@USBR selects 58 projects to receive $3.7 million for WaterSMART small-scale water efficiency projects in 16 western states

Bostwick Park Irrigation System Map via USBR.

From the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):

These small-scale projects are a result of planning efforts by the recipients to improve their water delivery efficiency

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced today that Reclamation has selected 58 projects to receive $3.7 million for small-scale water efficiency projects in 16 western states. The funding from Reclamation is being leveraged to support more than $8.2 million in improvements throughout the West. The projects funded with these grants include installation of flow measurement devices and automation technology, canal lining or piping to address seepage, municipal meter upgrades, and other projects to conserve water.

Funding of up to $75,000 is provided to projects on a 50-percent cost-share. A complete list of the projects selected is available at: https://www.usbr.gov/watersmart/swep/.

The City of Avondale in Arizona is receiving $75,000 to update two water treatment/booster station wells within their system. They will connect them to their current supervisory control and data acquisition system which will help them better manage their water supplies.

The North Kern Water Storage District in Bakersfield, California, is receiving $75,000 to install SCADA software to interface with previously installed SCADA equipment and two evapotranspiration measurement stations in the service area.

The City of Gallup in northwest New Mexico is receiving $60,000 to upgrade old mechanical meters with modern solid-state meters for industrial, commercial and institutional users. This project will allow for allow for more accurate measurement of water consumption and is supported by its 2013 water conservation plan.

Small-Scale Water Efficiency Projects are part of Reclamation’s WaterSMART Program. The program aims to improve water conservation and reliability, helping water resource managers make sound decisions about water use. Learn more at https://www.usbr.gov/watersmart/swep/.

Visit https://www.usbr.gov/watersmart for additional information about the WaterSMART program.

From The Montrose Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

Two local water projects have received a cut of $3.7 million in federal grant funding, which will help improve water efficiency in thirsty Montrose County.

The money awarded to Bostwick Park Water Conservancy District and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association will provide technology for the real-time data necessary to accurately manage flows.

At the main river head gate on the Cimarron Canal, the Bostwick Park District and Cimarron Canal and Reservoir Company have a chute that provides a flow of water. “That water needs to be measured accurately and this grant is to put a new knife gate in there and monitor it so the flow off the Cimarron River can maintain steady,” said Allen Distel, who is president of the conservancy district and canal reservoir company.

The organizations received $15,000 from the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program for a $31,449 knife gate project that will install an automated water- control device.

The new controls will reduce over-diversions from the river to the canal and keep desired flows in line with real-time data, according to BuRec’s information. Because the process is automatic, it will also save on staff time.

The conservancy district and canal company provide irrigation water to the west side of the Big Cimarron Valley and the upper and lower Bostwick Park area. The canal company entails about 600 shares of water from the Cimarron.

“It’s really important to the flow of the Cimarron River,” Distel said, of the knife gate project and grant.

“The Bureau of Reclamation and Colorado Parks and Wildlife have a reserve amount in Silver Jack Reservoir. They can all that water out of Silver Jack to maintain the river level. It’s real important we have an accurate measurement so when they call the water out, we can get that water down the river.”

The knife gate project is identified as one of three critical water management locations under the Bostwick district’s water management plan, according to BuRec.

Last Ditch Standing: A tale of water inequality in the West — Jonathan Thompson @jonnypeace

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

My parents have a small garlic farm in Western Colorado in the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. They bought the place just over a decade ago, along with a couple of shares of water from the ditch which runs through their property. It’s a nice little plot of rural Colorado with good dirt and nice views, but it wasn’t until this terribly dry summer that they realized how valuable the land is. The Farmers Ditch, diverted from the North Fork near Paonia, has some of the most senior rights in the valley. They are water-rich in an arid world.

Since white settlement began here back in the late 1800s, the communities of the North Fork have revolved around coal and agriculture. Three underground coal mines churned away for decades, their bounty loaded upon mile-long trains headed for power plants in the Midwest and beyond. Paonia and the surrounding mesas have long been renowned for fruit, vegetables and, for a time, marijuana.

After surging to a peak just over a decade ago, coal began its hasty, nationwide decline, and now only one of three mines in the North Fork is still operating. Meanwhile, small-scale agriculture has taken over as one of the main economic pillars of this idyllic valley: Cherries, peaches, hops and hemp. Agricultural interests also are a strong political force rising up in resistance to proposed oil and gas drilling because of its detrimental effect on the water, which is becoming more and more precious in a warming world.

Thanks to the dramatically sere appearance of the natural landscape, the North Fork Valley provides a stark visual reminder of the importance of large-scale irrigation in these parts. A ditch along a hillside becomes a sharp divide between the dry, sparse, dusty dobie-land above the ditch; and green, grassy, cottonwood- and cattail-strewn land below it. This is true even where no active irrigation is taking place; the ditches are generally so leaky that they create artificial wetlands in areas that are distant from fields or crops or lawns.

Most of the irrigation water comes from the North Fork, which begins at the confluence of Muddy Creek and Anthracite Creek. Paonia Reservoir sits just above the confluence, on Muddy Creek. Typically the reservoir fills up during the spring and early summer, during which the natural flow in Anthracite Creek is adequate to fill all of the downstream ditches. When Anthracite starts to wane, water is released from the reservoir to keep the ditches flowing, usually into August and sometimes even until late October. In late June or early July the river’s total flow reaches equilibrium with the volume diverted from it, causing the river through Paonia to dry to a tiny, warm trickle that is good for sustaining only crawdads and mosquito larvae.

Even more shocking than the annual desiccation of the riverbed is the way in which so many water rights holders continue to pull their maximum share from the ditch, even if it’s not needed, even if they have no crops or even lawn to irrigate. “Use it or lose it,” the saying goes. Meanwhile, only a handful of the small-scale farmers have bothered to install more efficient irrigating systems, and most of the ditches continue to leak like sieves. That may be fine in a time of abundance, but these are times of increasing scarcity.

Paonia Reservoir — which gets its water from aptly named Muddy Creek — is filling up with mud. When constructed in 1962, the reservoir had 21,000 acre feet of capacity; today only 14,000 acre feet of capacity remain. So the amount of water available to irrigators is diminishing, even during wet years. But this year was one of the driest on record, which prompted downstream, senior water rights holders to put a “call” on the river in mid-June, at least a month earlier than usual, forcing junior, upstream holders to stop diverting water. By the time August rolled around, all but a few ditches in the North Fork had been shut down or had their flows drastically curtailed. Farmers Ditch, meanwhile, kept running right up to the brim.

The farmers of the North Fork Valley make up a fairly tight-knit community. They share seedlings and knowledge, hay balers and tillers, trade garlic for meat. So one would expect them to respond to a water crisis in much the same way, with the haves on Farmers Ditch sharing their bounty with the have-nots whose ditches ran dry. At the very least, you’d expect the haves to cut down on their own water use, even if just out of respect for their less fortunate neighbors.

But that’s not how it works in the arcane world of Western water. This summer most of the folks on Farmers Ditch carried on like they would any other year, using up their entire share of water and letting whatever they didn’t use run off across the mesa tops to evaporate and seep into the earth while their dry-ditch neighbors looked on helplessly. I watched one landowner wastefully dump a steady stream of irrigation water on his dusty horse pasture, turning it into a nasty mud bog where only a few thistles grew, while a mile away crops wilted. Wealth-inequality may be the scourge of our nation, but it’s water inequality that will increasingly plague the arid West.

The ostentatiously water wealthy are not entirely to blame. I’m confident that most of them would have been happy share their bounty if they could. But there’s no simple mechanism for this kind of cooperation. My parents can’t just turn a valve and send their water across the valley to their fellow farmer. The system wasn’t designed that way. It is the system that needs changing.

“The solution is, in a sense, straightforward,” writes John Fleck in his book Water is for Fighting Over, and Other Myths About Water in the West. “Everyone in the Colorado River Basin has to use less water. But no one will voluntarily take such a step without changes in the rules governing basin water use as a whole to ensure that everyone else shares the reductions as well—that any pain is truly shared. We need new rules. Absent that, we simply end up with a tragedy of the commons.”

Fleck’s referring to the macro of the Colorado River Basin here, but it also applies to the micro of irrigation districts everywhere. New rules, new systems, new ways of operating are needed that would incentivize efficiency and that would allow the Farmers Ditches of the world to share with the others in the community who aren’t so fortunate.

When it comes to water, though, we Westerners tend to get entrenched in the use-it-or-lose-it culture, which is anathema to cooperation and to efficiency. Still, this is not unsurmountable. When pushed up against the wall, Westerners have become more limber in their approach to water. Take Las Vegas, which has managed to cut per capita water use enough so that it’s been able to grow its population without robbing Great Basin farmers of their groundwater — at least so far.

And then there’s another, smaller instance of cooperation that bears mentioning. After the Sunnyside Mine upstream from Silverton, Colorado, shut down in 1991, the owners put a boxcar-sized plug, or bulkhead, into the mine’s main tunnel to keep the 1,600 gallons-per-minute of acid mine drainage from going into the Animas River watershed.

Not long afterward, the region suffered through what at the time seemed like a horrible drought, prompting a downstream ditch company to make a call on the Animas River.

That’s when Silverton discovered that the founding fathers had failed to file for water rights back in the early days of the town, leaving the town with some of the most junior rights on the entire river. They faced the very real prospect of having to shut down their municipal water intakes. Instead, the Sunnyside Mine stepped up and opened the valve on the giant plug, releasing enough water (and treating it) to satisfy the downstream call, and buying Silverton time during which it could seek out a long-term fix. (Then the mine shut the valve down again and water backed up in the mine to disastrous effect, but then, that’s another story.)

It’s this sort of out-of-the-box, pragmatic, cooperative thinking that the West is known for, and that has helped many a community transition successfully away from extraction-based economies. Now the warming, drying region is faced with a much bigger, tougher transition, with even higher stakes.

Jonathan P. Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.

#ColoradoRiver Crisis Demands Focus on Farm #Conservation Programs #COriver #aridification

Sprinklers irrigate land on the east side of the Crystal River (in foreground), which is facing one of its driest years in recent history. Low flows on the Crystal have spurred action from the state, including curtailment and a call for instream flows. Photo credit: Heather Sackett via Aspen Journalism

From Water Deeply (Hannah Holm):

Small programs can go a long way to save water and help farmers survive the coming shortages on the Colorado River. These should be the next focus for policymakers now wrestling with drought contingency plans.

Recently, policymakers in the states that share the Colorado River have made headlines for their progress toward developing a drought contingency plan. This plan is intended to keep water levels in the river’s two major reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell, from falling too low to keep water flowing to all the people and farms that rely on it. Within Colorado and the other upstream states, the plan also seeks to preserve the ability to produce hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam and fulfill legal obligations to the downstream states.

There is significant concern that water use cuts may be required if ongoing drought makes it difficult to keep honoring those obligations. Regional water leaders have strongly advocated that any use cuts to protect reservoir levels should be voluntary, temporary and paid for.

This matters to farmers such as [Tom] Kay, because they don’t want to be legally required to cut their water use. It also matters to communities like Hotchkiss, because their economies depend on farms using water to grow crops. So a drought contingency plan that prevents a crisis in the big reservoirs and avoids legally required water use cuts would be good for Kay and good for Hotchkiss, as well as for many others in Colorado and the rest of the upstream states.

However, what about when water delivery cuts are mandated by nature rather than laws and policies? When the snow doesn’t come, and you aren’t downstream from a big reservoir, or your reservoir is already tapped out, you sometimes have to make do with less, regardless of how good your water rights are or what the policy documents say. That was the case for many irrigators this past year, and is likely to be the case more often in the future as temperatures continue to warm.

When there is simply less water to go around, infrastructure investments such as the cost-share program that helped Kay buy his sprinklers can make the difference between viability and non-viability for farms and ranches and their rural communities. There are lots of scattered programs that can help with this, some focused on water quality and habitat improvements, and others focused on irrigation efficiency. They’ve brought millions of dollars to rural communities and done a lot of good. But some programs have also suffered from excessive red tape and poor planning.

As policymakers are working to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead functioning, it would be worth sparing some time to also think about the programs supporting drought resilience in headwaters communities, and how to make them more effective.

Mount Emmons: Restoration of iron fen update

Photo credit from report “A Preliminary Evaluation of Seasonal Water Levels Necessary to Sustain Mount Emmons Fen: Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests,” David J. Cooper, Ph.D, December 2003.

From The Crested Butte News (Cayla Vidmar):

The restoration of a unique wetland on Mt. Emmons is wrapping up this summer season. This special wetland—specifically called an iron fen—was designated in 1999 as a Natural Area by the state of Colorado because of the unusual chemical makeup of the water and soils that provide an ideal ecosystem for rare carnivorous plants and unusual dragonflies. The iron fen has likely been around for about 8,000 years, according to fen expert and senior research scientist and professor at Colorado State University Dr. David Cooper.

According to a report compiled for the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition by Dr. Cooper, “Where perennial ground water discharges to saturate wetlands all year, dead plant leaves, stems and roots only partially decompose and accumulate to form peat soils, and these ecosystems are fens.”

What makes the Mt. Emmons fen unique is that it contains a pyrite-rich bedrock and talus, characteristic of only a few fens in the region. When the pyrite oxidizes it produces sulfuric acid, “which, when dissolved in water, forms a strong acid that can leach ions from the rock, including iron,” Cooper states.

According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, “Mount Emmons and a few other iron fens in the southern Rocky Mountains … are rich in mineral ions (especially iron and sulfur) but have a very low pH, which results in an unusual flora,” including small orchids and one of only four populations of roundleaf sundew in Colorado. Roundleaf sundew is a carnivorous plant that lures insects into a sticky trap, then digests its meal with enzymes before unfurling its trap once again.

The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests District (GMUG), along with the Army Corps of Engineers and Coal Creek Watershed Coalition, are working to restore the iron fen to pre–wagon road days, which runs parallel with Kebler Pass. The iron fen is located to the north of Kebler Pass Road on Mt. Emmons, and spans 15.1 acres across a sloping hillside.

The dewatering of the fen is mostly being caused by water being diverted into a historic ditch away from the old wagon road. According to Ashley Hom, a hydrologist for the GMUG Forest Service, “Without that ditch the water would destabilize the hillside,” which poses a risk for Kebler Pass Road.

In 2015 a storm on Kebler Pass dumped rain on top of snow, causing “substantial surface flow” across the fen, down the hillside and onto the road, which prompted emergency action by the National Forest personnel to widen the ditch between Kebler Pass Road and the fen, according to the Mt. Emmons restoration and mitigation plan.

While the ditch helped stabilize the hillside by diverting water out of the ground, it also resulted in significant dewatering of the iron fen. This issue is what prompted the restoration project through the GMUG Ranger District, which began in fall 2016.

“The goal of this project is to restore the surface and groundwater hydrology, along with the native vegetation, on the portion of the Mt. Emmons iron fen that was impaired by the emergency action that extended portions of the historic ditch… and included construction of a rockery wall, spillway, culverts, and rip-rap on Kebler Pass Road to protect the road yet allow for natural surface and sub-surface water flow from the fen,” according to the restoration and mitigation plan.

There is still some work to be done, states Hom, including more ditch work, planting, feeding and monitoring in the area, which will resume this summer.

Eight monitoring wells have been placed in the fen, four above the ditch and four below the ditch, and hydrologists will monitor the ground water levels in the wells, and the restoration “will be considered successful if [the wells] below the ditch show the water table depth there to be decreasing or rising closer to the surface,” according to the restoration and mitigation plan.

The plan states that “restoring the presence of a shallow water table within the area should provide for fen-like hydrology,” which will, in turn, restore historic vegetation to the iron fen below the ditch.

“Overall the rehabilitation of the drainage ditch within the Mt. Emmons iron fen appears to be successful. Ground water levels have already risen to within 30 centimeters of the surface and water table levels below the ditch are within at least 15 centimeters of those above the ditch,” according to the GMUG watershed team.

There have been many agencies involved in the restoration of this unique swath of wetland, including the Army Corps of Engineers, which permitted the project, and the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition that allocated $45,000 for phases 1 and 2 of the restoration and mitigation project.

You can follow progress of the project and direct questions to Ashley Hom at the Gunnison Ranger District, (970) 642-4406 or ashleyhom@fs.fed.su.

Blue-Green algae found in Blue Mesa Reservoir

Graphic credit: Climate Central

From the Associated Press via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

The National Park Service says unsafe levels of a type of algae that can be harmful to humans have been found in the water of a central Colorado reservoir.

Park officials said they detected the presence of toxins that can be produced by algae blooms in water samples taken from Blue Mesa Reservoir.

The agency advised visitors to avoid contact with shallow waters in an area known as the Iola Basin and to avoid mats of algae throughout the reservoir.

The reservoir is part of Curecanti National Recreation Area west of Gunnison, Colorado.

Harmful blue-green algae is natural to the area but can spread quickly in warm, shallow water.

“News You Can Use from the Gunnison Basin” is hot off the presses from @GunnisonRiver

Confluence of the Cimmaron and Gunnison rivers. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

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

The Lower Gunnison Project (LGP)

The LGP is making progress and construction bids have come in for one of four projects (Needle Rock Head gate Improvement) slated to go to construction this fall. Initial permitting and planning has been completed with the publication of the Environmental Assessment (EA). This detailed EA can be reviewed here. Information on the next steps is being uploaded to the LGP page. This will include news for both on- and off-farm activities.

Forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir = record low territory #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Liz Forster):

The Blue Mesa Reservoir, which feeds into the Colorado River, is at 39 percent capacity, according to the Bureau of Land Reclamation. The last time the reservoir west of Gunnison was at a similar level was in 1987, said Sandra Snell-Dobert, a spokeswoman for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area.

Soon, water levels are expected to drop to the point where launching and operating boats at most ramps won’t be possible, Snell-Dobert said

Low water levels and rising temperatures also have allowed for blue-green algae blooms. Although no direct environmental impacts have not been observed, some species of this algae can produce toxins that are harmful to dogs.

The Gunnison River Basin varied between 50 percent and 80 percent of its average snowpack this winter, hitting a low of 51.6 percent Dec. 20 and a peak of 79.81 percent April 20.

Other Colorado River reservoirs are facing similar shortages.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead in Arizona dropped to dangerous levels this week because of what scientists are calling the effects of the Colorado River’s worsening “structural deficit,” The Associated Press reported.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead hit 48 percent and 38 percent capacity, respectively.

The Colorado River basin, which feeds lakes Mead and Powell, has been drying out over the last two decades, scientists said. With the demands from farms and cities exceeding the available water supply, the strains on the river and reservoirs are being compounded by growing population, drought and climate change.

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

The Colorado Division of Water Resources reports the basins were 50 percent full at the end of August, in contrast to last year’s 120 percent average capacity. The average for this time of year is about 82 percent.

The Yampa-White, San Juan-Dolores, Rio Grande, Gunnison and Colorado river basins are classified as being in either “moderate” or “severe drought.”

The Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison on the Curecanti National Recreation Area, is near historic lows — it’s 39 percent full — and has closed almost all its boat ramps. Iola closed Thursday night, the Lake Fork ramp closes Monday. That will leave only the Elk Creek ramp on the reservoir’s north shore along Hwy. 50 open, said recreation area spokeswoman Sandra Snell-Dobert. “Elk Creek, the ramp will remain open as long as we can keep it open.”

The last time water levels were this low on the reservoir was in 1987, Snell-Dobert said. Blue Mesa usually only closes if there’s not enough staff or if the reservoir freezes. The reservoir levels now have also caused some abnormal boating hazards.

“Mostly it’s rocks that are becoming exposed as the water level decreases. There are a lot of rock promontories and islands, and those kinds of things that we haven’t seen in a long time,” she said. But despite the boating restrictions, Snell-Dobert said shoreline fishing, kayaking, canoeing and other hand-launched, non-motorized boating are still allowed at the reservoir.