November 7, 2023: In what’s been described as “the largest aquatic habitat connectivity project ever undertaken in state history,” crews successfully tested the new Colorado River Connectivity Channel (CRCC) at the end of October. The new channel around Windy Gap Reservoir hydrologically and ecologically now reconnects two segments of the Colorado River for the first time in approximately 40 years.
Northern Water staff were joined by Grand County officials, Windy Gap Project Participant Representatives, Colorado Parks and Wildlife representatives and others to watch the first flows go through the long-awaited channel. This new video captures the historic day and includes comments from the project participants and stakeholders who were present to witness the occasion.
While water is now running through the new channel, there is still construction work to be done. Crews will continue putting the finishing touches on the project’s new dam embankment, diversion structure and other elements before winter weather brings activity to a stop in the upcoming weeks. Construction is expected to resume
next spring and wrap up later in 2024. Vegetation establishment along the channel will continue into 2025 and 2026, before the area is anticipated to open for public recreation in 2027.
The new channel will enable fish and other wildlife to move freely upstream and downstream around what is now a smaller Windy Gap Reservoir. Meanwhile, the reservoir will continue providing a diversion point on the Colorado River for the Windy Gap Project during the high flows of spring and early summer.
The CRCC is part of a package of environmental measures, valued at $90 million, associated with construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir, which is ultimately where Windy Gap Project water will be stored once reservoir construction is completed.
On Tuesday, the town trustees approved a 5% annual rate hike for 2024-2028 that would cost the average ratepayer and extra $5.37 per month in winter and $12.45 in summer, when more water is used to water lawns. New rates will go into effect Jan. 1. Trustees also approved an increase in capital investment fees paid by developers from $10,437 for water and $9,742 for wastewater per single-family home to $10,959 and $10,229, respectively. The 2024 base water rate will go from $49.71 to $52.20 and the usage rate will go from $11.70 to $12.29 for the use of 4,000 to 7,000 gallons.
This is not a new problem for Wellington, which raised water rates and impact fees in 2020 to pay for an expansion of its water and wastewater treatment plants, imposed water restrictions and limited new residential building permits until the expansions are complete. Once the water and wastewater treatment plant expansions are completed, they should accommodate additional growth for 20 to 30 years, which would generate more building and tap fees, allowing the water and wastewater funds to show a profit.
Currently, however, the water fund will be in a $593,000 hole in 2026 and the sewer fund $700,000 short…Trustees also approved transferring the maximum amount from the general fund to the water and wastewater enterprise funds to reduce the impact to residents. Enterprise funds may only receive up to 10% of the revenue received in the fund from taxpayer transfers through the general fund under the Colorado Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, known as TABOR. The total transfer will reduce the general fund by $935,000 in 2023 and an estimated $1.06 million in 2024.
At the Nov. 14 Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors meeting, District Engineer/Manager Justin Ramsey announced that PAWSD received a $1 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) Energy/Mineral Impact Assistance Fund (EIAF) for construction on the Snowball Water Treatment Plant expansion. In an interview with The SUN, Ramsey explained that the grant funding will support the installation of “floating slabs” of concrete as part of the foundation for the expanded plant. He explained that the grant funding will help make up the gap be- tween the $38 million loan PAWSD acquired for the project and the final project cost of just over $40 million. PAWSD obtained “well over $6 million” in grants and principal forgiveness for the project in the last year, Ramsey highlighted.
The Farmers Union Canal and Headgate Improvement Project is going forward with a bump in funds from the Department of Interior. The multi-benefit project from the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, in conjunction with the San Luis Valley Irrigation District and Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation, will replace the diversion dam and headgates with new structures that divert water more efficiently and provide increased watershed health benefits, including improved fish and boat passage.
The old and ailing headgate, which bifurcates the Rio Grande into its north and south channels downstream of Del Norte, is in need of repairs. So a full replacement will be done instead. A new diversion dam and automated headgates will improve ditch operations, reduce maintenance, and protect and preserve the Farmers Union Canal’s full water rights in the future.
The diversion upgrade will provide safe boat passage and more efficiently deliver water to the Farmers Union Canal and Rio Grande #1 Ditch.
The new diversion dam will include fish and boat passage, connecting aquatic habitat and improving community safety. Adjacent streambank stabilization work will also be done along with the replacement of the headgate. This streambank work will protect the diversion infrastructure, reduce sedimentation in the river, improve water quality for downstream users, and enhance surrounding wildlife habitat. This work will include the installation of rock and root wad structures, along with streambed and aquatic habitat through improved sediment transport at the diversion structure.
By controlling flows into the North Channel, this irrigation infrastructure delivers water to the Farmers Union Canals’ 140 water users and nine other irrigation ditches, irrigating a combined 42,980 acres.
The Farmers Union Multi-Benefit Diversion Infrastructure Improvement Project was awarded a $1.27 million grant on Nov. 15 from the Department of Interior through the Bureau of Reclamation. Along with 30 other projects across 11 states, the funding is part of President Joe Biden’s Investing in America agenda. Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper wrote letters in support of the project.
The collaborative projects focus on water conservation, water management and restoration efforts that will result in significant benefits to ecosystem or watershed health.
“Adequate, resilient and safe water supplies are fundamental to the health, economy and security of every community in our nation,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “The Interior Department is focused on ensuring that funding through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is going to collaborative projects throughout the West that will benefit the American people.”
Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Bureau of Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including rural water, water storage, conservation and conveyance, nature-based solutions, dam safety, water purification and reuse, and desalination. Over the first two years of its implementation, the Bureau of Reclamation selected 372 projects to receive almost $2.8 billion.
The WaterSMART program also advances the Justice40 Initiative, part of the Biden-Harris administration’s historic commitment to environmental justice, which aims to ensure 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain climate, clean energy, and other federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that have been marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution.
The Palisade Board of Trustees voted unanimously last Tuesday to raise its sewer rates in 2024 to $57.23 from the current single family residential rate of $35.37. The rate increase is intended to pay for a capital project to construct a pipe for Palisade’s waste water to the Clifton Sanitation Districts chemical plant and decommission its sewer lagoons. The rate increase was recommended through a rate study, which was completed and presented to the Trustees earlier this year. The rates will help pay back a $16.5 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture, which was announced in late April. It also got around $5.6 million in grant funding from the USDA.
The new rates will also come with a new method for determining how much impact individual users have on the wastewater system. That method is called EQU. It is currently used by the Clifton Sanitation District. Palisade has had an EQU ordinance in place for years, but never implemented it, Town Attorney Jim Neu said…A single family home is considered one EQU, while a building with larger use, like a school, could be several EQUs. The Palisade rate in 2024 will be $57.23 per EQU.
The city says the new application is unique because Thornton asked community members about what was most important when it comes to site selection and used that information to determine the preferred route…The application is not yet available from the Larimer County Planning Division, but the city of Thornton has posted some information and a map of the preferred route on a project website. The city also sent the Coloradoan its executive summary for the application…
Thornton says the new proposed route through the county is about 10 miles long, 16 miles shorter than what was first proposed in 2018. A pump station would be moved two miles north of where it was proposed to land owned by Water Supply and Storage Company…The new proposed placement affects 20 outside property owners, according to Thornton, whereas the last project crossed 40 properties, according to Todd Barnes, communications director for Thornton…The plan incorporates other changes the city proposed after commissioners told the city to go back to the drawing board in late 2018, like locating the pipeline along County Road 56 instead of through Douglas Road and aligning part of it with the proposed pipeline for the Northern Integrated Supply Project, a separate water project…Thornton says the new application provides precise locations for the pipeline and its parts so residents “can have a clear understanding of potential impacts from the project.”
In the new application, Thornton contends any concerns about how the project affects river levels is an issue outside of the county’s authority and is under the jurisdiction of a water court. The city also asserts that because of the court ruling, Larimer County may not consider Thornton’s potential use of eminent domain and “may not require (or criticize Thornton for not including) inclusion of concept of putting water ‘down the river.’ “
Oak Creek is preparing to move forward with important upgrades to a 68-year-old dam at Sheriff Reservoir…With the threat of a dam breach, the town worked with the engineering firm W. W. Wheeler & Associates to create a hydrology study to determine what repairs would be necessary. Completed this year, the report used updated high elevation hydrology formulas to anticipate how much water the dam and its spillway would need to handle in a maximum flood event. According to Torgler, the study found the spillway would need to be expanded from its current 32 feet to 55 feet across. Approved by the state’s engineer Monday, the study is key, the town administrator said, because it was originally believed the expansion improvement would need to be 330 feet across…
After completing work to replace the headgate on the dam, which sits close to the structures base on the reservoir side, the project will now turn to the completion of the design engineering for the spillway enhancements, Torgler said. To date, the town has spent $520,000 for design engineering for the headgate and the purchase and installation of operating equipment and $320,000 for final design work. Cost estimates for the spillway work will be ready by the end of the year.
Torgler said that without performing the dam improvements, there would be a significant reduction in the amount of water stored in the reservoir. He noted the reservoir provides recreational opportunities for locals and visitors, but it is also Oak Creek’s drinking water supply.
As Thornton filed its latest application for a water pipe permit with Larimer County on Monday, officials had hope that they would face less resistance this time…A no vote [from the Larimer County Commissioners] would jeopardize long-term growth plans in Thornton, Colorado’s sixth-largest city, for years to come by hampering the ability to access water it bought the rights for decades ago.
“Though it has been frustrating all these years, I firmly believe this is a better project with all the community feedback,” said Brett Henry, executive director of utilities and infrastructure for the city of Thornton. “It’s more clear about what to expect. There are less unknowns.”
Thornton says the pipe’s new proposed alignment through Larimer County holds several advantages over a route the county rejected in early 2019. It would take 16 fewer miles of pipe in the county than the original route called for, and the project’s western terminus would avoid a number of neighborhoods that had raised concerns around construction disruption. The city is also willing to move a proposed pump station well apart from homes. The station would be used to divert the water shares Thornton owns in the Poudre to a collection of reservoirs northwest of Fort Collins. The pipe would then traverse 22 properties in Larimer County before crossing into Weld County and turning south. City spokesman Todd Barnes said Thornton already has begun discussions with most of the landholders about obtaining easements for the pipe.
Nov. 16, 2023 SALIDA, Colo. – Colorado Parks and Wildlife on Thursday lifted a closure of the Arkansas River above Salida that was imposed last month to allow removal of a low-head dam located 1.5 miles upstream from CPW’s Mount Shavano State Fish Hatchery.
The river was reopened as crews completed removal of the dam and an adjacent boat chute, said Tom Waters, CPW’s park manager for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, which encompasses 152 miles of the Arkansas River from Leadville to Pueblo.
“We are happy to announce the river is open again, weeks sooner than expected, to instream recreation,” Waters said. “The closure and mandatory portage signs have been removed and the buoy line barrier across the river has been taken down.”
Waters said final clean-up work along the banks should be done by Nov. 23.
CPW had closed the stretch of river from the Chaffee County Road 166 Bridge to the Salida Boat Ramp to allow heavy equipment to break up and remove the dam, which was first built around 1956 to collect water for the hatchery downstream. The dam was rebuilt in 1987 with an adjacent boat chute.
“By removing the dam, we have eliminated a deadly threat to the thousands who boat on this popular stretch of the Arkansas River each year,” Waters said. River water, spilling over the dam, churned at the bottom of the dam structure, creating a powerful hydraulic that capsized and trapped boaters and swimmers. Since 2010, three people have died at the dam.
Removing the dam also enhances movements of fish – brown trout, rainbow trout and native white suckers – by easing migration access to about 85 miles of the Gold Medal river upstream. Barriers like the dam limit genetic diversity by essentially isolating segments of the river’s fish population.
The ability of fish to move freely in a river also helps to prevent overpopulation by balancing the amount of habitat and forage with the number of fish it can support.
“This project is a great example of how CPW works with its local partners to accomplish important projects for the public,” said April Estep, deputy regional manager of CPW’s Southeast Region. She specifically praised CPW’s partners, including the Chaffee County Board of County Commissioners, who provided $100,000 toward the $1.1 million removal effort.
The dam has not been used as a hatchery water supply since 2000 after whirling disease was detected in the river. Whirling disease is caused by a parasite that infects rainbow trout, leaving them deformed and swimming in circles before it quickly kills the youngest fish. CPW spent $1.5 million at the hatchery to convert it to clean spring water to raise its fish.
Finishing the new book has thrown me into a time warp.
We’re about to hand in a manuscript for a book that traces a century and a half of the evolution of Albuquerque’s relationship with the Rio Grande, leading up to now. But the now of the act of writing (November 2023) is different from the now that will exist when the book first emerges in 2025, and the now in which readers experience it in the years that follow.
This conceptual muddle is crucial for the book. We are trying to describe the process of becoming that made Albuquerque what it is. That process of becoming, we argue at some length, cannot be understood without understanding how we as a community came together to act collectively to manage our relationship with the river that flows through our midst.
But – and this is the crucial thing, because it explains why we are writing this book – the process of becoming is never done. We hope to help inform Albuquerque’s discussion of what happens next.
There’s less water. What do we do? We will never stop negotiating our complex relationship as a community with the Rio Grande.
I spent a delightful afternoon yesterday that stretched well into the evening, listening to a series of enormously consequential discussions of these issues at the monthly meeting of the board of directors of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. One of the district’s senior folks recently pointed out how often, during the most difficult of discussions, they look at me sitting in the audience and see me grinning. Those most difficult discussions are the most fascinating to me.
I found myself leaning forward in my chair frequently, shifting my position to see the faces of the board members and staff as they wrestled with this stuff.
I grinned a lot.
Three things from yesterday’s meeting stood out. All three are things that would have merited a significant newspaper story back in my Albuquerque Journal days. This blog post is not that, but if you’re paying attention to Middle Valley water you should keep an eye out for these three incredibly important developing issues.
1) NEW MEXICO’S RIO GRANDE COMPACT DEBT IS LIKELY TO RISE
The Rio Grande Compact, an agreement among Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas to share the waters of the compact’s eponymous river, has a tricky sliding formula determining how much water each state is allowed to consume (through human use as well as riparian evapotranspiration), and how much it must pass to its downstream neighbor. It’s got some wiggle room – states can run a debt, as long as it doesn’t get too large and they catch up in subsequent years. But the changing hydrology of the Middle Valley has made it increasingly difficult for New Mexico to meet its downstream delivery obligations.
New Mexico is currently 93,000 acre feet in debt because of under deliveries in recent years. The hole’s likely to get a lot deeper this year, thanks to a big spring runoff (which increases New Mexico’s required deliveries) and a lousy monsoon (good summer rains can help make up a deficit – this year they did not). If our debt rises above 200,000 acre feet, bad things happen.
2) EL VADO DAM RECONSTRUCTION IS TAKING A LOT LONGER THAN IT WAS SUPPOSED TO TAKE
El Vado Dam was built in the 1930s to store water for Middle Rio Grande Valley irrigators, allowing storage of spring runoff to stretch the growing season threw summer and into fall. But it’s kinda broken. Contractors working for the US Bureau of Reclamation began work a couple of years ago to fix it, with the expectation that it would take a couple of years. It is now widely understood that it may not be done and in operation again until 2027. Or later.
This would be devastating to the portion of irrigators in the Middle Rio Grande Valley that farm for a living. As our book will deeply argue, it’s critical to understand that this represents a minority of irrigated land in the valley. Much of the farming here is non-commercial, “custom and culture” farming, a supplemental income (or even, for the affluent, a delightful money loser) for people whose livelihood doesn’t depend on it. But for either class of irrigators, a lack of late summer and fall water makes things incredibly hard.
El Vado’s problems have not been publicly announced yet, but all the cool kids are talking about them. Expect something more substantive at December’s MRGCD board meeting.
We could see a substantial expansion of acreage fallowed, with a big chunk of federal money paid to irrigators to forego their water in the next few years. MRGCD has been building the institutional widget to do this for several years, with federal money flowing to irrigators to lay off watering their land for either a partial or full season as part of a federally funded program to generate water to meet Endangered Species Act requirements for our beloved Rio Grande silvery minnow. In 2023, that generated (in accounting terms, be skeptical of the four-digit precision) 3,615 acre feet of water.
For 2024, the MRGCD, working with federal money funneled through the state, will push for a dramatic increase. Price per acre will double, to $400 an acre for a split season (irrigate in spring and fall, but not in summer when demand is highest) and $700 an acre for a full season. It’s a voluntary program, so all depends on how much irrigators want to join in, but I can imagine a lot of people looking at the El Vado shitshow and taking the money.
There was a very confusing board discussion that involved an actual invocation of Roberts Rules of Order by the district’s legal counsel and a vote that I still don’t understand with people who support the program voting “no” and people who oppose it (I think) voting “yes”. If I was still a reporter I would have had to sort all of this out while an editor hovered barking about deadlines, but thankfully it’s just a blog that no one actually reads, written by an old guy in pajamas still working on his morning coffee and breakfast.
The bottom line is the possibility of the compensated fallowing of as much as 8,000 acres next year, ~15-ish percent of all irrigated land. I think. As I said it was a pretty confusing thing, and I’m not done with breakfast.
The Western Slope delivers 70% of the Colorado River water. So why do Aspen, Vail and other places want to replace thirsty turf?
This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.
If you’ve ever slipped and spun your way across Vail Pass through a wet, heavy snowstorm, you can be excused for wondering how Eagle River Valley communities could ever have too little water.
Vail and its neighbors do have that problem, though. It has become evident in the growing frequency of drought years in the 21st century.
First came 2002. Water officials, verging on panic, restricted outdoor water use. The drought was believed to be the most severe in 500 years. Fine, thought water officials as rain and snow resumed, we’re off the hook for at least our lifetimes.
In 2012 came another drought, one nearly identical in severity. More bad years followed in 2018 and 2021. The Eagle River normally chatters its way down the valley through Avon and to a confluence with the Colorado River near Glenwood Canyon. In those bad, bad drought years, it sulked. The shallow water was hot enough to endanger fish.
Colorado River flows have declined 20% since 2000. Having water rights is not enough. And the future looks even hotter and, because of that heat, drier. Brad Udall, a senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, warns of up to 20% additional flow loss by midcentury.
Average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin are projected by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to rise 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit during the 21st century. The agency projects slightly greater increases in Colorado and other upper basin states.
In Vail, managers of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District have decided they need more storage. They plan a 1,200-acre-foot reservoir near Minturn called Bolts Lake. That compares with the 257,034-acre-foot storage of Dillon Reservoir. At that capacity, this new reservoir will be the most cost-effective way to ensure resilience as the climate becomes more variable. With the reservoir, they hope to capture water during high-runoff years for use in the district’s service territory from Vail through Edwards.
Demand reduction will be another tool of growing importance in a hotter, sometimes drier climate. Managers hope to reduce water demand in the district 5% by 2026 even as new housing, especially more affordable units, gets built. That’s 400 acre-feet per year.
The most productive place to wring these savings will be in water used for outdoor landscapes. Only 25% — or even less — of water applied to lawns returns to streams and rivers compared with 95% of water used indoors.
Siri Roman, the district’s general manager, said short-term change, such as restricted lawn watering in drought years, can be a strategy. But her district wants to effect permanent change.
“It’s not about drought years,” she said. “It’s about a drying climate. We have to get people to shift their attitudes, to know that water is getting to be more scarce.”
Roman’s district, like other water utilities in Colorado, is targeting nonfunctional turf. Precise definitions vary, but nonfunctional generally refers to grasses that require large volumes of water to irrigate but rarely see human feet except when mowed. It is also described as aesthetic turf.
Three years ago, Eagle River Water began offering rebates of $1 per square foot to customers willing to replace thirsty lawns with landscapes that use less water. Using state aid, the district this year bumped up the incentive to $2.
“We are not saying it needs to be stone and look like Arizona,” Roman said.
Directors of the district in October also agreed to new tiered rates that will discourage high-volume consumption.
Other Western Slope communities have also set out to discourage thirsty landscape choices. Motivations vary, but for many, there is also acknowledgement of the need to walk the talk of water conservation expected of Front Range communities. “That is something I hear a lot from communities I am working with,” said Marjo Curgus, a consultant.
‘Lawn Begone’ in Durango
Almost a decade ago, Steve Harris, a water engineer in Durango, summoned the local news media to his house to watch him remove sod from his front yard. He also had bumper stickers produced: “Lawn Gone.” In an editorial, the Durango Herald offered an alternative: “Lawn Begone.”
Harris believed that Colorado needed to make clear that decorative lawns had less value than agriculture. He worked with his state legislators to draft a bill that would have limited transfers of agricultural water to cities if that water went to lawns. As for his own lawn, Harris thought that he and others on the Western Slope couldn’t just pay lip service to this idea.
At the Colorado Capitol, the bill introduced in 2014 by then-Sen. Ellen Roberts and then-Rep. Don Coram was quickly shelved. Local governments objected. So did ag producers who thought state legislators had no business blocking their abilities to sell water rights.
Instead, the idea was directed to an interim committee for further study. Bills sometimes get sent there to die. In this case, the conversation continued, as Roberts had intended.
Since then, legislators have adopted several laws. A bill that passed in 2022, House Bill 22-1151, does not institute a prohibition but instead allocated $2 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, $1.5 million of which went to local jurisdictions to spur voluntary replacement of irrigated turf.
The law asserts that for every 100 acres of turf converted to water-wise landscaping, up to 200 acre-feet of water can be conserved. The act defines water-wise landscaping as a water- and plant-management practice that emphasizes using plants with lower water needs.
Whether that much water gets saved also depends upon whether irrigation systems are changed to match the lesser water needs of the new landscapes. Grass that needs 12 inches of supplemental water per year need not continue to get 25.
All that funding has now been allocated. On the Western Slope, the municipalities of Cortez, Glenwood Springs and Frisco were awarded funds as was the Eagle County Conservation District. The state agency said 25% of turf-replacement funds were for Western Slope entities.
Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose and then-Rep. Dylan Roberts of Frisco, two of the four prime sponsors, are from the Western Slope. Another prime sponsor, Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa, now has a district that encompasses southwest Colorado, while Roberts has become a senator.
Without state funding, Montrose County approved grants for seven turf-replacement projects.
“From the start, I thought this initial effort might have more value from an education and outreach perspective than actual water savings,” said Justin Musser, the county’s natural resources manager.
Projects were chosen based on various objectives. For example, do the new landscapes provide energy savings or wildlife benefits? “We are not overly prescriptive,” said Musser. “If you have a good plan that references standards from the Colorado State University Extension or another reputable source, the application gets a higher ranking.”
Why would Montrose County be interested in yanking sod to save water?
“It’s important that we look at these types of things across the Colorado River basin,” Musser said. “We would want people in California and Arizona and Nevada to be looking at these types of programs, too. I think it makes sense for a place like Montrose County to be conserving water as much as we can, too.”
But, he added, this is “one part of a very complex issue.”
Droughts versus aridification
The Western Slope of Colorado produces 70% of the water in the Colorado River, according to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Some of that water stays in Colorado. About half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. Yet more of the Colorado River gets diverted to farms in the South Platte and Arkansas river valleys.
And, of course, water from the Western Slope flows downstream to farms and cities in Arizona, California and Nevada.
The Colorado River has infamously been falling short of meeting all demands. The river first failed to reach the Sea of Cortez in the 1960s and, as diversions in Arizona and elsewhere expanded, has ceased to reach the sea altogether since the 1990s — save for an especially engineered pulse in 2014.
In 1922, when delegates of the seven states met to negotiate the Colorado River Compact, they assumed that flows of the early 20th century would be the norm, delivering more than 20 million acre-feet. As Eric Kuhn and John Fleck explain in their book, “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” it had been a wet period.
It didn’t stay that wet, and in the 21st century it has been delivering far less water, an average 13.2 million acre-feet through 2022. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, and others have warned that continued warming could depress flows to 9 million acre-feet during coming decades. Or even less.
Grand Junction more recently adopted regulations curbing water needed for urban landscaping. The city has adopted sustainability goals, “and water plays a big part of that,” said Randi Kim, utilities director for the city of 69,000 people.
Cost savings enter into the city’s calculation as it prepares for a projected 91,000 residents by 2040. The municipal utility taps high-quality water from Kannah Creek, which originates on Grand Mesa. When that is insufficient to meet demands, as the city utility projects will be the case by 2040, the city will tap the Gunnison River but will need to pay more to treat the dirtier water.
Rising heat can also drive higher demand. Grand Junction in July reached 107 degrees, tying the record that had been set just two years before. The city’s 13 highest temperatures have occurred this century.
This is but one aspect of the changing and drying climate, a process that many — including Kim — describe as aridification. “I think people realize that we have to change the way we use and manage water, and it really affects every aspect of our lives,” she said.
Grand Junction’s new regulations apply to new developments. Turf that does not meet the city’s definition of “functional” cannot exceed 15% of landscaping. The new regulations also require low-water vegetation in traffic medians and some other common areas.
Steamboat Springs, although cooler and wetter than Grand Junction, faces similar challenges. It gets 24 inches of precipitation a year, compared with 10 inches for Grand Junction. Some years, the snow along streets of Steamboat gets piled higher than the head of a rim-rattling professional basketball player.
These prodigious snowfalls have not been yielding equally impressive runoffs in the Yampa River. Several times during the longer, hotter summers of the 21st century, the river slunk to such shallow depths that water officials decreed a temporary end to fishing. It almost happened again in July before temperatures cooled and rain arrived.
“We were one day from the river being shut down again,” said Madison Muxworthy of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, a nonprofit. “It was crazy.”
Muxworthy calls the Yampa River the “life beat of our community.” The description is apt. Kayakers paddle amid the waves during runoff months, and anglers drop lines every season. There are always people along the river banks.
In 2021, heeding local sentiment, the sustainability council launched a water-conservation program focused on outdoor use. Working with the city government and Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, the group created a guidance document for landscapes called “Yampascaping.” Four educational workshops this year were well attended.
“Citizens are really interested in this because they see the impacts from climate change that we’re already having,” said Muxworthy, her organization’s soil moisture, water and snow program manager. “It’s really easy for them to make the connection and want to do something about it.”
The Mount Werner district, which serves the base of the city’s bigger ski area, offers rebates of $1 per square foot for turf removal.
Eighty miles south of Steamboat, at a 131-unit multifamily project along the Eagle River called The Reserve, turf-removal incentives of $2 per square foot have also helped the homeowners association replace a half-acre of thirsty grasses with native vegetation. The homeowners hope to replace another 60% of the more than 4 acres of common area.
Saving water is paramount in the mind of Deb Forsline, a director of the homeowners association. She sometimes lulls her grandchildren to sleep with the soothing sound at river’s edge and, at other times, accompanies her husband on fishing expeditions, knitting while he dangles lines. “It’s about saving water for the river, not the money,” she said of the efforts to reduce water for landscaping.
Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager at Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, concurs. The $2 per square foot “helps move the thinking of people who have already been thinking about it,” she said.
Roman, the district’s general manager, points to the innate connection that most of her district’s 31,000 consumers have with the outdoors. “A lot of people who live here year-round know that it is irresponsible to overuse.”
A steeper staircase of water rates
After the 2002 drought, the Eagle River district adopted an inclining block rate structure. The more you use, the more you pay. The district got inconsistent results. Larger homes and those with more expansive and water-intense landscaping dropped their use in smaller percentages than smaller homes. The rate structure had been flawed, allowing larger homes to pay less per 1,000 gallons than smaller homes for the same volume of water. Different rates were needed to snag the attention of high-volume consumers.
Aspen had the same problem. It adopted tiered water rates in 2005. Managers thought the rates would discourage high volumes of consumption. But even in drought years, some properties continued stubbornly high volumes.
In 2017, Aspen adopted a new approach. The regulations require reduced water use in the landscape and irrigation plans for new and redeveloped projects. Such caps are called budgets. Like Denver and Boulder, Aspen has almost no new development of raw land. The law imposes a hard cap of 7.5 gallons per square foot of landscape. That’s about a foot of water, or roughly half of the supplemental water required in Colorado for Kentucky bluegrass. The law also requires so-called “smart” irrigation systems and alternative plants but leaves some flexibility in how developers and their consultants stay within the water budgets.
So far, 110 to 120 projects in Aspen have been reviewed, but only 15 to 20 have been executed – still too soon to discern clear results in water savings for the city, said Rob Gregor, utilities permit coordinator. Still, the city has leveled its water use and hopes to achieve even greater efficiencies in water devoted to residential and commercial landscapes. That could leave more water in Castle Creek and the Roaring Fork River, one of the goals of the program.
Durango, with 19,000 people and a projected population of 25,000 by 2035, has considered using rates to nudge high-volume users to less demanding landscapes. Justin Elkins, utilities manager, said the city hopes to encourage voluntary reductions in water use by allowing water users to monitor the volume of their use and compare it to consumption by their neighbors.
The Ute Water Conservancy District has successfully used rates to encourage water conservation. The Grand Junction-based district delivers water to rural and exurban areas of the Grand Valley from Cameo to the Utah border. Customers tend to be more responsive “when it hits them in the pocketbook,” said Andrea Lopez, the district’s external affairs manager. “As they use more water and enter into tiers that become steeper with the more they use, we usually see a reduction in use.”
That’s what Eagle River Water has done. Like Aspen, the Vail Valley has some wealthy homeowners. Under the old tier system, somebody in a smaller home paid more per gallon than somebody in a larger home, if they both used the same large volume.
Beginning in January, Roman was on the agenda of everybody from Rotary clubs to Eagle County commissioners. “Really, this is targeting our excessive users,” she told the Vail Town Council at a June meeting. “They’re the ones that are going to feel this.”
District directors in October approved the new tiered rates that intend to discourage high-volume consumption.
In Wildridge, a neighborhood on the south-facing slopes of Avon, Linn Brooks has shown what is possible in landscape conversions. Fifteen years ago, before she started transitioning her landscape, her home used 15,000 to 25,000 gallons a month. Now, it uses, at most, 7,000 gallons a month and her landscape is commanding.
The takeaway, she said, is that communities can have vibrant landscapes and protect property values – and still use less water.
Next: How did bluegrass lawns in Colorado become the default? Some trace it to the castles of Europe. Half or more of Coloradans live in neighborhoods governed by homeowners associations. Some have started to curb thirsty bluegrass, but others needed a firm nudge this year from state legislators.
Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at https://bigpivots.com and at https://aspenjournalism.org
Months of discussion on who will help decide the future of water supply in Douglas County have come to an end now that county leaders have chosen 11 members of a new volunteer board…The forming of the new volunteer board — the Douglas County Water Commission — comes against the backdrop of a controversial proposal to pump about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley in the southern part of the state…Last year, county leaders Abe Laydon and Thomas joined together in deciding not to move forward with that project, while elected leader George Teal has continued to support it. [Sean] Tonner, one of the principals of Renewable Water Resources, attracted news media attention for throwing his hat in the ring to serve on the water commission…The water commission is expected to help create a plan regarding water supply and conservation, among other aspects of water in the county. It’ll consist of unpaid volunteers, according to the county…The main members of the water commission, named on Nov. 6, include the following.
Representing District I, or northeast Douglas County:
• James Eklund, who had worked on the state’s water plan, according to county staff.(Removing the requirement for being a landowner or a resident of Douglas County allowed for choosing Eklund, who told county leaders he is “in the city and county of Denver.”)
• Jack Hilbert, formerly one of Douglas County’s elected leaders.
• Donald Langley, who serves on the Parker Water board.
Representing District II, including central and south Douglas County:
• Clark Hammelman, a former Castle Rock town councilmember.
• James Maras, a Perry Park Water and Sanitation District board member.
• Roger Hudson, a Castle Pines city councilmember.
Representing District III, or northwest Douglas County:
• Frank Johns, who said he has worked on various water plans for communities over the years. Johns serves on the board of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch.
• Evan Ela, a longtime water attorney.
• Harold Smethills, a member of the Dominion Water and Sanitation District board and a developer of the Sterling Ranch area in northwest Douglas County.
Appointees “at large,” meaning from the county as a whole, include Tonner and Tricia Bernhardt, who has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Colorado State University and a master’s degree in environmental policy and management from the University of Denver, according to a LinkedIn page.
As it works to help customers reduce their risk of lead exposure, Greeley Water must create a mapped inventory of water service line materials by October 2024 to meet federal and state regulations. This process helps the city identify and replace any remaining customer-owned lead service lines at no cost to the homeowner.
Greeley Water plans to use grant funding for the following:
Water service line inventory
Lead or galvanized service line confirmations
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping and analysis
“This grant is great news for the City of Greeley. It helps speed up our inventory process. It directs more of our available funds toward replacing service lines that contain lead,” said Keri Fishlock, an engineer with Greeley’s Water and Sewer Department.
In recent years, there has been greater national awareness of the potential health risks of lead in drinking water. Water testing confirms that water leaving Greeley’s treatment facilities is treated to a high standard and is lead-free. Yet, lead may be present in older homes’ plumbing, faucets or service lines. Greeley Water is working with customers to identify and reduce those risks.
Go to www.greeleygov.com/leadsurvey to complete a short survey about your water service line. Participants can win one of three $100 gift cards awarded monthly.
Discussion of the budget opened with PAWSD Business Manager Aaron Burns stating that the budget presentation was planned to include explanations of debt service coverage and projections — that PAWSD would have approximately $2,622,985 in excess debt service coverage in 2024 — a budget summary, a detailed examination of budget line items and discussion of 2024 capital projects. Burns noted that PAWSD’s actual expenses in a year are often lower than the budgeted expenses, which he partially attributed to difficulties in finding contractors or employees to complete the projects…
The board and District Engineer/ Manager Justin Ramsey then discussed the decision by the board at the September meeting to move forward with constructing workforce housing on a parcel adjacent to Running Iron Ranch. Ramsey noted that the funding in the budget would support initial work on creating such housing. PAWSD board member Glenn Walsh suggested that the board had not decided on the exact format for this housing, but that he believed the board was committed to “doing something really smart that helps our employees.”
Burns then reviewed the operating budget considerations, noting that the district is budgeting for 38 full- time equivalents — up one from last year — and the budget includes a 6 percent “across-the-board” wage increase. He stated that the workers’ compensation experience modification for the district decreased from 1.42 to 0.78 in 2024 and that the health insurance expenses are projected to increase by 5 percent, which he noted is less than expected…
Burns explained that the district’s annual debt service coverage ratio in the water fund dipped to a low of 0.86 in 2023 due to payments on loans for the Snowball plant expansion unex- pectedly beginning in 2023, but that the district would correct the coverage ratios in 2024 due to the ongoing rate study for the district.
PHOENIX, Ariz. — The Biden-Harris administration today announced $63.4 million in new investments as part of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda for water conservation, water efficiency, and protection of critical environmental resources in the Colorado River System. The investments, which will improve and protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future, are administered through the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program and funded by the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate investment in history.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton joined federal, Tribal and state leaders in Phoenix today to announce the execution of seven new system conservation agreements in Arizona, which will conserve up to 162,710-acre feet of water in Lake Mead through 2026. The conservation agreements will help finance voluntary system conservation to protect Colorado River reservoir storage volumes amid persistent drought conditions driven by climate change.
The new conservation agreements build on the Biden-Harris Administration’s announcement of a historic consensus-based proposal to conserve at least 3 million-acre feet of Colorado River System water through the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines are set to expire.
“Thanks to President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program is helping address, improve and protect the long-term stability of the Colorado River System,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “The Biden-Harris administration is using every tool and resource at our disposal to continue our sustained, collaborative progress in increasing water conservation across the West.”
“Addressing the drought crisis requires an all-hands-on-deck moment, and close collaboration among federal, state, Tribal and local communities. We are excited to see so many Arizona entities committing to system conservation and partnership,” said Commissioner Touton. “Together, we can come together to find solutions to meet the challenges of these unprecedented drought conditions.”
New Conservation Agreements
The System Conservation Implementation Agreements announced today will commit water entities in Arizona to conserving water in the Colorado River System. Water entities entering into these agreements include:
Historic Funding from Investing in America Agenda
President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is integral to these efforts to increase near-term water conservation, build long term system efficiency, and prevent the Colorado River System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. Because of this funding, conservation efforts have already benefited the system this year.
The seven new agreements announced today join eleven previously announced contracts in Arizona. In total, the 18 agreements executed in Arizona will commit water entities across the state to conserve up to 348,680-acre feet of water in Lake Mead in 2023, and up to 984,429-acre feet through 2026. Reclamation is working with its partners to finalize additional agreements. These agreements are part of the 3 million acre-feet of system conservation commitments made by the Lower Basin states, 2.3 million acre-feet of which will be compensated through funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, which invests a total of $4.6 billion to address the historic drought across the West.
Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is also investing another $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety.
To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once funded projects are complete:
The chances that water levels will fall below critical elevations before 2027 are now 8% at Lake Powell and 4% at Lake Mead, according to the new analysis. Previous estimates, based on September 2022 data and an assumption that nothing would change in the management of the reservoirs, had found a 57% chance of critically low elevations at Lake Powell and 52% at Lake Mead. With the improved forecasts, the federal government appears poised to move forward with a plan by the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to reduce use for the next three years. Earlier this year, federal officials proposed forcibly cutting the amount of water sent downstream to the Lower Basin if the states could not find a compromise on reducing use. On Wednesday, the officials said they had ruled out those forced cuts…
The Bureau of Reclamation now will undertake a more thorough analysis of the states’ plan. The plan, created by the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — would reduce water use by those states by 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. Most of that reduced use would be achieved through projects paid for by federal money from the Inflation Reduction Act, including conservation projects in Tucson and Phoenix. The four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — signed onto the plan this spring.
Colorado’s top negotiator for the river said in a news release Wednesday that she and her team were reviewing the revised federal analysis and considering whether the analysis can “provide meaningful and enforceable reductions in use to address near-term challenges facing the Colorado River System.”
“If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last few years, it is that we must live within the means of the river if we hope to sustain it,” said Becky Mitchell, the state’s Colorado River commissioner.
LAS VEGAS, New Mexico — The largest fire in New Mexico history began with a disastrous government agency blunder. Its consequences for land and a small northern New Mexico city’s water were magnified by man-made climate change.
In the first week of April 2022, the U.S. Forest Service was setting a controlled burn in Santa Fe National Forest near the rocky promontory of Hermit’s Peak. A tool to thin overgrown forests, prescribed fires are intended to reduce the risk of hundred-thousand-acre megafires that have recently incinerated the American West.
Fanned by shifting winds blowing across dry timber, the deliberately ignited flames jumped containment lines. Then a dormant fire in nearby Calf Canyon reignited and merged with the blaze beneath Hermit’s Peak. Combined, the fire grew into an uncontrolled juggernaut that burned 341,735 acres of public and private land over four months.
But the collision between government error and climate change that produced a colossal fire disaster in the forests of northern New Mexico didn’t end once the flames were extinguished. The fire was a prelude to a water supply emergency that the city of Las Vegas still reckons with.
The fire burned the upper reaches of the Gallinas River watershed, the drinking water source for more than 17,000 people in and around Las Vegas. The fire had plenty of fuel — the watershed hadn’t had a major burn in more than a century. Ash and sediment flushed into the river from the bald slopes of the burn scar are undeniable threats to the city’s water treatment system.
By the end of August 2022, amid heavy monsoon rains, Las Vegas had a full-blown menace: a deteriorating river and just 21 days of water remaining in storage.
The trials of Las Vegas in the last year and a half are a sharp illustration of climate vulnerability in the American West, the domino effect of climate disasters, and the cost to taxpayers of repairing the damage. Similar cautionary tales dot the region’s map. Fires in recent years have destroyed water systems in Superior, Colorado; Detroit, Oregon; Malden, Washington; and in the California locales of Paradise, Santa Rosa, and the San Lorenzo Valley.
The risk of high-severity fire is growing due to decades of fire suppression combined with a warming planet. A fuels buildup is being conditioned to burn. As the number of burned acres trends upwards, the U.S. Forest Service expects one-third of western U.S. watersheds to experience a doubling of post-fire sediment flows in rivers by mid-century. Towns downstream of flammable terrain are a lightning strike or undoused campfire away from being unable to provide reliable water service.
The seat of San Miguel County, Las Vegas is one of the poorest municipalities in one of the country’s poorest states. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire so damaged the Gallinas watershed – charring the soil and increasing the sediment load in streams – that the drinking water treatment system cannot keep up. It must be replaced.
Unable to afford such a large expense on its own, Las Vegas turned to Congress. Lawmakers were willing to open the public purse due to the federal government’s role in causing the disaster. The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act was included in a short-term budget extension that President Biden signed on September 30, 2022. It offered $2.5 billion to compensate property owners for fire damage. The final 2023 budget bill added $1.45 billion to the pot, bringing the total federal assistance for injuries and property losses to $3.95 billion. That includes $140 million to replace water treatment facilities damaged by the fire.
Las Vegas intends a complete overhaul: a new water treatment plant, equipment to remove sediment from river water before it enters the treatment facility, and a system to purify wastewater to reuse as drinking water. Full build-out might take seven years, but when all the pieces are in place it will be the largest capital project in the city’s history.
“It’s huge,” Mayor Louie Trujillo told Circle of Blue about the federal assistance. “We could have never done it. We don’t have the budget.”
A Chaotic Period
As soon as the fire started, Maria Gilvarry knew that her city’s water supply was in jeopardy.
“The watershed is our water system,” Gilvarry, the Las Vegas Utilities Department director, told Circle of Blue. “So the more of the watershed that burns, the more that impacts our ability to treat and provide water.”
Even as the forests above Las Vegas smoldered, monsoon rains pummeled the burn scar last summer, delivering huge slugs of soil and debris into the Gallinas River. “It was just day after day of brown and black water,” Gilvarry recalled. The sediment load was too thick for the 1970s-era treatment facility. Two of the city’s three reservoirs were incapacitated by the muck.
Forests are on the frontlines of climate disasters. Hotter temperatures are a hair dryer pointed at mountain slopes that bristle with dense stands of trees and understory growth.
Because forests provide a disproportionately large share of the nation’s drinking water, what happens in the woods doesn’t stay in the woods. Though forests are water sources in eastern ranges like the Appalachians and Catskills, the water-forest-fire relationship is especially acute in the drying American West.
According to U.S. Forest Service research, national forests in the western states account for just 19 percent of the land area. But they contribute 46 percent of the surface water supply. [ed. emphasis mine]
Amanda Hohner, an assistant professor at Montana State University, has spent a decade studying the effect of wildfire on municipal water systems. She says the places most vulnerable to wildfire contamination of drinking water sources share several characteristics. They are small systems with a single, surface water source — usually a river or lake. Who fits that description? The city of Las Vegas, for one.
Las Vegas has a backup groundwater well for emergencies. But Gilvarry said that mechanical problems kept it offline last summer. When the fire started, the Gallinas River was the only option.
It was a chaotic, high-stress period. Evacuated from her property, Gilvarry was running the utility department while staying in a trailer on a co-worker’s property. Her husband volunteered to fight the fire.
The utility crew shifted to round-the-clock operations at the water treatment plant, watching nervously as the fire approached — but never overran — the facility.
“Young staff members could look out and see flames,” Gilvarry said. “And, you know, they wanted to go home with their families at night. So part of my job was to counsel them and keep them safe, while also keeping water flowing for the community. And they did it — those employees were awesome.”
After the fire threat subsided, the task did not get easier. The Army Corps of Engineers installed 10-foot-tall steel Geobrugg netting across side canyons to catch large trees and boulders. The U.S. Geological Survey ramped up its stream monitoring. Straw-filled wattles, rock-filled gabions, berms, and barricades were deployed to prevent ash and sediment from entering the Gallinas. And yet it was not enough. Monsoon rains were severe, and sediment spiked.
Trujillo and Gilvarry said that Las Vegas made it through the emergency period by focusing on conservation until a temporary state-funded sediment removal system could be installed at Storrie Lake, one of the storage reservoirs. Water department staff talked with restaurants and laundries. They asked car washes to voluntarily shut down. They identified pipe leaks and sealed them. Water was brought in via truck and bottle. Trujillo made frequent appearances on radio, in town hall meetings, at the senior center, at the community college.
“The citizens were ready to help us and they did,” Trujillo said.
‘A Marathon, Not a Sprint’
High-intensity fires do more than scorch trees and destroy homes. They upend the ecological function of entire watersheds. Burned forests become riddled with impairments. Shorn of trees, the land sheds more water than before. Though more water flows downstream, the costs of megafire outweigh this benefit. Without the forest buffer, floods are more destructive and more common. The land erodes easily. More nutrients are flushed downstream.
For these reasons, the conservation groups American Rivers named the Gallinas one of the country’s most endangered rivers for 2023.
“The recovery of wildfire can be a little bit different from other natural disasters, in that the impacts can be cascading,” explained Madelene McDonald, a water scientist with Denver’s drinking water utility, which has also contended with the ripple effects of wildfires. “They’re not necessarily all at once, but it’s those repetitive storm events that can cause the greatest impact.”
It happens again and again in the western states. Nitrogen levels in Colorado streams spiked immediately after the 2002 Hayman fire and remained elevated for more than a decade. Nitrogen is a plant vitamin that feeds lake-befouling algal blooms. And that’s not the only contaminant. Carbon, organic matter, heavy metals, and sediment — all accumulate in post-fire streams.
These chemical and physical changes to land and water are impairments that Gilvarry and her staff will face for years. More organic matter in the river can interfere with drinking water treatment. Disinfection chemicals like chlorine can produce toxic byproducts when too much carbon is in the source water. Sediment also clogs reservoirs and reduces water storage capacity.
The risks for Las Vegas were not unknown. The 1994 Gallinas River Watershed Plan, a joint effort with the city, U.S. Forest Service, and Tierra y Montes Soil and Water Conservation District, noted the need to reduce the fuel load in the watershed. The Viveash fire, in year 2000, burned mostly in the adjacent Cow Creek drainage. But some 820 acres of high-intensity fire did creep into the Gallinas watershed.
“A fire of Viveash’s magnitude occurring completely in the Gallinas Watershed would be disastrous for those who depend on Las Vegas’ water quality,” according to a March 2006 environmental assessment of prescribed fire that was prepared by the Santa Fe National Forest. That is exactly what happened with Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon.
Though the summer of 2022 was a nightmare, the summer of 2023, in terms of water quality, was much better. Monsoon rains were a trickle, not a flood. Sediment levels have been manageable. All three reservoirs are functioning again.
A bright spot for Gilvarry is that Las Vegas itself did not burn. That means there are no contaminants to flush from drinking water pipes. Cities in California, Colorado, and Oregon had to deal with benzene and other volatile chemicals in their water distribution systems after fires burned within city limits.
Denver’s experience with wildfire is a template for Las Vegas’s future. Both the Hayman fire and the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire burned the watersheds above Strontia Springs reservoir, a storage facility through which 80 percent of Denver’s drinking water passes. Denver Water is still planting trees in the burn scar. Even today, more than two decades after the fires, McDonald sees sediment levels in the reservoir climb after heavy rain.
“Recovery really is a marathon and not a sprint,” McDonald said.
How can communities like Las Vegas better prepare for the race? McDonald is part of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, a group of more than 50 national and regional fire experts tasked by Congress to recommend policy solutions to the wildfire crisis.
In September the commission submitted its report. Among its many recommendations are five specific to drinking water. In essence, they focus on prevention and response. Before a fire, utilities need to map their vulnerabilities and reduce fire risk in their watersheds by thinning and incorporating low-intensity burns. Risk assessments could identify utilities in need of water infrastructure upgrades – those like Las Vegas that have a sole surface water source or do not have the equipment to handle higher sediment levels. Portland, Oregon, for instance, is building a $1.48 billion water filtration plant, scheduled for completion in 2027, that will filter sediment from post-wildfire erosion in its forested Bull Run watershed.
Congress also has a role, the commission argues. Lawmakers could authorize grant funding for these assessments and amend existing forest restoration programs so that they explicitly target funds to areas with critical sources of drinking water, even though those areas may be far from where people live. Lawmakers could expand the timeline for disaster-relief funding, acknowledging that fire can harm water quality for years.
Gilvarry points to funding as a major obstacle to protecting water for smaller, low-income areas. Even if they are aware of the risks, can they bear the adaptation costs? “For the community to have built a top-of-the-line system ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago to plan for this would have been multi-million dollars, but it would have come from the residents here,” Gilvarry said. “And I don’t think the residents could have afforded that.”
There are targeted research approaches, too. The Wildfire and Water Security project is investigating how drinking water systems can become more resilient to wildfire. Led by the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station along with academic partners at Montana State, Oregon State, and Washington State, the initiative is considering water treatment options, water quality after fires, and the economic implications of fire damage and risk-reduction costs.
At the state level, the Colorado Water Conservation Board assessed the vulnerability of drinking water infrastructure in the state to wildfire damage. Called Wildfire Ready Watersheds, the program is intended to enable community-level preparation before a fire.
Critical to the effort is the U.S. Forest Service. Armed with $3.5 billion from the two-year-old Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to prepare communities for wildfire, the land management agency has adopted a “fireshed” approach in responding to the wildfire crisis. Firesheds are forest and rangeland units of roughly 250,000 acres that, if wildfire erupted, could damage homes, watersheds, water supplies, utility lines, and other critical infrastructure.
The U.S. Forest Service did not make any staff available for an interview. “The agency collaborates in the development and implementation of source water protection plans,” the press office wrote to Circle of Blue in an email. “In many places, we have agreements with local municipalities on how activities in the municipal watershed will be carried out to ensure the drinking water supply is protected; some of these agreements go back decades.”
A year after being pushed to the brink, Las Vegas residents celebrated the return of the People’s Faire, a community arts festival held on August 26 that had been absent for three years due to Covid and the fire.
Food and crafts vendors lined the sun-dappled lawn in front of the Monticello-inspired Carnegie Library, while children plotted their moves on a giant chess board.
Trujillo, in sunglasses and a stylish floral shirt, acted as unofficial host, greeting nearly everyone who passed by. For a moment, on a warm late-summer day, the water emergency was a memory and all was right in Las Vegas.
“It’s nice that we have all this,” an older woman told him.
Her friend, who was shopping for Christmas presents, agreed. “When I lived in Oregon, we didn’t have the parades,” she said. “We didn’t have all this stuff that we have here. So it is nice. This little town does a lot.”
A wet winter and strong runoff season have drastically reduced the possibility that water levels in lakes Powell and Mead will drop to “critical elevations” in the next three years, according to a newly updated draft statement released by the federal government on Wednesday [October 25, 2023]. Citing updated hydrological data, the updated draft statement indicates the short-term outlook for the two drought-stricken reservoirs is not as dire as previously thought…
Estimates in the new draft statement, released by the Bureau of Reclamation — the federal agency overseeing dams at the reservoirs — show a 49 and 48 percentage point decrease in the likelihood that water levels in lakes Powell and Mead will drop to critical elevations by 2027. This assumes the bureau and states take no additional action to alter existing reservoir operation guidelines. The decrease is in comparison with estimates from a previous statement released in April. According to the new draft statement, these likelihoods have dropped to only eight and four percent in Powell and Mead, respectively. A Wednesday press release defined “critical elevations” as low water levels that would threaten hydropower production and water releases through the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams.
Wednesday’s draft statement attributes the reservoir’s brighter short-term outlook to a wet 2022/23 winter and a strong runoff season in the upper Colorado River basin. The newly revised draft statement used hydrological data from June, 2023, for its modeling, whereas the original document used hydrological data from September, 2022.
The newly revised draft statement, titled the “Near-term Colorado River Operations: Revised Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement,” is the second version of a draft document released in April, which is meant to weigh the impacts of potential adjustments to dam operation guidelines at lakes Powell and Mead through 2026. According to Wednesday’s draft statement, the bureau is considering adjustments to dam operation guidelines because of “extraordinary circumstances” created by dropping water levels in lakes Powell and Mead. In 2022, declining water levels had reached all-time lows in both reservoirs. The bureau has expressed concern that existing dam operation guidelines created in 2007, along with existing drought contingency plans, would not be enough to sustain the reservoirs in the face of extended drought. According to a Wednesday press release, the statement is part of an ongoing effort to “address the ongoing drought and impacts from the climate crisis” and “protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety through 2026.”
The City of Grand Junction is considering taking water from the Gunnison River to augment its current supply from the Kannah Creek watershed, which is estimated to need bolstering in about 15 years.
“The city’s primary water source is the Kannah Creek watershed,” Utilities Director Randi Kim said at an Oct. 16 City Council workshop. “And we are projecting that that watershed will not yield sufficient supply to carry us into the longer term future.”
Kim said the city could need to supplement the Kannah Creek watershed with additional sources around 2039.
“We’re looking at our water rights on the Gunnison River,” Kim said. “To do that, we’re conducting a feasibility study this year to evaluate the conversion of two gravel pits along the Gunnison River to water storage reservoirs, and the associated piping and pumping to bring that water to our water treatment plant to supplement those supplies.”
The city is proposing $600,000 in its draft 2024 budget for engineering and design work on converting the gravel pits. Kim said city staffers are looking at grants to help fund the project.
The city recently completed a $35.5 million project expanding the treatment plant’s capacity and improving the quality of water the city discharges into the river. Though the city plans to rebuild and improve the front end of the process, the city’s Nitrification Project mostly expanded the capacity for biological treatment processes that remove nitrogen and phosphorous to meet state and federal regulations…Nitrogen and phosphorus support the growth of algae and aquatic plants, but too much causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Algae blooms can severely reduce or eliminate oxygen in the water, harming fish populations and elevating toxins and bacterial growth in the water…
The city contracted with Garney Construction to complete the improvements at the plant, which took about 200,000 hours of work. Cadee Oakleaf, the project manager, said everyone involved had to plan carefully to prevent any interruptions in service to Greeley water customers. This included temporary piping throughout the plant and working overnight as wastewater collected in an empty basin when work required the plant to temporarily stop a step in the process.
“It was very meticulous planning, planning for months ahead of time at times,” Oakleaf said. “To bring on the new basins, we actually started talking about it a year in advance.”
Lab testing and real-time measurements at the plant have indicated the project was successful at further removing nitrogen and phosphorus, [Tyler] Eldridge said.
A final environmental impact statement for Fort Collins’ proposed Halligan Reservoir expansion is out, and now the public has about a month to weigh in on it. The Halligan Reservoir project north of Fort Collins would expand the reservoir from 6,400 acre-feet to 14,600 acre-feet to help the city meet its projected water demands through 2065. The reservoir stores water from the Poudre River, which makes up half of Fort Collins Utilities’ water supply.
“The project will provide added space to store Utilities’ water rights, enabling a more robust, resilient, and reliable water supply for Utilities’ current and future customers,” according to a news release from Fort Collins Utilities.
The project would require excavation and would discharge dredged or fill material into the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River and adjacent wetlands, so it requires approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the federal Clean Water Act. Since a draft environmental impact study, or EIS, came out in 2019, the city has modified its plans to address some challenges in meeting guidelines for dam safety and construction. Rather than raising the height of the current dam by about 25 feet, it now plans to build a replacement dam that is 26 feet higher than the current dam. It would be located about 200 feet downstream. The existing dam, which is more than 110 years old, would be either partially or fully removed.
“We learned about the WaterSMART grant pretty late,” Bachran said. “It will supplement the cost to finish the hydrogeology study and move into actionable items. That’s what this grant’s going for…
The hydrogeological study is allegedly the driving force and conduit to discovering all that needs to be done with the town’s water system. So far, $25,000 has been allegedly secured through the Water Supply Reserve Fund and the Colorado River District, while the Colorado Water Conservation Board provides $122,983 in funding. According to Bachran, if the town qualifies for the Water SMART strategic planning grant, staff can secure additional funds for the “full comprehensive plan of our water system” from start to finish, financing the hydrogeology study and completing much more needed work. The planning grant process costs $500,113, but the town has matching funds from the above agencies to cover that cost.
Bachran said the planning grant process would help both in-town and out-of-town water companies, ditch companies, farmers and ranchers, and it’s the first step to applying for other federal grants. Bachran asked for letters of support for as many water companies as possible, and she said they would contact them all in the end. An audience participant said she was glad the study would include all the water companies.
More than 50 people applied to serve on the Douglas County Water Commission, a new entity that is expected to help shape the future of water supply in a continually growing county. After county leaders narrowed the pool of applicants down to 12 whom they wanted to bring in for interviews, the applicants fielded questions, including ones about their connections and any conflicts of interest they might carry. The water commission is expected to help create a plan regarding water supply and conservation, among other aspects of water in the county. It’ll consist of unpaid volunteers, according to the county’s elected leaders.
The forming of the new body comes against the backdrop of a controversial proposal to pump about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley, a region of Southern Colorado. Renewable Water Resources is the private company that proposed the project. Last year, county leaders Laydon and Lora Thomas joined together in deciding not to move forward with that project, while county leader George Teal has continued to support it.
The plant now meets all new and existing state and federal regulations, while also ensuring the continued protection of local rivers. The improvements — which started in 2019 — cost $35.5 million and took more than 200,000 work hours to complete, according to a release by the City of Greeley. Construction stayed on schedule and on budget, and the plant operated without any service disruptions throughout. The city also spread out the cost over several years to reduce the burden on ratepayers.
A two-year dam rehabilitation construction project at South Catamount Reservoir will begin October 15th when the North Slope Recreation Area (NSRA) closes for its season. This planned work and closure will continue through Spring 2026. This construction project will result in the closure of all public motor vehicle access to South Catamount and North Catamount due to the use of heavy machinery on the roadway. In addition, access to the public through permitted guided recreational activities, such as fishing and paddle boarding, will not be allowed and their future is uncertain. Hiking access to North Catamount Reservoir will be available during the project but is subject to construction project planning. Crystal Creek Reservoir reopened to the public this summer following similar rehabilitation work to its dam. It will remain open for public recreation for the 2024-2025 seasons. For more information, please email Colorado Springs Utilities at email@example.com or call 719-668-7765.
The Upper Colorado River Basin Compact was signed by representatives from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming on October 11, 1948, after over two years of negotiations. It was an attempt to resolve the allocation of water among the five states, and for three quarters of a century it performed that task well.
But as we approach the middle of the third decade of the 21st century, the challenges of overallocation of Colorado River, over-appropriation of the water we have, and climate change reducing the river’s flows, the Upper Basin Compact and the extended body of rules in which it is embedded are showing their age.
At its simplest, the Upper Basin Compact divided the water use available from the 7.5 million acre-feet per year apportioned to the Upper Basin by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The compact accomplished two major tasks:
It apportioned the consumptive use of water among the Upper Basin states using percentage allocations. Colorado received 51.75%, New Mexico 11.25%, Utah 23%, and Wyoming 14% of the water available for use in the Upper Basin. Arizona received a fixed 50,000 acre-feet per year.
It defined the obligations of the Upper Division states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) to deliver water to the Lower Basin at Lee Ferry to satisfy the requirements of the Colorado River Compact.
In pursuing a new set of post-2026 Colorado River Operating rules, major water agencies and state leaders have insisted that the “Law of the River” – the suite of rules dating to the 1922 Colorado River Compact and including the Upper Basin Compact – should be a fundamental guiding principle of future river management. “The Post-2026 Operations should reside in a framework consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the Law of the River,” the Central Arizona Project wrote, to cite one example among many. But a careful review of the history of the Upper Basin Compact shows how tenuous a foundation the Law of the River provides, and how uncertain any attempt at “reasonable interpretation” might be, because of fundamental uncertainties about what the Law actually says.
When the Upper Basin compact was signed there was agreement on the definition of the “what” to which the percentage allocations apply. Water use in the Upper Basin was limited by water availability after meeting the Colorado River Compact’s Lee Ferry delivery requirements. Today, because of the impacts of climate change on flows, there is no such agreement and there are claims that the intent of the compact was to provide an equal amount of water for use to each basin. This creates deep uncertainty in the actual volumes of water available to each state.
There is still no consensus on how to measure consumptive use basin-wide. The Upper and Lower Basins use different methods, and Lower Basin tributary use is neither well understood nor quantified. This makes managing the river system challenging.
The Upper Division States claim overuse by the Lower Basin based by using one measurement method, while using a different method for their own uses. There is valid dispute over these theories and methodologies.
Tribal water rights remain unresolved and limited in some cases by provisions aimed at preventing tribes from using their full legal entitlements.
In negotiating the Upper Basin Compact, the states made key decisions on critical compact issues that continue to echo through 21st century water management.
Colorado River management has always suffered under controversy and ambiguity around the question of how to measure consumptive use. The Colorado River Compact did not include a definition of “beneficial consumptive use.” In the century since it was signed, two competing (and conflicting) methods have been used: diversions less return flow, and stream depletion. On some scales, they may look the same. But on large enough scales, they do not, in ways that have profound implications for 21st century river management decisions.
Under the stream depletion theory, each basin’s consumptive use is measured as the net reduction in natural flows caused by man-made activities. For example, the Upper Basin’s consumptive use would be calculated as the amount that upstream uses deplete the natural flow of the river at Lee Ferry.
During the Upper Basin Compact negotiations, Colorado and Arizona were the main proponents of this theory. It was ultimately adopted in Article VI of the Upper Basin compact as the method for measuring consumptive use.
But the stream depletion theory is not universally used in river management today. It is, for example, used to quantify reservoir evaporation in the Upper Basin, but not the Lower Basin. It is not used to measure Lower Basin mainstream uses, where the “diversions minus return flows” method is used instead. Uses on the Lower Basin tributaries, which are included in the compact definition of “Colorado River System” are currently not measured at all – using either theory.
ALLOCATING STATE WATER BY PERCENTAGES RATHER THAN ABSOLUTE AMOUNT
The Upper Basin Compact is frequently praised for state-by-state allocations based on percentages (except Arizona), rather than absolute numbers, thus avoiding the mistake in the Colorado River Compact that over-allocated the river’s water.
But modern policy discussions are unsettled on a central issue – percentage of what? On their own, the percentages are meaningless without reference to some sort of underlying total amount of water available to be shared among the states.
When negotiating the Upper Basin Compact, the states’ representatives were clear on what they intended as the basis for using the percentages. They intended to apply the percentages to the amount of water available for consumptive use in the Upper Basin after meeting what they viewed as their compact “delivery obligations” at Lee Ferry.
Today, there is no such consensus. Climate change has altered the river’s hydrology, putting the burden of impacts on the Upper Basin. Its leaders have responded by arguing that the compact’s negotiator’s intention was to equally divide the water available to each basin for use. Since climate change is causing a decline in natural flows, whatever Lee Ferry obligations the Upper Division States have must now be adjusted to reflect the new hydrologic reality.
Resolving this issue requires either litigation, negotiated settlement, or collectively agreeing on a modified approach – one that appropriately factors in climate change and maintains the benefits of the 1948 flexible percentage allocations.
While large Native American water needs and legal entitlements were identified before the Upper Basin Compact was negotiated, Tribal communities were excluded from the negotiations. Instead, Indian water use, which the negotiators knew was legally perfected long before 1922, was lumped into state allocations, with each state being responsible for meeting tribal needs from its share of the water. This gamble set up a potential conflict between the apportionments made by the Upper Basin Compact and the protections provided Indian rights under the Colorado River Compact.
A decade after the compact was signed, this conflict became real. In response, Upper Basin leaders took steps to limit tribal water rights and prevent full use of tribal entitlements, by inserting provisions in project authorizing legislation. The implications today are a legacy of intentional discrimination against tribes, unresolved legal questions around tribal water rights, and provisions that treat Native Americans as second-class citizens.
 Brenda Burman letter to Bureau of Reclamation, Aug. 15, 2023. See also comments by the state of Wyoming, the Salt River Project, the state of Colorado and the Upper Colorado River Commission.
Ranchers and farmers across the Colorado River Basin, who control roughly 80% of the drought-strapped river’s flows, are reluctant to sign up for voluntary, government-funded water conservation programs for a variety of reasons identified in a new report.
Chief among them are a fear of losing their water rights, seeing their water use reduced, and engaging with far-off bureaucracies that they believe aren’t qualified to help.
The WLA launched the research effort to better understand how agricultural water users in the region view different water conservation efforts and what it would take to convince them to participate. Hallie Mahowald, a co-author of the report and chief programs officer at the WLA, said in a webinar in September that the landowners will be key to finding solutions to the growing shortages on the river because they control so much of its water.
“We feel it is critical to understand landowner perspective and to solicit landowner input if we are going to develop successful strategies to address Western water shortages,” she said.
The report comes as the river basin remains mired in a long-running drought that has come close to crippling lakes Powell and Mead and experiences ongoing shortages as climate change continues to sap its flows.
At the same time, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding is being made available to help the Colorado River Basin states better manage the river, reduce water use, and develop programs to sustain the basin’s cities and farms as the region continues to warm.
Drew Bennett, MacMillan Professor of Practice in Private Lands Stewardship at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, said the survey results show a disconnect between ranchers and farmers and the agencies who are charged with overseeing Colorado River Basin water management. In fact, more than 85% of those surveyed said they did not trust the water agencies that help manage the giant river system.
“We need to build additional trust…it will be absolutely critical moving forward,” Bennett said.
And while more than 50% of those surveyed are engaging in at least limited conservation practices, they are not interested in doing more if their water rights aren’t strongly protected, if they are not adequately compensated, and if the programs aren’t administered locally.
This lack of trust, the report says, “may create a barrier to gaining buy-in for new water management strategies, even if they are supported by significant funding from state and federal government agencies.”
The river basin spans seven states. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin includes Arizona, California and Nevada.
Researchers broke out survey responses based on which basin a grower operates in. Key findings of the report include:
97% of Upper Basin growers (Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah) and 96% of Lower Basin growers (Arizona, California and Nevada) are worried about coming shortage-related changes in water policy and new constraints on their water use.
Just 14% of Upper Basin growers and 13% of Lower Basin growers believe that existing water policies and management practices are adequate to address coming shortages.
69% of Upper Basin and 74% of Lower Basin growers have implemented at least one water conservation practice, largely in response to local water shortages.
56% of growers in both basins would engage in programs to improve their water delivery systems if funding is provided.
Just 8% of Upper Basin and 18% of Lower Basin growers would participate in programs that would fallow, or cease production, on the same field for multiple years.
And just 13% of Upper Basin and 14% of Lower Basin growers said there was a high level of trust between water users and water management agencies.
In Colorado, the Colorado Ag Water Alliance has been working to help producers use water more efficiently to prepare for future droughts and manage with less water. But CAWA’s Executive Director Greg Peterson said it’s a difficult task.
“Our goal is to help these people survive. People [who don’t farm] don’t actually understand that there are few opportunities to reduce water use in an agricultural setting,” Peterson said. “You might be able to reduce water use by 5% or maybe 10% without reducing yields. But it’s not easy to do.”
Wyoming and other basin states have begun installing sophisticated new technologies that help determine how much water crops consume, known as consumptive use, and how much water runs off and returns to the river or natural environment after a field has been irrigated. This is a critical measurement because it is only the consumptive use portion of irrigation water that can be administratively “saved” as water left in the river system.
Jeff Cowley is administrator for interstate streams in the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, the top water regulator in the state. Cowley is implementing new conservation technologies and working with growers who are already participating in one of the new federal programs known as the System Conservation Pilot Program.
Homing in on how much water is saved and left in the river is a complicated question whose answer differs from field to field and crop to crop. When water was plentiful, before the drought and climate change, there was enough water that this kind of precision wasn’t required. But that is no longer the case.
Cowley said this new level of precision is another critical factor in working with skeptical farmers and ranchers because it provides some certainty on what impact programs could have on their water supplies.
“Folks are attached to their water,” Cowley said. “They are willing to try new things, but not on their own dime.”
And any given year, he said, “there is not a lot of room for mistakes.”
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
More by Jerd Smith Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Click here to download the report. (Bennett, D., Lewis, M., Mahowald, H., Collins, M., Brammer, T., Byerly Flint, H., Thorsness, L., Eaton, W., Hansen, K., Burbach, M., and Koebele, E. 2023.). Here’s the executive summary:
Executive Summary The Colorado River Basin is in crisis. There is no longer enough water for all of those who depend on it. The agricultural sector is the largest water user in the Colorado River Basin, meaning that farmers and ranchers are central to both the impacts of and solutions to water shortages. Their involvement will be key to developing effective policy solutions to today’s water crisis.
We surveyed 1,020 agricultural water users throughout six states in the Colorado River Basin to understand their perspectives on the present crisis, their current water conservation practices, and their preferences for strategies to address water shortages going forward. Agricultural water users were primarily concerned about how the current situation could impact water policy, constrain irrigators’ own water use, and constrain other agricultural water users. We also conducted qualitative research to capture preferences for local approaches to managing water and provide additional context on dynamics in the Colorado River Basin, including interviews with 12 agricultural producers and water experts and a focus group with 10 agricultural water users in Colorado.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found agricultural water users are already responding to water shortages. Roughly 70% of surveyed agricultural water users have already adopted one or more water conservation practices or adaptation strategies. Importantly, many would consider adopting additional practices. Despite this, few respondents participated in or were aware of formal programs to support water conservation. One exception, however, was the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). A third of respondents currently or previously participated in EQIP and an additional 37% were aware of the program. Information gathered from interviews and the focus group identified multiple burdens to participation in EQIP and similar programs, and several participants thought the benefits were not worth the effort. These insights suggest an opportunity for revisiting how formal programs meant to incentivize water conservation connect with water users.
Most survey respondents were unlikely to adopt water conservation practices as part of formal demand management or system conservation programs to address water shortages. Only one of eight practices included in the survey – enhancing water delivery systems – had a majority of respondents state that they were likely to adopt the practice. The remaining seven practices had a considerably lower likelihood of adoption. Respondents were also generally opposed to water transfers as a solution to shortages. Opposition was strongest to permanent transfers broadly, as well as to temporary transfers from agricultural to non-agricultural uses. Only temporary transfers from agricultural water users to other agricultural water users had less than 50% opposition. Major barriers to supporting water transfers included concerns about losing water rights, even in temporary transfer arrangements, as well as insufficient financial compensation. Addressing these concerns will be critical to increase participation of agricultural water users in demand management or system conservation. Still, although support for temporary water transfers and demand management practices was low, even equivalently low participation (e.g., 10% to 20%) could help address water shortages as part of a portfolio of strategies for the Colorado River Basin.
We also documented an overwhelming preference for local approaches to managing water shortages and a trust gap with non-local agencies. This was evidenced by respondents’ preference for the local management of formal programs, such as some of the demand management and system conservation programs under consideration, as well as for the administration of funding for water conservation and other programs. Qualitative research participants communicated that strategies to address water shortages must account for the diversity of local contexts across the Colorado River Basin. These strategies could therefore be best implemented at the local level through existing delivery infrastructure and by managers with track records of success. State and federal water managers and agencies involved in program delivery should emphasize building trust with agricultural water users and gaining knowledge about unique features of local contexts. Simply providing additional funding for formal water conservation programs may be inadequate to meet the diversity of challenges across an area of 246,000 square miles. Developing opportunities for dialogue and listening can help foster relationships and improve trust among key stakeholders.
Given the importance of agriculture as the primary water user in the Colorado River Basin, proactively engaging agricultural communities will be critical to successfully managing water shortages. Understanding the perspectives and preferences of agricultural water users, as documented in this report, can help guide the development of solutions that work for producers and other users in the Basin.
DENVER — Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023 — The Denver Board of Water Commissioners on Wednesday, Oct. 11, adopted rate changes to help pay for important upgrades, projects and ongoing maintenance and repair work to keep its system operating efficiently while keeping rates as low as good service will allow.
The new rates take effect Jan. 1, 2024, and for typical single-family residential customers who receive a bill from Denver Water, if they use the same amount of water in 2024 as they did in 2023, the new rates will increase their monthly bill by an average of $1.60 to $2.30 over the course of the year, depending on where they live.
“Denver Water is at a pivot point. These are historic times and we’ll be affected, just as the communities we serve will be affected, by climate change, population growth, variability in the economy, inflation and supply chains,” said Alan Salazar, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager who joined the organization in August.
“Water is a crucial resource that supports all of us. You can’t have civilization without it. Continuing to maintain and invest in the system that supports our water supply will ensure we — Denver Water as well as our customers — are ready for what lies ahead, while keeping rates as low as good service will allow.”
Denver Water expects to invest $1.9 billion over the next 10 years in projects that will maintain, repair, protect and upgrade the system and make it more resilient and flexible in the future. The utility is committed to ensuring the system can reliably deliver safe, clean and affordable water to its customers while mitigating the effects of the economy, from inflation to supply chain issues, on its costs.
More details on the rate increase can be found at these links:
Water rates to rise slightly in 2024 — Provides details on Denver Water’s rate structure and how the increase impacts customer bills, including an infographic visually highlighting the impacts to customers inside and outside of Denver.
Major investment on tap — Highlights what water rates help pay for with an overview of some of the projects that make up the utility’s 10-year forecast for an estimated $1.9 billion investment into the system that supports about 25% of the state’s population, including Colorado’s capital city. The story includes a video highlighting some of the current projects including the expansion of Gross Reservoir, the Lead Reduction Program that is replacing customer-owned lead service lines at no direct cost to the customer, the new Northwater Treatment Plant under construction north of Golden and the new water quality laboratory now operational at the National Western Center near downtown. The investment forecast also includes improving and replacing aging water mains under the streets and improving the overall flexibility and resiliency of the system and our communities.
Since January 2020, Denver Water has replaced more than 20,000 customer-owned lead service lines at no direct cost to the customers.
The utility in 2022 signed a Memorandum of Understanding with several water utilities across the West to reduce the use of water-intensive Kentucky bluegrass in places where it’s purely decorative, such as traffic medians.
…driving all over Costilla County and manually opening and closing gates or placing tarps to direct water is time intensive — especially since Lobato and his family all work other full-time jobs in addition to farming.
“You have to work a day job to afford to farm or ranch,” he said.
The Lobatos are one of the first farming families in the state to try a new, Colorado-grown technology aimed at reducing farmers’ workload and managing Colorado’s shrinking water supply more efficiently. The Auto Tarp allows farmers to remotely drop irrigation gates and monitor weather and soil conditions from their phones. The 3D-printed gadget was created in a garage outside Gunnison by a rancher who decided water users without lots of money should also have access to water efficiency tools…Three ranchers and farmers have adopted the technology so far as state and regional authorities work to help agricultural water users cut their water use or use water more efficiently as Colorado and the West endure two decades of drought and prepare for long-term projected aridification…
Creating more water-efficient and labor-saving irrigation systems is crucial in the West, said Perry Cabot, a research scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center. Cabot is working on a project that would use artificial intelligence to monitor and water fields…Kruthaupt started working on the tool in his garage several years ago. The device uses a powerful magnet to hold an irrigation gate open until a user remotely tells the Auto Tarp to release the magnet. When the magnet is released, the gate drops into the ditch and blocks the water’s flow, causing water to spill out of the ditch and flood nearby fields. Other people had attempted to create a similar device — one involved a wind-up mechanical timer — but nothing had made it to the market, he said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Trout Unlimited a three-year Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant to continue to develop the technology.
…at the beginning of last year. Speaking to the Nebraska Legislature, then-Gov. Pete Ricketts outlined a plan.
“To secure Nebraska’s water supply I am recommending $500 million to construct a canal and water reservoir system from the South Platte River. Access to this water enables our farmers and ranchers to produce. It provides for quality drinking water, and keeps electric generation costs manageable,” Ricketts said.
That $500 million proposal has now grown to $628 million. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly twice the cost of the new prison Nebraska is planning to build. In a news conference, Ricketts claimed Colorado was violating an interstate compact with Nebraska.
“During the non-irrigation season, Colorado has not been providing us the water that is called for under the Compact. Their near-term goals show that going down, and should all the long-term goals be effected, they would reduce the amount of water flows coming to the state of Nebraska by 90 percent,” he said.
Responding to Ricketts, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis insisted that state is fulfilling its obligations to Nebraska. Speaking to members of the Colorado General Assembly, he struck a defiant note, as reported by CBS News Colorado.
“Know this: We will continue to protect and aggressively assert Colorado’s water rights under all existing water compacts,” Polis said.
A Polis spokesman described the Perkins proposal as a “canal to nowhere” and a “boondoggle.” Whether the canal is a good idea or not, it’s one that’s been around for a long time. Perkins County farmers actually started digging an irrigation canal in Colorado in 1894, but gave up within a year after promoters ran out of money.
In response to claims by principals of Renewable Water Resources, officials this week with the Colorado Division of Water Resources reiterated that the Upper Rio Grande Basin is over-appropriated and has no surface or groundwater available for a new appropriation.
The reply from state water officials came in response to questions from Alamosa Citizen after the Douglas County Future Fund made a series of claims in a recent newsletter it publishes to influence decision-makers in Douglas County.
RWR principals, who include former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and political strategist Sean Tonner, have been working to convince Douglas County commissioners that there is water available in Rio Grande Basin that Douglas County could own and pump into the Front Range bedroom community.
The search for a future water source by suburban communities like Douglas County is one of the pitched battles of the climate-influenced 21st century. The storyline goes like this: Sprawling suburban communities that blew up during the 1980s and ’90s and first decades of the 21st century are on the hunt for new water sources as periods of extreme drought and intensified changes to surface temperatures reduce the availability of water as a natural resource.
The agricultural corridors of America, meanwhile, are working to reduce their own consumption of water through technological advances and through reducing the amount of acreage used to grow crops.
It’s a classic new battle: population centers vs. rural regions, and there is no clearer example of the conflict than Renewable Water Resources and its efforts to export 22,000 acre-feet of water from the Upper Rio Grande Basin to Colorado’s Front Range on a perpetual basis.
“The San Luis Valley has 1.02 billion acres of unused water, because it sits over the second-largest aquifer in the United States,” is one of the claims RWR made in a Douglas County Future Fund newsletter in September.
Another claim it made as fact: “The RWR project proposes to use 22,000 acre-feet. This water would come from the confined aquifer in the San Luis Valley, which is fully renewable within five days of runoff from the San Luis Valley mountain ranges.”
Neither is the case and both claims fly in the face of state groundwater rules governing irrigators’ use of water in the Valley. The lack of recharge and dropping levels of the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Rio Grande Basin have pushed state water engineers to develop specific groundwater usage rules in an effort to restore the aquifers and save the Rio Grande Basin. Each irrigation season, the state curtails water usage along the Rio Grande Basin, which impacts farming and ranching production in the Valley as Colorado works to control the water availability and meet its own obligations to New Mexico and Texas under the Rio Grande Compact.
“At this time the Division of Water Resources is not going to comment on the specific details included in the newsletter produced by the Douglas County Future Fund. However, due to the over-appropriated nature of our water system, there is no surface or groundwater available for a new appropriation in Water Division 3, the Rio Grande Basin in Colorado,” said state water Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten.
Douglas County recently created a 12-member water commission to advise it on water issues. The new committee includes Tonner, who uses the Douglas County Future Fund newsletter to make the case for Renewable Water Resources’ water exportation proposal.
The Douglas County water commission members include:
District 1 Merlin Klotz, James Myers, Donald Lagley
District 2 Clark Hammelman, James Maras, Roger Hudson
District 3 Frank Johns, Evan Ela, Kurt Walker, Harold Smethillis
At-large Seats Sean Tonner, Tricia Bernhard
Water managers on the Rio Grande Basin continue to monitor the efforts in Douglas County. The county government in Douglas County is not set up to be a water provider and is dealing with its own conflicts.
The Douglas County commissioners have been advised by attorneys that the Renewable Water Resource concept is littered with problems and would have difficulty gaining traction in state district water court.
Any effort to export water from the San Luis Valley would get tied up for years in state water court. The six counties in the San Luis Valley also recently banded together to create local planning rules that local officials believe would block a water exportation plan from moving forward.
By way of overview, the CWCB is involved in an amazing number of activities. It oversees the interstate compact compliance on water usage. It works on watershed protection, flood planning, and mitigation. It oversees stream and lake protection, as well as conservation and drought planning. The CWCB oversees water project loans and grants, water use modeling, and water supply planning focused on appropriate stewardship of the state’s water resources; which contrary to the public’s perceptions, is not an infinite resource.
The agendas for these every-other-month sessions are extensive. After moving through the director’s reports, it dived into 18 water plan grants. They ranged from a Colorado Cattlemen’s Association grant to scale up agriculture water education and funding outreach, to a San Luis Valley Rye Resurgence project, to the Blue River Watershed groups habitat restoration project to the Bernhardt Reservoir Water Storage Project for the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District.
Moving from water grants to water project loans, a big topic was a water supply reserve fund application from the Colorado Ag Water Alliance covering nine river basins: Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, Metro, North Platte, Rio Grande, South Platte, Southwest, and the Yampa/White/Green basin. Its purpose is to improve agricultural drought resilience and support innovative water conservation.
Near the end of the two-day meeting, the group moved into an executive session to dive into the critical post-2026 Colorado River negotiations. As a Colorado River Upper Basin state, the long-term division of this critical western water resource is becoming contentious, as Upper Basin states remind California, Nevada, and Arizona that they have been using far more than their share.
A Carbondale ditch company is looking for sources of funding after 30-foot-deep sinkholes caused the ditch to collapse in early September, cutting off water to downstream irrigators.
The East Mesa Ditch pulls water from the Crystal River mostly to irrigate about 740 acres of hay and alfalfa south of Carbondale. The ditch operator, East Mesa Water Co., received approval Sept. 20 for an emergency loan up to $418,140 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to pipe the ditch and relocate it away from the area prone to sinkholes. The piped section will include a siphon and be about 1,500 feet long.
According to the CWCB memo, about 34% of the acres irrigated by the East Mesa Ditch are currently without water. The ditch is able to pull 41.8 cubic feet per second from the Crystal River using two water rights, the oldest of which dates to 1902.
East Mesa Water Co.’s secretary and treasurer, Richard McIntyre, said at the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board meeting in September that the company would like to repair the ditch as soon as possible — definitely before next irrigation season — but first, they have to do a geophysical investigation so that they can avoid more sinkhole issues in the future. The ditch company, which has 12 shareholders, also plans to ask for grant money from the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s Community Funding Partnership as well as the Healthy Rivers program.
McIntyre and water company president Tim Nieslanik gave a presentation during the Healthy Rivers board meeting, held Sept. 21, but declined to speak further with Aspen Journalism. They have not yet asked Healthy Rivers for a specific amount of money.
“That is really going to depend on what the geophysicist discovers in this mesa and where the stable ground is,” McIntyre said. “You guys know water is kind of the lifeline for the ranchers here. Without it, we’re washed up, so to speak.”
Some Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board members see the East Mesa Ditch repair project as not only an opportunity to help local agricultural producers but a chance to potentially benefit the Crystal River.
“We are excited about opportunities where we can both help out the ranchers and farmers that are being hurt by this damage to the canal but also set ourselves up for a partnership in the future where we can look at opportunities for water savings that can potentially be returned to the environment or ways to manage the ditch in a way that benefits the Crystal River more so than it has in its current state,” Healthy Rivers board vice chair Kirstin Neff said.
On the Western Slope, agriculture efficiency infrastructure projects — such as upgrading headgates and diversion structures, lining and piping ditches, and replacing flood-irrigated meadows with sprinkler systems — are often funded with grants from public entities and environmental organizations. Pitkin County Healthy Rivers also helped to fund repairs to the East Mesa Ditch in 2016.
The idea is that when irrigators have more-efficient systems, they don’t need to take as much water from the river, leaving more for the benefit of the environment and recreation. But whether these agricultural efficiency projects actually result in more water in the river is unclear. Some say it’s likely that if irrigators can more easily access their full water right, they will use more — unless they are paid not to do so.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, Neff asked how the project would support Healthy Rivers’ mission, which is to improve the water quality and quantity in the Roaring Fork River watershed.
Nieslanik responded that the East Mesa Water Company is interested in leasing some of their water for the benefit of the environment. An example of this is a program that allows irrigators to temporarily loan water to the state’s instream flow program. Colorado water law was tweaked in 2020 to make it more attractive to water-rights holders and effective as a conservation tool, and ranchers in the Gunnison River basin are leasing their water through this program.
“We’d actually like to lease water to help pay back these loans,” Nieslanik said. “We have water at certain periods of time in the year after second cutting. … We would like to consider the ways that our additional water could be a monetary source for us, as well as maybe a safety net for municipalities.”
Representatives of the East Mesa Water Co. have said in the past they would be open to leaving water in the river. Also, they have let other water users borrow some of the ditch’s flow in the past. During an August 2018 first-ever call on the Crystal River, the East Mesa Ditch loaned 1 cfs to the town of Carbondale under an emergency substitute water supply plan.
“We bailed them out. They kindly sent us a check six months later for $10,000,” Nieslanik said. “We would love to do something the same way with you guys if you can help us fund this somehow.”
Nieslanik added that the company would like to get more irrigators to use sprinkler systems, which are more efficient than flood irrigation.
Finding creative arrangements with irrigators to boost streamflows on the Crystal during dry periods has long been a desire of some Healthy Rivers board members. So far, there has been just one such nondiversion agreement between rancher Bill Fales and the Colorado Water Trust that aims to leave more water in the Crystal River that he would usually divert using the Helms Ditch late in the irrigation season of dry years.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, Pitkin County Attorney John Ely voiced his approval for the county’s funding the East Mesa Ditch piping project. With agricultural water users laying claim to 86% of the water used in Colorado, many water managers who are focused on the environment agree that working with them instead of against them is the best way forward.
“The question is: How can we stay true to our charter of maintaining streamflow while helping somebody divert water from the river?,” Ely said. “You simply can’t preserve water in the river at all without someone you can work with and someone who holds a relatively senior water right. … You can’t solve the riddle of how to protect streamflow without working with agriculture.”
Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1750 cfs to 1400 cfs on Monday, October 2nd. Releases are being decreased in response to a reduction in diversions at the Gunnison Tunnel.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to remain 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, will be 1050 cfs for October through December.
Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 700 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be near 700 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
In May of 2009, three concurrent venues each showed different artwork, photo essays and educational material about ditches.
Exhibits and featured events at the Boulder Public Library drew crowds of curious Coloradans, while visitors to the Dairy Center for the Arts enjoyed eclectic displays inspired by local water scenes. Various bits of sculpture lined Boulder Creek near the headgates of the Boulder and Left Hand Ditch.
Special programs included tours, storytelling, films, and a symposium of expert speakers. Here, you can revisit parts of the Ditch Project with our comprehensive archive of images, podcasts, and movie clips.
New content will be added here sporadically. Check back here for more updates.
President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law supporting major water infrastructure project to provide clean, reliable drinking water to 39 communities in southeastern Colorado
Sep 15, 2023
LOVELAND, Colo. – The Bureau of Reclamation has awarded a contract for the second segment of trunkline of the Arkansas Valley Conduit to Pate Construction Co., Inc. for $27,216,950.00. This contract, partially funded by President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, funds construction of Boone Reach 2, which includes a 5.4 mile stretch of water pipeline and 7.4 miles of fiber conduit. Construction will follow Colorado State Highway 96 from North Avondale to Boone, Colorado.
President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance Western communities’ resilience to drought and climate change. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. An overall $160 million has been allocated so far from the Law to complete the Arkansas Valley Conduit project.
This is a major infrastructure project that, upon completion, will provide reliable municipal and industrial water to 39 communities in southeastern Colorado. The pipeline will bring water from Pueblo Reservoir to Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, Prowers, and Pueblo counties. It is projected to serve up to 50,000 people in the future; equivalent to 7,500 acre-feet of water per year.
“We’re looking forward to this next project milestone,” said Jeff Rieker, Eastern Colorado area manager. “Today’s contract award allows the project to maintain the momentum we’ve built over the past year and helps us achieve the ultimate goal of bringing clean and reliable water supplies to the people of southeastern Colorado.”
“The Arkansas Valley Conduit is vitally important to the people of the Lower Arkansas Valley, so it is very rewarding to see the Bureau of Reclamation moving ahead,” said Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, local sponsors of the Arkansas Valley Conduit. “The Southeastern District also is working to complete this project as quickly as possible to provide a better quality of water for the people of the valley.”
Work on the first segment of trunk line began in spring of 2023 with completion anticipated in 2024. Reclamation expects work on the second segment, Boone Reach 2, to begin in late 2023 with completion slated for late summer 2025.
As the Arkansas Valley Conduit project moves forward, under existing agreements, Reclamation plans to construct the trunkline, water tanks, and related components, while the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District coordinates with communities to fund and build the project’s water delivery pipelines. Eventually, the Arkansas Valley Conduit will connect 39 water systems along the 103-mile route to Lamar, Colorado.
The project will use Pueblo Water’s existing infrastructure to treat and deliver Arkansas Valley Conduit water from Pueblo Reservoir to a connection point east of the city of Pueblo along U.S. Highway 50. The project will use water from either the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project or from a participant’s water portfolio, but not from Pueblo Water’s resources.
Congress authorized Arkansas Valley Conduit in the original Fryingpan-Arkansas Project legislation in 1962 (Public Law 87-590). This project does not increase Fryingpan-Arkansas Project water diversions from the western slope of Colorado; rather, it is intended to improve drinking water quality.
Currently, many people in the areas that will be served by the Arkansas Valley Conduit rely on groundwater supplies that contain naturally occurring radionuclides, such as radium and uranium, or use shallow wells that contain harmful microorganisms and pollutants. Alternatives for these communities consist of expensive options such as reverse-osmosis, ion exchange, filtration, and bottled water.
If you have questions or need more information, please contact Anna Perea, public affairs specialist at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Eastern Colorado Area Office, at (970) 290-1185 or email@example.com. If you are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech disability, please dial 7-1-1 to access telecommunications relay services.
The buildings on the horizon, downtown Albuquerque, are a couple of miles away – foreshortened by the camera’s zoom. It’s a modest downtown, which grew up in that spot 140 years ago because the real estate entrepreneurs collaborating with the newly arrived Athchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway were able to get the land cheap. The spot where Albuquerque’s downtown sits today was basically a swamp.
If you look closely in the picture above, you can see a bit of water, a languid meander across the sand beds of a rapidly shrinking river. When I went out this morning (Sunday, Sept. 3, 2023) the Rio Grande through the Albuquerque reach was still “connected”, in the words of the river managers. But barely. The river that is central to this community’s creation story is about to go dry.
THE FORMALISMS OF A DYING RIVER
In the parking lot by the old Barelas Bridge this morning, I ran into one of the members of the RiverEyes team, a young person of my acquaintance who bicycles through the riverside woods, checking at regularly spaced access points to see if the river is still connected. The operation is part of the staggeringly complex social-hydrological-institutional apparatus around this stretch of the river.
The RiverEyes observations feed into the elaborate effort to stave off the extinction of a fish called the Rio Grande silvery minnow (Hybognathus amarus), which survives only in a couple hundred miles of the Rio Grande through central New Mexico. And in hatcheries. We’ve been doing RiverEyes-like monitoring since 1996. River drying is common south of town, but last year was the first time we needed to monitor here, through Albuquerque. This is the second.
On Friday, there were 30.6 miles of dry channel in the San Acacia Reach 75 miles downstream from Albuquerque. There were 3.6 dry miles in the Isleta Reach, 20 miles downstream from Albuquerque. Sampling in one of the wet parts of the San Acacia reach found 615 juvenile silvery minnows and 14 adults.
Here, we count fish.
THE “DEATH” OF “A LIVING RIVER”?
Some years ago, a consulting firm ran a series of interviews and focus groups among Albuquerque residents to try to better understand their attitudes toward the Rio Grande. They found that residents viewed water issues – their supply – as a major concern. The river, not so much.
The Rio Grande, in fact, was kind of an embarrassment to local residents, the consultant found – small and struggling, not what a “real” river is supposed to look like.
Though, to be fair, even with lots of water, the Rio Grande here looks nothing like what a “real” river is supposed to look like. In a more natural state, before we built a city here, the Rio Grande wandered a broad flood plain, five miles wide in places. The narrow 600-foot channel you see in the picture at the top is a 20th century creation, begun in the 1930s with levees, expanded in 1959 in a project the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called “channel rectification” meant to turn a meandering river into a more efficient water delivery canal.
In response, the flood control works created ideal habitat for the development of the cottonwoods you see flanking the river, and the magnificent gallery forest we call the “bosque” grew alongside the river for most of its 200-ish miles through central New Mexico.
Riding this morning with a friend on a twisting path through the bosque, looking for spots to get out to the river channel to see for ourselves, we had to periodically stop and carefully navigate through “Kellner jetty jacks”, big metal contraptions installed in the ’50s as part of the “rectification” effort. Their job was to slow water and hold sediment and enhance the narrowing of the river channel. In so doing, the trapped sediments made ideal seed beds for the opportunistic cottonwoods. They also can be gnarly if you’re cycling, with cables that can snag a pedal, and sharp edges that can cut out a chunk of flesh if you’re not careful.
They also are a reminder of how profoundly unnatural this lovely natural-seeming park, which I so love, really is.
In the circles in which I spend my time, there’s a lot of talk about how to maintain a “living river” here, which is an interesting conceptual framework. Maybe it means simply continuous flowing water? But the whole system is so completely hydrologically (and therefore ecologically) altered by human interventions that we quickly end up down a deep and confusing conceptual rabbit hole when we try to think too hard about what “natural” and “living river” might mean. The terms might help us think well about desired future conditions. But they also can mislead.
THE PART ABOUT HOW IT’S GOING DRY
Weirdly, the Rio Grande is going dry this year through Albuquerque for the second time in the last four years because of a lack of plumbing. El Vado Dam on the Rio Chama, a tributary, is under repairs. Normally we’d store water from the spring runoff, using it to stretch out the river’s flows into the dry months of late summer and early fall. If we’d had El Vado storage this year, I’m told, the river would have been still flowing in the spot where I was standing to take the picture at the top of the post.
Without El Vado storage, the river here will likely dry through the lower end of the Albuquerque reach early next week. The RiverEyes team is on it. They’ll let us know.
At its Aug. 24 meeting, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors heard a presentation from Carol Malesky of Stantec on the rate study Stantec is performing for the district. Malesky explained that the rate study being presented to the board is the first part of the study Stantec is working on and that the study aims to evaluate what the district’s water and wastewater funding needs will be over the next 10 years…
She stated that the water and wastewater funds were analyzed as separate utilities, which she noted is a “sound” management practice, and that the study attempts to mini- mize impacts on PAWSD customers…
Following further discussion of the details of the CIF calculation, Malesky explained that, if PAWSD does nothing, water rate revenue will increase at the speed of growth from just below $5 million in 2024 to approximately $5.95 million in 2032. She noted that this growth in revenues would be eclipsed by the revenue demands for the district, with the water fund projected to fall below the reserve requirement in 2027 and to go into the negative in 2028…
Malesky then presented the pro-
posed water rate changes, with a 6 percent increase for 2023, 3 percent annual increases between 2024 and 2027, 3.5 percent annual increases between 2028 and 2030, and no increases between 2031 and 2032. She stated that these increases would take an average monthly water bill for 6,000 gallons of water from $54 in 2023 to $60.74 in 2027 to $67.35 in 2030.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources (CDWR) met Wednesday, Aug. 9, to go over and develop water measurement rules for Division 7. According to its water administration Web page, the Division of Water Resources (DWR) “has focused on measurement rules in recognition of the importance of measuring both surface water and groundwater diversions. DWR is now beginning a formal effort to develop measurement rules in Division 7 by conducting stakeholder meetings in Southwestern Colorado in late July and early August.”
The rules are based off of the rules appointed in Division 6. The CDWR is “in charge by law to make sure the people that divert water off the river according to their water rights, or pump water out of the ground do it according to their water right and … don’t injure other people” said Kevin Ryan, state engineer for the CDWR, at the Aug. 9 stakeholder meeting. Injury is used to describe when someone’s water flow is negatively impacted by an upstream user.
Rep. Joe Neguse, who represents the second congressional district including Routt County, Rep. Lauren Boebert as well as Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet discussed the importance of Colorado River water as a national-level concern…
Neguse, who once served on then Gov. Hickenlooper’s cabinet, said, “The governor would remind us that there was no margin in making enemies and that collaboration was ultimately the key ingredient to solving any problem or challenge facing our state.”
Neguse, Hickenlooper and Bennet used the word “we” repeatedly in their short remarks focusing on the importance of cooperation in complicated water issues. The four elected officials listed Colorado water projects that garnered millions of dollars in federal funds. Hickenlooper said the bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November 2021 included $300 million for Colorado River Basin drought contingency plans, and the Inflation Reduction Act from August 2022 included $8 billion for water infrastructure funding…
After the senators and representatives spoke and answered several questions from panel moderator Christine Arbogast, vice president of the Colorado Water Congress, Gov. Jared Polis addressed the ballroom full of hundreds of attendees for about seven minutes…Polis listed various active water-saving measures ranging from leak detection programs to “Colorado-scaping” education to swap turf for water efficient and climate-appropriate landscaping including tax credits for turf replacement. The governor encouraged people in the water community to speak up about the need to integrate water usage and planning, noting integration “had been done on a haphazard basis before but is at the level that we have to do this thoughtfully as a state.” The governor called housing a very important example of how to “achieve solutions that make sense” such as constructing more water efficient housing options such as duplexes, quad-plexes and multi-family housing…
The governor said the Colorado Department of Agriculture is hiring for the first time an agriculture water advisor.
The flash flooding currently happening in Southern California and Nevada is the latest example of why we must transform the management and health of rivers and streams to strengthen communities in the face of climate change. Tropical Storm Hilary was the first tropical storm to hit California since 1939 and it has dropped historic amounts of rainfall on parts of communities from southern California to Las Vegas and across the Southwest. This event follows just weeks after major floods caused widespread damage across Vermont and the Northeast.
Climate change is fueling more frequent and intense storms, putting pressure on federal and state agencies to help communities manage the runoff and stormwater from these extreme events. This means adapting our existing infrastructure–elevating roads, expanding bridges, setting back levees- and it means making smart decisions about how we are developing along rivers and throughout watersheds.
American Rivers is calling on federal, state, and local governments to protect communities from increasingly severe flooding. Decision-makers must:
Give rivers room to flood safely: Naturally functioning floodplains (the low-lying lands along a river) are a community’s natural defense against flooding. These areas soak up and store floodwaters and reduce downstream flooding. Keeping floodplains natural and undeveloped is the best way to avoid flood damage to begin with. Governments must prioritize protecting undeveloped floodplains and putting in place policies like the FEDERAL FLOOD RISK MANAGEMENT STANDARD that require development to be resilient to Increasingly severe floods.
The fact is, many communities have already developed in their floodplains and have channelized and leveed their rivers, disconnecting them from their floodplains. All of this puts people and property at risk. Wherever possible, communities must work with residents and landowners to find solutions that improve their resilience and leverage state and federal funding to restore damaged floodplains to give rivers room to flood safely.
Protect wetlands and small streams: The Supreme Court’s recent Sackett v. EPA ruling stripped federal Clean Water Act protections for small streams and 50% of the nation’s wetlands. These wetlands, along with perennial and ephemeral streams, are critical to public safety because they absorb and store floodwaters. By leaving streams and wetlands vulnerable to destruction and pollution, more communities are now at risk. State and federal decision-makers must shore up protections for wetlands to safeguard public health and safety.
This record Southwest flooding highlights the important connection between rivers and the ephemeral and intermittent headwater streams that lost protection under the Sackett case and are now at risk of unregulated development. Ephemeral and intermittent streams are dry for much of the year but fill with water during heavy rains. These headwater streams make up 81% of the arid and semi-arid Southwest and are the source of drinking water for people in the Southwest. Unchecked development on headwater streams could further increase future flood damage.
Remove unsafe, outdated dams and levees: More frequent extreme rain storms mean more risk of dams, levees, and other infrastructure being overtopped or failing resulting in catastrophic loss of life and property. We cannot wait until dams fail to take action. Poorly maintained and improperly designed dams and levees need to be removed to protect downstream communities and infrastructure before they fail. States need programs that work with dam and levee owners to provide technical and financial support to remove dams and levees that they no longer want or need.
In addition, many dams are outdated and unsafe. Hundreds of dams have breached or failed in recent years because of heavy rainfall and flooding, putting communities at risk. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that aging dams across the nation need more than $70 billion in repairs.
Communities are not prepared for the increasingly frequent and severe flooding fueled by climate change. Our infrastructure was not built for this. We must help communities prepare, and that means protecting and restoring rivers. A healthy river is a community’s best and first line of defense against flooding and other climate impacts. When we pave over streams, disconnect floodplains, and destroy wetlands, we strip communities of these vital defenses. We must protect and restore rivers to make our communities stronger, safer, and more resilient.
Significant improvement for Lake Mead due to improved hydrology, ongoing conservation efforts. Operating guidelines in effect until Reclamation finalizes SEIS, including analysis of consensus-based state conservation agreement.
August 15, 2023
BOULDER CITY, Nev. – The Bureau of Reclamation today released the Colorado River Basin August 2023 24-Month Study, which determines the tiers for the coordinated operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead for 2024. These operating conditions, which are based on existing agreements under the 2007 guidelines and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans, will be in effect until the near-term guidelines from the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) are finalized. Reclamation is currently analyzing the consensus-based Lower Division States proposed alternative for the SEIS.
Based on projections in the 24-Month Study, Lake Powell will operate in a Mid-Elevation Release Tier with a 7.48 million acre-feet release in water year 2024. Consistent with existing agreements, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Shortage Condition – an improvement from the Level 2 Shortage Condition announced last year – with required shortages by Arizona and Nevada, coupled with Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan water savings contributions. Mexico’s water delivery will be reduced consistent with Minute 323.
Lake Mead’s release in 2023 is projected to be the lowest in 30 years, approximately one and half million acre-feet lower than an average normal year, reflecting extensive, ongoing conservation efforts in the Lower Basin states funded in part by President Biden’s historic Investing in America agenda, above-normal inflows in the lower basin below Hoover Dam, and conservation in Mexico.
Investments in system conservation and improved hydrology this year have provided an opportunity to recover some reservoir storage. At the same time, the Colorado River system continues to face low elevations, with Lake Powell and Lake Mead at a combined storage of 36%.
“The above-average precipitation this year was a welcome relief, and coupled with our hard work for system conservation, we have the time to focus on the long-term sustainability solutions needed in the Colorado River Basin. However, Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the two largest reservoirs in the United States and the two largest storage units in the Colorado River system – remain at historically low levels,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “As we experience a warmer, drier west due to a prolonged drought, accelerated by climate change, Reclamation is committed to leading inclusive and transparent efforts to develop the next-generation framework for managing the river system.”
The Development of Near- and Long-Term Guidelines
Reclamation is simultaneously developing both near- and long-term guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead operations. The supplemental SEIS in progress focuses on near-term actions, which would be applicable from 2024 through 2026 based on potential changes to limited sections of the 2007 Interim Guidelines. Reclamation temporarily withdrew the SEIS so it could fully analyze the consensus-based Lower Division States proposed alternative and will publish an updated draft SEIS for public review and comment with the consensus-based proposal as an action alternative later this year.
In addition to several agreements that have already been finalized, a consensus-based proposal – agreed upon by the three Lower Basin states earlier this year – commits to measures to conserve at least 3 million-acre-feet (maf) of system water through the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines are set to expire.
The long-term guidelines, informally referred to as Post 2026 Operations, will revisit the 2007 Interim Guidelines in full, as well as other operating agreements that expire in 2026, including Drought Contingency Plans and Minute 323. In June, Reclamation initiated the formal process to develop the long-term operating guidelines.
Reclamation is committed to an inclusive and transparent process that enhances meaningful Tribal engagement as well as collaboration with all stakeholders in the basin. In response to Tribal feedback, the Department of the Interior established the first-ever Federal-Tribal-State partnership to promote equitable information-sharing and discussion among the sovereign governments in the Colorado River Basin. All 30 Colorado River Basin Tribal Nations and the seven U.S. basin states were invited to participate in this new group. The group met for the first time last week with Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, Commissioner Touton, and other Department leaders. The formation of this new group does not replace any independent consultation with either Tribes or states.
2024 Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead
Until the updated near-term guidelines are finalized once the supplemental SEIS is complete, Reclamation will continue to implement the plans developed over the past two decades that lay out detailed operational rules for these critical Colorado River reservoirs through 2026:
Lake Powell Mid-Elevation Release Tier: The 24-Month Study, with an 8.23 maf release pattern in October – December 2023, projects Lake Powell’s January 1, 2024, elevation to be 3,568.57 feet – about 130 feet below full and about 80 feet above minimum power pool. Based on this projection, Lake Powell will operate in the Mid-Elevation Release Tier in water year 2024 (October 1, 2023, through September 30, 2024). Under this tier, Lake Powell will release 7.48 million acre-feet in water year 2024 without the potential for a mid-year adjustment in April 2024. Under the most probable scenario, and with a 7.48 maf release pattern in October – December 2023, Lake Powell’s projected elevation on January 1, 2024, is 3,573.68 feet.
Lake Mead Level 1 Shortage Condition: The 24-Month Study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2024, elevation to be 1,065.27 feet – about 10 feet below the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet and about 25 feet below the drought contingency plan trigger of 1,090 feet. This elevation is based on a 7.48 maf release from Lake Powell in water year 2024. Based on this projection, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Shortage Condition for calendar year 2024 (January 1, 2024, through December 31, 2024). This is a significant improvement from the Level 2 Shortage Condition announced last year. The required shortage reductions and water savings contributions under the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, 2019 Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and Minute 323 to the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico are:
Arizona: 512,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 18% of the state’s annual apportionment.
Nevada: 21,000 acre-feet, which is 7% of the state’s annual apportionment.
Mexico: 80,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 5% of the country’s annual allotment.
Lower Basin projections for Lake Mead include updated water orders to reflect additional conservation efforts and new completed system conservation agreements under the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program.
President Biden’s Investing in America Agenda
System conservation and efficiency programs in the Colorado River Basin are being strengthened by President Biden’s Investing in America agenda and will invest in long-term durable system efficiency improvements that result in quantifiable, verifiable water savings in the Basin.
The Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance Western communities’ resilience to drought and climate change, including protecting the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.
To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:
The San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) Board of Directors approved moving forward with a contract with Rick Ehat for engineering consultation on the district’s reservoir project and discussed a lease agreement for river access on a 20-acre parcel ing that governmental immunity jointly owned by SJWCD and the ing that governmental immunity jointly owned by SJWCD and the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District.
The Klamath River Basin was once one of the world’s most ecologically magnificent regions, a watershed teeming with salmon, migratory birds and wildlife that thrived alongside Native American communities. The river flowed rapidly from its headwaters in southern Oregon’s high deserts into Upper Klamath Lake, collected snowmelt along a narrow gorge through the Cascades, then raced downhill to the California coast in a misty, redwood-lined finish.
For the past century, though, the Klamath – a name derived from a Native American term for swiftness – hasn’t been free-flowing or flush with salmon. Dams block fish from the upper watershed’s spawning grounds. Reservoirs host toxic algae blooms. Parasites and pathogens that can flourish when dam-regulated flows are low have wiped out salmon by the tens of thousands.
The Klamath’s ecological vitality — above and below the dams — has diminished along with longstanding tribal connections to the river.
Now, after decades of tireless negotiating among myriad parties, the Klamath is being given a chance to return to a more natural state. Construction crews this summer are taking out the first of four essentially defunct hydroelectric dams choking a 64-mile stretch, with the remaining three slated to come out by the end of 2024 in the largest dam removal project ever undertaken.
But several questions remain: Will the Klamath’s damaged ecosystem recover? How will salmon respond, and can they find their way back above the former dam sites for the first time in more than 100 years? How will the river’s food web change? Will the algae blooms disappear with the reservoirs?
Scientists aren’t exactly sure — a river restoration plan of this size has never been tried — but they are pouncing on the opportunity to find out.
Using techniques and lessons learned from previous dam removals, biologists are studying salmon ear bones to track migratory routes, charting water temperature and chemistry changes and mapping cold water pools salmon use to survive the summer heat.
Native Americans most affected by the dams are on the front lines of the research. Along the river, from its origin in Klamath Falls, Oregon to its mouth near Crescent City, California, basin tribes are tracking fish populations, monitoring water quality and gathering other data across a rugged, remote watershed larger than the states of Vermont and Connecticut combined.
Success on the Klamath River could serve as a blueprint for restoring other watersheds and, proponents say, energize a growing worldwide trend of removing obsolete or seismically unsafe dams.
“We’re now in the age of dam removal, so we’re going to learn a ton out of this,” said Robert Lusardi, a freshwater ecologist with the University of California, Davis, who is tracking watershed changes in collaboration with the Karuk and Yurok tribes. “There’s such a larger purpose here for the science and the work and understanding what dam removals mean for the ecology — and also the people of the Klamath River.”
Removing the dams won’t fully return the Klamath to its natural state. Other major dams on the 254-mile-long river will remain and growers and communities will continue to take their legal share of its flows. Also, river temperatures are bound to grow warmer with climate change and water quality problems tied to the basin’s legacy of gold mining and logging will linger.
Nevertheless, the world is paying close attention to the remote basin that straddles California and Oregon, eager to see how the dam removals will change the well-being of the river, its fish and the region’s Native Americans who see themselves as part of the Klamath’s ecosystem.
“A dam removal project of this scope is unprecedented,” said Sarah Null, a Utah State University professor who studies the effects of dams on ecosystems and fish diversity. “Everyone, I would say, is watching this.”
Nation’s Biggest Dam Removal Takes Shape
The four dams were built between 1908 and 1962 to generate electricity for the developing agricultural region, but cost concerns and political pressure from tribes and environmental groups ultimately drove the decision to remove them.
The dams’ owner, PacifiCorp, couldn’t get them relicensed in the early 2000s without spending at least $450 million on fish ladders and other renovations. Besides, there was little demand for the electricity, the reservoirs weren’t designed for irrigation or flood control, and they were slowly filling with sediment. The Berkshire Energy subsidiary decided to abandon the federal relicensing process.
A constellation of tribes, environmental groups and fishing interests blamed the dams for “cutting the river in half,” spurring algae blooms and blocking salmon from more than 400 miles of their critical spawning and rearing habitat. They used an unprecedented 2002 disease outbreak on the Klamath that killed more than 34,000 adult salmon to generate public and political support for dam removals.
The Klamath’s salmon populations were sliding toward extinction and removing the dams was the quickest way to arrest the decline of the fish and the tribes’ cultural ties, the groups argued. Since the first power dam was built more than a century ago, an entire run of chinook went extinct and other salmon species have declined by 90 percent.
“We’ve changed the ecosystem to be unfit for a lot of species,” said Alex Gonyaw, senior fish biologist for the Klamath Tribes. “We have seven species that are struggling or are extinct from here and then there’s a lot of others that are holding on but very much struggling.”
In 2016, dozens of parties signed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, including the Department of the Interior, the states of Oregon and California, basin tribes and several local governments and irrigation districts.
Still, it took several years for PacifiCorp to clear regulatory hurdles and devise a plan that would limit its financial obligations. It ultimately handed control of the dam demolitions and habitat restoration to a newly created nonprofit, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which is run by a group of appointees representing Oregon and California, basin tribes and non-governmental organizations. A similar nonprofit was created a decade ago to remove two dams and build a fish bypass around a third impoundment on Maine’s Penobscot River.
Last fall, after negotiations that spanned more than 20 years, the long-held aspirations of tribes and environmentalists became reality. Federal regulators approved a sweeping dam removal plan.
“It’s not the only dam removal but it’s the biggest one so far in terms of complexity, number of dams and positive impact for rivers,” said Brian Johnson, president of the renewal corporation’s board of directors. “We think of it as the start of the biggest river restoration effort that anybody has ever seen.”
The project’s estimated $450 million cost is being covered by surcharges PacifiCorp collected over nine years from customers in Oregon and California and $250 million from Proposition 1, a sweeping water bond California voters approved in 2014.
In June, the dam removal proponents’ efforts began to pay off as heavy machinery started tearing away the gates and spillway of the smallest dam, Copco No. 2. The dam will be completely out by September and the reservoir drawdowns will begin early next year along with the demolition of the three other dams.
The combined height of the four dams is more than 400 feet and up to 15 million cubic yards of impounded sediment will wash down the river toward the ocean. Draining the reservoirs will muddy stretches of the river and may cause short-term water quality issues for fish. However, that is scheduled in the winter when salmon aren’t migrating.
Experts predict the bulk of the sediment will settle in the river system or reach the estuary after two years. This sediment removal approach has been used in other high-profile dam removals without causing major changes to river channels.
“If the experts are wrong, the habitat is degraded and anadromous fish stocks don’t recover, our concern is that the water needed to clean up the mess will come at the expense of agriculture,” said Moss Driscoll, director of water policy for the Klamath Water Users Association.
Providing Scientific Clues
Scientists and conservationists see the Klamath dam removals as a rare opportunity to chronicle a large-scale restoration of a watershed.
For the past several years, researchers with government agencies, universities, tribes and non-governmental groups have been gathering information on the river’s current state. After the dams are gone, they will use the data to detect changes in fish migration, water quality, food webs and sediment.
Salmon will be reintroduced to the formerly dam-blocked stretches of Klamath, and scientists want to make sure the river habitat has enough deep pools and vegetation to shelter juvenile fish from predators and hot temperatures. Healthy rearing habitat in the river is key to salmon survival and rebuilding the Klamath’s beleaguered native fish populations. Knowing favored salmon hideouts and rearing areas can help take the guesswork out of post-dam habitat restoration work.
One group of researchers believes clues can be culled from the salmon’s ear bones.
Ear bones, or otoliths, taken from salmon carcasses have markings that track a fish’s rate of growth, like tree rings. Researchers have long used otoliths to measure the age of fish, but now a team led by UC Davis’ Lusardi, the Yurok Tribe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are using them to map salmon movements.
About the size of a black bean, otoliths have unique patterns that correspond to levels of strontium, a silvery earth metal that seeps into waterways naturally. Researchers measure the percentages of strontium in the otoliths and compare the data with strontium water samples collected throughout the Klamath basin.
“We can understand where salmon rear, how long they rear and what time they leave for the ocean by using this strontium identifier or geolocator,” said Lusardi, who also works for California Trout, a nonprofit group.
Lusardi called the method “pioneering” in relation to dam removal and said the results will help guide habitat restoration work in the Klamath basin and elsewhere.
Further up the river in California’s Humboldt and Siskiyou counties, Karuk Tribe biologists are working with Lusardi and Alison O’Dowd, a river ecologist at Cal Poly Humboldt, to track how salmon diets change during and after the dam removals.
Researchers are using carbon and nitrogen isotopes from fish collected by the Karuk to establish baseline salmon diets. The sampling process will continue over the next several years to gauge how a more free-flowing river affects aquatic food webs.
The Karuk Tribe has witnessed firsthand the dams’ devastating effects on salmon as its ancestral territory is just downstream of the lowest hydroelectric dam to be removed. Like the others, Iron Gate Dam was built in 1962 without a fish ladder so it became the final stopping point for sea-run fish.
Toz Soto, Karuk fisheries program manager, said Iron Gate Dam and other dams are largely to blame for the extinction of an entire run of spring-run chinook that once supported a bustling tribal fishery. He said the Karuk Tribe, California’s second largest in enrolled members, is optimistic about the possibility of resuming a salmon fishery once the dams are gone.
“The ability for Karuk tribal people to practice their ceremonies again and harvest spring-run salmon…it’s a big deal,” Soto said. “We’re hoping within a few generations of salmon returns we’ll start to see positive impacts from the dam removals.”
In addition to the dams, the Karuk are trying to document other contributing factors to the salmon decline.
Soto said the tribe has a variety of research projects in addition to food webs, including chinook genotyping, water quality on the Klamath and the Scott and Shasta river tributaries and wildfire effects on fish and hydrology. He predicts the algae blooms that have become emblematic of Klamath reservoirs will happen less frequently once the dams are gone.
The Karuk have looked to a major dam removal project in Washington state to guide their own research. The tribe has visited and held conferences with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which played a prominent role in the demolition of two salmon-blocking dams on the Elwha River more than a decade ago. Soto said the Elwha created a “proof of concept” that the Karuk and other Klamath basin tribes have tried to implement.
“There’s a lot of cross-pollination between the two removal efforts,” he said.
Meanwhile, upstream of the dam removals, at the top of the Klamath watershed, the Klamath Tribes and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are releasing juvenile salmon into the upper basin for the first time since the hydroelectric dams were built.
The Klamath Tribes, whose members include the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin-Paiute, want to understand how chinook salmon will navigate stretches above the dam that have been blocked for more than 100 years. To do this, biologists implant acoustic tags in young hatchery salmon and release them strategically throughout the upper basin. The goal is to pinpoint areas the fish find hospitable for habitat restoration.
Once salmon and other native fish species like steelhead trout and Pacific lamprey can move back by themselves into the upper basin, they will face a completely altered and, in many ways, impaired ecosystem. One major hurdle is Upper Klamath Lake, the largest freshwater body west of the Rocky Mountains where the river’s headwaters drain in southern Oregon.
Early results have been encouraging. Fish have found their way from the upper tributaries to the southern end of Upper Klamath Lake. The next test is whether fish can withstand the lake’s poor water quality and warm water during the often inhospitable summer months.
“The big question is will they survive Upper Klamath Lake?” said Gonyaw, a Klamath Tribes biologist. “We’ve added (non-native) fish species that weren’t there before, we’ve likely added diseases and we’ve altered the hydrology of the lake.”
After Upper Klamath Lake, salmon will still face a gauntlet of obstacles on their journey to the ocean, including navigating fish ladders on dams that aren’t being removed and predatory fish and birds.
Prepping the Ecosystem
Repairing ecosystem damage caused by humans is important to the ultimate success of the Klamath dam removals.
Habitat work is underway between Iron Gate and Keno dams, a severely degraded 60-mile stretch where little research or restoration work has been done compared with other parts of the watershed.
To help fill the data gaps, researchers are using helicopters equipped with thermal infrared cameras to map cold springs where salmon can still thrive in a warming climate, said Bob Pagliuco, a marine habitat specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for recovery of struggling salmon populations. Little is known about these cold springs because they have been covered by reservoirs over the last century or are on private land largely inaccessible to researchers.
On the ground, Pagliuco’s team is investigating ways to reconnect the Klamath to its floodplains, developing relationships with private landowners and evaluating whether canals and diversions need fish screens. He said more than 25 groups have expressed interest in the 82 projects ranked in a restoration guidebook his agency prepared with Trout Unlimited and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.
“There hasn’t been a lot of investment here so it’s kind of fertile ground,” Pagliuco said of the stretch of the river between the four dams being removed. High on the repair list are the Klamath’s tributaries that were drowned by the dam. They must be cleared of the muck the reservoirs leave behind.
The Yurok Tribe is one of the groups restoring the landscape around Iron Gate Reservoir and has recruited an ecologist who headed the Elwha River revegetation in Washington. The tribe is clearing invasive grasses and will monitor changes in stream velocity and water quality. Billions of native plant seeds and thousands of trees such as oaks will be planted across 2,200 acres of previously submerged land.
Reintroducing native species to sites where they haven’t been for decades will deter starthistle, meadow knapweed and other non-native invasive plants from overtaking the riverbanks.
The tribe is also planning habitat work downstream of the dams on the Trinity River, the largest Klamath tributary.
Earlier this year, the Yurok received a $4 million California state grant to remove mine tailings and bring back 32 acres of degraded floodplain. The Yurok hope the Oregon Gulch Project will provide badly needed juvenile salmon and steelhead habitat and allow the approximately one-mile-long river corridor to evolve into a more natural state.
The Yurok Tribe, California’s largest by enrolled members, canceled its commercial salmon fishery in 2023 for the fifth year in a row due to dwindling salmon populations.
“I am confident that we can rebuild salmon stocks through dam removal, habitat restoration, and proper water management, to a level that would support tribal, ocean commercial and recreational fisheries,” Barry McCovey Jr., Yurok Fisheries Department director, said in a statement.
Trish Chapman, who managed the 2015 removal of San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River for the California State Coastal Conservancy, said the restoration challenges will continue after the Klamath dams are gone and that planners must adapt to unforeseen changes.
“Ecological restoration, by its very nature, comes with large uncertainties. For a project to be resilient, you need to account for those uncertainties in the design,” said Chapman, whose agency is helping with the removal of the Klamath dams and Matilija Dam in Ventura County.
‘If You Unbuild it, They Will Come’
In late June, the nonprofit entity in charge of the demolitions released aerial photos showing excavators digging into the core of Copco No. 2. The photos garnered press coverage and were shared on social media, but more importantly they signaled the Klamath project had finally moved out of the planning phase.
The images of yellow heavy machinery tearing into the dam’s spillway gates prompted a cathartic release for many who have been fighting for decades to open this stretch of the Klamath.
“I’m still in a little bit of shock,” said Soto, the Karuk biologist. “This is actually happening…It’s kind of like the dog that finally caught the car, except we’re chasing dam removal.”
Old dams are coming out across the nation and in Europe more frequently than ever before: Last year, 65 U.S. dams were removed in 2022 and a total of 2,025 since 1912. In Europe, at least 325 dams or weirs came down last year alone, according to American Rivers which advocates for and tracks the removals.
Recent history has shown that aquatic species can bounce back quickly once rivers are undammed.
A pair of hydroelectric dams came out on the Elwha River in 2012 and 2014, allowing federally threatened salmon, bull trout and steelhead to approach the river’s headwaters in Washington’s Olympic Mountains for the first time in nearly a century.
Summer steelhead, chinook and coho salmon are no longer fenced out of their spawning areas and have recolonized naturally above the old dams. One species, sockeye salmon, has returned to the Elwha from as far away as Alaska.
“If you unbuild it, they will come,” said Sam Brenkman, a National Park Service chief fisheries biologist whose team is monitoring fish populations in 12 major watersheds, including the Elwha.
Brenkman also attributed the recovery to a fishing moratorium on the Elwha that has been in place since 2011.
Klamath proponents are also buoyed by a similar recovery on Maine’s Kennebec River, where large numbers of native sea-run species such as shad, salmon, sturgeon and blueback herring have returned nearly 25 years after the removal of Edwards Dam. The resurgence of the Kennebec fish populations has roundly surpassed biologists’ expectations and many credit the 1999 project with igniting the dam removal trend that continues today.
In California and Oregon, the Klamath project is setting a new bar: “Never before have so many large dams been removed from a single river at one time in the United States,” a Congressional Research Service report states. Many are interested in the project as a proof of concept for other major dam removals.”
You don’t have to look far from the Klamath basin to find other dams that have outlived their usefulness, said Soto, the Karuk fisheries manager. He noted the Wiyot Tribe and others on the nearby Eel River are pushing for the removal of two hydroelectric dams that are close to the end of their lifespans.
“We have set a good example (on the Klamath),” Soto said. “I think the biggest lesson is it takes time and persistence and I think tribes have that. They’re not going anywhere and there’s people who will fight for dam removal and when they’re gone, their kids will fight for dam removal.”
Uinta Basin rail project in Utah could result in dramatic increase of hazardous material on Union Pacific line through Colorado
State officials since last spring have quietly been reaching out to communities along Colorado’s main east-west rail line to gauge local sentiment as the state negotiates a new lease with rail giant Union Pacific, which pays $12,000 a year to send trains through the state-owned Moffat Tunnel.
Union Pacific’s 99-year lease to use the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel expires Jan. 6, 2025, and Kate McIntire, a regional manager for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, has been tasked with “developing our list of concerns, potential opportunities, roles, responsibilities, and ways stakeholders would like to ensure they’re involved in the negotiation.”
McIntire, in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the recently formed Public-Private Partnership (P3) Collaboration Unit of the Department of Personnel and Administration, will be ramping up outreach this fall and through 2024.
McIntire expects to hear more input from counties and towns along Union Pacific’s Central Corridor rail line between Denver and Grand Junction about the controversial 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway proposal in Utah. The project would send up to 350,000 additional barrels of oil per day along the route, which travels for about 100 miles along the headwaters of the endangered Colorado River.
“Yes, some of those comments came up and were addressed more directly to Union Pacific,” McIntire said of meetings the state has already held with Denver Water, which uses the Moffat Tunnel’s original 1922 bore hole for transmountain water diversions; Adams, Gilpin, Grand and Jefferson counties; and the cities of Arvada, Golden, Winter Park, Fraser and Kremmling.
Asked to characterize some of the comments she’s hearing on an oil train project that’s already been approved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and on the high end would more than quintuple the amount of freight rail traffic on Colorado’s Western Slope, McIntire offered this:
“I’ll just kind of draw back on the fact that we’re really early in a complex process with legal considerations, roles, responsibilities, and potential opportunities that may or may not be tied to the lease,” McIntire said. “But we’re definitely aware of those concerns, and we’ll continue to do everything we can to ensure stakeholders are engaged.”
The city of Denver estimates the Uinta Basin project will quadruple the amount of hazardous materials transported by rail through the metro area as up to five two-mile-long oil trains a day chug east through the Moffat Tunnel at the base of the city-owned Winter Park Resort ski area and then make their way down through Denver and toward Gulf Coast refineries.
Eagle County, where the Central Corridor rail line separates from Interstate 70 at Dotsero and follows the Colorado River through remote canyons northeast into Grand County, is suing the Surface Transportation Board to overturn or at least more comprehensively consider the down-the-line impacts of Uinta Basin trains from inevitable derailments, spills, wildfires and climate change.
Environmental groups have also filed suit, and Eagle County has the support of Glenwood Springs, Minturn, Avon, Red Cliff, Vail, Routt, Boulder, Chaffee, Lake and Pitkin counties.
Seeking more state support
“Still conspicuously absent in these efforts is the state of Colorado,” Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu wrote in an email. “Anything the state can do to get off the sidelines and participate would be appreciated. We would encourage the state to use all tools at its disposal, including any Moffat Tunnel lease negotiations, to protect every Colorado community along the rail corridor that will be forced to face very real risks of derailment, spills, water contamination and fires.”
Asked to characterize the comments the Nebraska-based railroad company is hearing on the Uinta Basin Railway and whether it’s appropriate for Colorado to consider opposition to the Utah project in its Moffat Tunnel lease negotiation, Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver responded: “Union Pacific is aware the Moffat Tunnel lease expires in 2025, and negotiations are underway,” Tysver wrote in an email. “Union Pacific is required by federal law to transport hazardous commodities that Americans use daily, including crude oil, fertilizer and chlorine, and 99.9% of the hazardous material shipped by rail reaches its destination safely.”
Union Pacific chief safety officer Rod Doerr on Monday told the Colorado General Assembly’s Transportation Legislation Review Committee the company hasn’t specifically analyzed the risks of increased oil-train traffic from the proposed Uinta Basin Railway project. The committee will meet again in August to consider potential legislation in the next session that starts in January.
Since the General Assembly first created the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District for taxing purposes in 1922 and still owns the tunnel and administers it via DOLA, the terms of the lease might logically be a topic of discussion.
“It’s crazy that Union Pacific pays Colorado far less rent for the Moffat Tunnel than the median price of a studio apartment in Denver,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing to stop the oil trains. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for (Gov. Jared Polis) to protect Colorado communities, our water, our rivers, and our public lands from hazardous materials spills from trains that travel through the Moffat Tunnel.”
Eagle County’s Treu, who said he’s yet to hear from the state on the Moffat lease, would like to see a lot more pushback from the state against federal approvals for the Utah oil-train partnership backing the project, which is still seeking funding via tax-exempt U.S. Department of Transportation bonds.
“We asked the (Colorado Attorney General’s) office to participate as an amicus party in our litigation against the Surface Transportation Board,” Treu said. “The state declined, leaving us to fend for ourselves. That response was surprising considering the crux of this litigation is STB’s complete failure to consider the downline impacts to the sensitive Colorado River corridor through all of Colorado. This isn’t just an Eagle County issue.”
The office of Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser responded with the following statement:
“As the Attorney General said in his letter to the federal government, the Uinta Basin Railway proposal is as risky to our environment and communities as it is unsupported by Coloradans. It should not move forward. And it most definitely should not receive federal subsidies. The Attorney General’s Office has visited with advocates on the risks the UBR poses to our state, has collaborated with Colorado’s congressional delegation on options to prevent construction, and is committed to visiting with any group with ideas on how to protect Colorado’s environment from this risky venture.”
In various forms, both Colorado U.S. senators — Democrats Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper — and a majority of the state’s U.S. House delegation, particularly Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse, have reached out to a variety of federal agencies to oppose the Uinta Basin Railway.
Jonathan Godes, a Glenwood Springs City Council member and former mayor whose term ended in April, said he has yet to be contacted by DOLA on the Moffat Tunnel lease, but he looks forward to hearing from McIntire, who is a former Grand County manager and former acting Jefferson County manager.
Godes says he doesn’t yet have enough information to comment on the Moffat Tunnel lease negotiations or possibly using them to restrict hazardous material transport through Glenwood.
“But I will say that I’m really glad that both of our senators, Congressman Neguse, commissioners in Eagle County, Grand County, and leaders in dozens of municipalities all agree that this is objectively and definitively a horrible idea for our communities, for the Western Slope, the mountain communities in the state of Colorado,” Godes said. “I’m looking forward to when the state decides to join up with our congressional delegation and our local leaders in solidarity against this abomination.”
Tennessee Pass Line
Terry Armistead, a Minturn Town Council member, mayor pro tem, and a member of the Minturn Railroad Committee, made it clear she was not speaking for the whole committee or the entire town council, but she acknowledged she has spoken to McIntire.
“In regards to the Tennessee Pass Line, I heard nothing in that short meeting of any substance, unfortunately. It was kind of anticlimactic,” Armistead said of a long-dormant Union Pacific rail line that connects to the Central Corridor at Dotsero and heads southeast along the Eagle and Arkansas rivers to Pueblo — a route that if revived would avoid the Moffat Tunnel and Denver altogether.
That is one of the fears Eagle County expressed in its litigation — added pressure to restart rail traffic on the Tennessee Pass Line through Avon and the former mining and railroad towns of Minturn and Red Cliff off the backside of Vail Mountain.
Armistead said she started calling Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr, who used to be mayor and still lives in Minturn, four years ago when the TPL revival idea first came up, telling him, “Minturn is too small a voice in the room, and we can’t do this alone; the county needs to speak for all of us.” She supports the county’s position regarding the Moffat Tunnel lease and would like to see Union Pacific be allowed to formally abandon the TPL for an outdoor recreation trail.
“I’m not going to mince words. I would love to see (the Tennessee Pass) rail ripped up,” Armistead said of the line that’s been dormant since 1997 — the year after a Union Pacific and Southern Pacific merger. “I would love to see them sell us, or sell somebody the land, and develop the rail yard in Minturn. I’ve been saying it for years.”
DOLA’s McIntire could not say if the status of the Tennessee Pass Line will be at all considered in the Moffat Tunnel lease negotiation, since it’s a separate and active Union Pacific rail line.
“We’re still very early in this process and we really haven’t determined whether that’s a separate issue or not,” McIntire said. “I don’t want to come out and say that that’s not going to be something that we’re going to address.”
For Union Pacific, which did try to formally abandon the TPL in the late 1990s after the merger — only to be snubbed on that front by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board — it’s somewhat of a moot point.
“We have no plans of reopening the Tennessee Pass,” Union Pacific’s Tysver said.
The Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC) has received an additional $100 million in federal funding, the Department of Interior announced Thursday.
“We are exceedingly excited about today’s announcement,” said Jim Broderick, Executive Director of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “This funding will help us to continue to accelerate the construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit in order to provide a clean, reliable drinking water supply to the people of the Lower Arkansas Valley.”
The AVC is being constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Southeastern District’s Water Activity Enterprise are building the AVC, which will deliver water to 50,000 in 39 communities east of Pueblo. Reclamation has started construction on the trunk line of the AVC, while Southeastern awarded its first contract for Avondale and Boone delivery lines last week.
The most recent funding brings the total federal funding for AVC to $221 million since 2020, on top of about $30 million previously spent.
The state of Colorado has pledged $120 million toward the AVC, Southeastern has contributed $4.8 million and counties and participants have contributed or pledged $3 million in American Rescue Program Act (ARPA) funds, and participants have contributed about $2 million.
WASHINGTON – The Department of the Interior today [July 27 2023] announced a $152 million investment from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that will bring clean, reliable drinking water to communities across the West through six water storage and conveyance projects. The projects in California, Colorado and Washington are expected to develop at least 1.7 million acre-feet of additional water storage capacity, enough water to support 6.8 million people for a year. The funding will also invest in a feasibility study that could advance water storage capacity once completed.
President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance Western communities’ resilience to drought and climate change, including protecting the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.
“In the wake of severe drought across the West, the Department is putting funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda to work to provide clean, reliable drinking water to families, farmers and Tribes throughout the West,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “Through the investments we’re announcing today, we will expedite essential water storage projects and provide increased water security to Western communities.”
“Water is essential to every community – for feeding families, growing crops, powering agricultural businesses and sustaining wildlife,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “Our investment in these projects will increase water storage capacity and lay conveyance pipeline to deliver reliable and safe drinking water and build resiliency for communities most impacted by drought.”
The selected projects from today’s announcement are:
B.F. Sisk Dam Raise and Reservoir Expansion Project: $10 million to the San Luis and Delta- Mendota Authority, to pursue the B.F. Sisk Dam Raise and Reservoir Expansion Project. The project is associated with the B.F. Sisk Safety of Dams Modification Project. Once completed, the project will develop approximately 130,000 acre-feet of additional storage.
North of Delta Off Stream Storage (Sites Reservoir Project): $30 million to pursue off stream storage capable for up to 1.5 million acre-feet of water in the Sacramento River system located in the Coast range mountains west of Maxwell, California. The reservoir would utilize new and existing facilities to move water in and out of the reservoir, with ultimate release to the Sacramento River system via existing canals, a new pipeline near Dunnigan, and the Colusa Basin Drain.
Los Vaqueros Reservoir Expansion Phase II: $10 million to efficiently integrate approximately 115,000 acre-feet of additional water storage through new conveyance facilities with existing facilities. This will allow Delta water supplies to be safely diverted, stored and delivered to beneficiaries.
• Arkansas Valley Conduit: $100 million to continue construction of a safe, long-term water supply to an estimated 50,000 people in 39 rural communities along the Arkansas River. Once completed, the project will replace current groundwater sources contaminated with radionuclides and help communities comply with Environmental Protection Act drinking water regulations for more than 103 miles of pipelines designed to deliver up to 7,500 acre-feet of water per year from Pueblo Reservoir.
• Upper Yakima System Storage Feasibility Study: $1 million to begin a feasibility study to identify and assess storage alternatives within the Kittitas Irrigation District area. The district could
utilize conserved water or water diverted for storage as part of total water supply available for tangible improvements in meeting instream flow objectives, tributary supplementation efforts, aquatic habitat improvements, and support the delisting of steelhead and bull trout populations to meet the goals of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.
• Cle Elum Pool Raise Project: $1 million to continue to increase the reservoir’s capacity to an additional 14,600 acre-feet to be managed for instream flows for fish. Additional funds for shoreline protection will provide mitigation for the pool raise.
Today’s investments build on $210 million in funding announced last year from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for water storage and conveyance projects.
More detailed analysis is underway for “less environmentally impactful” locations for the proposed 264-foot high concrete West Fork Dasm and 130-acre reservoir
Citing a need to examine alternative dam and reservoir sites, officials have pushed back the expected completion of the environmental review of the proposed and contested West Fork Dam.
The Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy and Colorado’s Pothook Water Conservancy District want Wyoming to build the 264-foot-high dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest and swap state land with forest service property to streamline and enable the project. Designed to meet irrigation desires and provide other benefits to Carbon County’s Little Snake River Valley, the proposed 10,000 acre-foot reservoir would flood 130 acres at the confluence of the West Fork of Battle Creek and Haggarty Creek.
But the proposed development in a steep, forested canyon drew opposition over its cost, location, need, efficiency and potential environmental impacts. Opponents have criticized a proposed land exchange between Wyoming and the Medicine Bow that would put the development site in state hands and construction more firmly under its control.
Wyoming, which would pick up the bulk of the initially estimated $80-million dam cost, favors that site and design, said Jason Mead, director of the Wyoming Water Development Office. Wyoming has touted the development as one that would meet late-season irrigation needs and provide environmental benefits too.
“When the state and [irrigation] districts went through the feasibility analysis, it was felt, based on the information, that the West Fork site was the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” he wrote in an email.
The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service anticipated completing a draft environmental impact statement in September. The review of alternative sites has added “a few months to the anticipated schedule” spokeswoman Alyssa Ludeke wrote in an email, but how long the delay might be is unknown.
A better solution?
Wyoming identified nine alternative sites, one or more of which will now be reviewed in depth in the draft environmental impact statement.
“We have to do a more detailed analysis to see if [they are] less environmentally impactful or provide a better answer, a better solution,” Shawn Follum, an engineer with the NRCS, said Friday. “While there’s a preferred alternative [at the West Fork site], that’s the very beginning, not a deal.
“We’ve not seen any indication that that site won’t be a possibility,” Follum said.
Meantime, the Medicine Bow National Forest continues to work on a “feasibility analysis” to inform the Forest Supervisor whether to move forward with a land exchange for the West-Fork site. There’s no deadline for that yet, said Aaron Voos, the Medicine Bow spokesman, and no guarantee a land swap would take place.
“It is looking highly likely that one of the alternatives analyzed will include a non-land exchange option, such as a special use permit,” Voos said.
The Medicine Bow has been analyzing the feasibility of the proposed land exchange, Voos said. If feasible, the Forest Service would determine whether an exchange is in the public interest.
“‘Public interest’ is required to be addressed and will be heavily factored into the Forest Supervisor’s recommendation to proceed or not proceed,” Voos wrote in an email.
Wyoming shunned obtaining a special use permit for the West Fork site because environmental reviews and other regulatory burdens would have been more complex. If the reservoir land were instead exchanged and became state property, construction permitting would be simpler, according to state officials.
Wyoming may have underestimated the complexity of the undertaking, stating in a proposed contract that it expected 100 comments on the development plan with only 40 being substantive. Instead, people submitted 936 comments, of which 96% opposed the project, according to a tally by WyoFile.
The study’s delay is not a surprise, Mead said. “Oftentimes federal agencies want a little more information to determine if an alternative should be dismissed or not, or may want to reconsider other sites,” he said. The additional analyses will ensure “a reasonable range of alternatives” is considered, he said.
New work necessary for the draft environmental impact statement includes hydraulic analysis and other tasks, some of which may involve field work, Follum said. It’s possible that work could be delayed by snow, extending the task until next spring, he said.
The NRCS is leading the environmental study with cooperation from the Medicine Bow National Forest and other agencies.
Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (307)… More by Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently earned applause from environmental groups for a move that went largely unnoticed.
For the first time, the U.S. government in 2022 included methane emissions from dams and reservoirs in its annual report of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to the Inventory of Greenhouse Gases and Sinks required by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change…
While we’ve long known that coal and gas-fired power plants emit troubling amounts of greenhouse gases, research has found that reservoirs can emit significant amounts of methane, too — which has a global warming potential 85 times that of carbon dioxide over 20 years — along with smaller amounts of nitrous oxide and CO2.
Emissions from some reservoirs can even rival that of fossil fuel power plants. Yet, until now, there’s been no real accounting at the national or international level for these emissions, which fall under the category of “flooded lands.”
“To our knowledge, the U.S. is the first country to include estimates of methane emissions from flooded lands in their greenhouse gas inventory,” the EPA press office told The Revelator.
That may be in part because calculating reservoir emissions isn’t a simple task, as The Revelator reported last year:
“Tracking emissions from reservoirs is complicated and highly variable. Emissions can change at different times of the year or even day. They’re influenced by how the dam is managed, including fluctuations in the water level, as well as a host of environmental factors like water quality, depth, sediment, surface wind speed and temperature.”
EPA researchers are working to improve how they calculate those emissions, and they’re also conducting a four-year study of CO2 and methane emissions from 108 randomly selected U.S. reservoirs. This aims to “inform a greater understanding of the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from U.S. reservoirs, and the environmental factors that determine the rate of greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs,” according to the agency’s website…
Last year [Save the Colorado], along with more than 100 other organizations, petitioned the EPA to begin a rulemaking to include dams and reservoirs under the United States’ Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, which currently requires 8,000 facilities, including coal- and gas-burning power plants, to declare their greenhouse gas emissions. Hydroelectric plants and other reservoirs aren’t currently included in that list.
There are a few reasons why they should report their emissions, the petitioners explain. Hydropower is largely regarded as a clean, emissions-free energy source — although research suggests otherwise.
“As a result, the federal government, states and utilities frequently make decisions regarding climate policies and advancing toward a cleaner electric sector based on incomplete information and mistaken assumptions regarding dams and reservoirs’ greenhouse gas emissions,” the petition states.
If operators of hydroelectric dams are required to regularly report emissions, that would help agencies, nonprofits and the public better assess whether current dams should be relicensed or decommissioned — and whether new projects should be built.
The result, the petitioners say, would be “better-informed climate policies and better-informed permitting decisions.” A win-win.
The United States continuing to report dam emissions to the United Nations, and at home, would also send an important international signal.