Gunnison Basin Roundtable recap — What’s worth more: 50 houses in Lakewood or kayaking on Daisy Creek?

Big Wood Falls photo via American Whitewater (2011)
Big Wood Falls photo via American Whitewater (2011)

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):

That question, or something close to it (I wish I’d taken better notes), was posed on Oct. 7 following a presentation by American Whitewater staffer Chris Menges to the Gunnison Basin Roundtable on the results of a survey of flow needs for whitewater recreation in the Gunnison Basin. That’s the kind of values question that will be hovering in the background as Colorado’s water leaders struggle to develop a plan that can stretch the state’s limited water supplies to meet its growing needs…

Water managers have long been accustomed to assessing water needs for crop irrigation and household use and factored that into their long-term planning. It’s only in recent decades that flow needs to keep streams healthy have begun to be taken into consideration, and an even more recent development to consider the flows needed to keep boaters happy.

Whitewater recreation has become a big business in Colorado, as well as an icon of the “Colorado lifestyle.” In the Gunnison Basin, commercial float trips were estimated to have added more than $6 million to the economy in 2011. The Colorado River Outfitters Association estimated that statewide, whitewater boating accounted for $155 million tourist dollars spent in that same year.

And so whitewater recreation advocates are now taking their place among other stakeholders wrestling with how to guide Colorado’s water future. According to an American Whitewater announcement promoting participation in their survey, it was designed to “help American Whitewater inform future management of the Gunnison River Basin, and build support for healthy river flows threatened by drought, development, and management policies.”

Generally speaking, the survey found that the lowest flows survey respondents considered worth a repeat trip were in the range of 400-800 cubic feet per second (cfs), while flows considered “optimal” ranged between 500-10,000cfs. Respondents tended to prefer higher flows on stream segments farther downstream in the basin.

Menges pointed out that these “acceptable” flows do tend to be achieved seasonally on most of the segments considered in the survey, and that maintaining these seasonal flows also helps serve environmental needs on these streams.

Roundtable members expressed some irritation with how the whitewater boating community has interfered with other land and water users in certain instances, but also expressed appreciation for data that could help bolster the case for the need to keep adequate water on the Western Slope. They made no immediate decision on what to do with the data from the survey…

What remains to be seen is how Colorado’s water plan will make choices between consumptive and nonconsumptive demands when there’s not enough water to satisfy all of them.

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.

Crested Butte: Stricter water quality standards mandated by CWQCC for Coal Creek through town


From The Crested Butte News (Mark Reaman/Alissa Johnson):

The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission voted September 11 to impose the stricter standards despite an argument from U.S. Energy that nearby domestic wells were pumping water from the Slate River instead of Coal Creek. “Frankly, I don’t even recognize my town in the diagrams presented to you from U.S. Energy,” said High Country Citizen’s Alliance (HCCA) water director Jennifer Bock in reference to the claim that the wells were pumping water from the Slate River. The portion of the creek affected by the decision starts at just below the town’s water supply intake to the confluence with the Slate River. By voting to put stricter regulations on that portion of Coal Creek, the commission voted in agreement with positions advocated by HCCA, Gunnison County, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers.

The segment of Coal Creek is out of compliance with state water quality standards, and has been since temporary modifications were first put in place in the early 1990s. Bock explained that temporary modifications are put in place when a discharger releasing pollutants into a water body cannot meet quality standards and needs more time to assess the situation. “The legal word in the regulations is uncertainty, so if there’s uncertainty about why there’s a pollution problem, it does give the discharger time to resolve it,” Bock said. In this case, U.S. Energy Corp. was requesting an extension of the temporary modifications and more lenient standards on cadmium, zinc and copper.

Initially, U.S. Energy proposed loosening the temporary modifications in addition to extending them. Yet the current temporary standards are already significantly above state standards: of 2.3 micrograms per liter for cadmium as opposed to the more typical range of .15 to 1.2 depending on water hardness, and 667 micrograms per liter for zinc. State standards for zinc are typically between 34 and 428 micrograms per liter, again depending on the hardness of the water. After some back and forth, U.S. Energy instead proposed a slight tightening of the temporary modifications to 2.1 micrograms per liter for cadmium and 440 for zinc. In HCCA’s eyes, that amounts to the status quo, but that’s acceptable for the time being if steps are taken to understand where that pollution is coming from.

In addition to standards for drinking water, the commission granted U.S. Energy’s request for temporary modifications on standards for copper, cadmium and zinc. As part of the decision the Water Quality Control Commission is asking U.S. Energy to develop a comprehensive study on metal loading from Mt. Emmons, which will be the subject of another hearing on December 10 in Denver.

More Gunnison River Basin coverage here and here.

Gunnison River basin: Next Upper Slate River Committee meeting September 6


From The Crested Butte News (Alissa Johnson):

The Upper Slate River Committee, a new group formed by the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC) in early 2011, is bringing together key stakeholders to develop a Slate River Watershed plan. The plan will identify potential non-point source pollutants and where to focus efforts to prevent contamination within the watershed…

In order to fully understand the Slate River, the committee has contracted with environmental consultant Ashley Bembeneck to compile an initial report to inform the group’s work. “[The report] will use existing water quality to assess spatial water quality trends…and identify areas or items for additional investigation,” Bembeneck said…

A more detailed summary of the report will be given at the next Upper Slate River Committee meeting on Tuesday, September 6 at 4 p.m. at the Crested Butte town hall.

“It’s additional data compilation,” said Poponi. “You identify where you would like more info, get that info and then roll it into the plan instead of doing the plan first with limited amount of data. We want to do the plan with most data possible.”

More Gunnison River basin coverage here.

Salida: Colorado water law workshop recap

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From The Mountain Mail (Joe Stone):

Sponsored by Colorado Water Trust, water lawyers Marcus Lock and Kendall Burgemeister presented an overview of Colorado water law. Lock discussed the doctrine of prior appropriation, which provides the basis for Colorado water law, and provided an overview of state and federal laws that affect water rights…

Burgemeister provided an overview of methods for enhancing water supplies and optimizing water use, including changes of water right, which must be adjudicated in water court…

Terry Scanga, Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District manager, offered an overview of events that have influenced water use in the Arkansas River basin. He spoke about the 1948 Colorado-Kansas Compact, the 1969 Administration and Adjudication Act, the 1985 Kansas v. Colorado lawsuit, the voluntary flow management program and trans-mountain diversions. Scanga said 126,748 acre feet, about 20 percent, of water in the Arkansas basin comes from trans-mountain diversions.

Kaylea White, senior water resources specialist with Colorado Water Conservation Board, discussed the Colorado In-Stream Flow Program. Amy Beatie and Zach Smith, Colorado Water Trust executive director and staff attorney, respectively, discussed “hot topics,” including the Breem Ditch in-stream flow project near Gunnison and abandonment of water rights.

More water law coverage here.

Colorado Water Trust’s Breem Ditch instream flow deal

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Here’s a look at the Colorado Water Trust’s Breem Ditch deal for instream flows in Washington Gulch from Zach Smith writing for the Summit Daily News. From the article:

One example starts with a ranch outside the high-mountain resort town of Crested Butte in western Colorado. The aging owner wanted to sell his land for subdivision and his water right along with it. The water right diverted water for irrigation from Washington Gulch, a tributary of the Slate River and eventually the Gunnison River. It was valuable because it was the most senior; during the irrigation season it could shut off other diverters upstream. And once the water reached the headgate, it took every last drop, leaving the Gulch’s stone skeleton to bleach in the sun. It was all perfectly legal, and acutely devastating. A nearby water district, looking to shore up its supply, began negotiating to purchase the water right. But the developer who had bought it wanted more money for it from the water district. It was at this point that the Colorado Water Trust got involved in the transaction…

Using this innovative tool [CWCB Instream Flow Program], the Colorado Water Trust works in the water market as a broker, making deals to acquire water from willing sellers or lessors to send water back into rivers. Seeing an opportunity in the Washington Gulch transaction, the Trust and the Board proposed funding the price difference if the water district would divert the water 2.5 miles farther downstream than the rancher had, past Washington Gulch’s confluence with the Slate, as well as grant the Board an instream flow right for the river stretch between the old point of diversion and a proposed new one. In simpler terms, the Trust asked that the water district use the natural path of the stream itself as its water delivery system. All parties agreed, and now the deal is off to water court for approval.

What did this all mean? The developer got the price he asked for. The water district got the water it needed. What’s new is that Washington Gulch will have a protected instream flow with the most senior priority on the stream. When the stream level drops, the board will place the call, and Washington Gulch and parts of the Slate will run wet. It is all legal, and wonderfully healing.

Here’s the CWT release.

More Breem Ditch coverage here. More Gunnison River basin coverage here.

Gunnison County: Mt. Emmons mine conditional water rights filing update

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From The Crested Butte News (Mark Reaman):

District Court Judge Steven Patrick issued a ruling on November 23 dismissing a motion seeking the dismissal of water rights associated with the proposed mine. The High Country Citizens’ Alliance, the Crested Butte Land Trust and the Star Mountain Ranch Homeowner’s Association claimed that water rights for the mine should be dismissed on the basis that U.S. Energy Corp. had failed to file a plan for mining by an April 2010 deadline established in the company’s conditional water rights. HCCA executive director Dan Morse said the organizations feel the judge’s ruling is “flawed.”

The groups opposing the water rights had argued that the correct deadline for submission of a mine plan was April 2010. The court found that the deadline for the filing of a mine plan is instead April 2013 based on interpretation of the water right decree and related legal proceedings. Morse said that in its ruling declaring that 2013 is the mine plan deadline, the court did not evaluate whether or not U.S. Energy had met requirements of its water rights with documents submitted to the U.S. Forest Service prior to April 2010.

“The Forest Service has been consistently clear that the 2010 deadline is the correct deadline,” Morse said. “So we feel Judge Patrick incorrectly interpreted that deadline. We are looking for recourse but we are not yet sure what form that will take.”

Morse said he thinks it is possible to appeal Patrick’s ruling through the courts but is not sure how that would be accomplished…

The water rights at issue in the case involve water that would be taken from Slate River and Carbon Creek as well as potential reservoir sites in the Carbon Creek, Ohio Creek and Elk Creek drainages. Morse commented, “We are pursuing this case in order to protect river flows, riparian resources and other uses of these creeks. Water right holders in Colorado have certain obligations for the use of water and our motion to dismiss these rights was intended to ensure that state water law was properly applied.”

Ann Johnston, Crested Butte Land Trust executive director agreed. “The Slate River Valley contains a remarkable concentration of high quality wetlands, the protection of which is very important to our community. These wetlands provide habitat for birds, fish and mammals, as well as important water quality functions,” she said.

More Gunnison River basin coverage here.

Gunnision River Basin: The Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Water Trust close on Breem Ditch water for instream flow program

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From the Sterling Journal Advocate:

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and the Colorado Water Trust closed on the purchase of up to 5.45 cubic feet per second of water under the Breem Ditch water right for instream flow use to preserve the natural environment of two highly visible water-short streams — Washington Gulch and the Slate River, and to improve the natural environment of Washington Gulch. The June 28 acquisition was the CWCB’s first water purchase using funds authorized by the General Assembly in 2008 for instream flow water acquisitions. The CWCB purchased a portion of the water using those funds, and the Colorado Water Trust donated a portion of the water to the CWCB. “This is a great example of the benefits CWCB’s Water Acquisition Program can provide to our state’s streams through creative partnerships with water users,” said Jennifer Gimbel, director of the CWCB.

The Breem Ditch water acquisition is the result of a unique, collaborative approach by the CWCB, the Colorado Water Trust, the Skyland Metropolitan District and Verzuh Ranch, Inc., a local development company owned by Billy Joe Lacy and Dan Dow. Despite sometimes water-plentiful summers, irrigation diversions into the Breem Ditch would cause Washington Gulch to completely dry by the middle of July and reduce flows in the Slate River as well. The purchase of the Breem Ditch will allow Washington Gulch to flow year-round, even during dry summers, and will help fix flow shortages to the Slate River.

Under Colorado’s Instream Flow Program, the CWCB will protect the water decreed to the Breem Ditch on Washington Gulch and about two miles of the Slate River downstream of the confluence with Washington Gulch. Below this reach, the water will be available for Skyland Metropolitan District’s system, which from 2002 to 2004 — Colorado’s most severe recent drought period — was in danger of impairment.

More instream flow coverage here.