Sneffels Creek water quality concerns delaying Ouray County mine

Mount Sneffels

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Marianne Goodland):

Ouray Silver Mines wants to reopen a mine that produces silver, gold, lead and copper and would bring 152 jobs to Ouray County, along with, its proponents say, a 10 to 20 percent boost to the county’s tax base.

But that mine is on hold, due to issues with water quality at a nearby creek tied to the mine that the mine owners say they have worked on for 18 months without any concerns raised by CDPHE until now.

Sneffels Creek, the surface water source near the mine, is about halfway between Ouray and Telluride, as the crow flies. The creek has a long history with mining, going back 140 years.

The mine dates back to 1876 and ran until its mill burned down in 1912. During its early operations, the mine produced 25 million ounces of silver.

Sneffels Creek joins up with another creek and then into Canyon Creek downstream, and then into the Uncompahgre River. Briana Greer, an environmental consultant with Ouray Silver Mines, said when the water originating in Sneffels Creek reaches the Uncompahgre, water quality in that river improves by 50 percent. It’s better water quality than area drinking water, she told the committee.

The idea of starting the mine back up for its silver, gold, zinc and copper began in the 1980s. The mine passed through numerous hands until 2014, when Fortune Minerals of Canada bought it hoping to mine its silver veins. But the company couldn’t sustain production and defaulted on its loans. The chief investor, Lascaux Resource Capital of New York, took over the mine and renamed it Ouray Silver Mines.

Mine CEO Brian Briggs told the General Assembly’s interim Water Resources Review Committee Wednesday that the company has invested $70.5 million to get the mine up and running, and it will take another $36 million to get up to full production. The payoff? Fourteen million ounces of silver, which costs $7.89 per ounce to mine and can bring in about $17 per ounce on the market. The mine also has rich veins of gold, lead and zinc, and the company expects a net a profit of around $76 million, along with 152 well-paying jobs for experienced miners, according to Briggs.

A fifth-generation Ouray native, Briggs has several decades experience in mining, called Ouray “a very, very good mine, the best I’ve every worked on for economic results.”

Ouray County could benefit more than just how the mine will improve its tax base. Briggs explained that Ouray has no gravel pits or other sources for road base. So mine tailings and waste rock, which metallurgical tests show are “benign,” are ground up by the company and provided to the county for road base.

Starting up an old mine has not been without its problems. According to a chart from the company, lead, zinc and cadmium discharges briefly exceeded state standards in 2014, leading to a violation notice last year from CDPHE. Lead discharges exceeded the standards again this past summer due to the failure of a lining in a mine tunnel that is being replaced.

Then there’s the water quality issue, and that’s delaying the mine’s startup.

The mine’s previous owner had a permit to discharge water to Sneffels Creek. The new owners set up a passive water system that could discharge either to surface or to groundwater (underground) water sources.

Briggs explained to the committee that the passive system is not only one for today’s mining but for 50 or 60 years from now. Briggs said the system, which has been piloted in Wyoming, for example, should prevent the kinds of problems that happened at the old Gold King Mine near Durango two years ago, when contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released more than a million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River.

In the mine’s passive system, used mining water is passed through a clay liner that contains fabric with peat moss to absorb metals and then a layer of topsoil. “It makes a tremendous impact on the three metals we’re concerned about: cadmium, lead and zinc,” Briggs said.

The hangup has been just who’s in charge of making sure the system is in compliance at the CDPHE. Briggs said the mine had provided quarterly updates, explaining the passive system, to CDPHE’s enforcement division. In November 2016, the mine owners applied for a termination of its surface water discharge permit, believing it was no longer necessary since the passive system was discharging its water into underground water sources.

In July, CDPHE denied the request, stating the surface water interacts with groundwater sources. “We can’t confirm” whether that’s true, Briggs said.

That left the owners in a pickle – tear up the previous system? Install a new one? “If they want us to discharge into surface water we’ll do that,” Briggs said. But he also appeared to be frustrated that after 18 months of telling CDPHE what they were doing that the agency came back and said that system doesn’t work.

Installing another system will take another year, Briggs said.

The story from CDPHE is a tad different. In a September 3 letter to Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, CDPHE’s Karin McGowan said the mine had an active permit for a surface water discharge. “They are not waiting for a new permit, but may be frustrated because they have not been able to successfully modify their permit because they have not provided the necessary information needed to execute a modification. We are currently working with them to get the necessary information needed,” McGowan wrote.

McGowan further added that the mine changed its manner of discharge, from surface to groundwater, without notifying the division.

The September, 2016 notice of violation was for discharging to a new location without a permit, effluent violations, and administrative violations, McGowan pointed out. “The facility has consistently failed whole effluent toxicity testing permit requirements,” she wrote. The 2016 notice pertains to a 2014 discharge, when the mine was owned by Fortune Minerals, in which water contaminated with lead, cadmium and zinc was dumped at a rate of 400 gallons per minute into Sneffels Creek for about 18 hours.

Briggs told the committee CDPHE has never even visited the site, despite numerous requests by the mine owners…

In a statement, CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley told Colorado Politics that most enforcement is completed through evaluations of self-reported data. “Resource limitations makes it impossible to visit every site on an annual basis and hence permittees are put on a schedule for inspection,” he said.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Lower Gunnison streamflow above baseflow target

Fog-filled Black Canyon via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased by 100 cfs on Thursday, October 12th. Diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel will be reduced by 100 cfs on Wednesday, October 11th so there will be a short period of flows over 1000 cfs in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon before the river returns to a flow of 950 cfs by late Thursday morning.

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 October through December.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are near 975 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 950 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be about 900 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be around 950 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

@COParksWildlife opens new State Wildlife Area east of Montrose

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

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):

An innovative project developed cooperatively by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the city of Montrose has resulted in the establishment of a new state wildlife area for CPW and a new park for the city

The Cerro Summit State Wildlife Area, a 162-acre parcel that includes a 40-acre reservoir, opened on Sept. 29. It’s located about 15 miles east of Montrose just off U.S. Highway 50.

“This is a win-win-win for the public, the city and CPW,” said Renzo DelPiccolo, area wildlife manager in Montrose. “This is a great example of what can be done by some out-of-the-box thinking.”

CPW operated Chipeta Lake State Wildlife Area, located just south of Montrose, for many years. As the city grew it became obvious that the Chipeta Lake parcel would be more valuable as a park. DelPiccolo proposed to Montrose leaders that the Chipeta Lake property could be turned over to the city in exchange for using the Cerro Summit area as a state wildlife area.

City leaders and CPW negotiated an agreement that will protect the reservoir’s water quality and keep the property in city ownership. The reservoir is the city’s emergency water supply. CPW will regulate use at the state wildlife area, and the public will gain limited access to a property that has been closed. The agreement was signed in the fall of 2016.

No money needed to be exchanged to complete the agreement.

Patt Dorsey, southwest regional manager for Colorado Parks and wildlife, praised the deal.

“In the era we’re living in, we’re not going to get projects like this done unless we have great partnerships,” Dorsey said. “The city of Montrose has been a great partner; this wouldn’t have happened without the city’s leadership. We hope we can do more projects like this throughout Colorado.”

Also helping to assure the success of the project was Montrose Mayor Judy Ann Files, State Senator Don Coram, Montrose County Commissioner Glen Davis, and the Bostwick Park Water Conservancy District.

The new wildlife area is open for fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing. To protect water quality, dogs are not allowed on the property. All fishing is catch-and-release by artificial lures and flies only.
The reservoir was stocked last fall with fingerling tiger trout that have already grown to 12 inches.

The property is also open to big-game and small game hunting during regular seasons. Because the area provides excellent winter range for deer and elk, and Gunnison-sage grouse habitat, the property will be closed seasonally from Nov. 30 through March 31.

DelPiccolo explained that state wildlife areas are managed differently than other public lands, such as U.S. Forest Service or BLM property. The areas are paid for by revenue from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, and the properties are managed only for wildlife conservation and wildlife-related recreation. Access to Cerro Summit State Wildlife Area is by foot only; it’s an easy half-mile walk to the reservoir.

“At Cerro Summit we’re protecting important wildlife habitat and providing an opportunity for people to hunt, fish and view wildlife in a beautiful setting,” DelPiccolo said.

An entry sign is posted on the north side of U.S. Highway 50 at the entry that leads to the parking lot. The trail to the wildlife area is well marked. Visitors are asked to be sure to read the regulation signs before entering.

Increased sedimentation due to wildfire

From News Deeply (Alastair Bland):

New research predicts that an increase in the frequency and magnitude of wildfires will double the rates of sedimentation in one-third of the West’s large watersheds, reducing reservoir storage and affecting water supplies.

In the Paonia Reservoir, completed in 1962 in Gunnison County, Colorado, for example, the dam’s outlet was built 60ft off the lake’s bottom. Now, Randle says, the bottom of the lake is above the outlet. The outlets in many other small reservoirs have become clogged with sediment, requiring expensive dredging or even the removal of the dams. Other times, boat ramps and marinas get buried and filled in. According to Randle, about 35 percent of the reservoirs managed by his agency have been surveyed for sediment fill. With most reservoirs, however, how much capacity has been lost is a matter of educated guesswork.

“Lake Powell probably has 1 million acre-feet less water than what we think,” Randle says.

And now the problem is predicted to get much worse.

According to new research from the U.S. Geological Survey, in many regions erosion rates are now accelerating thanks to wildfires and climate change. The western U.S., which relies on reservoirs for vital water storage and flood control, will be particularly impacted.

The problems of reservoir sedimentation have been at least somewhat understood for centuries, and most dams in the United States have been built with average rates of upslope erosion factored into the placement of the outflow pipes…

Authors of the USGS study, which was published September 7 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, wrote that projected increases in the frequency and magnitude of wildfires will double the rates of sedimentation in one-third of 471 large watersheds in the western U.S. within the next 33 years. In almost nine out of 10 of the watersheds assessed, sedimentation could increase by at least 10 percent, the researchers warned. In some watersheds, the researchers predict, erosion and sedimentation could increase by 1,000 percent. Climate change, they concluded, is the underlying culprit.

Randle says climate change – which may already be increasing the intensity of droughts and, in turn, wildfires – is driving a vicious cycle whereby sedimentation rates increase. This reduces reservoir storage space, “which leaves you less prepared for the next drought.”

[…]

water and forest managers well know the correlation between fires and post-burn erosion. For example, more than 1 million cubic yards of sediment entered Strontia Springs Reservoir, a major supply lake for Denver Water, following the Hayman fire, which burned 138,000 acres in Colorado in 2002…

Once sediment has settled to the bottom, the most effective means of removal is dredging, which can be costly.

“It’s much more expensive to dredge out your reservoirs after a fire than it is to take preventive action, like reducing fuel loads and restoring forests,” said Jason Kreitler, a research geographer with the USGS and a coauthor of the study.

Dredging a reservoir can cost as much as $60 per cubic yard of material, according to Randle. Some operations remove hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of cubic yards of material. Finer-grained silt and clay is cheaper to deal with.

“Sand and gravel is coarser and tends to do more damage to the dredging equipment,” he noted.

Denver Water has spent $27 million removing debris and sediment from Strontia Springs Reservoir, according to a June report. The Los Angeles County Public Works plans to spend $190 million dredging four reservoirs impacted by sediment from the 2009 Station fire, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Fecko says his agency has removed 44,000 cubic yards of material from Ralston Afterbay, a small hydroelectric reservoir on the Middle Fork of the American River, at a cost of $2.2 million. Still, the reservoir has lost about 50 percent of its storage capacity thanks to long-term sedimentation, he says.

Besides lost reservoir storage, there are other impacts from sedimentation. Downstream from dams, rivers become depleted of gravel – essential for spawning salmon…

Randle, at the Bureau of Reclamation, thinks all water agencies and local governments would be wise to take a proactive stance against sediment entering reservoirs.

Mining jobs at West Elk without methane emissions? — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate #keepitintheground

West Elk Mine. Photo/WildEarth Guardians via The Mountain Town News.

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Solomon-like wisdom in methane emissions or something else?

One of Colorado’s larger sources of greenhouse gas emissions is something few people see, a coal mine located an hour or two from both Crested Butte and Aspen.

There, invisibly, methane wafts into the atmosphere, trapping heat. That methane has now become a major issue as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper tries to balance economic and environmental goals.

He did so last week with a Solomon-like gesture. He endorsed a proposal to approve a royalty rate reduction at the West Elk Mine from 8 to 5 percent for operations in a new coal seam that Arch Coal, the operator, says will be economically challenging.

But in return for that royalty reduction, Hickenlooper wants to see a “good-faith commitment to dedicating significant time and resources” to an effort to capture methane vented from the mine and possibly put it to beneficial use.

Arch plans to bore holes from the surface into the mine to release methane gas. Without venting, miners would be endangered.

A precedent exists for methane capture. In a complicated financing deal, the methane coming from the nearby Elk Creek mine was captured several years ago and is being burned to generate electricity. It still produces carbon dioxide, but methane as measured over the course of a century has 23 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide.

Craig Station is the No. 2 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, behind Comanche station at Pueblo. Photo/Allen Best

The West Elk alone is responsible for 0.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, according to the calculations of Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represents various groups that oppose the mine expansion. The North Fork mines are said to be among the gassiest in the world.

As of 2015, West Elk’s methane emission were the equivalent of half a million tons of carbon dioxide. Colorado’s largest CO2 producers that same year were the Comanche and Craig power plants, which produced 8.4 million tons and 8.2 million tons of CO2.

This royalty reduction will cost the state, but just how much will depend upon how much coal ends up being mined. Hickenlooper estimated $4 million over a five-year period. Environmentalists, however, calculated lost royalties of up to $12 million.

The Crested Butte-based High Country Conservation Advocates expressed frustration with Hickenlooper’s stance. Matt Reed, the public lands director for the HCCA, said the governor’s office holds that it has little power to limit methane pollution from the mine in cases such as this one, where the federal government is the ultimate decision-maker.

Reed tells the Crested Butte News his group disagrees. The state has power under current law to require permits for coal mine emissions because of its authority to regulate emissions of both volatile organic compounds, which are ozone (smog) precursors, and hazardous air pollutants. They are emitted along with methane. As recently as January, state health regulators said they reserved the right to undertake enforcement action.

The Crested Butte group also points to state law that it says authorizes rules be created to control for emissions of hydrocarbons … and any other chemical substance.”

But Gunnison County Commissioner John Messner sees the Hickenlooper letter sending a “strong message that the analysis, development and implementation of a methane capture and utilization plan is to be expected in the North Fork of Gunnison County and the key word here is that it is to be implemented.”

For the coal mine expansion to go forward, Arch Coal will need a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to build temporary roads into what is now a designated roadless area. That agency’s decision will be posted Friday, Sept. 8, in the Federal Register.

In an editorial a week before the governor’s letter was released, the Grand Junction Sentinel said the “coal industry has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.” It urged him to take exactly the position that he took.

The newspaper—located in a fossil-fuel-friendly-town—went on to urge Hickenlooper to “use the mine as an example of why Colorado needs a carbon credit cap-and-trade market to monetize waste methane.”

In an editorial a week before the governor’s letter was released, the Grand Junction Sentinel said the “coal industry has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.” It urged him to take exactly the position that he took.

The newspaper—located in a fossil-fuel-friendly-town—went on to urge Hickenlooper to “use the mine as an example of why Colorado needs a carbon credit cap-and-trade market to monetize waste methane.”

Ironically, California’s cap-and-trade is partly the reason why electricity is now being generated from the Elk Creek Mine. Tom Vessels, who put the generating system together, secured money from California, because he is reducing a greenhouse gas. But Holy Cross Energy—which serves Aspen and Vail areas—also is paying a premium for the electricity, and Aspen Skiing Co. provided money to ensure that deal happened.

About Allen Best
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.

Money for water: A pilot project wins over skeptical farmers and ranchers

Freddie Botur walking across rocks that form the diversion structure at his headgates on Cottonwood Creek, a tributary of the Green River. Botur was paid to let water flow past these headgates and down the river system toward Lake Powell.

PINEDALE, WYO. – When Freddie Botur, 45, whose ranch spans 72,000 acres outside of Pinedale, Wyoming, first heard about a program that was paying ranchers to let water run down the river instead of irrigating with it, he was skeptical. But Nick Walrath, a project coordinator for Trout Unlimited, told him he’d receive about $200 for every acre-foot of water saved by not watering hay on his Cottonwood Ranch.

For Botur, it would mean over $240,000 for fallowing just over 1,700 acres of hayfields for the latter half of the summer of 2015, letting 1,202 acre-feet of water run past his headgate on Cottonwood and Muddy Creeks, tributaries of the Green River, instead of to his fields.

“Oh my God,” he thought, “this is insane.”

Botur, talkative and athletic, was wearing mirrored sunglasses and a cowboy hat when we met in June outside a cluster of old homestead buildings on the family ranch that he operates at the foot of the lofty peaks of the Wyoming Range. For Wyoming ranchers, he explained, the kind of money he received for not growing hay represented as much as a third of their annual revenue.

The money-for-water program that Botur signed up for was a pilot program, launched in 2014 by the four largest municipal water providers in the Colorado River basin along with the Bureau of Reclamation. The goal: See how complicated it would be to pay ranchers to use less water on their fields and instead let the water flow down the Green, Colorado, and San Juan rivers to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two biggest water storage buckets in the Colorado River system.

The result: After three years, the initiative, known as the “System Conservation Pilot Program,” proved popular with skeptical ranchers like Botur, but water officials called a halt to the program after this year until they work out some big challenges. Their task will not be easy.

But as climate change alters the hydrology of the Colorado River Basin, water planners are searching for ways to adapt a system of century-old water laws to a new reality. If they’re successful, a revamped “system conservation program” could be one way to reshape water management for a hotter, drier West.

Freddie Botur in his home on his ranch near Pinedale, Wyo.

Long drought

The year 2014 marked a new level of urgency for water managers along the Colorado River. In July, Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, dipped to its lowest level since it was filled in 1937. Upstream, Lake Powell was also in bad shape.

Since 2000, a long-term drought had gripped much of the Colorado River Basin and the storage pool of both reservoirs had shrunk to less than half their capacity. For the first time, federal authorities decreased the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead from Lake Powell. And officials from the Bureau of Reclamation said there was a 50-50 chance that by 2015 Lake Mead’s water will be rationed to states downstream.

That, too, had never happened before.

Most alarming, however, were the climate models suggesting that the drought was a harbinger of a future marked by rising temperatures — a future in which city water providers could not depend on what’s left in the Colorado River to meet demands.

For water officials in the Upper Colorado Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico — the ongoing drought posed an additional threat. If they failed to deliver the mandatory volume of water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, as required by the law, the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California could make a “compact call” for their water, forcing the upper basin to stop diverting post-1922 water rights from the Colorado River.

“The cutbacks would go very deep,” says Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

In Colorado, for instance, the transmountain diversions that pipe water from the western side of the Rockies to the drier eastern side could be limited or stopped altogether. If that happened, Front Range cities —where more than 4 million people live —could lose up to 50 percent of their water supply.

And yet, water officials had barely discussed how such a scenario might be avoided.

If both Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropped significantly and Upper Basin states faced a compact call on the river, officials had few options to keep it at bay, said James Eklund, the former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who is now an attorney with Squire Patton Boggs in Denver. As the drought worsened, officials came to an uncomfortable conclusion, said Eklund: “If it gets really bad, we had no plan.”

Lake Powell, September 2014.

The beginning of a crisis

When the first inkling of future water shortages emerged during the 2002 drought, Eklund, who serves on the Upper Colorado River Commission, and other water planners in the Upper Basin, asked the Bureau of Reclamation to model the reservoir levels in Mead and Powell using drier hydrology. The results confirmed what many already knew: They needed to plan for a lot less water in the Colorado River.

A few ideas emerged.

They could release water from Upper Basin reservoirs to keep Mead and Powell full. They could keep cloud seeding, which may help a bit. And they could keep removing the tamarisk from the banks of the Colorado and Green rivers, and that also may help a little. Still, Eklund, said, it felt like they were “just nibbling” at the problem.

Eklund, a fifth-generation Coloradan whose parents operate a ranch near Grand Junction, grew worried. If Lake Powell dropped to so-called “dead pool” levels, the turbines that generate electricity through the Hoover Dam would stop spinning. Without that power, millions of people across the Southwest would see their electric bills skyrocket and the hydro revenue that now pays for environmental programs along the Colorado River like salinity control and fish recovery programs would disappear.

In the Lower Basin too, water managers were growing more and more alarmed at the severity of the drought. The year 2002 showed them how fast reservoirs could shrink, said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which delivers water to Las Vegas and its surrounding urban areas. “That was the wakeup call,” he said.

The Green River, near Pinedale, Wyo. The river meets the upper Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park and then the combined rivers flow into Lake Powell.

Using the water

Both cities and ranchers in the seven states served by the Colorado River have grown increasingly dependent on the river over the last century, even as the amount of water in the system is falling. That scarcity has created a complex, often fraught relationship between municipal water providers and irrigators, with cities often buying ranches for their water rights, a practice known as “buy and dry.” They do so from willing sellers, but the remaining ranchers don’t see a benefit and the permanent removal of water from land in a community can bring unwanted change.

A similarly tense relationship exists between officials in the Lower Basin and ranchers in the Upper Basin. Fears of Southern California or Las Vegas taking someone’s water are culturally ingrained in ranching communities in Colorado and Wyoming. And in Colorado, a longstanding feud exists between the rural western side of the Rocky Mountains, which has most of the state’s water, and the Front Range, where the majority of the people live.

But the severity of the ongoing dry spell has helped drive a new spirit of collaboration among the Colorado River’s competing factions. Over the years, water officials, environmentalists, and irrigators began meeting in conferences, on river trips, in hotel bars and coffee shops, choosing negotiation and trust over potential court battles — in the hopes of avoiding a potential “compact call.”

A map of the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Seeding an idea

One such meeting occurred over a dinner that Eklund hosted for water managers from the basin states and officials from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Interior Department at Denver’s posh Palace Arms restaurant. On the agenda: negotiating Minute 319, a bi-national water-sharing agreement with Mexico, and ways to coordinate drought contingency plans among the upper and lower basin.

“It was one of those key moments where we could have gone off and done our own thing,” Eklund said. “But there was so much more that we could get out of it if we did things together.”

In the Lower Basin, cities like Las Vegas had invested millions in water-efficiency efforts like paying homeowners to get rid of their lawns, imposing strict water restrictions on golf courses, and reusing almost all wastewater. But Lake Mead continued to shrink and Entsminger, whose Las Vegas service area derives 90 percent of its drinking water from the reservoir, grew increasingly worried.

San Diego and Los Angeles had been paying farmers in the Palo Verde and Imperial valleys to lease their water on a temporary basis for years – a program that helped meet urban needs without drying up farms. If that strategy could work for California, Entsminger thought, it could also work for other parts of the Colorado River Basin.

The seeds of that idea emerged one day in 2013 during a brainstorming session in Hermosa Beach, California, with Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Chuck Cullom, manager of Colorado River programs for the Central Arizona Project, and Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water. Together, they came up with what would become the System Conservation Pilot Program, which they hoped would strike a balance between their need to avoid a catastrophic water shortage and farmers’ reticence toward selling off their water rights.

Entsminger and the other municipal water managers brought the idea to officials from the Upper Basin states along with the Bureau of Reclamation. In total, they pooled a $15 million fund to compensate people throughout the Colorado River basin for using less water. The program targeted ranchers and farmers — who own the vast majority of water rights on the river — but municipalities could apply too.

It would be temporary and it would be voluntary — and every gallon of water saved would go not to any one state or city, but directly back to the river itself. “No one had done that before,” recalls Entsminger, “you’re investing money and no one’s name is on it.”

Dennis Schroeder, in one of the hayfields on his large ranch near Pinedale, WY.

A grand experiment

The pilot program worked by soliciting proposals from individuals who volunteered to leave a portion of their water rights unused by letting the water run past their headgates and down their local section of river toward Lake Powell.

Applicants submitted a proposal describing their intended conservation activities, which were then reviewed by program administrators to ensure the proposals would actually leave more water in the Colorado River system.

For instance, low priority water rights — those dated after 1922 — were unlikely to yield much benefit since during dry years since junior water users must stop diverting to allow those with senior water rights their full claim amount.

In total, the four municipal water providers contributed $8 million to fund the program, with an additional $3 million from the Bureau of Reclamation. The fund was spread among projects in all seven Colorado River basin states and when the third year finishes up this fall, according to Michelle Garrison, who managed the program contracts for the Upper Colorado River Commission, it will have left an expected 21,590 acre-feet in the Upper Basin (and almost 98,000 acre-feet in the Lower Basin).

True, it is just a drop in the bucket for Lake Powell, which stores water from the Upper Basin of the Colorado River and had 15,020,378 acre-feet in it as of August 27, but it was the principle, and the experience, behind the System Conservation Program, that may prove most important.

“Nobody really knew how it would go,” said Cory Toye, the Wyoming water project director for Trout Unlimited, about the pilot program.

Would farmers and ranchers in the Upper Colorado River basin even agree to participate? For many of them, wary of the legacy of “water grabs” by big cities, accepting money from Las Vegas or Denver would be a form of betrayal to their communities and their culture.

Among Dennis Schroeder’s friends in the Pinedale, Wyo., ranching community there were fears that the program was actually a secret plot to take away ranchers’ water rights. And when Schroeder, who ranches on 355 acres of high desert, decided to participate, he heard from a few of them – fear-mongering mostly, he said, recalling one rancher’s warning: “Once you do that you’ll never get it back.”

Yet Schroeder understood there was a trade-off in participating — turning off his irrigation water early meant he lost out on some hay production — but when he did the math, the deal offered by the pilot program made sense to him. He participated for the first two years, receiving almost $15,000 each year for turning off his irrigation water in mid-July on 81 acres of land, letting 74 acre-feet of water remain in Pine Creek, a tributary of the Green River, which flows into the Colorado.

Entsminger knew they would have to tread carefully, that convincing Western ranchers and farmers that Las Vegas was “here to help” would not be easy. The program architects agreed that it would not look good if Lower Basin water managers were seen as paying for Upper Basin water, so the two basins used the funding separately.

Money from Denver Water and the Bureau of Reclamation would only fund projects in the Upper Basin while funding from the other municipalities along with the Bureau was reserved for projects in the Lower Basin.

“We were all sensitive,” Eklund said. “We didn’t want anyone to be able to point to money from Vegas or Phoenix going to fallow fields in the Upper Basin.”

To help navigate those cultural sensitivities Eklund and the other program architects also relied on partnerships with Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy. Their staff members would be the messengers, reaching out to irrigation districts and individual farmers with whom they had already worked hard to establish good working relationships.

Jackson Ramsay on his ranch.

Overcoming skepticism

For Jackson Ramsay, 25, a fifth-generation rancher from Rock Springs, Wyo., such a relationship with Trout Unlimited proved critical to his eventual support for the pilot program. When Trout Unlimited’s Walrath told Ramsay and his two brothers about the program, their first thought was, “What’s the catch?”

“We were kind of skeptical just because there are so many crazy things happening with government programs,” he told me one afternoon in June at a Starbucks in Rock Springs, before mentioning a rancher he knew who got in trouble with the Environmental Protection Agency for building a pond on his property.

Rock Springs is a resource town, surrounded by a honeycomb of old coalmines, the world’s biggest reserve of sodium carbonate, and the huge Jonah gas field. Most locals, said Ramsay, believe that land should be used for multiple purposes and are wary of environmental regulations that might hinder agriculture or extractive industries.

“We like coal, we like gas, we like oil, and we like ag,” Ramsay said. Green groups, he added, not so much.

Jackson and his brothers first met Walrath seven years ago.

“When Nick told us who he worked for,” Ramsay recalled, “we were kind of like, ‘Trout Unlimited — that sounds a lot like ‘Sierra Club.’ What do you guys want?’”

But after Walrath offered to replace a headgate that had washed out during a flood, making it better for fish – a project they could not afford on their own – the Ramsay brothers came around to working with a “green group.” Later, Trout Unlimited dug a pipeline to their irrigation ditch to protect it from future floods and the relationship was sealed.

When Walrath told them about the System Conservation Program, the Ramsays did some research and decided to apply because it made good financial sense. Ultimately, they didn’t qualify for the pilot program because their fields had not been in production for long enough, but Ramsay told me that they would if the opportunity to participate arose again.

Jackson Ramsay, leaning against a headgate on his ranch. The headgate was improved with the help of Trout Unlimited.

Proven popular

As the pilot program matured, ranchers and farmers saw a unique opportunity: the ability to diversify their income by marketing their water rights in a way that hasn’t been available before.

The first year it ran, in 2015, the pilot program saw 15 applications. The second year, there were 32, and by last year, for the 2017 irrigation season, there were 47 applications.

“The third year we were shocked by the number of applicants,” said Garrison.

The numbers showed that with the right incentives, ranchers and farmers were much more receptive to helping cities avert a water crisis than any of the program architects had thought.

For hay and crops, the going rate was around $200 to $250 per acre-foot mostly for split-season irrigation projects — irrigating only at certain times, or stopping altogether on a certain date.

In Colorado, some participants used the program as an opportunity to transition into organic farming, which requires a three-year hiatus from pesticide spraying, while others fallowed certain fields for an entire season.

Near the town of Olathe, between Delta and Montrose, Colo., David Harold farms 700 acres of hay, sweet corn, and other vegetables.

He learned about the pilot program from a farmer-led coalition called No Chico Brush — named after the woody desert plants that covered vast swaths of land in southwestern Colorado before irrigated agriculture arrived in the late 1800s.

The group came together in 2013, a time when farmers in the Lower Gunnison River Basin worried that the ongoing drought might put an end to irrigated agriculture in their region and began researching water efficiency methods for farms.

“I had learned a lot about water rights and I didn’t feel threatened,” Harold said.

For Harold, the program made switching to drip irrigation much easier financially. In the past, he had struggled to improve his irrigation efficiency while growing crops at the same time, but participating in the pilot program provided him with some extra income.

Not everyone shared that perspective, however.

When other farmers learned Harold was signing up, several told him that they thought it was a terrible thing; that it was another form of “buy and dry”; that they would never do it. Others, he said — especially those farmers who were struggling financially — were more receptive.

Harold participated for one year, but with his new irrigation system in place, it did not make economic sense for him to continue participating. Still, he believes the pilot program was a worthwhile experiment in figuring out how to value water.

A pedestrian bridge over the lower Gunnison River, not far downstream from Olathe, Colo. The Gunnison meets the Colorado River in Grand Junction.
The confluence of the Green River, to the right, and the Colorado River, left, in October 2016. Most of the water left in rivers and streams by the System Conservation Pilot Program is headed for this point, directly above Lake Powell.

Water down the river

The program helped water managers figure out something essential as well, says Eklund. In an emergency drought scenario, when the usual conservation methods have been exhausted, when upstream reservoirs have been drained, and water levels in Lake Powell are still falling, what else can they do?

“How much water can we shove down the river in an emergency – how much money do we need to have ready to go?” Eklund said.

But to turn the pilot program into something permanent, Eklund and representatives from the other basin states have some big questions to resolve.

For instance, should farmers be compensated for the historical value of water used on their fields or the full potential usage guaranteed by their water right? What if someone like Harold had decided to plant alfalfa instead of sweet corn, which takes half as much water? How much should that contract be worth?

How can the program scale to include many participants? How can the contracting process for hundreds of irrigators be effectively managed, as it’s resource-intensive if done one-by-one as it was the past three years, when 56 contracts were produced and signed.

Water law, in some states, poses another hurdle. If farmers use less water than their allotment, they could risk losing some of their water rights.

In the future, Garrison hopes to see other states adopt legislation like Colorado has, where enrollment in approved conservation programs mean changes in water use cannot cause a farmer to lose a portion of his water right.

There is also the question of how to ensure the saved water actually, physically, gets to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, as downstream users are free to divert water in the river consistent with their water rights—whether it was destined for Lake Powell under the system conservation pilot program or not.

It’s what Garrison and others call the “shepherding problem.” In other words, how can the water be securely delivered, or shepherded, to Lake Powell without being diverted along the way?

But the hardest question to answer is also the one that proponents are reluctant to even ask: Is it even worth it?

As Gary Wockner, the director of the river conservation group Save the Colorado, pointed out, the same government agencies supporting the pilot program are also supporting new dam and diversion projects in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, that, if completed, would drain a further 250,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River system.

“If the fundamental premise is to stabilize Lake Powell, the last thing you’d want to do is permit new projects to take more water out of the river,” Wockner said. “You could spend millions leasing water from farmers and just barely break even.”

For Eklund, that apparent contradiction is part of a balancing act between the need to avoid future shortages on the Colorado River and protect Upper Basin states’ legal right to develop more water — if it’s available.

This year, heavy snows in the Rocky Mountains helped offset the years of persistent drought throughout the Colorado River Basin, but new research shows that rising temperatures will increase the frequency and severity of future droughts.

Just how much climate change will reduce the Colorado’s flow remains uncertain, but the pilot program at least made one thing clear: Ranchers and farmers are open, despite some negative social pressure, to take good money from metropolitan water providers and in exchange, leave some water in the river.

Cottonwood Creek, a tributary of the Green River, as it flows through Freddie Botur’s ranch. The boulders in the river were installed to help create fish habitat and improve the ranch’s irrigation system.

Other values

Last May, Botur left his ranch near Pinedale and traveled to Washington, D.C., along with several other ranchers who had participated in the pilot program, and Toye, from Trout Unlimited, to help secure more federal funding and support for the program’s future.

The trip was a whirlwind, with 12 meetings in two days, including one in Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s office where they were served Utah’s official state snack of Jell-O with marshmallows.

In two years, Botur had gone from skeptic to lobbyist. Faced with looming water shortages, it was better, he believed, to have a voluntary program that rewards people for doing what you want, instead of regulation forcing people to do something they don’t want.

Botur shut his water off even earlier than his contract required and other ranchers he knew did too. Water conservation was one value, but there were other values that the program supported and that Botur believed in — conservation of wildlife habitat, fisheries, and overall watershed health. Not to mention the value in avoiding future conflicts that will likely arise from population and climate conditions.

“It’s more than just money,” he said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborated with High Country News on this story. HCN published the story on its website on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017.

Uncompahgre River watershed: Streamflow management study and plan

Ridgway Reservoir during winter

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Tanya Ishikawa):

Whitmore volunteered to oversee Ouray County’s grant application submission to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to get funding for a stream management study and plan. The study is aimed at confirming and expanding the information from a 2016 water needs study by Wright Water Engineers that concluded the county has current unmet needs and will need additional water supplies for the future, especially in the area of storage.

Last year’s study was initiated by the county and the Ouray County Water Users Association, a group organized to represent agricultural water users, and Tri-County Water Conservancy District, which manages the operation of the Ridgway Dam and supplies water to an area including parts of Ridgway, Montrose, Olathe and Delta. The county commissioners approved a memorandum of understanding between the three entities on July 11, to give the county permission “to take the lead in moving forward with development of the water rights” to supply future water projects such as building reservoirs for storage. Tri-County approved the agreement on Wednesday, and the water users group was reviewing the document this week but had not yet approved it…

The stated purpose of the stream management plan is “to assist in balancing water needs amongst various users and the development of additional sustainable multipurpose water supplies including both consumptive and non-consumptive demands.” To complete the plan, the recommended tasks include further evaluation of water needs in the upper Uncompahgre River water supply area, possible storage development, potential development of voluntary water transfer agreements between water rights holders, and identification of ditch irrigation efficiency projects.

Tri-County water rights being considered for potential storage and storage expansion projects are located on Dallas Creek and Cow Creek. Proposed project locations are Dallas Divide, Ram’s Horn and the Sneva Ditch.

The county plans to invite various stakeholders to create a steering committee to manage and implement the stream management plan and grant. Whitmore said that in creating the committee, “We want to make sure we are bringing all our knowledge and experience together so we hopefully have the support of the whole community. The support of the whole community is important because whether we look at exchanges, new water rights or storage, we need to go through water court. If everyone agrees, it’s less likely those plans will run into opposition.”

Pete Foster, Wright Water’s vice president and senior project engineer, and Cary Denison, a Ouray County resident and Trout Unlimited’s Gunnison Basin project coordinator, assisted in developing a draft grant application. Foster will be paid out of the county budget, and possibly some funding from Tri-County and the water users group, for related consulting work on the grant, steering committee administration and plan development and implementation.

The county expects to submit the application for an amount under $100,000 by early October, and if funding is awarded, complete the study by the end of 2018.