Aspinall Unit operations meeting January 17, 2019

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The next Aspinall Operations meeting will be held on January 17th in Montrose at the Holiday Inn Express. The meeting will start at 1:00.

Aspinall Unit

#GunnisonRiver: Fire Mountain Canal Improvement Project groundbreaking

Here’s the release from Senator Bennet’s Office:

Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet today applauded the groundbreaking of the Fire Mountain Canal Improvement Project in the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

“Because our parents and grandparents made necessary investments in water infrastructure, agriculture has thrived on the Western Slope,” Bennet said. “We need to make these same investments for future generations. The demands on our rivers are greater than ever as we face the challenges of climate change and a growing population. Collaborative efforts like the Fire Mountain Canal Improvement project are critical to making irrigation systems more efficient to support our agricultural economy.

“Congratulations to all of the local, state, and federal partners who collaborated to make this project a reality. Our work to secure the Critical Conservation Area designation, and federal funding through the Farm Bill, are the first of many actions we can take to invest in Colorado’s water security,” Bennet concluded.

In 2014, Bennet secured the Critical Conservation Area (CCA) designation for the Colorado River Basin, making the lower Gunnison basin eligible for federal funding. As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Bennet then helped craft a new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in the 2014 Farm Bill, which secured $8 million for the Colorado River District project in the Lower Gunnison River Basin. In the 2018 Farm Bill, Bennet worked to reauthorize and increase funding for the RCPP and direct more funding toward water infrastructure and drought resilience across Colorado and the West.

The $4.6 million Fire Mountain Canal Improvement Project will build a buried, large-diameter pipeline along four miles of currently unlined canal. The project is part of the $50 million Lower Gunnison River Basin Project, spearheaded by the Colorado River District, with combined funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, local water conservancy and conservation districts, and local irrigation companies such as the Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Company.

Here’s the Finding of no significant impact from March 2018 via USBR.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A sweeping, multi-entity effort in the lower Gunnison River Basin to boost irrigation efficiency and help the environment is marking a milestone with the start of work on a pipeline project in the North Fork Valley.

A groundbreaking celebration Tuesday marked the beginning of the Fire Mountain Canal Improvement Project. The $4.6 million undertaking, which is expected to take two years to complete, is part of the larger, $50 million Lower Gunnison Project.

The Fire Mountain work involves converting more than four miles of open, unlined, earthen canal to a buried, large-diameter pipeline.

That will eliminate water loss along the canal route and also result in a pressurized supply reaching irrigators who can then use methods such as sprinklers or drip systems to water crops more efficiently than with flood irrigation…

Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River District, which is managing the Lower Gunnison Project, said the Fire Mountain project will benefit some 5,000 acres of irrigated ground.

The potential benefits to the Fire Mountain system were made evident last summer when drought taxed its water supply. Kanzer said Fire Mountain is what’s called a “water-short” system.

It has a brief, limited water supply season, relying on water from Paonia Reservoir and unable to tap supplies from the Gunnison River mainstem.

Kanzer said converting to sprinklers allows for switching to minimum- or low-till agriculture, which allows for carbon capture and accumulation of organic matter in soil, as an alternative to using chemical fertilizers.

These changes in irrigation approaches also mean less concentration of salts and other chemicals in soil, less salt and selenium in waterways and improved river flows, which benefit wildlife, including endangered fish downstream.

While several projects in the lower Gunnison basin have gotten underway as part of the umbrella Lower Gunnison Project, Kanzer said the Fire Mountain project is the first large one. A $5 million pipeline project in the Uncompahgre River Valley also is going forward this year, he said.

The Lower Gunnison Project incorporates funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, local water conservancy and conservation districts, and irrigation companies including the Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Co.

The project is the product of a diverse partnership and is focusing on improving agricultural water use efficiency in areas covered by the North Fork Water Conservancy District, Bostwick Park Water Conservancy District near Montrose, the Crawford Water Conservancy District and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association.

Gunnison River Basin. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

New outlet works for Cerro Reservoir to be constructed in 2019

Joel Evans, an outdoor writer and angler from Montrose, holds the first tiger trout caught at the new Cerro Summit State Wildlife Area located east of Montrose. He caught the fish on Sept. 29. Fishing at the area is catch-and-release only. Photo credit Colorado Parks & Wildlife

From The Montrose Daily Press (Andrew Kiser):

The Montrose City Council voted unanimously, during its Dec. 18 meeting, to award a contract change order to RJH Consultants for $72,100 in the redesign of Cerro Reservoir.

The original amount of $270K had to be increased as “surprises in the reservoir’s design showed a lot of unforeseen layers,” said City Engineer Scott Murphy to the councilors on Dec. 18.

The dam at Montrose Reservoir on Cerro Summit needed major repairs earlier this year, which required the lake to be drained over the summer, as previously reported…

The city has been trying to figure out dam conditions there for some time and was more recently able to send divers down a 15-foot opening in the dam works for inspection, Murphy said.

This inspection confirmed it was time to replace the outlet works for the 1912 dam.

The outlet works consist of an 8-inch pipeline that runs through the dam’s foundation and below the western embankment; the pipe is about 50 feet below the crest of the dam and dates back to the original dam construction…

He added the city is currently working on its contract bid with Colorado Division of Water Resources.

“Something with this class goes through a pretty thorough review process with the state,” Murphy said, estimating the city should be awarded the contract in the next two months.

Shortly afterward ground will be broken in early February, he said. The construction will then start later that month and finished end of 2019.

The reservoir is tentatively planned to be filled in the spring of 2020.

Sending water to #LakePowell may, or may not, benefit boaters on Green, Gunnison, #ColoradoRiver and San Juan rivers — @AspenJournalism

A boater, John Dufficy, makes his way down the lower end of the San Juan River toward the take-out, in 2014. Low flows on the San Juan can make exiting the river a tricky proposition due to the growing sandbars, but it’s not clear if potential releases of water from Navajo Reservoir to boost flows in Lake Powell will do much to change that. Photo Credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Tell experienced river runners that 2 million acre-feet of water — as much water as in 20 Ruedi Reservoirs — is going to be released from reservoirs and sent down the Green, Gunnison and San Juan rivers to boost falling water levels in Lake Powell, and they will likely have some good questions.

Will peak spring releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir down the Green River turn Hell’s Half Mile in the Gates of Lodore into a raging maelstrom?

Will early-spring and late-summer releases out of Navajo Reservoir on the upper San Juan River make it easier to float over the growing sandbars in the river below Grand Gulch?

Will releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir run down the Gunnison River and into the Colorado River and make it likelier that flows past Skull Rapid in Westwater will stay longer in the “terrible teens,” or at flows over 13,000 cubic feet per second?

For now, there are no definitive answers to such questions, but one federal official suggests boaters may hardly notice the release of water from the three reservoirs.

An agreement was approved last week in Las Vegas by the Upper Colorado River Commission that sets up a process for Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, to develop a plan to release about two million acre-feet of water from the three reservoirs, but it is, at this point, only an agreement to make a “drought operations” plan, when necessary.

“The agreement, importantly, doesn’t itself include a plan. Rather, it sets forth a process for establishing a plan based on modeling projections of Powell elevations,” Amy Haas, the director of the UCRC said during a presentation here last week at a meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association.

Still, boaters want to know, where might the water come from under such a plan. When it will come? And will it make a difference on the river?

The answer to the last question, at least, is something akin to “no, not really.”

“I really don’t think it is going to be noticeable, because we see quite a bit of fluctuation in the upper basin in all of these systems, when we have abundance and when we have drought, and this fits within those bands,” said Brent Rhees, the regional director in the upper Colorado River basin for the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, as well as Lake Powell.

It also says water will be released from all three reservoirs, though not necessarily at the same time, and an effort will also be made to balance hydropower needs.

The agreement gives regional water managers “sufficient flexibility to begin, end or adjust operations as needed based on actual hydrologic conditions” and retains Reclamation’s current authority to release water as it sees fit, within existing approvals, if there is an “imminent need to protect the target elevation at Lake Powell.”

(Also, please see related agreements on demand management storage in Lake Powell, a “companion agreement” to an a drought contingency plan agreement in the lower basin, and Exhibit 1 to that agreement).

A boater, Steve Skinner, makes his way toward Skull Rapid in Westwater Canyon. Future potential releases of water from Blue Mesa Reservoir down the Gunnison River and into the Colorado River could alter flows in Westwater, and boost water levels in Lake Powell. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

Back-up buckets

Flaming Gorge, Navajo and Blue Mesa reservoirs were built, in large part, to serve as backup buckets to Lake Powell, but they have yet to be called upon for such duty.

Of the three reservoirs, Flaming Gorge is the largest, with a capacity to hold 3.8 million acre-feet of water behind its dam, which is in Utah near the Wyoming border.

Navajo Reservoir, which is in northern New Mexico, on the San Juan River, holds 1.7 million acre-feet.

And Blue Mesa Reservoir, one of three dams on the Gunnison River that make up what’s called the Aspinall Unit, holds 940,800 acre-feet.

Of course, before water can be released from reservoirs, they must have water in them — and that’s no longer a given.

Today, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, Blue Mesa is only 30 percent full, holding 248,220 acre-feet of water; Navajo is 52 percent full, holding 883,737 acre-feet; and Flaming Gorge is 88 percent full, holding 3.3 million acre-feet. (Please see “teacup” graphic, with current reservoir levels).

The water to be released, if needed, from the three reservoirs is meant to help maintain a target elevation for the surface of Lake Powell — as measured at the upstream face of Glen Canyon Dam — of 3,525 feet above sea level.

Today, Lake Powell is at 3,584 feet, or 59 feet above the target elevation. A year ago, the lake was at 3,623 feet, or 39 feet higher than it is today. (Lake Powell is 42 percent full, holding about 10.4 million acre-feet of water.)

So, if very dry conditions persist in the upper basin and the reservoir level keeps falling more than 30 feet a year, it’s possible that the critical elevation of 3,525 could be reached within two dry years.

A fleet of rafts makes its way down the Green River toward its confluence with the Yampa River. Future potential releases of water out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir to boost levels in Lake Powell shape the flows on the Green River, although it’s not clear how the releases may change flow levels. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smity

Scary hydrology

The most recent 24-month forecast — issued by the Bureau of Reclamation on Wednesday — “projects Lake Powell elevation will end water year 2019 (at the end of September) near 3,571.23 feet with approximately 9.21 million acre-feet in storage,” or at 38 percent of capacity.

That means by October, Lake Powell is already projected to be 13 feet lower than it is today and only 46 feet above the target elevation of 3,525 feet.

Nothing physically occurs at Glen Canyon Dam at 3,525 feet, but it’s seen by regional water managers as an alarm bell on the way to the reservoir falling to 3,490 feet, or minimum power pool, which is when water can no longer be sent down intake tubes to the turbines in the dam.

At elevations below 3,490, when the reservoir is heading toward “dead pool,” it becomes ever harder to release water downstream through the dam’s outlets, which could mean the upper-basin states would fail to meet their collective obligation to send enough water to the lower-basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada) under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

Although violating the compact was once seen as a far-off, distant possibility, it’s not seen that way anymore.

“In water year 2018, unregulated inflow volume to Lake Powell was 4.6 million acre-feet (43 percent of average), the third-driest year on record above 2002 and 1977,” says the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest forecast, issued Wednesday.

It also says that inflows into Lake Powell have been above average in only four of the past 19 years.

“The latest hydrology is sobering,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said last week during remarks at the water conference. “It is time for us to pay attention. We are quickly running out of time.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers with The Aspen Times. The Times published this story on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018.

Western Slope Water Summit recap

Gunnison River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey

From The Montrose Daily Press (Andrew Kiser):

Farmers have a taxing job growing crops due to water rights and, now, a multi-year drought, said Montrose County Commissioner Sue Hansen.

Those concerns were brought to the forefront during the Western Slope Water Summit — held Tuesday morning at the Montrose County Event Center. The group mostly discussed the water shortage and the drought crisis on the Western Slope.

Hansen said the county wanted farmers and producers to know about those challenges and about other potential obstacles under the new drought contingency plan…

As far as the effects of the drought, residents need look no further than the Gunnison River.

According to the Colorado River District, the river is snared between climate change-driven drought and overuse by the Lower Basin states to which a sure quantity of water must be transported each year, under the 1922 Colorado River Compact…

Andy Mueller, Colorado River District general manager, added the state’s farmers “are battling urban areas for their livelihood.”

“I think we, as an Upper Basin, need to put the hammer down and need to call them out in terms of what they’re doing,” he said.

@USBR selects 58 projects to receive $3.7 million for WaterSMART small-scale water efficiency projects in 16 western states

Bostwick Park Irrigation System Map via USBR.

From the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):

These small-scale projects are a result of planning efforts by the recipients to improve their water delivery efficiency

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced today that Reclamation has selected 58 projects to receive $3.7 million for small-scale water efficiency projects in 16 western states. The funding from Reclamation is being leveraged to support more than $8.2 million in improvements throughout the West. The projects funded with these grants include installation of flow measurement devices and automation technology, canal lining or piping to address seepage, municipal meter upgrades, and other projects to conserve water.

Funding of up to $75,000 is provided to projects on a 50-percent cost-share. A complete list of the projects selected is available at: https://www.usbr.gov/watersmart/swep/.

The City of Avondale in Arizona is receiving $75,000 to update two water treatment/booster station wells within their system. They will connect them to their current supervisory control and data acquisition system which will help them better manage their water supplies.

The North Kern Water Storage District in Bakersfield, California, is receiving $75,000 to install SCADA software to interface with previously installed SCADA equipment and two evapotranspiration measurement stations in the service area.

The City of Gallup in northwest New Mexico is receiving $60,000 to upgrade old mechanical meters with modern solid-state meters for industrial, commercial and institutional users. This project will allow for allow for more accurate measurement of water consumption and is supported by its 2013 water conservation plan.

Small-Scale Water Efficiency Projects are part of Reclamation’s WaterSMART Program. The program aims to improve water conservation and reliability, helping water resource managers make sound decisions about water use. Learn more at https://www.usbr.gov/watersmart/swep/.

Visit https://www.usbr.gov/watersmart for additional information about the WaterSMART program.

From The Montrose Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

Two local water projects have received a cut of $3.7 million in federal grant funding, which will help improve water efficiency in thirsty Montrose County.

The money awarded to Bostwick Park Water Conservancy District and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association will provide technology for the real-time data necessary to accurately manage flows.

At the main river head gate on the Cimarron Canal, the Bostwick Park District and Cimarron Canal and Reservoir Company have a chute that provides a flow of water. “That water needs to be measured accurately and this grant is to put a new knife gate in there and monitor it so the flow off the Cimarron River can maintain steady,” said Allen Distel, who is president of the conservancy district and canal reservoir company.

The organizations received $15,000 from the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program for a $31,449 knife gate project that will install an automated water- control device.

The new controls will reduce over-diversions from the river to the canal and keep desired flows in line with real-time data, according to BuRec’s information. Because the process is automatic, it will also save on staff time.

The conservancy district and canal company provide irrigation water to the west side of the Big Cimarron Valley and the upper and lower Bostwick Park area. The canal company entails about 600 shares of water from the Cimarron.

“It’s really important to the flow of the Cimarron River,” Distel said, of the knife gate project and grant.

“The Bureau of Reclamation and Colorado Parks and Wildlife have a reserve amount in Silver Jack Reservoir. They can all that water out of Silver Jack to maintain the river level. It’s real important we have an accurate measurement so when they call the water out, we can get that water down the river.”

The knife gate project is identified as one of three critical water management locations under the Bostwick district’s water management plan, according to BuRec.

Last Ditch Standing: A tale of water inequality in the West — Jonathan Thompson @jonnypeace

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

My parents have a small garlic farm in Western Colorado in the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. They bought the place just over a decade ago, along with a couple of shares of water from the ditch which runs through their property. It’s a nice little plot of rural Colorado with good dirt and nice views, but it wasn’t until this terribly dry summer that they realized how valuable the land is. The Farmers Ditch, diverted from the North Fork near Paonia, has some of the most senior rights in the valley. They are water-rich in an arid world.

Since white settlement began here back in the late 1800s, the communities of the North Fork have revolved around coal and agriculture. Three underground coal mines churned away for decades, their bounty loaded upon mile-long trains headed for power plants in the Midwest and beyond. Paonia and the surrounding mesas have long been renowned for fruit, vegetables and, for a time, marijuana.

After surging to a peak just over a decade ago, coal began its hasty, nationwide decline, and now only one of three mines in the North Fork is still operating. Meanwhile, small-scale agriculture has taken over as one of the main economic pillars of this idyllic valley: Cherries, peaches, hops and hemp. Agricultural interests also are a strong political force rising up in resistance to proposed oil and gas drilling because of its detrimental effect on the water, which is becoming more and more precious in a warming world.

Thanks to the dramatically sere appearance of the natural landscape, the North Fork Valley provides a stark visual reminder of the importance of large-scale irrigation in these parts. A ditch along a hillside becomes a sharp divide between the dry, sparse, dusty dobie-land above the ditch; and green, grassy, cottonwood- and cattail-strewn land below it. This is true even where no active irrigation is taking place; the ditches are generally so leaky that they create artificial wetlands in areas that are distant from fields or crops or lawns.

Most of the irrigation water comes from the North Fork, which begins at the confluence of Muddy Creek and Anthracite Creek. Paonia Reservoir sits just above the confluence, on Muddy Creek. Typically the reservoir fills up during the spring and early summer, during which the natural flow in Anthracite Creek is adequate to fill all of the downstream ditches. When Anthracite starts to wane, water is released from the reservoir to keep the ditches flowing, usually into August and sometimes even until late October. In late June or early July the river’s total flow reaches equilibrium with the volume diverted from it, causing the river through Paonia to dry to a tiny, warm trickle that is good for sustaining only crawdads and mosquito larvae.

Even more shocking than the annual desiccation of the riverbed is the way in which so many water rights holders continue to pull their maximum share from the ditch, even if it’s not needed, even if they have no crops or even lawn to irrigate. “Use it or lose it,” the saying goes. Meanwhile, only a handful of the small-scale farmers have bothered to install more efficient irrigating systems, and most of the ditches continue to leak like sieves. That may be fine in a time of abundance, but these are times of increasing scarcity.

Paonia Reservoir — which gets its water from aptly named Muddy Creek — is filling up with mud. When constructed in 1962, the reservoir had 21,000 acre feet of capacity; today only 14,000 acre feet of capacity remain. So the amount of water available to irrigators is diminishing, even during wet years. But this year was one of the driest on record, which prompted downstream, senior water rights holders to put a “call” on the river in mid-June, at least a month earlier than usual, forcing junior, upstream holders to stop diverting water. By the time August rolled around, all but a few ditches in the North Fork had been shut down or had their flows drastically curtailed. Farmers Ditch, meanwhile, kept running right up to the brim.

The farmers of the North Fork Valley make up a fairly tight-knit community. They share seedlings and knowledge, hay balers and tillers, trade garlic for meat. So one would expect them to respond to a water crisis in much the same way, with the haves on Farmers Ditch sharing their bounty with the have-nots whose ditches ran dry. At the very least, you’d expect the haves to cut down on their own water use, even if just out of respect for their less fortunate neighbors.

But that’s not how it works in the arcane world of Western water. This summer most of the folks on Farmers Ditch carried on like they would any other year, using up their entire share of water and letting whatever they didn’t use run off across the mesa tops to evaporate and seep into the earth while their dry-ditch neighbors looked on helplessly. I watched one landowner wastefully dump a steady stream of irrigation water on his dusty horse pasture, turning it into a nasty mud bog where only a few thistles grew, while a mile away crops wilted. Wealth-inequality may be the scourge of our nation, but it’s water inequality that will increasingly plague the arid West.

The ostentatiously water wealthy are not entirely to blame. I’m confident that most of them would have been happy share their bounty if they could. But there’s no simple mechanism for this kind of cooperation. My parents can’t just turn a valve and send their water across the valley to their fellow farmer. The system wasn’t designed that way. It is the system that needs changing.

“The solution is, in a sense, straightforward,” writes John Fleck in his book Water is for Fighting Over, and Other Myths About Water in the West. “Everyone in the Colorado River Basin has to use less water. But no one will voluntarily take such a step without changes in the rules governing basin water use as a whole to ensure that everyone else shares the reductions as well—that any pain is truly shared. We need new rules. Absent that, we simply end up with a tragedy of the commons.”

Fleck’s referring to the macro of the Colorado River Basin here, but it also applies to the micro of irrigation districts everywhere. New rules, new systems, new ways of operating are needed that would incentivize efficiency and that would allow the Farmers Ditches of the world to share with the others in the community who aren’t so fortunate.

When it comes to water, though, we Westerners tend to get entrenched in the use-it-or-lose-it culture, which is anathema to cooperation and to efficiency. Still, this is not unsurmountable. When pushed up against the wall, Westerners have become more limber in their approach to water. Take Las Vegas, which has managed to cut per capita water use enough so that it’s been able to grow its population without robbing Great Basin farmers of their groundwater — at least so far.

And then there’s another, smaller instance of cooperation that bears mentioning. After the Sunnyside Mine upstream from Silverton, Colorado, shut down in 1991, the owners put a boxcar-sized plug, or bulkhead, into the mine’s main tunnel to keep the 1,600 gallons-per-minute of acid mine drainage from going into the Animas River watershed.

Not long afterward, the region suffered through what at the time seemed like a horrible drought, prompting a downstream ditch company to make a call on the Animas River.

That’s when Silverton discovered that the founding fathers had failed to file for water rights back in the early days of the town, leaving the town with some of the most junior rights on the entire river. They faced the very real prospect of having to shut down their municipal water intakes. Instead, the Sunnyside Mine stepped up and opened the valve on the giant plug, releasing enough water (and treating it) to satisfy the downstream call, and buying Silverton time during which it could seek out a long-term fix. (Then the mine shut the valve down again and water backed up in the mine to disastrous effect, but then, that’s another story.)

It’s this sort of out-of-the-box, pragmatic, cooperative thinking that the West is known for, and that has helped many a community transition successfully away from extraction-based economies. Now the warming, drying region is faced with a much bigger, tougher transition, with even higher stakes.

Jonathan P. Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.