#Snowpack news: March precipitation below average in Steamboat Springs

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map March 29, 2017 via the NRCS.

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

Snow is more of a sure thing at Breckenridge at an elevation of 9,600 feet, with an 80 percent chance of receiving 1 to 3 inches Friday. Saturday’s accumulations in Breck are expected to be about an inch.

More snow could fall in the San Juans and the West Elk Mountains to the south. Intellicast rates the chance that Telluride will see 3 to 5 inches of snow on Saturday at 100 percent. Crested Butte, at the headwaters of the Gunnison River, has a 70 percent chance of 3 to 5 inches of snow on Friday and a 60 percent chance of 1 to 3 inches on Saturday.

Kate Gmeiner’s weather station, between downtown and the base of the ski area, confirms that precipitation has come in dribs and drabs early and late this month, with nothing but trace amounts in the middle of March. There was no measurable precipitation from March 12 to 24.

In spite of the dry spell that began here in February, moisture for the water year, which began Oct. 1, 2016, is still at 105 percent for the combined Yampa and White river basin. However, the water stored in the standing snow at higher elevations has slipped to 93 percent.

Much of that moisture fell in December and January, when the ski area saw back-to-back 100-inch snow months at 9,000 feet.

#Runoff news: Elk river streamflow way up with record #Colorado heat

Elk River near Milner gage March 21, 2017 via the USGS.

From The Craig Daily Press (Tom Ross):

“It’s crazy how high the flows are for this time of year,” Ashley Nielson, a senior hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City Utah, said. “I think we’re getting snowmelt at low and middle elevation and not at the higher elevations. But this is not something we expect this time of year.”

The Elk is still well below flood stage, but the acceleration of snowmelt during a time when snowpack is typically increasing stands out from the norm.

Flows in the river, which has its headwaters in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area northeast of Clark, hit a 24-hour peak of 1,050 cubic feet per second at 1:45 a.m. March 20, nearly doubling the previous record for the date, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The previous record was 524 cfs, recorded in 2007. The median March 20 flow is 160 cfs.

At the same time, the Yampa River was flowing through downtown Steamboat Springs at a rate of 408 cfs, well above the median of 150 cfs (in the 90th percentile range for the date), but significantly lower than the 1916 record for the date of 690 cfs.

High flows in the Elk have been driven by snow melting under bright skies and daytime temperatures in the 60s, which have dominated the weather throughout the month. The National Weather Service reports the high temperature in Steamboat reached 70 degrees March 19, but a cooling trend is on the way.

The Elk had calmed down to 896 cfs as of 9:30 a.m. Monday as it went through its diurnal cycle of rising and falling flow volumes. However, the River Forecast Center foresees the river will continue to rise to more than 1,000 cfs through March 23, when a cooling trend calms things down March 25 through 31 and the river could remain above 600 cfs.

A pair of snowpack measurement sites operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service confirm the record flows in the Elk are attributable to snowmelt above 9,000 feet, Nielson agreed.

The Lost Dog site, at 9,320 feet of elevation on the edge of the Zirkel Wilderness, has lost 3 inches of snow water equivalent since March 16, leaving it at 113 percent of median for the date. The Elk River measuring site, at 8,700 feet, has also lost 3 inches of snow water equivalent in the same timeframe, and snowpack there stands at 93 percent of median.

Nielson pointed to the Tower measuring site on the summit of Buffalo Pass northeast of Steamboat Springs as evidence that snowmelt has not begun at the highest elevations in the Park Range. The water content of the snowpack there, at 10,500 feet, has not changed more than a fraction of an inch since March 7.

Douglas Creek Conservation District annual meeting recap

White River via Wikimedia
White River via Wikimedia

From The Rio Blanco Times (Jennifer Hill):

2016 saw the finalization and implementation of the Rio Blanco Land Use Plan. The plan, which had a four-year creation process, was accomplished in partnership with the former board of county commissioners. It endeavors to influence federal decisions by providing local input regarding federal lands. Because federal law requires that federal agencies, such as the BLM, give “meaningful consideration” to plans developed by local governments and conservation districts, the district has been able to gain a bigger seat at the table during the decision making process. The plan has already been put into use in addressing sage grouse issues and has allowed a conservation district representative to attend the BLM’s weekly NEPA meetings where they can officially comment on current issues, such as the BLM’s travel management plan.

The other major event impacting the conservation districts was the news that their mill levy had been incorrectly assessed causing an 83 percent budget reduction for 2017. The mill levy, which began collection in 1989, is only eligible to receive monies from real property. However, since its inception, it was collecting on both real and personal property. According to Hendrickson the oil and gas industry were hit the hardest. The impacted companies were given the opportunity to request abatement for the past two years’ collection. Hendrickson expressed extreme gratitude that none of the companies had, and instead expressed support for the work undertaken by the districts. The companies left substantial money in the coffers of the districts, with Enterprise being eligible for $135,000, Williams $65,000 and XTO $30,000. To help ease the budget transition the former board of county commissioners helped fund the districts for the 2017 year.

Meeker resident Gary Moyer, who sits on the National Association of Conservation Districts, provided a short update. The NACD is currently pushing for Congress to oppose any EPA authority over water quantity and the recently released BLM Planning 2.0. According to Moyer, Planning 2.0 does not allow for enough local input, despite the claim by the BLM that local input is the very purpose of the new plan. Moyer also cited concerns that it gives environmental groups who are not locally based a much bigger seat at the decision making table. He is hopeful that the plan will be killed by the Senate.

Senator Cory Gardner’s office sent a representative to address the group. Betsy Bair, who manages Gardner’s Grand Junction office, confirmed that Senator Gardner does not support BLM Planning 2.0 and is opposing the BLM’s vent and flare regulations, which impact the oil and gas industry.

The second half of the evening was filled with talk of water issues, many of which have significant impact to those living on the White River.
Marsha Daughenbaugh of the Community Agriculture Alliance informed the group of an upcoming Yampa/White River Basin water workshop. The workshop will take place on March 22 in Steamboat. Agriculture producers will be provided with the opportunity to learn about The Colorado Water Plan and how it may impact them. More information can be found at coagwater. colostate.edu.

Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River Conservation District discussed the importance of Colorado snow pack. “We are all snow farmers,” he said. Pokrandt talked about the increasing incidence of water being pulled from production agriculture to the front range and the need to keep water moving from the East to the West. The Colorado River Conservation District will be piloting a program this year to conserve water in the Grand Valley, paying farmers to leave fields fallow. Pokrandt expects more than $750,000 to be paid to participating farmers this year.

The final speaker of the evening was Alden Vanden Brink from the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy. Vanden Brink updated the audience on the White River storage project, which is currently seeking to begin Phase II which includes modeling, preliminary studies and stakeholder outreach. Following Phase II the district will seek permitting, which Vanden Brink says can be a very long process.

The Douglas Creek Conservation District meets monthly, on the first Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Rangely. In coming meetings they will be discussing the future of the district.

White River: Wolf Creek Reservoir project update

Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey
Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

From the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Jennifer Hill):

The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy is preparing to begin Phase II of the White River storage project with the ultimate goal of obtaining a new reservoir on the White River.

The project began in 2014 with a water storage study. The study was determined necessary after the Conservancy determined that Rio Blanco was facing a water crisis. Approximately half of Kenney Reservoir’s original size has been silted in and it’s estimated that it loses 300 acre feet of water storage per year. The loss of Kenney significantly impacts recreation, endangered fish and potentially the Town of Rangely’s ability to store water. The district initially investigated improvements to Kenney but found that dredging would cost more than half a billion dollars and enlarging Taylor Draw had significant permitting issues. Because of these concerns the Conservancy District decided to move forward with the study of a new multipurpose reservoir. The functions of a new reservoir would include municipal and domestic water supply, environmental improvements, recreation, energy development and potentially irrigation and Colorado River Compact Storage.

Phase I of the project, which was completed in 2015, saw 23 initial reservoir sites identified at various locations along the White River. Estimating water demand in 2065, the District was able to narrow it down to two possible sizes, a 20,000 or 90,000-acre foot reservoir. After comparing construction, implementation and storage costs the location was also narrowed down to the Wolf Creek Drainage, which is located 17 miles East of Rangely, near Yellow Creek. The total project cost of the 20,000-acre foot option is estimated at $71.1 million and the 90,000-acre foot option at $127.7 million. However, when a storage cost per acre foot comparison is made the larger reservoir appears economical, with the 20,000-acre foot costing $3,560 and the 90,000-acre foot costing $1,420 per acre foot.

In addition to size options Wolf Creek comes with two potential locations, a traditional dam built directly on the White River or an off channel diversion project which would require the water to be piped and pumped to a nearby location. The on river dam option offers a smaller dam footprint, hydroelectric options and the possibility of extending the life of Kenney Reservoir by preventing more sedimentation. This option will require greater infrastructure relocations as well as have a larger impact on private and agricultural lands.

While the off channel diversion would certainly have higher construction costs than building on river, there are benefits to be considered. The off channel diversion would receive less sedimentation, leaving it more protected from the problems Kenney has experienced. It would also require little to no need for infrastructure relocations such as power lines or pipelines along with a minimal impact to private lands and personal property. Additionally, there are significant enlargement capabilities. However, the off channel option also provides limited opportunities for hydroelectric power. The conservancy has already filed for water rights on both options.

Phase I also looked at the potential tax revenue provided by a new reservoir, with recreation playing a large role. It is estimated that the Wolf Creek site could create a total annual tax revenue of $1.1- $1.4 million.

Phase II, which will begin when all funding mechanism are firmly in place, will include more stakeholder and public outreach, preferred alternative refinement, preliminary sedimentation studies and hydraulic modeling. In addition, this phase will include development of minimum stream flows for the endangered fisheries program and research into the possibility of another hydroelectric plant. Phase II is estimated to cost $350,000. The funding comes from a variety of stakeholders including $85,000 from the Yampa/White Green Roundtable, $75,000 form the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, $50,000 from the Town of Rangely, $10,000 from the Town of Meeker and $25,000 from Rio Blanco County. There is also a $82,888 grant request in to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

In their most recent meeting the Rio Blanco Board of County Commissioners agreed to additional funding to help fill the $22,000 gap with the understanding that the Conservation District would request the Towns of Meeker and Rangely to share the burden.
The $75,000 contribution from the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District is a sizeable amount of money for the district, as it equates to 45 percent of their tax revenue.

The goal is to have Phase II completed by 2018 so that the lengthy permitting process can begin.

The entire project boasts an aggressive schedule with the goal of final completion in 2024. This timeline is considered rapid because the last completed dam project in Colorado took 18 years. It is also not unusual for the permitting process to last decades.

More coverage of Wolf Creek Reservoir.

Inside the Stagecoach Dam: Harnessing the Power — Steamboat Today

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

Here’s a report from a tour of Stagecoach Dam from Matt Stensland writing for Steamboat Today. Click through for the cool photo of the drain system from inside the dam. Here’s an excerpt:

It is a careful balancing act at the Stagecoach Dam, where electricity is generated for homes, fish habitat is managed and water is stored for a time when cities, ranchers and industry need it.

Behind the steel door, mineralized sludge covers the concrete walls and incandescent bulbs dimly light the narrow corridor.

These are the guts of the Stagecoach Dam southeast of Steamboat Springs, and it can be a little unnerving knowing that at the other side of the wall, 9,360 pounds of pressure push against each square foot of concrete.

Water drips from the ceiling and falls from drain pipes that collect water from the seeping concrete.

“All dams get water into them,” said Kevin McBride, adding that not having a system to drain the water would create pressure and put the dam’s integrity at risk…

“It’s pretty much paradise here,” said Blankenship, who most recently worked at a coal mine and previously worked in the power house of the USS Enterprise for the U.S. Navy.

Rogers has an electrical engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines.

In addition to monitoring the integrity of the dam, they oversee the hydroelectric power plant, which was named the John Fetcher Power Plant in 1997. He pushed to make electricity generation part of the dam design.

“I think John was a natural conservationist and to have this capability in a project that size and not do it was a bad thing,” said McBride, referring to Fetcher, who died in 2009 at age 97 after being recognized as one of the state’s water leaders.

Above the loud turbine in the power house sits a sign warning people not to stand underneath. That is because above, there is a large, weighted steel lever that will come crashing down if the power generated at the plant needs to immediately come off the grid.

On Tuesday afternoon, the electrical turbine was generating upwards of 500 kilowatts. The system can generate as much as 800 kilowatts, but generation is limited by the amount of water that is flowing into the reservoir.

“The generation, it fluctuates wildly,” said Andi Rossi, the water district’s engineer. “If the flows get too low, we shut down for power generation. In a big wet year, we’ll make a lot of power.”

The water district had been selling the power to Xcel Energy, but Yampa Valley Electric Association began buying the power last year for six cents per kilowatt hour. In 2016, YVEA paid more than $230,000 for the 3.85 million kilowatt hours generated at the dam. That is enough energy to power about 355 homes.

Power generation varies and is dependent on runoff. During the drought year of 2002, only 1.85 million kilowatt hours was produced. When there was abundant snowfall in 2011, 4.7 million kilowatt hours was produced. Since 1999, an average of 3.8 million kilowatt hours has been made each year…

A tower of concrete in the reservoir beside the dam has three gates that allow different temperatures of water to be mixed and sent through a pipe under the dam toward the generator.

From there, the water is either sent through the generator or through a pipe called a jet flow, which shoots water out of the power plant and helps oxygenate the water for fish habitat in the section of river in front of the dam known as the tailwaters.

The area is an angler’s delight and can only be accessed by snowmobile from the Catamount area or by hiking along a county road from Stagecoach State Park.

“It’s phenomenal,” Colorado Park and Wildlife fish biologist Billy Atkinson said.

With improvements by Parks and Wildlife to the river habitat, the area has thrived for fishing, partly because of the dam and reservoir. Relatively warm water released from the dam keeps the section of river from freezing over, and the water from the reservoir is rich in nutrients for the fish.

“The system is very productive,” Atkinson said.

In 2016, 25 percent more people visited the section of river, and 4,000 trout were measured per mile.

Not all tailwaters below dams in Colorado are experiencing similar success.

“It depends on the dam and the operations of the dam,” Atkinson said.

Work beginning for Toots Hole on Yampa River — Steamboat Today

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

From Steamboat Today (Teresa Ristow):

Work begins [November 21, 2016] on a new whitewater feature on the Yampa River adjacent to Little Toots Park.

The new Toots Hole will be similar to the A-Wave upstream, which was reconstructed in December 2015.

“There is going to be a drop feature on the right-hand side and then a passage on the left for fish,” said Kent Vertrees, board member for Friends of the Yampa, which is carrying out the project in collaboration with the city of Steamboat Springs Parks and Community Services Department. “It will create a good, fun wave for tubers and also create some fish habitat.”

The project will include river bank stabilization, riparian habitat restoration and other improvements.

In December 2015, the river’s A-Wave was reconstructed, as the drop-off had become troublesome for tubers who could hurt themselves or become stuck in the wave.

“At low water, it was keeping tubers in the hole, or tubers were flipping in and getting stuck,” Vertrees said. “Now, it flushes.”

Both the A-Wave and Toots Hole projects are being funded by Friends of the Yampa, thanks to grants the organization received from the Colorado Water Conservancy board’s Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable and the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.

Friends of the Yampa also organizes additional fundraisers, including its annual Big Snow Dance, which took place Saturday. The event raised more than $12,000 through an auction, money that will also support the Toots Hole project.

“That money goes directly into the river for this project,” Vertrees said. “The community of river people and Friends of the Yampa folks have really supported this project.”

The improvements to the river were identified in the 2008 Yampa River Structural Plan, and the two projects together are expected to cost about $130,000.

Vertrees said Toots Hole is the last component of what he calls the Yampa River Boating Park, a series of river features through downtown.

“We’ve created this interesting little urban river canyon, and we’re just adding to it,” he said. “We’re really excited about the conclusion of this project.”

Vertrees thanked Rick Mewborn, of Nordic Excavating, for his work on the projects, including donations of time and rock.

“Without him as a partner, this wouldn’t have been as successful,” he said.

Work on the project is expected to last about two weeks, and periodic closures of the Yampa River Core Trail might occur while work is taking place.

Business as usual on the #ColoradoRiver may be about to come to a screeching halt #COriver

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

One of the worst recorded droughts in human history has stretched water supplies thin across the far-reaching river basin, which serves 40 million people.

Nowhere is this more obvious than Lake Mead, which straddles the border of Arizona and Nevada. The water level in the country’s largest manmade reservoir has been plummeting; it’s now only 37 percent full.

With an official water shortage imminent, Arizona, Nevada and California are taking matters into their own hands. The states are hammering out a voluntary agreement to cut their water use — an approach some consider revolutionary after so many decades of fighting and lawsuits.

The cooperation springs from self-preservation. If Lake Mead drops too low, the federal government could step in and reallocate the water.

At the same time, upper basin states like Colorado and Wyoming want to use more Colorado River water — something they’re legally entitled to.

In Colorado, Denver Water is in the final stages of seeking approval on a water storage project that would take more water out of the Colorado River. Wyoming is researching whether to store more water from the Green River, a Colorado tributary. Utah is discussing whether to build a pipeline to transport water from Lake Powell, the reservoir found up river from Lake Mead along the Utah – Arizona border.

Add in the likely impacts of climate change and how it’s affecting the Colorado River basin and you have an increasingly complex and challenging picture developing for the 21st century.

Pat Mulroy, a senior fellow at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and a leading Western water expert, says the time for a new toolbox and ideas to approach water management has arrived.

“There won’t be any winners and losers,” Mulroy says, unless Colorado River states move beyond the fighting and lawsuits of the last century as they try to adapt to the next century. “There will only be losers.”