Oak Creek is preparing to move forward with important upgrades to a 68-year-old dam at Sheriff Reservoir…With the threat of a dam breach, the town worked with the engineering firm W. W. Wheeler & Associates to create a hydrology study to determine what repairs would be necessary. Completed this year, the report used updated high elevation hydrology formulas to anticipate how much water the dam and its spillway would need to handle in a maximum flood event. According to Torgler, the study found the spillway would need to be expanded from its current 32 feet to 55 feet across. Approved by the state’s engineer Monday, the study is key, the town administrator said, because it was originally believed the expansion improvement would need to be 330 feet across…
After completing work to replace the headgate on the dam, which sits close to the structures base on the reservoir side, the project will now turn to the completion of the design engineering for the spillway enhancements, Torgler said. To date, the town has spent $520,000 for design engineering for the headgate and the purchase and installation of operating equipment and $320,000 for final design work. Cost estimates for the spillway work will be ready by the end of the year.
Torgler said that without performing the dam improvements, there would be a significant reduction in the amount of water stored in the reservoir. He noted the reservoir provides recreational opportunities for locals and visitors, but it is also Oak Creek’s drinking water supply.
Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Water Trust website (Marsha Daughenbaugh):
Heroes are sometimes hard to find. However, in the world of protecting Colorado’s environment, culture and water resources, Colorado Water Trust is a hero.
I have served on the Board of Directors with Colorado Water Trust (CWT) for five years and am continually amazed with the projects, work ethics and involvement of the staff and fellow board members. The positive, “can-do” attitude is proving to be a model of what can be done to protect and improve our state’s river flows.
I became aware of Colorado Water Trust before joining the Board because of their efforts to maintain sustainable water levels in the Yampa River. As a non-legal, non-engineering individual in the water world, it was amazing to me that a non-profit had the interest and resources to purchase water for a struggling river system. My first thought was “they really care about agriculture” because this extra water meant ranchers along the Yampa River would be able to irrigate hay fields and pastures that were threatened with severe drought conditions. A search of CWT’s website opened my eyes to their mission, and I became intrigued with other projects.
Years later, through a strange set of events, I was asked to become part of their Board. They were looking to expand their representation throughout the state with people involved in day-to-day agricultural water and land use. I became a candidate, was accepted, and was thrilled with the opportunity to become involved.
CWT is striving to find solutions for many of the land use challenges facing agriculture: water equity, adequate water quantity, protection of natural resources, retention of properties for future generations, and respect for people who provide food and fiber to our country and world.
Much has been accomplished and there are many successful CWT stories. We have projects in process and potential proposals are being researched. There is much to do—and Colorado Water Trust is a positive leader in the efforts.
Hero is defined as a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. CWT is an organization that embodies that definition, and I am proud to serve on the Board.
Board Member, Colorado Water Trust
Rancher, Steamboat Springs
Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Anne MacKinnon):
Climate change poses challenges for Wyoming water law, seen these days on the Grand Encampment River southwest of Saratoga.
The Encampment River valley is like many small, irrigated valleys in Wyoming. It was once the home of a few pioneer ranches that built a network of ditches, but the ranches have been divided up, the river has moved over time, and people have kept irrigating using the old ditches, sometimes with a little jerry-rigging. The Encampment valley is also narrow, with usually more than enough water, so state water officials haven’t had to “regulate” to keep water use in line with water rights.
Enter the Sinclair Refinery near Rawlins, Carbon County’s biggest employer. Its workforce includes people from the Encampment valley, located some 40 miles away. In just the last year and a half, the oil company that took over the refinery bought a ranch on the Grand Encampment River.
The attraction: the old water rights on the ranch. The goal: to bolster the refinery’s water supply in the face of climate change.
Two years out of the last six, the Upper North Platte Basin has seen climate change in low snowpack. It has meant that in spring, the refinery couldn’t legally use its own 100-year-old water rights. Refinery managers had to arrange for temporary use of older water rights from elsewhere. Buying the Encampment ranch offers the new refinery’s owners, called HF Sinclair, a more permanent solution for those low snow-pack years.
That has some neighbors worried. Now, how water works in the Encampment valley — which lands are irrigated or not, when and through what ditch — must be examined.
It might seem neighboring irrigators wouldn’t care if a ranch won’t use its water rights in some years. But in a classic Wyoming spot like the Encampment valley, where the water rights and ditches and the irrigation practices and the water table and the water runoff from irrigation are interwoven, the refinery’s water use could disrupt the current pattern.
HF Sinclair’s plan will test the capacity of Wyoming water law to serve both the refinery and the Encampment irrigation community in the era of climate change. Will water officials’ decisions start to unravel the fabric of the community, as some fear, or will it leave that fabric substantially intact?
Most climate change headlines in Wyoming have focused on the Colorado River Basin, but the Upper North Platte River Basin — embracing both the Sinclair refinery on the North Platte and the Encampment River, a North Platte tributary upstream — has also gotten steadily hotter in the last 20 years.
HF Sinclair’s proposal to move water rights from one location to another — in response to the impending climate crisis — is a prospect that has long alarmed Wyoming irrigators. The fear is that “drying up” a ranch can damage local economies. Such moves were once mostly illegal in Wyoming, and many irrigators believe they still are. But 50 years ago in another national crisis — rising energy prices, creating demand for power plants in Wyoming — the state changed its law to allow such moves if they meet strict standards. There must, for instance, be proof of how much water was consumed at the original spot — no more can be consumed at the new spot, and the amount of water that used to return to the stream from the original irrigation must be left in the stream at that point.
Notably, HF Sinclair is not proposing to dry up its ranch with any such permanent move of water rights. Only in low snowpack years would the refinery activate a new arrangement — a proposed “exchange.” The plan is that in those years the refinery would legally get to use its rights on the North Platte despite low flows, while it would not irrigate its Encampment ranch at all in spring or summer. That would allow Encampment water unused at the ranch to flow down the North Platte to Pathfinder Reservoir as “makeup” water, as required by the Wyoming water exchange law.
HF Sinclair also says it will invest in the interconnected headgate and ditch system on the Encampment to make sure that when the ranch does not tap the Encampment River at all for a year, neighbors still get water for their rights.
There is heavy pressure for an uncomplicated review of HF Sinclair’s plan. The company does not hesitate to underline the implications for sustaining local jobs. To get approval, the company has hired a phalanx of high-powered law and technical people, including a former Wyoming State Engineer.
But leading irrigators on the Encampment have asked state officials for a thorough review — they don’t, however, want the cost and trouble of hiring lawyers and engineers to fall on them. The Wyoming Stock Growers, meanwhile, this summer called for public meetings on water changes as a review of Sinclair’s plans got underway.
Neighbors don’t have grounds to complain if a ranch just decides not to irrigate in a few years. But because HF Sinclair is proposing a legal change, the ranch neighbors have brought concerns to the state water officials who must decide whether to approve the exchange.
To get that approval, HF Sinclair must take two steps: first clean up the water rights on the ranch, and then get the exchange petition granted.
Cleanups are standard in places like the Encampment River, since actual use of old water rights in Wyoming often changes over decades, as streams move a little and ditches fall into disuse. Often old water rights must be identified and nailed down to the current use, at the expense of the right-holder. Sometimes, cleanups get complicated. The strict standards of Wyoming’s water-moves law can apply, if change over time includes water moving some distance.
HF Sinclair is asking for a simple cleanup, which could avoid that scrutiny. The company has filed documents to show that only relatively insignificant changes in irrigation have taken place in over a century of ranch operations — nothing that should invoke the scrutiny required for serious movements of water rights.
There are, of course, all kinds of questions that could arise in HF Sinclair’s cleanup: How much of the ranch’s Encampment River rights have actually been used, where and from what headgates? Does the groundwater level in low-lying lands mean that water consumption there can’t really be stopped, and maybe fields there haven’t required much irrigation water? Has enough irrigation water been used on other ranch fields to provide the proposed “makeup” water for the exchange?
How intensely to review HF Sinclair’s cleanup is a decision for the state Board of Control (the State Engineer and the superintendents of Wyoming’s four geographical water divisions). Then HG Sinclair’s separate request for an exchange – a transaction expressly encouraged by state law – goes to the State Engineer alone to decide.
It will take months or years to see how Wyoming’s water rights review process plays out in this case. And the practical impact may finally depend on how many low snowpack years the future holds for the North Platte Basin. But ultimately, what happens on the Encampment will say a lot about how the state’s water law system will handle the pressures on water that are brought by climate change.
Relatively smooth approval of an exchange on the Encampment could encourage towns and industries in Wyoming’s Green and Little Snake River basins to seek their own exchanges. For them, exchanges could be a solution to water supply shutdowns threatened by climate change on the Colorado River. In recent years the State Engineer’s Office has suggested that exchanges could be useful for that purpose, using reservoirs as makeup water.
On the Encampment, HF Sinclair’s experts include former State Engineer Pat Tyrrell, former Division I Water Superintendent Brian Pugsley, and veteran water lawyer Dave Palmerlee.
The facts on the ground may well be such that the refinery’s proposal would easily survive any tough scrutiny. But the way the consultants have couched the requests makes it appear they’re betting they won’t trigger that kind of review, so they get approval — and relatively quickly.
The Encampment community’s fear of local damage has brought an audience to the normally unnoticed Board of Control meetings, however.
Nearby ranchers would like to see Sinclair offer a signed contract for the investment in headgates and ditches to secure access to all neighbors’ water rights. They don’t want to contend with Sinclair’s experts in formal hearings or appeals. But they do want a very careful state review.
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:
To study 11 tributaries on U.S. Forest Service land in the Yampa River basin, organizers and volunteers are traveling four seasons per year by snowmobile, ATV, raft, four-wheel drive, mountain bike or on foot to test stream water quality. The goal is to collect water quality samples and data so that the tributaries can be considered for the Outstanding Waters designation program that helps to safeguard water quality. Jenny Frithsen, environmental program manager at nonprofit Friends of the Yampa, is leading the local Outstanding Waters two-year study and application process to determine if the candidate tributaries on Forest Service land qualify for the water quality protection program. The 11 streams are located in four general areas across northern Routt County and in Steamboat Springs, including Elkhead and First creeks in the west California Park area, middle fork of the Little Snake River north of Columbine, four tributaries that feed into the Elk River east of Clark, and Fish, Walton and Soda creeks near Steamboat.
Friends of the Yampa staff are working with the Colorado River Basin Outstanding Waters Coalition formed in summer 2022 to identify and try to protect “clean water” across the state and to designate more headwater streams as outstanding waters deemed worthy of increased protections by Colorado. Frithsen said similar studies are underway in the region, for example, in the Roaring Fork and Eagle River watersheds…
The water quality sampling at 13 different sites in the Yampa River basin started in summer 2022 and will be completed in spring 2024 with a decision on the designations in summer 2024, Frithsen said. The designation would not impact irrigation water rights that are based on water quantity but would serve as an added layer of protection from dangers to water quality from point-source pollution such as wastewater treatment plant discharge or runoff or discharges from mining. Outstanding Waters is the highest level of anti-degradation protection under the federal Clean Water Act, Frithsen said. The designation prevents new or increased sources of pollution, but preexisting uses such as grazing and recreation can continue at current levels as long as pollution is not increased.
The Outstanding Waters designation is awarded through the Water Quality Control Commission of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. For a stream or part of a stream to qualify, the water must meet specific quality criteria gathered across 12 key parameters such as dissolved oxygen, pH, E. coli bacteria levels, nutrients, metals and water temperature. Partners on the local project include The Pew Charitable Trusts and two nonprofits, American Rivers and Mountain Studies Institute in Durango.
More detailed analysis is underway for “less environmentally impactful” locations for the proposed 264-foot high concrete West Fork Dasm and 130-acre reservoir
Citing a need to examine alternative dam and reservoir sites, officials have pushed back the expected completion of the environmental review of the proposed and contested West Fork Dam.
The Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy and Colorado’s Pothook Water Conservancy District want Wyoming to build the 264-foot-high dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest and swap state land with forest service property to streamline and enable the project. Designed to meet irrigation desires and provide other benefits to Carbon County’s Little Snake River Valley, the proposed 10,000 acre-foot reservoir would flood 130 acres at the confluence of the West Fork of Battle Creek and Haggarty Creek.
But the proposed development in a steep, forested canyon drew opposition over its cost, location, need, efficiency and potential environmental impacts. Opponents have criticized a proposed land exchange between Wyoming and the Medicine Bow that would put the development site in state hands and construction more firmly under its control.
Wyoming, which would pick up the bulk of the initially estimated $80-million dam cost, favors that site and design, said Jason Mead, director of the Wyoming Water Development Office. Wyoming has touted the development as one that would meet late-season irrigation needs and provide environmental benefits too.
“When the state and [irrigation] districts went through the feasibility analysis, it was felt, based on the information, that the West Fork site was the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” he wrote in an email.
The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service anticipated completing a draft environmental impact statement in September. The review of alternative sites has added “a few months to the anticipated schedule” spokeswoman Alyssa Ludeke wrote in an email, but how long the delay might be is unknown.
A better solution?
Wyoming identified nine alternative sites, one or more of which will now be reviewed in depth in the draft environmental impact statement.
“We have to do a more detailed analysis to see if [they are] less environmentally impactful or provide a better answer, a better solution,” Shawn Follum, an engineer with the NRCS, said Friday. “While there’s a preferred alternative [at the West Fork site], that’s the very beginning, not a deal.
“We’ve not seen any indication that that site won’t be a possibility,” Follum said.
Meantime, the Medicine Bow National Forest continues to work on a “feasibility analysis” to inform the Forest Supervisor whether to move forward with a land exchange for the West-Fork site. There’s no deadline for that yet, said Aaron Voos, the Medicine Bow spokesman, and no guarantee a land swap would take place.
“It is looking highly likely that one of the alternatives analyzed will include a non-land exchange option, such as a special use permit,” Voos said.
The Medicine Bow has been analyzing the feasibility of the proposed land exchange, Voos said. If feasible, the Forest Service would determine whether an exchange is in the public interest.
“‘Public interest’ is required to be addressed and will be heavily factored into the Forest Supervisor’s recommendation to proceed or not proceed,” Voos wrote in an email.
Wyoming shunned obtaining a special use permit for the West Fork site because environmental reviews and other regulatory burdens would have been more complex. If the reservoir land were instead exchanged and became state property, construction permitting would be simpler, according to state officials.
Wyoming may have underestimated the complexity of the undertaking, stating in a proposed contract that it expected 100 comments on the development plan with only 40 being substantive. Instead, people submitted 936 comments, of which 96% opposed the project, according to a tally by WyoFile.
The study’s delay is not a surprise, Mead said. “Oftentimes federal agencies want a little more information to determine if an alternative should be dismissed or not, or may want to reconsider other sites,” he said. The additional analyses will ensure “a reasonable range of alternatives” is considered, he said.
New work necessary for the draft environmental impact statement includes hydraulic analysis and other tasks, some of which may involve field work, Follum said. It’s possible that work could be delayed by snow, extending the task until next spring, he said.
The NRCS is leading the environmental study with cooperation from the Medicine Bow National Forest and other agencies.
Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at email@example.com or (307)… More by Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
Click the link to read the release on the Rio Blanco Herald-Times website:
RiversEdge West (REW) is pleased to accept a $48,788 grant award from the Colorado River District’s Community Funding Partnership to continue important riverside (riparian) restoration work along the White River in Rio Blanco County.
REW leads the White River Partnership (WRP), a group committed to restoring and maintaining healthy riparian areas along the White River in northwest Colorado and northeast Utah through collaboration among public, private, and non-profit entities. REW works with WRP partners to prioritize and plan restoration sites, coordinate invasive plant removal with contractors and youth corps, and to monitor restoration sites after invasive plant removal.
This project will remove invasive plant species, like tamarisk and Russian olive, from the White River corridor on public and private lands. Removing these invasive plants will enhance public access to river recreation areas and improve wildlife habitat and agricultural productivity on nearby privately-owned property. To complete this work, REW will partner with Western Colorado Conservation Corps, based in Grand Junction, which engages young adults on the Western Slope in conservation and restoration work by training them for careers in land management.
“The Community Funding Partnership is a solution-driven funding program to ensure our communities thrive in a hotter, drier future. Riparian restoration projects, such as the White River Project, are critical to West Slope rivers by protecting water quality, improving habitat, and moderating high flow events,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships with the Colorado River District.
In addition to the award from the River District, this project is also supported by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Bureau of Land Management.
Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):
We’re in a bit of a holding pattern along the Colorado River today, at least in the Upper Basin: on the one hand, waiting for the Bureau of Reclamation to weigh the options for big cuts in Lower Basin use; and on the other hand, seeing the Lower Basin states trying to come up with a less painful set of big cuts to impose on themselves over three years, taking advantage of the big snow year that relieves a little (but just a little!) of the immediate pressure.
At any rate, it’s an opportunity for me to step back a step and try to restore something of the perspective with which I started these posts – ‘learning to live in the Anthropocene.’ I’ve been calling the posts ‘Romancing the River,’ wanting to work in the spirit of Frederick Dellenbaugh in his book The Romance of the Colorado River: making the story of the First River of the Anthropocene something to engage in rather than deny. But the stories keep getting lost in the avalanches of mostly dispiriting details coming down these days….
So anyway, today – an unremembered part of the story of Glen Canyon Dam. Last post, we explored the structure of the dam itself, a good solid Early Anthropocene structure. But today I want to explore the infrastructure of the dam. As with most dams, what you can see is not the whole thing, even physically. To get a firm foundation on bedrock for ten million tons of concrete, the builders had to dig out more than a hundred feet of rock, rubble and sand from the natural streambed. That hundred feet of dam below the streambed is the physical infrastructure of the dam.
But even before that digging-down could begin, a political, economic, legal and philosophical infrastructure had be cobbled together on which to erect the physical structure. Recent articles about the river and its troubles that try to offer any river history at all tend to give credit (or blame) for the dam to a large mass of ego and bluster, Floyd Dominy, but he was just the Reclamation Commissioner when the dam was legislated, a guy who wanted to build dams as big as his ego. He built the structure, but he didn’t assemble the legal and political infrastructure that enabled it.
The larger story of Glen Canyon Dam’s infrastructure is mostly, but not entirely, a story of the Old West – a story of the most serious attempt to achieve a working truce between the Old West and the New West. And for those with my tendency toward an iconoclastic interpretation of history, it was one of the final episodes (thus far anyway) in America’s semi-civil westward war between the advance of the well-defined and well-funded Industrial Revolution and the retreat of a vaguely defined agrarian counter-revolution. For a review of that semi-civil war, go to ‘Westward the Curse of Empire,’ April 4, 2022.
When we talk about the Old West and the New West, we are talking about two very different cultures. Most (over)simply, we can say that the Old West is the west to which people went to live and make a living developing and marketing the natural resources of the West; and the New West is the west where people who live in the urban-industrial realm go to play, to ‘recreate’ themselves among the natural wonders and magnificent scale of the West.
It is useful to make a further distinction about the Old West: it was populated by ‘settlers’ and ‘unsettlers’: the unsettlers usually arrived first, the human equivalent of a plague of locusts with a mining mentality (mining gold and silver, other metals, old-growth timber and grass) – a drive to get there first, get the goods, and get rich. The settlers, on the other hand, came to farm or ranch with the intention of staying and making a life, settling down, homesteading. Some of the farmers tended to be soil miners, but the ones who stayed were true agrarians, the counterrevolutionaries to the industrial revolutionaries.
People of course do come to live in the New West too, not just to visit: they are usually either relatively well-off people retiring, or professionals working remotely with incomes from elsewhere, or they are mendicant people like I was sixty years ago (relatively poor, mostly by choice) who work for the recreation industries set up for the people who come to play, in exchange for getting to live and play themselves among the natural wonders of the West.
The story of Glen Canyon Dam, and the counterrevolutionary effort to co-opt it, began in the years immediately following World War II. The Lower Colorado River Basin had already been transformed into a desert empire through the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project, completed just in time for Southern California to grow explosively through the war effort. The four Upper Basin states figured that they would get their day after World War II. And in 1946 the Bureau – eager to follow the creation of Hoover Dam and the desert empire with more river miracles – came out with a pamphlet: ‘The Colorado River: A Natural Menace Becomes a National Resource.’ In it the engineers presented a smogasbord of 88 possible projects, large and small, all in the four states of the Upper Colorado Basin. They cautioned that there would not be enough water for all 88, so there must be some choosing.
The principal architect for the legal, political and economic infrastructure underlying what came to be the Colorado River Storage Project was no larger-than-life figure like Dominy, but an unprepossessing Congressman, Wayne Aspinall, from Colorado’s West Slope and the river’s largest headwaters catchments. Aspinall did not stand out in a crowd, but he was savvy, and absolutely committed to the Old West as an economy of working people engaged in the production of resources needed in the larger society – and with a deep love for irrigated agriculture, having grown up with his father’s peach orchard in the Grand Valley after the Bureau’s highline canal brought them water.
He was a Democrat, an unlikely representative from one of Colorado’s most conservative districts, but he began his political career in the late 1920s as a common sense alternative to the mess the Ku Klux Klan had made everywhere in Colorado, and he kept getting re-elected to state, then national offices because he got things done.
He also knew which way the tide was running in America. The 1920 census for the first time showed more people living in the cities than in the rural areas, and by the end of World War II, that imbalance was accelerating. (‘How ya gonna keep’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?’) His Old West constituency was being diluted by newcomers aghast at learning a few eggs had been broken in making the omelet they took for granted. The cities they came from were also needing more water, and Aspinall was often caught between constituents angry about yet another transmountain diversion, and east-slope movers and shakers angry about what he could not deny but could often delay.
Nonetheless, his Old West constituents knew where his heart lay, and returned him to Congress 12 times. That might have continued indefinitely, but his own Democrat party outgrew its working-class roots, became a big city party, and gerrymandered him into a mostly urban district where he could not win; he was ‘primaried out’ in 1972. It was probably time; he had become a lightning rod for the early naive-environmentalist movement, and being aligned with that movement myself, I felt naively righteous in voting against him. I still think it was the right thing to do then; he had become increasingly reactionary and defensive, at least as he was being reported in the newspapers. But given what I’ve learned about him since, and my ambiguous feelings about the New West that has replaced the Old West, and about the staggering march of American history in general – I wish I had cast that vote a little more humbly.
In the 1950s, however, Aspinall was just hitting his stride when the Bureau was ready to finish remaking the First River of the Anthropocene, and he jumped on the opportunity to do something big and (he hoped) enduring for the West he and his constituents believed in. More than any other single person, he laid the infrastructure for the Colorado River Storage Project. For better or worse.
The Colorado River Storage Project had to first be a really serious storage project, to assuage Upper Basin water users’ fears of a Compact call, which they thought would come even if nature, not human overuse, caused a shortfall in Lower Basin deliveries. Another time we will take a look at the Upper Basin Compact created in 1948, and the knots the four states tied themselves into, due to their Caliphobia. So the first charge to the Bureau was to build some big ‘holdover’ reservoirs on the scale of Mead Reservoir – dams capable of storing at least two years of inflow.
But the Bureau and Aspinall also wanted big hydropower units in those dams – ‘humming the tunes of endless wealth,’ as a bit of precious Bureau prosody put it. ‘Cash register dams’ was a more prosaic nickname for the big power-generating dams: they wanted the wealth so generated to be applied not only to paying off the big dams, but also to pay for a lot of smaller dams in the higher country.
The biggest problem farmers and ranchers in the arid lands had in irrigating from a desert river fed primarily by snowmelt was the erratic flows – snowmelt floods early in the irrigating season and then almost no water in the late summer when it was most needed. Storage to even out the flows was the key, and storage was expensive. Every community of farmers could go out after harvest with shovels, black powder and mule scrapers, and dig canals to move water, but water storage required materials and equipment they couldn’t afford. Every irrigation district had sketch plans for dams and reservoirs, but for small communities, the Bureau’s cost-benefit analyses for dam repayment were impossible.
But – if a general fund for a big multi-unit project could be created, with power revenues pouring into it, and some small storage projects drawing on it, with cost-benefit analysis calculated for the whole multi-unit project, then the big dams could carry the otherwise unaffordable little dams…. Glen Canyon Dam would (‘twas hoped) assure that the industrial revolution’s desert empire got its water – but it would also provide storage for the counterrevolutionaries’ ‘headwaters republics.’ Win-win.
And that was essentially the Colorado River Storage Project Aspinall and his collaborators in the Upper Basin put together. They started in 1950 with a bill calling for nine big holdover dams and reservoirs, and a couple dozen ‘participating projects’ (the smaller storage dams for the local communities). By the time they finally got the project through Congress in 1956, they were down to three actual holdover dams (Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado mainstem and Flaming Gorge on the Green River, both with full power generating units, and Navajo Dam on the San Juan with no power unit), the Curecanti unit of three dams on the Gunnison that was primarily for power production, and eleven ‘participating projects’ to be partially paid for from the power revenues – and another two dozen potential participating projects for further study.
And because Aspinall knew the New West was coming, like it or not, the Act included a requirement that every unit would include recreational facilities.
Did it work out as planned? Yes and no. The ‘cash register’ dams were all built, and facilitated the building of around a dozen of the small ‘participating projects.’ My great-grandparents would have been glad for the dam built on the North Fork of the Gunnison River above Paonia, the erratic river whose spring floods had forced them to move their house to higher ground. But they had sold the homestead by the time the dam was built because none of their offspring wanted to contend with the erratic water supply.
By the late 1960s, however, the nation had grown tired of building (and paying for) western water projects, and NEPA and the advent of the Environmental Impact Study after 1970 made even small water projects problematic. The last project done under CRSP auspices was an Animas-LaPlata project originally intended to help the Ute Indians develop agricultural lands, but it got so scaled down that it was not much use to anyone.
By the turn of the century, ‘reclamation’ was more likely to be interpreted as work to reclaim and restore land and waterways damaged by the collateral debris that the Old West’s heavier industrial unsettlement left behind. Then in the 1980s a large portion of the power revenue from the big holdover dams was diverted from further CRSP counterrevolutionary structures, to an all-out effort to restore four endangered fish species that, back in the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried to kill off by poisoning the Green River. Mistakes have been made, and visions and dreams got carried out with the debris.
The recreation industries, and the accompanying real estate and construction industries, have pretty much overrun and occupied Aspinall’s would-be agrarian republic; but there are, nonetheless, still places in the West where small farms and ranches hang on, some of them ‘heritage cultures’ passed on through families predating CRSP, some of them new and serious about growing local food – and many of them served by CRSP facilities generated by Glen Canyon Dam. But the agrarian philosophy and vision they represent is largely unarticulated in the mainstream culture; I believe, however, that a careful and potentially difficult interrogation of a large number of rural MAGA supporters would reveal that a virulent form of the agrarian counterrevolution still lives, mute but mad, in a twisted variant of unarticulated hope.
Just call it all another story in the romance of the Colorado River – the story of how Glen Canyon Dam was, for a time, put in service to another America.
Day 4 was the longest day so far. We travelled from Grand Junction to Moab along I-70 at first and then along Utah-128. The rainy weather joined us along the way. This route into Moab is one of my favorites as the road winds along the canyon walls near the river. We spotted a few folks testing the high flows in rafts nearer to Moab and a pair of enthusiasts in an inflatable kayak and on a standup paddle board.
The river was all the more impressive along this route, bankfull and moving along at a pace where you could experience the power.
A real treat this wet water year was the super bloom along Utah-128 near Cisco. The desert was so green compared to other years and the wildflowers put on a great show.
We left Moab driving by Arches and up to Green River to get a look at the river there. The Green River was also bankfull. There is a restaurant along the river where I’ve seen the tire tracks of off-roaders in the river bed — not this year.
Charging was in Grand Junction at the Phillips 66 on Horizon Drive (CHAdeMO), Moab at Rocky Mountain Power (J1772), and Green River at Green River Coffee (CHAdeMO).
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Kit Geary). Here’s an excerpt:
Routt County Emergency Management is warning residents to expect flooding Thursday, May 4, into Friday, May 5, with the Yampa River anticipated to reach its highest level yet this season. Emergency Operations Manager David “Mo” DeMorat told Routt County commissioners on Monday, May 1, that the river had hit 6,500 cubic feet per second, and warm temperatures are expected to continue through the week, which could cause the river to reach 7,000 cfs by Friday. DeMorat said this amount of water for the Yampa River is considered “action level” flooding by the National Weather Service. Action levels generally require municipalities to keep a closer eye on flooding and have potential mitigation plans and flood warnings in place…
To gauge what flooding will look like, the county uses snow-water equivalent gauges that provide estimates for the amount of snowmelt that could occur three to four weeks out. This looks at the amount of snow on the ground, but cannot predict at what rate it will melt. Because of this, no exact estimates can be given, as it is ultimately the weather and the freeze-and-thaw cycle that will determine at what rate the snow melts.
DeMorat explained to commissioners that these gauges show areas north of Steamboat and the Stagecoach Reservoir currently have the highest potential for flooding. Three snow-water equivalent gauges stationed north of Steamboat have helped emergency management identify these regions as problem areas for flooding due to the snowpack that could melt. All three are north of Steamboat with one near Dry Lake, one near Lost Dog Creek and another slightly farther northwest. DeMorat noted these locations range from 165-185% of the average snowpack. He told commissioners that Stagecoach Reservoir is another area of concern with 140% of its average snowpack.
Alongside the problem areas DeMorat named, the National Weather Service issued a flood warning for Elkhead Creek, particularly where the creek meets the Yampa River. This flood warning began on Monday and will end Friday unless communicated otherwise by the National Weather Service.
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:
In the first official scorecard of Yampa River system health, the middle section of the Yampa earned an overall score of B. That B means the middle Yampa River from Pump Station boat launch east of Hayden to South Beach about 2 miles south of Craig is a “highly functional river where some stressors are present but in general it remains largely resilient to disturbances and may rely on limited management,” said Jenny Frithsen, environmental program manager with Friends of the Yampa, which is managing the scorecard project. Within the overall score of B as part of the Yampa River Scorecard Project, the middle Yampa earns an A for dissolved oxygen, PH levels and metals in the water, “the only ecological indicators that got an A,” Frithsen reported.
The first results of the long-term scorecard project will be released fully in early May with information available at YampaScorecard.org. Data collection started in the middle Yampa in summer 2022, and the overall project will include five river sections.
During summer 2023, data collection will focus on the stretch starting from Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area to the Pump Station boat launch.
The river scorecard is derived via approximately 45 different indicators in and around the Yampa River that fall under three main areas: ecological health and function, river uses and management, and people and community benefits.
“By seeing what areas are a C, D or F, we can now focus on action and how to improve these numbers,” said Lindsey Marlow, executive director for Friends of the Yampa. “We now have a template to start conversations with people in this basin about the health of the river and its ecosystem services.”
Marlow said another key finding that stands out is riverscape connectivity, or a measurement of the ease in which a river can move around such as a connected flood plain and river channel.
“There are areas that score so well at 95% and others that need help at 65%, and now we get to embark on the exciting task of figuring out how to improve floodplain connectivity,” Marlow said.
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:
Last year, Elkhead Reservoir operators carefully managed the reservoir that straddles the Routt and Moffat countyline due to low water issues, but this year reservoir managers are facing challenges due to high water from abundant snowmelt in the Yampa Valley. Managers predict Elkhead Reservoir will top its spillway in mid-May with water exiting the spillway and outflow at a combined rate of about 2,000 cubic feet per second, or cfs, or about the same level of peak water as in wet 2011, said Don Meyer, senior water resources engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District based in Glenwood Springs.
“The current outflow is about 550 cfs with valves 100% open,” Meyer said. “When (the reservoir is) full, the release will be 590 cfs. When spilling, we will likely keep the outlet discharge at 590 cfs, and the rest will go over the spillway.”
Meyer, who has managed Elkhead Reservoir releases since 2007, said high water flows in 2011 recorded 1,800 cfs on May 8 and more than 2,000 cfs on May 16, May 24 and June 4. He expects 2023 spillage will follow a similar path…
The watershed upstream of Elkhead Reservoir drains a 205-square-mile basin, according to the river district that owns or controls water supplies that are available for contract to agricultural, municipal, industrial and other water users.
Five inches of snow falling ahead of closing day made 2023 the second snowiest season ever recorded at Steamboat Resort. Flakes fell throughout Friday, April 14, and continued into early Saturday, April 15, bringing the mid-mountain snow total on Steamboat’s snow report to 448 inches. There are some discrepancies on the resort’s snow report at Steamboat.com/the-mountain/mountain-report, as the sum of monthly totals is 459 inches. Nevertheless, 448 was all that was needed to become the second snowiest season at the resort, according to data collected by the resort since 1980. In order to become the second snowiest season on record, this year’s snowfall had to surpass the 447.75 inches that collected at mid-mountain in the 1996-97 season. The record of 489 inches set in 2007-08 will continue to stand at least for another year, as the resort will close on Sunday, April 16, and stop documenting snowfall…
While the melt was slowed by Friday’s snow and cold temperatures, the fluffy stuff is diminishing quickly. The snowpack or snow water equivalent in the Yampa, White, Little Snake Basin seems to have peaked on April 7, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture…The presumed peak, which came 24 hours before the median peak based on 30-year averages, was 30.1 inches. The past two years peaked at 18 inches, or just below. The last year to have a similar peak was 1997. Between April 1 and 8, the area had record snow water equivalent as the measurement surpassed 29 inches and reached 30. With the melt, the 2023 snowpack is back below the record trajectory, which was set in 2011.
Yampa River flow hit 817 cubic feet per second on Thursday evening, April 13, which is four times greater than the flow of 204 cfs on the same day the year before, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. The Elk River hit a high flow of 1,700 cfs on Friday, April 14, more than six times the flow on the same day in 2022.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department comments cast doubt on irrigators’ claims that a 264-foot-high dam proposed in Carbon County will benefit fisheries, riparian zones and wetland-wildlife habitats.
The dam proposed for the West Fork of Battle Creek above the Little Snake River on the Medicine Bow National Forest would provide 6,000 acre-feet of late-season irrigation to ranches near Baggs, Dixon and Savery and in Colorado. The 700-foot-long concrete dam and associated 130-acre reservoir would also provide a “minimum bypass flow” to improve fisheries in downstream creeks and rivers, according to the proposal.
The reservoir itself could be a “brood facility” and refuge for native Colorado River cutthroat trout, a species of conservation concern, the Wyoming Water Development Commission and others say.
As dam backers’ plans were opened to formal public review and comment earlier this year, however, critics challenged the rosy ecological picture and accounting of public benefits claimed by water developers.
Among these critics is Wyoming’s own Game and Fish Department, which says construction and operation of the dam would cause “substantial negative impacts on the aquatic and fisheries resources in the West Fork Battle Creek, Battle Creek and Little Snake River drainages.”
Even though mitigation efforts are “likely” to offset such impacts and may conserve and enhance fish and wildlife habitat, the wildlife agency expressed reservations about the project.
“Given the complexity of ecological systems and inherent uncertainties about project operation and impacts and future climate and hydrology,” Game and Fish wrote in nine pages of comments, “it is not known if the proposed project will benefit fisheries, riparian, and wetland wildlife habitats, as suggested by the proponents.”
In-stream flow vs. bypass
Wyoming’s wildlife agency made its comments along with 935 other individuals and organizations as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency tasked with aiding agriculture on private lands, analyzes the project through an environmental impact statement. Eight hundred ninety-nine commenters opposed dam construction and an associated land swap with the Medicine Bow National Forest that would enable it.
Game and Fish offered six pages of recommendations for how to potentially alleviate some of the dam’s impacts. Those include a program to wipe out non-native trout from a network of creeks that extends about six miles upstream of the dam site. Colorado River cutthroat trout would then be planted in an artificial “brood facility” in the reservoir and upstream.
In launching the plan to dam the West Fork of Battle Creek, dam backers declared benefits would accrue to “fisheries, riparian and wetland wildlife habitats, and water-associated recreation,” according to a legal notice published in the Federal Register.
“Ecological objectives … include improvements to aquatic ecosystems and riparian habitats by supplementing stream flows during low-flow periods, and … to terrestrial habitat associated with irrigation-induced wetlands,” the notice posted by the NRCS states. “Benefits are expected to accrue to these attributes [downstream] to the confluence with the Yampa River including improvements to both cold water and warm water sensitive species.”
Fisheries below the dam could benefit from 1,500 acre-feet earmarked for bypass flow, a 483-page Wyoming study says. Bypass water that would be released from the dam would maintain a minimum flow for about 4 miles downstream.
Nothing in the plan as currently written, however, would prevent any irrigator from taking water out of the creek below that point and using it for irrigation.
“Without an in-stream flow water right, once released from the bypass flow account in West Fork Reservoir, the water could be used or diverted for other purposes,” Jason Mead, interim director of the Wyoming Water Development Office wrote in an email. Nevertheless, “[m]ost of the water released solely for habitat flow purposes, according to hydrologic models, occurs during the non-irrigation season months,” Mead wrote. “[T]here are no irrigation diversions below the [proposed] West Fork Reservoir on the West Fork of Battle Creek or Battle Creek until it runs on to private land.”
The 4.8-mile reach of Battle Creek that runs across private land would benefit from approximately 1,414 new fishery “habitat units” if the dam were built, according to Wyoming’s study. A “habitat unit” supports about one pound of trout per acre. Together, the new aquatic productivity “could facilitate additional private enterprise investment which could generate direct private fishing benefits of $144,228 annually,” the Wyoming Water Development Office says in the 2017 study.
That money would increase through an economic theory known as an “indirect benefit multiplier,” producing $379,320 in private benefits annually and $8.2 million over 50 years, Wyoming’s plan states.
That, plus other “instream flow benefits,” are estimated to generate $35 million in public benefits in the dam’s half-century life, the WWDO study states. All told, the state forecasts $73 million in public benefits. That sum justifies the state paying for most of the 2017-estimated $80 million project price tag.
“Given the unique location of the West Fork Reservoir project, its most valuable recreation attribute may be its isolated location which provides a sense of solitude that some recreationalists seek and consider priceless,” the state study reads.
In a comment letter, downstream ranch owners Sharon and Pat O’Toole said the proposed dam “offers multiple benefits,” and would offset the city of Cheyenne’s water diversions from the Little Snake River Basin.
“An environmental benefit would include creating and enhancing wetlands and riparian habitats upstream from the West Fork Reservoir, and improving stream habitat to sequester copper and other metals” from an abandoned mine, the O’Tooles wrote. “The created wetlands and improved stream channel could also provide wetland and stream channel mitigation for the project.
“Our family owns all the private land on Battle Creek,” the couple wrote, adding that “in the lower reaches we have Colorado Cutthroat Trout,” along with other species.
“Haggerty Creek [above the site of the proposed reservoir] used to provide habitat for this species of interest, and could again, with the benefit provided by the dam. The proposed dam would offer value to the recreating public. It would provide a fishery on Haggerty Creek and downstream that does not presently exist.”
John Cobb, chairman of the Little Snake River Conservation District, an irrigation group, wrote that there are “many self-mitigating aspects of this [dam-building] alternative with the potential to drastically offset any potential negative impacts.” Dam construction could “result in a net benefit to the native ecosystems and human economies that thrive within the proposed service area of this project,” his comment reads.
The project would also contribute to the goals of the Colorado-based Yampa, White, Green Roundtable, a consortium of river users, according Jonathan Bowler, watermaster for the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District that applied to build the dam. Among those is a goal to develop a system to reduce water shortages and meet environmental and recreation needs, he said in a presentation to the group.
Professional, expert critique
In addition to Game and Fish comments on the plan, reaction includes reviews and criticism from angling and conservation groups.
Wyoming proposes to swap state property for federal land to enable construction, and budgets $594,000 of the estimated $80 million project cost for wetland and stream mitigation, public documents state.
Without endorsing construction, Wyoming Trout Unlimited recommended that any plan include funding for non-native brook trout removal and other conservation measures, Kathy Buchner, Wyoming TU Council chair and two other TU officers wrote. Other groups were more critical.
“Five years of construction will destroy the present aquatic habitat for all populations of vertebrate and invertebrate species and terrestrial wildlife habitat,” wrote Brian Smith, a former Wyoming water development technician who operated the nearby High Savery Dam and Reservoir where Game and Fish established a similar Colorado River cutthroat trout reserve. “Spawning migrations that have occurred [in and above Battle Creek] presumebly (sic) since the last ice age by CRCT will be terminated. The Little Snake River Drainage is one of only 3 in the State of Wyoming, where the CRCT exist.”
The nonprofit American Rivers also criticized the state plan saying the proposed project could threaten year-round water in the Belvidere Ditch upstream of the proposed reservoir. That ditch is “a WGFD stocking source of cutthroat trout,” and disruption there could harm “these valuable populations.”
Matt Rice, the group’s Colorado River Basin program director, said threats to the ditch could damage “one of the only remaining healthy populations of cutthroat trout [and] could perhaps push the species sufficiently to the brink to merit a federally endangered listing.” The dam would further reduce flows downstream, including in the Yampa River “with additional consequences for protection and recovery of pikeminnow and other sensitive species,” Rice wrote.
A promise of ecological benefits downstream is unsubstantiated, wrote Ben Beall, Friends of the Yampa president. He said that was “a questionable claim given the project’s stated primary purpose is to supply late season irrigation water and the limitation of capacity of the bypass account in the reservoir.”
Forest staffer worried
Worries about the dam’s impacts and a lack of critical review emerged well before the NRCS opened the issue for comments. When the Medicine Bow began preparing for a potential land swap two years ago, a staff hydrologist became alarmed that the dam’s effects wouldn’t be thoroughly analyzed.
The Medicine Bow distributed a briefing paper to its staff that included language “taken from the water development justifications/benefit promotional material and adopted by FS management/lands staff w/o consultation of fisheries professionals,” Medicine Bow hydrologist Dave Gloss wrote to colleagues.
The Medicine-Bow distributed the briefing paper after dam backers had held several meetings with national forest officials and put the bureaucratic wheels in motion for the land exchange, according to an email chain obtained by WyoFile through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“There is much more to the aquatics story,” Gloss wrote, “including the upstream reaches above the reservoir not supporting fish populations due to metals contamination and dewatering from an irrigation ditch, the in-reservoir and downstream trade-offs from altered flow, etc.
“If I could achieve one thing related to this project, it would be an honest and critical look at the social and environmental effects …” Gloss wrote.
He held out little hope for that “honest and critical” look. “There are a lot of factors in play making that approach very unlikely at the moment …” his email read.
A Medicine-Bow spokesman earlier this year wrote that Gloss’s worries are now unfounded. In briefing papers like the one Gloss complained about, “external opinions are encouraged to be included in the full range of information, as they help give situational awareness,” spokesman Aaron Voos wrote in an email. Information in the briefing paper was appropriately cited to make clear it came from project proponents, he wrote.
Further the Medicine Bow will consider the social and environmental effects of the dam and a wide range of public input and values for the public lands, water and resources involved, Voos wrote. “That will be accomplished with the EIS. We are a cooperating agency in that process and will be involved.”
The Medicine Bow, however, has no plans to peer-review Wyoming’s study of public benefits that justifies state funding of the dam, Voos wrote. The NRCS also said it will not peer-review the 483-page Wyoming Little Snake River final report of 2017.
“At this time we cannot say whether or not the Little Snake River Supplemental Storage Level II Phase II Study Report will be used in the land exchange feasibility analysis,” Voos wrote. “[H]owever, it could be used as a reference document during the feasibility analysis or at other points in the land exchange and NEPA processes.”
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson, Tom Skulski and John F. Russell). Here’s an excerpt:
Hayden’s Dry Creek certainly didn’t live up to its name Thursday, as flash flooding from melting snow crested its banks around midnight. The floodwaters closed streets, Hayden Valley Schools, the town’s parks and a 38-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 40 to start the day…Many Hayden residents — whether they are new to town or have spent decades in the Yampa Valley — said they had never seen flooding like this before. While for part of the morning there was a true sense of panic in town, many residents were quick to pump water out of their houses, and their neighbors were ready to help…
While Thursday’s flooding was significant, officials expect flooding to continue as snow keeps melting. Water in Dry Creek was starting to rise again Thursday evening…Hayden officials closed several streets on Thursday as well, with Third, Fourth and Poplar streets all seeing significant flooding. The water submerged roads, flooded garages and made its way into some people’s homes…U.S. 40 was closed to through traffic between Steamboat and Craig until after 1 p.m. Thursday, though the road was largely free of the flooding. Rather, CDOT officials were concerned about a key bridge just west of Hayden, and waited for an engineer to inspect it before reopening the highway. The bridge may eventually close the highway again if floodwaters rise overnight after a day of melting, DeMorat wrote in his update.
Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Bruce Finley). Here’s an excerpt:
Mountain snow-melting intensified this week with an unusually abrupt “flick of the switch” from cold to hot, leading to flooding that on Thursday cut off northwestern Colorado’s main transportation route and forced a shutdown of schools. The statewide heat that brought Denver temperatures to 85 degrees, breaking two records, combined with mountain snowpack more than a third above the norm, also has boosted the potential for early replenishment of water supply reservoirs, including those along the Colorado River…
But rapid melting here and around the Southwest this week has brought higher-than-expected flows in rivers, such as the Mancos River in southwestern Colorado, along U.S. 160, and in the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado, along U.S. 40…Water in the Yampa and tributaries on Thursday gushed over banks and submerged a bridge near Hayden, forcing state transportation officials to close U.S. 40, the main transportation route in northwestern Colorado, between Steamboat Springs and Craig…
As the Mancos River swelled near Cortez, Montezuma County officials who had anticipated possible flooding in May or June suddenly faced those perils a month early.
Click the link to read the article on the OutThereColorado.com website (Spencer McKee). Here’s an excerpt:
As snow keeps falling in Colorado, boosting some parts of the state to record-highs, plenty of powder has been stacking up in the state’s ski country. On March 23, Steamboat Resort took to social media to announce that their mid-mountain station had passed the 400-inch season total mark. Perhaps more impressive is the 500 inches of snow they report has landed on the ski area’s summit. Reported totals at the mid-mountain station and the summit are 401.5 inches and 507 inches, respectively…According to Steamboat Pilot and Today, this is only the 9th time the mid-mountain station has recorded more than 400 inches, with the last time being the 2012 to 2013 season, when 433 inches fell. The snowiest season on record was that of 2007 to 2008, when a total of 489 inches was hit…
The greater Yampa-White-Little Snake river basin that includes Steamboat Springs is currently at 147 percent of the 30-year to-date median snowpack. This isn’t a record high, but it’s close.
From email from Big Pivots (Allen Best):
During early March I traveled to Colorado’s Yampa Valley to see, hear, and feel what a big-snow winter looks like and to ponder the implications for the Colorado River. This has been an epic winter, both wondrous and awful.
Ranchers in that valley have long measured snow depths against three-wired stock fences. In Steamboat Springs and along flanks of the Park Range, it’s three wires and more. Nearing Hahns Peak, only dimples in the snow marked the tops of fence posts.
Along the Wyoming-Colorado border, rancher Patrick O’Toole reported that this has been the hardest winter since he arrived in 1976. That includes 1983, when snowstorms persisted until June, catching Colorado River water managers flat-footed. Gargantuan flows into Lake Powell nearly ruptured Glen Canyon Dam.
“This year is more,” said O’Toole.
O’Toole’s family operation moved 7,000 head of sheep from winter range north of Craig to more hospitable desert range. The deep snow, cold, and winds that seem to be worsening were too much for his woolies. He told of pronghorn antelope left behind, some just lying along roads, too weak to stand.
“And there’s a lot of winter left,” he said.
In Craig, walls of icicles hung from roof edges, and the motel parking lot had snow and ice a half-foot thick. Along the edges of the frozen Yampa River, six cow elk huddled, looking perplexed, as another storm moved in. Glancing at my phone, I saw that in Denver, the temperature was near 50. In the opposite corner of Colorado, Lamar had been warned of potential prairie fires.
Driving twisting, snow-covered county roads made me tense, but the whitened landscapes blanketed by snows filled me with joy. My mind’s ears erupted in the chorus from Bach’s “Hallelujah.”
The Steamboat ski area surpassed last season’s total snowfall in mid-January. In the town itself, banks of carefully placed snow head-high and taller form a labyrinth of slots and passages, the city’s streets, sidewalks and driveways. Mindful that spring will eventually arrive, city crews have already ordered sandbags.
Nobody can know for sure when melting will begin in earnest. Along the Elk River, north of Steamboat, Jay Fetcher has faithfully recorded the day each year that the final snow on his pasture melts. His father began the records in 1949. The “snow off meadow” date varies, as do the snowpack and temperatures, but has arrived on average one day earlier every five years.
Will this epic snowpack end the drought, fill Lake Powell, and cause Colorado River states to get chummy instead of testy?
It’s still early March. Much uncertainty remains. The Upper Colorado Basin River Forecasting Center report on March 1 projected runoff for the Yampa and White rivers at 120% to 170% of average as defined by runoff totals during the last three decades.
Will the weather stay cold and snowy or, as has happened in some recent years, will turn warm and dry in April, May and June? In 2020, for example, a mid-March snowpack of 108% snow-water equivalent yielded runoff of 79% of average. On the Colorado River altogether, an average snowpack that year yielded runoff 52% of average.
How much melted snow will the thirsty soils sop up? Last year’s summer rains restored the soil moisture somewhat in northwestern Colorado, but they remain subpar and thirsty. Runoff will again underperform the snowpack.
It’s also useful to note that not all sub-basins in the Colorado River Basin have had the same plentitude as the Yampa. On the Green River, upstream of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, the runoff is forecast to be only 84% of average.
As for Lake Powell, the runoff from the Yampa can only help—but only so far. It was 21.8% full on Tuesday, March 7. One winter’s heavy snows will not refill it, though. Colorado State University climate researcher Brad Udall told KUNC’s Alex Hager in January that it will take five or six winters of 150% snowpack to refill Powell and Lake Mead.
Filling Flaming Gorge and other upper-basin reservoirs drawn down to keep Powell levels high enough to produce electricity need to be refilled. Peter was robbed to pay Paul. Now Peter’s pockets need replenishing. That will take time, too.
This has not been drought, as conventionally understood. Udall and other climate researchers call it a “hot drought,” the result of rising temperatures caused by atmospheric pollution.
“We are not changing any of our tactics based on one year,” said Lindsay DeFrates, a spokeswoman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs. “It’s such a long game. We need to be sure we are prepared for a hotter, drier future.”
This year’s epic snow in the Yampa Valley means plenty of water for ranchers to grow grass this summer. Beyond that, little can be said.
Allen Best tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond at BigPivots.com. He welcomes comments and contributions.
Starting Tuesday [March 7, 2023], the US Bureau of Reclamation will suspend extra water releases from Utah’s Flaming Gorge reservoir – emergency measures that had served to help stabilize the plummeting water levels downstream at Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reservoir…
The decision to suspend the monthly water releases, which were slated to continue through April, comes in the wake of a winter that has brought well above-average snowfall and precipitation in much of the West, which state and federal officials are hoping will buy them some more time as they scramble to come to an agreement on significant water usage cuts from the Colorado River Basin. The suspension of Flaming Gorge releases was initially requested by four states in the upper Colorado River Basin – Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. The system is like a water loan program from Flaming Gorge to Lake Powell “in times of crisis,” said Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
“With snowpack in the upper Colorado River system running upwards of 130% of the 30-year median, we have a unique opportunity – perhaps once-a-decade opportunity – to repay the loan,” Cullom told CNN. “Aridity is our present and future and we’re trying to adapt to this unique set of circumstances.”
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, which make up the river’s Upper Basin, voted to suspend additional releases starting March 1. Delegates from those states say the federal government should let heavy winter precipitation boost water levels in Flaming Gorge. The reservoir, which straddles the border of Wyoming and Utah, is the third largest in the Colorado River system, behind only Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency which manages dams and reservoirs in the arid West, has turned to Flaming Gorge to help prop up Lake Powell, where record low levels are threatening hydropower production inside the Glen Canyon Dam. Under the 2019 Drought Response Operations Agreement, those states outlined plans for water releases that would be triggered by dipping levels in Lake Powell. This current schedule of releases was set to finish by the end of April, so this week’s vote is suggesting that releases end two months early. Utah’s top water negotiator, Gene Shawcroft, cited two reasons for the decision – the releases did their job and helped boost Powell, and this winter’s above-average snow totals will soon help refill Powell and decrease the need for water from Flaming Gorge.
“[Suspending releases] preserves all of our future options,” Shawcroft said. “I expect Reclamation to consider that, and recognize that we still have options if we need to reinstate the releases. But at this point, I think it’s fairly obvious that water left in Flaming Gorge makes more sense than to release it where we can never get it back.”
The four Upper Basin states often claim that they must adapt their water use each year in response to the ebb and flow of mother nature, while the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada can rely on a legally-obligated water delivery from the Upper Basin each year. Pausing these extra releases from Flaming Gorge, Shawcroft said, helps to send a message.
“The Upper Division states and Reclamation should be the ones that determine how and when that water gets released so that we don’t simply have the Lower Basin believing that they can access Upper Division storage at whatever time they want,” he said.
Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):
First the bad news from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center’s mid-February forecast – this year’s runoff into Flaming Gorge, which is at record low thanks to Drought Response Operations Agreement releases to prop up Lake Powell, is forecast to be below average this year, at 86 percent of average. At some point we’ve gotta refill this hole.
But the Lake Powell forecast continues to hover well above the “average” line, currently sitting at 117 percent.
Reclamation’s latest 24-month study “most probable” shows Powell bouncing back to above elevation 3,550. In the “olden days” (like, last year?) 3,550 would have been awful, but in the midst of our current crisis management fire drill it looks pretty good.
Mead stays awful in the current “most probable”, ending the water year at elevation1,034, another 10 feet below current levels, which should be enough for photojournalists to find some fresh wrecked pleasure boats, or possibly mob hits.
Under the “min probable”, Powell ends the water year at 3,544 and Mead ends at 1,021.
To help frame the current discussions, here’s the hypothetical Lower Basin cuts under the six-state and California SEIS proposals under elevations in the min probable forecast:
cuts, by state, at Mead elevation 1,020-1,025 6-state proposal California proposal California 1,424,000 750,000 Arizona 1,252,000 1,568,000 Nevada 67,000 82,000 total 2,743,000 2,400,000
Hopes to forge a plan to reduce Colorado River Basin water use by 15% to 25% this year disintegrated this week with dueling proposals that pit California against Arizona and other basin states, including Wyoming.
That leaves the U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation, which issued the water-savings challenge in June 2022, to potentially impose their own plan to cut releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead to maintain hydropower generation.
“Given the magnitude of water-use reductions that are being considered, talks between the Basin States have been very difficult at times,” Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart said in an email to WyoFile.
Responding to a Jan. 31 deadline, Wyoming joined fellow Upper Colorado River Basin states — as well as Nevada and Arizona in the Lower Basin — in supporting a proposed “consensus-based” model for better accounting of actual water supplies, including water losses due to evaporation and seepage at Lake Mead. That framework, if implemented, should result in a water savings of 1.5 million acre-feet to 3.3 million acre-feet of water, according to a letter signed by water officials representing the six states.
But those proposed water savings may not be fully realized this year. Plus, the six-state proposal leaves open the prospect for major water cuts this year to the Lower Basin states, particularly California — the largest consumer of Colorado River water in the system. California countered this week with its own proposal for short-term water savings that would maintain the state’s bargaining power rooted in its senior water rights. That plan would shift the burden of water cuts to Arizona, which has water rights that are junior to California’s.
“I think that’s why Arizona was quick to jump on the letter with the other six states,” Great Basin Water Network Executive Director Kyle Roerink said.
Arizona prefers the consensus-building approach to sharing the pain of water-use reductions, Roerink said, over a strict adherence to the legal framework to restrict water use among those with the most junior water rights.
“In both letters, you have some serious shots across the bow as it relates to litigation and political posturing,” Roerink said. “And no one is calling on the Congress to fix this.”
Although the six-state proposal that Wyoming signed on to doesn’t commit specific, voluntary water-use reductions, it’s a necessary “next step toward a consensus solution,” Gebhart said.
“As we continue the process, we try to understand and respect the very difficult realities being faced by California and the other Basin States,” he said. “We remain committed to working with the other Basin States and impacted water users to find consensus solutions.”
Despite varying legal positions and dire circumstances faced by each Colorado River stakeholder, some observers say Wyoming and the other Upper Basin states have offered up too little to help address the immediate problem that threatens some 40 million people who rely on the river.
“The Upper Basin is getting off scot-free,” Roerink said. “Plus, there’s no prohibitions put forth on potentially new development of Upper Basin water, like the West Fork of Battle Creek, for example.”
Regardless of what new actions the federal government may take in coming months, the Bureau of Reclamation will continue to rely on releasing extra volumes of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border to help balance levels at downstream reservoirs, according to those close to the issue.
The bureau enacted extra releases totaling 625,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir since 2021, and is expected to announce additional releases in April or May. Flaming Gorge was at 69% capacity in January, according to the bureau. If that continues into the summer, many boat ramps will be left high and dry threatening the local recreation economy.
Meantime, Wyoming and the Upper Colorado River Commission are encouraging voluntary water conservation, soliciting interest in a program that pays irrigators, municipalities and industrial facilities to leave water in streams that flow to the Colorado River.
This week, the UCRC extended the application deadline for the System Conservation Pilot Program to March 1. Wyoming officials expect to receive 15 to 20 proposals from individual water users in coming weeks, according to the state engineer’s office.
For more information about the SCPP, visit the UCRC’s website.
The U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service will likely request some $20 million for the West Fork Dam on the Colorado border, a potential new funding source for the contested project
The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service will likely request funding “in the over-$20-million range” to help finance a controversial dam proposed for the Little Snake River drainage, a federal official said last week.
The revelation emerged from a long-awaited series of public meetings in Craig, Colorado, Baggs and Saratoga during which project critics and proponents interrogated state and federal agency representatives and argued the merits of the West Fork Dam initiative.
Estimated in 2017 to cost $80 million, the 260-foot-high concrete structure and accompanying 130-acre reservoir in Carbon County near the confluence of Battle and Haggarty Creeks has become the latest skirmish line in the West’s interminable water wars.
Water developers and many in the local agricultural community hail the public work as a critical tool for mitigating the effects of deepening drought and a boon for wildlife, recreation and the local economy. Opponents describe it as an expensive boondoggle poised to benefit a small number of irrigators — many of whom aren’t even in Wyoming — while shifting negative environmental impacts downstream.
Following years of quiet agency maneuvering, legislative negotiating and campaigning from both sides, a framework for the potential deal has taken shape. It involves a state-federal land swap, complex “public benefit” calculations, a streamlined environmental review, majority funding from the state of Wyoming, minority contributions from water-users and now, apparently, a potentially skid-greasing influx of federal dollars.
The NRCS’s funding interest was “some new info,” according to a participant at one of last week’s public meetings.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service will request funding if it and other agencies approve construction, said Shawn Follum, state conservation engineer with the NRCS in Casper.
Funds aren’t guaranteed, he said; “We can’t commit Congress’ dollars in the future.” But the money could qualify as the required contribution from the Pothook Water Conservancy District of about two dozen irrigators in Colorado, according to discussions at the public meetings.
Wyoming may still face challenges funding the dam if federal officials approve it. In an unprecedented move in 2018, state legislators cut some $35 million from a water-construction bill and required lawmaker approval for any new funds for the West Fork Dam.
In an era of infrastructure and stimulus funding, however, more federal money might be available. “The reality is there are a variety of places where to find this … funding,” rancher Pat O’Toole, a project proponent and former state lawmaker, said.
Funding, however, is only one of many variables that need to be solved for if the complex public works proposal is to come to fruition. The terms of a land swap and parallel environmental review are also top of mind for stakeholders, as is an evaluation of who actually stands to benefit from the undertaking.
Held over three evenings, the meetings drew about 150 people to hear how the NRCS and Medicine Bow National Forest might authorize the proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek.
In what’s being called a “parallel process” The Medicine-Bow will decide whether to exchange land to enable the 130-acre reservoir that would hold 10,000 acre-feet, mostly for late-season irrigation. About 44 irrigators have expressed interest in buying the water, according to discussion at the meetings.
Participants called the bifurcated approvals confusing and criticized the process that, according to Wyoming officials, is designed to skirt more lengthy federal environmental reviews.
“A lot of questions are coming from people who deal with this [National Environmental Policy Act] process a lot and they’re somewhat befuddled,” said Jeb Steward an Encampment resident, former state representative and a former member of the Wyoming Water Development Commission who has worked as a water rights consultant in the area.
Meeting participant Soren Jespersen said officials had created a “very confusing process, and it’s difficult … for the public to know when and how to weigh in.”
Cindy McKee, a rancher who irrigates from a stream above the proposed dam, and grazes cattle on state land that’s offered in the swap, echoed those concerns. “We’ve been very disappointed in the lack of communication from the state, as singularly affected as we are both by the land trade and by the proposed water project,” she said. “We were never notified that our [grazing] lease was up for consideration for the land trade. Fourteen years ago when the dam was conceived, we didn’t know about it for two years.
“It’s been difficult, quite honestly, to find information,” McKee said. “Documents are usually released very shortly before an opportunity to public comment. It’s been frustrating and discouraging.”
Comments and public interest
Federal and state officials stressed that comments about the review’s scopeshould be made in writing to the NRCS by Feb. 13. Only persons and organizations that comment can later object to any decision.
An NRCS draft environmental impact statement is expected in September with a final version released in April 2024 and adoption scheduled for that May.
Members of a working group created by Gov. Mark Gordon to “disseminate information” and “act as a sounding board for the public and stakeholders” regarding Colorado River Compact issues reported Monday mounting public frustration about access to information.
The Colorado River Working Group, formed in 2021, essentially acts as a consulting body and communications conduit between water users in the Green River and Little Snake River basins and the State Engineer’s Office.
At a meeting of the group on Monday members said constituents are confused. Members also reported fielding complaints from stakeholders who can’t get the information they need to stay abreast of the fast-moving and complex topic that stands to impact water users in the state.
At the same meeting, State Engineer Brandon Gebhart insisted the body isn’t subject to the state’s open meetings laws and said he’s hesitant to take questions from the public during working group meetings. Though Monday’s meeting was open to the public — as were six previous meetings — none have been live-streamed or otherwise made available to anyone not in attendance, according to the engineer’s office.
That’s by design, according to Gebhart.
“I’m a little concerned that if we start one of these [live-streamed presentations] that we wouldn’t get through any of the topics before the questions start coming in,” Gebhart told working group members. In a follow-up with WyoFile Tuesday, Gebhart added, “My general concern about doing public webinars is being unable to get through the numerous and complex topics we need to cover if we get slowed down by multiple public questions.”
The working group’s meetings are intended to hash out information and discuss how to disseminate it with water users, Gebhart said. The group’s outreach is primarily done directly between the group’s members and their constituents.
Though there was no formal call for public comments or questions at the Monday meeting, members of the working group, SEO and the attorney general’s office did field some questions from members of the public in attendance.
The main topic of discussion Monday was how the SEO is scrambling to entice eligible water users to take part in a conservation program that pays them to voluntarily leave water in streams that flow to the Colorado River.
Explaining the program and eligibility requirements to myriad water users is complicated, particularly as many in the ag community are leery of government-sponsored programs aimed at reducing water use, according to the SEO. A tight timeframe makes the effort more challenging. The Upper Colorado River Commissionannounced a call for System Conservation Pilot Program proposals Dec. 14 with a filing deadline of Feb. 1.
The SEO, which is overseeing the program in Wyoming, is eager to enroll as many participants as possible, according to the agency. The state and its upper basin partners need to demonstrate progress in cultivating various voluntary water conservation efforts to build a case against the potential for mandated cuts under the Colorado River Compact or federal intervention. The agency is relying on members of the working group to help field questions and explain the potential benefits of the program. But so far, confusion reigns, members indicated.
“Conservation districts — they really don’t know enough about what’s going on and they can’t ask enough questions,” Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), a member of the working group, told fellow members. “There just needs to be more formal outreach in the country.”
Industrial water users in southwest Wyoming — trona mines, natural gas processors and electrical power utilities — “are yearning for information,” working group member Aaron Reichel of Genesis-Alkali said.
Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), also a member of the working group, said “there’s a lot of concerns with this System Conservation Pilot Project.” Concerns include “the timeframe to get [information], who to contact, who’s going to answer these questions to put together an application, what’s eligible — all those questions. I’m just getting inundated with this stuff because of the timeframe of this.”
Working group structure
Gordon, anticipating the need to protect the interests of Wyoming water users from the impacts of the Colorado River crisis, formed the Colorado River Working Group in 2021 and appointed eight members. The group includes two representatives for municipal water users, one for agriculture, one for environmental interests, two for industrial water users and two legislators — Sen. Hicks and Rep. Sommers.
Gordon “tasked members with helping to more broadly disseminate information about key Colorado/Green/Little Snake River Basin issues to interested stakeholders, and for members to provide insights as Wyoming navigates important river issues,” Gebhart told WyoFile via email, adding that the SEO relies on the working group to enhance its own public outreach efforts.
In forming the group, Gordon agreed to the SEO’s suggestion that it not be subject to the state’s open meeting laws, according to Gebhart, though the group has decided to mostly adhere to open meetings standards so far.
Gordon’s office didn’t directly answer what justifies the working group’s exemption from the state’s open meetings laws. As a gubernatorial appointed group convened by a state agency to address issues with a critical public resource the body would appear at a glance to be obligated to operate transparently — but such quasi-governmental groups can and do exist, according to Bruce Moats, a Wyoming attorney who specializes in First Amendment and Wyoming media law.
“The group appears to exist in a kind of a gray area,” Moats said. “The question is, why is it necessary to have the option to close meetings [to the public] when you have exemptions under the public meetings law that allow for that. Just why?”
At the urging of group members Monday, Gebhart agreed to consider hosting a webinar that provides members of the public the chance to ask questions about Colorado River issues and the SEO’s efforts to enroll water users in the SCPP.
“We are not trying to limit information getting to the public,” Gebhart told WyoFile. “Ultimately, our goal is to get more, and accurate, information to those potentially affected by the current situation.”
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson):
Oak Creek could save “millions” off the projected $14 million price tag for fixes at Sheriff Reservoir after updated engineering on the project showed the town’s water source needs a much smaller spillway than originally thought. While the town previously believed the new spillway needed to be 300 feet wide, the updated work shows it only needs to be about 60 feet wide, according Steve Jamieson, an engineer with W. W. Wheeler that has been consulting for the town on the project. That is still twice the size of the existing spillway…
The recent work resulted from a Comprehensive Dam Safety Evaluation, which looked at ways the dam could fail during normal loading, flood loading and earthquake loading. The highest risk found was due to a gate failure, something that Jamieson said isn’t surprising as the town works to replace the original head gate on the nearly 70-year-old dam. Oak Creek has gone through a bid process for this work twice, but each effort failed to find a contractor the town could afford. A gate failure wouldn’t lead to loss of life, the analysis showed, but it would compromise the town’s water source, making the impact significant. The new risk identified is called a “liquefaction failure,” and it is related of the area’s seismic activity. While noticeable earthquakes are not common in Routt County, they are not unheard of. Since 2000, Routt County has seen approximately two-dozen earthquakes, with the largest being a 3.5 magnitude event about 10 miles northwest of Oak Creek in 2011, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Click the link to read the news brief on the Wyoming Public Radio website (Will Walkey). Here’s an excerpt:
The Wyoming State Legislature begins its lawmaking session this week. One bill, called the “Colorado River Authority of Wyoming Act,” would create a board and commissioner to manage Wyoming’s water in the Colorado River Basin. The system drains about 17 percent of the Cowboy State’s land area and is critical for agriculture, energy development and residential use in cities. The entire Colorado River Basin is currently under stress due to drought conditions and human development in the Southwest. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) and Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) is similar to those previously passed in several other states that depend on the Colorado River.
“We feel it’s very important to have those people that are actually going to be affected that live in the Colorado River Basin [to] have an opportunity to participate in these policy-level decisions that’s going to affect your everyday life,” Hicks said.
The commission would include nine members, including five representatives from the Green River Basin appointed by commissioners in Sublette, Sweetwater, Lincoln and Uinta counties. Plus, one appointee from the Little Snake River Basin recommended by commissioners in Carbon County, as well as the state engineer, the governor or a designee and an at-large member. The authority would meet once a year and would include an official commissioner appointed by the governor who could represent Wyoming in negotiations with other states in the Colorado River Compact, a seven-state agreement that allocates river resources. However, any changes to water rights would still need to be approved by the state legislature, governor and relevant federal authorities.
Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer):
Above the Colorado-Wyoming border, the Sierra Madre Mountain snowpack holds water that ranchers say flows downstream too fast. Some question whether a proposed 10,000-acre-foot reservoir is pork or progress.
As officials this week outline plans for a 264-foot-high concrete dam proposed for a wooded canyon in the Medicine Bow National Forest, irrigators and critics remain divided over the project’s benefits and impacts. The two sides disagree whether the estimated $80-million structure and accompanying 130-acre reservoir are pork or progress, boon or bane.
Federal officials begin receiving public comments on the proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County as ranchers and environmentalists disagree over whether 450,000 cubic yards of concrete should plug a forested gorge and whether federal and state agencies are conducting environmental examinations appropriately. In what one official admitted is a complex process with parallel reviews, two federal agencies will make key findings to resolve the project’s fate.
The federal Natural Resource Conservation Service will examine dam construction and alternatives in an environmental impact statement. Meantime, the U.S. Forest Service will launch a separate “feasibility study” to decide whether it should take part in an estimated 6,282-acre land exchange facilitating construction of the dam. The study will determine whether trading the federal dam site to Wyomining “is in the best interest of the American public,” Medicine Bow spokesman Aaron Voos said.
Proponents want the dam and reservoir to yield 6,500 acre-feet of late-season irrigation for between 67-100 irrigators in Wyoming and Colorado. The 10,000 acre-foot impoundment would hold 1,500 acre-feet as a minimum bypass flow for fish and wildlife. The state would pay for most of the estimated $80 million cost, a figure calculated in 2017.
“We would like to have a project here because it’s good for our valley,” said Pat O’Toole, a former state representative who ranches along the Little Snake River. “The public interest is clearly that the storage project [aids] biodiversity” and boosts food production while creating “a really healthy landscape.”
The land exchange is an end-run around environmental reviews, he said, an assertion dam supporters and review agencies reject. [Gary] Wockner is worried that Medicine Bow officials won’t apply the same scrutiny to the land exchange that they would to the construction of a dam on National Forest property, he said. Building on federal land would require a more extensive review, he said, echoing dam backers’ own public statements.
Medicine Bow spokesman Voos rejected the assertion his agency is shirking its responsibilities. It is speculation to assert what level of review a proposal to build the dam on federal property would require, he said.
Wyoming agrees the process is sound. “It wouldn’t limit the environmental review at all,” Jason Crowder, deputy director of the Office of State Lands and Investments, told WyoFile.
In addition to its public-interest swap determination, the Medicine Bow is participating in a separate environmental impact review and statement — conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service — that will consider environmental and social impacts of dam and reservoir construction and operation. All that “satisfies the environmental review requirements for the land exchange,” Voos said.
Dwindling basin flows
At the upper reaches of the Colorado River Basin, where dwindling flows put seven Western states and Mexico at odds over historic and future use, the project comes at an uneasy time. It will test Wyoming’s willingness to impound and use what it believes river laws allow, despite an arid landscape of dwindling Colorado River flows, oversubscribed demands, climate change and growth.
Federal regulations state that a land exchange can take place only if the public interest “will be well served.”
One benefit to the Medicine Bow could be acquiring 640 acres of state-owned school-trust sections inside the national forest. “Quite a few of them are either in or adjacent to [a] wilderness area or roadless areas,” said Jonathan Bowler, watermaster for the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District.
“The public could potentially see an expansion of roadless and wilderness in those areas,” he said.
The reservoir itself would flood land within about a half mile of the boundary of the Medicine Bow’s 31,057-acre Huston Park Wilderness Area, according to maps.
Bowler outlined other ways existing irrigation aids the environment; the dam would expand those benefits.
“You’ve got hundreds of ranchers pretty much doing the work of beavers to build riparian areas and habitat,” he said. Such irrigation-induced wetlands today cover more than 7,000 acres in the area, he said.
Irrigation aids amphibians and species like sandhill cranes that migrate to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, he said. “Our irrigation actually directly benefits that mating grounds down there that’s quite a tourist attraction.” Elk and other wildlife benefit from the open private land, he said.
Irrigation “basically fills up the soil … the largest reservoir that we have,” he said. When that moisture starts coming back out to the river, “that means that our rivers are higher [in] flow [in] late summer, early fall than historically they were.”
Wyoming calculates those returning flows — about 45% of what’s diverted onto fields — as water that can be used for irrigation again and counted as a benefit, according to a Water Development Office study.
“That late-season irrigation especially can help cool down river temperatures, which helps to provide for those big game populations as well as fish and other wildlife,” Bowler said.
The dam also could benefit Colorado River cutthroat trout because it would be an upstream barrier to competitors, helping fisheries managers enlarge a sanctuary for the species in and above the reservoir.
Said O’Toole, “this is may be as conservation-minded a place I know of in the western United States.”
…Wyoming wants 1,700 acres of Forest Service land for the dam and would analyze the value of between 2,024 and 4,400 acres of Wyoming school-trust land inside the Medicine Bow for the trade. Public announcements differ over the state acreage to be considered for trade.
State and federal officials agree a land swap would make approval of the 130-acre reservoir easier. Wyoming’s exchange request states that a land swap “would eliminate the need for a USFS special use permit.”
Federal land ownership of the dam site “adds millions of dollars to that [permitting] process,” Harry LaBonde, former director of the WWDO told lawmakers in 2018. “Dealing with the Forest Service … very much complicates the NEPA process,” he said, and an exchange “very much streamlines” potential development.
Dam proponents “were running into a bit of a roadblock with Forest Service on Forest-Service-managed land,” OSLI Deputy Director Crowder told the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners in 2021.
The Medicine Bow told Wyoming officials that building on federal, not state, land “would not be the best approach just due to all the regulations that would come along with a [required] special use permit,” Voos said in an interview. “And so I think that [land swap] has been our suggestion.”
The value of exchanged parcels can be balanced by adjusting the acreage or paying for a difference, according to Wyoming’s proposal.
Any increase in federal acreage — the state offered 4,400 acres for analysis and potential trade for 1,700 acres of Medicine Bow land — could run afoul of Carbon County’s Natural Resource Management Plan. That plan supports valuable exchanges but also calls for “no net loss of private or state lands in exchange for federal lands.”
Gov. Mark Gordon, too, “is not supportive of the federal government expanding their [sic] estate in Wyoming,” Gordon’s spokesman Michael Pearlman told WyoFile when the governor protested the 35,670-acre conservation purchase of the private Marton Ranch along the North Platte River last year.
Of the 1,700 acres of Medicine Bow property Wyoming would acquire, the state wants 1,336 acres for the dam and reservoir itself and another 426 acres covering parts of Haggarty Creek and the Belvidere Ditch, site of a water spatamong area irrigators.
Owning all the property would “provide for the efficient operation of the reservoir and surrounding lands,” the state said in its land-swap proposal.
The state would lease the newly acquired land to the Water Development Commission, which would eventually transfer ownership to Carbon County or some other entity, according to plans. That final owner would be responsible for compensating the school trust — whose land the state would trade away.
A mining company that owns land at the reservoir site also would be involved with the project. American Milling LP of Cahokia, Illinois owns about 124 acres inside the national forest at the proposed site of the reservoir. The Carbon County assessor lists the market value of the property, site of mineral claims, at $40,675. Wyoming would presumably have to acquire that property too, or somehow arrange for it to be flooded.
WyoFile did not receive a response to a certified letter sent to the company seeking comment on Wyoming’s plans to inundate the private land.
The Forest Service must show that values and public objectives of the state parcels “equal or exceed” those that would be swapped, regulations state. Medicine Bow land that would become the dam site must “not substantially conflict with established management objectives on adjacent Federal lands,” the Forest Service said.
Medicine Bow officials last week couldn’t immediately outline those objectives.
A WWDO study, however, listed the benefits of a new dam, saying it would generate $73.7 million in public benefits. Reservoir releases would be coordinated with those from the High Savery Dam.
Critics have questioned the accounting of benefits, including rosy projections for recreational revenue and the acreage that would benefit from irrigation.
The cost/benefit ratio allows the state to reduce the required contributions from irrigation districts from the typical 33% to 8% of construction costs.
Wyoming, however, has seen costs for dam construction increase dramatically in recent years, potentially upsetting the cost/benefit ratio. The environmental review will update those figures, Jason Mead, interim director of the WWDO, wrote in an email.
Construction would require an estimated 450,000 cubic yards of concrete, according to an application to appropriate water filed with the state engineer in 2014. The Forest Service public-interest determination and separate NRCS environmental impact statement seek to examine the construction plan through two separate reviews.
A 70-step process
The parallel review process is complex, Voos said. The Medicine Bow is engaged with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a larger analysis of the dam’s environmental and social impact. Other state and federal agencies also are involved.
The separate Forest Service public-interest decision is entwined in that process, both to be explained at public meetings in the region on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
The public-interest determination, “that’s kind of a parallel process to the land exchange,” Voos said. “We are piggybacking in essence, on those public meetings,” to get comments on the swap.
“We have a full, almost … 70-step process that we have to go through for the land exchange,” Voos said. Reservoir construction on National Forest System lands “is not commonplace,” the Medicine Bow said in a statement.
After determining the public-interest benefit, “we proceed or don’t proceed with the rest of the land exchange process,” Voos said. The Forest Service is “not for or against the project.”
Interested parties can read a legal notice published by the NRCS or weigh in online, by post or hand-delivery. The comments go to the NRCS, which will forward relevant land-swap ones to the Forest Service, Voos said. Meetingsoutlining the scope of the analysis and potential alternatives will be held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Craig, Colorado, and Baggs and Saratoga respectively.
Click the link to read the article on The Desert Review website (Brian McNeece). Here’s an excerpt:
The system for irrigating is vastly different between Wyoming and Imperial Valley, and because of this, water negotiators of the region have vastly different points of view. In the Green River Basin, there are 2500 gates diverting water onto ranchers’ lands, but in the greater scheme of things, the basin is essentially a collector system. Some of those far-flung gates are “unregulated,” or unmonitored. The Green River has 2,000 named natural tributaries. Accurately measuring the supply and consumption of water in such a system is a work in progress.
In the Imperial Valley, we have one gate diverting water from the Colorado River. It is where Imperial Dam turns water into the All-American Canal. While the Green River Basin is a collector system like the roots of a tree, ours is a distribution system like the branches to the leaves. The IID has 5500 gates. Since every one of them is monitored by the IID, water supply and consumption are easy to measure with gauges throughout the system.
Water management is a world apart as well. In the Green River Basin, there are thirty-seven small water distribution agencies, both public and privately owned, often with zero or a handful of fulltime employees. There are irrigation districts, conservancy districts, ditch companies, and canal companies. Ranchers, and often non-agricultural property owners, pay an assessment, or a flat fee, or a per-acre fee, or a price per share for water delivery. The water itself is owned by the state of Wyoming and is made available for free. The overseer of all this is the Wyoming State Engineer, which in turn has a representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, the governing agencies for the Upper Basin states.
In the Imperial Valley, the Imperial Irrigation District is the sole holder of water rights to Colorado River water and the sole manager for water distribution. Here, as in all the Lower Basin States, the Bureau of Reclamation is our overseer. With nearly 500 employees in its water division, IID outguns the whole state of Wyoming for water workers about 2 to 1. The Bureau also supplies IID’s 3.1 million acre-feet of water for free, and IID charges farmers $20 an acre-foot (af), a fee subsidized by revenue from the transfer of water to the San Diego County Water Authority. Industrial water users pay a much higher fee…
So far, the cuts that Mother Nature has forced on Wyoming and others in the Upper Basin states, and the cuts agreed to by Arizona, Nevada, and California, are far below the amount necessary to save the reservoirs from circling the drain in the next few years. Negotiators have until the end of this month to reach consensus on a plan to satisfy the Bureau of Reclamation’s demand for 2-4 million acre-feet of cuts in water use next year. We’re all unhappy in our own way on the Colorado River. Like the sparsely populated Cowboy state, we can only fight the good fight against the odds.
Federal authorities have set a Feb. 13 deadline for comments on a proposal to build a 264-foot-high concrete dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Carbon County.
The proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir would impound 6,500 acre-feet of irrigation storage in the Little Snake River Valley and parts of Colorado. Another 1,500 acre-feet would maintain a “minimum bypass flow” into Battle Creek and the Little Snake, Yampa, Green and Colorado Rivers downstream.
Officials announced the deadline in the Federal Register on Dec. 28 where they said they would accept written comments for 45 days. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has scheduled three public meetings Jan. 10-12 in communities in the impacted region.
The meetings are not designed as forums at which officials will accept public comment, Aaron Voos, a spokesman for the Medicine Bow said. Officials will use them to explain plans for construction of the proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir and the parallel Forest Service examination of a land exchange that would enable the project.
Why it matters
The dam would cost some $80 million, according to a 2017 estimate, and the state would pay $73.6 million of that, original plans state. The dam and reservoir would generate an estimated $73.3 million in public benefits such as recreation and fishing, according to developers. Those benefits allow the state to reduce the amount irrigators would have to contribute, according to documents outlining the plan.
The proposal to impound more water in the Colorado River Basin and extract it from waterways for “increased pasture and hay production” comes at a time when seven Western states and Mexico are at odds over who can use what water in the overtaxed system. Even though officials are struggling to maintain water levels in Lake Powell, Wyoming believes it has the right to construct the reservoir and use flows from the basin’s network of waterways.
Who said what:
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will prepare an environmental impact statement analyzing six alternatives, including no-action and an option that would use “alternate means such as … water conservation projects and habitat improvement projects” to achieve watershed-plan goals.
The Upper Colorado River Commission plans to revive a program that pays irrigators and other valid rights holders to voluntarily leave water in streams that feed the beleaguered Colorado River.
The System Conservation Pilot Program is one strategy among a handful that Upper Colorado River Basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — have offered to help satisfy their role in meeting a challenge by federal officials to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water system-wide in 2023.
“The goal is to have water conservation projects underway in April 2023 to reduce consumptive uses in the Upper Basin Colorado River system,” the UCRC stated in a Dec. 14 press release. More “durable” and “longer-term” solutions are still needed, however, the UCRC said. “The SCPP is a significant step to begin to partially mitigate the water supply crisis in the Upper Colorado River Basin brought on by a drier climate and depleted storage.”
The SCPP was initially implemented from 2015 through 2018 using funds from Lower Colorado River Basin stakeholders, including large municipalities such as Las Vegas. This time around, the UCRC proposes to instead use $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act — an appropriation that backers hope Congress will approve in a spending bill.
Water users have only until Feb. 1 to submit proposals in response to a call for applications that was issued Dec. 14.
The UCRC scrambled in recent months to relaunch the SCPP water conservation program under pressure to lay the groundwork for both short- and long-term water savings amidst a growing crisis along the Colorado River. The river system serves some 40 million people in seven western states and Mexico.
The 22-year “megadrought” that has parched much of the American southwest — combined with growing demands on the river — has drained Lake Powell and Lake Mead to their lowest levels in history and shows no signs of abating, according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
The ongoing crisis, if drought conditions continue, could result in mandated water curtailments in Wyoming by 2028, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office. Municipalities, including Cheyenne, Green River and Rock Springs, are among the most vulnerable because — generally — they hold junior water rights that, under the Colorado River Compact and Wyoming water law, would be among the first to be restricted under a curtailment. About one-fifth of Wyoming’s population relies on domestic water supplies subject to a curtailment under the Colorado River Compact.
Despite the quick turnaround to attract volunteer projects under the revived SCPP, water officials and conservation advocates in Wyoming believe there’s growing interest. Conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited played an integral role in the first iteration of the SCPP, seeing an opportunity to promote water conservation measures that also benefit fisheries and the general biological health of waterways by keeping more water in streams and rivers late in the summer.
Wyoming Trout Unlimited Water & Habitat Program Director Cory Toye helped introduce many agricultural water users to the SCPP in the first go-round, and that work has resumed in recent months, he said.
“It’s certainly on people’s minds,” Toye told WyoFile. “For the most part, it still makes economic sense for a lot of [irrigated ag] operations.”
Participation among Wyoming water users increased incrementally over the first four years of the program. All told, the SCPP in Wyoming saved a total 23,886 acre-feet at 26 project sites. It cost $4,079,233 — about $171 per-acre foot, according to a report by the upper basin commission.
For now, the commission envisions a “fixed term” compensation of $150 per acre-foot under the SCPP in 2023, although it may consider higher rates based on circumstances, according to the agency’s request for proposals.
Eric Barnes, an irrigator on Fontenelle Creek — a tributary of the Green River in western Wyoming — was among the first SCPP participants in the state, and he’s eager to enroll in the program in 2023, he said. Barnes irrigated as usual in the spring to grow an early season crop, he said, then curtailed irrigation later in the summer — a water conservation practice known as “split season deficit irrigation.” All 26 projects in Wyoming during the first four years of the program fell under this category.
“It was beneficial for me,” Barnes said. “I was able to take advantage of the water early in the season and then shut [irrigation headgates] off and get paid for [conserving water] in the same year.”
The practice — at least on Fontenelle Creek, Barnes said — left more water in the creek to support the trout fishery; a benefit to the local recreation economy and a priority for groups like Trout Unlimited.
“It was a good way to help people understand what life may look like with less water and what diversifying [irrigation] operations might look like,” Toye said. “And the scale of the projects went from scattershot those first couple of years to tying entire tributaries together.”
For now, the program makes sense for a lot of Wyoming ag irrigators subject to the Colorado River Compact, according to Toye, particularly in the upper reaches of the Green River and its tributaries. Although Wyoming and its fellow upper Colorado River basin states are eager to revive the program, it will soon evolve and be replaced by a larger conservation program with more sophisticated water-accounting protocols that are recognized by stakeholders throughout the system.
Those changes may entice ag irrigators like Barnes to take on water conservation strategies beyond simply foregoing a second round of summer irrigation, Toye said. However, he added, the program isn’t intended to shrink or replace ag production.
“The goal is to make sure people can do as much as they have historically with less water, or at least be prepared to do that,” Toye said. “So the intent is to explore different irrigation patterns and perhaps identify places where efficiencies can occur.”
Wyoming moved to expedite the construction of a 280-foot-high concrete dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest last month by proposing a 6,282-acre land exchange.
The state wants 1,762 acres of federal property for a dam and reservoir on the West Fork of Battle Creek in the Sierra Madre Mountains, according to a Nov. 30 letter and map from Jenifer Scoggin, the director of Wyoming’s Office of State Lands and Investments. In exchange, Wyoming would transfer ownership of up to 4,520 acres of state school trust lands to the federal government. That school trust land lies inside the boundaries of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.
The Medicine-Bow announced the application in a press release setting three public meetings that will be held on the evenings of Jan. 10, 11 and 12 in Craig, Colorado, Baggs and Saratoga respectively. The dam would be built on a tributary of the Little Snake River that flows into the Yampa, Green and Colorado Rivers.
“Conveying this parcel out of Federal ownership would eliminate the need for a USFS special use permit for the reservoir as well as provide for efficient management of the reservoir and surrounding lands,” states the 19-page notice of intent and proposal, which Scoggin sent to Brush Creek/Hayden District Ranger Jason Armbruster in Saratoga. Wyoming needs the federal property to construct the reservoir and meet “fiduciary obligations to produce income to support public schools and other state institutions,” the letter reads.
WyoFile obtained a copy of Scoggin’s letter, the proposal and map Tuesday from deputy director Jason Crowder.
The state Board of Land Commissioners last summer conceptually approved investigating a land exchange that would have covered some 24,000 acres. That approval allowed state officials to offer a smaller exchange in an effort to accelerate the West Fork Dam and reservoir project, Crowder said.
Smaller would be faster
“[T]he reality of getting something like that [larger exchange] done isn’t all that hot,” Crowder said. The Forest Service would have to examine a larger exchange through the National Environmental Policy Act process, which would take considerably longer than what’s being proposed, he said.
“Something that large isn’t anything that could get done in a timely fashion,” Crowder said. “It’s probable that a larger exchange … wouldn’t be feasible or successful in the near term.”
Instead, an exchange “that was more narrowly focused [on the land] needed for the reservoir construction and implementation would be OK,” he said.
Instead of writing an environmental impact statement that’s common for major proposals under NEPA, the Forest Service will instead conduct a “feasibility analysis/study,” Medicine Bow officials said in a statement. “The resulting product is referred to as a Public Interest Determination,” that would approve or reject the exchange, the Forest Service news release states.
The Forest Service study will focus on the future use and management of the lands and the effect of the exchange on the lands that adjoin them, the Medicine Bow release said.
Estimated in 2017 to cost $80 million, the proposed West Fork Reservoir would serve 67 to 100 irrigators. A 130-acre reservoir would hold 10,000 acre feet of water primarily for irrigation. The project is sponsored by: Savery-Little Snake Conservancy District and Pothook Conservancy in Colorado, the Forest Service said.
The proposed reservoir would impound and divert water from the troubled Colorado River Basin where residents in seven states and Mexico are at odds over how to use dwindling flows.
“It is important to note that the Forest Service has not yet determined if this is a feasible exchange, nor has the agency agreed to initiate it,” the Medicine Bow statement reads.
The Jan. 10 meeting in Craig will be from 5-7 p.m. at Colorado Northwest Community College. A virtual option will be available through the Forest Service website.
The meeting Jan. 11 in Baggs will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Valley Community Center. The Saratoga meeting the following day will be from 5:30-7:30 at the Platte Valley Community Center.Land exchange proposal details will be available the week of the public meetings on the Forest’s project website, the Medicine Bow announcement stated.
“We pray for the rains to come, for the snow to fall, for moisture in the earth. Not just for the Hopi, but for everybody. For every living thing that’s out there.” – Dennis Hopper, Hopi Elder
The Green and Colorado river systems form the backbone of the American West. Once spanning a 1,450-mile journey from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, today, none of the sediment-rich water reaches the Pacific Ocean. Instead, its water lies stymied in reservoirs and siphoned off to feed and nurture 40 million people from Salt Lake to Los Angeles.
One hundred and fifty years after John Wesley Powell’s historic descent of the Green and Colorado rivers, an unlikely crew of scientists, artists, educators, and river lovers repeated his journey on a trip that was simultaneously a celebration of modern river life and a critical look at how we interpret the Colorado River’s history and use its waters.
As the demand we place on the water of the Colorado continues to exceed its supply, we are forced to face uncomfortable truths about decisions made in our past. And we are reminded that the way we think about water—and all those dependent upon it—needs to shift if we want things to change for our future.
“Water is a life force for all of us. It has a spiritual and physical being to it that deserves respect. It’s not something that you take for granted.” – Lyle Balenquah, Hopi archaeologist
Click the link to read the article on the Rio Blanco Herald-Times website (Lucas Turner). Here’s an excerpt:
Rio Blanco County Commissioners and staff discussed the nuance and minutiae of water administration in the White River Valley during a special work session Tuesday. “It will be tough for sure” said Commissioner Ginny Love, noting that residents will have to adjust to using less water, or even having water shutoff at certain times of year.
“There’s not much we can do about it, it’s more of how to learn to live with it,” said Colorado River District water commissioner Betty Kracht. She visited with the board to share background info about Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s (RBWCD) call on the river and answer questions about how water administration will affect residents of Rio Blanco County.
RBWCD placed a “standing call” on the river using multiple water rights, beginning with a 1966 decree for 620 cubic feet per second (CFS). Kracht explained that once the first right is met, another call (from another junior water right) would then kick in. Whenever the call is in-effect, water rights holders junior to RBWCD’s 1966 decree will be subject to shutoff/curtailment. According to Kracht, about one-third of rights in the drainage are junior to 1966. Senior water rights holders can still use their allocated amount during the call, though Kracht warned they’ll still be affected by administration if they’re not in compliance with state water regulations. “With this call, anyone who wants to irrigate must have a headgate, must have a measuring device,” said Kracht, noting the measurement rules affect the entire county, not just people upstream from the Taylor Draw Dam. Kracht further detailed results of water administration, which will include stricter enforcement of water use. For example, water decreed for irrigation can’t be used for livestock watering, or vice-versa.
Click the link to read the guest column from the Colorado Division of Water Resources on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website:
The Colorado Division of Water Resources staff in Steamboat Springs reminds landowners with existing unpermitted wells, and ponds fed by ground water, to file permits for those water structures by Dec. 31 to be evaluated without the well impacts treated as injurious, or harmful to water rights.
The state water engineer designated the middle Yampa River basin from west Steamboat Springs to the confluence with the Little Snake River west of Maybell, including all of its tributaries, as over-appropriated on March 1. Through the end of 2022, owners of existing unpermitted wells in that area can obtain a well permit without negative impacts if the well owner can demonstrate the well and its uses existed prior to March 1. The wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere.
Water resources officials estimate hundreds of unpermitted wells exist in that area. A map of over-appropriated areas is available online at dwr.colorado.gov/division-offices/division-6-office, and click on the link “Report Designating Yampa River as Over-Appropriated.”
For applications for existing unpermitted wells filed on or after Jan. 1, Division of Water Resources staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells when evaluating applications, which may result in a permit issued that considerably limits the use of water from the well. For questions, call the state’s well information desk at 303-866-3587. Permitting information is available online at Dwr.colorado.gov/services/well-permitting.
Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Amy Hadden Marsh):
Darrell Fordham is heartbroken. It took years for the resident of Lehi, Utah, to purchase 20 acres above Utah’s Argyle Canyon and build a cabin for family retreats. “I’ve sunk about $150,000 into that property,” he told Aspen Journalism. “We bought it back in 2006 just as a place to raise our kids. Get ’em out of the city, get ’em unplugged and off the cellphones.”
The cabin is at about 6,000 feet at the edge of the Ashley National Forest on the West Tavaputs Plateau, surrounded by aspens and conifers in a small, tightknit, off-the-grid community known as Argyle Canyon Estates. “Being off-grid and about 3 1/2 miles off the pavement, the quiet is the whole appeal of that property,“ said Fordham. But that quiet is in jeopardy due to the proposed Uinta Basin Railway (UBR).
The UBR is not yet under construction but received necessary approvals from the Federal Surface Transportation Board (FSTB) in December 2021 and the U.S. Forest Service in July 2022. The 88-mile-long railroad would connect the fracked-oil fields in northeast Utah’s Uinta Basin to the national rail network. The crude would then be transported in heated tanker cars through Colorado on its way to Gulf Coast refineries.
Fordham began organizing his neighbors against the UBR in 2019 when it looked like two potential alignments — the Indian Canyon route and the Wells Draw route — would run through local properties and uncomfortably close to his community. As the Argyle Wilderness Preservation Alliance, the community wrote letters against the UBR in July 2020, shortly after the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition (SCIC), a quasi-governmental board created in 2014, applied for approval from the FTSB. Fordham said the group hired a lawyer that year and filed lawsuits in Utah district court but to no avail.
In 2014-15, 26 potential UBR routes were identified in Utah Department of Transportation feasibility studies, but none passed the initial screening process. Five years later, the SCIC added the Indian Canyon, Wells Draw and Craig routes as alternatives. The Craig and Wells Draw routes were eventually scrapped. The Indian Canyon route morphed into the preferred 88-mile Whitmore Park route, named for a large valley south of the Tavaputs Plateau.
According to maps provided by Fordham, the Whitmore Park route would still pass 2,550 feet from his property line. He said it feels as if his concerns have fallen upon deaf ears. “I think it’s communities like ours that are impacted by things like this because we’re just common people,” he said. “We don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the government and the big oil companies, so they know they can just run it right over the top of us and there’s really nothing we can do about it.”
FSTB legal appeals in the works
In February, environmental groups and Eagle County filed separate appeals in response to the FSTB’s decision last December to approve the UBR. (The two cases have since been consolidated.) At issue are the approval decision and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s September 2021 biological assessment, upon which the FSTB relied to make its decision.
Most Uinta Basin oil is trucked to refineries in Salt Lake City, but production is capped at 80,000 to 90,000 barrels per day due to air pollution restrictions on the Wasatch Front. By connecting the Uinta Basin fracked-oil fields to the national rail line at Kyune, Utah, the UBR promises to quadruple production by bringing Uinta Basin crude — which must be heated for transportation purposes so that it doesn’t solidify — to the global market.
But increased oil production means increased air pollution in the Uinta Basin. Ted Zukoski, CBD attorney, told Aspen Journalism that air pollution in the basin is already listed as marginal. “This means it’s on the edge of becoming a nonattainment area because of wind inversions that trap pollution from drilling in the basin and lead to very unhealthy air quality.”
A 2013 study by state and federal agencies revealed federal ground-level ozone standards violations in the basin due to oil and gas production. In 2016, the state of Utah recommended nonattainment designations for National Ambient Air Quality Standards in five Utah counties, including Duchesne and Uintah, both in the Uinta Basin. A lag in oil and natural gas production lowered methane levels from 2015 to 2020. But methane leaks in production infrastructure effectively canceled out those gains. As of October, the Uinta Basin remains in nonattainment status.
Zukoski said the FSTB ignored the air pollution impacts and the downstream impacts of greenhouse gases released from consumers burning gasoline refined from Uinta Basin crude. “It could lead to as much as 53 million tons of additional CO2 going into the atmosphere,” he said. “The Forest Service knows how bad climate change is, so it’s hypocritical for this agency to support this project.”
Eagle County argues that the FSTB failed to look at the cumulative impacts of increased rail traffic on the Union Pacific line, which passes through the county, and possible impacts should Colorado’s Tennessee Pass railway be reactivated. County officials added that the scope of the FSTB’s environmental analysis was too narrow, focusing only on the 88 miles of the UBR in Utah.
Colorado officials join the legal fray
In late October, the city of Glenwood Springs and the towns of Minturn, Avon, Red Cliff and Vail filed an amicus brief in support of Eagle County and the FSTB appeal. Karl Hanlon is an attorney with Karp, Neu, Hanlon, a Colorado firm that works with the cities of Glenwood Springs, Minturn and Red Cliff.
“What’s being proposed is 18 miles a day of train cars on the main [Union Pacific] line going through the city of Glenwood Springs and passing alongside the Colorado River through Garfield, Eagle and Grand counties,” he told Aspen Journalism. “The risks are tremendous with regard to the potential for an accident, the socio-economic impacts and the environment.”
Hanlon added that the FSTB did not consider whether running up to 185,000 heated tanker cars full of waxy crude alongside Interstate 70 is a good idea, particularly through Glenwood Canyon. The 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire shut down I-70 through the canyon for two weeks. Rockslides and mudslides from heavy rains the following summer closed the canyon again, resulting in lengthy detours for commercial trucks and other traffic, and decimating the Glenwood Springs economy at the height of tourist season.
“One major incident in Glenwood Canyon ends the livelihood of Glenwood Springs,” said Hanlon. “Not only is it a huge environmental disaster that is almost impossible to clean up, it will be the death knell for the community.”
He said the FSTB’s decision ignored Coloradans. “Frankly, the board just kind of thumbed their nose at all these communities,” he said. “FSTB focused on the 88 miles of new line in Utah and did their entire analysis there.”
Routt, Boulder, Chaffee, Lake and Pitkin counties, near the Union Pacific line, also signed on to the amicus brief. Routt County Manager Jay Harrington told Aspen Journalism that U.S. Highway 40 is the main northern traffic detour when I-70 is closed. “A rail accident does not have to occur close to Routt County to cause problems,” he said. “Every time I-70 [in the Glenwood Canyon ] is closed, traffic is rerouted right through here.”
The amicus brief references climate change impacts, wildfire risks from heated train cars, and the domino effect of an oil spill on downstream Colorado River users. Hanlon said the FSTB should start over and revisit the indirect impacts, including communities outside Colorado. “That waxy crude has to go a long way to get to a refinery,” he said. “There are communities all across the [country] going down towards the Gulf Coast that are facing similar impacts from this.”
USFS: A railroad is not a road
The Forest Service greenlighted a 12-mile stretch of the Whitmore Park route in July that would cut through an inventoried roadless area (IRA) in the Ashley National Forest. Prior to the approval, CBD and other conservation groups sent a letter to national Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, urging him to reject the Ashley National Forest’s application. But Moore refused, stating in a November 2021 response letter, “By definition, a railway does not constitute a road under the Roadless Rule.”
Then, in July, Ashley National Forest Supervisor Susan Eickhoff approved that 12-mile portion of the UBR. Two months later, CBD, Living Rivers, Sierra Club and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment filed suit. Zukoski said the argument is more than whether a railroad is a road; it’s also about the UBR’s effect on the general intent and purpose of a roadless area. “We raised many issues, including a failure of the Forest Service to consider the impact on roadless values,” he said.
The 2001 Roadless Rule established wilderness attributes and values to define an IRA, such as remoteness, quiet and solitude within the natural world. But, Zukowski said, roadless areas offer more than solace for humans. “The Forest Service understood that these areas had a particular and special value because of their protection of storehouses of biodiversity,” he said.
The UBR track, with a right-of-way between 100 and 200 feet wide, would run mostly parallel to U.S. Highway 191, cutting through private property and agricultural fields in Indian Canyon before slicing through the Ashley National Forest. The railroad’s footprint would alter an estimated 167 acres within the IRA, with an additional 235 acres affected in the construction process but planned for reclamation. Three tunnels on Forest Service land, including two spiral tunnels and a portion of a 3-mile-long straight tunnel, would have a total length of 2.6 miles.
In a January interview for ChannelV6.com, a local broadcaster in northeast Utah, Kyle Robe, deputy project manager for Rio Grand Pacific, discussed the spiral tunnels planned for Indian Canyon and the 3-mile-long straight tunnel. “[We will] drill holes into the face of the rock and high-pressure grout those holes,” he said. Then come massive machines called “roadheaders.” “They’ve got a big arm and big rotors on the end with teeth on them [that] chip away at that rock,” said Robe. “We’ll get about 25 feet a day on each end of rock that we’ll tear out of the mountain.” Robe did not respond to interview requests from Aspen Journalism. A spokesperson for the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition also declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Track construction also means carving out miles of cuts, siding track and embankment fill, and placing culverts and other infrastructure, including five bridges. Temporary work areas, including camps to house workers, could be up to 1,000 feet wide. Once completed, up to 10 trains per day would rumble through the IRA, each hauling up to 100 tanker cars of crude.
CBD attorney Wendy Park pointed to a bigger, overarching issue. “Under [President Joe] Biden’s 2021 executive order, combating climate change is something that all federal agencies should be doing everything in their power to address,” she told Aspen Journalism. In his 2021 letter to CBD, Moore cherry-picked components of the executive order to support the touted economic benefits of the project, stating that the UBR would support Biden’s policy to build a sustainable economy. But Biden’s order states that the United States will develop a finance plan to promote “the flow of capital toward climate-aligned investments and away from high-carbon investments.”
Eickhoff, of the Ashley National Forest, also amended the 1986 Ashley National Forest Land Resource Management Plan (LRMP) to allow for the UBR corridor through the IRA. The LRMP calls for maintaining the area’s scenic values. But Eickhoff’s amendment exempts the UBR right of way.
The SCIC must meet conditions of the Forest Service approval, including federal and LRMP mitigation measures, before track construction can begin. But despite approving the UBR last summer, the Forest Service has yet to issue the actual permit.
The agency could still change course, which is what activists in Utah, Colorado and points east are hoping for. Protests last week in Boulder, Denver, Salt Lake City and Glenwood Springs called on U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to revoke the permit. “It’s worthwhile to continue to put pressure on the Biden administration and Secretary Vilsack because this project is a carbon bomb,” said CBD campaigner Deeda Seed. “This is a poster child for the harm from climate change.”
This story ran in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on Dec. 13.
Lower water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which have left several boat ramps and docks high and dry, are likely the “new normal” for years to come, according to federal officials.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s most recent water-balancing adjustment under the Colorado River drought contingency plan, announced this month, maintains current plans at Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border. Those plans entail releasing an extra 500,000 acre-feet of water through April as per actions implemented in May. However, Flaming Gorge — along with two other major Upper Colorado River Basin reservoirs, Blue Mesa in Colorado and Navajo in New Mexico — remains a primary backup water source and may likely be tapped for more water, according BOR officials.
The BOR, meanwhile, will reduce releases from the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell by 523,000 acre-feet of water from December through April, then allow that same volume to flow downstream to Lake Mead during the summer months. Future adjustments will likely include siphoning more water from Flaming Gorge, according to BOR officials.
Ongoing incremental adjustments are intended to sustain hydropower generation at the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams as a 22-year drought — exacerbated by human-caused climate change — continues to push the Colorado River Basin into a water scarcity crisis.
Taken all together, that means the bathtub rings of exposed shoreline at Flaming Gorge represent what is likely a “new normal” for the reservoir, Drought Response Operations program manager for the Upper Colorado Basin Region Dale Hamilton told WyoFile.
“We will continue to work with our Basin partners to consider additional releases implemented under the Upper Basin [drought contingency plan] from the upstream Colorado River Storage Project initial units, which includes Flaming Gorge,” Hamilton said.
Much depends on winter precipitation and spring runoff, Hamilton added, so any decision regarding further actions at Flaming Gorge is likely months away. “Those actions are still being discussed,” he said.
After decades of relatively steady water levels at Flaming Gorge, the reservoir is undergoing unprecedented changes as water managers release extra water in an attempt to to help balance water levels among major downstream storage reservoirs along the Colorado River.
The BOR released an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir in 2021 as part of the Colorado River drought contingency plan, dropping the surface level by about 5 feet. The current “extra” release of 500,000 acre-feet of water, combined with lower-than-average natural infill (just 57% of average from April through July) diminished the reservoir to 72% capacity in November, according to the BOR.
The reservoir has dropped by about 9 feet this year, exposing vast areas of lakebed at the upper reaches and water-ring patterns on canyon walls in some areas.
Recon Angling fishing guide Shane DuBois tried his luck ice-fishing Monday in 7 feet of water where, normally, the water depth should be nearly 40 feet, he said.
“A lot of [fishermen] have been fishing different spots for burbot,” DuBois told WyoFile. “I think [lower water levels are] going to start messing up everything, especially with all the sediment that’s pushed up on the rocks where [fish] usually spawn. It’s not going to be conducive for successful spawning for, really, any fish.”
Recreational access is becoming increasingly difficult, as water recedes from boat ramps. The ramp at the Anvil boat launch area on the west side of the reservoir in Wyoming was closed recently, DuBois said, while the Buckboard Marina in Wyoming continues to try to keep boat docks in the water.
“We’re not naive,” DuBois said. “Even if we have a big-snow year, they’re probably just gonna take all that water right back out.”
Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):
A water conservancy district has put a call on the White River, an action that has the potential to alter the system for other water users.
On Dec. 1, the Rangely-based Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District placed a call for its water right of 620 cubic feet per second at the Taylor Draw Dam hydroelectric plant, which the district owns and operates. It is only the second-ever call on the White River. A call occurs when a water rights holder isn’t getting the full amount of water to which they are entitled and upstream water users are shut off or “curtailed” so that the downstream user can get their full amount.
“I think maybe it’s a little strong to say it’s going to be life-changing, but it’s going to be significant, especially if we start seeing a call year-round,” said Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 6 Engineer Erin Light. “I think it could really change the regime that everyone in that basin is accustomed to. I think there’s not much question that the basin would become overappropriated.”
DWR designated the nearby Yampa River basin as overappropriated earlier this year, which means that there’s more water on paper than real water in the system at certain times of year and new well users will have to get a water-replacement plan, known as an augmentation plan.
Under Colorado water law, older water rights get first use of the river. In this case, water users junior to the district’s 1966 water right are being shut off. This time of year, that mostly means some industrial users and those who pull water from the river to water their livestock but who don’t have a water right for that specific use, Light said.
Under Colorado water law, watering livestock from ditches during irrigation season is included under an irrigation water right. But in the winter, when fields are not being irrigated, ranchers need a separate decree specifically for livestock watering if they want to continue using their ditches to water the animals.
Reduced hydropower revenues
According to a news release from the district, the ongoing drought has significantly reduced seasonal inflows into Kenney Reservoir, which has reduced power production at the dam. According to the district, electricity production has been reduced by 35%, which has reduced the district’s revenues.
District General Manager Alden Vanden Brink said in an email that the district’s full water right was not being met several months out of the year and that the call will remain on until the full water right or capacity of the turbine is met. The district also has a 1982 water right for 125 cfs.
The news release said the district is sensitive to the hardships that the call may have on other water users and is working to create a White River augmentation plan, with a backup water supply for junior users.
Light said her office has curtailed about 10 ditches and two industrial water users since the call came Dec. 1, but assuming the call will be on whenever the river flows at less than 620 cfs, there will be more water rights and water usage curtailed in the summer and fall. During the irrigation season, there will be about 500 ditches and pumps that water commissioners will have to visit to see how much water they are using and whether they are using it legally, she said.
The U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge on the White River above Rangely is currently ice-affected and not giving a reading, but Light said she is certain that the 620-cfs water right at the dam is still not being met, even with curtailing upstream junior users. The river is probably running at about 300 cfs going into Kenney Reservoir, she said. Stream gauge data over the last half dozen years show that outside of seasonal peak flows, the White River near Rangely normally runs below 620 cfs.
The White River flows from the Flat Tops west through Meeker and Rangely to its confluence with the Green River in Utah. This sparsely populated basin has seen little regulatory oversight from the state, and water users could generally take as much water as they needed. But that is changing. For the past few years, Division 6 staffers have been pushing water users to install measuring devices on their ditches and canals.
“In Division 6, our basin that has the most number of structures by far without measuring devices is the White River,” Light said. “Unfortunately, probably at the onset of this call in the summer, we will be shutting people off without measuring devices.”
Will Myers is an engineer and rancher on the Williams Fork, a tributary of the Yampa River, and he also serves as the agriculture representative on the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable. Getting a water court decree for stock watering is the best way for agricultural producers to protect their practices, he said, especially in an area not used to strict administration by state officials because there has historically been enough water to go around.
“Any time you have something like this happen, it’s kind of a wake-up call for those in the ag community,” Myers said. “Just because you’ve always done something doesn’t mean you’re not susceptible to an actual legit administrative call.”
Ongoing drought and the impacts of a warming climate are at least partially fueling a trend in never-before-seen calls in parts of western Colorado. In 2018, the Yampa River saw its first-ever call, and the Crystal River saw its first-ever senior irrigation call.
“If that’s indeed true — that we are going to continue to see a drying climate — we are going to continue to see senior water rights not being met,” Light said. “I think that’s become clearly evident in the last four years.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:
For users in the Yampa River Basin, which lacks any reservoirs controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation, Rossi said the focus needs to be on how to exist with the water that is there, not what the [Colorado River Compact] theoretically allows…
Lindsey Marlow, executive director of Friends of the Yampa, said many strategies to help with drought issues, erosion and overall river health are outlined in the newly updated Yampa Integrated Water Management Plan. Completed in September, the update involved dozens of volunteers and stakeholder groups working together for nearly four years.
“The recommendations that came out of (the management plan) were to ensure we are managing a river in balance, so that all user groups can use it effectively while keeping it healthy and sustainable,” Marlow said…
Marlow said the plan has 20 recommendations ranging from increased education for users to adding new infrastructure to the system. Recommendations include conducting a return flow study to understand the impact of water used for agriculture, securing funding to upgrade diversion structures in Routt and Moffat counties and creating a centrally located dashboard for a variety of data concerning river health, among other recommendations. Rossi pointed to a number of initiatives the Upper Yampa district is leading in the management plan, such as exploring water diversions on Coal Creek and Morrison Creek that could add water to district-owned reservoirs and installing a network of soil moisture monitors in the basin.
“I’m not too concerned with what the Bureau of Reclamation asks us to do. I’m more concerned about how can our water users survive through drying times because they’re here to stay,” Rossi said. “When it goes dry, we just don’t have anything to use.”
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today websire (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:
When the 75-foot dam for Stillwater Reservoir was built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps for the former Yampa Reservoirs Public Irrigation District, it was well constructed to meet engineering standards at the time. But by today’s standards, the dam’s abutments would be addressed differently, said Dana Miller, dam safety engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources in Steamboat Springs. As a result, the aging dam infrastructure needs expensive upgrades to bring the structure up to current safety standards, Miller said. Since it was constructed, the dam at approximately 10,300 feet elevation has experienced consistent seepage issues where the sides of the dam abut the hillsides. If not addressed, the seepage could eventually lead to a failure of the dam, Miller explained. Although the seepage has been worked on through the years with minimal results, lasting improvements could cost millions, according to the owner Bear River Reservoir Co. The reservoir water is owned by 18 agricultural shareholders and the town of Yampa, and those southern Routt County hay growers have been affected financially due to lower water storage allowances, plus years of drought.
The Stillwater Reservoir was placed on a fill restriction by the state in June 2019 and currently is limited to approximately 80% capacity, which the water storage level may reach during wetter years. The structure is classified as a high-hazard dam, which is not based on its condition but because “loss of life and significant damage is expected downstream if the dam were to fail,” Miller explained. The 129-acre reservoir, which is also known for the trailhead to popular Devil’s Causeway hike, was drained to a small dead pool in August 2021 for inspections of the upstream side of the reservoir outlet gates. The reservoir was drained again in October for work on the hydraulic operating system, said Andi Schaffner, secretary for Bear River Reservoir Co. Yampa resident Schaffner said the owners of the private, nonprofit reservoir company have contributed more than $100,000 to help with dam issues in the past 11 years, and total upgrades to the hydraulics are predicted to cost $300,000.
The recent trends of 75-plus degrees for high summer water temperature are about 10 to 15 degrees warmer than most stream fish prefer, said Billy Atkinson, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The Fifth Street gauge is an expensive station that includes temperature monitoring. It is also one key to deciding about timing and amounts for upstream water reservoir releases and recreational river closures. Thirty other temperature gauges of varying quality and permanence exist on the Yampa River from above Stagecoach Reservoir to Deerlodge Park in Dinosaur National Monument, according to Julie Baxter, Steamboat Springs water resources manager…
The city and partners such as Friends of the Yampa, Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and U.S. Geological Survey have recently or are installing new temperature monitoring locations in the river based on the gaps and priorities identified in the recently completed Yampa Integrated Water Management Plan. More and improved temperature monitoring will help water managers make better decisions long term. Some of the city’s past temperature loggers have been lost from washing downstream during disturbances, Baxter said, and she supervised a small committee and consultant to move forward on a recommendation from management plan. The plan was released in September and is available online at YampaWhiteGreen.com/iwmp…
The conservancy district added temperature measurement to the USGS gauge above Stagecoach Reservoir. Friends of the Yampa installed temperature loggers in several tributaries and downstream of the hot springs. The city contracted with an engineering firm to install more permanent, continuous, real-time temperature monitoring above and below the Wastewater Treatment facility. After the temperature gauges are added or improved, the goal is to post as much real-time temperature information as possible on the forthcoming Yampa River Dashboard, which is another of the 20 management plan‘s recommendations. The conservation district along with the Colorado Water Trust and nonprofit Friends of the Yampa are working to establish the online dashboard by late 2023. The dashboard would provide stakeholders a one-stop location for information related to water management such as snowpack, current climate conditions, temperatures and soil moisture.
Click the link to take a deep dive into the data on the Rio Blanco Herald-Times website (Bob Dorsett). Here’s an excerpt:
The river tried its best in 2022 but didn’t get much help. Total precipitation at the headwaters was low, again. Temperatures at the headwaters were much higher than normal, again. Consequently, total runoff came near historic lows, and daily flow hovered below the 25th percentile for most of the year. Again. Following are summary data documenting the historical records of climate and flows in the White River Basin.
You can find the full data sets at http://dorsett-edu.us/Climate/ClimateTrendsSummaryData_2022_PDF.pdf…
Peak runoff in the White River also occurs earlier in the year. Historically, peak runoff occurred in early June, but peak is trending earlier. April runoff is increasing and June runoff is trending downward (data not shown). Longer periods of low flow in the summer provide favorable conditions for algae growth, increase stress on fish, and also decrease available irrigation and municipal water supplies.
The data presented here document global and regional trends toward a hotter, drier world. Updated climate models predict that climate conditions in the White River Basin 30 or 40 years from now will resemble the present brush and sandstone regime of southeastern Utah (Talsma et al, 2022; NCA 2018).
On a positive note: we haven’t seen a big algae bloom for the past couple years. It’s not at all clear what happened to stifle the algae. Low water and higher water temperatures, such as we are seeing in the basin, generally encourage algae growth. A plausible assumption is that efforts by the Conservancy Districts and the White River Alliance are paying off. People have stepped up to try to reduce nutrients going into the river and to reduce insecticide application. A final report from the USGS algae study group is still pending, and some particulars, such as point sources of nutrients, are not available. However, we can take some hope that people are making a positive difference in the health of the river.
When Cheyenne’s municipal water board approved a deal in October to supply up to 14,500 acre-feet of water over 15 years for a proposed gold mine west of town, attorneys insisted on inserting a clause in the contract. It retained the right to cut water deliveries if the city itself has to curtail its water use due to the Colorado River crisis.
“The majority of our water comes from the Colorado River [basin] and if that call [requiring upstream users to cut consumption] comes in, we’re in big trouble,” Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins said.
About 70% of the city’s municipal water supply originates 150 miles west in the Little Snake River drainage, a part of the Colorado River Basin. A complex “trans-basin” system of pumps, tunnels and pipelines transports the water under the Continental Divide in the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest to the city.
Cheyenne’s legal claims to the Colorado River Basin water were appropriated from 1954 to 1982 — making it a relatively new user in the system. If there is a curtailment, it would be applied to the newest or most “junior” appropriations, then work back in time to the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That means, depending on how far back in time a curtailment extends, 70% of the city’s water supply could be shut off — an action that could come as soon as 2028 if hydrological conditions keep trending for the worse, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s office.
“If we lose 100% of our Colorado River Compact water, we’re upside down,” Collins said, adding that about 80,000 people rely on the city’s municipal water system. “We wouldn’t have enough water to meet our current needs.”
For now, Cheyenne, Baggs, Rock Springs, Green River, Pinedale and a handful of other towns that depend on water from the Little Snake and Green River basins in Wyoming are assessing where they stand in the pecking order of appropriated water rights in the event of a curtailment. Although municipalities make up a small percentage of Wyoming water users under the Colorado River Compact and associated laws, their legal claims to the water are among the most vulnerable.
First in time, first in right
If the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission issues a curtailment for Wyoming, it would not necessarily force all water users subject to the compact to close their spigots completely.
For example, if the state had to curtail 100,000 acre-feet of water — approximately one-sixth of its annual Colorado River Basin consumptive water use — the state engineer would begin with the newest appropriations and work back in time until the 100,000 acre-feet of consumptive water use curtailment was met.
If, let’s say, that required turning off all Colorado River Basin water appropriations back to 1970, that would choke off all water appropriated since then — whether for industrial, municipal or agricultural use. The cities of Rock Springs and Green River, which share a municipal water system that serves some 39,000 residents, would lose access to 75% of their Green River water appropriation. The towns would still be allowed to tap the 4,343-acre-feet-per-year appropriation they secured in 1928 and the 2,895-acre-feet-per-year appropriation that predates the 1922 compact. The rest — 75% — was appropriated in 1971 and after.
This type of variable vulnerability applies to many Colorado River Basin water users with appropriated rights that were obtained at different times. The exact order for how a curtailment would be applied is well documented and under continual review, according to the state engineer’s office.
Small straw, big vulnerability
Agriculture accounts for 83.7% of Wyoming’s consumptive use of water in the Colorado River system, according to the SEO. Municipal water use accounts for about 2.8% — or 3.3% if you include rural domestic water use. Industry — trona facilities, coal power plants, oil and natural gas processing — make up most of the remaining 13%.
Approximately 70% of agricultural irrigation water rights in Wyoming were appropriated before 1922. Those pre-1922 appropriations are not subject to the Colorado River Compact and cannot be shut off under a curtailment. The pre-1922 protection applies to all Colorado River Basin water users.
A majority of Colorado River Basin water appropriations held by Wyoming municipal water authorities, however, are post-1922. That means some 125,000 urban Wyoming residents and businesses are vulnerable to a curtailment.
Given the curtailment clause in Cheyenne’s water contract, gold mine developer Gold King Corp. is shopping around to secure alternative water resources, according to Mayor Collins. The city of Cheyenne — as well as Green River, Rock Springs and others — are doing the same.
“There is the possibility that we would not be able to collect any water from the Little Snake System if [a] curtailment call goes below 1954,” Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities Administrator Brad Brooks told WyoFile. “We are looking for additional water to mitigate this possibility and planning for the worst case that our Little Snake water will not be available.”
Green River and Rock Springs are in the same boat. Their joint municipal water system collects 100% of its water from the Green River and its tributaries to serve some 39,000 residents in and around the two cities. Only 10% of their Colorado River Basin water appropriations pre-date the 1922 compact.
Although the cities don’t rely on the full volume of their legal claims to Colorado River Basin water, the time to plan for supplemental water sources is now; 2028, the year Wyoming might first see a curtailment, isn’t far away, Green River/Rock Springs Joint Powers Board General Manager Bryan Seppie said.
“Understand, [a curtailment] probably isn’t a one-year event,” Seppie told WyoFile, adding that much depends on what Mother Nature has in store. “We’ve got to secure other water resources to serve as replacement water if [a curtailment] were to happen. Conservation is a tool, but with these types of curtailments, conservation is not going to get you out of it.”
Part of the Gold King deal provides Cheyenne’s Board of Public Utilities approximately $5 million in fees that would help cover the cost to expand Cheyenne’s groundwater capacity. The city’s water board is also seeking up to $10.5 million in grants from the Wyoming Water Development Commission for its Borie wellfield expansion project. The expansion would add approximately 3,300 acre-feet of water per year to the city’s water portfolio, according to the board.
That would boost Cheyenne’s non-Colorado River Compact water source portfolio to 9,900 acre-feet per year. But the city would still be in trouble in the event of a curtailment because its average annual use is about 14,000 acre-feet.
“We are actively pursuing possibilities” for additional water resources, Brooks of the city’s BOPU said.
Expanding groundwater capacity, however, isn’t an affordable option for Rock Springs and Green River, according to Seppie. Instead, the cities are looking to those in the state with pre-1922 appropriations to share some water.
The federal System Conservation Program pays water users to curb consumption. Congress recently re-appropriated funding for the program, while the Inflation Reduction Act includes some $4 billion for efforts to modernize Colorado River Basin infrastructure and water management practices. Another $8.3 billion from the bipartisan Infrastructure law is available to address water and drought challenges throughout the U.S.
The SCP is an attractive option, Seppie said, for both ag irrigators and municipalities. Ag irrigators who volunteer for the program can use payments to upgrade their irrigation systems to waste less water.
“It’s a voluntary thing. It’s preemptive, and it’s benefiting the entire system,” Seppie said. “We haven’t gotten to a point where we’re having those discussions [with city officials]. But we have somewhat of a timeframe; 2028 is not all that far off.”
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:
Routt County approved more support to complete upgrades at Sheriff Reservoir on Tuesday, Nov. 8, this time for installation of a new head gate at Oak Creek’s nearly 70-year-old water source. The $80,000 from the county will be used with an equal amount of town funding to get a matching grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. If the grant is awarded as officials expect, the state and local funding would total $380,000…
Sheriff Reservoir has two problems. First, the original head gate is 68 years old, and both town officials and state water managers worry it could fail if it is not replaced. Installing a new gate is what the latest county funding would be used to support. The town has put installation of a new head gate out to bid twice, but each effort produced bids that far exceeded initial engineering estimates for the cost of the work and the available funding. That estimate was $187,000, but the lowest bid the town received was $405,000. The town has purchased the new head gate equipment already with the help of DOLA and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):
Lawmakers will seek $500,000 to study water lost from canals in the Green and Little Snake River basins to ensure Wyoming is accurately credited for conservation when it chooses or is forced to close irrigation systems in the troubled Colorado River Basin.
The study could help Wyoming limit reductions in water diversion as seven Western states and Mexico wrangle with an over-allocated and dwindling supply in the drainage. Members of the Legislature’s Joint Select Water Committee voted to draft a measure to seek the money from the general fund when the legislative session commences early next year.
“I could see [a conveyance loss study] very easily reaching $500,000,” Jason Mead, interim director of the Wyoming Water Development Office told lawmakers Wednesday. State Engineer Brandon Gebhart said his “mind was right at $500,000 for this,” but that “it could be a lot more.
“I do think that this is a really good start,” he said.
One hundred years after the signing of the Colorado River Compact, water managers cannot accurately measure what’s used and have not agreed on how to resolve conflicting views on rights to use what water there is.
The amount of incidental seepage and phreatophytic losses — canal-side, plant-used water — associated with irrigation is an “area of agriculture data collection that need[s] to be updated and verified,” the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation states in its 2022 Upper Colorado River Basin Consumptive Uses and Losses report.
The proposed Wyoming study could help the state claim that when it shuts off water to a field of crops, it is saving that crop’s consumption plus what’s lost in the conveyance system of canals and ditches that carry the flow from river to field.
By showing it saves more, Wyoming would cut off fewer users in a “curtailment” situation where water managers require conservation. The data could also better inform the purchase of temporary water rights transfers from one user to another.
“Understanding what that conveyance loss is,” Gebhart said, “could benefit the water users in our state.”
Conveyance loss is significant in Wyoming’s Green River Basin, one lawmaker told the committee.
“We know in Sublette County that we have some canals that are over 20 miles long that go through a glacial till and alluvium that, anecdotally we’ve heard, they lose up to 80%,” Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) told the committee. Irrigators estimated losses in a survey conducted by the Water Development Office, but none has reported losses as high as 80%; the statewide average is 24%.
A contractor would lay out the groundwork for the study starting next spring, identifying perhaps eight sites and 50 miles of canals in the Green and Little Snake River drainages that could be monitored. Investigators would install water-pressure sensors in canals to record water-level fluctuations through a season.
Once in place, consultants would measure and record flows and pressures in the 2024 irrigation season. Mead of the WWDO described how the survey would work.
Investigators would be “going out there four or five, six times to actually get measurements on the canal at four or five or six different spots down, say, a 15-mile section,” he said.
The results would show, for example, the difference in canal seepage at the beginning of an irrigation season when the ground is drier compared to seepage in mid-summer when the canal has been flowing and “things are wetted up and primed,” Mead said.
Engineer Gebhart distinguished between two categories of conveyance losses — consumptive loss and seepage — and whether Wyoming could claim credit for staunching either.
Consumptive loss is the amount consumed by ditch-side plants and trees, the amount lost to evaporation, plus that which leaks into an aquifer “that does not return back to the [Colorado River] system,” he said.
Gebhart defined the second category — seepage loss — as leakage that returns to the system. “It may be delayed, but it does return back to a stream,” he said.
As Wyoming calculates what’s consumptively used — and what it can save if that consumptive use is taken off-line — it might not be credited for reducing some associated seepage.
“Seepage [that] returns to the system … that is not considered a consumptive use,” Gebhart said. “I would say a majority of ditch loss is lost to seepage.”
Results from the study would be ready in late 2024 or in 2025, according to a scenario painted by Mead.
Wyoming doesn’t expect to face curtailment — when it might be forced to shut down users — until 2028, if drought continues. Wyoming and its sister states in the Upper Division or upper basin — Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — would face mandatory cuts if the Lee Ferry gauging station just below Lake Powell shows a flow of less than 75 million acre-feet in the previous 10 years.
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, “[t]he States of the Upper Division will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted” below that level. The upper basin encompasses about 45% of the drainage area but produces 92% of the runoff.
Colorado River laws apportion Wyoming rights to 14% of the upper basin’s water, officials say. They believe upper basin states are not yet at the critical “75/10” metric where reductions are necessary.
“We’re currently about 85 million acre-feet,” Gebhart said, referring to the previous 10 years. “So we’ve got a little buffer.”
“We’ve blown through the hydrology, we’ve used most of the storage in the Colorado River Basin,” Hicks said. “And now … the director of the Bureau of Reclamation, [is] looking for somewhere between 2 [million] and 4 million acre-feet of reductions in the Colorado.”
The original estimate was 15 million acre-feet were in the system annually, but that water, “it doesn’t exist,” Hicks said. In the last decade, it’s averaged 12 million acre-feet or less, he said. One water administrator in Colorado has said experts tell water managers to plan for 9 million acre-feet a year as a worst-case scenario.
Municipalities and industry — usually holding inferior, junior water rights and so the first to face curtailment — could be looking for water. In Wyoming, agriculture holds 80% of the water rights, Hicks said, and could be approached to sell through a temporary-transfer system or some other arrangement.
“That’s the water bank that you’re looking at,” Hicks said of agriculture.
“At some point in time, we’re gonna have to recognize that there’s not 15 million acre-feet to be divided up,” he said. “That’s really the issue. This is why all the states are lawyering up.”
Wyoming is preparing for negotiations, measurements, debates and possibly fights over water rights. In the last year, the state has added a Colorado-River staffer to the state engineer’s office and also the attorney general’s office, Hicks told the committee.
Click the link to read the guest column on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Michelle Meyer and Lindsey Marlow). Here’s an excerpt:
The Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable led the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan for the Yampa River in 2019. The process combined community input with science and engineering assessments to identify actions to protect existing and future water uses and support healthy river ecosystems in the face of growing populations, changing land uses and climate uncertainty. While that sounds technical and even slightly boring … keep reading! Working to sustain, protect and care for the Yampa River impacts us all. The IWMP is a community effort, led by people who live and work in the Yampa Valley, and care about the river and its future. This is not a political issue, but a stakeholder-driven plan with a shared passion for the river as common ground. The IWMP seeks to identify and spur projects and strategies that benefit water users, the environment and recreational users. These multi-benefit efforts cannot be accomplished by one entity alone but require collaboration among water users and landowners, nonprofit organizations and local governments. The project’s work included stakeholder input via surveys and interviews conducted in 2020. Our team collected ideas from a variety of stakeholders to identify priority reaches for improved river health and recreation, as well as ideas to better meet water users’ needs. A technical team worked to assess current river conditions. Inventories of water use, river flows, riverside land condition, fishery health and water quality have helped to characterize current conditions and identify knowledge gaps.
The final piece of the IWMP has been to prioritize issues and develop consensus on action plans. The true success is in the collaborative partnerships and relationships developed through countless hours of meetings. The Yampa IWMP final report can be found at YampaWhiteGreen.com/iwmp. Multi-benefit projects include a focus that recognizes agriculture, recreation, environment, municipal and industrial water needs as equally important. Some recommendations to highlight include a basin wide temperature monitoring program that will help inform and identify opportunities for improved river health.
Coordinated efforts in developing a Yampa River Data Dashboard and River Scorecard will not only bring scientific work and data together for informed management decisions but will allow the community to understand the state of the Yampa River over time. Several IWMP recommendations specifically call out support and coordination for agriculture water users to address common challenges and opportunities to sustain a balanced river.
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:
Soil moisture is the measurement many researchers believe is missing, and a new climate measurement station perched on private land just southwest of Stagecoach Reservoir hopes to help fill the data gap.
“It is another variable that we’re understanding is more and more important,” said Madison Muxworthy, soil moisture, water and snow program coordinator for the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council…
The station — paid for by the Upper Yampa District and installed in partnership with the sustainability council and the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes — includes a soil moisture monitor that takes measurements at six different depths down to 40 inches. It’s the first of a network of 25 similar stations planned for the Yampa Valley. Rossi said the station will be an important tool when making decisions that have shrinking margins for error amid climate change…The station was installed in the middle of September, and Muxworthy said it generally takes about three months for everything to settle. It will likely take another decade to have enough soil moisture data to have a good understanding of that soil-runoff relationship, she added. But the station is taking measurements every two minutes and updating data every hour. Soil moisture measurements are taken at 2, 4, 6, 8, 20 and 40 inches, which shows how deep moisture from precipitation is soaking into the ground.
A water fight is brewing in the West, and Wyoming water officials want to prepare for it with a study aimed at parsing and defining the state’s consumption from its Colorado River tributaries.
Anticipating a drier future and either voluntary or imposed restrictions, Wyoming should undertake a “conveyance-loss study,” Jason Mead, interim director of the Wyoming Water Development Office, told the state Water Development Commission on Oct. 6. The goal, State Engineer Brandon Gebhart told the WWDC, is to have a “defensible consumptive-use number to take to the other states,” when and if push comes to shove and Colorado River Basin water users face cuts to irrigation, industrial or municipal uses.
When Colorado River Basin water rights were divvied up starting in 1922, officials overestimated the amount of water the system would produce each year and ultimately promised more water to stakeholders than actually existed. Climate change, drought, shifting weather patterns and a population explosion in the region have exacerbated that initial over-subscription.
Further complicating the picture, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — the government’s Western water agency — admits there’s “an inability to exactly quantify these uses.” This “has led to various differences of opinion” regarding who gets to use how much water, the BOR states in a 2022 accounting of the river’s flows and uses.
As a result, the Colorado River and its tributaries — including Wyoming’s Green and Little Snake Rivers — do not have as much water as originally thought and apportioned. On top of that, the water that does flow can’t be precisely measured, and the 40 million people in the seven states and Mexico who rely on it haven’t agreed on how to resolve conflicting views on their rights to use what water there is.
The goal of the conveyance-loss study is to pin down Wyoming’s consumptive use in case it needs to engage in those types of water rights’ conversations with other states.
As a foundation to that study, Wyoming has “a pretty good handle on consumptive use of the crop,” Mead told the water commission. But the state is less certain about another key measurement — the loss from canals and ditches that carry the water diverted from rivers and streams to crops, and how those losses should be accounted for. Only some of those losses may be a debit to Wyoming’s share of the basin’s flows.
With the proposed study, Wyoming would be able to more precisely measure the differences between diverted flows and consumptive use.
That would allow the state to say “when we shut off a ditch … we’re actually saving this amount of consumptive use just along the ditch,” Gebhart told the WWDC. With such information at hand, “I think we could make a sensible argument that we would have to shut off less users.”
Wyoming doesn’t expect potential curtailments any earlier than 2028, Gebhart told the Water Development Commission. Not all stakeholders agree with that timeline assessment, however, and say a “pinch point” in 2025 could prompt debate and conflict among states.
“The first pinch point [in 2025] raises the issue of the Upper Basin’s obligation to Mexico, if any, under the 1922 [Colorado River] Compact,” Chris Brown, a senior assistant attorney general in the Wyoming Attorney General’s office Water and Natural Resources Division wrote WyoFile.
Mexico was not part of the 1922 compact, but the Mexican Water Treaty Act of 1944 granted that country 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water annually. The compact and treaty are part of a suite of decrees, agreements and court decisions that make up what’s known as the Law of the River.
Regarding Mexico’s share, “the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin have different opinions about that obligation,” Brown wrote. That difference should be addressed before 2025 to “avoid a dispute” he stated.
“That does not mean we will curtail our water uses and, under current circumstances, we will not curtail when we reach that  pinch point…” he wrote. “The difference of opinion itself will not result in a curtailment.”
Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), an influential water developer in the Little Snake River Basin, recommended the study, Mead and Gebhart said. It’s an “officially proposed project” Gebhard said, and will be discussed by the WWDC further in November with an eye toward securing funding, either from over-subscribed state water accounts, through a different appropriation from the Legislature or some other source.
The study’s first phase could be completed in 2025, after two irrigating seasons of research, officials said.
Pinning down losses
After water is diverted from a river or stream into conveyance systems of canals, ditches and pipes, some of it feeds crops. But leaks and seepage in those canals and ditches also results in loss. Water managers agree that some ditch losses return to “the system” that sustains a river’s flow.
Like “return flow” water that runs back into a river after flooding an irrigated field, conveyance losses that then return to the system shouldn’t count as a debit or depletion against Wyoming’s share of Colorado River Basin water, state officials say, and a study could help determine how much that is.
“Ditch losses that do return to the system (seepage), at some point, are not considered depletions because the water re-enters the stream,” Gebhart wrote in an email.
Some diverted water, however, doesn’t benefit a crop or return to the river and must be counted as a debit. “Losses from ditches that do not return to the system, at some point, are depletions, also known as consumptive use,” Gebhart stated.
These types of losses could be from evaporation, consumption by non-crop plants like willows, consumption by trees on the ditch bank, recharge to deep groundwater aquifers that don’t flow to the Colorado River and other, similar things, Gebhart wrote.
The loss from canals and ditches is only estimated today, and only by some irrigation districts. In a 2021 accounting by the WWDC, only half of the 157 irrigation districts, ditch and canal companies and other irrigation entities contacted by the agency responded.
Statewide, the survey estimates an average of 24% of the water that runs through the conveyance systems is lost. In the Green River and Little Snake drainages, estimates include as little as 0.5% for the Austin Wall Irrigation District on the Blacks Fork and 25% at the New Fork Irrigation District.
Many entities in the Green and Little Snake basins did not respond to the latest survey, including districts where water developers and irrigators want to spend millions of state dollars building or enlarging impoundments to aid irrigation and other uses.
Depletions, losses and consumptive uses
Experts agree that more water is promised to Colorado River Basin water users than the system can actually deliver — essentially 7.5 million acre-feet annually each to the four Upper Division states and three Lower Division states, plus 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. The calculation of available water on which the U.S. allocations were based in 1922 was flat-out wrong, many agree, and 23 recent years of drought coupled with climate change have left Lakes Powell and Mead at 28% of capacity, an historic low.
Now some experts say managers should anticipate only 9 million acre-feet annually system wide, according to proceedings at a September water seminar covered by Colorado Public Radio. That’s about three-quarters of what was used by all states, tribes and Mexico in 2021, CPR reported, and far short of the original 15 million acre-feet estimated in 1922.
If Wyoming faces curtailment or some other regulation in the Colorado River Basin, Gebhart said his office would need more staffers to monitor headgates and diversions. Today, a crew of six oversees more than 2,500 headgates in the basin, he said, and that might need to be increased to 36 or so.
Scrutiny by the state engineer is necessary because the 1922 compact prohibits Upper Division states from diminishing Colorado River flows at Lee Ferry, a gauge just below Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam, below 7.5 million acre-feet annually on a running 10-year average. Wyoming is promised 14% of what’s left over to the Upper Division states.
From 2016-2020, the latest data available, a provisional U.S. Bureau of Reclamation report lists Wyoming’s average annual use at 421,000 acre-feet. Ranchers irrigated 305,800 acres in the Green and Little Snake River Basins in 2020, the report states. The population of those basins was 83,800, the BOR said.
At full supply — 7.5 million acre-feet available to the Upper Division states annually — Wyoming’s yearly portion amounts to a little over 1 million acre-feet, experts say. Should the Upper Division supply dwindle to 4 million acre-feet, under the Law of the River and 1944 Mexico treaty obligation, Wyoming would have rights to use only 553,000 acre-feet, according to a presentation by Gebhart’s office in Pinedale in September. In addition to Wyoming’s conveyance-loss study, Upper Division states want to use an up-to-date model to determine river flows and uses.
Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Dustin Bleizeffer):
The shoreline of this large reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border has steadily receded this summer as the Bureau of Reclamation pumped more water out to help maintain critical water levels 500 miles away at Lake Powell.
The water shrunk from boat ramps and forced marinas to scoot docks ever inward. By September, 6 feet of vertical drop in the water level translated into vast areas of exposed lakebed, leaving many boat ramps on the northern reaches of the reservoir high and dry. All told, the reservoir’s elevation is about 12 feet lower today than two years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Thousands of acres that had been underwater for 58 years now comprise a rainbow of boggy sediment, grasses and invasive plants.
Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez and his staff scrambled all summer to keep boat docks in the water, but they couldn’t always keep up. Two large floating docks near a drop-off sank so low that their access ramps became too steep to safely walk. Toxic cyanobacterial blooms have also migrated further down the lake.
“I can’t take my grandkids or my dogs to the water,” Valdez said, motioning to big green globs and sheets of muck as he stood on a boat dock. “We’re losing our marina. It will be gone after next year.”
When Valdez bought the marina in 2019, he immediately began making renovations. It was a solid investment, he believed, for a popular service at the largest recreational draw in southwest Wyoming.
The BOR had maintained seasonably stable water levels at Flaming Gorge since 1964 when the dam was completed. Businesses in Wyoming and Utah built an economy around the fishermen, boaters, bird-watchers and others drawn to the massive impoundment.
Things began to change, however. Valdez first noticed that vehicles and boat trailers with plates from California, Arizona and other southwestern states became increasingly prevalent at the marina, he said, as reservoirs along the Colorado River began drying up.
More than 20 years of drought — intensified by human-caused climate change — have pushed the Colorado River Basin and the 40 million people who depend on it into a water crisis. The system’s two largest reservoirs, Powell and Lake Mead, sank below 30% capacity this summer — the lowest levels since they were constructed. If the situation worsens, Powell and Mead could reach “deadpool” status at which the reservoirs would no longer release water downstream into the Colorado River.
The crisis is traveling upstream to places like Flaming Gorge, where it has implications for everything from riparian ecosystems to economic livelihoods. Currently, Flaming Gorge is at about 74% storage capacity, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Whether the reservoir shrinks further depends on whether the BOR will continue to tap Flaming Gorge and how quickly it might be naturally replenished.
Emergency water supply
In a legal sense, Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is fed by headwaters in western Wyoming, was created for a moment like this. Its primary purpose, according to federal officials and Colorado River Compact scholars, is to serve as a backup water bank to help maintain the Colorado River system. Specifically, Flaming Gorge and a handful of other reservoirs in the upper Colorado River Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are key to ensuring a minimum flow of 7.5 million acre-feet of water at Lees Ferry just downstream of Powell on a running 10-year average.
So far, the upper basin states have met the threshold. Nonetheless, when Powell and Mead saw drastic lows in 2021, the BOR drew an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge. This past spring when the situation in the lower basin states became even more dire, the BOR initiated a draw of an additional 500,000 acre-feet, estimating a 15-foot vertical drop in the reservoir over the water season ending in April 2023.
The Drought Response Operations Agreement, signed by Colorado River Compact stakeholders in 2019, authorizes the BOR to make those, and possibly additional emergency draws from Flaming Gorge, to help maintain critical water levels and hydropower generation at Powell and Mead. If this summer is any indication, continual draws from the reservoir might drastically alter an aquatic ecosystem and fishery that local businesses have relied on for decades.
“This has been held at a premium, high-water mark, recreational lake for  years,” Valedz said. “Why wasn’t this addressed 15 years ago if we knew this was coming?”
The BOR is expected to decide whether to implement another “extra” draw from Flaming Gorge in April 2023.
Flaming Gorge fishery
Kokanee salmon and trophy-sized lake trout draw tens of thousands of visitors to Flaming Gorge each year, supporting a recreational economy in southwest Wyoming and northeast Utah. But as the lake is drawn down, water recedes from shallow shorelines and fish are forced into a smaller space, essentially shrinking the fishery toward the dam side of the reservoir.
Fishing guides and Wyoming Game and Fish have cooperated to maintain an appropriate balance to the predator-prey relationship between lake trout and kokanee, according to Recon Angling owner Shane DuBois. Now, the decreasing water levels threaten to drastically alter that balance and may require shifting management strategies.
Kokanee spawning beds have been exposed, which will force the fish to spawn in areas covered in silt, reducing the reproduction success rate, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Regional Fisheries Supervisor Robert Keith. If Flaming Gorge’s normal water levels are restored, the episode will likely improve traditional spawning beds, Keith said. However, if BOR withdrawals from Flaming Gorge substantially outpace natural inflows for several more years, the fishery will suffer.
“That’s going to be an economic impact to communities around the reservoir that depend on the anglers showing up,” Keith said. “And If we don’t have any ramps in Wyoming that anglers can launch from, then they’re all going to launch further down the reservoir and those dollars are going to be spent down in Utah.”
The BOR is in consultation with the Wyoming State Engineer’s office and local recreation and fishery managers regarding drawdowns at Flaming Gorge. The Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area — managed by the U.S. Forest Service — as well as Wyoming Game and Fish, can apply for federal funds set aside to aid in the Colorado River Basin water crisis. But maintaining critical water levels at Powell and Mead remains a priority, while projects involving reconstructing boat ramps and shifting fishery management would take years.
For DuBois, who depends on both a healthy fishery at Flaming Gorge and functional boat ramps, the situation threatens his livelihood. He recently invested tens of thousands of dollars in a new fishing boat and hopes it pays off.
“How does the Bureau of Reclamation not know [the recent drawdown] would leave most boat ramps unusable?” DuBois asked.
As he continues to relocate and reconstruct boat docks to adjust to lower water levels, Valdez is considering how to expand his scope of clientele to make up for losses.
“I didn’t buy this place to come up here and watch this go to shit,” Valdez said.
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Tom Skulski). Here’s an excerpt:
While the Yampa River has not closed quite as much this year as it did last year, local fishermen lost out on most of July and August and a chunk of September in 2022…
“There’s three criteria that would determine a closure or trigger a closure,” [Johnny] Spillane said. “One is water temperature, another is water flow meaning (cubic feet per second) and the third criteria is dissolved oxygen in the river. If any of those three criteria are not being met, that will trigger a closure and that seems to be fairly common in the last five, six or seven years.”
As far as the rain’s effect on fish behavior, Spillane says it is complicated but mostly acts as a good thing for the fish and therefore a good thing for those fishing.
The state has neither the legal right, nor inclination, to preemptively curtail water use in the ongoing Colorado River crisis, according to Chris Brown, senior assistant attorney general for the state engineer’s water division. Only a determination by the Upper Colorado River Commission can result in a water curtailment order for Wyoming users subject to the Colorado River Compact, he said.
The earliest a curtailment order might happen, in Brown’s estimation, is 2025, if drought conditions persist and Colorado River flows at Lees Ferry downstream of Lake Powell in Arizona fall below a certain threshold. If that happens, the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office will implement water restrictions.
“The way things are going, it’s coming,” Brown told a crowd of more than 100 at the Sublette County Public Library in Pinedale Tuesday afternoon.
Exactly when and how much water Wyoming might be asked to conserve due to the Colorado River crisis depends on myriad factors — none more important, from a legal standpoint, than Wyoming’s obligation to the Colorado River Compact, according to Brown. And that “ends at Lees Ferry,” he said.
Wyoming and the other upper Colorado River Basin states — Utah, Colorado and New Mexico — are obligated to send 7.5 million acre-feet of water to Lees Ferry annually, on a running 10-year average. Modeling by the federal Bureau of Reclamation suggests flows could fall below the threshold by 2025 or 2028. Much also depends on how the BOR regulates flows out of Lake Powell, Brown said.
Ultimately, all seven Colorado River Basin states — along with the federal government, tribes and Mexico — have much to negotiate. Meantime, the state engineer’s office is initiating conversations with irrigators, municipalities and industrial water users about how they can use less water and still meet their needs. Voluntary and compensated conservation measures — backed by $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act — will be key to minimizing disruptions when there is a curtailment order, Brown said.
“How can you do more with less water?” Brown asked the Pinedale audience. “And what can we do to help you do your work with less water?”
In the event of a curtailment, Wyoming is only held responsible for its actual use, which averages about 600,000 acre-feet of water annually. Irrigated agriculture accounts for nearly 84% of the state’s consumptive use, according to the engineer’s office.
Other water users are also considered vulnerable, however, including trona processing plants, coal-burning power plants and municipalities. The City of Cheyenne, for example, relies on a water collection system that diverts otherwise Colorado River Basin-bound water for 70% of its municipal water supply. These water users are among some of the most “junior” in the pecking order of water rights, and therefore could be among the first ordered to reduce consumption.
Water rights in Wyoming are appropriated within the first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine. The earlier a water right was obtained, the more senior, the later are most junior. A curtailment order would be applied to those with the most junior water rights and work back in time until the curtailment volume is met. However, the Colorado River Compact, struck in 1922, does not apply to those with water rights appropriated before 1922. No matter how much water Wyoming might be asked to curtail under the compact, it would only apply to those with water rights adjudicated after 1922, according to Brown.
One audience member asked Brown, “What if you’re one of the [junior] water rights holders and everything you have is going to get cut — are we just SOL?”
“You could be SOL,” Brown answered.
However, the Interior Department is expanding existing programs, and initiating new ones, to support trading, buying and leasing water allocations to encourage balance among users. Another irrigator at the meeting, George Kahrl, said he’s interested in forgoing some of his normal water use to help those with more junior rights — for compensation.
Ideally, those who benefit monetarily from voluntarily reducing their water use will invest that money into more efficient operations so they can maintain their agriculture operations with less water, Brown said.
Wyoming ag operators need assurance that that’s how such programs will actually work out, Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said. “I don’t know what those programs are or what they’re going to pay for, but we have to [maintain agricultural production] or we’re going to get hurt.”