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

Here’s the release from the Department of Energy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horseshoe Bend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Crested Butte News (Kendra Walker):

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

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

West Drought Monitor November 3, 2020.

Water levels

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

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

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

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

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

Winter forecast

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

[…]

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

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

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

From The Gunnison Country Times (Sam Liebl):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Construction to Begin on #UncompahgreRiver Improvement Project

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

Here’s the release from the City of Montrose:

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

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

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

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

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

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September and 790 cfs for October.

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

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

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

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

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

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

Big Pivots

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

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

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

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

John Harte. Photo via The Mountain Town News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The greenhouse effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plots thicken

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The subterranean dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking mountain patterns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better climate models

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aspinall Unit operations update #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

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

Black Canyon via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

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

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burned area assessment begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solution is dilution

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

In other words: The solution to pollution is dilution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Mesa Reservoir September 2017

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

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

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

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

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

Taylor Park Reservoir

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

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

Ridgway Dam

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

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

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

Aspinall Unit

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

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

Paonia Reservoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

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

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

Black Canyon July 2020. Photo credit: Cari Bischoff

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From Dave Marston (Writers on the Range):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Marston. Photo credit: Writers on the Range

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

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

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

From The Crested Butte News (Katherine Nettles):

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Barr photo via Sotheby’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

The timeline for the BIP update is as follows:

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

    A power switch in Colorado — The Mountain Town News

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

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Crested Butte News:

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

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

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

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

    Aspinall Unit operations update: 1040 CFS through the Gunnison Tunnel

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

    Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

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

    Upper Gunnison watershed May 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

    Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

    Gunnison State of the River

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

    Agenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Aspinall Unit Operations Update

    Aspinall Unit April – July, 2020 Forecasted Inflow

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

    Spring Operations Summary

    Aspinall Unit Operations ROD

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

    Baseflow Target: June/July/Aug = 1050 cfs

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

    Black Canyon Water Right

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

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

    Projected Operations

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

    Click here to read the current Aspinall Unit Forecast.

    Aspinall Unit dams

    A little #whitewater near #CrestedButte

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

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

    From The Montrose Press (Josue Perez):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

    From The Montrose Press (Molly Moore):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    @USBR: Aspinall Unit Spring Operations update

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

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

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

    Greetings from Kathleen Curry, Gunnison Basin Round Table Chair

    Kathleen Curry. Photo credit: Gunnison Basin Roundtable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    […]

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

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

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

    The Alternative E plan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    […]

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

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

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

    […]

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

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

    […]

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

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

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

    Dolores River watershed

    Aspinall Unit operations update: April 1st runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 78% of average for April-July inflows

    Aspinall Unit dams

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased to 1450 cfs on Thursday, April 9th. Releases are being adjusted to accommodate the change in diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel, which will occur on Friday, April 10th. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 101% of normal. The April 1st runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 78% of average for April-July inflows.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay 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 1050 cfs for April and May.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 720 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 430 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 920 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 530 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: 550 CFS in the Black Canyon, diversions through the Gunnison Tunnel = 300 CFS

    Sunrise Black Canyon via Bob Berwyn

    From email from Reclamation Erik Knight:

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased to 1050 cfs on Wednesday, March 25th. Releases are being adjusted to accommodate the change in diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel, which will occur on Thursday, March 26th. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 106% of normal. The March 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 78% of average for April-July inflows. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay 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 1050 cfs for January through March.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are at 300 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 400 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be at 500 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 550 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: March 1, 2020 runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 78% of average

    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 to 700 cfs on Thursday, March 19th. Releases are being adjusted to accommodate the start of diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel and to lower river flows given the below average runoff forecast. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 103% of normal. The March 1st runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 78% of average for April-July inflows. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay 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 1050 cfs for January through March.

    Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be at 300 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    #Snowpack news: #GunnisonRiver Basin SWE = 91% of normal

    Gunnison River Basin High/Low graph March 12, 2020 via the NRCS.

    From The Montrose Press (Michael Cox):

    According to the figures from SNOTEL and the Colorado Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) this week, the snowpack in the Southwestern Colorado mountains is nothing close to the 700% of normal we experienced last year, although it is well above the low mark set in 2018.

    As of Tuesday this week, even with a relatively active snow season on Colorado, it turns out that the most intense snowpack is in the northern part of the state, while the San Juans and other more southern ranges did not fare as well.

    There were 39 SNOTEL sites across northern Colorado that received above the 90th percentile of February precipitation on the period of record, with nine of these being the record high. Conversely, 24 SNOTEL sites in the southern half of the state were in the bottom 10th percentile with six sites observing record low precipitation…

    As of this week the SNOTEL numbers for the Gunnison Basin are ranging somewhere between the 2018 low and the averages over the past couple of decades.

    The basin watershed has an average of about 13 or 14 inches of snow water equivalent and rests at about 103 percent of normal, as opposed to even lower numbers in the Dolores River Basin…

    The good news tends to be the level of the reservoirs, like Blue Mesa and Ridgway…

    Following the trends of snowpack and precipitation, stream flow forecasts predict considerably higher values across Northern Colorado than in the southern half of the state, with respect to normal. On the low end the average of forecasts in the combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan basins is for 64 percent of normal, followed closely by the Rio Grande at 68 percent.

    The Gunnison is doing a little better with all forecast points averaging out to 72 percent of normal. The most plentiful forecasts in the state reside in the South Platte Basin with some exceeding 130 percent of average in the main stem headwaters. The Arkansas, Colorado, and combined Yampa and White basins are forecasted to have near normal runoff volumes with the basin-wide average of forecasts ranging from 96 to 106 percent of normal.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: The February 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 83% of average for April-July inflows

    Aspinall Unit dams

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased to 600 cfs on Wednesday, February 26th. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 103% of normal. The February 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 83% of average for April-July inflows. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay 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 1050 cfs for January through March.

    Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 800 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at zero 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.

    The February 2020 “Gunnison River Basin News” is hot off the presses

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

    Attention K-12 teachers in the Gunnison River Basin – NEW financial assistance for water education now available (for example: bring your students to the Eureka Science Museum in Grand Junction). Please visit our website for more information.

    The confluence of Henson Creek (left) and Lake Fork Gunnison River (right, against the wall) in Lake City, Colorado. By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73852697

    How big are the discrepancies with snowpack-measuring tech? — The Montrose Press #snowpack #runoff

    San Juan Mountains March, 2016 photo credit Greg Hobbs.

    From The Montrose Press (Michael Cox):

    The primary tool currently in use to measure snowpack in the Western United States is SNOTEL. We all rely on the SNOTEL website to see what’s happening during winter in the Rockies. But, you may be surprised to learn that the SNOTEL (SNOw TELemetry) has been missing the mark in its automated reading of snow depth in the Western US. How do we know that? Because, there is a new tool – actually an old one, repurposed – that could enhance greatly the accuracy of the 732 SNOTEL stations currently being used for the critical purpose of measuring snowpack in the mountains to help water managers forecast the potential runoff.

    The solo SNOTEL system was as good as it got for 50 years when it came to measuring snow in the mountains. The system of sensors that measure snow depth and the amount of water contained in the snow was put into use back in the 1970s. It has not been updated since then, although some stations were added in the 1980s. SNOTEL measures two primary parameters, snow depth and density. Density tells us how much water is in the snow. It does this by sensing the weight of the snow on something called a snow pillow. The pillow is about eight feet square and as the snow builds up, it gets weighed. That number and the depth at the station are reported to the system as what we call the snowpack.

    SNOTEL actually functions pretty well up to a point. The biggest drawback with it is the minuscule sampling of a vast area of snow production. The 732 stations are spread out through the mountain snow regions of all the Western states, including Alaska. That area is 1.76 million square miles, of which about a third is mountainous and has snow pack. That means there is a SNOTEL station for every 800 square miles of mountain terrain. Some of the stations are not as accurate as they need to be because of location. Some terrain, where extraordinary snow accumulation occurs, such as the bottom of an avalanche chute, never get measured because they are below the altitude level where SNOTEL stations are located. The avalanche-prone San Juans may have much more snow than we ever knew.

    Given the increasingly critical nature of determining even short term snow inventories, people like John Lhotak, an operations hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, told a press meeting, “SNOTEL is the best network we have, but there are definitely shortcomings.”

    Enter LIDAR. LIDAR is one of those pseudo-acronym things that the lab guys and bureaucrats love. This one stands for Light Detection and Ranging.

    This map shows the snowpack depth of the Maroon Bells in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions. Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center

    Quite simply, if you flew over the mountains without snow on them and determined the height (compared to sea level), and then flew over and scanned them when the snow is in place, you would simply deduct the original snow-less height from the snow packed image and “voila!!!” you get the snow depth of the whole mountain almost to within centimeters.

    Sounds simple enough, but the data crunching is mind numbing. All the data points from the ground-only image must be overlaid with the image taken with snow on the ground. The measurement points are chosen and then comes all the subtraction and interpolation. The people like Jeffrey Deems at the National Snow and Ice Center and Sam Tyler at Utah State University (and their teams) have developed the computer tools to breakdown the gigabytes of data collected to simple usable terms.

    The whole concept was first tested in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains eight years ago. The dry model of the mountains was made by flying at 20,000 feet in a straight back-and-forth pattern. After some storms passed the location, the team went back and flew the same pattern at the same altitude. The resulting 3D images were a precise measurement of the snow on the ground. Tyler’s team also did a test of the system near Logan, Utah, at about 8,000 feet…

    The Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) folks tell us, “We see it as moving from a sparse-point base network (with SNOTEL) to a system that can map the entire snow pack in a river basin,” Jeffrey Deems said, “It is really an enabling technology.”

    In 2013 the ASO tested the system on selected sections of the Front Range, Gunnison Basin, Rio Grande Basin, and Uncompahgre watershed. Deems said, regarding the SNOTEL numbers, “We were missing a lot of the picture. We need to fix that.”

    What the tests revealed was that in the Rio Grande Basin, for example, the forecasts were way off, reporting as much as 50% less snow and water than what was actually on the ground. That makes accurate forecasts and water use management for that basin impossible…

    But the bean counters aren’t so sure. First of all, flying several thousand miles back and forth over the Colorado peaks costs a lot of money. The tab for flying for the new imagery on a regular basis could cost $400,000 a year or more, according to Frank Kugel, director of the Southwest Water Conservation District. Is the return on investment really there?

    SNOTEL Site via the Natural Resources Conservation Service

    Also, everyone in the water biz seems to agree that we will still need SNOTEL. It is currently the only tool for proofing the accuracy of the LIDAR images and vice versa. It is also the best tool for the density issue. For the time being, people like Deems think using SNOTEL in tandem with LIDAR is the right way to get the best measurements. Rather than replacing SNOTEL, Deems would opt for even more SNOTEL stations…

    Deems said [February 6, 2020] that the cost of LIDAR seems justified when you consider the cost of a bad forecast. It is no secret that the low estimate on the Rio Grande in 2013 translated into millions of dollars of water misused after the forecast. Making the investment available for better measurements seems like a no brainer…

    Meanwhile, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has already decided to invest $250K in 2021 for flights to measure the Gunnison Basin, of which the Uncompahgre River is a part.

    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

    First steps taken in developing Cow Creek pipeline and reservoir — the Watch

    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 Watch (Tanya Ishikawa):

    Ouray County is hoping to develop new and existing water rights on a major tributary of the Uncompahgre River, so water can be stored in a proposed reservoir and transported through a ditch or pipeline for temporary storage in Ridgway Reservoir. The county partnered with the Ouray County Water Users Association, a group representing ranchers with water rights, and Tri-County Water Conservancy District, the operator of Ridgway Reservoir and Dam, to apply for new and augmented water rights Dec. 30, 2019.

    The three partners are jointly seeking the right to divert surface water from Cow Creek up to 20 cubic feet per second and store 25,349.15 acre feet, which is equal to 8.26 billion gallons, in a yet-to-be-built reservoir. The water rights application also requested the right to exchange up to 30 cubic feet per second of water from Cow Creek for water from other locations within Tri-County’s water rights holdings around Ouray County.

    The water rights application was made after the completion of a water supply study commissioned by the Ouray County Stream Management & Planning Steering Committee, a group including the three partners and other local stakeholders that was organized as an effort to understand local water supply conditions after the droughts of 2012 and 2018.

    “Our challenge is that during dry years the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association with its members’ senior rights puts a call on water from the Uncompahgre River (UVWUA), which means a lot of our users in Ouray County don’t have the water they need. This water rights application is essentially an augmentation plan, to alleviate the results of a call from UVWUA. It would help us add some water supplies where we don’t have them by retiming flows and releases, moving water and storing it in years when we have lots of water, and using it in years without water,” said Marti Whitmore, attorney for the Ouray County Water Users Association, who was formerly the attorney for the county and has long been involved in water rights law.

    The plan is to take water from Cow Creek without impacting the water that belongs to current water rights holders. Beyond that basic premise, much about the proposed projects is yet to be determined. The exact location of the pipeline or ditch, as well as the design and management of the reservoir, still need to be researched and negotiated with various stakeholders, including private and public property owners.

    The main use for the water rights would be to supplement irrigation of 100,300 acres of mostly hay pastures, but the water rights application also lists other prior uses as domestic, municipal, industrial and flood control, and new uses as storage, flow stabilization, augmentation, exchange, aquifer recharge, reuse, commercial, piscatorial, streamflow enhancement, aquatic life, and hydropower generation and augmentation.

    The water storage is a right owned by Tri-County, which was approved sometime in the 1950s as Ram’s Horn Reservoir, and decreed to be located in the vicinity of Ramshorn Gulch and Ramshorn Ridge northwest of Courthouse Mountain in the Cimarron Range. The Ridgway Reservoir was selected as the preferred alternative, and the smaller reservoir was never developed.

    The proposed reservoir is on Uncompahgre National Forest land, but not within the wilderness area. Though on public land, the reservoir would not be publicly accessible for any uses such as recreation due to a stipulation made during a previous water rights case about the project. The pipeline or ditch would be located somewhere north of the reservoir, connecting flow from a point on Cow Creek to the Ridgway Reservoir to the west.

    The cost and funding for the projects had not been determined yet, Whitmore said.

    While no timeline has been set for the projects, the partners hope to have the water rights application successfully completed in 2020, after which other steps in the process from design to funding and federal permitting will begin, she added…

    Ken Lipton has been a member of the Ouray County Stream Management and Planning Steering Committee, as well as a local rancher and former board member of the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, a nonprofit with a purpose of protecting the watershed in the county.

    “The projects are necessary to prevent total loss of irrigation and stock water during extreme drought,” he said. “The bottom line is a reduced chance that there will be calls on our ditches during extreme droughts. However, I don’t think this will totally guarantee that no calls will occur.”

    The #UncompahgreRiver Watershed in Ouray County The Basics & A Little Bit More — Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership

    From email from the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership

    The Uncompahgre River Watershed in Ouray County is a first-of-its-kind publication that provides answers about water quality, supply and other features of the Uncompahgre River, its tributaries and the water sources in Ouray County. Just published by the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission of protecting and improving watershed resources, the booklet is available for free online (http://www.uncompahgrewatershed.org/links/) and soon at public facilities and businesses around Ridgway and Ouray.

    To determine the most valuable content to include in the compact booklet, UWP gathered input from around the county through various stakeholder outreach activities for many months in 2019. In February, UWP representatives will be presenting the watershed booklet at meetings of the Ouray City Council, Ouray County Board of Commissioners and Ridgway Town Council, and delivering copies to businesses, schools, libraries and other locations with an interest in sharing the useful information with their patrons.

    “I know it was a lengthy production process and carefully written project after many months of research. Both my husband and I read it and found the information useful and interesting,” said Sue Hillhouse, a committee member for the Ouray County Community Fund, which provided the primary funding for the booklet. “We are proud to have been a part in making this possible. We look forward to its distribution and use.”

    UWP used information garnered from its first six years of work on researching, monitoring, analyzing, and reporting on watershed conditions to produce the guide. The nonprofit produced a watershed plan in 2013, with 143 pages of geography, history, geology, data, maps, and other detailed information. Since then, UWP volunteers have taken water samples around the watershed for various projects, including the Colorado River Watch, a citizen scientist program collecting monthly samples at several sites coordinated through Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

    UWP also pulled information from its various public meetings and collaborative projects, such as three mine remediation projects completed in 2017. The partnership is preparing to participate in two additional mine remediation projects in 2020 and 2021, the Governor Basin Restoration Project and a restoration project at the historic Atlas Mill that adds to work done previously. Both projects are identified on the centerfold map in the new watershed booklet.

    “I’m thrilled with what our little nonprofit and our partners have accomplished. I’m most excited about the progress made towards cleaning up Governor Basin. In 2017, all we knew was that Governor Basin had very poor water quality and large mine waste piles. To make the project a reality, we’ve dug through heaps of information to better understand everything from land ownership to sediment chemistry, and together with our partners, secured more than $220,000 in commitments to restore that sensitive, high alpine area,” said UWP Technical Coordinator Ashley Bembenek in her message in the nonprofit’s annual report (available at http://www.uncompahgrewatershed.org/2019-annual-report/).

    To help the public better understand the legacy of abandoned mines in the San Juan Mountains and their impact on the watershed, UWP is organizing its annual Winter Tour of the Red Mountain Mining District, a snowshoe or Nordic ski trip to historic sites including the Yankee Girl Mine. The tour will be guided by Ouray County Historical Society Curator and author Don Paulson. The popular tour is already fully reserved with a waiting list started. However, a second snowshoe and skiing tour has been scheduled for March 7 that still has openings. On that date, wildlife biologist Steve Boyle will guide a group from Ironton Park on Red Mountain Pass to discover animal tracks and winter wildlife.

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

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Streamflow forecast for April-July = 87% of average

    Gunnison River Basin High/Low graph January 27, 2020 via the NRCS.

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased to 800 cfs on Wednesday, January 29th. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is currently at 106% of normal. The Jan 15th runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir predicts 87% of average for April-July inflows. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay 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 1050 cfs for January through March.

    Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 1100 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 800 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    This scheduled release change is subject to changes in river flows and weather conditions. For questions or concerns regarding these operations contact Erik Knight at (970) 248-0629 or e-mail at eknight@usbr.gov

    Colorado Drought Monitor January 21, 2020.

    At 25 years old, Ouray’s ice festival continues to foster — and anchor — the winter sport’s rise — 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 (William Woody):

    If the passion of ice climbing lies in the ascent, then Ouray has succeeded in fostering the rise of this winter sport. Climbers and spectators from around the world will celebrate the 25th Ouray Ice Festival, Jan. 23-26.

    What started out as a few rowdy locals climbing frozen leaks from an old water pipeline has turned into a world-class ice climbing destination…

    About a quarter-mile south of downtown, the Ouray Ice Park spans the Uncompahgre Gorge. Combined with the Uncompahgre River below, the box canyon forms a dramatic backdrop that is spectacular and functional for adventurers picking their way up fangs of ice using axes and wearing boots fitted with spikes on the toes.

    OURAY — At the bottom of a cold crevasse in the Uncompahgre Gorge, where sunlight reaches but only a few minutes a day, the climb to the surface begins.

    The darkness is broken with the clicking echoes of steel penetrating ice. Slowly a small figure emerges on the icy wall, tethered by a rope.

    If the passion of ice climbing lies in the ascent, then Ouray has succeeded in fostering the rise of this winter sport. Climbers and spectators from around the world will celebrate the 25th Ouray Ice Festival, Jan. 23-26.

    What started out as a few rowdy locals climbing frozen leaks from an old water pipeline has turned into a world-class ice climbing destination.

    During the ice festival, all of the hotel rooms in Ouray are booked, restaurants are packed, and a slew of foreign languages can be heard around town. Ouray’s population of just over 1,000 residents triples in size.

    About a quarter-mile south of downtown, the Ouray Ice Park spans the Uncompahgre Gorge. Combined with the Uncompahgre River below, the box canyon forms a dramatic backdrop that is spectacular and functional for adventurers picking their way up fangs of ice using axes and wearing boots fitted with spikes on the toes.

    Climbers work their way up and down columns of ice in Box Canyon on a northern section of the Ouray Ice Park Jan. 5, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
    The park uses about 7,500 feet of irrigation pipe to drip and spray more than 200,000 gallons of spring water from nozzles, usually starting just after Thanksgiving. The effect is a blue, man-made icescape.

    Temperature is everything, as the freezing process begins in late fall. Ice farmers try to get the park open after Thanksgiving, yet unpredictable temperatures can keep climbers off the ice for days and even weeks…

    Located at 7,792 feet, Ouray historically is a mining town. The Uncompahgre River that runs through it can have unique colorations due to heavy mineral influences from the San Juan Mountains. The minerals, combined with sediment from the constantly eroding landscapes, is not a conducive mix for successful ice climbing.

    In those early years of the festival, the ice, heavy with minerals and sediment, would not freeze well. The ice would become soft, melt quickly and break easily, creating “gross looking climbs,” Chehayl said. Worse, it could be dangerous for climbers.

    The early ice farming system rough, Whitt remembers.

    The park had to move from the old water supply to a reservoir that supplies the City of Ouray’s potable water. Now, water from the city’s reservoir, through the farming system, makes hardened blue ice on a massive scale.

    “Compared to the orange water, the water now is eons better. Now we have that perfect blue ice,” Whitt said.

    The City of Ouray is partnered with the ice park, whose board of directors and Jacobson lease part of the property to the city for $1 per year. In 2012, 24 acres of the park was transferred to the City of Ouray from the U.S. Forest Service, which led to more improvements and a sense of permanency…

    Chehayl said accessibility makes the Ouray Ice Park a success. Located just off U.S. 550, the park is walking distance from a parking lot. Multiple viewing platforms have been built and the water-delivery infrastructure has improved. This has helped grow the popularity of the ice park.

    Chehayl expects the annual elite climbing competition, scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, to be one of the best ever, thanks to the 25-year milestone. Whitt is one of the judges.

    Montrose: Aspinall Unit operations meeting January 23, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    The next Aspinall Operations meeting will be on Thursday, January 23rd, at the Holiday Inn Express in Montrose. Start time is 1:00.

    Aspinall Unit