Rebecca Mitchell selected as new CWCB director — @COindependent

Photo of Becky Mitchell at Main Reservoir, Lakewood by Marianne Goodland

From The Colorado Independent (Marianne Goodland):

Rebecca “Becky” Mitchell, who currently heads up the water supply planning section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, today was named the agency’s new director, effective immediately.

Mitchell has been with the Department of Natural Resources since 2008 and joined the CWCB in 2009. She was selected as the next director by the agency’s 15-member board. The CWCB provides guidance on state water policy and is the state’s comprehensive source for water information, including technical assistance and training.

A native of Hawaii, Mitchell has lived in Colorado for the past 20 years. Colorado water has been the focus of her entire career.

She started off with an interest in the environment and biology but found water was her real passion. “Water is the corner in which I can make a difference,” she said.

That interest has taken her all over the world, but especially to Africa, and Ethiopia. Mitchell has five children, including several adopted from Ethiopia. She says she believes in giving back and has traveled to Ethiopia to help the country with water treatment as well as work on water systems for orphanages.

“It keeps you grounded in terms of why what you do is important,” she said.

“I’m excited and fortunate to have an opportunity to serve a state agency filled with committed and thoughtful stewards of Colorado’s precious water resources,” Mitchell said in a statement. “Coloradans and our water communities are working like never before to solve our state’s challenges collaboratively. The same kind of cooperation that led to Colorado’s Water Plan will fuel the long-running effort necessary to continue putting the plan into action. What a privilege to be part of this process.”

As section chief over water planning for the past five years, Mitchell has been a key liaison with water groups around the state, such as the basin roundtables, which represent environmental, recreational, agricultural, municipal and industrial water users in each of the state’s eight major river basins plus a separate group for metro Denver. She also has been responsible for directing and implementing the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, which provided some of the critical background data for the state water plan on water supply and demand.

Prior to joining CWCB, Mitchell served served as the Water Policy and Issues Coordinator within the Department of Natural Resources’ executive director’s office and in both the public and private sectors as a consulting engineer. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Colorado School of Mines.

Senate President Pro tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, a critic of the previous director, James Eklund, greeted the news of Mitchell’s appointment with enthusiasm. “I’m confident the new director will rebuild the relationships with the legislature and work with us rather than working on their own,” he said.

Conservation Colorado also viewed Mitchell’s appointment as a positive. “Our number one priority is to see the water plan implemented,” said Kristen Green of Conservation Colorado. Mitchell “knows the plan inside-out. She’s great at being collaborative and reaching out to different stakeholders.”

Here’s the release from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Todd Hartman):

Rebecca Mitchell, who played an instrumental role in production of Colorado’s Water Plan, has been named the new director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Mitchell, who was selected by the CWCB’s 15-member board, will oversee CWCB’s 45-member staff as it provides statewide policy direction on water issues and continues implementation of the water plan. Mitchell replaces James Eklund, who left recently for private law practice after serving nearly four years as the agency’s director.

“I’m excited and fortunate to have an opportunity to serve a state agency filled with committed and thoughtful stewards of Colorado’s precious water resources,” Mitchell said. “Coloradans and our water communities are working like never before to solve our state’s challenges collaboratively. The same kind of cooperation that led to Colorado’s Water Plan will fuel the long-running effort necessary to continue putting the plan into action. What a privilege to be part of this process.”

Mitchell previously served as the Section Chief for CWCB’s Water Supply Planning section, which includes the Office of Water Conservation & Drought Planning and focuses on ensuring sufficient water supplies for Colorado’s citizens and the environment. Mitchell played a significant part in working with the state’s Basin Roundtables, the Interbasin Compact Committee, the public at large and CWCB staff in producing Colorado’s Water Plan following Gov. John HIckenlooper’s executive order in 2013 directing CWCB to facilitate the development of the plan.

Mitchell has also served as the Water Policy and Issues Coordinator within the Colorado Department of Natural Resources’ executive director’s office. Before joining DNR she worked in both the public and private sectors as a consulting engineer. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Colorado School of Mines.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) was created over 75 years ago to provide policy direction on water issues. The CWCB is Colorado’s most comprehensive water information resource. The agency maintains expertise in a broad range of programs and provides technical assistance to further the utilization of Colorado’s waters. It is one of six divisions housed within the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

@COWaterPlan update

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

Here’s an interview with Bart Miller about the Colorado Water Plan from Water Deeply (Matt Weiser):

Recent adoption of the first Colorado Water Plan sets the state on a path to resolve projected shortfalls in water supply, but the plan has flaws that still need attention, explains Western Resource Advocate’s Bart Miller.

COLORADO FACES AN estimated water deficit of 560,000 acre-feet by 2050, due in part to an expected population increase. But it has a long-term plan to address that looming shortage.

The Colorado Water Plan – the first-ever statewide water strategy in Colorado – was ordered up by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013 and finalized at the end of 2015. This May, the state legislature allocated a first slug of dedicated funding to meet objectives in the plan.

The goal is to bring water demand into balance with supply while maintaining existing urban and agricultural values and also improving stream health throughout the state.

To learn more about the plan, Water Deeply recently spoke with Bart Miller, Healthy Rivers Program director at Western Resource Advocates in Boulder. Miller has followed the plan closely, both during its drafting and as implementation begins.

Water Deeply: Why this plan? What’s the conflict behind it?

Coyote Gulch and Bart Miller at the State of the Rockies Speaker Series 2011.

Bart Miller: The state of Colorado has seen and will continue to see a lot of growth – and in the last 15 years a lot of drought. So those two combined create what the plan describes as a gap in supply and demand looking out just a few decades ahead. The plan also recognizes some troubling trends in Colorado. Some of that is related to what we often refer to as “buy and dry”: cities buying up agricultural lands to get their water, and completely retiring the (farm) use on those lands.

Also, there has been some conflict between east versus west. The Front Range has harvested water from the west side of Colorado such that today there is over 500,000 acre-feet collected from the Western Front and delivered to the Front Range.

The executive order that called for the Water Plan back in 2013 was really, for the first time, describing broadly the water values the state has. Despite a history where water has been diverted for agriculture, cities and mining, the Water Plan points out there are a range of values, including viable communities, viable agriculture, viable recreation and smart land use. Those are the values the state has that cities and state agencies embrace. So I think it was an effort to get all those out on the table as co-equal partners in the state’s future water needs.

Water Deeply: Does the plan lay out a particular budget or investment scheme?

Miller: Not quite. It leaves most of the financial questions unresolved. It sets out objectives for all those different values that I mentioned. It tries to put a price tag on the funding gap to make all these things happen by 2050. The plan recognizes much of that funding will come from existing sources, in that cities, if building a water project, will be able to raise that funding and apply it to the customers they serve.

But there are some items that have been underfunded or even unfunded over the course of the past few decades. A need for new funding is things like stream health.

Water Deeply: Is there anything binding in the plan? Does it set any hard deadlines?

Miller: I’d say no. It’s largely a planning document. It suggests that different objectives could be met through a series of actions. It suggests legislation that might be helpful, as well as executive or administration actions by the state agencies in collaboration with others. It notes some things, like urban water conservation, are really going to happen through water utilities and their planning process. So the short answer is no.

But there is a pretty wide suite of recommendations, many of which are starting to be implemented. But it’s really just taking the first steps toward implementation.

Water Deeply: Is this a good plan, in your opinion?

Miller: I think yes. It’s a good planning document. It has good objectives, it recognizes a wide range of values. It doesn’t clearly spell out how we’ll get from here to 2030 or even 2050. So it’s in need of more milestones. We’ve got broad objectives for urban conservation, land-use planning, stream health and building new water storage. But it doesn’t have much in the way of measurement points, ways to check in.

And then there’s the price tag. It does spell out a need for some new sources of funding. The good news is, this year the state legislature passed a bill in May that allocates a lot of money to the state Water Conservation Board – $20 million or so – toward implementing the water plan. A project bill is passed by the legislature every year. This year is the first time they included a large boost in funding. They took an existing revolving loan account, and there’s a large enough balance in it that they felt comfortable spending part of it down, which will not be reimbursed. A lot of it will be for grants.

Water Deeply: The plan calls for 400,000 acre-feet of water savings by 2050. Is that ambitious enough?

Miller: That’s a significant number for Colorado. As a point of reference, the water project that serves the Denver metro area serves about 1.3 million customers, and their annual use is about 250,000 acre-feet. So in rough terms, 400,000 acre-feet is enough to meet the needs of over 2 million people, and probably even more. In a state like Colorado, where you’ve only got 5 million residents today, that’s a good goal and a pretty big goal, and a pretty important part of the puzzle.

Water Deeply: Even so, the plan projects a 560,000 acre-foot gap in water needs by 2050, right?

Miller: The plan did both supply and demand projections in various parts of the state. It saw there could be a shortage, yes. But interestingly, a lot of the objectives in the plan will greatly reduce that gap. For example, urban conservation. If cities continue on the track they’ve been on the last 15 years, which is reducing water use per capita by about 1 percent per year, that’s going to save a large chunk of the 400,000 acre-feet, through urban conservation. So at some level, I would de-emphasize the importance of that gap, because there are several approaches that will make that gap shrink or disappear.

Water Deeply: The plan also calls for 400,000 acre-feet of new water storage. Do we know what those projects will be?

Miller: Some of them, yes. At least a couple of those fairly large water projects are already in progress. The proponents in one case are Denver Water, and in another case a northern Colorado group of cities working together under a group called Northern Water. They both have had projects proposed for 15 years or more, and they are in the process of getting environmental reviews done.

Those two projects combined would point toward well over half of that 400,000 acre-foot goal. The rest of that 400,000 acre-foot – it’s an open question what projects will get built. And even these two are not done. They’re not built yet, and there may be delays or objections to those yet. The plan did not directly articulate which projects would be inside the 400,000 acre-foot goal.

Water Deeply: What do the watershed protection components of the plan involve?

Miller: One involves a state program – called Watershed Protection – that has been around a number of years. It does some things like sediment control and prescribed burns.

And there’s a new element tucked inside that same program that has additional funding called stream management planning. It focuses specifically on river health and streamflow. This is meant to be kind of an organic process where stakeholders inside a particular river basin identify stream reaches that are in trouble: they’re dry, or they may have temperature issues. And they try to identify what options there might be to help those streams. It’s meant to identify problems and lay out a suite of solutions.

There’s study from about five years ago that found Colorado River-based recreation and tourism generates in the neighborhood of about 80,000 jobs a year and adds about $9 billion a year to state’s economy. So there’s a growing recognition of the importance of rivers to the state.

Water Deeply: The plan also calls for identifying new funding sources for water projects. How will this work?

Miller: Yes, the plan is looking for options to raise an additional $100 million by 2020 and $3 billion by 2030. The plan estimated the unfunded piece of implementing the plan is $3 billion. All that’s still being discussed. There’s no firm plan yet for what the best mechanism for that is.

The plan recognizes there are important water values across the state that do need to be addressed to help communities meet their conservation goals. But I think the funding need is probably an underestimate, because the plan did not go into very great detail about the costs of remedying stream health.

Water Deeply: You mentioned there’s also a need to prioritize how funding is spent.

Miller: There are many objectives in the plan. And there are gaps – perceived and real funding gaps. But there’s not yet a real clear process for applying criteria on how public funds are spent.

So that’s an important next step, and I hope it will come to pass that those criteria are used. That, plus the long-term funding, will be really the proof of the truth in meeting our plan goals. The goals and objectives are great. We’ll hopefully find ourselves in a place where we’ve made good decisions two or three years from now.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Rio Grande Basin @CWCB_DNR

San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From The Alamosa News:

The Colorado Water Conservation Board is a known name with an often unknown role. However, one thing is certain, it is the guiding force behind water policy in the State of Colorado and has been a key provider of financial means for many important water projects in the San Luis Valley.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board was formed more than 75 years ago. The mission it was charged with was/is “To conserve, develop, protect and manage Colorado’s water for present and future generations.” Today, the CWCB is Colorado’s most comprehensive resource for water information, expertise and technical support.

The CWCB is also about those who serve. Fifteen board members govern the CWCB. Members are appointed by the governor and serve three-year terms. Each member hails from one of the nine basins of Colorado which are the Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, Metro, North Platte, Rio Grande, South Platte, Southwest, and Yampa/White respectively. They are responsible for tasks such as protecting Colorado’s streams and rivers, water conservation, flood mitigation, watershed protection, stream restoration, drought planning, water project financing, and the creation and oversight of the Basin Roundtables. In addition, the CWCB collaborates with other western states, as well as federal agencies, to protect state water apportionments.

Other personnel include more than 40 CWCB staff members who maintain a total of six major program areas or sections. The sections are management, finance and administration, interstate and federal, stream and lake protection, water supply planning, watershed and flood protection. These are the teams that report to the board members, make recommendations and do all of the behind the scenes work. The combined efforts of the CWCB board and staff have produced beneficial and needed results with water projects and issues throughout the state.

One example of a key initiative that was recently completed by the CWCB is the Colorado Water Plan. Until 2015, Colorado was one of the only western states that did not have a water plan. With the population of Colorado expected to see enormous increases, the demand for water is also projected to see a huge spike. There were/are also many challenges facing Colorado including an increasing water supply gap, agricultural dry-up, critical environmental concerns, variable climate conditions, inefficient regulatory process and increasing funding needs. As a result, Governor John Hickenlooper signed an Executive Order in 2013 which tasked the CWCB with the creation of a water plan for the State of Colorado.

After three years, the completion of the Colorado Water Plan was celebrated in November of 2015. Goals in the plan include meeting the water supply gap, defending Colorado’s compact entitlements, improving regulations, and exploring financial incentives. Meanwhile, the objective is to honor Colorado water values and ensure the state’s most valuable resource is protected and preserved for generations to come. The implementation of the Colorado Water Plan continues by working through individual issues in each basin. This is just one of the many complex areas the CWCB tackles on a daily basis.

With the many and often difficult issues the Colorado Water Conservation Board handles, what do these efforts mean to the Rio Grande Basin and the San Luis Valley? The answer is the Rio Grande Roundtable. The Roundtable serves two critical roles. The first is to develop a comprehensive communication platform for stakeholders, and the second is as a conduit for funding basin water projects. The Rio Grande Roundtable itself exists because of the CWCB. The concept of the Basin Roundtables was established through the “Water for the 21st Century Act” with the intent of facilitating discussion and common sense solutions for Colorado’s water needs.

Currently, the roundtables across the state bring more than 300 individuals to the table. There is an even larger amount of needs and interests represented. Each basin is also required to have a plan. These plans must identify both consumptive and non-consumptive water needs as well as available water supplies and proposed projects and methods. The projects and methods of course, require funding. This is where the CWCB Water Project Loan Program comes in. On an annual basis, the CWCB has close to $50 million available for this program. These low interest loans are available to any agricultural or municipal borrower who can establish a clear need for the design and/or construction of a raw water project. Proposed projects must then clear an application process and obtain board approval. Once each of these measures are successful, the project can begin.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable has been the recipient of millions of dollars in funding for crucial water projects, thanks to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. One notable example is the Rio Grande Cooperative Project. As a public/private partnership between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, the Rio Grande Cooperative project was presented to the CWCB as a funding request for needed repairs to Rio Grande and Beaver Reservoirs. The request was successful and in 2013, Phase 1 of the repair process at Rio Grande Reservoir was complete. Beaver Reservoir completed its dam rehabilitation in 2016. This is just one way in which the CWCB has tremendously benefitted the San Luis Valley. In fact, it could possibly be argued that the Valley would be a much different place without the CWCB.

Colorado’s water and water in the Rio Grande Basin is and always will be an important matter. Many can agree that it must be used wisely. The Rio Grande Roundtable and the Colorado Water Conservation Board work to ensure that this valuable resource is managed well.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month. Meetings are located at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 4th St. Alamosa. Visit http://www.rgbrt.org. or http://cwcb.state.co.us.

Lawmakers lament they “don’t have more influence” moving state water plan forward — @COindependent

James Eklund and Governor Hickenlooper roll out the Colorado Water Plan, Thursday, November 19, 2015 via The Colorado Independent

From The Colorado Independent (Marianne Goodland):

Two sessions have passed since Gov. John Hickenlooper rolled out Colorado’s first statewide water plan, yet lawmakers have made little progress toward the plan’s main goal – averting a massive state water shortfall in 2050.

The single biggest achievement in water policy these past two sessions is a feel-good law allowing Coloradans to use rain barrels to collect rain and snowmelt to water their gardens. Although the barrels carry some symbolic importance in a state whose water supplies aren’t keeping up with needs, the amount of water they collect toward solving Colorado’s water woes is the statistical equivalent of a drop in the bucket.

Lawmakers’ broader inaction underscores the limits of their authority on water policy and of their ability to put in place meaningful efforts – or at least a priority list for those efforts – to stave off a water crisis. Although the legislature has allocated $15 million to implement the water plan, some members complain their involvement is limited mainly to “writing the check,” without input into how, specifically, money might be spent other than on writing more water reports and holding more water meetings. Several admit they have no idea where the plan’s priorities lie or how, specifically, Hickenlooper expects it will be put into action.

Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican and farmer from Sterling and one of the General Assembly’s leading agriculture and water advocates, complains that lawmakers “do not have enough influence on the direction of the water plan.”

Rep. Jeni Arndt of Fort Collins, a Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture, Livestock and Energy Committee, has run a half-dozen bills that specifically address water plan issues, some successfully, some not. She points out that a published guide on moving forward, put out by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), said that most goals of the water plan would be accomplished by the executive branch, with a limited role for the General Assembly.

“That’s what they think,” she laughed.

The Colorado Water Plan was initiated with much fanfare by Hickenlooper in May 2013 and finalized in November 2015. It seeks to address an alarming problem: Projections that, by 2050, the state will face a water shortfall of at least one million acre-feet per year.

An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons of water. If not addressed, the one million acre-foot supply-demand gap would cut across all water uses in the state: affecting at least two million residents as well as recreational, environmental, industrial and agricultural water uses.

The swelling water deficit is born of several factors. One is growth and projections that the state’s population will jump from about 5.4 million residents this year to as many as 10.3 million by 2050.

Another factor is climate change. A 2014 report commissioned by the CWCB points out that average annual temperatures in Colorado have risen by 2 degrees between 1977 and 2006. A hotter climate increases the potential for drought in southern Colorado, and could also reduce the annual spring runoff from the mountain snowpack, which affects all of Colorado as well as some of the downstream states both east and west that rely on water that originates here.

An increasing reliance on water by Colorado’s oil and gas industry also factors in, as do demands by conservationists and recreational users to stop bleeding our rivers dry.

But the biggest factor in terms of actual water use is that farming and ranching interests, which use 80 percent of the state’s water, are motivated under the state’s “use it or lose it” water laws to continue antiquated and even wasteful water practices out of fear of losing their senior water rights.

The water plan identifies the size of the projected water shortage – drawn from a 2010 study that is being updated – but doesn’t offer a roadmap for addressing it, other than stating how much water the state needs to save through storage and conservation projects to meet its 2050 needs. It doesn’t spell out just who’s responsible for those savings: the executive branch, the legislature, or public-private partnerships.

Hickenlooper’s administration has passed responsibility for charting the specific courses mainly to nine local, grassroots groups, known as basin roundtables, that include officials from water utilities and representatives of agricultural, industrial, recreational and environmental groups. The nine roundtable groups are centered around the state’s eight major waterways plus the Denver metro area. Each assessed how much water they would be short in the coming decades, broken down by recreation, environmental, agricultural and municipal needs.

The roundtables – with the South Platte River and metro Denver groups working jointly – each came up with plans that outline what they will do to meet the projected water shortages in their areas. Their wishlists for local water projects form the bulk of specifics within the 540-page statewide plan. But there is no greater design, no set of master priorities on which spending decisions can be based.

That leaves lawmakers scratching their heads when it comes to water policy and budgeting.

The legislature’s efforts on water fall to a joint interim committee, known as the Water Resources Review Committee, that meets every summer. The bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers – including the chairs of the Senate and House agriculture committees – starts its annual review of state water issues each August. Members then sponsor water-related legislation either as a committee or on their own.

In the past two years, water committee members have sponsored most of the 35 water-related bills proposed at the Statehouse. Of those, the vast majority deal with managing the state’s Byzantine laws on water rights. Roughly 15 were to varying degrees intended to address some of the nebulous goals laid out in Hickenlooper’s water plan.

Related: Path forward is murky in Hickenlooper’s final water plan

By far the most noteworthy among those 15 were the 2016 and 2017 annual water projects bills, which were written by CWCB staff and earmarked state funding for a variety of water projects. The 2016 bill put up $5 million to implement the water plan, but didn’t specify how that money would be spent. That line item became a bone of contention for some lawmakers, especially those on the Joint Budget Committee who tend to take a dim view of spending money without specifics on where it’s going.

The 2017 projects bill set aside another $10 million for implementing the state water plan, plus another $10 million more to the basin roundtables to pay for local water projects. The 2017 projects outlined how the $5 million from 2016 would be spent. That money will go to the CWCB for statewide projects, such as improved water supply forecasting, a grant program on agricultural water transfers, statewide training to water providers on water loss, and grants to water agencies that are developing http://cwcb.state.co.us/legal/Documents/Policies/17FeasibilityStudySmallGrants.pdf for future water storage projects.

The $10 million in 2017 for implementing the plan includes $1 million to update a 2010 study that provided the initial projections for the state’s projected water deficit – estimated in 2010 to reach about one million acre-feet per year by 2050. That estimate is now considered low, and could possibly be as much as two million acre-feet annually.

Another $2 million will pay for water projects that serve multiple purposes (such as recreation and environmental needs). Another $1 million will develop long-term strategies on conservation, land use and drought planning. Another $3 million will help facilitate the development of water storage systems. Some $1 million will pay for water education, $1 million for “technical assistance for agricultural projects” and $1 million for watershed health (more about that later).

The $10 million for the CWCB’s 2017 costs for implementing the water plan and the $10 million for the regional roundtable groups will come from severance tax revenues that will be transferred into the CWCB’s construction fund. The rest comes from that construction fund, a revolving loan account that dates back to 1971 and makes low-interest loans for water projects throughout the state. Its revenues come from interest earned on outstanding loans, the fund’s cash balance, and federal mineral lease revenues.

The 2017 projects bill, which Hickenlooper signed into law on Tuesday, puts $10 million from the CWCB’s construction fund into a new loan guarantee fund that would help with regional water projects in which multiple water utilities are involved.

Another $5 million will pay for a watershed restoration program. Watersheds are areas of land from which rain or snowmelt route toward a common waterway, including the surface water from streams, rivers and reservoirs as well as groundwater found in underground aquifers. The water plan says healthy watersheds are crucial for environmental needs such as improving fish and wildlife habitats or reducing the impact of soil erosion, and for recreational purposes such as rafting and angling. Colorado’s watersheds match up with the nine river basins, and then are further subdivided by local waterways in each of those basins. The $5 million for watersheds is intended to advance the water plan’s goal to improve the health of 80 percent of those watersheds by 2030.

In addition to the annual projects bills in 2016 and 2017, lawmakers have over the past two sessions sought measures to do the following:

Improve forest health. A 2015 report by Colorado State University says healthy forests are key to providing clean water. But when the health of those forests decline, through wildfires or disease, for example, the quality of water flowing through them and on to waterways also declines. “Forests are our largest reservoir,” says Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, sponsor of a 2016 bill that directs the Colorado State Forest Service and CWCB to document the nexus between the state water plan and forest management as a way of protecting the state’s water resources. That report is due July 1.

Study possibilities to store water from the South Platte River: The General Assembly commissioned a report in 2016, and it’s due to lawmakers this December. Without waiting for that report, the water committee this year sponsored a bill to increase the capacity of reservoirs along the South Platte through dredging. The stand-alone bill sought $5 million in funding, but, in the end, the 2017 projects bill set aside $3 million for storage, including dredging the South Platte’s reservoirs.

Help streamline state permitting for water projects. Water storage projects take years, even decades, from start to finish, and much of that is tied up in regulations. Sonnenberg says that at the state level a storage project gets caught in a circular trap. First, a proposed project goes to the state Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which has authority on water quality issues. Then it heads to Colorado Parks and Wildlife for review on mitigating wildlife issues. After that, it heads back to CDPHE, but by then much has changed.

Lawmakers tried to set up a “one-stop shop” for water projects permits a couple of years ago. That didn’t work, so in 2016 they found a backdoor way to address the problem by telling the governor to hire someone to do it. Hickenlooper quickly put into place his water czar, former Ag Commissioner John Stulp. Under the law, the director of water project permitting coordination (yes, that’s the title) should work to speed up permitting for water projects financed by the CWCB’s construction fund or those required to obtain water quality certification from the CDPHE. Yet Stump said that so far, there hasn’t been a great need for his assistance in moving the permit process along. The water project closest to completion, the Windy Gap Firming Project southwest of Loveland, got its final federal approval earlier this month and is expected to begin construction of a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir known as Chimney Hollow in 2019. The projects bill includes a $90 million loan to the Northern Water Conservancy District for construction of Chimney Hollow.

There are two other storage projects in the pipeline, and the permitting assistance is available as needed, Stulp said.

Among the other water plan-related bills in 2016 and 2017:

• Successful legislation to continue a pilot program that would allow farmers and ranchers to temporarily lease their water rights to municipal water utilities.
Bills to require local governments to incorporate water conservation goals, including those found in the state water plan, into local community master plans, particularly when new development is being considered. Those bills failed two years in a row at the balking of local governments who don’t want to be told what to do.

Sonnenberg, the water committee chair, looks toward hearings in August with an eye on building more water storage. He lives just a few miles away from the South Platte River whose water flows east to Nebraska for free. As many farmers and ranchers see it, dams and reservoirs need to be built to capture that water and save it for future use within Colorado.

Most municipal water districts and industrial users agree on the need for more storage. But conservationists and recreational water interests oppose that view, saying and flows need to stay in rivers – regardless of state lines – to keep them and their habitats healthy.

Sonnenberg has been particularly critical of CWCB and Hickenlooper’s administration for not taking a clear position on water storage and how it should figure in the water plan. He also criticizes CWCB for not welcoming lawmakers’ input on the water plan in general.

“We had to run a bill just to get the CWCB to listen to us” about the water plan, Sonnenberg grumbled.

That 2014 law reiterated that the General Assembly is responsible for water policy and that the CWCB has authority to implement that policy. The law also sent the water committee around the state in the summer and fall of 2014 to gather input from citizens on what the water plan should look like. The committee then sent that input to the CWCB for consideration in the water plan, as well as its own recommendations strongly urging a clearly defined set of priorities and specific steps the state needs to take to meet its water needs mid-century.

From lawmakers’ perspectives, the final version of the plan doesn’t reflect their input.

Disappointed with the plan’s progress, Sonnenberg says, “The CWCB has not had conversations with the legislature other than to (say) ‘pass our projects bill, sit down and shut up.’ That communication has to change.”

Fellow committee member Sen. Matt Jones, a Louisville Democrat, is similarly concerned about efficacy of the plan, but for different reasons. His water worries are about conservation and river health – issues for which he says the plan lacks “a cohesive recommendation.” Progress on those issues has been very slow, he said, and certainly not fast enough to compete with increasing strains on the state’s water supply caused by population growth.

Jones has pushed a bill for the last two years that would require developers to submit plans for water conservation in their proposed developments. Despite bipartisan sponsorship and even without opposition from homebuilders, the measure twice has failed to make it out of the Senate.

He is especially frustrated that Colorado’s legislature hasn’t pushed the conservation side of the water plan. He notes that the state hasn’t updated its conservation statutes since 1991.

The water plan “is very aggressive on conservation planning, and the legislature should meet that need by pushing even harder to make it happen,” Jones said. Without such a push, conservationists say, the plan remains more of a statement of values than a call for action.
“The targets are there, and it has a lot of aspirational goals, but it’s not a defined implementation plan” that specifically says what needs to be done and who’s responsible for doing it, says Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress.

Kemper says the clock is ticking toward 2050 and that the water plan needs clearly articulated priorities from the General Assembly no later than the end of this year. The water community, including local and county governments, water districts, and hundreds of individuals and organizations interested in water issues, also hasn’t set its priorities yet, either. Kemper expects that will happen when the Water Congress meets in August.

Bart Miller, who directs a program promoting healthy rivers for the conservation group Western Resource Advocates, says the progress so far has mainly been on the funding side – in particular the dollars coming out of the two projects bills in 2016 and 2017 – but that those amounts are too small to quench state water needs. Although, as Miller sees it, water projects from the Northern Water Conservancy District and Denver Water and under way to help meet the plan’s storage goal of 400,000 acre-feet, the goal of conserving another 400,000 acre-feet has seen far less progress.

Miller sees a lack of clear milestones as one of the plan’s bigger shortfalls. “It should be able to say where you need to be by 2020 if you’re working toward 2030 or even 2050,” he says.

CWCB has balked at setting such milestones and has been trying to lower expectations about the speed of the plan’s implementation. Nowhere was this more obvious than at a Joint Budget Committee meeting in December, when CWCB finance chief Kirk Russell told lawmakers only half-jokingly that, “I’m glad the question wasn’t ‘Are you done yet and why not?’”

Feature photo of James Eklund, then head of the CWCB and Gov. John Hickenlooper, holding up a copy of the state water plan for its November, 2015 rollout. Photo by Marianne Goodland.

@COWaterPlan Implementation Update

Photo by Havey Productions via TheDenverChannel.com

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

Where now with Alternative Transfer Methods in CO?

This special report, released by the Colorado Water Institute, summarizes the discussions, conclusions, and recommendations from three meetings held in the fall of 2016 to address Colorado’s Water Plan’s measurable objective to provide at least 50,000 acre-feet of agricultural water to municipal water providers through voluntary, compensated Alternative Transfer Methods (ATMs) by 2030. These meetings convened water stakeholders from across the state, representing the interests of diverse sectors of the water community – agricultural, urban, and environmental. The report is intended to provide a foundation on which further progress toward meeting Colorado’s Water Plan’s ATM goal can be built. The report was co-authored by Anne Castle, MaryLou Smith, John Stulp, Brad Udall, and Reagan Waskom and is available on Colorado’s Water Plan website under Implementation.

San Luis Valley aquifer system primer

San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable (Helen Smith) via The Valley Courier:

Water is the glue that holds the San Luis Valley together. It is vital to the people, the economy, lifestyle and even the physical landscape of the Valley itself.

There are two aquifers that lie beneath the Valley floor. One is the confined aquifer that is trapped below a series of clay lenses deep beneath the Valley floor. The other is the unconfined aquifer that is generally found within the first 100 feet of the surface. Without the water from these aquifers, the San Luis Valley would very likely not be the agricultural workhorse that we know today.

There are also unique geological structures such as Rio Grande Rift that contributes to when and where water travels throughout the Valley subsurface. Aquifers are key, particularly the unconfined. The water of the unconfined aquifer functions very much like surface water. The recharge of this important commodity comes from the mountains and the snow that brings down their runoff. The unconfined aquifer supplies 85 percent of agricultural well water. The largest concentration of these wells lies within Sub-district #1.

The confined aquifer lies beneath the unconfined aquifer. There are clay layers that separate the aquifers. Historic Alamosa Lake is likely responsible for the formation of these layers. The water that lies beneath the surface is heavily relied upon by the agricultural community. There are also differences in how each of the aquifers react. In addition, any well in the San Luis Valley inevitably impacts the river flow at some point.

As a Valley native from Saguache, Allen Davey of Davis Engineering Services has studied the San Luis Valley aquifer system extensively. He also has a great deal of background on the Valley’s water issues. Davey points out that the aquifers and well levels have been monitored since 1970, when accurate measurements were first available. Since that time, there have been notable trends in the increase and decrease of the aquifer and well levels. The water table itself has seen a significant and steady decline partly due to the sheer number of wells that have been drilled. More water has been taken than replaced. The worst decrease was the extreme drought that began in 2002. Historically speaking, demand has simply outweighed supply. Because of these factors, there are now big implications for the future.

Davey also explained that the aquifers are situated very much like a bowl of water. This means that there is pressure that pushes the water upward from beneath the clay and downward pressure from the surface. The result is wells in the confined aquifer have high amounts of pressure, the result of which is artesian flow. Both confined and unconfined wells are heavily relied upon especially for agriculture irrigation. This has resulted in a widening gap between the aquifer waters and the surface.

Because this gap between the water and the surface has increased, it is now not impossible that there is potential for the Valley floor to begin sinking if the aquifer is not replenished. Rebuilding the aquifer system has now become even more necessary than many once thought. It has now become imperative that this issue be addressed. It is also critical that the recharge process is working properly.

The effort to replace the depletions and rebuild the aquifer is another piece to this puzzle. This is where sub-districts, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the pending well rules and regulations for Division 3 come in. The pending regulations for Division 3 require well users to replace their depletions. There is also a slow gain in the northern portions of the aquifer system being seen though studies and reports that Davis Engineering Services provides to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Because the well owners of Sub-district #1 have been replacing their depletions, Davey believes that the aquifer is headed in the right direction because of monitoring and reduced pumping. Replacing depletions will only help agriculture as well as Colorado’s obligation to the Rio Grande Compact.

The well rules for Division 3 and the replacement efforts are still a work in progress. However, it would appear that these measures are producing some results. The trial to finalize the rules for Division 3 is set for January of 2018. If and when these rules are approved, a great deal of change will arrive. Arguably, it is necessary change.

The future remains to be seen. There is certainly a great deal of importance in this matter when considering the agriculture, the people and the future of the San Luis Valley. This is a unique situation that will require a unique solution.

Helen Smith is the Outreach Specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month. Meetings are located at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 4th St. Alamosa. For more information visit http://www.RGBRT.org.

Rio Grande Roundtable meeting recap

Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters

From The Alamosa News (Ruth Heide):

Although there are currently no cloud seeding operations in the San Luis Valley, some folks believe this might be a good place for it.

Joe Busto, who oversees weather modification permits for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, gave the Rio Grande Roundtable group a crash course on cloud seeding during its Tuesday meeting. The Valley-wide water group funds many water related projects in the Rio Grande Basin from ditch repair to reservoir rehab. The group was not asked for funding at this time.

Busto said that another form of weather modification, hail cannons, previously operated in the San Luis Valley under a permit with Southern Colorado Farms, but the agricultural operation discontinued the practice.

Cloud seeding occurs all around the region from Texas to North Dakota, Busto stated.

Many of the cloud seeding operations in Colorado are associated with ski areas such as Vail, Crested Butte and Breckenridge, Busto explained. Others are connected to water districts. There are currently 110 machines in the state. He described the primary catalysts as either silver iodide, which is expensive but effective (and not harmful to the environment), or propane, which is cheaper.

Before setting up a machine, plume dispersion tests are conducted to determine how the winds are blowing and from what direction so the cloud seeding operation can be set up to provide the most good.

Operations are also the most effective when machines are set up at higher elevations, Busto explained.

Roundtable member Travis Smith asked, “Is the Rio Grande ready to start participating in a winter time cloud seeding program?”

Roundtable member Charlie Spielman said he saw this as a solution to the imbalance between water supply and demand.

“Cloud seeding is the best opportunity within our reach of making a real dent in that supply/demand gap,” he said.

He encouraged “getting a program going here … Let’s put something into this because I think this is our best chance.”

Busto said he believed a lean cloud seeding operation could be put in place for about $60,000 a year. He said he believed there could be many benefits to this area as well as downstream.