Dams Could Protect Ranchers From Climate Change’s Drought…But Could They Also Contribute To It? — #Wyoming Public Media

Avalanche debris Middle Piney Dam. Photo credit: USFS

From Wyoming Public Media (Melodie Edwards):

There are lots of things to be stressed about in ranching, and one of the big ones is water. [Chad] Espenscheid says that’s why he’s glad the state is fixing up the Middle Piney Dam. It’s fallen into disrepair at the top where the creek flows into the Green River.

“It would give Middle Piney Creek a little more of a steady flow instead of it all coming out in one shot and everybody really having to hustle around and capture it all at one time,” Espenscheid says…

Not only is Espenscheid a rancher, but he’s also a water engineer and participates in an experimental water conservation program that pays ranchers to only irrigate when they have to. So in late summer after he’s hayed his fields he turns off the spigot. But Espenscheid says, fixing that dam will store a modest 4,200 acre-feet of Colorado River water.

He’s not sure what to think about how siphoning that small amount out of the river will affect lower basin states that also rely on the Colorado River. “I don’t know, I’m just Wyoming through and true, so I’m kind of worried about Wyoming, I guess to be honest. So, I think we’ve got to take care of our own sustainability and make sure we have opportunities for growth.”

It’s not just the Middle Piney Reservoir that’s going to start dipping from the Colorado, though. Jason Mead at Wyoming’s Water Development Office adds up all the acre-feet of water storage the state wants to build on the Green River drainage: “4,000 for Middle Piney, 10,000 for West Fork, that’s 14,000. Another eight at New Fork, so that’s 22,000, another nine between Meek’s Cabin, that’s 31,000….”


All told, he figures Wyoming could tack on about 50,000 acre-feet on five new or expanded reservoirs, including Big Sandy, West Fork, Meek’s Cabin and Stateline. And then there are the 80,000 acre-feet that the Fontanelle Reservoir could eventually add. (The plan there is to complete that project when extreme drought draws it down low enough to finish its foundation.)

At 130,000 acre-feet total that would be enough water to supply a city of a million people, but the population of the entire state of Wyoming is half that.

“Every one of these projects we’re talking about really are for irrigation shortages and trying to handle the drought situations that everybody has faced over the years and trying to take water when we have good years and carry it over into years that are drier,” says Mead…

Mead says more dams could help ranchers survive the coming droughts, but some scientists say, building more dams might actually worsen climate change. University of Wyoming soil scientist Jay Norton says, dams that manage for flood control, for example, could have a damaging effect.

“They want the water drained out so in the event of a flood they have storage capacity,” he explains. “That can cause very low flows downstream that dry up those flood plain wetlands.”

Norton says those wetlands store huge amounts of organic carbon.

“There’s estimates that if we could raise soil organic carbon by about 0.4 percent per year that we would completely offset human-derived emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Think of all the plants growing like a green snake along streams in the otherwise arid Mountain West. Wetlands on undammed waterways can take up as little as two percent of the landscape but hold 15 to 30 percent of the carbon. But if reservoirs hold back all the water those green snakes will dry up and stop holding carbon.

But, Norton says, managed correctly, more dams in the upper basin states could actually create more wetlands and store more carbon.

“Conceivably, it could have a positive effect on downstream wetlands, if water tables are maintained relatively high,” says Norton. “Irrigation itself expands wetlands.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the only effect of dams on climate. One study shows that decomposing organic matter behind dams as the water level drops can produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s even more potent than carbon dioxide.

But Rancher and Water Engineer Chad Espenscheid says the positives of building dams outweigh the negatives.

Joint Wolf Creek [Reservoir] work session between BLM and commissioners — The Rio Blanco Herald Times

A view of the White River foreground, and the Wolf Creek gulch, across the river. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has been using state funds, and their own, to study two dam options for this area between Meeker and Rangely on the White River. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

From The Rio Blanco Herald-Times:

RBC | BLM White River Field Office Manager Kent Walter hosted a work session with the Rio Blanco County Board of County Commissioners, et al. on May 30 to discuss the Coal Ridge boundary map of the proposed Wolf Creek Reservoir project. Rio Blanco County Commissioners Gary Moyer and Si Woodruff were present along with the county’s water conservancy district and natural resource specialist Lanny Massey. Assisting with the BLM’s presentation of the updated boundary map and associated data was Heather Sauls, BLM planning and environmental coordinator. Representatives from the engineering firm EIS Solutions were also present.

The discussion was primarily focused on an attempt to find an agreeable solution to designate a portion of the Coal Ridge area as off limits to motorized vehicles. As presented previously, this restricted area would include a large portion of the shoreline of the proposed Wolf Creek Reservoir.

“This lake is going to be a really big deal economically for Rio Blanco County. We’re looking for a guaranteed buffer area along the shore for recreational purposes. This would include motorized vehicle access,” Commissioner Moyer said.

After extensive discussion, an agreement was reached on a proposed border of the restricted area, guaranteeing a minimum of a quarter mile buffer around the proposed reservoir shoreline. It was agreed that a new plan will not preclude or restrict any Rio Blanco County projects around the reservoir perimeter and would grant engineers and construction equipment full access to the dam sites.

Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin #drought contingency plan depends on rights holders bypassing water #COriver #aridification

The looming possibility of mandatory curtailment of water use has raised concerns among Western Slope water managers, who feel that such cuts could harm Western Slope agricultural, such as this hay filed in the Yampa River basin. However, as water levels continue to drop to record lows in Lake Powell, mandatory curltailments are being discussed as a real possibility, especially by Front Range water managers. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Eleanor C. Hassenbeck):

The collective group of [recently signed] agreements is called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan.

It aims to raise the unprecedented low water levels in the largest reservoirs on the Colorado River system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, to enable them to continue to deliver water and produce hydropower.

In Colorado, it calls for three possible actions:

  • Creating a bank of stored water in federally owned reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell. This water would be released into Lake Powell in order to make sure Colorado continues to meet obligations to deliver a certain amount of water to downstream states under the Colorado River Compact.
  • Increasing cloud seeding and removing deep-rooted, invasive plants that take up a lot of water, such as tamarisk.
  • Creating a voluntary program that would temporarily pay agricultural water users to fallow their land and send water they have a right to downstream. This is called demand management.
  • Of the options on the table, demand management — the option that would pay farmers not to use their water — is the one most likely to impact Routt County…

    Demand management is still only a hypothetical, so the Yampa River Basin could opt out of a program if it doesn’t work for the area.

    The Colorado Water Conservation Board has assembled workgroups on topics related to demand management. These groups are now meeting behind closed doors to develop preliminary reports outlining how the program might work.

    Brown said once these reports are completed and released to the public, there will be opportunities for community members to provide input on the idea. She said there will be the “opportunity for a real, thoughtful conversation, especially in the Yampa and White (river) basins.”

    Community Agriculture Alliance: Upper #YampaRiver Habitat Partnership Program

    The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.”

    From Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Jack Taylor) via Steamboat Pilot & Today:

    Are you familiar with Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Habitat Partnership Program (HPP)? If you are in the livestock/agriculture business or a landowner in Routt County you should be.

    CPW’s HPP program works to reduce wildlife conflicts, particularly conflicts associated with forage and fences, and to assist CPW in meeting game management objectives. HPP efforts are primarily aimed at agricultural operators and focus on problems and objectives for deer, elk, pronghorn and moose. HPP is funded by receiving 5% of the deer, elk, pronghorn and moose license revenue from each HPP area. This results in millions of dollars annually that can be spent on projects on both private and public land across Colorado.

    The local HPP committee in Routt County is the Upper Yampa River HPP committee. The committee is comprised of several local agricultural producers, local sportsman and agency representatives (CPW, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Serivce). This combination of local knowledge allows for innovative project ideas and novel solutions to problems specific to Routt County.

    The Upper Yampa River HPP committee has recently funded several habitat improvement projects, specifically projects that enhanced the amount of water available to both wildlife and livestock on private property. These projects allowed for better grazing practices that will benefit wildlife and livestock into the future.

    Other common projects for the Upper Yampa River HPP committee involve assisting landowners with fencing projects. This could be providing materials for a strong welded wire hay stack-yard that can stand up to the snow loads in Routt County or supplying vinyl-coated top wire. The vinyl-coated top wire program helps to reduce the damage that deer and elk can cause to fencing while they are crossing it because the vinyl-coated wire is more visible, which also results in fewer deer and elk fence entanglement issues.

    The possibilities do not end there. In addition to fence and forage type projects, the Upper Yampa River HPP committee also assists landowners with funding a portion of the transaction costs for conservation easements.

    HPP looks for a 50/50 cost split to approve the project being submitted. This means if you are asking the HPP committee to contribute $2,000 to a habitat improvement project on your property, they would be looking for a contribution from you worth $2,000.

    The Upper Yampa River HPP committee also considers any other partners associated with the project, like a neighbor, if the project can span multiple parcels of property.

    To submit a project with the Upper Yampa River HPP committee, contact your local district wildlife manager directly or call the CPW Steamboat Springs Service Center at 970-870-2197. Upper Yampa River HPP meetings are typically held once a month. Contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife to learn more.

    Jack Taylor is a district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

    “If you don’t own a water right or rely on water for your paycheck, [water management] is usually an afterthought…Until it isn’t” — Nicole Seltzer

    From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Nicole Seltzer):

    Boring. Arcane. Those are words I hear when I ask people their opinions on water management. If you don’t own a water right or rely on water for your paycheck, it’s usually an afterthought in the grand scheme of things.

    Until it isn’t.

    Until there isn’t enough water in the river to bring in tourism dollars. Until low river levels mean ranchers without senior water rights must stop irrigating hay fields. Until water levels in Nevada’s Lake Powell go low enough to require all Colorado water users to send more water downstream. These realities are at the forefront for only a small percentage of people, but the rest of us will notice the ripple effects eventually.

    One of the reasons I moved to Routt County a few years ago was the slow pace of change. Having witnessed 15 years of Front Range growth, I was ready to celebrate the value of maintaining the status quo. The Yampa River is healthy and hard working, and most water users don’t face imminent threats. But we can’t let the lack of an emergency blind us to a slow accumulation of changes that require good planning.

    That’s why I am involved in helping the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable develop the first Integrated Water Management Plan for the Yampa River basin. The planning effort takes advantage of state grant dollars available for water planning. A coalition of Basin Roundtable members, local water agencies and NGO partners has raised over $500,000 to make progress on roundtable goals and build relationships with water users.

    This plan will combine top-down and bottom-up tactics. The roundtable is currently hiring segment coordinators to meet with water users and other stakeholders to understand the opportunities they see and the challenges they face. They will also hire science and engineering experts to characterize existing conditions and identify future trends.

    The outcome of the plan will be a prioritized list of actions that users can take 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 roundtable has its own grants to help fund implementation of those actions and will identify federal, state and local partners that can contribute as well.

    The plan is just starting to take shape, and there will be ample opportunity for involvement. You can learn more at yampawhitegreen.com.

    Nicole Seltzer is the science and policy manager for River Network, a national nonprofit that empowers and unites people and communities to protect and restore rivers. She lives in Oak Creek and now owns more irrigation boots than high heels.

    South Routt County Water Users Meeting, May 29, 2019 — Colorado Division of Water Resources #YampaRiver

    Here’s the notice from the the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Scott Hummer):

    South Routt County Water Users Meeting

    Bear River at CR7 near Yampa / 3:30 PM, May 16, 2019 / Flow Rate = 0.52 CFS. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    Wednesday, May 29, 2019
    Soroco High School / Oak Creek, CO
    6:30 PM – 8:00 PM

    Representatives from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (DWR), Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District (UYWCD), United States Forest Service (USFS), and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

    The agenda will address the agencies specific roles regarding:

    Authority and Responsibilities associated with Administration, Management, and Oversight of water matters in the Morrison Creek, Oak Creek, and all Tributary drainages above Stagecoach Reservoir

    All waters users are encouraged to Attend

    Special recognition to the Soroco High School, FFA Chapter for helping organize the event!

    Lawsuit challenges @POTUS administration approval of #Utah #oilshale development — Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

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

    Ed Quillen used to say that oil shale had been the, “Next big thing for 100 years.”

    Here’s the release from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (Ray Bloxham) via Earth Justice:

    Conservation groups today sued the Trump administration to challenge what would be the nation’s first commercial-scale oil shale mine and processing facility. The lawsuit says officials failed to protect several endangered species when they approved rights-of-way across public lands to provide utilities to the proposed oil shale development.

    The massive Enefit project in northeast Utah’s Uintah Basin would also drain billions of gallons of water from the Green River, generate enormous amounts of greenhouse gas pollution and exacerbate the Uintah Basin’s often-dismal air quality.

    Today’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Utah, argues that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the law by ignoring the potential harm to endangered fish. In its biological opinion, the agency considered only the harm from water depletions necessary to build the pipeline, not the billions of gallons of Green River water that will be sent through the pipeline to Enefit’s oil shale development.

    “The responsible federal agencies have worn blinders in approving this project, leaving themselves and the public in the dark about the immense ecological harm it would cause,” said Alex Hardee, attorney at Earthjustice. “We’re going to court to uphold the nation’s environmental laws and save the Upper Colorado River Basin from the devastating effects of oil shale.”

    The Bureau of Land Management also violated the law by failing to adequately analyze the significant environmental impacts of the proposed oil shale development, which likely would not occur but for the agency’s approval of the rights-of-way.

    “This is a prescription for disaster for our climate, wildlife, and the Colorado River Basin,” said Ted Zukoski, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Draining the Green River to mine one of the most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet sends us in exactly the wrong direction. It’s putting us on a collision course with climate catastrophe so a foreign fossil-fuel company can make big bucks.”

    The Trump administration paved the way for the project last year by approving rights-of-way for electricity, oil, gas, and water lines across public lands. At full buildout, the Estonian-owned Enefit American Oil facility would produce 50,000 barrels of oil every day for the next 30 years or more from the Green River Formation.

    Map of oil shale and tar sands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — via the BLM

    “The environmental destruction, air pollution and water pollution inherent in this proposed oil shale mining project is something that every citizen of Utah should be alarmed about,” said Dr. Brian Moench, president and founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “That it would become a long-term public health disaster is being callously dismissed by a BLM that is being run as a subsidiary of the dirty energy industry.”

    Huge amounts of water are required in the oil shale production process. The water pipeline will allow Enefit to drain more than 10,000 acre feet annually from the Green River, harming critical habitat for endangered fish, including the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker. The project comes as Western states struggle with record droughts and climate-driven declines in river flows in the Colorado River Basin.

    “Our region is already feeling the effects of pollution and climate change. To destroy our public lands in order to drill for more polluting fossil fuels would be a disaster for our communities and our planet,” said Dan Mayhew, conservation chair of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We should be accelerating the transition to clean energy, not sacrificing our water, air quality, and climate for an investment in one of the dirtiest fossil fuels in the world. Today we continue the fight to ensure that federal agencies can’t continue to approve dangerous, dirty energy projects without fully considering the totality of environmental damage that would result.”

    Enefit intends to strip-mine about 28 million tons of rock a year over thousands of acres of high-desert habitat, generating hundreds of millions of tons of waste rock. It will also construct a half-square-mile processing plant, about 45 miles south of Dinosaur National Monument, to bake the rock at extremely high temperatures to turn pre-petroleum oil shale rock into refinery-ready synthetic crude oil. That will require vast amounts of energy and emit huge amounts of ozone precursors in an area recently listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as not in attainment with healthy ozone standards.

    Oil shale is one of world’s most carbon-polluting fuels, with lifecycle carbon emissions up to 75 percent higher than those of conventional fuels.

    “BLM’s approach here is to ignore the elephant in the room, which never ends well,” said Ann Alexander, senior attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council. “They’ve focused exclusively on the relatively small impact of building some power lines and pipes, hoping no one will notice that this infrastructure will facilitate large-scale environmental destruction. Well, we noticed.”

    The project would produce 547 million barrels of oil over three decades, spewing more than 200 million tons of greenhouse gas — as much as 50 coal-fired power plants produce in a year. Those emissions would contribute to global warming and regional drought already afflicting the rivers and their endangered fish.

    “Enefit’s proposed oil shale operation could deplete more than 100 billion gallons over three decades,” said Sarah Stock, program director at Living Rivers. “That’s water taken away from other current water users and the downstream river ecosystem. The BLM needs to stop side-stepping their responsibilities by ignoring the devastating impacts that oil shale development will have on the climate and downstream water availability in the Colorado River Basin.”

    “As a result of mismanagement, drought, and accelerating climate change, the Colorado River system is on the verge of collapse,” said Daniel E. Estrin, advocacy director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “Yet despite this crisis, BLM and FWS have approved rights-of-way across public lands for a project that could remove 100 billion gallons of water from the basin, push several endangered species closer to extinction, and rapidly degrade the water supply of almost 40 million people. These approvals, that will allow an Estonian hard rock oil shale company to exploit US public lands and resources, must be reversed.”

    “The BLM approved the rights-of-way to service Enefit’s proposed oil shale mine and processing facility based on an utterly inadequate analysis of potentially devastating air, water, climate and species impacts,” said Michael Toll, a staff attorney at Grand Canyon Trust. “Considering the rights-of-way are a public subsidy of an otherwise economically unfeasible oil shale development, the public has a right to know exactly how Enefit’s project will impact their health and environment.”

    The groups filing today’s lawsuit are Living Rivers/Colorado RiverKeeper, Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and Waterkeeper. The groups are represented by attorneys from Earthjustice, Grand Canyon Trust and the Center for Biological Diversity.