Douglas County Commissioner George Teal proposes campaign donors for Douglas County #water commission — #Colorado Politics

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Politics website (Marianne Goodland). Here’s an excerpt:

A Douglas County commissioner recommended individuals who contributed to his campaign to sit on a new water commission that would be tasked with ensuring sufficient future water supply for the county. The individuals included two principals of a water development firm that has been trying to get buy-in for a proposal to pipe water from the San Luis Valley into Douglas County, a move that has been met with stiff opposition from governments in the valley.

Douglas County commissioners, from left: George Teal, Lora Thomas and Abe Laydon. Courtesy Douglas County

Douglas County’s commissioners met earlier this week to begin deciding who they would put on the new 11-member water commission, which will include three representatives of each district and two at-large members. The nominees were among those who submitted applications for the water commission, a list that has been kept confidential. 

During Monday’s discussion, Commissioner George Teal announced his eight picks for members: Three for his district, three for another district, plus two at-large members. Five of his picks have made substantial contributions to his political campaigns, including two principals from Renewable Water Resources, the firm that pitched moving water from San Luis Valley’s groundwater to Douglas County…On Aug. 13, 2021, Renewable Water Resources principals, their spouses and friends contributed to pay down Teal’s 2020 campaign debt. The contributions totaled $16,000. Among the funders were Tonner and John Kim, both RWR principals, and Craig Broughton, an associate of Tonner’s. All three are on Teal’s list for the water commission. He also named Castle Pines City Councilman Roger Hudson, who is deputy chief of staff for the House Minority caucus at the state Capitol and who also made several contributions to Teal’s campaign for the 2020 election. Teal also recommended Harold Smethills, who doesn’t live in Douglas County but owns property in Sterling Ranch. Smethills has also contributed to Teal’s campaign. In a previous discussion, Teal had proposed allowing people who don’t live in the county but own property there to apply for the water commission.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Studies say Janeway site promising for #CrystalRiver backup #water supply: But aquifer recharge won’t meet total needs — @AspenJournalism

The U.S. Forest Service-owned parcel known as Janeway is adjacent to the Crystal River. A potential nature-based aquifer recharge project could reconnect the historic floodplain to the river and retime spring flows as part of a water supply replacement plan. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Two studies have shown that a large meadow on the east side of the Crystal River known as Janeway shows promise as a potential site for a water-replacement project. But at least one Pitkin County official is questioning the need for a basin-wide water replacement plan at all. 

Engineers say the 50-acre, 1,000-foot-wide historic floodplain just downstream of the Crystal’s confluence with Avalanche Creek could work as a location for a project to help junior water users solve shortages in dry years. One study looked at inundating that floodplain with water from the Crystal River during spring runoff, which would percolate through layers of earth and be stored as groundwater before seeping back to the river days, weeks or even months later. 

This type of nature-based aquifer recharge project that retimes water from spring runoff could also have added benefits for the riparian ecosystem by reconnecting the floodplain to the river, which has been channelized by decades of development in the Crystal River Valley including the construction of Highway 133 and the railroad before that. The historic Janeway townsite is marked by the ruins of a log structure and old railroad grade, but the U.S. Forest Service parcel is now dominated by native grass, potato cactus, mountain mahogany, sagebrush and juniper.

“I think the Janeway is of particular interest given its location,” said Fay Hartman, southwest regional program conservation director with environmental group American Rivers, who worked on the nature-based solutions study. “It’s a pretty good-sized floodplain, which is obviously important. In the initial analysis it seems like it’s the best fit.” 

Janeway was also one of the sites considered by Colorado River Engineering, which is the engineering firm that conducted an analysis for the West Divide Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River Water Conservation District of potential water-supply replacement options. This draft study considered more traditional water-replacement methods that are not natural-process based. If the nature-based concept does not move forward at Janeway, West Divide may explore the construction of a recharge pond at the same location.

“It is a similar concept with a more simplified approach,” the study reads. “It would not provide the riparian floodplain benefits that the nature-based solutions project does, but would have reduced costs for construction, operation and maintenance.” 

The Crystal River flowing in late June just downstream of Janeway. Studies have identified the historic floodplain as a potential site for aquifer recharge as part of a valley-wide augmentation plan. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Historic call spurs studies

The two studies aimed at finding replacement water came at the direction nearly five years ago of engineers from Division 5 of Colorado’s Division of Water Resources. During the hot, dry summer of 2018, the Ella Ditch, which pulls water from the Crystal River and irrigates hayfields south of Carbondale, placed a call on the river for the first time. That means the Ella Ditch wasn’t getting the full amount to which it is entitled and upstream junior water users had to stop taking water so that the Ella could get its full amount.

The Ella Ditch, which irrigates agricultural land south of Carbondale, placed a call on the Crystal River for the first time ever in 2018. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The Ella Ditch has water rights that date to 1902, and any water rights younger than that — including those held by the town of Carbondale, the Marble Water Company and several residential subdivisions along the Crystal River — were subject to being shut off under a strict administration of the river by DWR. Under Colorado’s system of water law known as prior appropriation, those with the oldest water rights have first use of the river.

Most junior water rights holders have what’s known as an augmentation plan, which allows them to continue using water during a call by releasing water from a backup source, such as a nearby reservoir. The problem is that some of the in-home water users on the Crystal don’t have an augmentation plan.

The goal of the two studies, which were largely funded by grants from the state of Colorado and the River District, was to find potential sources of augmentation water. The initial study by Colorado River Engineering looked at traditional sources of replacement water like off-channel storage ponds. 

second study by American Rivers and others looked at nature-based solutions like aquifer recharge. That study looked at four potential project sites — Thompson Creek Open Space, Avalanche Creek confluence, Coal Creek and Janeway — with the Janeway site being the most promising. To address environmental concerns from Pitkin County and others, the River District has promised that any storage constructed as part of an augmentation plan will not happen on the main stem of the Crystal River.

Finding potential augmentation supply sites in the Crystal River Valley has been difficult, said Brendon Langenhuizen, director of technical advocacy at the River District.

“It’s a really tight basin. It’s really narrow with lots of steep tributaries, which means there’s not a lot of off-channel reservoir sites,” he said. “There’s not a lot of valley bottom where we could develop something.”

Source: Crystal River Augmentation Plan Feasibility Study. Credit: Laurine Lassalle – Aspen Journalism

Amount of water needed

Although Janeway is the most promising area for a nature-based solution and the one overlapping potential project site of the two studies, it still has drawbacks. The aquifer recharge project with additional environmental benefits is estimated to cost $1.5 million. The project could include a 765-foot excavated channel at the south end of the floodplain so it could be hydrologically connected to the river. Small porous wood structures across the floodplain would aid in ponding and water retention and revegetation efforts could include willows, cottonwoods and wetland sedges.

But this project wouldn’t meet all of the augmentation needs. And there are also still unanswered questions about the retiming of flows: The lagged natural return flows may not align with when water is needed. According to the Colorado River Engineering study modeling, the Janeway project site could provide up to 60 acre-feet of lagged return flows to the river over the course of the summer, with the most occurring in June. But the highest water demands are in July and the most likely months for a call are July, August and September, so the Janeway site is estimated to only provide 10 to 20 acre-feet toward solving a shortage. 

Engineers are applying to the U.S. Forest Service for permits to install measurement devices known as piezometers to gather more information about the groundwater on the site. 

“We have a request in to run some localized tests on the aquifer to see how fast water could move back to the Crystal River,” Langenhuizen said. “What we are looking for is some delay. Our peak demands are in July and if we could get two to three months delay that would be really helpful.”

According to the study, the total replacement water needed is 105 acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot and could supply one to two families a year. July’s potential requirement is 34 acre-feet. 

Other sources of augmentation water could be up to 38 acre-feet from Beaver Lake, which is located in Marble and managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife; 10-15 acre-feet from Upper Basin Pond, a small, off-channel pond on private land upstream of Marble; and about 10 acre-feet from Rapid Creek Pond, a small off-channel parcel on private land downstream of Marble. 

Other sites like the Orlosky Reservoirs in Marble, upper Coal Creek and lower Avalanche Creek were deemed not workable for a variety of reasons. The study also says that irrigators were approached about an agreement where they could temporarily cease irrigation to make water available to other users, but there was limited interest.

All four identified supplies would need to be built at their maximum capacities to meet a potential 20% future increase in demand of 11 acre-feet, according to the study

This illustration from the study from Colorado River Engineering shows four potential sources of augmentation water and their general location in the Crystal River basin. The Janeway site would involve an aquifer recharge project that supplies 10 to 20 acre-feet of replacement water during the time it’s needed most.

Pitkin County concerns

Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Laura Makar is skeptical that an expensive, complicated augmentation plan for junior water users on the Crystal is necessary. 

“We are talking about such a small amount of water that is needed so it still seems to me there is a pretty substantial flaw in not looking to see if there is any use of water on the Crystal that shouldn’t be occurring or isn’t occurring legally right now,” Makar said. 

Like most places on the Western Slope, agriculture is king on the Crystal, with ranches on the lower reaches using far more water to grow hay and alfalfa than what’s needed to keep residential taps flowing.

Making sure all water users on the Crystal are held to the same standard should be the first step toward finding water to meet demands, Makar said.

“Why would we not want to look at low-hanging fruit that might be politically difficult but is actually engineering-wise and physically easy?” Makar said. “Instead we are looking at very difficult physical engineering solutions because we aren’t looking at what exists in the system.”

According to Division 5 Engineer James Heath, the wells for indoor water use that triggered the augmentation plan studies use less than 1% of the water used by agriculture on the Crystal. He said he has never shut off wells for in-home domestic use due to them using water out of priority, and probably would not in the future. His office has said it will not shut off indoor use as long as water users are working toward finding a solution, although outdoor watering of lawns, gardens and landscaping may be curtailed.

“Generally, what we try to do is limit the outdoor use and allow for indoor use to continue,” he said. “We can get the biggest bang for the buck by curtailing the outdoor use, which is where most of the consumption happens.”

The Crystal River at the fish hatchery just south of Carbondale was running at about 10 cubic feet per second on Oct. 13, 2020, much lower than the state’s instream flow standard of 60 cfs. Rivers in the Roaring Fork watershed have seen below-average streamflows in water year 2020, which ended Oct. 1, despite a slightly above-average snowpack. Dry soil conditions threaten to bring a similar scenario in water year 2021. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Heath said in general agricultural water users are not wasting water on the Crystal. The problem, he said, is that there is sometimes not enough water in the river to meet demands, especially in late summer of dry years. He said during the summers of 2020, 2021 and 2022, some irrigators were not getting their full share and could have placed a call, but chose not to. 

But waste has occurred at least once in recent years. In 2018 — the same year as the first-ever call on the Crystal — a water commissioner from the Division of Water Resources turned down the headgate of the Lowline Ditch for what he said was waste, based on state guidelines. 

During the 2018 call, the East Mesa Ditch loaned 1 cubic foot per second of water to the town of Carbondale — under an emergency substitute water-supply plan that allowed a temporary change in water use from agriculture to municipal — so it could continue to legally supply about 50 homes on the Nettle Creek pipeline with water. Makar said there’s no legal reason water users couldn’t craft a similar more permanent agreement, which could be activated if a call ever comes on again. 

“It certainly has been done and done successfully,” she said. 

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

What to do about the unconfined aquifer — @AlamosaCitizen #SanLuisValley #RioGrande

Judge Michael Gonzales

Click the link to read the Monday Briefing from the Alamosa Citizen:

“Whether we had a good (water) year or not, we know there’s a lot to address and deal with … I encourage you to continue with your discussions and continue talking.” Those were the final words from District 3 Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales just before adjourning court last Thursday in the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group case. The water court trial may have ended suddenly, but the issues surrounding the unconfined aquifer do not, and therein lies the problem. The irrigators in Subdistrict 1, who are responsible for restoring the unconfined aquifer and feel the pressure of the clock running on a state engineer order to make it happen by 2031 or else, just did adopt and the state engineer approved, a new strategy to recover the aquifer. Problem is the plan, called the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management for Subdistrict 1, will undoubtedly end up in District 3 Water Court due to objections. And once it lands there, it’s likely to be a couple of more years before the chief water judge makes a decision on whether to approve, according to the experts. In the meantime, expect more retired acres to permanently retire water. It seems to be the only way.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Sustainable Water Augmentation Group #water trial ends after group withdraws application — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

In the San Luis Valley. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

WHEN the town of Del Norte terminated its agreement this week to lease water to the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group, it effectively killed the SWAG’s efforts to get an alternative augmentation plan through state District 3 Water Court. 

Sustainable Water Augmentation Group withdrew its application Thursday for its own augmentation plan separate from Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Conservation District, whose rules SWAG operators have been following and now will continue to follow in the irrigation seasons ahead. The owners of SWAG irrigate 17,255 acres in Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache counties and had proposed fallowing 5,014 under the plan.

The withdrawal of SWAG’s application was a sudden end to a water court trial that had been scheduled to last five weeks by Chief District Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales due to the technical and complicated issues of managing the supply of water for irrigators in the San Luis Valley.

Gonzales’ ruling earlier in the day Thursday, in which he denied a motion by SWAG on how it wanted to address the loss of the Del Norte water in its application, convinced members of SWAG to withdraw.

Since it had lost the Del Norte water as a replacement source for groundwater pumping, SWAG attorneys had proposed that they be allowed to update their application with data from the 2023 water year to demonstrate how the SWAG plan never really needed the Del Norte water to begin with.

Gonzales ruled that wouldn’t be fair to water users and the state Division of Water Resources opposing the plan. Gonzales said SWAG knew going into the water trial that the Del Norte water may not be legally available to it and could have anticipated that before Del Norte actually took the water away.

“The Del Norte lease went away on the second day of trial through no fault of the applicant. I realize that,” Gonzales said. SWAG at that point, he said, had an option to “simply remove reference to the Del Norte water” from its application and provide updated numbers for the trial to move forward. 

Instead, said Gonzales, “the applicant made what may be a strategic decision … to amend their disclosures to not only reflect that they would no longer be relying on the Del Norte water, but in addition to that to incorporate the 2023 numbers from the subdistrict and to ultimately change their theory of the case. I think that’s the best way to summarize it.”

“That I find significant. That is significant and substantial,” Gonzales said.

The district court judge told applicants and opposers that it was unfortunate for the trial to come to such a sudden end given the important and complicated issues facing irrigators in Subdistrict 1 as they work to restore the unconfined aquifer of the Rio Grande Basin.

“I’m sorry we’re at this point … I think our issues that we as a community and we as a district number three have to address, those don’t end today. We know that full well. Whether we had good (water) year or not, we know there’s a lot to address and deal with … I encourage you to continue with your discussions and continue talking.”

Del Norte from the summit of Lookout Mountain with the Sangre de Cristo Range in the background. By C caudill1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

#Colorado takes emergency action to oversee #wetlands, after U.S. Supreme Court removes protections — Water Education Colorado #WOTUS

Photo credit from report “A Preliminary Evaluation of Seasonal Water Levels Necessary to Sustain Mount Emmons Fen: Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests,” David J. Cooper, Ph.D, December 2003.

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Looking to oversee hundreds of streams and wetlands left unprotected by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Colorado water quality officials have taken emergency action to provide at least temporary protections while a more permanent program can be set up.

The move comes just weeks after a U.S. Supreme Court decision sharply reduced the number of wetlands and streams protected under the Clean Water Act.

“We will rely on this temporary policy while we work out something longer term,” said Nicole Rowan, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE) Water Quality Control Division.

Under the new policy, the CDPHE is requiring notice of discharge into state waters and it will use its new authority to guide its enforcement actions when unpermitted dredge and fill materials are discharged into state waters, according to Kaitlyn Beekman, a CDPHE spokesperson.

Members of a working group, which includes environmental and agricultural interests, as well as water utilities and mining companies, have been working with the state to explore how to create a permanent mechanism to protect Colorado’s streams and wetlands in the future.

At issue is how the U.S. EPA defines so-called Waters of the United States (WOTUS), which determines which waterways and wetlands are protected under the federal Clean Water Act. The definition has been heavily litigated in the nation’s lower courts since the 1980s and has changed dramatically under different presidential administrations.

But on May 25 in Sackett v. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, among other things, that the WOTUS definition that included wetlands adjacent to streams, was too broad.

In its ruling, the court said only those wetlands with a direct surface connection to a stream or permanent body of water, for instance, should be protected.

The court decision has far-ranging implications for the environment, as well as agriculture, construction and mining, all major parts of Colorado’s economy, officials said.

The decision may also have more impact in semi-arid Western states, where streams don’t run year round and wetlands often don’t have a direct surface connection to a stream.

“Although the court’s decision directly addresses only the scope of ‘adjacent wetlands,’ its description of ‘waters of the United States’ as including only relatively permanent bodies of water connected to traditional interstate navigable waters will likely result in ephemeral and intermittent waters, which constitute the majority of Colorado’s stream miles, being outside the scope of federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction,” the CDPHE said in a statement on its website.

Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are responsible for issuing permits and enforcing violations when dredge and fill activities associated with construction and road projects, among others, harm wetlands and waters considered to be waters of the United States.

Right now, though, as a result of the new Supreme Court decision, no agency has the authority to issue a permit or take enforcement action on these newly unprotected wetlands, according to Trisha Oeth, CDPHE’s director of environmental health and protection programs.

“There are waters that used to be protected under federal law and you used to be able to get a permit [for dredge and fill work]. Now there is no protection and no way to get a permit,” Oeth said.

Alex Funk, director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said he was pleased the state was moving quickly to fill in the regulatory gap.

“We were not excited about Sackett,” Funk said. “But we’re glad Colorado is doing something about it.”

Funk is hopeful that the CDPHE and lawmakers will move to introduce legislation next year that will create a wetlands law specific to Colorado that will offer broad, lasting protections. Funk said a handful of states, including Ohio and New York, have taken similar action to address the changes to the Waters of the U.S. rule.

Agricultural interests have long been worried about the WOTUS rule, because irrigators routinely work with streams and irrigation systems on their lands, where wetlands also exist.

Austin Vincent, general counsel and policy director for the Colorado Farm Bureau, said his members are comfortable with the approach the CDPHE is taking in part because there are critical exemptions for on-farm work, such as irrigating, plowing and irrigation system maintenance.

Part of the problem in the past is that the law changed so frequently, that it was difficult to know with certainty where and when permits were needed, Vincent said.

“It’s a big, big issue,” he said. “We want to make sure that the definition the state comes up with doesn’t encompass an overly broad number of waterways … Certainty is difficult in water. But we want as much certainty as we can get from the regulatory community.”

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

Ephemeral streams are streams that do not always flow. They are above the groundwater reservoir and appear after precipitation in the area. Via

Alternative augmentation plan goes to #water court: Case pits Sustainable Augmentation Group against Subdistrict 1’s plan of water management — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

THE eyes of the San Luis Valley water world will be on state District 3 Water Court on Monday, where District Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales begins to hear testimony on an augmentation plan filed by a group of ag producers in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

The group of 12 – umbrellaed under the name SWAG or Sustainable Water Augmentation Group – is seeking the first group augmentation plan filed under the Colorado Division of Water Resources’ 2015 Groundwater and Irrigation Season Rules. The rules govern groundwater withdrawals in the San Luis Valley and are a constant source of state government oversight on the Valley’s groundwater and surface water users.

Opposing the SWAG application is the influential Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which applies the state groundwater rules through a formation of subdistricts with oversight from farmers and ranchers who own water rights and wells within a subdistrict. The Colorado Water Conservation Board and host of local water users have also filed objections to the SWAG plan.

The fact Chief Water Court Judge Gonzales set five weeks to hear from the applicants, and water managers and users in opposition, speaks to the weight of the case, both in substance and precedence, to the arguments and the sheer volume of court documents associated with the SWAG case.

There are 1,946 scanned documents and over 1,000 exhibits in the voluminous court file – all part of a water augmentation plan that has the potential to upend the years of collaboration that Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser applauded during a recent trip to the Valley.

“This community has shown the state of Colorado what collaboration looks like,” he said. “The Rio Grande Basin issues related to groundwater really have called for people figuring out how we work together.”

That notion of collaboration and everyone-in-it-together gets flipped on its head with the SWAG case.

What it’s all about

SWAG producers are part of Subdistrict 1, the Valley’s most lucrative for crop sales of the six subdistricts, but also the most challenged when it comes to reaching the state engineer’s order to achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply. 

In this case that means bringing stability to the unconfined aquifer of the Rio Grande Basin, a directive the subdistrict has been working on since it first formed in 2006 only to find itself continuing to fight an uphill battle. 

Here’s the problem: The state engineer has given the subdistrict until 2031 to reach the sustainable benchmark, but during the past 12 years that subdistrict irrigators have been reducing groundwater pumping and retiring once-productive land, the bar to water sustainability has hardly moved.

OW time is ticking and Subdistrict 1 has moved to adopt even more restrictive groundwater pumping measures under its Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management, which the state engineer blessed on June 20, some 13 years after approving the first plan. It’s an amended document the farmers and ranchers in the subdistrict spent the past 18 months discussing, crafting and sending to the full Rio Grande Water Conservation District board and state engineer’s office for review and approval. 

It’s also the document that pushed the SWAG to develop and file its own augmentation plan in state District 3 Water Court. Its big objection to the Subdistrict 1 plan is a new groundwater overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot, up from $150 and the subject of lengthy debate during formation of the plan.

Farm operators would pay the hefty overpumping fee any time they exceed the amount of natural surface water tied to the property of their operation. The whole point of the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management is to let Mother Nature dictate the pattern of how irrigators in Subdistrict 1 restore the unconfined aquifer and build a sustainable model for farming in the future. 

The plan relies on covering any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits, which is a game-changer particularly for farm operations like those in SWAG which have little to no natural surface water coming into their land.

SWAG says it owns 257 member wells covering 17,317 irrigated acres. Its augmentation plan relies on purchasing land for the surface water and retiring the acres. The finer arguments – on whether SWAG is contributing its “proportional” share to creating a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state of Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact – will define the case.

Members of the SWAG Board of Directors attend the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board meeting on July 14: Les Alderete, left, Asier Artaechevarria and Willie Myers.

The finer arguments to be made

To wade a bit deeper into the mud, the state engineer’s 2015 groundwater rules added more responsibility to the Valley’s groundwater users beyond making sure senior surface water rights aren’t harmed. The rules also require augmentation plans like the one being sought by SWAG to “bear proportionally the obligation to replace or Remedy Injurious Stream Depletions and for achieving and maintaining a Sustainable Water Supply.”

And the rules say groundwater irrigators can’t “prevent unreasonable interference with the State of Colorado’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.”

The directive to bear proportional share in achieving and maintaining a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact to New Mexico and Texas is what makes the SWAG application and the preceding weeks of testimony and evidence a water case to watch.

“This will be up to the court to finally figure out what do these (augmentation plans) look like going forward?’” said Cleave Simpson, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager and state senator representing the SLV. “As expensive as it is and as divisive as it is, it’s kind of a necessary step I guess.”


Augmentation PlanHistorically required of junior water users on over-appropriated streams, like those in the Rio Grande Basin, to obtain sufficient replacement water to offset any injurious depletions to senior water rights. Under the state Department of Water Resources 2015 Groundwater and Irrigation Rules, an augmentation plan also must help achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply and not interfere with Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact and annual water delivery to New Mexico and Texas.

Subdistrict – A defined territory within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that helps promote local interests and accomplish improvements within that defined “special improvement district” or “subdistrict.” Currently there are six subdistricts, numbered consecutively as they were created. Subdistrict 1 was formed in 2006, and others subsequently after. Participation among crop producers is voluntary. Each subdistrict has a board of managers. Their decisions are voted on by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Board of Directors.

SWAG – A group of groundwater users within Subdistrict 1 who have crafted their own augmentation plan rather than participate in the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management and Annual Replacement Plan that have been approved by the state. The group says it has 257 member wells covering 17,317 irrigated acres.

Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management – Specific to Subdistrict 1, it establishes how irrigators will meet the state Division of Water Resources order to recover and create a sustainable unconfined aquifer. The first Plan of Water Management was approved in May 2010, and there were subsequent amendments to the plan approved in June 2017 and August 2018. The fourth amended plan was approved by Colorado Division of Water Resources in June 2023 and final by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board on July 14. There is a 10-day period from when the RGWCD board gave final approval that allows irrigators to challenge the plan in district water court and there are already challenges, meaning it won’t go into effect until it’s approved by the water court.

What punch will #ElNiño pack? — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

From the “Monday Briefing” newsletter from the Alamosa Citizen:

The start of an El Niño period was acknowledged in June by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the World Meteorological Organization. As it forms in July and August we’ll have a better sense of the impacts to the Valley lands and the Rio Grande Basin. Some global experts are beginning to suggest a moderate to strong El Niño increases the chance that 2024 will be the warmest on record. We’re paying attention to the condition of the Rio Grande Basin and in particular the change in the unconfined aquifer storage after what’s been a strong runoff from the winter snowpacks. It’s a critical indicator on the overall health of the Rio Grande Basin and one that ultimately determines the state of agriculture in the SLV.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

It is irrigators in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District who shoulder the greatest responsibility for recovering the ailing unconfined aquifer. To that end, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board of Managers will hold a public hearing this week on the Subdistrict 1 Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management to manage groundwater pumping in the unconfined aquifer area. It’s been a year or so in development with lots of difficult conversations on how to reduce groundwater irrigation in the Valley’s most lucrative agricultural subdistrict. The state Division of Water Resources has signed off on the plan and now comes the final public comments. The idea of a lawsuit challenging the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management also hangs out there. The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Friday, July 14.

Monday Briefing: #Water issues everywhere — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

In the San Luis Valley. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the newsletter on the Alamosa Citizen website. Here’s an excerpt:

1. Rio Grande Basin recovery

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District is moving forward on two major fronts: It’s ready to open the application window for Upper Rio Grande irrigators to apply for some of the $30 million set aside under state legislation, SB 22-028, to permanently retire irrigated acres in the San Luis Valley. The money sits in the Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund, and Valley farmers can submit applications beginning Thursday to access it. The RGWCD is also moving to implement its Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management for its Subdistrict 1. The board of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District is accepting public comments on the amended plan, with a public hearing slated for July 14. Both the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund and the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management are key to the Valley’s efforts to restore and bring sustainability to the Rio Grande Basin.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

2. Douglas County plans for water commission

Up north, Douglas County commissioners this week will continue their discussions around establishing a Douglas County Water Commission to assist in the broader effort to bring more water into the sprawling Front Range county. Douglas County has been reaching out to water providers and residents to pitch the idea and plans this week to continue those conversations around initially establishing a Technical Advisory Committee. In the background of it all is Douglas County’s interest in Renewable Water Resources and the Rio Grande Basin as a source of water. We’ll keep tracking to see where it all goes.

Graphic credit: Alamosa Citizen

3. The Valley’s water checkmate

The various county commissions in the San Luis Valley have been working to put in place their own checkmate when it comes to pumping water out of the Upper Rio Grande Basin like the RWR proposal to Douglas County. We first told you about it back in January, and now Alamosa County last week adopted the “Intergovernmental Agreement to Protect Water Resources” and the Valley’s other county and municipal governments are expected to become signatories to the agreement as well. The agreement establishes the San Luis Valley Joint Planning Area to protect surface water and groundwater resources. The essence of the agreement is that anyone looking to transfer water out of the San Luis Valley would have to apply for a 1041 permit from each of the county and municipal governments and get sign off from all local governments to move a project forward. “This might be our best opportunity to stop water exportation,” Saguache County Commissioner Tom McCracken, who chairs the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments board, said at the time of our first article. “I’m feeling really excited about it.”

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0,

#Boulder County cities and towns pursue solutions to future #ColoradoRiver shortages, on their own — Boulder Reporting Lab #COriver #aridification

North Lake Powell October 2022. With the Colorado River’s woes, Boulder County towns are looking to diversify their water sources Photo credit: Alexander Heilner via The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on the Boulder Reporting Lab website (Tim Drugan):

This winter dropped a lot of snow on the mountains above Boulder. Our reservoirs are in good shape for now as Boulder Creek babbles. But that’s not our only water source. 

Boulder and many other cities along the Front Range rely, at least in part, on water from the strained Colorado River. Younger cities with fewer senior rights for local water sources — like Superior and Erie — rely on it almost entirely. 

Because every city is responsible for its own water portfolio, as the Colorado River becomes a potentially unreliable source, wholly dependent cities could be far worse off than others. This isn’t a far-fetched idea. A Colorado State University study shows that for every degree Fahrenheit of global warming, flows of the Colorado River decrease by 4%. And already, the Windy Gap Project — responsible for supplying a portion of Colorado River water to Front Range cities — sometimes doesn’t provide any water at all. 

Yet for now, many municipalities in the Boulder County area seem reluctant to even discuss sharing water. 

“Right now, we’re all trying to do the best job for our [own] residents and our customers,” said Melanie Asquith, the water resources manager for the City of Lafayette. “Everybody’s situation is different. Everybody’s storage is different. Everybody’s rights are different.”

Interviews with water managers across the county revealed potential stage-setting for a “Mad Max” situation. Each municipality is concerned only with securing water rights for its own residents. This means that unless the mindset in Colorado changes to one of greater collaboration, it’s safe to assume future droughts will hit some communities harder than others. And those hard-hit communities may be on their own. 

“The citizens and businesses of Louisville are paying their water bills to ensure their supplies are covered — not necessarily Lafayette’s or Broomfield’s or anybody else in the region,” said Cory Peterson, the City of Louisville’s deputy director of utilities. “There’s not a regional or state presence that would do those types of activities. That’s just the way the system is set up.”

Where do Boulder County communities get their water from?

Peterson of Louisville said a foreshadowing of droughts’ impacts in Boulder County happened in 2001. 

“You had some communities that were doing very aggressive water restrictions, had very low water supplies, and were really struggling to make it through,” Peterson said. “And you had other communities that had very light restrictions and had, I don’t want to say an easy time, but they were able to manage through those impacts.” (We saw a lesser instance of this last summer when Lafayette imposed year-round water restrictions while Boulder didn’t.)

This has led to water resource managers up and down the Front Range to chase water diversity to ensure they’re not the worst off. If one water source fails, it’s good to have another to lean on. 

“Our biggest gift is our diversity, that we are not wholly dependent on the [Colorado River], that if we had to rely only on eastern water, we could do it,” Asquith of Lafayette said.

Age matters for water rights

Because of the way Colorado water rights work, it pays to be old. The “prior appropriation doctrine” — summed up as “first in time, first in right” — heavily favors cities that started getting water for their residents earlier. Being first has landed them “senior” water rights from local sources like Boulder Creek or St. Vrain Creek. 

“Longmont is fortunate that a majority of the water rights in our water rights portfolio are very senior water rights,” said Wes Lowrie, a water resources analyst for the City of Longmont. “We feel very strong in our ability to meet our future demands for Longmont.”

Boulder, Louisville and Longmont have senior rights to local creeks, requiring them to get only a third of their water from the Colorado River. That insulates them from future uncertainty on the Colorado River and provides some resilience against climate change through diversification. Lafayette gets less than a quarter of its water from the Colorado River. 

Pretty much all of Erie’s water, on the other hand, comes from the Colorado River. All of Superior’s does as well.

California, Nevada and Arizona recently reached an agreement to temper their use of water from the Colorado River. With federal assistance, the worst repercussions of overuse from the river will hopefully be avoided, for now. But Colorado wasn’t a part of the recent Colorado River agreement, because Colorado is part of the Upper Basin states: those using water above parched Lake Powell. Unlike the Lower Basin, Upper Basin states have thus far used less water than is available to them. But that could change as the river reduces more. 

Looking west across the 445 acre-foot Windy Gap Reservoir, which straddles the Colorado River (Summer 2011). Photo By: Jeff Dahlstrom, NCWCD via Water Education Colorado

When a water source is diminishing, you want a senior right on that source to make sure you get your water before it runs out. Yet some of the water coming from the shrinking Colorado River to the Front Range isn’t even close to a senior right. The Windy Gap project, a water right that provides some cities with a considerable chunk of their water, only dates back to 1968 — very young by Colorado River standards.

“The Windy Gap water right is a very junior water right on the Colorado River,” said Jeff Stahla, a public information officer at Northern Water, which manages Windy Gap. “The Windy Gap Project in some years yields zero water.”

The project — which includes a diversion dam and reservoir on the Colorado River — is just one of the water rights allotting Colorado River water to eastern cities. Originally funded by Boulder, Estes Park, Fort Collins, Greeley, Longmont and Loveland to cope with booming populations, the project started delivering water across the Continental Divide in the 1980s.

Today, some Front Range municipalities are investing further in Windy Gap water. By building a new reservoir in southern Larimer County, the cities hope to store Windy Gap water from wet years to get them through the dry ones when Windy Gap may provide no water.

Site of Chimney Hollow Reservoir via Northern Water.

Called the Chimney Hollow Reservoir, the project broke ground in 2021 and is on track to cost upwards of $700 million. A dozen different water districts are funding the reservoir to add an additional fail-safe to their water supply. Involved cities include Louisville, Lafayette, Longmont, Erie and Superior. Broomfield is leaning especially heavily on the new reservoir, voting in 2021 to foot $176.4 million of the bill. (Boulder is not involved in the Chimney Hollow project.)

According to City of Broomfield staff, this investment will increase Broomfield’s reliance on Colorado River water from 60% of their source water to 70%. Broomfield’s water not delivered by Northern Water comes from Denver Water, which also gets a portion of its water from a tributary of the Colorado River. Piped through the Moffat Tunnel, water previously destined for the Colorado River is stored in Gross Reservoir that recently began a controversial expansion project.

Yet Windy Gap water isn’t the only water coming from the Colorado River. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project, or C-BT, has been pumping water east since 1947. With its right dating to the 1930s, that water “is much more guaranteed,” according to Stahla.

Almost all cities who get Windy Gap water also get a portion of C-BT water. 

Pete Johnson, a water attorney for the town of Erie, said the town’s water comes from a mix of C-BT water and Windy Gap water with an investment in the Chimney Hollow project — all Colorado River water.

“The long term goal is to diversify the town’s portfolio,” Johnson said.

But C-BT water isn’t infallible either. “The CB-T water right, I don’t want to say it’s junior, junior,” Stahla said. “But certainly a 1930s water right is not senior in the state of Colorado.”

Water stored in Colorado’s Denver Basin aquifers, which extend from Greeley to Colorado Springs, and from Golden to the Eastern Plains near Limon, does not naturally recharge from rain and snow and is therefore carefully regulated. Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

Setting up a Mad Max future

Robert Crifasi, a former City of Denver hydrologist and Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks water resources administrator, and author of a new book “Western Water A to Z: the History, Nature and Culture of a Vanishing Resource,” said one of the most important steps to avoiding a Mad Max future is ensuring water availability before building new developments. Because of overzealous development companies, Crifasi said, some Denver suburbs are now reliant on nonrenewable Denver Basin groundwater. What will those communities do when the aquifer runs dry? Rely on the Colorado River?

“There is no magic bullet in any of this,” Crifasi said. “But I do think the most important action is to legislatively require vigorously integrated water and land-use planning.”

Kim Hutton, the City of Boulder’s water resources manager, said in addition to conservation and planning, there’s a need for collaboration and coordination among municipalities around water. As it currently stands, it’s every city for itself.

“Right now, with the water rights system, individual water users really are responsible for developing a supply to meet their needs,” she said.

Lowrie of Longmont, for instance, said that Longmont has always required that developers prove a reliable water source before moving forward into construction. “And that planning has served us well,” he said.

When asked if Longmont had talked about possibly sharing with other municipalities that might, in the future, not have enough water for their residents, he suggested that long-term aid would be viewed very differently than short-term aid.

 “The decision to share water on an ongoing basis might be a different conversation than if there was an emergency situation, like if somebody’s water treatment plant went out,” he said. “That’s a different scenario than saying, ‘Hey, we didn’t plan as well as Longmont, and now we don’t have enough supply.’”

Boulder Reporting Lab is a nonprofit newsroom serving Boulder County. Sign up for their newsletter here.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

Developers behind Renewable Water Resources contribute thousands to Douglas County #water district races — @WaterEdCO #SanLuisValley #RioGrande

The northern end of Colorado’s San Luis Valley has a raw, lonely beauty that rivals almost any place in the North American West. Photo/Allen Best

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Real estate developers interested in exporting water they own from the San Luis Valley to fast-growing, water-short Douglas County have contributed thousands of dollars to candidates for the Parker Water & Sanitation District Board, one of the largest water providers in the county.

Last month, Robert Kennah won a seat on the Parker water board and had received two donations from partners in Renewable Water Resources, a real estate development group whose principals include former Colorado Governor Bill Owens. The contributions were made by RWR principals John Kim and Hugh Bernardi, according to filings at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.

A second RWR-backed candidate, Kory Nelson, also received $10,000 in donations from RWR, but did not win a seat on the Parker water board. Nelson is contesting the results of the election.
If Nelson had won, RWR would have ties to three members of the five-member board, according to Parker Water and Sanitation District Manager Ron Redd.

Parker board member Brooke Booth is related by marriage to RWR principal Sean Tonner, Redd said.

Big money

Neither Booth, Kennah nor RWR responded to a request for comment. Nelson could not be reached for comment.

Such large contributions are unusual in low-profile water district board elections, where candidates often provide their own funding for their campaigns of a few hundred dollars, rather than thousands, according to Redd.

“That’s a lot of money for a water board race,” Redd said.

The donations come after Douglas County Commissioners last year declined to invest in RWR’s controversial $400 million San Luis Valley pipeline proposal using COVID-19 relief funding. Douglas County Commissioners Lora Thomas and Abe Laydon voted against the funding, while Commissioner George Teal supported the proposal.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Among other objections, the county said that RWR’s claim that there was enough water in the San Luis Valley’s aquifers to support the export plan, was incorrect, based on hydrologic models presented over the course of several public work sessions.

The county’s attorneys also said the proposal did not comply with the Colorado Water Plan, which favors projects that don’t dry up productive farmland and which have local support.

Opposition to the proposal in the San Luis Valley is widespread. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa argues that no water should be taken from the San Luis Valley because it is already facing major water shortages due to the ongoing drought and over-pumping of its aquifers by growers. The valley faces a looming well shutdown if it can’t reduce its water use enough to bring its fragile water system back into balance.

Out of compliance

That lack of compliance means that Douglas County would likely not win any potential state funding for the export proposal.

Last year, after the county rejected the San Luis Valley proposal, RWR said it would continue to work with Douglas County to see if its objections could be overcome. It has also maintained that the agricultural water it owns in the San Luis Valley would be pulled from a portion of the valley’s aquifer system that is renewable, minimizing any damage that might occur from the project, and that even though farmlands would be dried up when the water is exported, the valley’s water situation would benefit from a reduction in agricultural water use.

RWR’s water rights, however, have not yet been converted to municipal use, as is required under Colorado law. That process could take years to complete and would likely be fiercely contested by farm interests in the San Luis Valley, as well as other opponents.

Still RWR continues to deepen its ties to Douglas County water districts. RWR principal John Kim, one of the contributors to the Parker water board elections, won a seat last year on the Roxborough Water and Sanitation District Board, according to the district’s website. Kim lives in that district. He declined a request for comment.

Douglas County government does not deliver water to its residents, but relies on more than a dozen individual communities and water districts to provide that service.
Fast-growing towns and water districts early on simply drilled wells into aquifers, but the aquifers have been declining and water districts have been forced to implement aggressive water conservation programs, water reuse programs, and use of local surface supplies to meet their needs.

Lawn sizes in Castle Rock are sharply limited to save water, with some homeowners opting to use artificial turf for convenience and to help keep water bills low. Oct. 21, 2020. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

No support

Two of the largest water providers in Douglas County, Parker Water and Sanitation District and Castle Rock Water, have said they would not support the RWR proposal because they had already spent millions of dollars developing new, more sustainable, politically acceptable projects. Those projects include a South Platte River pipeline that is being developed in partnership with farmers in the northeastern corner of the state.

A host of politicians across the political spectrum came out against the RWR proposal as well, including Gov. Jared Polis and Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents the San Luis Valley.

Still, Douglas County’s Teal, who has also received funding from RWR principals, said he believes the RWR water could have a role to play in helping ensure the county has enough water to grow over the next 50 years.

“I don’t know [if we have enough water,]” Teal said. “That is part of what makes me wonder if we do have enough. Water projects take time. There is no snapping your fingers and then delivering 10,000 acre-feet of water.”

But Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas says the county’s water providers are well prepared for the future and there is no need to spend money on a project that has little public support and which may never come to fruition.

“We are secure without it,” Thomas said. “But I think that RWR is doing everything it can to get Douglas County to buy into their scheme.”

Long shot?

Floyd Ciruli, a pollster and veteran observer of Colorado politics who has done extensive work in the past for Douglas County water providers, said the RWR initiative faces an uphill battle.

“They have resistance at both ends,” Ciruli said, referring to opposition in the San Luis Valley and in the metro area. “It’s interesting that [RWR] is contributing to these boards. It’s is a real long shot.”

Parker Water and Sanitation District says it plans to continue its development of the South Platte pipeline project in northeastern Colorado and to craft deals with farmers so that agricultural water won’t be removed from farmlands, helping preserve the rural economy there. Most of Parker’s water rights have already been approved for municipal use, according to Redd.

“We’re concerned because Parker water has no interest in the RWR project and we basically stated that a year ago when Douglas County was looking at their project. It has no clear path to being done. It’s years if not decades before they could even get started,” Redd said.

“We have a clear path. We already have the water. I am not sure what the intent was to try and get people on our board. It is just concerning.”

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

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

The U.S. Supreme Court just made it easier to destroy #wetlands and streams: The decision strips federal protections from the ephemeral streams that are crucial for life in the arid West — @HighCountryNews #WOTUS

Ephemeral streams are streams that do not always flow. They are above the groundwater reservoir and appear after precipitation in the area. Via

Click the link to read the article on the High Country News website (Emily Benson):

Like icebergs and human beings, waterways are made up of more than what’s visible on the surface. Take Lapwai Creek, near Lewiston, Idaho: At a casual glance, it’s a ribbon of cool water, shaded by cottonwood trees and alive with steelhead and sculpin, mayfly and stonefly larvae. An adult could wade across it in a few strides without getting their knees wet. But that’s just the part people can see. Beneath the surface channel, coursing through the rounded cobbles below, is what scientists call the hyporheic zone: water flowing along underground, which can be a few inches deep, or 10 yards or more, mixing with both surface water and groundwater. Microbes that purify water live down there, and aquatic insects — food for fish and other animals — can use it as a sort of underground highway, traveling more than a mile away from a river. 

A creek, in other words, is more than just the water in its channel; it’s also the water underground, and it’s connected to everything else in its watershed, including wetlands and channels upstream that might dry up during some years, or perhaps go years between getting wet. Whatever happens there — pollution or protection — happens to the entire creek. In the case of Lapwai Creek, which flows into the Clearwater River and then the Snake River, it’s a small but fundamental part of the complex ecosystem that salmon, humans and countless other creatures in the Pacific Northwest rely on.

Lapwai Creek, Idaho, which flows into the Clearwater River and then the Snake River. Photo credit: USGS

But those ecological realities are strikingly absent from last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA. The ruling strips federal protections from all ephemeral streams and, as reported by E&E Newsmore than half of the previously protected wetlands in the U.S. It limits Clean Water Act protections to “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water.” That includes some wetlands — those that are “indistinguishable” from protected oceans, lakes, rivers and streams “due to a continuous surface connection.”

“It doesn’t reflect reality, or the scientific understanding of how watersheds and the river networks within them function,” said Ellen Wohl, a river researcher and professor in the Geosciences Department at Colorado State University. Wohl helped review the scientific evidence used to develop an earlier, and much more expansive, Obama-era definition of which bodies of water fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.

The act itself says it covers “the waters of the United States,” often abbreviated WOTUS, but what exactly that means has been the subject of decades of litigation and conflicting rule-making by federal administrations. In this decision, the Supreme Court took up the question in the context of a lawsuit Michael and Chantell Sackett brought against the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008. The case concerned whether or not there were protected wetlands on a property the couple owns near Priest Lake, Idaho. If there were, the Sacketts would have needed to get a Clean Water Act permit before filling the lot with dirt, and would now owe the agency hefty fines for having filled it without one; if there weren’t, then they could proceed with building a house on the lot without the permit.

All nine Supreme Court justices agreed that there were no protected wetlands on the property. And five of them — Justices Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett — went further. The majority opinion, written by Alito, focused in part on defining the word “adjacent” — as in, wetlands adjacent to protected waterbodies — to mean inseparable. That’s a stricter interpretation of the law, and leaves more wetlands unprotected, than any definition put forth by a federal administration since 1977, including the Trump administration’s 2020 rule. The remaining four justices spell that out in a concurring opinion, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh: “The Court’s ‘continuous surface connection’ test disregards the ordinary meaning of ‘adjacent.’ … As a result, the Court excludes wetlands that the text of the Clean Water Act covers — and that the Act since 1977 has always been interpreted to cover.”

Sunrise March 10, 2023 Alamosa Colorado with the Rio Grande in the foreground. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

In addition to wetlands, the decision excludes many — or perhaps most, or even all; the ruling is unclear — temporary streams. These include ephemeral streams, which flow only after snow- or rainfall — such as flooding desert washes — and intermittent ones, which sometimes go dry, often seasonally, like the Rio Grande in New Mexico

Temporary streams and rivers exist primarily in the arid West, particularly in the Great Plains and the Great Basin. And they’re important for both ecosystems and humans: According to EPA data, 70% of the miles of streams supplying public water systems that more than 3 million people in Arizona’s Maricopa County relied on in 2009 were ephemeral or intermittent. In fact, 96% of Arizona’s total stream mileage is ephemeral or intermittent; New Mexico, too, has very few relatively permanent waterways. “So, arguably, (nearly) all the rivers and streams in those two states are no longer protected by the Clean Water Act,” said Mark Ryan, a retired EPA lawyer who specialized in the act and represented the EPA in the Sackett case until he left the agency in 2014. 

That “arguably” is important. It’s now up to the EPA to interpret the ruling and define what exactly “relatively permanent” means, because the majority opinion itself is silent on the matter. In fact, it doesn’t mention intermittent or ephemeral streams at all, though it does say, in reference to protected waters, that “temporary interruptions in surface connection may sometimes occur because of phenomena like low tides or dry spells.” The phrases “temporary interruptions” and “dry spells” seem to leave the door open for protecting some intermittent streams, but the absence of details — like how long of a dry spell is acceptable — leaves the matter up to agency rules, and litigation over them.

Weaker protections mean that more wetlands and temporary streams will be destroyed, filled in with dirt for houses or other development. Ecosystems and people alike will lose the benefits they provide: biodiversity and abundance of species; space to absorb extra water during storms, preventing deadly floods; natural storage of that same water, so it’s available later, during dry times; the natural purification that occurs when water is filtered through the ground.

Take, for example, a desert playa in the Great Basin, which might be dry for years at a time. When rainwater falls on it or snowmelt flows into it, it acts like “a big sponge,” Wohl said. A sponge that can store water for later, and clean it, too. But if you turn it into a parking lot by filling or building on it, as the Supreme Court ruling makes it easier to do, water will pour off it, rather than soak in. And what was once a playa — part of an intricate system changing across space and time — will become simply an asphalt wasteland.

The tallest dunes in North America are the centerpiece of a diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, forests, alpine lakes and tundra at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Photo credit: The Department of Interior

U.S. Supreme Court imperils arroyos, wetlands — @Land_Desk #WOTUS

Comb Wash and tributaries in southeastern Utah, all of which are undeserving of Clean Water Act protection according to the majority of Supreme Court justices. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

THE NEWS: The U.S. Supreme Court hands down a ruling in the long-running Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency case that significantly alters and narrows the scope of the Clean Water Act

THE CONTEXT: Sometimes it feels like the Supreme Court doesn’t like — or maybe just doesn’t get — the arid Western U.S. Last week’s ruling is a prime example: It potentially removes federal protections from thousands of miles of Western waterways, making it far easier for developers to pollute or destroy arroyos, wetlands and ephemeral streams. 

The specific case dates back to 2007, when EPA officials ordered Chantell and Michael Sackett to stop backfilling their soggy half-acre lot on the shores of Idaho’s Priest Lake, where they wanted to build a cabin. The EPA had determined that since the wetlands were adjacent to a navigable, interstate water (Priest Lake), it could be classified as “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, and was therefore protected by the Clean Water Act. The Sacketts disagreed and took the feds to court. As the case wound its way through the legal system, the Sacketts’ cabin site transformed into the front line of a 50-year ideological battle over the definition of what constitutes legally decreed “waters.”

For years, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers—the agencies charged with enforcing the CWA—considered WOTUS to include everything from arroyos to prairie potholes to sloughs to mudflats, so long as the destruction or degradation thereof might ultimately affect traditionally navigable waters or interstate commerce (which could include recreation, sightseeing, or wildlife watching). It was a broad definition that gave the agencies latitude to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters,” as Congress mandated when creating the law in 1972.

Property rights ideologues pushed back on the definition, saying it was too broad and therefore gave the feds too much power to curb pollution or restrict development. Occasionally a developer would use this rationale to flout the rules, and a few of the cases made their way to the Supreme Court. In the 1985 Bayview case, the justices upheld the broad definition of WOTUS, and in the 2001 SWANCC case they left the definition alone but found that isolated ponds were not protected by the Clean Water Act simply because they were migratory bird habitat. 

Then, in his plurality opinion on the 2006 Rapanos case, the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote what would become the right-wing’s preferred definition of waters of the U.S. He argued that they should include only “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water … described in ordinary parlance as streams[,] . . . oceans, rivers, [and] lakes.” Scalia’s definition emphatically excluded “ephemeral streams” and “dry arroyos in the middle of the desert.” (He also referred to the “immense arid wastelands” of the Western U.S., giving an idea of where this guy’s coming from.)

Justice Scalia’s opinion in the Rapanos case, and now Alito’s in the Sackett decision, would remove most or all intermittent or ephemeral streams from Clean Water Act protections. That would leave 94% of Arizona’s streams more vulnerable to development. Source: U.S. EPA.

Justice Anthony Kennedy disputed Scalia, saying instead the CWA should extend to any stream or body of water with a “significant nexus” to navigable waters, determined by a wetland’s or waterway’s status as an “integral part of the aquatic environment.” 

The two conflicting Rapanos opinions have guided the agencies’ enforcement of the CWA ever since, with the George W. Bush and Trump administrations leaning toward Scalia’s narrow, anti-arroyo definition, and the Obama and Biden administrations adopting Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test. 

Fast forward to the recent Sackett decision, which has two parts. First, the justices all agreed that the EPA should not have fined the Sacketts for filling in their wetland, because it does not fall under the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction. But the wider ramifications come from Justice Samuel Alito’s rewriting of the definition of “waters of the U.S.” in his majority opinion — and the debate among justices it sparked. 

Sackett overtly focuses on wetlands, as did most of the back-and-forth between the disagreeing justices, who sparred over the definition of “adjacent.” Alito and the majority essentially believe “adjacent” and “adjoining” are synonymous, which removes any wetland lacking a continuous surface connection to a navigable body of water from federal jurisdiction. He also puts the kibosh on the “significant nexus” test. (Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch go even further, trying to reduce waters of the U.S. to rivers or lakes that can actually be navigated by ships.) Even Justice Brett Kavanaugh disagreed with Alito’s narrow definition, pointing out that “adjacent” is not the same as “adjoining.”

You might be wondering how any of this effects the arid West, where wetlands — either adjacent or adjoining — aren’t all that common. After all, intermittent streams only got passing mentions in the opinions and not once does the term “arroyo” appear. But there’s little question that arroyos and ephemeral streams will end up suffering collateral damage. The Sackett majority defers to Scalia’s Rapanos definition, writing: “ … we conclude that the Rapanos plurality was correct: the CWA’s use of ‘waters’ encompasses ‘only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water forming geographical features that are described in ordinary parlance as streams oceans, rivers and lakes.’”

So, yeah, we Southwesterners do refer in our ordinary parlance to many an intermittent stream as a “river,” e.g. the Santa Fe River, the Santa Cruz River, the Rio Puerco(s), and so forth. But I doubt that would have been adequate for Scalia and now for Alito and friends. 

It’s not clear yet how all of this will play out on the ground, except that the Sacketts can finally build their cabin without fear of an EPA fine. The Clean Water Act, one of the nation’s most important environmental laws, is now weaker than it was a couple of weeks ago, and countless wetlands, sloughs, arroyos and ponds are now more vulnerable to development and pollution. Justice Elena Kagan summed it up in her response to Alito: “The majority thus alters—more precisely, narrows the scope of—the statute Congress drafted,” she wrote, adding that the opinion “ … is an effort to cabin the anti-pollution actions Congress thought appropriate.”

Steve Bannon, former President Donald Trump’s right-hand man, once said the goal of the administration was the “deconstruction of the administrative state. He wanted to eviscerate regulations protecting human health and the environment so they would no longer “burden” corporations or stand in their way of reaping boundless profit. Trump may no longer be president, and both he and Bannon may be headed to jail soon. But their agenda lives on among the majority of the nation’s highest court, which, Kagan wrote, has appointed “itself as the national decision-maker on environmental policy.”

She continued, referring to last year’s decision that hindered the EPA from enforcing clean air laws: “So I’ll conclude, sadly, by repeating what I wrote last year, with the replacement of only a single word. ‘[T]he Court substitutes its own ideas about policymaking for Congress’s. The Court will not allow the Clean [Water] Act to work as Congress instructed. The Court, rather than Congress, will decide how much regulation is too much.’ Because that is not how I think our Government should work — more, because it is not how the Constitution thinks our Government should work …”

Read more of my writing on Sackett, WOTUS, Rapanos, and SCOTUS in High Country News at the Landline and in the Land Desk:

2023 #COleg: Governor Polis Signs Bipartisan Bills into Law in Eastern #Colorado

The Arikaree River in 2000 in early summer, when water is near its maximum extent. Photo: Kurt Fausch

From email from Governor Polis’ office:

YUMA – Today [June 3, 2023], Governor Polis is signing legislation into law.

“Water is the lifeblood of our state, which is why I was proud to be in Yuma County today to sign legislation right here in the Republican River Basin that builds upon our data-driven approach to preserving and protecting our precious water resources,” said Gov. Polis. “Making sure that Coloradans can access high-quality, affordable health care has been our top priority since day one, and I look forward to signing legislation today at Byers Health Care Clinic to save people money on health care and cut red tape.”

This morning in Yuma, Gov. Polis signed the bipartisan HB23-1220 Study Republican River Groundwater Economic Impact sponsored by Representatives Richard Holtorf and Karen McCormick, Senators Byron Pelton and Rod Pelton, to take a data-driven approach to understanding the economics of groundwater conservation in the Republican River Basin, while helping to ensure that Colorado continues meeting the obligations spelled out in our interstate compacts. 

At the Byers Health Care Clinic in Byers, Gov. Polis will sign the bipartisan SB23-298 Allow Public Hospital Collaboration Agreements – Representatives Karen McCormick and Rod Bockenfeld, Senators Bob Gardner and Dylan Roberts to encourage collaborative agreements between rural hospitals while maintaining adequate oversight to ensure rural Coloradans can maintain needed hospital services in their local areas. Rural hospitals provide lifesaving access to care for Coloradans and are often hubs for local economies and crucial job-providers, and ensuring they can work together helps to cut red tape and save Coloradans money on health care. 

#NewMexico Governor Lujan Grisham calls out U.S. Supreme Court #WOTUS Decision as ‘devastating’ to New Mexico’s waters — The Carlsbad Current Argus

Birds and water at Bosque de Apache New Mexico November 9, 2022. Photo credit: Abby Burk

Click the link to read the article on the Carlsbad Current Argus website (Adrian Hedden). Here’s an excerpt:

New Mexico’s state leaders criticized the Republican-led U.S. Supreme Court for a recent decision that could limit protections for waterways throughout the arid state. The Supreme Court issued a judgement on May 25 in Sackett vs. the U.S. EPA, ultimately finding the Clean Water Act (CWA) only applied to wetlands that are directly connected to permanent bodies of water…The opinion was written by Justice Samuel Alito, with the other members issuing concurring opinions in the case.

“In sum, we hold that the CWA extends to only those ‘wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States in their own right, so that they are ‘indistinguishable’ from those waters,” read Alito’s opinion. “This holding compels reversal here. The wetlands on the Sacketts’ property are distinguishable from any possibly covered waters.”

But New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham contended the decision weakened the Clean Water Act and could put many of New Mexico’s fragmented rivers and streams at risk. In a statement following the verdict, Lujan Grisham said she was “appalled” and contended the ruling would leave 90 percent of New Mexico’s waters without federal protection from development. Lujan Grisham said her administration planned to study how state law could be used to fill any “regulatory gaps” created by the Supreme Court ruling to protect the state’s limited water resources.

The U.S. Supreme Court Just Withdrew Protections from a Huge Portion of the Country’s #Wetlands — Field & Stream

A sunset in Autumn at Priest Lake. By S.hammarlund (talk) – I created this work entirely by myself., Public Domain,

Click the link to read the article on the Field & Stream website (Travis Hall). Here’s an excerpt:

On May 25, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a ruling that could ultimately rescind federal protections from more than 50 percent of the nation’s wetlands. With its 5-4 ruling in a case known as Sackett v. EPA, SCOTUS declared that the Clean Water Act—a measure long-regarded as the most impactful clean water safeguard ever enacted—no longer applies to isolated wetlands that aren’t visibly connected to larger water bodies by continuous, surface-level flows. According to sportsmen’s groups, the ruling will leave these isolated wetlands unprotected from development, drilling, and other sources of pollution. While the decision will be a boon to the homebuilding and extraction industries, it could have far-reaching and detrimental repercussions for wildlife species that rely on cold, clean water sources—like trout and waterfowl.

“It’s bad news for hunters and anglers,” Alex Funk, Director of Water Resources and Senior Counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), tells Field & Stream. “Everything from ducks to cold-water fish species like trout rely on headwater streams and headwater wetlands, like fens, to help maintain water temperatures—those are at risk now.”


The Clean Water Act’s stated goals were beautifully simple: Make America’s rivers and wetlands “swimmable and fishable” again. For fifty years, throughout the administrations of six different U.S. Presidents, the federal rule worked well. And it reversed some of the country’s most egregious environmental sins. Then, in 2001 and again in 2006, SCOTUS began taking court cases with huge implications for the future of the Clean Water Act. Its rock-solid protections were eroded by unfavorable court decisions, and the clarity that had made the CWA such an effective safeguard for so many years was muddied…

In response to the confusion brought about by these court cases, the Obama-era EPA proposed the so-called Waters of the U.S. Rule—commonly known as WOTUS. This 2015 rule sought to clarify and re-establish lost protections for hundreds of thousands of miles of ephemeral streams and tens of thousands of acres of wetlands. It was widely supported by the vast majority of America’s hunting and angling conservation groups.  But its opponents had immense power in the mining, agribusiness, and development sectors. That lobby’s boisterous campaign to undermine WOTUS was widely successful, and in 2019 President Trump decried the rule as “horrible”, scaling back its protections for ephemeral streams and isolated wetlands once again. Then, when current President Joe Biden took office, his EPA administrator rebuilt WOTUS, restoring its protections to pre-Trump levels. That’s more or less where the rule remained until yesterday…

“The wetlands on the Sackett property are distinguishable from any…waters [that are covered under the CWA],” wrote Justice Samuel Alito, because they aren’t visibly connected to them. Writing for the majority, Alito went on to say that, in order to be eligible for federal protections under the Clean Water Act, a wetland must have a “continuous surface connection with water, making it difficult to determine where the water ends and the wetland begins.”

Creating a balance of water that’s taken from aquifers and water that replenishes aquifers is an important aspect of making sure water will be available when it’s needed. Image from “Getting down to facts: A Visual Guide to Water in the Pinal Active Management Area,” courtesy of Ashley Hullinger and the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center

“The Court is basically making the assumption that water only flows on the surface,” Trout Unlimited President and CEO Chris Wood tells F&S. “They’re making the assumption that there’s no such thing as groundwater, no such thing as sub-surface flow. It totally flies in the face of the scientific reality, and it’s a dangerous reading of the Clean Water Act.”


According to TRCP’s Funk, the onus will now fall on individual states to enact whatever clean water protections they see fit. “Most states don’t have the resources to set up clean water programs and enforce those safeguards,” says Funk. “The whole model of the Clean Water Act was that the feds would provide that cooperative base level of protection for the states. With this ruling, that base just dropped considerably.”

The U.S. Supreme Court just shriveled federal protection for #wetlands, leaving many of these valuable ecosystems at risk — The Conversation

Many ecologically important wetlands, like these in Kulm, N.D., lack surface connections to navigable waterways. USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr, CC BY

Albert C. Lin, University of California, Davis

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Sackett v. EPA that federal protection of wetlands encompasses only those wetlands that directly adjoin rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. This is an extremely narrow interpretation of the Clean Water Act that could expose many wetlands across the U.S. to filling and development.

Under this keystone environmental law, federal agencies take the lead in regulating water pollution, while state and local governments regulate land use. Wetlands are areas where land is wet for all or part of the year, so they straddle this division of authority.

Swamps, bogs, marshes and other wetlands provide valuable ecological services, such as filtering pollutants and soaking up floodwaters. Landowners must obtain permits to discharge dredged or fill material, such as dirt, sand or rock, in a protected wetland.

This can be time-consuming and expensive, which is why the Supreme Court’s ruling on May 25, 2023, will be of keen interest to developers, farmers and ranchers, along with conservationists and the agencies that administer the Clean Water Act – namely, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

For the last 45 years – and under eight different presidential administrations – the EPA and the Corps have required discharge permits in wetlands “adjacent” to water bodies, even if a dune, levee or other barrier separated the two. The Sackett decision upends that approach, leaving tens of millions of acres of wetlands at risk. The U.S. has lost more than half of its original wetlands, mainly due to development and pollution.

The Sackett case

Idaho residents Chantell and Mike Sackett own a parcel of land located 300 feet from Priest Lake, one of the state’s largest lakes. The parcel once was part of a large wetland complex. Today, even after the Sacketts cleared the lot, it still has some wetland characteristics, such as saturation and ponding in areas where soil was removed. Indeed, it is still hydrologically connected to the lake and neighboring wetlands by water that flows at a shallow depth underground.

In preparation to build a house, the Sacketts had fill material placed on the site without obtaining a Clean Water Act permit. The EPA issued an order in 2007 stating that the land contained wetlands subject to the law and requiring the Sacketts to restore the site. The Sacketts sued, arguing that their property was not a wetland.

In 2012, the Supreme Court held that the Sacketts had the right to challenge EPA’s order and sent the case back to the lower courts. After losing below on the merits, they returned to the Supreme Court with a suit asserting that their property was not federally protected. This claim in turn raised a broader question: What is the scope of federal regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act?

Homes line the edges of a river.
Housing encroaches on Caloosahatchee River wetlands in Fort Myers, Fla. Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

What are ‘waters of the United States’?

The Clean Water Act regulates discharges of pollutants into “waters of the United States.” Lawful discharges may occur if a pollution source obtains a permit under either Section 404 of the act for dredged or fill material, or Section 402 for other pollutants.

The Supreme Court has previously recognized that the “waters of the United States” include not only navigable rivers and lakes, but also wetlands and waterways that are connected to navigable bodies of water. But many wetlands are not wet year-round, or are not connected at the surface to larger water systems. Still, they can have important ecological connections to larger water bodies.

In 2006, when the court last took up this issue, no majority was able to agree on how to define “waters of the United States.” Writing for a plurality of four justices in U.S. v. Rapanos, Justice Antonin Scalia defined the term narrowly to include only relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water such as streams, oceans, rivers and lakes. Waters of the U.S., he contended, should not include “ordinarily dry channels through which water occasionally or intermittently flows.”

Acknowledging that wetlands present a tricky line-drawing problem, Scalia proposed that the Clean Water Act should reach “only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States in their own right.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy took a very different approach. “Waters of the U.S.,” he wrote, should be interpreted in light of the Clean Water Act’s objective of “restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

Accordingly, Kennedy argued, the Clean Water Act should cover wetlands that have a “significant nexus” with navigable waters – “if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as ‘navigable.’”

Neither Scalia’s nor Kennedy’s opinion attracted a majority, so lower courts were left to sort out which approach to follow. Most applied Kennedy’s significant nexus standard, while a few held that the Clean Water Act applies if either Kennedy’s standard or Scalia’s is satisfied.

Regulators have also struggled with this question. The Obama administration incorporated Kennedy’s “significant nexus” approach into a 2015 rule that followed an extensive rulemaking process and a comprehensive peer-reviewed scientific assessment. The Trump administration then replaced the 2015 rule with a rule of its own that largely adopted the Scalia approach.

The Biden administration responded with its own rule defining waters of the United States in terms of the presence of either a significant nexus or continuous surface connection. However, this rule was promptly embroiled in litigation and will require reconsideration in light of Sackett v. EPA.

The Sackett decision and its ramifications

The Sackett decision adopts Scalia’s approach from the 2006 Rapanos case. Writing for a five-justice majority, Justice Samuel Alito declared that “waters of the United States” includes only relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water, such as streams, oceans, rivers, lakes – and wetlands that have a continuous surface connection with and are indistinguishably part of such water bodies.

None of the nine justices adopted Kennedy’s 2006 “significant nexus” standard. However, Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the three liberal justices disagreed with the majority’s “continuous surface connection” test. That test, Kavanaugh wrote in a concurrence, is inconsistent with the text of the Clean Water Act, which extends coverage to “adjacent” wetlands – including those that are near or close to larger water bodies.

“Natural barriers such as berms and dunes do not block all water flow and are in fact evidence of a regular connection between a water and a wetland,” Kavanaugh explained. “By narrowing the Act’s coverage of wetlands to only adjoining wetlands, the Court’s new test will leave some long-regulated adjacent wetlands no longer covered by the Clean Water Act, with significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.”

The majority’s ruling leaves little room for the EPA or the Army Corps of Engineers to issue new regulations that could protect wetlands more broadly.

The court’s requirement of a continuous surface connection means that federal protection may no longer apply to many areas that critically affect the water quality of U.S. rivers, lakes and oceans – including seasonal streams and wetlands that are near or intermittently connected to larger water bodies. It might also mean that construction of a road, levee or other barrier separating a wetland from other nearby waters could remove an area from federal protection.

Congress could amend the Clean Water Act to expressly provide that “waters of the United States” includes wetlands that the court has now stripped of federal protection. However, past efforts to legislate a definition have fizzled, and today’s closely divided Congress is unlikely to fare any better.

Whether states will fill the breach is questionable. Many states have not adopted regulatory protections for waters that are outside the scope of “waters of the United States.” In many instances, new legislation – and perhaps entirely new regulatory programs – will be needed.

Finally, a concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas hints at potential future targets for the court’s conservative supermajority. Joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, Thomas suggested that the Clean Water Act, as well as other federal environmental statutes, lies beyond Congress’ authority to regulate activities that affect interstate commerce, and could be vulnerable to constitutional challenges. In my view, Sackett v. EPA might be just one step toward the teardown of federal environmental law.

This is an update of an article originally published on Sept. 26, 2022.

Albert C. Lin, Professor of Law, University of California, Davis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

U.S. Supreme Court Limits E.P.A.’s Power to Address Water Pollution — The New York Times

The Wood River Wetland in southern Oregon is home to an array of biodiverse vegetation and is a freshwater ecoregion. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management

Click the link to read the article on The New York Times website (Adam Liptak). Here’s an excerpt:

Experts in environmental law said the decision would leave many wetlands subject to pollution without penalty, sharply undercutting the E.P.A.’s authority to protect them under the Clean Water Act…Kevin Minoli, who worked as a senior E.P.A. lawyer from the Clinton through the Trump administrations, overseeing the enforcement of Clean Water Act regulations, said the decision would have enormous practical consequences and estimated that it would affect more than half the nation’s wetlands…

The decision was nominally unanimous, with all the justices agreeing that the homeowners who brought the case should not have been subject to the agency’s oversight because the wetlands on their property were not subject to regulation in any event. But there was sharp disagreement about a new test the majority established to determine which wetlands are covered by the law. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, joined by the three liberal justices in a concurring opinion, said the decision would harm the federal government’s ability to address pollution and flooding.

“By narrowing the act’s coverage of wetlands to only adjoining wetlands,” he wrote, “the court’s new test will leave some long-regulated adjacent wetlands no longer covered by the Clean Water Act, with significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.”


“There,” she wrote, “the majority’s non-textualism barred the E.P.A. from addressing climate change by curbing power plant emissions in the most effective way. Here, that method prevents the E.P.A. from keeping our country’s waters clean by regulating adjacent wetlands. The vice in both instances is the same: the court’s appointment of itself as the national decision maker on environmental policy.”

U.S. Supreme Court guts clean #water protections, putting wetlands, rivers, public health at risk — @AmericanRivers

Wetlands, which are havens of biodiversity, offer priceless ecological benefits. As wetlands are lost to development nationwide, critics of the dam project worry about its local impact. (Photo Credit: John Fielder via Writers on the Range)

Click the link to read the statement on the American Rivers website (Amy Souers Kober):

In today’s [May 25, 2023] ruling on Sackett v. EPA, the Supreme Court dramatically narrowed the scope of the Clean Water Act, undoing protections that have safeguarded the nation’s waters for over 50 years. Because it erases critical protections for tens of millions of acres of wetlands, the court’s ruling threatens the clean drinking water sources for millions of Americans.  

Overturning federal protections for wetlands makes them vulnerable to pollution and harmful development, which impacts water quality, groundwater supplies, flood protection, and habitat for plants, fish, and wildlife. It will also make it more expensive to treat our water, driving up costs for millions of people. The court’s ruling will allow further destruction of wetlands, which will increase the rate and severity of flooding and flood damages in many places. 

Tom Kiernan, President and CEO of American Rivers, made the following statement: 

“The court’s ruling is a serious blow to wetlands, which are essential to clean, affordable drinking water, public health, and flood protection. Today’s ruling puts rivers and people at greater risk from pollution and harm. We urge state officials, the Biden Administration, and Congress to act quickly to safeguard rivers, wetlands, and streams that are so vital to our health and safety, environment, and economy. Rivers should unite us, not divide us.” 

“Without strong, science-based protections, the rivers and wetlands that are the lifeblood of our nation will suffer irreparable harm. We risk going backwards to a time of beach closures and rivers choked with pollution. This ruling will exacerbate environmental injustices as the worst impacts harm communities of color. American Rivers will continue to stand with local partners and frontline communities to secure equitable protections for rivers and clean water nationwide. ” 

What is Hydrology? — USGS

Sources/Usage: Public Domain. Research Hydrologist Martin Briggs (USGS) collects ground-penetrating radar (GPR) data. He is wearing special ice cleats on his shoes to have better traction walking on the ice. (April 2017)

Click the link to read the article on the USGS website:

What is Hydrology?

Water is one of our most precious natural resources. Without it, there would be no life on earth. Hydrology has evolved as a science in response to the need to understand the complex water system of the earth and help solve water problems. This hydrology primer gives you information about water on Earth and humans’ involvement and use of water.


Hydrology is the study of water

Water is one of our most important natural resources. Without it, there would be no life on earth. The supply of water available for our use is limited by nature. Although there is plenty of water on earth, it is not always in the right place, at the right time and of the right quality. Adding to the problem is the increasing evidence that chemical wastes improperly discarded yesterday are showing up in our water supplies today. Hydrology has evolved as a science in response to the need to understand the complex water systems of the Earth and help solve water problems. Hydrologists play a vital role in finding solutions to water problems, and interesting and challenging careers are available to those who choose to study hydrology.

Water and People

Estimates of water use in the United States indicate that about 355 billion gallons per day (one thousand million gallons per day, abbreviated Bgal/d) were withdrawn for all uses during 2010. This total has declined about 17 percent since 1980. Fresh groundwater withdrawals (76.0 Bgal/d) during 2010 were 8 percent less than during 1980. Fresh surface-water withdrawals for 2010 were 230 Bgal/d, 18 percent less than in 1980.

Much of our water use is hidden. Think about what you had for lunch. A hamburger, for example, requires water to raise wheat for the bun, to grow hay and corn to feed the cattle and to process the bread and beef. Together with french fries and a soft drink, this all-American meal uses about 1,500 gallons of water — enough to fill a small swimming pool. How about your clothes? To grow cotton for a pair of jeans takes about 400 gallons. A shirt requires about 400 gallons. How do you get to school or to the store? To produce the amount of finished steel in a car has in the past required about 32,000 gallons of water. Similarly, the steel in a 30-pound bicycle required 480 gallons. This shows that industry must continue to strive to reduce water use through manufacturing processes that use less water, and through recycling of water.

What is Hydrology?

Hydrology is the science that encompasses the occurrence, distribution, movement and properties of the waters of the earth and their relationship with the environment within each phase of the hydrologic cycle. The water cycle, or hydrologic cycle, is a continuous process by which water is purified by evaporation and transported from the earth’s surface (including the oceans) to the atmosphere and back to the land and oceans. All of the physical, chemical and biological processes involving water as it travels its various paths in the atmosphere, over and beneath the earth’s surface and through growing plants, are of interest to those who study the hydrologic cycle.

There are many pathways the water may take in its continuous cycle of falling as rainfall or snowfall and returning to the atmosphere. It may be captured for millions of years in polar ice caps. It may flow to rivers and finally to the sea. It may soak into the soil to be evaporated directly from the soil surface as it dries or be transpired by growing plants. It may percolate through the soil to ground water reservoirs (aquifers) to be stored or it may flow to wells or springs or back to streams by seepage. The cycle for water may be short, or it may take millions of years.

People tap the water cycle for their own uses. Water is diverted temporarily from one part of the cycle by pumping it from the ground or drawing it from a river or lake. It is used for a variety of activities such as households, businesses and industries; for irrigation of farms and parklands; and for production of electric power. After use, water is returned to another part of the cycle: perhaps discharged downstream or allowed to soak into the ground. Used water normally is lower in quality, even after treatment, which often poses a problem for downstream users.

The hydrologist studies the fundamental transport processes to be able to describe the quantity and quality of water as it moves through the cycle (evaporationprecipitationstreamflowinfiltrationgroundwater flow, and other components). The engineering hydrologist, or water resources engineer, is involved in the planning, analysis, design, construction and operation of projects for the control, utilization, and management of water resources. Water resources problems are also the concern of meteorologists, oceanographers, geologists, chemists, physicists, biologists, economists, political scientists, specialists in applied mathematics and computer science, and engineers in several fields.

What Hydrologists Do?

Hydrologists apply scientific knowledge and mathematical principles to solve water-related problems in society: problems of quantityquality and availability. They may be concerned with finding water supplies for cities or irrigated farms, or controlling river flooding or soil erosion. Or, they may work in environmental protection: preventing or cleaning up pollution or locating sites for safe disposal of hazardous wastes.

Persons trained in hydrology may have a wide variety of job titles. Scientists and engineers in hydrology may be involved in both field investigations and office work. In the field, they may collect basic data, oversee testing of water quality, direct field crews and work with equipment. Many jobs require travel, some abroad. A hydrologist may spend considerable time doing field work in remote and rugged terrain. In the office, hydrologists do many things such as interpreting hydrologic data and performing analyses for determining possible water supplies. Much of their work relies on computers for organizing, summarizing and analyzing masses of data, and for modeling studies such as the prediction of flooding and the consequences of reservoir releases or the effect of leaking underground oil storage tanks.

The work of hydrologists is as varied as the uses of water and may range from planning multimillion dollar interstate water projects to advising homeowners about backyard drainage problems.

San Luis Valley. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

Surface Water

Most cities meet their needs for water by withdrawing it from the nearest river, lake or reservoir. Hydrologists help cities by collecting and analyzing the data needed to predict how much water is available from local supplies and whether it will be sufficient to meet the city’s projected future needs. To do this, hydrologists study records of rainfallsnowpack depths and river flows that are collected and compiled by hydrologists in various government agencies. They inventory the extent river flow already is being used by others.

Managing reservoirs can be quite complex, because they generally serve many purposes. Reservoirs increase the reliability of local water supplies. Hydrologists use topographic maps and aerial photographs to determine where the reservoir shorelines will be and to calculate reservoir depths and storage capacity. This work ensures that, even at maximum capacity, no highways, railroads or homes would be flooded.

Deciding how much water to release and how much to store depends upon the time of year, flow predictions for the next several months, and the needs of irrigators and cities as well as downstream water-users that rely on the reservoir. If the reservoir also is used for recreation or for generation of hydroelectric power, those requirements must be considered. Decisions must be coordinated with other reservoir managers along the river. Hydrologists collect the necessary information, enter it into a computer, and run computer models to predict the results under various operating strategies. On the basis of these studies, reservoir managers can make the best decision for those involved.

The availability of surface water for swimming, drinking, industrial or other uses sometimes is restricted because of pollution. Pollution can be merely an unsightly and inconvenient nuisance, or it can be an invisible, but deadly, threat to the health of people, plants and animals.

Hydrologists assist public health officials in monitoring public water supplies to ensure that health standards are met. When pollution is discovered, environmental engineers work with hydrologists in devising the necessary sampling program. Water quality in estuaries, streams, rivers and lakes must be monitored, and the health of fish, plants and wildlife along their stretches surveyed. Related work concerns acid rain and its effects on aquatic life, and the behavior of toxic metals and organic chemicals in aquatic environments. Hydrologic and water quality mathematical models are developed and used by hydrologists for planning and management and predicting water quality effects of changed conditions. Simple analyses such as pHturbidity, and oxygen content may be done by hydrologists in the field. Other chemical analyses require more sophisticated laboratory equipment. In the past, municipal and industrial sewage was a major source of pollution for streams and lakes. Such wastes often received only minimal treatment, or raw wastes were dumped into rivers. Today, we are more aware of the consequences of such actions, and billions of dollars must be invested in pollution-control equipment to protect the waters of the earth. Other sources of pollution are more difficult to identify and control. These include road deicing salts, storm runoff from urban areas and farmland, and erosion from construction sites.

Researchers with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln take groundwater samples from the Loup River in the Sandhills of Nebraska in September 2018. By sampling groundwater and determining its age, they hope to determine whether predictions for groundwater discharge rates and contamination removal in watersheds are accurate. Photo credit: Troy Gilmore


Groundwater, pumped from beneath the earth’s surface, is often cheaper, more convenient and less vulnerable to pollution than surface water. Therefore, it is commonly used for public water supplies. Groundwater provides the largest source of usable water storage in the United States. Underground reservoirs contain far more water than the capacity of all surface reservoirs and lakes, including the Great Lakes. In some areas, ground water may be the only option. Some municipalities survive solely on groundwater.

Hydrologists estimate the volume of water stored underground by measuring water levels in local wells and by examining geologic records from well-drilling to determine the extent, depth and thickness of water-bearing sediments and rocks. Before an investment is made in full-sized wells, hydrologists may supervise the drilling of test wells. They note the depths at which water is encountered and collect samples of soils, rock and water for laboratory analyses. They may run a variety of geophysical tests on the completed hole, keeping and accurate log of their observations and test results. Hydrologists determine the most efficient pumping rate by monitoring the extent that water levels drop in the pumped well and in its nearest neighbors. Pumping the well too fast could cause it to go dry or could interfere with neighboring wells. Along the coast, overpumping can cause saltwater intrusion. By plotting and analyzing these data, hydrologists can estimate the maximum and optimum yields of the well.

Polluted groundwater is less visible, but more insidious and difficult to clean up, than pollution in rivers and lakes. Ground water pollution most often results from improper disposal of wastes on land. Major sources include industrial and household chemicals and garbage landfills, industrial waste lagoons, tailings and process wastewater from mines, oil field brine pits, leaking underground oil storage tanks and pipelines, sewage sludge and septic systems. Hydrologists provide guidance in the location of monitoring wells around waste disposal sites and sample them at regular intervals to determine if undesirable leachate — contaminated water containing toxic or hazardous chemicals — is reaching the ground water.

In polluted areas, hydrologists may collect soil and water samples to identify the type and extent of contamination. The chemical data then are plotted on a map to show the size and direction of waste movement. In complex situations, computer modeling of water flow and waste migration provides guidance for a clean-up program. In extreme cases, remedial actions may require excavation of the polluted soil. Today, most people and industries realize that the amount of money invested in prevention is far less than that of cleanup. Hydrologists often are consulted for selection of proper sites for new waste disposal facilities. The danger of pollution is minimized by locating wells in areas of deep ground water and impermeable soils. Other practices include lining the bottom of a landfill with watertight materials, collecting any leachate with drains, and keeping the landfill surface covered as much as possible. Careful monitoring is always necessary.

Careers in Hydrology

Students who plan to become hydrologists need a strong emphasis in mathematics, statistics, geology, physics, computer science, chemistry and biology. In addition, sufficient background in other subjects — economics, public finance, environmental law, government policy — is needed to communicate with experts in these fields and to understand the implications of their work on hydrology. Communicating clearly in writing and speech is a basic requirement essential for any professional person. Hydrologists should be able to work well with people, not only as part of a team with other scientists and engineers, but also in public relations, whether it be advising governmental leaders or informing the general public on water issues. Hydrology offers a variety of interesting and challenging career choices for today and tomorrow. It’s a field worth considering.

Source: Hydrology: The Study of Water and Water Problems A Challenge for Today and Tomorrow, a publication of the Universities Council on Water Resources

‘It’s time to deal with this’: #Kansas #Water Authority wants to save #OgallalaAquifer: State water officials said Kansas has had a ‘de facto’ policy to eventually drain the aquifer — Kansas Reflector

Dawn Buehler, chairwoman of the Kansas Water Authority, presides over a meeting Wednesday in Colby. The authority voted to adopt language saying Kansas should not deplete the Ogallala Aquifer. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

Click the link to read the article on the Kansas Reflector website (Allison Kite):

COLBY [December 15, 2022] — Kansas should scrap its de facto policy of draining the Ogallala Aquifer, a state board decided Wednesday.

Instead, the board said, the Kansas government should take steps to stop the decline of the aquifer and save it for future generations.

“It has taken decades for this to be said formally in writing by an official state body,” said Connie Owen, director of the Kansas Water Office. “… This is nothing less than historic.”

Saving the water source that supports Western Kansas’ economy and communities may seem like an obvious stance to take, but for about 70 years, the state’s policies and management decisions have reflected the idea that eventually, the Ogallala would dry up, said Earl Lewis, Kansas’ chief engineer. 

The Kansas Water Authority, which is made up of agricultural and industrial water users and utilities, wants to chart a new course. It voted almost unanimously Wednesday to recommend that the state scrap the policy of “planned depletion.”

“It’s time to deal with this while we still have some choices,” said John Bailey, a member of the Kansas Water Authority from Pittsburg. “If we don’t, we’re going to find ourselves in a very bad situation.”

Ogallala Aquifer. Credit: Big Pivots

The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest underground sources of fresh water, stretches across parts of eight states from South Dakota to Texas. After World War II farmers started pumping water from it to irrigate crops in arid western Kansas, establishing the region as a booming farming economy. For decades, the water was used with little thought of ensuring enough remained for future generations. 

But now, the water is running out. Some parts of the aquifer have half the water they had before irrigation on the aquifer began. Parts of western Kansas have an estimated 10 years of water left. There’s little surface water since streams that reliably flowed through the area in 1961 all but disappeared, according to the Kansas Geological Survey.

Draining the aquifer would fundamentally change life in western Kansas. Farm properties would lose their value if there’s no water to grow a crop. Families could lose their livelihoods and communities could disappear.

But while it’s widely accepted that the Ogallala is essential to western Kansas, Kansas Water Authority chairwoman Dawn Buehler said many farmers have been waiting on the government to tell them it’s time to do something. 

“We’ve heard that over and over from people — that, ‘Well, you know, we’re not at a dangerous zone yet because they’ll let us know when it’s time,’ ” Buehler said.

She continued: “I think the importance of today was saying, ‘It’s time.’ ”

Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas is embarking on a two-year study of playas that hold water during wet periods in Scott County and elsewhere to better understand their role in recharge of the underground Ogallala aquifer. (Bill Johnson/Kansas Geological Survey)

A vote to change course 

The Kansas Water Authority, which meets roughly every two months in different locations around the state, voted Wednesday to place language in the body’s annual report to the governor and legislature saying the “policy of planned depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is no longer in the best interest of the state of Kansas.”

The report will also recommend the state create a formal process to establish goals and actions to “halt the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer while promoting flexible and innovative management within a timeframe that achieves agricultural productivity, thriving economies and vibrant communities — now and for future generations of Kansans.” 

It had wide support among the authority members. 

“My opinion of this is that it should have been done 15 years ago or 20,” said Lynn Goossen, a farmer from Colby who serves on the Kansas Water Authority and the board of the groundwater management district in northwest Kansas. 

Goossen said there are parts of Kansas where the aquifer still has abundant water left but that people are “sticking their heads in the sand” rather than saving it. 

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

Some water users have pursued a longshot idea to draw water from the Missouri River via an aqueduct to southwest Kansas. They trucked 6,000 gallons of water from northeast Kansas across the state as a “proof of concept.” 

The goal to “halt” the decline of the aquifer gave pause to one member of the authority who asked that the statement instead say officials should “address” the decline of the aquifer. 

Randy Hayzlett, a farmer and rancher from Lakin who serves on the authority, was the lone vote against the language, though the subsequent vote to send the full annual report to policymakers was unanimous. 

Hayzlett said he couldn’t support establishing the goal without details about what it would mean to “halt” the decline of the aquifer. 

“That’s a pretty strong word, and it’s going to affect a lot of people,” he said.

Hayzlett said he wanted to do everything possible to remedy the decline of the Ogallala but didn’t want to throw a word out there without a plan to achieve it.

“Is it going to halt declining the aquifer? Is it going to halt the economy of western Kansas?” he said. “Just what’s it going to put a cap on and then how are we going to get there?”

Lewis said Kansas has talked about the issue of the Ogallala Aquifer for 50 years. If authority members wait for a plan, he said, they’ll get bogged down in the details. 

“What you’re doing is really setting a course,” Lewis said. “You’re saying, ‘I want to go in that direction. … I don’t know how I’m going to get there and it’s going to take a lot of us working together to get there.’ ”

Rivers of Kansas map via

USDA, #Colorado Introduce Additional #Conservation Practice to Address Regional #Drought Concerns

Kansas River Basin including the Republican River watershed. Map credit: By Kmusser – Self-made, based on USGS data., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Click the link to read the release on the USDA website:

 The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the State of Colorado are continuing and strengthening their Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) partnership to support and empower Colorado’s agricultural producers and landowners in reducing consumptive water use and protecting water quality, while conserving critical natural resources. Specifically, the newly revised Colorado Republican River CREP project, now available through USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, will offer producers a dryland crop production practice on eligible cropland. This option will give producers meaningful tools to continue farming as they work toward permanently retiring water rights and conserving the Ogallala Aquifer for future generations.

“This project is an example of how targeted and thoughtful federal-state partnerships can help address local natural resource concerns,” said FSA Administrator Zach Ducheneaux. “The Colorado Republican River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) will help us meet an intertwined and complex set of challenges head-on, providing opportunities for producers to keep working lands working while reducing their water use and adapting climate-resilient agricultural practices. With the new dryland crop production practice provided through this agreement, producers with eligible land will have both the authority and access to the necessary technical assistance to successfully transition away from irrigated production while maintaining soil health and wildlife habitat. I am deeply grateful for the State of Colorado’s commitment to not just reaching an agreement but reaching the right agreement and strengthening a long-term partnership that will support Colorado producers into the future.”

Through the revised Colorado Republican River CREP, USDA and the State of Colorado will make resources available to program participants who voluntarily enroll in CRP for 14-year to 15-year contracts. This CREP provides participants with two ways to enroll eligible land. Producers can enroll eligible land in “CP100, Annual Crop Production, Non-Irrigated.” This practice transitions irrigated cropland to non-irrigated crop production and establishes complimentary wildlife habitat in and along the cropland.  Additionally, participants within the Republican River CREP project area may enroll eligible land in “CP2, Permanent Native Grasses,” “CP4D, Permanent Wildlife Habitat,” and “CP23 or CP23A, Wetland Restoration.”  These conservation practices remove cropland from agricultural production and convert the land to an approved conservation cover.

Through both enrollment options, producers will earn an annual rental payment and cost share on eligible components of the practice. 

Crop residue November 4, 2021. Photo credit: Joel Schneekloth

The dryland crop production practice is unique because producers will be able to keep these lands working while they implement conservation-minded agricultural practices including no till farming, cover crop installation and wildlife-friendly harvesting.  USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will work with eligible producers to develop conservation plans which include an approved annual crop rotation, minimum crop residue requirements, and management practices that support erosion mitigation and wildlife habitat. Unlike continuous and general CRP enrollment, participants with land enrolled in the CP100 may earn additional income from crops harvested from this acreage. 

“By leveraging this CREP program, we can combine significant long-term reduction of consumptive water use and conservation-based dryland crop production when drought and water conservation resource concerns exist, as they so currently do,” said Kent Peppler, FSA’s Colorado State Executive Director. “This approach showcases that when we work to promote both production and conservation hand-in-hand, we have the capacity to create unique partnerships that benefit our economies, landscapes, and communities.”

Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, highlighted the positive impact this agreement will have on conservation efforts in the basin. Gibbs said, “We are excited about the outcome of this collaborative effort with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. This agreement will help Colorado continue to advance its conservation efforts that are leading the basin toward a sustainable future in agriculture. The dryland production alternative provides more options that attract greater participation in the reduction of irrigation while helping preserve the economy and culture of the local region.”  

“Through partnership with DNR and USDA, Colorado farmers and ranchers will have the opportunity to continue production while focusing on conservation efforts,” said Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s Commissioner of Agriculture. “This agreement dovetails with CDA’s STAR Soil Health program, which helps bring financial and technical assistance to producers interested in expanding or introducing new climate smart practices into their operations,” said Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg. “Farmers and ranchers are experiencing first-hand the impacts of drought and climate change. Tools such as dryland CREP that focus on farmer-led solutions to healthy soils and water conservation are key to mitigating these effects in agricultural landscapes and providing producers options.”

Interested farmers, ranchers, and agricultural landowners are encouraged to contact FSA at their local USDA Service Center to learn more or to participate. Find contact information at

More Information

Currently, CREP has 35 projects in 27 states. In total, more than 784,800 acres are enrolled in CREP. The Colorado Republican River CREP is part of USDA’s broader effort to leverage CREP as an important tool to address climate change and other natural resources challenges while expanding opportunities for producers and communities, especially those historically underserved by USDA. In December 2021, USDA announced improvements to the program as well as additional staff to support the program. 

USDA touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. Under the Biden-Harris administration, USDA is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production, fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural America, and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America. To learn more, visit

USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender.

Biden-Harris administration to replace Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel Treatment Plant — Reclamtion #ArkansasRiver

The LMDT is west of Hwy. 91 north of Leadville. Forest, wetlands, and a small neighborhood are located nearby. Photo credit: Reclamation

Click the link to read the release on the Reclamation webiste (Anna Perea and Elizabeth Smith ):

LOVELAND, Colo. — The Bureau of Reclamation announces a $56 million investment from the President’s Investing in America agenda for the construction of a replacement Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel Treatment Plant. Originally built in 1991, the plant removes heavy metals from contaminated water caused by mining operations in the Leadville area. It has since reached its service life, and this investment from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will ensure the plant continues to protect water supply

The Department of the Interior recently announced a nearly $585 million investment from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for infrastructure repairs on water delivery systems. Funds will support 83 projects across all five Reclamation regions, including the Leadville Mine treatment plant.

Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel outbuildings. Photo credit: Reclamation

Since 1991, the treatment plant has operated to remove lead, zinc, manganese, iron, and other heavy metals from contaminated water that flows from the 2-mile-long Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel. The plant sends 650 million gallons per year of treated, clean water to the headwaters of the Arkansas River in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

“The replacement of the treatment plant represents one of the key priorities that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is intended to accomplish, protecting our water supplies for people and the natural environment,” said Jeff Rieker, Eastern Colorado Area Office Manager. “This funding will allow us to replace aging infrastructure that is critical for continued protection of the water resources of the Arkansas River, benefitting both the river itself, as well as the people who rely on it for a wide range of activities and uses.”

At present, the treatment plant has surpassed its expected service life of roughly 30 years. Over the next several years, Reclamation will construct a new treatment plant that incorporates knowledge gained over the past three decades, focuses on safety and improves the plant’s visual impact.

“The new plant will provide a longer service life and continue Reclamation’s commitment to community safety and producing clean water for the Arkansas River,” said Plant Supervisor, Jenelle Stefanic. “There will also be more maneuverability within the floor plan and additional safety features such as fall protection and noise reduction technology.”

Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

Albuquerque’s aquifer recovery seems to be returning — John Fleck (InkStain) #groundwater

Albuquerque’s aquifer recovery continues

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

After a couple of years of setback, the aquifer underneath the University of New Mexico neighorhood is rising again.

The spring measurement shows that it’s risen three feet since last year around this time.

The annual variability (the graph’s ups and downs) are the result of regional groundwater pumping for our municipal supply – more pumping in summer, less in winter. It’s fun to see how the regional aquifer responds, like a big bathtub filled with gravel and sand.

The long term upward trend, beginning in 2006-08-ish, is the result of a) significant conservation reducing overall municipal demand, and b) a shift to imported surface water via the San Juan-Chama Project.

The dip in 2020-21 is because we had a badass drought that required us to shift a significant amount of our supply off of that imported surface water and increase our groundwater pumping. The aquifer here dropped five feet from 2021 to 2022, for example.

This is a great example of polycentric governance. Absent a top-down (read state government) regulatory framework, our local water utility, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, has taken it upon itself to serve as a sort of de facto manager of this aquifer – not because it’s our legal responsibility (though there are some legal entanglements with the state water rights regime) but because we, as a community, concluded a number of years ago that it was in our best interest to take care of the aquifer. (Disclosure: I serve on the ABCWUA Technical Customer Advisory Committee.)

This is just one measurement point, because one of my intellectual tricks is to pick a gage (usually a river gage, but also this one for groundwater) and pay attention to it. This is tricky, because what if it’s not representative? But there’s been a lot of work by the USGS and others looking at our groundwater network as a whole, and the trend holds in general in the big, deep aquifer beneath Albuquerque. (One of my other favorite wells, City #2, which goes back to the 1950s, is up 6 inches year-over-year. Another favorite is City #3, which is located at the heart of one of the thick geographies I’m writing about for the new book, and is really close to one of the ABCWUA well fields, which tells another fabulous story as a result, but I’ve got a chapter to finish today so I’ll leave that for another day.)

Bosque Del Apache overbanking as the #RioGrande rises — John Fleck (InkStain) (April 25, 2023)

Rio Grande overbanking, Albuquerque, April 22, 2023. By John Fleck

Click the link to read the article on the Inkstain website (John Fleck)

In the early 1990s, a group of New Mexico scientists set up experimental plots at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque for in an effort to determine what might happen when water was reintroduced to the flood-starved woods flanking the river. Their description of what happened is a delight:

From time immemorial, this must have been a near-annual event, as the crickets and spiders scurried ahead of rising water each spring as the Rio Grande spread across the valley floor – bad for people trying to live here, great for the flora and fauna. From the same group of authors:

This changed in the early 1930s, dramatically, in an ecological instant as the newly formed Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District dug drainage ditches on either side of the Rio Grande and across the valley floor, throwing up the excavated dirt in spoil bank levees flanking the river’s then-main channel.

We understand what happened next thanks to a University of New Mexico biology student named Marjorie Van Cleave, who for her 1935 masters thesis documented the change. In that historic moment, plants and animals dependent on the wetlands spread across the valley floor disappeared.

Cattails – gone. Sedges, with deeper roots, hung on for a bit longer before fading into the ecological mists. Cocklebur, Russian thistle, lamb’s quarters, sunflowers, and pigweed colonized the old marshlands of the valley floor. We are forever in Van Cleave’s debt.

What we’re seeing this spring on the fringes of the Rio Grande bears so little resemblance to the valley-wide ecosystem that it seems cheap to even compare, but the careful work of Cliff Crawford, Manual Molles, and their colleagues three decades ago trying to address this question – What would happen if we reintroduced just a bit of flooding to the forests on the river’s edges? – nevertheless draws a critical connection between the Rio Grande and the community that surrounds it.

For our forthcoming book Ribbons of Green, Bob Berrens and I are interested in that critical moment in the 1930s when, with levees and drains, the valley floor around Albuquerque was disconnected from the river. The ecology was changed, suddenly, as was the connection between human communities and their river.

Much of our modern understanding of the bosque ecosystem is built on the work of Crawford and Molles, who started taking students down to the river in the 1980s. For much of the time between Van Cleave’s exhaustive work and the return of Crawford, Molles, and their students in the 1980s, little scientific attention seems to have been paid to the riverside ecosystem.

I can’t find the newspaper story I wrote based on a visit to the bosque with Cliff Crawford and his then-grad student and now my good friend Mary Harner. But I did find the obituary I wrote when Cliff died in 2010.

It’s a model in my mind for public-facing science, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as Bob and I wrestle with how to explain, in our book, Albuquerque’s modern relationship with the Rio Grande.

Mary has done an amazing job with her Witnessing Watersheds project of thinking about and documenting Albuquerque’s historic relationship with the river, and the time I have spent with her – mostly walking in the bosque, some to think of it – has been a huge influence on how I think about and approach this question.

Given flood control flow constraints, it’s hard to to get enough water through town to rise up out of the main channel and get back into the woods these days, to get it to “come alive with hopping crickets and running spiders,” but with 2023’s big snowpack, but there enough low spots providing delightful exceptions, and we’re already starting to see it rising up into those. Lissa and I were on a bosque trail near downtown Saturday when we were stopped by the water you see in the picture at the top of the blog.

There’s a sciency thing going on here – nutrient cycling, clearing out all the dry crud built up on the forest floor that in a more “natural” system would be wetted most years. (It was, in fact, Mary Harner who turned me on to the Molles et al paper I quoted above, with the hopping crickets and running spiders, when I asked for help running down the nutrient cycling piece. It turns out to be super nerdy and I probably won’t put it in the book.)

But it’s the cultural piece that I’m more interested in – the way we as a community have shifted from a desire in the 1930s to fence ourselves off from the river completely, to embracing overbanking with delight.

As often happens with these little mini-essays – sketches, really, for the book – this didn’t end up where I expected. I started with the intention of writing about nutrient cycling – printouts of research papers scattered across my desk, underlined bits, an excessive number of browser tabs.

But I realize that this is, in fact, a story about the relationship between a community and its river.

A cottonwood forest in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Matthew Schmader/Open Space Division

San Juan Mountains #snowpack yields healthier stream flows on #Rio #Grande and #ConejosRiver — @AlamosaCitizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

COLORADO is estimating 750,000 acre-feet on the Rio Grande and 405,000 acre-feet on the Conejos River, both dramatically up from a year ago thanks to healthy snowpack in the San Juan Mountains, State Engineer Kevin Rein told the Rio Grande Compact Commission on Friday.

“Forecasted river flows are much better this year, especially for the rivers starting in the San Juan Mountains,” Rein said. “Streamflows from the San Juan Mountains are estimated to be 130 to 250 percent of the last 30-year average.”

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are at near average snowpack conditions, but still better than recent years, Rein said. 

Streamflows on the Trinchera, Culebra, and Crestone creeks are forecasted at 90 to 120 percent of the last 30-year average, he said.

In 2022, the Rio Grande had 442,000 acre-feet and the Conejos 266,000 acre-feet for a third straight year of below average stream flows.

Rein’s presentation to the Rio Grande Compact Commission, which manages water on the Rio Grande for the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, included a report on the San Luis Valley’s subdistrict system and Colorado’s groundwater pumping rules that Valley irrigators have to follow.

Subdistrict 1, which is the biggest land subdivision in the San Luis Valley with 3,000 water wells and where farmers hold contracts with entities like Coors, Walmart and Safeway, has submitted a fourth plan of water management to Rein and the Colorado Division of Water Resources in its effort to meet the sustainability requirements for Upper Rio Grande’s unconfined aquifer.

“It is struggling with meeting its sustainability requirements in the unconfined aquifer,” Rein told the Rio Grande Compact Commission. 

The proposed fourth plan of water management by Subdistrict 1 would require irrigators to cover groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or through the purchase of surface water credits. The plan calls for a 1-to-1 augmentation, meaning for every acre-foot of water used, an acre-foot has to be returned to the unconfined aquifer through recharging ponds.

In the San Luis Valley, well owners must replace their injurious river depletions by participating in a subdistrict or by getting a court-approved augmentation plan. The subdistricts, governed by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, must get state approval for annual replacement plans that show how farmers and ranchers are covering their water depletions.

There are three upcoming state water court cases involving irrigators in Subdistrict 1 who filed their own augmentation plans in an effort to stay out of the subdistrict. 

The largest of the three cases involves the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group (SWAG), which consists of 17,000 irrigated acres in Subdistrict 1. That case is set for a five-week trial in July and will be closely watched to see how a proposed augmentation plan this large is reviewed by state water court.


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Closed Basin issues rise at #RioGrande Water Conservation District board meeting — @AlamosaCitizen #SanLuisValley

Sunrise March 10, 2023 Alamosa Colorado with the Rio Grande in the foreground. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

THE federal government’s Closed Basin Project reared its head at Thursday’s special meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board.

In question was whether Closed Basin water could be included in annual replacement plans as a potential resource for subdistricts to help offset winter depletions to the Rio Grande and Conejos River basins.

The majority of the board answered in the affirmative, with some dissent, and approved resolutions to that effect and then separately approved the respective annual replacement plans of the six subdistricts. Those now get filed with the state Division of Water Resources for review and sign-off and are key plans to show the state how Valley irrigators are replacing the water they pump out in efforts to bring sustainability to the Upper Rio Grande aquifers.

The meeting drew a crowd of water users along the Rio Grande and Conejos River basins, who had heard the subdistrict annual replacement plans were in jeopardy of not being approved because the plans included potential use of Closed Basin water. Without a board-approved annual replacement plan in place, irrigators wouldn’t be able to begin groundwater pumping, hence the turnout and pleas to the board to vote for the plans.

No annual replacement plan, no groundwater pumping, no Valley ag economy was the message the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board members heard.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation-managed Closed Basin Project, positioned in the northern end of the Valley, pools surface water and groundwater and pumps the water into a canal to meet Rio Grande Compact and Treaty of Mexico requirements. 

In rulings from the Colorado Supreme Court, the water also can be prioritized for private use if there’s water left after meeting annual downstream obligations to New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, and delivering water to the Valley’s wetlands and wildlife refuges. 

But rarely is that the case.

With the persistent drought conditions, the Closed Basin Project has reduced its pumping to about 12,500 acre-feet of water a year, said Amber Pacheco, acting general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Of that, about 4,000 acre-feet is used to protect the wetlands areas and the rest of the water, or around 8,000 acre-feet, heads downstream.

The Closed Basin has an absolute water right of 42,000 acre-feet annually if conditions allow for it, and pumping is constantly monitored because under federal statute the Closed Basin Project cannot withdraw water to a level two feet below the area being pumped.

“They can’t pump it dry,” Pacheco said. “The Closed Basin Project can’t operate that way.”

Pacheco said the Rio Grande Water Conservation District cannot use Closed Basin water for anything other than wintertime depletions. “We pay all our irrigation-season depletions by other means. We don’t use the Closed Basin for that.”

And despite there being plenty of water users who would like to see the Closed Basin Project shut down and the water kept in the San Luis Valley, including some members of Rio Grande Water Conservation District board, a vote to shut it down isn’t within the boards power.

“This board can’t shut down the Closed Basin. It’s a federal project. They can ask and make comments, but they can’t vote to shut it down.”

But the Rio Grande Water Conservation District can approve an annual replacement plan for a subdistrict that includes the option of using Closed Basin water to offset winter depletions. The meeting at least made that clear.


Find more coverage of the RWR plan and other Valley water issues HERE

The headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Continued below-average precipitation reduces #groundwater levels, report shows — University of #Nebraska-Lincoln

Researchers with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln take groundwater samples from the Loup River in the Sandhills of Nebraska in September 2018. By sampling groundwater and determining its age, they hope to determine whether predictions for groundwater discharge rates and contamination removal in watersheds are accurate. Photo credit: Troy Gilmore

Click the link to read the article on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln website (Aaron Young):

Groundwater levels have declined in most of Nebraska following multiple years of below-average precipitation, University of Nebraska–Lincoln scientists found in a new statewide analysis. About three-quarters of the 4,787 observation wells across the state experienced groundwater level declines during 2021-22.

The Conservation and Survey Division, the natural resource survey component of the School of Natural Resources, compiled the findings in its latest groundwater level report.

For most of the observation wells, the net change in groundwater level was less than 20 feet since predevelopment times — before the widespread use of groundwater for irrigation.

Nebraska still retains a relatively abundant share of the High Plains aquifer system, in contrast to the situation in areas such as western Kansas and northern Texas, where the depletion of the aquifer has been severe, with major negative consequences for local agriculture.

But the survey’s findings highlight the direct negative effects that prolonged below-average precipitation can have on groundwater levels. During the 2020-21 period, 96% of weather reporting stations in Nebraska (166 out of 172) reported below-average precipitation. During the 2021-22 period, 68% of the stations (122 of 179) reported precipitation levels below the 30-year average.

The below-average precipitation values, combined with increased need for irrigation water to maintain crop yields, resulted in groundwater-level declines of more than 10 feet in some parts of the state, university scientists found.

“Changes in groundwater levels in Nebraska are largely dependent on annual fluctuations in precipitation,” said Aaron Young, survey geologist with the School of Natural Resources. “The hotter and drier a growing season is, the less water is available for aquifer recharge, and more water is required for supplemental irrigation of crops, resulting in groundwater-level declines.”

In contrast, wetter years mean that less supplemental irrigation water is required and more water is available for aquifer recharge.

Nebraska’s recent groundwater-level declines are concerning, Young said, in that some wells may need to be drilled deeper if drought conditions persist.

Although Nebraska has, on average, not seen declines in groundwater levels like those seen in Kansas or Texas, the degree of groundwater level change in Nebraska since predevelopment has varied greatly among individual areas, ranging from increases of more than 120 feet to declines of about 130 feet. For most of the state, the net change in groundwater level since predevelopment times has been less than 20 feet.

Parts of Chase, Perkins, Dundy and Box Butte counties, in contrast, have experienced major, sustained declines in groundwater levels due to a combination of factors. Irrigation wells are notably dense in these counties, annual precipitation is comparatively low, and there is little or no surface-water recharge to groundwater there.

The Conservation and Survey Division report was authored by Young and University of Nebraska–Lincoln colleagues Mark Burbach, Susan Lackey, Matt Joeckel and Jeffrey Westrop.

A free PDF of the report can be downloaded here. Print copies can be purchased for $7 at the Nebraska Maps and More Store, 3310 Holdrege St. Phone orders are accepted at 402-472-3471.

Nebraska Rivers Shown on the Map: Beaver Creek, Big Blue River, Calamus River, Dismal River, Elkhorn River, Frenchman Creek, Little Blue River, Lodgepole Creek, Logan Creek, Loup River, Medicine Creek, Middle Loup River, Missouri River, Niobrara River, North Fork Big Nemaha River, North Loup River, North Platte River, Platte River, Republican River, Shell Creek, South Loup River, South Platte River, White River and Wood River. Nebraska Lakes Shown on the Map: Harlan County Lake, Hugh Butler Lake, Lake McConaughy, Lewis and Clark Lake and Merritt Reservoir. Map credit:

Geothermal Technologies, Inc. apply for a Type B Geothermal Well permit: Geothermal (production or reinjection) #ActOnClimate

Deep injection well

Interesting tidbit from the Substitute Water Supply Plan Notification List (K.C. Cunillio):

Please find the attached Type B Geothermal Well permit application package and cover letter describing the applications of Geothermal Technologies, Inc. 

As part of this permit package, the Applicant is seeking a nontributary determination pursuant C.R.S. 37-90-137(4) for the Lyons Formation (approximate depth 9000’).

Facing hard deadlines in #water and in #climate, too — @BigPivots #RepublicanRiver #OgallalaAquifer #ActOnClimate

Republican River in Colorado January 2023 near the Nebraska border. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots Website (Allen Best):

Climate scientists issue their latest, stern warning while farmers in Colorado’s Republican River Basin grapple with how to be sustainable

The International Panel on Climate Change this week [March 20, 2023] issued its latest report, warning of a dangerous temperature threshold that we’ll breach during the next decade if we fail to dramatically reduce emissions. A Colorado legislative committee on the same day addressed water withdrawals in the Republican River Basin that must be curbed by decade’s end.

In both, problems largely created in the 20th century must now be addressed quickly to avoid the scowls of future generations.

The river basin, which lies east of Denver, sandwiched by Interstates 70 and 76, differs from nearly all others in Colorado in that it gets no annual snowmelt from the state’s mountain peaks. Even so, by tapping the Ogallala and other aquifers, farmers have made it one of the state’s most agriculturally productive areas. They grow potatoes and watermelons but especially corn and other plants fed to cattle and hogs. This is Colorado without mountains, an ocean of big skies and rolling sandhills.

Republican River farmers face two overlapping problems. One is of declining wells. Given current pumping rates, they will go dry. The only question is when. Some already have.

More immediate is how these wells have depleted flows of the Republican River and its tributaries into Nebraska and Kansas. Those states cried foul, citing a 1943 interstate compact. Colorado in 2016 agreed to pare 25,000 of its 450,000 to 500,000 irrigated acres within the basin.

Colorado has a December 2029 deadline. The Republican River Water Conservation District has been paying farmers to retire land from irrigation. Huge commodity prices discourage this, but district officials said they are confident they can achieve 10,000 acres before the end of 2024.

Rod Lenz and siblings moved to the Republican River Basin in 1974 to take advantage of new technology that allowed them to draft the then-vast stores of the Ogallala and other High Plains aquifers. Top, the main stem of the Republican River flows into Nebraska augmented by water from special wells and a pipeline constructed at a cost of $60 million. January 2023 photos/Allen Best

Last year, legislators sweetened the pot with an allocation of $30 million, and a like amount for retirement of irrigated land in the San Luis Valley, which has a similar problem. Since 2004, when it was created, the Republican River district self-encumbered $156 million in fee collections and debt for the transition.

It’s unclear that the district can achieve the 2030 goal. The bill unanimously approved by the Colorado House Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee will, if it becomes law, task the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University with documenting the economic loss to the region – and to Colorado altogether – if irrigated Republican River Basin agriculture ceases altogether. The farmers may need more help as the deadline approaches.

This all-or-nothing proposition is not academic. Kevin Rein, the state water engineer, testified that he must shut down all basin wells if compact requirements are not met. The focus is on the Republican’s South Fork, between Wray and Burlington.

Legislators were told that relying solely upon water that falls from the sky diminishes production 75 to 80 percent.

In seeking this study, the river district wants legislators to be aware of what is at stake.

Rod Lenz, who chairs the river district board, put it in human terms. His extended-family’s 5,000-acre farm amid the sandhills can support 13 families, he told me. Returned to grasslands, that same farm could support only two families.

An “evolution of accountability” is how Lenz describes the big picture in the Republican River Basin. “We all knew it was coming. But it was so far in the future. Well, the future is here now.”

Much of the agricultural production in the Republican River Basin supports livestock sectors, including this dairy near Holyoke. Photo/Allen Best

The district has 10 committees charged with investigating ways to sustain the basin’s economy and leave its small towns thriving. Can it attract Internet technology developers? Can the remaining water be used for higher-value purposes? Can new technology irrigate more efficiently?

“We do know we must evolve,” Lenz told me. The farmers began large-scale pumping with the arrival of center-pivot sprinklers, a technology invented in Colorado in 1940. They’re remarkably efficient at extracting underground water. Aquifers created over millions of years are being depleted in a century. Now, they must figure out sustainable agriculture. That’s a very difficult conversation.

The Republican River shares similarities with the better-known and much larger Colorado River Basin. The mid-20th century was the time of applying human ingenuity to development of water resources. Now, along with past miscalculations, the warming climate is exacting a price, aridification of the Colorado River Basin.

Observed (1900-2020) and projected (2021-2100) warming relative to pre-industrial temperatures (1850-1900). Projections relate to very low emissions (SSP1-1.9), low emissions (SSP1-2.6), intermediate emissions (SSP2-4.5), high emissions (SSP3-7.0) and very high emissions (SSP5-8.5). Temperatures are colour-coded from the pre-industrial average (blue-grey) through to current warming of 1.1C (orange) and potentially more than 4C by 2100 (purple). Source: IPCC (2023) Figure SPM.1

Globally, the latest report from climate scientists paints an even greater challenge. To avoid really bad stuff, they say, we must halve our greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. They insist upon need for new technologies, including ways to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, that have yet to be scaled.

We need that evolution of accountability described in Colorado’s Republican River Basin. We need a revolution of accountability on the global scale. [ed. emphasis mine]

Yuma and adjoining counties routinely rank among Colorado’s top producers of corn. Photo/Allen Best

Feds want justices to end Navajo fight for #ColoradoRiver #water — The Washington Post #COriver #aridification

On a day in late May [2022] when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on The Washington Post website (Michael Phillips). Here’s an except:

More than 150 years ago, the U.S. government and the tribe signed treaties that promised the tribe a “permanent home” — a promise the Navajo Nation says includes a sufficient supply of water. The tribe says the government broke its promise to ensure the tribe has enough water and that people are suffering as a result. The federal government disputes that claim. And states, such as Arizona, California and Nevada, argue that more water for the Navajo Nation would cut into already scarce supplies for cities, agriculture and business growth…

The high court will hold oral arguments Monday in a case with critical implications for how water from the drought-stricken Colorado River is shared and the extent of the U.S. government’s obligations to Native American tribes. A win for the Navajo Nation won’t directly result in more water for the roughly 175,000 people who live on the largest reservation in the U.S. But it’s a piece of what has been a multi-faceted approach over decades to obtain a basic need…

DigDeep, which filed a legal brief in support of the Navajo Nation’s case, has worked to help tribal members gain access to water as larger water-rights claims are pressed…

Installing pipe along the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project. Photo credit: USBR

Extending water lines to the sparsely populated sections of the 27,000 square-mile (69,000 square-kilometer) reservation that spans three states is difficult and costly. But tribal officials say additional water supplies would help ease the burden and create equity.

“You drive to Flagstaff, you drive to Albuquerque, you drive to Phoenix, there is water everywhere, everything is green, everything is watered up,” said Rex Kontz, deputy general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. “You don’t see that on Navajo.”


For decades, the Navajo Nation has fought for access to surface water, including the Colorado River and its tributaries, that it can pipe to more remote locations for homes, businesses and government offices.

Many Indian reservations are located in or near contentious river basins where demand for water outstrips supply. Map courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

#ColoradoSprings seeks to keep #water rights tied to dams, reservoirs: Water court process for diligence filing enters eighth year — @AspenJournalism #BlueRiver #ColoradoRiver #CORiver #aridification

Colorado Springs Utilities is fighting to keep conditional water rights tied to three small reservoirs in the headwaters of the Blue River. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

A Front Range water provider is entering its eighth year of trying to keep water rights alive for three small reservoirs in the headwaters of the Blue River in Summit County to take more water from the Western Slope.

Colorado Springs Utilities has been mired in water court since 2015, fighting for its conditional water rights, which date to 1952 and are tied to three proposed reservoirs: Lower Blue Lake Reservoir, which would be built on Monte Cristo Creek with a 50-foot-tall dam and hold 1,006 acre-feet of water; Spruce Lake Reservoir, which would be built on Spruce Creek with an 80- to 90-foot-tall dam and hold 1,542 acre-feet; and Mayflower Reservoir, which would also be built on Spruce Creek with a 75- to 85-foot-tall dam and hold 618 acre-feet.

An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot.

The water rights case has eight different opposers, including the town of Breckenridge; Summit County; the Colorado River Water Conservation District; agricultural and domestic water users in the Grand Valley; the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District; and a private landowner who has mining claims in the area. Most of the opposers say they own water rights in the area that may be adversely impacted if the Blue River project’s conditional rights are granted.

Representatives from the town of Breckenridge, Summit County and Colorado Springs Utilities all declined to comment on the case to Aspen Journalism.

The proposed reservoirs would feed into Colorado Springs’ Continental-Hoosier system, also known as the Blue River Project, which takes water from the headwaters of the Blue River between Breckenridge and Alma, to Colorado Springs via the Hoosier Tunnel, Montgomery Reservoir and Blue River Pipeline. It is the city’s first and oldest transmountain diversion project. The Hoosier Tunnel takes an average of about 8,000 acre-feet of water a year, according to state diversion records.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Each year, transmountain diversions take about 500,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River basin to the Front Range. Colorado Springs is a large part of this vast network of tunnels and conveyance systems that move water from the west side of the Continental Divide to the east side, where the state’s biggest cities are located.

Colorado Springs Utilities, which serves more than 600,000 customers in the Pikes Peak region, takes water from the headwaters of the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork, Eagle and Blue rivers — all tributaries of the Colorado River. Colorado Springs gets 50% of its raw water supply — about 50,000 acre-feet annually — from the Colorado River basin, according to Jennifer Jordan, public affairs specialist with Colorado Springs Utilities. The existing Blue River system represents about 9% of Colorado Springs’ total raw water supply, she said.

These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

CSU and the city of Aurora are working on another potential transmountain diversion project: a reservoir on lower Homestake Creek in the Eagle River basin that would hold between 6,850 acre-feet and 20,000 acre-feet.

The River District, which was formed in 1937, in part, to fight transmountain diversions that take water from the Western Slope, is opposing the Blue River water rights case.

“We are open to hear what the applicants have to say about the project, what their needs are and if they can provide meaningful compensation and mitigation of the impacts,” said Peter Fleming, River District general counsel. “At the end of the day, there might be a deal where the West Slope gets a result that hopefully makes sense.”

Proposee Blue River headwaters reservoirs. Credit: Colorado Springs Utilities via Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

A water rights place holder

In Colorado water law, the prior appropriation doctrine reigns supreme. Those with the oldest water rights get first use of the water, making the oldest rights the most valuable, or senior. Under the prior appropriation system, a water user has to simply put water to “beneficial use” — for example, irrigating land or using water in a home — to get a water right. The user can then ask a court to make it official, securing their place in line.

Conditional water rights are an exception to this rule, letting a water user, such as Colorado Springs Utilities, save their place in line in the prior appropriation system while they work to develop big, complicated, multiyear water projects. But they must file a “diligence” application with the water court every six years, proving that they have, in fact, been working toward developing the project and that they can and will eventually put the water to beneficial use. Hoarding water rights with no real plan to put them to beneficial use amounts to speculation and is not allowed.

In its 2015 diligence filing, CSU said during the previous six years that it had hired consultants — Wilson Water Group and its subcontractors — to do a water supply assessment; an engineering and geotechnical evaluation of each reservoir site; and an investigation of potential environmental effects of development of the reservoirs. CSU said it also acquired 28 undeveloped parcels of land to protect the project’s infrastructure and also performed maintenance work on other parts of the Blue River system that contributed to more than $4.2 million in spending on the overall Blue River Project.

Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Laura Makar is not involved in the Blue River case, but she is a legal expert in conditional water rights.

“The idea is that every six years, you address what the needs are, so you don’t have someone out there parking themselves in line for 100 years,” Makar said. “They must show that the project can and will be completed with diligence in a reasonable time and applied to the beneficial uses in the amounts they have claimed.”

The Wilson Water Group study concludes there is enough water physically and legally available to fill the reservoirs.

Declining snowpack will lead to more variable and unpredictable streamflow. Some of the snowmelt flowing in the Blue River as it joins the Colorado River near Kremmling, Colo., will reach the Lower Basin states. Dec. 3, 2019. Credit: Mitch Tobin, the Water Desk

Ancient fens and endangered species

According to the Wilson Water Group study, there are several environmental considerations. Soil samples indicate that at least a portion of the wetlands near the Lower Blue Lake Reservoir site contain fens, ancient and fragile groundwater-fed wetlands with organic peat soils.

“The presence of fen wetlands may result in permitting challenges,” the report reads.

The report also says the three reservoir sites may be home to endangered species, including Canada lynx and Greenback cutthroat trout. Construction access to the Spruce Lake Reservoir would be challenging and would require a new 2-mile-long road. A new 1.5-mile-long road would be needed for access to Mayflower Lake Reservoir.

The project would need permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Forest Service, and a 1041 permit from Summit County.

Kendra Tully, executive director of the Blue River Watershed Group, said her organization’s main concern with the project is its potential impacts to the already-low flows in the Blue River.

“We do feel like there is an environmental concern already with how much water is allotted for environmental flows in the river, and if we remove anymore from the very, very top, we are just going to affect everything downstream,” she said.

Although the Blue River Watershed Group is not an opposer in the water court case, Tully said the group is encouraging Summit County to do its own environmental impact study of the project and to potentially use their 1041 powers, which allow local governments to regulate development. In 1994, Eagle County stopped Colorado Springs and Aurora from building the Homestake II reservoir project using its 1041 powers to deny permits.

“What we are asking (Summit County) to do is make sure they are really taking into consideration all the power they have with the 1041 permit, which is what CSU will need to actually develop any of their water right,” Tully said.


But before permitting and construction of the reservoirs could begin, CSU first has to secure another six-year extension on its conditional storage rights. It has been eight years since CSU filed the diligence case — a lengthy but not totally unusual period of time, according to Makar. If CSU can’t work out agreements with each of the opposers with the help of a water referee, the case may go to a trial, which is not an ideal situation for any water user, Makar said.

“When you get on a trial track, then you are forced into discovery and a standard litigation posture, you’re taking depositions of everyone’s witnesses, and it tends to make people clam up,” she said. “It’s not a great model to allow for discussion and resolution of issues.”

The next status conference in the case is scheduled for April 13.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

Map of the Blue River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Romancing the River: Meanwhile Back in Central #Arizona — Sibley’s Rivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Private auto camp for cotton pickers in Buckeye, Arizona, 1940. By Dorothea Lange – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

There’s a bit of a lull in the multiple conversations up and down the Colorado River Basin, with some positions staked out, while the Bureau of Reclamation initiates an ‘emergency environmental impact statement’ to ascertain, supposedly by late summer, what resolution it will either accept from the seven Basin states, or impose on the states, to reduce consumptive use throughout the Basin by two million acre-feet or more.

All of this is of course being covered in the mainstream media as a ‘water war,’ in their constant efforts to pump any cultural exchange up to a ‘let’s you and him fight’ situation. To call cultural negotiations a ‘war,’ even noisy negotitions among parties with interests at stake, both trivializes the terrible nature of ‘war’ and casts the exchange in an often exaggerated aspect of belligerent violence.

Arizona Navy photo via California State University

If you want to read about a Colorado River water war – fictional of course – pick up a copy of The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupe. Or if you like the comic opera version of a Colorado River water war, find an account of the 1934 incident when Arizona’s governor called out the Arizona National Guard to go occupy the site where California was beginning construction of Parker Dam and its Colorado River Aqueduct. Once you’ve got that warlust out of your system, come back to where the seven states and the feds are working on negotiated solutions, to avoid war.

Meanwhile, back in Central Arizona…. In my January 4 post on this site, I wrote about one of my favorite tributaries of the Colorado River, ‘the fabled Hassayampa’ in central Arizona, the waters of which, according to desert writer Mary Austin, will cause anyone who drinks to ‘no more see fact as naked fact, but all radiant with the color of romance.’

I opined much earlier here that there were probably more Colorado River tributaries than just that one which had that effect on those drinking from them, as evidenced by the extent to which the naked facts have obviously been left shivering in the dark as the development and management of the entire river has galloped along on the winged steeds of a romantic optimism. A romantic optimism that 6,000 years of both history and prehistory suggest should probably be taken carefully into the desert regions of the world, if at all – as, yes, Major John Wesley Powell tried to say 130 years ago, before he was booed off the stage at an Irrigation Congress pep rally around the turn of the century.

The earlier post was about the fact that the lower Hassayampa River Basin has been in the news as the site of a yet another proposed major new real estate development, Teravalis, in the desert west of Phoenix. If built out, Teravalis would add another 300,000 people to the 5 million already in the Phoenix metropolitan area. It would be competing with an already booming development just to its south in the same basin, the city of Buckeye (see its billboard above), which has gone from a farm village of 6,500 in 2000 to over 100,000 today. Here’s a map that gives you the general lay of the land in the Phoenix area:

The Hassayampa River bed is at the far left, north to south, with no surface flow; a small desert river keeps most of its water underground in the sand, gravel and cobble that protect it from the desert sun. The larger Salt River runs right to left through Phoenix, to its confluence lower center with the Gila River coming up from the south. The proposed Teravalis development lies just west (left) of the White Tank Mountains in the lower Hassayampa Basin. All the little green squares there are agricultural land, mostly irrigated now from groundwater.

But, as noted in the earlier post, Teravalis is temporarily on hold until it can prove that it controls enough water for a 100-year supply, most of which would be groundwater from the Hassayampa Aquifer. At that time, the Arizona Department of Water Resources was reportedly conducting a study of the aquifer, the results of which would also impact the future growth of Buckeye.

As it turns out, that study was already completed, last year! But then-Governor Doug Ducey decided not to release it, apparently under T.S. Eliot’s caution that ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality.’ The new governor Katie Hobbs has released the report, which concludes that, if the proposed development in the west valleys occurs, there will be a cumulative shortfall near the end of the hundred years of more than four million acre-feet of water.

‘I just think there was a lack of real honesty with the people of Arizona about the situation we’re in,’ Governor Hobbs said in an interview for a National Public Radio story. But at the same time, she said she doesn’t think it is necessary at this point to put the brakes on future development. ‘I think if we don’t really address these issues head on, look at the reality of the situation with water, look at how quickly we’re growing, then we will get to that point.’

This is, recall, part of the water supply in a river system whose managers have said at least two million acre-feet in consumptive use have to be cut in the very near future to save the water supply, which drives farmers and cities alike to pumping more groundwater from aquifers, with less renewable water to recharge the aquifers. When groundwater is pumped from an aquifer and not recharged fairly quickly, the ground begins to compress and close up the often tiny spaces from which the water has been drawn; the surface subsides, and the rechargable part of the aquifer disappears, generally forever. Parts of the Salt-Gila river system have already experienced subsidence of a dozen feet or so.

We should also note that a ‘100-year water supply’ depending mostly on groundwater is not necessarily a ‘renewable water supply.’ If the recharge rate is less than the withdrawal rate, it is still water-mining.

But the developers are relatively unfazed by the report. Buckeye Mayor Eric Orsborn, who also owns a construction company, told NPR that the report will help his city in its future water planning. Construction can continue now because the existing development has proved its 100-year supply. And for other developers: ‘I don’t think we want to shut off all of the growth trying to figure out the solution for all the growth. We can do this in an incremental approach.’

The plan to increase the water supplies is basically to go out into the region and look for water to import from other basins. The 100-year rule only applies in the metropolitan corridor; in ‘rural’ Arizona there are still no limits on groundwater pumping. At the extreme, there has been talk of building a big desalinization plant in Mexico and piping the water to Central Arizona – a fantastically expensive idea with current technology. But this is now, that will be then, and who knows what might be possible then? The beat goes on.

The developers, realtors, construction companies and community boosters that make up the growth economy of the Southwest say, of course, that the people are coming, so we have to keep on building for them; we can’t just shut them all out because we aren’t certain how much water we’ll have a hundred years down the road! That the people will keep on coming is undoubtedly true to some extent, but – do we have to keep luring them into the desert with promises of green oases? Looking at Buckeye’s billboard at the beginning of this post, should we maybe consider some ‘truth in advertising’ measures?

For example: how about making the entire growth industry, realtors to builders, do what tobacco purveyors have to do now. Make them put on billboards, brochures and advertisements like Buckeye’s, in letters large enough to read with the naked eye, warnings like these:






Just a thought. Next post, we’ll take a gingerly look at appropriation law, and muse on how, or if, it can still function in a situation where there’s nothing left to appropriate.

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

#RioGrande #Water #Conservation District sets value of irrigated ag land: Board debates requirements to access $30 million earmark in state #Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund — @AlamosaCitizen

Irrigation in the San Luis Valley in August 2022. Photo/Allen Best

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen websitse (Chris Lopez):

IRRIGATED agricultural land in the San Luis Valley is worth $250,000 for 160 acres, or $2,000 per acre-foot of groundwater withdrawn.

At least those are the valuations on irrigated acres that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board agreed to during a special meeting Tuesday when it debated requirements for farmers and ranchers to apply for a $30 million pool of state money.

The water conservation district board will meet again on Friday, March 3, to formally adopt the requirements.

Developing the criteria to access the $30 million tied to state law SB22-028 and its Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund was a painstaking process for the water conservation district board, which has met for hours and hours over a series of meetings to hash out the requirements.

Cleave Simpson, the architect of SB22-028 and general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, always said drafting the requirements would prove to be more difficult than getting the legislation adopted, and he was right.

“This whole plan is not easy to understand,” said board member Peggy Godfrey in her pleas for simplicity in drafting the requirements.

The state law is intended to help irrigators in the Upper Rio Grande Basin and Republican River Basin meet their water obligations by retiring irrigated acreage. Each basin has an earmark of $30 million. In the case of San Luis Valley farmers and ranchers, the money has to be spent to permanently retire groundwater pumping wells to help the Upper Rio Grande meet the state’s groundwater pumping regulations and stabilize the two aquifers in the San Luis Valley.

David Robbins and J.C. Ulrich (Greg Hobbs) at the 2013 Colorado Water Congress Annual Convention

David Robbins, the water conservation district’s long-standing attorney, emphasized that the requirements have to result in a “verifiable reduction in groundwater wells.” The state program is essentially a $30 million “buy and dry” for irrigated acres in the Valley, Robbins has said.

Once adopted, the Colorado Division of Water Resources will review the requirements before they go into effect. The state takes at least a month to review and approve the requirements adopted by the water conservation board, according to Robbins. 

That means it would be sometime in April and into the spring that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District would begin to accept applications and start to spend down the $30 million earmark. Amber Pacheco, acting general manager, said the water conservation district is already getting phone calls from groundwater well irrigators looking to apply for the money. 

Under the state law, any of the $60 million not spent by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and Republican River Conservation District by Aug. 15, 2024, goes into the state’s kitty for spending. The money is part of Colorado’s federal appropriation of COVID-19 relief funding.

In opting to establish a “base payment” that values a quarter section of irrigated land (160 acres) at $250,000, the board knew that it may overpay on some properties and underpay on others.

“We’re going to hear that,” said board member Steve Keller. “This is where simplicity works against accuracy.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s debate when some revisions were made to the draft, Robbins advised board members to be careful not to advocate for criteria that could benefit their own farm operations. That prompted board member Mike Kruse to recuse himself from the deliberations. Kruse has said he plans to submit an application for some of the $30 million.

The water conservation district board had to account for different sizes of farming operations that may apply for the money. The section on land compensation reads, in part: “Applications that seek to include parcels of property that are either larger or smaller than a standard quarter section (160 acres) will receive a prorated base payment that will rely on the decreed and/or permitted irrigated acres for the serving well(s), using $250,000 for 160 acres as the base. [For example: a half quarter at 80 acres would have a base payment of $125,000 or a parcel of 240 acres would have a base payment of $375,000].”

“I don’t want this $30 million to go away. I want to spend it all,” said Greg Higel, president of the Rio Grande Water Conservation Board.

Once the state approves the requirements, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District will publicize them on its website. A draft of the requirements is posted here, but note that this draft was slightly modified in language in a few sections during Tuesday’s special meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is not the final draft.

Living on the knife’s edge, even at the source of the #RioGrande: With less snowpack to feed the river and aquifers, #Colorado state government may shut off farmers’ wells in the near future — Source #NewMexico

Farmer Kyler Brown in front of a small dam on the Rio Grande at a farm outside of Monte Vista, Colorado. “I’ve ranched. I’ve cowboyed. Now I’m farming and ranching,” Brown said. “You quickly learn in the West how important water is.” (Photo By Diana Cervantes for Source NM).

Click the link to read the article on the Source New Mexico website:

by Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico
January 30, 2023

RIO GRANDE RESERVOIR, Colo — After 15 miles of pockmarked dirt road, the Rio Grande spreads wide in the shadows of the San Juan Mountains. It glitters, aqua, whitecaps whipped up by the wind. But even in the birthplace of the river lay the stark stains of climate change. 

Deep, bald scars pucker the mountaintops, shorn of trees. In older burn scars, grass grows, flowing in the first summer breezes. In the newer scars, the thin rows of trees list, blackened and cracked, only a skirt of green growth at their base to mark the passage of time.

Crisis on the Rio Grande is a multi-part series that travels along the river from Colorado through New Mexico and into Texas. Read more: A river wounded

The Rio Grande meanders south and east through Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a region of about 8,000 square miles spanning six counties, tucked between two mountain ranges. Agriculture drives the economy. More than 46,000 residents rely on $370 million generated by alfalfa, barley, potatoes, wheat, beef cattle and sheep. 

“Now you just really feel that that’s all on a collision course with climate, and that may have some severe ramifications,” said valley farmer and rancher Kyler Brown as he passed over the low Rio Grande that cuts across his father-in-law’s farm in Monte Vista, Colorado. The valley’s way of agricultural life is imperiled. 

The San Luis Valley depends on water, for the herds, the crops, for next year’s planting. And for mortgages, farm insurance, sometimes for the shareholders, sometimes for keeping the business in the family. 

Average rainfall is only 7 inches to 9 inches annually.

Three-fourths of the water in the Rio Grande instead starts as snow, folded into the crevices of the mountains, slowly seeping through soil or streaming down to the riverbed.

The river pools into the Rio Grande Reservoir at the base of the San Juan Mountains, fed mostly by snowmelt. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

The snowpack acts like a bank, a savings — water frozen for the future. In past decades, that meant cold snowmelt would start filling the rivers in April, peaking in June, eventually slowing through the autumn.

But warmer temperatures, less tree cover due to wildfires, more dust and thirsty soils from years of compounded drought prevent the just-melted snow from ever reaching the riverbed. Over the years, the smaller snowpack is becoming liquid earlier and changing the rhythm of the river.

In scarcity, relationships change

Though the San Juans had all of the snow they usually would in early spring 2022, it didn’t translate to a full river. Brutal May winds stripped away snowpack. 

“There was a tension in my gut,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. “Because as the winds were howling, we knew we were losing snowpack. Every day, we were losing our opportunity to have flows in the river and put water in our aquifers.”

Threats are present. Farmers pump groundwater to make up for the river’s shortfalls, but that means falling groundwater levels. Populations swell on the Front Range around Denver, and downriver, too. And there’s always potential for devastating wildfire. 

“We’re living on the knife’s edge with water,” Dutton said. 

An old train depot captured June 22, 2022 outside of La Jara, Colorado. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Water managers talk of new efforts to curb water use. They’re trying to change relationships between conservation groups, environmental nonprofits, farmers and the quasi-governmental irrigation districts. 

Nathan Coombs, who manages the Conejos River District, said years of trust-building with groups typically at odds means there’s a greater willingness to face issues. 

“Once we took down barriers of communication between project partners, we could start clearly seeing problems,” Coombs said. “If you want to solve those problems, you’ve got to talk to people you have never wanted to talk to before.”

It’s not perfect.

“Look, there’s always going to be a skunk at the picnic. I’m not saying everything is always totally kumbaya, but the biggest players for the vast majority are engaged.”

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Hidden waters

SAN LUIS VALLEY, Colo — Groundwater made the valley green, but climate change and over-pumping across time has depleted those water sources.

There are two aquifers underlying the valley. One is called the “confined aquifer,” trapped under an impermeable clay layer deep down, concentrated centrally. The other is a shallow “unconfined aquifer” generally found between 15 feet to 100 feet underground across most of the valley.

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

In certain spots in the valley, water used to gush out in artesian wells from the unconfined aquifer. But in recent decades, levels declined steeply after years of too many wells and too little recharge from the river or precipitation.

And the aquifers, explained Colorado State Engineer Mark Rein, take a double hit.

“There’s less water flowing naturally into aquifers that the wells rely on. At the same time,” he explained, “due to the lack of surface water, the wells are going to be more reliant on the aquifers.”

Farmers in the San Luis Valley have just eight years to stop the freefall of groundwater levels, or face the state shutting off wells.

In the valley’s most affluent district stretching between Alamosa and Saguache Counties, the aquifer declined 1.3 million acre feet by 1976, most of that over just 20 years. District officials submitted a plan to replenish the aquifer.

Rein acknowledged the efforts of Valley residents to reduce pumping, saying in June that it was too soon to tell if they could succeed in replenishing the aquifer before the 2031 deadline.

A sprinkler waters barley in a farm at Monte Vista. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

There’s a nexus Subdistrict 1 is dealing with, Rein said.

“We have this very rich culture in the San Luis Valley of irrigation, crops — and the economy is so dependent on it,” Rein said. “And at the same time, they’re facing a reality of less water.” One push to curb use might not go far enough. Another may go too far and erode culture and economy. “That’s what makes success more or less possible.”

All across Colorado, farmers have to offset any groundwater they pump either by submitting plans to water court for individual wells or joining a conservancy district in any of Colorado’s river basins. 


People in the Rio Grande basin went further, carving up the basin into seven hyper-local subdistricts with a role in restoring the “balance between available water supplies and current levels of water use.”

Dutton, 36, brims with verve when she speaks about the river. Growing up on a potato farm, both her father and grandfather took on water leadership positions.

She said decisions at the local level were how changes were made to water policy.

The entities, the districts, the boards, they’re all made up of people that have a dog in the fight, she said. “They live and work in the community. They’re water users.”

Farmers in the valley taxed themselves, paying an additional fee for every acre-foot of groundwater they pumped to fund conservation measures.

Rio Grande and River Conejos conservation districts use the money to pay farmers to stay off their wells, to retire them, to retire fields, to purchase farmland. Or the funds go to creating a system of “water credits,” allowing farmers who need more water to buy from farmers who returned excess flows to the aquifer.

In 2022, the Colorado Legislature chipped in another $30 million out of federal coronavirus relief funds to buy land and retire irrigation wells along the Rio Grande.

The efforts are unique. Hundreds of wells were shuttered by the state in northeast Colorado in 2011. 

“There were large-scale wells shut-offs, and those wells are still shut off,” Dutton said. “But here, we took the initiative as a community, and we said, ‘We want to regulate ourselves. We want to work together to make this work.’”

Even as the valley had record-breaking monsoon rainfall in 2022, it isn’t enough to recharge the aquifers, which face decades of pumping more water than is sinking in. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Recent cycles have not been kind, either. After a few frugal years of farmers cutting pumping recharged the aquifer some, bad drought struck again. Without much replenishment from the struggling river, the past three years nearly erased those gains for groundwater.

Even when, in 2021, the district’s farmers pumped the least they had in a decade — the aquifer still dropped to a new historic low.

“It was incredibly disheartening,” Dutton said.

When a near-record monsoon season doused the valley in the summer of 2022, with some places receiving double the annual average rainfall, the river still ran at only 67% of its long-term average.

“It really wasn’t a great year as far as streamflow goes,” Dutton said. “Hopefully enough people saw what was happening in May and made some choices to change their farming plan for the year.”

Time is running out. Subdistrict 1 has to replenish the unconfined aquifer by more than 900,000 acre feet, or face the state capping wells.

Despite all their efforts and sacrifices, Dutton said, “we’re anticipating seeing a significant drop in the aquifer.”

Thornton sues dozens of producers of “forever chemicals,” alleging water contamination: The lawsuit is asking that the companies pay to clean #Thornton’s contaminated surface and #groundwater — The #Denver Post #PFAS

Firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals is responsible for contamination in Fountain Valley. Photo via USAF Air Combat Command

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Conrad Swanson). Here’s an excerpt:

Thornton filed a lawsuit Monday [January 30, 2023] in South Carolina District Court against dozens of companies and people that produce PFAS, or “forever chemicals”, claiming the toxic substances contaminated the city’s water supply. Not only is Thornton suing a slate of high-profile companies, like 3M, DuPont and Chemours, it’s also suing 20 unnamed “entities or persons” that might have “permitted, caused and/or contributed” to the contamination of the city’s water. For decades the companies understood that PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, do not degrade naturally and were accumulating in people’s bodies, according to the lawsuit’s complaint…

Thornton officials announced in July that its water supply exceeded the EPA’s new – sharply reduced – limits for PFAS by more than 1,000 times. The city supplies water to about 160,000 people. At the time, Thornton’s water treatment and quality manager said the source of the chemicals weren’t immediately clear but that the city had stopped using some wells from which they drew water and began treating other water sources with new chemicals to draw out the toxic substances. Now city officials believe the contamination comes from firefighting foam used across the area for training and for actual fires, the lawsuit says. Thornton hired a consultant to help understand how best to clean the contamination. Cleanup and damage is expected to haunt the city “for many years to come,” the lawsuit says. The city is looking for money from the companies for the damage done to its property and for the cost of “investigating, remediating, and monitoring” its drinking water. While Thornton appears to be the first city in Colorado to sue PFAS manufacturers, its legal action follows a similar lawsuit filed nearly a year ago by Attorney General Phil Weiser.

Moving from measurement to governance of shared #groundwater resources — Nature #Water

Fig. 1: Conceptual illustration of the multiple scales of governance that influence groundwater extraction using the United States as an example. Black lines represent polycentric linkages across and within scales that are essential to scaling up collective commitments to groundwater conservation, and red lines represent examples of direct linkages common under status quo governance, such as individual actions incentivized through federal or state programmes. Credit: Erika Peirce.

Click the link to access the report on the Nature Water website (Meagan E. SchipanskiMatthew R. SandersonLinda Estelí Méndez-BarrientosAmy KremenPrasanna GowdaDana PorterKevin WagnerCharles WestCharles W. RiceMark MarsalisBridget GuerreroErin HaackerJames DobrowolskiChittaranjan Ray & Brent Auvermann). Here’s the abstract:

Global groundwater resources are under strain, with cascading effects on producers, food and fibre production systems, communities and ecosystems. Investments in biophysical research have clarified the challenges, catalysed a proliferation of technological solutions and supported incentivizing individual irrigators to adjust practices. However, groundwater management is fundamentally a governance challenge. [ed. emphasis mine] The reticence to prioritize building governance capacity represents a critical ‘blind spot’ contributing to a low return on investment for research funding with negative consequences for communities moving closer towards resource depletion. In this Perspective, we recommend shifts in research, extension and policy priorities to build polycentric governance capacity and strategic planning tools, and to re-orient priorities to sustaining aquifer-dependent communities in lieu of maximizing agricultural production at the scale of individual farm operations. To achieve these outcomes, groundwater governance needs to be not only prioritized but also democratized.

The Cold War Legacy Lurking in U.S. Groundwater — ProPublica

Sign in the Lisbon Valley of southeastern Utah. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on the ProPublica website, by Mark Olalde, Mollie Simon and Alex Mierjeski, video by Gerardo del Valle, Liz Moughon and Mauricio Rodríguez Pons

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

In America’s rush to build the nuclear arsenal that won the Cold War, safety was sacrificed for speed.

Uranium mills that helped fuel the weapons also dumped radioactive and toxic waste into rivers like the Cheyenne in South Dakota and the Animas in Colorado. Thousands of sheep turned blue and died after foraging on land tainted by processing sites in North Dakota. And cancer wards across the West swelled with sick uranium workers.

The U.S. government bankrolled the industry, and mining companies rushed to profit, building more than 50 mills and processing sites to refine uranium ore.

But the government didn’t have a plan for the toxic byproducts of this nuclear assembly line. Some of the more than 250 million tons of toxic and radioactive detritus, known as tailings, scattered into nearby communities, some spilled into streams and some leaked into aquifers.

Congress finally created the agency that now oversees uranium mill waste cleanup in 1974 and enacted the law governing that process in 1978, but the industry would soon collapse due to falling uranium prices and rising safety concerns. Most mills closed by the mid-1980s.

When cleanup began, federal regulators first focused on the most immediate public health threat, radiation exposure. Agencies or companies completely covered waste at most mills to halt leaks of the carcinogenic gas radon and moved some waste by truck and train to impoundments specially designed to encapsulate it.

But the government has fallen down in addressing another lingering threat from the industry’s byproducts: widespread water pollution.

Moab tailings site with Spanish Valley to the south

Regulators haven’t made a full accounting of whether they properly addressed groundwater contamination. So, for the first time, ProPublica cataloged cleanup efforts at the country’s 48 uranium mills, seven related processing sites and numerous tailings piles.

At least 84% of the sites have polluted groundwater. And nearly 75% still have either no liner or only a partial liner between mill waste and the ground, leaving them susceptible to leaking pollution into groundwater. In the arid West, where most of the sites are located, climate change is drying up surface water, making underground reserves increasingly important.

ProPublica’s review of thousands of pages of government and corporate documents, accompanied by interviews with 100 people, also found that cleanup has been hampered by infighting among regulatory agencies and the frequency with which regulators grant exemptions to their own water quality standards.

The result: a long history of water pollution and sickness.

Reports by government agencies found high concentrations of cancer near a mill in Utah and elevated cancer risks from mill waste in New Mexico that can persist until cleanup is complete. Residents near those sites and others have seen so many cases of cancer and thyroid disease that they believe the mills and waste piles are to blame, although epidemiological studies to prove such a link have rarely been done.

“The government didn’t pay attention up front and make sure it was done right. They just said, ‘Go get uranium,’” said Bill Dixon, who spent decades cleaning up uranium and nuclear sites with the state of Oregon and in the private sector.

Tom Hanrahan grew up near uranium mills in Colorado and New Mexico and watched three of his three brothers contract cancer. He believes his siblings were “casualties” of the war effort.

“Somebody knew that this was a ticking atomic bomb,” Hanrahan said. “But, in military terms, this was the cost of fighting a war.”

A Flawed System

When a uranium mill shuts down, here is what’s supposed to happen: The company demolishes the buildings, decontaminates the surrounding soil and water, and encases the waste to stop it from leaking cancer-causing pollution. The company then asks the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the lead agency monitoring America’s radioactive infrastructure, to approve the handoff of the property and its associated liability to the Department of Energy’s Office of Legacy Management for monitoring and maintenance.

ProPublica’s analysis found that half of the country’s former mills haven’t made it through this process and even many that did have never fully addressed pollution concerns. This is despite the federal government spending billions of dollars on cleanup, in addition to the several hundred million dollars that have been spent by companies.

Often, companies or agencies tasked with cleanup are unable to meet water quality standards, so they request exemptions to bypass them. The NRC or state agencies almost always approve these requests, allowing contaminants like uranium and selenium to be left in the groundwater. When ingested in high quantities, those elements can cause cancer and damage the nervous system, respectively.

The DOE estimates that some sites have individually polluted more than a billion gallons of water.

Bill Dam, who spent decades regulating and researching uranium mill cleanup with the NRC, at the DOE and in the private sector, said water pollution won’t be controlled until all the waste and contaminated material is moved. “The federal government’s taken a Band-Aid approach to groundwater contamination,” he said.

The pollution has disproportionately harmed Indian Country.

Six of the mills were built on reservations, and another eight mills are within 5 miles of one, some polluting aquifers used by tribes. And the country’s last conventional uranium mill still in operation — the White Mesa Mill in Utah — sits adjacent to a Ute Mountain Ute community.

So many uranium mines, mills and waste piles pockmark the Navajo Nation that the Environmental Protection Agency created a comic book superhero, Gamma Goat, to warn Diné children away from the sites.

NRC staff acknowledged that the process of cleaning up America’s uranium mills can be slow but said that the agency prioritizes thoroughness over speed, that each site’s groundwater conditions are complex and unique, and that cleanup exemptions are granted only after gathering input from regulators and the public.

“The NRC’s actions provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety and the environment,” David McIntyre, an NRC spokesperson, said in a statement to ProPublica.

“Cleanup Standards Might Suddenly Change”

For all the government’s success in demolishing mills and isolating waste aboveground, regulators failed to protect groundwater.

Between 1958 and 1962, a mill near Gunnison, Colorado, churned through 540,000 tons of ore. The process, one step in concentrating the ore into weapons-grade uranium, leaked uranium and manganese into groundwater, and in 1990, regulators found that residents had been drawing that contaminated water from 22 wells.

The DOE moved the waste and connected residents to clean water. But pollution lingered in the aquifer beneath the growing town where some residents still get their water from private wells. The DOE finally devised a plan in 2000, which the NRC later approved, settling on a strategy called “natural flushing,” essentially waiting for groundwater to dilute the contamination until it reached safe levels.

In 2015, the agency acknowledged that the plan had failed. Sediments absorb and release uranium, so waiting for contamination to be diluted doesn’t solve the problem, said Dam, the former NRC and DOE regulator.

In Wyoming, state regulators wrote to the NRC in 2006 to lambast the agency’s “inadequate” analysis of natural flushing compared to other cleanup options. “Unfortunately, the citizens of Wyoming may likely have to deal with both the consequences and the indirect costs of the NRC’s decisions for generations to come,” the state’s letter said.

ProPublica identified mills in six states — including eight former mill sites in Colorado — where regulators greenlit the strategy as part of a cleanup plan.

When neither water treatment nor nature solves the problem, federal and state regulators can simply relax their water quality standards, allowing harmful levels of pollutants to be left in aquifers.

County officials made a small area near the Gunnison mill off-limits to new wells, and the DOE suggested changing water quality standards to allow uranium concentrations as much as 475 times what naturally occurred in the area. It wouldn’t endanger human health, the agency said, because people wouldn’t come into contact with the water.

ProPublica found that regulators granted groundwater cleanup exemptions at 18 of the 28 sites where cleanup has been deemed complete and liability has been handed over to the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management. Across all former uranium mills, the NRC or state agencies granted at least 34 requests for water quality exemptions while denying as few as three.

“They’re cutting standards, so we’re getting weak cleanup that future generations may not find acceptable,” said Paul Robinson, who spent four decades researching the cleanup of the uranium industry with the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit. “These great mining companies of the world, they got away cheap.”

NRC staffers examine studies that are submitted by companies’ consultants and other agencies to show how cleanup plans will adequately address water contamination. Some companies change their approach in response to feedback from regulators, and the public can view parts of the process in open meetings. Still, the data and groundwater modeling that underpin these requests for water cleanup exemptions are often wrong.

One reason: When mining companies built the mills, they rarely sampled groundwater to determine how much contamination occurred naturally, leaving it open to debate how clean groundwater should be when the companies leave, according to Roberta Hoy, a former uranium program specialist with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. She said federal regulators also haven’t done enough to understand certain contaminants at uranium mills.

In one recent case, the NRC fined a mining company $14,500 for incomplete and inaccurate groundwater modeling data. Companies use such data to prove that pollution won’t spread in the future. Freeport-McMoRan, the corporation that owns the fined mining company, did not respond to a request for comment.

At a 2013 conference co-hosted by the NRC and a mining trade group, a presentation from two consultants compared groundwater modeling to a sorcerer peering at a crystal ball.

ProPublica identified at least seven sites where regulators granted cleanup exemptions based on incorrect groundwater modeling. At these sites, uranium, lead, nitrates, radium and other substances were found at levels higher than models had predicted and regulators had allowed.

McIntyre, the NRC spokesperson, said that groundwater models “inherently include uncertainty,” and the government typically requires sites to be monitored. “The NRC requires conservatism in the review process and groundwater monitoring to verify a model’s accuracy,” he said.

Water quality standards impose specific limits on the allowable concentration of contaminants — for example, the number of micrograms of uranium per liter of water. But ProPublica found that the NRC granted exemptions in at least five states that were so vague they didn’t even include numbers and were instead labeled as “narrative.” The agency justified this by saying the groundwater was not near towns or was naturally unfit for human consumption.

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency

This system worries residents of Cañon City, Colorado. Emily Tracy, who serves on the City Council, has lived a few miles from the area’s now-demolished uranium mill since the late 1970s and remembers floods and winds carrying mill waste into neighborhoods from the 15.3-million-ton pile, which is now partially covered.

Uranium and other contaminants had for decades tainted private wells that some residents used for drinking water and agriculture, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The company that operated the mill, Cotter Corp., finally connected residents to clean water by the early 1990s and completed cleanup work such as decontaminating soil after the EPA got involved. But the site remains without a final cleanup plan — which the company that now owns the site is drafting — and the state has eased water quality standards for molybdenum, a metal that uranium mining and milling releases into the environment.

“We have great concerns about what it might look like or whether cleanup standards might suddenly change before our eyes,” Tracy said.

Jim Harrington, managing director of the site’s current owner, Colorado Legacy Land, said that a final cleanup strategy has not been selected and that any proposal would need to be approved by both the EPA and the state.

Layers of Regulation

It typically takes 35 years from the day a mill shuts down until the NRC approves or estimates it will approve cleanup as being complete, ProPublica found. Two former mills aren’t expected to finish this process until 2047.

Chad Smith, a DOE spokesperson, said mills that were previously transferred to the government have polluted groundwater more than expected, so regulators are more cautious now.

The involvement of so many regulators can also slow cleanup.

Five sites were so contaminated that the EPA stepped in via its Superfund program, which aims to clean up the most polluted places in the country.

At the Homestake mill in New Mexico, where cleanup is jointly overseen by the NRC and the EPA, Larry Camper, a now-retired NRC division director, acknowledged in a 2011 meeting “that having multiple regulators for the site is not good government” and had complicated the cleanup, according to meeting minutes.

Homestake Mining Company of California did not comment on Camper’s view of the process.

Only one site where the EPA is involved in cleanup has been successfully handed off to the DOE, and even there, uranium may still persist above regulatory limits in groundwater and surface water, according to the agency. An EPA spokesperson said the agency has requested additional safety studies at that site.

“A lot of people make money in the bureaucratic system just pontificating over these things,” said William Turner, a geologist who at different times has worked for mining companies, for the U.S. Geological Survey and as the New Mexico Natural Resources Trustee.

If the waste is on tribal land, it adds another layer of government.

The federal government and the Navajo Nation have long argued over the source of some groundwater contamination at the former Navajo Mill built by Kerr-McGee Corp. in Shiprock, New Mexico, with the tribe pointing to the mill as the key source. Smith of the DOE said the department is guided by water monitoring results “to minimize opportunities for disagreement.”

Tronox, which acquired parts of Kerr-McGee, did not respond to requests for comment.

May 2022 wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

All the while, 2.5 million tons of waste sit adjacent to the San Juan River in the town of 8,000 people. Monitoring wells situated between the unlined waste pile and the river have shown nitrate levels as high as 80 times the limit set by regulators to protect human health, uranium levels 30 times the limit and selenium levels 20 times the limit.

“I can’t seem to get the federal agencies to acknowledge the positions of the Navajo Nation,” said Dariel Yazzie, who formerly managed the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Program.

At some sites, overlapping jurisdictions mean even less cleanup gets done.

Such was the case near Griffin, North Dakota, where six cows and 2,500 sheep died in 1973; their bodies emitted a blue glow in the morning light. The animals lay near kilns that once served as rudimentary uranium mills operated by Kerr-McGee. To isolate the element, piles of uranium-laden coal at the kilns were “covered with old tires, doused in diesel fuel, ignited, and left to smolder for a couple of months,” according to the North Dakota Geological Survey.

The flock is believed to have been poisoned by land contaminated with high levels of molybdenum. The danger extended beyond livestock. In a 1989 draft environmental assessment, the DOE found that “fatal cancer from exposure to residual radioactive materials” from the Griffin kilns and another site less than a mile from a town of 1,000 people called Belfield was eight times as high as it would have been if the sites had been decontaminated.

But after agreeing to work with the federal government, North Dakota did an about-face. State officials balked at a requirement to pay 10% of the cleanup cost — the federal government would cover the rest — and in 1995 asked that the sites no longer be regulated under the federal law. The DOE had already issued a report that said doing nothing “would not be consistent” with the law, but the department approved the state’s request and walked away, saying it could only clean a site if the state paid its share.

“North Dakota determined there was minimal risk to public health at that time and disturbing the grounds further would create a potential for increased public health risk,” said David Stradinger, manager of the Radiation Control Program in the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality. Contaminated equipment was removed, and the state is reevaluating one of the sites, he said.

“A Problem for the Better Part of 50 Years”

While the process for cleaning up former mills is lengthy and laid out in regulations, regulators and corporations have made questionable and contradictory decisions in their handling of toxic waste and tainted water.

More than 40 million people rely on drinking water from the Colorado River, but the NRC and DOE allowed companies to leak contamination from mill waste directly into the river, arguing that the waterway quickly dilutes it.

Federal regulators relocated tailings at two former mills that processed uranium and vanadium, another heavy metal, on the banks of the Colorado River in Rifle, Colorado, because radiation levels there were deemed too high. Yet they left some waste at one former processing site in a shallow aquifer connected to the river and granted an exemption that allowed cleanup to end and uranium to continue leaking into the waterway.

The Bluewater disposal site was a uranium-ore-processing site addressed by Title II of the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA). The site transitioned to DOE in 1997 administered under the provisions of a general Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) license.

For a former mill built by the Anaconda Copper Company in Bluewater, New Mexico, the NRC approved the company’s request to hand the site off to the DOE in 1997. About a decade later, the state raised concerns about uranium that had spread several miles in an aquifer that provides drinking water for more than 15,000 people.

The contamination hasn’t reached the wells used by nearby communities, and Smith, the DOE spokesperson, said the department has no plans to treat the uranium in the aquifer. It’s too late for much more cleanup, since the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management’s mission is to monitor and maintain decommissioned sites, not clean them. Flawed cleanup efforts caused problems at several former mills after they were handed off to the agency, according to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report.

“Uranium has been overplayed as a boom,” said Travis Stills, an environmental attorney in Colorado who has sued over the cleanup of old uranium infrastructure. “The boom was a firecracker, and it left a problem for the better part of 50 years now.”

“No Way in Hell We’re Going to Leave This Stuff Here”

Mining companies can’t remove every atom of uranium from groundwater, experts said, but they can do a better job of decommissioning uranium mills. With the federal government yet to take control of half the country’s former mills, regulators still have time to compel some companies to do more cleanup.

Between 1958 and 1961, the Lakeview Mining Company generated 736,000 tons of tailings at a uranium mill in southern Oregon. Like at most sites, uranium and other pollution leaked into an aquifer.

“There’s no way in hell we’re going to leave this stuff here,” Dixon, the nuclear cleanup specialist, remembered thinking. He represented the state of Oregon at the former mill, which was one of the first sites to relocate its waste to a specially engineered disposal cell.

A local advisory committee at the Lakeview site allowed residents and local politicians to offer input to federal regulators. By the end of the process, the government had paid to connect residents to a clean drinking water system and the waste was moved away from the town, where it was contained by a 2-foot-thick clay liner and covered with 3 feet of rocks, soil and vegetation. Local labor got priority for cleanup contracts, and a 170-acre solar farm now stands on the former mill site.

But relocation isn’t required. At some sites, companies and regulators saw a big price tag and either moved residents away or merely left the waste where it was.

“I recognize Lakeview is easy and it’s a drop in the bucket compared to New Mexico,” Dixon said, referring to the nation’s largest waste piles. “But it’s just so sad to see that this hasn’t been taken care of.”


To investigate the cleanup of America’s uranium mills, ProPublica assembled a list of uranium processing and disposal sites from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s most recent “Status of the Decommissioning Program” annual reportthe WISE Uranium Project and several federal agencies’ websites. Reporters reviewed fact sheets from the NRC and the Department of Energybefore studying the history of each mill contained in thousands of pages of documents that are archived mainly in the NRC’s Agencywide Documents Access and Management System, known as ADAMS.

We solicited feedback on our findings from 10 experts who worked or work at the NRC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the Southwest Research and Information Center, the University of New Mexico and elsewhere. Additionally, we interviewed dozens of current and former regulators, residents of communities adjacent to mills, representatives of tribes, academics, politicians and activists to better understand the positive and negative impacts of the uranium industry and the bureaucracy that oversees uranium mill cleanup.

We also traveled to observe mill sites in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.

Map of Abandoned Uranium Mines on the Navajo Nation. Credit: EPA

What’s Up With #Water – January 17, 2023 — Circle of Blue @circleofblue

Shasta Dam, north of Redding in California, is the only dam in the state a UC Davis study identified as being capable of replicating natural cold-water patterns for aquatic species. (Ron Lute/cc BY-NC 2.0)

Click the link to listen to the podcast on the Circle of Blue website (Eileen Wray-McCann):

A new report says that the world’s dams are filling up – but not in a good way. Rivers are depositing sediment into the reservoirs behind dams, reducing their capacity to hold water. Researchers affiliated with the United Nations calculated how much storage might be lost in the next three decades at the world’s 50,000 large dams. The report estimates that a quarter of the original water storage capacity will be lost by 2050 because of sediment buildup. This will hurt irrigation, power generation, and flood protection. The largest loss of storage capacity will occur in the United Kingdom, Panama, Ireland, and Japan, with the U.S, not far behind.

Arizona Rivers Map via

In Arizona, newly elected leaders wasted no time in tackling the state’s urgent water problems. Katie Hobbs was sworn in as governor on January 2 and began her term by calling water issues “the challenge of our time.” After a week in office, Hobbs established an expert council to recommend updates to the state’s groundwater laws. She also unveiled a previously unreleased report from the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Hobbs’s predecessor had withheld the report from the public. It shows that a high-growth area west of Phoenix does not have enough groundwater to sustain a planned mega-development of 100,000 homes. According to the Arizona Republic, homebuilders must now find other water supplies to finish the development. Hobbs said the area’s inadequate groundwater should be a wake-up call. She said “This report unequivocally shows that we have to act now, or this will only be the first new area that faces this kind of shortage.” Meanwhile, Arizona’s new attorney general hopes to undo a farming deal with a Saudi Arabian company that’s adding to local groundwater declines. Kris Mayes campaigned on a promise to repeal a land lease that the state made with Fondomonte. The firm got below-market rates, leasing 10,000 acres in western Arizona to grow alfalfa for export to Saudi Arabia as cattle feed. Residents in the area have seen their wells run dry as the farm pumps groundwater to irrigate the alfalfa.

Photo credit: Kim Delker/University of New Mexico

In New Mexico, some communities could get millions to rebuild their water systems after the largest wildfire in state history tore through their watershed last year. The funds are a lifeline for areas ravaged by a drying climate. They also underscore the financial and ecological vulnerability of small, impoverished communities in the face of extreme weather. In the this year’s budget, Congress allocated nearly one and a half billion dollars for post-fire recovery in New Mexico. That’s in addition to the two and a half billion dollars that lawmakers had already directed to the state, bringing the total amount of federal aid after the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire to nearly $4 billion. The year-end appropriations package included a line item of particular significance: $140 million for water treatment systems for communities in the area scarred by the fire. That includes the small town of Las Vegas, just 12 miles from where the fire started. Las Vegas has about 13,000 people. What is does not have is high-quality water. The town’s main water source, the Gallinas River, is surrounded by scars from the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire. The fire ignited in April, after a prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service grew out of control. The fire was the largest on record in New Mexico, burning well over 300 thousand acres of public and private land. The Gallinas River used to be a clear stream, but is now is laden with sediment and suspended solids due to ash and soil erosion. That’s a serious problem for the water treatment operators in Las Vegas, according to the town utility director, Maria Gilvarry. The fire did not destroy the treatment system, but the effects of the fire have overwhelmed it. It’s not uncommon for the river water it’s processing to measure a hundred times murkier than before the fire. The current treatment system struggles under those conditions. Until a new treatment system is in place, the utility department is making do with temporary equipment to remove sediment. It is also re-calibrating the chemicals to purify drinking water so that the treatment process is more effective. Gilvarry said federal aid is an undeniable blessing for a predominantly Latino city where median household income is just over $34,000 — about half the national figure. The poverty rate in Las Vegas, New Mexico is above 30 percent. Gilvarry said that Federal aid is the only way the town’s water treatment project could advance so swiftly. As she put it: “Not on our own dime. This is a low-income community.”

San Luis Valley counties band together to fight #water exportation — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

SOMETIMES playing defense can be your most effective offense.

Anticipating another eventual push to export water from the San Luis Valley aquifers and the headwaters of the Upper Rio Grande, officials in each of the six counties are drafting an intergovernmental agreement and specific planning regulations they hope will legally block any water exportation project.

Through an intergovernmental agreement, the counties would look to establish a “Joint Planning Area” to protect the Valley’s water resources and then adopt specific 1041 planning regulations that address protecting the Valley’s water resources from exportation.

EARLIER COVERAGE: The Water Archives

“This might be our best opportunity to stop water exportation,” said Saguache County Commissioner Tom McCracken, who chairs the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments board. “I’m feeling really excited about it.”

It’s through the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments that county officials and city officials have been meeting to draft the intergovernmental agreement and eventually establish 1041 regulations specifically around water exportation proposals. Any proposal that would aim to take water out of the Valley, such as the Renewable Water Resources plan, would have to satisfy all the regulations in applying for the required county permits.

The city of Alamosa and the city of Monte Vista are expressing interest in being part of the water resources intergovernmental agreement as well.

In a speech last April where he addressed the RWR plan, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser encouraged the use of 1041 regulations so that communities have a “seat at the table in shaping the water projects that impact them.”

“Broadly speaking, a local government can use its 1041 powers to limit the negative impacts associated with the development of certain ‘areas’ or ‘activities of state interest.’ Such areas or activities might be related to everything from water infrastructure to buy-and-dry projects. Overall, these powers are intended to allow local governments to protect our lands, their value, and their use,” Weiser said.

CONVERSATIONS among county commissioners began in earnest early last summer following interest by Douglas County in the Renewable Water Resources proposal to pump 20,000 acre-feet every year out of the Valley to the Front Range bedroom community.

A visit by Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon last year to talk to RWR supporters in the San Luis Valley heightened concerns among county commissioners. Following Laydon’s visit, local county commissioners began conversations on how to counter both Douglas County’s interest and the ongoing efforts by Renewable Water Resources to export water from the Valley.

“I do still see a need and I feel good about the movement that’s been made,” said Alamosa County Commissioner Vern Heersink, who has been involved in the discussions from the beginning.

“I didn’t think we would have this much of a voice,” Heersink said, “and so it’s exciting to be working together with the other counties on a common goal.”

As headwater counties in the Upper Rio Grande Basin, there’s strength in numbers when it comes to battling water projects with smaller counties banding together to counter efforts by a large suburban county like Douglas County.

The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments offers a template to the approach in how that region battled the Two Forks project in the 1990s.

“The only way a region like the San Luis Valley can be successful and have a real say in the water world is if it bands together,” said attorney Barbara Green. Her law firm, Sullivan Green Seavy, is advising the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments in the drafting of the intergovernmental agreement. The agreement itself has no regulatory effect but simply forms the “Joint Planning Area,” Green explained to commissioners at a meeting last week in Alamosa.

It’s the 1041 regulations that provide the teeth.

THE strategy could also provide a checkmate to Douglas County’s own interest to get into the business of being a water provider, which it currently is not.

At a recent Douglas County Commissioner work session, Laydon raised the idea of creating a volunteer water commission, similar to a county planning commission, to help Douglas County plan forward on securing water for its future needs.

“We know that the state does not have a concrete water plan. I think that’s to come,” Laydon said. “In the west and certainly in Douglas County we know that water is a top priority issue, a scarce resource that we need to have some long-range, thoughtful planning around.

“I think we’re overdue in Douglas County to really activate a water commission and have a comprehensive plan much like we do in transportation and our comprehensive master plan in land use.”

Bill Owens, former Republican governor of Colorado and RWR pitchman, has been courting Douglas County to buy into Renewable Water Resources. Attorneys hired by Douglas County have outlined the significant legal and logistical hurdles to the RWR proposal.

Having each of the San Luis Valley’s six counties adopt specific planning regulations around water exportation and enter into intergovernmental agreements adds another layer of local regulation around water projects.

The effort is not so Valley counties can meddle in each other’s business, said Heersink, but a specific response to any plans for water exportation.

“We want to prevent a diversion that takes the water out of the Valley,” he said.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

‘Our job is to protect #Nebraska’s interests’ — The Lincoln Journal-Star #OgallalaAquifer

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

Click the link to read the article on the Lincoln Journal-Star website (Chris Dunker). Here’s an excerpt:

Governments at all levels have stepped in to cut use in order to stabilize water levels [ed. in the U.S. West], but the ongoing and worsening crisis has revived discussions online and on newspaper opinion pages about dramatic proposals to pipe water into the region from elsewhere. Building a pipeline thousands of miles long to divert water from the Mississippi River to drought-stricken Southern California. Diverting a part of the Missouri River into an aqueduct that would supply water to the drylands of eastern Colorado and western Kansas…

That’s a prospect Sen. Tom Briese of Albion said he wants to prevent, at least in the Cornhusker state: “Water certainly is our most precious natural resource in Nebraska and it needs to be preserved and protected for future generations of Nebraskans.”

His bill (LB241) would prohibit the director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources from granting any permit “that would allow groundwater to be transported more than 10 miles outside this state,” unless it was to comply with an interstate compact or decree. Essentially, Briese’s idea would allow the Legislature a say on any project seeking to tap into the Ogallala Aquifer, a major geological feature underlying much of Nebraska.

Ogallala Aquifer. Credit: Big Pivots

#Colorado nonprofit among winners of #ColoradoRiver scarcity challenge — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

A Colorado nonprofit is one of three winners of the national Colorado River Basin Water Scarcity Challenge, a philanthropic initiative to spur creative solutions to water shortages in the crisis-ridden, seven-state Colorado River system.

The Denver-based Colorado Water Trust will spend the next year working with Quantified Ventures developing new models for securing funds and identifying valuable water rights that can be used to help restore riparian areas, aid streams and maintain agricultural water uses.

Founded in 2002, the Colorado Water Trust partners with existing entities, such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board, as well as environmental and farm groups, to acquire or lease water rights, keeping that water in the streams to stretch the amount of water available for fish and the environment, irrigators and industry even during dry times.

Quantified Ventures is a finance and consulting company that specializes in developing sustainable solutions to environmental problems.

Across the American West, water users, government agencies, regulators and environmental groups are scrambling to find ways to save the river. Crippled by a megadrought thought to be the worst in 1,200 years, and shifts in climate that are reducing the mountain snows on which it relies, the river system is on the brink of collapse.

The Colorado River Basin Scarcity Challenge is funded by a $500,000 donation from the  Gates Family Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, according to Quantified Ventures spokesman Matt Lindsay. [Editor’s note: Fresh Water News is an initiative of Water Education Colorado which receives support from the Gates and Walton foundations.] Winners were announced Jan. 12.

“The Colorado River is facing an unprecedented crisis that requires innovative thinking and investment at an equally historic scale,” said Morgan Snyder, in a prepared statement. Snyder is senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation Environment Program. “Projects like these that move past outdated systems and instead find new ways to conserve, adapt, and become more resilient are essential to ensure a sustainable water supply for the millions who depend on the river.”

Kate Ryan, a senior attorney at the Colorado Water Trust, said winning the scarcity challenge will help her organization develop new relationships in the finance world and find ways to move more quickly in an arena in which deals can take years to finalize, allowing the water trust to accomplish more.

“This will allow us to become more nimble and potentially to meet new investors,” Ryan said. “We will also be looking at strategies for using water for additional sources of revenue, such as remarketing it downstream in a way that is complementary to our project partners. It will also help us recoup investment and turn that into operating revenue, or for funding new acquisitions or leases of water.”

The Tucson, Arizona-based Watershed Management Group is another winner. The Watershed Management Group will work with Quantified Ventures to develop new “green” infrastructure to improve the health of Tucson’s groundwater system, among other projects, with the goal of using less Colorado River water, according to Watershed Management Group’s Catlow Shipek.

“Our goal is to build hydro local resilience to reduce our dependence on Colorado River supplies,” Shipek said. “The idea is how do we restore our watershed but not at the expense of another watershed.”

The third winner, Ndrip, will use Quantified Ventures to evaluate how to increase the scale of its drip irrigation systems on tribal lands throughout the Colorado River Basin. Unlike other drip irrigation systems, Ndrip uses existing water distribution systems on farms and is gravity-based. These features help offset the high capital costs of more traditional drip irrigation systems, according to Ndrip’s website.

Ndrip, which has offices in Australia, Israel, South Africa and the U.S., could not be reached for comment.

Each of the scarcity challenge winners will spend roughly the next year with Quantified Ventures developing new solutions that will help improve the sustainability of the Colorado River system.

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

On July 7, 2020, we closed our headgate that takes water from the Little Cimarron for irrigation. The water in the above photo will now bypass our headgate and return to the river. Photo via the Colorado Water Trust.

#Arizona city cuts off a neighborhood’s #water supply amid #drought — The Washington Post #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Rio Verde Foothills. Photo credit: VRBO

Click the link to read the article on The Washington Post website (Joshua Partlow). Here’s an excerpt:

Some living here amid the cactus and creosote bushes see themselves as the first domino to fall as the Colorado River tips further into crisis. On Jan. 1, the city of Scottsdale, which gets the majority of its water from the Colorado River, cut off Rio Verde Foothills from the municipal water supply that it has relied on for decades. The result is a disorienting and frightening lack of certainty about how residents will find enough water as their tanks run down in coming weeks, with a bitter political feud impacting possible solutions.

The city’s decision — and the failure to find a dependable alternative — has forced water haulers like [John] Hornewer to scour distant towns for any available gallons. About a quarter of the homes in Rio Verde Foothills, a checkerboard of one-acre lots linked by dirt roads in an unincorporated part of Maricopa County, rely on water from a municipal pipe hauled by trucks. Since the cutoff, their water prices have nearly tripled. The others have wells, though many of these have gone dry as the water table has fallen by hundreds of feet in some places after years of drought [ed. and over pumping]…

This grim [Colorado River] forecast prompted Scottsdale to warn Rio Verde Foothills more than a year ago that their water supply would be cut off. City officials stressed their priority was to their own residents and cast Rio Verde Foothills as a boomtown of irresponsible development, fed by noisy water trucks rumbling over city streets. “The city cannot be responsible for the water needs of a separate community especially given its unlimited and unregulated growth,” the city manager’s office wrote in December…Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega was unmoved when his Rio Verde Foothills neighbors cried foul.

“There is no Santa Claus,” he said in a statement last month. “The megadrought tells us all — water is not a compassion game.”

For the past several years, some residents have sought to form their own water district that would allow the community to buy water from elsewhere in the state and import what they need, more than 100 acre-feet of water per year. Another group prefers enlisting a Canadian private utility company, Epcor, to supply the community, as it does with neighboring areas. But political disputes have so far foiled both approaches. The water district plan — which supporters say would give them long-term access to a reliable source of water — was rejected in August by the Maricopa County supervisors. The supervisor for the area, Thomas Galvin, said he opposed adding a new layer of government to a community that prizes its freedom, particularly one run by neighbors with the authority to condemn property to build infrastructure. [Thomas] Galvin preferred Epcor, a utility that, if approved, would be regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission.

#Water leaders to lawmakers: No ‘silver bullet’ in #Arizona’s water crisis — The Arizona Mirror

The 1980 Arizona Groundwater Code recognized the need to aggressively manage the state’s finite groundwater resources to support the growing economy. Areas with heavy reliance on mined groundwater were identified and designated as Active Management Areas (AMAs). The five AMAs (Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson, and Santa Cruz) are subject to regulation pursuant to the Groundwater Code. Each AMA carries out its programs in a manner consistent with these goals while considering and incorporating the unique character of each AMA and its water users. Credit: ADWR

Click the link to read the article on The Arizona Mirror website (Jerod MacDonald-Evoy):

The day after Gov. Katie Hobbs delivered her first State of the State, outlining plans to address the state’s growing water crisis, the heads of the state’s water agencies stood before lawmakers to deliver an at times grim reality of the state’s water future. 

“I do not believe that any of the (Active Management Areas) are at a safe-yield,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee on Jan. 10. 

Active Management Areas, generally referred to as AMAs, were created in 1980 in an effort to help the state manage its groundwater resources as the state continued to grow. Only the AMA in Tucson is near a safe-yield, meaning the amount of water withdrawn is balanced with the amount recharging it, but Buschatzke said that Tucson has reached that by storing large amounts of Colorado River water delivered by Central Arizona Project. 

Approximately 82% of Arizona’s population resides within the state’s five AMAs. 

But Buschatzke did not see it as a failure, and instead focused on telling the committee that solutions will need to be explored and that, in the future, more and more groundwater will begin to be pumped by municipalities across the state. 

“It is not a failure in my mind in any way shape or form,” Buschatzke said, adding that the state needs to find more renewable water supplies, look to find ways to move water from one state to another or even from other sources outside the state

“There is no silver bullet,” Buschatzke said. “But I think we have to embrace the success we have.” 

The hearing also comes after Hobbs released an ADWR report showing areas in the West Valley cannot support planned development. Hobbs has accused former Gov. Doug Ducey of directing the agency to keep the report secret. 

Lawmakers didn’t directly reference or ask about the report, but questions about development and its impact on water became a hot-button issue during the hearing. 

Rep. Barbara Parker, R-Mesa, asked Buschatzke if he would be willing to help the legislature “educate” the public that agriculture uses more water than development. ADWR estimates from 2019 provided to the committee showed that agriculture made up for approximately 72% of water use, municipal 22% and industrial around 6%. 

“They always want to be down on a builder,” Parker said, additionally asking Buschatzke if he thought Hobbs’ speech unfairly targeted homebuilders. 

Buschatzke said that mandatory conservation requirements on farmers in AMAs have been efficient and have given them an advantage over California farmers. Both state’s farmers have been hit dramatically by the drought and recent cuts in Colorado River water. Arizona is facing a 21% cut in Colorado River allocation this year because of the drought and an alarming decrease of water in Lake Powell.

“We have done great things in this state — and there is more we can do and there is more we will have to do,” he said, adding that Hobbs’ new Water Policy Council will hopefully address some of these issues. 

Rep. Stacey Travers, D-Phoenix, asked Buschatzke if the state should close a loophole that allows developers to get around a state law that says that every new home must have a 100-year supply of water by declaring the homes are being built as rental properties. Buschatzke deflected, and said such a policy change would be up to the governor. 

“Perhaps that is an issue to be further discussed by Governor Hobbs’ water council,” he said. 

Lawmakers also heard from Central Arizona Project’s newly appointed general manager, Brenda Burman, who spoke to lawmakers on her third full day on the job. 

CAP oversees the 336-mile aqueduct that runs from Lake Havasu to Tucson, delivering Colorado River water to Maricopa and Pima counties. 

Burman reiterated what Buschatzke said, telling lawmakers that new solutions are needed to get water to more people and in a renewable way. She also mentioned the impacts of climate change on the state’s water supply, pointing out that water that in the past would have made its way into the Colorado River is now being absorbed into drier soil due to the prolonged drought. 

Both Buschatzke and Burman were asked by Rep. Oscar De Los Santos, D-Laveen, if they believed that climate change had impacted Arizona’s water supply and if they believed human activity had created climate change. Both agreed that climate change was impacting our water, but neither answered if they believed that human beings were the cause. 

Studies have definitively shown that climate change is occurring and human beings are contributing to it. 

“I’m no climatologist and I’m no expert in this,” Parker said shortly after De Los Santos had asked Burman about climate change. “I want to channel my inner Hohokam Indian. I’m an Arizona native, and I wish we could have that crystal ball and predict that everything was, you know, climate change. I don’t know if the Hohokam didn’t have fossil fuel problems in the past, but they went through a serious drought in the past, as we know, and they disappeared as an agricultural community.”

Parker then asked what CAP was doing to prepare for another “curveball” from “Mother Nature.” 

Burman explained that CAP has been storing water from times when the state experiences excessive rains, and noted that the Hohokam lived during a time of very dry years followed by very wet years. The state is currently in its 27th consecutive year of drought.

The hearing marked the beginning of what will likely be a long session for one of the two committees that will hear a slew of bills related to a key part of Hobbs’ agenda in the coming months. Lawmakers were amicable to the Hobbs appointees, stating they looked forward to working with them in the future. 

“We need to work together, and I think we have come a long way,” Republican Chairwoman Gail Griffin said at the end of the hearing.

#RioGrande compact case: #Texas vs. #NewMexico — @AlamosaCitizen

Map showing new point to deliver Rio Grande water between Texas and New Mexico, at an existing stream gage in East El Paso. (Courtesy of Margaret “Peggy” Barroll in the joint motion)

From the Alamosa Citizen “Monday Briefing” newsletter:

Speaking of the Rio Grande, Texas and New Mexico, and to a degree Colorado, have been arguing since 2013 about water from the Rio Grande that Texas says New Mexico shorts it. Now the case has a proposed settlement. The biggest change the two sides have agreed on is that the gage station in El Paso, not Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico, would be where Texas’ share of the Rio Grande would be measured. The agreement still needs a sign off from the U.S. Supreme Court.

#Aurora poised to double capacity of Prairie Waters riverbank filtration project with federal grant — The Aurora Sentinel #SouthPlatteRiver

Prairie Waters schematic via Aurora Water.

Click the link to read the article on The Aurora Sentinel website (Max Levy). Here’s an excerpt:

Aurora is planning an expansion to its innovative Prairie Waters project with the help of a $5 million federal grant, a project that city staffers say could recover enough water to support thousands of homes. The grant, which the federal government says the city is likely to receive, would be used toward the $11.5 million undertaking of digging a new pump station and radial well, which would draw water from below the South Platte River.

“Drought has been something we’re needing to tackle and handle more and more as the years go on, and so having this resource come from the South Platte instead of the mountains is definitely a drought resiliency component,” said Aurora Water staffer Justin Montes, who applied for the federal grant…

Radial wells consist of a single vertical shaft ending in multiple horizontal shafts that radiate outward like the spokes of a wheel. The radial well and pump station would be part of an expansion to the Prairie Waters project including another radial well that the city plans to dig in 2024. Aurora Water representatives say the entire expansion has the potential to double the water recovered by the project, which uses wells dug near the South Platte River to collect water that has been absorbed and naturally filtered by the riverbank. By the time water is collected by the wells, it has already passed through hundreds of feet of sediment beneath the South Platte, filtering out pathogens, organic chemicals and other contaminants. Montes said the process can also filter out debris introduced by wildfires.

Say hello to the EPA “PFAS Analytics” website

Screenshot of EPA PFAS Analytics website interactive map for Region 8 January 11, 2023.

Click the link to access the EPA website:

This page contains location-specific information related to PFAS manufacture, release, and occurrence in the environment as well as facilities potentially handling PFAS:

Romancing the River: Quo Vadimus 2 — Sibley’s Rivers #GilaRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Palm Lake at Hassayampa River Preserve, East side of Wickenburg, Arizona. By John Menard from Phoenix, USA – Palm Lake at Hassayampa River PreserveUploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

That fabled Hassayampa is in the news these days, down in Arizona. The Hassayampa River does exist, by the way: an intermittent stream that flows off the south slopes of the Colorado Plateau, and down through a desert valley west of the sprawling phenomenon of Phoenix, where it joins the Gila River, which in turn joins the Colorado River down near Yuma and the Mexican border.

A new development has been proposed for the lower Hassayampa Valley, catering to those trying to stay out ahead of the sprawl: the Howard Hughes Corporation wants to turn 37,000 acres of Sonoran desert land there, just west of the White Tank Mountains, into a new development, Teravalis, with 100,000 homes for maybe 300,000 people, and 55 million square feet of commercial space. According to a story in the New York Times, ‘Teravalis is seen by local and state leaders as a crowning achievement in a booming real estate market.’

Arizona Rivers Map via

Truly someone has been drinking from the fabled Hassayampa. Teravalis, in fact, plans to tap an aquifer under the Hassayampa Basin for a water supply for this massive development; they will all be drinking from the Hassayampa. Some Arizonans have, however, looked at the naked facts about water supplies in the desert, and the Phoenix area has a law in effect stating that every development has to show evidence that it has a 100-year water supply, and can replace groundwater it consumes. This law was mandated back in 1980 by the Interior Department, as a condition for funding and constructing the Central Arizona Project that brings water 300 miles from the Colorado River to the Phoenix-Tucson corridor. (The law, it should be noted, only applies to urban ‘Active Management Areas,’ and does not apply to the non-urban parts of the state where agriculture consumes a much larger share of the state’s water.)

Teravalis is on hold for now, under that law, until a believable estimate is made of how much water the Hassayampa aquifer actually contains. But – this is only one of several new developments proposed for the Phoenix area alone; remember that Arizona is one of the seven Colorado River states that have been told by the Interior Department that they must collectively cut their water consumption by maybe as much as a third, to prevent a collapse of the region’s water supply system, centered on storage in Mead and Powell Reservoirs.

Yet the Teravalis story is replicated in all seven of those states to some extent; each state has at least one metropolitan area that continues to spread like a cowflop on a flat rock, ever outward into dry lands. We have one right here in the little City of Gunnison where I live, spreading out into our pastureland, that is just completing its infrastructure of pipes and wires. We are a very small ‘city’ of five or six thousand that will never be considered a metropolis or even a micropolis (he bravely projects, back here in 2023), but when our ‘Teravalis’ is built out, mid-century, our current population will have increased by 30 percent, plus or minus. 

We seem to be oriented to grow even when we sense that it might be unwise. American historian Richard White commented on this in his history of the West, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own. Parsing what he saw as the post-World War II ‘rise of the metropolitan West,’ he credited it mostly to a cycle of planning based on growth, created by ‘what scholars have called growth networks – that is, alliances of bankers, corporate executives, real estate interests, politicians, and labor leaders… [which] gained popular support by arguing that growth equals prosperity.’ We are, in short, culturally and economically organized for growth; it is who and what we are: the growth network creates new jobs for newcomers in the growth industries, building Tervalises for another wave of newcomers who will be employed by the growth industries in building ever newer Teravalises for et cetera et cetera….

Most of the West’s SMAs (Statistical Metropolitan Areas) today boast about the fact that, despite major increases in population, they are actually distributing about the same amount of water they were distributing around 1970. This means that people are using significantly less per capita than they were around 1970 – which is to say: they are conserving water, or using what they use in more efficient fixtures, or both. But this does not necessarily improve their situation. It just ensures enough water for more people to move to their SMA, which (even with sprawl) increases the general density of humanity in the SMA, which causes more traffic congestion, more people in the parks and pools, more queues for restaurants and DMVs, and generally a diminishing quality of life. Conservation loses some of the romantic radiance of civic virtue when the citizen realizes conservation functions mostly to make things available for ever more people.

The development plans do get better and more resource conscious – more ‘watersmart,’ to use a popular buzzword. But they are still intended to fill up with new people who will be using a water resource that we now know is not just limited, but is diminishing. Five or six percent more of it just disappears back to the atmosphere with every degree we increase the ambient temperature – a relentless process of increase that will be facilitated by our development here in the Upper Gunnison, as well as Phoenix’s and everyone else’s. This is not just the usual dire and depressing predictions by scientists; it is what we are already seeing in the diminishing Colorado River water supply – down 20 percent over the last 40 years (faster even than predicted by prescient scientists). 

One wants to ask, about that ‘naked fact’ cited in scores of articles about the river just this year: why are there 40 million of us are living in the driest parts of the continent, with more of us coming all the time to fill up these developments? The short answer to that question: we have become a swarming species on the planet – the biologist’s descriptor for a species over which natural ecosystemic processes have lost control. We have been, over the past 10,000 years, a remarkably adaptive species, able to fit into practically every land-based environment, and we have become the dominant species in all of those environments, thriving and increasing at the expense of most of their other animal and plant inhabitants. The deserts are not the only place where there are so many of us; nearly everywhere we go – there we are, lots of us, and more coming all the time.

Through the romantic prisms of what we call civilization, we have been a remarkable success, and all indications are that we plan to become even more successful. It is clear that there is no public will for trying to rein in the swarm, to put limits on our population expansion. When nature tries to control us, bring us back into some degree of balance with the rest of creation, we declare open war on nature and its controls – no COVID or cancer will have its way with us! We fight on all fronts for a world in which people do not die of diseases or malfunctioning parts, a world in which no children die before they are grown, in which everyone can live to be 100, 110, 140, or maybe someday forever. 

In other words, we demonstrate through our works and our wars, that we are not going to limit or control ourselves – the first species with the capacity to successfully challenge the often harsh natural systems that restore balance in species swarms. Therefore – so it seems to me – we give ourselves no choice but to make the planet ever more human-centered, to direct ever more of its resources and systems to the meeting of our ever-expanding needs and wants. To put this another way – we can applaud ourselves for quickly finding a vaccine for the COVID virus nature threw at us, but we have to put that in the context of our very active participation in the greatest species die-off since an asteroid took out the dinosaurs and much of the rest of nature’s life project millions of years ago. Is there any other alternative way of seeing what’s going on? Am I missing something?

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

That is where we find ourselves today, at any rate, in the Colorado River region: confronting the challenge of fitting a finite and even diminishing essential resource to an apparently unlimited demand. ‘Teravalis is seen by local and state leaders as a crowning achievement in a booming real estate market.’ It’s Teravalises all the way down – down, in that particular case, to an unquantified aquifer related to an intermittent desert stream from whose fabulous waters all humankind seems to want to drink. Does anyone really doubt, at this point, that the Hassayampa aquifer, or that aquifer combined with a pipe from some other aquifer, or some even more complex plumbing arrangement, will be proven to be sufficient to provide Teravalis with the radiant vision of a 100-year water supply? It’s the economy, stupid. 

As I write here, we are tracking toward a February deadline set by the Interior Department/Bureau of Reclamation, mandating that the ‘seven city-states of Cibola’ come up with massive cuts in the consumptive use of the Colorado River’s waters – at least two million acre-feet, maybe up to four, in order to ‘save’ the river’s storage and distribution system. If the states fail at this (as they did with an earlier Interior deadline), then the Interior Department will make the cuts for them (as they threatened or promised, but didn’t do, when the states failed to meet that earlier deadline). This time, presumably, they really mean it.

This time, the state with the smallest share of the river, Nevada, has drafted up a plan that the other states have agreed is at least a reasonable way to start discussions. If it can be hammered with its current numbers into something acceptable to all the states, even California, it would reduce consumptive use this coming year by around 2.5 million acre-feet. Most of it would come out of the Lower River Basin’s water budget, and would include things like finally acknowledging that their share of the river includes responsibility for the evaporation from their reservoirs and fields. The Upper River Basin would be contributing maybe half a million acre-feet, since its usage quantification already reflects its evaporation plus most of the depletions to date from climate change. (The Upper River Basin produces 80-90 percent of the river’s entire flow.)

The goal, according to Nevada officials, is to share the pain across the entire system. That seems like a reasonable goal – except that it is at odds with the most sacred cow in western water use, the appropriations doctrine, which says that junior appropriators should bear the pain before any senior users are asked to. A ‘naked fact’ that California – holder of the largest senior appropriations on the river – has already been asserting. But as John Entsminger, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has said, ‘If 27 million Americans don’t have water, then those laws will not be followed.’

But… again: what are 27 million, or 40 million, or by mid-century 60 million people doing, demanding water from a modest and diminishing river in the desert lands of the Southwest? I ask myself, being one of them. And can only think to say: Welcome to the Anthropocene. Still all radiant with the color of romance, which lets us still think that a water supply problem is somehow a problem with the water supply…. The second century of the Anthropocene awaits the woke. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile – a belated wish, to all of you who have read this far, for a good year coming: a year filled with wondrous things, like a union between our naked facts and the radiant color of romance that would not be merely cultureporn; a year filled with interesting things that are not merely the fulfillment of a Chinese curse; a year in which we learn to distinguish between a river in trouble and a civilization in trouble. 

Mountain West states getting millions in federal funds for #drought resilience — KUNR #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #RioGrande #SouthPlatteRiver

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter:

Click the link to read the article on the KUNR website (Kaleb Roedel). Here’s an excerpt:

In Nevada, more than $1.7 million will pay for Las Vegas Valley homeowners using septic tanks to convert to the municipal sewer system. This recycles water back into Lake Mead, which is fed by the drought-stricken Colorado River, said Doa Ross, deputy general manager of engineering for the Southern Nevada Water Authority…

In Colorado, $5 million will be used to build a collector well in Aurora. On the state’s Western Slope, Deutsch Domestic Water Company is getting $585,000 for storage and efficiency improvements…

In New Mexico, $5 million will go toward a groundwater well in Gallup. Another $1.5 million will help pay for new tools and strategies in regions with acequia water distribution systems, which are gravity-fed earthen canals that divert stream flow for distribution to fields…

Utah is getting the largest chunk of funds among states in the Mountain West. The state has seven different projects receiving a total of about $22.5 million

#RioGrande #Water Conservation Subdistrict 1 back in the spotlight — @AlamosaCitizen #SanLuisValley

Supermoon over the San Luis Valley August 11, 2022. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

From the “Monday Briefing” newsletter from the Alamosa Citizen:

The new year likely will bring a new amended Plan of Water Management for irrigators in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. The subdistrict’s board of managers in December approved a new amended plan that ties the allowable groundwater pumped to the natural surface of water of the property. This is a huge change that values snowpack, and if there isn’t any, irrigators can expect to pay a handsome fee to get surface water from a neighbor. The plan will get a hearing and vote before the Rio Grande Water Conservation District on Jan. 17. If approved there, as is likely, the amended Plan of Water Management then gets filed with Colorado Division of Water Resources for its blessing, or not.

We frequently note the activity of farmers in Subdistrict 1 because it is the subdistrict that pulls from the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and is under state watch to reduce its groundwater pumping to recover water flows in the unconfined aquifer. It’s also the Valley’s most lucrative corridor for irrigated agriculture, and as such, the bellwether for farming in the Valley. The amended Plan of Water Management is a way for farmers in the subdistrict to try to stay in business while making gains in recovering the unconfined aquifer. More to come in 2023.

#California Could Capture Its Destructive Floodwaters to Fight #Drought — Erica Gies via The New York Times

Sources/Usage: Public Domain. Visit Media to see details. Animation showing AR plumes over the Pacific during January 2012.

Click the link to read the guest essay on The New York Times website (Erica Gies). Here’s an excerpt:

Ms. Gies is the author of “Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge.”

The big hope is that an array of paleo valleys could be turned into giant storm drains to quickly absorb heavy rain. Storm water spread over the valleys would sink underground and then move into the surrounding clays and silts, for more than 12 miles on either side of the valley and for hundreds of feet in depth, according to one study. It would raise the diminished water table, which is important because a healthier underground water system can feed rivers from below and allow people to continue to pump water from wells. It can also make more water available to plants and soil, help to sustain the rain cycle and reduce fire risk.

There is enough unmanaged surface water from rain and snow statewide to resupply Central Valley aquifers, making more water available to farmers, urban dwellers and the environment. Even with climate change, the state will most likely have enough water for recharge in the future in part because of more extreme weather, according to a 2021 study.

To use paleo valleys to store these big rains, the land above them must be conserved for groundwater recharge. And that’s already a challenge: One paleo valley found outside of Sacramento has been slated for housing developments, which would cover it with impermeable concrete and asphalt. Such decisions are typically governed by city and county governments, but the state could incentivize areas with paleo valleys to protect the land above them.

Land use isn’t the only issue. The state’s major aqueducts that move water from north to south can also play a big role in helping floodwater reach the paleo valleys. The aqueducts are underused in winter when fewer growers need to irrigate their crops and could transport excess storm water to depleted aquifers. Pipes could be added to them to move the water to the paleo valleys…

Erica Gies is a National Geographic explorer and journalist. She is the author of “Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge.”Erica Gies is a National Geographic explorer and journalist. She is the author of “Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge.”