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

From the Nature Conservancy:

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

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

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

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

The Maybell Diversion

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

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

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

Upgrading the Ditch, Headgate and Diversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Piece of a Larger Puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yampa River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Click here to register:

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

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

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

Agenda:

Welcome – Colorado River District and Community Agriculture Alliance

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

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

Integrated Watershed Planning – Yampa IWMP Chair Doug Monger

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

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

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

May 19, 2021 06:00 PM

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

From the Streamboat Pilot & Today:

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

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

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

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Aspen Journalism (Natalie Keltner-McNeil):

Phenomenon drives earlier, more-intense spring runoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Steamboat Springs. Photo credit: American Rivers

From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Alison Berg):

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

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

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

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

Council members tabled the discussion until their July work session.

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

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

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Suzie Romig):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colorado Drought Monitor March 23, 2021.

From Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previously rebuffed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

The Colorado Division of Water Resources announced the commencement of a public comment process today on a proposed plan to designate the main stem of the Yampa River in Northwest Colorado as “over-appropriated.” An over-appropriated stream system is one in which at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of a stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New paradigm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle & Page Buono):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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

    Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District now has a 66,720 acre-foot conditional water right to build a dam and reservoir between Rangely and Meeker, known as the White River storage project or the Wolf Creek project. The conservancy district is proposing an off-channel reservoir with a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long, with water that will be pumped from the White River.

    But the decree, while granting Rangely-based Rio Blanco the amount of storage it was seeking, doesn’t allow the district all the water uses that it initially wanted. The decree grants Rio Blanco a water right for municipal use for the town of Rangely; augmentation within its boundaries; mitigation of environmental impacts; hydroelectric power; and in-reservoir use for recreation, piscatorial and wildlife habitat. The conservancy district will not be able to use the water for irrigation, endangered fish or augmentation in the event of a compact call.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Settlement and stipulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Compact compliance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Craig Daily Press (Joshua Carney):

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

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

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

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

    A view of the White River foreground, and the Wolf Creek gulch, across the river. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State of Colorado have reached a settlement for a reservoir and dam project at this site. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Community Agricultural Alliance: 6 critical concepts all Coloradans should know about #water

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

    Here’s a guest column from Patrick Stanko that’s running in the Steamboat Pilot & Today:

    Do you know the critical water concepts? The Colorado State Water Education plan has identified six critical concepts that all Coloradans should understand about water.

    The first concept is “The physical and chemical properties of water are unique and constant.” The physical properties of H2O are unique because its molecular structure gives rise to surface tension. The solid form of water, the white stuff so important to our community, is less dense than the liquid form allowing it to float.

    The second concept states, “Water is essential for life, our economy and a key component of healthy ecosystems.” As we all know, there would be no life without water, and the ecosystems need clean water to survive. But the Routt County economy, both recreational and agricultural, depends upon water.

    The Yampa Valley receives most of its water in the form of snow, the basin’s biggest reservoir, which is used by the recreational industry to ski and play on. When the spring melt happens, that water is used by agriculture to irrigate and produce the lush green hay fields we all have grown accustomed to, and of course, the river is used for fishing, boating and tubing.

    The third and fourth concepts are “Water is a scarce resource, limited and variable” and “The quality and quantity of water, and the timing of its availability, are all directly impacted by human actions and natural events.” One only has to compare the last two years to see how variable and scarce water is in Colorado.

    s the weather becomes drier and more variable and the population of Colorado continues to grow, water will become scarer. An update by the Colorado Water Plan predicts that the municipal and industrial gap in water supply will be in the range of 250,000 to 750,000 acre-feet of water annually. As a reference, the Dillon Reservoir holds approximately 250,000-acre feet.

    The fifth concept is “Water cycles naturally through Colorado’s watersheds, often intercepted and manipulated through an extensive infrastructure system built by people.” Again, the biggest reservoir and storage of water in the Yampa Valley is snow.

    In the spring the snow melts, some of the water returns to the atmosphere via sublimation, evaporation or transpiration. If the soil is dry, then most of the water will seep back into the ground filling the aquifers. The water that makes it to the river is used by the agriculture community to irrigate meadows for grazing and crops. Water is also captured in reservoirs, like Fish Creek Reservoir, that supplies Steamboat Springs with drinking water.

    The sixth concept states “Water is a public resource governed by water law.” Colorado has a long doctrine of water laws dating back to the 1860s. A water right allows one to put a public resource to beneficial use as well as a place in line, where the junior water right may be curtailed to meet the needs of the senior water right, “first in time, first in right.”

    For more information about critical water facts please see the Water Education Colorado SWEAP website at https://www.cowateredplan.org/ or the Colorado Water Plan formed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board at https://cowaterplan.colorado.gov/. And for information on the local water issues, visit Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable at https://yampawhitegreen.com.

    Patrick Stanko wrote this column on behalf of the Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable public education participation and outreach coordinator.

    Judge dismisses several water uses in #WhiteRiver reservoir case — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver

    One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    A water court judge has agreed with state engineers and dismissed several of a water conservancy district’s claims for water for a dam and reservoir project in northwest Colorado.

    Division 6 Water Judge Michael A. O’Hara III, in a Dec. 23 order, determined that Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has not provided enough evidence that its current existing water rights won’t meet demands in the categories of municipal, irrigation, domestic, in-reservoir piscatorial, commercial and augmentation for Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District.

    The Rangely-based conservancy district is seeking a conditional water-storage right to build an off-channel reservoir using water from the White River to be stored in the Wolf Creek drainage, behind a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long. It would involve pumping water uphill from the river into the reservoir.

    Rio Blanco initially applied for a 90,000 acre-foot water-storage right but later reduced that claim to 66,720 acre-feet for the off-channel reservoir, which would be located between Rangely and Meeker.

    According to Colorado water law, new conditional water rights cannot be granted without a specific plan and intent to put the water to beneficial use. For more than five years, top state water engineers have repeatedly said the project is speculative because Rio Blanco has not proven a need for water above its current supply.

    State engineers asked the court to dismiss Rio Blanco’s entire application in what’s known as a motion for summary judgment. The court agreed to dismiss only some of Rio Blanco’s requested water uses.

    “The applicant has failed to demonstrate that its existing water rights for municipal, irrigation, domestic, in-reservoir piscatorial, and commercial uses are insufficient to meet its needs and are therefore dismissed,” O’Hara wrote in his order.

    The town of Rangely’s water needs and whether water was needed for irrigation were two main topics of questions from state engineers in hundreds of pages of depositions in the case.

    O’Hara’s order said there are three water-use claims left to resolve at trial: whether Rio Blanco can get a water right for augmentation in the event of Colorado River Compact curtailment, water for endangered species and water for hydroelectric power.

    The trial is scheduled to begin Monday, but the parties could still reach a settlement agreement before then.

    “We are involved in productive settlement discussions with the engineers and both sides hope that produces a settlement rather than a trial,” said Alan E. Curtis, an attorney for Rio Blanco.

    Even if the parties reach a settlement, the judge will still have to approve the final water-right decree. Curtis said parties often reach settlements at the last minute, sometimes even after a trial has begun.

    Ducks swim on Kenney Reservoir, which sits near Rangely, in late October. The reservoir is silting in and approaching the end of its useful life, according to the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, which wants to build a new reservoir with water from the White River. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    Compact curtailment

    If the case goes to trial next week, a main point of contention will be whether Colorado River Compact compliance is a valid beneficial use of water stored in the White River project. Rio Blanco is proposing that 11,887 acre-feet per year be stored as “augmentation,” or insurance, in case of a compact call. Releasing this replacement water stored in the proposed reservoir to meet these compact obligations would allow other water uses in the district to continue and avoid the mandatory cutbacks in the event of a compact call.

    According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper-basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet a year to Lake Powell for use by the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). If the upper basin doesn’t make this delivery, the lower basin can “call” for its water, triggering involuntary cutbacks in water use for the upper basin.

    Water managers are especially worried that those with junior water rights, meaning those later than 1922, will be the first to be curtailed. Many water users in the White River basin, including the towns of Rangely and Meeker, have water rights that are junior to the compact, meaning these users could bear the brunt of involuntary cutbacks in the event of a compact call. Augmentation water would protect them from that.

    State engineers argue that augmentation use in the event of a compact call is not a beneficial use under Colorado water law and is inherently speculative. But O’Hara disagreed, saying there is sufficient legal authority for Rio Blanco to develop an augmentation plan for a compact call.

    “While it is tempting for the court (to) rule, as a matter of law, that the requested augmentation use is speculative because it is based on an event that may or may not occur, it chooses not to do so here,” O’Hara’s motion reads.

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

    Endangered fish water

    Rio Blanco says it needs 60,555 acre-feet of water per year for maintenance and recovery of federally listed and endangered fish. Releases from the proposed reservoir could benefit endangered fish downstream, including the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

    But the gauge used to measure these flows — the Watson gauge — is located downstream in Utah. State engineers say this violates Colorado’s law regarding exporting water across state lines. Rio Blanco says the water will benefit fish in the White River within Colorado and that they use the Watson gauge because there isn’t one between Taylor Draw dam in Rangely and the state line. Where exactly the fish will benefit from reservoir releases is a matter to be hashed out at trial.

    “The court finds that the location of beneficial use is a material fact in dispute,” O’Hara’s order reads. “The expert reports conflict and the characterization of how and where water is to be used vary.”

    Another point the parties can’t agree on is how much water from the proposed reservoir would be used by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. The program has not committed to a specific amount of water.

    A May 2019 letter from program director Tom Chart says the recovery program “does not know whether, or how much, allocated storage in the project or other White River basin projects may be needed in order to offset depletion effects to the endangered species to assist in the recovery of the endangered fish.”

    But, as O’Hara points out, the letter does not say the program will not need water from a future Wolf Creek reservoir.

    “The letter creates a material fact in dispute, one more suitable for resolution at trial,” O’Hara’s order reads.

    Also to be decided at trial is water use for hydroelectric power. State engineers say hydropower is not an independent use and depends on the court granting the other water uses. They say that if the other uses are dismissed, then hydropower should be dismissed too. But Rio Blanco says water should be stored in the reservoir specifically for hydropower generation and should not be contingent on other uses.

    The trial is scheduled to begin [Thursday, January 7, 2021] in Routt County District Court in Steamboat Springs.

    Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Dec. 31 edition of The Aspen Times.

    Toxic algae blooms in reservoirs near Steamboat detected thanks to new state protocol — @AspenJournalism

    Steamboat Lake, shown here in late August, was closed for two weeks last summer after toxins were detected above harmful levels. Toxic, blue-green algae blooms have been found in Routt County reservoirs each of the past two summers. Photo credit: Juli Arington/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Natalie Keltner-McNeil):

    Since state officials began a more focused monitoring effort six years ago to detect toxic algae blooms in Colorado’s lakes and reservoirs, testing has documented harmful levels of such toxins three times on the Western Slope.

    Two of those toxic blooms occurred in Routt County reservoirs — first at Stagecoach Reservoir in 2019 and then at Steamboat Lake last summer, which was the first year that state park managers were required to regularly test for toxic algae. Results showing bacteria above state thresholds caused a two-week swimming closure at the popular state park.

    Since 2014, toxic algae has been discovered in nine Front Range lakes or reservoirs, while the only other Western Slope bloom was found in 2018 at Fruitgrowers Reservoir in Delta County.

    More research is needed to determine the causes of these recent blooms. But an increase in testing due to more stringent Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) toxic algae monitoring protocol, a history of ranching around and on reservoir land, and climate change are probably contributing to the increase in recorded toxic blooms on the Western Slope.

    Steamboat Lake State Park manager Julie Arington said the updated CPW monitoring and testing guidelines influenced the discovery of the toxic bloom last summer. The new guidelines, which were updated going into the season, require park managers to regularly test for toxins May through September, according to CPW officials.

    “It may have been there before (this year), but we just didn’t notice it. We hadn’t been testing for it,” Arington said. But in mid-August, when water temperatures were at their warmest, toxin levels were found to be above the recently-established thresholds and park managers shut down the lake to swimming for two weeks, until winds and cooler temperatures slowed the blooms down.

    Blue-green algae that populate lakes in and of themselves are not harmful and form the basis of the riparian food web. Under certain conditions, however, the algae multiply rapidly, form blooms and produce toxins.

    Nutrients and warming cause these blooms, said Jill Baron, a research ecologist and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Period.”

    Toxic algae feed off phosphorus and nitrogen, nutrients sourced from fertilizers, vehicle emissions, sewage, soil, animal excrement and plant material. If ingested in levels above state health standards, the toxins cause sickness, liver and brain damage when ingested during recreational lake activity or when drinking contaminated water.

    Construction of Stagecoach Reservoir takes place in 1988. The U.S. Geological Survey has been collecting data on algae compositions in Stagecoach Reservoir and in the greater Yampa River watershed. Some suspect that the land’s ranching history, which loaded nutrients onto what would become the bottom of the reservoir, may be a factor. Photo credit: Bill Fetcher via Aspen Journalism

    Tracing Steamboat and Stagecoach nutrients

    Steamboat and Stagecoach reservoirs sit in the greater Yampa basin to the north and south, respectively, of Steamboat Springs. Steamboat Lake, which holds 23,064 acre-feet of water, is portioned off a creek that feeds into the Elk River, a tributary of the Yampa. Stagecoach, which holds 36,439 acre-feet of water, is a dammed section of the Yampa River.

    Nutrients deposited at the bottom of both reservoirs from decades of ranching probably contribute to the blue-green algae blooms. By the early 1880s, settlers were ranching in the Yampa Valley, including the lands that would become Stagecoach and Steamboat reservoirs, said Katie Adams, curator for the Tread of Pioneers museum.

    The future site of Steamboat Lake is shown here in 1949. The barn pictured was owned by the Wheeler family, one of several families who ranched the land before it was bought by brothers John and Stanton Fetcher. John Fetcher proposed the construction of Steamboat Lake, which was built in 1967 and funded by the operators of Hayden power station and the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. Photo via Bill Fetcher and Aspen Journalism

    Steamboat Lake was constructed in 1967 with funds from the operators of Hayden Station power plant and the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. It became a state park in 1972.

    The former ranch lands where Stagecoach is today were bought in 1971 by the Woodmoor Corporation, which planned to build a residential and recreational community with ski areas and golf courses, but the company went bankrupt in 1974. The site was later bought and developed by the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and power companies, which funded the reservoir’s construction in 1988. So, for decades leading up to the post-war era, cattle excrement was enriching the reservoir lands with nitrogen and phosphorus — nutrients that fuel the growth of blue-green algae.

    Those involved in planning and constructing Stagecoach Reservoir were told algae blooms were a likelihood, said Stagecoach State Park manager Craig Preston.

    “Even when they were going through the (construction) processes, they were told there would likely be algae situations, because of the nutrients in the soil,” Preston said.

    Baron agrees that nutrients at the bottom of both lakes probably contribute to the blooms.

    “They basically took a meadow and turned it into a lake. So, all that vegetation and organic matter on the bottom of that meadow is slowly decomposing and putting its nutrients into the lake itself,” Baron said.

    Researchers are focusing on the region to determine which specific sources of nitrogen and phosphorus prompt harmful algal growth. The USGS has been collecting data on algae compositions in Stagecoach Reservoir and in the greater Yampa River watershed and will analyze possible sources of blue-green algae as part of the report, USGS hydrologist Cory Williams said. The results of the study will be published in February or March, according to Williams.

    Toxic-algae blooms appeared in Steamboat Lake last summer. The lake shut down for two weeks after harmful levels of a toxin produced by the blue-green algae were found in the water. As climate change continues, toxic blooms and summer shutdowns of lakes are predicted to become more common. Photo credit: Julie Arington/Aspen Journalism

    Origins and evolution of state protocol and monitoring

    CPW began drafting toxic-algae protocol the summer of 2014, after a local agency found microcystin — a toxin commonly produced by blue-green algae — in Denver’s Cherry Creek Reservoir, said CPW Water Quality Coordinator Mindi May.

    “At the time, we didn’t know what the numbers meant. So, we started looking around for state or federal thresholds, and there just weren’t any,” May said.

    That same summer, a toxic bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water of 400,000 residents, forcing officials in Toledo, Ohio, to cut off water for three days. After these two events, May asked Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment staff to develop toxic-algae thresholds for drinking water and recreation, and traveled to state parks in 2015 to encourage staff to test for — and monitor — toxic algae during summer months.

    CDPHE developed protocol and thresholds for toxic algae in 2016, based on Environmental Protection Agency standards created in 2014. The thresholds dictate the maximum amount of toxins that lakes can contain, including 8 micrograms per liter for microcystin and saxitoxin, and 15 micrograms per liter for anatoxin and cylindrospermopsin. If lakes cross this threshold, state park managers must post danger signs and close the lake to activities involving bodily contact with the water until tests show that toxins fall below harmful levels, May said.

    In 2018, the CDPHE developed a database to compile monitoring and testing efforts in Colorado reservoirs and track the occurrence of toxic-algae blooms since 2014. Data from park managers’ toxin tests are included, along with data collected by CDPHE officials and other local and federal agencies, said MaryAnn Nason, CDPHE’s communications and special projects unit manager.

    “We really learned a lot in those early years, and we have a lot more resources now to monitor and test for toxins,” May said of CPW’s and CDPHE’s efforts.

    The Yampa River winds through hay meadows in the Yampa Valley in 1987, prior to construction of the dam that formed Stagecoach Reservoir. Photo credit: Bill Fetcher via Aspen Journalism

    Western lakes lack data but will feel burn of climate change

    CDPHE data shows an increase in toxic blooms from 2014 to 2020 and hints that these blooms are spreading west. Last summer recorded seven toxic blooms, compared with four in 2019 and one in 2018. Yet, increases could also be due to increased monitoring and testing over the years and due to the new 2020 protocol. For instance, 52 lakes were monitored for toxic algae in 2014, compared with 73 last summer.

    More data is needed to determine how climate change and nutrients will interact to produce toxic blooms, and determine the impacts this will have on drinking water and summer recreation for high country and Western Slope lakes.

    It is likely that climate change will spur more toxic blooms in the West. In a 2017 study of 27 Rocky Mountain lakes, researchers project that climate change will cause average annual lake-surface temperatures to increase 41% by 2080, with dramatically warmer water in the summer and 5.9 fewer ice-free days with each passing decade.

    Warmer lakes create a widened window for toxic algae to bloom. A separate national study, also from 2017, predicts that rising air temperatures and the resultant warmer waters will increase toxic-bloom occurrence from an average of seven days per year in U.S reservoirs now to 16-23 days in 2050 and 18-39 days in 2090.

    Long-term solutions for current and future blooms include placing limits on greenhouse gas, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus emissions, Baron said. Short-term solutions include waiting for blue-green algae to stop producing toxins and keeping visitors out of the water while they do, said May.

    As frosty temperatures inhibit algal growth, Steamboat and Stagecoach park managers get a break from thinking about the turquoise-tinted toxins. In May, they’ll start the second season of following the parks’ new protocol, May said.

    Regarding last summer’s toxic bloom, Steamboat Lake State Park’s Arington said, “I think this won’t be the last year that we see it.”

    This story ran in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Dec. 31.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    DWR and Rio Blanco looking to settle ahead of water court, January 4, 2020 trial date pushed to January 7th, while parties iron out details

    Depositions delve into state engineers’ questions on proposed #WhiteRiver reservoir — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GreenRiver #aridification

    Kenney Reservoir, located just east of Rangely in late October, has a picnic area. Kenney Reservoir is silting in, and the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District is proposing building a new off-channel reservoir upstream on the White River, but the state’s top engineers are opposed to the project. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    As its trial date in water court approaches, hundreds of pages of depositions obtained by Aspen Journalism reveal state engineers’ sticking points regarding a proposed reservoir project they oppose in northwest Colorado.

    Over a few days in November, state attorneys subpoenaed and interviewed several expert witnesses and the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District manager in the White River storage-project case, also known as the Wolf Creek project. Their questions centered on the town of Rangely’s water needs and on whether water is needed for irrigation.

    The documents, obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request, also underscore the extent to which fear of a compact call is shaping this proposed dam and reservoir project between Meeker and Rangely.

    The Rangely-based Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District is applying for a conditional water-storage right to build a 66,720-acre-foot, off-channel reservoir using water from the White River to be stored in the Wolf Creek drainage, behind a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long. It would involve pumping water uphill from the river into the reservoir.

    There also is an option for a 72,720-acre-foot on-channel reservoir, although this scale of project is now rare in Colorado. Rio Blanco has said they prefer the off-channel option.

    For more than five years, top state water engineers have repeatedly said the project is speculative because Rio Blanco has not proven a need for water above its current supply.

    Despite Rio Blanco reducing its claim for water by more than 23,000 acre-feet from its initial proposal of 90,000 acre-feet, state engineers still say the water-right application should be denied in its entirety. After failing to reach a settlement, the case is scheduled for a 10-day trial in January. Division 6 Engineer Erin Light and top state engineers Kevin Rein and Tracy Kosloff are the sole opposers in this case.

    Rio Blanco already operates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely on the White River. But it is silting in at an average of 300 acre-feet per year and is nearing the end of its useful life, according to court documents.

    This map shows the potential locations of the proposed White River storage project, also known as the Wolf Creek project, on the White River between Rangely and Meeker. State engineers oppose the project, saying the applicants have not proven a need for the water. Map credit: Colorado Division of Water Resources

    Irrigation needs?

    A main point of contention between Rio Blanco and state engineers is whether there will be an increased need for irrigation water in the future. Rio Blanco claims it needs 7,000 acre-feet per year for irrigation.

    During the depositions, state attorneys questioned Rio Blanco manager Alden Vanden Brink about the need for irrigation water. He claimed there is a local boom in agriculture and that there is high-value farmland that is not being irrigated simply because of a lack of water. Vanden Brink said happiness for residents on the lower White River will increase with access to irrigation water from the proposed reservoir, adding that if irrigation water is made available, demand for it will increase.

    “It will make water available in the lower White River so that people can increase their quality of life and have a garden, you can have a few pigs,” Vanden Brink’s deposition reads. “It’s just going to be improvement all the way around.”

    But details were sketchy on what specific lands would be irrigated and the district’s plan to get water from the reservoir to irrigators. State engineers, in a subsequent trial brief, say that just because there are lands that might benefit from irrigation doesn’t mean there will be future increased demand. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come.

    “Instead, the premise that there will be a demand for water if the water right is granted is exactly the sort of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy of growth’ prohibited under Colorado’s anti-speculation doctrine,” the state’s trial brief reads.

    Engineers also say Rio Blanco has not identified how the reservoir, situated low in the White River basin, would serve the majority of irrigated acres located upstream.

    “For instance, Rio Blanco has not identified any pipeline construction or other water project works that could run water up to these other locations,” the state trial brief reads.

    Taylor Draw Dam holds back the White River to form Kenney Reservoir, located near Rangely. The reservoir is silting in, and a water conservancy district is proposing building a bigger, upstream, off-channel reservoir, a project that is opposed by the state of Colorado. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    Rangely’s water needs

    Rio Blanco and the state also disagree about the amount of water needed for Rangely, a high-desert town of about 2,300 people near the Utah border. Rangely takes its municipal water from the White River.

    In their depositions, Vanden Brink and Gary Thompson, an expert witness and engineer with W.W. Wheeler and Associates, refer to “cow water” as the source of Rangely’s water issues.

    According to Vanden Brink, who also is the town’s former utilities supervisor, when flows in the White River drop to around 100 cubic feet per second, water quality becomes impaired. That can include increased algae growth, decreased dissolved oxygen, increased alkalinity and increased mineral contaminants, which require more treatment, he said.

    “If you want to look at that water and how you can take that water and make it potable, forgive me, but it looks worse than cow water,” Vanden Brink said in his deposition. “I know if I was a cow, I wouldn’t want to drink it. It’s pretty degraded; it’s pretty muddy, it’s bubbly, it’s gross. And there’s a reason Rangely’s got the extensive treatment that it does.”

    In an April letter to Rio Blanco, Town Manager Lisa Piering and Utilities Director Don Reed said Rangely would commit to contract for at least 2,000 acre-feet of storage for municipal use after the reservoir is built. According to expert reports, Rangely’s current demands are 784 acre-feet per year.

    Project proponents say that increased flows from reservoir releases will dilute contaminants and improve water quality at the town’s intake.

    But this argument doesn’t work for state engineers, who say that the water Rio Blanco says Rangely needs is not based on projected population growth and that Rio Blanco has not analyzed whether the town’s existing water supplies would be sufficient to meet future demands.

    “Rio Blanco at trial may attempt to offer evidence regarding needs based on water quality, but Rio Blanco has not disclosed any evidence quantifying the amount of water Rangely would need for that purpose,” the trial brief reads.

    One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    Colorado River Compact influence

    Depositions and water court documents reveal how water managers’ and experts’ fear — and expectation — of a compact call could influence the project proposal.

    According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper-basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet a year to Lake Powell for use by the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). If the upper basin doesn’t make this delivery, the lower basin can “call” for its water, triggering involuntary cutbacks in water use for the upper basin.

    Water managers and policymakers admit that no one knows how it would play out just yet, but risk of this hypothetical scenario becoming reality is increasing as drought and rising temperatures — both fueled by climate change — decrease flows into Lake Powell.

    Water managers are especially worried that those with junior water rights, meaning those later than 1922, will be the first to be curtailed. Senior water rights that existed prior to the compact are generally thought to be exempt from compact curtailment.

    Many water users in the White River basin, including the towns of Rangely and Meeker, have water rights that are junior to the compact, meaning the users could bear the brunt of involuntary cutbacks in the event of a compact call.

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

    According to Rio Blanco’s trial brief, “there is significant risk of a compact curtailment in the next 25 years that could negatively impact 45% of the water used in the district.”

    In his deposition in response to questions from Rio Blanco attorney Alan E. Curtis, Thompson said drought scenarios will get worse in the future, the White River will be more strictly administered and a compact call is likely to occur.

    “Things are — in my opinion — drought conditions are increasingly pervasive,” he said.

    But state engineers say that augmentation use in the event of a compact call is not a beneficial use under Colorado water law and is inherently speculative. Compact compliance and curtailment are issues to be sorted out by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the state engineer, not individual water users or conservancy districts, they say. The state of Colorado is currently exploring a concept called demand management, which could pay water users to use less water in an effort to boost levels in Lake Powell.

    According to their trial brief, state engineers say that while the desire to plan for compact administration is understandable, “the significant uncertainties involved in future compliance under the Colorado River Compact mean that Rio Blanco cannot show a specific plan to control a specific quantity of water for augmentation in the event of compact curtailment.”

    The trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 4 in Routt County District Court in Steamboat Springs. Among the witnesses that Rio Blanco plans to call are Colorado River Water Conservation District Manager Andy Mueller, Colorado Water Conservation Board Chief Operating Officer Anna Mauss and Rio Blanco County Commissioner Gary Moyer.

    Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Dec. 26 edition of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily, and the Dec. 28 edition of Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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

    #Water districts prep for extended #drought period — The Rio Blanco Herald-Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #WhiteRiver #aridification #GreenRiver

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

    On Nov. 30 Governor Jared Polis sent a “memorandum of drought emergency” to executive directors of state government departments. The memo marks the beginning of phase 3 “full plan activation” of the state’s Drought Mitigation and Response Plan.

    The memo said “deep and persistent drought conditions” had covered the state for 15 weeks, noting that this level of drought had not been observed since 2013. It also activated the “Municipal Water Impact Task Force,” chaired by members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Department of Local Affairs.

    The memo states: “The initial objective of the Task Force is for water suppliers to coordinate with each other and the state going into winter to prepare for anticipated drought-related challenges and opportunities in 2021.”

    “So it’s telling you to get planning for a drought, which is what your water conservancy districts, Yellow Jacket and the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy districts are attempting to do” said Alden Vanden Brink, District Manager for the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District.

    During a Dec. 14 Board of County Commissioners work session, he spoke about the Governor’s memo and its implications for the basin. “I’ve been following up on this quite a bit trying to make sure they understand that there is no drought contingency within our White River basin,” he said.

    By drought contingency, Vanden Brink was referring to storage, of which he said there is very little in the basin. “You’re looking at just a couple of days worth of water, literally,” said Vanden Brink, later adding “we have a real problem with the lack of storage in our basin, a real problem, and it makes us extremely vulnerable.”

    A view of the White River foreground, and the Wolf Creek gulch, across the river. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State of Colorado are headed to a water court trial because they can’t agree on whether the district actually needs the water it claims it does for a reservoir and dam project at this site. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

    That vulnerability, though not exactly new to the basin, is growing more urgent. Colorado’s record drought in 2020 was just the beginning of a more long term trend, according to leading climatologists and groups like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)…

    That planning includes preparations for an upcoming water court lawsuit set to begin in the first week of January. “It’s to get a conditional water right to construct a reservoir for drought contingency within the White River basin.” said Vanden Brink, referring to the Wolf Creek Reservoir, also known as the White River Storage project. The project would store between 66,000 and 73,000 acre feet of water, depending on the exact location.

    In an expert report submitted earlier this year, state engineers contested that Rio Blanco had failed to identify the need for that much water. Ultimately that disagreement is what prompted the lawsuit between the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State’s Division of Water Resources.

    Adding to his message of urgency, Vanden Brink talked about proposed “demand management” strategies which are likely to become more prevalent in coming years. “What they’re looking at doing is paying a rancher to idle his field for a given period of time, and allow that water to flow by,” said Vanden Brink, noting that the development of those strategies was a changing dynamic. Although he didn’t speak negatively about the concept in general, he was concerned about its potential impact in the region. “Not allowing that water to go be used for flood irrigation….flood irrigation is what recharges our groundwater aquifer. That’s taking away from that groundwater aquifer what little storage we have, which is the aquifer” said Vanden Brink.

    He argues that given the lack of existing storage, and thus lack of drought contingency in the basin, the Governor’s memorandum of drought emergency provides more legitimacy to Rio Blanco’s proposed reservoir project.

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

    Here’s What It Takes To Keep #ColoradoRiver Fish From Going Extinct — KUNC #COriver

    From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

    The Colorado River is one of the most engineered river systems in the world. Over millions of years, the living creatures that call the river home have adapted to its natural variability, of seasonal highs and lows. But for the last century, they have struggled to keep up with rapid change in the river’s flows and ecology.

    Dams throughout the watershed create barriers and alter flows that make life hard for native fish. Toss in 70 non-native fish species, rapidly growing invasive riparian plants and a slurry of pollutants, and the problem of endangered fish recovery becomes even more complex. The river system is home to four fish species currently listed as endangered: the razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail and humpback chub.

    For decades, millions of dollars have been spent on boosting populations of the river’s fish species on the brink of extinction. While scientists are learning what helps some species survive in the wild, others are still struggling.

    Ouray National Fish Hatchery. Photo credit: USFWS

    “Darling little divas”

    Much of the work of keeping these fish from going extinct is centered in a handful of hatcheries scattered throughout the West. One such hatchery, the Ouray National Fish Hatchery, is situated along the Green River in eastern Utah. It’s a squat, unassuming building next to a series of ponds where two of the river’s endangered fish — the bonytail and razorback sucker — are raised.

    Inside, the room is filled with aqua-colored tubs of water. A pipe feeds each tub with fresh water and creates a whirlpool, simulating a river’s flow. Above the tubs, lights automatically dim up and down to give the fish some semblance of a sunrise, high noon and sunset.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Matt Fry peers into one of the tubs and warns not to do it too quickly to keep from stressing them out. “When they see you, they’ll scatter,” he said.

    Fry is the acting manager of this hatchery. This kiddie pool-sized tub is full of bonytail, so named for their slender, tapered bodies.

    “I call these guys my darling little divas because you really got to treat them with kid gloves,” Fry said.

    A couple decades ago, bonytail were nearly extinct, the last few scooped up from Lake Mohave in the Colorado River’s lower reaches. Hatcheries like this one have kept them alive, while scientists tried to figure out the best way to help them survive and overcome the challenges humans keep throwing at them out in the wild…

    “Hurdles to overcome”

    That is the question for Tildon Jones, Fry’s colleague at the Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s a habitat coordinator for the agency, and looks for ways to help the endangered fish complete their life cycle in the wild, not just rely on people to keep raising them in hatcheries.

    On a bluff overlooking the Green River near the hatchery, Jones points out the features of a riverside wetland. The river — a majority tributary to the Colorado — makes a narrow U-shaped bend, and in the middle is a wetland.

    “The river would come up and flood these areas regularly in the past,” Jones said, pointing to the lines of cottonwood trees over a chorus of sandhill cranes that has taken up residence nearby.

    Green River Basin

    This stretch of the Green, with its abundance of low-lying wetlands, used to be a haven for the razorback sucker, known for its bony hump and down-turned vacuum-like mouth. The fish adapted to the Colorado River’s wild swings between high and low flows by spawning just before its annual spring snowmelt rise. Those flood waters would carry the tiny, just-born fish into protected riverside ponds to grow. At that point, the larval fish look like a grain of rice with two black dots for eyes…

    But the Green River hasn’t acted like its former self in more than 50 years. The Flaming Gorge Dam just upstream holds back those flood waters, and regulates the river’s flow, making the tiny razorbacks less likely to end up in wetlands, and more vulnerable to non-native fish that gobble them up…

    The fish don’t just have one thing working against them, but a confluence of factors keeping them from thriving. If it were just the restricted, regulated flows or just the addition of non-native fish predators, the problem might be easier to solve, Jones said.

    Since 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service along with other partners in the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program have turned their focus to managing wetlands to give razorbacks a better chance of reproducing in the wild, and giving juvenile fish the opportunity to grow.

    Canals move river water into the wetland during high flows, or coordinated releases from Flaming Gorge reservoir, and metal screens keep out the predatory fish. Researchers can then keep an eye on the growing razorbacks before releasing them back into the river.

    After seeing some initial success in this approach, and seeing adult razorback populations stabilize due to stocking, Jones’s agency is proposing to move razorbacks from an endangered status to threatened…

    Katie Creighton and Zach Ahrens both native aquatics biologists for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) standing on the temporary Matheson screen. The Nature Conservancy and UDWR partnered together to build the structure to allow the endangered razorback sucker larvae to enter the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve without the predators also coming in. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer via Utah Public Radio

    Reconnecting the river to its wetlands

    After seeing managed wetlands demonstrate successes on the Green River, The Nature Conservancy’s Linda Whitham says it made sense to replicate the idea on a stretch of the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. The environmental group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River reporting.

    On a warm fall day, big yellow dump trucks moved dirt, excavated as part of a pond expansion at the Matheson Wetlands Preserve. A deepened channel and water control structure with a screen to keep out the predatory fish were also added.

    Community Agriculture Alliance: The mighty #YampaRiver, our valley’s livelihood #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

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

    Here’s a guest column that’s running in the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Gena Hinkemeyer):

    Did you know that Colorado’s Water Plan calls for 80% of locally prioritized rivers to be covered by a stream management plan by 2030? Yes, that includes our Yampa River Basin.

    The Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable is one of nine grassroots water policy roundtables throughout Colorado working to develop locally driven collaborative solutions to water supply challenges. The roundtable’s Integrated Water Management Plan will combine community input with science and engineering assessments to identify actions that protect existing and future water uses and support healthy river ecosystems in the face of growing populations, changing land uses and climate uncertainty.

    So where do we begin with the IWMP process? Why not start with the biggest users of water here in the basin, our agricultural stakeholders. Stakeholders have been clear that agricultural infrastructure is in need of improvement, but there is limited documentation about specific needs. Stakeholder engagement is the most important factor to successful IWMPs. That’s where I come into play.

    As a segment coordinator for the project, I am reaching out to our agricultural users to listen and learn from them about their use of water and riverside lands, plus their management concerns and opportunities they may see for improvements. I wasn’t really sure what my job would entail. I had visions of field work and lots of interaction with ranchers. Our work was delayed by COVID-19 restrictions, but we were able to roll with the punches and conduct our interviews over the phone.

    Virus or not, ranchers still had to irrigate their fields, so we found a way to continue our work. As it turns out, I learned more about irrigation and the effects irrigation has on our community than I ever thought possible. From the headgates of the Yampa all the way down to the confluence of the Green River, our team chose 50 water diversion structures for assessment.

    What does a diversion assessment entail, you might ask? A technical team, J-U-B Engineering out of Grand Junction, conducted site visits on the 50 river structures. The site visit included a field inspection of the river headgate, ditch conditions, inventory and assessment of control structures, measurement devices and level of functionality, overall structural integrity and diversion functionality, along with the ability of the structure to divert a wide range of flows.

    The results of the diversion assessment will benefit irrigators by providing a technical evaluation of their structure, including suggestions of ways to improve or modify the structure, if needed. The roundtable will use the information along with a combination of other studies regarding river health and recreation to select future priorities and action planning.

    As the work of the IWMP continues, the assessments will also support regional decision making regarding multi-benefit projects — those that overlap agriculture, environment and recreation. Working on the IWMP has opened my eyes to how important agriculture and water are to this community. It’s our livelihood and our heritage.

    For more information on the IWMP project, visit yampawhitegreen.com/iwmp.

    Gena Hinkemeyer is segment coordinator for the Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable Integrated Water Management Plan.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    #Utah’s state engineer rejects plan to divert #GreenRiver water for #Colorado entrepreneur — The #SaltLake Tribune #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #endangeredspecies

    The entrance to the popular Gates of Lodore stretch on the Green River, not far downstream from where Aaron Million of Ft. Collins has proposed to divert 55,000 acre-feet of water from the river each year and pipe it to the Front Range. There’s plenty of opposition to the idea, but there is also interest in the water in eastern Colorado.

    From The Salt Lake Tribune (Brian Maffly):

    Utah State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen has rejected a controversial proposal to divert 55,000 acre-feet of the Green River’s flow from Utah to Colorado’s fast-growing Front Range cities.

    A detail of a map produced by Water Horse Resources, and published by the state of Utah, showing the proposed diversion point on the Green River, between Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the Gates of Lodore in Dinosaur National Monument. The red and white line represents a pipeline that heads northeast out of Utah, across a corner of Colorado, and into Wyoming, where it joins an alignment of another potential pipeline that is connected to the Green above Flaming Gorge.

    Colorado entrepreneur Aaron Million has been pursuing this idea for more than a decade, resurrecting his pipeline proposal in 2018 after two prior failed attempts at approval. This time his firm White Horse Resources proposed a scaled-down pipeline tapping the Green below Flaming Gorge Dam at Browns Park and running 325 miles underground to Denver. Dubbed the “Green Sun Storage Hydro Power Project,” it would generate hydropower along its 3,800-foot decent from the Continental Divide to the Front Range.

    Wilhelmsen found the proposal ran counter to policies Utah has been pursuing for decades regarding the recovery of endangered species of fish and the Beehive State’s own interest in developing its share of water in the Colorado River system…

    Meanwhile, Wilhelmsen is considering Utah’s own proposal to substantially alter an 86,000-acre-foot water right associated with Flaming Gorge, moving the point of diversion downstream to feed the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline.

    At a hearing before the state engineer two years ago, Million likened his project to the 140-mile pipeline across southern Utah to St. George, claiming there was sufficient flows in the Green to accommodate both diversions.

    The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has previously twice turned down similar Green River diversions proposed by Million.

    “This [latest] decision is a big win for the Green River as well as the people and endangered fish that depend on it,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the state engineer’s decision is the final nail in the coffin of this absurdly greedy, irresponsible plan.”

    [….]

    Diverting the water at Browns Park would have undermined costly efforts underway to rescue some of the Green’s native fish, McKinnon and other environmentalists argued.

    Click here to read the order.

    Green River Basin

    #SteamboatSprings: City, Botanic Park partner to help mountain whitefish spawn in Fish Creek — Steamboat Pilot & Today

    this 16 inch long Mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni) was caught and released in the McKenzie River near the town of Blue River, Oregon on September 1, 2007. By Woostermike at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by OhanaUnited., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5099696

    From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Shelby Reardon):

    As a Yampa River Botanic Park team member, [Jeff] Morehead removes the diversion dam on Fish Creek under U.S. Highway 40 every year. The water flows through two arches under the road, and the dam keeps the water level high enough in one of them so water diverts to the Yampa River Botanic Park.

    Each fall after Halloween, the park closes and Morehead removes the dam. This year, as requested by Steamboat Springs Water Resources Manager Kelly Romero-Heaney and Public Works City Engineer Ben Beall, Morehead removed the structure a bit earlier. Additionally, he created a wing dam of rock and fabric to divert the water through one arch instead of two, deepening the flow of water.

    “I was just happy to help,” said Morehead. “You could tell the fish were going right past me while I was doing it. I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is absolutely working.’”

    Without the diversion, waterflow through both arches isn’t deep enough to allow the fish to swim and jump through the box culvert steps. The middle arch has one large step of about 18 inches, according to Morehead, which would be nearly impossible for the fish to leap over.

    “It’s staircased in a way that the drops are like 18 inches and there’s a long flat that approaches the staircase, so the whitefish can’t really swim and get a jump over that 18 inches.”

    There used to be a third arch, but as of summer 2019, a sidewalk underpass filled the far right arch. That left the far left arch as the only viable option for fish to get upstream.

    With more water flowing through the arch, it allowed whitefish to swim upstream and spawn in the waters of Fish Creek. Development and low water levels have made it harder to access their main spawning tributary for the fish living in the headwaters of the Yampa. The whitefish spawn, or lay their eggs, in early to mid-October. The eggs will hatch in the spring before the waters reach their peak flow.

    As seen in a video taken and edited by Morehead, the whitefish seem to have utilized the access point to Fish Creek.

    Whitefish populations in the Yampa River Basin have been dwindling for years, so, as part of the Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan adopted in 2018, the city of Steamboat Springs vowed to “promote native fish populations from further decline and promote range expansion where possible.” The Fish Creek diversion is just one way the city is working to accomplish that task.

    The mountain whitefish isn’t endangered, but its numbers are falling in the Yampa River Basin, where it’s one of two native salmonids in the area, the other being cutthroat trout. The species is also found in Colorado in the White River Basin. They live in the Northwest in cool waters of high elevation streams, rivers and lakes, particularly in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

    While they are thriving in other areas of the country, including the White River Basin, they are struggling in the Yampa River Basin as noted in samples taken from the river every few years, most recently conducted by Billy Atkinson, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

    A huge reason for their decline is the non-native northern pike. Pike are predacious fish and feed on the whitefish. There have been efforts to control the pike population in the area, which is another goal of the Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan.

    Mountain whitefish are doing well in the White River, where there are no northern pike to prey on the native fish. There are other ecological factors that can be attributed to the whitefish’s success in the White River basin, but no pike is the biggest difference between that system and that of the Yampa River.

    Predation is just one issue plaguing the whitefish.

    The whitefish, which can grow up to 2 feet, loves cold water in high elevations. A 20-year drought in Colorado has brought on some particularly rough water years, though, lowering the flow in rivers across the state.

    The Yampa River was extremely low this year, closing to usage Sept. 2 when the streamflow dropped below 85 cubic feet per second. Shallower water is warmed by the sun far easier than deeper water, causing stress to fish that prefer cooler temperatures.

    Thankfully, there are already efforts in place to improve this on two fronts. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District releases water from Stagecoach Reservoir to improve river flow and prevent the loss of fish habitat when the water line lowers.

    Additionally, the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council and Retree have been planting young trees on the banks of the Yampa in designated spots. When they grow, the trees will provide shade to the river, helping maintain lower temperatures.

    This year, with water levels so low, the end of summer river closure extended into the fall to put less stress on the entire Yampa River ecological system. With low flow, fish, such as the mountain whitefish, concentrate in small pools due to limited resources.

    #WhiteRiver dam and reservoir project headed for water court trial — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GreenRiver #aridification

    A view of the White River between Meeker and Rangely. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State of Colorado are headed to a water court trial because they can’t agree on whether the district actually needs the water it claims it does for a reservoir and dam project. Photo credit: Brent Garndner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    A water court case is headed toward trial because the state of Colorado and a water conservancy district still cannot agree on whether the district actually needs the amount of water it claims it does for a large dam and reservoir project in the northwest corner of the state.

    Expert reports from an engineering firm, an aquatic ecologist and an economics firm outline how they say the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District can and will put its water storage rights to beneficial use. But even after Rio Blanco reduced the amount of water it’s asking for by more than 23,000 acre-feet, a report from Colorado’s top water engineers indicates the district still largely has a project in search of a need.

    In their expert report submitted Aug. 31, Deputy State Engineer Tracy Kosloff and Division 6 Engineer Erin Light outline 11 instances where they say Rio Blanco has not met the requirements of state law by showing it has a specific plan and intent for the water it says it needs.

    According to the report, Rio Blanco has not shown a need for water above its current supply in the categories of irrigation, municipal use, recreation, maintenance and recovery of endangered species or a back-up water supply to protect against a compact call. State engineers are asking that part or all of the water claimed for these uses be removed from the court’s final decree and deducted from the total water rights claim.

    A pre-trial readiness conference is scheduled for Nov. 13. The case is scheduled to go to a 10-day trial starting Jan. 4 in Routt County District Court in Steamboat Springs, but the parties could still reach a settlement before then.

    In 2014 Rio Blanco applied for a 90,000 acre-foot conditional water-storage right on the White River and proposed a dam and reservoir between Rangely and Meeker, known as the White River storage project or the Wolf Creek project. The district has now reduced that claim to either 66,720 acre-feet for an off-channel reservoir or 72,720 acre-feet for an on-channel reservoir.

    There are two proposed versions of the project: one that would construct a dam and reservoir on the White River (the scale of this project is now rare in Colorado) or an off-channel reservoir at the bottom of Wolf Creek gulch, in the arid sagebrush hills just north of the river.

    The conservancy district would prefer to build the off-channel option: a 66,720-acre-foot reservoir, with a dam that is 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long. An off-channel reservoir would involve pumping water uphill from the river into the reservoir.

    Rio Blanco is a taxpayer-supported special district that was formed in 1992 to operate and maintain Taylor Draw Dam, which creates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely. The district extends roughly from the Yellow Creek confluence with the White River to the Utah state line.

    A view looking downstream of the White River in the approximate location of the potential White River dam and reservoir. The right edge of the dam, looking downstream, would be against the brown hillside to the right of the photo. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

    Disputed amounts and uses

    Rio Blanco says the project should store 7,000 acre-feet annually for irrigation. But Light and Kosloff’s report says according to the 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan, the irrigated acres in the White River Basin are projected to decrease in the future, and that this storage project, because it is situated low in the basin, cannot serve the majority of the irrigated lands anyway, which are concentrated upstream along the mainstem of the White River near Meeker and along tributaries like Piceance Creek.

    “Per the proposed decree, the applicant is once again requesting the court award irrigation use,” the engineer’s expert report reads. “The engineers continue to contend there is no evidence to suggest that there is a future water need for this purpose.”

    Rio Blanco says some of the water would also be used in a future augmentation plan to replace depletions within the district that are out of priority due to a Colorado River Compact curtailment.

    Rio Blanco is proposing that 11,887 acre-feet per year be stored as “augmentation,” or insurance in case of a compact call. According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet a year to Lake Powell for use by the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). If the upper basin doesn’t make this delivery, the lower basin can “call” for its water, triggering involuntary cutbacks in water use for the upper basin.

    By releasing this replacement water stored in the proposed reservoir to meet these compact obligations, it would allow other water uses in the district to continue and avoid the mandatory cutbacks in the event of a compact call.

    But state engineers say compact compliance is a problem to be tackled by the state and not individual water users. And since no one knows exactly how compact compliance would unfold (that’s still to be decided by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the state engineer) it’s not possible for Rio Blanco to have a plan in place for this augmentation water.

    Light and Kosloff’s report says there is no recognized beneficial use that allows a water right “to provide water to users outside of Colorado for the purpose of allowing ongoing diversions of water rights within Colorado.”

    Rio Blanco claims it needs three years-worth of drought contingency storage for uses within the basin. But state engineers say that there has never been a call on the White River below the town of Meeker, even in the driest years, and the likelihood of the reservoir being able to fill during the runoff season every year is extremely high. Light and Kosloff point out that not even Denver Water or Aurora Water have three times their annual demand in reserve.

    The state also says Rio Blanco has overestimated the amount of water the town of Rangely will need, and that the need for the full amount claimed for recreation water is unsubstantiated, as is the need for water for the recovery of endangered fish species.

    A view of the White River foreground, and the Wolf Creek gulch, across the river. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State of Colorado are headed to a water court trial because they can’t agree on whether the district actually needs the water it claims it does for a reservoir and dam project at this site. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

    No comment from engineers, district officials

    State engineers declined to talk to Aspen Journalism about their expert report.

    Rio Blanco District Manager Alden Vanden Brink also declined to comment on the state’s opposition, citing concerns about litigation. Vanden Brink also is chair of the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

    But another roundtable member says the project doesn’t hold water. Deirdre Macnab owns 4M Ranch, which is adjacent to the proposed project site, and was until recently the sole remaining opposer in the case. She recently pulled out of the formal water court process, citing mounting legal costs, but still opposes the project.

    “Families living in western Rio Blanco County should be aware that a project that the professionals say doesn’t show any justification would put them in debt for years, and not just paying for the hundreds of millions in construction costs, but also almost a million dollars every year in electricity costs to pump the water up and over the dam,” Macnab said in a written statement. “Do Rio Blanco citizens really think this is in our economic best interests?”

    Despite the state opposing the current project proposal, since 2013 it has also given roughly $850,000 to Rio Blanco in the form of Colorado Water Conservation Board grants to study the project. The Colorado River Water Conservation District has also given Rio Blanco $50,000 to investigate the feasibility of the project.

    River District General Manager Andy Mueller said the multi-purpose water uses outlined in the project is the way water projects should be put together.

    “Identifying the right-size project for the White River is still very important,” he said. “The specifics about the White River storage project as it’s currently proposed I think are things that still need to be worked out.”

    Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Oct. 6 edition of The Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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

    Water released from Elkhead Reservoir lifts call on Yampa River — @AspenJournalism #YampaRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The second-ever call on the Yampa River was lifted on Sept. 3. The river is shown here as it flows through Hayden on August 3, 2020. Photo credit: Allen Best/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best):

    The second-ever call on the Yampa River was lifted [August 3, 2020] morning after a trio of water providers announced the release of up to 1,500 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to support irrigators in the Yampa River Valley and endangered fish.

    The latest call was placed on the Yampa River on Aug. 25. The first call was in the late summer of 2018, also after an uncommonly hot, dry summer. The release of the water has ended the immediate need for water administration, allowing irrigators who had been legally prevented from taking water to resume diversions.

    Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association has begun releasing 500 acre-feet of its water, and the Colorado River District is releasing another 750 acre-feet of water that it controls from the reservoir near Hayden.

    A third organization, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust, will use money from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to support the upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s contract for additional water in Elkhead in 2020. The Colorado Water Trust also has raised private funds to support a potential release of 250 acre-feet of water to provide in-channel flows for endangered fish species in the Yampa.

    Water will continue to be released from Elkhead Reservoir, as necessary, through September. Rain, snow and cloud cover could suppress demand.

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

    Irrigators, fish feeling the heat

    A statement from the River District and Tri-State emphasized the intention of helping irrigators.

    “Agriculture producers in the western U.S. currently are being hit with the triple threat of drought, low prices and pandemic restrictions, so anything we can do to ease the burden of farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley is something we are willing and honored to do,” said Duane Highley, CEO at Tri-State, the operator of coal-fired power plants near Craig.

    Andy Mueller, the general manager of the River District, echoed that theme.

    “We hope these actions help alleviate the depth and severity of ranchers being curtailed and allow some of them to turn their pumps back on to grow more forage before winter,” he said.

    “It was a crazy hot and dry summer,” said Andy Schultheiss, the executive director of the Colorado Water Trust. “There was just nothing left in the river — or, at least, very, very little.”

    Schultheiss said the trust was interested in preserving habitat for fish and other species in the river, including fish in the lower reaches of the Yampa that are on the endangered species list. In August, the organization also contracted to release 500 acre-feet of water from the Stagecoach Reservoir, near Oak Creek, to ensure flows through Steamboat Springs.

    Impact of the releases was reflected Thursday afternoon at stream gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. The river above the confluence of Elkhead Creek was running 102 cubic feet per second. Bolstered by the reservoir releases, however, it was running 125 cfs downstream at Maybell. It was 95 cfs at Deer Lodge, located 115 river miles downstream from Elkhead Reservoir at the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, below several agricultural diversions.

    A warming climate of recent decades and the weather of the past year probably both played a role in 2020’s second-ever Yampa call.

    “August likely will end in the top 10 hottest and driest on record in the Yampa basin,” state climatologist Russ Schumacher said during an Aug. 25 webinar. “You see warmer-than-average temperatures everywhere except a couple of pockets in North Park.”

    Many areas were 4 to 6 degrees above average, and some pockets were even hotter. Fall and winter temperatures are more variable, which summer’s are much less so, said Schumacher. “Having 5 or 6 to 8 degrees above average in summer is quite remarkable,” he said.

    The River District’s Mueller nodded to this broader context.

    “As drought and low flows promise to persist, today’s cooperative actions could help us learn and plan for an uncertain water future,” he said.

    This recently installed Parshall flume in the Yampa River basin replaced the old, rusty device in the background. Division 6 engineer Erin Light is granting extensions to water users who work with her office to meet a requirement for measuring devices. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Heather Sackett

    Regulation is new reality

    What sets the Yampa River apart from other rivers in Colorado is its storied tradition: a river without administration. The contrast may be most stark with the South Platte, which drains the heavily populated towns and cities and still abundant farms on the northern Front Range. There, it’s barely an exaggeration to say that every drop is measured, ensuring that diverters are taking only as much water as to which they have rights.

    The Yampa has typically met the needs of all diverters, including those of irrigators, who are responsible for nearly all the water consumed in the Yampa River basin on an annual basis. Diverters were on an honor system to take no more than their allocated share of water.

    Putting a call on a river requires the sorting out of water rights under Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right hierarchy. Those with mostly older — and, therefore, senior rights — have first dibs but only to the amount they are allocated.

    The call placed on the river Aug. 25 was triggered by agriculture users lower on the river, at Lilly Park near Dinosaur National Monument. They were failing to get the river’s native flows to which they were entitled within their priority of 1963.

    To honor the seniority of those water rights, Erin Light, the division engineer, initiated a call on the river to ensure that the more senior right would get delivery of the water.

    Those affected were all water users upstream, even to the headwaters, with junior or more recent allocations. Junior water users are cut off to the amount necessary to satisfy the call, which could be partially or completely, as per the needs of the downstream user with the senior but unsatisfied allocation.

    Light last year announced that all water diverters must install headgates and measuring devices, to allow withdrawals to be controlled and measured. Some have done so, others have been given extensions and some others have failed to comply, she said. Those without headgates and measuring devices — even if they have a more senior water right — risk being cut off entirely when a call occurs.

    This push to measure diversions began at least a decade ago, after Light arrived in the Yampa Valley. One of those she persuaded was Jay Fetcher, who ranches along the Elk River, northwest of Steamboat Springs. He remembers some grumbling. The informal method had always worked. Now he’s glad he can prove he’s taking his allocated water — and no more.

    “Once we changed, we realized that it was a real plus,” Fetcher said. “We knew what we were doing with our water, and we could justify (our diversions), not only to ourselves, but to Erin and the state.”

    Jim Pokrandt, the director of community affairs for the River District, echoed that sentiment.

    “It’s in everybody’s best interest,” Pokrandt said, “to foster a solution that recognizes the reality, that doesn’t put agriculture out of business, while we are on the pathway to better water administration.”

    Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Sept. 7 edition of Steamboat Pilot & Today.

    As pressure to regulate #YampaRiver continues, locals raise cash to aid compliance effort — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver

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

    From the Fresh Water News (Jerd Smith):

    Nearly one year after the state ordered Yampa River water users to begin measuring their diversions from the iconic river, local community groups have raised more than $200,000 to help cash-strapped ranchers and others install the devices needed to comply with the law.

    According to Erin LIght, the top water regulator in the region, roughly 60 percent of diversion structures, about 1,760 in total, remain out of compliance in what is known as Colorado’s Water Division 6, which includes the Yampa, North Platte, White and Green river basins.

    Under state law, water users who do not measure their diversions can be subject to prosecution and have access to their water rights suspended, something the state has threatened to do but has not yet implemented.

    Local groups, including the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, have stepped up to help, creating a $200,000 grant fund to ensure those who are trying to comply can afford to do so.

    “Everyone is interested in getting the best infrastructure we can into the river,” said Holly Kirkpatrick, who is overseeing the grant program for the conservancy district. “A lot of different organizations are working very hard on this.”

    The Yampa River Fund, spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy, also plans to step in with funding should the need arise.

    “I envision that there will be a request for funding,” said fund manager Andy Baur, “and we are here to help.”

    This remote region in the northwest corner of the state for decades has had so much water that regulators rarely had to step in to ensure the rivers’ supplies were being properly distributed in accordance with state water law, something it does routinely in Colorado’s other major river basins. But as water shortages loom in the state, the Yampa is coming under increasing scrutiny.

    “People need to understand that if we find ourselves in another administrative situation [where the Yampa runs dry as it did in 2018], people need to know they will be shut off,” said Light, who oversees the region for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

    The picture is much different than even 20 years ago, when Yampa Valley ranchers and other water users with water rights were often able to divert as much as they wanted whenever they wanted because the river had huge flows and relatively few demands.

    Light, who oversees the Yampa and North Platte basins, as well as the Green and White river sub-basins, said the White River region has the most work to do to comply with the state’s order, with 83 percent, or 596, of its diversion structures taking water that is not being measured.

    On the Yampa River, 50 percent of diversion structures, or 900, remain unmeasured, Light said. In the North Platte, 34 percent, or 190, lack measuring devices, while in the Green 74, or 69 percent, of devices remain unmeasured, Light said.

    Because the White and Green sub-basins are so remote, and installing measuring devices can cost thousands of dollars, Light said she is giving water users there another year to comply with the order.

    At the same time, she said she has granted more than 100 extensions to water users who are trying to comply to give them more time to find funds and get the work done.

    Light said she is hopeful ranchers and others will begin to understand that measuring is no longer optional, and that those who begin recording their water use will have new opportunities as the entire Colorado River system, to which the Yampa, White and Green rivers are tributary, moves into a water-short future.

    Under at least one scenario now being studied, a large, statewide conservation program called demand management would pay ranchers and others to voluntarily forego their water diversions for a period of time. Options to receive payment for suspending use would only be available to those who have diversion records that demonstrate how much water they’ve historically used.

    “If someday we have an opportunity to [temporarily] dry up lands under a demand management program, their [actual water] use will be greatly in question because they have not measured their water. As demands get higher in the Colorado River, it’s going to behoove them to measure,” Light said.

    Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    Community Agriculture Alliance: What is Reg 85? — Steamboat Pilot & Today

    From Steamboat Pilot & Today (Greg Peterson):

    In 2012, the state of Colorado passed Regulation 85, or Reg 85, which dealt with point source and nonpoint source water contaminants. Point sources, like wastewater treatment plants, were hit with strict measures for managing pollutants. Nonpoint sources, like parks, golf courses and agriculture, were not.

    However, Reg 85 began a 10-year period where the agricultural community is encouraged to do voluntary measures for managing nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Agricultural organizations like the Colorado Livestock Association and Colorado Corn Growers Association were involved in those early discussions and pushed back against the assumption that agriculture is the main contributor of nutrients to streams and rivers in Colorado.

    In 2022, the Water Quality Control Commission will determine if the agricultural community needs regulations or if we will continue voluntary measures. The first hearing on Reg 85 is in October, and it is an opportunity for the agricultural community to tell their story and keep Colorado as a voluntary state.

    The main issue is not the voluntary measures. Farms and ranches throughout the state have been changing and adapting their practices constantly. Many practices, which have been implemented to simply keep a farm or ranch efficient or profitable, have also improved the management of nitrogen and phosphorus. Colorado producers will continue to invest and adopt practices that manage nutrients and are compatible with their operations.

    The issue is telling this story to those outside of the agricultural community, and there are multiple opportunities to do just that.

    A team with Colorado State University is conducting multiple edge-of-field studies to show the benefit of specific operations and practices on nutrient management. These studies provide us with valuable data to show the positive benefit of practices on the majority of farms and ranches today.

    Additionally, these studies can help the landowner have a better understanding of their own application rates of nitrogen and phosphorus and how well those are being used by the crop.

    There is also work being done to demonstrate past improvements through programs like EQIP — Environmental Quality Incentives Program —administered by Natural Resources Conservation Services. Every year, millions of dollars in federal and private funding are spent on Colorado farms and ranches that have had positive impacts on managing nitrogen and phosphorus. These studies can show us how much work has been done throughout the state in reducing loads of nitrogen and phosphorus because of new agricultural practices.

    If there is a project that will benefit your farm or ranch and have a positive water quality impact, there is a lot of funding out there. We want to focus that money on projects that are compatible with farms and ranches, making them even better.

    If you are interested in participating in any of these opportunities, want to know more about Reg 85 or are interested in project funding, please contact Greg Peterson at the Colorado Ag Water Alliance at coagwater@gmail.com or 720-244-4629.

    Greg Peterson is the executive director of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance.

    The essential nutrients needed for lucrative agricultural production, nitrogen and phosphorus, have been linked to adverse water quality in streams and rivers. Edge of field water quality monitoring of best management practices (BMP’s), like vegetated filter strips, helps the agricultural industry quantify potential water quality benefits and impacts of BMP’s. Photo credit: Colorado State University

    Routt County dips into Stagecoach Reservoir to boost #YampaRiver amid hot, dry conditions — Steamboat Pilot & Today #ColoradoRiver #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification

    From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Derek Maiolo):

    The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District has started releasing water from Stagecoach Reservoir to boost flows into the city of Steamboat Springs’ waste water treatment plant.

    The release of 350 acre-feet of water also has the aim of keeping water temperatures cooler to protect the health of the ecosystem and to meet local supply needs, according to a news release from the district. This comes as rivers across Colorado are experiencing varying degrees of drought…

    The district also initiated its annual drawdown of Stagecoach Reservoir, during which managers will gradually release an additional 1,000 acre-feet of water through Sept. 30.

    All of this means higher flows on the local river. As of Tuesday, the Yampa River was flowing at about 160 cubic feet per second at the U.S. Geological Survey’s stream gauge at the Fifth Street Bridge, up from 90 cfs on Aug. 11…

    Thanks to a grant from the Yampa River Fund, the Colorado Water Trust will lease an additional 500 acre-feet of water from the Conservation District, which is intended to improve river health and enhance flows during the hot, dry weeks ahead, according to the news release. The Water Trust can purchase additional water if necessary, up to 4,000 acre-feet for the rest of the year…

    This marks the seventh year in the past decade that the Water Trust leased water from Stagecoach River to maintain healthy flows and water temperatures. The organization uses forecast models and historical data to gauge how much water to release during any given year.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    #YampaRiver Cleanup recap

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

    From Steamboat Today (Derek Maiolo):

    Seven-hundred-twenty-eight cigarette butts. Seven-hundred-nineteen pieces of plastic. Two-hundred-forty-five shards of broken glass.

    Those were among the most common items collected during the 2020 Yampa River Cleanup on Saturday. The annual event had to make some changes this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it still managed to galvanize a local task force to remove harmful debris from the treasured river that flows through the heart of Steamboat Springs.

    To keep people safe, Friends of the Yampa and the city of Steamboat collaborated to turn the cleanup into a virtual event. Volunteers registered online, signing up as a household or small group to tackle a specific section of the river. Organizers handed out trash bags, gloves and face coverings.

    With 82 volunteers, participation was about on par with previous years, according to Emily Hines, the city’s marketing and special events coordinator who helped to organize the cleanup. Additional volunteers cleaned sections of the river in Hayden and Craig.

    A group of 20 people collected 420 pounds of trash from three sections of the Yampa River near Craig, according to Robert Schenck with Northwest Colorado Parrotheads.

    The inventory of litter represents just a fraction of what people collected. While not weighed, the trash from Steamboat almost filled an entire dumpster, Hines said.

    Volunteers at all locations noted picking up less litter than in previous years. Friends of the Yampa President Kent Vertrees attributes the cleaner conditions to individual endeavors prior to the weekend cleanup. Backdoor Sports in downtown Steamboat organized its own effort a couple of weeks ago, and people in search of volunteer hours have approached Vertrees to conduct their own river cleanup projects.

    He also believes people are getting better about picking up after themselves while on the river…

    Other interesting items collected during the cleanup include a rusty chair from a restaurant, a vehicle battery and a pregnancy test.

    New manager takes reins of Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District #YampaRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridifiction

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

    From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Derek Maiolo):

    Andy Rossi now manages the conservation district following more than a decadelong tenure with the group. The change comes after the retirement of former manager Kevin McBride, who managed the district since 2009.

    Rossi joined the group that same year as its district engineer. His knowledge of the district’s facilities and operations near the headwaters of the Yampa River, namely Yamcolo and Stagecoach reservoirs, was a major factor in the board’s decision to promote him, according to a news release. Before that, he worked at multiple consulting firms specializing in water resources…

    Rossi also will oversee the implementation of the district’s new strategic plan. Among the plan’s goals include developing long-term financial sustainability, protecting local water from out-of-district transfers and improving watershed management.

    With regards to that last goal, Rossi noted a need to utilize new technology and scientific-based studies for water management. For example, one of the panelists at a recent Yampa Basin Rendezvous discussion, snowpack researcher Dr. Jeffrey Deems, described his work with the Airborne Snow Observatory.

    The observatory uses specialized aircraft equipped with sensors to collect data on snowmelt across entire regions of mountains and their waterways. The data has helped communities to better manage their water supplies.

    According to Deems, the Kings River Water Association in California was able to avoid a flood declaration in 2019, which led to savings of $100 million, by basing its dam release policy on forecasts from the Airborne Snow Observatory instead of traditional measurements.

    Rossi said he would like to incorporate some of the observatory’s data next year on a trial basis, which also would help the researchers receive feedback on the new technology…

    These efforts have the overarching goal of preserving the health of the Yampa River for the people, plants and creatures that depend upon it. Rossi described the river as the most important natural resource in the area.

    “It is the natural resource that defines this valley,” he said.

    To that end, Rossi aims to maintain the district’s existing facilities, such as the dam at Stagecoach Reservoir, which not only helps to meet water demands for a growing community but also generates hydroelectric power.

    The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District formed in 1966 following the passage of the Water Conservancy Act of the state of Colorado. Its mission has been conserving, developing and stabilizing supplies of water for irrigation, power generation, manufacturing and other uses.

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

    Conservation Corner: Water Law in a Nutshell recap — The Rio Blanco Herald-Times

    An alluvial plain in Red Rock Canyon State Park (California). By Matt Affolter, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14715873

    From the Douglas Creek Conservation District via The Rio Blanco Herald-Times:

    Did you learn the definition of an alluvium this weekend? Or what estoppel means? If you attended the Douglas Creek Conservation District’s “Water Law in a Nutshell” class this weekend, presented by Mr. Aaron Clay, you now know the answers to both questions.

    The Water Law in a Nutshell class covered numerous water topics pertinent to Rio Blanco County residents. Twenty-four individuals were able to take advantage of the class in-person or by Zoom.

    Primary topics included water terminology, measurements of water, Prior Appropriation Doctrine, practical application of water law, and interstate compacts. Excellent questions and engagement from the 25 participants helped everyone have a much better understanding of Colorado water law and how it affects them directly.

    One of many examples of valuable information is learning about “domestic preference” in the Prior Appropriations system. While domestic water use has preference over any other purpose, including agriculture and manufacturing, a Colorado Supreme Court case decided that provision does not alter the priority system. “However, it does give municipalities the power to condemn water rights, if the owners of those water rights are paid just compensation.”1

    Another example is how important it is to verify water rights when purchasing property with water. If the water right is stock in a ditch company, the purchaser should verify with the ditch company that the stock certificate is recorded in the current landowner’s name and the amount. If not stock in a ditch company, it is important to verify the water right at the clerk and recorders’ office.

    The seven-hour Water Law in a Nutshell class was recorded. If you are interested in viewing the class please contact the District office at whiterivercd@gmail.com or 970-878-9838 to make arrangements.

    Keep the water flowing: Funding available to help ranchers pay for required measuring infrastructure — Steamboat Today #YampaRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Irrigated pasture at Mantle Ranch along the Yampa River. Ranchers in the Yampa River basin are grappling with the enforcement of state regulations that require them to monitor their water use. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Steamboat Today (Derek Maiolo):

    Funding is available to Routt County ranchers and farmers to install water-measuring infrastructure to better gauge how much water they are diverting…

    The [Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District] has about $200,000 worth of funding to help farmers and ranchers afford the measuring devices thanks to a $100,000 match from the Yampa-White-Green Roundtable, according to Holly Kirkpatrick, communications manager for the conservancy district.

    Her office will reimburse 50% of costs associated with the devices, Kirkpatrick said, up to $5,000. The district is taking application through 2021.

    “We are seeing a huge uptick in interest for grant funds with people completing their projects,” Kirkpatrick said. “Folks are really interested in how they go about this process and getting projects completed before the end of year.”

    For more information on the measuring devices and available funding, contact Kirkpatrick at hkirkpatrick@upperyampawater.com.

    Yampa Valley “State of the River” July 29, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

    Topic: Yampa Valley State of the River

    Description:

    Whether it’s for clean water from your kitchen tap, water for hay or livestock or flows to paddle or play on, we all rely on the Yampa River and its tributaries.

    Learn about current Yampa Basin water issues, ongoing drought and challenges facing West Slope water users at the virtual Yampa Valley State of the River meeting hosted by the Colorado River District, the Community Agriculture Alliance and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable.

    If you’re busy for the live event, register to receive a recording of the webinar by email to watch later.

    Agenda:

    • Protecting West Slope Water in Times of Uncertainty – Jim Pokrandt, Director of Community Affairs at the Colorado River District
    • Snowpack and Runoff updates in the Yampa River Basin – Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District
    • Recreation in the Yampa River Basin – Lindsey Marlow, Program Manager at Friends of the Yampa and Josh Veenstra, owner of Good Vibes River Gear
    • How you can participate in Yampa River planning and the Integrated Water Management Plan – Marsha Daughenbaugh, Rocking C Bar Ranch and Nicole Seltzer, Science & Policy Manager at River Network
    • Conversation with the Division Engineer – Erin Light, Division 6 Engineer at the Colorado Division of Water Resources and Jackie Brown, Natural Resource Policy Advisor, Tri-State Generation and Transmission

    Time: Jul 29, 2020 06:30 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)

    Community Agriculture Alliance: River planning

    An irrigated hayfield along the lower Yampa River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From the Friends of the Yampa (Eugene Buchanan) via Steamboat Pilot & Today:

    The key to river planning is collaboration, and the Yampa River Basin is doing just that. There are water users everywhere — agriculture diverting water to grow food and raise animals, municipalities securing drinking water and treating wastewater, ski resorts making snow, power plants producing steam to create power, recreationists fishing and paddling, and wildlife using it as sustenance and a home. With all of these various purposes, how do we manage water use?

    The key is planning and working together. There is an understanding among river users that, without this collaboration, there is a risk that one of these stakeholder groups might not receive the water they need.

    To that end, there exist such entities as Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green River Basin Round Table and Yampa River Integrated Water Management Plan to help all these water use stakeholders.

    According to its website, “The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable is leading the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan (IWMP). The process will combine 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.”

    “The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable and the Integrated Water Management Plan are great examples of collaboration,” said Friends of the Yampa President and Basin Round Table Recreation at-large member Kent Vertrees. “A lot has been accomplished in a short time because of this. People look to our basin here in the Yampa Valley as a great example of how to work together to ensure water for our future.”

    Another entity helping the cause is the newly formed Yampa River Fund, whose goal is “to establish a sustainable, voluntary funding source for the Yampa River in order to: enhance water security for communities, agriculture, the economy and the natural environment in the Yampa Valley; support a healthy, flowing river and enhance critical low flows through water leases from reservoirs; and maintain or improve river function through a holistic approach to restoration of riparian and/or in-channel habitat.”

    The fund’s first funding cycle of grants was announced in May, awarding a total of $200,000 to various projects. The projects include riparian habitat restoration in Steamboat Springs and in the Lower Elkhead Creek; recreational access improvements in Moffat County; water releases out of Stagecoach Reservoir facilitated by Colorado Water Trust; and stream improvements in Oak Creek.

    Of special importance this year is the fund’s funding mechanisms to absorb some of the basin’s variability as well as its environmental and recreational vitality. While 2019 was heralded as a banner water year, we currently stand at 30% of average discharge to the river, meaning the use of water leases could come in especially handy this year. And stakeholders working together will be more important than ever.

    Eugene Buchanan is a board member of the Friends of the Yampa and local author. Lindsey Marlow is the program manager for Friends of the Yampa.

    #Utah files change case to move #LakePowellPipeline point of diversion from #FlamingGorge to #LakePowell #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GreenRiver #aridification

    Green River Basin

    From The Salt Lake Tribune (Brian Maffly):

    The water rights behind the proposed Lake Powell pipeline are not actually coming from the project’s namesake lake, but rather from the major reservoir upstream on the Green River.

    Now, Utah water officials’ new request to overhaul those rights has handed opponents a fresh opportunity to thwart the proposed pipeline just as federal officials are about to release a long-awaited environmental review of the $1.2 billion project, which would funnel 82,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to St. George.

    The request, known as a change application, seeks to shift the the water rights’ “point of diversion” from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to a spot 400 miles downstream behind Glen Canyon Dam. The change, which also keys into where and how the water would be used, is needed to fit the goals of the pipeline, which is to bolster water supplies for Utah’s mushrooming Washington County.

    The application was filed now because the timing made sense at this stage in the project’s development and has no bearing on whether the pipeline gets built, according to Joel Williams, assistant director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.

    Environmental groups hope to block or at least delay the project’s approval if they can persuade Utah State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen to deny the change application filed April 13. Exhibit A in the many protests filed is the Colorado River system’s chronically diminishing flows in the face of climate change, long-term drought and overallocation…

    A 1922 interstate compact divvies up water flowing in the Colorado River and its many tributaries among seven basin states and Mexico. For decades, Utah has underutilized its share, pegged at 23% of the Upper Basin’s flows above 7.5 million acre-feet, while the three Lower Basin states have historically drawn water in excess of their allocations, largely to fuel urban growth and corporate agriculture.

    #YampaRiver Fund Awards First Round of Grants

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

    Here’s the release from the Yampa River Fund (Andy Baur):

    The Yampa River Fund has awarded its first-ever round of grant funding to five applicants, allocating $200,000 in available funding. On April 29, the Yampa River Fund Steering Committee met to review grant applications and make its decisions. Seven applications were received by the March 24 deadline and $273,000 was requested of the Fund. “We were very pleased to see project applications from throughout the Yampa Basin for a variety of project types,” said Andy Baur, Yampa River Fund manager. “After several years of work with so many groups and entities, it is really exciting to see the first Yampa River Fund grants going out to projects as the program was intended.”

    The projects funded in this round of awards are:

    1. Stagecoach Reservoir Environmental Release Project, $45,000. Applicant: Colorado Water Trust. This project will provide funding for vital flow releases from Stagecoach Reservoir if flows fall below critical levels in 2020.

    2. Irrigation Project for Yampa River Forest Restoration, $30,358. Applicant: Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. This project provides funds for critical irrigation infrastructure to support Yampa River forest restoration efforts.

    3. Oak Creek Restoration & Greenway Design, $44,821. Applicant: Town of Oak Creek. Funding will be used to provide key planning and design services for the Oak Creek restoration efforts.

    4. Lower Elkhead Creek Restoration Project, Phase 1, $35,000. Applicant: Trout Unlimited. Funds will be used to bolster stream restoration and stabilization efforts below Elkhead Reservoir.

    5. Loudy Simpson Improvements Projects, $44,821. Applicant: Moffat County. Moffat County will put funds towards building a redesigned boat ramp and bank stabilization at a popular Yampa River access site.

    Kelly Romero-Heaney, Chair of the Yampa River Fund Board and Steering Committee, touts these first Yampa River Fund grants as critical to advancing these projects especially in a time of economic uncertainty associated with the COVD-19 crisis. “We recognize that there are many critical funding and support needs in our communities right now. The Yampa River Fund grants will support this river that adds so much to our economy and way of life which is so important as we cope with the uncertainties and stress related to Covid-19. We hope these funds will provide a bit of good news for the community and applicants along with their key benefits to the Yampa,” she said.

    The Yampa River Fund was launched in September 2019 to provide a sustainable, voluntary funding source for the Yampa River in order to enhance water security and support a healthy, flowing river by enhancing critical low flows, and maintaining or improving river function through a holistic approach to restoration of habitat.

    The Yampa River Fund is governed by a 21-member founding Board representing local governments, community and statewide NGO’s, business, water providers and irrigations districts.

    Sunset over the Yampa River Valley August 25, 2016.

    From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Derek Maiolo):

    The Yampa River Fund has awarded its first-ever round of grants to five projects aimed at protecting and improving its namesake river and tributaries in Routt and Moffat counties.

    A total of $200,000 went to local organizations, using money that members of the endowment have been raising over the past year…

    A $45,000 grant went to the Colorado Water Trust to provide funding for water releases from Stagecoach Reservoir if flows fall below critical levels this summer and fall. As Baur explained, the money would be used only if necessary. If flows remain at healthy levels, the money can be earmarked for next year…

    This first round of grants is particularly important considering the economic stress under the COVID-19 pandemic, Baur said. As he put it, the need to protect and enhance the health of local waterways does not shut down like the businesses and services affected by the crisis. If anything, the current situation emphasizes the importance of the Yampa River, Baur argued.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    Tri-State doesn’t feel a ‘sense of urgency’ in deciding water rights — The Craig Press

    Ice breaks up on the Yampa River as Spring invites warmer temperatures. Should the water that the nearby Hayden and Craig power plants use be allowed to stay in the river once the plants cease to operate, native and endangered fish species in the river would have a higher chance of survival. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

    From The Craig Press (Dan England):

    Tri-State Generation and Transmission doesn’t feel a sense of urgency in deciding what will happen to its water rights after 2030, when the plant closes. But it does feel everyone else’s.

    “Tri-State and our members are acutely aware of the importance of water to communities,” the company said in a January statement, “as a key element of future economic drivers.”

    …Tri-State uses 16,000 acre-feet of water a year…Residents are concerned about it being pumped over to serve the Front Range based on the Western Slopes past water history, and others hope that it’s reserved for local agriculture or even for turning Dinosaur Monument into a national park.

    Tri-State had a meeting with those community leaders to start the process of figuring out who may get those water rights and was planning more when the virus hit, meaning things are on hold for now. But that is OK, Stutz said, as he’s reminded officials, repeatedly, that the plant has quite a bit of time to reach a decision.

    That’s a decade, if you’re counting, and even after the plant closes, it will need the water to complete reclamation, which should last until early 2030 and maybe longer, Stutz said. That was the tone of the first meeting, said Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck, one of the more heavily involved local officials in Tri-State affairs, as well as one of its biggest supporters…

    As with any discussion about water, it’s complicated, as Tri-State’s water rights are junior, meaning others have rights that take priority, and are for industrial purposes and therefore cannot be automatically transferred to another user, Beck said. Tri-State acknowledges that, stating that there’s more than one owner of the station as well as those other water rights to consider.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia. Ranchers and farmers in the valley have largely ignored Division Engineer Erin Light’s order to install measuring devices as of December, 2019.