#ColoradoRiver: @USBR Lake Estes and Olympic Dam operations update #COriver

First water through the Adams Tunnel. Photo credit  Northern Water.
First water through the Adams Tunnel. Photo credit Northern Water.

From email from Reclamation (Peter Soeth):

On Monday at 5:30 pm of this week diversions through the Adams Tunnel to the east slope of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project began. While this picks up, Lake Estes will rise slightly and is expected to be return to typical levels by next mid-week.

The Olympus Dam slide gate remains set to release low-level winter flows to the Big Thompson River.

This rate of fill will be maintained for several days to ensure safe operations below the Estes Power Plant. The majority of the water in Lake Estes enters through the power plant via the C-BT Project.

Track Lake Estes’ water elevation at our tea cup page: http://www.usbr.gov/gp-bin/arcweb_olydamco.pl

Olympus Dam photo via the US Bureau of Reclamation.
Olympus Dam photo via the US Bureau of Reclamation.

Work beginning for Toots Hole on Yampa River — Steamboat Today

The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.
The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

From Steamboat Today (Teresa Ristow):

Work begins [November 21, 2016] on a new whitewater feature on the Yampa River adjacent to Little Toots Park.

The new Toots Hole will be similar to the A-Wave upstream, which was reconstructed in December 2015.

“There is going to be a drop feature on the right-hand side and then a passage on the left for fish,” said Kent Vertrees, board member for Friends of the Yampa, which is carrying out the project in collaboration with the city of Steamboat Springs Parks and Community Services Department. “It will create a good, fun wave for tubers and also create some fish habitat.”

The project will include river bank stabilization, riparian habitat restoration and other improvements.

In December 2015, the river’s A-Wave was reconstructed, as the drop-off had become troublesome for tubers who could hurt themselves or become stuck in the wave.

“At low water, it was keeping tubers in the hole, or tubers were flipping in and getting stuck,” Vertrees said. “Now, it flushes.”

Both the A-Wave and Toots Hole projects are being funded by Friends of the Yampa, thanks to grants the organization received from the Colorado Water Conservancy board’s Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable and the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.

Friends of the Yampa also organizes additional fundraisers, including its annual Big Snow Dance, which took place Saturday. The event raised more than $12,000 through an auction, money that will also support the Toots Hole project.

“That money goes directly into the river for this project,” Vertrees said. “The community of river people and Friends of the Yampa folks have really supported this project.”

The improvements to the river were identified in the 2008 Yampa River Structural Plan, and the two projects together are expected to cost about $130,000.

Vertrees said Toots Hole is the last component of what he calls the Yampa River Boating Park, a series of river features through downtown.

“We’ve created this interesting little urban river canyon, and we’re just adding to it,” he said. “We’re really excited about the conclusion of this project.”

Vertrees thanked Rick Mewborn, of Nordic Excavating, for his work on the projects, including donations of time and rock.

“Without him as a partner, this wouldn’t have been as successful,” he said.

Work on the project is expected to last about two weeks, and periodic closures of the Yampa River Core Trail might occur while work is taking place.

Movement seeks to bring back flood irrigation in some areas — Capital Press

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs
Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From Capital Press (John O’Connell):

Chris Colson champions an admittedly antiquated and inefficient method of watering crops — flood irrigation.

The Boise-based regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited is part of a movement that recognizes the wildlife and water-supply benefits of flood irrigation, and the need to make certain it continues to be used in floodplains and other strategic locations across the West.

Ironically, his efforts to preserve flood irrigation often tap the same federal dollars that help farmers install high-efficiency pivots, which threaten to render flood irrigation obsolete.

The attraction for Colson and others is that flood irrigation, with its leaky canals and standing water, helps recharge shrinking aquifers and provides migratory birds with a stopover on their annual pilgrimages between the Arctic and points south.

Unlikely partnerships of agricultural landowners, conservationists, government officials and water managers are behind efforts to keep farmers flooding fields in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California. During the past year, Colson estimates the movement has maintained flood irrigation on roughly 4,000 acres across the West.

“For 15 or 20 years or more, the conservation community has been telling people how wasteful flood irrigation is and convert to sprinkler,” Colson said.

Farmers have relied on flood irrigation — using gravity to spread surface water across fields — for thousands of years.

Since the late 1960s, however, growers have been moving away from flooding in favor of more efficient sprinklers. On average, 120,000 acres in 11 Western states were converted from flood irrigation to sprinklers annually between 1995 to 2010, according to a study of U.S. Geological Survey water-use data.

Unintended consequences

Conservation funding sources, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program under the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, have long supported sprinkler conversions with water-efficiency grants.

But the pursuit of efficiency has had unintended consequences. Migratory wading birds feed in flood-irrigated fields, which have provided an artificial alternative to the natural marshes lost to river damming. And Western aquifer levels have dropped in correlation with the disappearance of flood irrigation — historically a major source of incidental aquifer recharge.

In Idaho’s Eastern Snake Plain, for example, officials say the aquifer has been dropping by 200,000 acre-feet per year on average, due to increased groundwater use and reduced flood irrigation.

Zola Ryan, NRCS district conservationist in Harney County, Ore., says her agency’s goals of improving irrigation efficiency and preserving flood irrigation needn’t be at odds.

Ryan explained efficient sprinklers are ideal for irrigators using groundwater, and watering where benefits of flooding aren’t as pronounced.

“There is a place and time for flood irrigation and a place and time for sprinkler irrigation,” Ryan said.

The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation's irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.
The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

Locals await grant news on #ColoradoRiver projects — Sky-Hi Daily News #COriver

Windy Gap Reservoir
Windy Gap Reservoir

From The Sky-Hi Daily News (Lance Maggart):

The long awaited Windy Gap Bypass Project may begin moving forward in the not-so-distant future.

Officials from Grand County as well as multiple local partnering agencies and groups are patiently awaiting news on a $10 million Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant. The announcement regarding which applicants will receive the grant is expected sometime in Dec. this year. If the grant award is approved full funding for the Windy Gap Bypass Project will be secured.

WORKIN ON THE RIVER

The RCPP grant is administered by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and is given to producers and landowners to provide conservation assistance. The grant application was submitted under a partnership of multiple local organizations and entities including: Grand County government, the Irrigators in the Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK), the Upper Colorado River Alliance (UCRA), Middle Park, the Colorado River District, Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and Northern Water.

If awarded the $10 million grant monies will go directly to two specific projects: the Windy Gap Bypass Project and a streambed habitat improvement project in the Colorado River for the ILVK. Additionally CPW is working to secure funding from the States Wildlife Mitigation and Enhancement Plan to conduct a stream enhancement project on the Colorado River between the Windy Gap and the ILVK lands. If local organizers are able to secure funding for all three projects roughly 33-miles of the Colorado River will see stream improvements.

Lurline Underbrink-Curran is a contract employee for Grand County overseeing much of the County’s efforts on water issues. She worked closely with others to develop the RCPP grant application. “This will be a big deal if we are successful,” Underbrink-Curran said. “We think we have a strong application and we have a very strong partnership collaboration.”

She cautioned against expecting results too quickly though, even if full funding is approved. “The things that happened to the River didn’t happen over night and we won’t fix them overnight. But if we have methods and plans in place we will get them fixed.”

WINDY GAP BYPASS

The total cost of the Windy Gap Bypass Project is estimated at roughly $9.6 million. A total of $4.5 million has already been secured for the project and the $10 million RCPP grant would cover the remainder, with excess funds going to the ILVK Project.

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water
Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

The Windy Gap Bypass Project is intended to create a free flowing channel for water from the Colorado River to [bypass] the Windy Gap Reservoir. The Windy Gap Reservoir is located just a short distance west of Granby on US Highway 40 and is one of several water storage reservoir[s] that make up the Colorado Big-Thompson Project’s water diversion system.

Water from the Windy Gap is pumped through the Northern Water diversion and pump network eventually reaching Grand Lake before moving across the Continental Divide through the Alva B. Adams Tunnel. When the Windy Gap Reservoir was initially constructed no free flowing channel was created. As such the Windy Gap Reservoir divides the river habitat above and below the reservoir, preventing fish and other creatures from migrating freely.

Additionally the Windy Gap causes the Colorado River to lose nearly all of its velocity, allowing for a substantial amount of sediment to develop in both the reservoir and in the river downstream. The sediment buildup negatively impacts bug habitat, which has a domino effect on all other species living in the river.

The work that will be done for the Windy Gap Bypass is fairly simple in concept. Excavators will dig out a channel within the existing Windy Gap Reservoir. The dirt from the excavations will be used to construct a berm inside the Reservoir. The berm will establish a smaller reservoir while also creating a separate channel for the free flow of water down the Colorado.

ILVK PROJECT

The ILVK streambed habitat improvement project seeks to address two concerns: issues with irrigation infrastructure and improvements of streambed habitat for bug and aquatic life.

As Paul Bruchez, one of the ILVK landowners helping to spearhead the project explained, the project hopes to accomplish both goals through the same work; by rebuilding the pools and riffles that create healthy river habitat and focusing most of those efforts on areas where the irrigation pumping infrastructure already exists.

The ILVK is a landowners organization made up primarily of irrigating ranchers near the town of Kremmling. The ILVK holds some of the most senior water rights on the upper Colorado River; their senior water rights are recognized in Senate Document 80 and their rights precede the famous Colorado-Big Thompson Project (CBTP).

Prior to the establishment of the CBTP there were virtually no water storage reservoirs in the high country and no ditches bringing water to the landowners of the ILVK. At that time they were considered as having, “meadows act water rights” meaning they did not irrigate their fields using irrigation ditches, rather their fields naturally flooded each spring/summer as snow runoff from higher elevations made its way to the Colorado River.

When the CBTP was established irrigation pumps were constructed to provide water from the Colorado River to the landowners of the ILVK. As time has passed and additional water diversions and storage projects were undertaken above the ILVK region the flows that provided the ILVK members with irrigation water have diminished, along with the overall water table.

“We have a fixed station (irrigation) pump system with a river that is dynamic and changing,” Bruchez explained. “My neighbors and family struggle with irrigation issues. But I am also watching the regress of the Colorado River from a fishery standpoint. The concept of the ILVK project is to fix and repair our irrigation systems to be sustainable while using construction techniques that will improve the health of the river overall.”

In that way the ILVK project proverbially kills two birds with one stone. But for Bruchez and other landowners along the Colorado the effort isn’t just about improving their ability to access the water that is theirs by right, it is about the broader health of the River as well.

“If we can cut down water temps by even a fraction we are making headway,” Bruchez said. “It almost becomes a water quality issue. We are not just improving segments but improving the whole river system. We can’t look at one part or another as the priority. It is a system that needs a system wide repair.”

An Ecosystem’s Lifeblood, Flowing Through Gravel — @NYTimes

Photo via GrizzlyTours.com
Photo via GrizzlyTours.com

From The New York Times (Jim Robbins):

In a paper published earlier this year, a team of ecologists sought to outline the essential role of gravel-bed rivers in Western mountain ecosystems — the first time an interdisciplinary team has looked at river systems on such a large scale.

“A river doesn’t just flow down the channel,” said F. Richard Hauer, a professor of stream ecology at the University of Montana and the lead author of the paper. “It flows over and through the entire flood plain system, from valley wall to valley wall, and supports an extraordinary diversity of life.”

Perhaps most surprising of all: “Most of the water in these systems is not in the river — it’s in the gravel.”

These river systems are among the most ecologically important habitats on the continent, Dr. Hauer and his colleagues concluded, supporting a hidden wealth of biodiversity. And not just in the West; the life-sustaining dynamics are at play in the mountains of Europe, the Andes, the Himalayas and New Zealand.

In the West, a dynamic river is not important just to fish or to amphibians, but to grizzly bears and mountain lions descending from mountaintops to the flood plain for important foods. Indeed, two-thirds of the species in a large river valley spend at least part of their lives in its flood plain.

The new study also demonstrates that altering this complex biological machinery with dams and diversions has far-reaching effects, leading to long-term decline of the ecosystem.

“A river is a huge, huge biodiversity engine with multiple parts,” Dr. Hauer said. “If you keep taking out parts, pretty soon the engine stops.”

Until now, scientists had never put together such a comprehensive ecological blueprint of river dynamics.

Melting snow and groundwater flow down the channel; this is what we think of as a “river.” But underground, far more water is moving slowly through a labyrinthine network of cobbles, gravel and sand that make up the entire valley bottom.

This deeply buried habitat is far more important and far more productive than thought. The matrix of gravel and sand cleans the water, filtering organic material and freeing up nitrogen and phosphorous embedded in the gravel.

These natural fertilizers spread across the valley bottom, a shot of adrenaline that nourishes plants in the flood plain such as willows and aspen, which in turn draw birds and beavers, elk and caribou. The plant-eaters attract predators like wolves and grizzly bears.

In the summer, warm water is stored underground. It takes so long for the water to move that it surfaces in winter, moderating water temperatures and creating a refuge for some aquatic species, shielding them from winter’s freeze. In the winter, the opposite happens.

The river also continually rearranges and renews the ecosystem.

During high water, topsoil, gravel and woody debris are washed into new sites downriver and below ground, fostering new habitats and new plant communities. The new habitats blend with existing ones, from mature cottonwood forests to grasslands, to create a patchy mosaic.

On a recent flight over the Bitterroot River, a gravel-bed river near Missoula, Dr. Hauer pointed out the flood plain.

While the river below flowed down a main channel, it was easy to see from the air that over centuries, the Bitterroot had frequently jumped its bounds to create a network of new channels.

The old channels were covered with gravel — an important habitat for the stoneflies and other insects that feed the fish. Everywhere in the valley, water flowing underground through the gravel surfaced to create a diverse assortment of ponds, seeps and springs.

Dr. Hauer also pointed out a number of places where people have sought to tame the river’s unruly habits in order to plow farm fields or build subdivisions.

“There’s no renewal — the river doesn’t move gravel around and doesn’t create new mosaics of habitat,” he said. “Nutrients are not dispersed. Everything gets locked in place and starts getting old and declines.”

The environmental damage is hidden — at first. Channels feeding the underground habitats are sealed off as the river is confined. The species that depend on the hidden flows begin to falter.

These gravel flood plains, Dr. Hauer said, are among the most endangered ecosystems worldwide.

Keeping them intact will help dependent species adapt to the greatest environmental threat of all: climate change. “The implication for conservation is enormous,” Dr. Hauer said.

Healthy Rivers board works to keep water in the river — Aspen Public Radio

Roaring Fork River, Grottos, on Monday morning June 13, 2016, looking downstream, with diversions into the Twin Lakes Tunnel at over 600 cfs. While impressive at this level, the whitewater frenzy that resulted after the tunnels were closed was far more intense. Photo Brent Gardner-Smith <a href="http://aspenjournalism.org">Aspen Journalism</a>.
Roaring Fork River, Grottos, on Monday morning June 13, 2016, looking downstream, with diversions into the Twin Lakes Tunnel at over 600 cfs. While impressive at this level, the whitewater frenzy that resulted after the tunnels were closed was far more intense. Photo Brent Gardner-Smith Aspen Journalism.

From Aspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):

Healthy Rivers and Streams board members recently took a field trip to the construction zone on the Roaring Fork River, where backhoes are digging up the riverbed. By February, this should be a man-made whitewater park with two waves for boaters to surf.

Board chair Lisa Tasker said the ultimate goal of this project is to keep water in the river during low flow years, using a water right designated for recreation.

“When you get a recreational in-channel diversion water right, you have to put structures in, and then you have to prove that people are recreating in there,” Tasker said.

With a price-tag of nearly $800,000, the whitewater park is the biggest project the Healthy Rivers and Streams fund has tackled…

Now it is turning its attention to the City of Aspen, which wants to reserve the right to build reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks. The municipality filed last month with the state to keep its conditional water storage right.

“We’re a healthy rivers board, and we’re going to respond in favor of a healthy river and a healthy ecosystem,” Tasker said. “So, we’re going to come out probably fairly strongly, because that is our mission.”

At a meeting in late October, the river board agreed to urge Pitkin County Commissioners to formally file in opposition to the City of Aspen in water court. Commissioner Rachel Richards is not warm to the idea.

“Just forcing the city to relinquish those water rights actually does nothing to protect the long-term health of the Castle Creek or the Maroon Creek,” Richards said.

Richards said she’d like to see the city maintain the rights while researching alternatives, like digging into a deeper aquifer or working to change Colorado water law entirely.

If nothing else, Richards and Tasker agree, the issue has opened a new conversation and interest in local water issues.

“I think it’s going to cause people to become a lot more creative and a lot more imaginative as to how they’re going to handle a shortage of water in the future,” Tasker said.

The county has until Dec. 31 to file in opposition to the city.

Read Brent Gardner-Smith’s analysis of Aspen’s diligence filing.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Gunnison Tunnel turning off, 600 cfs in Black Canyon

Fog-filled Black Canyon via the National Park Service
Fog-filled Black Canyon via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be decreased from 1500 cfs to 600 cfs on Tuesday, November 1st. This reduction will follow the shutdown of diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel. Release reductions will be coordinated with Gunnison Tunnel diversion reductions throughout the morning of November 1st. River flows downstream may fluctuate during the shutdown period but flows should steady out at the current level by the afternoon. The current content of Blue Mesa Reservoir is 610,000 acre-feet which is 73% full.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. Flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for November through December.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are around 900 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 600 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be at zero and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should still be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.