Aspinall Unit update report — #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The Winter 2021-2022 Newsletter is hot off the presses from the Upper #GunnisonRiver Water Conservancy District #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

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

Can the Law of the Colorado River Adapt to an Increasingly Drier Hydrology?

A Two-Part Article by John McClow, UGRWCD Legal Counsel

The Gunnison River is a major tributary of the Colorado River. The Colorado River Basin has suffered from drought conditions throughout the 21st Century. The two major reservoirs in the Colorado River System – Lake Mead and Lake Powell – are at historic and dangerously low storage levels. Locally, Blue Mesa Reservoir is a stark illustration of the effects of the current dry conditions. Scientists are warning that “drought” is a term that no longer applies because it implies a temporary condition from which the Basin will recover. A more accurate term is “aridification” because the conditions we have experienced during the past 20 years will continue – or worsen – for the foreseeable future, as hotter and drier conditions make matters worse. Recently published projections indicate that river flows may decline 20 percent by midcentury and 35 percent by the end of this century. There is debate about the causes of the decline, but little disagreement that it will continue to happen. Can the Law of the Colorado River – numerous compacts, federal laws, court decisions and decrees, contracts, and regulatory guidelines – founded on a 100-year-old Compact – adapt sufficiently to meet the challenge of aridification?

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

PART 1: A Brief Summary of the Law of the Colorado River

The foundation of the Law of the River is the Colorado River Compact, signed by the seven Colorado River Basin States and the United States in 1922. The Compact is a contract among the signatories ratified by the seven states and Congress and became state and federal law. The Compact divides the Colorado River Basin into an Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico) and a Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona, California). It apportions to the Upper and Lower Basins the beneficial use of 7.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year. It requires that the states of the Upper Basin will not cause the flow of the river to be depleted below an aggregate of 75 million acre-feet for any period of ten consecutive years – measured at Lee Ferry, the dividing point between the Basins. It also describes how the Basins will share water delivery to Mexico. The Compact contains no reference to “curtailment” or a “Compact call.”

In the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act, Congress authorized construction of Hoover Dam (Lake Mead) and directed that the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted to the Lower Basin under the 1922 Compact be apportioned: California, 4.4 million acre-feet; Arizona, 2.8 million acre-feet; Nevada, 300 thousand acre-feet.

The United States signed a treaty with Mexico in 1944 that guarantees an annual delivery of 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to Mexico. In 1948, the Upper Basin States signed the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, which apportions the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted under the 1922 Compact: Colorado, 51.75 percent: Utah, 23 percent; Wyoming, 14 percent; New Mexico, 11.25 percent. The 1948 Compact created the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), consisting of a Commissioner appointed by the Governor of each state and a federal Commissioner appointed by the President of the United States. It also provides that if curtailment of use in the Upper Basin is necessary to maintain the flow at Lee Ferry required by the 1922 Compact, the UCRC will determine each state’s extent and timing of curtailment. It is important to note that neither the 1922 Compact nor the 1948 Compact affect water right administration within the states. In Colorado, that authority remains vested in the State Engineer.

Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

In 1956, Congress passed the Colorado River Storage Project Act. The Act authorized construction of the reservoirs, dams and power plants of the initial units of the Project: Wayne N. Aspinall (originally the Curecanti Unit), Flaming Gorge, Navajo (reservoir and dam only), and Glen Canyon (Lake Powell), along with numerous participating projects, “making it possible for the States of the Upper Basin to utilize, consistently with the provisions of the Colorado River Compact, the apportionments made to and among them in the Colorado River Compact and the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, respectively.” The CRSP power plants are an important source of hydropower in the Western United States, and the revenue from the sale of that hydropower supports operation of the Project and important salinity control and endangered fish recovery programs.

The Colorado River Basin Project Act, passed by Congress in 1968, authorized construction of the Central Arizona Project, which can divert 1.5 million acre-feet from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona. Construction of the CAP allowed Arizona to develop its full apportionment of Colorado River water. The Act confirms California’s senior priority to 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water, meaning that Arizona and Nevada must bear any shortage in the Lower Basin.

Next Issue: PART 2: Adapting the Law of the River for a Dry Hydrology

Aspinall Unit Operations Meeting – January 20, 2022 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Aspinall Unit

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The next Aspinall Unit Operation Coordination Meeting will be conducted using Microsoft Teams (see link below). We are again using this format as an alternative to allow interactive participation, as we are not yet able to meet in person. No special software is required. Please contact me at rchristianson@usbr.gov or (970) 248-0652 if you have any questions. The proposed agenda is below:

Microsoft Teams meeting
Join on your computer or mobile app
Click here to join the meeting

Or call in (audio only)
+1 202-640-1187,,459511369# United States, Washington DC
Phone Conference ID: 459 511 369#

#Drought news (December 31, 2021): Persistent storms delivering optimism, welcome moisture — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #snowpack #runoff

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Recent snowstorms, followed by even more snowstorms, are providing much-needed moisture and even some optimism that perhaps this winter could bring relief from the persistent drought that has been gripping the region.

“We’re certainly hopeful and optimistic at this point. It certainly looks a whole lot better than it did a year ago, for sure,” said Molina rancher Carlyle Currier.

He noted that one National Resources Conservation Service snow measurement site on Grand Mesa, at Park Reservoir, was at about 160% of normal Monday.

“We’re not that far below what it peaked at last winter, better than three-fourths of what it peaked at the first of April … so that’s really wonderful,” said Currier.

That speaks to the paucity of snow last year on Grand Mesa and in much of western Colorado, but also to the recent abundance of snowfall that has vastly improved the state’s snowpack status in just a matter of weeks.

That boosts hopes for more spring runoff that will benefit farmers and ranchers, municipal water providers and the environment…

As of Monday, snowpack had grown to 118% of median in the Gunnison River Basin, 104% in the upper Colorado River Basin and 112% in the combined San Miguel/Dolores/Animas/San Juan basins.

The Arkansas River has the lowest snowpack of any major basin in the state, at 76% of normal…

Currier, who is president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said this year’s snow has fallen on ground that was a lot wetter from rain in the fall. When last winter’s snowpack melted, it soaked into dry soils, reducing how much reached reservoirs and irrigation ditches…

Boyer said about the current weather pattern, “We’ve got this big deep trough that’s transitioning over the western U.S., and we’re right kind of in the base of that trough. It’s ejecting little pulses of energy right across Colorado, so as soon as it hits the mountains, it pretty much creates a snow event for us.”

[…]

The system has been favoring snow higher in the mountains, where there were reports of 6 to 8 inches for the most part having fallen over the previous 24 hours, Boyer said Monday…

Powderhorn got only 2 inches in that timeframe, but collected 10 inches of snow on Christmas Eve, he said.

Grand Junction also received its first official measurable snow of the season on Christmas Eve, when an inch fell at the National Weather Service office at the Grand Junction Regional Airport. On average, the city’s first measurable snow falls on Nov. 17; the latest-ever measurable snow in the city didn’t arrive until Jan. 5.

Grand Junction officially got 0.03 inches of precipitation Sunday, a lot of that consisting of snow that melted when it hit the ground, Boyer said…

Currier said this year is reminding him of 1977, which was extremely dry but was wet in the fall and was followed by an extremely wet winter.

Project 7 Water Authority invited to apply for water infrastructure funding — The #Montrose Daily Press

The water treatment process

From The Montrose Daily Press (Cassie Knuth):

Project 7 Water Authority has been invited to apply for a $39 million water infrastructure loan for the Ridgway water treatment plant project. Projects were chosen for their efforts to help modernize water infrastructure for 25 million people while creating up to 49,000 jobs across the country.

If selected, funds would be pulled from Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loans fund, providing assistance to the Project 7 initiative slated to provide a second water treatment source to the region. The water resiliency project, estimated to cost between $50 – $70 million, will establish a raw water line that offers more long-term affordable costs and energy-efficient infrastructure.

Project 7 pursued the loan, applying for eligibility in early planning stages. The loan is considered a common funding instrument for water projects, said Miles Graham, spokesman for the water treatment cooperative.

“I think, more than anything, it speaks to what a good candidate this project is for outside federal funding opportunities,” said Graham. “When you look at the project on its merits, it’s really well qualified to bring in low interest loans and grants. So this was one of the first ones [loans] to make sure that we had the ability to take on the needed debt to fund the project.”

As helpful as the loan would be for the water project, Graham emphasized the cooperative’s goal of minimizing as much of the long-term debt that Project 7 takes on as possible.

Seeking grant opportunities and low interest loans such as the WIFIA program would supplement any gaps in funding, as well as mitigate water treatment rate increases that will be applied as a result of the project. Ultimately, it’s the grant opportunities that will keep water rates low, Graham said…

The WIFIA program would provide Project 7, if selected, with financing tools to address challenges around public health and environmental concerns within the community.

In addition to the WIFIA loan, the water cooperative is pursuing several grant opportunities with entities such as FEMA, the Department of Local Affairs and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Project 7 was previously awarded $25,000 through the Bureau of Reclamation grant.

Hope seen for Western water storage in infrastructure bill — The #Montrose Daily Press #GunnisonRiver

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

No amount of planning or legislation can make more water — but it can help the parched Western Slope make more use of the water it has.

The trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorizes, as part of an overall $55 billion for water infrastructure, $8.3 billion under its Western Water Infrastructure title for the Bureau of Reclamation between Fiscal Years 2020 — 2026.

On the laundry list of designated funds for Western Water Infrastructure are $3.2 billion for aging infrastructure, $1.5 billion for storage, $1 billion for the Drought Contingency Plan on the Colorado River and $400 million for WaterSMART and energy efficiency grants.

“All in all, it’s certainly the most meaningful investment in Western water resources that we’ve seen in my generation,” said Zane Kessler, director of Government Relations for the Colorado River District. The district sees an opportunity to fight for some of those dollars to flow into western Colorado, he said — and there are several meaningful investments that Colorado and the Western Slope are well-equipped to pursue…

The act provides additional funding to the Aging Infrastructure Account created in 2020’s Consolidated Appropriations bill. This funding helps the Bureau of Reclamation provide direct loans to finance the non-federal share of major, nonrecurring maintenance of water infrastructure owned by the bureau, in water projects across the West that require major upgrades or replacement.

“As those facilities, most of which are more than 50 years old, continue to age, the issue of storing and delivering water effectively, efficiently and in a timely matter only increases,” a summary from The Ferguson Group states. The Ferguson Group represents the Family Farm Alliance, of which the Colorado River District is a member.

Of the $3.2 billion, $100 million is to be available for dam rehabilitation, reconstruction or replacement. Another $100 million is to be available for reserved or transferred works that have suffered a critical failure, per the summary.

Water storage, groundwater storage and conveyance projects receive a $1.05 billion boost and of that, $100 million is to fund grants to plan and build small-surface water and groundwater storage projects.

There is $1 billion available for water projects authorized by Congress before July 1 of this year in accordance with the Reclamation Rural Water Supply Act of 2006.

The river district is pleased overall with the package of options the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act opens up, Kessler said, and it will be working to bring some of those dollars here.

The infrastructure act’s passage comes at a time of dire drought in the Gunnison Basin and Colorado.

The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Earlier this year, Blue Mesa Reservoir was drawn down a total of 36,000 acre-feet between August and October and Flaming Gorge in Utah released 125,000 acre-feet. Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico is set to have released 20,000 by December — a trio of infusions mandated by the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement to keep hydropower operational at Lake Powell…

The earlier drawdown at Blue Mesa took 17,000 acre feet from the reservoir in August; 16,000 acre feet in September and 3,000 acre feet in October, according to BuRec numbers.

That provided the requisite 36,000 acre feet to Powell from Blue Mesa, but at the end of October, Powell was 156 feet from full pool, with an elevation of 3,544.25 acre feet. It had 7.18 million acre feet in storage — 30% of live capacity, as Catlin noted.

He and others eye the weather and potential snowpack. They wait. They hope.

Catlin said that as it is, the entire Gunnison Basin is drying so much, it’s hard to say what the overall impact might be — but more than agriculture would suffer…

Taylor Park Reservoir

Blue Mesa has about 218,000 acre feet in storage, he said. Taylor Park, another pot of water in the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit, sits “OK” at 59,000 acre feet in storage, Knight said. Ridgway Reservoir has 63,000 acre feet in storage, a bit low, but in light of how dry the year was, not as bad it could be, he also said…

Blue Mesa’s elevation sat at 7,431 this week — ideally, it would reach 7,490 by the end of December.

“We’ll be nowhere close to that,” [Erik] Knight said.

Uncompahgre Valley slated for a second #water supply source by 2025 — The #Montrose Daily Press

Ridgway Reservoir during winter

From The Montrose Daily Press (Cassie Knust):

When Project 7 began drawing up plans for a water resiliency program in 2019, its leaders didn’t plan to invest in connecting a raw water line from the Ridgway Reservoir to a new treatment plant in Ridgway.

The new treatment plant and water line would be designed so additional capacity can be added in the future, allowing a maximum capacity of approximately 10 million gallons per day, more than a 30% increase in drinking water supply for the region.

The plan to construct the Regional Water Supply Program in conjunction with the Ridgway Water Treatment Plant is a decision driven by water supply security. The project will add a second water source to the region while serving all Project 7 members.

The valley hasn’t yet experienced water supply interruption, but Project 7 intends to stay ahead of a slew of risks that could potentially affect over 50,000 people and thousands of local businesses.

The new treatment plant would allow direct access to existing water rights in the Ridgway Reservoir while building a system resilient to wildfire, drought and transmission interruptions in the Gunnison Tunnel.

Project 7 Water Authority is a wholesale water treatment provider that supplies to the City of Montrose, City of Delta, Town of Olathe, Tri-County Water Conservancy District and the Menoken and Chipeta water districts, although each entity owns its own water rights.

Although geographically the second smallest entity in the cooperative by size, the City of Montrose uses roughly 50% of the water supply due to population density, with about 8,000 residents using water services from Project 7…

As it stands, the Gunnison River remains the only water supply source for the region, with one treatment facility to provide to the six entities within the cooperative.

The cooperative projected the overhead cost of the project to be between $50 – $70 million. The estimate includes the raw water line, but will become more specific as the design process progresses, said Miles Graham, spokesman for the resiliency program.

City of Montrose customers will see an increase in water rates on Jan. 1, 2022, due in part to Project 7’s elevated fees. Huggins noted that the impact of increasing wholesale rates for customers depends largely on the size and budget of the district…

Montrose residential water bills will increase by $4.86 per 3,000 gallons of water used per month and increase $1.35 per 1,000 gallons used per month, due in part to the water supplier raising its own fees by 15%.

At this stage in the planning process, it’s impossible to predict the cost for each entity without knowing the ultimate program cost or the amount of outside state and federal support, said Graham.

By using a uniform rate structure for all entities to provide local funding, the cost will be shared equally throughout the valley and supplemented by aggressively seeking grants and low-interest loans.

As the process moves forward, the team will be able to test and determine which treatment technology is best for the new plant and raw water line, as well as finding opportunities to make use of existing water distribution infrastructure near the new facility site.

The cost may be higher to build the raw water line, but overall, the cost to run and operate will be lower since the water quality leaving the reservoir will provide a stable water supply, Huggins noted. The water will also be easier to treat, with less influence from rain events washing mud and silt in the river that have to be removed, allowing for mitigated operation costs…

Water treatment plants often use electrical backup generators that run on diesel or natural gas, which is typically banned in the event of a wildfire, the engineer said. Because a gas-run generator on a tank of fuel presents a dangerous risk, utility companies usually shut off any natural gas in the area if a wildfire is present.

“So if you think about an emergency situation, having the ability to bring water down to this site and continue operations at the plant without having to pump it up from the river made a lot of sense. [It’s] a more sustainable solution than the other options for getting water to the site.”

Construction for the project is expected to begin in 2023. The new water line and treatment plan is slated to go online by 2025.

For more information on Project 7 and the resiliency program project, visit https://www.project7water.org/

#Ridgway grants “rights” to its river, joining several #Colorado towns in push for new water protections — The Colorado Sun

From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

The Uncompahgre may have a legal guardian in its future after a town vote, though critics of “rights of nature” resolutions call “personhood for the river” an empty gesture and a paradise for lawsuits from angry property owners.

The Ridgway town council has voted to give “rights of nature” to the Uncompahgre River that flows on the edge of its downtown, joining Nederland and a long list of international locations saying they want to be better stewards of their wild spaces.

The council followed the lead of Mayor John Clark in approving the river rights resolution 5-0, with one abstention. Supporters said that while their vote was largely symbolic, at the very least they want it on the record that preserving the environment of the Uncompahgre’s basin is important to town leaders.

“We believe nature deserves equal footing” with those who use the river’s water and other resources for other gains, Clark said after the vote on Nov. 10. “And so I’m pretty excited to be one of the few communities in the nation that are stepping up on this.”

It’s just a resolution for now, with no clear enforcement path. But the “personhood for the river” discussion is part of a growing effort to protect natural areas by granting them some legal form of a right to exist, after centuries of human intervention. Nederland already passed such a measure in the summer of 2021, and the nonprofits Earth Law and Save the Colorado are helping to spread the conversation in more Colorado towns. Save the Colorado says people have expressed interest in Lyons, Fort Collins and Crested Butte.

The natural rights movement has gone as far afield as New Zealand and Nigeria, with some efforts focused on protecting revered tribal lands, others to stop dams from forever changing valued waterways…

Legal critics of the strategy, though, contend that water can’t have rights unto itself, and that the people proposing to speak for Colorado’s rivers may have narrow views that don’t serve the state as a whole.

Cross Section 7, looking upstream channel, from right hand bank, October 23, 2003. Photo credit: USGS

“The problem is the assumption that one particular party gets to unilaterally say what the interests of the stream are,” said David McDonald, an attorney who has followed the natural rights movement for the Mountain States Legal Foundation. “The stream has no voice. It’s not a person. It’s a collection of inanimate objects. These organizations are asking us to give them a great deal of trust.”

For rivers, the premise begins with the reality that all the rights to the water in Colorado streams are already carved up and passed out to buyers including ranchers, town water supplies, beer brewers and power utilities. The trout and the frogs and the mayflies and the H2O itself don’t get a say, while the water is pushed and pulled and dammed and drained.

The rights of nature movement, Durango-based Earth Law attorney Grant Wilson said in an interview, treats rivers as living entities. That’s a revolution, he said, from centuries of water law that treats river water as a human property. Wilson went to Ridgway to explain the resolution before the town council held its vote.

Assigning the water and the wildlife a guardianship recognizes that “nature just like humans has inherent and fundamental rights, and that recognizing those rights and incorporating them into the legal system is a part of the solution to environmental degradation,” said Wilson, who worked with Clark on the proposal.

After a lot of “whereas-es” that give a nice history of the Uncompahgre Valley, the first “therefore” of the resolution hints at the real point: “The right to maintain natural flow sufficient in quantity to maintain ecosystem health.” Meaning that even those who paid a lot of money for water rights shouldn’t be able to just dry up the river in the ongoing drought — in the future, they may have to argue with an attorney appointed by the town to represent the Uncompahgre as a client worth protecting.

The idea of a legally recognized mouthpiece for the voiceless is already common, Wilson noted, for children in family court or the ailing elderly. The resolutions have rarely been tested in the United States to see what new legal structures they might create. In practical terms, a town like Ridgway could pass a resolution and then work toward appointing an “independent, qualified legal guardian serving as basically the human voice of ecosystems in a way that governments currently don’t,” he said.

Nederland’s Alan Apt said he brought a similar resolution to the town board he sits on not as a launching point for endless litigation, but to put into words the importance local residents place on Middle Boulder Creek. Apt said he agrees with water advocates’ desire to “have the ecosystem be part of the conversation, the Boulder watershed, so that when we make decisions, it’s a reference point.”

Nederland holds some of its own water rights from Boulder Creek, currently stored in Barker Reservoir, and sees itself as a high-country link between the origins of mountain water near the Continental Divide to the west, through town, and down to Boulder on the east, Apt said.

Mountain States Legal Foundation would want to know, McDonald said, which inanimate object has the new natural rights — the water flow? The mosquitos? The frogs? And who decides whether the water’s right to exist is more important than a rancher’s right to use water to raise cattle, or a town’s right to supply a popular kayaking rapid?

[…]

The resolutions are far from ironclad, McDonald acknowledged. “But these are fringe ideas that are becoming more popular, and ideas are powerful. I think it’s important to stand against them.”

Wilson has no doubt the resolutions in Ridgway and other cities will be questioned by those who hold water rights or development dreams. But, he said, even holding the discussion helps a mountain town agree on shared values and what’s worth protecting.

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

Ouray County asks state water board to delay filing aimed at instream flow protection: County wants first to work out state opposition to Cow Creek project — @AspenJournalism

Ouray County Water Users Association wants to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reach of Cow Creek, shown here. Ouray County has requested that the CWCB delay a filing for an instream flow water right below this reach.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Ouray County is asking the state water board to delay a water court filing designed to protect streamflows so it can try to resolve issues in a separate but related water court case.

In July, the Colorado Water Conservation Board approved an instream flow water right on Cow Creek, a tributary of the Uncompahgre River, and asked staff to file for the right in water court by the end of this year. Instream flow rights are held exclusively by the state with the goal of preserving the natural environment to a reasonable degree. The state board, which is charged with protecting and developing Colorado’s water supply, holds instream flow rights on about 1,700 stream segments and 9,700 miles of stream throughout the state.

Now, Ouray County is asking the CWCB to delay the filing by six months so that the two governmental entities can try to work out the board’s opposition to a reservoir and pipeline project on Cow Creek on which the county is a co-applicant. CWCB directors will consider the request at their regular meeting Thursday.

In a November letter to Ouray County, Robert Viehl, the CWCB’s chief of the Stream and Lake Protection Section, noted that state statutes set clear rules and timelines for commenting and making hearing requests, and that the county’s request to delay the filing falls outside of those parameters.

“Any entity had the opportunity to state concerns with the Cow Creek appropriation and filing of the water right at the CWCB’s March, May and July 2021 meetings, when the appropriation was noticed before the board,” the letter reads. “This request by Ouray County is outside of the set administrative process for the appropriation and filing on instream flow water rights.”

The CWCB, at the recommendation of Colorado Parks & Wildlife, is seeking instream flow protections for a 7.4-mile reach of Cow Creek — from its confluence with Lou Creek to its confluence with the Uncompahgre River, downstream of Ridgway Reservoir. CPW says this reach contains important fisheries, including the last-known remnant population of bluehead sucker in the upper Uncompahgre River basin.

Inside the Gunnison Tunnel, the first major water diversion system in the U.S. — The #Colorado Sun

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

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins). Click through for the cool photos, here’s an excerpt:

After more than a half-hour splashing through the dank dark of one of the world’s longest irrigation tunnels, Dennis Veo grins in the sunshine showering the cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River…

The 120-year-old, 5.8-mile tunnel was the largest irrigation tunnel in the country when it opened in 1909. It was also the first major transmountain diversion in the U.S., becoming a model for moving Western water beneath mountains, connecting wet basins with dry deserts.

Today, the Gunnison Tunnel can move more than 500,000 acre-feet of water a year, more than the entire Eastern Slope draws from the Upper Colorado River Basin.

That water, roughly 1,150 cubic-feet-per-second when filled to the ceiling of the granite-blasted tunnel, irrigates about 83,000 acres for 3,000 members of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association and also delivers water to more than 50,000 people in the three-county Project 7 Water Authority. The water that pours from the Gunnison Tunnel is the lifeblood of the Uncompahgre Valley, flowing through 128 miles of major canals and 438 miles of lateral ditches in Montrose and Delta counties.

“We are the largest diverter of water in Colorado,” says Steve Anderson, the second-generation general manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. “We can take about the same as the entire Front Range takes from the Colorado River. And about the same as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California takes out of the Colorado River. That is a lot of water.”

Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

An engineering marvel

In the late 1800s, it became clear that the fickle flows of the Uncompahgre River alone could not irrigate enough acres in the river valley between Delta and Montrose. There were close to 100,000 acres homesteaded by farmers but only enough water to irrigate a fraction of that.

An ambitious plan to connect the Gunnison River with the Uncompahgre River valley started in the early 1900s, when a pair of intrepid engineers with the local power company and the U.S. Geological Survey descended the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River on rubber air mattresses. With cameras and rudimentary surveying equipment, they searched for a place to build a diversion dam and tunnel.

The first bore of the Gunnison Tunnel opened in 1909. It was the first major project approved by the Department of the Interior under the 1902 Reclamation Act. More than 26 men died during construction of what was then the longest irrigation tunnel ever built. Countless more workers were maimed. The manual diggers — crews of 30 men working around the clock from both ends of the tunnel — were off by only 6 inches when they met in the middle, Veo said. By 1912, water was flowing through the tunnel and irrigating crops from Delta to Montrose.

In 1973, the American Society of Civil Engineers honored the Gunnison Tunnel as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. A few years later it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places…

The Gunnison Tunnel is the critical link of the Wayne N. Aspinall Unit, one of the four projects that make up the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project…

The other units created under the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project Act include the Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River in Utah, the Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico and Lake Powell in Utah. The network of reservoirs and dams are used by Upper Colorado River Basin states to store water and generate electricity as part of the Colorado River Compact that divides up the river between seven states and Mexico…

The engineering masterpiece has sustained a lush vibrancy along the Uncompahgre River. It’s pretty simple to imagine what the valley would look like without that tunnel, says John Harold, who farms corn, onion and beans in the valley.

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 sky to bedrock, researchers near #CrestedButte are resetting what we know about water in the West — The #Colorado Sun

The Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory (SAIL) near Crested Butte, Colo., will start collecting a vast range of weather data on September 1, when scientists flip the switch on a slew of machinery that has been amassed in the Upper Colorado River Basin. (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

From The Colorado Sun (Mark Jaffe):

The mobile observatory is manned by 100 scientists who hope to show how the West can get a better handle on where and when water will be available

Eight white shipping containers, instruments spouting from the tops of some and a generator humming away in another, sit in the East River valley, on the outskirts of this mountain town, pulling data out of the air.

The containers, a “mobile atmospheric observatory,” will gather bits of information over the next two years about the winds and clouds and rain and snow and heat and cold above the silvery and serpentine waterway as it slides past the gray granite dome of Gothic Mountain on its way to the Colorado River.

“It is like a satellite, but on the ground looking up,” said Heath Powers, who oversees the atmospheric observatory program operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. “It’s a traveling scientific carnival.”

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

Traveling, indeed. The last assignment for the observatory, now in the old mining town of Gothic, 9 miles north of Crested Butte, was on the deck of a German research vessel icebound in the Arctic…

The observatory, while in demand all over the world, is the centerpiece in an unprecedented effort to understand how — and how much — water moves from the sky to the rivers of the West. Three separate teams, nearly 100 scientists in all, are in the East River valley studying every facet of the question.

The researchers are employing an equally large array of instruments, from balloons to drones to aircraft to multiple kinds of radar to cloud chambers and flux sensors to stream gauges and rain buckets.

The goal is to better understand the “water story” so that water managers across the West can, from year to year, have a better handle on how much water will be available.

The Western United States has always relied on water resources that come from these rugged mountain systems,” said Dan Feldman, the principal researcher for the project using the mobile observatory.

Those systems, however, are not well understood, hobbling forecasting. “We know the list of physical, chemical and biological processes that affect water,” Feldman said. “The question is how do they fit together?”

It is more than just a theoretical question. As the climate changes, and the world gets warmer, the Rocky Mountain snowpack, which provides 75% of the water for the Colorado River Basin, has already declined by a fifth in the past 30 years and by 2050 the flow of the river, supplying water to 40 million people, could drop by as much as 20%…

And so, Feldman is leading a group of scientists in the Surface Integrated Atmosphere Laboratory project (SAIL), while Gijs de Boer, is heading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Study of Precipitation, the Lower Atmosphere and Surface for Hydrometeorology (SPLASH).

Both are seeking to better understand the atmospheric dynamics — clouds and rain, wind and snow…

Can studying a single, small watershed — with measurements from the size of raindrops to the amount of water finding its way deep into bedrock — tell the tale for the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River and its 246,000-square-mile basin?

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

“The East River shares characteristics with the vast majority of headwaters in the Rocky Mountains,” Williams said. “What we are learning in the East River will be translatable to other mountain systems.”

The switch was flipped on at DOE’s mobile observatory Sept. 1 and it will gather data through the next seven seasons…

Overseeing the operation is John Bilberry, 43, the lead project manager for SAIL. “I run the circus,” he said. Bilberry was with the mobile observatory in the Arctic (he had to hitch a ride on a Russian icebreaker to get there) and got stranded onboard by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic…

SAIL, which is being run under the auspices of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has deployed about 50 different instruments, some on the roofs or inside the shipping containers, some on valley hillsides.

The project also releases weather balloons twice a day and has a larger tethered balloon with an array of instruments that will be trucked around the watershed.

Those devices will gather detailed data on eight elements that affect the water cycle: the fine particles floating in the air called aerosols, clouds, rain and snow and the winds that drive them, sunlight, thermal energy and temperatures.

The total sky imager is tracking the horizontal distribution of clouds, microwave radiometers are measuring the water content of those clouds, doppler lidar radar is gauging the direction and speed of the wind, and a nephelometer is measuring the behavior of aerosols…

Other instruments will log ozone levels, the water content of falling snow, how much snowpack is lost to evaporation (known as sublimation) and the surface energy balance — heat coming in from the sun and that radiating back into the air.

Every hour a bank of computers, linked to the sensors, collects all the data and uploads it to the internet for use by SAIL and researchers around the world. “It is a virtual machine,” Bilberry said…

Fitting the data into a big picture will be a challenge as the behavior of any one element can be complex.

Aerosols, for example, can, in the form of soot, warm the air, while sulfate aerosols can cool it. Dust covering the snowpack leads to a quicker melt. Aerosols create the nucleus around which moisture in the air forms rain and snow. Too little aerosol, no rain, too much and the moisture is disbursed and again there is no rain or snow, until it builds up and leads to really heavy downpours or snows.

“Aerosols have all these different effects that they are exerting on these mountainous watersheds,” Feldman said. “Aerosols are impacting the way water is delivered downstream.”

While SAIL efforts are centered in Gothic, NOAA’s SPLASH gear will be arrayed over more than 10 miles and will be focused on gathering data to help improve the administration’s forecasting tools.

These include the Unified Forecast System, which makes up to 14-day forecasts, the Rapid Refresh Forecast System, which provides hourly updates, and the National Water Model, which predicts stream flows.

“SPLASH was born out of a desire to build upon SAIL and tune things to be more specific to NOAA needs,” said de Boer, a University of Colorado researcher who works at NOAA. “That has turned into a very significant investment from NOAA.”

The project is being led by NOAA’s Physical Science Laboratory in Boulder and CU, in collaboration with about a dozen other institutions, including Colorado State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Among SPLASH’s installations will be a 33-foot tower to measure winds, turbulence, radiation and temperatures. It will also deploy three drones to measure things such as soil moisture and snow reflectivity…

Some water near Gothic has been underground for 2,000 years

On a late summer morning, the SFA’s Williams was up on Snodgrass Mountain drilling a deep well into the mountaintop — SAIL’s white shipping containers could be glimpsed down below.

Granite dust billowed from the hole as the drill pounded away searching for groundwater.

Williams, a Berkeley Laboratory geologist, has drilled wells across the East River valley — into the shale beneath Aspen forests, the loose landslide deposits of Alpine meadows and hard granite of conifer forests — in search of groundwater.

That mixture of granite, shale and soils from mountainside erosion, and the spruce, aspen and evergreen forests, along with Alpine meadow sitting atop them, is a terrain widely shared by Rocky Mountain watersheds…

Williams’ wells have hit groundwater 15 to 20 feet below the surface, but in the well atop Snodgrass Mountain they found no water even at 300 feet. A dry hole. Williams lowered a borehole camera and found only fractures with seepage. Still, they are being monitored. “All data is useful data,” he said.

Once the water is found in a well, sensors are lowered to measure the soil moisture content at different depths. Samples are also taken for geochemical analysis, such as water dating. Some of the groundwater SFA has found has been down there for as long as 2,000 years.

Williams’ team of 55 scientists, buttressed by collaborators at universities around the country, is trying to write the last chapter in the mountain water story, how a mountainous watershed retains and releases water and how much actually gets to the river.

SFA researchers are trying to measure every drop from tree top to bedrock, down to the role microbes play…

Among the questions Watershed Function is trying to answer is how much of the precipitation is lost to trees and plants sucking it up. In one experiment flux meters have been attached to trees to chart the water flowing from roots to leaves and out as water vapor.

Another question is how much water ends up in aquifers and how long does it stay there? While snowpack runoff feeds the river in the spring, by late summer more than 50% of the East River’s flow is coming from ground water, Williams said.

All the SFA data is also being put up on the internet — so far 69 data sets containing millions of data points — although not by the hour.

Data for modeling for everything from next week’s weather to climate change

The tools for understanding the massive amounts of data being collected by the three projects are computer models that aim to reflect everything from how much water flows in a stream, to next week’s weather, to the future impact of climate change on the world.

The models, however, are vulnerable in two ways. First, they are based on assumptions about how the world works — how much water vegetation absorbs or how snow gathers on mountainsides — and then they are only as good as the data they crunch…

“There is a critical linkage between measurement and modeling,” Williams said. “The models need to be informed by the data being collected, to show they are anchored in reality.”

“It is data gathering not for the sake of data gathering, but to assure that our predictive models are as accurate as possible,” he said. Scientists call it “ground truthing.”

The data can aid in refining the assumptions and algorithms that run the model. “They can help improve our knowledge of the chemistry and physics of how the world works,” said Alejandro Flores, associate professor of geoscience at University of Idaho and a SAIL researcher focused on models.

Mountains have been particularly difficult to model…

SPLASH, de Boer said, is seeking a better understanding of the “physics of key processes,” such as sublimation of snow, snow crystals and rain-on-snow events, that govern how much water ends up in the river…

Those data and insights will be used to evaluate the performance of the Weather Service forecasting and other NOAA models.

Ultimately, the data and knowledge of chemical, biological and physical processes gleaned from the East River could inform the Earth Systems Models that project the world’s climate…

And it is not just a question of what happens in the West. Between 60% and 90% of the world’s water comes from mountainous watersheds. “Mountain environments are important and they are changing rapidly,” Flores said. “This is an important part of the world and it is important to focus on it.”

Amid population growth and #ClimateChange, big challenges lie ahead for #Colorado Water Trust — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette

Coyote Gulch along the Yampa River Core Trail July 21, 2021.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Carol McKinley and Marianne Goodland):

The Colorado Water Trust is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, with two decades of efforts to restore flows in Colorado rivers. But the trust’s next 20 years will likely face greater challenges of climate change and population growth that are already taking a toll on the state’s waterways.

The trust’s main focus is to improve instream flows, the flows and water levels in a stream or river.

Back in 1973, the Colorado General Assembly recognized the need for a statewide instream flow program. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) was given the authority to acquire water rights, or lease them, for instream flow purposes. Instream flow water rights, one of the beneficial uses under Colorado’s water rights law, are the exclusive authority of the CWCB.

While the original purpose of the legislation was to “protect the natural environment,” the instream flow program has expanded to address “water requirements for declining, sensitive, and threatened and endangered species, and protection of macroinvertebrate populations and rare riparian vegetation assemblages,” according to the CWCB.

Since 1973, the CWCB has appropriated instream flow rights for 1,700 stream segments covering more than 9,700 miles of stream.

But the instream flow program got off to a slow start, and drought was becoming an increasing problem in Colorado. One of the first big droughts was in the winter of 1976-77, which “sent shock waves through Colorado’s economy and state government.”

There was a gap. The CWCB had the authority over junior water rights for instream flows, but nothing in place to acquire senior water rights.

Those junior rights are useful very high up in the mountains where there aren’t a lot of other rights, said Andy Schultheiss, the trust’s executive director. Senior water rights, on the other hand, are more secure, but the state needed an outside group to scout opportunities for the state to buy or lease those senior water rights.

In 2000, water engineers, water lawyers and conservationists began discussions on how to bolster the instream flow program, and that led to the formation of the trust in 2001.

Like most new water programs in Colorado, the trust faced suspicion from water rights holders early on, especially farmers and ranchers. According to the Colorado Water Exchange, 80% of the state’s water goes toward irrigation, and that’s mostly for agriculture.

“It took us eight or nine years to develop our first project,” Schultheiss said. “There’s a lot of reluctance to try anything new.”

A cyclist takes a break from their ride to wade in the Roaring Fork River near the Hooks Spur Bridge on Oct. 13, 2020. A U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge at this location said the river was running at about 350 cubic feet per second, lower than the median of 395 cfs for this time of year. Water year 2020, which ended Oct. 1, was a “miserable year from a hydrology perspective,” said Colorado River Water Conservation District General Manager Andy Mueller.

That first major project came in 2009, when Pitkin County and the CWCB signed an agreement, brokered by the trust, to allow the county to lend water for the instream flow program.

Since then, the trust has directed 13.5 million gallons of water through 588 miles of Colorado waterways.

Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

The approach today works like this: The Trust goes to a rancher and says, “How about you stop irrigating, say Aug. 1, and we compensate you for the days you’re missing, and we give the rest of your water to the state to lease it to use in an instream flow reach?” That’s a classic kind of trust project, Schultheiss said.

On July 7, 2020, we closed our headgate that takes water from the Little Cimarron for irrigation. The water in the above photo will now bypass our headgate and return to the river. Photo via the Colorado Water Trust.

In an apparently groundbreaking permanent water sharing agreement in 2014, said to be the first in the West, the trust purchased a portion of the water rights on the McKinley Ditch to restore flows to a three-mile segment of the Little Cimarron River, a tributary of the Gunnison River. In spring and summer, the water is available for agricultural irrigation. Late summer and fall, the water heads down the Little Cimarron…

Pelicans hanging out at the inlet to Stagecoach Reservoir July 22, 2021.

The trust has been trying to improve instream flows on the Yampa since the 2012 drought, according to Schultheiss. In some years, the water they buy from Stagecoach Reservoir represents a third or more of the water in the river, he said.

Back in 2012, the trust recognized that there was water sitting in Stagecoach with very few customers.

“And we said, ‘Why not? Why can’t we just buy water and release water from Stagecoach? There’s an in-stream flow reach just below the dam, and then there’s the city farther down.’”

By 2021, the releases from Stagecoach have been institutionalized, according to Schultheiss. Thanks to the Yampa River Fund, a collaboration between the Steamboat Springs and the Nature Conservancy, and with a $4.5 million endowment to pay for it, the river got a record-breaking 2,000 acre-feet of water from Stagecoach. In a year with severe drought in northwestern Colorado, it was enough to keep the water temperatures down and avoid fish kills and other environmental damage…

“We are a market-based organization. … Our whole reason for being is that we participate in the market on behalf of the environment, and we need money to be able to do that.” — Andy Schultheiss

This rancher has radical ideas about #water — Writers on the Range

From Writers on the Range (Dave Marston):

If Jim Howell, a fourth-generation rancher in Western Colorado, has a guru, he’s Allan Savory, the champion of intensive cattle grazing even on semi-arid land.

Howell, 52, says Savory’s methods, which require moving cattle quickly from pasture to pasture, enable him to keep adding thousands more animals as the ground recovers. He says the method is so efficient he can even foresee leasing out irrigation water that he doesn’t need.

If all this sounds unbelievable, Howell, who is ranch manager for Eli Feldman in Ridgway, Colorado, understands the skepticism. But he says the ranch speaks for itself.

Western States Ranches is huge, a 213,000-acre spread that’s a mix of 3,000 acres of irrigated bottom land in Delta and Montrose counties, plus 210,000 acres of mostly leased federal rangeland that sprawls from western Colorado to eastern Utah. There’s forested, high elevation range, but half of the ranch is semi-arid. Rainfall can be a scant 10 inches per year.

Jim Howell, a fourth-generation rancher in Western Colorado.
(Photo Credit: Dave Marston)

The herd is also large at 3,300 head, with 1,800 pregnant cows. What makes Savory’s approach effective, Howell says, is speed: In a day or two, cows eat fresh grass and weeds, then move on to new pasture before an enclosed pasture is damaged. Ten cowhands make the process work by moving miles of electric fencing, even though they’re traditionally loath to get off their horses. Feldman found Howell by consulting the Savory Institute, where Howell’s wife, Daniella Ibarra-Howell, is director.

The man and the money behind this enterprise is Eli Feldman, whose Conscience Bay Company is mostly staked by lifelong friends, the Laufer family of Stony Brook, New York.

East Coast money and Western know-how might seem an odd combo, but Howell studies the land with total concentration. He says his rule of thumb is to make a grazing plan and then rip it up as changing conditions dictate.

Howell has made dry, overgrazed range bloom before. Using Savory methods, he boosted the number of cattle on his former family ranch on Blue Mesa in Western Colorado. He went from 150 cows to 450, while also attracting herds of elk.

But if demand management gets going — the controversial plan of leasing water temporarily and voluntarily to fulfill downstream obligations – Feldman and Howell are on board. Feldman asked Trout Unlimited to administer a demand management study on part of his ranch that lies in Eckert, Colorado, where ground is irrigated only until July 1.

Howell derides programs that encourage leasing water for full seasons. “It’s going to be seen as socially untenable for ranchers in the upper basin to be over-irrigating hay fields when downstream users are running out of water.”

Howell in a small 24 acre irrigated pasture. After being grazed by 900 cows for one and a half days the pasture is growing back lush and green.
(Photo Credit: Dave Marston)

Because Feldman is an outsider with a formidable operation, he says he’s been a target since the ranch got going in 2018. Shortly afterward, he recalls, a Delta County commissioner poked him in the chest with a finger, saying, “I’ve got my eye on you.”

Feldman figures he’s been cast as a water speculator. “But when a ranch was auctioned off recently,” he says, “we passed on the irrigated land (with senior water rights) and purchased the herd and grazing permits only.”

For both Feldman and Howell, one of their goals is to restore grass on ground that’s been ranched “old-school.” By that they mean trampled creek beds where cows for generations wallowed away the summers.

Howell says he has all sorts of tricks to get lazy cows moving. Artificial watering holes are scattered across dry range, while gullied creeks are fenced off and left to recover. The payoff is growing grass-fed, certified organic beef, and Howell says it commands a 15-20% premium over cattle grown for the commodity market.

Despite the ranch’s sprawl, it seems a lean operation. Howell manages it halftime from a small tent, which also doubles as his sleeping quarters. His cowhands are equipped with little besides horses, trailers and portable electric fence. Still, Howell has his share of environmental critics. The Center for Biological Diversity charges that grazing any cattle on marginal land leads to degraded water and spurs desertification.

Howell shrugs off the charge. “These native rangelands evolved with hooved animals,” he says. “To say they are not meant to be grazed is total BS. They were meant to be grazed — but as nature intended.”

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, http://writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.

Public outreach central to Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District’s mission — The #Gunnison Country Times #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

he Gunnison Basin is facing a climate emergency, putting our farm and food systems at severe risk. This map shows the warming that has already occurred in this Gunnison watershed since 1895. Graphic credit: The Washington Post via the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance

From The Gunnison Country Times (Bella Biondini):

The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District continues to change, grow and adapt its public outreach efforts, directing the public to the main focus of their mission — managing the basin’s limited water supply.

Upper Gunnison is an active leader in all issues affecting the water resources of the Upper Gunnison River Basin. Their role in the valley has grown in importance as the basin continues to experience worsening drought conditions. In response, the district has continued to try and raise awareness of the community’s water use.

Sonja Chavez via Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

Upper Gunnison General Manager Sonja Chavez said that, after the drought year the basin experienced, it’s about getting a message out to the community.

“Water is a finite resource,” Chavez said. “I think most people don’t realize or understand that the whole Colorado River Basin is over allocated, we’re using more water than we actually have. As temperatures increase and stream flows decrease, it’s just going to become a greater challenge.”

The district’s education and outreach budget increased from $34,000 in 2021 to almost $42,000 for 2022. Although part of it is driven by the rising cost of promotional products and an increased sponsorship to the Gunnison River Festival, Chavez said overall, public outreach is “central and important” to the district’s mission…

Within their education action plan, staff began to break the public down into age groups, from elementary through high school as well as growing their relationship with Western Colorado University. The district’s goal was to try and be intentional about where they put the funding, who they reach out to and making sure it’s age appropriate.

Historically the Upper Gunnison helped fund the Water Workshop, which was renamed and reorganized into the Western Water Future Games. The Water Workshop, based at Western, has a 45-year history.

It was created to give more of a voice to the people of the Western Slope because at that time it was perceived that the Front Range was the dominant voice in water issues in the state, said Jeff Sellen, who oversees the program…

With a small staff of five, the Upper Gunnison has limited manpower. To make their outreach efforts more effective and far-reaching, their strategy has been “figuring out where they can add value” to existing events or programs, Chavez said.

Where there is an access to water the Upper Gunnison tries to build upon that opportunity for education. The Upper Gunnison has its hands in the River Festival, the 4-H Program and the Taylor Challenge. It also has an established mini-grant program designed to support educational projects intended to expand the awareness of water-related issues.

Name recognition is another important aspect of increasing the visibility and effectiveness of the Upper Gunnison’s water messaging in the valley. The district has used a newsletter, radio advertisements, yard signs and promotional items to spread the word that “water doesn’t grow on trees.”

Chavez said she thinks “a lot of people within the community don’t know exactly who we are or what we do.” But this is something that even larger districts still struggle with…

Upper Gunnison has started taking a harder look at its education and outreach in terms of who it’s reaching, and how successful it’s been, Chavez said. When people have an issue or question about water “I would want them to first think of the Upper Gunnison District.”

New projections for low #ColoradoRiver flows speed need for dramatic conservation

From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

A new federal system for projecting Colorado River water flows in the next two years confirms dire news about drought draining the West’s key reservoirs, and increases pressure on Colorado to conserve water immediately to avoid future demands from down-river states, conservation groups say.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation’s new system for projecting vital Colorado River flows in the next two years drops earlier, wetter years out of the historical reference, and gives more weight to two recent decades of drought. The regular October update this week shows water runoff into Lake Powell, the storage basin for four Upper Colorado Basin states, was only 32% of average for the 2021 water year, which runs from October to September.

The new projections for the next two years show that even with federal officials draining portions of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to get more water to Lake Powell’s hydroelectric generating station, a moderate winter would leave the Colorado River in the same crisis a year from now. And a low-water scenario this coming winter season would drop Lake Powell well below the minimum level required to generate electricity by November 2022.

In addition to federal officials trying to protect hydroelectric generation at Lake Powell, and at Lake Mead as the downstream water bank for the Lower Basin states, water compacts govern how much Colorado River water needs to go downstream for use by agriculture and cities…

“We don’t have any more time to talk about it,” Matt Rice, co-chair of the Water for Colorado Coalition and Director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Programs, said after reviewing the latest Bureau of Reclamation update.

Starting with the October update, the bureau begins the historical average calculations in 1991, instead of the 1981 cutoff used until now. The 1980s were much wetter in the Colorado River Basin, Rice said.

“These projections are worse than they have been in the past, but they’re also more realistic,” Rice said. Many conservation groups find that a positive step despite the bad news, Rice added, because it increases pressure on state water officials, local water conservancy districts, agriculture interests, cities and environmentalists to work faster on solutions.

At the same time, Rice said, the updated numbers should drive home the reality that there is 20% less water available now in the Colorado River than as recently as 2000. “There’s no more flexibility in the system, right? We’re looking over the edge of the cliff.”

Water conservation experts in Colorado have worked for years to avoid their worst-case scenario, which is a “call” or a sudden demand from federal managers to deliver more water for hydropower or to satisfy the compacts with the Lower Basin. Without advance planning, a call would force the state water engineer and local conservancy districts to cut irrigators’ water rights based only on the seniority of their water-use rights.

While state and local officials have been working with nonprofits on conservation plans, there are legal tangles that could require new legislation, and seemingly endless ethical questions about which parts of the state would suffer the most water loss, said Sonja Chavez, director of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District…

The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Blue Mesa Reservoir in her region has been nearly drained by drought and by federal officials taking extra from Western reservoirs to solidify Lake Powell’s power pool. Blue Mesa is projected to soon be down to 27% full, Chavez said. Blue Mesa was 33% full in mid-September, according to Bureau of Reclamation records.

State and private officials have cooperated to experiment with “demand-management” programs, where instead of buying agriculture land and its accompanying water rights outright, they buy the right to rent the water for a few years out of a decade. That rented water can be sent downstream in dry years, and in theory the restoration of water in other years should preserve the farm or ranch land while providing income for the farmer.

But renting or buying of water rights on the scale to meet compact demands would require hundreds of millions of dollars, with no current pot of money to pull from, water experts say. Colorado officials have mentioned the possibility of using money from the infrastructure stimulus plan currently under debate by Congress, but it’s uncertain whether the bill will pass, and how much water-related money will be in it if it does…

The largest amounts of water to be conserved are in agriculture, by far, but Front Range residents must be part of the statewide discussion about finding more water for the downstream Colorado River, Rice and Chavez said.

“You’re not going to get as much out of a city compared to what is the amount of irrigation water diverted for agriculture,” Chavez said. “But there’s also agriculture on the Front Range that benefits from our transmountain diversions,” some of which are created and controlled by urban water departments. “That has to be part of the picture.”

Front Range cities take water from the Roaring Fork River basin in a transmountain diversion through the Twin Lakes Tunnel. The city of Aspen is studying the potential for an Alternative Transfer Method, or ATM, to increase its water supplies, which could include approaching transmountain diverters about participating in a water-sharing agreement. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

Western settlers caused erosion in wet meadows. Now, volunteers are restoring these vital habitats — KUNC

From KVNF (Laura Palmisano) via KUNC:

Wet meadows and riparian areas in sagebrush country only account for about 2% of the landscape. Trouble for these systems started when white settlers moved West. Instead of taking their wagons through the sagebrush where it was rocky and rough, they followed the edges of the meadows.

Seward said the wagon wheels created trenches that were reinforced by livestock trailing between water sources, and eventually off-road vehicles using the same paths. These trenches caused water to pool.

“When water gets captured in those trails it speeds up and becomes more erosive and it starts to downcut,” he said. “It starts actually washing away the topsoil and working its way until it finally hits the bedrock.”

Wet meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo credit: The Environmental Protection Agency

Sawyer said these impacts are being sped up by climate change.

“We are trying to prevent these systems from disappearing entirely from our landscape,” he said.

Wet meadows provide critical habitat for deer, elk, migratory birds, pollinators, livestock and the federally threatened Gunnison sage grouse.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates there about 3,500 Gunnison sage grouse left, with a majority of the population living in the Gunnison Basin. In 2015, there were around 5,000.

The species suffers habitat loss due to human-driven growth and development. The birds need large swaths of healthy sagebrush habitat to thrive. Climate change also threatens what’s left of the species habitat. Wet meadows provide sage grouse with important brood-rearing habitat to raise chicks.

Left: Bill Zeedyk plans restoration work while standing in a head cut prior to treatment at West Flat Top Mountain, USFS; Right: Completed log and fabric structure used to control the head cut post treatment. © Renée Rondeau/CNHP

The Wet Meadows Restoration Resilience Building Project is a local effort to restore habitat for the threatened Gunnison sage grouse. It’s a collaboration by government agencies, nonprofits, private landowners and the public.

Wet meadows also act as natural sponges, holding water in the soil and slowly releasing it over time. Seward said the restoration work helps build resiliency into the ecosystem. That will only get more important as climate projections indicate the area will get warmer and drier.

“Everyone knows that water in the West is life,” he said. “All life needs water, so by holding more water here in the Gunnison Basin longer and putting it to good beneficial use for wildlife, for our agricultural industries, like ranching as well — really everyone benefits from this kind of work.”

Project organizers said the restoration is working in the Gunnison Basin. Overall, they’ve seen wetland vegetation double in treated areas since the program started in 2012.

This is just one of dozens of watershed restoration projects in Colorado and states across the West. Wet meadow restoration projects to benefit the Gunnison sage grouse are also happening in San Miguel, Montrose, Mesa and Delta counties.

Aspinall Unit Operations update: Releases to decrease to 1050 cfs October 6, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #LakePowell

Crystal Dam, part of the Colorado River Storage Project, Aspinall Unit. Credit Reclamation.

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1315 cfs to 1050 cfs late on Wednesday, October 6th. Releases are being decreased to bring an end to the Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) emergency releases to Lake Powell.

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

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

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are 590 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 325 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update (September 17, 2021) #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

“The Roundup” newsletter is hot off the presses from @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The boat ramp at Elk Creek Marina had to be temporarily closed so the docks could be moved out into deeper water. Colorado water managers are not happy that emergency releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir are impacting late summer lake recreation.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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

Colorado water managers unhappy with timing of emergency releases

In an effort to prop up water levels at the declining Lake Powell, federal water managers are negatively impacting recreation on Colorado’s biggest man-made lake.

That’s the message from Colorado water managers and marina operators at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County. On Aug. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, began emergency releases. By the time the releases are finished the first week of October, Blue Mesa is projected to fall to its second-lowest level ever, just 215,000 acre-feet, or 22.8% of its 941,000-acre-foot capacity.

As of Sept. 1, the reservoir was 37% full, which is about 68 feet down from a full reservoir, and a ring of muddy shoreline was growing. Parking lots and boat slips sat empty, and Pappy’s Restaurant was closed for the season. The dwindling water levels are first impacting Iola, the easternmost of Blue Mesa’s three basins. Iola is where the Gunnison River now cuts through a field of mud.

Eric Loken, who operates the reservoir’s two marinas (Elk Creek and Lake Fork), said he was given only nine days’ notice to empty Elk Creek Marina’s 180 slips. The dock system’s anchors, which are not built for low water, had to be moved deeper. He said about 25 people lost their jobs six weeks earlier than normal and the marinas lost about 25% of its revenue for the year.

Blue Mesa Reservoir releases to prop up #LakePowell impacting recreation — @AspenJournlism

The boat ramp at Elk Creek Marina had to be temporarily closed so the docks could be moved out into deeper water. Colorado water managers are not happy that emergency releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir are impacting late summer lake recreation.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

In an effort to prop up water levels at the declining Lake Powell, federal water managers are negatively impacting recreation on Colorado’s biggest man-made lake.

That’s the message from Colorado water managers and marina operators at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County. On Aug. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, began emergency releases. By the time the releases are finished the first week of October, Blue Mesa is projected to fall to its second-lowest level ever, just 215,000 acre-feet, or 22.8% of its 941,000-acre-foot capacity.

As of Sept. 1, the reservoir was 37% full, which is about 68 feet down from a full reservoir, and a ring of muddy shoreline was growing. Parking lots and boat slips sat empty, and Pappy’s Restaurant was closed for the season. The dwindling water levels are first impacting Iola, the easternmost of Blue Mesa’s three basins. Iola is where the Gunnison River now cuts through a field of mud.

Eric Loken, who operates the reservoir’s two marinas (Elk Creek and Lake Fork), said he was given only nine days’ notice to empty Elk Creek Marina’s 180 slips. The dock system’s anchors, which are not built for low water, had to be moved deeper. He said about 25 people lost their jobs six weeks earlier than normal and the marinas lost about 25% of its revenue for the year.

“There are tons of people who would like to be out here boating and are very disappointed,” Loken said. “Normally on Labor Day weekend, you can barely find a place to park. So it’s definitely been a big hit to us as a business for sure.”

The Elk Creek Marina and restaurant are closed for the season, although the boat ramp is still open and is expected to be accessible through the end of the month. The Lake Fork Marina is open through Labor Day, but the boat ramp has closed for the season. The Iola boat ramp is restricted to small boats only and is scheduled to close after Labor Day.

“We are just trying to make it through the holiday weekend and then we will be shutting up this marina too,” Loken said.

The Bureau announced July 16 that it would begin emergency releases through early October from three Upper Basin reservoirs: 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo, on the San Juan River; 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge, on the Green River; and 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa, on the Gunnison River. The goal of the releases is to prop up water levels at Lake Powell to preserve the ability to make hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam. The 181,000 acre-feet from the three upstream reservoirs is expected to boost levels at Powell by about 3 feet.

The three reservoirs are part of the Colorado River Storage Project, and their primary purpose is to control the flows of the Colorado River; flatwater recreation has always been incidental. But the releases at Blue Mesa illustrate the risks of building an outdoor-recreation economy around a highly engineered river system that is now beginning to falter amid a climate change-fueled drought.

The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Timing concerns

Although the secretary of the Interior can authorize emergency releases without coordination from the states or local entities, Loken, along with some Colorado water managers, is not happy about the timing or the lack of notice from the bureau. Under normal drought-response operations, the federal government would consult with state and local water managers before making releases.

“We had very little time to handle this decision that was made that none of us have any power over,” Loken said.

John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, said Colorado should make noise and complain about what he called a clumsy execution of the releases. McClow has also served on the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is an alternate commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“There’s no reason they couldn’t have waited another couple weeks or another month to release that water from Blue Mesa to get it to Lake Powell,” McClow said. “It goes back to consultation and timing. Had they even asked, it would have been easy to say, ‘Hey, can you wait so you don’t kill our business?’”

Last month at Colorado Water Congress’ summer conference — a gathering of water managers, researchers and legislators in Steamboat Springs — Rebecca Mitchell, CWCB’s executive director and the state’s representative to the UCRC, told the audience that the impacts of ending the boating season early at Blue Mesa trickle down to all Coloradoans.

“That means dollars in Colorado. That is who we are in Colorado,” she said. “It’s definitely had an impact in that local community when we talk about the recreation. That is heavy.”

Mitchell said water managers in the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Utah) will be carefully monitoring the impacts of the reservoir releases and figuring out how to quantify those impacts, which she called devastating. The states will work with the bureau to develop a plan for how to send water to Lake Powell in future years, taking into consideration the timing, magnitude and duration of the releases, she said.

“Where can the states and the bureau make the best decisions to lessen the impacts?” she said.

The National Park Service operates the Curecanti National Recreation area, including the campsites, picnic areas, visitors centers and boat ramps that run the 20-mile length of the reservoir. According to numbers provided by the Park Service, Curecanti gets nearly a million visitors a year. The reservoir is popular among anglers for its trout and Kokanee salmon fishing. Blue Mesa is one of three reservoirs — along with the much smaller Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs — on the Gunnison River, collectively known as the Aspinall Unit.

Barefoot Dance In The Snow New York, New York March 8, 1916. Girls of the Marion Morgan School of Dance in Los Angeles perform barefoot in the snow in Central Park. Underwood Archives by Underwood Archives

Gunnison Country Chamber of Commerce Director Celeste Helminski said her organization is planning an event later this month: the world’s largest snow dance. A big winter would help refill Blue Mesa.

“The water definitely has me concerned for the future,” she said. “We see a lot of summer recreationists who come and spend the whole summer at several of the campgrounds. It’s just going to take a lot to replace that water. It’s going to take awhile to get back to levels of what recreationists come for.”

Bureau spokesperson Justyn Liff could not provide any insight into how the timing decision for the releases was made, but pointed out that although lake recreation was impacted, downstream rafting and fishing in the canyon are getting a boost from the roughly 300 cubic-feet-per-second extra water that the releases provide. The Gunnison River below the Gunnison Tunnel diversion, which takes a large portion of the river’s outflow from the Aspinall Unit for delivery to downstream irrigators, was running around 600 cfs the first few days of September, according to USGS stream gauge data. This is a critical data point for boaters running the Black Canyon or Gunnison Gorge sections of the river, which are below the stream gauge. At 600 cfs, the river is flowing 11% above the median for this time of year.

“If we had waited six weeks, that would have been six weeks less of commercial rafting/guided fishing on the Gunnison River downstream from Aspinall,” Liff said.

Some boats were still in the water the first week of September at the Lake Fork Marina. Across Blue Mesa Reservoir, the Elk Creek Marina’s boat slips were emptied early because of declining water levels in the reservoir.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Hydropower production

Although the local impacts to recreation are acute, the impacts of not being able to make hydropower at Lake Powell would probably be much worse. The dams of the CRSP are known as “cash register” dams. The power they produce is used to repay the costs of building the project, maintain operations and provide power to millions of people.

The Western Area Power Administration distributes Lake Powell’s electricity, including to some power providers in Colorado. According to Water Education Colorado, electric costs will surge as Glen Canyon Dam struggles to produce hydropower because of declining water levels.

The bureau’s target elevation for Lake Powell is 3,525 feet, in order to provide a buffer that protects hydropower generation; if levels fall below 3,490, all power production would stop. Lake Powell is currently about 31% full, at 3,549 feet, which is the lowest surface level since the reservoir began filling in the 1960s and ‘70s. According to projections released by the bureau in July, Lake Powell has a 79% chance of falling below the 3,525 threshold in the next year. The emergency releases are intended to address this.

“A loss of power generation is a pretty significant issue compared to a few months of boating on Blue Mesa,” McClow said. “Locally, yes, it hurts, but in the big picture, I don’t know if you can make a fair comparison.”

As water levels at Blue Mesa continue to fall, Loken worries that this may be just the beginning of an era of empty reservoirs.

“(The releases) don’t solve the long-term problem,” Loken said. “We are just going to end up with an empty Lake Powell and a bunch of empty reservoirs upstream. I think the powers that be really need to put pencil to paper and figure this out.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

#Drought-Hit Blue Mesa Reservoir Losing 8 Feet Of Water To Save #LakePowell. A Western Slope Marina Feels The Pain — #Colorado Public Radio #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A longer walk from the dock to the water is in store for boaters at the Elk Creek marina, Blue Mesa Reservoir. Blue Mesa is being drawn down to feed critically low Lake Powell, as continued dry weather and rising demand deplete the Colorado River.
(Courtesy photo/National Park Service) August 2021 via the Montrose Daily Press

From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

Climate change is drying up Colorado’s water supply

Climate change is leading to less snowpack, and warmer temperatures mean less water is making it into the Colorado River. Blue Mesa is Colorado’s largest reservoir, and it hit its second-lowest level on record for the end of August.

Parks service officials issued the order because Elk Creek’s floating dock and marina are likely to hit the lake’s bottom. Eric Loken, the head of operations at the marina his family has managed for more than 30 years, said the early closure is cutting six weeks out of his five-month season…

A 20-year, climate change-fueled megadrought has dealt a double blow to Blue Mesa this summer. The dry conditions have led to lower levels directly, but the lake is also hurting from drought problems in other states.

For the first time, the federal government is taking emergency action by taking water from Blue Mesa to help out another reservoir — Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. Loken said the withdrawals hurt more given Blue Mesa’s low water levels…

The states that share Colorado River water agreed to this plan in 2019. Low levels in Lake Powell would trigger an emergency release from three reservoirs upstream…

The water taken from Blue Mesa is being used to make sure hydroelectric power turbines at Lake Powell can keep spinning and generating electricity for millions of people in the West, including customers in Colorado.

John McClow, a lawyer for the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District, said this scenario is what Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs were built for in the 1960s — drought emergencies, not recreation. It’s a bank of water that states can tap when they need to…

Although the water in Blue Mesa has always been earmarked for Lake Powell if Colorado needed help meeting its legal obligation to send more flow to downstream states, McClow said the timing of the release was unnecessarily disruptive. He wishes the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would have waited to take the water until October when lake tourism starts slowing down.

Erik Knight, a Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist, said that while the timing of the water releases might have hurt the lake, it improved rafting and fishing downstream of Blue Mesa, including parts of the Gunnison River that were so low that commercial rafting was likely to have been canceled.

Ouray County water project faces opposition from state, others: roposed reservoir, pipeline, exchange could have impacts to fish and environmental flows — @AspenJournalism

Ouray County Water Users Association wants to build a 260-foot dam at this location on Cow Creek that would hold about 25,000 acre-feet of water. One goal would be to lessen daily flow fluctuations, especially during spring runoff.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Water users in Ouray County are hoping to satisfy water shortages with what they say is a multi-beneficial reservoir and pipeline project. But the Ram’s Horn reservoir, Cow Creek pipeline and exchange are facing opposition from the state of Colorado and others.

The complicated, three-pronged project proposes to take water from Cow Creek and pipe it into Ridgway Reservoir, take water from local streams via ditches and store it in the reservoir, and build a new dam and reservoir on Cow Creek. This stored water would eventually be sent downstream to be used by the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA).

Ridgway Dam via the USBR

The project applicants — Ouray County, Tri-County Water Conservancy District, Ouray County Water Users Association and the Colorado River Water Conservation District — say they need 20 cubic feet per second of water from Cow Creek. Cow Creek is a tributary of the Uncompahgre River with headwaters in the Cimarron mountains. Cow Creek’s confluence with the Uncompahgre River is below Ridgway Reservoir, which is why an upstream pipeline would be needed to capture the water and bring it into the reservoir.

The applicants are also seeking to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reaches of Cow Creek, which would hold about 25,000 acre-feet of water behind a 260-foot-tall and 720-foot-long dam. Ram’s Horn would help regulate what are known as diurnal flows during spring runoff — streamflows are higher during the day as the snow melts with warming temperatures, and lower at night as snow re-freezes. UVWUA says they can’t adjust their headgates to capture the high point of this daily fluctuation in flows, leaving the water to run downstream unused. The project would capture these diurnal peaks.

Ouray County Water Users Association wants to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reach of Cow Creek, shown here. Colorado Parks and Wildlife opposes the project, in part, because of its potential impact to fish.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Goal to prevent a call

The goal of the project is to prevent the UVWUA — one of the big senior water rights holders in the Gunnison River basin — from placing a call on the river.

When the UVWUA, which owns the Montrose & Delta Canal and has a 1890 water right, is not able to get its full amount of water, it places a call on the river. This means upstream junior water rights holders, like Ouray County Water Users, have to stop using water so that UVWUA can get its full amount. According to a state database, the M&D Canal has placed a call three times this summer, most recently from July 12 to 22. In 2020, the call was on for nearly all of July and August. Under Colorado water law, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.

By releasing the water stored in either Ridgway or Ram’s Horn reservoirs to satisfy a UVWUA call, Ouray County Water Users Association would then be able to continue using its own water.

The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is a co-applicant of the project.

“This (project) is consistent with the River District’s goals and objectives with supporting our constituents and making sure they have a reliable water supply,” said Jason Turner, River District senior counsel.

Ridgway Reservoir, on the Uncompahgre River in Ouray County, is popular with boaters. A proposed pipeline project that would bring water from Cow Creek into the reservoir is being met with opposition for environmental reasons.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Potential impacts to fish, instream flows

But some state agencies, environmental groups and others have concerns about the project. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado Water Conservation Board have both filed statements of opposition to the application, which was originally filed in December 2019, amended in January and is making its way through water court. CPW claims that its water rights in the basin, which it holds for the benefit of state wildlife areas, fisheries and state parks, could be injured by the project. CPW owns nearly a mile of access to Cow Creek on the Billy Creek State Wildlife Area.

Between August 2019 and January 2020, CPW recorded water temperatures of Cow Creek and found they exceeded a state standard for trout. A report from CPW aquatic biologist Eric Gardunio says that the proposed project would likely cause an even bigger increase in water temperatures, resulting in fish mortality.

“The flow and temperature analysis for Cow Creek indicates that the water rights application has the likelihood to damage or eliminate the native bluehead sucker population as well as the rest of the fishery in the downstream end of Cow Creek through the degradation of water quantity and quality,” the report reads.

While less water in Cow Creek could result in temperatures that are too high for trout, water released from the proposed Ram’s Horn reservoir could be too cold for bluehead suckers.

“There’s going to be some changes to temperature and what our temperature data has outlined is that the species are at their extreme ends,” Gardunio said. “It’s nearly too cold for bluehead sucker and it’s nearly too warm for trout, so changes in temperature are going to have an impact to one or the other of the fishery.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board opposes the project because they said it could injure the state’s instream flow water rights. Instream flow rights are held exclusively by the CWCB to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. Ram’s Horn reservoir would inundate a section of Cow Creek where the CWCB currently holds an instream flow right.

“The application does not present sufficient information to fully evaluate the extent to which the CWCB’s instream flow water right may be injured,” the statement of opposition reads.

Environmental group Western Resource Advocates also opposes the project. Ram’s Horn Reservoir, with conditional water rights owned by Tri-County Water Conservancy District, is one of five reservoirs planned as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek Project, which dates to the 1950s. Ridgway Reservoir is the only one of the five that has been built.

This map shows the potential location of Ram’s Horn Reservoir, as well as other reservoirs originally conceived as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek Project. Only Ridgway Reservoir has been built.
CREDIT: MAP COURTESY WRIGHT WATER ENGINEERS

Complex exchange

The third piece of the proposed project is what’s known as an exchange, where water would be conveyed via existing ditches connecting tributaries above Ridgway Reservoir. The exchange water would be stored there and released when senior downstream water users need it, which would benefit upstream water users. In addition to Cow Creek, the applicants are proposing to take water from Pleasant Valley Creek, the East and West Forks of Dallas Creek, Dallas Creek and the Uncompahgre River to use in the exchange.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 4 Engineer Bob Hurford laid out the issues his office has with this exchange in his summary of consultation. He recommended denial on the exchange portion of the application until the applicants list the specific ditches participating in the exchange and their locations, and agree that they are responsible for enlarging the ditches so they can handle the increased capacity of water.

“I have to have actual ditch names, the owners of the ditches have to be willing to participate and it has all got to be tracked to a tenth of a cfs,” Hurford said. “It’s not a loosey-goosey thing. It has to be dialed in and defined precisely.”

Another criticism of the project is that it won’t provide water directly to water users in Dallas Creek, which according to a report by Wright Water Engineers, is the most water-short region of the Upper Uncompahgre basin. Even if Dallas Creek water users participate in the exchange, in dry years still there may not be enough water in local creeks for them to use.

“This project has been sold as the savior of agriculture in Ouray County but this project will not provide wet water that would not otherwise be available to anybody that is an ag producer,” said Ouray County water rights holder and project opponent Cary Denison. “I don’t know one irrigator who is saying we need to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir.”

The project application is making its way through water court and applicants say they are continuing to negotiate with opposers. A status report is due in October. Attorney for the Ouray County Water Users Association and River District board representative Marti Whitmore said they want to make sure it’s a multi-purpose project that benefits everyone.

“Fish flows and recreation uses are important, so we are just trying to work out terms and conditions that are a win-win for everyone,” she said.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.

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

Lower #GunnisonRiver Project Helps Achieve [Water Quality] “Watershed Moment” — The #ColoradoRiver District #COriver

Lower Gunnison River Basin irrigated agriculture. Photo credit: The Colorado River District

From The Colorado River District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):

The Lower Gunnison River reached an important milestone this summer. During the June 2021 hearing, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission deemed the Gunnison River in compliance with aquatic life standards for dissolved selenium – a naturally occurring element and micronutrient that can be unhealthy for aquatic ecosystems in high doses. As a result, the Commission delisted 66 miles of the Gunnison River downstream of Delta, Colorado from the impaired waters list. Decades of work in the Lower Gunnison Basin shepherded this achievement, which highlights a healthier environment for native and endangered species like the razorback sucker and the Colorado pikeminnow.

“This is a big victory and a reason to celebrate,” says Raquel Flinker, Senior Water Resources Engineer with the Colorado River District. “The Colorado River District has been a leader in this effort for over 20 years, working alongside multiple partners including the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, non-governmental agencies, local conservancy districts, ditch companies, and even individual citizens to reach this point.”

Established and led by the Colorado River District as part of the cooperative Selenium Management Program, the Lower Gunnison Project (LGP) has proved instrumental in the final phases of the delisting. The decades of associated work began with the 1988 listing of the Gunnison River as an impaired water, with selenium levels as a focal point. Prevalence of the element results from the area’s marine-derived Mancos Shale, which contains vast amounts of selenium and releases it into ground and surface waters when saturated. Gunnison River Basin selenium levels had increased to such unhealthy levels that the reproductive abilities of egg-laying species – including native fish and birds – were impaired throughout the local ecosystems.

In response, the LGP was formed to address this and other natural resource issues in the Gunnison River Basin by investing in integrated water-use efficiency systems. Investments included enclosing canals and ditches into pressurized piping systems and upgrading irrigation equipment on farms with improved technology control. All together, these systems decreased water losses and minimized selenium-impacted runoff to the river resulting in better water quality and increased water availability. In 2020, the 5-year level of selenium measured at key stations in the river dropped below 4.6 ppb (parts per billion) for the first time, and the declining trend continues, as quantified by independent scientific agencies like the USGS.

“A lot of the credit goes to the local water users, especially the agricultural community,” said Ken Leib, Acting Director of the Colorado Water Science Center during the River District’s Gunnison State of the River event in June. “Often, lower flows in the river, as we are seeing today, result in higher concentrations of selenium. But despite drought conditions, we are not seeing that. So, we are really confident that the decreases we see have resulted from improvements in system efficiencies. It’s really quite impressive.”

Colorado River District Director of Science and Interstate Matters Dave “DK” Kanzer, creator of the Lower Gunnison Project, has been a long-time, integral leader in the Selenium Management. “We’re making a big difference for the environment by improving water quality and the aquatic habitat for sensitive and endangered species, while helping sustain productive agriculture in the Gunnison and Colorado River Basins,” he said. “Investments in strategic structural improvements and increased public education have moved us into full Clean Water Act compliance while helping take another step towards recovering key threatened and endangered fish species. This takes a lot of pressure off our hard-working agricultural producers; it is an important win-win for everyone.”

Aspinall Unit operations update: Aspinall Unit Operation Coordination Meeting August 19th, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The next Aspinall Unit Operation Coordination Meeting will be conducted using Microsoft Teams (link). We are again using this format as an alternative to allow interactive participation, as we are not yet able to meet in person. No special software is required. Please contact me at rchristianson@usbr.gov or (970) 248-0652 if you have any questions. The proposed agenda:

Aspinall Unit Operation
Coordination Meeting
August 19th, 2021

  • Introductions and Purpose of Meeting
  • Gunnison Basin Water Supply Outlook – (CBRFC)
  • Weather Outlook – Aldis Strautins (NWS)
  • DROA Overview – Ed Warner (Reclamation)
  • Aspinall Unit Operations – Erik Knight (Reclamation)
  • American Whitewater Request
  • Special Flow Requests and Discussion
  • Reports of Agencies and Organizations – All
  • Conclusions
  • (Next meeting date – January 20th?)
  • Hotchkiss #water system looking good: Restrictions remain due to drought

    East Bridge Street in Hotchkiss, looking towards Mt. Lamborn. By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25377313

    From The Delta County Independent (Lisa Young):

    While recent monsoonal moisture has been a welcome relief for drought-stricken North Fork Valley, residents in Hotchkiss need to continue to conserve water. That message came late during a special water work session held by the town council last week.

    “I would think that we’re going to keep our water restrictions at this point and time”, said Mayor Larry Wilkening. “I think the rains that have been coming through are great, but until we get snow pack and rain and maybe two years worth of good water then I think we need to have them.”

    The water work session was scheduled to help the town council get a better grip on how Hotchkiss water works and to sort out how they should handle ongoing out-of-town water tap requests.

    Mayor-Pro tem Mary Hockenbery requested the water work session last month in the absence of the mayor saying she’d like to have some kind of guidelines for issuing out-of-town water taps…

    Fagan and Public Works Director Mike Owens provided the council with a detailed overview of the town’s water system including the town’s raw water supply and demand, water transmission, treatment, storage, distribution and future water challenges.

    Fagan showed a map of the water system overview beginning with the raw water supply primarily coming from the Carl Smith Reservoir north of Hotchkiss and then flowing into the Leroux Creek in the Leroux Creek Watershed.

    The raw water flows in Leroux Creek to the Highline Canal where the town diverts the water through a sand trap and then to a pipe that carries water to the pre sedimentation ponds above the water treatment plant, Fagan said.

    After the water settles, it flows to the water treatment plant where a microfiltration system is used year round to screen out all particles larger than one micron. According to Fagan’s slide presentation, during the warmer months the water is pre-treated with a coagulant, flocculated and settled in clarifiers before running through microfiltration modules…

    Fagan said while the town treats water for Rogers Mesa it does not supply the raw water. Paul Schmucker, water commissioner, discussed the town’s water rights and how they affect future usage and storage. There was also a lengthy discussion on the town’s bulk water system usage. Fagan explained that the bulk system is a fraction of the town’s water usage.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Releases bumping down, 600 cfs through Black Canyon #GunnisonRiver #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 1675 cfs to 1610 cfs on Saturday, August 7th. Releases are being decreased to bring flows in the lower Gunnison River closer to the baseflow target while still providing the additional release volume under the emergency provision of the Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA). The April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 47% 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 for the foreseeable future.

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

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 660 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    After 20 Years Of #Drought, Western Slope Ranchers Face A Choice — Keep Adapting, Or Move Along — #Colorado Public Radio #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

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

    From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

    Colorado’s Western Slope is considered a climate hot spot where temperatures are increasing faster than the global average. This warming has contributed to more than 20 years of dryness, which scientists are calling a megadrought.

    Ranchers like Washburn are trying to adapt. That might mean having to give up ranching altogether.

    Washburn is raising the sixth generation of kids on the ranch, which has operated in Crested Butte for more than 130 years. He said that just in the last 20 years, there’s been a noticeable difference in the amount of available water.

    Washburn grows hay on his private acreage while his cows graze on federal land. Some of the smaller creeks and ponds that irrigate the government rangeland are drying up.

    “Year-after-year of this continued drought, we’re seeing places that we didn’t think would ever go dry,” Washburn said.

    One creek dried up three years ago. Washburn said his father-in-law had never seen that creek go dry in his life.

    Without enough water on their federal pasture, Spann Ranch is bringing its cattle back to the private ranch weeks earlier than they’re supposed to. That’s a costly snag. Without open grazing, ranchers are forced to use their winter hay supplies early to feed their hungry cattle during the summer. When the hay runs out, they have to buy more…

    Most of the farmland in this county is irrigated, meaning farmers and ranchers flood their crops and pastures with river water.

    Farmers and ranchers started digging this system of trenches and ditches more than 100 years ago, transforming the landscape. What was once sagebrush and rocks are now meadows of hay and grass. Colorado’s agricultural industry depends on this water, but more than 20 years of deep drought has depleted this critical resource.

    Washburn believes that the lack of water on the Western Slope will mean the end of his family’s ranching operation within his childrens’ lifetime…

    [Andy] Spann believes his family can stay in agriculture, but the operation will need to change. Right now, their business is raising and selling calves. That requires a lot of hay to feed mother cows during the winter.

    Instead, Spann said they might move to raising cattle during the warmer months and selling off any hay they are able to grow.

    More drastic options include transitioning from cattle ranching to growing hay full-time — or even turning the livestock operation into a horse ranch, Spann said…

    Bill Parker, another Gunnison County rancher, said his operation is already successfully adapting to climate change.

    Parker learned hard lessons from previous droughts, including the historic drought of 2012 that forced him to sell off half his animals for close to a loss…

    If a bad drought year is forecasted, ranchers like Parker won’t raise as many animals. That usually means less potential profits, but Parker raises grass-finished beef and lamb that fetch a premium when he sells the meat directly to wholesalers locally and online.

    Parker said his family uses direct marketing to pocket as much of the retail dollar as possible. Without a middleman, Parker can make more money by raising fewer animals instead of feeding and caring for a large herd when it’s abnormally dry.

    Parker also moves his livestock to warmer places in the winter so they can continue grazing on grass, which means his operation isn’t dependent on a good hay crop.

    He’s also adopted other climate-friendly ranching techniques. Instead of letting his sheep or cattle overgraze one spot, he moves them around using a portable electric fence. Parker said this allows him to control the health of his soil.

    The technique, called rotational grazing, keeps the animals from eating all the plants before they can grow the deep roots that help hold moisture in the soil. Healthy soil and plants also absorb carbon from the atmosphere, which can help fight climate change.

    Parker could get federal drought insurance and get compensated during dry years, but he doesn’t. He said he wants to take responsibility for ranching in the arid West, a burden that’s growing heavier as the climate warms.

    Reclamation’s July 24-Month Study implements contingency operations in the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver #SanJuanRiver #GunnisonRiver

    Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron):

    The Bureau of Reclamation today released the July 24-Month Study, confirming declining hydrologic conditions for the Colorado River system. To protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the study incorporates the implementation of drought operations under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA).

    The July 2021 Operation Plan for Colorado River System Reservoirs 24-Month Study (July 24-Month Study) shows that the Lake Powell water year 2021 predicted unregulated inflow volume has decreased 2.5 million acre-feet in the six-month period between January and July 2021. The current forecast for WY2021 is 3.23 maf (30% of average).

    In addition, 5-year projections released by Reclamation last week predicted a 79% chance that Lake Powell would fall below the DROA target elevation of 3,525 feet within the next year. That target elevation provides a 35 vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam and meet current operational obligations to the Lower Basin States of Arizona, California and Nevada.

    Consistent with DROA provisions to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the July 24-Month Study includes adjusted releases from the upstream initial units of the Colorado River Storage Project Act to deliver an additional 181 thousand-acre feet of water to Lake Powell by the end of December 2021. The additional releases are anticipated to be implemented on the following schedule:

    Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) planned releases July 16, 2021. The “Last Flush”. Data credit: USBR

    The releases detailed above are in addition to the already established releases determined by operational plans for each of the identified facilities. The additional delivery of 181 kaf is expected to raise Lake Powell’s elevation by approximately three feet. The additional releases from the upstream initial units do not change the annual volume of water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead in WY2021, as those volumes are determined by the 2007 Interim Guidelines.

    Reclamation publishes a 24-Month Study for Colorado River System reservoirs each month. The August 24-Month Study will set the operating conditions for Lake Mead and Lake Powell for the upcoming year. Reclamation will also release an update to the 5-year projections in early September.

    Reclamation and the Colorado River Basin states continue to work together cooperatively to closely monitor projections and conditions and are prepared to take additional measures in accordance with the DROA.

    Reclamation remains committed to reducing the collective risk of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead falling to critical elevations and will continue to work with entities in the Colorado River Basin to ensure that both facilities continue to function as authorized to meet the natural, municipal and agricultural needs of the basin.

    To view the July and prior 24-month studies, visit http://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/studies.

    Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

    #Montrose public takes a peek inside the Sunset Mesa water tower Monday evening — The Montrose Daily Press

    Water tower in Orr, Minnesota.

    From The Montrose Daily Press (Cassie Knust and Anna Lynn Winfrey):

    The City of Montrose welcomed the public to roam around the nearly completed structure, which will hold 1.5 million gallons of water. In lieu of a formal presentation, city officials mingled with the crowd of curious citizens in and around the tower as the sun began its descent on July 12.

    To build the water tower, Cory Noles explained that giant pieces of steel were welded together into 8-foot tall rings that were stacked on top of each other. Noles is the general superintendent of Ridgway Valley Enterprises, a commercial contractor on the project.

    Despite the 135-foot height, Scott Murphy, the city engineer for Montrose and the project lead, said that the foundation is only 5 feet deep from ground level because the dirt in the area bodes well for a tall structure.

    The water that is scheduled to fill the tower this November is sourced from the general city water system, which comes from the Project 7 Water Authority’s treatment plant on the east side of town.

    Water towers help stabilize water pressure throughout the city. Murphy said that the tower fills up during lower demand periods, so when demand is high on hotter days, water pressure can stay constant.

    The tower, which cost approximately $5 million, addresses the city’s need for water storage and prepares the city for continued growth on the western side of the Uncompahgre river.

    In the case of an emergency water break, the tower can hold enough to provide the town with water for up to four days. Murphy said that only one line crosses the Uncompahgre river to the western side of town, so if a disaster struck and the pipe was obliterated, the water tower ensures that people would still have water.

    The water tower is slated to sustain another period of growth in Montrose, and the city has made long-term plans to ease the construction of another tower in the future…

    The project is scheduled to be completed by November of this year. Some pandemic-related shortages have caused minor delays, but the project is still slated to be completed on time…

    The tower will be painted a lighter color to blend into the landscape. Murphy said that the tower will be emblazoned with the logo for the city, but artsier designs may be considered in the future.

    Colorado Parks & Wildlife enacts afternoon voluntary fishing closure on section of #GunnisonRiver in Tomichi Creek State Wildlife Area #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The Tomichi Water Conservation Program involves regional coordination between six water users on lower Tomichi Creek to reduce consumptive use on irrigated meadows as a watershed drought management tool. The project will use water supply as a trigger for water conservation measures during one year in the three-year period. During implementation, participating water users would cease irrigation during dry months. Water not diverted will improve environmental and recreational flows through the Tomichi State Wildlife Area and be available to water users below the project area. Photo credit: Business for Water.

    Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Travis Duncan):

    Due to low flows and warm water temperatures, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is asking anglers to voluntarily avoid fishing after noon on the 4-mile section of Tomichi Creek that runs through CPW’s Tomichi Creek State Wildlife Area, located just east of Gunnison, Colo. The voluntary fishing closure is in effect immediately.

    “Currently, water temperatures are exceeding 71 degrees fahrenheit consistently,” CPW Aquatic Biologist Dan Brauch said. “The temperatures are tending to spike in the afternoon. Fish that are caught when temperatures are that high may experience increased stress and anglers may find it difficult to release fish safely.”

    Brauch said anglers should fish early to avoid the higher water temperatures commonly seen in the afternoon and seek out high-elevation trout lakes and streams, where water temperatures are more suitable.

    CPW aquatic biologists will be monitoring temperatures on the creek in the coming weeks to let anglers know when conditions have improved.

    Anglers should be aware that many of the major rivers on Colorado’s Western Slope are experiencing adverse conditions heading into the hottest days of summer. Follow the Leave No Trace Principle to “Know Before You Go” to the West Slope this summer and check out conditions related to mandatory and voluntary fishing closures: https://cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/Pages/StatewideFishingConditions.aspx.

    Spring Creek Dam in line for rehab; reservoir water drawn down — The #Montrose Press

    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 USFS (Jonathan Hare) via The Montrose Press:

    The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests is planning to authorize Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Spring Creek Reservoir Dam Outlet Rehabilitation Project.

    The project would last approximately 90 days beginning August 2021. The purpose of this project is to address the most immediate maintenance concerns to reduce the risk of dam failure.

    “In the fall of 2017, the U.S. Forest Service was approached by CPW with eminent structural concerns at Spring Creek Reservoir,” District Ranger Matt McCombs said.

    “CPW and the USDA, Forest Service worked together to take immediate action to safeguard the dam and public safety. This project is a continuation of that important work and partnership.”

    Work on U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service lands would include the construction of a 625-foot access road to the dam’s outlet, repairs/upgrades of the outlet pipe and installation of a new gate stem and controller along with a reinforced grade beam with instrumentation for monitoring.

    Reaching the outlet and upstream site for the grade beam requires the reservoir to be fully drained. To allow for the required work, CPW is actively drawing down the water in Spring Creek Reservoir.

    The work proposed on Forest Service lands is expected to be cleared through the National Environmental Policy Act under a categorical exclusion. A preliminary evaluation of anticipated environmental effects indicate there are no extraordinary circumstances that would require preparation of an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement.

    For additional information, questions or concerns, please contact Jonathan Hare at 970-642-4445 or jonathan.hare@usda.gov.

    How many “boatable” days does a #Colorado river possess? We’re about to find out — @WaterEdCO #GunnisonRiver

    River rafters, fishermen and SUP users float on the Gunnison River on June 20, 2021. The Boatable Days Web Tool developed by Kestrel Kunz, American Whitewater’s Southern Rockies associate stewardship director, along with the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District and Trout Unlimited, forecasts flows for an upcoming boating season based on historic wet and dry years and will help river managers better manage rivers in a time of drought and climate change. Credit: Dean Krakel via Water Education Colorado

    From Water Education Colorado (Dean Krakel):

    Kestrel Kunz is surfing, Colorado style, in her kayak among the waves at the Gunnison Whitewater Park a few miles west of town. The waves are more than recreational play for Kunz. Flowing water is an important part of the work she does for American Whitewater as the organization’s Southern Rockies associate stewardship director. For Kunz, the Gunnison River is like a watery crystal ball that gives her a glimpse into a future increasingly threatened by drought and climate change.

    Kunz is the mastermind behind a prototype web tool developed by American Whitewater and the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District that may change the future of river management across Colorado and eventually the West. The tool, the Upper Gunnison Basin Boatable Days Web Tool, is based on historical wet and dry year flows and other data and gives river users and water managers the ability to check an entire season’s flow forecast.

    The Boatable Days Web Tool, Kunz said, “shows the relationship between river flow and recreational opportunities. With a little research we can use historic flows to project how a dry or wet year, a new diversion project, a climate change scenario, or reservoir operations can positively or negatively impact river recreation opportunities and thus Colorado’s robust outdoor economy.”

    Being able to look ahead is an especially important feature for the state’s fishing and rafting outfitters, Kunz said. “The web tool will give an estimation on what flows are going to look like and how that is going to affect the number of commercial operating days in an upcoming season and help them plan in advance.” If outfitters know they’re not going to have sufficient boatable flows in September and October they might bring employees in earlier or may have to shift the way they do business and when they do it.

    Kunz sees the tool as an opportunity for water managers both locally and at the state level to use the information to better balance flows for recreation with other needs. “This tool provides an important snapshot into how recreation opportunities are going to be impacted by drought. The web tool in no way is going to solve our drought problem, but it’s a critical piece of the puzzle that’s been missing before now.”

    Kestrel Kunz surfs in her kayak at the Gunnison Whitewater Park in Gunnison, Colo. on May 24, 2021. Kunz is American Whitewater’s Southern Rockies associate stewardship director and is the creator of the Boatable Days Web Tool, which helps forecast river flows. Credit: Dean Krakel via Water Education Colorado

    Kunz and American Whitewater are currently working to fit other pieces of Colorado’s river puzzle together by finalizing boatable days studies on the Roaring Fork, Crystal, and Poudre rivers and creating similar web tools.

    “I think the biggest thing the tool does is give us a perspective on how climate change and drought are impacting our rivers,” said Sonja Chavez, general manager of The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. Chavez believes the next step will be to gain a better understanding of how changing river flows affect the local economy.

    “Gunnison has been discovered,” Chavez said. “We have a lot of people visiting and a lot more people on the river.” As river flows drop, rafters, boaters, and other water users are concentrated into certain segments of the river with more frequency, impacting the fishery and wildlife, boat ramps, wetlands and the boating experience. You can see in water short years how that recreation season is shortened and that’s important for a community like Gunnison that is dependent on recreation.

    This web tool is going to be a good model for how communities can come together and identify how their rivers are functioning,” said Trout Unlimited’s Dan Omasta. Omasta was TU’s grassroots coordinator during the development stage of the Boatable Days Water Tool and worked with Kunz and American Whitewater to identify ideal flow ranges for fishing and floating, and the high and low thresholds for navigation.

    “When is the river too low to float for a dory or raft with clients?” said Omasta. “The tool will especially help identify sections of river that become unnavigable at certain flows. The Taylor and Gunnison rivers are seeing a lot of pressure. They get busier every year and one of the ways to tackle that challenge is to spread people out and encourage them to be floating and fishing different sections.

    “More people are recreating on rivers and that’s awesome to see. We just need to be smarter about how we manage it and hopefully this tool can play a part in that,” Omasta said.

    Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at dkrakel@gmail.com.

    Looking back to when #water was plentiful — Writers on the Range

    Paonia. Photo credit: Allen Best

    From Writers on the Range (David Marston):

    Dear Readers,

    This week we tell the story of Jamie Jacobson, a 50-year on-again off-again Paonia resident and a man born “with the throttle wide open,” according to good friend and local Paonia gas station owner Bob Reedy. Looking back, Jacobson tells that spring in Paonia, Colorado, used to be a time for terror.

    The North Fork of the Gunnison River would swell and surge, and if it snatched someone’s riverfront or barn, a landowner wouldn’t have a prayer of hanging on to it. He recalls how farmers and ranchers would cable cars to the riverbanks as the river ran high well into August. But those days are gone, and Jacobson has held onto his orchard while others have long thrown in the towel. He can fix or modify (usually to go faster) any piece of equipment he comes across. Born in New York and adapted to a mountain valley, Jacobson exemplifies the can-do spirit of the West.

    During his 50 years in rural western Colorado, Jamie Jacobson has seen a lot of flooding. While caretaking a farm in 1974, Jacobson watched three acres of its riverfront float away. More recently, it’s been drought, and then worse drought.

    Jacobson farms on Lamborn Mesa, perched above Paonia, population 1,500. He keeps his orchard of peaches, nectarines and cherries alive thanks to the Minnesota Canal that serves 170 customers.

    The ditch is nine miles long and carries water from the snowpack that’s accumulated around 12,725-foot-high Mt. Gunnison. This mountain of many ridges used to hold water like a sponge, but snowfall has been light year after year, and the ground sucks up a lot of the melting snow.

    “Back in the 1970s it was different,” says Jacobson, who moved from New York where he started his career as a cameraman on film shoots. “Paonia was snow-covered in winter, and when the melt came, the river tore at its banks. One of my first jobs was using machinery to stuff boulders into junked cars and then cabling them to the riverbank. Now it’s scary because of water that isn’t there.”

    This summer, Jacobson’s ditch rider told him irrigation water would run out by the end of June. “That would have been unthinkable decades ago,” Jacobson says. But the canal’s two reservoirs have filled only one year out of the last four. “In the old days, daily highs in summers were in the 80s,” Jacobson says. “Last May it got really warm, and in June this year the temperature is hitting 100 degrees.”

    So it’s not surprising that his orchard is suffering. “My trees are stressed, and some I’ve had to let go. I’ve lost a great deal,” he says flatly.

    But Jacobson, 75, remains resilient and upbeat, though he was diagnosed with arthritis at age 10 and has suffered from back pain all his life. He even underwent a kidney transplant from a friend three years ago.

    Now getting around in a wheelchair, he still hopes to fly in his ultralight — equipped with a parachute. During the 1970s, he enjoyed a moment of fame when he turned 20,000 gallons of spoiled apple cider into alcohol that substituted for gasoline.

    “Coal company execs visiting their mines around Paonia all wanted to try out my alcohol-fueled car,” he recalls. “We had some great joyrides on moonshine.”

    Jacobson’s ditch company was founded in 1893 by farmers and ranchers who knew they had to import water to make the semi-desert land valuable.

    Jaime Jacobson in 1979 with oldest daughter Jodie via Writers on the Range

    “They dug those ditches with hand labor and mule scrapers and built the canals incrementally,” says Western historian George Sibley. “You either bought in with money or sweat equity, enlarging the canals as neighbors down the ditch bought in.” It’s a similar story throughout the Western states, moving water from mountains through a system of prior appropriation – first to put water to work, first to claim it.

    For example, Southern Idaho, in the grip of extreme drought, is braced for prior appropriation cutbacks. Junior water users in the Magic River Valley who pump water from wells have been notified that their water will be shut off early this summer. Meanwhile New Mexico’s ancient system utilizes a water master or mayordomo to administer cutbacks. And if one state knows drought, it’s Nevada, where Las Vegas sends most of its sewage-treated water back to where it came from – Lake Mead.

    The water flowing through piped canals or open ditches into Paonia and its mesas was never meant to stick around. Farmers who flood-irrigate use roughly 20 percent of the water on their land. Eventually, that water may be reused by farmers and homeowners as much as seven times before crossing into Utah as part of the Colorado River.

    These days, a lot less water ever gets there. The river’s two big reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are only about 35 percent full, and river managers in the seven states that rely on the Colorado are trying to figure out how to cope. It’s a daunting prospect, squeezing out water in the midst of a drying climate.

    Jaime Jacobson in 1990. Jaime was donated a kidney in 2018, by long-time Paonia friend Bill Bruner after decades of medication to suppress his arthritis had ruined his kidneys. Via Writers on the Range

    Meanwhile, Jacobson looks at his diminished orchard and hopes he’ll have enough fruit for the people who came last summer. They brought their own baskets and wandered the orchard to pick what they wanted.

    “People had a good time, and at $1.50 per pound we sold out the crop last year,” Jacobson says. “If we go down this year, we’ll do it in style.”

    David Marston. Photo credit: Writers on the Range

    Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He owns land with shares in Minnesota Canal.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Releases to bump flows through the Black Canyon to 625 cfs, June 18, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

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

    From email from Reclamation (Ryan Christianson):

    Gunnison River flows have dropped off quickly over the last few days and there is a need for more water in the Gunnison River to meet the target of 1050 cfs, pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD). Therefore, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 150 cfs tomorrow afternoon, June 18th at 2pm.

    Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 1040 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 475 cfs. After these release changes, flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 625 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

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

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

    From The Montrose Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    US Drought Monitor map June 1, 2021.

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

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

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

    Aspinall Unit

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

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

    Flaming Gorge Dam. Photo credit: USBR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Click here for all the inside skinny and register:

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

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

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

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

    Agenda:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

    Blue Mesa Reservoir

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

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

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

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

    Colorado Drought Monitor map May 25, 2021.

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

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

    Taylor Park Reservoir

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

    Ridgway Dam via the USBR

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

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

    Mcphee Reservoir

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

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

    […]

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

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

    Flaming Gorge Reservoir July 2020. Photo credit: Utah DWR

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

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

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

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

    Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

    From The Delta County Independent (Lisa Young):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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

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

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

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

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

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

    That is an accusation Feldman denies.

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

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

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

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

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

    Speculation work group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Potential risks and solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Financial water speculation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Impacts to ag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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