San Luis Valley: “Tale of Two Rivers” recap

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Hoping to avoid the wholesale shut down of agricultural wells in the San Luis Valley that occurred in the South Platte, water users here developed their own plan of action, Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Cleave Simpson explained during “A Tale of Two Rivers” Monday night at Adams State.

Simpson spoke about the Rio Grande Basin’s groundwater journey while CSU Director of the Colorado Water Institute Reagan Waskom spoke about the South Platte Basin.

Attendees at the September 17 talk asked Simpson if local efforts were going to be enough, especially in light of drought and generally warmer conditions in recent years.

He responded that if voluntary efforts to reduce water consumption are not successful, the state will force the issue, because local water users — at least those in the basin’s first water management sub-district — are mandated to bring the aquifer levels back up to a certain level in a specified amount of time.

That clock is ticking, he said.

In its eighth year of operation Sub-District #1, sponsored by the water district Simpson manages, is required by legislation to bring the Rio Grande Basin’s aquifer up to a more sustainable level in 20 years, which means it has 12 years remaining on that mandate, Simpson explained.

The sub-district concept was born as a way to self govern water use in the basin, he said. The various sub-districts throughout the basin focus on “communities of interest,” Simpson said.

The first sub-district, which will soon have several sister sub-districts throughout the basin, covers about 3,000 irrigation wells involving about 300 landowners. They have used many methods to reduce their consumption, repair their wells’ injuries to surface water users and to meet their aquifer sustainability mandate, Simpson said.

He said the first sub-district has invested $8 million in fallowing projects and $6 million in acquiring and drying up parcels irrigated by groundwater…

He said, however, that speaking personally and not as the district manager, he believed a lot more acreage would need to be taken out. He said of the approximately 500,000 irrigated acres currently in the San Luis Valley, he believed 100,000-150,000 irrigated acres could no longer be supported with the dwindling water supply and aquifer sustainability mandate, unless farmers found a crop that used half the consumptive volume of water they are now using.

“There’s social consequences for taking 100,000 acres out of production in the Valley,” Simpson said.

Waskom added that the South Platte Basin is different in that it is not as agriculturally dependent as the Rio Grande Basin. While the Valley’s economy is still largely dependent on agriculture, the South Platte has more diversity such as oil/gas, growth and commercial enterprises. Losing cropland in the South Platte is not as crucial as it is in the San Luis Valley, he said.

“It’s different here. You need to think about that as a community, what your future looks like,” he said…

Simpson said that while groundwater users in the Rio Grande Basin must replace their injurious depletions to surface rights, just as in the South Platte, one major difference in the requirements between the two basins is the obligation in this basin to “create and maintain a sustainable aquifer … unique requirements … Nowhere else in the state are well owners held to that standard.”

That requirement must be met 20 years from the formation of the first sub-district, which is now eight years into that timeline, Simpson said. He added that while there is flexibility on how to get there, “where you have to get to is clearly well defined.”

He pointed to the downward trends in stream flows, specifically on the Rio Grande at the Del Norte gauge where for the first time since flows have been measured at that gauge (1890 forward), the river has gone 10 years without reaching the 700,000 acre-foot annual flow and about 20 years without hitting 800,000 acre feet. The annual flow this year is about 285,000 acre-feet.

Simpson added, “It’s probably not fair to call it a drought anymore. It’s climate. It’s just where we are, natural or man made, it’s just where we are at.”

Simpson also referred to the unconfined aquifer study the district has undertaken since 1976, which is generally the same area covered by the first sub-district. The aquifer remained fairly steady prior to 2002 and in that drought year alone lost 400,000 acre feet volume of water in that study area, Simpson said.

The first sub-district through its varied efforts of fallowing and conservation recovered about 350,000 acre feet, Simpson added. Experiencing three or four years of close to average flows helped. This year has presented more of a challenge, Simpson added, and he expected a decline in the aquifer storage area of about 200,000 acre feet.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Proposed Central #Colorado Water Conservancy District $47 million ballot aimed at resilient infrastructure

Recharge pond graphic via the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District.

From Central’s website:

Central’s Board places GMS bond measure on November 2018 ballot

The Board of Directors of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District placed a bond question for the Groundwater Management Subdistrict on to the 2018 ballot. Central’s board and management stated this measure is important to start planning the next steps to secure water rights and build storage for the region. The projects in the bond include:

  • Construction of 5,000 acre-feet of additional reservoir storage—which will increase Central’s holdings by 25 percent—in the Fort Lupton and Greeley/Kersey areas.
  • Construction of the Robert W. Walker Recharge Project, a large project at the Weld and Morgan county lines that will divert water from the South Platte River and send those flows to groundwater recharge basins as far as 5 miles from the river. This will increase drought resiliency for water users in the District. Central was awarded $1.5 million in state and federal grants for the estimated $15 million project.
  • Purchase of several senior water rights that are becoming available for the District’s portfolio, including the purchase of water currently being leased by Central, which will ensure this water stays in the community to be used by local farms and businesses.
  • To review the ballot language, click here. Please contact Central’s office if you have any questions.

    From The Greeley Tribune (Sara Knuth):

    Randy Ray said every local water manager remembers years like 2002 and 2012.

    “That’s one thing water managers don’t forget: the dry years. We always forget about the wet ones, except for the catastrophic floods,” said Ray, executive director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District. “How did their water supplies react to the dry years?”

    Water officials try to answer when they look toward the future of their systems. That’s why the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District will place a $48.7 million bond question on the ballot this November in an effort to address priorities that, officials said, would help the district plan for droughts such as the ones that ravaged this part of the state in 2002 and 2012. Another drought currently bakes portions of the state this year, as well.

    Central’s boundaries stretch through parts of Weld, Adams and Morgan counties and serve about 550 farmers who operate about 1,000 irrigation wells…

    The recharge project, the biggest of the three, would claim an estimated $15 million of the funding in an effort to divert water from the South Platte River and send flows to groundwater basins about 5 miles away from the river. Officials said that would create storage to increase drought resiliency for the district’s water users.

    For Ray, the recharge project is a solution to problems years in the making.

    “It’s complicated, but then again, it’s simple,” he said. “If you want to pump groundwater, you’ve got to replace it. We’re just simply putting water in the aquifer to offset pumping and generate additional supplies that we can count on.”

    Recharge projects, which have been in use for decades, exploded in the late 1990s, as strict regulations for well pumping required water users to replace the groundwater they pumped. They work by diverting water to a pond and allowing it to seep into the ground, and eventually, back to the river.

    At the Walker Recharge Project, which is named after a former district president, officials plan to divert the water from the South Platte River when it’s flowing at a high level to ponds along a plateau as far as 5 miles away.

    The district purchased the land for the project in 2015 after it became clear to Central officials that the district can’t rely on leasing reusable water from Thornton, Aurora, Longmont and Westminster sewer discharge plants the way it has in the past.

    Because the population in those cities is growing, Ray said, city officials are more reluctant to give their extra water supplies away. Water managers in those cities remember dry years such as 2002 too.

    Plus, Ray said, the district views the projects as better financial investments.

    “It’s like renting a house,” Ray said. “The landowner is getting the equity, and you’re just basically paying their mortgage.”

    Ray said the other main projects outlined in the ballot question — the reservoir storage and additional senior water rights — also will play a role in helping the district rely less on water leases from cities. The gravel pit reservoir storage, he said, would help the district divert water from the river quickly when water levels are high for additional storage.

    But Ray said the biggest selling point for the bond issue is agriculture.

    “That’s our big campaign, our big message to our constituents, preserving irrigated agriculture in the county,” Ray said.

    By purchasing additional senior water rights, he said, the district could help slow a trend called “buy-and-dry,” in which cities buy water rights from farms.

    “So, when one of those cities purchases those water rights, they retire the land, and it’s got to go back to a dry land setting, which has a lot of negative associations with that,” Ray said. “The economy dries up and the tax bases go away.”

    If Central takes over that water right, Ray argued, farmers would still have access to groundwater to irrigate a portion of the farmland.

    “If you’re 80 years old, 70 years old, that farm and its water rights are your 401(k),” Ray said. “We want to be an alternative to these beautiful senior water rights in Weld County being transferred to Denver, Arapahoe, Douglas counties and reside here under the management of the water conservancy district.”

    Palmer Lake trustees pass ordinance to restrict service area

    Palmer Lake via Wikipedia Commons

    From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Rachel Riley):

    The Palmer Lake Board of Trustees last week unanimously passed the ordinance, which requires that developers drill wells to serve properties outside the service area, Town Administrator Cathy Green said.

    However, developers may still build within the service area and connect to existing water mains, Green said.

    The town provides water to nearly 1,000 households and businesses. An engineering services company has found the municipal water supply can support about 80 more taps.

    In late July, the town implemented Stage 2 water restrictions — preventing residents from watering their lawns and washing their cars — due to a broken pump on one of its wells and abnormally low reservoir levels.

    But the town is finishing the installation of a new pump on the well, so the emergency restrictions will be lifted soon, Green said.

    Normal year-round restrictions, which require Palmer Lake residents to water their lawns only on certain days of the week, will remain in place, she said.

    @EPA plans to release PFAS management plan by the end of the year

    Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

    From The Nashua Telegraph (Ken Liebeskind):

    After completing its final PFAS Community Engagement event in Leavenworth, Kansas, on Sept. 5, the EPA plans to prepare its PFAS management plan and release it by the end of the year.

    The first community engagement event was in Exeter in June, with follow-ups in Horsham, Pennsylvania, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Fayetteville, North Carolina and an event for tribal representatives in Spokane, Washington.

    The EPA said, “The Community Engagement events and the input the agency has received from the docket for public comments have been incredibly informative and will be used, along with perspectives from the National Leadership Summit to develop a PFAS management plan for release later this year.

    […]

    While the EPA says one of its actions will be to evaluate the need for a MCL for PFAS that may change its current level of 70 parts per trillion that is a health advisory…

    Many environmental groups are calling for lower levels that have already been established by other states.

    “You have to do what is right for the health of rivers. That’s part of the health of the city” — Patrick Riley #Denver

    Storm drain and open channel improvements between the East Rail Line (38th & Blake Station) and the South Platte River (Globeville Landing Outfall), Stormwater detention/conveyance between the East Rail Line (38th & Blake Station) and Colorado Blvd, (Montclair Basin)
    Stormwater detention/ conveyance immediately east of Colorado Blvd. (Park Hill Basin).

    From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

    Old Denver pulsed with H2O, water that snaked through the creeks and irrigation canals crisscrossing Colorado’s high prairie before 150 years of urban development buried most of them or forced them into pipes.

    New Denver wants those waterways back.

    City leaders are ramping up what they describe as a massive, restorative “daylighting” of buried water channels wherever possible — cutting through pavement and re-engineering old streams and canals to create up to 20 miles of naturalistic riparian corridors. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been committed. Eventual costs are expected to top $1 billion over several decades. This work reflects increased interest worldwide in harnessing water and natural processes to make cities more livable.

    Starting in 1858 with the discovery of gold in Colorado’s mountains, Denver developers focused on filling in creeks to make way for the construction of railroads, streets, smelters and housing — all laid out across a grid imposed on the natural landscape. The 184-page Green Infrastructure Implementation Strategy that Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration issued this summer reverses that approach with an inventory of high-priority projects aimed at — to the extent that booming growth and development will allow — reopening and revitalizing waterways.

    “It is like undoing history,” project manager Patrick Riley said last week along a newly formed 1,000-foot stretch of Montclair Creek — already attracting geese as big trucks beeped and contractors in neon green vests re-contoured the urban terrain.

    The Montclair Creek project marks Denver’s most ambitious and controversial daylighting so far, a $298 million revival of a waterway that flows 9 miles from high ground at Fairmount Cemetery (elevation 5,485 feet) under the north half of the city. Work crews are excavating and rerouting water, digging holes for ponds, and planting native grasses and perennials in four areas: the 130-acre City Park Golf Course, the Park Hill Golf Course, a 1.2-mile greenway along 39th Avenue, and a landscaped “outfall” through a 5-acre Globeville Landing park near the South Platte River (elevation 5,274 feet) west of the Denver Coliseum.

    City engineers say that, by reconstructing the urban landscape where possible, they’ll slow down water, filter it through vegetation to remove contaminants, control storm runoff and nourish greenery to help residents endure the climate shift toward droughts and rising temperatures…

    While a lack of open land and neighborhood resistance can limit daylighting of long-squelched creeks and canals, increasing volumes of storm runoff — the result of the paving of more and more of the city — require action.

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has supported daylighting, recognizing that pipes and concrete channels typically can’t handle surges the way natural creeks and floodplains once did before development…

    Other projects in the works:

    — Re-exposing a southern branch of Montclair Creek that flows under an area extending from City Park across Colorado Boulevard and eastward along Hale Parkway.

    — A $77 million removal of concrete and widening of the Weir Gulch that runs through southwestern Denver from South Sheridan Boulevard to the South Platte River.

    — A $26 million revitalization of Harvard Gulch in south-central Denver.

    — The $249 million enhancement of the South Platte, reshaping and widening river banks between Sixth and 58th avenues, to create an ecosystem healthy enough for trout to reproduce through Denver.

    — Converting portions of the 71-mile High Line Canal irrigation system, built in 1883 and owned by Denver Water, into a greenway and refuge.

    — Other waterway projects that city officials are discussing involve naturalistic re-engineering of concrete trapezoidal channels in Montbello, flood-prone gullies in Globeville, the southwestern Sanderson Gulch, and buried channels citywide where alluvial sediment indicates creeks once flowed before settlers arrived.

    Denver innovations include installing an ultraviolet water-cleaning station at the Montclair Creek outfall to boost natural processes in zapping chemical contaminants, an expanding array from antibiotics to antidepressants, before water reaches the South Platte.

    Along Brighton Boulevard north of downtown, city crews also built 56 cement boxes, designed to hold native grasses and flowers in a replaceable soil mix that includes ground-up newspaper, to filter runoff water so that less pollution reaches the South Platte…

    Dealing with floods by trying to funnel more and more runoff into culverts and pipelines has become increasingly costly and ineffective, city officials said. A recent city study estimated that dealing with worsening storms by installing more pipelines would cost taxpayers $1.4 billion.

    But it’s unclear whether a new approach of embracing waterways will be cheaper in the long run.

    As work crews neared completion of the Montclair Creek outfall by the South Platte, project manager Riley said recreational benefits and a need for places “where water could percolate out naturally” — rather than costs — are driving this push that has unified support from city leaders.

    “You have to do what is right for the health of rivers. That’s part of the health of the city,” Riley said. “You are going to see a return to natural processes.”

    #California Court Finds #PublicTrustDoctrine Applies to State Groundwater Resources

    Groundwater movement via the USGS

    From Legal Planet (Richard Frank):

    The California Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District has issued an important decision declaring that California’s powerful public trust doctrine applies to at least some of the state’s overtaxed groundwater resources. The court’s opinion also rejects the argument that California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) displaces the public trust doctrine’s applicability to groundwater resources.

    The Court of Appeal’s opinion in Environmental Law Foundation v. State Water Resources Control Board decides two key issues of first impression for California water law: first, whether the public trust doctrine applies to California’s groundwater resources; and, second, if it does, if application of that doctrine has been displaced and superseded by the California Legislature’s 2014 enactment of SGMA. A unanimous appellate panel answered the first question in the affirmative, the second in the negative.

    The facts of the Environmental Law Foundation are straightforward and undisputed: the Scott River is a tributary of the Klamath River and itself a navigable waterway located in the northwestern corner of California. The Scott River has historically been used by the public for recreational navigation and serves as essential habitat for migrating salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.

    Critically, there are groundwater aquifers adjacent to the Scott River in Siskiyou County that are hydrologically connected to the surface flows of the Scott River. Local farmers and ranchers in recent years have drilled numerous groundwater wells and pumped ever-increasing amounts of groundwater from those aquifers. As a direct result, the surface flows of the Scott River have been reduced, at times dramatically. Indeed, in the summer and early fall months, the Scott River has in some years been completely dewatered due to the nearby groundwater pumping. The adverse effects on both the Scott River’s salmon fishery and recreational use of the river have been devastating.

    Environmental groups and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, relying on California’s venerable public trust doctrine, initially responded to this environmental crisis by petitioning Siskiyou County and the State Water Resources Control Board to take administrative action to limit groundwater pumping in the Scott River watershed. Both the Board and the County declined to do so.

    Plaintiffs responded by filing suit, arguing that groundwater resources that are interconnected with the surface water flows of the Scott River are subject to and protected by the state’s public trust doctrine. Siskiyou County disputed that claim, arguing that the public trust doctrine is wholly inapplicable to groundwater and that the country has no duty to limit groundwater pumping, even in the face of the resulting environmental damage to the Scott River ecosystem. (The Board, by contrast, eventually reconsidered its position, ultimately adopting plaintiffs’ view that groundwater resources interconnected with surface water flows are indeed subject to the public trust doctrine.)

    The trial court concluded that the public trust doctrine does apply to the groundwater resources of the Scott River region. While the litigation was pending there, however, the California Legislature enacted SGMA, which for the first time creates a statewide system of groundwater management in California, administered at the regional level. Siskiyou County seized upon that legislation to argue that even if the public trust doctrine would otherwise apply to the County’s groundwater resources, the doctrine was automatically displaced and made inapplicable to groundwater as a result of SGMA’s allegedly “comprehensive” statutory scheme. The trial court rejected this backstop argument as well, and the County appealed.

    The Court of Appeal’s decision today resoundingly affirms the trial court on both issues. On the threshold public trust claim, the justices rely heavily on the California Supreme Court’s landmark public trust decision, National Audubon Society v. Superior Court. In National Audubon, the Supreme Court held that the public trust doctrine, a foundational principle of California natural resources law, fully applies to the state’s complex water rights system. Specifically, National Audubon found that the City of Los Angeles’ diversion of water from the non-navigable, freshwater streams flowing into Mono Lake, which were reducing the lake level and causing environmental damage to the lake ecosystem, could be limited by state water regulators under the public trust doctrine.

    The court in the Environmental Law Foundation concluded that the rationale and holding of National Audubon are fully applicable to the facts of the Scott River case. Rejecting the County’s argument that extractions of groundwater should be treated differently from the diversions of surface water that were found in National Audubon to be causing environmental damage to Mono Lake, the Court of Appeal declares:

    “The County’s squabble over the distinction between diversion and extraction is…irrelevant. The analysis begins and ends with whether the challenged activity harms a navigable waterway and thereby violates the public trust.”

    Accordingly, the Environmental Law Foundation court concludes that the public trust doctrine fully applies to extractions of groundwater that adversely affect navigable waterways such as the Scott River.

    #AnimasRiver: The @EPA releases results of three year water quality study #GoldKingMine

    A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 — photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    The study looked at 200 river-water samples and almost 200 sediment samples, as well as more than 100 private wells from Durango to Silverton, testing for 13 different heavy metals and other possible contaminants, the health department said.

    Some findings, according to San Juan Basin Public Health:

    Water quality, except in Cement Creek, is better than the minimum standards set to protect aquatic life and human uses.

    Additional sampling performed as part of this study revealed that natural variability in river flows produces occasional “spikes” in certain metals that may have been missed in less-frequent sampling.

    Sediment in the Animas River, including beach sediment at six popular Durango recreation sites, poses no risk to human health if common-sense precautions are followed.

    About one-quarter of Animas Valley drinking water wells had naturally-occurring bacteria present, and all wells should receive filtration or treatment.

    About 5 percent of Animas Valley wells had more serious contamination from heavy metals, nitrates or other forms of bacteria. Heavy metal contamination in these wells arises from the natural geology of the Animas Valley aquifer.