Americans are becoming painfully aware that U.S. energy grids are vulnerable to extreme weather events. Hurricanes in the east, wildfires in the west, ice storms, floods and even landslides can trigger widespread power shortages. And climate change is likely making many of these extreme events more frequent, more severe or both.
But in my view, major energy disruptions are not inevitable consequences beyond our control. Rather, the rising number of large weather-related blackouts in recent years shows that utilities, regulators and government agencies aren’t planning for these events in the right way. What’s needed is an understanding that extreme weather events are fundamentally different from other kinds of power blackouts, and that resilience is not just about the grid itself, but also the people that it serves.
How power companies plan for disasters
In most areas of the U.S., power grids tend not to fail unless they are pushed really hard. Utilities have built a tremendous amount of redundancy into energy delivery systems – extra generating capacity and transmission lines that can get electricity to customers if part of the system fails. That’s the right approach if major threats are things like equipment overloads on very hot days, or random equipment failures that could cascade into much bigger problems.
Utilities and regulators have planned grid design around these kinds of failures for decades. And for the most part, this approach has worked well. Truly severe power outages from causes other than extreme weather don’t happen very often in the U.S. The last really big one, on Aug. 14-15, 2003, affected some 50 million people across the U.S. Northeast and Midwest and southern Canada.
Redundancy is a good strategy for keeping the grid stable following an unexpected malfunction of one or two pieces of equipment. It also allows utilities to do more of what they are good at – building, maintaining and operating power grid infrastructure.
But in the face of extreme weather events, the system needs a different kind of redundancy. Building more equipment in vulnerable places won’t keep the lights on if the entire area is hit by a disruptive event all at once. In Louisiana, Hurricane Ida was so fierce that it took down multiple power transmission lines that feed electricity into New Orleans and surrounding parishes. Some of this damaged infrastructure had been upgraded or put in place following previous severe storms.
Rethinking resilience planning
Planning properly for resilience to extreme weather events requires doing some things differently.
First, it means realizing that a lot of equipment in the same place will be affected all at once. One reason that Ida led to such large blackouts in New Orleans was that some older transmission lines going into the city hadn’t been upgraded to withstand more severe weather, even though they ran beside new equipment.
Second, the goal should be to get people the services that they need, not necessarily to keep the grid up and running, which is very costly and just won’t be possible in all circumstances.
This means thinking about solutions outside of the traditional utility business model – for example, deploying lifeline systems such as solar panels, batteries or generators. This isn’t how utilities traditionally do business, but it will tide people over while power companies make large-scale grid repairs after storms.
Third, it’s time to acknowledge that the risks of extreme events are increasing faster than many utilities have been adapting their plans. For example, Pacific Gas and Electric in California has only recently incorporated wildfire risk into its transmission planning, and now is more seriously considering burying power lines.
Entergy, which serves much of the area hit hardest by Ida, has upgraded its transmission design standards so that newer lines can withstand higher winds. This is a useful step, but it did not prevent catastrophic power outages during a period of dangerously hot weather. Utilities and regulators still assume that the scale and likelihood of many weather-related risks has not changed in the past several decades. As climate change accelerates, utilities and regulators should be working to understand which risks are changing and how.
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Some utilities, like those in New York, are learning from recent experiences with extreme weather events and trying to solve these problems. Con Edison, for example, has focused not only on restoration plans following extreme events, but has also tried to model and quantify the changing risks that it faces. Others, like those in Vermont and California, are weighing how they can achieve extreme-weather resilience as their grids become more dependent on renewables.
How much money to spend for resilient grids is a major question. What’s already clear is that building more, bigger infrastructure is not necessarily better.
Three water projects in the region will get $4.7 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The board’s giving doubled this year due to COVID-related stimulus funds.
Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud is getting $3.8 million toward connecting the Windy Gap reservoir in Grand County to one at Chimney Hollow in Larimer County…
The grant goes for the [bypass] channel, which is still being designed.
“Colorado River Connectivity Channel is a major modification to Windy Gap Reservoir,” Stahla said. He said the channel’s funding is nearly complete. The grant “isn’t the final piece. We anticipate all the pieces coming together” by mid-2022…
Two other area projects got grants.
A “Poudre Headwaters Restoration — Grand Ditch Barrier” effort by Colorado Trout Unlimited in Denver got about $300,000 toward restoring 38 miles of stream and 110 acres of lake habitat.
The specific project involves the greenback cutthroat trout.
A $1.2 million irrigation infrastructure effort got half its costs from this round of water board funds. The grantee is Colorado State University, through its Fort Collins campus, to use on work to boost water and energy efficiency and agricultural production.
The specific project is to build storage ponds, upgrade the existing equipment and add irrigation systems and other infrastructure for research on soil and crops and to launch a farm management competition to improve agricultural profitability.
Colorado gaming officials on Thursday [September 23, 2021] announced that the first full year of legal sports betting in the state produced nearly $8 million in tax revenue that will help the state implement its water resiliency plan.
The Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission approved the allocation at its meeting Thursday.
“In all, the state received nearly $8.6 million in revenue, that’s discounting $1.6 million state gaming officials returned to the general fund in March to reimburse for start-up costs covered to launch wagering in May 2020.”
The Colorado Water Plan was established in November 2015 to help ensure the state’s long-term water needs would be met amid concerns about climate change and other challenges the state faces…
Despite the water plan funding representing less than 1 percent of the actual bets placed, state officials are still pleased with the results so far.
FromThe Denver Post (Conrad Swanson) via The Lamar Ledger:
Since Colorado launched legalized sports betting in May 2020, the state has collected nearly five times more money for water projects than anticipated, gaming officials said.
The start of the National Football League’s season provided yet another welcome financial bump, with about $44 million in bets during its first weekend (Sept. 9-13), according to Daniel Hartman, director of the state’s Division of Gaming…
Money collected from gambling proceeds goes toward work meant to conserve water, protect natural habitats, improve infrastructure and more, according to Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. And more money equals funding new projects under the Colorado Water Plan at a time when Colorado River reservoirs downstream are low.
Hartman said his office earmarked about $8 million from sports betting for the plan, which sets priorities through 2050 for projects in the following five categories: agriculture; conservation and land use; engagement and innovation; environment and recreation; and water storage and supply.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board doles out the money, and Ris said it tries to fund projects that check more than one box, like work with Colorado Springs Utilities that brings water from the Eagle River Basin to Colorado Springs and Aurora — which she said “opened up quite a bit of fish and boating habitat.”
Before voters legalized sports betting, Ris said her department was awarding grants with whatever money officials found in their “couch cushions.”
At the outset, legislative analysts projected gambling could bring in between $9.7 million to $11.2 million in its first year, revenue department spokeswoman Suzanne Karrer said. But shortly after voters agreed to legalize the practice, state officials cut their estimates for 2020-2021 to between $1.5 million and $1.7 million in part because casinos weren’t willing to pay $125,000 every other year to host sports betting, Karrer said.
Even when the pandemic shut down leagues for a few months, gamblers flocked to sports betting — made easy through apps. The $3 billion in bets from May 2020 to July 31, 2021, translates into $9.4 million in state revenue, Hartman said…
Ris said the board can’t give out any of this windfall until next summer, after the 2022 General Assembly grants it permission to spend the money.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Becki Bryant and Patti Aaron):
The Bureau of Reclamation today [September 22, 2021] released updated modeling projections of major reservoir levels within the Colorado River system over the next five years. These projections are used by Reclamation and water users in the basin for future water management planning. The new projections show continued elevated risk of Lake Powell and Lake Mead reaching critically-low elevations as a result of the historic drought and low-runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin.
Today’s announcement comes as the Administration pursues a whole-of-government approach to drought mitigation via the Interagency Drought Relief Working Group, co-chaired by the Department of the Interior. The Working Group is coordinating with partners across the federal government, providing assistance to impacted communities, and developing long-term solutions to climate change.
Lake Powell Projections
At Lake Powell, the projections indicate the potential of falling below minimum power pool as early as July 2022 should extremely dry hydrology continue into next year. Beyond 2022, the chance Lake Powell could fall below minimum power pool ranges from about 25% to 35%. Elevation 3,525 feet, the target elevation in Lake Powell, has an almost 90% chance of being reached next year. That target elevation provides a 35 vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam and meet current operational obligations to the Lower Basin States of Arizona, California and Nevada.
“The latest outlook for Lake Powell is troubling,” said Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director Wayne Pullan. “This highlights the importance of continuing to work collaboratively with the Basin States, Tribes and other partners toward solutions.”
After consultation with – and acknowledgement from – all seven Basin States and other partners, under the emergency provisions of the 2019 Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA), Reclamation started supplemental water deliveries in July 2021 to Lake Powell from the upper reservoirs of Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo. Those supplemental deliveries will provide up to an additional 181 thousand acre-feet of water to Lake Powell by the end of the 2021.
As the Upper Basin States continue to work towards the development of a Drought Operations plan that will govern potential future supplemental deliveries, previous modeling assumptions regarding any additional or continued DROA releases have been removed to provide a clearer representation of future risk. The removal of these assumptions was the main contributor in the increase in risk between the last set of projections released in June of this year.
Lake Mead Projections
At Lake Mead, today’s projections indicate the chance of Lake Mead declining to elevation 1,025 feet (the third shortage trigger) is as high as 66% in 2025, and that there is a 22% chance of the reservoir elevation dropping to 1,000 feet the same year.
Reclamation continues to work with all seven Colorado River Basin States to address current conditions in the Colorado River Basin.
“This five-year probability table underscores the need for additional actions beyond the 2007 Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan to be taken to enhance our efforts to protect Lake Mead, Lake Powell and the Colorado River system overall,” said Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Most of the flow of the Colorado River originates in the Rocky Mountains. The Upper Basin experienced an exceptionally dry spring in 2021, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 26% of average, despite near-average snowfall last winter. Total Colorado River system storage today is 39% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.
Today’s release also includes updated presentations that utilize additional forecast information to improve public understanding of Reclamation’s future hydrologic projections. In keeping with its commitment to better inform all water users and the public regarding the hydrologic tools available, Reclamation has added in-depth information on its website about modeling and projections in the Colorado River system. A new interactive tool also allows users to explore projected reservoir conditions under a range of inflow forecasts.
“We’re providing detailed information on our modeling and projections to further generate productive discussions about the future of Lake Powell and Lake Mead based on the best data available,” said Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Regional Director Jacklynn Gould. “Being prepared to adopt further actions to protect the elevations at these reservoirs remains a Reclamation priority and focus.”
Thanks to a major infusion of COVID-related state stimulus cash earlier this year, nearly $13M in grants was awarded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board on Sept. 16 to projects designed to improve irrigation systems, aid the environment, improve water storage, and reconnect a critical channel on the Colorado River in Grand County.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has historically dispensed $7.5 million annually in grants to assist projects that align with the goals of the 2015 Colorado Water Plan.
Thanks to the state stimulus funding, state legislators delivered $15 million in cash to the grant program, more than double last year’s amount. The funds must be awarded by July 2023.
In addition to supporting the water plan, the grants are designed to benefit multiple segments of the state’s economy, according to Anna Mauss, the CWCB’s chief financial officer.
“That can be hard to define,” she says, “but we are looking at solutions that benefit all sectors.”
Environment and recreation projects represented the largest slice of the pie at $6.6 million. The second largest slice, at $4.2 million, went to water storage and supply projects. Four agriculture projects together got $1.5 million.
The largest recipient of grants funds, at $3.8 million, is the Windy Gap Dam bypass, a project that will reconnect a critical channel on the Colorado River in Grand County. It has federal, state and county funding and cash from conservation organizations and landowners, all working under the umbrella of the Northern Water Conservancy District, which oversees Windy Gap for its owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The dam was constructed in the 1980s just below the confluence of the Fraser with the Colorado River west of Granby. Aquatic life has since diminished. The new channel is to reconnect the Colorado downstream from the dam with its upstream habitat.
According to the application, the project will expand the river’s gold medal trout fishery and make this segment more resilient in the face of increased water diversions, wildfires and climate change.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture got nearly $300,000 for a soil health project that will focus on the Republican River watershed for three years. Program directors expect 10 farmers to participate, incorporating water-saving actions into their land-use planning in a way that will conserve 47,000 acre-feet annually. In this way, according to the grant application, the project will also help sustain the Ogallala Aquifer.
Two other projects getting funding are on the Front Range. At Barr Lake, located along Interstate 76 northeast of Denver, the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Co. plans to enlarge the storage capacity. A new study of regional extreme precipitation by the Colorado Dam Safety found that raising the spillway culvert would safely accommodate 1,500 acre-feet of additional storage. This, however, will inundate structures in the surrounding state park. The $279,000 granted the company will provide partial funding to mitigate the higher water levels on the park facilities.
Trout Unlimited was awarded $300,000 for efforts to restore populations of the greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish, at the headwaters of the Cache la Poudre River. The species is native to the Eastern Slope, but the Poudre is augmented by diversions from the headwaters of the Colorado River in Rocky Mountain National Park. Most prominent of those diversions is the Grand River Ditch. The $300,000 granted to Trout Unlimited will go to creating a fish barrier in the Grand Ditch where it flows across the Continental Divide and into a tributary of the Poudre River.
David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said that the project will take about 10 years. The greenback is currently federally listed as threatened by the Environmental Protection Agency, but Trout Unlimited hopes that a recovery stronghold on the Poudre can result in delisting. The full project will provide connected habitat for the trout species to more than 38 miles of stream and more than 110 acres of lakes and reservoirs.
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Click here to read the newsletter (Curtis Wackerle). Here’s an excerpt:
The Eagle River Watershed Council on Tuesday hosted a hike for the public in the Homestake Valley, an area receiving increased scrutiny because of a project that proposes to take more water from the Colorado River basin and bring it to the fast-growing Front Range.
The goal of the event — which included presentations from representatives from public-lands conservation group Wilderness Workshop, municipal water provider Aurora Water and other experts — was to provide a broad overview of a complicated issue, according to watershed council executive director Holly Loff.
“We know it’s going to be a long process, but we want to make sure people are engaged in the conversation and look to us as a resource,” Loff said. “We will continue to provide science-based, factual information.”
The watershed council advocates for the health of the upper Colorado and Eagle river watersheds through research, education and projects, according to its website.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamtion (Peter Soeth):
The Bureau of Reclamation selected five winning submissions to share $200,000 for phase 1 of the Imperfection Detection Challenge. This prize competition sought new tools to evaluate the condition of fiber-reinforced polymer composite structures non-destructively. These composites are used in pipelines, tanks and other specialized infrastructure components.
The five winning submissions are:
Utilizing Space Tech to Detect FRP Damage on Earth, Brownsville, Texas
Low-Terahertz Imaging Radar, Netherlands
Ultrasonic SH waves imaging FRP structures, Columbia, Maryland
Applied Impact Robotics, Inc, Sterling, Virginia
Augmented reality system for low-THz inspection, Romania
“Composite structures are increasingly used in constructing pipelines, tanks and other infrastructure,” said Chief Engineer David Raff. “We are encouraged by the projects submitted and look forward to further development in the next phase of the prize competition.”
The five winners now move to phase 2 and have 10 months to develop and demonstrate their prototype’s performance. Up to three of the top-performing teams will receive $10,000 each and move to phase 3.
In phase 3, finalists deliver their prototypes to be evaluated by Reclamation, the Corps of Engineers and affiliated partners. The winner of this phase receives $50,000.
Submissions receiving a phase 1 honorable mention for this prize competition are:
UAX GO, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada
Multi-modal Ultrasonic Device (MUD), England
Reclamation is partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Clemson Composites Center, Jesse Garant Metrology, Thompson Pipe Group, NASA Tournament Labs and HeroX on this prize competition. To learn more about this competition, please visit Imperfection Detection Prize Competition Page.
Prize competitions spur innovation by engaging a non-traditional, problem-solver community. Reclamation supports innovation to target the most persistent science and technology challenges through prize competitions. It has awarded more than $4 million in prizes through 28 competitions in the past six years. Please visit Reclamation’s Water Prize Competition Center to learn more.
Utah’s drought-induced water crisis has softened somewhat after a string of monsoons, but the state’s water supplies are far from safe, with reservoirs across the state falling below 40% full, state officials told lawmakers Tuesday. Only a massive snowpack this winter can assure adequate supplies going into next year, and even then, Utah’s water future remains uncertain in the face of long-term drought and climate change.
In July the entire state was in extreme or exceptional drought and Utah’s two largest lakes hit their lowest levels ever…
“We are setting all the wrong records,” Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, told the Legislative Water Development Commission. “Then came August. We had some great monsoon season, which we didn’t receive the previous year.”
August precipitation was four times normal in many places…
All eyes are fixated on the Colorado River, a water source that supplies much of the American Southwest. Its flows have diminished so much after 20 years of drought and warming temperatures that a shortage was declared last month in the river’s Lower Basin States and Utah’s Lake Powell is looking more like a puddle than the nation’s second-largest reservoir.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has forecast that by next May the lake will fall to the point where hydropower cannot be generated at Glen Canyon Dam, said Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s Colorado River Authority commissioner. To reduce the risk of that happening, the bureau is releasing 181,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge and two other Upper Basin reservoirs this summer and fall…
Describing himself as an optimist, [Carl] Albrecht said he believes the West’s drought will end and Utah should position itself to capture the water when heavy snows return…
Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council pushed back, arguing that Utah’s water needs will decline as water-intensive agriculture is displaced by the very growth Albrecht described.
“We’re converting our farmland to blacktop, subdivisions, shopping malls and homes. And because municipal lands use less water per acre than agricultural lands, it’s leading to a growth in our water supply,” Frankel said.
He said you will find eight pages of water rights posted for sale on KSL.com, showing a vibrant market for water that’s available along the Wasatch Front.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) shared alarming news this year about the unprecedented conditions on the Colorado River. The agency, which oversees federal water management across 17 western states, publishes some pretty wonky information, even for those of us who regularly interface with this agency and rely on its analyses.
However, in June, Reclamation shared its new, five-year projections for the Colorado River Basin. It shares these projections a few times every year to assist drought management within the Basin. This time, the news was big: the water situation on the Colorado River is worse than folks anticipated when adopting the shared shortage agreements called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) adopted in 2019.
To jump to the conclusion: Reclamation’s projections signal that we urgently need to do more than the DCPs envisioned because of the increasingly hot and dry conditions in the basin. Reclamation has continued to revise its projections throughout this shockingly dry spring, resulting in really dire projections for water storage and distribution. In other words, less water for people, and less water in streams that benefit birds, fish, and a robust recreational economy.
We’ve arrived at the time when the limits of the Colorado River are being reached.
What does this mean for birds? Birds rely on the riparian habitats of the Colorado River and its tributaries, and aquatic birds have come to rely on the big reservoirs on the river, too. Surveys of aquatic birds at Lake Powell have documented dabbling ducks, diving species, shorebirds, and more. American Coot and Western Grebe are common. Gadwall, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, and Green-winged Teal have also been observed. The habitats created by Lake Powell have existed for less than 60 years and can change with the lake level, which can affect birds.
You may recall that the main reservoirs on the highly-plumbed Colorado River—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—sometimes “equalize” in water accounting flows. Lake Powell is the receiving reservoir from the Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) meaning that it stores water that runs downstream from these states. Lake Mead is the distributing reservoir for the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) and Mexico meaning that water deliveries to each of these places comes from available water in this lake (and legal water rights, of course). The amount of water in Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country—determines how much water a state has available for its Colorado River water users.
Reclamation projects that Lake Mead water levels are, for the first time ever, so low that they will require cuts in water Lower Basin water deliveries, operating in a Tier 1 shortage. And the agency says there is a greater than 99 percent chance of this shortage continuing into 2022 and a high risk (greater than 80 percent probability) that Lake Mead will remain under shortage operations for at least the next five years, perhaps with even more aggressive cuts.
Severe drought conditions are also triggering an emergency response with the release of water from reservoirs further upstream to address declining water levels at Lake Powell and protect the ability of the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower. Representatives from Reclamation and the Upper Basin states just announced they will release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs.
If we have another bad water year, elevations at Lake Mead could even be lower than before Lake Powell was created. It’s getting to the bottom for both of these reservoirs.
Why does this matter? These unprecedented and exceptional drought conditions are a signal to all of us to take steps to ensure the river flows long into the future and address water security for people and wildlife. Climate change is here and the entire Colorado River Basin is in crisis.
We have a very limited window to begin implementing innovative tools that are at our disposal in order to adapt to and mitigate climate change. In addition to reductions in carbon emissions and other large-scale solutions for our planet, Audubon continues to focus on federal and state investments in climate resilient strategies that will help stabilize water supplies and better assist economic sectors and ecosystems adapt to changing conditions. Future water projections by Reclamation – and future agreements on the Colorado River – need to account for climate extremes.
The effects of prolonged drought and climate change affect everyone in the basin. Our ways of life are at stake—millions of acres of farmland and ranches, urban and rural communities, recreation on rivers and lakes, our economies, as well as incredible bird life. Our work is more urgent and more difficult.
It was 1952 when the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs first started gobbling up water rights in a remote, high mountain valley on the state’s Western Slope. The valley is called Homestake, and now, those same cities want even more of its pure water.
In western Colorado, where only about 20% of Colorado’s population lives, all water tries to flow toward the Pacific Ocean. On the east side, where most people live, water flows to the Atlantic. To bring the water from the west side to the east side of the Rockies requires lots of money and lots of pipelines.
But money isn’t much of a barrier when your population is exploding: Colorado Springs, with 478,961 residents, and Aurora, with 386,261, need more water. And they aim to get it even if it must cross under the Continental Divide and damage a fragile and ancient wetland called a “fen” in the process.
The new reservoir the two cities plan to build would be five miles downstream from their existing Homestake Reservoir, and called Whitney Reservoir after a creek that flows into Homestake Creek. There’s also a Whitney Park within the nearby Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which could lose some 500 acres if the new reservoir goes through.
But protesters are already active, and conservation groups are threatening lawsuits. Meanwhile, the cities have already quietly begun test drilling at four possible dam sites on U.S. Forest Service land along Homestake Creek.
Obstacles, however, are popping up. The Forest Service says it won’t even consider a reservoir proposal that shrinks a wilderness area, and the cities would have to get that approval from both Congress and the White House.
The U.S. congressman for the district, rising Democratic star Joe Neguse, has also made it clear he doesn’t support shrinking a designated wilderness or damaging wetlands. Local leaders are also chiming in: “A Whitney Reservoir would irreparably change and harm our community,” said Minturn Mayor John Widerman and Red Cliff Mayor Duke Gerber, who co-wrote a letter to the Forest Service. Both represent small towns dependent on tourism and outdoor recreation.
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat who grew up in the nearby ski town of Vail, also wrote the Forest Service to oppose the dam: “I cannot express how sternly the citizens of my district … oppose water diversion projects to Front Range communities.”
Another issue, and for some it’s the most critical, is the fate of valuable “fen” wetlands that would be destroyed by a dam and reservoir. “This is one of the finest wetlands we can find on our forest — it’s unbelievable,” White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams told Aspen Journalism in 2019. “You can mitigate, but you can’t replace 10,000 years of work.”
Nor can you turn the clock back to 1952, when Colorado’s population was 1.36 million, compared to 5.7 million today, and the global land and ocean temperature was 1.52 degrees Fahrenheit cooler. Climate change, scientists say, will cause the Colorado River to lose up to 31% of its historical flow by 2052. That prediction was a factor in a recent, first-ever federal water shortage declaration.
“When Colorado Springs and Aurora got their water right, the [Holy Cross] wilderness wasn’t there and wetlands at that time were something we were just filling in,” said Jerry Mallett, president of the local conservation group Colorado Headwaters. “Since then (wetlands) have become an extremely valuable resource because of what they can do for groundwater recharge, addressing climate change — all kinds of things.”
Then there’s the issue of Kentucky bluegrass, Colorado’s landscaping groundcover of choice. Kentucky gets more than 50 inches of rain a year compared to the Front Range average of 17, so why pump western Colorado’s high-elevation water through the Rockies for lawns?
Colorado photographer and conservationist John Fielder, who says he’s been just about everywhere within the nearly 123,000-acre Holy Cross Wilderness Area, wants people to just look at his images of the fen wetlands along Homestake Creek, and then ask themselves these questions:
“Is anything more sublime and fertile and life-giving than a 10,000-or-more-year-old fen wetland? You can’t “mitigate” the loss of ancient wetlands by creating a manmade wet place somewhere else. No more water to the Front Range.”
David O. Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a freelance writer who lives near Vail, Colorado.
Have you seen the U.S. Drought Monitor’s map lately? It’s not good. Especially for one half of the country.
More than 98% of the Western United States is experiencing drought. In the Northeast, it’s only about 15% of the land under a drought. In the Southeast it’s even lower, at 8%.
So if there’s plenty of water in reservoirs to the East, why not just move around resources and share the goods as one big happy country? A candidate in California’s gubernatorial recall election recently suggested building a pipeline from the Mississippi River the Golden State. We asked two drought experts. It turns out it would be stupidly complicated.
The first problem: Our country is very, very big.
“It’s really far away,” says Stephanie Pincetl, professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “There are mountains and deserts and swamps and all kinds of things. That infrastructure would be enormously expensive to build. I mean trillions of dollars.”
Even if cost wasn’t a factor, logistics would be complicated. The water would need to be transported in some sort of massive pipe…
You’d need to dig through thousands of miles of land – much of it probably private property – to put a pipe underground…
Now, let’s say money and logistics are no obstacle. It still doesn’t make sense environmentally.
“It would require a lot of energy to move that water, gobs of energy,” says Pincetl…
We’re much better off finding ways to conserve the water we do have and use it more wisely, Hall says…
Hall is less subtle: “That’s a wildly unrealistic thing to do. … We need to be thinking about our addictions to resources that we take for granted.”
Here’s the release Eagle River Water & Sanitation District:
Healing the Land: Collaborative partnership contributing to cleanup efforts
An important collaborative effort among community stakeholders has begun to clean up portions of the Eagle Mine Superfund site at the southern end of Minturn, Colo., an historic former mining and railroad town.
The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and landowner, Battle North LLC, are moving forward with a remedial work plan approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) earlier this year.
Battle North, which owns about 600 acres in the Maloit Park and Bolts Lake areas, has been working with the EPA and CDPHE since 2006, completing extensive testing and analysis of the site to understand which areas needed additional remediation to allow for future residential use.
The district and the authority are currently evaluating the Bolts Lake area, which was never part of the Superfund site, to confirm the feasibility of creating a water supply reservoir.
In February, the district, the authority, and Battle North reached an agreement for the district and authority to purchase the Bolts Lake site following a due diligence period. The district and authority would allow passive recreation on the reservoir, including non-motorized boating and fishing, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the reservoir’s main purpose of water supply.
In addition, the construction of the reservoir would require deep excavation within the former lake footprint to roughly triple the volume of the original reservoir capacity. The clean material excavated from the reservoir area would be used as cover material for areas in Operable Unit 3 of the Superfund site, pursuant to a remedial action work plan approved by the EPA and CDPHE, which furthers remediation efforts.
Operable Unit 3 of the Superfund site, which is adjacent to the proposed location of the new reservoir, was remediated in the 1990s but certain restrictions remain along Tigiwon Road and a portion of the iconic mining trestle where the current cleanup efforts are taking place. The plan to remove several hundred yards of contaminated soil, relocating it to an approved disposal facility, is expected to be completed by the end of this month.
Battle North will also submit additional work plans for future cleanup of other portions of the Superfund site to the EPA and CDPHE for their review and approval to allow for continued remediation efforts in the coming years.
Monitoring and operation and maintenance activities have been ongoing at the Superfund site since 2001.
Minturn Mayor John Widerman agreed and noted his excitement for the area cleanup, saying, “Historical preservation is very important to Minturnites, and so, too, is remediation of the areas that remain contaminated. We very much appreciate the efforts by the district, the authority, and the landowner to continue to clean up and make room for a much-needed water supply reservoir. This has been a collaborative effort from the beginning, and this remains a focal point of how we will continue to make progress on issues that affect more than just Minturn.”
The Bolts Lake area is planned to ultimately accommodate a 1,200-acre foot reservoir on about 45 acres, with enough water storage to secure service for customers of the district and authority for decades to come, as well as potential future development of the Bolts and Maloit Park areas.
Members of the Rio de Chama Acequia Association (RCAA) are adamant about continuing the repartimento – the traditional way of sharing water in New Mexico. They want their acequia parciantes to be treated like all the other contractors in the San Juan-Chama River Project and they want to be able to store water in Abiquiu Lake.
The Los Alamos Reporter recently sat down with the officers of the association to discuss the issues they are facing and the solutions they propose. RCAA chair Darel Madrid explained how in the 1960s, water was diverted from the Little Navajo river in Colorado to build up water in the Rio Grande through the San Juan-Chama River Project. He said most of that water streamed through a tunnel under the mountains and into Heron Reservoir.
“Ours is the only river system in the area that has foreign water running through it. Our water rights are tied to the native water rights of the Rio Chama basin. With climate change, we’re getting less and less snowpack. We’re getting warmer springs and all the melt-off is running through our acequia system before we are ready to use it,” Madrid said. “In our climate down here, the growing season usually starts the latter part of May or in June and continues into October. This water is melting off earlier and it’s passing through our system in March and early April. It leaves us in a bind.”
Madrid explained that because the RCAA water rights are tied to the Rio Chama water, only a sliver of the water that you see running through their system is actually their water.
“When people see all this water flowing through the system, they don’t realize that only a portion of that water is our water. We have approximately 22 acequias from below the dam that run from the Trujillo-Abeyta ditch, which is the northern-most, to the Salazar Ditch, which is the last one to receive water,” he said.
The foreign water that’s running through the system is owned mostly by contractors of the original San Juan–Chama River Project including the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District which takes care of everybody from Cochiti all the way down to Socorro, and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. There are also minor contractors like the County of Los Alamos, the City of Espanola, the Village of Taos, and the City of Santa Fe – all of whom bought into the project in the 60s…
For many years there was less of a drought situation in the region so there was plenty of water for everybody, he said…
“When the Rio Grande Compact was established in the late 20s or 30s, none of the RCAA acequias were invited to the table. They didn’t have a voice in those discussions at all. The parciantes were busy being farmers and were not organized. The same thing happened during the San Juan-Chama River Project. For all that we can tell, we weren’t invited to the table and all these decisions were made without our participation. When all was said and done we were left with all these rules and regulations that we have to abide by so it’s almost like taxation without representation,” Madrid said.
He noted that regulations for the acequias are all set through court orders with the State Engineer’s Office having the most authority…
The 22 RCAA ditches have the oldest priority dates for rights to the water with some of them going back to the 1600s. Madrid believes those are probably the oldest water rights in the entire nation, second only to Native Americans. The ditch behind his home has been in continual use for more than 400 years. Families of others on the board have been irrigating for hundreds of years in the area.
RCAA Treasurer Carlos Salazar said RCAA wants to find a way to store its water so that it doesn’t have to buy water and believes this would require federal legislation because the dams were constructed with federal funds. The Association hopes that the congressional delegation will help them to find a way to store their native water because it comes from their ancestral lands. Because the water can’t be stored, half of any water that flows past the Otowi Bridge near the Pueblo of San Ildefonso in the spring goes to Texas.
All the RCAA acequias are metered by the state engineer. Their diversion is measured, but one of the big debates RCAA has with the state engineer is that not all of it is consumed and the state charges them for all of the diversion and doesn’t credit them for any return flow. Another burden the RCAA has to bear is that its member acequias are saddled with all the costs for the operation and maintenance…
The RCAA believes all diversion levels should be increased by 30 percent but they would need to invest in return flow measurement to accomplish that and it would take $1,000 per ditch, a total of about $54,000 to accomplish that.
Seaman noted that the RCAA is simply trying to continue the tradition of the acequias.
“To me, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed every citizen all these rights and we don’t see it happening now with this adjudication of water to the Rio Grande and the City of Albuquerque and our neighbors there on Heron Reservoir. All that imported water – where were the acequias?” Salazar said. “I think we should be treated fairly. Our rights pre-date all of them and we should be given an opportunity to store water even if we have to pay for the storage.”
Once an acequia commissioner and now a U.S. congresswoman, Leger Fernández knows how hard it is to tell farmers they won’t get all the water they need — or maybe none at all.
She talks about the annual limpia, or cleaning of acequias in preparation for planting season.
“There was always a sense of accomplishment but now what we’re witnessing is we can’t do it all the time anymore because we don’t have the water,” she said during a tour with acequia officials. “And what you all are facing is not of your making, right? But you are having to work through the struggle of making whatever water is available work for everybody in the community.”
Some earthen canals didn’t get a drop of water this year, another example of parched Western conditions. Like many parts of the world, the region has become warmer and drier over the last 30 years, mainly due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas development and transportation.
Boat docks are high and dry at reservoirs around New Mexico, and Lake Powell along the Utah-Arizona line has hit a record low this year. A key Northern California reservoir that helps water a quarter of U.S. crops is shrinking.
For mayordomos — those who oversee acequias and ensure equitable water distribution — it has become a scramble.
Less snow falls, and warmer temperatures melt it sooner. Dry soil soaks up runoff before it reaches streams and rivers that feed acequias.
Paula Garcia, New Mexico Acequia Association executive director, shuns the phrase “new normal” because she said that implies stability in weather patterns the community’s ditches rely on…
Federal water management policies have complicated matters as needs of cities and other users overshadow these Hispanic and Indigenous communities.
Their traditions are rooted in Moorish ingenuity first brought to Europe and then to North America via Spanish settlers. Those water-sharing ideas were blended with already sophisticated irrigation culture developed by Indigenous communities in what is now the southwestern U.S.
What developed were little slices of paradise, with gardens and orchards that have sustained communities for generations.
Roughly 640 New Mexico acequias still provide water to thousands of acres of farmland.
Darel Madrid, Rio Chama Acequia Association president, didn’t grow a garden this year. He wanted to lead by example…
After back-to-back record dry summer rainy seasons, some Southwest areas enjoyed above average rain this year. But maps are still bleak, with nearly 99% of the West dealing with some form of drought…
When water-sharing compacts involving some of New Mexico’s largest cities were first negotiated decades ago, Madrid said communities along Rio Chama were left out. Now, as supplies are scarce, acequias around Abiquiu have been forced to seek state funding to buy water from downstream users. If none is available, they go without.
As long as Rio Chama flows above 140 cubic feet per second, water can be diverted by acequias. The flow usually nosedives in May, and rationing starts when it drops below 50 cfs. Aside from isolated spikes from storm runoff, the flow is now less than half that.
Madrid said acequias would benefit from permanent water storage in an upstream reservoir, which would need federal approval…
Part of that means reimagining acequias without giving up the sense of community they command.
At Santa Cruz Farm, owner Don Bustos is growing crops in greenhouses in fall and winter when less water is needed and evaporation is reduced, he said.
In Taos, acequia leaders have bumped up annual cleaning to the fall so they don’t miss out on early runoff…
Acequias have overcome periodic environmental crises, rivalries among water users and profound historical changes, Spanish historian and anthropologist Luis Pablo Martínez Sanmartín noted in a 2020 research report. He said survival has hinged on a common-good design based on cooperation, respect, equity, transparency and negotiation.
At City Superintendent Mark Brown’s request, Holyoke City Council members held a work session immediately following their Sept. 7 meeting to discuss issues related to the city’s water.
He told the council that he, Lennie Fisbeck and Jeremy Thompson met with Element Engineering LLC on Friday, Sept. 3, to review ideas to address the issues…
Brown provided council members with spreadsheets showing nitrate level samples of the city’s different wells from 2002 through the third quarter of this year.
He said the increasing nitrate levels in the cemetery well are raising concerns. One of the possibilities of the increased levels is that an excessive nitrate plume could be headed in that direction.
He then discussed the possibility of getting the Stout well set up as a municipal well. This well, along with 318 acres located 2 1/2 miles south of Holyoke, was purchased by the city in 1996 from Clarence and Bernice Stout.
Brown said there are different options that can be used to bring the Stout well in, it’s just a matter of finding the one that suits the city best.
One of these options is to blend the Stout well with the cemetery well and come up with an acceptable nitrate limit.
This would involve connecting the two wells with underground pipes to let the water mix at a suitable distance before it ever gets to the city.
If the cemetery well gets to the point where it exceeds nitrate levels, allowing water from the Stout well to blend with water from the cemetery well would create an acceptable nitrate limit while still keeping both allocations…
Flushable wet wipes still causing problems
Brown then brought up the subject of the city’s wastewater, noting that flushable wet wipes continue to be an issue.
He outlined two possible scenarios to try to address the problem.
He said a grinder could be installed in the wet well of the existing lift station in Holyoke, grinding wipes up and pumping them to the lagoons. This would mean the lagoons would have to be dredged much more frequently since the debris would collect in the bottom of the lagoons.
The Eagle River Watershed Council on Tuesday hosted a hike for the public in the Homestake Valley, an area receiving increased scrutiny because of a project that proposes to take more water from the Colorado River basin and bring it to the fast-growing Front Range.
The goal of the event — which included presentations from representatives from public-lands conservation group Wilderness Workshop, municipal water provider Aurora Water and other experts — was to provide a broad overview of a complicated issue, according to watershed council executive director Holly Loff.
“We know it’s going to be a long process, but we want to make sure people are engaged in the conversation and look to us as a resource,” Loff said. “We will continue to provide science-based, factual information.”
The watershed council advocates for the health of the upper Colorado and Eagle river watersheds through research, education and projects, according to its website.
The cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora, which operate together as Homestake Partners, have water rights in the Homestake Valley and plan to use them to develop Whitney Reservoir. The project would be located near the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which is 6 miles south of Red Cliff. Homestake Partners is currently doing geotechnical drilling to study whether the soil and bedrock in the area could support a dam and reservoir.
The proposed project would create a new reservoir on lower Homestake Creek, where water collected would be pumped up to the existing Homestake Reservoir, about 5 miles upstream. Then it would go through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir, near Leadville, and then to Aurora and Colorado Springs. Various configurations of four potential reservoir sites show it holding between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet of water.
Although it’s still early in the process and no application for the storage project has yet been filed, the proposal has already been met with opposition. Some iterations of the project would necessitate moving a section of the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary, which requires an act of Congress, and would inundate rare, groundwater-fed, peat wetlands, known as fens. The U.S. Forest Service received nearly 800 comments about the drilling study during its public scoping phase last year, and the majority of the remarks were against the reservoir project as a whole.
Some who attended the hike — which attracted about 20 people — questioned the concept of taking more water from the headwaters of the Colorado River over to thirsty and growing Front Range cities in the face of a climate change-fueled crisis.
“I’m just very concerned that if this is a typical year, is there enough water in the drainage to take 20,000 acre-feet out every year and how does that tie into the future curtailment call on the Colorado Compact?” said Tom Allender, who is board president of the watershed council, a former board member of Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and a retired planner for Vail Resorts.
The compact call to which Allender is referring could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement. Water users in the upper basin would be forced to cut back, something known as “curtailment.”
A larger share of the state’s cutback obligations could fall to Front Range water providers since most of the water rights that let them divert water from the Colorado River basin over the Continental Divide are “junior” to the compact, meaning they date to after the 1922 agreement. If there was a compact call, Front Range diverters could potentially have to stop diverting and let the water flow downstream to Lake Powell.
“If the Homestake Valley is important to people and if they are interested in the impacts of a compact call and the impacts of climate change overall, then they should have an eye out for additional transmountain diversions,” Loff said. “That’s a bigger concern than a reservoir in general.”
Last year, Homestake Partners tested how they could get their stored water to the state line in the event of a compact call by releasing downstream about 1,700 acre-feet from Homestake Reservoir.
Eagle River MOU
Homestake Partners is not the only entity set to benefit from a new water-storage project. The Eagle River memorandum of understanding lays out a plan for both Front Range and Western Slope entities to develop water in the upper Eagle River basin. The agreement, signed in 1998, provides 20,000 acre-feet of water a year to Homestake Partners and 10,000 acre-feet a year to the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and Vail Resorts, known collectively in the MOU as the “Reservoir Company.”
Ken Neubecker, a retired Colorado project director at American Rivers and a former environmental representative on the Colorado Basin Roundtable, gave an overview of the MOU. He said the 23-year-old agreement is based on hydrology that is now outdated because of the worsening impacts of climate change. The models used to estimate streamflows are based on records from the 50 years between 1945 and 1994.
“Storage is an early-20th-century response to water-shortage problems and doesn’t really fit in the conditions we are facing now in the 21st century, and it’s based on laws established in the 19th century,” Neubecker said.
In their presentation, representatives from Aurora Water laid out the measures that the municipality is taking to conserve water, including offering rebates for high-efficiency toilets, water-wise landscaping and irrigation efficiency. Over 10 years, Aurora says it has conserved almost a half-billion gallons, or about 1,500 acre-feet.
That savings, however, does not translate into Aurora taking less water from the Western Slope. About 25,000 acre-feet of water a year is sent through Homestake Tunnel to the Front Range.
“We are a growing community,” said Greg Baker, manager of public relations for Aurora Water. “Our conservation program helps us meet that future need the development is going to place on our system. Does it reduce (transmountain diversions)? No. Does it mean we are using the water more efficiently? Yes.”
Baker said there are still a lot of uncertainties with the Whitney Reservoir project. The geotechnical drilling study will help determine whether it is even feasible to move ahead.
“We have not applied current climatological conditions to (the MOU) yet because we haven’t gotten that far,” he said. “Until we know exactly what comes out of that report, we can’t say what we would want to pursue. It’s way too early for us to even come up with that timeline.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
On Tuesday, city leaders approved their involvement in a project to build a new reservoir and partner with four local communities and a metro-Denver city.
The city will work with Fountain, Pueblo, Pueblo West, the Southeastern Water Activity Enterprise and Aurora on the Haynes Creek Reservoir Project, located along U.S. 50 and around 20 miles east of Pueblo, near the town of Boone.
The Colorado Springs City Council unanimously approved its role in the project during its Tuesday regular meeting.
Councilman Wayne Williams, who also is chairman of the Utilities Board, said that the reservoir is part of the Southern Delivery System for Colorado Springs Utilities…
The six partners will share the $2.8 million cost of the 641-acre reservoir site — with Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Aurora each using 28.5% of the water and thereby paying higher shares of the cost.
The remaining partners will each use 4.7% of the water.
Officials said that because of the permitting process and other requirements, the reservoir likely won’t be ready until 2030 at the earliest.
FromThe Summit Daily via The Sky-Hi News (Lindsey Toomer):
The Blue River Watershed Group has completed the first phase of its Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan with the help of partner Trout Unlimited. The organizations have been working on the project for a couple of years now to gather information on the health status of the river.
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator with Trout Unlimited, said the project is a way to bring all stakeholders relating to Blue River water use together. He said the watershed group taking the lead on this project will ensure it is a continuously evolving document…
Kendra Fuller, executive director of the Blue River Watershed Group, said the first phase of the project was meant to gather information about the current and future uses of the river, looking at what kinds of data has already been collected. She said the second phase — which is currently underway — will mostly be to fill in the gaps of information that couldn’t be found in the first phase. The final phase will be implementing actionable steps to maximize benefits for all Blue River users, as well as protect the water as a resource.
The biggest information gap found in the initial phase is that the watershed group hasn’t determined why there are declining fisheries between the town of Silverthorne and Green Mountain Reservoir. Fuller said the second phase aims to find answers by looking at a comprehensive picture of the health of the river.
Researchers will look at geomorphology — the study of the shape and flow of the river — macroinvertebrates, algae and water temperature to connect all the dots of the river’s ecosystem, Fuller said…
Van Gytenbeek said completing Phase 1 of the plan allowed them to get a good baseline of information to start determining what factors are causing what problems in the river…
When splitting the Blue River into its three reaches, the key issues with each section are clear and unique to each portion of the watershed…
The first reach, which goes from around Hoosier Pass to the Dillon Dam, has seen some water quality issues due to a history of mining in the area. Fuller said while some restoration work has been done, there is still a lot more to do. She said fish surveys show that the fishery in this area isn’t great because of the mining and water-quality issues, and macroinvertebrate communities have been impacted, too.
While the biggest concern in the second reach from Silverthorne to Green Mountain Reservoir is the decline in fisheries, Fuller said this reach is heavily influenced by the Dillon Dam, including how and when water is released. She said this stretch of river used to be classified as a gold medal fishery, but the status was removed in 2016 because there were no longer enough fish to qualify. The loss of the gold medal status affects the river as a tourist attraction for fishing.
Fuller said the primary concern with the third reach of the Blue River, which goes from Green Mountain Reservoir until its confluence with the Colorado River, is high water temperatures. She said it has enough water to support the fish habitat but the temperatures have been exceeding the state’s temperature standards.
Further north, the river also has issues with streamflow changes based on how much water is being released from the Green Mountain Reservoir dam. Fuller said the amount of water released from the dam fluctuates greatly throughout the day and has an impact on the river’s ecosystem downstream, also creating safety issues for recreation if there are huge rises and falls in the water level…
Looking to the future
Another potential issue for Blue River streamflows is the fact that some Front Range water users have more water rights than they are using, Fuller said…
Fuller said it’s inevitable that local rivers will get lower due to a variety of factors like climate change and evolving Front Range water rights. Because of this, it’s essential to make sure our water is properly cared for as the Summit community continues to grow, she said.
“We know who pooped in the river, now we’re trying to figure out where it’s coming from,” Alyssa Richmond said as she took a sample of water recently from the muddy San Juan River, in the blazing high desert outside Farmington.
Richmond is coordinator for the San Juan Watershed Group, a collection of local agencies and volunteers working to improve water quality on the San Juan River as it runs through northern New Mexico. The group’s ultimate goal, Richmond said, is to have the stretch of river meet national water quality standards. But as it stands, it’s not going well.
Among a plethora of water-quality issues that include mine pollution, urban runoff and rising water temperatures amid an increasing drought, is the issue of E. coli contamination. A naturally occurring bacteria that lives in all humans and animal stools, E. coli can contaminate ground and surface water, and lead to health implications.
For at least the past 10 years, researchers have launched a full-scale investigation to better understand E. coli issues up and down the San Juan River watershed, from high up in the San Juan Mountains to its major tributary, the Animas River, to stretches that run into the Navajo Nation.
Early results are not encouraging: the EPA’s standard for acceptable E. coli levels is 126 colony-forming units (CFU) per 100 milliliters. In stretches of the San Juan River through Farmington, water samples taken this summer exceeded nearly 1,500 CFUs. “We didn’t expect it to be as high as it was,” Richmond said on a sampling day in late August. “It was shocking.”
But it’s not all doom and poop. The San Juan Watershed Group’s efforts will ultimately help inform where cleanup projects should be focused to achieve the highest improvement in water health. And, all up and down the watershed, even to the highest reaches of the Animas River around Silverton, there is a concerted push to face E. coli issues head on.
“The good news is everyone agrees there should be no human poop in the water,” said San Juan Citizens Alliance’s Animas Riverkeeper Marcel Gaztambide, who probably never thought he’d have to make so obvious a statement to the local paper. “And it’s an issue of concern, so it’s good we’re talking about it now.”
E. coli is a difficult contaminant to fully contextualize because not only is it naturally occurring, it is also one of the most common bacteria. It can come from livestock as well as wildlife like elk, deer, birds, beaver – pretty much any animal that poops. And to complicate matters further, only some strains of the bacteria are harmful to human health.
In the early 2010s, however, researchers knew high E. coli levels were an issue in the San Juan River in northern New Mexico, but the question was, who was the main culprit? After conducting two years of microbial source testing, which not only shows the level of E. coli but also pinpoints the exact source, the results were not what researches were expecting. It came back that the largest contributors were … drumroll, please … humans.
In fact, test results showed human feces in 70 to 100 percent of samples taken from the Animas River at the Colorado-New Mexico state line down to the border of the Navajo Nation.
With the guilty party exposed, funding was again secured to take the investigation a step further this summer by understanding where exactly the human waste was coming from, Richmond said. It’s a process that’s rather simple, by testing upstream and downstream of suspected source points, and then seeing where the spikes in E. coli levels occur. And already, there are some potential smoking guns: failing septic tanks from homes and development, outdated wastewater treatment plants and illegal RV dumping.
What the sampling has also shown, Richmond said, is the high E. coli levels aren’t necessarily coming from upstream communities in Durango and elsewhere. Instead, early results indicate the highest spikes happen in and around Farmington…
It’s a watershed moment
But that doesn’t necessarily mean upstream communities are swimming in sparkling clean waters.
The Animas River, for instance, has issues all its own. Remember that EPA standard of 126 cfu/100 mL? Well, one study conducted by Fort Lewis College in October 2018 found E. coli levels in the Animas at Santa Rita Park, near the Whitewater Park (close your eyes kayakers and surfers) at 226 CFUs. Bare in mind, this was before the completion of the City’s new water reclamation facility in December 2019…
Over in the Florida River, which runs into the Animas about 18 miles south of Durango, progress is also being made, said Warren Rider, coordinator for the Animas Watershed Partnership, which focuses on water quality issues on the Colorado side of the border.
The Florida River for years has exceeded safety standards for E. coli and accounts for nearly a quarter of the bacteria and nutrients dumped into the Animas River before the state line. In a bit of a shock, the Florida was delisted last year, but that was mostly due to a lack of data, researchers say.
While natural sources do account for a portion of contamination in the Florida, agriculture and livestock operations also contribute a good amount of harmful bacteria. As a result, Rider said the Animas Watershed Partnership has tried to work with landowners to fence off waterways to livestock and reestablish vegetation along stream banks…
Up in the high country
And no one has forgotten about the highest reaches of the watershed atop the San Juan Mountains, where an unprecedented increase in recreation, and therefore human waste, has been well noted and nosed in the past year or so.
This summer, the U.S. Forest Service and Mountain Studies Institute partnered to test heavily trafficked recreation areas for E. coli. Colleen Magee-Uhlik, a forest ambassador with MSI, said areas with high use of recreation showed much higher concentrations than locations with little human impact.
In the obvious case study, South Mineral Creek – that of Ice Lakes fame – water samples taken above the highest areas of recreation tested at about 22 CFUs. Farther downstream, in a location that would catch all the cumulative impacts of recreation and camping, samples were more than four times as high, at nearly 90 CFUs. (And, it should be noted, South Mineral was closed this year because of fire damage, which likely means levels would be even higher if people were in the area)…
Christie Chatterley, Fort Lewis College assistant professor of physics and engineering, said in the popular backpacking spot Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness, a student-led research program also found high levels of E. coli in streams. FLC has plans to conduct microbial source testing to see exactly where the bacteria is coming from, but Chatterley said it’s probably safe to assume hikers and campers…
So what can be done?
For starters, using best practices in the high country, such as burying waste 6 to 8 inches deep and 200 feet away from water, and packing out toilet paper can go a long way. This message is even more important as record numbers of people visit the backcountry, many without a working knowledge of how to protect the very landscape they come to enjoy.
Farther downstream, upgrading septic tanks is seen as another obvious target. Brian Devine, with San Juan Basin Public Health, said new septic regulations require people selling their homes to have septic systems inspected. In 2020 alone, more than 500 systems were inspected, which led to many leeching septic tanks being fixed. “It’s resulting in systems getting repaired,” he said. Richmond, with the San Juan Watershed Group, said agencies are working with New Mexico health officials to tackle failing and outdated septic systems as well.
And, the city of Durango’s Biggs said the Clean Water Act continues to push water quality standards. “The Clean Water Act has really improved water quality, and the Animas would be a testament to that,” he said. “And everyone benefits, including our downstream users.”
So yes, there’s no quick and easy fix to E. coli issues in the Animas and San Juan rivers, but all these efforts are folded into the long history of communities along the watershed, and the responsibilities they have to one another, Biggs said. It’s an issue that dates back to the 1800s when Silverton would send down water contaminated by mining operations to Durango, and a few decades later, when Durango’s uranium pile sat along the banks of the Animas River, only to be swept downstream.
With purified, reuse water flowing into Castle Rock homes this summer, the town was already celebrating the ability to supply high-quality drinking water to customers.
Accolades for the success at Castle Rock Water continued last week when the department received recognition for Outstanding Water Treatment Plant by the Rocky Mountain Section of the American Water Works Association.
The Rocky Mountain Section is the regional division of the American Water Works Association, the principal association for scientific and educational opportunities dedicated to managing and treating water. The Rocky Mountain Section represents water industry organizations in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Castle Rock won in the large department category, which includes programs serving more than 50,000 people. The award was given specifically for the operations at the Plum Creek Water Purification Facility, which has developed the advanced treatment processes to accommodate purified reuse water…
The association also presented Castle Rock Water plant mechanic Casey Devol with the Water Treatment Maintenance Award for his design of new processes to clean pipelines. The annual award is given to a maintenance professional who demonstrates exceptional performance, dedication and teamwork. Devol was also recognized for his contribution to the Water to Wire efficiency study to reduce energy usage and pumping costs.
The local and national recognition for Castle Rock Water comes as efforts to invest in the town’s sustainable water future continues. Dating back to 2006, the town invested $208 million to build the reusable water facility.
Part of that investment included the construction of the $60 million Plum Creek Purification Facility. Reuse water will account for one-third of the community’s water supply and will be a big step in providing a sustainable water supply as the town grows and drought conditions are expected to continue.
In addition to the American Water Works Association awards, Castle Rock Water also received recognition for its efforts in environmental stewardship. This is the third consecutive year the water provider has received a Gold Level in the Environmental Leadership Program by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Reducing energy consumption, increasing water conservation efforts and instituting purified reuse water were among the primary considerations for the award.
The work managed by the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District can be “unrecognizable,” but its leaders want citizens to recognize the importance of its flood control projects, as well as understand why it’s crucial to find more funding.
One of those projects in Pueblo is the restoration of approximately 3,000 feet of the creek that runs under the US Highway 47 bridge near Jerry Murphy Road, completed in November 2018.
“It was $6.6 million for something you would drive by and not recognize, while at the same time it protects a major thoroughfare,” District Executive Director Bill Banks said while giving the annual tour of the district’s projects on Sept. 10.
In this instance, a 2015 flooding event catalyzed the Colorado Department of Transportation to partner with the district to realign the creek in order to protect the bridge. CDOT contributed $1.5 million to the project, which also included major landscaping design to provide bank and floodplain stabilization…
Another large project the district completed in June 2021 is a 2,600 feet stretch of the creek that ends at the 8th Street bridge on the East Side. That $3.4 million project narrowed the creek channel from 600 feet to an average of 150 feet. This both stabilized the channel and made it easier for the water to push sediment through, rather than dumping it haphazardly along the banks.
“A lot of conventional wisdom is to make a channel really wide in order to convey as much water as possible to prevent flooding,” said Aaron Sutherlin, who oversaw the 8th Street bridge project with Matrix Design Group. “When you make things as wide as possible, you lose the ability to transport sediment. What you get in a system is sediment that dumps out in places you don’t know where it’s going to go. That’s exactly what happened at this site.”
That project also built the creek to withstand up to 6,000 cubic feet per second, a so-called “100-year flood.”
That influx was a $50 million payout from Colorado Springs Utility to offset the impact of its water delivery system from the Pueblo Reservoir to the cities of Colorado Springs and Fountain. So far, Banks said the district has spent about $27 million from those funds and has identified over $200 million worth of projects.
Click here to go to the Water for Colorado website tool for local funding initiatives:
Solving Colorado’s Water Issues
Colorado needs long-term funding to conserve, maintain, and restore our water supplies, river and stream flows, and economy in the face of numerous challenges, from prolonged drought and rising temperatures driven by climate change and population growth. Maintaining healthy river systems and water availability is essential to sustain Colorado’s way of life, preserve natural resources, grow our crops, and bolster our economy.
Our State Water Plan Lacks Sustainable Funding
The Colorado Water Plan, developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2015, sets forward a path to secure our water future by protecting Colorado’s rivers, securing clean, safe, reliable drinking water for our communities, and preserving our agricultural heritage.
Colorado’s existing public funding resources are insufficient to address the current and future needs identified in the Water Plan to secure our water future. Establishing new sources of funding – whether local or statewide – will help to keep Colorado’s rivers healthy and flowing to continue to support clean drinking water for all Coloradans and reliable water supplies for farms and ranches across the state.
In the last few years, Coloradans have illustrated their support for water funding by approving three different tax increases where water is the beneficiary. In 2019, the passing of Proposition DD legalized sports betting in Colorado with the majority of the proceeds of the betting taxes funding Colorado’s Water Plan. At the local level, both the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District successfully passed public funding initiatives to increase their mill levies in the fall of 2020, with other municipalities like the cities of Denver and Boulder and counties like Summit and Chaffee passing voter-approved funding for water and rivers in the last three years. Coloradans clearly understand the need for additional water funding and they are willing to pay for it.
How (and Why) to Use This Guide
The purpose of this guide is to assist water conservancy districts, nonprofits, local governments, citizen stakeholder initiatives and others in learning more about successfully implementing new local sources of public funding for water in Colorado. This guide is intended to help you understand the general process and important questions to ask when pursuing a public funding measure, such as a bond, property tax, sales tax, or mill levy increase. You will also see video interviews with individuals and organizations that have participated in public funding measures in Colorado, as well as with experts in the field of public funding.
Stream stage is an important concept when analyzing how much water is moving in a stream at any given moment. “Stage” is the water level above some arbitrary point in the river and is commonly measured in feet. For example, on a normal day when no rain has fallen for a while, a river might have a stage of 2 feet. If a big storm hits, the river stage could rise to 15 or 20 feet, sometimes very quickly. This is important because past records might tell us that when the stage hits 21 feet, the water will start flowing over its banks and into the basements of houses along the river — time to tell those people to move out! With modern technology, the USGS can monitor the stage of many streams almost instantly.
Hydrologists are able to convert stage height into streamflow volume by determining a rating curve for each site.
From the Environmental Defense Fund (Christopher Kuzdas):
In June, a portion of my neighborhood in Flagstaff, Arizona, was put on pre-evacuation notice due to a nearby wildfire. A few weeks later, storms dumped heavy rains over a burn scar from a 2019 fire that caused destructive floods through parts of town. So far, this summer has been our third-wettest monsoon season on record, a complete contrast from our two driest monsoon seasons on record in 2019 and 2020.
These extremes are just a few local examples of the havoc that climate change is causing around the world. Here in the West, we are now in uncharted territory with the first-ever shortage declaration on the Colorado River.
What the shortage declaration means
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently confirmed the Colorado River will be operated under never-before-used shortage rules, called a “tier 1” shortage, starting in 2022.
Under the rules defined by the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), other agreements and the river’s operating guidelines, Arizona will absorb the brunt of this shortage. About one-third less water will flow through the Central Arizona Project canal to the Phoenix and Tucson areas, primarily impacting farmers. Nevada and Mexico will also see mandatory but smaller water cuts.
Even more concerning are water supply projections for 2023 and beyond.
Bureau of Reclamation projections forecast Lake Mead could fall close to a threshold where there are no rules outlining additional water cuts to avoid a crash to dead pool — when no water can flow out of Hoover Dam. This risk of an acceleration in plummeting water levels — which also jeopardizes water levels in Lake Powell — has prompted basin state representatives to initiate meetings to discuss additional actions that might be needed if water levels in Lake Mead fall below 1,020 feet.
It will get hotter and drier
This unprecedented situation offers a glimpse into our future. Warming scenarios from the latest IPCC report suggest that we could exceed 2 degrees Celsius of warming around midcentury, with more than 5 degrees by the end of the century, in the absence of action to curb carbon emissions.
Why does this matter for the Colorado River? Colorado River flows are highly sensitive to warming, and aridification caused by climate change is already reducing the water flowing in the river. With each additional 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, the Colorado River’s average flow drops by 9.3%, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Colorado River flows could be up to one-third less than the current average within a generation, unless meaningful and immediate reductions in carbon emissions are achieved.
The outlook for the Colorado River is overwhelming. But what our future looks like is still our choice. We can, and should, choose to pursue a just transition to a basin with significantly less water. While in no way comprehensive, below are four ways to get started on that path.
1. Reconcile water demand with our climate reality.
Reconciling demands with our climate reality, at the very least, will involve updating river operating rules, scaling up conservation programs and shifting away from outdated expansionism.
The rules that determine how we balance supply and demand, and the underlying rights and agreements that collectively determine who gets how much water and when, will play a major role in how we transition to a basin with less water.
River operating rules have become more flexible to some extent as they evolved through new agreements like the DCP. However, current river operating rules still don’t account for the full suite of climate change impacts, especially those impacts under more dire climate scenarios. While river operating rules are already a focus of discussion, updating them will require thoughtful leadership, as well as attention to climate and other social and environmental considerations.
Scaling up conservation programs such as system conservation in the Lower Basin and demand management in the Upper Basin will also play an important role. If not for water conserved in Lake Mead, a “tier 1” shortage would have occurred years ago. Our challenge moving forward will be expanding the scale and impact of these programs, and in the Upper Basin, moving much faster to do so.
To fully reconcile demands with our climate reality, we must also finally shift away from legacy expansionism and boosterism that still show up through unnecessary project proposals like the Lake Powell Pipeline. We can do more with less.
2. Address long-standing inequities.
Long-standing inequities should be addressed to ensure water security for all. Two of the many considerations are inclusive decision-making and fully recognizing tribal water rights.
Inclusive and transparent processes to make decisions are essential to developing solutions that account for multiple values and goals. In the past, decision-making was often exclusive and responded primarily to a narrow set of private interests. That is changing.
For example, Arizona’s DCP process included some tribes and conservation groups, and the process would not have been successful without the leadership of the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes. More diversity at the table enables more creativity and better solutions.
Although the Colorado River Basin’s 30 sovereign Native American tribes have unique rights and claims to a significant portion of the Colorado River’s flow, not all are using their water for several reasons. Those reasons include aging or inadequate infrastructure; limited funding; and significant legal, policy and administrative barriers.
Overcoming such barriers to accessing Colorado River water and confirming and fulfilling tribal water rights will be critical for many tribes to achieve goals such as meeting basic water needs and securing livelihoods. Addressing those barriers is a step toward dealing with long-standing inequity and should be a priority for policymakers.
3. Take a whole-portfolio approach.
A whole-portfolio approach includes new watershed-focused actions to support communities in adapting to and mitigating the steadily compounding risks and extremes of climate change. The recently published Ten Strategies for Climate Resilience report describes a suite of local and watershed-scale projects to do just that, including forest health and restoration, naturally distributed storage, regenerative agriculture and new crop markets.
A whole-portfolio approach also necessitates adequate management and planning for our other water supplies. However, that’s not fully possible across a large part of the basin without changes in state-level water law and policy. For example, Arizona, which makes up almost half the landmass of the Colorado River Basin, already depends on groundwater for 40% of its annual water supply and will only become increasingly dependent on groundwater as Colorado River flows shrink. Arizona does not manage groundwater across most of the state, and local rural communities have little to no power to do so.
Changing this free-for-all approach to groundwater in rural Arizona is critical if we hope to have a water-secure future for all people in the basin.
4. Lead on climate.
More warming means less water in the Colorado River Basin. How much water dries up depends on how fast we can get off fossil fuels. Across the basin, and globally, freshwater agendas must start including actions to stop heating the planet. Climate leadership is water leadership.
The road ahead is difficult. But what our shared future looks like in the Colorado River Basin is our own choice. Let’s choose to collectively pursue a just transition to a basin with less water.
Could a $134 million pipeline recycling suburban water help wean communities off depleted aquifer sources? The latest complex solution for the arid, fast-growing West…
For the H20 molecules lying thousands of feet underground in the Denver Basin aquifer, trapped by millions of years of geologic shifts, there would be a long journey ahead.
Should they get sucked up a well owned by a northern El Paso County water agency, the water drops may first be sprinkled on a lawn in, say, the Woodmoor district east of Monument. From there, the water would sink back underground and flow downhill toward Monument Creek. On into Fountain Creek, and south toward the Arkansas River.
Then the drops would ripple past Colorado Springs, which is desperate to entrap more water of its own for future growth, and is pushing for unloved dams 100 miles away to bring more Western Slope water over the Continental Divide.
On the water would glide past Security, Widefield and other communities, which are struggling to secure clean water supplies of their own in the wake of contamination from polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) running off firefighting foam used for decades at a local military base.
Still going, the hardworking aquifer water then would pass farmland that will eventually be dried up by Woodmoor and other northern suburbs buying agriculture water for their own growth. At the town of Fountain, the water would pass a town that has slowed new homebuilding because it doesn’t have enough future supply for new water taps.
And then those precious H20 molecules would hit a curve of Fountain Creek where the Chilcott Ditch headgate looms like an ominous fork in the road of life: If Woodmoor and its allies get their way, the molecules they pulled from the timeless aquifer will get diverted here and sent into a $130 million-plus pipeline, to be shipped back north to the top of El Paso County. The journey for those molecules would begin all over again, in a project appropriately dubbed The Loop, until — in the official water rights phrase — the original aquifer water has been “used to extinction.”
But that only happens if El Paso County and local water agencies convince the keepers of the federal American Rescue Plan that the stimulus funds can be used for water projects like the Loop, and not just highways.
Can this tortured trip for the ancient, sandstone-filtered water really be the best solution to Colorado’s relentlessly expanding water demands?
“There’s something in it for everybody,” said Jessie Shaffer, Woodmoor Water and Sanitation District manager and a key proponent of the Loop…
Backers of the Loop idea say it would solve many problems at once.
It would reduce unsustainable withdrawals from the Denver Basin aquifers, with local water providers already on notice they need to find alternative sources. The pipeline would allow the homes in subdivisions north and east of Colorado Springs to use southern water rights they’ve already purchased but can’t access. And it would promote water recycling, considered a key to Colorado’s water use future, by allowing those northern areas to reuse aquifer water after it’s run off into Fountain Creek and shipped north again by the Loop.
From a purely practical standpoint, drilling new wells into the aquifer is getting so expensive that the suburban districts think twice even when they own the rights. As the aquifer sinks from overuse, drilling prices soar.
Williams mentioned a northern exurban community that spent more than a million dollars on a well to water its new golf course…
El Paso County grew by more than 17%, and more than 100,000 people, between 2010 and 2020. As developers work to build out planned communities in areas like Flying Horse or Banning Lewis Ranch, the county’s population is projected to expand by hundreds of thousands more in the coming decades.
State water engineers who control withdrawals from aquifers have allowed cities and other water buyers to take out water at a rate protecting a 100-year life for the underground pools. Alarmed at the drops in the Denver Basin pools, El Paso County changed the local standard to preserve 300 years of life for the aquifers. That was another push to local water providers to find other sources.
The Loop pipeline, Shaffer said, is a key to shifting “off of a finite and exhaustible water supply onto a long term, renewable and sustainable water supply.”
That’s where the American Rescue Plan, signed by President Biden in March, comes into the picture. State and local agencies will battle over the $1.9 trillion stimulus funding for years to come, but Colorado water officials are hopeful some grants can be used for drinking water supply projects. There also may be far more stimulus and infrastructure funding to come, in a building package awaiting final U.S. House approval and a greatly expanded recovery budget that may pass under reconciliation.
Governor Mark Gordon’s Colorado River Working Group will hold its first meeting from 9 am to noon on Sept. 7 in Rock Springs. The group will discuss important Colorado River matters and monitor potential impacts to Wyoming. The kickoff meeting will be open to the public and led by the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office.
The formation of the Working Group comes in response to continuing drought conditions in the Colorado, Green and Little Snake River basins and associated issues concerning Colorado River Basin management. The Governor’s charge to the Working Group is to discuss and share Colorado River information with interested stakeholders in the Green and Little Snake River Basins. It is a continuation of a coordinated and proactive outreach effort that has been underway in Wyoming since 2019.
This group is made up of representatives of key water use sectors in the Green and Little Snake River Basins. Working Group members are:
Ben Bracken — Green River/Rock Springs/Sweetwater Joint Powers Board (retired)
Brad Brooks — Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities
Senator Larry Hicks — Senate District 11
Representative Albert Sommers — House District 20
Jen Lamb — The Nature Conservancy
Aaron Reichel — Genesis-Alkali
Ron Wild — PacifiCorp
The September 7th meeting will be held at Western Wyoming Community College in Business Office Room #3650 A&B in Rock Springs. More information, including background materials and future meeting agendas, will be posted on the Colorado River Working Group web page on the Wyoming State Engineer’s website: https://seo.wyo.gov/interstate-streams/wyoming-colorado-river-working-group.
The federal agency that distributes electricity from hydropower plants in the Upper Colorado River Basin will ask its customers, including more than 50 here in Colorado, to help offset rising costs linked to Lake Powell’s inability to produce as much power due to drought.
The Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which distributes Lake Powell’s electricity, is gathering public comments and asking its customers how best to cope with long-term drought conditions that have pushed Powell and other reservoirs to historically low levels.
As flows in the Colorado River have declined due to climate change and a 20-year megadrought, there is less water in its storage reservoirs and, therefore, less pressure to power the turbines, causing them to generate less electricity.
WAPA has had to nearly double the amount of extra power it has had to buy this year to ensure it can meet its contract obligations to its customers.
“It’s all bad news, but it isn’t necessarily unexpected,” said WAPA spokesperson Lisa Meiman.
WAPA power is among the most sought-after in Western states because it is sold at cost and because it is a renewable power resource, something highly valued in places such as Colorado, where utilities are working to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
WAPA often buys extra power if for some reason its customers’ electricity needs don’t match up with its hydropower production on a given day. It delivers power over a 17,000-mile transmission grid to six states and 5 million people.
But as flows in the Colorado River have shrunk, those purchases have become larger and more frequent.
Last year it bought an extra 413,000 megawatts of power. This year it has already purchased 833,000 megawatts of additional power, according to Meiman, and the agency expects that number to grow this year and likely again next year as the drought continues with no relief in sight.
This year, because of the power demands of the West’s growing population and the need for air conditioning to combat ultra-high temperatures, power costs are already soaring.
Last year WAPA paid $25 per megawatt for its replacement power, Meiman said. This year it is paying $33 per megawatt, a 30% jump.
In Colorado, WAPA sells power to some of the state’s largest electric utilities, such as Tri-State Generation and Transmission, as well as cities, small towns and rural electric co-ops.
“We’re watching the situation closely,” said Natalie Eckhart, a spokesperson for Colorado Springs Utilities, which is a WAPA electric customer and which also draws a significant portion of its water from the Colorado River system.
“The bottom line is we care about this on all fronts,” Eckhart said.
Few expected power generation at Lake Powell to decline so quickly. The Colorado River Basin serves seven U.S. states and 30 Native American Tribes. For months, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have been nervously watching what’s known as the minimum power pool level at Powell, the lowest elevation at which power can be produced, which is 3,490 feet. If the reservoir drops lower than that, all hydropower production will stop.
In July, as water levels at Powell continued to plummet, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, as part of the Upper Basin’s Drought Contingency Plan, began emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs to boost levels and protect Powell’s hydropower production.
And while those releases are expected to help keep the turbines functioning, the releases won’t be enough to restore them to full production, leaving WAPA little choice but to look at restructuring the way it sells power and to raise its prices.
WAPA is forecasting a 35% increase in its costs, but is working to minimize the impact on utilities that purchase its power and anticipates a 12% to 14% rate increase as early as December. Some utilities are preparing to buy power elsewhere, when possible, to reduce their costs.
Holy Cross Energy, a rural electric co-op based in Glenwood Springs that is also a WAPA customer, has spent years converting its power portfolio from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources including wind, solar and biomass, as well as hydropower.
While WAPA electricity comprises just 3% of its power portfolio, Holy Cross CEO Bryan Hannegan is worried that this renewable, low-cost power source is in jeopardy if flows from the Colorado River into Lake Powell continue to decline, as they are projected to do.
“It’s one of the cleanest and lowest-cost sources of power for a whole range of utilities,” Hannegan said. “It’s been a bedrock on which we built the West. For it not to be available … it’s a big deal.”
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.
Every month the Bureau of Reclamation attempts to peer two years into the future of the Colorado River and its reservoirs.
Reclamation’s 24-month study is a staple forecasting product for the federal agency that manages a chain of dams in the watershed, including those that control lakes Mead and Powell, the country’s largest reservoirs — and currently two of its most consequential. The reservoirs are a key source of drinking water for about 40 million people, plus they store water that irrigates millions of acres of farmland and generates electricity for the Southwest. The reservoirs are also alarmingly dehydrated right now — about one-third full, the lowest since they were first filled. The entire basin is on alert.
The 24-month study, in the simplest terms, projects water levels for the next two years at 12 federal reservoirs in the Colorado River basin. Produced monthly, it’s one of several forecasting products that give water managers a sense of possible futures. It is also the foundation of essential water management decisions in the basin. Reclamation’s other forecasts, updated less frequently, look at mid-term (five years out) and long-term (multiple decades) scenarios.
Typically nested in wonkish obscurity, the 24-month study acquired newfound public prominence in recent weeks. The August results are the most important of all the months because they determine how much water will be released in the following year from Mead and Powell. Because Mead is so low, the August results triggered the first-ever Tier 1 shortage on the lower Colorado River, a declaration that means mandatory cuts in water deliveries in 2022 to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. Because Powell is so low, dam managers will release a comparative trickle of water next year, so little that Mead is likely to plunge even lower.
More eyes than usual on a technical product that was designed to guide reservoir operations means more potential for misinterpretation, especially by people unfamiliar with the study and its assumptions. Carly Jerla, Reclamation’s senior water resources program manager, said that the study has its defined uses but also its limits.
“It’s important to understand that we’re not saying that this is what we think is going to happen this year,” Jerla told Circle of Blue about the reservoir levels outlined in the 24-month study. “We’re not saying, ‘Plan for this and only this because we have crystal ball knowledge of what is going to happen.’”
Reclamation’s models, in fact, are not a crystal ball. Critics say that they are not pessimistic enough about the potential for extremely dry years. But as the Colorado River basin dries due to a warming planet, Jerla and others are actively considering how best to convey to the public and water managers alike the looming risks to water supplies and to prepare people, at least mentally, for the possibility that reality could turn out much worse than the forecast had projected…
Accurate mid-term weather forecasts, those that extend out a couple weeks and up to a year, are notoriously difficult to achieve, said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher in Colorado who has worked in the basin for 20 years. It’s especially true in the mountainous terrain of Colorado and Wyoming, where the Colorado River and its main tributaries have their headwaters. Well-known seasonal patterns like the cyclical warming of the eastern Pacific during El Nino years can indicate wetter or drier, but without substantial precision.
Because the future is hazy, the models instead rely on the recent past as a guide, Lukas said. “We’re basically saying in the absence of real prognostic information, we’ll substitute history.”
Here’s how that works. The 24-month study process begins with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, a team of scientists operating within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their task is to assess what the rivers might do.
The River Forecast Center starts with current land and water conditions: soil moisture, snowpack, stream flow. From that baseline hydrologists feed their model, one by one, with historical weather observations from the years 1981 to 2015. In effect, it’s as if the temperature and precipitation from each year were repeated in today’s world. That produces 35 possible hydrological futures, each representing the past laid on top of the present.
The Bureau of Reclamation team takes those hydrological futures and uses them in its model of the Colorado River system. The aim of this system model, which includes water inflows and water uses, is to simulate reservoir levels as well as hydropower generation. Fed by the output from the hydrological model, the system model also produces future scenarios, called runs.
The middle result — the most probable — is the one that is presented in the main 24-month study report. It’s the result that determines how Mead and Powell will be operated. It’s called the most probable because it’s in the middle, if each of the runs was ordered from wettest to driest. It means that historically half the time it was wetter than the middle result and half the time it was drier.
There are drawbacks to this approach. The runs are not assessed as to how likely they are to occur, which means that a repetition of each of the past years is considered equally likely. The problem: there are more wet years in the 1981 to 2015 period than dry ones. (Runoff in 1983, for instance, was so extremely high that it almost broke Glen Canyon Dam.) Because of this imbalance, the middle result is arguably skewed toward wetter conditions, Lukas said.
Jerla said there is no scientifically valid way to privilege the likelihood of one outcome over another.
An update of the River Forecast Center’s data sets will soon help reduce the skew. Cody Moser, a senior hydrologist at the Center, told Circle of Blue that data from the years 2016 through 2020 will be added this fall. Instead of 35 historical hydrologies fed through the models, there will be 40. Adding the drier recent years will push the most probable outcome to a drier result, with reservoir projections in the 24-month study likely pushed downward at the same time…
The 24-month study is most associated with the most probable scenario. But recently Reclamation has expanded its offerings to include two other reservoir scenarios, now produced monthly: the minimum probable and the maximum probable. The minimum probable is the tenth percentile, meaning the third or fourth driest of those 35 historical hydrologies. The maximum probable is the ninetieth percentile, or the third or fourth wettest historical hydrology.
For the minimum probable, the tenth percentile of flows is used in the first year of the 24-month study, but the second year of the study is calculated with the twenty-fifth percentile, under the assumption that consecutive extremely bad years would not happen.
If you look only at the most probable result, you’re not seeing how bad things might plausibly get. Lake Mead today, when it is one-third full, sits at elevation 1,068 feet. The most probable elevation for July 2023 is 1,037 feet, when Mead would be 26 percent full. The minimum probable elevation for that date is 1,027 feet, when the gasping reservoir would be 23 percent full.
That’s a significant difference in elevation, and if the drier scenario came about it would change basin operations. But even the minimum probable has a flaw. It is not as pessimistic as it could — or maybe should — be.
“The minimum probable does not represent a worst-case scenario,” Jerla said. “If you wanted to be the ultimate pessimist, which I think probably makes sense given where the system is, things could be worse than what is provided in that minimum probable because it is only the tenth percentile.”
In other words, the minimum probable is not the minimum possible. There have been years in the last two decades with worse river flow conditions than what is represented by the minimum probable. Things could be drier still.
As Jerla puts it regarding the minimum and maximum probable: “There is an area above and below those that have futures that folks should be aware of.”
Reclamation already runs its five-year projections with what it calls “stress test” hydrology. This scenario is a replication of the years 1988 to 2019, and represents hotter and drier conditions that have settled over the basin. Udall and others argue that Reclamation should consider running its models with an even more stressful test: the years 2000 to 2004, the last time that Lake Powell almost crashed.
“That five-year period is really unique,” Udall explained. Annual runoff averaged 9.4 million acre-feet, a fraction of what coursed through the river throughout the last century. The average annual runoff in the years for the stress test hydrology is about 13.3 million acre-feet. That makes the first years of this century unique, Udall said. And frightening. “There’s nothing like it in the 20th century. It’s stunning how bad a period it is, and we could be in the middle of that right now.”
The next update of the five-year projections will come out in early September. Five years is a tricky time frame to analyze, Jerla said. It’s far enough in the future that current conditions lose their predictive power. But it’s close enough to be relevant for farmers, city utilities, and marina operators — all of whom need to plan for near-term water supply. Jerla and her colleagues are trying to thread that needle, thinking hard about how to “provide the public with a good understanding of future outcomes and future risks without confusing the heck out of them.”
Parks service officials issued the order because Elk Creek’s floating dock and marina are likely to hit the lake’s bottom. Eric Loken, the head of operations at the marina his family has managed for more than 30 years, said the early closure is cutting six weeks out of his five-month season…
A 20-year, climate change-fueled megadrought has dealt a double blow to Blue Mesa this summer. The dry conditions have led to lower levels directly, but the lake is also hurting from drought problems in other states.
For the first time, the federal government is taking emergency action by taking water from Blue Mesa to help out another reservoir — Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. Loken said the withdrawals hurt more given Blue Mesa’s low water levels…
The states that share Colorado River water agreed to this plan in 2019. Low levels in Lake Powell would trigger an emergency release from three reservoirs upstream…
The water taken from Blue Mesa is being used to make sure hydroelectric power turbines at Lake Powell can keep spinning and generating electricity for millions of people in the West, including customers in Colorado.
John McClow, a lawyer for the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District, said this scenario is what Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs were built for in the 1960s — drought emergencies, not recreation. It’s a bank of water that states can tap when they need to…
Although the water in Blue Mesa has always been earmarked for Lake Powell if Colorado needed help meeting its legal obligation to send more flow to downstream states, McClow said the timing of the release was unnecessarily disruptive. He wishes the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would have waited to take the water until October when lake tourism starts slowing down.
Erik Knight, a Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist, said that while the timing of the water releases might have hurt the lake, it improved rafting and fishing downstream of Blue Mesa, including parts of the Gunnison River that were so low that commercial rafting was likely to have been canceled.
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AT THE END OF A UNIQUE WATER YEAR, COMES A UNIQUE WATER SEMINAR.
Water year 2021 was a wake-up call for water users across the Western Slope of Colorado. Extreme or exceptional drought conditions persisted for months as dry soils and historic high temperatures lowered streamflow. Agricultural users faced impossible choices while local municipalities dealt with aging water infrastructure in the wake of devastating wildfires. Downstream, Lake Powell dominated national headlines with plummeting levels, and the Drought Contingency Plan played a role years earlier than most expected.
Yet many of the stories which came out of this incredibly difficult year were ones of innovative solutions and never-before-seen partnerships. Collaborative projects upgraded irrigation infrastructure, increased streamflow, and even delisted 66 river miles from the Impaired Waters list.
Setting historic precedents in hydrology, 2021 also did much to highlight the ability of water users to reach across their differences in order to build a future for West Slope water together.
Wake-up Call on the Colorado River is a seminar which will face the harsh economic and environmental realities of this past year, along with a study of practical solutions and future collaboration.
Northern Water, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Grand County and additional regional health, water and recreation officials are closely monitoring a potentially harmful algal bloom that developed at Willow Creek Reservoir in July, a component of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in Grand County.
In late July, monitoring teams found the presence of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), which can sometimes produce toxins (cyanotoxins) that can be harmful to humans and animals. With this discovery, the U.S. Forest Service’s Arapaho National Forest placed restrictions on water contact recreation and posted signs informing the public of the issue.
Recent tests indicate the concentration of cyanotoxins in the two samples collected to be nearly negligible. However, because of evidence of algae in other parts of the reservoir where sampling has not occurred the reservoir remains under the existing restrictions for contact recreation.
Willow Creek Reservoir is part of the collections system for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which gathers water in the headwaters of the Colorado River for delivery to cities, farms and industries in northeast Colorado.
In the East Troublesome Fire of 2020, as much as 90 percent of the watershed that feeds into the reservoir sustained damage. This summer, the arrival of monsoonal moisture has increased the delivery of nutrients from the burn scar to the reservoir, and made these nutrients available to support increased growth of all kinds of algae. However, the vast majority of algae species are not harmful. Water recreation enthusiasts can learn more by viewing the Colorado Parks and Wildlife video and visiting the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment links available from Grand County.
Water from Willow Creek Reservoir is pumped intermittently into Lake Granby to make room in Willow Creek Reservoir should future flooding occur. However, with a maximum capacity of 10,600 acre-feet, Willow Creek Reservoir is dwarfed by the 540,000 acre-foot Lake Granby, meaning the overall impact to the region’s water supply is negligible. In addition, water quality testing equipment installed in the aftermath of the East Troublesome Fire will be able to monitor key water quality metrics in the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. A monitoring program has been implemented to watch for algae blooms and potential toxins in the Three Lakes, as well as in Willow Creek Reservoir. Agencies will continue to review data and monitor the issue until the bloom disappears.
With lower, warmer water levels in the Yampa River during this extreme drought year, town of Hayden employees are carefully watching operations at the water plant this summer to continue to alleviate taste or odor issues for the town’s 1,100 water taps…
[Bryan] Richards said the usual time of heightened summer concern for low water levels and thus increased algae is lasting longer this year, starting about one month earlier than usual in early July rather than the normal early August. Water levels have dropped at the intake on the Yampa River at the water plant north of town, and water temperatures at the intake have increased by 3 to 5 degrees above normal, rising as high as 75 degrees. Lower, slower, warmer water leads to more algae production…
Fortunately, major improvements to the Hayden water treatment plant during the past three years are working to help mitigate the algae increases, said Town Manager Mathew Mendisco. He said the town spent a total of $2.3 million in water system and plant upgrades with half of the funding coming from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and other funding from a citizen-approved bond measure. The plant was first built in 1978…
Town of Hayden water users have been under outdoor water restrictions this summer that mimic city of Steamboat Springs restrictions and resulted in a 3% decrease in overall water use compared to the past three years, even though the watering season started earlier this dry year, Richards said. Hayden water users will need to continue water conservation efforts when the town’s 1 million gallon water tank on hospital hill goes offline for a planned refurbishment starting with the tank drained by the end of August through project completion Oct. 20, Richards said.
Mendisco said the town secured $989,000 in low-interest financing to upgrade the tank through a state revolving loan fund managed by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The town qualified for a 1.5% interest rate based on its status as a “disadvantaged community” dealing with the impacts of the transition from coal.
The town has a 500,000-gallon water tank near Yampa Valley Regional Airport, so officials do not anticipate impacts to water customers when the larger water tank is off line.
Water users in Ouray County are hoping to satisfy water shortages with what they say is a multi-beneficial reservoir and pipeline project. But the Ram’s Horn reservoir, Cow Creek pipeline and exchange are facing opposition from the state of Colorado and others.
The complicated, three-pronged project proposes to take water from Cow Creek and pipe it into Ridgway Reservoir, take water from local streams via ditches and store it in the reservoir, and build a new dam and reservoir on Cow Creek. This stored water would eventually be sent downstream to be used by the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA).
The project applicants — Ouray County, Tri-County Water Conservancy District, Ouray County Water Users Association and the Colorado River Water Conservation District — say they need 20 cubic feet per second of water from Cow Creek. Cow Creek is a tributary of the Uncompahgre River with headwaters in the Cimarron mountains. Cow Creek’s confluence with the Uncompahgre River is below Ridgway Reservoir, which is why an upstream pipeline would be needed to capture the water and bring it into the reservoir.
The applicants are also seeking to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reaches of Cow Creek, which would hold about 25,000 acre-feet of water behind a 260-foot-tall and 720-foot-long dam. Ram’s Horn would help regulate what are known as diurnal flows during spring runoff — streamflows are higher during the day as the snow melts with warming temperatures, and lower at night as snow re-freezes. UVWUA says they can’t adjust their headgates to capture the high point of this daily fluctuation in flows, leaving the water to run downstream unused. The project would capture these diurnal peaks.
Goal to prevent a call
The goal of the project is to prevent the UVWUA — one of the big senior water rights holders in the Gunnison River basin — from placing a call on the river.
When the UVWUA, which owns the Montrose & Delta Canal and has a 1890 water right, is not able to get its full amount of water, it places a call on the river. This means upstream junior water rights holders, like Ouray County Water Users, have to stop using water so that UVWUA can get its full amount. According to a state database, the M&D Canal has placed a call three times this summer, most recently from July 12 to 22. In 2020, the call was on for nearly all of July and August. Under Colorado water law, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
By releasing the water stored in either Ridgway or Ram’s Horn reservoirs to satisfy a UVWUA call, Ouray County Water Users Association would then be able to continue using its own water.
The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is a co-applicant of the project.
“This (project) is consistent with the River District’s goals and objectives with supporting our constituents and making sure they have a reliable water supply,” said Jason Turner, River District senior counsel.
Potential impacts to fish, instream flows
But some state agencies, environmental groups and others have concerns about the project. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado Water Conservation Board have both filed statements of opposition to the application, which was originally filed in December 2019, amended in January and is making its way through water court. CPW claims that its water rights in the basin, which it holds for the benefit of state wildlife areas, fisheries and state parks, could be injured by the project. CPW owns nearly a mile of access to Cow Creek on the Billy Creek State Wildlife Area.
Between August 2019 and January 2020, CPW recorded water temperatures of Cow Creek and found they exceeded a state standard for trout. A report from CPW aquatic biologist Eric Gardunio says that the proposed project would likely cause an even bigger increase in water temperatures, resulting in fish mortality.
“The flow and temperature analysis for Cow Creek indicates that the water rights application has the likelihood to damage or eliminate the native bluehead sucker population as well as the rest of the fishery in the downstream end of Cow Creek through the degradation of water quantity and quality,” the report reads.
While less water in Cow Creek could result in temperatures that are too high for trout, water released from the proposed Ram’s Horn reservoir could be too cold for bluehead suckers.
“There’s going to be some changes to temperature and what our temperature data has outlined is that the species are at their extreme ends,” Gardunio said. “It’s nearly too cold for bluehead sucker and it’s nearly too warm for trout, so changes in temperature are going to have an impact to one or the other of the fishery.”
“The application does not present sufficient information to fully evaluate the extent to which the CWCB’s instream flow water right may be injured,” the statement of opposition reads.
Environmental group Western Resource Advocates also opposes the project. Ram’s Horn Reservoir, with conditional water rights owned by Tri-County Water Conservancy District, is one of five reservoirs planned as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek Project, which dates to the 1950s. Ridgway Reservoir is the only one of the five that has been built.
The third piece of the proposed project is what’s known as an exchange, where water would be conveyed via existing ditches connecting tributaries above Ridgway Reservoir. The exchange water would be stored there and released when senior downstream water users need it, which would benefit upstream water users. In addition to Cow Creek, the applicants are proposing to take water from Pleasant Valley Creek, the East and West Forks of Dallas Creek, Dallas Creek and the Uncompahgre River to use in the exchange.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 4 Engineer Bob Hurford laid out the issues his office has with this exchange in his summary of consultation. He recommended denial on the exchange portion of the application until the applicants list the specific ditches participating in the exchange and their locations, and agree that they are responsible for enlarging the ditches so they can handle the increased capacity of water.
“I have to have actual ditch names, the owners of the ditches have to be willing to participate and it has all got to be tracked to a tenth of a cfs,” Hurford said. “It’s not a loosey-goosey thing. It has to be dialed in and defined precisely.”
Another criticism of the project is that it won’t provide water directly to water users in Dallas Creek, which according to a report by Wright Water Engineers, is the most water-short region of the Upper Uncompahgre basin. Even if Dallas Creek water users participate in the exchange, in dry years still there may not be enough water in local creeks for them to use.
“This project has been sold as the savior of agriculture in Ouray County but this project will not provide wet water that would not otherwise be available to anybody that is an ag producer,” said Ouray County water rights holder and project opponent Cary Denison. “I don’t know one irrigator who is saying we need to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir.”
The project application is making its way through water court and applicants say they are continuing to negotiate with opposers. A status report is due in October. Attorney for the Ouray County Water Users Association and River District board representative Marti Whitmore said they want to make sure it’s a multi-purpose project that benefits everyone.
“Fish flows and recreation uses are important, so we are just trying to work out terms and conditions that are a win-win for everyone,” she said.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.
Here’s Part 1 of the series from The Alamosa Citizen (Mark Obmascik):
The water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before
THEY all remember when the San Luis Valley brimmed with water.
South of San Luis, Ronda Lobato raced the rising floodwaters in San Francisco Creek every spring to fill sandbags that protected her grandparents’ farm.
North of Center, potato farmer Sheldon Rockey faced so much spring mud that he had to learn to extract his stuck tractor.
Outside Monte Vista, Tyler Mitchell needed only a hand shovel on the family farm near Monte Vista to reach shallow underground flows in the Valley’s once-abundant water table.
Today those tales of plentiful water seem like a distant mirage. Ten of the past 11 years have delivered below-average snowpacks for the upper Rio Grande basin, with this year’s snowpack measuring just 58 percent of normal at the key May 1 measurement. All but one of the main local reservoirs were less than half-filled.
Farmers face significant cutbacks from wells now and likely from river flows and irrigation ditches later this season.
Against this stark backdrop of drought, three other vast changes loom.
The biggest is a state court judgment that came after decades of excessive well pumping by valley farmers and ranchers. Local irrigators now must restore 400,000 acre feet of water – more than 1.3 million people in metro Denver use in an entire year – to Valley groundwater systems within 10 years.
A second challenge is a plan by former Gov. Bill Owens and a metro Denver business group to pump and divert additional deep groundwater from the San Luis Valley to new buyers outside the San Luis Valley, likely on the Colorado Front Range.
And the third long-term issue is a forecast for flows to be reduced even further, perhaps as much as 30 percent, because of climate change, according to Colorado’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan.
Buffeted by drought, court orders, climate change, and Front Range diversion plans, the water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before.
Shortages loom. Cuts seem inevitable.
“Our demand for water has far exceeded our supply for years, and now our supply is in a 20-year downward trend,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “We keep facing drought after drought. The sense of urgency continues to build.”
It all threatens the way of life for the 46,000 residents of the San Luis Valley, where agriculture is the driving economic force. Farming and ranching account for $340 million of sales each year while providing 18 percent of the region’s jobs. That puts agriculture behind only the government as a source of local employment. About one of every three dollars of basic income in the San Luis Valley comes from agriculture.
The San Luis Valley is the nation’s No. 5 producer of potatoes – behind only the tates of Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, and Oregon – and a leading supplier of quinoa and alfalfa hay. (The Colorado Potato Administrative Committee says the San Luis Valley is the No. 2 producer in the U.S. for fresh potatoes.)
In a region long beset with poverty – one of every four Valley residents is impoverished, nearly double the statewide rate – farming and ranching have offered one economic success story. In Saguache County, the annual net income, or profit, per farm was $113,000, says the US Department of Agriculture census. Net income per farm in Rio Grande County was $105,000.
But all those jobs, all that money, hinge on one thing: an ample and dependable water supply.
“The climate of the San Luis Valley is arid, and a successful agricultural economy would not be possible without irrigation,” says the U.S. Geological Survey.
Average annual precipitation on the Valley floor is 7 to 10 inches, but potatoes, for example, need an additional 14 to 17 inches of irrigation water during the growing season. Alfalfa hay, the Valley’s top crop by acreage, requires up to 24 inches for a crop.
This adds up to an enormous thirst. According to state water engineers, San Luis Valley agriculture accounts for 810,000 acre feet of consumptive water use per year.
By contrast, the Denver Water Department needs only 247,000 acre feet of water to supply the 1.3 million people within its city and suburban service boundaries.
In other words, metro Denver requires only one third as much water as the San Luis Valley to produce a gross domestic product 60 times greater – a $202 billion annual economy vs. a $3.3 billion economy.
Because the San Luis Valley has so much water being put to comparatively low economic use, metro Denver water developers continue to focus a covetous eye on Rio Grande diversions.
After the AWDI proposals of the 1980s and the Gary Boyce plan of the 1990s, the Gov. Bill Owens-backed Renewable Water Resources proposal is the latest push to take advantage of relatively low prices to pipe water out of the San Luis Valley.
In the crosshairs is one of the oldest agricultural traditions and cultures in Colorado.
The first surface water right in Colorado, appropriated in 1852, is the People’s Ditch near San Luis. With a series of community irrigation canals called acequias, Hispanic settlers soon started growing food in the high desert with water from the Conejos, Rio Grande, Alamosa, Culebra, San Luis, Saguache, Carnero, and Trinchera, among other rivers and creeks.
By the 1870s, as much as 50,000 acres in the San Luis Valley was irrigated. After the arrival of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, that number soared to 400,000 acres by the 1880s. By 1900, demand for water in several valley streams already outstripped the natural supply.
Farmers responded by building reservoirs, and, especially, digging wells. By the time of World War I, the San Luis Valley was home to at least 5,000 groundwater wells. The rush was on. Underground supplies seemed endless.
Until they weren’t. In 1972, Colorado water officials ordered a moratorium on construction of new wells in most of the valley, and then ended new appropriations of groundwater in the rest of the valley in 1981, which was one of the worst snowpack years on record, with just 11 percent of normal on May 1.
Luckily, that one terrible year of drought in 1981 was followed by six successive years of some of the best snowpacks in the recorded history of the Rio Grande Basin. From 1982-1987, few worried much about groundwater because the rivers were flooding.
Another run of giant snowpacks in the mid-1990s helped to keep the pressure off groundwater pumping – while helping to build the memories of valley residents like Ronda Lobato, Sheldon Rockey, and Tyler Mitchell.
“I remember the snowbanks being bigger than me – the winters were so long and cold,” said Lobato, whose aunt and uncle lived along San Francisco Creek. “When the runoff came, we had to fill sandbags to protect against flooding. Today there is no water in San Francisco Creek. It doesn’t run at all.”
Farming is never easy, but water shortages make it even tougher, said Tyler Mitchell.
“I remember as a kid being able to dig with a shovel to find water. Now I might have to go 30 feet to find it,” said Mitchell, whose family runs 18 center pivot irrigation rigs. “The ditch water used to go all summer long. Now we’re lucky to get one month, and some ditches do only a few weeks. We don’t have enough surface water to grow cash-value crops every year.”
The mid-1990s were the heyday of San Luis Valley agriculture, said potato grower Sheldon Rockey, and that era changed the way of thinking for a generation of farmers.
“I remember when the river flooded three years in a row. I got the tractor stuck in the mud,” Rockey said. “There was a lot of money made without worrying much about water. The issue with the older crowd of farmers is that they were so successful for so long. Now that we’re in drought, it’s hard to change your thinking.”
The bountiful water years of the 1980s and 1990s in the San Luis Valley have flipped the typical generational divide in farming. Because they lived through the wettest times, the older farmers tend to have a brighter view than the younger farmers, local agricultural officials say.
“Farming is an optimistic profession,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and Rio Grande Basin representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “People my father’s age have seen farming here at its best, when we had giant years for water. But the data and science don’t give me many reasons to think those days will come back around.
“If the big water years do come back, that would be tremendous. But I don’t want us to ignore the freight train coming at us right now.”
That train began blasting its horn about 20 years ago.
State water engineers long had been concerned about well-pumping by valley irrigators, but the connection between groundwater and surface water was not clearly understood. Starting in January 1976, engineers began monitoring the level of valley aquifers. Groundwater declined steadily but gradually, which led to the state moratoriums on drilling.
However, 2002 was the driest on record for the Rio Grande Basin, with a May snowpack of just 6 percent. With little available surface water, valley irrigators turned underground for supplies.
The result: In just one year, engineers recorded a 400,000 acre foot drop in Vvalley aquifers. That is a huge amount of water – a single acre-foot is enough to support two families of four people for a year.
In response to the vast agricultural overpumping came a flurry of laws, regulations, and court actions.
For the past decade, valley irrigators have been under a court order to maintain a sustainable aquifer system. That means restoring at least 400,000 acre feet to underground supplies, officials say. (Engineering studies say the unconfined aquifer actually has been drained by as much as 1 million acre feet since 1976.)
Little progress has been made to return that water in the past 10 years. Now irrigators face a 2031 deadline to repay the water debt.
Still, 5,000 irrigation wells continue to pump in the valley, including 3,000 in the key Subdistrict 1 north of Monte Vista and west of Hooper.
The $426,000 state Rio Grande Implementation Plan was blunt: “Because the sustained and lingering drought since 2002 has not been matched with a decline in agricultural consumptive use, use of the aquifers is unsustainable.”
What local water officials now fear is a replay in the San Luis Valley of what happened to irrigators on the South Platte River, where years of over-pumping by farmers, combined with a resulting state court order, led to the 2006 shutdown of 440 wells and the pumping curtailment of hundreds of others.
In the San Luis Valley, the clock is ticking. A reckoning awaits.
“Shutting down wells – there are people here who can’t survive that,” said Simpson, the state senator. “We are 10 years into this plan to create and maintain a sustainable aquifer system, but we are not yet back to where we started. There are no easy solutions.”
Scientists say it won’t get any easier. Because of climate change, a study by the Bureau of Reclamation, Sandia National Laboratories, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasts even more challenges for water users in the Upper Rio Grande Basin:
Flows will decrease by 33 percent by 2100 at the Rio Grande near Del Norte, Conejos River near Mogote, Los Pinos River near Ortiz, and San Antonio River at Ortiz. Flows will decrease by 50 percent at the Rio Grande near Lobatos.
Peak river flows will come earlier, shifting from June to May.
Fewer water rights will be served. From 1950 to 1999, the average junior-most water right to be served in June on the Rio Grande was a 1910 priority, but by 2100 it will be an 1890 priority.
“We are an incredible agricultural community, but we don’t have the water supply we used to,” said Dutton, the Rio Grande representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “There are more people who want water than there is water available. We are facing scarcity.”
Here’s Part 2 in the series from The Alamosa Citizen (Mark Obmascik):
Plan to pipe water to Front Range has big backers, few specifics
THE Front Range executives who want to export water from the San Luis Valley to sell elsewhere are clear about a few things:
They have money. They are backed by former Gov. Bill Owens. And they think their plan will benefit the Valley.
Beyond that, however, details remain sketchy.
Where exactly would the Renewable Water Resources project be built? Who are the investors? How much would it cost? What’s the project timetable? Who are the local supporters? Where are the customers?
Also: If this project will truly help the San Luis Valley, then why are the political, water, and farm leaders of the Valley overwhelmingly against it?
“We know San Luis Valley citizens are looking forward to jobs and an uptick in the local economy as a result of our project moving forward,” said Renewable Water Resources executives in a prepared statement. “Citizens responded favorably to the more than $50 million community fund – run by the community – that would be created to address critical issues which could include public education, economic diversity, senior assistance programs, conservation efforts, law enforcement, mental health services, and more.
“We have asked the unelected Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board the following question, ‘What are you for?’ This question has been met with silence other than falling back on the status quo which means higher taxes and more regulation for the valley’s struggling farms and ranches.”
Local officials say Renewable Water Resources is not to be trusted.
“They continue to use false information to describe and promote their project,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and the Rio Grande Basin representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “I don’t think people will fall for a bunch of falsehoods.”
Valley native Ken Salazar – the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, U.S. senator, state Attorney General, and current U.S. ambassador to Mexico – said the project would proceed “over my dead body.”
Local opponents of the plan formed a group, Protect Our Water, that lists as members: 15 local water districts and entities; 22 cities and towns; 22 conservation and environmental groups; and two farm groups. It lists statements of opposition to the RWR proposal from eight separate local governments, including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the city of Alamosa, and Mineral and Rio Grande counties.
The group says it is organized around a main principle: “There is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.” It has a web page dedicated to correcting what it says are RWR’s numerous misstatements about the project.
RWR executives say they can’t be specific about project locations, timetables, or costs because they are focused on winning Valley support and filing a legal case in Colorado’s water court, which could take three to five years to process. That case would help determine whether the San Luis Valley has enough water for RWR to legally export without hurting existing users.
In general, RWR says it wants to build a wellfield northeast of Moffat. A pipeline would carry water north along state Highway 17, more than 1,000 feet up and over Poncha Pass, to some uncertain location.
Though a few Front Range cities such as Aurora and Colorado Springs draw some water from the Arkansas River basin, most metro Denver utilities rely on the South Platte River, a more distant location that would require a much longer pipeline and additional pumping costs for RWR.
RWR says it has no identified customers for its proposed project. Executives have been pitching it to utilities on the Front Range.
The financial incentives for RWR: Wholesale water prices are five to 10 times higher on the populated Front Range than in the agricultural San Luis Valley.
In the San Luis Valley, RWR proposes to drill nearly a half-mile into the Valley’s deep aquifer to pump out 22,000 acre-feet of water per year. At the same time, RWR says it will buy and retire 31,000 acre feet of water currently used in the Valley for irrigated agriculture. As a result, RWR says a “surplus of 9,000 acre-feet will go back into the San Luis Valley’s shallow section of the aquifer.”
The company says it is “investing $68 million to pay local farmers and ranchers who voluntarily wish to retire their water rights above market rate.”
In addition to the purchase of those water rights, RWR said it will donate $50 million to a locally controlled community fund. The company expects that fund to generate $3 million to $4 million per year in contributions for local causes.
RWR also has agreed to donate a 3,000-acre ranch for use as elk habitat near the Baca National Wildlife Refuge south of Crestone.
“To give the above numbers some context,” RWR said in a statement, “the poverty rate of the San Luis Valley is greater than 35 percent and the average median household income is under $26,000. We do believe our commitments to the community will better the valley.”
However, many questions remain unanswered. RWR declined to make available any project executives, including Owens, governor of Colorado from 1999-2007, for an interview for this story, insisting instead that all questions be written and answered via email.
After years of water overuse, Valley irrigators now are operating under state orders to reduce consumption by hundreds of thousands of acre feet. Local water officials remain dubious that RWR can legally remove more water from a system already facing significant cutbacks.
On top of the existing legal challenges, local engineers are girding for hydrologic changes caused by climate change. One state study estimated streamflows in the upper Rio Grande basin will plunge by a third in the next 80 years because of climate change.
Project opponents now must toe a fine line politically. Though they want to highlight the current water shortages because of court rulings, continuing drought, and climate change, they don’t want farmers to give up hope and sell to RWR.
In a Valley dominated by agricultural business, exporting water for other uses will throttle the future economy of the San Luis Valley, RWR opponents say. They point to the example of Crowley County in the lower Arkansas River Valley, where irrigators sold their supplies to Front Range cities, allowing a few farmers to reap big paydays at the expense of the rest of the southeastern Colorado economy.
An irrigator who drops out of a local ditch makes it harder economically for remaining farmers to continue to operate and maintain the ditch.
Many local farmers say buy-and-dry policies threaten the future of agriculture in the Valley.
“Our community is centered on water and farming, and I hope the community sticks together,” said potato farmer Tyler Mitchell. “But in the grand scheme of life, money talks. If the price is right, you might see people sell. I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Mitchell and other farmers are heartened by the Valley’s history of defeating other water export proposals.
In the 1980s, former Gov. Dick Lamm and American Water Development Inc. sought to develop and export as much as 200,000 acre-feet per year from the Valley’s confined aquifer. After five years of litigation and a lengthy trial, AWDI lost in court.
In the 1990s, Stockman’s Water, led by Monte Vista native Gary Boyce, purchased the Baca Ranch and proposed to export 150,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Valley. Boyce lost two statewide votes and struggled in water court. The Nature Conservancy bought the Baca Ranch in 2002.
Most political leaders in the Valley supported a drive to convert the Great Sand Dunes into a national park partly to help prevent water exports from the Valley. In 2008, the state granted a water right to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve for the groundwater beneath its boundaries.
According to the state’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan, it was the first nonconsumptive water right issued by the state of Colorado. “The water right precludes any withdrawal of water from the aquifers that would cause injury to the park’s environments, which are dependent on the groundwater,” the state plan says.
The Valley’s extensive wetlands and river habitats support at least 13 threatened and endangered species and more than 260 species of birds, including a major spring and fall flight of sandhill cranes and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher.
Still, Sean Tonner, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Bill Owens, led a drive to buy 11,500 acres of the Rancho Rosado from the former holdings of Boyce, who died in 2016.
The result is the current RWR project proposal, led by Tonner and backed by Owens and other former members of his gubernatorial administration.
(A detailed explanation of the history of San Luis Valley water export proposals, conducted by the University of Colorado Law School, is here.)
“Because of our project offerings – with this proposal – we can enrich the local economy, bring more jobs to the area, support essential non-profits and community groups, and improve the health of the area’s aquatic habits and wildlife,” RWR said in a statement.
The Protect Our Water coalition strongly disagrees.
“A plan being proposed by Renewable Water Resources will remove water from the Valley and permanently dry up at least 10,000 acres of farmland,” the group says. “It could also negatively impact the environment, including streams, rivers, The Great Sand Dunes National Park, refuges, wetlands, fish and wildlife. Water sustains our economy and lifestyle.
“There is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.”
As federal water managers declared the first-ever official Colorado River water shortage last week, a top official said he’s confident Wyoming will responsibly implement its plans to store and divert even more flows from the troubled waterway.
The Department of the Interior on Aug. 16 said it would reduce water diversions to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in 2022 after a scheduled August review set the restrictive sideboards for releases next year.
Despite that curtailment, Wyoming plans to corral another 115,000 acre-feet annually by building and modifying dams and their operations to potentially allow more diversions.
At the same time, Wyoming is fleshing out its Drought Contingency Plan and a “demand management” program that could see voluntary reductions in diversions before users in the state might be cut off. Wyoming doesn’t expect curtailments to happen next year, unless drought, aridification and climate change unexpectedly exacerbate the decline in Lake Powell.
In a press call announcing the downstream diversion reductions, a regional Bureau of Reclamation director appeared unfazed by the potential impacts of Wyoming’s dam-building plans.
“Wyoming has exercised foresight in the work of their Wyoming Water Development Commission,” said Wayne Pullan, the BOR’s director for the Upper Colorado River Basin, “and with our long history with Wyoming we’re confident that they’ll pursue any future projects responsibly, fully aware of the context of the hydrology and the difficulties on the Colorado River.”
Wyoming’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission, which will decide how any curtailments in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico will be borne, said his cohorts are “very concerned about the hydrology this basin faces.” A Drought Contingency Plan that’s been adopted in skeleton form “does provide the tools to help manage what we’re seeing now, as troubling as that is,” commission member Pat Tyrrell said at the press call.
Wyo forges ahead with dams…
Pullan would not comment on specific ongoing Wyoming projects, at least five of which in the Green River and Little Snake River basins would collectively control an additional 115,000 acre-feet at an estimated cost of $123 million.
“It is worth noting that one of the purposes of the Colorado River storage project is to assist states, making use of their apportionment under the [1922 Colorado River] Compact,” Pullan said. Wyoming has not developed or appropriated its full share of the water entitled under that historic agreement, state officials have said.
The compact and apportionment among the seven states and Mexico, however, is based on an annual supply of at least 15 million acre-feet, an amount experts say the river basin no longer produces. Further, Wyoming believes the lower basin’s Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico have historically overused their share while upper division states have not exploited their full rights.
At least one group has called for a moratorium on new storage or diversion projects in the basin until the seven states and Mexico can address what’s widely seen as claims to flows that no longer exist. Wyoming still deserves its share, state officials believe.
“We aren’t obligated to sustain overuse anywhere else,” Tyrrell said in an interview, “to the detriment of our existing demands here in Wyoming.”
Tyrrell offered one scenario where an ongoing dam project could be immediately affected by less runoff. At the Big Sandy Dam in Sublette County, the Bureau of Reclamation is raising the structure to impound an additional 12,900 acre-feet for irrigation.
“That’ll come under a more recent priority date,” Tyrrell said, meaning the new storage area will be among the first to be cut off if lower-basin shortages creep upstream. The doctrine of prior appropriation that governs water use in Wyoming recognizes the first-in-time water appropriation to be first-in-right when shortages occur.
“If we are, for example, under any kind of curtailment,” Tyrrell said, Big Sandy “won’t be allowed to fill.
“It will put no more additional stress on the system if it’s not allowed to fill up,” he told WyoFile.
Other new dams, reservoir enlargements or operational changes that would give Wyoming access to more water would be subject to separate sideboards depending on whether they are built, what priority of appropriation they might impound, who owns them and other factors.
The amount of water involved in the Wyoming projects is “very small in comparison to Lake Powell,” Tyrrell said. Powell holds some 20 million acre-feet of what’s called active storage — the amount that can actually be used.
The downstream reductions — 18%, 7% and 5% of Arizona, Nevada and Mexico’s annual apportionments respectively — amount to 613,000 acre-feet. That’s about 3% of Powell’s storage or, seen another way, about 10% more than Wyoming’s average annual usage of basin flows.
The impact of any additional consumptive use in Wyoming — which could approach the 115,000 acre-feet contemplated in Wyoming’s dam plans — “is very, very small in comparison to what might be stored in Lake Powell,” Tyrrell said.
“I believe the environmental impact statement for Big Sandy found there would be no significant impact to reservoir elevations downstream by an enlargement,” he said.
Wyoming’s legal team stands behind water developers, assistant attorney general Chris Brown said as he echoed Tyrrell’s overview. “We are certainly not obligated to sustain overuse in other places in the basin on the backs of Wyoming water users, either current or future.”
Water developers, including Wyoming itself, understand the priority system and risks associated with constructing impoundments to hold back flows. In the face of dwindling supply, some wonder whether new structures might become stranded assets — facilities built under one scenario that can’t be used as intended in a new reality.
A professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School expressed skepticism about Wyoming’s basin-wide plans. “That seems like a bad investment,” Mark Squillace said in an interview.
… and plans for curtailments
Already the Bureau of Reclamation has activated provisions under its Drought Response Operations Agreement to release water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah. Pullan called the action a “small ‘e’” emergency release that will help keep the level at Powell high enough to continue generating valuable electricity.
The Flaming Gorge releases and others also help the four upper-basin states meet their water-flow obligations under the 1922 compact, Wyoming’s Tyrrell said. The dwindling flows, he said, “threaten to get worse.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
During his tenure as Utah governor, Gary Herbert repeatedly stressed that water is the only limiting factor to the state’s growth.
That day is here for the nation’s fastest-growing state, and water managers are scrambling.
Drought is gripping 17 states in 95% of the service area of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and half of that area is experiencing severe or extreme conditions.
Those states stretch from the West, into the Southwest and the Great Plains region of the United States. Aside from Utah, victims of this megadrought are Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, California, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
It has become so severe at Utah’s Lake Powell, emergency releases were instituted from three upstream reservoirs to prop up its levels and to help keep power generation functioning at Glen Canyon Dam, which produces enough electricity for 336,000 households. On top of that, Colorado River allocations were reduced for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico due to the first water shortage in history being declared for the river.
In a five-year period, the nation’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — saw their capacity drop by half. They are now the lowest they’ve been since they started filling decades ago.
When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced the 18% reduction for Arizona, the 7% cut for Nevada and the 5% curtailment for Mexico, the historic first underscored how dismal the situation is in the Colorado River Basin.
“The announcement today is a recognition that the hydrology planned for years ago that we hoped we would never see is here,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, the bureau’s deputy commissioner…
According to the latest information from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 60 million people across nine states in the West are having their lives touched by what’s been described as a 100-year drought…
The Upper Colorado River Basin, which covers Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, is experiencing its driest 22 years on record.
Lake Powell dropped 145 feet from 2000 to 2005, directly attributed to a record low runoff in 2002 of just 24% of average.
The Great Salt Lake slipped below its lowest recorded elevation, documented in 1963.
Utah water managers are dipping into emergency supplies in the state’s reservoirs and most, if not all, irrigation companies are cutting the season short by weeks.
Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District that operates multiple northern Utah reservoirs, said conditions are dire…
Flint fears as the spigots for secondary water are turned off — and if September ends up hot and dry — households and businesses will turn to using treated water for landscaping needs…
How did we get here?
“It’s been pretty dramatic in how bad meteorologically it has been from an impacts point of view,” said Jon Meyer, a climate scientist with Utah State University’s Utah Climate Center.
Meyer said last year the drought was severe — with the driest summer and fall on record — but reservoirs were able to “buffer” that dryness in urban areas particularly.
When last winter’s below average snowpack began to melt, record dry soils stole the moisture…
Echoing Herbert’s concerns on water and growth, water law expert Melissa Reynolds warned if conditions persist, cities and the state throughout the arid West will face tough choices.
“We could see restrictions on new connections,” said Reynolds, an attorney with Holland & Hart. “I do think if we continue to see conditions like we have in 2021, more and more water providers may consider stopping new water connections. Lack of source capacity is a limiting factor on development.”
With even some “first in time” or the oldest, most senior water rights going dry or getting curtailed this year, Reynolds said impacts are widespread for the economy…
Agriculture and water
When it comes to Utah consumption, some critics point to the agricultural community as a big water waster in a state that is the second-driest in the nation.
They complain about the water it takes to grow alfalfa, admittedly a cash crop but one that is critical to support Utah’s ranching community.
Craig Buttars, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, editorialized in the Deseret News that what most people don’t realize is that due to the Utah drought, farmers and ranchers have had their water cut from 70% to 75% this year compared to last.
He warned those reductions have forced ranchers to sell off cattle and resulted in crop yields far below normal, which will mean higher food prices…
Utahns’ love affair with green lawns has been a target of water providers as they push people to replace water-sucking turf with vegetation more suitable to the state’s climate…
How much vegetation must remain — an issue of aesthetics for some communities — varies from area to area, however. That has led some conservation-minded residents to question why there is a requirement at all…
Meyer, from USU, said as periods of extended and intense drought continue to persist, Utah may have to come to grips with abandoning its concerns over aesthetics and being more mindful of water use.
Drought may very well change how Utah looks, and how it grows.
Driving throughout New Mexico and Arizona, Meyer noted, there is an absence of lush green turf. In its place, there is vegetation that is more practical in an era of climate change.
The Colorado River at Kremmling in Grand County will enjoy a big bump in flows from August into October as Denver Water pays off a hefty water debt.
The rising flows — an addition of more than 300 cubic feet per second (more on that later) sent from Wolford Mountain and Williams Fork reservoirs — serve as a good example of how Colorado’s intricate system of water rights can drive river flows higher when they might typically be lower as autumn settles in.
In this case, it works like this: A dry year created conditions that now require Denver Water to “pay back” water to the West Slope.
Why? Let’s stick with the easy version.
An agreement that emerged over 50 years of Byzantine legal fights allows Denver to move water from Dillon Reservoir in Summit County to the Front Range when it needs the water for its customers.
But — and this is a big “But” — if another big reservoir called Green Mountain (that’s the very long reservoir you drive past as you cruise Highway 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling) — doesn’t fill up in the spring and summer, Denver Water has to make up the difference later in the year.
Stay with us here. Take a look at the map that accompanies this story to help.
Years like this, when Denver Water has to refund water, are called “substitution” years. There have been big substitution years, when a lot of water is involved in the refund, in dry years such as 2002, 2004, 2012 and 2013.
This year is shaping up as a big one, too; one of the largest. In all, the utility expects to release about 37,600 acre-feet from Williams Fork and Wolford to make up what Green Mountain, a reservoir operated by federal Bureau of Reclamation, lacked this year.
That’s a lot of water — close to the capacity of Gross Reservoir, the big Denver Water reservoir in the foothills northwest of Denver. An acre-foot is roughly enough water to serve three or four households for a year.
But wait, you say. Water from Williams Fork and Wolford won’t find its way to Green Mountain, since the Green Mountain Reservoir is on the Blue River and those two reservoirs send their water into the Colorado River, not the Blue.
(Also, water can’t flow upstream from the Colorado River into Green Mountain Reservoir. Take another look at the map in this story.)
That’s OK, as the point is to make up for flows in the Colorado River that would otherwise be augmented by releases from Green Mountain. In short, the releases keep the flows moving on the West Slope.
Now, back to those flows. Releases are expected to add an additional 400 cubic feet per second to the Colorado River in August, 320 cfs in September, and then decrease somewhat to an extra 200 cfs in the first two weeks of October.
How much water is that?
Quite a bit. If you think in terms of gallons (think of the gallon of milk at the grocery story), a cubic foot contains about 7.5 gallons. So 300 cubic feet per second means about 2,250 gallons of water per second added to the river flows. (Think about that many milk jugs floating by each second).
While it’s a lot of water to pay back — and it means Denver Water will need to draw down its supplies in Wolford and Williams Fork quite a bit — it could have been even more.
But a wet spring on the Front Range kept sprinklers off and demand low. Monsoons returned this year as well, boosting flows on both sides of the Continental Divide. All of that allowed Denver Water to reduce what it moved from Dillon Reservoir, through the Roberts Tunnel, to the Front Range.
Which, in turn, allowed a bit more water down the Blue River and into Green Mountain and reduced the “substitution” amount to be repaid.
If you’ve stuck with us until now, we raise a toast to you, salute your interest in a puzzling topic, and hope that this boost in late season flows in the Colorado River brings a smile to all of us inspired by the beauty of a moving stream.
Knowing where cold water is likely to stay cold is critical for conservation. But “cold” is more than just a number on a thermometer. Dams do not adequately support cold-water ecosystems.
Dams poorly mimic the temperature patterns California streams require to support the state’s native salmon and trout — more than three-quarters of which risk extinction. Bold actions are needed to reverse extinction trends and protect cold-water streams that are resilient to climate warming, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE by the University of California, Davis.
The study helps identify where high-quality, cold-water habitat remains to help managers prioritize conservation efforts.
“It is no longer a good investment to put all our cold-water conservation eggs in a dam-regulated basket,” said lead author Ann Willis, a senior staff researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and a fellow for the John Muir Institute of the Environment. “We need to consider places where the natural processes can occur again.”
The uncommon cold
Understanding where cold water is likely to stay cold is critical for conservation. But “cold” is more than just a number on a thermometer. The term represents the many factors that combine to create cold water capable of supporting aquatic ecosystems.
Water managers deliver cold water from reservoirs to streams to support aquatic life. But Willis said this assumes that all cold water is the same — akin to giving blood to another person without understanding their blood type and health status.
While previous studies have suggested that dams can be operated to achieve ideal temperatures, few tested that hypothesis against the temperature patterns aquatic ecosystems need.
The UC Davis study assessed stream temperature data from 77 sites in California to model and classify their “thermal regimes,” or annual temperature patterns. It found the state’s reservoirs do not adequately replicate natural thermal patterns, making them incapable of supporting cold-water species effectively.
“I’m an engineer; I thought we could operate ourselves into success, but the science doesn’t support that,” Willis said. “It’s not a question of whether we remove a dam, but which dam, and how we need to restructure how we manage water. Or we need to be willing to take responsibility to be the generation that says, ‘OK, we’re letting this ecosystem go extinct.’”
What about the drought?
Drought often tempts people to double-down on hard-infrastructure solutions for water storage.
“We falsely equate dams with water security,” Willis said. “More storage does not mean more water. A giant, empty refrigerator doesn’t help you if you’re starving. The same is true for water.”
Of California’s 1,400 dams, only one very large and highly engineered dam — Shasta — stood out in the study as replicating natural cold-water patterns.
The study does not suggest removing all dams. However, considering removing “deadbeat dams” where there are critical ecosystems could help restore natural processes and support fish, people and biodiversity amid climate warming.
Key cold-water conservation candidates include streams highly influenced by groundwater, such as in the Cascade Range, and places where water easily infiltrates the soil, such as Northern California’s Feather River.
“Classifying these streams and understanding their thermal regimes is an effective way to focus our time and money on the places most likely to make a difference,” Willis said.
The study’s co-authors include Ryan Peek and Andrew Rypel of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
Funding for this research was provided by internal support from the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and the John Muir Institute of the Environment.