. The group will discuss important Colorado River matters and monitor potential impacts to Wyoming. The kickoff meeting will be open to the public and led by the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office.
The formation of the Working Group comes in response to continuing drought conditions in the Colorado, Green and Little Snake River basins and associated issues concerning Colorado River Basin management. The Governor’s charge to the Working Group is to discuss and share Colorado River information with interested stakeholders in the Green and Little Snake River Basins. It is a continuation of a coordinated and proactive outreach effort that has been underway in Wyoming since 2019.
This group is made up of representatives of key water use sectors in the Green and Little Snake River Basins. Working Group members are:
Ben Bracken — Green River/Rock Springs/Sweetwater Joint Powers Board (retired)
Brad Brooks — Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities
Senator Larry Hicks — Senate District 11
Representative Albert Sommers — House District 20
Jen Lamb — The Nature Conservancy
Aaron Reichel — Genesis-Alkali
Ron Wild — PacifiCorp
The September 7th meeting will be held at Western Wyoming Community College in Business Office Room #3650 A&B in Rock Springs. More information, including background materials and future meeting agendas, will be posted on the Colorado River Working Group web page on the Wyoming State Engineer’s website: https://seo.wyo.gov/interstate-streams/wyoming-colorado-river-working-group.
As coal mining fades, a diverse coalition of Moffat County residents and leaders is planning for the next chapter with a focus on protecting resources while managing recreation and tourism.
How can northwest Colorado entice and manage visitors, protect natural landscapes like the Green River’s stunning Gates of Lodore and prop up an economy girding for the looming departure of coal mining?
“As our coal leaves, what do we have left?” asks Jennifer Holloway, the executive director of the chamber of commerce in the town of Craig, where she grew up. “We have an amazing experience that can change lives. How can we share that, but also protect it?”
Three years ago, Moffat County “had some challenges with our identity,” Holloway says, describing how her father, when she was little, walked away from the family farm to work in the better-paying coal mines. “Not everyone had a coal job, but we focused on coal and neglected other things.”
Those other things — like tourism, agriculture and outdoor recreation — are no longer being neglected. It’s been a year since Tri-State Generation and Transmission and Xcel Energy announced they would be closing their coal-fired electrical plants and nearby coal mines starting in 2028. The closures will cost northwest Colorado as many as 800 jobs.
A community-based transition plan focuses on growing the region’s tourism and recreational amenities while protecting agricultural heritage and natural resources. The communities of Moffat County, downstream from the bustling resort of Steamboat Springs, are essentially a blank slate. They are taking cues from other Western Slope communities, hoping to glean lessons on what works and what does not. And the wheels are turning.
“Our community is on the cusp of doing great things, transformational things,” Holloway says.
Craig has applied for a $1.8 million federal grant for the roughly $2.7 million Yampa River Corridor Project, which hopes to revamp boat ramps and add a whitewater park as part of an effort to bolster the region’s appeal with river runners and paddlers. An additional phase of the plan would build a trail connecting Craig to the Yampa River…
First in line for state’s new rural assistance program
Nathan Fey, the head of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office has joined the Office of Economic Development and International Trade in recruiting students from the University of Colorado to map recreational assets in Moffat County as well as business infrastructure.
That case study will inform a larger project that will include local residents in shaping how northwest Colorado is presented to both visitors and outdoor recreation businesses. That larger project is part of Colorado’s new Rural Technical Assistance Program, or RTAP, which offers rural communities technical education that deploys online tools to help community leaders identify needs and build a plan for future growth. The second phase of the rural program involves technical assistance for planning and finally the state will help the community implement its strategic plan.
Moffat County is among the first communities to go through the new Rural Technical Assistance Program.
Say, for example, a snowmobile business or manufacturer approaches the state with an idea about relocating to Colorado. Fey can suggest Craig and Moffat County, offering maps of snow trail systems where the company can test designs as well as insights into supply chain management, broadband and commercial space. And residents in the community would already have expressed interest in welcoming that kind of business.
As he gazes up at massive sandstone cliffs above the Green River near its confluence with the Yampa River, [Andrew Grossman] riffs on what a shifting valuation for tourism economies might look like. Is it attracting wealthier visitors who leave more money in the community? But what if those high-rollers arrive on a private jet and emit that much more carbon than a less affluent visitor? One thing that is going away: the former yardstick for measuring success that was based solely on numbers of visitors.
“Maybe it’s time we apply a triple bottom line that considers resident sentiments, carbon footprints and economic benefit?” Grossmann says. “We have to reshift our value proposition.”
Julie Baxter, a senior planner with the city of Steamboat Springs, has accepted a new position just across the way from the planning department.
Baxter has been tapped as the new water resources manager following Kelly Romero-Heaney’s departure from the role.
“I wanted to get back into the water world, into water resources, planning for climate change, drought and wildfires and those types of issues,” Baxter said. “Those are the things that I’m more passionate about.”
Before joining the city as a senior planner, Baxter worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency based in Denver, managing six states in the Rocky Mountain region.
While in that position, Baxter worked on long-range planning to help communities reduce their risk of wildfires, earthquakes and other disasters in the region. After the 2013 floods that devastated Colorado’s Front Range, leaving nine dead and $4 billion in damages, Baxter worked closely with state and municipal governments in long-term flood recovery.
“Climate change and those impacts with drought and wildfires are really pushing us into more uncharted territory in the water resources management,” Baxter said, who noted the city has been doing long-range planning for those issues over the past few years.
The main job of the city’s water resources manager is to manage the city’s water rights portfolio and protect the city’s stretch of the Yampa River, which fuels several aspects of Routt County’s economy, including, tourism, recreation and agriculture.
With lower, warmer water levels in the Yampa River during this extreme drought year, town of Hayden employees are carefully watching operations at the water plant this summer to continue to alleviate taste or odor issues for the town’s 1,100 water taps…
[Bryan] Richards said the usual time of heightened summer concern for low water levels and thus increased algae is lasting longer this year, starting about one month earlier than usual in early July rather than the normal early August. Water levels have dropped at the intake on the Yampa River at the water plant north of town, and water temperatures at the intake have increased by 3 to 5 degrees above normal, rising as high as 75 degrees. Lower, slower, warmer water leads to more algae production…
Fortunately, major improvements to the Hayden water treatment plant during the past three years are working to help mitigate the algae increases, said Town Manager Mathew Mendisco. He said the town spent a total of $2.3 million in water system and plant upgrades with half of the funding coming from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and other funding from a citizen-approved bond measure. The plant was first built in 1978…
Town of Hayden water users have been under outdoor water restrictions this summer that mimic city of Steamboat Springs restrictions and resulted in a 3% decrease in overall water use compared to the past three years, even though the watering season started earlier this dry year, Richards said. Hayden water users will need to continue water conservation efforts when the town’s 1 million gallon water tank on hospital hill goes offline for a planned refurbishment starting with the tank drained by the end of August through project completion Oct. 20, Richards said.
Mendisco said the town secured $989,000 in low-interest financing to upgrade the tank through a state revolving loan fund managed by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The town qualified for a 1.5% interest rate based on its status as a “disadvantaged community” dealing with the impacts of the transition from coal.
The town has a 500,000-gallon water tank near Yampa Valley Regional Airport, so officials do not anticipate impacts to water customers when the larger water tank is off line.
As federal water managers declared the first-ever official Colorado River water shortage last week, a top official said he’s confident Wyoming will responsibly implement its plans to store and divert even more flows from the troubled waterway.
The Department of the Interior on Aug. 16 said it would reduce water diversions to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in 2022 after a scheduled August review set the restrictive sideboards for releases next year.
Despite that curtailment, Wyoming plans to corral another 115,000 acre-feet annually by building and modifying dams and their operations to potentially allow more diversions.
At the same time, Wyoming is fleshing out its Drought Contingency Plan and a “demand management” program that could see voluntary reductions in diversions before users in the state might be cut off. Wyoming doesn’t expect curtailments to happen next year, unless drought, aridification and climate change unexpectedly exacerbate the decline in Lake Powell.
In a press call announcing the downstream diversion reductions, a regional Bureau of Reclamation director appeared unfazed by the potential impacts of Wyoming’s dam-building plans.
“Wyoming has exercised foresight in the work of their Wyoming Water Development Commission,” said Wayne Pullan, the BOR’s director for the Upper Colorado River Basin, “and with our long history with Wyoming we’re confident that they’ll pursue any future projects responsibly, fully aware of the context of the hydrology and the difficulties on the Colorado River.”
Wyoming’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission, which will decide how any curtailments in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico will be borne, said his cohorts are “very concerned about the hydrology this basin faces.” A Drought Contingency Plan that’s been adopted in skeleton form “does provide the tools to help manage what we’re seeing now, as troubling as that is,” commission member Pat Tyrrell said at the press call.
Wyo forges ahead with dams…
Pullan would not comment on specific ongoing Wyoming projects, at least five of which in the Green River and Little Snake River basins would collectively control an additional 115,000 acre-feet at an estimated cost of $123 million.
“It is worth noting that one of the purposes of the Colorado River storage project is to assist states, making use of their apportionment under the [1922 Colorado River] Compact,” Pullan said. Wyoming has not developed or appropriated its full share of the water entitled under that historic agreement, state officials have said.
The compact and apportionment among the seven states and Mexico, however, is based on an annual supply of at least 15 million acre-feet, an amount experts say the river basin no longer produces. Further, Wyoming believes the lower basin’s Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico have historically overused their share while upper division states have not exploited their full rights.
At least one group has called for a moratorium on new storage or diversion projects in the basin until the seven states and Mexico can address what’s widely seen as claims to flows that no longer exist. Wyoming still deserves its share, state officials believe.
“We aren’t obligated to sustain overuse anywhere else,” Tyrrell said in an interview, “to the detriment of our existing demands here in Wyoming.”
Tyrrell offered one scenario where an ongoing dam project could be immediately affected by less runoff. At the Big Sandy Dam in Sublette County, the Bureau of Reclamation is raising the structure to impound an additional 12,900 acre-feet for irrigation.
“That’ll come under a more recent priority date,” Tyrrell said, meaning the new storage area will be among the first to be cut off if lower-basin shortages creep upstream. The doctrine of prior appropriation that governs water use in Wyoming recognizes the first-in-time water appropriation to be first-in-right when shortages occur.
“If we are, for example, under any kind of curtailment,” Tyrrell said, Big Sandy “won’t be allowed to fill.
“It will put no more additional stress on the system if it’s not allowed to fill up,” he told WyoFile.
Other new dams, reservoir enlargements or operational changes that would give Wyoming access to more water would be subject to separate sideboards depending on whether they are built, what priority of appropriation they might impound, who owns them and other factors.
The amount of water involved in the Wyoming projects is “very small in comparison to Lake Powell,” Tyrrell said. Powell holds some 20 million acre-feet of what’s called active storage — the amount that can actually be used.
The downstream reductions — 18%, 7% and 5% of Arizona, Nevada and Mexico’s annual apportionments respectively — amount to 613,000 acre-feet. That’s about 3% of Powell’s storage or, seen another way, about 10% more than Wyoming’s average annual usage of basin flows.
The impact of any additional consumptive use in Wyoming — which could approach the 115,000 acre-feet contemplated in Wyoming’s dam plans — “is very, very small in comparison to what might be stored in Lake Powell,” Tyrrell said.
“I believe the environmental impact statement for Big Sandy found there would be no significant impact to reservoir elevations downstream by an enlargement,” he said.
Wyoming’s legal team stands behind water developers, assistant attorney general Chris Brown said as he echoed Tyrrell’s overview. “We are certainly not obligated to sustain overuse in other places in the basin on the backs of Wyoming water users, either current or future.”
Water developers, including Wyoming itself, understand the priority system and risks associated with constructing impoundments to hold back flows. In the face of dwindling supply, some wonder whether new structures might become stranded assets — facilities built under one scenario that can’t be used as intended in a new reality.
A professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School expressed skepticism about Wyoming’s basin-wide plans. “That seems like a bad investment,” Mark Squillace said in an interview.
… and plans for curtailments
Already the Bureau of Reclamation has activated provisions under its Drought Response Operations Agreement to release water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah. Pullan called the action a “small ‘e’” emergency release that will help keep the level at Powell high enough to continue generating valuable electricity.
The Flaming Gorge releases and others also help the four upper-basin states meet their water-flow obligations under the 1922 compact, Wyoming’s Tyrrell said. The dwindling flows, he said, “threaten to get worse.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
During his tenure as Utah governor, Gary Herbert repeatedly stressed that water is the only limiting factor to the state’s growth.
That day is here for the nation’s fastest-growing state, and water managers are scrambling.
Drought is gripping 17 states in 95% of the service area of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and half of that area is experiencing severe or extreme conditions.
Those states stretch from the West, into the Southwest and the Great Plains region of the United States. Aside from Utah, victims of this megadrought are Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, California, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
It has become so severe at Utah’s Lake Powell, emergency releases were instituted from three upstream reservoirs to prop up its levels and to help keep power generation functioning at Glen Canyon Dam, which produces enough electricity for 336,000 households. On top of that, Colorado River allocations were reduced for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico due to the first water shortage in history being declared for the river.
In a five-year period, the nation’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — saw their capacity drop by half. They are now the lowest they’ve been since they started filling decades ago.
When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced the 18% reduction for Arizona, the 7% cut for Nevada and the 5% curtailment for Mexico, the historic first underscored how dismal the situation is in the Colorado River Basin.
“The announcement today is a recognition that the hydrology planned for years ago that we hoped we would never see is here,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, the bureau’s deputy commissioner…
According to the latest information from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 60 million people across nine states in the West are having their lives touched by what’s been described as a 100-year drought…
The Upper Colorado River Basin, which covers Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, is experiencing its driest 22 years on record.
Lake Powell dropped 145 feet from 2000 to 2005, directly attributed to a record low runoff in 2002 of just 24% of average.
The Great Salt Lake slipped below its lowest recorded elevation, documented in 1963.
Utah water managers are dipping into emergency supplies in the state’s reservoirs and most, if not all, irrigation companies are cutting the season short by weeks.
Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District that operates multiple northern Utah reservoirs, said conditions are dire…
Flint fears as the spigots for secondary water are turned off — and if September ends up hot and dry — households and businesses will turn to using treated water for landscaping needs…
How did we get here?
“It’s been pretty dramatic in how bad meteorologically it has been from an impacts point of view,” said Jon Meyer, a climate scientist with Utah State University’s Utah Climate Center.
Meyer said last year the drought was severe — with the driest summer and fall on record — but reservoirs were able to “buffer” that dryness in urban areas particularly.
When last winter’s below average snowpack began to melt, record dry soils stole the moisture…
Echoing Herbert’s concerns on water and growth, water law expert Melissa Reynolds warned if conditions persist, cities and the state throughout the arid West will face tough choices.
“We could see restrictions on new connections,” said Reynolds, an attorney with Holland & Hart. “I do think if we continue to see conditions like we have in 2021, more and more water providers may consider stopping new water connections. Lack of source capacity is a limiting factor on development.”
With even some “first in time” or the oldest, most senior water rights going dry or getting curtailed this year, Reynolds said impacts are widespread for the economy…
Agriculture and water
When it comes to Utah consumption, some critics point to the agricultural community as a big water waster in a state that is the second-driest in the nation.
They complain about the water it takes to grow alfalfa, admittedly a cash crop but one that is critical to support Utah’s ranching community.
Craig Buttars, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, editorialized in the Deseret News that what most people don’t realize is that due to the Utah drought, farmers and ranchers have had their water cut from 70% to 75% this year compared to last.
He warned those reductions have forced ranchers to sell off cattle and resulted in crop yields far below normal, which will mean higher food prices…
Utahns’ love affair with green lawns has been a target of water providers as they push people to replace water-sucking turf with vegetation more suitable to the state’s climate…
How much vegetation must remain — an issue of aesthetics for some communities — varies from area to area, however. That has led some conservation-minded residents to question why there is a requirement at all…
Meyer, from USU, said as periods of extended and intense drought continue to persist, Utah may have to come to grips with abandoning its concerns over aesthetics and being more mindful of water use.
Drought may very well change how Utah looks, and how it grows.
Driving throughout New Mexico and Arizona, Meyer noted, there is an absence of lush green turf. In its place, there is vegetation that is more practical in an era of climate change.
The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is releasing up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions…
Various agencies and water groups have worked to keep restrictions or “calls” off of the Yampa River for junior water rights holders, but if the drought persists as it has in recent weeks, there is potential that a call may be inevitable. The last call was placed on July 29, the third call in the river’s history, though it was later rescinded on Aug. 2.
Marielle Cowdin, director of public relations at the Colorado River District, said that the release was made possible by the Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, which received $50,000 in funding.
“We have been managers at Elkhead Reservoir of certain pools of water that exist there,” Cowdin said. “So when the call came on the Yampa, earlier this month, we worked in partnership with the Department of Water Resources and their division engineers to release some water to take the call off the Yampa — at least for a temporary time — so that junior water users would not have their water rights curtailed for that short amount of time.”
Because of potential calls in the future, the River District has a financial partnership with the CWCB to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin. The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in 2021, specifically for crop and livestock production.
Cowdin also said that because it is only August, the Yampa region still has weeks of potentially hot and dry weather, which could lead to another call. She added that the Colorado River District worked with the state of Colorado and the CWCB to provide contracts with local ranchers and farmers to access the 677 acre-feet of water.
A low snowpack, absent monsoon rains, dry soils, record-high temperatures and thirsty crops made 2020 the third-driest year on record in Colorado, and, according to the Colorado Climate Center, it was the first time since 2012 that 100 percent of the state was in drought for some portion of the year.
A repeat of similar conditions in 2021 is making Colorado’s continuing drought across broad swaths of the state’s Western Slope even more devastating.
“At any given time you can find drought somewhere in our state,” said Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger during a state Drought Task Force tour in Northern Colorado last week. “This may not be the worst drought we’ve ever had, but what makes this year particularly bad is that it follows on the tail of two other droughts [in 2019 and 2020]. We don’t have enough time [between droughts] to recover from the previous drought before we’re in the next one.”
Nowhere is that more clear than in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, where Monday the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared the drought situation so extreme that for the first time in history Arizona and Nevada will see their annual water supplies drawn from Lake Mead dramatically reduced.
Closer to home in Colorado, west of the Continental Divide, the state has experienced 50 consecutive weeks of category D4 drought, the most extreme drought condition, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Whether the fall and winter will bring any relief isn’t clear yet.
“I’m not particularly optimistic, unfortunately, about the coming winter,” said Peter Goble, a climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center in Ft. Collins. Goble said La Niña conditions will return for the fall and winter, bringing the potential for more moisture in the north and western parts of the state, but there is little indication that the Four Corners region will get any benefit. In addition, because 2022 is shaping up to be a second La Niña year, “events tend to be warmer and dryer,” he said.
Bolinger described the Colorado River Basin as being at a breaking point and the current drought affecting Colorado, Utah and Arizona as “the final straw that might break the camel’s back.” Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the downstream catchalls, have dropped to historic low levels. The lakes will never be 100 percent full again, said Bolinger, “unless we have 10 amazing winters in a row. The amount of water we have isn’t enough to meet expected demands so in the next 5-10 years we’re going to have to rethink how all of these states are supposed to equally share the water.”
Ranchers across Western Colorado are witnessing water shortages never seen before.
Cattle and sheep are being sold off early. There hasn’t been enough water to grow enough hay. Normally full stock ponds are dry. Grasses are dying. Weeds and grasshoppers are rampant.
“In 40 years this is the first time we’ve had to haul water to our cattle,” said Chad Green, owner of the Little Bear Ranch in the Yampa River Basin. “Usually our irrigation water runs until July 1. This year it was shut off on May 29. We harvested our wheat crop for hay. The past two years have been bad. But this year,” Green paused, “this year is horrible.”
But it’s not just farmers who are suffering. Those who rely on the state’s iconic rivers for recreation are also seeing the devastation this multi-year drought cycle has imposed.
“This river is critical to our community’s health,” said Kara Stoller, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber. Like other mountain communities, Steamboat is home to an array of outdoor gear companies and tubing and rafting companies. And the ski resort relies on the river for snowmaking.
This summer the river has been closed to recreation on multiple occasions to relieve stress on the fish population.
“Our water resources are our lifeblood,” said Stoller.
Bolinger doesn’t feel the “doom and gloom on a state level” that she feels for the entire Colorado River Basin. “But when people talk about drought, they talk about the new normal. We haven’t gotten to the new normal yet. We’re on the climate change train and things are still changing. Where we land will ultimately dictate what things look like.”
To Marsha Daughenbaugh, a 4th generation rancher near Steamboat Springs, the relentless dry spells are about much more than the condition of the local ranching economy.
“This is just one ranch, one county, one region, one state, but really, this is the story of the whole West,” Daughenbaugh said.
Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.
With lower, warmer water levels in the Yampa River during this extreme drought year, town of Hayden employees are carefully watching operations at the water plant this summer to continue to alleviate taste or odor issues for the town’s 1,100 water taps.
“We are always concerned, but we are paying close attention this year due to the abnormal conditions we’ve been experiencing,” said Bryan Richards, Hayden public works director. “We are trying to be very cognizant of the potential water quality problems that may occur in the river. This is a tremendous drought year, and we want to make sure we don’t miss anything.”
Richards said the usual time of heightened summer concern for low water levels and thus increased algae is lasting longer this year, starting about one month earlier than usual in early July rather than the normal early August. Water levels have dropped at the intake on the Yampa River at the water plant north of town, and water temperatures at the intake have increased by 3 to 5 degrees above normal, rising as high as 75 degrees. Lower, slower, warmer water leads to more algae production…
Fortunately, major improvements to the Hayden water treatment plant during the past three years are working to help mitigate the algae increases, said Town Manager Mathew Mendisco. He said the town spent a total of $2.3 million in water system and plant upgrades with half of the funding coming from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and other funding from a citizen-approved bond measure. The plant was first built in 1978…
Town of Hayden water users have been under outdoor water restrictions this summer that mimic city of Steamboat Springs restrictions and resulted in a 3% decrease in overall water use compared to the past three years, even though the watering season started earlier this dry year, Richards said. Hayden water users will need to continue water conservation efforts when the town’s 1 million gallon water tank on hospital hill goes offline for a planned refurbishment starting with the tank drained by the end of August through project completion Oct. 20, Richards said.
Mendisco said the town secured $989,000 in low-interest financing to upgrade the tank through a state revolving loan fund managed by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The town qualified for a 1.5% interest rate based on its status as a “disadvantaged community” dealing with the impacts of the transition from coal.
The town has a 500,000-gallon water tank near Yampa Valley Regional Airport, so officials do not anticipate impacts to water customers when the larger water tank is off line…
Mendisco said town officials are working with water engineering firm Leonard Rice Engineers in Glenwood Springs to make a decision on whether the town will take the historic step to call the water reserves it owns in Yamcolo and Stagecoach reservoirs in South Routt County. The town has 500 acre-feet of combined water reserves in the two reservoirs that are managed through Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
Mendisco said the decision will be made by Monday depending on rain received before then.
More than 50 people ranging from legislative aides to state department heads participated in an on-the-ground opportunity to learn about the extreme drought in Northwest Colorado during this week’s Drought Impacts Tour in the Yampa and White River Basins.
On two warm, hazy days, state and local leaders conversed during bumpy bus rides and educational stops at ranches, lakes and the Yampa River in Routt and Moffat counties. During the tour, participants and educators discussed many aspects of drought impacts such as agricultural livelihood, recreation, tourism, wildlife, water, wildfires and forest management.
“I have been learning way more than I ever expected on this drought tour. Hearing directly from ranchers and the things that they are experiencing is truly eye-opening and wonderful,” said Becky Bolinger, Ph.D., assistant state climatologist who works at the Colorado State University Colorado Climate Center. “We do know that the climate is warming, and with that warming climate, we are experiencing more frequent droughts, more severe droughts. These are things that all Coloradans are going to have to deal with.”
Bolinger said a key point people need to realize is how to make the connection between climate science information and residents’ own changes in work practices, especially in agricultural and tourism businesses. Bolinger said the facts of the shifting climate need to translate into changes in business practices and seasonal offerings in order to prepare for a warmer, drier future in Colorado.
“Knowing that they are already prepared by improving their management practices and other things to mitigate the impacts but also to adapt, hopefully it’s not always going to be this doom and gloom situation when we are talking about climate change,” Bolinger said.
The atmospheric scientist said Coloradans should focus on “always working on actionable solutions and getting through this together.”
The tour was organized by the Colorado Drought Task Force, which includes directors of multiple state departments such as natural resources and agriculture. The task force operated in past times of drought and was activated again by the governor in 2020. Task force information listed online (http://cwcb.colorado.gov/drought) notes that water year 2020 concluded as the 12th warmest water year on record in Colorado since 1895 and the third driest water year on record, trailing only 2002 (driest) and 2018 (second driest)…
Gov. Jared Polis joined for part of the tour on Wednesday in Moffat County including a picnic at Loudy-Simpson Park south of Craig…
One message from the tour is that drought-related financial assistance and grant opportunities are broad and plentiful at this time. Leonard encouraged agencies, nonprofits and agricultural producers to review funding options found at http://cwcb.colorado.gov/drought-assistance.
For example, the Colorado Department of Agriculture is promoting new stimulus funding available as of July 1, including $2.5 million to expand market opportunities for funding for Colorado Proud producers, $5 million to expand agricultural efficiency and soil health initiatives, $30 million for agricultural revolving loan and grant programs including for individual farmers and ranchers, and more than $1.8 million for agriculture drought resiliency activities that promote the state’s ability to anticipate, prepare for, mitigate, adapt to or respond to drought.
The CWCB Agricultural Emergency Drought Response Program has a $1 million fund available on a rolling basis that provides immediate aid for emergency augmentation water during drought years in the form of loans or grants.
Utilities with goals of producing 100 percent renewable energy in Colorado must figure out how to reliably deliver electricity when relying upon resources, primarily wind and sunshine, that aren’t always reliable.
The answer may lie in water, and some of that water may come from Colorado’s Yampa River.
Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission, are talking about the potential for green hydrogen and other possible storage technologies associated with their existing coal-fired power plants, at Hayden and Craig, in the Yampa Valley. Both plants are scheduled to shut down, with Hayden slated to close by 2028 and Craig by 2030.
Duane Highley, the chief executive of Tri-State, told member cooperatives in a meeting Aug. 4 that Tri-State and the State of Colorado have partnered in a proposed Craig Energy Research Station.
Hydrogen has been described as the missing link in the transition away from fossil fuels. It can be produced in several ways. Green hydrogen, the subject of the proposal at Craig, is made from water using electrolysis. The oxygen separated from the H2O can be vented, leaving the hydrogen, a fluid that can be stored in tanks or, as is in a demonstration project in Utah, in salt caverns. The hydrogen can then be tapped later as a fuel source to produce electricity or, for that matter, put into pipelines for distribution to fueling stations.
How much water will be required to produce green hydrogen isn’t clear. But the Yampa Valley’s existing coal-fired plants have strong water portfolios that could be used to create green hydrogen or another storage technology called molten salt. The latter is the leading candidate at the Hayden plant, co-owned by Xcel Energy and its partners.
Craig Generating Station in 2021 is projected to use 7,394 acre-feet of water, according to a Tri-State filing with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. By 2029, the last year of coal generation at Craig, Tri-State projects water use will decline to 4,270 acre-feet.
Xcel Energy also has water rights associated with its somewhat smaller two-unit Hayden Generating Station.
When Tri-State first announced last year its plans to close its coal units, some hoped the utility would allow the water to continue downstream, aiding fish and habitat in the Yampa Valley. The Yampa, arguably Colorado’s least trammeled river, since 2018 has been plagued by drought. In early August, water managers placed a call on the middle section of the Yampa River for only the third time ever.
Western Resource Advocates, which works in both energy and water, has supported the green hydrogen proposal. But there’s also hope that a water dividend will still be realized in this transition, resulting in more water available for the Yampa, which is a major tributary to the Colorado River.
“If we do it right, we have the chance to equitably share the impacts and solutions to climate change all across Colorado and the West, with benefits for communities, economies and the environment,” says Bart Miller, director of the Healthy Rivers Program for Western Resource Advocates.
Green hydrogen, similar to wind and solar in the past, has a cost hurdle that research at Craig, if it happens, will seek to dismantle. The federal government’s Energy Earthshots Initiative announced in June hopes to drive the costs down 80% by the end of the decade. That is the program in which Tri-State hopes to participate.
Tri-State’s Highley suggested at the meeting last Thursday that the Craig site should swim to the top of the proposals, because it is an existing industrial site, and the Craig and Hayden units also have high-voltage transmission lines. This is crucial. Those lines dispatch electricity to the Front Range and other markets but they can also be used to import electricity from the giant wind farms being erected on Colorado’s Eastern Plains as well as solar collectors on rooftops and in backyards.
In addition, Craig and Hayden have workforces that, at least in theory, could be transitioned to work in energy storage projects.
Western Resource Advocates, in a June 30 letter to the Department of Energy, made note of that consideration. “A green, zero-carbon hydrogen project at Craig Station is an opportunity to demonstrate how the clean energy transition can also be a just transition for fossil fuel-producing communities,” said the letter signed by Erin Overturf, the Clean Energy Program director.
Several state agencies will likely play a role, said Dominique Gomez, deputy director of the Colorado Energy Office, including the Office of Just Transition that was established in 2019 and the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
At Craig, the vision is “to provide researchers access to the key resources necessary to perform their research, including water, transmission and site space,” Tri-State spokesman Mark Stutz said in an e-mail. “As the initial step, Tri-State and the state plan to engage a group of stakeholders to facilitate the development of the center.”
The Department of Energy has not indicated when it expects to announce the finalists or grant funding.
At Hayden, where the coal units are scheduled to close in 2028, Xcel Energy says it is in the early stages of studying potential for molten salt, the leading energy storage technology at this time, but also green hydrogen.
Water use will depend upon the size of the projects, said Xcel representative Michelle Aguayo in a statement. “It’s important to remember the amount of water used in power generation in Colorado is relatively small, representing 0.3% of water diversion in the state.”
Xcel already participates in a hydrogen pilot project in Minnesota, its home state for operations, and has proposed natural gas plants in North Dakota and Minnesota that are to be designed to use hydrogen technology when it becomes viable and cost-effective.
“As we’ve said before, we’re focused on identifying and exploring technologies that will allow us to bring our customers carbon-free energy by 2050, technologies that are not available or cost effective today,” she said.
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers the energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) announced a partnership to release up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions.
Governor Polis announced this partnership during the Northwest Drought Tour – a two-day event that brought state officials and decision makers through Steamboat Springs and Craig to see first-hand impacts of drought on agriculture and other industries, and to find collaborative solutions and resources for the region.
The Yampa River Basin is one of many in Western Colorado suffering the effects of increasing temperatures, decreasing precipitation, and soil aridity, adding pressure to an already limited water supply.
“I am proud that the Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board are doing their part by releasing 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to local farmers and ranchers free of charge. Northwest Colorado continues to face exceptional drought conditions, with hot temperatures, dry soils, and reduced runoff, which impacts farmers and ranchers,” said Governor Polis. “Partnerships like this one showcase how collaboration and working together can help find local solutions. My administration will continue to work with local and federal entities to assist Coloradans as we navigate this systemic drought’s impact on our agricultural economy and local communities.”
The Colorado River District recently coordinated with the Division of Water Resources in an effort to postpone restrictions or a “call” on the Yampa River with releases from the District’s 2021 Yampa River Flow Pilot Project at Elkhead Reservoir. However, with water flows in the basin remaining low and water demands consistent, there is still the potential for future restrictions or “calls” in the Yampa River Basin.
In advance of this forecast, the River District initiated a financial partnership with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin.
“We are attempting to free up all available resources through innovative partnerships in the face of this ongoing drought,” said Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “This hotter, drier climate is hitting the small family farms and ranches along the Yampa River hard. We’re taking quick action to protect our constituents and the communities relying on these farmers and ranchers across the basin and the state.”
The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in Irrigation Year 2021, specifically for crop and/or livestock production. Through the CWCB, the state will provide the financial support necessary to pay for the stored water in Elkhead Reservoir for late season use by ranchers and farmers who depend on the Yampa River for irrigation and watering their livestock.
“As we continue to see compounded drought years that impact all Coloradans, including our agricultural producers, it is critical that we work together on collaborative solutions to meeting our future water needs,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell. “We are proud to support the Colorado River District in their efforts to provide additional water to the Yampa Valley farmers and ranchers in need.”
Available water through the Elkhead Reservoir release is limited, however, and therefore is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Those interested in applying should contact the Colorado River District’s Director of Asset Management, Hunter Causey, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Rauch and his family have operated the Cedar Springs Marina here since 1986. But three weeks ago, when the federal government suddenly ordered millions of gallons of water to be released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir down the Green River to Lake Powell, Rauch wasn’t prepared.
“It was a total gut punch,” he said on a recent hot, sunny morning. As visitors trekked down to rent his pontoon boats, and others slid their fishing craft into the reservoir, Rauch and his employees were already planning which boat docks and ramps would have to be relocated to keep them afloat. The reservoir is projected to drop as much as 2 feet a month through the fall as water is released.
Drought has plagued the Colorado River Basin for 20 years, but it hit crisis proportions this summer, pushing lakes Powell and Mead to historic lows and triggering, for the first time, emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs.
All told, 181,000 acre-feet of water are to be sent to Lake Powell by the end of December. Powell has dropped so low that its hydropower plants, which supply millions of homes with electricity and generate revenue for such things as a critical Colorado River endangered species program, may stop operating as early as next year if water levels continue to drop as they have been. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates there is a 3 percent chance of this occurring next year and a 29 percent chance of this occurring in 2022. But given the speed of the Powell’s decline, no one wants to risk a hydropower shutdown.
Since their construction in the 1960s these reservoirs, known as Reclamation’s Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs, have acted as a giant savings account, helping ensure that if a crisis erupted on the river, the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico would have enough water on hand to fulfill their legal obligation to deliver water to Nevada, Arizona and California, known as the Lower Basin states.
Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, part of the Aspinall Unit, is already low, at just 43 percent of capacity as of last month. Fed by the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, the reservoir is tourism hot spot on Colorado’s West Slope.
Kathleen Curry, a former Colorado lawmaker, sits on the Colorado River District Board. She said she understands the need for the releases, but she said the changes in the shoreline at Blue Mesa aren’t going unnoticed.
“It’s taking residents and visitors by surprise, just because I don’t think anyone was expecting it,” she said.
The releases come under a special Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan approved by Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in late 2018. A similar drought plan is in place for the Lower Basin, and they have been cutting back withdrawals from Lake Mead for the past two years.
Still the river system is drying out. And water leaders in Colorado are deeply worried that their carefully protected savings account is going to dry up too quickly to solve the Colorado River’s long-term problems.
Will it work?
“I understand and support the necessity of the Secretary [of the Interior] taking this action,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water. “The major concern I have is that Reclamation says the 181,000 acre-foot release will raise Lake Powell three feet. But I don’t know that they can even show that. I don’t know that they have accounted for transit losses and other losses.
“It’s important when these releases are made that they are accounted for, that we know where this water is going. If it doesn’t actually get down to [Lake Powell] to accomplish what it was designed to do, we should have kept it in that savings account,” Lochhead said.
Becki Bryant, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River region, said the agency is working to create a hydropower buffer in Lake Powell and believes the releases are adequate to accomplish that. But Reclamation is not yet doing the kind of precise tracking and accounting known as water “shepherding,” to ensure flows make it downstream, that Lochhead is requesting.
On Aug. 1, Lake Powell’s elevation stood at 3,553.8 feet above sea level. The action point, or so-called target elevation is 3,525. When that point came close in July, Reclamation moved quickly to order the emergency releases.
Powell’s hydropower plant stops generating power when it drops to 3,490 feet in elevation, according to Reclamation.
“Reclamation expects the additional release of water will be sufficient to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation through 2021. 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 Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.
“Shepherding water would be beneficial but is challenging on many levels for Colorado River Basin states,” said Bryant via email.
Bryant said Reclamation will continue to consult with the Upper Basin states as it monitors reservoir levels and weather forecasts. Should conditions deteriorate further, the agency could examine whether to declare the releases futile and stop them, as it is allowed to do under the 2018 Drought Contingency Plan.
The water being released is so-called “system water,” meaning that it isn’t owned by a particular user.
Held by the federal government for the benefit of the Upper Basin states, the amounts of water specified in the release plan are jaw-dropping: 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge; 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa; and 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover one acre of land to a depth of 12 inches.
If that same amount of water were going to cities, it would be enough to serve more than 362,000 homes for one to two years. If going to farms, it could irrigate more than 113,000 acres, depending on the crop.
If the historic, 20-plus-year drought cycle doesn’t end soon, refilling those reservoirs is going to be difficult. And that has water managers worried.
“My level of concern is quite high,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water planning and policy agency. She also sits on the four-state Upper Colorado River Basin Commission, which advises Reclamation on river issues.
“And I can’t tell yet if [the releases] are going to do the trick,” she said. “But we have to respond to the levels in Powell.”
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Colorado and the other Upper Basin states must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) [per year, 75 maf per 10 years] of water to the Lower Basin on a 10-year running average. Right now, the Upper Basin is delivering roughly 9.2 maf, Mitchell said, meaning that there is still time to help the system come back into balance before the Lower Basin states could legally call for more water than they currently receive.
Lake Powell is the Upper Basin’s largest storage pool on the system and is designed to be the four Upper Basin states’ major source of protection. Because of their legal obligations, Colorado water users are closely monitoring this year’s plunge in Powell, with the threat to hydropower production being seen as a dangerous antecedent to a compact call.
“That the system continues to deteriorate is concerning,” Lochhead said.
Roughly half of Denver Water’s supplies are derived from water rights it owns on the Colorado River system. While one portion of its portfolio dates back to 1921, and would therefore trump a 1922 compact call, several other rights were established later, meaning the utility might have to stop pulling from those water sources if Colorado were forced to cut back in order to meet compact obligations.
Other Front Range water providers, who also have Colorado River rights, are even more vulnerable, including the Pueblo-based Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
Southeastern’s rights date only to 1957.
Contingency v. reality
Lee Miller, Southeastern’s attorney, said the Colorado River crisis remains a long-term problem for his agency.
The rapid deterioration this year, however, is prompting everyone to rethink how much time they have to balance the massive river system as drought and a warming climate, as well as population growth, continue to sap its flows.
“Both the Upper and Lower Basin have now had to initiate elements of their drought contingency plans. When we passed it a couple of years ago everyone thought, “It’s good to have a contingency plan.’ But I don’t think anyone thought we would have to use the plans this quickly. It’s gone from being a contingency to being a reality, and that’s concerning.”
Back up at Flaming Gorge, John Rauch is watching the levels drop and making his own contingency plans.
“We are planning for the worst,” Rauch said. “For the foreseeable future, the outlook is dry. If it ends up that by the end of all of this that the reservoir becomes a river channel, we will be down there at water’s edge selling worms.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Here’s the release from the Colorado River District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):
Hotter temperatures and the long-running drought have dried soils and reduced runoff across the Western Slope, but certain river basins have taken harder hits. Last Thursday, July 29, the Colorado Division of Water Resources placed a call on the Yampa River, restricting water use for junior water rights holders.
“This is only the third time the Yampa has ever been on call,” said Hunter Causey, Director of Asset Management and Chief Engineer at the Colorado River District. “The previous call was last year, but this year’s is almost a month earlier, which highlights what an extraordinary drought we are in.”
The following weekend’s monsoonal rains, however, brought some relief and added opportunity; the call was taken off the Yampa at 11 a.m. on Monday, August 2. Working cooperatively with engineers at the Division of Water Resources, the Colorado River District will help to keep the call off the river to aid downstream farmers and ranchers with releases from Elkhead Reservoir. The 1,500 acre-feet designated for this effort will serve to postpone another call but is unlikely to do so indefinitely.
The Elkhead releases are part of the 2021 Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, a collaborative effort to better understand the need for additional water supplies in the Yampa River Basin for historical water users while enhancing river flows for endangered fish and recreational users. The Pilot Project was funded earlier this year by the River District’s Community Funding Partnership, a result of the voter-approved 7A ballot question last November.
“This demonstrates the positive and immediate impacts of the River District’s Community Funding Partnership, the funding program made possible by 7A,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the River District. “We worked quickly with multiple partners to secure these releases. This is how we are navigating extraordinary times and connecting with all our water users.”
Alongside these Pilot Project releases, a study is currently underway in partnership with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. The Yampa Storage Modelling project is exploring options to more fully utilize water releases from reservoirs in the Yampa Basin to benefit agricultural water users.
Additionally, the Colorado River District is currently working on additional efforts to provide relief for farmers and ranchers at the end of the summer season.
“These partnerships highlight the importance of cooperative efforts to keep water flowing as we face an uncertain future regarding water supply,” said River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “The Colorado River District will continue to be an active voice for West Slope water users and the health of our rivers.”
Powered by a $2 million endowment, the Yampa River Fund is building a more resilient waterway.
…folks whose lives are tied to one of the [Colorado River Basin’s] tributaries in northwestern Colorado aren’t standing by idly. In September 2019, more than 20 regional partners from throughout the Yampa River Valley, including recreation-focused businesses, farmers, nonprofits, and municipalities, joined forces to create the Yampa River Fund. Powered by a nearly $4 million endowment, the fund is doing what individual actors cannot: financing environmental restoration projects, agricultural infrastructure improvements, and releases from nearby reservoirs to ensure farmers, recreationists, and wildlife all have enough water to thrive.
None of this will reverse climate change, but the healthier the Yampa is, the better it will be at weathering a hotter, drier world. This understanding is what brought so many diverse—and sometimes seemingly contradictory—interests together. “We focus on creating win-win-win solutions,” says Nancy Smith, Colorado River Program conservation director at the Nature Conservancy, one of the fund’s founding entities. Smith emphasizes that third “win” because consensus is key: “The working group that created the fund took the time to build trust with one another so that everyone in that valley who depends on the river felt like they had a place at the table.”
Using the proceeds from its endowment, the fund has awarded $400,000 in grants over the past two years. Here’s how it breaks down.
Grant Recipient: Moffat County
Moffat County used a grant to bolster the riverbank at Loudy Simpson Park, which was eroding, in part, due to the growing number of people using the steep shoreline to access the river. A new boat ramp built to handle the crowds will limit future erosion (and open six additional miles of river to boaters by creating a new downstream takeout), and an ADA-compliant ramp helps wheelchair users easily access the water.
Grant Recipients: Trout Unlimited and the Yampa Valley Stream Improvement Charitable Trust
The fund has awarded three grants to rehabilitate sections of the Yampa and its tributaries. The work includes improving fish habitat and riparian zones (the border between the water and the land) and stabilizing shorelines to stop the tributaries from carving away at productive farmland.
Grant Recipient: Colorado Water Trust
To combat rising water temperatures and decreasing water levels—both of which harm wildlife, including four species of endangered fish—the fund pays for strategic releases of cold water from nearby reservoirs. The releases also increase water security for local farmers and help keep the river open for recreationists, who pump tourism dollars into the region.
Grant Recipient: The Nature Conservancy
This outlay pays for the permits needed to rebuild the125-year-old Maybell Ditch headgate, which diverts water from the Yampa into an irrigation canal. The new headgate will be more efficient, meaning more water for farmers and wildlife, and safer for boaters, who often avoid this section of river, in part because of the dangerous hydraulics created by the structure’s weir dam. The new, fish-friendly design will also ease passage for endangered species, like the razorback sucker.
Grant Recipient: The city of Craig
Craig received a grant to help pay for a whitewater park to diversify its tourism economy. A new diversion dam will also sustain the city’s water supply and allow fish to move up and down the river to spawn, feed, and escape to deeper water when river levels drop.
Grant Recipient: Yampa Valley Sustainability Council
Volunteers with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council’s ReTree program have been planting cottonwoods, alders, and willows along the Yampa for more than a decade. In 2020, the council used a grant to procure an irrigation system to increase the saplings’ survival rates, and this year it received another disbursement to cover 2022’s expenses, such as site preparation. One of the main goals is to create more shade to help mitigate rising water temperatures.
Greenway Master Plan
Grant Recipient: The town of Oak Creek
Oak Creek obtained funds to aid the design of a new greenway along a portion of its neglected namesake waterway. Construction will improve access and include rehabbing the creek’s banks, vegetation, and wildlife habitat. A healthy riparian zone can help regulate water levels by soaking up runoff and slowly releasing it into the creek.
Flows in the Yampa River dropped to near 40 cubic feet per second on Sunday afternoon — just a quarter of the amount of water flowing the same day last year.
The water’s temperature eclipsed 80 degrees last Thursday and has often been well over 75 degrees in the past week — the temperature that closed the river to recreation earlier this month.
But at 8:45 a.m. Monday morning [July 26, 2021], the outlet valve at Stagecoach Reservoir was opened a little bit further and 20 cfs more of water was flowing into the river.
This will bring the outward flow from Stagecoach up to about 40 cfs with the goal of boosting water levels and decreasing temperature in the Yampa as it flows through Steamboat Springs.
“I think (the strategic releases) are very effective at protecting the health of the river,” said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns and operates Stagecoach.
The releases hope to buoy flows in the Yampa and protect its aquatic species, as Northwest Colorado is entrenched in the worst level of drought recorded by the U.S. Drought Monitor and several stretches of the river have been closed to recreation, including one of the most popular stretches to fish in the state…
While the release will help increase flows and sustain the health of the river, Rossi said it likely wouldn’t have enough of an effect on its own to open the river back up for commercial outfitters and anglers.
The release was purchased by the Colorado Water Trust, which finalized a contract to purchase 1,000 acre-feet of water with an option for another 1,000 acre-feet with the conservancy district earlier this month.
This amounts to 40 acre-feet of additional water released into the river each day, with the first 1,000 acre-feet lasting until about the third week in August, Rossi said. The district and trust will meet weekly about the releases, and Rossi said he expected to know when and how much of the other 1,000 acre-feet of water would be released before then.
When that 2,000 acre-feet of water has been used up, the city of Steamboat Springs plans to coordinate with community partners to release additional water and maintain the health of the river.
The water trust raised over $100,000 to support releases this year from both Stagecoach and Elkhead Reservoir further downstream. More than 90% of that money came from the Yampa River Fund, which is a collaboration with more than 20 community partners, including outdoor recreation businesses, the city of Steamboat, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and Routt and Moffatt counties, among others…
The trust opted to release the water now because of how hot the water in the river got last week and how low flows had dwindled. It will likely take at least a day to see the impacts of the release, as it will take time for the water to flow from Stagecoach, which includes going through Lake Catamount.
The trust has spent nearly a half-million dollars since 2012 on 12,000 acre-feet of water releases from Stagecoach. The first 1,000 acre-feet of water from the most recent release will cost $45,560.
This water will be shepherded by the Division of Water Resources locally, ensuring that another water user does not remove the release from the river until at least the Steamboat wastewater treatment plant to the west of town.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District has already released about 1,600 acre-feet of water this year for environmental purposes when water was only coming into the reservoir at a trickle…
Starting Aug. 1, the reservoir is required to release at least 20 cfs to satisfy permits for hydropower production, though it has been releasing about that much for most of the year.
The release requires navigating some legal hoops, as the current laws were not designed for purchases of water that are meant to stay in the river. This requires the trust to partner with an entity like Steamboat, which is justifying the release as water temperature mitigation.
As Lake Powell dropped to its lowest-ever level [July 23, 2021] — a decline that has forced dam tenders to unexpectedly release 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir — Wyoming stood behind five projects that could divert tens of thousands more acre-feet from waterways in the troubled Colorado River Basin.
Powell’s surface elevation dipped to 3,555.09, lower by 12 hundredths of an inch than the previous post-completion nadir of April 8, 2005. The new benchmark is “probably worth noting,” Wayne Pullan, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Region 7 director, said in a press call [July 27, 2021].
“The fact that we’ve reached this new record underscores the difficult situation that we’re in,” he said…
Friday’s mark amounts to a 150-foot drop in the storied Utah-Arizona reservoir over 24 years, a decline that’s spurred action to preserve irrigation flows, millions of dollars in hydropower revenue and myriad necessities for 40 million people in the West.
As the BOR began its “emergency” release of 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on July 15, a coalition of downstream water users called for a moratorium on new dams and pipelines…
In an era of drought, aridification and climate change, new water projects will be closely scrutinized, Pullan said…
Meantime Gov. Mark Gordon announced he will appoint a drought working group to ensure “local perspectives on issues that impact our water users and the State” are heard when planning for a crisis that “may last for years.”
Wyoming will not be deterred from its water development goals that would store, divert or otherwise use another 115,000 acre-feet in the upper reaches of the 246,000-square-mile Colorado River system, top officials told WyoFile.
“A pure, strict moratorium flies in the face of rights held by all seven [Colorado River Compact] states,” said Pat Tyrrell, Wyoming’s member on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “I would have a hard time recommending that Wyoming get itself in that position.”
The Bureau of Reclamation has a limited say in what Wyoming can do with its water and development, state Senior Assistant Attorney General Chris Brown said.
“They certainly don’t get to say ‘no,’” he said. “They certainly don’t have that authority in Wyoming to decide how Wyoming wants to develop its water.”
As a result of Audubon’s engagement, leveraged with our partners, Big Beaver Creek and White River will quickly receive needed water and all of Colorado’s rivers will retain their water quality protections. All thanks to you! In this drought-stricken year, these victories are true causes for celebration. Read on to learn what your actions accomplished for rivers and the birds and communities that depend upon them.
Water Quality Antidegradation
Birds and people rely on clean water from healthy rivers. High-quality water in our rivers, streams, and wetlands is critical to the long-term health of our ecosystems, wildlife, communities, and economies across Colorado, from urban neighborhoods to headwater streams.
In late spring of 2021, we called upon our Colorado network to sign a petition to stop a proposed rule change by the Water Quality Control Commission (Commission) that would have allowed more pollution in Colorado’s rivers and streams. Because of the impact this potential rule change would have had on rivers, birds, and disadvantaged communities, we needed your engagement like never before. And you responded.
Audubon Rockies broke all our previous engagement records by collecting 2,735 unique signatures and combined with our coalition to total more than 4,700 signatures! During the June hearing, the Commission received unprecedented levels of public comments. Sixty people signed up to speak. Many impassioned public speakers showed up to oppose the proposed rule changes and to support their “home waters.” All but one of the comments opposed rule changes due to potential impacts on Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color; recreation in urban streams; and the right to clean water.
The Commission listened to you and delayed making any decision to amend the antidegradation rule until 2031. Current water quality protections will stay in place for at least the next 10 years!
We still have work to do with the Commission to ensure our rivers and streams are protected from harmful rule changes that could increase pollution. We must also resist industry’s pressure to establish a stakeholder process in which only their high-paid lawyers and consultants have the means to participate.
With advocates like you, we know we can continue to make progress. Healthy flowing rivers support our environment and all water uses and users.
Instream Flows on Big Beaver Creek and White River
After a multi-year, multi-stakeholder effort to expand Colorado’s existing program to loan water to the environment, an instream flow bill (HB20-1157) was signed into law by Colorado Governor Polis in March of 2020. Audubon’s network submitted 1,463 action alerts to state legislators to support this bill, which ultimately benefits our environment, wildlife, and local economies.
HB20-1157 expanded the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s short-term water loan program to benefit the environment. The bill provides a 100 percent voluntary, flexible, and expedited or longer-term option for water users to divert less or no water during dry years, allowing for more water to stay in a river. The statute’s “emergency” or expedited option is in motion for the first time!
On July 21, 2021, the Colorado Water Conservation Board voted unanimously to approve an expedited temporary instream flow lease to support 43 stream miles of benefits to Big Beaver Creek and White River in Rio Blanco County. In this extreme drought year, water is needed in these waterways quickly. Due to your engagement and support, a quick and responsive option to support environmental stream flows is a reality.
Colorado thrives when our rivers do. The decisions we make about water and river health impact all of Colorado—birds and people alike. Audubon’s legacy is built on science, education, advocacy, and on-the-ground conservation. We bring all of this together through you: our network. This combination of expertise and engagement makes Audubon an effective force for bird and freshwater habitat conservation. Thank you for standing with us.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Decline of Lake Mead. Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
The Greater Yellowstone Area includes both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, as well as surrounding national forests and federal land. National Park Service
Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: Pixabay via NOAA
In Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: Pixabay via NOAA
Yellowstone Falls photo credit Abby Howe via the Department of Interior.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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!
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)
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.)
“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.”
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, 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.”