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

Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

Black Canyon July 2020. Photo credit: Cari Bischoff

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From Dave Marston (Writers on the Range):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Marston. Photo credit: Writers on the Range

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

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

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

From The Crested Butte News (Katherine Nettles):

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Barr photo via Sotheby’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

The timeline for the BIP update is as follows:

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

    A power switch in Colorado — The Mountain Town News

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

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Crested Butte News:

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

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

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

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

    Aspinall Unit operations update: 1040 CFS through the Gunnison Tunnel

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

    Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

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

    Upper Gunnison watershed May 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

    Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

    Gunnison State of the River

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

    Agenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Aspinall Unit Operations Update

    Aspinall Unit April – July, 2020 Forecasted Inflow

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

    Spring Operations Summary

    Aspinall Unit Operations ROD

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

    Baseflow Target: June/July/Aug = 1050 cfs

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

    Black Canyon Water Right

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

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

    Projected Operations

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

    Click here to read the current Aspinall Unit Forecast.

    Aspinall Unit dams

    A little #whitewater near #CrestedButte

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

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

    From The Montrose Press (Josue Perez):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

    From The Montrose Press (Molly Moore):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    @USBR: Aspinall Unit Spring Operations update

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

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

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

    Greetings from Kathleen Curry, Gunnison Basin Round Table Chair

    Kathleen Curry. Photo credit: Gunnison Basin Roundtable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    […]

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

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

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

    The Alternative E plan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    […]

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

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

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

    […]

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

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

    […]

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

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

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

    Dolores River watershed

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

    Aspinall Unit dams

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

    Sunrise Black Canyon via Bob Berwyn

    From email from Reclamation Erik Knight:

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

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

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

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

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

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

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

    From The Montrose Press (Michael Cox):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Aspinall Unit dams

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

    Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 800 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

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

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

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

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

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

    San Juan Mountains March, 2016 photo credit Greg Hobbs.

    From The Montrose Press (Michael Cox):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    SNOTEL Site via the Natural Resources Conservation Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From the Watch (Tanya Ishikawa):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From email from the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

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

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

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

    Colorado Drought Monitor January 21, 2020.

    At 25 years old, Ouray’s ice festival continues to foster — and anchor — the winter sport’s rise — The #Colorado Sun

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

    From The Colorado Sun (William Woody):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The early ice farming system rough, Whitt remembers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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

    Aspinall Unit

    The latest newsletter is hot off the presses from the #GunnisonRiver Basin

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

    Funding Opportunities in the Gunnison River Basin
    Funding opportunities for water projects that help improve and conserve water and land resources can be found on GunnisonRiverBasin.org, including:

  • Colorado Water Plan Grants
  • US Department of Agriculture federal grants and loans
  • Colorado Water Conservation Board state grants and loans
  • Do you know a high school student interested in Western water issues? Encourage them to apply for the Diana Hoppe Memorial Scholarship. Read More.

    Hay meadows near Gunnison

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Blue Mesa Reservoir within one foot of icing target

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit were decreased to 1100 cfs on Thursday, January 2nd. Blue Mesa Reservoir elevation ended the year within a foot of the icing target. Releases will be maintained at this level for the near future with possible adjustments made when new runoff forecast information becomes available. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

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

    Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 1100 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Blue Mesa Reservoir

    Biologists: Feds’ target numbers too low for Gunnison sage-grouse recovery — @AspenJournalism

    Biologists say federal target numbers are too low to ensure recovery of the Gunnison sage-grouse, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The bird’s largest population is in the Gunnison basin. Photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    In the late 1980s, conservation biologist Jessica Young was an undergraduate researching the sage grouse in the Sierra Nevada when one of her professors handed her a cassette tape. He said there was a guy out in Gunnison, Colo., who claimed that the grouse there sounded different. Young listened to the recording of grouse calls and decided she had to see the birds for herself.

    Young began working with Clait Braun, a researcher at Colorado Parks and Wildlife (then called the Department of Wildlife) who had discovered as early as 1977 that the Gunnison sage-grouse was different from its cousin, the wider-ranging greater sage-grouse.

    The work of Young, Braun and other scientists eventually helped prove that the Gunnison sage-grouse was a separate species of ground-nesting bird, one that was officially declared a new species in 2000.

    But there was a problem.

    Researchers quickly realized that not only was this grouse a new species, it was also in serious trouble. By the time they discovered that this bird — which is perfectly adapted to western Colorado’s high-desert sagebrush ecosystem and famous for its elaborate spring mating dance — was a distinctive, smaller species, the bird was already on the verge of vanishing.

    “It was clear to me by the mid-1990s that this was about much more than the Gunnison sage-grouse,” Young said. “I remember thinking that it was probably going to be the 21st-century test of how my nation valued both biodiversity and the economic well-being of communities across the West. I believe that is what the Gunnison sage-grouse really represents.”

    Target numbers too low?

    After years of conservation efforts in the Gunnison basin and elsewhere, the bird’s numbers are still declining. In 2014, in a controversial move that sparked lawsuits from the state of Colorado, Gunnison County and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Five years later, it remains unclear what effect the listing has had on the bird.

    This past fall, the FWS released its draft recovery plan for the species, which is open for public comment through Tuesday. The plan lays out target-population numbers that must be met for seven out of nine years before the species could be considered on the road to recovery and potentially delisted. The plan also charts conservation projects and actions for the next 50 years, at an estimated cost of more than $560 million. The final recovery plan is scheduled to be completed by Nov. 1.

    But environmental groups — along with Braun and Young, two scientists who have dedicated much of their careers to studying the bird — say these population targets are too low to ensure recovery of the species. The target number for the Gunnison basin is 748; in 2019, researchers counted nearly 400 fewer than this.

    The largest population of the Gunnison sage-grouse — about 85 percent of the species — lives in the Gunnison basin, with smaller satellite populations scattered throughout western Colorado. Biologists estimate the bird is now found on less than 10 percent of its historic range. Credit: USFWS

    Declining populations

    Gunnison sage-grouse numbers have indeed declined — some say alarmingly so — in recent years.

    Over the past several years, the three-year average high male count — the highest number of male birds that the researchers spot — has dropped across all populations. In the Gunnison basin, the 2019 number was 583, down from 772 in 2018, 886 in 2017 and 905 in 2016.

    2019 posted the lowest bird numbers since the count methodology was standardized in 1996. The high male count for the Dove Creek population in western Dolores County dipped to zero, while high male counts at Cerro Summit and Poncha Pass in Colorado and the area near Monticello, hovered from just three to seven birds.

    “You don’t want to see declines like this when you have seven birds,” said Kathy Griffin, grouse conservation coordinator for CPW. “To say we are not concerned would not be true. … We have seen these kinds of declines before, but we are getting to the lowest we’ve ever been.”

    According to a paper by Braun, Young and others, the Gunnison sage-grouse once roamed throughout most of southwestern Colorado. It disappeared from Pitkin County in the 1960s. In the 1990s, it was extirpated in Eagle and Garfield counties.

    The largest populations of the Gunnison sage-grouse — and around 85 percent of the bird’s remaining total population — live in the Gunnison basin. Smaller populations of the species, referred to as satellite populations, are scattered throughout western Colorado (Cerro Summit, Crawford, Dove Creek, Pinon Mesa, Poncha Pass and western San Miguel County) and eastern Utah (Monticello).

    The 2014 “threatened” listing was based mostly on these shrinking satellite populations, which scientists think need to remain robust as an insurance policy should some kind of environmental-related disaster or disease befall the main population of birds in the Gunnison basin.

    Those who opposed federal involvement, including Gunnison County, still feel the sting of the 2014 listing as an affront to the collaborative conservation work of local groups, including the county-led Gunnison Sage-Grouse Strategic Committee. Committee Chair and Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said the recovery plan, much like the listing itself, still focuses too much on the satellite populations. The Gunnison basin, Houck said, is doing its part to help the bird.

    “The draft recovery plan correctly recognizes the high resiliency of the Gunnison sage-grouse population in the Gunnison basin and also recognizes correctly the strength of the habitat protection in the Gunnison basin,” Houck said. “The irony to me is this is the entire argument we made before the listing.”

    A Gunnison sage-grouse hen leads her chicks in the Gunnison basin during the summer of 2019. Some private landowners have undertaken habitat restoration projects on placed conservation easements on their property in an effort to protect the bird. Photo credit: Greg Petersen via Aspen Journalism

    Bird counts

    CPW uses something called “High Male Count” to track bird numbers year over year. Each spring, biologists watch from the sidelines as regal-looking male Gunnison sage-grouse perform their courtship ritual — strutting and bobbing, fanning their banded tail feathers and popping their air sacs in an effort to attract a female — on leks, which are open areas ringed by sagebrush that the birds return to year after year.

    Researchers count each male they see on several trips to the leks they make each season, meaning the same bird can be counted more than once. These numbers are then averaged over three years to smooth out the seven-to-12-year fluctuations associated with grouse population and used to estimate the total population size.

    The one-two punch of 2018’s extreme drought, which may have resulted in bird deaths, and 2019’s deep snow may have contributed to this year’s low counts. Counting is a logistical challenge because of the precise method used. CPW biologists were not able to access all of the leks last spring because of lingering deep snow, and in other areas, counters heard the birds’ signature popping noise but didn’t catch sight of them.

    “We had a horrible year of counting,” Griffin said. “Because we could never see them, we had to put down a zero even though we knew there were birds there.”

    Whatever the reason for the low counts, bird populations will need to increase in order for the FWS to consider the species recovered and to potentially delist it. The recovery plan sets a target three-year average high male count in the Gunnison basin of 748 for seven out of nine years for the population to be considered stable.

    Western Colorado’s sagebrush sea is the favorite habitat of the Gunnison Sage-grouse. But much of it, like this area near Carbondale, is bisected by trails and encroached upon by piñon and juniper trees. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

    The sagebrush sea

    Braun and others, including environmental group Rocky Mountain Wild, also say the draft recovery plan lacks specificity when it comes to how to conserve the bird’s habitat — the silvery-green expanse known as the sagebrush sea.

    Western Colorado’s sagebrush sea is naturally fragmented by canyons and mountains. But in recent decades, prime habitat has also been bisected by roads and trails, interrupted by residential developments, affected by cattle grazing, and encroached upon by pinon and juniper trees. The Bureau of Land Management manages about 42 percent of Gunnison sage-grouse habitat.

    “I think the really key thing is that there needs to be habitat that is set aside from development and other threats on public land, and that isn’t really the case right now,” said Megan Mueller, a senior conservation biologist at Rocky Mountain Wild.

    Although some private landowners in the Gunnison basin have participated in habitat restoration projects such as restoring wet meadows and putting conservation easements on their property to protect it from future development, Braun says those measures are not enough. He thinks a more drastic action is needed: stopping livestock from grazing on public land in Gunnison sage-grouse habitat until populations of the bird increase.

    “Grazing is a key factor in why sage-grouse populations are down in the Gunnison basin,” Braun said. “Until we get a handle on the livestock grazing, nothing is going to really improve.”

    Braun recognizes that his idea to temporarily outlaw grazing on public land in Gunnison sage-grouse habitat is an idea many will find unpalatable, even radical. Ranching is an important part of the culture of rural western Colorado.

    “We want to keep ranching active in the Gunnison Valley,” Houck said. “It’s the thing that’s defined this place.”

    One challenge to habitat conservation, Young said, is that the sagebrush sea has long been an undervalued ecosystem. It has traditionally been a place with few regulations, where mountain biking and hiking trails snake through the landscape; where people put dumps and mine tailings; where driving off-road was — and sometimes still is — common; and where overgrazing damaged the landscape.

    Saving the Gunnison sage-grouse, Young said, will require reexamining the economic, social and ecological values that people hold about this landscape. Although the federal involvement may have polarized some groups, the little ground-nesting bird also has the potential to bring together disparate factions to work toward the same goal: species conservation.

    “I think, in the 2000s, the Gunnison sage-grouse are asking us again to consider what our values are for both biodiversity and community success during a time of climate change,” Young said. “They are going to be an indication of how we come together and demonstrate our values and resilience.”

    Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and Aspen Public Radio on coverage of water and environmental issues. This story was published online by The Aspen Times on Dec. 31 and a conversation about this reporting aired on APR on Dec. 31.

    Shavano Conservation District: The past and the present — The Montrose Press

    Photo credit: Shavano Conservation District

    Here’s a report from Michael Cox that’s running in The Montrose Press:

    Prior to the Great World War (great only signifying size and intensity), one of the most productive pieces of land on the Western Slope of Colorado was regularly converted to a destructive river of Spring snow or Summer storm runoff from the Uncompahgre Plateau.

    The Shavano (shav-a-no) Valley was named for a Ute Chief, and was either visited or inhabited by native peoples as early as 3,000 years ago. The Ute’s came about a thousand years ago. It was fine winter ground and in spring and summer the grass was lush, affording excellent feed for the tribe’s livestock.

    American settlers came in the late 1800s and found the Valley to have the most fertile and easy-to-till soil in the area. There was also a bit of water from an artisian spring that feed a meandering creek. There is an excellent explanation for how the soil developed in the valley. In all probability, it was those regular floods that swept from the plateau and covered much of the Valley, at various times of the year, in water. Along with the water, the floods were depositing a new layer of silt to the already deep soil.

    But enough is enough already. By the late 1930s and early 1940s the farmers in the Valley grew weary of rebuilding and reclaiming after the floods. The damage to their infrastructure was immense and included dead livestock, ruined roads, and lost homes. The locals tried some small diversions, dykes, and flood ways, which had only minimal effect. The task was tantamount to parting the sea, but Moses and his stick were nowhere nearby. Enter the Shavano Conservation District, a cooperative of farms and ranches joining together and forming the district with the idea of petitioning the Bureau of Reclamation to help put up some defenses against the floods.

    “The farmers had figured out that they needed some serious diversion dams along the west side of the Valley,” says Mendy Stewart the Shavano District chief of education and communication. “But they had neither the tools nor the money to build them.”

    In May of 1937, the Shavano Soil Conservation District (SSCD) was organized under the Colorado Soil Conservation District Act. By October of 1941, the intensifying world war not withstanding, the district plan got the nod from 111 landowners, representing 20,200 acres in Montrose County.

    Eventually, two other smaller districts, the Uncompahgre and the Cimarron, joined the Shavano group – soil conservation became a way of life. Now the district covers 1.2 million acres in Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison and Delta counties. The Delta County segment is a tiny bit of acreage on the Montrose/Delta County line. In 2002 the District dropped the use of the word “soil” from the name as did other such entities across the country…

    Eventually, with grants from the Bureau of Reclamation and using the equipment and manpower pool of the district, three diversion dams were built to stop the wild flow off the plateau and divert it into ditches. This kept the flood waters off the farm land and out of the homes and barns in the Valley.

    The largest of the three dams is at the south head of the Valley and involves an earthen structure measuring more than a half mile from one end to the other. The spillway and some of the dam are concrete reinforced. The runoff from the Plateau collects behind the dam. The flow out of the pool is controlled and put into ditches, such as the M&D canal below the dam…

    According to Stewart the list of things the SCD is involved in includes irrigation water management, flood control, technical assistance with conservation efforts, youth and adult environmental education, and special projects such as the Western Colorado Soil Health Conference. The 2020 conference is scheduled for February 20 and 21 at the Delta Center for the Performing Arts.

    Gunnison County Board meeting recap #DCP #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The Crystal River on Sept. 18, 2018. Photo by John Herrick.

    From The Crested Butte News (Katherine Nettles):

    Colorado River Water Conservation District (CRWCD) board member Bill Trampe spoke to the county commissioners this past fall on behalf of the neighboring river district. Kathleen Curry, the chairman of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, also spoke with commissioners during that meeting.

    Trampe reported that the transfer of ownership of Wolford Mountain reservoir near Kremmling in Grand County occurs on January 1, 2020. “So at that point in time Denver Water gets 40 percent of the ownership,” he said.

    Trampe said demand management and drought contingency planning is always front and center for the board, and said the board is frustrated with the state process moving forward and its slowness putting the nine working groups involved in the state water planning process (Colorado’s Water Plan) to work…

    Trampe described issues relating to water resource demand management, with “interests” on the Western Slope trying to make deals with Front Range entities.

    Trampe said the district felt that individual groups making those deals could lead to a lot more “working the market and eventual condemnation rather than purchase—meaning condemnation by force rather than a deal between parties. If condemnation starts, I think that’s going to ruin everything.”

    The solution, he said, is to work together with Western Slope entities and keep a strong base in the river district to negotiate more collectively. “If there’s one pot of money under state control to pay for demand management, then that’s the way it ought to be. There shouldn’t be individual groups out there doing their own thing.”

    County commissioner John Messner asked if there’s been discussion among river districts about a de-Gallagherizing measure to open up current tax funding constraints. De-Gallagherizing refers to ballot measures that freeze the residential property tax rate as a way to stabilize budgets of rural governments.

    Messner asked if the CRWCD has an opinion on whether a measure will address special districts such as this one.

    “We considered a ballot issue for this fall, but didn’t think we were ready,” replied Trampe. He said the reason to wait was to start more outreach to the public in terms of what the districts are and what they do beforehand. He said the districts are hoping to do this in 2020.

    “Whether it’s de-Gallagherization, or TABOR issues, we’re still trying to decide. But yes, we’re going to do something. We’ve got to do something,” he said.

    Looking to support a water survey on the Crystal River basin

    Commissioner Jonathan Houck reported that during a fall Gunnison Basin Roundtable meeting, members discussed the Upper Crystal River watershed at length.

    That watershed has an application in with the state to conduct a water study, because the 2018 drought demonstrated that several subdivisions in that basin, some of which are in Gunnison County, had no water plan or storage without the Crystal River’s regular flow.

    The Water Supply Reserve Fund (WSRF) is managing that application, and the Gunnison Roundtable considered and ultimately decided on drafting a letter of support…

    Curry noted that a project in a different river basin asking an adjacent roundtable to write a letter is “a little out of the ordinary. So that threw our roundtable a little bit, wondering if that was even the right role. But I put it on our agenda since, if it involved looking at storage feasibility near Marble, in Gunnison County, I thought [commissioners] might be interested in that,” said Curry.

    Houck responded that the county should send a message as well. “We want to see good, thoughtful water planning per all residents within the county. Due to the size and geography of our county we actually span two watersheds. And it’s important for us to advocate for that but understand that the funding needs to come from the appropriate basin,” he said…

    Last, Curry said that the roundtable is preparing to submit a Basin Implementation Plan (BIP) in contribution to Colorado’s Water Plan, and that will include an updated project list. “This is our opportunity to change our project list,” she suggested, with additions or deletions as appropriate. The roundtable formed a subcommittee to begin the process, and its first meeting was this fall.

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

    Wild rainbow trout population growing in the Gunnison Gorge — #Colorado Parks & Wildlife

    A tiny rainbow trout fry is giving CPW biologists hope that wild fish are reproducing naturally in the Gunnison River Gorge and that will eventually help to restore wild rainbows to rivers throughout the state. Photo credit: CPW

    Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

    Work to restore wild rainbow trout in the Gunnison Gorge is starting to pay off as the population of the species is slowly increasing, according to surveys conducted recently by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. CPW biologists are hopeful that the success on the Gunnison will eventually help bring wild rainbows back to all Colorado’s rivers and streams.

    Rainbow trout once dominated the renowned Gunnison River; but in 1994 CPW biologists found fish there infected with whirling disease and their population drifted toward zero. Brown trout, which are much more resistant to whirling disease, quickly took over and now are the dominant fish in the gorge and many other Colorado streams. Whirling disease infected streams and rivers throughout the state and imperiled rainbow trout populations.

    The most significant observation from the Gunnison survey completed in October showed an abundance of “young of the year” fish that hatched in mid-summer and that showed no symptoms of whirling disease.

    “We found the highest number of rainbow fry we’ve ever seen since the 1990s and they were spread over multiple sites in the canyon,” said Eric Gardunio, aquatic biologist for CPW in Montrose. “We’re seeing natural reproduction throughout the canyon and survival of wild fish in the life stage where they can be affected by whirling disease. It’s very encouraging.”

    Rainbow Trout

    For adult fish, the survey found 630 rainbow trout per mile in the survey sections. That’s significantly fewer than the 1,500-2,000 rainbows found per mile in the days before whirling disease; but improvement from the last few years is evident. In 2014, surveys found just 173 fish per mile; 489 fish per mile in 2016; and 522 fish per mile in 2017.

    By comparison, brown trout now number about 5,000 fish per mile.

    “It’s a very healthy river, but for rainbows we have a long way to go before we’ll be comfortable saying they are fully recovered,” Gardunio said.

    CPW continues to stock whirling-disease resistant rainbows in that section of the Gunnison and at other rivers throughout the state.

    The recovery plan for the fish started tentatively in 2003 when CPW obtained a whirling-disease resistant strain of rainbows from a hatchery in Germany. The fish, however, had been hatchery-raised for decades and were “domesticated”, meaning they had no experience in the wild. CPW researchers crossed the spawn of these fish, known as Hofers, with several other strains of rainbow trout. The crosses showed significant resistance to whirling disease and exhibited a “flight response” when placed in reservoirs.

    In the spring of 2007, biologists started stocking the Hofer-cross fry in rivers and reservoirs statewide. Results were mixed throughout the state, but biologists found that the new strains did best in the East Portal section of the Gunnison River where CPW had, for many years, spawned wild trout to supply state hatcheries. That spot continues to be a productive area and rainbows are spawned there every year. They’ve even been given their own name – Gunnison River Rainbows.

    Finding the young wild fish downstream in the Gunnison Gorge provides another encouraging sign that the 20-year journey to recover rainbow trout has been worth the effort. The abundance of brown trout, predators that feast on small fish, are perhaps the biggest challenge in the Gunnison and other rivers.

    “The wild fry are the best thing for us to see down there,” Gardunio said. “As those fish grow into adults we’ll have more and more fish and hopefully, a self-sustaining population. We hope to see a continuing gradual increase.”

    And if they thrive in the Gunnison, biologists are confident they’ll eventually take hold in big rivers throughout the state.

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

    Montrose: City approves more funds to help refurbish aging water tank as decades-old structure needs more work — The Montrose Press

    Water tower in Orr, Minnesota.

    From The Montrose Press (Andrew Kiser):

    City Council voted unanimously Tuesday for $87,000 to Farnsworth Group for out-of-scope design services associated with the Sunset Mesa Tank Replacement project.

    The below-ground water storage tank on Sunset Mesa has been around the 1960s. The storage was nearing the end of its usage as structural damage has caused the need for a new tank, located next to the Sunset Mesa Sports Complex baseball fields…

    Throughout this design effort, numerous out-of-scope items were required for the completion of the project.

    In the city council packet, the Farnsworth Group provided detailed information into what changes needed to occur for the water tank project.

    The company listed more evaluations and extras services for increased interconnectivity, operational flexibility, operator access and safety needed to be included.

    The structure also needed easier access in locating interconnecting piping in the lower level of pump station as that will provide more convenient expansion in the future and safer access for operations staff.

    The design will also help staff as it’ll provide a mounted valve actuator system and housing which will be safer and more convenient access. This will require increases in building size and electrical and instrumentation system designs.

    It will also complete several design iterations to efficiently connect inlets, outlets and drains of the proposed and future standpipes; as well as additional pumps and drains.

    The Farnsworth Group also suggested the project should have designs for potential future additions of disinfection residual control system and forced air ventilation system for THM removal.

    The company said the water tank should have added flow metering for both inflow and outflow pipes. Control descriptions should be prepared for the operation of the pumps and the standpipe inflow valve and valving operations, Farnsworth Group wrote.

    Finally, the Farnsworth Group determined a splitting project into two separate bid packages while adding contractor coordinator requirements. The intent is to stay away from the general contractor price markup on the tank portion of the project.

    As #Coal Declined, This Valley Turned to #SustainableFarming. Now Fracking Threatens Its Future — Inside #Climate News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

    From Inside Climate News (Bob Berwyn):

    Driving down Highway 133 from the craggy wilds of the West Elk Mountains in central Colorado, one of the first signs of civilization is a mile-long coal train on a siding, along with the rusting steel framework of a canyon-spanning loading station that still dumps the black rock into trains at the rate of 50 cars per hour.

    This nearly relict fossil fuel infrastructure is an improbable gateway to the orchards and vineyards of North Fork Valley. The few miles between the mine and Paonia mark a transition from the fossil fuel era into an uncertain post-carbon age, defined by climate change.

    In Paonia, the air around Big B’s fruit stand is scented sweet-sour from the harvest of ripe apples. There are four types of cider on tap and nearly all the food on the menu is grown within a few miles of the local gathering spot.

    The Mountain Harvest Festival is underway, and the place is buzzing, as community catalyzer Pete Kolbenschlag starts explaining how Paonia is building a sustainable future.

    This community once relied heavily on coal mining jobs. Now it is developing a path toward a sustainable local economy based partly on organic agriculture and local renewable energy. It also must find ways to navigate challenges like global warming—and the growing threat of new fossil fuel development.

    About eight years ago, the federal government proposed major oil and gas drilling in the North Fork Valley, and the plan roared to life this past summer, just as the organic food industry was really starting to take off. New drilling would take up land and threaten to bring more air pollution and potentially groundwater contamination that could put organic crops in jeopardy, while also contributing to climate change.

    That’s not a mix that can work, said Kolbenschlag, who’s been working on community sustainability in the North Fork Valley for 20 years.

    Many proposed drilling areas are right next to organic farms or ranches, and even directly on top of community drinking water springs, according to the Western Environmental Law Center, which is supporting the community’s legal challenges to fracking. Leaks from drilling could threaten local and regional water supplies. Industrial emissions and dust from increased traffic could taint fruits and vegetables, and energy infrastructure could harm wildlife habitat and diminish the area’s tourism appeal, along with the direct climate-harming impacts of more fossil fuel development.

    “Leases were proposed in a ring around my house for 2 miles in every direction,” Kolbenschlag said. “We were able to stop that lease sale twice because the underlying land plan was outdated. There’s millions of dollars of agriculture on the line, even in a small area like this.”

    Oil and gas drilling has been delayed above Paonia, Colorado because agencies didn’t adequately analyze climate and wildlife impacts. Courtesy of EcoFlight via The High Country News.

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

    Sean Cronin and John McClow at the 2014 CFWE President’s Award Reception

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

    Here are a few of the reasons 2019 was a year to
    CELEBRATE in the Gunnison River Basin

  • Year of plenty with full reservoirs & ditches!
  • The Gunnison Basin Roundtable had another successful year in their continued support of water users, water education and through management of grants for important projects from headwaters to mouth.
  • Completion of significant water use efficiency improvements within the Lower Gunnison Basin Project.
  • Blue Mesa played a huge role in meeting flow targets in the critical reaches while providing full supply to irrigators; Taylor Park, Paonia, Crawford & Ridgway Reservoirs met both human & environmental needs. as well.
  • Major agreements were signed benefiting not only our basin but all of the much larger Colorado River Basin as evidenced by the Drought Contingency Plan, approved by all seven basin states & Congress helping to ensure that we keep our eye on the prize – healthy Lake Powell & Lake Mead levels to maintain vital hydropower generation & compact compliance for all.
  • And one more of the many reasons to celebrate, one of our own,- John McClow was named Aspinall Water Leader of the Year.
  • Aspinall Unit operations update: Blue Mesa releases to be bumped up to meet reservoir icing targets

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased to 1600 cfs on Monday, December 9th. Blue Mesa Reservoir elevation remains above the winter icing target level. Releases will be maintained at this level with the goal of lowering the reservoir to the icing target elevation of 7490 feet by December 31st. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

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

    Currently, there are no diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 1000 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 1600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Aspinall Unit

    @USGS: Next Generation Water Observing System: Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver

    From the USGS:

    The Next Generation Water Observing System provides high-fidelity, real-time data on water quantity, quality, and use to support modern water prediction and decision-support systems that are necessary for informing water operations on a daily basis and decision-making during water emergencies. The headwaters of the Colorado and Gunnison River Basin provide an opportunity to implement the NGWOS in a snowmelt-dominated system in the mountain west.

    The USGS Next Generation Water Observing System (NGWOS) is generating integrated data on streamflow, groundwater, evapotranspiration, snowpack, soil moisture, water quality, and water use. When fully implemented, the NGWOS will intensively monitor at least 10 medium-sized watersheds (10,000-20,000 square miles) and underlying aquifers that represent larger regions across the Nation.

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

    The USGS has selected the headwaters of the Colorado and Gunnison River Basin (Upper Colorado River Basin) in central Colorado as its second NGWOS basin. This decision was based on rigorous quantitative ranking of western basins, input from USGS regions and science centers, and feedback from targeted external stakeholders in the west.

    The Upper Colorado River Basin is important because nearly all flow in the Colorado River originates in the upper basin states and runoff from the Upper Colorado River Basin is nearly three times that of other basins in the area. Thus, the Upper Colorado River Basin is particularly critical for downstream users.

    Long-term drought conditions facing the Upper Colorado region, interstate ramifications of the drought, water-quality issues, stakeholder support, and alignment with Department of Interior and USGS priorities make the Upper Colorado an ideal basin to implement the USGS’s integrated approach to observing, delivering, assessing, predicting, and informing water resource conditions and decisions now and into the future. Of note, a newly released (October 2019) Federal Action Plan for Improving Forecasts of Water Availability includes a milestone to pilot long-range water prediction in the Upper Colorado River Basin, an activity that will greatly benefit from the newly selected USGS NGWOS basin.

    An integrated data-to-modeling approach in the Upper Colorado River Basin will help improve regional water prediction in other snowmelt dominated systems in the Rockies and beyond. The approach is useful for addressing issues of both water availability and water quality and for evaluating the effects of both short-term climate perturbation (for example, fire, insect mortality, drought) and long-term climate change.

    Water Resources Challenges in the Colorado River Basin

    The Colorado River supplies water for more than 40 million people and nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland across the western United States and Mexico. The Colorado River and its main tributaries originate in the mountains of western Wyoming, central Colorado, and northeastern Utah. The large amount of snowmelt that feeds the Upper Colorado is central to water availability throughout the Basin. In 2019, urgent action was required to prevent previously developed rules from potentially reducing Colorado River water allocations to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico due to declining water levels in the two largest reservoirs within the Colorado River Basin—Lake Powell and Lake Mead. A Colorado Drought Contingency Plan was signed in April 2019.

    NGWOS Characteristics

  • State-of-the-art measurements
  • Dense array of sensors at selected sites
  • Increased spatial and temporal data coverage of all primary components of the hydrologic cycle
  • New monitoring technology testing and implementation
  • Improved operational efficiency
  • Modernized and timely data storage and delivery
  • The latest “#GunnisonRiver Basin News” is hot off the presses from the Gunnison Basin Roundtable

    Sonja Chavez via Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

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

    Chavez to Take the Lead at UGRWCD

    Sonja Chavez has been selected to serve as the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. When asked about her new role, Ms. Chavez said, “I look forward to working with my local community and our Upper Gunnison Board of Directors and staff to continue to ensure that all water needs within the Upper Gunnison basin are being addressed, with other regional water users to speak with one voice on water resource issues affecting west slope communities, and with other state and federal entities to make informed decisions and have respectful dialogue around our current and future water use.”

    As a native Coloradan, Sonja’s passion for water and agriculture is deeply rooted in her family’s ranching heritage. She grew up in a small community in southwestern Colorado along the banks of the Purgatoire River.

    Ms. Chavez received a BA in Environmental Biology and an MA in Limnology (study of freshwater systems) from the University of Colorado. Her areas of expertise are in water quality, water resources management, funding acquisition, environmental and natural resource sciences, and policy and planning.

    Early in her career Sonja worked in both the private and public sectors in Colorado (Water Quality Control Division, Department of Transportation and Summit County Government). In 2002, she moved to the Gunnison community and started her own consulting firm, assisting west slope water providers and water users planning and implementation of over $38 million dollars of water-quality and agricultural efficiency improvement and hydro-electric projects.

    In 2015, she left the consulting world to join the Colorado River Water Conservation District as a Water Resource Specialist where her responsibilities included the management of off- and on-farm agricultural efficiency, system optimization and water-quality improvement projects, environmental compliance, funding acquisition, and grant management, and drought contingency planning and demand management including the evaluation of water banking.

    From http://www.ugrwcd.org

    Montrose: City hires engineering firm to study temp and flow of #UncompahgreRiver at the #wastewater plant — The Montrose Press

    River Bottom Park Uncompahgre River. Photo credit: PhilipScheetzPhoto via the City of Montrose

    From The Montrose Press (Andrew Kiser):

    The city council voted unanimously Tuesday to hire Wright Water Engineers out of Durango $50,000 to design a data collection system.

    The city is required to collect continuous temperature data on the Uncompahgre River upstream from the treatment plant found north of town, said City of Montrose utilities manager David Bries. This is needed as part of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit — which was provided by the EPA — that the city recently received, he added.

    Bries said that as part of a review, staffers discovered a lack of good, low-measurement near or at the river, as well as the treatment plant discharge location…

    With this design in place, it’ll be the first time the city will collect data of the river flow and temperature of the discharge of the treatment plant, Bries said.

    He also said this process will “capture that data” so decisions can be made for the river.

    “We felt it was very valuable and imperative to have both flow relationships and temperature relationships,” Bries said. “We can make sure we are doing what is environmentally the right thing to do.”

    Partnership puts valuable water quality information from Western Slope online — @CUBoulder

    From the University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science:

    Results from a new voluntary survey of private drinking water quality on the Western Slope through a partnership between CU Boulder, Delta County and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are available online now.

    Ken Nordstrom, the environmental health director for the Delta County Health Department, looks at a physical version of the map. Photo credit: University of Colorado at Boulder

    Prior to this study, there was no data on private drinking water quality in this six-county area, and the findings have proven to be relevant to many residents. Of the 457 wells analyzed in the survey, 11% have arsenic concentrations exceeding the Colorado primary drinking water standard maximum contaminant level. Additionally, 15% of the well water that was tested exceeded at least one primary drinking water contaminant standard from the state.

    Residents can explore results through an interactive online map created by Holly Miller as part of her recently completed master’s degree in the Environmental Engineering Program at CU Boulder. The site shows locations for all the tested wells, provides links to request free testing kits and houses detailed water-quality information.

    Miller’s work was partially funded through a CU Boulder Outreach Award and was a small part of a study funded by the CDC into this issue. That larger project is entering its fifth year and is led locally by the Health Department of Delta County with work being done in Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties, where about half of the residents are on private wells.

    Samples for the survey came from volunteers in those communities. Miller’s work was done under Professor Joe Ryan, who said the database was an important step toward public awareness. That is because water quality is an important factor in overall health, but privately owned wells are unregulated and mostly untested for things like arsenic. Putting the survey results online gives residents, many of whom rely on well water, information about their home’s water quality and that of their neighbors so they can make informed health decisions.

    “With the maps she created, you can see if you are in an area that already has problems, or areas you may want to avoid if you are drilling a new well,” said Ryan, who is based in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering.

    Arsenic in groundwater can occur naturally, or it can come from human sources like agriculture, where it was used as a pesticide, or mining operations. Ingestion can have short-term effects, including nausea and fatigue, as well as long-term effects like skin thickening and discoloration. Ryan said that more testing was needed, but the source of the higher levels in this case was likely geologic. He added that better understanding of that aspect would be valuable when making decisions about new wells and development needs in those communities.

    Ken Nordstrom, the environmental health director for the Delta County Health Department, said that without a healthy drinking water source, you cannot have a healthy community.

    “CU Boulder has helped us develop this resource for individual homeowners to ensure that they have a healthy drinking water supply,” he said.

    Holly Miller. Photo credit University of Colorado at Boulder

    “Collaborating with Delta County has been a great asset for my professional career. I gained valuable research and outreach skills, which ultimately created the foundation for my current position where I work as the project manager for my program’s geographical information systems database used to map information about abandoned mine-land sites across the state,” she said.

    The project is nearing completion, and sample kits have now been sent to approximately 1,000 volunteers. From that group, results have been returned to over 750 of them. Miller said the plan is to update the interactive map by the end of the year, and the Delta County Environmental Health Department staff is planning to survey residents in the counties to identify the impacts this project has had on helping private well owners keep their water safe.

    Ryan said this type of work was just as important for students in his lab starting their careers as it is to the communities they are serving.

    “This type of work is important because I can bring students into it – but it isn’t just having them take samples and analyzing them. It’s a good case where we are getting them into a mode where they are trying to find out the client’s problem and the best way to address it,” he said. “This kind of work provides extra opportunities for students and real benefits to communities we work with.”

    This map shows estimates of how many private domestic well users in each county may be drinking water with high levels of arsenic. An estimated 2.1 million people throughout the U.S. may be drinking domestic well water high in arsenic

    From 9News.com (Anusha Roy):

    The Delta County Health Department (DCHD) paired up with the University of Colorado to study water quality in private wells. They said they got definitive data that shows not everyone can trust the water they are drinking.

    DCHD oversees six counties: Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel.

    Approximately 36,000 people, or 60% of the population, in this area drink water from private wells that aren’t regulated because they’re privately owned, according to the department’s director, Ken Nordstrom.

    Nordstrom said there are around 10,000 private drinking water wells in the six-county region his department oversees and that until this point there was no information readily available to the public about the quality of water in those wells…

    So with the help of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant, the DCHD started taking a closer look at gathering data and CU Boulder joined in 2016.

    #Colorado Ag Water Alliance: Integrated Water Management Planning and Ag workshop, November 12, 2019

    Hay storage in the upper Gunnison River valley. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From email from the Colorado At Water Alliance:

    Fred R. Field Western Heritage Center, 275 S. Spruce Street, Gunnison, CO 81230, 4PM – 7 PM

    RSVP here.

    4:00 – 4:10 Introduction – Greg Peterson, Colorado Ag Water Alliance

    4:10 – 4:50 Watershed Planning and What Producers Think of Watershed Planning – Phil Brink, Colorado Cattlemen’s Ag Water NetWORK

    4:50 – 5:00 Video: 5 ditches project on the Rio Grande

    5:00 – 5:30 Diversion Restoration Projects on the Rio Grande – Heather Dutton, General Manager, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District

    5:30 – 6:00 Lunch & Video on diversion structures in the Mancos

    6:00 – 6:30 Ditch and Irrigation Inventory in Eagle County – Scott Jones, Rancher and Eagle County Conservation District

    6:30 – 7:00 Presentation from Jesse Kruthaupt on the Integrated Water Management Plan in the Upper Gunnison

    @USBR reduces salinity and improves water quality in western slope canals

    Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Justyn Liff, Lesley McWhirter):

    The Bureau of Reclamation is reducing salinity and improving water quality in the Colorado River Basin by reducing salt loading into the river from the Crawford Clipper Center Lateral in Delta County and the Gould Canal in Delta and Montrose Counties. Naturally-occurring salts in the sediment along the canals are picked up by water leaching from the earthen ditches and entering the Colorado River system. The resulting reduction in water quality creates a negative economic impact to downstream infrastructure and crops. The purpose of the projects is to prevent seepage and reduce salinity loading in the Colorado River Basin.

    The Crawford Clipper Center Lateral Pipeline Project will replace approximately 4.3 miles of open irrigation ditch with buried pipe. The Gould Canal Improvement Project will convert 12.4 miles of the canal to pipeline and geomembrane lining. These improvements will reduce seepage along the canals, enhancing water supply and improving water quality by preventing approximately 8,303 tons of salt per year from entering the Colorado River.

    “Reducing salt along the Clipper Center Lateral and the Gould Canal will help improve the water quality, crop production and wildlife habitat in the Colorado River Basin,” said Ed Warner, area manager for Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office.

    Copies of the final Findings of No Significant Impacts and Environmental Assessments on the projects are available online at http://www.usbr.gov/uc/envdocs/index.html or by contacting Reclamation. Historical and photographic documentation on the canals is available at http://www.usbr.gov/uc/wcao/rm/cr/index.html.

    Piping and lining of the projects tentatively scheduled to begin in November 2019.

    Piping an irrigation ditch. Photo credit NRCS via the Julesburg Advocate.

    The latest “#GunnisonRiver Basin News” is hot off the presses

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

    Funding opportunities in the Gunnison River Basin

    Funding opportunities for water projects that help improve and conserve water and land resources can be found on http://gunnisonriverbasin.org, including:

  • US Department of Agriculture federal grants and loans
  • Colorado Water Conservation Board state grants and loans
  • Additional Grant Funding Opportunities
  • Click here to view a table of grand funding opportunities.

    Upper Gunnison watershed May 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs