George Sibley resigns from Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District — The Gunnison Country Times #GunnisonRiver

“My name is George, and I’m a recovering writer.”
Credit: George Sibley via his Facebook page.

From the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District (Sonja Chavez) via The Gunnison Country Times:

Board loses esteemed water leader

After 14 years of service at the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, George Sibley stepped down from the district’s board earlier this month.

Sibley, 79, cited his health and age as the reasons for his decision. Upper Gunnison General Manager Sonja Chaves and Board President Michelle Piece received a letter from Sibley on Feb. 9 notifying them that his resignation was effective immediately.

“I’ve got some stress-related health issues, nothing very serious, but I’m also almost 80; it was just time to cut back on some of my involvements, and make sure I get some other personal things done I’m working on,” Sibley said Tuesday.

Chavez said Sibley and his persistence in asking difficult questions will be missed at the Upper Gunnison.

“George has so much historical and institutional knowledge of water issues on the Westerm Slope,” Chavez said. “I didn’t always agree with George, but I appreciate that he pushed those difficult conversations!’

Sibley was the Upper Gunnison’s board secretary and served on a handful of committees at the time of his resignation.

The Upper Gunnison’s Board of Directors formally thanked Sibley by passing a resolution acknowledging his service. The resolution notes Sibley’s decades of writing about water, including “Water Wranglers,” which was published in 2012 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Colorado River District, as well as his role in organizing the Colorado Water Workshop, one of the premiere meetings of water policymakers in the Western U.S.

“We will miss him dearly,” said Upper Gunnison board Vice President Stacy McPhail during the board’s meeting Tuesday.

Board member John Perusek fills Sibley’s role as secretary. The Upper Gunnison will advertise the vacancy for 45 days ahead of the Upper Gunnison’s June 28 annual meeting. Applicants will need to be residents of the City of Gunnison since Sibley represented the city’s district on the board. Applicant letters will be forwarded to Seventh Judicial District Judge Steven Patrick. In accordance with the Upper Gunnison’s founding statute, Patrick will make the appointment decision.

Aspinall Unit Forecast for Operations, February 19, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Demand Management reviewed at @CWCB_DNR board meeting — The Delta County Independent #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Gunnison River in Colorado. Source: Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation

From the Colorado Water Conservation Board via The Delta County Independent:

During the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) meeting on Jan. 25, an update on the current and ongoing Demand Management Feasibility Investigation was presented, including reiteration of the state’s guiding principles and the first steps of potential framework concepts for what a program could look like.

“The Demand Management Investigation remains an open, collaborative process, as we continue conversations with the Interbasin Compact Committee, Tribal Nations, non-governmental organizations, and stakeholders across the state,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell. “The big question is, can we design a program that creates a net benefit for Colorado and protects Colorado water users?”

The Step II Work Plan, which was approved in November 2020, aims to use information developed throughout the course of work done pursuant to the previous 2019 Work Plan to analyze whether a Demand Management program would be achievable, worthwhile, and advisable for Colorado as a whole.

The guiding principles articulated at the board meeting include: Demand Management is not a foregone conclusion; The framework is not a program, but a point for discussion; Issues are explored in an open and collaborative manner including engagement with Tribal Nations; and a program would be run by the state for the benefit of the whole state and its water users.

As part of the Step II Work Plan, CWCB will develop strawman concepts based on a matrix of elements, which were identified by each of the eight workgroups last year.

At the board meeting, staff presented on elements for monitoring and verification; education and outreach; and environmental considerations areas. These were presented as examples, as staff develops content relating to the other subject areas.

While no large-scale pilot programs will be implemented at this time, CWCB will soon begin looking at opportunities to use existing programs and funding sources to conduct smaller-scale demonstration projects that might help with on-the-ground learning. CWCB will also work to incorporate existing and ongoing projects and information into the framework.

A CWCB workshop will be scheduled in the near future to provide the next update on the feasibility analysis. The date and time of this virtual event will be added to the CWCB calendar.

#Colorado West Land Trust announces conservation of 1,200 acre ranch — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel

Meek Ranch. Photo credit: Shaffer Real Estate

From the Colorado West Land Trust via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

Meek Ranch, which covers more than 1,200 acres along the West Elk Scenic and Historic Byway, has been conserved by the Colorado West Land Trust, it announced Monday.

The ranch is located on the western slope of the West Elk mountain range and includes pasture land for cattle, as well as mountain shrublands and woodland and more than two miles of riparian habitat.

This conservation will ensure the large open spaces, ranchland and habitat will never be developed in the future.

Owners Roy and Sandy McLaughlin purchased the property in 2014 and graze livestock on it, which is how it has been managed for more than a century. The McLaughlins have worked to improve the land.

“The Meek family started ranching this land in 1915,” Sandy McLaughlin said in a statement. “To continue their legacy, we try to enhance the unique natural qualities that exist here—things like fertilizing fields and reopening old ditches to channel spring water to dry areas of land.”

The ranch is surrounded by privately owned open space and National Forest land that connects to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to the southwest.

Funding for the project was provided by Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“We are grateful to the McLaughlin family and our friends at Colorado West Land Trust for ensuring the permanent protection of a property that so immensely benefits Colorado’s wildlife and people,” GOCO Executive Director Chris Castilian said in a statement.

The Meek Ranch property and surrounding area provides forage, cover, breeding grounds and migration corridors for a diversity of wildlife, including big game species.

This project is part of Colorado West Land Trust’s work to conserve the natural and agricultural land in the area of the West Elk Scenic and Historic Byway.

To date it has protected nearly 9,500 acres of ranch land in that area.

“We greatly appreciate the efforts of landowners like the McLaughlins, who choose to conserve their properties so future generations can have places to farm and ranch long term,” Colorado West Land Trust Director of Conservation Ilana Moir said in a statement. “It has been a pleasure working with Sandy and Roy, and we look forward to our continued connection with them as they ranch and care for their property.”

“Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today” (Dave Kanzer) — The #Colorado Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Gunnison River Basin snowpack January 25, 2021 via the NRCS Colorado Snow Survey.

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

The Bureau of Reclamation’s dire projections for Colorado River Basin reservoirs for the first time triggers drought contingency planning across seven basin states.

The dry 2020 and the lack of snow this season has water managers in seven states preparing for the first time for cutbacks outlined in drought contingency plans drafted two years ago.

A sobering forecast released this week by the Bureau of Reclamation shows the federally owned Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the nation’s two largest reservoirs and critical storage for Colorado River water and its 40 million users — dipping near-record-low levels. If those levels continue dropping as expected, long-negotiated agreements reached by the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 will go into effect, with water deliveries curtailed to prevent the federal government from stepping in and making hard water cuts.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s quarterly report was dire, showing Lake Powell at 42% of capacity and downriver’s Lake Mead at 40% capacity. And there’s not much water coming.

“Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, presenting the bureau’s latest forecasts to the district’s board last week.

The bureau’s January report showed the impacts of a warming, drying climate peaking last year. The period from April to December was among the driest stretches ever recorded in the Southwest, with current conditions mirroring 2002, 2012, 2013 and 2018, four of the five driest years recorded in the Colorado River Basin. The bureau forecasts three scenarios for the next 24 months. Those three projections detail a most probable result, a best-case scenario and a worst-case situation.

Snowpack conditions right now in the mountains that feed the Colorado River and eventually fill Lake Powell are perilously close to the worst-case scenario. The bureau report shows the 2021 inflow into Lake Powell most likely will land around 53% of normal, but could end up as bad as 33% of normal.

The bureau expects the Utah reservoir will finish 2021 at 35% of capacity. If things get worse and follow that worst-case projection, the water level at Lake Powell could drop below a critical level — 3,525 feet above sea level — in early 2022 and that would threaten the ability of Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity…

The “bathtub ring” at Lake Powell evidences lower flows coming into the reservoir. According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the total inflow into Lake Powell for the 2020 water year was about 6 million acre-feet, just 55% of average. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

If the reservoir falls below that 3,525-foot elevation level, the Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to deliver hydro-electricity to more than 3 million customers and the federal government could lose as much as $150 million a year in revenue from selling that electricity. Any projection that the reservoir is headed toward that critical threshold gets water managers in all seven basin states ready for drought-response operations that spread the pain of water cuts across every region of the Colorado River Basin.

Jim Lochhead has helmed Denver Water for half of this prolonged drought. He’s seen good years like 2011 — really the last decent year for water in Colorado — and bad years, like 2013…

But with the lack of snow this season and snowpack in all but one of the state’s seven major river basins below median levels, Lochhead said he is “certainly very concerned about the supply outlook.”

[…]

Kanzer, in his report to the Colorado River district board last week, said soil conditions are very dry across Western Colorado. So the state can’t blizzard itself out of this drought hole.

“Even if we did get a good spring we would not get much benefit because all of the moisture would go into the soil and not run off,” Kanzer said.

State of Colorado Files Lawsuit Against U.S. BLM to Invalidate Uncompahgre Resource Management Plan

Uncompahgre Plateau

Here’s the release from Governor Polis’ office (Chris Arend):

The State of Colorado, through the Department of Natural Resources, filed a complaint today in Colorado federal court challenging the approval of the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Uncompahgre Field Office. The Uncompahgre RMP, finalized in April 2020, governs mineral extraction and other land use activities on federal lands spanning five counties in southwestern Colorado. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) protested the proposed RMP in July 2019, and Governor Polis also submitted inconsistencies between the RMP and state policies, but those concerns were dismissed by the BLM in the final plan.

The State’s complaint details how William Perry Pendley, a BLM deputy director, violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA) when he improperly exercised the authority to resolve DNR’s protest while unlawfully occupying the role of the agency’s acting director. Resolving such protests is a responsibility reserved exclusively to the Secretary of Interior, a U.S. Senate-approved BLM Director, or a legitimate acting director nominated by the President.

Mr. Pendley’s appointment by Secretary David Bernhardt was never reviewed by the U.S. Senate and had extended beyond the legal 90-day limit for temporary officials at the time when the plan was finalized. Colorado’s lawsuit follows a recent ruling in a federal lawsuit in Montana that invalidated two RMPs and an RMP amendment that were approved based on a similar unlawful protest resolution by Mr. Pendley.

“The unfortunate fact is that if the Trump Administration had followed the law in appointing a Senate-confirmed nominee to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Colorado and other western states would not be in this predicament,” said Governor Jared Polis. “It is now Colorado communities and the State of Colorado who face unnecessary uncertainty and potential impacts to local recreation and outdoor industry jobs.”

“The Department of Natural Resources raised legitimate concerns in its protest that the final Uncompahgre RMP runs counter to Colorado’s goals to protect sensitive habitat for big game species and other wildlife, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The complaint provides facts demonstrating that these concerns were not addressed appropriately, and the approval of the plan by Pendley’s BLM was invalid. We are hopeful that the uncertainty caused by the questionable appointment can be clarified by the court so that Western Slope and Southwest Colorado communities can reliably plan for the future.”

Attorney General Phil Weiser said: “In Colorado, our public lands are critical to our quality of life and economy. Over the years, the Bureau of Land Management has taken a series of illegal actions in developing the resource management plan that harms and conflicts with our state’s policies. We are bringing this lawsuit to address those harms and safeguard public lands and wildlife in Colorado.”

A copy of the filed complaint can be found here.

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

The state’s argument that Pendley, the BLM’s “acting director,” did not have the authority to approve anything mirrors a federal case in Montana that overturned three resource-management plans.

Gov. Jared Polis didn’t like the Bureau of Land Management’s long-range management plan for the Uncompahgre Plateau, saying the expansion of oil drilling in the region did not jibe with state laws and regulations protecting water, air, wildlife and recreation.

And because the agency did not resolve those issues in its Resource Management Plan, Polis on Friday sued the BLM, as well as agency bureaucrat William Perry Pendley and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, asking a federal judge to overturn the Resource Management Plan (or RMP) for nearly 680,000 acres of federal land in western Colorado.

The state is following the lead of Montana, arguing not just that the management plan conflicts with state laws, but that Pendley, who was never formally approved by the U.S. Senate as director of the BLM, did not have the authority to approve the RMP in April.

“The unfortunate fact is that if the Trump Administration had followed the law in appointing a Senate-confirmed nominee to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Colorado and other western states would not be in this predicament,” said Polis in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “It is now Colorado communities and the state of Colorado who face unnecessary uncertainty and potential impacts to local recreation and outdoor industry jobs.”

The final plan approved by Pendley was the first resource management plan approved under the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” agenda to bolster domestic oil, gas and coal industries. It did not limit drilling in the North Fork Valley and expanded energy development across 675,800 acres of land and 971,200 acres of mineral estate in Montrose, Gunnison, Ouray, Mesa, Delta and San Miguel counties. And it did not weigh the state’s concerns about energy projects potentially injuring wildlife, habitat and air quality.

The preferred plan that was on track in the fall of 2019 — crafted after many years of BLM meetings and work with local communities — was replaced by a new Trump Administration alternative in the spring of 2020 that identified energy and mineral development as key planning issues alongside reducing regulatory burdens for extractive industries and economic development. The BLM said the plan would contribute $2.5 billion in economic activity to the region and support 950 jobs a year for the next two decades.

Earlier this month the BLM approved two oil and gas drilling projects in the North Fork Valley that allow up to 226 wells.

Colorado’s lawsuit, being handled by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, says the plan’s conflicts with state laws were never resolved, so the approval should be overturned.

Aspinall Unit operations update #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #GunnisonRiver

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

#Climate’s toll on the #ColoradoRiver: ‘We can weather maybe a couple of years’ — AZCentral #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click here to read Ian James’ fantastic article about the current state of the Colorado River from stem to stern that’s running up at AZCentral.com. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

The warming climate is intensifying drought, contributing to fires and drying out the river’s headwaters, sending consequences cascading downstream.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colorado — Beside a river that winds through a mountain valley, the charred trunks of pine trees lie toppled on the blackened ground, covered in a thin layer of fresh snow.

Weeks after flames ripped through this alpine forest, a smoky odor still lingers in the air.

The fire, called the East Troublesome, burned later into the fall than what once was normal. It cut across Rocky Mountain National Park, racing up and over the Continental Divide. It raged in the headwaters of the Colorado River, reducing thick forests to ashes and scorching the ground along the river’s banks.

The fires in Colorado spread ferociously through the summer and fall of 2020 after months of extreme heat that worsened the severe drought.

As smoke billowed over the headwaters, the wildfires raised warning signs of how profoundly climate change is altering the watershed, and how the symptoms of heat-driven drying are cascading down the heavily used river — with stark implications for the entire region, from Colorado’s ranchland pastures to the suburbs of Phoenix…

Over the past year, the relentless hot, dry months from the spring to the first snows left the soil parched. The amount of runoff into streams and the river dropped far below average. With reservoirs sinking toward new lows, the risks of shortages are growing.

Much of the river’s flow begins as snow and rainfall in the territory of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which includes 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope. Andy Mueller, the district’s general manager, said the extreme conditions over the past year offer a preview of what the region should prepare for in the future.

“Climate change is drying out the headwaters,” Mueller said. “And everybody in the Colorado River Basin needs to be concerned.”

Mueller saw the effects while backpacking in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness in the summer with his 19-year-old daughter. Above the tree line, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, they expected to see mushy green tundra. Instead, they found the ground was bone dry…

People who focus on the river have widely acknowledged the need to adjust to a shrinking system with less water to go around.

Many suggest solutions can be achieved through collaborative efforts — often with money changing hands in exchange for water — while working within the existing rules. Others say solutions shouldn’t fall on the backs of farming communities by taking away water that fuels their economies. Some people argue the river seems headed for a crash and its rules need to be fundamentally reimagined…

The deals between the seven states are designed to temporarily lower the odds of Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropping to critical lows over the next five years. The states’ representatives have yet to wade into the details of negotiations on what shortage-sharing rules will look like after 2026, when the current agreements expire.

Still unresolved are difficult questions about how to deal with the shortfall over the long term.

What’s increasingly clear is that the status-quo methods of managing the river are on a collision course with worsening scarcity, and that eventually something will have to give…

Watershed ‘thirstier’ with heat

Last winter, after a dry year, the Rocky Mountains were blanketed with a snowpack that was slightly above average. Then came extremely hot and dry conditions, which shrank the amount of runoff and flows into tributaries and again baked the soils dry.

[Andy] Mueller said the change occurred abruptly at the end of the snow season in the spring…

With the heat, some of the snow didn’t melt but instead evaporated directly into the air, which scientists call sublimation — something that has been happening more over the past two decades. The flows in streams dropped over the next few months, and then August brought record heat, which dried out the headwaters and fueled the fires through the fall…

In a 2018 study, scientists found that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the Upper Colorado River Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming. In other research, scientists estimated the river is so sensitive to warming that it could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise…

“A warmer atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere, and we’re seeing less runoff bang for our precipitation buck,” said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher in Colorado. “We’ll still have wetter and drier years, but the baseline is very likely to be shifting downward, as it has in the last 20 years.”

And when extreme heat comes, it leaves less water running in tributaries and also translates into drier forests, leading to increased fire risk.

The soils were so dry over the past year that they soaked up moisture, contributing to below-average stream flows, said Megan Holcomb, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“You can think of it as like the dry sponge that you haven’t wetted in forever,” Holcomb said. “That kind of soil moisture deficit is not something that you rebound from immediately.”

Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, shows the effects of persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

After the hot spring came a dry summer. The lack of monsoon rains compounded the drought. And then came August, Holcomb said, when a map of record-hot temperatures hugged the Colorado River Basin like a “massive red handprint.”

In areas of western Colorado that drain into the river, it was the hottest and driest August on record, breaking the previous temperature record by 2 degrees F, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center.

The state usually gets its largest wildfires in June and July. But with the severe drought, the fires burned through August, and then exploded in October with unprecedented speed and intensity. The ultradry conditions, together with high winds, contributed to the three largest wildfires in Colorado history, which together devoured more than half a million acres.

In the future, rising temperatures will lead to more of these scorching summers.

Abby Burk of the conservation group Audubon Rockies noticed how low the river was in the summer when she went paddling in her kayak. In parts where the river was full and muddy a year earlier, she found bars of gravel. Where there once were channels to paddle through, she encountered dead-end lagoons.

In November, when Burk drove through the headwaters near the smoldering fires, she snapped photos of the hills and mountains, still golden-brown beneath a dusting of snow.

When the soil is so parched, it will always “take the first drink” before water reaches the streams, Burk said. “We need a lot more snow for many years to come to really replenish the soil moisture deficits that we’re seeing now.”

The fire scars will also bring challenges come spring, she said, when melting snow will send runoff carrying ash, debris and sediment into streams, potentially creating complications for water systems.

Burk said she’s hoping there will be a slow melt so the runoff comes gradually, without “bringing down the mountain into the river.”

Rancher and fly-fishing guide Paul Bruchez raises cattle on 6,000 acres near Kremmling. Bruchez has taken an active role in Colorado River issues ever since his family suffered from a critical water shortage during the 2002 drought. Photo credit: Russ Schnitzer via Aspen Journalism

A rancher looks to adapt

Paul Bruchez raises cattle on his family’s ranch in the headwaters near the town of Kremmling, where the Colorado River winds through pastures…

Bruchez has been involved in discussions about the river as a member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. And while he’s heard many people voice alarm about the watershed lately, Bruchez said he and other neighboring ranchers have been talking about the need to adapt to a river with less water since 2002, when severe drought came.

The flows dropped so low then that even ranchers with the longest-standing water rights, known as senior rights, couldn’t get it to their fields.

“Within this river basin, we have seen a change over time of the quantity and volume of water that is available. And in that same time, we’ve seen a growth of population that relies on it,” Bruchez said. “We knew this in 2002 when we hit that drought, that if we didn’t change how we operated, we weren’t going to survive.”

Since then, Bruchez and other ranchers have been talking about ideas for adapting…

The closer the region gets to a scenario of curtailing water allotments, Bruchez said, the more investors and representatives of cities and towns are going to be contemplating ways of securing water from elsewhere.

For people in agriculture, he said, “we need to be at the table or we’re going to be on the menu.”

[…]

Blue Mesa Reservoir, Curecanti National Recreation Area. Photo credit: Victoria Stauffenberg via Wikimedian Commons

‘It affects everybody’

One of the main tributaries that feeds the Colorado is the Gunnison River, which like the mainstem has shrunk during the heat-amplified drought. Along the Gunnison, cattle ranchers got less water last year and their pastures produced less hay.

The river’s low flows also forced an early end to the river rafting season on Labor Day weekend. After that, releases from a dam had to be cut back and the Gunnison was left much shallower than usual, with rocks protruding in stretches where boats would normally be drifting until the end of September.

Sonja Chavez via Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

The river has dropped to some of its lowest levels in years, said Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

The effects are visible at Blue Mesa Reservoir, one of the state’s largest, which has declined to less than half its full capacity.

Visiting the lake, Chavez walked on sandy ground that used to sit underwater.

Looking across the inlet where the river pours into the lake, she pointed to a gray line on the rock showing the high-water mark. During spring runoff, she said, the river in this channel can reach about 20 feet higher. But with the soil so parched, its level dropped.

“When we are dry in the Upper Gunnison Basin, it affects everybody downstream of us,” Chavez said. And the swings between high and low flows, she said, have made it difficult to plan how to operate the reservoirs…

In the Gunnison Valley, a local climate action group meets to talk about potential solutions. Some conversations have focused on how to manage forests that have grown thick with vegetation over the past century as federal agencies have focused mostly on putting out fires.

While the forests have grown thicker, warmer temperatures have enabled beetles to flourish, littering the mountains with dead trees.

Chavez and others want to prioritize efforts to make the forests healthier and more fire-resilient by thinning the trees through logging, mechanical treatments or controlled burns, which they say would make the whole watershed healthier. She said the federal government needs to be more involved and the region needs funding for these projects.

“Our big push this year is to do some watershed management planning and work with the Forest Service to identify zones of concern, or areas that we can treat,” Chavez said. “We’re worried if we had a big fire what would happen.”

Alongside those efforts, water managers are discussing ways of dialing down water usage…

Ranchers, farmers consider using less

One lifelong rancher who had a smaller-than-usual hay crop was Bill Trampe, who has worked on water issues for years as a board member of the Colorado River District.

His cattle graze on meadows near Gunnison where the grasses survive year after year. He was short of water to irrigate after mid-June, which left the pastures parched.

Palisade is just east of Grand Junction and lies in a fertile valley between the Colorado River and Mt. Garfield which is the formation in the picture. They’ve grown wonderful peaches here for many years and have recently added grape vineyards such as the one in the picture. By inkknife_2000 (7.5 million views +) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/23155134@N06/15301560980/, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Over the past two decades, only a few years brought good snowpack, he said, and ranchers have repeatedly had to weather the financial hits of years when they must buy hay for their cattle…

‘We need to set the terms’

In other parts of the river basin, some representatives of agricultural water agencies are worried about the potential consequences of paying farmers to leave land dry.

One such voice is J.B. Hamby, a newly elected board member of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, who said he’s concerned that while cities and sprawling suburbs continue to grow rapidly, agricultural communities are increasingly at risk. He said people in cities need to realize there is a priority system that shouldn’t be changed…

Arizona gets nearly 40% of its water from the Colorado River. Much of it flows in the Central Arizona Project Canal, which cuts across the desert from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson.

In 2020, Arizona and Nevada took less water from the river under the drought agreement among Lower Basin states, and in 2021 they will again leave some of their water in Lake Mead. The latest projections show Mead could fall below a key threshold by summer, which would trigger a shortage declaration and larger cutbacks in 2022…

Now, with less water flowing to farms, the amount of runoff into the Salton Sea has shrunk, leaving growing stretches of exposed lakebed that spew dust into the air. The dust is contributing to some of the worst air pollution in the country, and many children suffer from asthma.

Hamby said the Imperial Valley would have been better off without the water transfer deal. Looking at the proposed approach in Colorado, Hamby said, it seems to replicate what occurred in Imperial.

“When you tie money to water, you get users who become addicted to the money and don’t actually in the end start to want to farm anymore,” Hamby said. “That is really corrosive to the long-term survival, much less thriving, of rural communities when people get more hooked on money rather than the way of life and putting the water on the land.”

He argued that such an approach would be “subverting the whole priority system” and enabling cities to avoid taking cuts themselves…

‘Are we doing enough?’

At his ranch by the river, Bruchez said he wants to be on “the preventative side,” getting ahead of the looming problems instead of reacting. And that includes studying and promoting conservation, he said, because the bottom line is “we just all have to figure out how to use less water.”

In early 2019, Bruchez began talking with Perry Cabot, a researcher from Colorado State University, about a project that would help provide data on crop water use, impacts of reduced irrigation and strategies for conserving water.

Cabot gave a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable, and members supported the idea of a study. The project began in 2020 with about $900,000 in funding, including support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and groups including Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.

A group of nine ranchers participated and were paid for leaving some fields dry or partially dry, Bruchez said. More than 900 acres weren’t irrigated for the entire year, and about 200 acres were “deficit irrigated,” meaning they received less water.

Bruchez’s ranch totals about 6,000 acres. He participated on about 41 acres, where he stopped irrigating on June 15 and didn’t water the rest of the year.

“My end goal is to understand the impacts of water conservation for agriculture so that if and when there are programs to participate, agriculture is doing it based on science,” Bruchez said…

Paul Bruchez said he’s seen that when people talk about solutions, they often seem to draw boxes around different approaches like demand management, water conservation, climate change and forest management, but he thinks they’re all quite connected.

“It’s all the same conversation,” Bruchez said. “To me, the question just comes down to, are we doing enough, quick enough?”

[…]

“It’s that water that is provided by the Colorado River that ties us all together,” Mueller said. “And truly, when we recognize the importance of the Colorado River and how it ties us together, that’s when we succeed as a society.”

Ian James is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who focuses on water, climate change and the environment in the Southwest. Send him story tips, comments and questions at ian.james@arizonarepublic.com and follow him on Twitter at @ByIanJames.

Bill Trampe is retiring from the #ColoradoRiver District Board #COriver #GunnisonRiver

Bill Trampe via the Colorado Water Conservation Board

From The Crested Butte News (Katherine Nettles):

After 20 years as a member of the Colorado River Water Conservation District board of directors, prominent local rancher Bill Trampe has announced he will retire from the position in 2021. The vacancy has drawn interest from three candidates within Gunnison County, one of whom will be appointed to the position on January 12 by the Gunnison County commissioners. Commissioners conducted interviews with the candidates on Tuesday, December 29, including an interview with county commissioner Jonathan Houck himself…

The vacancy drew interest from Sonja Chavez, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, serving all of Gunnison County and portions of Saguache and Hinsdale counties. It also drew the interest of Kathleen Curry, who serves as chairperson of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, runs an active cattle and hay operation in the Tomichi Creek drainage and works as a lobbyist on behalf of two major water providers in Mesa County, the Ute Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

The third candidate who applied is chairperson of the Gunnison County commissioners Jonathan Houck. Houck made his interest known publicly on the last day of the application process…

Before conducting interviews, county attorney David Baumgarten offered his professional opinion on how to conduct the appointment process, considering one of the commissioners was also an applicant. He reviewed the relevant state statute, CO 37-36-104, which identifies who may be on the River District board of directors. “There are 15. One should be from each of the respective counties, and shall be selected by the board of county commissioners,” he reviewed. “So the threshold question is, can you apply? Yes, you can. The statute is silent on how you make that decision,” said Baumgarten of Houck’s participation.

Baumgarten suggested that Houck participate in the interviews, and that he recuse himself from voting initially on the appointee, unless there is a tie between candidates.

Houck proceeded according to Baumgarten’s direction, participating in each interview before being interviewed himself by the other two commissioners…

Commissioners Roland Mason and Liz Smith will make their decision on January 12 in advance of the next River District quarterly board meeting on January 19.

Farmers Swap Out Irrigation Methods To Keep The #ColoradoRiver From Growing Saltier — KUNC #COriver #GunnisonRiver

The North Fork Valley, part of the service territory of Delta-Montrose Electric, has been known for its organic fruits and vegetables — including corn. Photo/Allen Best

From KVNF (Jodi Petersen) via KUNC:

[A.J.] Carrillo is planning to convert his Deer Tree Farm from flood irrigation, which is commonly used in Western Colorado, to a new and much more efficient style of irrigation – microsprinklers.

Changing irrigation methods is something more and more Western Slope producers are doing, from small to large. With help from federal funding, they’re able to apply less water to grow their crops and make their land more resilient to drought. And more importantly, the switch also means that fewer pollutants run off their fields into the Colorado River, keeping it cleaner all the way down to Mexico.

Salt and selenium occur naturally in the shaly soils of the Gunnison Basin, leftovers from a prehistoric inland sea. Both substances are harmful to plants, fish and humans. Flood irrigation of fields allows water to penetrate deep into the soil, where it dissolves out salt and selenium.

The contaminated water then runs off into ditches that eventually dump into the Gunnison River, and from there into the Colorado. The result is that farms in the Gunnison Basin send more than 360,000 tons of salt into the Colorado River each year…

All that salt must be removed before water can be used for drinking or industrial purposes, which is expensive. And when salty river water is used for irrigation, it stunts crop growth and can eventually make farmland unusable if the salt builds to a high enough concentration, said Perry Cabot, a water resources specialist with Colorado State University…

In California’s Imperial Valley, which grows about 80 percent of the nation’s winter vegetables, irrigating with Colorado River water has caused some fields to become so salty that they have been abandoned.

Selenium is a problem too. It’s especially harmful to the Colorado River’s four endangered fish species, including the humpback chub and razorback sucker…

The same actions that reduce selenium – improving irrigation efficiency and reducing runoff – help reduce salt as well. And those programs have a far-reaching impact.

During the 1960s, so much salt flowed into the Colorado River from U.S. farms that Mexico, at the downstream end, could no longer use it for irrigation; a solution was finally negotiated in the 1970s requiring major reductions in the river’s saltiness. Laws were passed, and an array of federal program were created that gave farmers incentives to improve their irrigation methods.

Since then, the Colorado has gotten considerably cleaner. Casey Harrison, a soil conservationist who works with farmers through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, is part of that cleanup effort. In the Gunnison River Basin, the NRCS spends about $7 million a year to help roughly 75 farmers and ranchers convert to microsprinklers and other efficient irrigation methods.

The NRCS tailors plans to each producer’s operations, Harrison said, no matter how large or small…

The federal financial support is key. The costs of installing new irrigation systems cannot be borne by farmers alone, CSU’s Perry Cabot said. Agricultural producers are running a business, and they do not want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to make a change unless there is some clear incentive.

“If we as a society value food production as part of our economic infrastructure, it’s unrealistic to expect them to just bear the burden without societal help,” Cabot said.

Back at Deer Tree farm, farmer AJ Carillo says the operation will have a new irrigation system by fall 2021, thanks largely to NRCS funding and support. The change to microsprinklers will give him greater precision and control in water use.

Dragon Line irrigation system. Photo credit: AgriExpo.com.

Silver lining: Lining canals to cut for salinity also boosts efficiency — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #ActOnClimate #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Winter may be the offseason when it comes to a lot of construction work, but for ongoing efforts to line local irrigation canals, it’s the only practical time for further pursuing multi-year efforts to line them.

Doing so locally helps address salinity problems throughout the Colorado River Basin, meaning that irrigation entities can tap federal funds to pay for much of the work. But it also provides the side benefit of making canals able to deliver water more efficiently, in higher volumes, multiplying the payback for the millions of dollars that get invested in such work.

In September, the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced that it will distribute $33.7 million for salinity control projects in western Colorado over the next three to five years. This includes nearly $4.7 million for the Grand Valley Water Users Association for continued lining of the Government Highline Canal, and about $1.23 million to the Grand Valley Irrigation Company for a fifth phase of lining it has been doing over the past decade or so thanks to Bureau of Reclamation salinity control funding.

Lining canals limits seepage of water into the ground, where that water can pick up salt before eventually reaching the Colorado River, which is relied upon by downstream states and Mexico. High salinity in the river reduces crop yields downstream for farmers reliant on the river water, and can increase water treatment costs and corrode things such as household appliances, reducing their useful life.

In Colorado, salinity control efforts by the Bureau of Reclamation also include the operation of a deep injection well for salty groundwater in Montrose County’s Paradox Valley. While that project has been highly effective in salt removal, it is increasingly causing earthquakes and the future of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Paradox desalination program is uncertain as the well nears the end of its serviceable life.

23,426 TONS OF SALT A YEAR

In the Grand Junction area, groundwater reaching the river percolates through Mancos shale associated with an inland sea that left salt deposits behind tens of millions of years ago. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates that a total of $37.2 million it will distribute to 11 projects in western Colorado and Wyoming over the next few years will keep about 23,426 tons a year from entering the Colorado River.

The last lining work the Grand Valley Water Users Association did on the Government Highline Canal was finished last year and ended at 36-3/10 Road in the Palisade area. The work being undertaken now will pick up from there and run to 35 3/10 Road, covering some 6,100 feet of canal length, said Mark Harris, the association’s general manager.

The canal is operated by the association and owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. The project the new funding will cover most of will take place over three winters, and Grand Valley Water Users Association is covering about 10% of the cost through cash and in-kind contributions.

The funding the Grand Valley Irrigation Company is getting will be used for work on close to a mile of the Grand Valley Canal over multiple years, on stretches running by Bookcliff Gardens and the Crown Point Cemetery area. Phil Bertrand with the Grand Valley Irrigation Company said the hope is to get about 300 or 400 feet lined in the first phase of that work this year.

Grand Valley Irrigation’s project involves a little more than $149,000 in matching funding, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Harris said the work on the Government Highline Canal will include restoring its shape where needed. A fuzzy geotextile layer will be laid down to help protect the water-sealing PVC liner that’s put on top of it from the underlying earth and rocks. The PVC liner is covered with another fabric liner, and then three inches of concrete are added on top to help protect the canal from abrasion from sand and silt flowing through the canal.

A drainage system also is being installed below the canal to help control the accumulation of underlying groundwater that can damage the canal lining when it is drained due to pressure exerted on it. The water in the canal when full otherwise counters that pressure…

Canal lining also reduces seepage that can impact adjacent private property. In addition, it can reduce the amount of selenium that also leaches along with salt into the river. High selenium levels in soil are particularly a concern in the Gunnison River Valley, and high levels in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers can threaten wildlife including endangered fish…

Harris said some sections along the Government Highline Canal cause more salt loading in the river than others. Localized levels of salt underground, the underground geological structure in an area and how much water that seeps from the canal actually makes it to the river all can play roles in salt loading, and areas of the canal with a lot of seeping aren’t necessarily where lining results in the most reduction of salt…

GUNNISON PROJECTS

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association got more than $5 million in funding, and Grandview Canal & Irrigation Co. in the Crawford area received more than $6.3 million. Needle/Rock Ditch Company, also in the Crawford area, is receiving about $4.24 million, and Pilot Rock Ditch Company in eastern Delta County is getting more than $940,000. The Turner Ditch Company near Paonia will receive about $6.15 million.

All of those projects entail installing pressurized pipe. Some involve matching funds and others are being completely paid for by the Bureau of Reclamation.

A local initiative called the Lower Gunnison Project tries to take advantage of salinity-control funds and leverage them with other funding sources to make projects go further, Kanzer said. That project’s goals are wide-ranging, from reducing salt and selenium loading in the Gunnison River, to pursuing more efficient delivery and on-farm application of irrigation water, to improving soil health and boosting agricultural productivity…

WETLANDS MITIGATION

Canal-lining projects also can have wetlands projects associated with them. Where wetland habitat is destroyed as a result of the work, it has to be replaced elsewhere, Harris said. In the case of the Grand Valley Water Users Association project, crews will be creating new wetlands at the Colorado River Island State Wildlife Area south of D Road. Harris said the project will involve some 1,500 plantings and will result in creation of habitat far superior to what is being replaced…

The Grand Valley Water Users Association’s canal project is occurring as the association also is in the middle of work to replace electrical and operating equipment at the Grand Valley Diversion Dam, the roller dam in De Beque Canyon. Harris said such projects “all kind of fit together” in improving water delivery in the Grand Valley, but are expensive. It’s hard for the association to pay for something like the current lining project internally through assessments, he said.

#GunnisonRiver, with elevated selenium levels, faces review for reclassification — @AspenJournalism

This portion of the 58-mile mainstem of the Gunnison River just south of Whitewater has been designated as critical habitat for the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker, which are two species of endangered fish. Programs aimed at reducing salt and selenium in the waterway are showing signs of success. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Natalie Keltner-McNeil):

State water-quality officials will soon evaluate whether two water-improvement programs in the Gunnison River basin have successfully reduced a chemical that is toxic to endangered fish.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Division is analyzing five years of data on selenium levels in the Gunnison, where heightened selenium and salinity have harmed Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker populations.

If selenium levels stay at or below the state standard of 4.6 micrograms per liter in any of the segments of river that are analyzed by division staff, those segments will be reclassified from a water body that threatens aquatic life to one that meets state water-quality standards, said Skip Feeney, assessment workgroup leader for the Water Quality Control Division.

After analyzing selenium data, the division will submit a proposal after the first of the year to the CDPHE Water Quality Control Commission recommending a status change if necessary, Feeney said.

“Our goal is to provide an accurate, defensible proposal to the commission and let the commission make an informed decision,” Feeney said. In an October interview, he said he didn’t yet know “what the water-quality status is looking like.” He added: “That’s just part of the process — we’re just getting started.”

Reclassifying the river has been a goal since the establishment nearly a dozen years ago of the Selenium Management Program, a collaboration among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.

Observers have found elevated selenium levels throughout the basin, but a key river segment of focus is the main stretch of the lower Gunnison that winds for 58 miles from Delta to the confluence with the Colorado River in Grand Junction. This section, which begins at the confluence with the Uncompahgre River, was designated in 1994 as essential to pikeminnow and razorback survival by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A map showing the main segment of the Gunnison River, between Delta and its confluence with the Colorado River, which has been designated as essential habitat for two endangered fish species. Map via Aspen Journalism

Historically, this segment, which runs through the basin’s most populated and developed corridor, has contained selenium levels toxic to the two species of fish, according to Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and a member of the Selenium Management Program.

During the last regulation cycle, which used data gathered from multiple different entities from 2010 to 2015, the calculated level for selenium in the mainstem of the Gunnison was 6.7 micrograms per liter, a level that is 2.1 micrograms above the state standard, according to MaryAnn Nason, the communications and special-projects unit manager at CDPHE.

Yet, the past five years of U.S. Geological Survey data show that selenium levels have stayed below 4.6 micrograms. Each yearly average was below 4.6, with the average for all five years sitting at 3.2, according to an analysis by Aspen Journalism.

Kanzer cautioned that the calculation using only USGS data was “not directly applicable to the CDPHE listing methodology” — because it doesn’t take into account all available data — but he said “it does tell a good story.”

To calculate the final selenium load for each segment in the Gunnison River, CDPHE is analyzing data from the past five years from the USGS; Colorado River Watch, an environmental advocacy organization; the state; and United Companies, a Grand Junction-based construction company that is required by the state to monitor selenium levels near the gravel pits that the company operates.

These are hills of exposed Mancos shale in Delta County. Selenium is a natural element found in the soil type that is common in the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism

Selenium’s origins and pathway to the rivers

Selenium is a natural element found in Mancos shale, a soil common throughout the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys in the Gunnison River basin. When irrigators transport water to and through their farms in open canals, selenium dissolves in the water and either percolates into groundwater or gets carried into drainage ditches that discharge into the Gunnison.

“Where we have good flows of water, (selenium) concentrations are not an issue because of dilution,” Kanzer said. “But smaller tributaries, smaller water areas or backwater areas where you don’t have good circulation, you get selenium that can accumulate in the ecosystem, really in the sediment and in the food web.”

Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker exist only in the Colorado River basin, said Travis Schmidt, a research ecologist for the Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center. The species are able to swim between the Colorado and Gunnison rivers with the aid of a fish passage at the Redlands Diversion Dam on the lower Gunnison, accumulating selenium and transferring the element to their offspring.

Selenium gathers in fish tissues when females ingest algae or smaller fish. It then is transferred to offspring during the egg-laying process, Schmidt said.

“Selenium replaces sulfur in protein bonds, so anything that lays an egg can transfer a lot of selenium to its progeny,” he said.

Once transferred to fish eggs, the element causes neurological, reproductive and other physiological deformities in a significant proportion of both species of fish, Schmidt said. A study that analyzed fish-tissue samples collected by federal and state agencies from 1962 to 2011 found that 63% of Colorado pikeminnows and 35% of razorback suckers exceeded healthy selenium tissue concentrations in the upper Colorado River basin.

Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier kneels by gated pipes in his family’s alfalfa field. He received funding to replace an unlined canal with the pipes in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Piping unlined canals, which is one of the primary methods used to prevent salt and selenium from leaching into the water supply, is critical to the protection of endangered fish in the Gunnison and Colorado river basins. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism
Aspinall Unit

’A happy, fringe benefit of salinity control’

Selenium was first addressed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 in a document written for the Bureau of Reclamation. The document analyzed the effects of the Aspinall Unit — a series of three dams on the upper Gunnison River — on Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker recovery. In the document, the service concluded that in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the Bureau of Reclamation had to increase spring flows downstream of the Aspinall Unit and initiate a management program to reduce selenium in the Gunnison. As a result, the Selenium Management Program was founded in 2009.

“It’s a two-prong type of plan,” Kanzer said of the program’s goals.

The first objective is to meet the state standard for dissolved selenium throughout the Gunnison River basin, particularly for the 58-mile main segment, Kanzer said. The second goal is to help transition the pikeminnow and razorback sucker from endangered populations to self-sustaining populations, Kanzer said.

Program members help irrigators obtain funding from the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Agriculture, said Lesley McWhirter, the environmental and planning group chief for the bureau’s Western Colorado Area Office. Individual farmers can apply for funding for on-farm irrigation projects through the Department of Agriculture, and ditch companies can apply for funding projects that deliver water to farms through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Salinity Control Program.

The goal of the salinity program, which was started in 1974, is to reduce salt loading into the Colorado River basin. The program awards grants to ditch companies every two to three years. In the last grant cycle, in 2019, the Bureau of Reclamation awarded 11 ditch companies a combined $37 million to line irrigation systems. Of the 11 companies, eight are located in Mesa, Montrose and Delta counties, where the Gunnison River runs, according to McWhirter.

Mancos shale is rich in salt and selenium. So, when farmers receive funding to reduce salt loads, selenium often decreases as well. This is exemplified by a USGS analysis that found selenium loads had decreased by 43% from 1986 to 2017 and by 6,600 pounds annually from 1995 to 2017.

“The selenium control is a happy, fringe benefit of salinity control,” said Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier.

Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier stands atop a diversion structure that was built as part of a project to improve irrigation infrastructure completed between 2014 and 2019. Kehmeier served as manager for the ditch-improvement project, which was 90% funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and serves 10 Delta County farms with water diverted from Surface Creek, a tributary of the Gunnison River. Lining and piping ditches, the primary methods used to prevent salt and selenium from leaching into the water supply, are critical to the protection of endangered fish in the Gunnison and Colorado river basins. Photo credit: Natalie Keltner-McNeil/Aspen Journalism

CDPHE plans to submit proposal in January

CDPHE plans to submit its proposal to the Water Quality Control Commission in early January, Nason said.

If the main segment of the Gunnison River is found to have selenium levels below the state standard, it would mean the Selenium Management Program is closer to obtaining the dual goals of fish protection and selenium reduction, Kanzer said.

Even if the main segment of the Gunnison is reclassified, the Selenium Management Program will continue efforts to reduce selenium in the Gunnison basin, Kanzer said. These efforts include data gathering and analysis and facilitating meetings among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.

The Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker depend on the entire Gunnison basin, so other segments containing toxic selenium levels require reduction efforts. If any new research shows that fish are harmed by selenium at levels lower than 4.6 micrograms per liter, the state could lower the selenium standard, reclassifying segments of the Gunnison as a danger to aquatic life, Kanzer said.

“The jury’s still out — we’re still trying to understand what levels are acceptable and not acceptable,” he said. “There’s always room for refinement of that standard, and that dialogue is ongoing.”

After the division submits its proposal to the commission, the proposal will be released to stakeholders and anyone who has applied to receive hearing notices or track Colorado’s regulations. The public can submit their own proposals or comments by emailing the commission. In May, the commission will review all proposals and comments to make a decision on the river segment’s 2020 status, Feeney said.

This story ran in the Dec. 3 edition of The Aspen Times.

LM Collaborates with Gunnison County, #Colorado, to Ensure a Safe Water Supply — US Department of Energy

Here’s the release from the Department of Energy:

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) is collaborating with Gunnison County, Colorado, to connect more domestic residences with private water wells within the groundwater contamination boundary at the former Gunnison uranium mill site to a municipal water supply.

“This is a major milestone that reflects LM’s mission of protecting human health and the environment,” said Jalena Dayvault, site manager for LM’s Gunnison, Colorado, Site. “Gunnison County Public Works Director, Marlene Crosby, worked diligently to get remaining domestic well users on-board so this project could move forward.”

The Gunnison site is a former uranium ore processing site located about a half-mile southwest of the city of Gunnison. The mill processed approximately 540,000 tons of uranium ore between 1958 and 1962, providing uranium for national defense programs. These ore processing activities resulted in contaminated groundwater beneath and near the site.

In 1994, a water treatment plant, storage tank, and distribution system were partially funded by DOE and installed to supply municipal drinking water to all residences within the contaminated groundwater boundary. This project was part of the remedial action plan at the former uranium mill site and is considered a protective measure in case the contaminated groundwater plume was ever to affect domestic well users within this boundary.

A small handful of homeowners with domestic wells in use before the cleanup continue to use those wells for drinking water. As part of LM’s long-term stewardship activities at the site, the office has monitored these wells annually to verify that mill-related contaminants have remained below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maximum concentration limits for the groundwater.

Working closely with Gunnison County Public Works, LM made funds available in September 2020 to support Gunnison County Public Works in connecting more residences with domestic wells to the municipal water supply. Excavation work began in November to connect the first residence to the alternate water supply.

“We started putting a game plan together back in early January of this year, reaching out to homeowners to get their buy-in and preparing a scope of work and budget for the project,” said Joe Lobato, site lead for the Legacy Management Support Partner (LMSP). “The LM and LMSP team has a great working relationship with Gunnison County.”

This map shows the municipal water system that provides clean water to residents near the former uranium processing site. Credit: Department of Energy

Why understanding #snowpack could help the overworked #ColoradoRiver — The Deseret News #COriver #aridification

Horseshoe Bend.

From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

The U.S. Geological Survey is in the beginning stages of learning more about this river via an expanded and more sophisticated monitoring system that aims to study details about the snowpack that feeds the river basin, droughts and flooding, and how streamflow supports groundwater, or vice versa.

Begun earlier this year, the probe is part of a larger effort by the federal agency to study 10 critical watersheds throughout the country by expanding its monitoring capabilities.

According to the research agency, it maintains real-time monitors that provide data on the nation’s water resources, including more than 11,300 stream gauges that measure surface-water flow and/or levels; 2,100 water-quality stations; 17,000 wells that monitor groundwater levels; and 1,000 precipitation stations.

While that may seem like a lot, the network falls short of meeting the demands of modern-day analysis. The monitors in place cover less than 1% of the nation’s streams and groundwater aquifers and were designed to meet the needs of the past, according to the agency.

The USGS will be installing new monitoring equipment and enhancing existing streamgages in the headwaters of the Colorado and Gunnison River Basin (Upper Colorado River Basin) beginning in 2020, subject to availability of funding. Credit: USGS

Because of this, the agency is investing in the Next Generation Water Observing System, which will tap sophisticated new monitoring capabilities resulting from recent advances in water science.

The effort will also bring together the knowledge and expertise of agency scientists, resource managers and other stakeholders to determine water information needs not only now, but into the future.

The system will use both fixed and mobile equipment — including drones — to collect data on streamflow, evapotranspiration, snowpack, soil moisture, water quality, groundwater/surface-water connections, stream velocity distribution, sediment transport and water use.

When it comes to the Colorado, understanding snowpack is critical because the Upper Colorado River Basin supplies about 90% of the water for the entire Colorado River Basin — with about 85% of the river flow originating as snowmelt from about 15% of the basin at the highest altitudes.

The lower basin is arid and depends upon that managed use of the Colorado River system to make the surrounding land habitable and productive.

“New monitoring technology is essential to addressing many issues associated with our annual water balance in the Upper Colorado River Basin,” said Dave “DK” Kanzer, who is deputy chief engineer at Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Aspinall Unit operations update November 12, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GunnisonRiver

Bracing for a dry, warm winter — The #CrestedButte News #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Crested Butte News (Kendra Walker):

Between the lack of moisture this spring, summer and fall, rising temperatures and a heads-up statewide wildfire season, the Gunnison Valley continues to feel the severe effects of drought as we head into what’s expected to be a warmer than average winter season.

According to the United States Drought Monitor’s latest update…every region of Colorado is currently in at least moderate drought, with more than 21 percent of the state in the most severe “exceptional” category. The last time the entire state of Colorado had been in drought was July 2013. Most of Gunnison County is one level below, in “extreme” drought, with the northwestern tip in the “exceptional” category.

West Drought Monitor November 3, 2020.

Water levels

Water availability is a growing concern as we experience less and less precipitation and rising temps. Due to such dry soil moisture conditions and early warm temperatures this past spring, last winter’s average snowpack dried up very quickly and the water supply in Gunnison County “was literally disappearing before our very eyes,” said Sonja Chavez, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD).

According to Chavez, peak water flows occurred about two weeks early and quickly fell. Blue Mesa’s projected max fill capacity this summer was approximately 604,000 acre-feet, only about 72 percent of maximum capacity. The Taylor Reservoir’s highest fill this summer was about 80,000 acre-feet, only about 75 percent to 80 percent full.

“We knew things were really dry and we knew we weren’t going to have a lot of water, and were likely going to have a deficit at the end of the year,” said Chavez. So the UGRWCD, in partnership with the Taylor Local Users Group (TLUG), made the decision to forego typical fall water releases from Taylor Reservoir in order to provide enough water for water users this summer.

This, said Chavez, meant agricultural water users would finish their only hay crop of the season, forego any potential second cut and not put fall water on their fields. “Upper Gunnison users had to go into their irrigation season having less water available to them,” said Chavez, which will then affect their crop supply. Bill Trampe of the Colorado River District estimates that hay crops around Gunnison were at 50 percent to 60 percent of normal.

The water adjustments were also intended to let recreational water users make the most of a limited seasonal water supply. But the lower water levels limited the boating season, impacted water temperatures in the fisheries and ended up funneling anglers to certain segments of the rivers. This then put more pressure and impact on those river sections experiencing higher concentrations of people…

Winter forecast

Even though Colorado already experienced a couple of early wet snow storms this fall, bringing a little moisture to our soils and helping to tame the wildfires, Chavez said the combination of warm weather in between storms and already dry soils are not reassuring looking ahead to 2021. “The soils are like a sponge,” she said. “If the soils are wet going into winter and the water freezes and stays there, the soils will melt come spring and help get the crops going. But if you don’t have that and you go into the next season dry, it’s much harder to fill that crop.”

[…]

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual winter outlook calls for a drier-than-average and warmer than average winter season in Colorado, especially for the southern half of the state. This, according to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), will likely lead to an escalation of the drought we are experiencing.

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

#Drought expected to worsen this winter — The Gunnison Country Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Gunnison Country Times (Sam Liebl):

If the forecast holds true, the effects would be “exponential” for Gunnison Valley ranchers already hard hit by a dry summer that reduced hay production and rangeland forage by 30%, said Dan Olson with the Natural Resource Conservation Service field office in Gunnison.

“One year of this drought is crippling,” Olson said. It would be “a real challenge if we had multiple years like this one.”

The weather service issued its winter outlook for the U.S. on Oct. 15 and pinned many of its predictions for the western part of the country on the continuation of a La Niña, a band of cooler-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the Central Pacific. Those cool waters began showing up on satellite images in August, and the service forecasts the pattern to continue through the winter.

La Niña years favor precipitation and cooler temperatures in the Northern U.S. Winter storms from the southwest, which tend to dump snow on the San Juans and can produce powder days in Gunnison County, are less likely to occur during La Niña. This is linked to the Pacific Jet Stream staying north of the Southwest U.S. during La Niña winters.

This jet stream pattern has been in effect for most of October, and is a main reason why Colorado has stayed mostly dry and Montana has been consistently snowy this fall.

The weather service splits Colorado in half with regards to its winter precipitation predictions. The northern half of the state is forecast to have equal chances of above-average or below-average snowfall. The southern portion of the state, however, is favored to have drier-than-average weather. Gunnison County sits on the dividing line.

Worsening drought and warmer-than-average temperatures are predicted for all of Colorado this winter. Drought in Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and Texas will continue, worsen or develop, according to the winter outlook.

Blue Mesa Reservoir did not fill to capacity this summer, and unregulated flows into the reservoir were 64 percent of average this year. The water level in Blue Mesa dropped to 50% of capacity this month. The major water sources for the reservoir — the Gunnison River and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison — were flowing at about 53% of average as of Monday.

Construction to Begin on #UncompahgreRiver Improvement Project

Starting the week of Oct. 26, 2020 contractors working for the City of Montrose will begin a river improvement project along 0.65 miles (3,400 feet) of the Uncompahgre River.
(William Woody/City of Montrose)

Here’s the release from the City of Montrose:

Starting the week of October 26, contractors working for the City of Montrose will begin a river improvement project along 0.65 miles (3,400 feet) of the Uncompahgre River. The project will include the stabilization of riverbanks, restoration of a more natural stream system, improvement of aquatic and riparian habitats, and improvement of river access and fishing opportunities for the public.

Construction will start around North 9th Street and continue downstream within a 41-acre river corridor tract within the Montrose Urban Renewal Authority boundaries. The property was recently donated to the City of Montrose by Colorado Outdoors.

For safety reasons, public access to the Uncompahgre River within the project area will be closed throughout construction. However, the new recreation trail situated alongside the project, as well as boating access on the remainder of the Uncompahgre River, will remain open throughout the construction project. Through boaters are encouraged to take out at the West Main Trailhead upstream of the project. Although a temporary takeout will be constructed at the beginning of the project area, vehicular access to this area will be much more limited than at West Main. Project activities are expected to last until June 2021.

The river improvement project is being made possible largely due to approximately $785,000 in grants received from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The remainder of the $1.6M project is being funded by the Montrose Urban Renewal Authority.

Aspinall Unit operations update #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Aspinall Unit operations update: 400 CFS in Black Canyon #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1350 cfs to 1250 cfs on Monday, September 28th. Releases are being lowered while the Crystal powerplant is offline for maintenance. Diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel have also dropped over the last part of September. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release change has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

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 September and 790 cfs for October.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 450 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 900 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

Aspinall Unit operations update: Turning down to 1350 CFS September 23, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Blue Mesa Reservoir. MichaelKirsh / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1450 cfs to 1350 cfs on Wednesday, September 23rd. Releases are being lowered while the Crystal powerplant is offline for maintenance. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release change has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

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 September.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 550 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 450 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

The future of mountain meadows — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

The Warming Meadows experiment near Crested Butte began in 1991 and soon the wildflowers started fading. The more challenging question was happening underground—and what are the implications for planetary warming?

Big Pivots

An experiment called Warming Meadows ended a year ago. For 29 years, day and night during every season, shoulder-high electric infrared radiators directed heat downward to warm the top 6 inches of soil on half the 10 plots staked out between two stands of evergreens. This is on a ridge overlooking the East River, five miles from the Crested Butte ski area.

Unique at its launch in January 1991, the experiment at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory was the world’s first attempt to foretell the effects of global warming on the natural environment by the mid-21st century. It accomplished that. Anybody who treasures the shimmer and glow of mid-summer’s pageantry of wildflowers in Colorado’s high country should be alarmed.

The experiment assumed increased temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Those temperatures will almost certainly occur by the middle of this century given the continuing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The planet altogether has already warmed 1.2 degrees C since the start of the industrial era, in some places—including higher elevations, and those inland and at higher latitudes—more; and other places less. Given a doubling of emissions, according to a study published in the Reviews of Geophysics, we can expect temperature increases of between 2.6 and 4.1 degrees C (4.1 to 8.1 degrees F).

Summer’s broad smile will dull with these rising temperatures as the broad-leafed forbs that produce the rainbow of wildflowers give way to more muted sagebrush. This is a story that Warming Meadows from its location at 9,400 feet in elevation has told quickly, vividly.

John Harte. Photo via The Mountain Town News

From the beginning, John Harte, the scientist who conceived of Warming Meadows in the waning days of the administration of Ronald Reagan understood there was a deeper story, the interplay of atmosphere and soil.

Soil holds 4 or 5 times as much carbon as both the atmosphere and living vegetation. The first comparison is especially important, he explains. “It tells us that small (by percent) changes in soil carbon can result in big changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide. For example, a 25% loss of soil carbon results in a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

Changes in vegetation carbon are not as likely to result in atmospheric changes as are possible changes in soil carbon. “We should look to the soil for potentially very large effects.”

The question, in other words, is whether the warming climate causes more carbon to be transferred from the soil to the atmosphere in coming decades as sagebrush replaces the forbs? If so, that could in turn accelerate warming.

Understanding this feedback is crucial to creating global climate models that can help predict what will happen in mountains, not just in Colorado, but across the planet.

The laboratory itself is at a one-time silver mining camp called Gothic.

Never robust with mineral wealth, Gothic was decaying back into the wilderness in 1919 when visited by a biology professor from a nearby college then called Colorado State Normal School. It’s now called Western Colorado University.

Enchanted by the diversity of ecosystems, the professor, Dr. John Johnson, returned with students. In 1928, what is now called the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory was established. Professors and students from across the continent have been returning ever since to conduct studies from these old mining shacks now supplemented over the decades by other, still modest offices and dormitories. They call the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory by its acronym, RMBL. It’s pronounced like the sound of distant thunder: rumble.

About 200 experiments are underway at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory at any one time. Photo/Allen Best

At any one time, about 200 experiments are underway at RMBL. One study launched in 1962 was of the yellow-bellied marmot, and it has been followed by 225 since then. At the start of the 21st century, researchers noted that the marmots were emerging from hibernation 38 days earlier than they had about a quarter-century before. None of the studies, though, have gained the same attention as Warming Meadows.

The greenhouse effect

Harte, a physicist turned ecologist from the University of California, Berkeley, wrote his first paper about global warming in 1970. By the 1980s, he had begun pondering the future effects of greenhouse-gas emissions and land-use changes.

“Predicting future climate entails more than just knowing about the physics of heat and light, air and water,” Harte wrote in “Ecosystem Consequences of Soil Warming,” a 2019 book with chapters by multiple authors.

“Ecosystems are a big player as well,” he wrote.

In his chapter, Harte describes the importance of what goes on underground and also feedback effects.

“Vegetation influences the physical stage on which climate plays out, and microorganisms regulate the gases that control energy flow in the atmosphere. And vegetation and microorganisms are controlled not only by climate, but by each other as well.

In this truly complex system, as ecosystems are altered by climate, the climate is in turn altered. These feedback effects can only be understood and reliably incorporated into climate models if we first understand how ecosystems respond to climate change.”

This “need to unravel this complexity, to characterize climate-ecosystem feedbacks” motivated Harte in 1988 to start assembling Warming Meadows. At Gothic he chose land tilting southward on a ridge maybe a football field away from the road to Crested Butte. Being on the ridge was important to prevent delayed runoff of snowmelt. In this small area he laid out 10 plots. Half were to be heated, and half not.

How to heat the plots? Harte hit upon the mechanism while at dinner in an outdoor restaurant in San Francisco. There he noticed the overhead heat lamps that repelled the chill fog of evening. Searching through farm equipment catalogues, he settled on a product from Pennsylvania designed to warm piglets and chickens during winter.

Harte decided to heat the ground a steady 2 degrees Celsius, with no variation for seasons, hoping to mimic “the relatively constant infrared flux from the great big heater in the sky, otherwise known as incremental greenhouse gases.” The heat dried the surface soil 15% to 20%, moisture being an important part of this investigation of global warming effects.

All 10 plots had a mixture of woody shrub, or sagebrush, and forbs, the latter being broad-leafed herbaceous plants. Think of sunflowers, primrose, and mountain bluebells. All plots had four times as many forbs as sagebrush covering the ground when the experiment began.

The ratios were nearly upside down by year 27 of Warming Meadows: Shrub production had become three times greater than that of forbs.

The plots thicken

Warming Meadows also documented another effect of warming temperatures. Replacement of leafy green plants to woody shrubs causes a shift in the albedo. Snow reflects light more, while a black rock absorbs the sun’s energy. Woody shrubs absorb more energy than the wildflowers, the equivalent of a 10-watt light bulb per square meter averaged over night and day during the growing season. That’s double the incremental energy absorbed as a result of the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Molly Smith, then a graduate student, explained the purpose of the hanging lamps to a visitor in 2004. Photo/Allen Best

Effects of increased heat were not uniform across the plants, however. Shallow-rooted plants in the heated plots showed greatly reduced growth and symptoms of moisture stress. Deep-rooted plants showed only a weak response to the heat. This, Harte wrote in the book, suggests “changes in community composition as the planet warms.”

It gets more complex. The increased heat from the lamps accelerated the runoff of snow, lengthened the growing season and, in some cases, emboldened pathogens and herbivores. This effect was not universal, though. Some pests actually did better in cooler or later-melting plots, not so well with the incremental heat.

Even by 2014, Harte had concluded that Warming Meadows provided “a realistic preview of real global warming.”

Crucial, he went on to say, was the nature of the experiment: heated plots paired with unheated plots. Without the artificial stimulation, it would have been impossible to say exactly what caused the changes in the subalpine meadows above Gothic. Many other things are at work, including acid deposition from distant coal-fired power plants, more intrusion from cross-country skiers, plus dust blown from deserts of the Southwest. Also, there could be natural cycles in the dominance patterns of vegetation. The duality of the plots, heated and unheated, made clear the effect of temperature increases during coming decades.

Meanwhile, in Washington

Harte was and remains friends with Tim Wirth. They both were, and still are, part-time residents of Crested Butte. Harte says his friendship with Wirth was only incidental as he worked out the design for Warming Meadows in 1988 even as Wirth was busy in Washington D.C. trying to draw national attention to the threat of global warming.

In his role as a U.S. senator from Colorado, Wirth helped with the staging of testimony in June 1988 by James Hansen from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. With sweat dripping from his brow, Hansen said there was a “high degree of confidence that greenhouse gas emissions and global warming were incontrovertibly related. “It is already happening now,” he said.

Hansen’s testimony was the No. 2 story in the New York Times the next day. The lead story was that a new law had failed to stem the flow of immigrants from Mexico.

People in Colorado mountain towns that summer took note of Hansen’s testimony, because it was a hot summer, by mountain standards. Yet the threat of global warming, like Washington D.C., still seemed distant.

The threat of warming is less distant now, if overshadowed for much of this year by concerns that a stray cough from an unmasked stranger could send you to the hospital—that is, until the wildfires arrived with their suggestion that this will become the new normal.

But for places like Crested Butte, there’s good reason to wonder whether tourism, like the mining that preceded it, will in time wane. Since the 1990s, its summer tourism has bustled with greater liveliness than its ski economy. It self-promotes, not without good cause, as the wildflower capitol of Colorado. One of its signature pre-covid events was a wildflower festival.

Can sagebrush ecosystems be celebrated as readily? Today, as you drive the 29 miles downvalley along the East River to Gunnison, dropping 500 feet in elevation, the montane ecosystem gives away to high desert. The annual precipitation decreases by more than half. Where Crested Butte is surrounded by wildflowers, Gunnison is in a sea of sagebrush. That is likely Crested Butte’s future.

The subterranean dance

But as much as Harte hoped to predict above-ground impacts, he was just as attentive to what was happening underground.

“Climate change can alter the quantities of carbon sequestered in plants and soil, resulting in feedbacks that either enhance or retard the anthropogenic buildup of atmosphere carbon dioxide,” Harte explains in Ecosystem Consequences of Soil Warming.

“Such feedbacks are especially likely in montane and high-latitude ecosystems where soils are carbon rich, vegetation is sensitive to climate variables, such as snowmelt date and length of growing season, and climate change is expected to be large due to snow albedo feedback.”

From 1991 forward, he was trying to discern the implications for atmospheric carbon in this dance with the subterranean. For 28 consecutive years, twice each summer, he took 4 soil carbon measurements in each of the 5 heated and each of the 5 control plots, resulting in a unique and accurate record of changes in soil carbon.

In July 2019 the heat lamps were turned off and a small backhoe arrived to excavate more deeply. Photo/William Farrell via The Mountain Town News

The measurements were to depths of 10 cm and occasionally to 25 cm. Those areas nearest the surface have the most carbon, he points out.

“We found a 25% loss of soil carbon going to the atmosphere as CO2, which, on a large spatial scale, would translate to a huge incremental warming,” he says.

Harte hoped for a still-longer run at Gothic with Warming Meadows. Continued warming until 2050 could, he pointed out, predict climate effects in that ecosystem to the end of the century. But the costs, if not staggering, at about $15,000 a year, including $6,000 for electricity (produced mostly at coal-burning power plants), persuaded funders it was time to move on.

“It led the way for a type of research that is now very common,” says Ian Billick, director of RMBL who first arrived in Gothic as an undergraduate student in 1988. The experiment cannot perfectly foretell the effects of warming on other regions, says Billick, but the intense study can “provide insights, even if not perfectly, that help us think about the entire world.”

By way of example, he points to work on human diseases that often start with fruit flies or mice. “Not because they are perfect models for humans, but because they are way easier and cheaper to start with. We can’t study everything about everywhere, so places like Gothic serve as starting points that serve as a model for understanding all of the Earth’s ecosystems,” he says.

Seeking mountain patterns

Six years ago, a new effort was launched in the hopes of finding patterns in mountainous places across the world, to better detect general trends in the effects of warming on species loss, on diversity, and ecosystem function. It’s called WaRM, which stands for Warming and (species) Removal in Mountains (some acronyms come easier than others).

Among the 11 cold-weather sites in the WaRM network around the globe is Kluane Lake, in the Yukon Territory. The chief investigator at that site, Jennie R. McLaren, who teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso, observes on her website that woody shrubs are replacing grasses in both tundra ecosystems and in the Chihuahua Desert where she lives.

Researchers study the subterranean effects of global warming. Photo/William Farrell via The Mountain Town News

In July 2019, after the power was cut off to the warmed meadows, a small backhoe trundled up the trail to excavate narrow pits 1.5 meters deep. Several dozen scientists then gathered for a month to collect samples of 30 to 40 plant species and 30,000 or so microorganisms.

“Essentially we had to destroy the [Warming Meadows plots], but it’s really important because half the carbon is stored below 20 cm,” explained Stephanie Kivlin when I talked with her a month later.

“Putting this all together will be really interesting, but this will take time,” said Kivlin, who teaches at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

The core question motivating these pits was whether the soil carbon at this greater depth responded differently than that closer to the surface. Sensors had all along kept track of heat and soil moisture relatively close to the surface.

A secondary and related question is whether rising temperatures above ground alter interaction among the species living underground.

Better climate models

Researchers hope this second phase of Warming Meadows, the underground work, may yield a high-profile paper, perhaps in Science, the prestigious journal. The goal, says Kivlin, is to “understand how ecosystems are going to respond to warming. That includes plants above ground, plants below ground, and all the carbon and nutrients and microorganisms, including the carbon that plants are picking up from the atmosphere and putting into their roots. We want to understand how the entire ecosystem responds.”

Classen taught middle school for three years while working weekends in a soil laboratory before returning as a student to earn a Ph.D. “It was such a neat mashup of ecology and chemistry,” she says. Unlike the layperson, she understands something about “all these crazy microorganisms” that are part of the web of life. Now directing the Aiken Forest Science Laboratory at the University of Vermont, she wonders about things about which most of us have absolutely no notion. For example, how will those tens of thousands of microorganisms in the soil react to warming temperatures? Another one is whether the microorganisms absorb the atmospheric carbon through the roots of plants? Or will they emit more carbon themselves? “I spend all my time thinking about this,” says Classen.

This post-Warming Meadows study, she says, will almost certainly be used to build better climate-change models. Billick, the RMBL director, agrees. “This will be the first good estimate of deep soil carbon response to warming,” he says.

So, as you take your next hike out into the backcountry, consider that what lies underfoot may be just as interesting and important as what you see above ground. As for those wildflowers, try to imagine sagebrush as being just as beautiful. Not the easiest thing to do, but try.

This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine focused on climate change, energy and water in Colorado. For a free e-mail subscription, go to http://BigPivots.com

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 303.463.8630.

Aspinall Unit operations update #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Aspinall Unit Operations update: Turning down to 450 CFS in Black Canyon September 3, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Black Canyon via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1500 cfs to 1450 cfs on Thursday, September 3rd. Releases are being adjusted to bring flows closer to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

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 September.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 500 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 450 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit Operations update: 500 CFS in Black Canyon August 31, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Black Canyon National Park July 2020. Photo credit: Claire Codling/The Department of Interior

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1600 cfs to 1500 cfs on Monday, August 31st. Releases are being adjusted to bring flows closer to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

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 September.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 500 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Concerns rise over #GrizzlyCreekFire’s impact on #ColoradoRiver’s endangered fish downstream — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River divides Glenwood Canyon slurry on the ridge from the Grizzly Creek Fire on Monday, August 24, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times via Aspen Journalism)

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon has many people praying for rain. But the very thing that could douse the blaze, which has burned 32,000 acres as of Tuesday, has some experts concerned it also could create problems for downstream endangered fish.

A heavy rain could wash dirt — no longer held in place by charred vegetation — and ash from the steep canyons and gullies of the burn area into the Colorado River. Scorched soils don’t absorb water as well, increasing the magnitude of the flood. And the heavy sediment load in the runoff could suffocate fish. A similar scenario played out in 2018 when thousands of fish were killed by ash and dirt that washed into the Animas River from the 416 Fire burn area.

Downstream from the Grizzly Creek Fire, beginning in DeBeque Canyon, is critical habitat for four species of endangered fish: humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail and razorback sucker.

“Yes, we are very concerned about a fire in that kind of terrain that close to critical habitat. There’s just no question,” said Tom Chart, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “There’s a probability we could have an effect all the way down into the 15-mile reach.”

The Colorado River’s so-called 15-mile reach, near Grand Junction, is home to those four species of fish. This stretch often has less water than is recommended for these fish by Fish & Wildlife mainly because of two large irrigation diversions that pull water from the river to irrigate Grand Valley farms: DeBeque Canyon’s Grand Valley Project, which takes water from the river at a structure known as the Roller Dam, and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal, which takes water from the river near Palisade.

Between these diversions and the confluence of the Gunnison River is a problem spot where water managers constantly work to bolster water levels through upstream reservoir releases. According to Chart, there is currently a total of about 250 cubic feet per second being released from Ruedi, Wolford and Granby reservoirs for the benefit of fish in the 15-mile reach.

With hot, dry weather, a weak monsoon season and the ongoing diversions for irrigation season, which continue into the fall, current river conditions are already stressful for the fish, Chart said. Water managers say they have seen fish using fish ladders to swim upstream and downstream of the 15-mile reach in search of deeper, cooler water.

“As far as concern about the ecological health of the 15-mile reach right now, we are very concerned about conditions there right now,” Chart said. “Native fish do move out of those dewatered stretches in search of better conditions.”

A debris flow on top of these already-challenging conditions could be devastating for fish populations.

“The potential with the Grizzly Creek Fire could be as bad as it gets if we get a rainstorm on top of a low baseflow,” Chart said. “You pray for rain, but at the same time this would be a tough time to get a flow of ash and retardant off the burned area.”

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Experts are concerned that rain on the Grizzly Creek Fire burn area could create ash and sediment flows that could pose a threat to fish. Map credit: CWCB

Burned area assessment begins

The U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team has done a preliminary assessment of the severity of the soil burns to determine where debris flows would most likely occur, according to Lisa Stoeffler, deputy forest supervisor for the White River National Forest.

Areas of concern include Dead Horse Creek, Cinnamon Creek and No Name Creek, among others. More than an inch of rain in an hour — or a quarter-inch in 15 minutes, as occurs in a fast-moving thunderstorm — could trigger a debris flow, the BAER team found.

But this initial assessment, Stoeffler said, is mostly focused on potential impacts to Interstate 70, and water and power infrastructure, not on impacts to the aquatic environment.

“We may look at environment later on, once we have a final footprint of the fire,” she said. “The BAER process is really looking at things that we would need to address because it would cause an emergency-type situation.”

When the Grizzly Creek Fire first broke out, the city of Glenwood Springs switched its municipal water source from Grizzly and No Name creeks, which are near the burned area, to the Roaring Fork River.

“We are concerned about the ash and debris entering the water system and the costs we are going to incur because of this,” said Hannah Klausman, public information officer for Glenwood Springs.

The 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near 19 Road in Grand Junction is home to four species of endangered fish. The Colorado River Water Conservation District is discussing releasing water from upstream reservoirs to help dilute any ash and sediment flows from the Grizzly Creek Fire. Photo © Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Solution is dilution

Since preventing the dirty runoff from reaching the river would be difficult, if not impossible, in the steep, rocky terrain, the best bet, Chart said, would be tapping into upstream reservoir water to flush sediment and ash.

In other words: The solution to pollution is dilution.

The Roaring Fork River, which flows into the Colorado at Glenwood Springs, also would help dilute the ash and sediment before it got to the 15-mile reach. Some of it would probably settle out before it got there anyway. But that would do little to help native fish populations closer to the burn area. Although not listed as endangered, other species such as flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub also could be impacted.

“We get concerned about the endangered fish the most, but it’s really the entire native fish community we need to be paying attention to,” Chart said.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District has some water in Wolford and Ruedi reservoirs that could potentially be used for a flushing flow. But it would take careful coordination between reservoir operators. And it could be a complicated juggling act to figure out how to accommodate all the different demands for that limited water supply, said River District chief engineer John Currier.

“I think we stand ready to try and figure out how to do something,” Currier said. “It will be a topic of discussion sooner rather than later.”

Managing the impacts of the burned landscape on the fish will be ongoing long after the fire is extinguished.

“I think this is going to be an issue for years to come,” Chart said. “That landscape is going to take a long time to heal.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 26 edition of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily.

#Drought conditions take their toll on Blue Mesa and other area reservoirs — The Montrose Daily Press #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Blue Mesa Reservoir September 2017

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

As drought conditions hammer the state, area reservoirs are shrinking, with Blue Mesa predicted to end the year at 23 feet below its winter target.

Despite the past winter season bringing nearly average snowpack, runoff throughout the Gunnison Basin fell well below average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s spring forecast and runoff review, provided Aug. 20.

Warm weather brought the snowpack off the mountains early and summer monsoons failed to provide much of a meaningful drink, while extraordinarily hot, dry conditions persist.

For the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association’s storage accounts in area reservoirs, conditions are mixed.

Taylor Park Reservoir

Taylor Park Reservoir, which is at about 72 percent of full capacity, is OK for the association, manager Steve Anderson said. The UVWUA’s storage account there is full, with only about 20,000 acre feet used.

“That’s not the case with our storage in Ridgway (Reservoir). We’ll use all our storage this year out of Ridgway. We’ll have to replenish that one with the winter,” Anderson said.

Ridgway Dam

The UVWUA has been running its delivery of water to shareholders at 80 percent. “Which, in a year like we’ve had, is good,” Anderson said. “With the limited supply, we’ve managed to meet demand at 80 percent.”

The largest impoundment managed in the Aspinall Unit, Blue Mesa Reservoir, peaked at 604,000 acre feet, which is 25 feet below full.

As of Aug. 20, the reservoir was at 521,000 acre feet and peak flow targets for the Black Canyon and lower Gunnison River at Whitewater were met, although the base flow targets for Whitewater were lowered under drought rule provisions.

Aspinall Unit

Paonia Reservoir had shriveled to 2 percent of full capacity, while Silver Jack was reported at 46 percent of full.

Paonia is basically empty, but that isn’t unusual, given the dry year, BuRec hydrologist Erik Knight said.

Paonia Reservoir

“They chose to use their full supply of reservoir water as best they could, but being a small reservoir, sometimes it only lasts until August. So it’s not surprising, at least to us or them, that it’s gone already,” he said.

The reservoir is expected to stay empty as long as more senior water right priorities keep the call on the North Fork of the Gunnison, Knight said.

Other reservoirs in the Aspinall fared better, with Ridgway showing at 71 percent, Crystal at 88 percent and Morrow Point at 94 percent.

Bureau of Reclamation’s spring forecast and runoff review noted the early melt-off of the snowpack. Although rains at the start of June kept flows into reservoirs in the Aspinall Unit elevated longer than was expected, those levels plunged to “much below normal” by mid-month. Monsoon activity was anemic, providing “almost no precipitation this summer,” the report also said.

Since runoff ended, hot and dry conditions have prevailed, with near-record dry conditions occurring in April and May. Although those actual conditions caused a higher than normal forecast error, actual runoff volume still fell within the lower range of predictions.

The National Weather Service’s August weather outlook did not hold encouraging news. It found a high probability of below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures heading into fall…

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows all of Colorado in at least moderate drought, with Montrose and surrounding counties in either severe or extreme drought.

The monitor on Aug. 20 noted temperature-breaking records in cities across the West, as well as massive wildfires that broke out in California. The monitor’s report, too, calls the monsoon season a “bust” for much of the Southwest.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Releases to turn down 50 CFS on August 17, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1650 cfs to 1600 cfs on Monday, August 17th. Releases are being adjusted to bring flows closer to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 650 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Baseflow target adjusted to 900 CFS, August 13, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Blue Mesa Reservoir, Curecanti National Recreation Area. Photo credit: Victoria Stauffenberg via Wikimedian Commons

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1600 cfs to 1650 cfs on Thursday, August 13th. Releases are being adjusted to raise flows back to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to trend up toward the baseflow target after the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 650 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: ~1050 CFS in the Gunnison Tunnel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1550 cfs to 1600 cfs on Friday, August 7th. Releases are being adjusted to raise flows back to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to trend up toward the baseflow target after the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 550 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall unit operations update: 500 CFS in Black Canyon starting August 5, 2020

Black Canyon July 2020. Photo credit: Cari Bischoff

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1450 cfs to 1500 cfs on Wednesday, August 5th. Releases are being adjusted to raise flows back to the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 57% of average.

There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to trend up toward the baseflow target after the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 450 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 500 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

If the water goes, the desert moves in: “…there’s just no low-snow anymore — and it’s not coming back (Jim Gillespie)” — Writers on the Range #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From Dave Marston (Writers on the Range):

Paonia, a small town in western Colorado with a handful of mesas rising above it, wouldn’t green-up without water diverted from a river or mountain springs. The lively water travels through irrigation ditches for miles to gardens and small farms below. But this summer, irrigation ditches were going dry, and one, the Minnesota Canal and Reservoir Company, stopped sending water down to its 100-plus customers as early as July 13.

Drought was hitting the state and much of the West hard, but a local cause was surprising: Water theft.

Longtime residents who gather inside Paonia’s hub of information trading, Reedy’s Service Station, have a fund of stories about water theft. It’s not unusual, they say, that a rock just happens to dam a ditch, steering water toward a homeowner’s field. Sometimes, says farmer Jim Gillespie, 89, that rock even develops feet and crosses a road.

But this is comparatively minor stuff, says North Fork Water Commissioner Luke Reschke, as stealing ditchwater is a civil offense. Stealing water from a natural waterway, however, is a crime that can bring fines of $500 per day and jail time. That’s why what was happening to people who depend on the Minnesota Canal company for their fields or gardens was serious: Water was being taken from Minnesota Creek before it could be legally diverted for irrigation to paying customers.

Once the ditch company “called” for its water as of June 8, only holders of patented water rights could legally touch the creek. Yet during three trips to the creek’s beginning, starting in mid-June, and then in mid-July, I noticed that two ranches – without water rights — were harvesting bumper crops of hay. How could that have happened unless they’d illegally diverted water to their fields?

At first, no one would talk about the early-drying ditch except to hint broadly that it wasn’t normal. Then one man stepped up: Dick Kendall, a longtime board member of the Minnesota canal company, and manager of its reservoir. “On July 5,” he told me, “I saw water diverted from the creek onto one of the rancher’s land. And I wasn’t quiet about it.”

Kendall reported what he saw to Commissioner Luke Reschke, who oversees the area’s 600 springs, ditches and canals. Reschke dismissed it, he told me, because “The rumor mill is something else on Minnesota Creek. The only people who give me trouble are the new people who don’t know how the system works.” But locals say that four years back, Reschke’s predecessor, Steve Tuck, investigated when locals complained.

Though it may not be neighborly, stopping any illegal diversion is important, said Bob Reedy, owner of Reedy’s Station: “Without water, you’ve got nothing around here.” Annual rainfall is just 15 inches per year, and without water flowing into irrigation canals from the 10,000-foot mountains around town, much of the land would look like the high desert it truly is.

But it’s not just a couple of high-elevation ranchers dipping into the creek. The West Elk Coal Mine runs large pumps that supply water for its methane drilling and venting operations in the Minnesota Creek watershed.

Mine spokesperson Kathy Welt, said the diversion is legal, and that they only take early-season water when the creek water isn’t on call. That early water, however, is what begins to fill the Minnesota ditch’s reservoir.

In other ways, the mine has damaged the watershed by building a sprawling network of roads in the Sunset Roadless Area (Threats at West Elk Mine). A cease and desist order from the State Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety on June 10, sought by environmental groups, halted the building of an additional 1.6 miles of new roads this spring (Colorado Sun). Satellite images of the road network resemble a vast KOA Campground: Where trees once held back water and shaded snowpack from early melting, their replacement — gravel roads –- shed water and add to early runoff.

For all of Minnesota Ditch’s challenges, warming temperatures brought about by climate change could be the real challenge. Kendall said that this spring, when he plowed out the Minnesota Reservoir road, dust covered the parched ground beneath the snow.

Water — so precious to grow grapes, hay, organic vegetables and grass-fed beef, and to keep the desert at bay — had vanished early on Lamborn Mesa above Paonia. Farmer Gillespie summed it up, “there’s just no low-snow anymore — and it’s not coming back.”

David Marston. Photo credit: Writers on the Range

David Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, (writersontherange.com), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives part-time in Colorado.

Gothic permanently protected under conservation easement: Research and education in perpetuity

Gothic mountain shrouded in clouds behind several cabins in the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado, USA. By Charlie DeTar – Own workby uploader, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4795644

From The Crested Butte News (Katherine Nettles):

We all may be missing visits to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic this summer, but a conservation easement finalized last week ensures that the 92-year-old research site will remain in perpetuity beyond just one summer season.

The RMBL site itself has been relatively quiet this summer with its usual camps, tours, cafeteria, visitor center/general store and coffee house closed to the public to protect researchers and staff from the risks of coronavirus.

But a smaller number of field scientists are conducting their own business as usual there and RMBL announced on Thursday, July 16, that its 270-acre “living laboratory” has been permanently protected under a conservation easement with Colorado Open Lands for the entire town of Gothic.

The contract will create requirements for RMBL to uphold its mission for research and science, and will in turn protect the area from development beyond those purposes…

The conservation easement prevents subdivision of and development on the land and preserves the site for education and recreation into perpetuity…

This means, as RMBL stated in a press release, “that the hundreds of scientists and students that RMBL normally hosts each year have guaranteed access to conduct field research in a large, intact outdoor environment and that tens of thousands of visitors will have unique opportunities to explore environmental science in a beautiful and informal setting.”

[…]

As RMBL executive director Dr. Ian Billick phrased it, “The community can know that the Gothic Townsite is dedicated to research and education in perpetuity.”

All of the buildings must have a primary purpose of research and education. There are several buildings outside the building envelope, which Billick explains are in an avalanche zone and will eventually be replaced by structures inside the building envelope…

In 1997, Gunnison County voters approved a 1 percent sales tax to fund the protection of open space, agriculture, wildlife habitat, wetlands and public parks and trails. With these funds, the Gunnison Valley Land Protection Fund provided a transaction costs grant to support this project. The cost was $65,000, according to Billick.

Tony Caligiuri, president of Colorado Open Lands added, “This is a unique opportunity for a land trust to conserve an entire town, and knowing that the space will be used in perpetuity to advance critical research makes it even more meaningful.”

Conditions ‘pretty grim’ for endangered fish locally due to falling river flows — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

This map shows the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction, home to four species of endangered fish. Water from Ruedi Reservoir flows down the Fryingpan River and into the Roaring Fork, which flows into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs. Map credit: CWCB

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun asking for water releases from high-country reservoirs to boost water flows in the Colorado River upstream of the Gunnison River confluence and aid endangered fish, while being careful not to exhaust available water that may be needed for the species later in the year.

The agency is seeing what U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hydrologist Don Anderson on Wednesday said are “quickly deteriorating flow conditions” on what’s called the 15-Mile Reach of the river between the Gunnison confluence and where Grand Valley irrigation diversions occur upstream.

Speaking in a conference call with upstream reservoir operators, local irrigation officials and others who work to cooperatively manage Colorado River flow levels, he said flows in the stretch Wednesday were around 450 cubic feet per second. The longterm median flow at Palisade below where Grand Valley diversions occur is 1,780 cfs for July 23, according to U.S. Geological Survey streamflow data.

Anderson told call participants that according to a report from Fish and Wildlife Service colleague Dale Ryden, fish conditions in the 15-mile stretch “are getting pretty grim.”

[…]

There, when water is low the fish are more prone to predation, exposure to more sun especially in clearer-water conditions, and even impacts from recreational river use, Anderson said. The latter is on the upswing on that river stretch as people are restless due to the pandemic and looking to get outdoors.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and partners make use of water leases and contracts, coordinated releases from upstream reservoirs and other means to enhance flows in the river stretch.

Anderson has asked for releases totaling 150 cubic feet per second from three upstream reservoirs to boost flow levels in the stretch. While he indicated a desire to further increase flows, he’s balancing that against a desire to not too quickly go through what he referred to as firm sources of water to hit an ideal flow target, in case some of that water is needed later in the year…

Anderson said some endangered fish, such as young Colorado pikeminnow, are reportedly responding to the current conditions by moving to the lower Gunnison River, which currently has more favorable flows and turbid conditions that benefit them…

One bright spot is the moister weather that is arriving in Colorado and could boost river flows. Treste Huse, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said during Wednesday’s call that a more active seasonal monsoon pattern is setting up that will bring a steady increase in moisture to the region over the next several days. While the most rain is expected in southwest and south-central Colorado, she said a total of maybe 1.5 to 3 inches of rain is possible in north-central Colorado. She said the 30-day outlook now calls for an equal chance of above- or below-average precipitation…

Another development that will boost the river’s flows is the expected restoration of operations at Xcel Energy’s Shoshone hydroelectric power plant in Glenwood Canyon by the end of this week. That plant has a senior 1,250-cfs water right but was damaged by river ice this spring. Flows just above the plant have fallen below that point but will be boosted once the plant exercises its right to call for more water.

Endangered fish potentially could benefit later this year from what’s called a historic users pool of water in Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County. While the pool was created for irrigators, municipal and other water users, some years surplus water from that pool can be used to boost fish flows.

he fish also stand to gain this year from the efforts of the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust. Last year it reached a five-year agreement with the Grand Valley Waters Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, which operate the Grand Valley Power Plant hydroelectric facility near Palisade. The deal calls for the Colorado Water Trust to secure water from upstream sources to deliver to the plant at critical times of year, boosting the plant’s operational capacity when water supply is otherwise limited while also putting more water in the 15-mile river stretch.

The penstocks and main building at the Shoshone hydropower plant, which uses water diverted from the Colorado River to produce electricity. The Shoshone Outage Protocol keeps water flowing down the Colorado River when the hydro plant is inoperable. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Aspinall Unit operations update: 1050 CFS through the Gunnison Tunnel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1550 cfs to 1450 cfs on Tuesday, July 21st. Releases are being adjusted to maintain flows near the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The July 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 57% of average for April-July inflows.

There is a drought rule in the Aspinall Unit Operations EIS which has changed the baseflow target at the Whitewater gage. The rule states that during Dry or Moderately Dry years, when the content of Blue Mesa Reservoir drops below 600,000 AF the baseflow target is reduced from 1050 cfs to 900 cfs. Therefore, the baseflow target for July and August will now be 900 cfs.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 550 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 450 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Grand opening of the Gunnison Tunnel in Colorado 1909. Photo credit USBR.

A world-renowned #climate research site near #CrestedButte is now protected by a #conservationeasement — The #Colorado Sun

Gothic mountain shrouded in clouds behind several cabins in the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado, USA. By Charlie DeTar – Own workby uploader, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4795644

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic has spent almost a century working to protect pristine swaths of wild lands. The research site, which draws scientists from across the globe every summer and ranks among the world’s largest, oldest and most productive field stations, now is permanently protecting its entire 270-acre research site.

As part of a deal announced Thursday, the lab above Crested Butte — known locally as “Rumble” — is protected under a conservation easement with Colorado Open Lands, ensuring that the hundreds of scientists and students who convene at the remote research station can continue their ecological research free from the ever-creeping threat of development…

Formed in 1928 in the abandoned mining town of Gothic, the lab’s natural landscape in the headwaters of the Elk Range’s East River has hosted a rotating array of scientists who have published more than 1,900 studies. Landmark research into wildlife, insects, habitats, soil, water ecology and the roaming impacts of climate change has flowered in the undisturbed high-altitude terrain surrounding the laboratory.

And the lab has played a critical role in conservation in Colorado, working with advocacy groups to manage protected land. The lab manages the Mexican Cut Preserve atop the Elks’ Galena Mountain, which was the first property protected by The Nature Conservancy in Colorado in 1966. The lab has helped many conservation groups with the management of protected landscapes, including, most recently, the protection of 4,377 acres of working ranch land — the venerable Trampe Ranch — in the Gunnison River and Upper East River valleys. That easement — funded with a $10 million grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, the group’s largest single transaction — protects acreage that borders Rocky Mountain Biological Lab…

“From an ecological standpoint, this is the capstone of the conservation work in that basin. This is at the very top of the Trampe Ranch conservation easement, which protects the whole valley,” said Tony Caligiuri, the executive director of Colorado Open Lands.

There was potential that a deep-pocketed developer with big dreams could scheme a ski resort or community development around Gothic, Caligiuri said, which could threaten the work done to protect the Trampe Ranch. The conservation easement also protects RMBL’s water rights, which were among the first in Colorado and helped establish the now commonly accepted value of leaving water in streams to support wildlife, habitat and recreation…

Caligiuri said about half of all the working ranchland in the Gunnison River Valley has been protected with easements that prevent development. Colorado Open Lands has protected 69 properties totaling more than 25,000 acres in Gunnison County, where voters in 1997 passed a 1% sales tax to fund the protection of open space…

“In some places with high development pressures, agriculture can become a small niche. The Gunnison River Basin is a place that will be guaranteed to remain in agriculture for as long as we can imagine. And now it continues and can be economically viable,” said Caligiuri, who believes the conservation easement over an entire historic town and surrounding acreage — all owned by Rocky Mountain Biological Lab — is a first for Colorado.

Gothic may have been established as a silver mining camp, but it has survived on science. The Rocky Mountain Biological Lab has built housing, research areas, a community center and more since it moved in. Now, as many as 150 biologists gather at the lab every summer. (In the winter, Gothic is accessible only by a long walk or ski.)

The science that flows from the lab’s visiting researchers is one of the world’s largest collections of ongoing research. Those note-takers include Gothic’s longest running resident, billy barr, the capital-letter eschewing citizen scientist who moved to a remote cabin in Gothic 48 years ago and began tracking observations on the weather. (He’s not going anywhere, by the way.)

His daily measurements have made the reclusive barr a sort of accidental apostle among climate researchers, with hundreds of notebooks detailing decades of daily high and low temperatures, snowfall, snowpack and snow water equivalent.

Billy Barr photo via Sotheby’s

His data are now some of the country’s most detailed observations of a warming climate with shrinking winters and climbing temps.

June/July 2020 Newsletter is hot off the presses from The Water Information Program

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Basin Implementation Plan Update
Ed Tolen, SW Basin 1st Vice Chair, explained that in January a sub-committee was set up to select a local expert to work with the SW Basin Roundtable on updating the Basin Implementation Plan (BIP). From the proposals received the committee chose Harris Water Engineers to be local expert. Steve Harris (Harris Water Engineering) will no longer participate on the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) or the SW Basin Roundtable, and Carrie Padgett, P.E. of Harris Water will also step down from the SW Basin Roundtable. Roundtable elections will take place in October, Officer elections will take place in July.

There will be a team approach to working on the BIP update that will include the SW Basin Roundtable, the Local Experts (Harris Water Engineers), who work with the General Contractor (Brown and Caldwell) and the CWCB.

Matt Lindberg with Brown/Caldwell, the General Contractor, gave a presentation on next steps regarding the BIP review process. The purpose of the review and update is to improve project data, unpack technical update, revisit goals and objectives and invest in process efficiency.

The timeline for the BIP update is as follows:

  • March – August 2020 – Local Expert Workshops, Work Plans and Project lists.
  • September – December 2020 – Basin Analysis/Study
  • January – December 2021 – Update the Basin Implementation Plan
  • December to March 2022 – Incorporate Updated BIP’s into the Water Plan Update
  • To view the full Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan go here.

    A power switch in Colorado — The Mountain Town News

    South Canal. Photo credit: Delta-Montrose Electric Association via The Mountain Town News

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    Delta-Montrose Electric splits the sheets with Tri-State G&T. Will others follow?

    At the stroke of midnight [July 1, 2020], Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric Association officially became independent of Tri-State Generation and Transmission.

    The electrical cooperative in west-central Colorado is at least $26 million poorer. That was the cost of getting out of its all-requirements for wholesale supplies from Tri-State 20 years early. But Delta-Montrose expects to be richer in coming years as local resources, particularly photovoltaic solar, get developed with the assistance of the new wholesale provider Guzman Energy.

    The separation was amicable, the parting announced in a joint press release. But the relationship had grown acrimonious after Delta-Montrose asked Tri-State for an exit fee in early 2017.

    Tri-State had asked for $322 million, according to Virginia Harmon, chief operating officer for Delta-Montrose. This figure had not been divulged previously.

    The two sides reached a settlement in July 2019 and in April 2020 revealed the terms: Guzman will pay Tri-State $72 million for the right to take over the contract, and Delta-Montrose itself will pay $26 million to Tri-State for transmission assets. In addition, Delta-Montrose forewent $48 million in capital credits.

    Under its contract with Guzman, Delta-Montrose has the ability to generate or buy 20% of its own electricity separate from Guzman. In addition, the contract specifies that Guzman will help Delta-Montrose develop 10 megawatts of generation. While much of that can be expected to be photovoltaic, Harmon says all forms of local generation remain on the table: additional small hydro, geothermal, and coal-mine methane. One active coal mine in the co-operative’s service territory near Paonia continues operation.

    The North Fork Valley, part of the service territory of Delta-Montrose Electric, has been known for its organic fruits and vegetables — including corn. Photo/Allen Best

    The dispute began in 2005 when Tri-State asked member cooperatives to extend their contracts from 2040 to 2050 in order for Tri-State to build a coal plant in Kansas. Delta-Montrose refused.

    Friction continued as Delta-Montrose set out to develop hydropower on the South Canal, an idea that had been on the table since 1909, when President William Howard Taft arrived to help dedicate the project. Delta-Montrose succeeded but then bumped up against the 5% cap on self-generation that was part of the contract.

    This is the second cooperative to leave Tri-State in recent years, but two more are banging on the door to get out. First out was Kit Carson Electrical Cooperative of Taos, N.M. It left in 2016 after Guzman paid the $37 million exit fee. There is general agreement that the Kit Carson exit and that of Delta-Montrose cannot be compared directly, Gala to Gala, or even Honeycrisp to Granny Smith.

    Yet direct comparisons were part of the nearly week-long session before a Colorado Public Utilities Commission administrative law judge in May. Two Colorado cooperatives have asked Tri-State what it will cost to break their contracts, which continue until 2050. Brighton-based United Power, with 93,000 customers, is the largest single member of Tri-State and Durango-based La Plata the third largest. Together, the two dissident cooperatives are responsible for 20% of Tri-States total sales.

    The co-operatives say they expect a recommendation from the administrative law judge who heard the case at the PUC. The PUC commissioners will then take up the recommendation.

    In April, Tri-State members approved a new methodology for determining member exit fees. But United Power said the methodology would make it financially impossible to leave and, if applied to all remaining members, would produce a windfall of several billion dollars for Tri-State. In a lawsuit filed in Adams County District Court, United claims Tri-State crossed the legal line to “imprison” it in a contract to 250.

    Tri-State also applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a bid to have that body in Washington D.C. determine exit fees. FERC recently accepted the contract termination payment filing—rejecting arguments that it did not have jurisdiction. Jessica Matlock, general manager of La Plata Electric, said the way FERC accepted the filing does not preclude the case in Colorado from going forward.

    Fitch, a credit-rating company, cited the ongoing dispute with two of Tri-State’s largest members among many other factors in downgrading the debate to A-. It previously was A. Fitch also downgraded Tri-State’s $500 million commercial paper program, of which $140 million is currently outstanding, to F1 from F1+.

    “The rating downgrades reflect challenging transitions in Tri-State’s operating profile and the related impact on its financial profile,” Fitch said in its report on Friday. It described Tri-State as “stable.”

    For broader background see: The Delta-Montrose story is a microcosm of the upside down 21st century energy world

    Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 303.463.8630.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: 750 CFS in Black Canyon #runoff

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased to 1650 cfs on Tuesday, June 30th. Releases are being adjusted to maintain flows near the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River. The June 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 59% of average for April-July inflows.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target after the release decrease has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

    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 1050 cfs for June through August.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 750 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 650 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

    State takes action against West Elk Mine expansion into protected #Colorado Roadless Area — The Crested Butte News

    West Elk Mine. Photo credit Colorado Division of Mining, Minerals and Geology.

    From The Crested Butte News:

    The Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety (DRMS) issued a cessation order to Mountain Coal Company, a subsidiary of Missouri-based Arch Coal and operator of the West Elk Mine in the North Fork Valley near Paonia, to prevent further road construction or tree removal within the protected Sunset Colorado Roadless Area (CRA). The 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule, one of two state rules adopted by the U.S. Forest Service in lieu of the 2001 federal roadless rule, limits road-building and other activities within undeveloped roadless areas.

    The cessation order was issued following the construction of a new road in the Sunset CRA by Mountain Coal Company earlier this month. Mining activities have been allowed in the Sunset CRA in the past as a result of the “North Fork Exception” to the Colorado Roadless Rule.

    However, in March, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service had not followed procedures required by the National Environmental Protection Act when it reinstated the exception in a 2016 land use plan, and ordered the exception be vacated by the District Court of Colorado. On Monday, the District Court issued an order formally vacating the North Fork Exception.

    With the North Fork exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule vacated this week, the company must comply with the provisions of the Colorado Roadless Rule which precludes road building, other construction, and most surface disturbance. As a result, DRMS issued an order for the company to cease road building and other associated activities in the Sunset CRA. DRMS’ order does not prohibit the company from continuing its current operations below the surface at the mine.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: 1040 CFS through the Gunnison Tunnel

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased to 1650 cfs on Friday, June 19th. Releases are being increased to maintain flows in the lower Gunnison River. The June 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 59% of average for April-July inflows.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently below the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to return to levels above the baseflow target once the release increase has arrived at the Whitewater gage.

    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 1050 cfs for June through August.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 430 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 630 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

    Webinar: “Gunnison State of the River” — The Colorado River District #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Upper Gunnison watershed May 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

    Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

    Gunnison State of the River

    Description
    Learn about current Gunnison Basin water conditions, drought, and water planning at the virtual Gunnison State of the River meeting hosted by the Colorado River District.

    Agenda

    •Bob Hurford, Division 4 (Gunnison Basin) engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, will talk about the weak winter snowpack, the dry spring and how these factors are affecting streamflows, reservoir storage and water rights administration.

    •Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, will address the “Protection of West Slope water as we face an uncertain future.”

    • Molly Mugglestone, director of communications and Colorado policy for Business for Water Stewardship, will present on a study that found Colorado’s rivers are major economic drivers producing nearly $19 billion in output annually from people recreating on or near rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs and waterways.

    • Tom Alvey, head of the projects committee for the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, and Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the River District, will discuss hot water topics in the basin including drought, fruit freezes, an update of the roundtable’s water plan for the region, how the new crops of hemp and hops are working and the River District’s Lower Gunnison Project.

    Time
    Jun 24, 2020 06:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)

    Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

    Aspinall Unit Operations Update

    Aspinall Unit April – July, 2020 Forecasted Inflow

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir
    Current Forecast (June 1) = 395,000 AF (59% of average)

    Blue Mesa Reservoir current conditions
    Content = 595,000 AF (72% full)
    Elevation = 7491.7 ft
    Inflow = 2200 cfs

    Crystal Release = 1450 cfs
    Gunnison Tunnel diversion = 1050 cfs
    Gunnison River flow = 430 cfs

    Spring Operations Summary

    Aspinall Unit Operations ROD

    Hydrologic Category = Moderately Dry
    Peak Flow = 4510 cfs
    Duration at Peak Flow = 1 day

    Baseflow Target: June/July/Aug = 1050 cfs

    (Point of measurement is the Gunnison River near Grand Junction streamgage, commonly called the Gunnison River at Whitewater)

    Black Canyon Water Right

    Peak Flow = 2840 cfs (24 hour duration)
    Shoulder Flow Target = 300 cfs (May 1 – July 25)

    (Point of measurement is the Gunnison River below Gunnison Tunnel streamgage at the upstream boundary of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park)

    Projected Operations

    Gunnison River flows (Black Canyon/Gunnison Gorge)
    Currently around 400 cfs, possibly increasing to 600-700 cfs during July-August
    Projected Blue Mesa Reservoir maximum fill = 620,000 AF at 7495 ft elevation
    Projected Blue Mesa Reservoir conditions on Dec 31 = 473,000 AF at 7475 ft elevation

    Click here to read the current Aspinall Unit Forecast.

    Aspinall Unit dams

    A little #whitewater near #CrestedButte

    Coronavirus makes summer hard to predict, but outdoor recreation maintains strong engagement with local residents — The Montrose Press #runoff

    Rafters enjoy a day on the Gunnison River near Gunnison, Colo., on May 17, 2020. The Gunnison is flowing at about 80 percent of its normal volume for this time of year. Overall, Colorado’s snowpack is melting faster than usual. Along with lower river flows the presence of COVID-19 is creating challenges for commercial river running companies as well as private boaters. Credit: Dean Krakel/Special to Fresh Water News

    From The Montrose Press (Josue Perez):

    Warm weather and spring runoff signal the start of rafting season for many outfitters in Colorado.

    Although the state currently has COVID-19 travel and recreation recommendations, recreation is still in full swing, even with safety measures in place.

    The Bureau of Land Management’s public lands are open for use, including the Gunnison Gorge. However, BLM has recommendations in place:

  • Bringing own supplies
  • Packing out personal trash
  • Reduce cash payments, pay through http://recreation.gov.
  • Visitors are asked to follow state and local guidelines, which means groups must be limited to 10 people or fewer.

    The Gunnison Gorge has experienced similar activity from outfitters looking to raft and fish, said Eric Coulter, BLM public affairs specialist for Southwest Colorado…

    According to a report released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, in 2019, 3.3% of Colorado’s economy was attributed to outdoor recreation. Its estimated $11.3 billion in value added 146,178 jobs…

    Joel Aslanian, owner of Gunnison River Guides, has plenty of Gunnison locals booking rafting trips. Though, at the moment, only those who fall under “essential travel” (having a second home locally means having reason for essential travel) are allowed to schedule float trips with a guide. This includes those who wish to fish on the river as well.

    According to Gunnison County’s public health order, beginning Wednesday, May 27, all non-residents are permitted to travel to Gunnison County as long as state and local governments allow them to visit.

    Since the guides are usually limited to three people or fewer per trip, Aslanian can guide under restrictions. He and others on the raft are required to wear a mask.

    June and July are usually when Aslanian sees most of his business. As restrictions begin to gradually loosen through the state’s orders, he anticipates people will still want to recreate, even if it’s slower than previous years…

    Ridgway State Park is open, said Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, but to camp, a reservation must be made prior to arrival.

    Showers, in-person service at the visitor center, and swimming at the swim beach are closed at this time. However, Lewandowski anticipates the swim beach will open in the next week or so.

    Lewandowski noted he’s seeing normal activity and there hasn’t been a lag in those who wish to recreate at Ridgway Reservoir. CPW is asking people to continue to maintain safety measures for guests and staff.

    OPINION: Colorado’s farm-to-table capital is under threat from drilling — The Montrose Press

    Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

    From The Montrose Press (Molly Moore):

    A Saturday morning stroll through your local farmers market, is there anything like it? It’s a popular way that many Front Range people decide to spend their weekends, where you get to peruse the abundance and score some of the best food you can buy.

    They fill their baskets with organically grown produce, chat with a farmer, walk over to a food truck for a coffee and a pastry and head home with their bounty. These brief interactions allow people to connect with where their food is grown, and put a face to the people who run these farms. But those interactions are threatened, and no, not because of COVID-19.

    I am the Board President of the Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA), representing over 125 farmers, ranchers, vineyard owners and related business operators in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado, many of whom travel to the Front Range to provide food to residents, restaurants, and breweries.

    We take pride in being able to grow high-quality food, carefully tended and responsibly grown without additives or chemicals.

    We also take pride in providing that food to Coloradans throughout the state. For many of us farmers, the food we grow is an extension of our personalities and represents us and our businesses.

    VOGA’s vision is to create a vibrant community of prosperous, local farms that sustain the land and provide healthy agricultural products. To achieve this vision, we are dependent on our public lands.

    Earlier this month, the Trump Administration approved a plan that puts the farms in our watershed at serious risk. The Bureau of Land Management’s final plan for the North Fork Valley opens our public lands to oil and gas drilling while removing protections for everything else that matters to us in the North Fork Valley.

    For the past 10 years, the Bureau of Land Management has been rewriting a plan to manage the public land in the North Fork Valley. Our area is approximately 40% public land, which includes the headwaters of streams, rivers and ditches that supply irrigation water to our local farms.

    VOGA has been participating and commenting on the BLM’s plan every step of the way. We even helped write our own proposal, called the North Fork Alternative, for how public land should be managed in our watershed.

    The North Fork Alternative represents a locally grown vision for the North Fork Valley that would keep energy development away from sensitive areas and fosters a diverse, resilient economy. We were glad to see that the BLM included the North Fork Alternative in the planning process in 2016.

    In the name of energy dominance, however, the Trump Administration completely dismissed our proposal last week and opened the entirety of our watershed to oil and gas development, without proper restrictions to protect our farms, our food or our livelihoods.

    If resource extraction takes off in our watershed, our waterways may become polluted, ruining our region’s model for farm-to-table community agriculture.

    Earlier this year, VOGA received a grant to conduct a study on our member’s economic impact within Delta County. For the 167 members of our association, we found the estimated total market value of our farms to be $50-60 million, with estimated annual gross sales to be $4.1 million.

    If we want to maintain these numbers and build upon them to support a sustainable, resilient local economy, we need strong protections for our lands, air and water. And that begins with stipulations set forth in the BLM’s plan.

    Luckily, Sen. Michael Bennet is on our side. Time and again, his commitment to working with local farmers, ranchers, business owners and conservationists has shined through in the face of this terrible plan.

    And now it is no different. Sen. Bennet, thank you for your commitment to protecting the North Fork Valley, and we hope to work with you on a path forward, as farmers and as the local community.

    Molly Moore is the Board President of the Valley Organic Growers Association.

    Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

    @USBR: Aspinall Unit Spring Operations update

    The latest “Gunnison River Basin News” is hot off the presses from the @GunnisonRiver Basin Roundtable

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

    Snow melting, rivers flowing, canals filling
    Fields prepared, seeds planted, crops emerging
    Spring returns – rejuvenating

    Greetings from Kathleen Curry, Gunnison Basin Round Table Chair

    Kathleen Curry. Photo credit: Gunnison Basin Roundtable

    First, on behalf of the Gunnison River Basin Roundtable (GRBT) I want to thank everyone involved in putting this monthly newsletter out! This is the inaugural greeting from the Chair of the GBRT and we hope to make this a monthly feature of the Gunnison Basin Newsletter.

    I think, now more than ever, that it is critical to expand communications from the water community. The threats we face are growing, especially now as we are in the throes of Covid-19 response measures.

    Where does the water community fit in as we all wrestle with the uncertainty, fear, frustration, and the economic devastation associated with the Covid-19 pandemic?

    Water supply and water management clearly fall into the “Essential Services” category. Drinking water still needs to be delivered, even if some customers can’t afford to pay their bills. Wastewater still needs to be treated, regardless of the financial crunch. The world needs to be fed. Crops need to be planted, water needs to be diverted, infrastructure needs to be maintained, the work goes on.

    From a Gunnison basin perspective, I am thankful that the runoff should be near average (can you imagine if we had a severe drought on top of all that is currently happening?!) the creeks are starting to run, the Gunnison Tunnel is diverting, irrigators are hard at work getting their water into the fields, crops are emerging, calves are being born, and the agricultural sector remains the backbone of our economy, paying its employees, supporting local hardware stores, implement dealers, coops and more.

    On the municipal side, clean, safe drinking water is being treated and delivered to thirsty customers. Wastewater operators are keeping our rivers clean. And we are all banking on a future that looks like some kind of return to normalcy. One that is marked by selling annual crops and cattle at a decent market price, providing our citizens with high quality meat and produce and enabling folks to enjoy the way of life we have come to appreciate, and love, in our basin.

    But anxiety persists. “What if the commodity markets collapse?” “What if our customers can’t pay their bills?”

    The situation is worsened because we have little or no control over worldwide market forces that could cause a major, market collapse.
    Fortunately, there is something that we can do individually and collectively – our actions can help limit the spread of the disease. Work from home and stay at home when possible. Don’t stand close to anyone, wear a mask, wear gloves. Take special care with vulnerable populations, be patient.

    I REALLY feel for all of the folks that are out of work, and the small businesses that may never re-open and the lost loved ones and the scariness of this disease.

    As all of us in the Gunnison Basin do our best to move forward with our lives, let’s hope that we can keep the timeframe on this disruption to a minimum. – Kathleen Curry, Gunnison

    Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

    A Western Slope community wants to move beyond its #coal legacy. The @POTUS Administration wants “energy dominance.” — The #ColoradoSun #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

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

    From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

    The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley.

    For nearly a decade, a group of farmers in the North Fork Valley joined with local tourism businesses and conservation groups to craft a resource management plan that could help the Bureau of Land Management shepherd the multiple uses of the valley’s public lands for the next 20 years.

    More than 600 mining jobs disappeared in that decade of planning as the coal industry contracted and mines closed. Entrepreneurs in the lush communities around Paonia and Hotchkiss helped diversify the local economy from reliance on a single, extractive industry to an eclectic mix of organic agritourism and outdoor recreation.

    The group’s North Fork Alternative Plan proposed energy development on 25% of the valley’s public lands, with increased protections for water and recreational attractions in the region.

    “We put a lot of effort into negotiating with the BLM with what we thought was a pretty constructive way to share our values and how they should consider those values in managing the lands here,” said Mark Waltermire, whose Thistle Whistle farm is among 140 members in the North Fork’s Valley Organic Growers Association.

    The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley. And it did not weigh the state’s concerns over energy projects injuring wildlife, habitat and air quality. But as the first resource management plan released under the Trump Administration, it did represent the president’s pivot toward “energy dominance” by reducing regulations and greenlighting exponentially more coal mining.

    “I feel betrayed by the system,” said Waltermire this week after spending the day fixing a tractor on his Delta County farm. “Most definitely this is a step backward. Really it’s even worse. We have lived with coal for 100 years and coal has proven to be compatible with the agriculture we practice here. But gas and the oil development is a different beast. It is a much more substantial threat to our economy, with increased traffic and the potential for spills. That could destroy our reputation that we have built for our valley. It could change everything.”

    […]

    Earlier this month the agency released the final plan for managing the vast swath of the Western Slope, which is an update to the region’s 1989 RMP. Many of the wildlife, habitat and environment-focused objections to the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” push to loosen regulations around domestic energy production — including those from Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, county commissioners, conservation groups and local residents — were dismissed.

    As Colorado’s local BLM officials honed the preferred alternative — Alternative D — for the RMP last fall, the agency’s higher-ups crafted a new alternative. Alternative E identified energy and mineral development as key planning issues, and promoted access and a reduced regulatory burden alongside economic development as top priorities.

    The BLM said the RMP would contribute $2.5 billion in economic activity into the region and support 950 jobs a year for the next 20 years.

    The Alternative E plan:

  • Increased coal available for leasing by 189%, to 371,250 acres from 144,790 acres.
  • Added 13,020 acres to the region’s 840,440 acres open for mineral development.
  • Removed more than 30,000 [acres] from development in areas previously identified for leasing.
  • Cut acres the BLM could sell from 9,850 to 1,930.
  • Added six special recreation management areas and three extensive recreation management areas, setting aside 186,920 acres for recreation management.
  • The final draft of the proposed RMP conflicted with new state laws protecting wildlife, recreation access and improving air quality, so Polis last year sent a letter to the BLM’s Colorado director expressing his concerns as part of a consistency review that makes sure the agency’s plan aligned with state policies.

    Oil and gas leasing sites near Paonia. Courtesy of EcoFlight via The High Country News.

    Specifically the state wanted the agency to limit the density of development — including oil and gas facilities — to one structure for every square mile to help protect wildlife corridors. It also asked the agency to develop a comprehensive plan to protect and conserve the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat. Polis noted that the BLM plan allowed an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas development that conflicted with last year’s House Bill 1261, which aims to cut those emissions by 90%. The BLM plan also conflicted with Senate Bill 181, which allows the state to consider public health and the environment when regulating oil and gas development.

    The BLM’s final plan released this month did not include the state’s push for limiting the density of development or creating a region-wide wildlife and sage grouse conservation plan. But it did agree to protect 33,000 acres of riparian habitat from surface development and initiate a future statewide planning effort to study density on BLM land. The agency also agreed to coordinate with the state over potential development in sage grouse habitat.

    “Our issue is that we worked on the preferred alternative, Alternative D and we sent that to Washington for approval. Alternative E was never contemplated and that’s what came back from D.C. We were not able to weigh in on that option,” said Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, who joined Polis in the only process available for commenting on the final proposal: a protest letter to the BLM over its proposed RMP.

    Gibbs said he was happy the agency heard a portion of the state’s protests and the final decision included plans to work more closely with the state on a border-to-border plan for limiting development density…

    The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility group uncovered a BLM document summarizing an October 2018 meeting where the agency’s Washington D.C. leaders told Uncompahgre Field Office managers that their preferred alternative “misses the mark” and was “not in line with the administration’s direction to decrease the regulatory burden and increase access.”

    […]

    Aerial view of the San Miguel River. Photo credit: The Montrose Daily Press

    San Miguel County, for example, asked the BLM to expand areas of critical concerns in the San Miguel River watershed and remove those riparian areas from mineral leasing. The final plan reduced the size of those areas and kept them open for mineral leasing. Montrose County asked for some areas inside Camelback, Dry Creek and Roc Creek to be managed for wilderness protection, but the final plan did not set aside any land in the county for wilderness protection.

    San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper said that while the plan is slightly improved by the promise to work with Parks and Wildlife on a density-limiting plan, “it still feels like the BLM is not a willing partner in the management of our land.”

    […]

    Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, also sent a letter to the BLM and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last fall, urging the agency to “reengage with local stakeholders” before moving forward with its new Alternative E.

    This month he blasted the plan as “completely inadequate.”

    […]

    “You see what happened today?” he said this week, after the price of a barrel of oil collapsed to below $0 for the first time as a stalled nation sits at home and oil stockpiles swell.

    “That is really good news. I bet they are not going to look to develop new rigs for 10 years now,” Schwartz said. “We seem to have bought ourselves some time. Gas and oil are looking to survive right now. And if they look to fracking in our valley, they know we will fight them tooth and nail every step of the way. They don’t want that.

    “And really, who knows what will happen in the future,” he said. “We will have a new administration in a year or four years and this whole thing could change. Either way, we are coming out the end of this solid and safe.”

    Dolores River watershed