#UncompahgreRiver: Wrongful death suit filed over teen’s 2019 drowning in South Canal — The Montrose Press

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

From The Montrose Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

A Montrose family whose teenage son and dog drowned in the South Canal in 2019 hit the canal’s operating entity with a wrongful death suit on May 4.

Their attorney said Matt Imus and Emily Imus, parents of the late Connor Imus, are also pursuing a federal claim against the land management agencies involved with the canal. This is action is undergoing a required administrative resolution process and could proceed to a lawsuit, pending that outcome.

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association’s attorneys say in filings that Connor’s death was the result of his own actions, when he apparently jumped into the canal to save his dog, Bella.

Both were swept away by the deceptively calm-looking water and drowned. Connor, a standout on the Montrose High School basketball team, was 17.

As the canal operator, the UVWUA had duties to Connor to mark the property as private and to make clear the dangers of the canal, the lawsuit argues. But per the suit, on May 5, 2019, there was not a chain, a fence or other means of closing off the canal, nor was there signage warning against trespassing and the dangers at the spot where Connor fell in.

The Imuses are suing for negligence resulting in wrongful death and under premises liability resulting in wrongful death, as well as asserting survivors’ claims. They assert UVWUA’s wrongful actions or omissions caused injury and damages to Connor, who lost his life, and also caused ongoing injury to his parents, who continue to suffer emotional distress, pain and grief because of their son’s death. The plaintiffs want a judge to determine compensation for their loss and suffering; the filing does not specify an amount.

The UVWUA’s attorneys said they had no comment at this time.

Dry times, dire consequences: Poor #runoff adds to water woes — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #ColoradoRiver #GunnisonRiver

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

As of mid-day Friday, though, the U.S. Geological Survey gauge at Cameo was recording a relatively calm river flow — 4,840 cubic feet per second, compared to an average 12,700-cfs flow there for that date. Flows near the Colorado-Utah border were 5,860 cfs, a bit more than a third of average for that date.

Warming temperatures in recent days are accelerating snowmelt and boosting runoff some. Erik Knight, a hydrologist with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said Friday that the federal Colorado Basin River Forecast Center was showing flows at Cameo likely hitting their seasonal peak by today, but at about 7,500 cfs, well below the typical 12,000-13,000 cfs average peak.

Said Russ Schumacher, state climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, “The streamflows throughout western Colorado are not looking good at this point and there’s not that much snow up there left to melt.”

A continuing drought in western Colorado and beyond is having both in-state and more regional implications. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center is now projecting that April-July inflows into Lake Powell will be just 25% of average.

The Upper Colorado River Commission, an interstate agency with representatives from Colorado, other Upper Colorado River Basin states and the federal government, noted in a May 20 news release that the water elevation in Powell was at 3,560.6 feet and is approaching its lowest recorded level since the reservoir began filling in the early 1960s. The Bureau of Reclamation reports that at the end of April, Powell held 8.5 million acre-feet of water, 35% of its live capacity. That’s the amount of a reservoir that can be used for purposes such as downstream release and power production.

May 2021 percent of normal precipitation. (Averaged by basins defined in the CBRFC hydrologic model). Map credit: Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

The Upper Colorado River Commission issued its news release to announce that Upper Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation will begin development of a drought response operations plan, as called for under a 2019 agreement between the states and the Bureau of Reclamation. That’s after Reclamation last month said its most probable forecast is for the water level in Powell to fall to 3,525.57 feet in elevation as early as March 2022…

The response plan would seek to keep Powell from falling below 3,525 feet, to help assure Upper Basin states can continue complying with a century-old compact for sharing Colorado River water with downstream states, and not jeopardize hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam…

US Drought Monitor map June 1, 2021.

Currier said there’s concern about what limits federal land managers might put on grazing allotments due to the dry conditions.

Currier and other Interbasin Compact Committee members will be considering some of the bigger-picture drought issues at a meeting later this month. The Upper Basin states wouldn’t have to finalize a drought response operations plan until the Bureau of Reclamation finds it probable that Powell’s level will fall to or below 3,525 feet within 12 months, and only after consultation with Lower Basin states. However, the Interior secretary, consulting with basin states, also could take emergency action to keep the reservoir level above that threshold…

THE PLAN’S APPROACH
As agreed to in 2019, the Powell drought response plan would first consider making use of existing operational flexibilities in Powell, within legal and operational constraints. If that’s not enough to keep Powell’s water elevation above 3,525 feet, they will consider releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs upstream.

Aspinall Unit

“Blue Mesa doesn’t really have enough water in it to contribute a whole lot,” Currier said.

Knight said Blue Mesa is only about 43% full, probably half of normal this time of year, and seasonal runoff inflows into the reservoir this year are now projected to be just 46% of average…

Flaming Gorge Dam. Photo credit: USBR

Currier thinks Flaming Gorge is the likely candidate for boosting Lake Powell water levels if help from upstream reservoirs is required…

Upstream reservoir releases also are only a short-term fix, Currier said. Officials are looking longer-term at approaches including managing demand for water through reduced consumptive use, but consumptive use is directly related to crop production, he said.

“Reduce your consumptive use, you’re probably producing less crops. That’s not a good solution for agriculture,” he said.

And then there’s the question of how to ensure that any water saved through such measures actually makes it down to Lake Powell, rather than simply being used by other water users upstream…

[Russ] said that so far in Grand Junction this water year, which started Oct. 1, is the sixth-driest on record. It’s drier than the previous water year through the same date…

Since Jan. 1, 2.04 inches of precipitation have been recorded at the Grand Junction Regional Airport, compared to 3.8 on average through this time of year.

Since March 1, average temperatures have been warmer than normal in Grand Junction, but only marginally so, by 0.3 degrees, said Erin Walter, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. But local temperatures over that time are still cooler than last year, she said.

Webinar: Gunnison State of the River meeting, June 10, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

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

Click here for all the inside skinny and register:

Join the Colorado River District for the Gunnison State of the River webinar on Thursday, June 10 at 6 pm! Our experts and special guests will be presenting on river forecasts, landmark accomplishments, project opportunities, and the impacts of and on recreation for the Gunnison.

One of the major tributaries of the Colorado River, your Gunnison River provides the life force for local West Slope communities. Learn more about the river’s hydrology and water supply as we enter another drought year, celebrate a Lower Gunnison victory that’s been years in the making, and hear from David Dragoo, founder of Mayfly, about the West Slope recreation economy and its impacts.

You’ll also receive information on exciting new funding for Gunnison River Basin water projects and plans to sustain flows throughout the basin as conditions shift to hotter, drier seasons.

If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive an emailed webinar recording for later viewing!

Agenda:

Welcome – Marielle Cowdin & Zane Kessler, Director of Public Relations and Director of Government Relations, Colorado River District (CRD)

Your Gunnison River, a Water Supply Update – Bob Hurford, Division 4 Engineer, Colorado Department of Natural Resources

The Lower Gunnison Project: Modernization in Action – Dave “DK” Kanzer, Director of Science and Interstate Matters, CRD

A Victory for the Lower Gunnison – Raquel Flinker, Sr. Water Resources Engineer/Project Manager, CRD and Ken Leib, Office Chief of the Colorado Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey

Rivers on the Fly, Recreation Economy and Impacts – David Dragoo, Founder of Mayfly

Community Funding Partnership – Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships, CRD

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

#Water worries abound as #drought wears on — The #Montrose Daily Press #runoff #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GreenRiver #DoloresRiver #GunnisonRiver

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Blue Mesa [Reservoir] is at about 345,000 acre feet and sits at 42% full, based on May data, which predict the reservoir will only hit just above 50-percent full — “not very good,” as Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Erik Knight put it.

“We’re lower than we were at any time in 2020. In 2018, we were below 250,000 acre feet by the end. We’re not projecting to go that low yet, but we’re heading in that direction, that’s for sure,” Knight said Friday.

“The reservoir is pretty low. Runoff hasn’t really kicked into gear, although I think that is starting now,” he added.

Although the Uncompahgre River is a bit bouncier and swelling with some snowmelt, Montrose County and the western side of the state remain locked in drought.

Colorado Drought Monitor map May 25, 2021.

Conditions in the county range from extreme drought to exceptional — the two worst levels — according to US Drought Monitor data.

So far, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which serves about 3,500 shareholders, has been able to fill its contracts at 70%. The association’s storage “account” at Taylor Park Reservoir — which with Blue Mesa and other reservoirs is part of the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit — is full, UVWUA manager Steve Anderson said. (Taylor itself is not expected to fill at 100%, but UVWUA anticipates it will receive the full amount to which it is entitled from the reservoir.)

Taylor Park Reservoir

“I expect our account at Taylor to refill,” Anderson added. “We are storing second-fill water in Taylor right now and my expectation is for us to wind up the season with a full reservoir at Taylor. That means a lot to us, but that’s 100,000 acre feet and we need 600,000 acre feet to run the project. But that’s a good start.”

Ridgway Dam via the USBR

The storage account at Ridgway Reservoir is close to full, Anderson also said — of 21,000 acre feet of association water, a bit more than 300 acre feet have been used…

The water picture for the Grand Mesa and North Fork is worse than it is for Montrose, he said, and also pointed to the south, to the Dolores River.

Mcphee Reservoir

McPhee Reservoir, which the river feeds, is well below average and, the Cortez Journal reported Wednesday, irrigators with contracts for its water have been told to expect between 5 and 10% of their ordinary fulfillments.

“The Dolores is just horrible,” Anderson said. Only one-sixth of the water would ordinarily be delivered from McPhee is coming to users, he said. “That’s pretty sad. We’re fortunate in that respect, that we’re not in those kind of dire straits.”

[…]

Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

[Lake] Powell’s levels are within a whisker or two of being too low to sustain hydropower generation. If Powell drops below 3,490 feet elevation, that’s the danger zone, Anderson said in January. As of May 14, Powell was projected to end the water year at 3,543 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, although the agency also noted “significant uncertainty” at the time…

Flaming Gorge Reservoir July 2020. Photo credit: Utah DWR

Flaming Gorge has enough storage right now that it can bail out Powell in an absolute emergency, as it could release 2 million acre feet, Anderson said…

Back at home, the Aspinall Unit also has drought contingency plans that kick in as needed to maintain baseflows and satisfy the requirements of legal records of decision.

In dry years, flow targets are dropped and that helps keep Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs in the unit from running dry, Knight said.

#Paonia enters voluntary water restrictions — The Delta County Independent #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From The Delta County Independent (Lisa Young):

The Town of Paonia entered into Stage One water voluntary restrictions at the recommendation of Mayor Mary Bachran during the May 11 meeting…

The mayor hit the highlights of Resolution 2020-17 including that stage one restrictions are voluntary; does not apply to drip systems and use of hand watering containers; reduction of irrigation — no irrigating when wind gusts or sustained winds, in order to reduce evaporation; outreach on water use and fixing leaks; limited gardening-car washing, pond and pool filling.

Town Administrator Corrine Ferguson said the town would go to Stage Two if and when water demands exceed supply and they are no longer spilling excess water at the treatment plant.

Stage two restrictions would limit watering on even and odd days with no watering on Saturdays while watering of the town park/properties would be limited to trees and planters.

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

#Climate Lawsuit Challenges Fracking Plan That Threatens Three National Forests in #Colorado — Center for Biological Diversity

Shot of the North Fork of the Gunnison River, Paonia, Colorado. Photo credit: Sinjin Eberle

Here’s the release from the Center for Biological Diversity (Melissa Hornbein, Taylor McKinnon, Grant Stevens, Brett Henderson, Natasha Léger, Jeremy Nichols):

Conservation groups filed a lawsuit [May 10, 2021] challenging the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service’s 2020 approval of a plan that allows fracking across 35,000 acres of Colorado’s Western Slope. The North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan allows 35 new fracking wells in the North Fork Valley and Thompson Divide areas of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests.

Today’s lawsuit says federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws by failing to fully assess the potential for water pollution and harm to the climate, and by refusing to analyze alternatives that would minimize or eliminate harm to the environment. The plan would result in about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, equivalent to the annual pollution from a dozen coal-fired power plants.

“The Trump administration charted a course to destroy public lands and our shared climate,” said Peter Hart, a staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “This master development plan is a 30-year commitment to the disastrous ‘energy dominance’ agenda which ignored significant impacts on the communities and spectacular values of the North Fork. We are determined to hold our federal government accountable to a more sustainable future for Colorado’s public lands, wildlife, people and climate.”

“Fossil fuel development and sustainable public lands don’t mix, especially in the roadless headwaters of the Upper North Fork Valley,” said Brett Henderson, executive director of Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “This project is incompatible with necessary climate change action, healthy wildlife habitat, and watershed health, and is at odds with the future of our communities.”

“We are in a megadrought in the North Fork Valley and the Western Slope. The water used to frack in the watershed risks precious water resources and only exacerbates the climate and the water crisis,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “This 35-well project is the beginning of much larger plans to extract a resource which should be left in the ground and for which the market is drying up.”

“This dangerous plan promises more runaway climate pollution in one of the fastest-warming regions in the United States,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re suing to force federal agencies to stop ignoring the climate emergency. Like the planet, the Colorado River Basin can’t survive a future of ever-expanding fossil fuel development.”

“It is past time for the federal government to meaningfully consider climate change in its oil and gas permitting decisions,” said Melissa Hornbein, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Gunnison and Delta Counties have already exceeded 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming; the project failed to meaningfully analyze impacts to climate, roadless areas, and the agriculture and ecotourism centered economies of the North Fork Valley. More drilling is projected to harm Delta County’s tax revenue, not help it. These communities need land management that serves the public interest.”

“This case is about confronting the Trump administration’s complete disregard of law, science and public lands,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “We can’t frack our way to a safe climate and we certainly can’t afford to keep letting the oil and gas industry run roughshod over Colorado’s irreplaceable and vital public lands.”

Colorado’s Western Slope is already suffering from severe warming. The Washington Post recently featured the area as the largest “climate hot spot” in the lower 48 states, where temperatures have already risen more than 2 degrees Celsius, reducing snowpack and drying Colorado River flows that support endangered fish, agriculture and 40 million downstream water users.

In January 574 conservation, Native American, religious and business groups sent the then president-elect a proposed executive order to ban new fossil fuel leasing and permitting on federal public lands and waters. In February the Biden administration issued an executive order pausing oil and gas leasing onshore and offshore pending a climate review of federal fossil fuel programs. In June the Interior Department will issue an interim report describing findings from a March online forum and public comments.

Background

Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide fossil fuel leasing ban on federal lands and oceans would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate-policy proposals.

Oil, gas and coal extraction uses mines, well pads, gas lines, roads and other infrastructure that destroy habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Oil spills and other harms from offshore drilling have inflicted immense damage to ocean wildlife and coastal communities. Fracking and mining also pollute watersheds and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.

Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons. Pollution from the world’s already producing oil and gas fields, if fully developed, would push global warming well past 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Western Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to safeguard the wildlife, wildlands, and communities of the American West in the face of a changing climate. As a public interest law firm, WELC does not charge clients and partners for services, but relies instead on charitable gifts from individuals, families, and foundations to accomplish our mission.

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

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Conservation groups are suing federal agencies to challenge their approval last year of a proposal by Gunnison Energy to drill 35 oil and gas wells across some 35,000 acres of the upper North Fork Valley.

The groups say the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service violated federal laws by failing to properly assess the climate impacts of the project or analyze alternatives that would have minimized environmental impacts.

The suit was brought by the Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, WildEarth Guardians, Citizens for a Healthy Community in Paonia and High Country Conservation Advocates in Crested Butte.

The project’s location is in Gunnison and Delta counties west of McClure Pass. Some 25,800 acres of the affected acreage is U.S. Forest Service land, 8,648 acres are private and 468 involve BLM land.

The company plans to drill wells down and then out horizontally into the Mancos shale formation from five well pads, three of them new. It has estimated the project could produce up to 700 billion cubic feet of gas over 30 years. That equates to about 2.5% of the gas consumed in the United States last year.

The project also would require about 21 million gallons of water to hydraulically fracture each well, the company has estimated. And conservation groups said in a news release that it would result in about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, which they said is the same as what a dozen coal-fired power plants emit in a year…

The suit says that in evaluating the project, the BLM and Forest Service failed take a hard look at methane emissions related to the project. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The suit also says the agencies failed to use “tools or methods generally accepted in the scientific community to evaluate the impact” of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, such as the social cost of carbon and global carbon budgeting.

The Upper #GunnisonRiver Water Conservancy District Spring Newsletter 2021 is hot off the presses

George Sibley as the Water Buffalo in “Sonofagunn.” Photo courtesy of the Gunnison Arts Center via the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District

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

George Sibley was appointed to the UGRWCD Board of Directors in June 2006 representing Division 8, the City of Gunnison, and most recently served as Secretary for the District. After nearly 13 years of service, George submitted his resignation to the UGRWCD earlier this year. George is well-known and well-respected on the Western slope and throughout the state for his commitment to and many years of valuable service on water issues and protecting water users in the Upper Gunnison Basin. Because of his knowledge, time and effort committed to all things water, George affectionately earned the honorary title of Gunnison’s own “Water Buffalo,” a role he portrayed in many of the annual Sonofagunn productions at the Gunnison Arts Center.

“George will be dearly missed within the water community for the knowledge he brings to the table and for spurring much needed conversations around the water resource challenges we face,” said UGRWCD General Manager Sonja Chavez. “We wish him the very best!”

Here’s to calm waters, George, as you embark on the next phase of life!

#Colorado is examining #water speculation, and finding it’s ‘all the problems’ in one — @AspenJournalism

Conscience Bay Company President Eli Feldman stands at a headgate on the Alfalfa Ditch near Cedaredge. Feldman, whose company owns Harts Basin Ranch and irrigates with water from the ditch, has been accused of water speculation: buying the ranch just for the future value of the water.
CREDIT: LUKE RUNYON/KUNC via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

State work group trying to balance risks from investors, negative impacts to agriculture

Melting snow and flowing irrigation ditches mean spring has finally arrived at the base of Grand Mesa in western Colorado.

Harts Basin Ranch, a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge, in Delta County, is coming back to life with the return of water.

Twelve hundred of the ranch’s acres are irrigated with water from Alfalfa Ditch, diverted from Surface Creek, which flows down the south slopes of the Grand Mesa. The ranch has the No. 1 priority water right — meaning the oldest, which comes with the ability to use the creek’s water first — dating to 1881.

What makes the ranch unique among its Grand Mesa-area neighbors is its owner. Conscience Bay Company, a Boulder-based private real estate investment firm, bought the property in 2017.

That fact alone has brought its owners scrutiny from neighbors and Western Slope water managers. Conscience Bay and its president, Eli Feldman, have been accused of water speculation — which means buying up the ranch just for its senior water rights and hoarding them for a future profit.

That is an accusation Feldman denies.

“Any time you come into a place that you’re not from, people are curious at best and skeptical and concerned at worst,” he said.

The ranch raises organic beef using regenerative techniques that operators say are better for soil health. Conscience Bay holds grazing permits on tracts of public land in western Colorado and Utah where the cattle feast on grass before being sent to California to be finished, slaughtered and sold under the brand name SunFed Ranch.

To the charges that he’s doing something untoward by investing in the ranch’s land and abundant water rights, Feldman said he’s just like any other major water user in the state putting it to beneficial use. The ranch is using the water to irrigate, he said.

“We’re growing grass and feeding it to cows and trying to improve the ground, improve the soil health and make a business out of it,” Feldman said.

Cowgirls lasso calves so they can be branded and vaccinated at Harts Basin Ranch in April. The Delta County ranch, whose owners have been accused of water speculation, raises organic cattle.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Speculation work group

The conversation around water speculation has been heating up in Colorado in recent months. At the direction of state lawmakers, a work group has been meeting regularly to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law. The topic frequently comes up at meetings of Western Slope water managers: the Colorado River Water Conservation District, basin roundtables and boards of county commissioners.

Investments such as Feldman’s have been of interest to the work group, which consists of water managers and users from around the state and is chaired by Kevin Rein, state engineer and head of the Division of Water Resources.

“I think it’s a valid concern because they do see unusual parties, large parties that, again, aren’t the typical parties, purchasing those water rights, and so that’s the concern,” Rein said. “Are they speculating or are they purchasing just so they can flip it, as people say, in a few years for more money?”

Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning continuing to use the water for what it was decreed in order to hang onto it. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights, change what the water is allowed to be used for and, if given a court’s blessing, move the water from agricultural use to growing cities.

This system, used widely in the western United States, creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A private-equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the intensely irrigated valley, a short drive from Harts Basin Ranch. The purchases of the New York City-based company have raised suspicions among water managers and prompted the formation of the speculation work group.

Similar concerns have cropped up in agricultural communities throughout the West. A water transfer in Arizona from agricultural lands on the Colorado River to a rapidly expanding Phoenix exurb recently stirred up controversy. In Nevada, Water Asset Management is trying to market water held in an underground aquifer.

Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.

The work group has identified the following risks from speculators: investors’ obtaining a monopoly over a local water market; large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands; less water availability for other water users; and violation of Colorado’s values to see a vital public resource traded as a commodity.

Part of Harts Basin Ranch’s hayfields are irrigated with sprinklers. The ranch is owned by Boulder-based Conscience Bay Company and has the oldest water right on the Alfalfa Ditch.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Potential risks and solutions

The potential solutions to these risks are many, according to a draft document. The work group is exploring several of these, including creating a process to determine the intent of the purchaser; taxing profits from the sale of water rights at varying rates to encourage beneficial use and to discourage profiteering; imposing time limits on turnover of ownership to discourage short-term “flipping”; encouraging local governments to police investments through their 1041 powers; and creating a public-review process for water transfers that exceed some threshold.

The group has not coalesced around any of these potential solutions, but state officials said they are zeroing in on using the water court process to evaluate transfers as a way of spotting speculation.

The work group is supposed to submit a report, along with any recommendations from members, to state officials by August. But so far, the group has had a difficult time making sense of the thorny questions raised by these issues. Even trying to define what speculation is (and isn’t) and who is considered a speculator has been a struggle.

“It’s one thing to point at something and say, ‘Oh, that’s probably speculative.’ Another to actually put the legal definition on it,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water-resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Funk is also a member of the work group.

Discussions so far about reining in speculation have focused on the intent of the buyer. Can the state determine whether someone who is purchasing water rights intends to grow hay or build a residential subdivision? Or are they solely focused on the water rights’ future value? And how do you tell the difference?

“Do we want to protect against certain types of intent?” Rein said. “And then how do we determine that?”

Predetermining a water-right purchaser’s intent could prove to be a difficult task, akin to stopping a crime before it’s actually committed. Funk invoked the 2002 film “Minority Report,” in which a police detective (played by Tom Cruise), with the help of three psychics, tracks down would-be murderers and arrests them before any gun goes off.

“There aren’t speculation police running the state and breaking up these investments, right?” Funk said.

A parshall flume measures the water in the Alfalfa Ditch, which diverts water from Surface Creek, near Cedaredge. The water is used to irrigate hayfields at nearby Harts Basin Ranch.
CREDIT: LUKE RUNYON/KUNC via Aspen Journalism

Financial water speculation

A draft report by the work group attempts to define two different types of speculation.

The first is traditional water speculation, which involves obtaining a water right without any plan or intent to put that water to beneficial use. The intent is to obtain a desirable priority date and then sell the water right to others who have a beneficial use.

This type of speculation has been addressed before in Colorado water law in what is known as the High Plains case. In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that a water-investment company was speculating because its plan for using the water was too expansive and nebulous, and the plan did not identify either the structures through which the water would be diverted or the specific locations where the water would be used.

The second type of speculation — and, because of WAM’s dealings in the Grand Valley, the one on which the work group is more focused — is financial water speculation. The work group defines this as the purchase and use of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from increased value of the water in a short period of time. Financial water speculation may run counter to Colorado’s prior-appropriation doctrine because the primary intent is profit rather than beneficial use.

The concerns over speculation tap into a deep-seated anxiety that is prevalent in Western farm towns: the transfer of water from agriculture to cities. There are real examples of agricultural water being sold to cities, sometimes derisively described as “buy and dry,” and some rural communities have suffered economically as a result.

In some ways, the work group’s discussion of how to prevent speculation is really a broader discussion of how to prevent water transfers away from agriculture. The group has identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators. Part of Funk’s job is to head up a program of “alternative transfer methods,” which allow cities to temporarily buy or lease water from agriculture, but without the severe economic impacts.

“I think the issue with speculation is that what on paper might seem a very sort of small, isolated issue, as soon as you start sort of unpacking it a little bit, it’s essentially all the problems that Western water and rural communities are facing in, like, one issue,” Funk said. “So, as soon as you start unraveling it, you start running into other forces at play that are really beyond the state’s control or any one individual producer’s control.”

Harts Basin Ranch is a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge in Delta County. The ranch is owned by Boulder-based Conscience Bay Company and has the oldest water right on the Alfalfa Ditch.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Impacts to ag

The work group is walking a fine line to come up with ways to deter speculation while not harming traditional agriculture producers in the process. In a big-picture sense, irrigators may worry about the impact to their community and way of life if all their neighbors sell to hedge funds. But when it’s their turn to receive a check for their water rights, they don’t want regulators doing anything that would make the process harder or devalue the ranch they have put their lives into, including restricting whom they can sell to.

It’s an oft-repeated adage that a rancher’s land and water rights are their 401(k) or their child’s college fund, and some say any new rules aimed at speculators should not make it more difficult for traditional ag producers to cash out if and when they want.

So far, the investment firms active in western Colorado have continued to lease their land back to farmers, or farm it themselves.

Carlyle Currier, a rancher in Molina and president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, has a seat on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and his family has ranched in the Grand Mesa area for more than a century. Currier said until the investors attempt to sell it off, they’re not doing anything illegal.

“If the government can tell (someone) they can’t buy a farm and farm it, well, then they could tell me that, too. And I don’t want them telling me that,” Currier said.

The speculation discussion is also set against the backdrop of a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently studying. A demand-management program would pay irrigators on a temporary, voluntary basis to fallow fields and leave more water in the river. This water would be sent to Lake Powell to fill a 500,000-acre-foot pool that could be used to help the upper-basin states avoid a protracted legal battle with states downstream on the Colorado River.

Some say the exploration of demand management — including pay-to-fallow pilot projects in the Grand Valley — could have opened the door for investors who want to take advantage of the program to make easy money. Where there are opportunities, there are opportunists.

“Here in Mesa County, we’ve been watching a Wall Street investment firm buying up agricultural properties all with pre-compact water rights,” Steve Aquafresca, Mesa County’s Colorado River District representative, said at a board meeting last month. “I think it could be safely said that these actions probably would not have occurred if the state were not discussing the possibility of a demand-management program and if one particular major irrigation-water provider was not showing some willingness to entertain a demand-management program.”

The Alfalfa Ditch, seen here in April, takes its water from Surface Creek. The owners of Harts Basin Ranch, which has a water right on Alfalfa Creek dating to 1881, have been accused of buying the ranch just for its old and valuable water rights.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Suspicion of outsiders

For all the concern about water speculation, there’s scant proof that it’s happening on a large scale on the Western Slope. Even WAM is not speculating, according to the current definition, as long as they keep the land in agricultural production.

“It does seem like there’s a lot of speculation about speculation,” Feldman of investment firm Conscience Bay said.

Instead, he said, old-fashioned suspicion of outsiders is at the heart of the issue.

“There’s people that view us as outsiders and we are not from here,” he said. “We know that. We know that damn well. And that’s not news to us.”

And there’s some evidence that he’s right. The Colorado River District, which protects Western Slope water interests, is developing a policy statement about water speculation. A draft of the policy says the district “recognizes the importance of locally owned agricultural lands and waters” and will work “to protect our state’s water resources from out-of-state special interests.”

And although these ideas didn’t get much traction, the work group has also floated two more potential solutions targeting outsiders: restricting the ability of out-of-state entities to participate in Colorado water court proceedings and prohibiting out-of-state entities from holding water rights.

“Is speculation just another word for investment (but it has) a negative connotation to it because it’s somebody that’s not from here?” Feldman said. “OK, well, do you not want to have investment in rural Colorado? Is that what we’re after? That’s where it would go if you put up enough barriers and hoops.”

Feldman says he is not the enemy. His operation isn’t the mom-and-pop homestead ranch of the Old West. It’s the investor-owned, employee-operated, risk-taking ranch of the New West. Harts Basin Ranch is looking for innovative ways to adapt to water scarcity and is participating in a program with environmental group Trout Unlimited to study consumptive use and how agriculture can stay productive while using less water. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River reporting.

Feldman sees the heated discussion about speculation as a symptom of how Western communities are choosing to grapple with increasing water scarcity under climate change. There are those who explore new ways of running an old business and there are those who want to protect the status quo.

“At its core you see a real friction or conflict between a group of people that’s trying to make water policy more flexible to adapt to a changing climate,” Feldman said, “and those that are trying to impose more rigidity and prevent any change from occurring.”

This story was part of a collaboration between KUNC in Colorado and Aspen Journalism. Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues. KUNC’s Colorado River reporting project is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

The Spring Newsletter 2021 is hot off the presses from the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt (Beverly Richards):

Drought Conditions Stay Strong on the Western Slope

West Drought Monitor April 20, 2021.

As spring runoff begins, water managers on the Western Slope turn to drought predictions for the season and well into the summer. Drought conditions continue to persist in most of western Colorado and throughout the southwestern United States. Many areas have continued in or have moved into the exceptional (D4) category and these conditions will likely carry us through the summer and into the fall.

Gunnison River Basin High/Low graph April 23, 2021 via the NRCS.

What does this mean for the water resources in the Upper Gunnison River Basin and downstream? Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 77 percent of average and the snow water equivalent (SWE) is at 12.9” for this time of year. The peak for SWE usually occurs between April 5 to April 17 and is typically at 14.7” at the peak.

This means that going into spring runoff, we are below average in both snowpack and SWE. Add this to the fact that Taylor Park and Blue Mesa Reservoir are currently at 59 and 49 percent of full respectively, conditions this runoff season could continue to deteriorate, though demands will likely stay the same. The Bureau of Reclamation is forecasting that Blue Mesa Reservoir will only fill to 67 percent full and NRCS forecasts that streamflow will only be 57 percent of average for the season.

Lack of soil moisture will also add to the problems for water managers this coming water season. Soil moisture in the entire state is classified as either the second lowest or record lowest in the 10-year average. This will have implications on streamflow if the soil profile must be filled first.

The predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are that these drier conditions that are currently being experienced throughout the entire southwestern United States will continue and could result in the most significant drought since 2013. From April through June, warmer than normal temperatures and lower than normal precipitation is forecasted to continue, adding to the drier than normal conditions.

The Upper Gunnison District realizes that diminished supplies means special attention MUST be paid to how we manage our water. We will continue planning for every contingency. Our mission this year is to get the word out about ways we can all adjust to drought and how we can all be mindful of our water use. It will take cooperation from everyone within the District to meet all our needs. Be an Upper Gunnison Basin Water Hero!

Opinion: Our rivers are not plumbing — Gunnison Country Times

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

From The Gunnison Country Times (Sam Liebl):

Near the tiny town of Red Cliff, three big cities conducted an experiment last fall. The Homestake Reservoir released a burst of water at the behest of the water utilities of Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Aurora. Their goal was simple: track a 1,600 acre-feet blob of water from the reservoir as it flowed to the Colorado state line.

The experiment’s results were unsettling. The subsequent report, released this month, is a reminder on this Earth Day that our Western Slope rivers — some of the most intensely managed and measured in the world — do not amount to plumbing. They are wild, complex and continue to baffle our models and controls.

Homestake Reservoir is one of the state’s many trans-mountain diversions. The man-made lake collects water from the Eagle River watershed. Pipes and tunnels send that water under the Continental Divide and into the Arkansas River near Leadville. Once in the Arkansas River, further diversions bring that water to the Front Range.

But water managers used Homestake to send the burst of water in the other direction, into the Colorado River via the Eagle River. They then carefully monitored gages to see if the water reached Utah, a tracking exercise that in the jargon of the field is called “water shepherding.”

But by the time the Homestake water reached the stateline, state engineers could not determine how much of the water completed the journey.

This conclusion should open our eyes to the uncertainty that climate change poses for the Gunnison Valley and for the rest of the Western Slope. If we can’t use our reservoirs to send water downstream with any kind of precision, our prospects of slaking the thirsts of downstream states look bleak.

he basis of much of our water management, and the reason for conducting the Homestake experiment, is the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The agreement among southwestern states requires that Colorado send a minimum amount of water downstream to Nevada, California and Arizona. If we fail to meet that target, federal reservoirs like Blue Mesa would be used to release more water. But we assumed in the 1950s and 60s, (when, to build Blue Mesa Reservoir, we destroyed thousands of acres of farmland, one of the world’s greatest trout fisheries, drowned the towns of Iola and Sapinero and wiped out half of the Gunnison sage-grouse’s best habitat) that we could get the water from point A to point B.

The Homestake experiment shows that we don’t have the ability to deliver a given amount of water downstream. We don’t know how we would guarantee a certain amount of water flowing downstream to Nevada, California and Arizona.

If, for instance, the Upper Gunnison River Basin was called upon to increase Colorado River flows downstream, it would be “extremely difficult to track or quantify” the delivery, said Frank Kugel, former General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

It would be a “mammoth task,” Kugel told me. The resulting higher river levels would lead to more water pouring through headgates and onto hay fields. Dry soils along the Gunnison and Taylor rivers would soak up some of the water. And then the three reservoirs and dams (Blue Mesa, Crystal, Morrow Point) in the Aspinall Unit would muddle the picture further. And that’s all before the Gunnison Tunnel would shunt hundreds of cubic feet per second into the Uncompahgre River Valley.

To just detect the delivery of water, much less to measure it, would require a very large release from the Upper Gunnison River Basin, Kugel told me.

Both Kugel, as well as Sonja Chavez, the current general manager at the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, told me that the difficulties of water shepherding contribute to their skepticism of “demand management” — a massive effort by Colorado water managers to determine how to best cut water use.

“The whole issue of shepherding is huge,” Chavez said. Demand management might sound good on paper, but the legal implications and the water shepherding implications throw doubt on the implementation of a statewide demand management program.

“The ability to track water that is conserved consumptive use all the way to the state line is really critical for the success of that program,” Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller told Aspen Journalism on the subject of the Homestake experiment. “And if you can’t track a slug of 1,600 acre-feet of water to the state line, how are you going to track the voluntary reduction in use of a small ditch on the West Slope that maybe they are saving 15 acre-feet?”

Water shepherding experiments will continue because the state has to figure out how to deliver more water downstream. Colorado has set its sights on storing 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell to protect against the increasingly likely scenario that too little water will flow to Nevada, California and Arizona. But, as shown in the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District’s supply report for this week, that 500,000 acre-feet buffer may not be enough. Lake Powell will release about 8 million acre-feet this year. Only about 5 million acre-feet are expected to flow in.

“Throwing 500,000 acre feet down there will not do much if it stays hot and dry and if the flows do not materialize,” Chavez said.

Next time you drive by Blue Mesa Reservoir, this news may put its waters in a different light. We don’t know how to deliver water through rivers, but we do know how to dam them. And as Lake Powell is expected to fill to just 33% of capacity this year, our limited knowledge may not be enough.

Aspinall Unit Forecast for Operations Spring 2021 — @USBR #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Click here to view the forecast graphics.

Aspinall Unit operations update (March 22, 2021): 400 CFS in the Gunnison Tunnel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

East Portal Gunnison Tunnel gate and equipment houses provide for the workings of the tunnel.
Lisa Lynch/NPS

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel will be ramping up for the irrigation season and releases from the Aspinall Unit will be adjusted to keep Gunnison River flows near the current level of 400 cfs. There could be fluctuations in the river throughout the day whenever Tunnel diversions increase.

On Wednesday, March 24th testing of the Crystal powerplant will result in a brief period of high flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon and Gunnison Gorge. Crystal releases will be increased up to 1700 cfs over a couple hours before decreasing back to the current release rate.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 790 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 790 cfs for March.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 400 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 400 cfs. As Tunnel diversions increase, flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are expected to stay near 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Tumbling rock destroys bridge to Ouray Ice Park, pipeline to the country’s oldest running #hydroelectric power plant — The #Colorado Sun

Ari Schneider ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado. Julia McGonigle [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

Rockfall destruction challenges green-power provider and the nonprofit, member-supported ice park as repair costs climb.

Workers arriving early at the Ouray Ice Park on Tuesday found a disaster.

A boulder the size of a pool table had sheared off the canyon wall and destroyed the metal walkway accessing the park’s popular ice climbs. And it ripped out the penstock that ferries water to the oldest operating hydropower plant in the U.S.

“Just water squirting everywhere and the access bridge, laying at the bottom of the canyon,” said Eric Jacobson, who owns the hydroelectric plant and pipeline that runs along the rim of the Uncompahgre River Gorge.

The rock tore through the penstock, its trestle and the decades-old steel walkway in the park’s popular Schoolroom area late Monday. There was no one in the gorge and no injuries.

When the overnight temperatures are cold enough in December, January and February, a team of ice farmers use as much as 200,000 gallons of water a night trickling from the penstock to create internationally renowned ice-climbing routes. More than 15,000 climbers flock to Ouray every winter to scale the 150-foot fangs of ice, supporting the city’s winter economy. And Jacobson generates about 4 million kilowatt hours a year from water flowing into his antiquated but updated Ouray Hydroelectric Power Plant. He sells the power to the San Miguel Power Association.

The plant generates about 5% of the association’s power needs, which has a robust collection of green power sources, including several small hydropower plants and a solar array in Paradox.

Phase I River Improvements Complete — City of #Montrose #UncompahgreRiver

Here’s the release from The City of Montrose:

The City of Montrose is pleased to announce that Phase I of the Uncompahgre River Improvements Project near North 9th Street is complete and open to the public. The project was completed under budget, ahead of schedule, and injury-free.

Construction of the Uncompahgre River Improvements Project started last fall and included 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. The project was made possible through a partnership with the Montrose Urban Renewal Authority and with the assistance of $784,000 in grants received from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“We are excited to bring this new recreational and fishing asset online for our residents,” City Engineer Scott Murphy said. “We feel that it will be a great complement to the recently-completed GOCO Connect Trail and it further expands our collection of great outdoor amenities right here in town.”

Uncompahgre River improvements via the City of Montrose.

The city would like to express a special thank you to the design and construction team Ecological Resource Consultants and Naranjo Civil Constructors for a job well done, Mayfly Outdoors for their 41-acre land donation within the project area, and to the volunteer river advisory committee who helped to guide the project through its planning phases.

The public is welcome to attend a virtual ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the project scheduled for Thursday, April 22, at 1 p.m. The live ceremony can be viewed online at the City of Montrose’s Facebook page.

Watch a video of the project:

Any questions regarding the project may be directed to City Engineer Scott Murphy at 970.901.1792.

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.