In 1888, local farmers and ranchers got together to start a formal ditch company. For this, there would have to be an official survey. The original survey map that was made in July through August of 1888 was measured by hand with 100-foot links of chain. Once completed, the Lone Cone Ditch Company was formed on Wright’s Mesa for irrigation purposes on July 30, 1889.
Shortly after that, on Oct. 29, 1889, the State of Colorado awarded its certificate of incorporation. The original eight owners of the Lone Cone Ditch Company were Roger Williams, Charles Hotchkiss, Charles Traux, Jeremiah Foster, R.A. Peers, J.W. Winkleman, L.W. White and J.W. Fraser.
Approximately 12 to 13 years later, land was donated for a reservoir. The company took the opportunity to grow, and the Lone Cone Ditch Company then became the Lone Cone Ditch and Reservoir Company on June 21, 1902. The reservoir was excavated using a Fresno machine pulled by horses. The reservoir floor was compacted after excavation by running a sheep herd back and forth through it. It was built to hold 1,800-acre feet of water…
Every year, the size of the water shares depends on Mother Nature. Snowmelt, rain, wind and heat all contribute to the factors of water dispersed to each shareholder annually. Lone Cone Ditch does not have a ditch rider. Given that there are approximately 14 miles of upper ditch and 32 miles of lower ditch, water shares are taken on an honor system with divider boxes made and placed by each shareholder. This ditch system is not an “on call” system. It is “all on” or “all off.”
According to Colorado SNOTEL Snowpack Update report for Jan. 24, the Lone Cone is at 6.1 inches of water and 64 percent of it median. These numbers are low and could be an indicator of what our water circumstances could be for the upcoming irrigation season. Conservation practices can become highly effective habits.
The Lone Cone Ditch and Reservoir Company is currently working on the mechanics of the dam structure that is in need of maintenance and repairs. Their engineer is diligently completing his assessment and report. The existing water outlet has held strong and true for many, many years. But, like with all things, it is in need of replacement. At that time, regular maintenance will be performed to ensure that it is functioning to capacity. Once the assessment is complete, grant funding will be the next step.
One of the most profound statements I have ever heard before was from a Wright’s Mesa farmer and rancher: “Gold runs clear.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The Colorado River District will spend the first $1 million in partner project funds made possible from a recent tax approval to help pay for a Grand County effort to address environmental impacts from a reservoir.
The district board last week approved the contribution to a $23.5 million project for a channel to reconnect the Colorado River where the Windy Gap Reservoir blocks its flow.
The decision means nearly a quarter of the annual amount that the tax approval will generate for such projects will be spent in just one of the 15 counties in the river district. But district General Manager Andy Mueller believes it’s a good place to start. And a district policy newly approved by the board aims to ensure that over the long run, funding is allocated fairly and broadly around the district…
In November, voters, including in Mesa County, approved roughly doubling the district’s property tax rate to 0.5 mills. The measure is expected to boost its revenues by nearly $5 million in the first year. Some of the annual revenues from the new tax will help the district address operating budget needs, but most of it — about $4.2 million this year — is to go toward partnering on projects addressing agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, and conservation and efficiency.
Under the board’s new policy to implement the program, it is seeking over time to spread funds among those categories and among counties and river basins in the district, while also considering factors such as the relative populations of counties and basins, and the district’s strategic goals.
The district also plans to use funds to help lobby for contributions of funds from other sources, rather than paying for projects by itself…
Mueller told the board the Windy Gap project is the kind of funding partnership he had in mind, in that “it really brings together all of these folks to fix something.”
Among those who already have committed to the project are the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (about $5.67 million), the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District and related entities ($5 million), the Colorado Water Conservation Board (more than $3.2 million) and Grand County ($1 million).
With the river district commitment, the project remains more than $6.3 million short of full funding, but Mueller plans to use the district’s commitment to push for further funding from a variety of sources, including by pressuring the Northern Colorado Water to chip in more…
The bypass project partly involves reconfiguring the reservoir through construction of a redesigned dam, and building a roughly mile-long natural channel around the reservoir to reconnect the river upstream and downstream of it.
The project is expected to improve Gold Medal trout habitat and improve water quality for downstream irrigators…
Steve Acquafresca, Mesa County’s representative on the river district board, told fellow board members that the project is necessary…
He said it provides a lesson to the current generation of the water community about the need to “really pay attention to what you’re doing” to avoid unintended consequences…
As for other projects that the new river district tax revenue could someday fund, the district more locally has pointed to possibilities such as helping rehabilitate the Grand Valley Roller Dam in Mesa County, and working to maintain for the long term Colorado River flows secured by the senior water right associated with the aging Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon.
“This one was right up there, one of those the district thought was really qualified to be the initial (recipient),” said Catlin, of Montrose, who also represents State House District 58 in the Colorado Legislature. “Hopefully, it gets started right away, but all the communities will be able to apply for funding for projects across the district.”
Montrose and the 14 other counties that make up the Colorado River District voted in November to increase the district’s mill levy to 0.5. The same ballot measure eliminated spending and revenue caps under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but not the tax-rate cap, and allows the district to keep and spend state and local grant funds.
The mill levy increase was projected to generate about $5 million in 2021, with the bulk going to partnerships for priority water projects.
Applications may be made for the awarding of partnership funds, which are to be direct to priority projects; the money can also serve to leverage other funds from state, federal or private sources.
“The projects supported by the Partnership Project Funding Program will protect and sustain West Slope water for all of us who rely on it,” River District General Manager Andy Mueller said, in a provide statement announcing the Windy Gap funding.
“In launching this program and funding our first project, we’re fulfilling our promise to the voters who make our work possible. This and future projects will help build a brighter water future for Western Colorado.”
Under the Partnership Project Funding framework, the river district has created a line item in its general fund budget, identifying the moneys available for such funding.
Staff analyze requests for funding and forward those that match up with several criteria to the board for further consideration. Under those criteria, the proposed project must fit with the mission of the district and language of the 2020 ballot measure.
Risk analysis is part of consideration and applicants need buy-in from their respective local governments. Mostly, the river district will offer partial financial support, although some projects may also receive technical, legal or administrative advocacy.
District funds are not intended to be the sole funding source for any project.
Projects may involve improvements related to agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health/water quality, conservation and efficiency. The framework calls for geographic equity in awarding the funds.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s dire projections for Colorado River Basin reservoirs for the first time triggers drought contingency planning across seven basin states.
The dry 2020 and the lack of snow this season has water managers in seven states preparing for the first time for cutbacks outlined in drought contingency plans drafted two years ago.
A sobering forecast released this week by the Bureau of Reclamation shows the federally owned Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the nation’s two largest reservoirs and critical storage for Colorado River water and its 40 million users — dipping near-record-low levels. If those levels continue dropping as expected, long-negotiated agreements reached by the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 will go into effect, with water deliveries curtailed to prevent the federal government from stepping in and making hard water cuts.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s quarterly report was dire, showing Lake Powell at 42% of capacity and downriver’s Lake Mead at 40% capacity. And there’s not much water coming.
“Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, presenting the bureau’s latest forecasts to the district’s board last week.
The bureau’s January report showed the impacts of a warming, drying climate peaking last year. The period from April to December was among the driest stretches ever recorded in the Southwest, with current conditions mirroring 2002, 2012, 2013 and 2018, four of the five driest years recorded in the Colorado River Basin. The bureau forecasts three scenarios for the next 24 months. Those three projections detail a most probable result, a best-case scenario and a worst-case situation.
Snowpack conditions right now in the mountains that feed the Colorado River and eventually fill Lake Powell are perilously close to the worst-case scenario. The bureau report shows the 2021 inflow into Lake Powell most likely will land around 53% of normal, but could end up as bad as 33% of normal.
The bureau expects the Utah reservoir will finish 2021 at 35% of capacity. If things get worse and follow that worst-case projection, the water level at Lake Powell could drop below a critical level — 3,525 feet above sea level — in early 2022 and that would threaten the ability of Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity…
If the reservoir falls below that 3,525-foot elevation level, the Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to deliver hydro-electricity to more than 3 million customers and the federal government could lose as much as $150 million a year in revenue from selling that electricity. Any projection that the reservoir is headed toward that critical threshold gets water managers in all seven basin states ready for drought-response operations that spread the pain of water cuts across every region of the Colorado River Basin.
Jim Lochhead has helmed Denver Water for half of this prolonged drought. He’s seen good years like 2011 — really the last decent year for water in Colorado — and bad years, like 2013…
But with the lack of snow this season and snowpack in all but one of the state’s seven major river basins below median levels, Lochhead said he is “certainly very concerned about the supply outlook.”
Kanzer, in his report to the Colorado River district board last week, said soil conditions are very dry across Western Colorado. So the state can’t blizzard itself out of this drought hole.
“Even if we did get a good spring we would not get much benefit because all of the moisture would go into the soil and not run off,” Kanzer said.
Changes were approved to water rates by the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) at a regular board meeting on Jan. 14.
Back in September of 2018, the PAWSD board approved changes to its rates for water service customers that would take place in 2021, ac- cording to a public notice.
These changes, according to the notice, will increase the minimum monthly service charge per equiva- lent unit (EU) and will also increase the volume rate charges by 6 percent annually through 2023. They will equate to a 33.74 percent cumulative increase over a five-year period.
For 2021, the monthly service charge per EU will increase from $26.40 to $27.98, the release notes.
For those who use between 2,001 to 8,000 gallons, the rate per 1,000 gallons will increase from $4.74 to $5.02, according to the release.
Additionally, from 8,001 to 20,000 gallons, the rate per 1,000 gallons will increase from $9.48 to $10.05. For over 20,001 gallons usage, per 1,000 gallons, the charge will increase from $11.90 to $12.61.
The water fill station charge per 1,000 gallons will also increase from $10.25 to $10.84, the release notes.
Water availability of service and the wastewater availability of service charges will remain the same at $14.30 and $12.50, respectively, the notice reads.
The release also notes that the capital investment fees for both water and wastewater will increase by 3 percent per year.
PAWSD will also be implementing increases to wastewater charges in 2024 and will end in 2027, according to the release.
The changes will include a 2.5 percent annual rate increase, which amounts to a 10.38 percent cumu- lative increase over the four-year period, the release notes.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District at a board meeting [January 19, 2021] voted to give $1 million of their taxpayer-raised funds to help construct the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which will improve deteriorated conditions at the headwaters of the Colorado River.
“When I look at this, it has benefits that are assisting our communities in the damage caused by transmountain diversions,” River District General Manager Andy Mueller said during the meeting.
The district’s vote is the first step in a final push to fund and build the long-awaited channel, which has been in the works since the early 2000s. The connectivity channel is the first project to which River District board members have allocated money as part of the organization’s new Project Partnership Funding Program.
If built, the channel would mitigate much of the damage to the Colorado and Fraser rivers that has been caused by the Windy Gap reservoir in Grand County. While the channel itself has broad support, its fate is tangled in that of a more controversial project that will draw additional water from the Colorado River system.
The Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District constructed the original Windy Gap Project in the 1980s to divert water from the Colorado River to customers across the Continental Divide.
“It’s an unchanneled reservoir, meaning that it’s just plopped right in the middle of the Colorado River,” said Mely Whiting, the legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “It basically blocks the river all the way across, and that has serious consequences.”
The project cut off the river’s flow and led to large stretches of river that went dry. It caused sediment buildup and a documented decline in biodiversity below the reservoir, including a 38% loss of its aquatic insect species and declines in fish populations.
The connectivity channel, which is designed to undo some of this damage, would reconnect the Upper Colorado and Fraser rivers to the main stem of the Colorado by routing the river around the dam of the Windy Gap Reservoir, creating a path for fish, water and sediment to flow down the river.
Since the release of its original conceptual design in the early 2000s, the connectivity channel has seen its estimated costs grow from about $10 million to $23.5 million. The River District money would help close the remaining $7 million funding gap — but not completely. According to Mueller, the River District voted to give the money in hopes that it would entice other groups to do the same.
The project has been lauded as a rare example of collaboration in the world of water management. It carries support from an unusual coalition of environmental groups, local government and water-management groups on both sides of the Continental Divide. The River District is just one of 10 of the project’s financial backers, which include Northern Water, Grand County and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But the channel’s construction does come at a cost. Much of the funding for the project depends on the construction of the Windy Gap Firming Project — an expansion of the Windy Gap Project that would result in the construction of a 90,000-acre-foot reservoir in Larimer County.
To date, the Windy Gap’s junior water right has meant that the project’s managers have not been able to divert water in dry years and have not had a place to store water for their customers during wet years. The reservoir would give the project’s customers a consistent supply — or “firm yield,” as it’s called — of 30,000 acre-feet annually.
Drawing additional water from the beleaguered Colorado River was controversial, so to win support for their plan, Northern Water signed on with a battery of agreements with environmental groups and Western Slope municipalities and water managers.
Included in these agreements was $5 million for the connectivity channel, a guarantee to maintain a minimum streamflow below the dam, construction of water storage for Western Slope communities and a promise to open negotiations over other water rights that impact the Western Slope.
For many groups that traditionally oppose moving water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, the benefits from the project were enough to win them over. Additional supporters and sponsors of the project include Trout Unlimited and the Grand Board of County Commissioners.
“We have to look at this in a realistic light,” Mueller said of the compromise. “This won’t fix the original sin of placing the Windy Gap Reservoir right in the middle of the Colorado River channel, but it does mitigate it.”
Trout Unlimited has used the funds from Northern Water as leverage for attracting other funding and grants for the connectivity channel and other projects to improve the habitat quality on the river. These include plans to protect the river from some of the effects of climate change by narrowing parts of the river channel to lower stream temperatures and adding fire protection.
“Everything that we’re doing is to make the river more resilient,” Whiting said. “It’s not going to be what it would be naturally in terms of size and volume and flows, but it will function naturally and it will function as good habitat in spite of all those limitations.”
But while many have heralded the Windy Gap Firming Project as the beginning of a new era of cooperation in water management, not everyone agrees that mitigating environmental damage to the river is enough.
“We are past the point where we can do work around the margins,” said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “There is a climate crisis, there’s a water crisis. These things are real, and they are not going away by us mitigating them around the edges.”
WildEarth Guardians is one of six environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Save the Colorado, that filed a lawsuit against the Windy Gap Firming Project. The 2017 suit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alleged that the agencies violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Clean Water Act by approving the permits for the Windy Gap Firming Project. Northern Water was not a defendant in the case.
In the lawsuit, the environmental groups argued that the agencies did not consider conserving water instead of building a diversion project as an alternative for providing water to Front Range communities.
The call for conservation came as a surprise to Northern Water, which used the state’s water-demand projections to justify the need for their project. Those projections already assume that municipalities will adopt a certain level of conservation measures.
“We’ve been pretty confident with our project that we addressed all the issues in our environmental work that they had questions about,” said Jeff Drager, Northern Water’s director of engineering. “And part of the reason they take so long is because the federal agencies are nervous about getting sued like this, and they want to make sure they check all their boxes and get things done.”
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in December. In his ruling, the judge did not analyze water conservation as an alternative. Instead, he noted that the agencies followed the procedural laid out in the law and that he was required to give deference to the agencies’ decisions.
While the plaintiffs weigh whether to appeal the case, Northern Water and the other supporters of the Windy Gap Firming Project have begun taking small steps toward constructing their projects. Barring another legal challenge, they will begin construction on the project’s reservoir as soon as this summer and on the connectivity channel in the fall.
For now, the supporters of the firming project are excited about what they see as a paradigm shift in water management: a move toward cooperation over competition for water resources. Those against the project also are hoping for an eventual shift, but their idea of what that looks like is something more dramatic.
“This just highlights for me that federal environmental laws aren’t really working anymore. When you have deference to the agency, it’s hard for someone else to come in and say that here are other ways that this can be done,” Pelz said. “I think one of the things that needs to happen, which is a radical thing, is that we need to actually live within the river means.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Its water desk is supported by Sam Walton via the Catena Foundation. AJ was supported by the Walton Family Foundation from 2016 to 2018, and the foundation has also supported Trout Unlimited. This story ran in the Jan. 20 editions of The Aspen Times and The Vail Daily.
For some ranchers in Troublesome Valley, the worst impacts of the wildfire that began near there in October might not arrive until summer — or even summers beyond.
Experts say the greatest danger of sedimentation from the East Troublesome Fire will occur during and after a hard rain, especially of an inch or more. That is when the severe soil damage from the fire will cause sediment to wash into the east fork of Troublesome Creek and into a diversion ditch used to irrigate 10,000 acres of hay.
“It’s a real concern for us,” said Kent Whitmer, one of seven ranch owners who get water from the ditch owned by the East Troublesome Mutual Irrigation Co.
Whitmer said he most fears sediment filling the ditch so badly that it overflows.
“That would be disastrous,” he said.
Agricultural and municipal water users will see broad, lingering effects of the 193,812-acre fire.
The East Troublesome Fire, which had been burning east of Colorado Highway 125, exploded on the afternoon of Oct. 21, driven by 70 mph winds. In all, the fire grew 100,000 acres in 24 hours, eventually becoming the second-largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. The fire was formally designated as contained Nov. 30, although small plumes of smoke could be seen in the golf course area as recently as Christmas Day. All but about 5,000 acres of the fire burned in Grand County.
Denver Water may offer lessons useful to water managers, who will be dealing with impacts from the East Troublesome Fire for years, perhaps decades. Denver Water has struggled with sediment and debris clogging its two major reservoirs in the foothills southwest of Denver. The fires that caused problems for those reservoirs — Buffalo Creek in 1996 and Hayman in 2002 — fried soils, removing their ability to absorb moisture. Sediment has been washed up to 11 miles into Strontia Springs and Cheesman reservoirs, pushed by water during summer cloudbursts.
Denver Water has spent $28 million in reservoir dredging, facilities repair and landscape-restoration projects. It discovered that debris and sediment can travel downstream to cause problems in critical water infrastructure. At Strontia Springs, Denver Water dredged for sediment as recently as five years ago but may need to do so again this year.
“Dredging is very costly,” Denver Water watershed scientist Christina Burri said during the recent post-fire water impacts webinar. Retrieving sediment and debris can be challenging, and then there’s the issue of what to do with the debris. “Do you pile it? Do you burn it? Where can you take it?” Burri said.
The East Troublesome Fire might produce fewer problems. A fire assessment called burned-area emergency response was conducted by U.S. Forest Service land managers and shows mostly low to moderate soil burn severity, suggesting lesser impacts to water quality.
But water managers still expect significant challenges come spring, when melting snow produces debris and sediment that can clog bridges, culverts and reservoirs.
Assessing the damage
The fire came through in October “so quickly that it didn’t have a chance to do long-term scarring of the soil,” said Jeff Stahla, public information officer for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “However, this is still a sobering assessment because it really lays out the challenge we have going forward.”
Northern Water operates the Colorado-Big Thompson diversion project, which employs Willow Creek, Granby and Shadow Mountain reservoirs as well as Grand Lake to deliver water to more than a million people and 615,000 irrigated acres along the northern Front Range and in northeastern Colorado.
The district estimates the fire burned as much as 94% of the Willow Creek watershed, 90% of the area drained by Stillwater Creek, 29% of the Colorado River drainage above Shadow Mountain Reservoir and 42% of the North Inlet watershed. A more detailed assessment will be needed in the spring after snow has melted, Strahla said.
“It’s not as bad as Hayman, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bad,” Stahla said, referring to the 138,000-acre fire in 2002 that was the largest forest fire in Colorado’s recorded history until last year. In size, Hayman was eclipsed by the three Colorado fires in 2020: East Troublesome, Cameron Peak and Pine Gulch.
In assessing the damages caused by the East Troublesome Fire, resource specialists estimated 5% of the soil suffered high severity, 48% of it moderate severity and 37% of it low severity burns. Within the fire perimeter, 10% of the land was unburned.
The mapping for the 22,668 acres of the East Troublesome Fire within Rocky Mountain National Park has not yet been released.
Soil in severely burned areas has lost its structure, as the fire burned the forest litter and duff, weakening the roots of trees and other material that hold soil together.
Areas of severe damage include the basin drained by the east fork of Troublesome Creek, where the fire was first reported Oct. 14. There, the fire hunkered down, moving slowly but burning most everything. Other notable severe burn areas are near Willow Creek Pass, between Granby and Walden, and a gulch immediately north of Windy Gap Reservoir. Some areas near Grand Lake burned with surprising severity.
Erosion in high or moderate soil burn areas depends on the specific characteristics, such as the slope and soil texture, of each area, according to the burn report.
Watching the water
Impacts to drinking water in Grand County will vary. Well owners generally should have no problems with the debris.
“These folks will want to make sure that wellheads and components are not damaged, to test for coliform bacteria before drinking the water post-fire and to treat it if necessary,” said Katherine Morris, water-quality specialist for Grand County. “If a well is located in an area known to be down-gradient from an area where homes burned, it may be prudent to ensure that your water treatment is adequate.”
At Grand Lake, the town draws water from 80-foot wells.
“We have not seen anything yet,” said Dave Johnson, the water superintendent for Grand Lake. He said he doesn’t expect problems but that the water will continue to be monitored, as it has been.
But Grand Lake’s microhydro plant could have problems. Located on Tonohutu Creek, the small plant constantly generates 5 kilowatts of electricity used in treating the town’s domestic water.
“We can only filter out so much debris before we have to close the intake,” Johnson said.
In that case, the water treatment plant will be operated solely by electricity from Mountain Parks Electric.
Hot Sulphur Springs, which draws water from wells that tap the river aquifer, will be the only town in Grand County with municipal water supplies directly impacted by the fire. Kremmling also can tap the Colorado River, but it does so only in emergencies.
Hot Sulphur Springs Mayor Bob McVay said his town expects challenges when the snow melts this spring, producing ash-laden water and debris. The town already has set out to take precautions, but it’s not yet clear what will be required.
Upgrading of the filters in the town’s water treatment plant, a project that began a year ago, probably will be completed in January, providing duplicate filtering systems. But that might not be enough. Secondary wells in the groundwater along the river remain an option.
In Troublesome Valley, Whitmer hopes to consult the expertise of the Natural Resources Conservation Service about how to mitigate effects of the fire on the irrigation ditch. He also wonders whether beaver dams in the East Fork will trap at least some sediment.
For Northern Water, this was just one of several fires affecting its operations in 2020. It was impacted by fires on both sides of the Continental Divide, including the Cameron Peak Fire, the state’s largest wildfire, which affected the Poudre River and other creeks and drainages.
Stahla said managers attempt to prepare for wildfire and other contingencies, but they did not prepare for such a severe wildfire season.
“If you had come to us with a scenario that there is wildfire burning above Grand Lake, above Estes Park and throughout the Poudre River Basin, we probably would have pushed back, thinking that’s a little too over the top,” he said.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Our water desk is funded in part by the Catena Foundation. This story ran in the Jan. 16 edition of the Summit Daily News and the Jan. 15 edition of Sky-Hi News.
The lawsuit, filed in Larimer County District Court, contends that former commissioners Steve Johnson and Tom Donnelly were biased in favor of the project and shouldn’t have voted on the 1041 permit. The suit also argues that commissioners’ 2-1 approval of the permit in September violated criteria of Larimer County’s land use code…
The lawsuit argues that Johnson and Donnelly demonstrated bias in several ways, citing a photo of Donnelly speaking at a “Farmers for NISP” event and an online news release from NISP proponent Northern Water reading “Larimer County Commissioners support NISP.”
The complaint also references August 2019 text messages from Donnelly to Northern Water spokesperson Jeff Stahla that read, according to the lawsuit: “You guys are getting ready to blow this deal …” and “Northern has no idea what is in store for them if they let this slide into the next boards (sic) term.”
Stahla told the Coloradoan that Donnelly “reached out to me … when we were in the middle of the (intergovernmental agreement) process.” The county and Northern Water had been drafting an intergovernmental agreement to cover the siting of Glade Reservoir and associated pipelines before they pivoted to the 1041 permitting process.
“… at that point, we were having open discussions with commissioners regarding this project, so we had not yet moved into” the 1041 part of the project, Stahla said on Tuesday…
Stahla, the Northern Water spokesperson, said the NISP 1041 permit application was robust and addressed all the county’s criteria…
He also noted that the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission in December rejected Save the Poudre’s appeal of the state water quality certification. That certification addresses NISP’s anticipated impacts on Poudre River water quality and includes 30 conditions.
He added that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the new class of commissioners to reconsider NISP’s 1041 permit.
“If you file a permit application and county staff recommends approval, the county planning commission recommends approval, and then you get approved by the county commissioners — well then, how far down the road can you have all of those votes changed at a long future date?” Stahla said. “We felt that we met the criteria, and the commissioners, acting in their role properly, approved the application for a 1041 permit, and so we feel we have our permit.”
Karen Wagner of lawsuit co-plaintiff No Pipe Dream told the Coloradoan that the group had hoped the commissioners would apply their 1041 criteria as thoroughly as they did in their ruling on the proposed Thornton pipeline permit — which commissioners rejected after heavy opposition from No Pipe Dream…
While the county 1041 permit is an integral milestone for the project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to issue a final record of decision on NISP. That decision is expected in the first quarter of 2021 after years of delays, Stahla said. The Army Corps’ decision could also be contested in court.
No Pipe Dream, Save Rural NoCo Corp. and Save the Poudre filed a lawsuit in 8th Judicial District Court last week against the county commissioners, naming former commissioners Tom Donnelly and Steve Johnson specifically, as well as the NISP Water Activity Enterprise.
The lawsuit asks the judge to reverse the decision to grant a 1041 permit for the project, throw it out or send it back to the Larimer County Board of Commissioners for a new hearing.
It targets Johnson and Donnelly, the two yes votes in a split decision, saying that both Republican commissioners, who have since left office, should not have voted on the permit because of a “decade-long” record of advocacy and support for the proposed reservoir project.
And the suit also offers 44 examples of why the organizations believe the permit exceeded the county’s jurisdiction or abused its discretion, ranging from decisions around streamflow to pipeline routes to the number of alternatives considered.
The suit claims that the commissioners did not adequately look at the overall picture of how the project would affect residents, the environment, wildlife and the Cache la Poudre River…
Jeff Stahla, spokesman for Northern Water, pointed out that county staff members and the nonpartisan appointed Larimer County Planning Commission recommended approval of the permit based on the county’s regulations and the specific criteria that county officials were required to consider.
“We’re confident that the strength of the entire permitting process, local, state and federal, will prevail,” said Stahla…
“Basically the lawsuit is total crap,” Johnson responded in a text message. “Tom (Donnelly) and I were no more biased in favor of the project than John (Kefalas) was biased against the project. But as we said in the hearing, we put aside all of our opinions of the project and commented completely and exclusively on the criteria in the land use code.
“I am confident the county will have no problem defending the propriety of our actions,” he said.
Stahla pointed out that Save the Poudre also appealed the state water quality certification that was granted for the project, and the Colorado Water Quality Control Division rejected that challenge.
He added, “We look at this as another attempt to delay an important project for the long-term water supply in Northern Colorado.”
The board began by voting to certify its mill levies. A mill levy of 11.778 was certified for District 1 that will lead to $1,514,389 in revenue. For District 2, the board voted to certify a levy of 5.098 mills that will produce $565,839 in revenue.
PAWSD Director of Business Services Aaron Burns gave a summary of changes made since the draft budget was presented.
PAWSD had $1,111,059 in total revenue for its general fund for 2019, had $1,094,782 in total 2020 revenue, and proposed $1,143,197 for 2021 total revenue.
As far as expenditures, in 2019 PAWSD had $1,088,605 in total expenditures, $1,115,160 in 2020, and $1,243,667 for the 2021 proposed budget.
Its beginning balance for 2020 was $983,500 and the end-of-year balance was $963,122.
The budget projects that the end-of-year balance for 2021 will be $862,652.
In terms of its water enterprise funds, PAWSD planned to spend $1,246,368 in 2020 on total water treatment and actually spent $1,201,778. The budget projects that in 2021 it will spend $1,212,748.
For total water distribution, PAWSD planned to spend $1,354,525 for 2020. It actually spent $946,928 in 2020 and plans to spend $1,178,166 in 2021.
The total water enterprise expenditures were expected to be $5,725,406 for 2020 and by the end of the year were actually $5,033,192.
The water enterprise budgetary fund balance for the beginning of 2020 was $6,285,577 and the budgetary fund balance for the end of 2020 was $7,497,054.
In regard to its wastewater enterprise fund, PAWSD budgeted for $918,856 in total wastewater collection in 2020, but ended up receiving $694,034 by the end of 2020. It projects to make $839,393 in wastewater collection for 2021.
It budgeted $802,080 in total wastewater treatment for 2020, but actually spent $763,109 for the year. In 2021, PAWSD expects to spend $953,140 in this area.
Total wastewater enterprise expenditures for 2020 were expected to be $2,636,374, but ended up being $2,324,183. It projects that expenditures for the waste- water enterprise in 2021 will be $2,874,099.
The budgetary fund balance for PAWSD’s wastewater enterprise at the beginning of 2020 was $3,110,691 and by the end of 2020 it was $3,461,858.
Six years after the application was filed, a judge has granted a water conservancy district in northwest Colorado a water right for a new dam-and-reservoir project that top state engineers had opposed.
Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District now has a 66,720 acre-foot conditional water right to build a dam and reservoir between Rangely and Meeker, known as the White River storage project or the Wolf Creek project. The conservancy district is proposing an off-channel reservoir with a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long, with water that will be pumped from the White River.
But the decree, while granting Rangely-based Rio Blanco the amount of storage it was seeking, doesn’t allow the district all the water uses that it initially wanted. The decree grants Rio Blanco a water right for municipal use for the town of Rangely; augmentation within its boundaries; mitigation of environmental impacts; hydroelectric power; and in-reservoir use for recreation, piscatorial and wildlife habitat. The conservancy district will not be able to use the water for irrigation, endangered fish or augmentation in the event of a compact call.
For more than five years, state engineers had argued that the project was speculative and that Rio Blanco couldn’t prove a need for the water. Engineers had asked the court to dismiss Rio Blanco’s entire application in what’s known as a motion for summary judgment. Division 6 Water Judge Michael O’Hara III agreed in part with state engineers and dismissed some of Rio Blanco’s requested water uses in an order filed Dec. 23. That left the fate of just three water uses to be determined at trial: Colorado River Compact augmentation, endangered fish and hydroelectric power.
After seeing his order, the parties asked O’Hara if they could postpone the trial, which was scheduled for Jan. 4, while they hammered out a settlement agreement. The final decree and a stipulation, filed Thursday night, cancel and replace O’Hara’s Dec. 23 order and let the parties avoid a trial.
“When you come to agreements, you are much more likely to live with those than having the judge force you to do things you didn’t really want to do,” O’Hara told the parties in a Dec. 31 conference call.
Both sides said they are happy with the terms of the decree. Conservancy district Manager Alden Vanden Brink said that after six years of working out issues, the decree brought a sense of elation and a sigh of relief to the community of Rangely. The district is very pleased with the final result, he said.
“Folks kept holding their breath,” Vanden Brink said. “And now we’ve got a step forward for drought resiliency.”
Settlement and stipulation
The main issue for state engineers, who were the sole remaining opposer in this case, was whether Rio Blanco could prove it needed the water. According to Colorado water law, new conditional water rights cannot be granted without a specific plan and intent to put the water to beneficial use. State engineers maintained that the conservancy district had not proven that water rights it already owned wouldn’t meet its demands.
But Rio Blanco said its existing water rights in their current locations were insufficient and that it needed a new reservoir on Wolf Creek to meet current and future needs. And district officials said they were wary of seeking to transfer these rights and uses to a new reservoir because that requires a water-court process whose outcome is not guaranteed; therefore they needed the new conditional storage right. Even if a water court approved the changes, Rio Blanco still said there was not enough storage in the White River basin to meet demands during a drought or for future uses.
State engineers and Rio Blanco disagreed about how much, if any, water Rio Blanco needed for Rangely, irrigation, endangered fish and other uses. Rio Blanco agreed to give up two of the three water uses left to be determined at trial: Colorado River Compact augmentation and endangered fish.
According to the decree, if Rio Blanco in the future is successful at moving any of their existing water rights to the Wolf Creek project, the same portion of water granted by the decree will be canceled, eliminating duplicate water rights in the reservoir.
A stipulation agreed to by both parties lays out further restrictions on the water use.
According to the stipulation, annual releases from the reservoir will be limited to 7,000 acre-feet for municipal and in-basin augmentation uses. Up to 20,720 acre-feet of water can be used for mitigation of the environmental impacts of building the project. But once the exact amount of water needed for future mitigation is determined, the difference between that amount and the 20,720 acre-feet will be canceled, reducing the total amount of water decreed.
State Engineer Kevin Rein said the final decree is a good outcome, reached in the spirit of cooperation. Even so, state engineers were never willing to compromise on giving Rio Blanco water for Colorado River Compact compliance.
“That’s something that we would have held fast on in trial and we held fast on discussing it with them,” Rein said. “It’s more a matter of something that does not legally occur right now with the state of Colorado water law.”
Rio Blanco had proposed that 11,887 acre-feet per year be stored as “augmentation,” or insurance, in case of a compact call. Releasing this replacement water stored in the reservoir to meet downstream compact obligations would allow other water uses in the district to continue and avoid the mandatory cutbacks in the event of a compact call.
Many water users in the White River basin, including the towns of Rangely and Meeker, have water rights that are junior to the 1922 interstate compact, meaning these users could bear the brunt of involuntary cutbacks. Augmentation water would protect them from that.
State engineers said augmentation use in a compact-call scenario is not a beneficial use under Colorado water law and is inherently speculative. This doesn’t seem to be a settled legal issue, and O’Hara said in his motion that he would not rule on whether compact augmentation was speculative.
“We believe the augmentation for compact compliance was very difficult to allow just due to the complexities of the Colorado River Compact and the Upper Colorado River compact, and it’s gratifying that Rio Blanco listened to us and we were able to get a final decree that didn’t include that component,” Rein said.
The water-right decree represents just the first step toward constructing the project, which will need approvals from federal agencies. Every six years, in what’s known as a diligence filing, Rio Blanco must show the water court that it is moving forward with the dam and reservoir in order to keep its water right. Fort Collins-based environmental group Save the Colorado has already said it will oppose the project.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Jan. 9 edition of The Aspen Times.
From Yale Climate Connections (Jan Ellen Spiegel):
The region is transitioning to a more arid climate, challenging longstanding practices of water-sharing in the basin.
Colorado is no stranger to drought. The current one is closing in on 20 years, and a rainy or snowy season here and there won’t change the trajectory.
This is what climate change has brought.
“Aridification” is what Bradley Udall formally calls the situation in the western U.S. But perhaps more accurately, he calls it hot drought – heat-induced lack of water due to climate change. That was the core of research released in 2017 by Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center, and Jonathan Overpeck at the University of Michigan.
Their revelation was that the heat from climate change was propelling drought. “Previous comparable droughts were caused by a lack of precipitation, not high temperatures,” the study said. And all the factors at play were having compounding effects on each other that made the situation even worse. Those impacts were being felt most acutely on the biggest water system in the West – the Colorado River Basin.
Without a dramatic and fast reversal in greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change, Udall and Overpeck said, the additional loss of flow in the basin could be more than 20% by mid-century and 35% at the century’s end – worse than currently assumed.
“I always say climate change is water change,” says Udall, whose father was Arizona congressman Morris (Mo) Udall, an iconic environmental activist. “It means too much water, not enough water, water at the wrong time. It means reduced water quality. You get all of these things together as the earth warms up.”
In Colorado it’s all pretty much coming true. The drought is the second worst 20-year period in the past 1,200 years, according to Udall. This summer/fall alone had some of the hottest spells on record and the worst wildfire season ever. On the other hand, 2013 brought catastrophic floods to the Front Range. “I got 17 inches of water in my house here in four days. It’s all part of the same change,” Udall says.
It’s forced Colorado to start facing the reality that its perpetual struggle for water can no longer be written off as cyclical weather that will all balance-out over short periods of time. It’s climate change at work, and it requires long-term planning and likely fundamental changes to the paradigm of how the state gets, uses, and preserves its water.
The state and individual municipalities are beginning to address their new reality with policies that range from the obvious – conservation, just using less water, to the more innovative – considering using beaver dams to restore mountain wetlands and generally remediating the landscape to better handle water.
But all those actions and more must face the political reality of the longstanding way water-sharing is handled in the basin. It pits state against state, rural against urban, agriculture against, well, everyone.
The Colorado River Compact
The Colorado River Basin provides water to a massive swath of the Rocky Mountain and western states. The Compact that rules it dates to 1922, with California, Nevada and Arizona – the lower basin states – essentially getting first dibs on water that flows from upper basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah – with secondary access to the water, so they generally absorb the brunt of water losses.
Colorado is a headwaters state – where the river flows down from the continental divide. It relies on whatever falls out of the sky: It does not have the luxury of access to whatever water may flow in farther downstream.
A process to re-evaluate aspects of the Compact is underway with a 2026 deadline. No one expects the basic structure to change, though other contingencies are likely to be layered on, as has happened a number of times in the intervening years.
River levels are off some 20% since the Compact was initiated, compounding the water crunch while the region’s population has grown dramatically, especially in Colorado. That combination of factors have many water experts and administrators convinced any new strategy has to do more than divvy-up the water differently.
That’s because it’s climate change and not cyclical weather causing the problems, Udall says emphatically: “Yup. Yup. Yup.” He notes that scientists already see impacts they hadn’t expected to see until 2050.
“I think some of the predictions about reduced flows in the Colorado River based on global warming are so dire it’s difficult to wrap your brain around them. We have no operating rules for that kind of reduction in supply,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources at the University of Colorado. “Even with these discussions that will be taking place over the next five years for the Colorado River system, I’m not sure that they will be able to get to an agreement about what would happen if flow is reduced by 50%.”
The critical climate change impacts seem to act in a loop: heat causes more evaporation of surface water. The resulting lower water level means water will warm more easily, and in turn evaporates more readily.
Global warming is also changing the dynamics of snowpacks. They melt faster and earlier and don’t regularly continue to slowly dissipate, creating a gradual runoff that is more beneficial and sustaining to the water supply. Udall notes that on April 1, 2020, there was 100% of normal snowpack above Lake Powell, which with Lake Mead are the two enormous reservoirs in the system. In a normal year that would provide 90-110% of runoff. But it provided only 52% in 2020 as a result of dry warm weather through fall.
Sustainable water supplies are also threatened as weather events occur more often as extremes: major rains in a short period of time sandwiched by extended dry periods. Torrential rains that follow a long drought may help the soil, but runoff may never make it to the water supply.
Wildfires, in recent years larger and longer, complicate matters by dumping ash and crud into water bodies, which results in less water and contamination that can render unusable what water there is. And if difficult climate conditions keep trees from growing back after fires, the resulting ecosystem changes could further damage water supplies.
Big ideas in place
“This is not your average variability,” says Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which covers most of the water used by the state. “Cooperative management of water resources can really help in these hot dry summers,” he says.
Mueller says the district tried releasing additional water from a reservoir that also creates hydropower. The extra water helps cool the river it flows into – slowing evaporation and allowing fishing and other activities often stopped when the water gets too warm and low to resume. That same water was also used for other hydropower plants downstream. Some then continued to other river areas. And some was diverted for crop irrigation, important given that farming and ranching are the biggest consumers of water in the state.
Basic conservation – just using less water – is always the first step, but even Colorado Water Conservation Board senior climate specialist Megan Holcomb admits: “We’re definitely beyond that conversation.”
The Board is considering systems that employ the technique of demand management: finding ways to use minimal water to allow for storage for dry years. So far, the thinking involves a voluntary program.
Already in place is an online tool called the Future Avoided Cost Explorer or FACE: Hazards. It helps quantify impacts of drought and wildfires on sectors of the Colorado economy.
“We know these hazards are going to continue to impact our economy, but we have no numbers to even say how much we should invest now so that we don’t have financial impacts in the future,” Holcomb says.
Castle talks about ideas such as consideration of water footprints on new developments and re-developments; integrating land use planning with water planning including things such as landscaping codes; and use of technology at various levels of water monitoring.
In search of more equitable sharing of water
She notes also a drought contingency plan adopted in 2019 by the Compact states calling for reductions in deliveries to the lower basin. It’s pointed in the right direction, she says. “At the same time pretty much everyone involved in those discussions and that agreement also agreed that it was not sufficient,” Castle says.
Many experts have called for more equitable sharing of water reductions. But ideas on what is fair differ from state-to-state and also among different groups within a region where some interests are pitted against agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the water usage in the basin.
“I think people look at that huge volume of water being used in irrigated agriculture as a place where there’s flexibility. And when you get to the politics of working through that in an equitable way, it gets really complicated,” says Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society.
The suggestions have included crop switching or alternative transfer mechanisms that call on farmers to periodically grow less water-intensive crops, or pay them not to grow, as a way to make water available for municipal use or storage.
“From a pure economic perspective, it may seem like you pay them and they’re whole,” Udall says. “There are actually a lot of things where they don’t get whole. They potentially lose a market that they’ve established over years and a great relationship with a buyer. And if that goes away for a year, that buyer may not come back.”
In the end, experts say people in the Southwest should definitely not count on more precipitation arriving to bail them out. “I would disabuse people of the idea that you’re going to get more water,” Udall says. “I think it’s pretty clear you’re going to have less water.” So for folks who think building more reservoirs is a solution, Udall says: “It’s not at all clear to me that that works.”
But less conventional strategies just might.
Beaver dams to the rescue?
Beaver dams are a water management technique that has worked in nature for eons – at least for beavers. Sometimes for people? Not so much.
But the thinking is they could help slow water loss from high-elevation wetlands. That includes the real deals built by beavers or human-constructed beaver dam alternatives.
“We think there’s a possible synergy there that helps to improve water supply for water users and helps to improve habitat conditions for species – birds in particular – that depend on that kind of wetlands being around,” Pitt says.
The goal would be to protect remaining ones, help establish new ones, and do the same for high-elevation meadows.
A lot of research is still needed, Pitt says. “There’s all kinds of instrumentation that has to go into place to understand the groundwater, the surface water, evaporation, the water balance, what it does to your river downstream,” she says. There are water law considerations. And then the inevitable pilot projects.
Overall, she says, this type of holistic approach to water through natural ecosystem restoration could become a component of water-sharing agreements as have already been done with Mexico. In exchange for getting river areas restored to better flow, Mexico agreed to a sharing agreement it might not otherwise have.
More people, less water, and a touch of Johnny Appleseed
More people and less water has forced Denver Water to work with uncertainties not previously considered. “Variability is the name of the game in Colorado,” says lead climate scientist Laurna Kaatz. “And that variability’s going to increase over time. That makes it incredibly challenging to continuously provide high-quality drinking water when you’re not sure what’s coming around the corner.”
The situation calls for adaptive capacity, she says, to provide technical and legal flexibility to adjust for changing circumstances.
Kaatz pointed to the One Water project that pairs water with usage. For instance, treated wastewater could be used to water a golf course, saving the purest water for drinking.
Another project is called From Forests to Faucets, which works on watersheds as natural infrastructure to optimize water flow. It has already proved successful at keeping a wildfire in 2018 from encroaching on a reservoir. In April, Denver Water plans to expand its Airborne Snow Observatory, which uses technology developed by NASA to track snow availability, but now it can be deployed above an altitude of 8,000 feet.
Together the efforts seem to be working – since the 2002 drought, Denver Water has maintained a 22% per-person reduction in water usage from pre-drought levels.
Steamboat Springs is opting for tree-planting. The idea is that trees will help cool down the Yampa River, which is part of the Colorado River Basin. Hot, dry seasons had been pushing stream temperatures so high that part of the river wound up on EPA’s impaired waterbody list.
“That was a call to action,” says Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs’ water resources manager.
The timing also dovetailed with the 2015 release of a Colorado Water Plan that included goals for stream management. Steamboat Springs did a streamflow management plan – released in 2018. In it was the idea of shading the Yampa.
“What we learned was that flow alone cannot overcome the thermal load for the solar radiation, as strength of that radiation increases over time,” she says. “The more that we can prepare the river for that, the better it will buffer against the impacts of climate change.”
They joined forces with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council’s ReTree program that began in 2010 as a reforestation effort to counteract trees killed by pine beetle infestations. It morphed into a three-year Yampa River restoration.
“That work also increases resilience to future changes,” says Michelle Stewart, the council’s executive director. “We’re really learning the important role soil moisture plays in resilience.”
ReTree planted 200 narrow leaf cottonwoods in 2019 and another 350 this past October. This coming October, its plans are for 450 cottonwoods and 150 mountain alders. All were raised at the Colorado State Forest Nursery from Yampa Valley clippings. “We’re using local trees that are already kind of adapting to big swings in temperature and probably have a little bit more of that hardiness that we need and drought readiness,” she says.
It’s too early to know how the shading is working but there are plans for citizen help to monitor that and to implement a soil moisture monitoring network in the Yampa Basin.
“This is a Johnny Appleseed project,” says Romero-Heaney. “We plant today and hopefully my children will get to enjoy it.”
“The Unfinished Fight of Seldom Seen Sleight” will be screened for free online Tuesday.
San Juan County: When river runner, wilderness guide and legendary environmental provocateur Ken Sleight tells his life story, he likes to start at the beginning.
“I’m a farm boy from Paris,” he often says. “Paris, Idaho.”
Sleight grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but when he uses words like “temples,” “paradise” or “heaven” now, at the age of 91, it refers to an earthly fold of the Colorado Plateau, a place he first visited in 1955, named Glen Canyon.
As one of the few commercial outfitters to guide rafts through Glen Canyon prior to its submersion under Lake Powell in the 1960s, Sleight remains haunted by the lost beauty of a place that few non-native Americans experienced as a flowing river.
“I don’t understand human thinking — to destroy temples, cathedrals,” Sleight says in the opening sequence of a new film by Sageland Media, “The Unfinished Fight of Seldom Seen Sleight.”
“Would they flood the Sistine Chapel, flood the Mormon temple?” he continues. “Would the people accept that? Then you say, ‘What could I have done?’ We could have stopped it today. We couldn’t then.”
Sleight was immortalized in “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” Edward Abbey’s 1975 classic novel of environmental sabotage, as the polygamist “Jack Mormon” character named Seldom Seen Smith. It’s an association that Sleight, who remained friends with Abbey until his death in 1989, has never been able to fully shake, and one that often becomes the focus of interviews, including in the new 45-minute documentary that premiered at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival last year and is being screened online Tuesday by the Utah Film Center.
“It helped me become an environmentalist for sure,” Sleight said of his friendship with Abbey and the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. True to form, Sleight interrupted the phone call to share the admiration for the wild turkeys standing on his porch in northern San Juan County.
“Three of them flew up on the railing,” he laughed with obvious joy in his voice. “Beautiful birds.”
Chris Simon, the Utah-based filmmaker who directed the documentary, said Sleight’s love of the natural world also shaped Abbey’s views. “There was a lot of mutual influence” between the two friends, she said…
“He’s one of the classic Utah characters,” Simon said. “He’s touched so many lives. … To me, the number one thing that Ken Sleight has done is inspire people to stand up for whatever land they personally love.”
Standing up has taken on different forms for Sleight over the decades, including after he moved with his wife, Jane, in 1986 to Pack Creek south of Moab, where they ran a backcountry outfitting and guide service.
He fought in the successful campaign to block a nuclear waste dump from being established near Canyonlands National Park in the 1980s, and around that same time protested the construction of the White Mesa uranium mill, which continues to operate and remains a focus of environmental debate in southeast Utah.
Sleight later served as chair of the San Juan County Democrats where he worked with Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute colleagues to expand Native American voting rights, including through a campaign to run a Native American candidate for every open county position one year…
“We were trying to show the county that Native Americans had never had complete representation,” Sleight said. “Mark Maryboy was the only one able to get [into office], but that was the start of a lot of good stuff.”
Sleight said he was happy to see those efforts finally come to fruition with the election of the county’s first majority-Native American Commission in 2018 following a long voting rights lawsuit brought by the Navajo Nation. “[The new commission] has done a great job,” he said.
Perhaps Sleight’s most famous action from that time period came when he rode his horse in front of a bulldozer that was chaining old-growth pinyon-juniper forest on Bureau of Land Management land to clear pasture land near his home in the early ’90s.
“He’s one of the last of … a Western outlaw breed of environmental hero,” Sand Sheff, former wrangler for Ken Sleight Expeditions, says in the film.
The documentary features numerous interviews, including with John Weisheit, a river guide who was inspired by Sleight to found the advocacy organization Living Rivers; Ken Sanders of Ken Sanders Rare Books; and Tim DeChristopher, who, as a University of Utah student in 2008, protested an oil and gas lease sale in southeast Utah by bidding on parcels of Bureau of Land Management land. He spent two years in prison for the action…
“The Unfinished Fight of Seldom Seen Sleight’’ will be screened for free at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 12, by the Utah Film Center. Doug Fabrizio of KUER’s Radio West will moderate a question-and-answer session after the screening featuring filmmakers and others. The film will only be available for viewers who tune in during the livestream event. Visit http://utahfilmcenter.org for more information and to pre-order the livestream.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.
The Colorado River begins to back up behind Glen Canyon Dam during construction
“The Unfinished Fight of Seldom Seen Sleight’’ will be screened for free at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 12, by the Utah Film Center. Doug Fabrizio of KUER’s Radio West will moderate a question-and-answer session after the screening featuring filmmakers and others. The film will only be available for viewers who tune in during the livestream event. Visit utahfilmcenter.org for more information and to pre-order the livestream. Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here. By Ken Bertossi – Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection GRCA 117031, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86669734
[Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District], Colorado State and Division 6 Engineers agree on water right for the Reservoir
A little over two weeks after Division 6 Water Judge Michael O’Hara III dismissed several water uses, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the Colorado Division of Water Resources reached an agreement on a conditional water right decree for Wolf Creek Reservoir, Jan. 7.
That settlement led to a decree for the storage right in Wolf Creek Reservoir that was signed by the Division 6 Water Judge, Michael O’Hara III on January 7. As part of his rulings, Judge O’Hara vacated his December 23, 2020 order on summary judgment motions.
The decree will give the District the right to store 66,720 acre-feet of water in a new reservoir that will be constructed in Rio Blanco County near the White River and Wolf Creek confluence, approximately 15 miles upstream of the District’s Kenney Reservoir and 17 miles northeast of Rangely, according to the agreement.
The preferred reservoir site is off-channel on the normally dry Wolf Creek, with water to be delivered to the reservoir from a proposed pump station on the nearby White River.
Decreed uses for water stored in the new reservoir will include municipal water for the Town of Rangely and replacement water that can be released to offset future water uses within the District boundaries and within the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District (YJWCD), the conservancy said in a press release…
The District says it continues to work with the Upper Colorado River Recovery Program, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Nature Conservancy, the State of Utah, and the Ute Indian Tribe to determine the water needs for the recovery of endangered fish as part of the White River Management Plan…
The new reservoir will allow a small portion of the White River runoff water volume to be stored in the reservoir each year. This water will then be released from storage to offset reduced river flows during periods of droughts, meet the needs of the District’s constituents, and to help offset the effects of climate change on future river diversions.
The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District includes about 1,300 square miles of land in western Rio Blanco County. The District is responsible for protecting and conserving water within its boundaries.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A legal settlement this week has allowed the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District to clear a major early hurdle in its attempt to build a large reservoir 17 miles northeast of Rangely.
The agreement reached between the district and state Division of Water Resources averted a trial that was scheduled for this week and led to a decree that was signed by Division 6 Water Judge Michael O’Hara III on Thursday. It gives the district the right to store 66,720 acre-feet of water in a reservoir that would be constructed in Rio Blanco County near the White River and Wolf Creek confluence, approximately 15 miles upstream of the district’s Kenney Reservoir.
The district’s preferred reservoir site would be on Wolf Creek, with water to be delivered to the reservoir from a proposed pump station on White River.
The proposal still faces major challenges, from federal permitting, to financing, to challenges from environmentalists. But water attorney Alan Curtis, who has been representing the district on the project, said getting the water right is necessary before federal regulatory agencies will consider approving a reservoir proposal…
Decreed uses for water stored in the reservoir include municipal water for the town of Rangely, and replacement water that can be released to offset future water uses within the district boundaries and within the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District, which includes portions of eastern Rio Blanco County, Moffat County and the town of Meeker. Use of the water also is allowed to mitigate environmental impacts associated with the reservoir, and for hydroelectric power generation. In-reservoir use is allowed for recreation, fisheries and wildlife habitat.
Under the settlement, the Rio Blanco district dropped its proposal for some of the water to be used to benefit endangered fish in rivers. Kevin Rein, state engineer for the Division of Water Resources, said the state was concerned with preventing water speculation, which is prohibited in Colorado. To get a water right appropriated requires having a good, nonspeculative plan to put the water to beneficial use, he said. He said the district proposal lacked things such as a formal agreement with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program or a specified amount of water that would be involved.
The water district also had proposed to store water so in-basin diversions could continue should local water have to be released to downstream states if Upper Colorado River states including Colorado ever fall out of compliance with water delivery obligations under an interstate compact. The district dropped that proposal under the settlement.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has denied local groups’ request for a public hearing in the case of a marble quarry that violated the Clean Water Act.
In a Dec. 28 letter to Pitkin County and others, Benjamin Wilson, project manager for the Army Corps’ Colorado West Section, said the agency does not intend to conduct a hearing or public meeting.
“We do not believe there would be a valid interest served or that we would receive any substantial new information we would not otherwise obtain through the public notice comment and review process we are currently engaged in,” the letter reads.
In separate comments submitted to the Army Corps, Pitkin and Gunnison counties, the Crystal River Caucus, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) had asked for monitoring, restoration, mitigation and a chance for the public to weigh in about the situation at the Pride of America Mine, which sits above the town of Marble.
“We are definitely not going to accept this,” said John Armstrong, director of CVEPA. “To not even offer to hear what the public has to say in a public hearing is kind of shocking to me.”
In the fall of 2018, mine operator Colorado Stone Quarries (CSQ) diverted a roughly 1,500-foot section of Yule Creek from its natural channel on the west side of Franklin Ridge, a rock outcropping, to the east side of the ridge so that it could build a road. Operators piled the streambed with 97,000 cubic yards of fill material, including marble blocks.
In March, the Army Corps determined that these actions, which were done without the proper permit, violated the Clean Water Act. CSQ is now retroactively applying for that permit, known as a 404 individual permit. Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, a project requires a permit from the Army Corps if it includes the discharge of dredged or fill materials into waters such as rivers, streams and wetlands.
In its permit application, CSQ proposed making the creek relocation permanent by leaving it where it is on the east side of the ridge. The company says this is the most efficient and environmentally sound option, and it results in the closest return to pre-diversion stream conditions.
Wilson said the Army Corps received more than a dozen comments, which have been forwarded to the mining company, along with additional questions from the Army Corps. Wilson said mining company officials must address these comments and propose a plan to mitigate the damage caused by the creek relocation. The deadline for the quarry to respond is Jan. 23, but Wilson said it will probably take the company longer than that to come up with a mitigation plan.
“We are working towards figuring out which alternative is indeed the least environmentally damaging,” Wilson said in an interview with Aspen Journalism. “I think it’s understood that no matter what alternative we choose to go forward with, additional mitigation will be required.”
Pitkin County wants the mining company to restore the riparian habitat, conduct water-quality monitoring at multiple sites in the basin and compensate for any damage by doing restoration projects in other areas. County representatives identified eight projects that could provide compensatory mitigation in the Crystal River basin, including restoration of Filoha Meadows streambanks, Thompson Creek riparian restoration and Crystal River streambank stabilization.
Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop agrees. The conservation organization is also getting involved in the issue, signing on to the comments provided by CVEPA.
“It is a shocking issue,” said Peter Hart, conservation analyst and staff attorney for Wilderness Workshop. “Obviously, the damage is done, but I think that we’d like to see fines for violations imposed and see those funds actually utilized for restoration projects in the Crystal River valley.”
CSQ senior consultant Katie Todt, who is with Lewicki & Associates, said the company is evaluating potential mitigation options, including improvements to the current stream channel within the quarry’s permit area, which should stabilize the creek bank and promote vegetation growth. The company will more fully set out mitigation options in its expected Jan. 22 response to the Army Corps.
Wilson said that even though there won’t be another opportunity for the public to formally provide comments, the Army Corps is still obligated to consider any new information that comes to light.
Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Laura Makar said it was disappointing that the Army Corps decided not to hold a public hearing, especially since this is an atypical, retroactive permit application, submitted after the work needing a permit was already complete. There was significant information that could have been shared in a public hearing, she said.
“It would have been a good opportunity to ensure the record was complete,” Makar said.
This story ran in the Jan. 8 edition of The Aspen Times.
The U.S. Forest Service said it is just weeks away from deciding whether a high-profile request to explore the geological feasibility of a new reservoir site in Colorado’s Eagle County that would capture water flowing from the iconic Holy Cross Wilderness should be granted.
The request comes from Aurora and Colorado Springs, among others, who want to be able to capture more of the water flowing from the wilderness area to meet their own growing needs.
David Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said a decision is expected “early this year.”
Proponents had hoped for a decision late last summer, but Boyd said the delay wasn’t unusual and was triggered in part by last summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire.
Aurora and Colorado Springs, which own and operate the only reservoir in the area, Homestake I, hope to demonstrate that they can divert more water and build another reservoir to serve Front Range and West Slope interests without damaging the delicate wetlands and streams in the mountain forests there.
But in advance of any request to build an actual reservoir, they have asked the Forest Service for a special use permit to survey the area and to bore several test holes to determine soil conditions and areas best suited to build the proposed Whitney Reservoir.
If a reservoir were to be built, it would also require that the 122,000-acre-plus wilderness area shrink by 500 acres, an action that will require congressional approval.
Significant opposition to the exploratory permit erupted almost as soon as the proposal became public last year. The U.S. Forest Service received more than 500 comments on the proposal last summer. The majority of those were opposed to it, citing the need to protect the wilderness and the need to preserve as much of the region’s water as possible. The Eagle River, a part of the Colorado River system, is fed in large part by the Holy Cross watershed.
Warren Hern, a co-founder of the Defenders of the Holy Cross Wilderness, said the plan would do irrevocable damage to the rare bogs and wildflowers that populate the area.
He also noted that the proposed reservoir site lies along a major fault line.
“We will do everything in our power to stop this,” Hern said.
Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora Water, said his agency is well aware of the special relationship thousands of Coloradans have with the Holy Cross and its spectacular wetlands and hiking trails.
Baker declined to comment for this article, saying the agency would wait until the Forest Service issues a decision.
But in a recent interview, Baker said the cities had little choice but to pursue additional water supplies to meet growing demand.
“Water is a rare commodity and it needs to be used very carefully,” Baker said.
He also said any environmental damage that might occur could be successfully mitigated.
“What you do is wetlands rehabilitation, where you develop wetlands in other areas on a two- or three-to-one basis so you’re restoring additional wetlands for those you may lose,” Baker said.
The new proposal comes under a 1998 agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, which allows the reservoir proponents to develop enough water to serve environmental, municipal and industrial interests.
Parties to the 1998 agreement include Aurora, Colorado Springs, the Colorado River District, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority.
Located west of Vail between Minturn and Leadville, the Holy Cross Wilderness Area was the subject of a significant battle in the 1980s when Aurora and Colorado Springs sought to build a second major reservoir there known as Homestake II.
After the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Homestake II was defeated in 1994.
In exchange, however, the cities were granted permission to develop a smaller amount of water in the future in partnership with Western Slope interests, resulting in the permit request now being considered by the Forest Service.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Vail Associates as a participant in the Whitney Reservoir proposal.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
This map shows the location of test holes Homestake Partners plans to drill as part of its geotechnical investigation into the feasibility of a dam site in the Homestake Creek valley. The Forest Service has received more than 500 comments, most of them in opposition to, the drilling and the overall reservoir project. Credit: USFS via Aspen Journalism
These wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley are near the site of the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The Forest Service is considering whether to issue a permit for drilling and a geotechnical study to test whether the site would support a dam. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
A map from Colorado Springs Utilities that shows how tunnels could bring water to Whitney Reservoir from Fall and Peterson creeks, and from the Eagle River. The map also shows the route of a pipeline to pump water from Whitney Reservoir to Homestake Reservoir.
A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A map prepared by Aurora Water that shows a potential 500-acre adjustment to the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the potential Whitney Reservoir on lower Homestake Creek. The map as current as of July 16, 2019.
Homestake Reservoir, which is partially in Pitkin County, but mainly in Eagle County. Below the reservoir the Homestake Creek valley is visible, as well as short section of what’s known as Homestake Road. Water held in the potential Whitney Reservoir would be pumped up to Homestake Reservoir and then sent to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The dam in the Eagle River headwaters that forms Homestake Reservoir, which diverts water to the Front Range. If the wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley contain ancient peat bogs called fens, it could hinder the progress of the Whitney Reservoir project. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journailsm
The water treatment plant, however, is located on a site known as Gladstone, about 8 miles north of Silverton up County Road 110, owned by the same person who owns the Gold King Mine, Todd Hennis.
Hennis, an entrepreneur based in Golden, has long had an interest in the mines that dot the San Juan Mountains around Silverton, and over the years, has been buying up old mine sites with the hopes of revamping the industry…
After the spill, Hennis agreed to let the EPA use the Gladstone property for a temporary water treatment plant, albeit somewhat begrudgingly.
“When the Gold King event happened, I gave the keys to (the EPA) for Gladstone, and said ‘Go ahead, use anything, just return it after you’re done,’” Hennis said in October 2015. “That rapidly changed into having the hell torn out of my land.”
The water treatment plant continues to operate to this day, and is seen by some invested in the cleanup of mines around Silverton as a possible long-term solution to improving water quality in the Animas River.
Since 2015, the EPA has operated on the Gladstone property through a “general access order,” though the agency has not paid Hennis for use of the land, said EPA spokeswoman Katherine Jenkins.
The EPA has, however, worked for years to come to a long-term lease agreement with Hennis that would include payments for use of the land based on fair market value, but those efforts have not been successful.
“Mr. Hennis has declined EPA’s multiple requests for long-term access and has rejected a long-term lease agreement for EPA’s use of the Gladstone property,” Jenkins said.
Because, in part, of the resources and staff time required to send Hennis monthly general access orders, the EPA on Jan. 6 sent him an “administrative order” that requires him to give the EPA full access to the Gladstone property.
An administrative order, according to the EPA website, is an enforcement tool under the Superfund program.
“We want to have consistent access to the water treatment plant so we can maintain and provide water treatment, that’s the reasoning,” Jenkins said.
When contacted, Hennis said, “I cannot comment on this development, other than to say the EPA currently has access to the site.”
Indeed, Jenkins said that while Hennis has refused to come to a long-term lease agreement, he has not blocked access to the site.
The long-term future of the water treatment plant is an issue high atop the list of priorities in the Superfund around Silverton, known as the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
Some local officials and members of the public have called to expand the operating capacity of the plant to take in discharges from other mines around Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.
But questions have loomed about this prospect, namely who would be financially on the hook to operate the plant in perpetuity.
But for Hennis, all this is a moot point. He’s still adamant that there are plenty of metals, like gold and tellurium, to be mined in the mountains around Silverton.
“Some of you have government pensions to rely on when you retire,” Hennis said at a public meeting in October 2015. “My retirement is Gladstone. Sitting here, listening to people say Gladstone would make a perfect site for a remediation laboratory, having my land cavalierly dealt with, is not a happy feeling.
“I know you wouldn’t want your backyard or your retirement stolen from you,” he continued. “This is not going to happen. I’ve tried to be very reasonable.”
The EPA’s Jenkins said the administrative order would terminate if a lease agreement is signed or if access to the property is no longer needed by the EPA to conduct response activities at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
Following more than a year of back-and-forth with state regulators, the Leadville Sanitation District has been issued a new wastewater discharge permit that will allow for the same amount of mercury to be present in treated water released into California Gulch.
The new permit, issued by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE), came after outside evaluations and public comments to the state agency called attention to Leadville Sanitation District’s (LSD) inability to meet proposed lower mercury limits without substantial upgrades.
The previous permit limited acceptable mercury levels in treated water to 0.077 micrograms per liter. Though CDPHE was going to require a lower limit of 0.044 micrograms per liter in the new permit, the limit will remain the same under the recently implemented five-year discharge permit.
While the new permit maintains the same limits for mercury levels, it requires the sanitation district to monitor for a number of contaminants not previously recorded, including uranium and radium, among others.
The permit, citing a 1989 report regarding the release of gasoline from underground storage tanks, also calls for new monitoring of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene given the potential for groundwater contamination from the Tabor Grand Hotel service site.
The permit went into effect on Jan. 1, and requires regular reporting of contaminant levels to CDPHE.
LSD has had issues meeting the 0.077 microgram-per-liter mercury limit in the past. The district was found to be out of compliance with state-determined mercury limits in 2017, prompting evaluations of the district’s collection system.
As the organization responsible for receiving, treating and releasing all of Lake County’s wastewater, LSD has since been evaluating the sources of entry for contaminants into the county’s wastewater system.
While the district has not been able to pinpoint the exact entry point for mercury and other contaminants, evaluations of the district’s aging collection system, made up of pipes and drains throughout Leadville, suggest that the intake system has leaks which may allow for contaminant infiltration and leakage.
After recording a lower-than-expected amount of incoming sewage based on the number of residences and businesses served in the sanitation district, CDPHE is requiring LSD address the issue under the new permit. In its explanation of the new requirement, CDPHE says the low input may be a result of sewage leaking from the collection system before reaching the treatment facility.
The new permit requires LSD to meet acceptable mercury limits stipulated in the 2021 permit by September 2023. The district is required to submit a report that identifies sources of cadmium, zinc, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene by Sept. 30 of this year.
Sustaining Lake Mead for the benefit of downstream water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin has been a key objective of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. (Source: Lighthawk via The Water Desk)
The “bathtub ring” at Lake Powell evidences lower flows coming into the reservoir. According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the total inflow into Lake Powell for the 2020 water year was about 6 million acre-feet, just 55% of average. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
FromS&P Global Market Intelligence (Richard Martin):
In an era of perennial [aridification], when the future of the Colorado River watershed, the lifeline of the U.S. Southwest, is the subject of fierce debate in state capitols across the region, the idea of bringing more than 26 billion gallons of water a year to a community of fewer than 200,000 people on the edge of the Mojave Desert strikes many as folly. To officials in Washington County, of which St. George is the county seat, though, it is a critical resource for the future.
Currently the county has one primary source of water, the Virgin River, said Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, and more will be needed in the coming decades.
“They only have one water source, and they have potential vulnerabilities with the Virgin River,” Adams said in a recent interview. “They need a second reliable source.”
What’s more, St. George, a bedroom community about 120 miles from Las Vegas with more than a dozen golf courses, lavish resorts and a high percentage of retirees, is expected to continue to grow rapidly through mid-century. To serve all those new arrivals, and all those fairways, more water will have to be imported, say local and state officials.
“Based on the population growth projections for Washington County through 2060, it’s expected to triple in size to over 500,000,” said Adams. “And with that growth, additional water sources will be needed.”
The problem is that taking water from one part of the Colorado River watershed diminishes the water available for other parts. And long before St. George reaches its ultimate population level, there may not be enough to go around…
Approved by the Utah state legislature in 2006, the Lake Powell Pipeline has become one of what opponents and environmentalists have dubbed “zombie water projects”: proposals for diversion and transportation in the Colorado River watershed that face significant opposition and may never get built, but that refuse to die.
The pipeline was originally pitched as a source of water and power generation. The initial plan called for a large hydropower generating station along the route and a reservoir for pumped energy storage, but those elements were scrapped to reduce the environmental impact of the overall system, according to Karry Rathje, a spokesperson for the Washington County Water Conservation District. The line will still include six smaller inline hydropower facilities, to manage the water pressure and to reduce the electricity load from the pipeline on the regional grid. Those stations will total 85,000 MWh of generation annually, at full capacity; the full project will consume around 317,500 MWh, making it a net consumer of 232,500 MWh a year.
Reducing the amount of water in Lake Powell, though, could affect electricity production at the two major downstream hydro stations on the Colorado, at Glen Canyon Dam below Lake Powell, built in 1964, with 1,312 MW of generation capacity, and the two plants at Hoover Dam, built in 1936, with a combined capacity 2,078 MW, below Lake Mead. Both dams have become symbols of the 20th-century conquest of the Southwest and of the human depredation of the Colorado River ecosystem. Glen Canyon, in particular, was controversial from its conception; environmentalists today loudly demand its removal…
Together, the two dams produce enough electricity to feed roughly 630,000 homes across the region. Because hydropower generation is dependent on the volume of water stored in the reservoirs, as the levels of lakes Mead and Powell fall, electricity production will follow. Lake Powell has been below its average annual elevation every year in this century, according to data collected by Western Resource Advocates; in 2018 the difference was more than 30 feet.
Electricity production from all three facilities has fallen slightly in recent years, and water experts believe the future could be far worse.
“Higher temperatures and altered precipitation patterns” — i.e., the effect of global climate change — are expected to reduce streamflows in the basin by up to 11% by 2075, according to a 2013 white paper by Aaron Thiel of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Water Policy. “These factors, combined with increased summer evaporation rates, could reduce reservoir storage by as much 10-13 percent, and ultimately reduce electricity generation by 16-19 percent in the Colorado River Basin.”
Reduced electricity from hydropower could be only one of the obstacles facing big water-diversion projects like the LPP, as policymakers face the new drier, hotter era in the Southwest.
Governed by a complex web of agreements and water rights stemming from the Colorado River Compact of 1922, water use in the basin has long outstripped the actual water available. As the climate warms that gap is sure to expand.
A 2017 paper in the journal Water Resources Research, by Bradley Udall of Colorado State University and Jonathan Overpeck of the Colorado River Research Group, found that “As temperatures increase in the 21st century due to continued human emissions of greenhouse gasses, additional temperature‐induced flow losses [in the Colorado River] will occur.” Those losses could exceed 20% below the 20th-century average flow by mid‐century and 35% by 2100.
And they could be devastating to the region’s economy. According to a 2014 study that was produced by Arizona State University’s Seidman Research Institute and commissioned by Business for Water Stewardship, a non-profit organization, the Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs across the seven states of the basin. Water from the river is essential to at least half the gross economic product in each of those states, including 65% in New Mexico and 87% in Nevada, the economists found. A drop in available water of only 10% would endanger some $143 billion in economic activity in a year.
Businesses everywhere are increasingly vulnerable to the risks presented by inadequate supplies of clean water. The 2019 Global Water Report produced by CDP, a nonprofit organization focused on the environmental impacts of companies, investors and governments, found that, worldwide, the total business value at risk due to water shortages and water pollution reached $425 billion. In the U.S. Southwest, that risk grows more acute with each year of persistent drought…
Despite being identified in a June 2020 executive order from the Trump administration as among the infrastructure projects that should be pushed quickly through the environmental review process, the LPP has sparked near-universal opposition from the other six states of the basin. That opposition crescendoed in September with a letter to the Secretary of the Interior from a coalition of state water agencies and governors’ offices in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming demanding that the project be paused or abandoned…
In southern Utah that debate is complicated by a range of factors with origins in the economics and politics of water in the West.
People in Washington County use around 300 gallons of water per capita per day, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Geological Survey, more than twice the national average and 90 gallons more per capita than residents of Las Vegas, a city of nearly 650,000. And they get their water cheaply: water rates in the county average around $1.50 per 1,000 gallons, less than half of what Las Vegans pay and way below the $5/1,000 gal. that Denverites pay.
Zach Renstrom, the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservation District, disputes those numbers, saying that the state of Utah includes evaporation from reservoirs and re-used water in its water-use calculations…
Still, simple economics indicate that if people in southwest Utah paid more for their water, they would use less.
“Water use in Utah is subsidized, mostly by property taxes,” said Gabriel Lozada, an associate professor of economics at the University of Utah who has extensively modeled the Lake Powell Pipeline project. “So people in urban areas don’t see what the right price of water is. Unsurprisingly, Utah urban dwellers use a lot more water. The price of water we face is way way too low.”
And Washington County residents will eventually have to pay for the new pipeline, after the state fronts the construction costs. That, says Lozada, in turn would raise water rates — thus obviating the need for the pipeline as residents use less water. The possibility of rising prices leading to more conservation, and thus less demand, has not factored, at least publicly, into the developers’ considerations.
“In many scenarios it’s possible for Washington County to raise rates enough to pay back the cost of the pipeline,” said Lozada, “but they’d be so high that demand for water would be so low that no one would want to buy the water in the pipeline.”
Renstrom claims that Lozada and other opponents have an underlying agenda…
The argument over the Lake Powell Pipeline is a proxy for a larger debate about the future of the economy and society in the West, between competing visions of unlimited growth and boundless prosperity, on the one hand, and a new era of scarcity, conservation and more modest expectations on the other.
The biggest consumer of water in the Southwest, by far, is not cities like St. George but big agriculture. Since the early 20th century farmers have been growing water-intensive crops like alfalfa and cotton in the desert, using groundwater and Colorado River water. That era could be coming to a close. As the region urbanizes, converting farmland to towns, average water use goes down. Even a golf course uses less water than an alfalfa farm. A 2015 report on Utah’s future water resources and needs by the state’s Legislative Audit Division found that the Utah Division of Water Resources “understates the growth in the water supply when estimating Utah’s future water needs.”
“The division has not attempted to identify the incremental growth in supply that will occur as municipalities develop additional sources of water,” the auditors wrote. “That additional supply will mainly come from agriculture water that is converted to municipal use as farmland is developed.”
At the same time, municipal water districts in the West, such as Las Vegas, are actually using less water per capita as their populations grow…
“The widespread presumption that population growth means growing water demand drives much of the politics of water planning in the Colorado River Basin,” write Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservancy District, and John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, in their 2019 history of Colorado River management, Science Be Dammed. “But it is wrong. Simply put, we are consistently using less water. In almost all the municipal areas served with Colorado River water, water use is going down, not up, despite population growth.”
That means the fundamental presumption at the heart of the Lake Powell Pipeline — that in order to grow, Washington County needs more water from the river — is likewise flawed. And it offers hope that as the climate warms and the region dries, it’s possible to forge a new relationship between the Colorado River and the communities that depend on it.
“We have been getting it wrong for a century,” write Kuhn and Fleck. Time to get it right is growing short.
A water court judge has agreed with state engineers and dismissed several of a water conservancy district’s claims for water for a dam and reservoir project in northwest Colorado.
Division 6 Water Judge Michael A. O’Hara III, in a Dec. 23 order, determined that Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has not provided enough evidence that its current existing water rights won’t meet demands in the categories of municipal, irrigation, domestic, in-reservoir piscatorial, commercial and augmentation for Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District.
The Rangely-based conservancy district is seeking a conditional water-storage right to build an off-channel reservoir using water from the White River to be stored in the Wolf Creek drainage, behind a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long. It would involve pumping water uphill from the river into the reservoir.
Rio Blanco initially applied for a 90,000 acre-foot water-storage right but later reduced that claim to 66,720 acre-feet for the off-channel reservoir, which would be located between Rangely and Meeker.
According to Colorado water law, new conditional water rights cannot be granted without a specific plan and intent to put the water to beneficial use. For more than five years, top state water engineers have repeatedly said the project is speculative because Rio Blanco has not proven a need for water above its current supply.
State engineers asked the court to dismiss Rio Blanco’s entire application in what’s known as a motion for summary judgment. The court agreed to dismiss only some of Rio Blanco’s requested water uses.
“The applicant has failed to demonstrate that its existing water rights for municipal, irrigation, domestic, in-reservoir piscatorial, and commercial uses are insufficient to meet its needs and are therefore dismissed,” O’Hara wrote in his order.
The town of Rangely’s water needs and whether water was needed for irrigation were two main topics of questions from state engineers in hundreds of pages of depositions in the case.
O’Hara’s order said there are three water-use claims left to resolve at trial: whether Rio Blanco can get a water right for augmentation in the event of Colorado River Compact curtailment, water for endangered species and water for hydroelectric power.
The trial is scheduled to begin Monday, but the parties could still reach a settlement agreement before then.
“We are involved in productive settlement discussions with the engineers and both sides hope that produces a settlement rather than a trial,” said Alan E. Curtis, an attorney for Rio Blanco.
Even if the parties reach a settlement, the judge will still have to approve the final water-right decree. Curtis said parties often reach settlements at the last minute, sometimes even after a trial has begun.
If the case goes to trial next week, a main point of contention will be whether Colorado River Compact compliance is a valid beneficial use of water stored in the White River project. Rio Blanco is proposing that 11,887 acre-feet per year be stored as “augmentation,” or insurance, in case of a compact call. Releasing this replacement water stored in the proposed reservoir to meet these compact obligations would allow other water uses in the district to continue and avoid the mandatory cutbacks in the event of a compact call.
According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper-basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet a year to Lake Powell for use by the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). If the upper basin doesn’t make this delivery, the lower basin can “call” for its water, triggering involuntary cutbacks in water use for the upper basin.
Water managers are especially worried that those with junior water rights, meaning those later than 1922, will be the first to be curtailed. Many water users in the White River basin, including the towns of Rangely and Meeker, have water rights that are junior to the compact, meaning these users could bear the brunt of involuntary cutbacks in the event of a compact call. Augmentation water would protect them from that.
State engineers argue that augmentation use in the event of a compact call is not a beneficial use under Colorado water law and is inherently speculative. But O’Hara disagreed, saying there is sufficient legal authority for Rio Blanco to develop an augmentation plan for a compact call.
“While it is tempting for the court (to) rule, as a matter of law, that the requested augmentation use is speculative because it is based on an event that may or may not occur, it chooses not to do so here,” O’Hara’s motion reads.
Endangered fish water
Rio Blanco says it needs 60,555 acre-feet of water per year for maintenance and recovery of federally listed and endangered fish. Releases from the proposed reservoir could benefit endangered fish downstream, including the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.
But the gauge used to measure these flows — the Watson gauge — is located downstream in Utah. State engineers say this violates Colorado’s law regarding exporting water across state lines. Rio Blanco says the water will benefit fish in the White River within Colorado and that they use the Watson gauge because there isn’t one between Taylor Draw dam in Rangely and the state line. Where exactly the fish will benefit from reservoir releases is a matter to be hashed out at trial.
“The court finds that the location of beneficial use is a material fact in dispute,” O’Hara’s order reads. “The expert reports conflict and the characterization of how and where water is to be used vary.”
Another point the parties can’t agree on is how much water from the proposed reservoir would be used by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. The program has not committed to a specific amount of water.
A May 2019 letter from program director Tom Chart says the recovery program “does not know whether, or how much, allocated storage in the project or other White River basin projects may be needed in order to offset depletion effects to the endangered species to assist in the recovery of the endangered fish.”
But, as O’Hara points out, the letter does not say the program will not need water from a future Wolf Creek reservoir.
“The letter creates a material fact in dispute, one more suitable for resolution at trial,” O’Hara’s order reads.
Also to be decided at trial is water use for hydroelectric power. State engineers say hydropower is not an independent use and depends on the court granting the other water uses. They say that if the other uses are dismissed, then hydropower should be dismissed too. But Rio Blanco says water should be stored in the reservoir specifically for hydropower generation and should not be contingent on other uses.
The trial is scheduled to begin [Thursday, January 7, 2021] in Routt County District Court in Steamboat Springs.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Dec. 31 edition of The Aspen Times.
Click here to read Ian James’ fantastic article about the current state of the Colorado River from stem to stern that’s running up at AZCentral.com. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
The warming climate is intensifying drought, contributing to fires and drying out the river’s headwaters, sending consequences cascading downstream.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colorado — Beside a river that winds through a mountain valley, the charred trunks of pine trees lie toppled on the blackened ground, covered in a thin layer of fresh snow.
Weeks after flames ripped through this alpine forest, a smoky odor still lingers in the air.
The fire, called the East Troublesome, burned later into the fall than what once was normal. It cut across Rocky Mountain National Park, racing up and over the Continental Divide. It raged in the headwaters of the Colorado River, reducing thick forests to ashes and scorching the ground along the river’s banks.
The fires in Colorado spread ferociously through the summer and fall of 2020 after months of extreme heat that worsened the severe drought.
As smoke billowed over the headwaters, the wildfires raised warning signs of how profoundly climate change is altering the watershed, and how the symptoms of heat-driven drying are cascading down the heavily used river — with stark implications for the entire region, from Colorado’s ranchland pastures to the suburbs of Phoenix…
Over the past year, the relentless hot, dry months from the spring to the first snows left the soil parched. The amount of runoff into streams and the river dropped far below average. With reservoirs sinking toward new lows, the risks of shortages are growing.
Much of the river’s flow begins as snow and rainfall in the territory of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which includes 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope. Andy Mueller, the district’s general manager, said the extreme conditions over the past year offer a preview of what the region should prepare for in the future.
“Climate change is drying out the headwaters,” Mueller said. “And everybody in the Colorado River Basin needs to be concerned.”
Mueller saw the effects while backpacking in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness in the summer with his 19-year-old daughter. Above the tree line, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, they expected to see mushy green tundra. Instead, they found the ground was bone dry…
People who focus on the river have widely acknowledged the need to adjust to a shrinking system with less water to go around.
Many suggest solutions can be achieved through collaborative efforts — often with money changing hands in exchange for water — while working within the existing rules. Others say solutions shouldn’t fall on the backs of farming communities by taking away water that fuels their economies. Some people argue the river seems headed for a crash and its rules need to be fundamentally reimagined…
The deals between the seven states are designed to temporarily lower the odds of Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropping to critical lows over the next five years. The states’ representatives have yet to wade into the details of negotiations on what shortage-sharing rules will look like after 2026, when the current agreements expire.
Still unresolved are difficult questions about how to deal with the shortfall over the long term.
What’s increasingly clear is that the status-quo methods of managing the river are on a collision course with worsening scarcity, and that eventually something will have to give…
Watershed ‘thirstier’ with heat
Last winter, after a dry year, the Rocky Mountains were blanketed with a snowpack that was slightly above average. Then came extremely hot and dry conditions, which shrank the amount of runoff and flows into tributaries and again baked the soils dry.
[Andy] Mueller said the change occurred abruptly at the end of the snow season in the spring…
With the heat, some of the snow didn’t melt but instead evaporated directly into the air, which scientists call sublimation — something that has been happening more over the past two decades. The flows in streams dropped over the next few months, and then August brought record heat, which dried out the headwaters and fueled the fires through the fall…
In a 2018 study, scientists found that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the Upper Colorado River Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming. In other research, scientists estimated the river is so sensitive to warming that it could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise…
“A warmer atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere, and we’re seeing less runoff bang for our precipitation buck,” said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher in Colorado. “We’ll still have wetter and drier years, but the baseline is very likely to be shifting downward, as it has in the last 20 years.”
And when extreme heat comes, it leaves less water running in tributaries and also translates into drier forests, leading to increased fire risk.
The soils were so dry over the past year that they soaked up moisture, contributing to below-average stream flows, said Megan Holcomb, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“You can think of it as like the dry sponge that you haven’t wetted in forever,” Holcomb said. “That kind of soil moisture deficit is not something that you rebound from immediately.”
After the hot spring came a dry summer. The lack of monsoon rains compounded the drought. And then came August, Holcomb said, when a map of record-hot temperatures hugged the Colorado River Basin like a “massive red handprint.”
In areas of western Colorado that drain into the river, it was the hottest and driest August on record, breaking the previous temperature record by 2 degrees F, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center.
The state usually gets its largest wildfires in June and July. But with the severe drought, the fires burned through August, and then exploded in October with unprecedented speed and intensity. The ultradry conditions, together with high winds, contributed to the three largest wildfires in Colorado history, which together devoured more than half a million acres.
In the future, rising temperatures will lead to more of these scorching summers.
Firefighters on the march: The Pine Gulch Fire, smoke of which shown here, was started by alighting strike on July 31, 2020, approximately 18 miles north of Grand Junction, Colorado. According to InciWeb, as of August 27 2020, the Pine Gulch Fire became the largest wildfire in Colorado State history, surpassing Hayman Fire that burned near Colorado Springs in the summer of 2002. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Mangement-Colorado, via InciWeb and National Interagency Fire Center.
The Cameron Peak fire soon after it started on Aug. 13, 2020. By Sept. 11, the fire had grown to more than 102,000 acres (now >200,000 acres) and was not expected to be considered out until Oct. 31. Photo credit: InciWeb via The Colorado Sun
East Troublesome Fire October 21, 2020 via Wildfire Today.
Scenes of the CalWood Oct. 17, 2020 (Jivan West/CU Independent)
Abby Burk of the conservation group Audubon Rockies noticed how low the river was in the summer when she went paddling in her kayak. In parts where the river was full and muddy a year earlier, she found bars of gravel. Where there once were channels to paddle through, she encountered dead-end lagoons.
In November, when Burk drove through the headwaters near the smoldering fires, she snapped photos of the hills and mountains, still golden-brown beneath a dusting of snow.
When the soil is so parched, it will always “take the first drink” before water reaches the streams, Burk said. “We need a lot more snow for many years to come to really replenish the soil moisture deficits that we’re seeing now.”
The fire scars will also bring challenges come spring, she said, when melting snow will send runoff carrying ash, debris and sediment into streams, potentially creating complications for water systems.
Burk said she’s hoping there will be a slow melt so the runoff comes gradually, without “bringing down the mountain into the river.”
A rancher looks to adapt
Paul Bruchez raises cattle on his family’s ranch in the headwaters near the town of Kremmling, where the Colorado River winds through pastures…
Bruchez has been involved in discussions about the river as a member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. And while he’s heard many people voice alarm about the watershed lately, Bruchez said he and other neighboring ranchers have been talking about the need to adapt to a river with less water since 2002, when severe drought came.
The flows dropped so low then that even ranchers with the longest-standing water rights, known as senior rights, couldn’t get it to their fields.
“Within this river basin, we have seen a change over time of the quantity and volume of water that is available. And in that same time, we’ve seen a growth of population that relies on it,” Bruchez said. “We knew this in 2002 when we hit that drought, that if we didn’t change how we operated, we weren’t going to survive.”
Since then, Bruchez and other ranchers have been talking about ideas for adapting…
The closer the region gets to a scenario of curtailing water allotments, Bruchez said, the more investors and representatives of cities and towns are going to be contemplating ways of securing water from elsewhere.
For people in agriculture, he said, “we need to be at the table or we’re going to be on the menu.”
‘It affects everybody’
One of the main tributaries that feeds the Colorado is the Gunnison River, which like the mainstem has shrunk during the heat-amplified drought. Along the Gunnison, cattle ranchers got less water last year and their pastures produced less hay.
The river’s low flows also forced an early end to the river rafting season on Labor Day weekend. After that, releases from a dam had to be cut back and the Gunnison was left much shallower than usual, with rocks protruding in stretches where boats would normally be drifting until the end of September.
The river has dropped to some of its lowest levels in years, said Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.
The effects are visible at Blue Mesa Reservoir, one of the state’s largest, which has declined to less than half its full capacity.
Visiting the lake, Chavez walked on sandy ground that used to sit underwater.
Looking across the inlet where the river pours into the lake, she pointed to a gray line on the rock showing the high-water mark. During spring runoff, she said, the river in this channel can reach about 20 feet higher. But with the soil so parched, its level dropped.
“When we are dry in the Upper Gunnison Basin, it affects everybody downstream of us,” Chavez said. And the swings between high and low flows, she said, have made it difficult to plan how to operate the reservoirs…
Photo credit from report “A Preliminary Evaluation of Seasonal Water Levels Necessary to Sustain Mount Emmons Fen: Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests,” David J. Cooper, Ph.D, December 2003.
A warm spring this year quickly erased what had been a robust snowpack, which melts and feeds the Colorado River and tributaries like the Gunnison River in Colorado. Source: Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation
Upper Gunnison watershed May 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs
In the Gunnison Valley, a local climate action group meets to talk about potential solutions. Some conversations have focused on how to manage forests that have grown thick with vegetation over the past century as federal agencies have focused mostly on putting out fires.
While the forests have grown thicker, warmer temperatures have enabled beetles to flourish, littering the mountains with dead trees.
Chavez and others want to prioritize efforts to make the forests healthier and more fire-resilient by thinning the trees through logging, mechanical treatments or controlled burns, which they say would make the whole watershed healthier. She said the federal government needs to be more involved and the region needs funding for these projects.
“Our big push this year is to do some watershed management planning and work with the Forest Service to identify zones of concern, or areas that we can treat,” Chavez said. “We’re worried if we had a big fire what would happen.”
Alongside those efforts, water managers are discussing ways of dialing down water usage…
Ranchers, farmers consider using less
One lifelong rancher who had a smaller-than-usual hay crop was Bill Trampe, who has worked on water issues for years as a board member of the Colorado River District.
His cattle graze on meadows near Gunnison where the grasses survive year after year. He was short of water to irrigate after mid-June, which left the pastures parched.
Over the past two decades, only a few years brought good snowpack, he said, and ranchers have repeatedly had to weather the financial hits of years when they must buy hay for their cattle…
‘We need to set the terms’
In other parts of the river basin, some representatives of agricultural water agencies are worried about the potential consequences of paying farmers to leave land dry.
One such voice is J.B. Hamby, a newly elected board member of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, who said he’s concerned that while cities and sprawling suburbs continue to grow rapidly, agricultural communities are increasingly at risk. He said people in cities need to realize there is a priority system that shouldn’t be changed…
Arizona gets nearly 40% of its water from the Colorado River. Much of it flows in the Central Arizona Project Canal, which cuts across the desert from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson.
In 2020, Arizona and Nevada took less water from the river under the drought agreement among Lower Basin states, and in 2021 they will again leave some of their water in Lake Mead. The latest projections show Mead could fall below a key threshold by summer, which would trigger a shortage declaration and larger cutbacks in 2022…
Now, with less water flowing to farms, the amount of runoff into the Salton Sea has shrunk, leaving growing stretches of exposed lakebed that spew dust into the air. The dust is contributing to some of the worst air pollution in the country, and many children suffer from asthma.
Hamby said the Imperial Valley would have been better off without the water transfer deal. Looking at the proposed approach in Colorado, Hamby said, it seems to replicate what occurred in Imperial.
“When you tie money to water, you get users who become addicted to the money and don’t actually in the end start to want to farm anymore,” Hamby said. “That is really corrosive to the long-term survival, much less thriving, of rural communities when people get more hooked on money rather than the way of life and putting the water on the land.”
He argued that such an approach would be “subverting the whole priority system” and enabling cities to avoid taking cuts themselves…
‘Are we doing enough?’
At his ranch by the river, Bruchez said he wants to be on “the preventative side,” getting ahead of the looming problems instead of reacting. And that includes studying and promoting conservation, he said, because the bottom line is “we just all have to figure out how to use less water.”
In early 2019, Bruchez began talking with Perry Cabot, a researcher from Colorado State University, about a project that would help provide data on crop water use, impacts of reduced irrigation and strategies for conserving water.
Cabot gave a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable, and members supported the idea of a study. The project began in 2020 with about $900,000 in funding, including support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and groups including Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.
A group of nine ranchers participated and were paid for leaving some fields dry or partially dry, Bruchez said. More than 900 acres weren’t irrigated for the entire year, and about 200 acres were “deficit irrigated,” meaning they received less water.
Bruchez’s ranch totals about 6,000 acres. He participated on about 41 acres, where he stopped irrigating on June 15 and didn’t water the rest of the year.
“My end goal is to understand the impacts of water conservation for agriculture so that if and when there are programs to participate, agriculture is doing it based on science,” Bruchez said…
Paul Bruchez said he’s seen that when people talk about solutions, they often seem to draw boxes around different approaches like demand management, water conservation, climate change and forest management, but he thinks they’re all quite connected.
“It’s all the same conversation,” Bruchez said. “To me, the question just comes down to, are we doing enough, quick enough?”
“It’s that water that is provided by the Colorado River that ties us all together,” Mueller said. “And truly, when we recognize the importance of the Colorado River and how it ties us together, that’s when we succeed as a society.”
Ian James is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who focuses on water, climate change and the environment in the Southwest. Send him story tips, comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @ByIanJames.
Since state officials began a more focused monitoring effort six years ago to detect toxic algae blooms in Colorado’s lakes and reservoirs, testing has documented harmful levels of such toxins three times on the Western Slope.
Two of those toxic blooms occurred in Routt County reservoirs — first at Stagecoach Reservoir in 2019 and then at Steamboat Lake last summer, which was the first year that state park managers were required to regularly test for toxic algae. Results showing bacteria above state thresholds caused a two-week swimming closure at the popular state park.
Since 2014, toxic algae has been discovered in nine Front Range lakes or reservoirs, while the only other Western Slope bloom was found in 2018 at Fruitgrowers Reservoir in Delta County.
More research is needed to determine the causes of these recent blooms. But an increase in testing due to more stringent Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) toxic algae monitoring protocol, a history of ranching around and on reservoir land, and climate change are probably contributing to the increase in recorded toxic blooms on the Western Slope.
Steamboat Lake State Park manager Julie Arington said the updated CPW monitoring and testing guidelines influenced the discovery of the toxic bloom last summer. The new guidelines, which were updated going into the season, require park managers to regularly test for toxins May through September, according to CPW officials.
“It may have been there before (this year), but we just didn’t notice it. We hadn’t been testing for it,” Arington said. But in mid-August, when water temperatures were at their warmest, toxin levels were found to be above the recently-established thresholds and park managers shut down the lake to swimming for two weeks, until winds and cooler temperatures slowed the blooms down.
Blue-green algae that populate lakes in and of themselves are not harmful and form the basis of the riparian food web. Under certain conditions, however, the algae multiply rapidly, form blooms and produce toxins.
Nutrients and warming cause these blooms, said Jill Baron, a research ecologist and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Period.”
Toxic algae feed off phosphorus and nitrogen, nutrients sourced from fertilizers, vehicle emissions, sewage, soil, animal excrement and plant material. If ingested in levels above state health standards, the toxins cause sickness, liver and brain damage when ingested during recreational lake activity or when drinking contaminated water.
Tracing Steamboat and Stagecoach nutrients
Steamboat and Stagecoach reservoirs sit in the greater Yampa basin to the north and south, respectively, of Steamboat Springs. Steamboat Lake, which holds 23,064 acre-feet of water, is portioned off a creek that feeds into the Elk River, a tributary of the Yampa. Stagecoach, which holds 36,439 acre-feet of water, is a dammed section of the Yampa River.
Nutrients deposited at the bottom of both reservoirs from decades of ranching probably contribute to the blue-green algae blooms. By the early 1880s, settlers were ranching in the Yampa Valley, including the lands that would become Stagecoach and Steamboat reservoirs, said Katie Adams, curator for the Tread of Pioneers museum.
Steamboat Lake was constructed in 1967 with funds from the operators of Hayden Station power plant and the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. It became a state park in 1972.
The former ranch lands where Stagecoach is today were bought in 1971 by the Woodmoor Corporation, which planned to build a residential and recreational community with ski areas and golf courses, but the company went bankrupt in 1974. The site was later bought and developed by the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and power companies, which funded the reservoir’s construction in 1988. So, for decades leading up to the post-war era, cattle excrement was enriching the reservoir lands with nitrogen and phosphorus — nutrients that fuel the growth of blue-green algae.
Those involved in planning and constructing Stagecoach Reservoir were told algae blooms were a likelihood, said Stagecoach State Park manager Craig Preston.
“Even when they were going through the (construction) processes, they were told there would likely be algae situations, because of the nutrients in the soil,” Preston said.
Baron agrees that nutrients at the bottom of both lakes probably contribute to the blooms.
“They basically took a meadow and turned it into a lake. So, all that vegetation and organic matter on the bottom of that meadow is slowly decomposing and putting its nutrients into the lake itself,” Baron said.
Researchers are focusing on the region to determine which specific sources of nitrogen and phosphorus prompt harmful algal growth. The USGS has been collecting data on algae compositions in Stagecoach Reservoir and in the greater Yampa River watershed and will analyze possible sources of blue-green algae as part of the report, USGS hydrologist Cory Williams said. The results of the study will be published in February or March, according to Williams.
Origins and evolution of state protocol and monitoring
CPW began drafting toxic-algae protocol the summer of 2014, after a local agency found microcystin — a toxin commonly produced by blue-green algae — in Denver’s Cherry Creek Reservoir, said CPW Water Quality Coordinator Mindi May.
“At the time, we didn’t know what the numbers meant. So, we started looking around for state or federal thresholds, and there just weren’t any,” May said.
That same summer, a toxic bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water of 400,000 residents, forcing officials in Toledo, Ohio, to cut off water for three days. After these two events, May asked Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment staff to develop toxic-algae thresholds for drinking water and recreation, and traveled to state parks in 2015 to encourage staff to test for — and monitor — toxic algae during summer months.
CDPHE developed protocol and thresholds for toxic algae in 2016, based on Environmental Protection Agency standards created in 2014. The thresholds dictate the maximum amount of toxins that lakes can contain, including 8 micrograms per liter for microcystin and saxitoxin, and 15 micrograms per liter for anatoxin and cylindrospermopsin. If lakes cross this threshold, state park managers must post danger signs and close the lake to activities involving bodily contact with the water until tests show that toxins fall below harmful levels, May said.
In 2018, the CDPHE developed a database to compile monitoring and testing efforts in Colorado reservoirs and track the occurrence of toxic-algae blooms since 2014. Data from park managers’ toxin tests are included, along with data collected by CDPHE officials and other local and federal agencies, said MaryAnn Nason, CDPHE’s communications and special projects unit manager.
“We really learned a lot in those early years, and we have a lot more resources now to monitor and test for toxins,” May said of CPW’s and CDPHE’s efforts.
Western lakes lack data but will feel burn of climate change
CDPHE data shows an increase in toxic blooms from 2014 to 2020 and hints that these blooms are spreading west. Last summer recorded seven toxic blooms, compared with four in 2019 and one in 2018. Yet, increases could also be due to increased monitoring and testing over the years and due to the new 2020 protocol. For instance, 52 lakes were monitored for toxic algae in 2014, compared with 73 last summer.
More data is needed to determine how climate change and nutrients will interact to produce toxic blooms, and determine the impacts this will have on drinking water and summer recreation for high country and Western Slope lakes.
It is likely that climate change will spur more toxic blooms in the West. In a 2017 study of 27 Rocky Mountain lakes, researchers project that climate change will cause average annual lake-surface temperatures to increase 41% by 2080, with dramatically warmer water in the summer and 5.9 fewer ice-free days with each passing decade.
Warmer lakes create a widened window for toxic algae to bloom. A separate national study, also from 2017, predicts that rising air temperatures and the resultant warmer waters will increase toxic-bloom occurrence from an average of seven days per year in U.S reservoirs now to 16-23 days in 2050 and 18-39 days in 2090.
Long-term solutions for current and future blooms include placing limits on greenhouse gas, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus emissions, Baron said. Short-term solutions include waiting for blue-green algae to stop producing toxins and keeping visitors out of the water while they do, said May.
As frosty temperatures inhibit algal growth, Steamboat and Stagecoach park managers get a break from thinking about the turquoise-tinted toxins. In May, they’ll start the second season of following the parks’ new protocol, May said.
Regarding last summer’s toxic bloom, Steamboat Lake State Park’s Arington said, “I think this won’t be the last year that we see it.”
This story ran in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Dec. 31.
Here’s the release from Aurora Water (Greg Baker):
Aurora Water has won the 2020 Outstanding Water Laboratory Award from the Rocky Mountain Section of the American Water Works Association (RMSAWWA). RMSAWWA is a nonprofit, scientific and educational association serving members in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming that is dedicated to effectively managing and treating water. The annual award recognizes a drinking water analysis lab for its exceptional performance, dedication and teamwork. Aurora Water’s Quality Control Lab is a repeat winner of this prestigious award, having won the honor a total of seven times since 2008.
Aurora Water’s quality control staff of 10 laboratory specialists conduct dozens of tests daily at the Quality Control Laboratory. Hundreds of water samples are collected each month from source to tap, ensuring that the water provided to Aurora residents is consistently and reliably safe.
“This award recognizes the hardworking professionals at Aurora Water’s Quality Control Laboratory, who are dedicated to providing excellent service to our citizens,” said Aurora Water’s Environmental Compliance Principal Sherry Scaggiari. “Through their rigorous sampling, testing and reporting on every aspect of our water and waste water system, they maintained the highest level of service, even during a pandemic.
Larimer County has approved a development agreement that delves into details surrounding construction of certain aspects of the Northern Integrated Supply Project.
The county commissioners on Tuesday voted 2-1 to approve the agreement with the Northern Integrated Supply Project Water Activity Enterprise, putting into writing some of the specific requirements that the elected board had put into place earlier in approving a 1041 permit for the water supply project…
The agreement focuses on recreational facilities for Glade Reservoir, and the amount of money Northern Water committed to that piece, as well as pipeline details, environmental mitigations and requirements surrounding the relocation of U.S. 287.
It puts in writing that the county will be involved in construction meetings and inspections and lays out some safety requirements.
“This agreement really protects the interest of Larimer County … whether one supports this project or not,” said Commissioner Steve Johnson, who along with Commissioner Tom Donnelly voted to approve the development agreement. (Both commissioners also voted in September to grant the 1041 permit, which allows the county some input on certain aspects of this water storage and pipeline project.)
The county does not have final say over whether the Northern Integrated Supply Project will be built. That approval would come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the federal agency’s decision is expected soon, following more than a decadelong environmental process.
Johnson stressed that the county does not have final say but that he wants to have some say on safety, recreation and construction that will affect residents…
Larimer County has agreed to manage the recreation on and around Glade Reservoir, with Northern Water committing to $20.6 million for recreational facilities and with either the county or another yet-to-be-identified partner bringing $3.775 million to the table.
The money would cover parking lots, boat ramps, a visitors center, camping areas and environmental mitigations at the reservoir and on the surrounding land.
Commissioner John Kefalas, the sole Democrat on the board and the lone vote against the 1041 permit in September, also voted against the development agreement Tuesday. He said he understands the purpose is to describe the water developer’s obligations to the county and “to enhance the general welfare of the county,” but that he had concerns about some pieces of the agreement and could not vote in favor of it without further information.
The development agreement was included on the consent agenda at the commissioners’ weekly administrative matters meeting. The consent agenda typically is a list of actions approved without discussion and all by a single vote. Kefalas moved the item from that single vote so the board could discuss it.
“My rationale for pulling this item from the consent agenda is first to highlight that approval of the NISP project is indeed one of the most significant decisions made by this board of county commissioners, one that will impact Larimer County and future generations in many ways,” Kefalas said. “As such, this development merits public attention and scrutiny and, from my perspective, it is necessary for the people to see how this NISP agreement seeks to mitigate the potential unintended consequences of the proposed Glade Reservoir.”
He also expressed “serious concerns” about the overall project and said two provisions in the agreement add to those worries. He highlighted wording in the agreement that stresses that recreation is a secondary use to the water supply and that Northern Water, which will manage the project, may vary water levels and may modify design and location, at its sole discretion, for operations, maintenance or other issues to prioritize water supply over recreational uses.
“So I ask the question: What will happen to the recreational benefits of the NISP project if it takes 10 years to fill the reservoir perhaps due to higher temperatures, extended droughts and reduced snowpack?” Kefalas said. “Without a science-based answer to this question today, I cannot support this NISP development agreement.”
The historic wildfire season of 2020 could impact drinking water for more than a million Colorado residents. Environmental researchers and natural resource specialists have conducted a BAER Survey, which stands for Burned Area Emergency Response.
The survey evaluated how the record-breaking Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires could impact Colorado’s snowpack and watershed.
The Poudre and Upper Colorado River Basins provide drinking water for more than a million people in northern Colorado, and soon those in Thornton. The Colorado River also flows from Willow Creek Reservoir near Granby to Las Vegas and farther southwest.
The months-long battle with both blazes charred the natural filters along rivers and creeks, which eventually provide drinking water for most of the northern front range.
“Our concerns really are actually about the entire watershed,” said Jeff Stahla, spokesperson for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
In an interview with CBS4’s Logan Smith, Stahla said the approach to preserving and protecting the watershed in the years to come was directly altered by the High Park Fire of 2012, where researchers learned what to do and what not to do.
For example, pulling undersized culverts and digging water bars is more effective than reseeding or spreading hay bales.
“This is something you won’t be able to resolve by dropping seeds from a helicopter, the scale is so large,” Stahla said. “The concern is that if there is a large weather event that occurs over that area, that you will have uncontrolled removal of debris and sediment that will go in to our reservoirs.”
During the fires of 2020, water conservation experts monitored how the burn scar could impact drinking water.
“We recognized that it was no longer just a small localized event, but it was something that would effect the entire Upper Colorado River shed,” Stahla said.
Due to the extended period the fires burned, especially the Cameron Peak Fire, not every area of the burn scars impact nearby rivers and streams equally. While some portions of the terrain were significantly burned with hot fire that “resided” in the same spot for an extended period, others were more fortunate.
Stahla said many local water districts are now teaming up to help protect the health of the watershed in the years to come. By unifying and prioritizing the health of the water system as a whole, Stahla said the strength of the landscape and watershed can bounce back quicker…
Researchers hope to return to the burn scars in the spring once snow has melted to evaluate next steps. Local municipalities are working with the Bureau of Reclamation to expedite the process.
As its trial date in water court approaches, hundreds of pages of depositions obtained by Aspen Journalism reveal state engineers’ sticking points regarding a proposed reservoir project they oppose in northwest Colorado.
Over a few days in November, state attorneys subpoenaed and interviewed several expert witnesses and the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District manager in the White River storage-project case, also known as the Wolf Creek project. Their questions centered on the town of Rangely’s water needs and on whether water is needed for irrigation.
The documents, obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request, also underscore the extent to which fear of a compact call is shaping this proposed dam and reservoir project between Meeker and Rangely.
The Rangely-based Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District is applying for a conditional water-storage right to build a 66,720-acre-foot, off-channel reservoir using water from the White River to be stored in the Wolf Creek drainage, behind a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long. It would involve pumping water uphill from the river into the reservoir.
There also is an option for a 72,720-acre-foot on-channel reservoir, although this scale of project is now rare in Colorado. Rio Blanco has said they prefer the off-channel option.
For more than five years, top state water engineers have repeatedly said the project is speculative because Rio Blanco has not proven a need for water above its current supply.
Despite Rio Blanco reducing its claim for water by more than 23,000 acre-feet from its initial proposal of 90,000 acre-feet, state engineers still say the water-right application should be denied in its entirety. After failing to reach a settlement, the case is scheduled for a 10-day trial in January. Division 6 Engineer Erin Light and top state engineers Kevin Rein and Tracy Kosloff are the sole opposers in this case.
Rio Blanco already operates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely on the White River. But it is silting in at an average of 300 acre-feet per year and is nearing the end of its useful life, according to court documents.
A main point of contention between Rio Blanco and state engineers is whether there will be an increased need for irrigation water in the future. Rio Blanco claims it needs 7,000 acre-feet per year for irrigation.
During the depositions, state attorneys questioned Rio Blanco manager Alden Vanden Brink about the need for irrigation water. He claimed there is a local boom in agriculture and that there is high-value farmland that is not being irrigated simply because of a lack of water. Vanden Brink said happiness for residents on the lower White River will increase with access to irrigation water from the proposed reservoir, adding that if irrigation water is made available, demand for it will increase.
“It will make water available in the lower White River so that people can increase their quality of life and have a garden, you can have a few pigs,” Vanden Brink’s deposition reads. “It’s just going to be improvement all the way around.”
But details were sketchy on what specific lands would be irrigated and the district’s plan to get water from the reservoir to irrigators. State engineers, in a subsequent trial brief, say that just because there are lands that might benefit from irrigation doesn’t mean there will be future increased demand. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come.
“Instead, the premise that there will be a demand for water if the water right is granted is exactly the sort of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy of growth’ prohibited under Colorado’s anti-speculation doctrine,” the state’s trial brief reads.
Engineers also say Rio Blanco has not identified how the reservoir, situated low in the White River basin, would serve the majority of irrigated acres located upstream.
“For instance, Rio Blanco has not identified any pipeline construction or other water project works that could run water up to these other locations,” the state trial brief reads.
Rangely’s water needs
Rio Blanco and the state also disagree about the amount of water needed for Rangely, a high-desert town of about 2,300 people near the Utah border. Rangely takes its municipal water from the White River.
In their depositions, Vanden Brink and Gary Thompson, an expert witness and engineer with W.W. Wheeler and Associates, refer to “cow water” as the source of Rangely’s water issues.
According to Vanden Brink, who also is the town’s former utilities supervisor, when flows in the White River drop to around 100 cubic feet per second, water quality becomes impaired. That can include increased algae growth, decreased dissolved oxygen, increased alkalinity and increased mineral contaminants, which require more treatment, he said.
“If you want to look at that water and how you can take that water and make it potable, forgive me, but it looks worse than cow water,” Vanden Brink said in his deposition. “I know if I was a cow, I wouldn’t want to drink it. It’s pretty degraded; it’s pretty muddy, it’s bubbly, it’s gross. And there’s a reason Rangely’s got the extensive treatment that it does.”
In an April letter to Rio Blanco, Town Manager Lisa Piering and Utilities Director Don Reed said Rangely would commit to contract for at least 2,000 acre-feet of storage for municipal use after the reservoir is built. According to expert reports, Rangely’s current demands are 784 acre-feet per year.
Project proponents say that increased flows from reservoir releases will dilute contaminants and improve water quality at the town’s intake.
But this argument doesn’t work for state engineers, who say that the water Rio Blanco says Rangely needs is not based on projected population growth and that Rio Blanco has not analyzed whether the town’s existing water supplies would be sufficient to meet future demands.
“Rio Blanco at trial may attempt to offer evidence regarding needs based on water quality, but Rio Blanco has not disclosed any evidence quantifying the amount of water Rangely would need for that purpose,” the trial brief reads.
Colorado River Compact influence
Depositions and water court documents reveal how water managers’ and experts’ fear — and expectation — of a compact call could influence the project proposal.
According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper-basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet a year to Lake Powell for use by the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). If the upper basin doesn’t make this delivery, the lower basin can “call” for its water, triggering involuntary cutbacks in water use for the upper basin.
Water managers and policymakers admit that no one knows how it would play out just yet, but risk of this hypothetical scenario becoming reality is increasing as drought and rising temperatures — both fueled by climate change — decrease flows into Lake Powell.
Water managers are especially worried that those with junior water rights, meaning those later than 1922, will be the first to be curtailed. Senior water rights that existed prior to the compact are generally thought to be exempt from compact curtailment.
Many water users in the White River basin, including the towns of Rangely and Meeker, have water rights that are junior to the compact, meaning the users could bear the brunt of involuntary cutbacks in the event of a compact call.
Rio Blanco is proposing that 11,887 acre-feet per year be stored as “augmentation,” or insurance, in case of a compact call. Releasing this replacement water stored in the proposed reservoir to meet these compact obligations would allow other water uses in the district to continue and avoid the mandatory cutbacks in the event of a compact call.
According to Rio Blanco’s trial brief, “there is significant risk of a compact curtailment in the next 25 years that could negatively impact 45% of the water used in the district.”
In his deposition in response to questions from Rio Blanco attorney Alan E. Curtis, Thompson said drought scenarios will get worse in the future, the White River will be more strictly administered and a compact call is likely to occur.
“Things are — in my opinion — drought conditions are increasingly pervasive,” he said.
But state engineers say that augmentation use in the event of a compact call is not a beneficial use under Colorado water law and is inherently speculative. Compact compliance and curtailment are issues to be sorted out by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the state engineer, not individual water users or conservancy districts, they say. The state of Colorado is currently exploring a concept called demand management, which could pay water users to use less water in an effort to boost levels in Lake Powell.
According to their trial brief, state engineers say that while the desire to plan for compact administration is understandable, “the significant uncertainties involved in future compliance under the Colorado River Compact mean that Rio Blanco cannot show a specific plan to control a specific quantity of water for augmentation in the event of compact curtailment.”
The trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 4 in Routt County District Court in Steamboat Springs. Among the witnesses that Rio Blanco plans to call are Colorado River Water Conservation District Manager Andy Mueller, Colorado Water Conservation Board Chief Operating Officer Anna Mauss and Rio Blanco County Commissioner Gary Moyer.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Dec. 26 edition of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily, and the Dec. 28 edition of Steamboat Pilot & Today.
[A.J.] Carrillo is planning to convert his Deer Tree Farm from flood irrigation, which is commonly used in Western Colorado, to a new and much more efficient style of irrigation – microsprinklers.
Changing irrigation methods is something more and more Western Slope producers are doing, from small to large. With help from federal funding, they’re able to apply less water to grow their crops and make their land more resilient to drought. And more importantly, the switch also means that fewer pollutants run off their fields into the Colorado River, keeping it cleaner all the way down to Mexico.
Salt and selenium occur naturally in the shaly soils of the Gunnison Basin, leftovers from a prehistoric inland sea. Both substances are harmful to plants, fish and humans. Flood irrigation of fields allows water to penetrate deep into the soil, where it dissolves out salt and selenium.
The contaminated water then runs off into ditches that eventually dump into the Gunnison River, and from there into the Colorado. The result is that farms in the Gunnison Basin send more than 360,000 tons of salt into the Colorado River each year…
All that salt must be removed before water can be used for drinking or industrial purposes, which is expensive. And when salty river water is used for irrigation, it stunts crop growth and can eventually make farmland unusable if the salt builds to a high enough concentration, said Perry Cabot, a water resources specialist with Colorado State University…
In California’s Imperial Valley, which grows about 80 percent of the nation’s winter vegetables, irrigating with Colorado River water has caused some fields to become so salty that they have been abandoned.
Selenium is a problem too. It’s especially harmful to the Colorado River’s four endangered fish species, including the humpback chub and razorback sucker…
The same actions that reduce selenium – improving irrigation efficiency and reducing runoff – help reduce salt as well. And those programs have a far-reaching impact.
During the 1960s, so much salt flowed into the Colorado River from U.S. farms that Mexico, at the downstream end, could no longer use it for irrigation; a solution was finally negotiated in the 1970s requiring major reductions in the river’s saltiness. Laws were passed, and an array of federal program were created that gave farmers incentives to improve their irrigation methods.
Since then, the Colorado has gotten considerably cleaner. Casey Harrison, a soil conservationist who works with farmers through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, is part of that cleanup effort. In the Gunnison River Basin, the NRCS spends about $7 million a year to help roughly 75 farmers and ranchers convert to microsprinklers and other efficient irrigation methods.
The NRCS tailors plans to each producer’s operations, Harrison said, no matter how large or small…
The federal financial support is key. The costs of installing new irrigation systems cannot be borne by farmers alone, CSU’s Perry Cabot said. Agricultural producers are running a business, and they do not want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to make a change unless there is some clear incentive.
“If we as a society value food production as part of our economic infrastructure, it’s unrealistic to expect them to just bear the burden without societal help,” Cabot said.
Back at Deer Tree farm, farmer AJ Carillo says the operation will have a new irrigation system by fall 2021, thanks largely to NRCS funding and support. The change to microsprinklers will give him greater precision and control in water use.
On Nov. 30 Governor Jared Polis sent a “memorandum of drought emergency” to executive directors of state government departments. The memo marks the beginning of phase 3 “full plan activation” of the state’s Drought Mitigation and Response Plan.
The memo said “deep and persistent drought conditions” had covered the state for 15 weeks, noting that this level of drought had not been observed since 2013. It also activated the “Municipal Water Impact Task Force,” chaired by members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Department of Local Affairs.
The memo states: “The initial objective of the Task Force is for water suppliers to coordinate with each other and the state going into winter to prepare for anticipated drought-related challenges and opportunities in 2021.”
“So it’s telling you to get planning for a drought, which is what your water conservancy districts, Yellow Jacket and the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy districts are attempting to do” said Alden Vanden Brink, District Manager for the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District.
During a Dec. 14 Board of County Commissioners work session, he spoke about the Governor’s memo and its implications for the basin. “I’ve been following up on this quite a bit trying to make sure they understand that there is no drought contingency within our White River basin,” he said.
By drought contingency, Vanden Brink was referring to storage, of which he said there is very little in the basin. “You’re looking at just a couple of days worth of water, literally,” said Vanden Brink, later adding “we have a real problem with the lack of storage in our basin, a real problem, and it makes us extremely vulnerable.”
That vulnerability, though not exactly new to the basin, is growing more urgent. Colorado’s record drought in 2020 was just the beginning of a more long term trend, according to leading climatologists and groups like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)…
That planning includes preparations for an upcoming water court lawsuit set to begin in the first week of January. “It’s to get a conditional water right to construct a reservoir for drought contingency within the White River basin.” said Vanden Brink, referring to the Wolf Creek Reservoir, also known as the White River Storage project. The project would store between 66,000 and 73,000 acre feet of water, depending on the exact location.
In an expert report submitted earlier this year, state engineers contested that Rio Blanco had failed to identify the need for that much water. Ultimately that disagreement is what prompted the lawsuit between the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State’s Division of Water Resources.
Adding to his message of urgency, Vanden Brink talked about proposed “demand management” strategies which are likely to become more prevalent in coming years. “What they’re looking at doing is paying a rancher to idle his field for a given period of time, and allow that water to flow by,” said Vanden Brink, noting that the development of those strategies was a changing dynamic. Although he didn’t speak negatively about the concept in general, he was concerned about its potential impact in the region. “Not allowing that water to go be used for flood irrigation….flood irrigation is what recharges our groundwater aquifer. That’s taking away from that groundwater aquifer what little storage we have, which is the aquifer” said Vanden Brink.
He argues that given the lack of existing storage, and thus lack of drought contingency in the basin, the Governor’s memorandum of drought emergency provides more legitimacy to Rio Blanco’s proposed reservoir project.
Chuck Miller of Fort Morgan has been vocal in opposing action by the LSPWCD to raise its mill levy from 0.5 mill to 1 mill for the 2020 budget year and retaining that level for 2021. Miller contends that the increase is a violation of the TABOR amendment to the Colorado Constitution. He and others have appealed to county commissioners in Logan, Morgan, Sedgwick and Washington counties to refuse to certify the water district’s mill levy…
The group asserts that, although the water conservancy district freed itself from the restrictions of the TABOR amendment in 1996, it still promised not to raise taxes without a vote. The district board, however, takes the position that, when it was formed in 1964, it was statutorily authorized to levy up to 1 mill on real property within the district, and the 1996 “de-Brucing” question allows the district the right to levy up to 1 full mill; the public vote would only be needed if the district wanted to exceed its original allowance of 1 mill.
The mill levy must be certified in each of the four counties covered by the district. Only Sedgwick County, where Commissioner Chairman Donald Schneider also is a member of the LSPWCD board of directors, voted to certify the mill levy. Washington County Commissioner LeAnne Laybourn told the Journal-Advocate Thursday morning that, contrary to what was previously reported, the Washington County Commissioners pulled the water district’s mill levy from a group of levies they were to certify.
Miller said he has gotten conflicting answers to questions about who enforces the provisions of the so-called Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a 1992 amendment to the state constitution. TABOR restricts government spending and forbids raising taxes without voter approval.
Colorado Department of Local Affairs spokesperson Brett McPherson told the Journal-Advocate Wednesday that the state has no role in enforcing TABOR.
“TABOR contains the mill levy/tax rate restriction but is locally interpreted and enforced through the courts,” McPherson said. “TABOR is locally enforced by taxpayers, who elect board members and who can also bring a lawsuit against the taxing entity. There is no state agency role in enforcing TABOR.”
According to state statute, if a mill levy is not certified, the county can be instructed to extend the previous year’s mill levy which, in this case, is still 1 mill, since that was certified the previous year.
FromColoradoPolitics.com (Marianne Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
The week of Dec. 14, the seven states that are part of the Colorado River Compact began the first step for renegotiating guidelines that will decide how much water the three lower basin states and Mexico will get from Lake Mead, on the Arizona-Nevada border, and from Mead’s source, the Colorado River.
The guidelines are interim, signed in April 2007, and are due to expire in 2026. Among the most significant, the guidelines provide long-term stable management of the river and also determine the circumstances under which the Interior secretary could reduce the annual amount of water available from Lake Mead to the Colorado River lower basin states. The guidelines also are a way for the basin states to avoid litigation, part of what prompted the 2007 interim guidelines.
The seven states that make up the Colorado River Compact, and which will negotiate those guidelines, are divided into upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and lower basin states (Arizona, Nevada and California). Mexico is also part of the lower basin water allotment, as well. About 40 million people across the seven states rely on the Colorado River for water.
Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are dealing with extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
What that means for the river heading into in the future, said John Fleck, a former journalist and author and now with the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, is water levels in Lake Mead could drop to 1,060 feet by 2022. That’s 15 feet below what triggers “the next tier of mandatory Lower Basin water use cuts under the river’s 2007 interim guidelines and the supplemental drought contingency plan” signed last year…
Last week, the seven states signed a joint letter to Trump administration Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman requesting technical support from the federal agency, as the states move forward with negotiations. The states are setting up a working group to look at modeling for the management and operations of Mead and Lake Powell, which is the water “bank” on the Colorado River for the upper basin states…
[Rebecca] Mitchell said she thinks “everything is on the table as we look toward the future.” What’s in the final report — or not — “doesn’t mean we can’t deal with bigger issues outside of the guidelines.”
That’s also where the Biden administration, and his Interior nominee, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, could make a difference. One of the signs from Biden toward the Colorado River is his appointment of Tanya Trujillo of New Mexico to the Department of the Interior’s transition team. Trujillo is vice chairwoman of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and lower basin project director for the Colorado River Sustainability Campaign. A water lawyer, Trujillo has experience working in Interior on water issues.
“We’re hoping (the new administration) will foster negotiations that are rooted in science and create a framework that recognizes how climate change is affecting and will continue to affect the basin,” Kim Mitchell, a senior water policy adviser with Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, told BloombergLaw.com in November.
Craig Friar and Steve Anderson had seen wildfires smolder and flare before. But they had never seen one run.
Until Oct. 21 when Grand County’s East Troublesome fire sprinted 17 miles in less than three hours, threatening to engulf communities across the county and giving these Northern Water staffers and others just hours to decide how best to move the water agency’s operations center out of Grand County and over to Northern’s emergency operations center in Berthoud, on Colorado’s Front Range.
It was unchartered territory. The backup center had never been used before.
Northern Water is the largest exporter of water from Colorado’s West Slope to the Front Range, serving farms and dozens of cities from Broomfield and Lafayette to Boulder, Loveland and Greeley.
As dark, fire-stained clouds billowed over the towns of Granby and Grand Lake that day, Northern’s West Slope team grabbed operation logs from the Farr pumping plant on the banks of Lake Granby. They tracked down the half dozen or so mechanics, electricians and operators who would need to make quick exits, and figured out how to ferry everyone to safety over the Continental Divide.
Initially they hoped to keep most of their operators on the West Slope by moving the temporary command center farther West to another Northern operations site. But the East Troublesome Fire, already known for its cranky, unpredictable nature, changed direction, blocking access to the local site.
“Those [plans] quickly went away,” said Friar, who oversees the utility’s collection system. “When things blew up on Tuesday, we said, ‘Scrap that.’ Wednesday we had a call and began moving everyone over to Berthoud.”
Spare rooms and horse trailers
Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind and Director of Administration Karen Rademacher offered their homes to dislocated staffers until hotel rooms could be found.
West Slope staff who weren’t evacuated offered trailers to those who had been, hauling household goods and horses. They tracked down housing for co-workers who feared their homes had burned.
They had dozens of calls with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns Northern’s system, as well as emergency managers with the U.S. and Colorado State forest services and the Grand County fire and sheriff departments, and county emergency response teams.
Hundreds of homes and structures in Grand County were threatened or destroyed, and the lakes and reservoirs there that comprise Northern’s water collection system faced the same fate. The agency serves more than 1 million people on the Front Range.
Since mid-August, Northern’s team had watched the Cameron Peak Fire burning in Rocky Mountain National Park just to the north of Grand County, threatening some of Northern’s customers and watersheds, but not the heart of its collection system.
When East Troublesome exploded eight weeks later, the water utility found itself suddenly squeezed between what have now become Colorado’s two largest wildfires in recorded history, with Cameron Peak consuming 209,000 acres and East Troublesome 194,000, before both were declared contained in November.
“It was worse than any worst-case scenario we had,” said Northern’s Environmental Services Manager Esther Vincent during a debriefing with the utility’s customers and others post-fire.
Water infrastructure in the West is often built in high-altitude mountain ranges in order to collect the winter snows that fall and melt into streams.
For years, Colorado and other Western States have planned for and dealt with wildfires and their aftermath: the scorched soils and trees that clog their delivery systems, fill their reservoirs with eroded soils, and cloud their once-pristine water supplies.
But the situation now is much worse. As climate change and searing droughts have dried out the forests that blanket these watersheds, impossibly large, so-called megafires are becoming the dangerous new norm.
These fires devastated California over the summer and the same phenomenon struck Colorado in the fall.
That Northern Water found itself stranded between the two fires in hurricane-force winds was something no one had ever envisioned. There was a sense of awful wonder, amid all the emergency phone calls and late-night planning sessions, at the sheer size of the disaster.
There was also plenty of worry. Early on, as the fire raged, Northern staffers knew power to the Farr Pump Plant would be cut off in order to keep firefighters safe from exploding transformers, falling power poles and downed electric lines.
The pumping plant lies almost entirely below the surface of Lake Granby. Without power to run its dewatering system, the plant would flood.
But there would be an even bigger problem once the electricity was cut. The Adams Tunnel takes water pumped from Lake Granby to Grand Lake and pipes it under the Continental Divide to the Front Range. If they couldn’t get the Adams Tunnel shut down before the power went off, it would continue to deliver water, dramatically lowering Grand Lake in violation of federal law, something that would trigger an environmental, legal and political firestorm.
The prospect of such an event is unfathomable, Friar said. “I don’t know what would happen. And I don’t want to know. We don’t even go there.”
They moved quickly to get to the controls that operate the tunnel, successfully closing it down.
Ten minutes later, Friar said, the power went off.
For days afterward, they would rotate the chore of going into the silent pumping plant, filling its generators with diesel fuel and checking to make sure the dewatering system was still working.
In and out
Roads in and out of the area remained closed and it took close coordination with the Grand County Fire Department and sheriff for Northern staffers to get past the fire barricades.
“We had to make sure we could get in, get what we needed done, and get out of there,” Friar said.
If there was any comfort during the tense, fast-changing days that the fires ruled Larimer and Grand counties, it was seeing local residents pulling out clothes and food for those in need, offering up spare rooms, spare trucks and trailers, and extra flash lights, snow plows and generators.
“I don’t think anyone up here ever felt alone,” Friar said.
December has delivered more elegant white snows to Grand and Larimer counties since October, when the first winter storm calmed the fires. The white slopes, covered with charred forests that are now stark and black, are a welcome respite from the gray smoke and flames that enveloped the area just a few weeks ago.
Friar and others know they have four short months, the time until winter snows melt, to engineer and put into action a high-stakes rescue plan for the devastated watersheds and reservoirs.
Roughly 30 percent to 80 percent of Northern’s four major watersheds have burned, they estimate. Cleaning them up and protecting the lakes from the debris that is sure to come after the snow melts next spring will take one to three years of “acute” work, fire officials said, and decades of additional treatment, a process so expensive that Northern hasn’t yet put a number to it.
A daunting future
Denver Water, the only utility larger than Northern in Colorado, battled two smaller—but still epic—fires within the past three decades: the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire and the 2002 Hayman Fire, which until this year had been the state’s largest. They spent $28 million cleaning up and restoring reservoirs in the first 10 post-fire years and continue to spend millions annually planting trees and doing erosion control, according to Christina Burri, a watershed scientist with Denver Water.
Northern’s Greg Dewey will oversee the fire restoration work. The prospect, he said, is daunting.
“For years we’ve planned for treatments [for the overgrown forests already decimated by pine beetles]. And the ultimate treatment is a wildfire, but I don’t think anyone could have gauged the extent of this,” he said.
The Cameron Peak and East Troublesome megafires have blazed permanent images in the minds of people across Grand and Larimer counties.
What Anderson remembers most now is returning to his Granby home when the evacuation orders were finally lifted. There, he and his family encountered a strange sight:
The house was unharmed, but the front door stood wide open.
As they walked warily up the front steps the first thing they heard was the fire alarm, issuing one piercing screech after another, providing a crazy, haunting reminder of those days in October, when two megafires ruled the skies, the forests and their lives.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Funds will upgrade plants, replace aging pipelines
An increase in monthly water and sewer service rates in Dolores will go into effect in January.
The base water rate will increase by $5 to $30.84 per month, up from $25.84.
The base sewer rate will increase by $2.50 to $31.16 per month, up from $28.66.
Rate increases were approved by the town board in March, but implementation was delayed until 2021 because of economic challenges due to the pandemic.
The last time water and sewer rates were raised was in 2015. The town is reviewing a senior, income-based exemption from the latest rate increase.
Inflation and the need for infrastructure upgrades are the reasons for the rate increase, said Mayor Chad Wheelus.
While both the sewer plant and water plant are in good condition, outdated pipelines are deteriorating and need replacement.
Many water service pipelines are more than 50 years old, and their 4-inch diameter size is insufficient. The undersized pipes puts limitations on fire protection needs.
Wheelus said the town has replaced aging leaking water and sewer collection lines, more needs to be done…
Priority needs for the water and wastewater pipeline system in Dolores are estimated to cost $2.7 million, according to a recent assessment from SGM Engineering.
Rate increases will help cover current and future repairs and upgrades at the water and sewer plants over several years, town officials said during recent budget discussions.
In the fall, 10 deteriorated water lines passing under Colorado Highway 145 were replaced. The job was a priority because the highway through town is scheduled to be repaved by Colorado Department of Transportation in 2021. An upgrade to the water treatment plant also was completed this year.
To cover the approximate $800,000 cost, the town secured a $292,363 grant from the Department of Local Affairs, and a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Remaining costs were covered from town reserves and a loan from Dolores State Bank.
The water rate increase will go toward paying off the loan…
According to town documents, there are numerous other infrastructure needs pending within the next 5 to 10 years in Dolores. The rate increase will help build up the reserve to pay for future water and sewer upgrade and maintenance projects.
The increase will also help offset ordinary inflation of costs to operate and maintain water and sewer utilities, officials said.
Dolores has significant remaining capacity in both treatment plants, they said, and both plants are also meeting state standards for water quality. Regarding water quantity, SGM said water supply, and the water and sewer treatment systems are sufficient, and the plants have capacity to meet growth in town without major repairs or expansion.
Local governments and environmental groups don’t think a proposal submitted by a mining company goes far enough to restore the damage done when the company diverted a section of creek near Marble, and they are asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold a public hearing to address various concerns.
They also say the company, which was found to have violated the Clean Water Act for moving the section of Yule Creek without first applying for a permit, should undertake river restoration projects elsewhere in the Crystal River basin as compensatory mitigation for damage the company caused when it moved the waterway to construct a road to better access its marble quarry.
The quarry site and Yule Creek are in Gunnison County, but the creek is a tributary of the Crystal River, which flows through Pitkin County.