A wet 2019 delayed construction work throughout Nebraska, including a Platte River Recovery Implementation Program water project southwest of Elm Creek.
At Tuesday’s PRRIP Governance Committee meeting in Kearney, program civil engineer Kevin Werbylo said the completion date for the project on the south side of the Platte River was moved from May 1 to Aug. 1 to Oct. 15.
“Given the conditions the contractor had to deal with, they did a nice job and the engineers did a nice job,” Werbylo said.
The project fits program goals to reduce depletions to Central Platte target flows and to protect, restore or maintain land used as habitat by threatened and endangered species — least terns, piping plovers and whooping cranes.
The basinwide plan allows entities in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming with federal licenses, permits and/or funding to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Department of Interior is the other major participant.
The Elm Creek project will help meet an immediate goal to reduce by 120,000 acre-feet the annual depletions to target river flows set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the protected species. Water held in shallow detention cells on the broad-scale site will seep into the groundwater that eventually reaches the adjacent Platte River.
Platte water will be diverted into Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District’s Phelps Canal at times when flows exceed targets. According to PRRIP 1995-2017 data, that most commonly occurs in December and January.
A new pipeline built as part of the project links the canal to the 416-acre site where earthen berms up to 6 feet tall create eight shallow cells to temporarily hold water at depths of 12 inches or less.
Werbylo said the project budget is $4.3 million and there is $480,000 left to pay.
Dirt work needs to settle and vegetation is being established, he said, so it will be late spring to mid-summer 2020 before any water deliveries are made to the broad-scale project site.
PRRIP Executive Director Jason Farnsworth told the Hub that even if the original construction schedule had allowed the project’s use this fall, there would have been no diversions because of already high groundwater.
Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 100 cfs, today, September 9th. Reservoir contents at Morrow Pt and Crystal have sufficiently recovered to allow for higher releases. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for September through December.
Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 1030 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 500 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 1030 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
From the Hutchins Water Center (Hannah Holm) via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
In late August, I had the good fortune to float down the Colorado River from Silt to Rifle on a bright, sunny day, with cottonwoods just starting to think about turning their leaves to gold. Our guides had never floated this section of river before — there are no big thrills in these river miles. It was beautiful, though. We saw a lot of ospreys and herons, and the traffic on nearby I-70 was unseen and almost inaudible.
Our boats were filled with experts on how the management of land and water affects the flows in the river, the vegetation on the banks, and the living environment for fish and the bugs they eat. One of my companions pointed out places where the cottonwoods were all mature, because the river hadn’t reached that part of the floodplain recently enough for new cottonwood seedlings to sprout. Others discussed a new fish passage around a diversion dam on a tributary stream that had opened up several miles of habitat for trout. We contemplated how algae levels on the river’s bed might be related to nutrients released from an upstream wastewater treatment plant, and observed places where logs placed in the bank had shifted erosion from one place to another, changing the course of the river.
These features of the environment, along with many others, determine what kind of experience people can have on the river, whether they are fishing, boating, or just watching the water flow by. Other factors beyond immediate, local control also affect people’s ability to enjoy the river and its tributaries, both for recreation and the practical work of growing crops and bringing water to household faucets. These include cycles of drought and flood and a worrying long-term decline in streamflows brought about by warming temperatures.
Policy decisions about how to continue to share a shrinking river between seven U.S. states and two countries also matter. If irrigators get paid to spread less water on their land, which is one conservation measure that state leaders are studying, the resulting reductions in seepage to groundwater could affect their neighbors’ wells and the amount of water that trickles back into streams in late summer and fall. And what will the cows eat if less hay is produced locally? But things could be worse if water users face legal requirements to cut back, which may happen if Colorado and the other upstream states fail to meet downstream obligations.
The Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which organized the Silt-to-Rifle float, is wrestling with all of these issues as they work in coordination with the Bookcliff, Mount Sopris and Southside Conservation Districts to develop an Integrated Water Management Plan. They are bringing together irrigators, local government officials, business people and scientists to learn more about connections and trade-offs between different local water uses, stream health and large-scale trends and policy decisions. The goal is to find opportunities to protect and enhance stream health and all the ways people enjoy water in communities from Glenwood Springs to DeBeque. Similar efforts, also known as Stream Management Plans, are underway in other parts of the state, including the Yampa Valley, the Eagle Valley, and the area around Gunnison and Crested Butte.
This kind of work, daunting in its complexity, is important for helping communities chart their own water futures in challenging times. You can learn more about the Middle Colorado plan at https://www.midcowatershed.org/iwmp, and you can learn how other Colorado communities are approaching the challenge at https://coloradosmp.org/.
Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. She is also on the steering committee for the Middle Colorado Integrated Water Management Plan. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.
Water leaders from across the state converged on Steamboat Springs this week as part of the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference.
The Colorado Water Congress is a group of people who work and live in water, explained Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger…
In a legislative update, attendees heard about three proposals that could change water management in the state. Reps. Dylan Roberts, Jeni Arndt and Donald Valdez and Sens. Kerry Donovan, Jerry Sonnenberg and Don Coram sat on the panel.
“As somebody who represents Routt County and other Western Slope counties, we know what a dry year looks like,” Roberts said. “We just had one last year, and we’re fortunate to have a wet year this year, but we have to continuously plan for those dry years and look at any legislation that helps us to preserve and conserve as much water as possible, prevent forest fires and protect agriculture, because they’re the ones that really lose out when we have dry years.”
Changes to a program that increases river flow in dry years
The instream flow program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to designate water rights to preserve or improve the natural environment of a stream.
In the Yampa River, this program has been used to release reservoir water to boost flows through Steamboat in dry summers.
Under the current law, the program allows people who hold water rights to temporarily loan reservoir water to the state to boost flows in a stream three times over the course of a 10-year period. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has already used loaned water for an instream flow in the Upper Yampa River three times in 2012, 2013 and 2017.
Though reservoir water has been released in other years, including last summer, it was under a different legal mechanism.
Roberts, a Democrat who represents Routt and Eagle counties, introduced a bill that would allow for more instream flow releases.
“Once the 10-year period is done, you’re done forever, and you can never do it again,” Roberts explained. “So while city of Steamboat and the Yampa River has taken advantage of that program, they’ve started their 10-year clock. Once we hit 10 years in 2022, they won’t be able to use it again, so if we have a really low water year on the Yampa in 2023 or 2024, we won’t be able to use the instream flow to keep the Yampa running through town.”
The bill, as currently proposed, would allow these loans for five of every 10 years and allow it to be renewed twice once those 10-year periods end.
This would improve stream habitat, Roberts said, as well as limit economic impacts due to river closures placed during low flows that impact tubing outfitters, fishing shops and the businesses that benefit from recreation in the area.
Monger, who sits on the board of the Upper Yampa Conservancy District, said the program has “been a great thing.” The district operates Stagecoach Reservoir.
“(The district’s) actually been fortunate enough to have some available wet water that we can send down through to the city of Steamboat Springs, and it helps with water quality as well as water temperature,” he said. “It’s been a great thing, and the upper Yampa sells a little bit of water for its revenue sources to be able to take care of the water, so that’s a good thing.”
It would also expand the program by allowing more water to be released to create more habitat for aquatic species, whereas currently, these releases are smaller releases designated only to preserve the existing natural environment…
Ballot measure to legalize sports betting with tax revenue funding water projects
Earlier this year, the legislature passed a measure that will ask voters to legalize sports betting with tax revenue from the practice funding the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan.
If approved by voters, Colorado would allow some casinos to offer a sports book, essentially a room with a betting board and “every game known to man” on television screens, as Donovan put it. Casinos could also contract with online sports betting companies, such as DraftKings and FanDuel, to operate web-based sports betting. People could bet on college, professional and Olympic games.
While sports betting has taken place in the state, it’s currently illegal.
“This is a chance to legalize an action that we know is happening on the ground and to provide regulation protection under that act if people choose to bet on sports betting,” Donovan said.
A 10% tax on each wager would be paid by casinos, with the bulk of the revenue funding the Colorado Water Plan. Some revenue would be directed to administrative costs, a hold harmless fund and a gambling crisis hotline.
The Colorado Water Plan outlines a number of actions such as conserving more water used by cities and industry, storing more water, establishing plans to protect critical watersheds and increasing public awareness of water issues. The Yampa-White-Green River Basin Roundtable would implement the plan locally.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis requested $30 million to fund the plan and statewide drought planning. The legislature granted $8.3 million to fund the water plan and $1.7 million for drought planning…
Using new technology to trade water rights in real-time
Another law, passed earlier this year, establishes an advisory group to study possible uses of blockchain technology within agriculture.
Blockchain is a way to track transactions, and it uses the same record-keeping technology as bitcoin. Each transaction within the network, whether the blockchain network is trading water or money, is recorded in a block and includes data about transactions under a unique signature, sort of like a username. Each transaction is verified by the network of computers in the blockchain.
Evan Thomas, director of the Mortensen Center in Global Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, presented on possible applications of blockchain in the world of water rights. Blockchain could create a system to trade water by using sensors that track how much water is used or conserved to create “water credits.”
“(Those water credits are) entered into the blockchain,” Thomas said. “Somebody requests a transaction. They say ‘I need to buy more water this month, so I want to buy somebody else’s water credits.’ You enter in that transactionm, and they buy and sell points. The sensor identifies water use and water consumption, (and) turns that into a blockchain node.”
Thomas said this is a worthwhile tool to study in its applications for water rights, but that it is one part of a “suite of tools” that should be examined to update how water is traded.
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
Western Water Spotlight: a Colorado partnership is engaged in a river restoration effort to aid farms and fish habitat that could serve as a model across the west
“What used to be a very large river that inundated the land has really become a trickle,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado counsel for Trout Unlimited. “We estimate that 70 percent of the flow on an annual average goes across the Continental Divide and never comes back.”
Ranchers on the river who once relied on floodwater from the Colorado River to irrigate their hayfields now must pump from the river to irrigate. The river is shallow, sandy and warm in spots. Irrigation ditches have sloughed. The stretch of the river near Kremmling has not been working well for ranchers or the environment.
Now, a partnership of state, local and conservation groups, including Trout Unlimited, is engaged in a restoration effort that could serve as a template for similar regions across the West. Centered around the high plateau near Kremmling, a town of about 1,400 people in northern Colorado about 100 miles west of Denver, the partnership aims to make the river function better for people and the environment.
Paul Bruchez, a fifth-generation rancher of 6,000 acres near Kremmling who also runs fly fishing expeditions for tourists, sees the river’s challenges from both perspectives.
“Some of us involved with fly fishing care deeply about the environmental conditions within the river corridor,” said Bruchez. “Other landowners are more focused on the agricultural sustainability. But the one thing we agreed about is that things were collapsing.”
Restoring a Healthier River
The partnership, known as the Irrigators of the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK), obtained grant funding in 2015 to start the process of assessing the river’s conditions and identifying possible pilot projects, such as stabilizing riverbanks and reviving irrigation channels across a meandering 12-mile stretch of the Colorado River. As projects are identified, ILVK members attempt to prioritize them and apply for grants with the project costs evenly divided between grantors and landowners, Bruchez said.
River improvements often have immediate benefits for irrigation infrastructure.
“Many of our irrigation laterals had washed into the river system and there was no large-scale look at the system as a whole and how it connects,” Bruchez said. “A lot of these simple bank stabilization projects not only create habitat but are literally safeguarding some of our irrigation laterals that we all rely on to deliver the water to our crops.”
The key, he said, is realizing that less can be more in re-establishing a proper flow regime. “You set the stage for the river then you let the river do the work itself instead of getting in there and manipulating everything,” he said.
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Trout Unlimited is a full partner in the project. It applied for all the funding and is the fiscal agent and manager of the grants. Whiting and Bruchez consult on project management, retention of consultants and scope of work.
“It’s a complete win for everybody. It’s just a question of money,” Whiting said. “It’s been so successful and such a good story and so far, we have been able to draw quite a bit of funding and turn that into impressive improvements for the river and the ranchers.”
The partnership has obtained $2.6 million in grants from funders such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($500,000), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service ($2 million) and the Gates Family Foundation ($120,000).
Four miles downstream from Bruchez, the Colorado River becomes a smaller river with warmer temperatures that have spurred algae growth. “The minimum stream level of the Colorado River at Kremmling is 150 cubic feet per second,” said rancher Bill Thompson. “That’s not much.”
Thompson, who ranches about 400 acres, moved to Kremmling in 1959. He said he’s spent about $200,000 to match grant funding for two grade-control projects that have raised the river channel 18 inches near his property. While helping him get the water he needs, the structures also help create fish habitat.
“I speed the water up, I’ve got them [fish] more oxygen and I’ve cooled [the water] down,” he said. “It’s a healthier river now because of it.”
River projects are undertaken to be cost-effective. “We are trying to do this in a capacity where it is more affordable,” Bruchez said. “These are not people that live on limitless budgets that are doing this for building Disneyland fish habitat. These are multigeneration ag producers that just want to be able to irrigate.”
Overcoming Skeptical Landowners
Moving water great distances helps meet Colorado’s water supply demand. The Continental Divide spans the length of the state, with watersheds on the west side flowing toward the Pacific Ocean and those on the east feeding the Atlantic Ocean. The more rural Western Slope of the Rockies gets most of Colorado’s precipitation, about 80 percent, and a vast network of storage and conveyance infrastructure moves water to major cities like Denver, Boulder and Aurora.
That diversion has come at the expense of the Colorado River in the area near Kremmling. “Where you had a very large river there is now a very small river,” Whiting with Trout Unlimited said. “It doesn’t have enough water; it is overly wide and shallow, and it gets really hot.”
Prior to the diversions, the Colorado River’s floodwaters washed over the land and helped prepare it for planting.
“You didn’t even need a water right,” said Thompson, the longtime rancher. “All you had to do was take your rake out there and scrape off the logs and the willows and start haying.”
Getting to a place where landowners agreed to commit themselves to projects took time. “It’s fair to say most landowners were pretty skeptical,” Bruchez said. “These are people that like private lives. They don’t like public dollars; they don’t like meetings and they don’t like talking about stuff. They like doing their thing.”
Eventually a cost-sharing structure emerged that focused on improving the condition of the river, with grant funding helping to cover the gap beyond out-of-pocket expenses for traditional repairs. River fixes run the gamut, from rebuilding lost banks to altering the channel with rock that makes the current meander, ebb and flow. This, in turn, stimulates the production of insects that fish feast on. Bruchez said anglers tell him the results are “off the charts.”
A restored Colorado River means good things for the ranchers near Kremmling and the trout that thrive in its waters. How much further work happens and at what scale remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the merits have been demonstrated. For her part, Whiting said the next challenge and hard conversation will entail finding ways to leave more water in the river.
Beyond the physical improvements to the river, the interaction between stakeholders has also worked well, Bruchez said, especially with trans-mountain diverters such as Denver Water. “We all view it now as a one-river thing, and when we all work together and are able to talk about the issues, we can solve problems,” he said. “If we all go to our corners and put up our fists, it doesn’t work so well.”
Whiting said partnerships between landowners and outside agencies work best when people like Bruchez are there to serve as a bridge.
“They can go in and say, ‘These guys are not coming to take your water, they are not here to take your land,’” she said. “All these suspicions can be calmed when you have a trusted source who walks stakeholders through it.”
As 2019 moves toward 2020, more bank and river channel work is scheduled. Centered at the swirl of activity, Bruchez said he wants to keep things in perspective.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do and we are trying to not get too big for our britches,” he said. “We also recognize there are river-system challenges all over the country, especially in the Southwest, and we are hoping as a collective group that this project is enough of a success that we can really try and demonstrate to others how people can come together and accomplish a successful project, especially by reasonably affordable techniques of installation.”
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Click here to read Coyote Gulch posts about Paul Bruchez’s influence.
The lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California have created a drought contingency plan while the upper basin states including New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming have a different drought contingency plan.
These two plans fall under a companion agreement between the upper and lower basin states as well as federal legislation signed into law earlier this year.
The key component of these agreements is to keep water levels in Lake Powell from dropping below 3,525 feet in elevation and to keep water levels in Lake Mead above 1,090 feet in elevation.
The upper basin states will be responsible for maintaining the levels in Lake Powell.
The San Juan Water Commission learned about the drought contingency plan during a meeting on Aug. 7 in Farmington.
Here are three things New Mexico residents should know about the Drought Contingency Plan:
1. Navajo Lake is a key component
…New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission Lawyer Dominique Work said the first step will be to look at operations at Lake Powell to determine if less water could be released. If that does not work, the response plan will look at different storage reservoirs — Flaming Gorge, Aspinall and Navajo Lake.
All three reservoirs can release water into rivers that eventually flow into Lake Powell.
One of those three storage reservoirs could be chosen to release water to keep the levels at Lake Powell above 3,525 feet…
2. The 3,525 feet water level was chosen for hydropower generation
Lake Powell produces hydropower that provides electricity to utilities in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the hydropower plant at Glen Canyon Dam produces about five billion kilowatt hours of power each year.
Electric utilities in Farmington and Aztec both receive power from Lake Powell.
If the lake levels drop below 3,490 feet, the hydropower plant cannot work…
3. Plan also allows upper basin states to place water in storage
Another key aspect of the plan is it allows the upper basin states to develop a plan to store up to 500,000 acre-feet of additional water in Navajo Lake, Flaming Gorge and Aspinall. This water would be released if needed to fulfill Colorado River Compact requirements…
However, the 500,000 acre-feet of water must come from water rights that would otherwise have been used if it had not been put into storage. For example, a farmer could choose to put an acre-foot of water into storage and let their field go fallow.
The upper basin states must develop a demand management program before they can begin putting water in storage in the reservoirs.
On Monday, the city announced that it is the recipient of $186,356, which will go toward establishing “alternative transfer methods” with area farmers. ATMs allow water-right holders to share a portion of their claims without giving them up entirely. The state has a goal to assist in 50,000 acre feet of water transfers through the use of ATMs by 2030.
The program allows creative solutions to water sharing in a way that was not previously accessible, according to Margaret Medellin, city of Aspen’s utilities portfolio manager.
“Traditionally in Colorado water law, if you don’t use your water right you’ll eventually lose it,” Medellin said, “so before this ATM concept came about you would want to use your water rights as much as you can at all times.”
This tactic is counterintuitive to what the state needs from its water holders, though. Colorado’s population growth projections show that the demand for water will increasingly outmatch the supply. By 2050, the state’s population is estimated to reach 10 million — double 2008’s figure — creating a water shortage for about 2.5 million families.
In attempting to preserve its own water rights on Castle and Maroon Creeks, the city found itself headed to state water court with 10 separate opponents last year. It was during those pretrial negotiations that the city decided to partner with two plaintiffs to explore the ATM solution locally.
“This project is one of a few good things that came out of that effort,” Medellin said. “It really is just us as different advocates for different parts of the community coming together to try and get creative.”
Wilderness Workshop and Western Resource Advocates have assisted the city in seeking out partners who would be willing to forfeit claims on diversions at different times. Over the last year, the city has held stakeholder meetings and consulted with experts, but they realized they would need assistance in identifying good partnerships.
“The thing we realized is that there was no clear project up here,” Medellin said.
The state grant allows the city to hire outside consultants who can continue the work of finding water-rights holders who would be willing to temporarily divert their claims to the city in exchange for fees.
Todd Doherty is the president of Western Water Partnership, the consultant who helped the city with the grant application and will continue to work on securing ATM agreements. He has identified 2,800 irrigated acres that use water diverted at or above the city. His team will be reaching out to farmers to explain the program and gauge interest.