Faced with an inadequate filtration system and a $1.2 million estimate to fix it, the community of 55 people got creative. And it paid off.
For a while, it looked like tiny Branson, home to 55 souls in the southernmost part of the state, might almost literally dry up and blow away, becoming a footnote to history.
Not surprisingly in the arid West, water loomed as the culprit. Not that the town ever lacked abundance. Springs in the nearby hills quenched the locals’ thirst for generations. But when the state health department tightened groundwater safety regulations, then found Branson’s purification system out of compliance, the news threatened its very existence.
One engineering report put the cost of fixing the problem, which stemmed from E. coli detection and the determination that the spring water was subject to contamination by surface water, at $1.2 million. Even with loans to cover a new water system that would serve the existing 29 customers, the debt burden promised to crush Branson into the dust, even though locals note that no one has ever reported a water-borne illness.
So, just about a year later, how can the town be planning a celebration?
Last week, Branson learned that that it will receive a state grant that pushes its own unconventional efforts — including a crowdsourcing campaign to raise funds — over the finish line. Only a few bureaucratic hurdles remain before the town begins construction of a new filtration system it discovered through a company just a couple hours away in Rocky Ford. The new system will both satisfy health department standards for purity and cost a tiny fraction of the original estimate.
By embracing the narrative of the rural underdog and adopting an unrelenting bootstrap mentality, Branson found a way, starting last April when it created a web site and began its appeal for contributions from current and former area residents, as well as anyone sympathetic to the plight of diminishing rural towns.
And, as Mayor Rachel Snyder readily admits, a strong element of serendipity also figured into the equation.
The Colorado Department of Public Affairs grant used a point system to determine who would receive money, and Branson’s individual efforts and circumstances aligned to check off a lot of the boxes. Then there was the discovery of Jack Barker’s Innovative Water Technologies, the small company right up the highway that specializes in inexpensive but effective water purification systems, primarily for third-world countries.
Timing also played a significant role: If Branson had applied for the round of grant funding prior to Gov. Jared Polis taking office, it would have missed out on some significant additional savings.
It all added up to a stunning victory for the once-bustling railroad stop that has receded to a quiet outpost whose only bustling activity occurs in the four-day school that serves families in the wide-open rangeland tucked between picturesque mesas and the distant Spanish Peaks.
Pitkin County needs to make Basalt’s whitewater park safer. That was the refrain from most of those who spoke at Wednesday night’s public meeting.
“We are not asking for a big change to the kayak park,” said Glenwood Springs resident Elizabeth Bailey. “What we are asking for is a way to get through these monster features.”
Bailey was among those boaters whose rafts were flipped by the lower wave during some of the Roaring Fork River’s highest flows of the season. Bailey, an experienced rafter, said that because the river pushes boats to the right-hand side of the lower wave feature, there needs to be a boat chute to the right, between the hydraulic that forms at high flows and the river bank.
Currently, the only way around the wave is a narrow, hard-to-spot “sneak” on the left side.
The injuries Bailey sustained June 16 sent her to the hospital.
“For that to happen in a manmade park, there needs to be some responsibility,” she said.
Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams hosted Wednesday’s meeting at the Basalt Town Hall to gather public comment about the whitewater park’s two consecutive wave features, which some say became dangerous during this year’s high runoff. The lower of the two waves seemed to present the bigger challenge, even for experienced boaters.
The two structures, built with concrete during the winter of 2016-17, were re-engineered the following winter after complaints that the artificial waves were dangerous. But the low flows of the spring and summer of 2018 did not provide a fair test to see whether the problems had been fixed.
The features are supposed to create fun, recreational play waves at flows between 240 and 1,350 cfs. The river was flowing at about 2,500 cfs the day Bailey was thrown from her boat.
Healthy Rivers Chair Andre Wille said the county’s ultimate goal is to make the best whitewater park they can.
“We are pretty committed to getting it right,” he said.
Quinn Donnelly of Carbondale-based River Restoration, the firm that designed the park, led the public meeting and presented a few options for making the lower wave safer. Crews could lower the “wings” on both features, creating a path around the wave on either side, or a channel could be created around the left side of the wave.
Another idea was to create a “catcher’s mitt” eddy just below the second wave so that boaters who get tossed from their crafts can more easily swim to shore.
But some said creating a way for boaters to get around the waves didn’t go far enough — the waves themselves need to be made safer.
“Here you have two terrifying holes,” Kirk Baker said. Baker is the founder of the Aspen Kayak School and is an expert kayaker. “You should not have to go around. You should be able to go through. … You have to fix the hazard you created.”
Royal Laybourn agreed. Laybourn was also the victim of a flipped boat — he said the wave put him in the hospital.
“You can’t create a hazard and it doesn’t matter what water level it is,” he said. “You’re under a mandate to correct that. … Let’s just make it so any dummy can roll down through there.”
Pitkin County chose the site for the whitewater park, which is just upstream from downtown Basalt, in part because it is just above the Roaring Fork’s confluence with the Fryingpan River. That made it a good place to establish a recreational in-channel diversion water right.
But that part of the river is also steep, Donnelly said, meaning hydraulics will not wash out, but, rather, become bigger as flows increase.
Any new modifications to the wave features that the county and River Restoration decide on will probably come this winter.
“We want it to be as safe as possible,” Donnelly said. “It is a river and there are hazards, but this was put in by people and it’s held to a higher standard.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the Oct. 17 edition of the Times, as well as in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa McClain-Vanderpool):
EPA and the state partner with the agriculture industry to restore watersheds
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded $1,170,000 to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to improve water quality in streams, rivers and lakes. The funding comes through a Nonpoint Source Program Clean Water Act (Section 319) grant, which is given to states to implement programs that address various sources of pollution in surface and groundwater to meet and maintain water quality standards.
“EPA is partnering with CDPHE to restore water quality in two critical river basins, the Lower Arkansas and the Lower Gunnison,” said EPA Regional Administrator Gregory Sopkin. “These rivers are important environmental, economic and recreational resources for the state of Colorado. By working together to reduce pollutants, we will continue to improve these beautiful, natural resources well into the future.”
These watershed projects will result in a significant reduction of pollutants such as selenium, metals and nutrients. CDPHE will use the grant money to support the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District to implement agricultural best management practices that improve water quality in the Arkansas River. In addition, work on the Lower Aspen Canal pipeline and interconnect will be carried out in partnership with the Crawford Water Conservancy District to address water quality issues in the Gunnison River basin. The grant will also fund outreach, education and planning.
Funding for this project is one part of EPA’s overall effort to ensure that America’s waters are clean and safe. This year, EPA is distributing more than $165 million in section 319 grants to states, territories, and tribes to reduce nonpoint runoff in urban and rural settings, including efforts to reduce excess nutrients that can enter our waters and cause public health and environmental challenges. Over the last two years, states restored over 80 waters and reduced over 17 million pounds of nitrogen, nearly 4 million pounds of phosphorus, and 3.5 million tons of excess sediment through section 319 projects. This 319 grant received by Colorado complements the $12.7 million Clean Water State Revolving Fund grant Colorado received this year.
The Crawford Water Conservancy District provides supplemental irrigation water supplies for approximately 8,200 acres and full water supplies for 1,423 acres in Delta and Montrose counties, according to its website.
It has operated the Smith Fork Project for the Bureau of Reclamation, which includes the Aspen Canal, since 1964.
The Smith Fork Project utilizes flows from the Smith Fork, Iron, Muddy, and Alkali Creeks…
Over the last two years, states restored more than 80 waters and reduced more than 17 million pounds of nitrogen, nearly 4 million pounds of phosphorus, and 3.5 million tons of excess sediment through section 319 projects, according to the EPA.
Sounds of the Poudre River rolling over rocks, children and adults laughing and screaming and live music could be heard just north of Old Town at the Poudre River Whitewater Park Saturday.
An ongoing project since 2014, the Poudre River Whitewater Park was finally opened to the public [October 23, 2019].
A number of people spoke at the ribbon-cutting event, including Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell, Councilmember Susan Gutowsky, local business owner and project donor Jack Graham and City Manager Darin Atteberry.
“This is really a gem now in Fort Collins, and I’m really excited to be here today and to appreciate all the things this great City can do for the people of Fort Collins,” Troxell said. “The Poudre River is indeed a treasure, and we must guard it, and we must protect it and we must also enjoy it.”
Alex Mcintosh, a Fort Collins resident and kayaker, said the construction of the Whitewater Park in Fort Collins means a lot to him as a kayaker.
“I think it will bring a bunch of different subcultures and communities together: fishermen, rafters and people during the summer for tubing,” Mcintosh said. “It’s nice to see they’ve taken the initiative to create something in town for everyone to enjoy and learn and educate themselves about the river.”
Troxell said the Poudre River has been a working river for a long time, so a lot of diversions, irrigation ditches and canals have already been built into the river. He said this particular part of the river already had a lot of man-made additions to it, which makes the river uninhabitable and inaccessible.
The goal of the Poudre River master plan is to reclaim the river for natural habitat and create accessibility for the people of Fort Collins, and the completion of the Whitewater Park marks the beginning of that process.
“When I was growing up here, the river was the back door,” Troxell said. “It had the riff-raff, it had the old cars and now, today, it’s our front door.”
Gutowsky said the Heritage Trail Program plans to add signs throughout the river corridors, along with viewing areas that will allow visitors to understand the messages of history and the environment of the Poudre River.
“Here we are today celebrating the Poudre River, and it is the jewel of our City,” Gutowsky said. “Over the decades, our river has seen great drama and interesting characters. It has many interesting stories to share. Not only will our Whitewater Park be a recreational phenomenon, but it will also serve as a heritage gateway: a physical and informational gateway created through a funding partnership.”
Graham said there was a massive amount of people who contributed to the project, and nothing could have been accomplished without the support of Fort Collins citizens who voted for and donated to the park.
“We should point to the success of this park as a great example of how investing in our community works, and we should continue to invest wisely,” Graham said. “People will be attracted to come to Fort Collins to see the Whitewater Park and the River District. New businesses will be formed, and the help of our community to even higher levels of economic strength are going to occur. The park is going to be a great asset to our City.”
Atteberry said the park is only the beginning, and new ideas and projects are already in motion for the Poudre River. He also said the main goals of the Whitewater Park were recreation for citizens of Fort Collins, river safety and the juxtaposition between the man-made and the natural environment.
“Recreation matters to this town, not only because it’s fun, but because we want to be a healthy community, and this is forwarding that strategic objective,” Atteberry said. “Safety matters. There are going to be fewer properties that are flooding because of this project. It’s not just a pretty face. It has a deep function to it, and that is it helps take properties out of the floodplain.”
Kurt Friesen, director of the Park Planning and Development department for the City of Fort Collins, said the construction of the park wasn’t easy, and seeing it open was so rewarding because he knew the process it went through.
Friesen said the project underwent a number of obstacles, including the limited timeframe given to get the work done in the river. He said a series of very old manholes were found in the river that were used to direct flows into the old power plant.
Friesen said that, normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but since the team was racing against the clock to get the work done before the snowmelt in April, it was a problem.
However, the contractors and their team were able to get the manholes removed quickly, and the project was able to continue.
“I just want to say thank you to those that committed themselves,” Friesen said. “I believe this will be Fort Collins’ next great place largely because of that commitment.”
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: A UC BERKELEY SYMPOSIUM EXPLORES APPROACHES AND CHALLENGES TO MANAGED AQUIFER RECHARGE AROUND THE WEST
To survive the next drought and meet the looming demands of the state’s groundwater sustainability law, California is going to have to put more water back in the ground. But as other Western states have found, recharging overpumped aquifers is no easy task.
Successfully recharging aquifers could bring multiple benefits for farms and wildlife and help restore the vital interconnection between groundwater and rivers or streams. As local areas around California draft their groundwater sustainability plans, though, landowners in the hardest hit regions of the state know they will have to reduce pumping to address the chronic overdraft in which millions of acre-feet more are withdrawn than are naturally recharged.
It’s not a new problem, but one that is emblematic of California’s long-standing separation of surface water and groundwater in its management oversight. Some say it’s a problem the state should have been working on long ago as other states around the West have done.
“We are so far behind everybody else,” said Felicia Marcus, former chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “As we get to the point where managed aquifer recharge is the obvious answer to a regular person, a regular person would assume we’re already doing this.”
Until the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, there was no statewide governance regulating groundwater pumping. California was the last state in the West to address its groundwater crisis with regulation.
Landowners could take as much as they wanted, if it was put to a beneficial use. In good times, with stable imported water deliveries and relatively healthy aquifers, pumping is not a problem. But decades of overdraft have put a significant dent in parts of the San Joaquin Valley. The land surface has literally sunk in certain areas because of the large-scale pumping of water. Finally, in 2014, lawmakers sought to put the brakes on the problem with SGMA. Sustainability plans required under SGMA for the most overdrafted areas are due in January 2020.
Heavily opposed during its introduction and still facing resistance today, SGMA emphasizes a ground-up approach that requires local leaders to devise the means to bring the most severely depleted aquifers into balance in the next 20 years.
One way to do that is by managed aquifer recharge, or MAR. Surface water or flows from storm-swollen rivers are steered onto land where the water percolates into the ground. It is a straightforward process that works within the right parameters, experts say.
On average, aquifers provide about 40 percent of the water used by California’s farms and cities in a normal rain year, and significantly more in dry years. There’s a growing recognition that surface water and groundwater are connected: Surface waters gain volume from the inflow of groundwater through the streambed. That volume is lost when groundwater pumping rates exceed natural recharge.
Managed aquifer recharge projects strive to replicate the natural process in which winter rains soak into the ground and replenish water above and below ground. However, projects require extensive monitoring and management to be successful. Farmers for years inadvertently recharged their aquifers through flood irrigation of certain crops and orchards. If they’re asked to act intentionally to recharge, they want assurances they can reap the benefit.
“If we put water in, we want to retain the right to take it out,” Don Cameron, vice president and general manager of Terranova Ranch, 25 miles southwest of Fresno, said at the Berkeley symposium. Terranova has been a leader in using winter runoff to flood its fields for groundwater recharge. “To me that’s the incentive for a grower to do groundwater recharge. I want water security just as much as anyone else does.”
In the West, managed aquifer recharge projects in Colorado, Idaho and Washington state are looking to boost depleted aquifers while at the same time strengthening streamflow and benefiting the environment. “Any time you have more water in the river, it’s good for everyone,” said Jennifer Johnson, hydrologic engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Pacific Northwest Region’s Water Management Group, which is working to replenish aquifers in the Yakima River Valley in south central Washington.
Leaving Water in the Ground
In California, every drop of surface water is accounted for, even the bonus flows that come during very wet years.
In the strict, defined world of the state’s water rights, quantity, beneficial use and avoiding wasteful use is paramount. Beneficial use means exactly that. It’s the water people use at home each day, the irrigation that raises crops and the hydroelectric power so crucial as a renewable energy source.
It’s also the water that pulses through major waterways, keeping fish like salmon alive and healthy as they migrate to and from the ocean.
While helpful, the act of storing water to recharge aquifers is not a designated beneficial use, according to the State Water Board. Obtaining a water right to divert water to underground storage means identifying the eventual beneficial use of that water, the board says. That could include uses that allow for water to remain in the aquifer, such as to prevent land subsidence.
That process is not as difficult as it sounds because a wide interpretation exists for beneficial uses, especially as it relates to avoiding some of the undesirable results identified in SGMA.
Managed aquifer recharge and groundwater banking are essentially the same practice with different outcomes. Managed aquifer recharge boosts overall health of aquifers and nearby rivers and streams. In some instances, some of the water can be pumped back up. In groundwater banking, water is intentionally injected or percolated strictly for later withdrawal. Groundwater banks such as those in the southern San Joaquin Valley store vast quantities of imported water that faraway partners use through a complicated exchange process.
The key is having the available water to get into the ground — not always an easy task. “We’ve had two very wet years recently, but in most years, we don’t really have excess surface flows that can be recharged to groundwater, at least not in significant amounts,” said Dave Owen, professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. “And even when we do have flood flows, they aren’t always in the places that most need” the water.
Incremental Implementation – Colorado and Idaho
Managed aquifer recharge is instrumental in preserving the health of the South Platte River in northeastern Colorado, where groundwater pumping has been depleting flows in the river. There, well owners have been paying taxes and annual assessments since 1973, in part to construct groundwater recharge sites.
In 2006, due to a drought and changing legal parameters, the annual assessments were increased 400 percent and about $100 million of bonds have been approved since then by voters. Some of those funds were used to construct recharge projects, said Cech with Metropolitan State University in Denver.
In Idaho, about a third of the state’s economy relies on the agricultural products from the region known as the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer in southern Idaho. A decade ago, with the water table dropping, lawmakers saw the coming crisis and adopted a comprehensive water management plan for the area.
“The declining spring river flows as a result of the declining aquifer would have resulted in curtailing most of the groundwater users in the area,” said Wesley Hipke, recharge program manager with the Idaho Department of Water Resources. “This would not only have affected agriculture, but also the cities and towns and related industries that are currently in place.”
Idaho decided to tackle managed aquifer recharge from a state perspective because of the scale of the project (10,000 square miles), the aversion to a new tax and the realization that the cost of doing nothing was not acceptable, Hipke said.
“Obviously without a stable water supply, the prospect of future growth is slim,” he said.
The state’s plan outlined the means to manage overall water demand while increasing aquifer recharge and reducing withdrawals. Grabbing as much natural flow as possible, the plan’s aim is to reach 250,000 acre-feet of annual recharge by 2024.
Challenges and Potential for MAR in California
As vital as groundwater is to California’s water supply, the extent of expanded managed aquifer recharge remains to be seen. Aquifers are recharged naturally every time it rains and snows, but carefully managed recharge is happening on a limited basis.
“There’s no question it can expand. The question is by how much,” said Owen with UC Hastings.
In its review of groundwater recharge, the Public Policy Institute of California noted in September that a key challenge is inadequate conveyance for moving storm flows to suitable recharge locations. There is “significant potential” to increase MAR on farmland if local agencies adopt better incentive systems and water accounting, PPIC wrote.
Getting water in and out of aquifers using MAR is a big challenge, from an infrastructure standpoint of getting the water when it’s available and moving it to where it can sink into the ground, Owen said in an interview. In addition, there’s not a perfect accounting process for tracking those water molecules. Even in cases where groundwater is being banked, getting the water back out that someone has put in can be complicated in aquifers with “unrestrained, poorly regulated” pumping.
“If you put water into a bank, you may have a legal right to withdraw it,” Owen said, “but that legal right does you no good if someone else has pumped out the physical water.”
Reach Gary Pitzer: email@example.com, Twitter: @gary_wef
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Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
The Fire Mountain Canal Improvement Project (“Segment 47”; 22,400 feet or 4.2 miles, large diameter pipe; including new Leroux Creek siphon; Total Cost Estimated at $4.6MM). Phase 1 of this two-year piping project is completed and is delivering irrigation water. The project is cooperatively funded by the Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Company (approximately $200K), RCPP Watershed Authority ($1.15M – managed by the River District), Reclamation Salinity Control ($2.95M), and Colorado Water Conservation Board ($191K).
The RCPP portion, with fiscal management by the Colorado River District, involves piping a total of approximately 2 miles of the Lower Fire Mountain Canal ‘extension’. Approximately 80% of this RCPP-funded project component was installed from November 2018 to April 2019. The balance of the two-mile segment along with the salinity-funded large diameter pipe and siphon is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2020 irrigation season. It was designed by the Applegate Group and constructed by Telluride Gravel.
Here’s the release from Fort Collins Utilities (Eileen Dornfest):
Fort Collins Utilities has updated the cost estimate for the Halligan Water Supply Project (Halligan Project). Based on information known at this time, current estimates indicate a probable cost of $120 million. However, costs could vary between $100 million to $150 million as the project scope and schedule are more clearly defined.
The project will be paid for primarily by fees related to new development and redevelopment. The updated cost is not expected to significantly change Utilities’ water rate forecast. Future rate increases are not expected to change from the current rate adjustment strategy.
To date, $19 million have been spent, mainly on environmental studies for both the Halligan Project and several other water storage alternatives that have been considered as part of the federal permitting process and on real estate acquisition.
While the cost of water continues to rise in Northern Colorado, the Halligan Project remains the most cost-effective alternative to provide a safe and reliable water supply for Utilities’ existing and future customers. Other water supply options available to the City of Fort Collins cost seven times or more per acre-foot (approximately 326,000 gallons) of firm yield.
Without the Halligan Reservoir expansion, customers could be vulnerable to future service interruptions during prolonged drought and emergency situations.
Since entering the federal permitting process in 2006, project costs have been updated periodically. The last estimate was developed in 2017 and indicated a total cost of $75 million. Since then, Utilities has learned more about the future schedule and cost of federal, state and county permitting processes; real estate acquisition needs; evolving best practices in dam design and construction; and opportunities for environmental enhancements. Additionally, the cost increases $4 million for every year that construction is delayed due to permitting or other circumstances.
In the past, the estimate was presented as one value – a best approximation of total project costs. In the future, the cost will be presented as a range of costs to reflect the evolving nature of a project of this size and complexity.
Expected to be completed around 2026, the project will raise the height of the existing Halligan dam by 25 feet and increase the reservoir’s water storage by approximately 8,100 acre-feet. In addition to providing a safe, reliable water supply, the project will rehabilitate a 110-year-old dam that will need repairs in the future and enhance stream flows downstream of the reservoir, improving habitat and the ecosystem.
A draft Environmental Impact Statement is anticipated to be released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers later this year, followed by a public comment period.