Aspinall unit operations update: Blue Mesa inflow forecast = 52% of 30 year average

Blue Mesa Reservoir

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The May 1st forecast for the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 350,000 acre-feet. This is 52% of the 30 year average. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin peaked at 69% of average. Blue Mesa Reservoir current content is 496,000 acre-feet which is 60% of full. Current elevation is 7478.7 ft. Maximum content at Blue Mesa Reservoir is 829,500 acre-feet at an elevation of 7519.4 ft.

Based on the May 1st forecast, the Black Canyon Water Right and Aspinall Unit ROD peak flow targets are listed below:

Black Canyon Water Right
The peak flow target will be equal to 987 cfs for a duration of 24 hours.
The shoulder flow target will be 300 cfs, for the period between May 1 and July 25.

Aspinall Unit Operations ROD
The year type is currently classified as Dry.
There is no peak flow target in a Dry year category
Baseflow targets will continue to be met throughout the year.

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 400 cfs on Monday, May 14th in order to allow the Black Canyon water right to be met. Flows on the North Fork of the Gunnison River are also predicted to be near peak levels at this time. The resulting flow on the lower Gunnison River at the Whitewater gage is estimated to be around 2500 cfs. On Tuesday, May 15th, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased by 400 cfs to return river flow to the pre-peak level.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for May and 1050 cfs for June.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are 600 cfs. During the 1 day peak flow Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 1000 cfs. River flows will return to 600 cfs the day after the peak flow. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Gunnison County: Trampe Ranch protection a done deal

Here’s the release from the Trust for Public Land:

Broad coalition protects more than 4,300 acres with help from the largest-ever GOCO grant

The Trust for Public Land today announced the final-stage closing in the protection of 4,377 acres of working ranchland in the scenic valleys of the Gunnison and East Rivers between Gunnison and Crested Butte. The protection effort, for land on the Trampe Ranch, was completed through three working-ranch conservation easements and with help from a $10 million grant from the Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) funding program, the largest single transaction grant in the organization’s history.

The easements prevent subdivision and development of scenic ranchlands stretching for 30 miles in one of Colorado’s most iconic landscapes. These lands are essential to agriculture, with Trampe Ranch generating 20 percent of Gunnison County’s agricultural economy. In addition, the conserved lands provide scenic views that attract tourists and visitors, include habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, and serve as research lands for scientists from the nearby Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

“The lands and waters of the Trampe Ranch play such an important role in defining the character and sense of place of one of Colorado’s last, great mountain valleys,” said Jim Petterson, The Trust for Public Land’s Southwest and Colorado Director. “This project brought together a deep and broad partnership of individuals, governments and organizations, all allied around a shared commitment of helping local communities fulfill their visions for how they want to grow and what they want to preserve.”

Efforts to protect ranchlands and open space in the Gunnison Valley began in the 1980s in an alliance between local land trusts, national conservation groups, funders like GOCO, local governments, and agricultural landowners, including Trampe Ranch owner Bill Trampe, who has been a leader in encouraging ranchers to conserve their land with easements. With the completion of the most recent project, Trampe Ranch has more than 6,000 acres under easement.

“GOCO is proud to be one of the partners to help make this monumental land conservation effort possible, and our Board of Trustees and staff are eternally grateful to Bill Trampe for his vision, leadership, and generosity,” said GOCO Executive Director Chris Castilian. “Trampe Ranch received GOCO’s largest ever, single transaction grant award at $10 million, because conserving this iconic property means the protection of vital agricultural land and stunning scenic views for those who will recreate on beautiful, adjacent public lands for generations to come.”

“What this one very special place means to the Gunnison Valley and to our entire state cannot be overstated. Today we join our fellow Coloradans in celebrating Bill Trampe, his family, and all they have accomplished,” added Castilian.

In addition to the GOCO grant, funding for the project came from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, Gunnison County, The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, Crested Butte Land Trust, and 1% for Open Space, a consortium of Gunnison County businesses that collects a voluntary donation of 1% of sales for its customers to fund open space conservation in Gunnison Valley. Additional private funding came from a multi-million dollar campaign. Trampe Ranch also donated a significant portion of the conservation easement value toward the project.

“This land has been the heart of our ranch for more than 100 years,” said Bill Trampe. “Conservation of our home place means this land is available forever for agriculture.”

Local partners cheered the completion of the conservation effort.

“We are very excited to see this critical step in the conservation of the East River Valley,” said Dr. Ian Billick, Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. “Keeping the properties in ranching is one of the most important things we could do to leverage the nation’s large investment in the field research that helps us manage our water, air, and food.”

“Nothing is more important than the preservation of the natural state of Colorado and its heritage of ranching. Especially in this day and age when there seems to be a valid threat to open spaces throughout the West,” said Mayor Jim Schmidt from the Town of Crested Butte.

“We are very excited about the completion of this final conservation easement,” said Carlos Fernandez, Colorado State Director for The Nature Conservancy. “The Trampe Ranch is a spectacular property with some of the most outstanding scenery in Colorado. Conserving this iconic ranch leaves an amazing legacy for the Gunnison Valley, reminding us of Colorado’s history and landscape.”

From The Crested Butte News (Mark Reaman):

One of the most significant land preservation actions in Colorado concluded Tuesday, April 10 with the closing of the last parcel of the Trampe Ranch property in Gunnison County. The final closing puts thousands of acres of prime ranchland stretching from Gunnison to Gothic into a conservation easement that is meant to keep the property free of development and focused on agriculture in perpetuity.

This multimillion-dollar deal was broken up into three parts totaling 4,377 acres. The first step took place in February 2017 when the 1,447-acre Trampe Home Ranch was preserved. That parcel, located near Gunnison, resulted in Gunnison sage grouse habitat being protected.

“This land has been the heart of our ranch for more than 100 years,” said Bill Trampe at the time. “The meadows and pastures are the resource base for ranch production, and also provide habitat for Gunnison sage grouse and other wildlife species. Conservation of our home place means this land is available forever for agriculture and for the birds.”

The second phase of the overall effort took place in October 2017 when 284 acres were preserved in the corridor between Gunnison and Crested Butte near Jack’s Cabin. And Tuesday’s 2,647-acre closing put land primarily located in the Upper East River Valley near Crested Butte into the conservation easement.

The Nature Conservancy is the holder of the Trampe Ranch conservation easement and the Trust for Pubic Land facilitated the transactions and led the public and private fundraising campaign…

While 4,377 acres were protected in these latest three closings, in sum total, the Trampe Ranch will have close to 6,000 protected acres from prior projects near Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery.

#Colorado co-ops consider dropping their energy provider — The Mountain Town News

Craig Station in northwest Colorado is a coal-fired power plant operated by Tri-State Generation & Transmission. Photo credit: Allen Best

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

A cooperative that serves four Western states could soon be losing customers amid concerns it’s not moving away from coal quickly enough.

Colorado-based Tri-State Generation & Transmission boasts of having the most solar generation of any G&T in the United States.

But whether it’s shifting to renewables quickly enough from its coal-heavy portfolio — and flexible enough to accommodate locally-generated electricity — has become a central issue with several of the 43 member cooperatives.

Directors of one of those member co-ops, La Plata Electric Association, voted in January to study alternatives during the next 10 to 15 years. The decision was made by the Durango, Colorado-based co-op after a petition was signed by 1,000 people and 100 businesses calling for 100 percent renewables with deeper penetration from local sources.

“We are buying our electricity from one of the dirtiest sources in the United States and paying well above market prices,” says Guinn Unger Jr., a La Plata director who favors a study of the co-op’s alternatives. “Why wouldn’t we want to explore our options?”

Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric Association began negotiating a buy-out with Tri-State last year with much the same goal: greater development of local renewable resources.

A template for both Colorado co-ops was established in 2016 when a New Mexico co-op, Taos-based Kit Carson, left Tri-State and signed an all-requirements contract with Guzman Renewable Energy Partners, a wholesale broker. Guzman paid the $37.5 million exit fee to Tri-State. It also promised to work with Kit Carson to develop 35 megawatts of solar arrays in Kit Carson’s three-county service area until 2023, when federal investment tax credit is set to expire. Kit Carson and Guzman are also planning to add battery storage.

Luis Reyes Jr., chief executive of Kit Carson, says consultants to his co-op concluded that ratepayers would save $50 million to $70 million over the life of the 10-year contract. The plan includes rapid construction of local solar farms and robust purchases of wind generation likely combined with battery storage.

Bob Bresnahan, a Kit Carson director and retired executive from Nike, says he believes solar will meet a third of residential electrical demand by 2022. He also contends the co-op can make deep inroads in its goal of 100 percent renewable generation by 2030.

La Plata’s contract commits it to getting 95 percent of its wholesale electricity from Tri-State Generation & Transmission through 2050. This commits La Plata to paying Tri-State 7.3 cents a kilowatt-hour even as wind and solar prices continue to tumble. Elsewhere in Colorado, Xcel Energy has received bids from wind developers at less than 2 cents a kWh and solar plus storage far below what Tri-State is charging La Plata.

Member cooperatives of Tri-State can produce more than 5 percent of their total electrical use, the result of a 2015 ruling by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Still in question are the terms. Tri-State, in an appeal to FERC, wants a ruling that says that member co-ops must pay for what Tri-State calls its fixed costs related to power production. FERC has not ruled on that case, which was filed in early 2016.

‘We’re bullish on renewable energy’

Tri-State’s 43 member cooperatives collectively deliver electricity to 200,000 square miles in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. Their 615,000 metered members/customers include Telluride and other ski areas in Colorado and giant circles of corn on the Great Plains, oil-and-gas fields in New Mexico and some of Denver’s fastest-growing suburbs.

Co-ops created Tri-State in 1952 to deliver electricity from new giant dams being built in the Missouri and Colorado River basins. Hydro still provides about half of Tri-State’s 1,115 megawatts of renewable generation. Wind constitutes the largest share of the new renewables, but the 85 megawatts of contracted solar are tops in the nation among G&Ts. Member renewable projects total 98 megawatts.

“We are bullish on renewable energy,” says Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey.

In 2005, with demand still rising sharply, Tri-State was bullish on coal. Wanting to build a major new coal-fired power plant in Kansas, it asked member co-ops to extend their all-requirements contracts by a decade, to 2050, the presumed lifespan of the plant. Kit Carson and Delta-Montrose refused.

Finally, in March 2017, Tri-State got permits from Kansas to build the plant but has indicated it will not do so. Instead, it is shedding coal-fired generation. In December, the association lost its 40-megawatt stake in a unit at New Mexico’s San Juan Generating Station. It’ll lose another 100 megawatts of part-time generating capacity at Nucla, Colorado, by 2023 and then 102 additional megawatts of generation at Craig, Colorado, before 2026. All are the result of settlements under the Clean Air Act to reduce regional haze.

Unger, the La Plata board member, says 60 percent of Tri-State’s electrical generation still comes from coal. Tri-State will only confirm 49 percent for 2017, but also reports 19 percent of its electricity comes from contract purchases.

In Durango, La Plata’s subcommittee has met several times, but Unger says it’s still not clear to him that La Plata should, like Kit Carson, leave Tri-State. He’s disturbed that nearly half the board members didn’t want to evaluate the co-op’s options.

“We should be asking ourselves, what are the facts?” he says. “People are not willing to look at it.”

Unger is also annoyed by implications that Kit Carson was forced to increase rates after it left Tri-State to pay the exit fee. “News articles indicate that the rate increase was to help the co-op with unprofitable affiliates, but the timing is a concern,” wrote Mike Dreyspring, chief executive of La Plata Electric, in an op-ed published in the Durango Herald.

Kit Carson’s rates, responded CEO Reyes, “have not increased one cent due to the buyout.”

‘Coal is no longer the lowest cost fuel’

Directors of Delta-Montrose were unanimous in January 2017 in approving exit negotiations. Neither DMEA representatives nor Tri-State will comment on the talks, citing a non-disclosure contract.

“What our board members want most is the flexibility to be able to diversify generation resources,” says Jim Heneghan, DMEA’s renewable energy engineer. Directors, he says, see local renewable generation as a vehicle for economic development.

Delta-Montrose began pursuing this vision of local generation about a decade ago. it’s in a region of organic apple farms and other agriculture production along with one remaining coal mine. Scores of high-paying coal mining jobs have been shed and the region still lags the economic vigor found in more urban areas.

South Canal hydroelectric site — via The Watch

A diversion project east of Montrose completed in 1909 contains a major fall before delivering water to farms. In harnessing that falling water to produce electricity, Delta-Montrose hit Tri-State’s 5 percent cap on local generation. When an outside developer proposed a third hydro plant to Delta-Montrose, the co-op took the proposal to FERC. In 2015, FERC agreed that the co-op was required, under the Public Utility Regulatory Act of 1978, to negotiate purchase of power generated by what PURPA calls a qualifying facility.

Tri-State concedes that it cannot interfere with a member’s purchase of energy from a qualifying facility. But it wants to be able to assess the co-ops for the fixed-cost portion of sales it has lost above the 5 percent threshold.

“It’s a question of how members relate to each other within their association,” explains Tri-State spokesman Boughey. “Each association member agreed to equitably share costs, and that if members self-supply in excess of the 5 percent provision they would not be paying their fair share of the association’s fixed costs. These costs would have to be made up by other members.”

In Durango, Mark Pearson sees a different equity issue. The director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an advocacy group, he says the tens of millions of dollars exported from the local economy to Craig and other coal-mining towns would be better kept at home. Of La Plata’s revenues, 67 percent goes to Tri-State for electrical production elsewhere.

“This is great for Craig to have this money raining down on their community, but we should have that money circulating in our community. If we can keep the money local, it’s better economically for us,” he says.

Taking the long view, DMEA director John Gavan sees community choice aggregation coming, where consumers will have the choice of many power suppliers.

Unlike electrical generation even today, he foresees changes driven from the grassroots that pose questions about Tri-State’s one-member, one-vote setup. He contends smaller co-ops have been more easily influenced by the expertise of Tri-State’s coal-minded officials. “Tri-State is a Senate without a House of Representatives,” he says.

Both Pearson and Gavan see resistance to change being the fundamental issue. “It’s just hard for the old guard to change as quickly as the world is changing, to realize that coal is no longer the lowest cost fuel,” says Pearson.

ABOUT ALLEN BEST

Allen Best writes about energy, water and other topics from a base in metropolitan Denver. He began writing about energy, the climate, and their relationship in 2005. He can be found at http://mountaintownnews.net

Watershed group’s study confirms high arsenic levels in Uncompahgre River

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

From email from the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (Tanya Ishikawa):

Watershed group’s study confirms high arsenic levels in Uncompahgre River
Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership releases sediment release study results

RIDGWAY, COLO.– A recently released study by the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP) confirmed that arsenic levels in the Uncompahgre River in Ouray County continue to exceed state water quality standards for human health. Though not a direct source of drinking water for homes and businesses in Ouray, Ridgway, Loghill and other downstream neighborhoods, the river is used for agriculture and recreation and may be connected to underground sources that feed nearby wells.

UWP Board Member Dennis Murphy, who volunteered on the study, will make a presentation of the report’s findings to the Ouray County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Jan. 30. The nonprofit watershed group has secured $1,000 from the county and $500 from Ridgway to partially fund a followup hydrodam sediment release study, and has discussed the possibility of collaborating with the county on a study of well water on properties along the Uncompahgre River between Ouray and Ridgway.

The Uncompahgre River is known to have relatively high concentrations of several heavy metals such as manganese, aluminum and iron, since it has many tributaries that pass through both naturally high mineral content in the mountains as well as minerals exposed by past mining activity. The water flowing through the river between Red Mountain Pass and Ridgway Reservoir turns various shades of green, yellow and orange at different times throughout the year, due to human-caused and natural events that increase the flows of heavy metals.

For years, the Ouray County government has fielded calls from concerned people when the river’s color was brightest. One annual event that elicits such a public response is the sluicing of the Ouray Hydrodam, when a gate at the bottom of the dam is opened to release sediment from the reservoir. The sediment flows into and builds up in the reservoir each year, and must be released to improve operations. This release, usually once a year, sends an orange plume down the river.

“The hydrodam has a storage capacity of less than one acre-foot, which fills quickly with sediment and precipitated metals from the inflow. The annual sluice event releases accumulated sediment and metals in hours rather than slowly, over the period of a year,” said Murphy, a retired Bureau of Land Management hydrologist.

Some community members have wondered if the plume with its higher concentrations of metals has negative impacts on the Uncompahgre River. Last March, UWP studied the plume by taking water and sediment samples before, during and after the dam release at three locations along the river by a group of volunteers with hydrology expertise, led by UWP Project Manager Agnieszka Przeszlowska.

Analysis of the sampling data showed that the water and sediment released from the hydrodam raised water levels in the river for a short period. The stream flow in the Uncompahgre River near Ouray increased from 141 cfs (cubic feet per second) to 174 cfs for less than 30 minutes. Downstream near Ridgway, the streamflow peaked at 170 cfs for approximately three hours and 30 minutes, only 2 cfs higher from the 168 cfs peak the previous day.

During the release, measurements showed substantially raised total metal concentrations, including manganese, aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, nickel, selenium, silver, and zinc. All metal concentrations met aquatic life standards and most metals met human health standards, according to state water quality criteria.

However, both manganese and arsenic were at unsafe levels. The release is not suspected to be an original source of the manganese and arsenic concentrations, so UWP recommends additional study to better understand sources and concentrations within the watershed.

Manganese exceeded water safety standards before, during, and after the release at the sampling location below the dam, but attained levels within safety standards at the other two sampling locations at certain times around the release. No drinking water sources including wells are located near the dam, and the overall manganese concentrations were considered relatively benign.

However, the arsenic concentrations, which exceeded the human-health criterion before, during and after the sediment release at all three sampling locations, are considered more of a concern. “The EPA classifies arsenic as a Class A carcinogen, meaning it may pose the highest risk of cancer. This classification results in a very low human-health standard (0.02 microgram per liter of total arsenic),” according to the report produced for UWP by Ashley Bembenek and Julia Nave of Alpine Environmental Consultants in Crested Butte.

The arsenic concentrations are not new in the Uncompahgre River near Ouray and Ridgway, which have occasionally exceeded the human-health and raw water supply criteria in other measurements taken over the past 15 years.

The UWP study did not directly investigate the potential effect of the sediment release on public water supplies. The raw source waters for local utilities are all upstream from the Uncompahgre River and do not receive any flows from the releases. While those supplies would be unaffected by the sediment release, wells in the area may be affected. They were not studied in 2017, but plans are being considered to study them in 2018.

Murphy concluded, “This initial study was conducted under significant time, labor, and financial constraints, so did not provide as complete a picture as we had hoped. However, using what we learned from this study will be beneficial to better design future studies and monitor potential water quality issues in the Upper Uncompahgre Valley. As an example, the metal arsenic, a class A carcinogen, shows to be elevated at times in the Uncompahgre River. Sampling the water quality of domestic wells in the valley bottom, that may be pumping water connected to the river, might expose some potential health issues previously undetected.”

As far as the health impacts of arsenic on recreational users of the Uncompahgre River, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment put out an advisory after the 2015 Gold King Mine spill into the Animas River, stating that it “does not anticipate adverse health effects from exposure to contaminants detected in the sediment during typical recreational activities or through incidental contact with the sediment.”

The CDPHE recommends prudent public health practices when coming into contact with sediment and surface water containing heavy metals: 1. Don’t drink untreated water from the river. 2. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after contact. 3. Avoid contact in areas where there is visible discoloration in sediment or river water. 4. Wash clothes after contact. 5. Supervise young children to make sure they follow these recommendations.

The full report on the Ouray Hydrodam Sediment Release is available online at: http://www.uncompahgrewatershed.org/2017-hydrodam-sediment-release-study-report/

Aspinall Unit operations update: Gunnison Tunnel diverting for the season

Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit have been increasing over the last couple weeks as diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel have begun. So far these release changes have kept the flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon around 630 cfs. Diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are expected to increase again this week. This time releases from Crystal Dam will remain unchanged and Gunnison River flows will decrease accordingly. It is expected that river flows will decrease by 100-200 cfs this week. Currently snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is at 72% of normal. The latest runoff volume forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir projects 360,000 AF of inflow between April and July, which is 53% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for April and May.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 620 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 630 cfs. By the end of the week Gunnison Tunnel diversions could be in the 700 to 800 cfs range and river flows could be in the 400 to 500 cfs range. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Investment firms buy ag land within the boundaries of the #ColoradoRiver District

Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The [Colorado River District], which includes Mesa County and 14 other counties and focuses on the protection, conservation, use and development of Colorado River water in western Colorado, long has been concerned about protecting the region’s agricultural sector. Now district staff are worried about a potential new threat to it, from investment companies buying water rights possibly as a speculative investment, and looking to profit later in deals that could lead to some local agricultural land no longer being irrigated and reverting to desert.

For the river district, the concern is keeping the Western Slope from eventually seeing the kind of widespread drying up of agricultural lands and withering of local farming and ranching economies that has occurred in areas of eastern Colorado over the decades as municipalities have bought up water rights.

District general counsel Peter Fleming addressed some of the acquisitions and their potentially speculative nature in a January memo to the board of the river district.

“For example, a New York hedge fund called Water Asset Management (through one of its many subsidiaries) acquired a 330-acre farm within the Grand Valley Project in mid-September 2017. While not a huge farm, that size is among the larger-sized parcels within the Grand Valley Project,” Fleming wrote in his memo, referring to the local Bureau of Reclamation irrigation project.

He told the board the farm’s associated historical consumption depends on numerous factors but could be about 840 acre-feet a year. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.

That New York City company paid $3.83 million to Gary and Christi Flynn to acquire the farm located along 18 Road, well-known as the main access road to popular mountain bike trails on nearby federal lands.

In his memo, Fleming also cited a purchase by Boulder-based real estate investment and management company Conscience Bay Co. of western Colorado, including the 1,450-acre Harts Basin Ranch near Cedaredge in Delta County.

“To our knowledge, the properties continue to be operated as they have historically and there are no current plans to change the associated water rights or move the water off the land,” Fleming wrote. “However, it is clear that increasing water demands, reduced supply, and the potential risk of compact curtailment have put a more direct focus on West Slope irrigated agriculture. Stated another way, reality has caught up with our historical paranoia about the acquisition and potential dry-up of West Slope agricultural rights for speculative purposes.”

[…]

“While speculation in land and water rights is nothing new, the recent acquisitions appear to be keyed-in on acquisition of pre-compact water rights to hold for the present time but sell to the highest bidder during compact-curtailment/administration,” Fleming wrote.

Fleming said in an interview that in Colorado, senior, primarily agricultural water rights would have priority in the case of curtailment. That makes those water rights attractive to water users with junior rights, such as Front Range municipalities, which might be able to continue diversions under junior rights under a compact curtailment while sending water associated with a senior right downstream to make up for it.

Another concern for the river district is the prospect of financial agreements being made where the water isn’t used for irrigation but instead flows out of state, perhaps to be stored in Lake Powell and held in a buyer’s account should something such as a drought or compact curtailment occur.

DISTRICT, COMPANIES TALKING

Perhaps contributing to the river district’s concern is the fact that Water Asset Management’s website indicates that the investment vehicle it used in the Fruita acquisition primarily acquires water resources at agricultural value, with the intention of later reselling those resources to higher-value municipal, industrial and environmental consumers.

Water Asset Management didn’t return calls for comment for this story, and the Flynns declined to comment.

Conscience Bay representatives plan to meet with river district officials this month.

“I do think that we will be able to satisfy them that we’re not a threat. In fact, we’re going to be a partner with them in trying to help solve water problems,” said Eli Feldman, the company’s president.

Conscience Bay paid nearly $8 million last year to acquire not just the 1,450-acre ranch Fleming referred to in Fleming’s memo, but also adjacent acreage that resulted in a ranch 3,200 acres in size. Conscience Bay also has owned a 600-acre ranch in the Steamboat Springs area for about a decade, besides having commercial property investments.

“We’ve never sold any water to anybody,” Feldman said. “We’ve never done any (water) transfers of any nature, really.”

He said water is only a secondary interest for the company’s agricultural investments.

“Our primary interest in these ranches is their agricultural value and long-term food production,” he said.

He said the people at Conscience Bay are long-term investors, and the long-term appreciation of ranchland and farmland combined with the return on investment from ranching makes it a competitive investment compared to other options out there.

The river district’s new general manager, Andy Mueller, said the district is looking forward to its upcoming meeting with Conscience Bay representatives. He said district officials recently “had a good discussion” with representatives of Water Asset Management.

“I can say that they are actively acquiring properties in the Grand Valley,” Mueller said. “They also say they are primarily interested in them as working agricultural assets.”

He said the company expressed interest in participating in a voluntary, compensated temporary fallowing program.

Feldman said Conscience Bay likewise is interested in exploring things such as temporary fallowing that could free up some water for municipal, fishery, environmental or other uses. He believes such programs would provide agricultural operators some valuable income, especially in dry years when farming might be that much tougher. In times when agricultural commodity prices are low, it could help preserve ag land that might otherwise be subject to buying and drying to meet municipal needs.

“If you can add a new source of revenue for that (agricultural) community I think it would be fantastic and allow them to really hold out for the long haul,” Feldman said.

Fleming said it’s important that any such approach occur in a limited, measured way that protects collateral local economic interests such as sellers of fertilizer, trucks and farm implements, and that lands aren’t taken out of production for good.

For now, Mueller noted, while fallowing programs are being explored, none is in place on a permanent basis in the region.

“We want to make sure that (investment companies) have the information that indicates that the legal structure to engage in those kinds of behaviors does not exist today and it may not exist in the future, but it’s being studied,” he said.

He said the river district hopes to continue to be engaged with companies like Water Asset Management and Conscience Bay and emphasize the priority the district places on Western Slope agriculture.

“Frankly, we would like to study their financial models and their methods of operation to verify that the goal is really the long-term preservation of our agricultural communities,” he said.

He said the district is hoping to understand what makes the properties being acquired appear to be good investments from a water standpoint. He said a concern is that “investors who are not agricultural producers themselves may drive an economic model that would require a higher or faster return than a very limited fallowing program that may exist.”

WATER TIED TO LAND

Meanwhile, there’s a question as to what degree water investors could engage in activities such as being paid to let their water head downstream. Physically, Grand Valley water not consumed could flow across the state line, Mueller said.

“The question is, legally, does that model work? There are lots of reasons why it probably does not. That’s something that we’re looking at very closely,” he said.

Lots of considerations come into play, from local ditch company rules to state water law, under which not using the water could lead to potential abandonment of water rights, something the river district also doesn’t want to see happen, Mueller said.

Mesa County Commissioner John Justman said that if the buyers of the Flynn farm want to try to sell the water for use somewhere else, they face the fact that Grand Valley Project water rights stay with the land and can’t be sold separately.

“I don’t know that they did their homework,” Justman said.

Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which operates part of the Grand Valley Project, said that while Grand Valley Project water rights can’t be sold apart from the land, the river district is nevertheless raising fair questions about things such as what latitude people might have to make deals involving not using water and letting it run downstream.

“We’re encouraged and are pleased that the river district is looking at this issue,” he said.

The users association has been involved with the river district and other entities in a pilot program to evaluate temporary, voluntary, financially compensated fallowing by farmers as a means of helping bank water in reservoirs in case of drought. Proponents want to ensure that if such an approach is pursued on a longer term, other forms of water conservation also are pursued that target other water users besides agriculture.

Harris said the users association is “certainly interested, in the face of increasing drought, in the pressure that’s going to be put on agricultural water throughout the West.”

He said any consideration of water demand management in an agricultural environment is something to which the association has to pay attention.

“People are trying to think about the future, knowing that it’s not going to look like the past and that some of the solutions we’ve looked at in the past aren’t going to fix the future,” Harris said.

More about Conscience Bay Co. from Dennis Webb writing in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

The company last year bought the 1,450-acre Harts Basin Ranch south of Cedaredge, prompting the river district to wonder whether the purchase’s purpose was speculative, with the possible motive of looking to later profit on the ranch’s water rights in a manner that could mean drying up of agricultural land.

Feldman says the district need not be concerned (see main story) and that the principal reason for the investment is ranching.

Conscience Bay also bought additional adjacent acreage, resulting in a combined ranch size of 3,200 acres. Feldman said the ranch includes about 1,000 cows, and the company also has federal grazing permits in Colorado and Utah. Some six to 10 people run the ranch, which also includes a haying operation. Mark and Poly Hill, who have a ranching background in Grand County, are in charge of the ranch.

Conscience Bay is interested in joining in the discussion with the river district and others about concepts such as temporary fallowing to make water available for other needs in times such as droughts while keeping agricultural land from being permanently dried up. Feldman said his company has a strong conservation ethic. He now serves on the board of directors of the Western Resource Advocates conservation group, where he once worked, and he also enjoys outdoor activities like fishing and backcountry skiing.

Mike Higuera, who oversees the company’s investments in agricultural lands and its conservation work, previously was involved in land acquisition and conservation easement transactions for the Nature Conservancy.

The company is a Certified B Corporation, a certification that Higuera said is for companies that work to do good things for society beyond making a profit. The certification focuses on things such as how companies treat employees and give back to the community in ways such as charitable contributions.

The company is inviting the public to a meet-and-greet lunch at its recently acquired ranchland on March 17 in conjunction with Eckert Crane Days at Fruit Growers Reservoir, which is adjacent to the ranch. Directions to the ranch will be provided at the Black Canyon Audubon Society table at the festival.

Paonia Reservoir dramatic example of widespread water infrastructure needs — Hannah Holm

Paonia Reservoir

From the Hutchins Water Center (Hannah Holm) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

In the fall of 2017, workers navigated sloppy mudflats in the bottom of the drained Paonia Reservoir in an urgent effort to prevent catastrophe: a damaged bulkhead threatened to break apart and damage the Paonia Dam’s outlet works, which would have made it impossible to control releases from the reservoir. This would have made the reservoir useless for delivering irrigation water and for flood control.

A temporary fix for the bulkhead problem was completed within budget and ahead of schedule, but reservoir managers still face longer-term challenges with managing sediment and keeping the reservoir functioning to sustain North Fork Valley agriculture over the long term. Related challenges are shared by many other water managers in western Colorado as they try to maintain aging infrastructure and respond to changing social values related to water management.

The completion of the Paonia Dam in 1962 enabled the continued growth of agriculture in the North Fork Valley. A beneficial micro-climate makes the valley well-suited for high-value fruit orchards — as long as there is sufficient water. Prior to the construction of the dam, many crops failed due to demand outstripping the supply of irrigation water in late summer. The dam currently provides water to irrigate approximately 15,300 acres of land.

When the dam was constructed, on the aptly-named Muddy Creek, it had a 50-year “sediment design life.” The designers expected the reservoir to fill with mud and become inoperable before now. Current constraints on what to do next weren’t anticipated, however. We are no longer in an era where new reservoirs can easily be constructed to replace old ones. Even fixing up old ones is complicated by legal constraints that didn’t exist in 1962, such as the need to ensure that the work does not have significant negative impacts on environmental, recreational or cultural resources.

The question of what to do next, within current constraints, can’t be avoided much longer. The mud has come close to overwhelming the intake structure that controls releases to the stream below the dam and has reduced the reservoir’s active storage capacity from 18,150 acre-feet to about 15,000 acre-feet.

The total volume of mud is staggering: the creek has been depositing an average of over 100 acre-feet/year of sediment to the reservoir since its construction in 1962. That’s about one football field buried 100 feet deep accumulating every year — a lot more than a whole convoy of dump trucks could haul off and sell as topsoil.

Intake structure during construction in 1961. Photo Credit Reclamation.

In recent years, the dam has been operated to pass a higher amount of sediment downstream, but the net inflow is still higher than the outflow. Finding a way to turn that around will require design changes to the dam outlet works and operations and careful assessment of potential impacts downstream of different release scenarios.

While streams below dams have often been described as “sediment starved,” with long-term, negative impacts to channel structure and aquatic habitat, too much sediment at once or at the wrong time can negatively impact the bugs at the bottom of the food chain and ruin fish spawning habitat.

These are tricky challenges, which Bureau of Reclamation staff are wrestling with now. And whatever fix is found is unlikely to be cheap. Doing nothing is not really an option, however, either for the agricultural life of the North Fork Valley or, in the long term, for the environmental health of the stream.

The same can be said for many of our aging dams, diversion structures and canals across western Colorado. Some of these are decades older than Paonia Dam. Examples include ailing dams on the Grand Mesa, leaking ditches, and inadequate control structures.

Numerous projects to address these problems are included in the basin implementation plans developed by basin roundtables of water managers and stakeholders in 2015 as part of a statewide water planning process. However, funding to implement such projects in the future has come into question as state severance taxes on oil and gas development, which have long provided funding for water projects in Colorado, have diminished substantially.

As this year’s dry winter underscores how tenuous our water supplies can be, it is worth the effort to carefully assess all the water infrastructure we rely on and determine how we can maintain it and improve it to optimize the benefits from every inch of snowpack we get.

Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles on water issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.