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.”

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

    Suspicion of outsiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Drought Conditions Stay Strong on the Western Slope

    West Drought Monitor April 20, 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Opinion: Our rivers are not plumbing — Gunnison Country Times

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

    From The Gunnison Country Times (Sam Liebl):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Click here to view the forecast graphics.

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

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

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Here’s the release from The City of Montrose:

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

    Construction of the Uncompahgre River Improvements Project started last fall and included the stabilization of riverbanks, restoration of a more natural stream system, improvement of aquatic and riparian habitats, and improvement of river access and fishing opportunities for the public. The project was made possible through a partnership with the Montrose Urban Renewal Authority and with the assistance of $784,000 in grants received from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

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

    Uncompahgre River improvements via the City of Montrose.

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

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

    Watch a video of the project:

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

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

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

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

    Board loses esteemed water leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Meek Ranch. Photo credit: Shaffer Real Estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    […]

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

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

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

    Uncompahgre Plateau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A copy of the filed complaint can be found here.

    From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Watershed ‘thirstier’ with heat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A rancher looks to adapt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    […]

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

    ‘It affects everybody’

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

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

    Sonja Chavez via Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Ranchers, farmers consider using less

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

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

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

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

    ‘We need to set the terms’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ‘Are we doing enough?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    […]

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

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

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

    Bill Trampe via the Colorado Water Conservation Board

    From The Crested Butte News (Katherine Nettles):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From KVNF (Jodi Petersen) via KUNC:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

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

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

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

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

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

    23,426 TONS OF SALT A YEAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    GUNNISON PROJECTS

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

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

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

    WETLANDS MITIGATION

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

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