Mandatory curtailment of water rights in #Colorado raised as possibility — @AspenJournalism @CWCB_DNR #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Water experts say that if the ongoing drought persists, Lake Powell could be empty within three years, and call could be placed on the upper basin to curtail water rights. To avoid the chaos such an unprecedented call might bring, state officials are discussing how a more orderly, but still mandatory curtailment of water uses, might need to be implemented. A wall bleached, and stained, in Lake Powell. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith @AspenJournalism.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

A state-imposed mandatory curtailment of water in the Colorado River Basin within Colorado was discussed as a looming possibility during a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board on September 19 in Steamboat Springs.

Representatives from the Western Slope told the statewide water-planning board that while they favor creating a new legally protected pool of water in Lake Powell and other upstream federal reservoirs to help prevent a compact call on the river, they have significant concerns about the pool being filled outside of a program that is “voluntary, temporary and compensated.”

However, Front Range water users told the board that a voluntary program may not get the job done and that a mandatory curtailment program, based on either the prior appropriation doctrine or some method yet to be articulated, may be necessary to keep Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam functioning so Colorado, Utah and Wyoming can deliver enough water to California, Arizona and Nevada to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

“With the repeat of historic hydrology beginning in the year 2000, Lake Powell will be dry, and when I say dry I mean empty, within about three years,” Jim Lochhead, CEO and manager of Denver Water told the CWCB board.

Lochhead said that while a voluntary demand management program might help bolster water levels in Lake Powell, “it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.”

“So we may need — I know we don’t want to implement — but we may need other mechanisms to accelerate the creation of water into Lake Powell in the event of an emergency,” Lochhead said. “This is not something that Denver Water wants, or is asking for. What we are asking for is that the contingency plans be put into place. We need to have those plans in place before the system collapses.”

On Wednesday, Brent Newman, the chief of CWCB’s Interstate, Federal, & Water Information Section emphasized that neither they, nor the state attorney general’s office, is at this point “assessing, pursuing or recommending to the CWCB board any type of involuntary or ‘anticipatory’ curtailment scenario.”

And yet, such scenarios are on a lot of people’s minds.

(Please see related memo, slides and audio from the meeting. The audio is via YouTube, as provided by CWCB. The file opens well into the discussion, so click back to the beginning of the file, which opens just after the agenda item began, with brief introductory comments from CWCB Director Becky Mitchell. It’s well worth listening to. Also please see related story from Sept.18.).

The looming possibility of mandatory curtailment of water use has raised concerns among Western Slope water managers, who feel that such cuts could harm Western Slope agricultural, such as this hay filed in the Yampa River basin. However, as water levels continue to drop to record lows in Lake Powell, mandatory curltailments are being discussed as a real possibility, especially by Front Range water managers. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

At hand

Lochhead said Denver Water wants to see a voluntary, temporary and compensated program created as a “first priority,” but also said “I also don’t think that by not talking about mandatory curtailment we can pretend the problem will go away. We need to be thinking about it, and we need to be thinking about it proactively.”

However, Western Slope water interests as represented by the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District are concerned that if a new storage pool is created in Lake Powell, and a mandatory curtailment program is used to fill it, it could have dire consequences for agriculture on the Western Slope.

NPR panel discussion of The Future of Water at CSU May 24, 2016. L to R: Patty Limerick, Roger Frugua, Melissa Mays, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kathleen Curry, and host Michel Martin.

“This is our livelihood,” Kathleen Curry, a rancher in Gunnison who serves on the Gunnison River Basin Roundtable, told the CWCB. “This water is what we depend on. If we move in the direction of mandatory curtailment, and it isn’t equitable, you are going to have significant impacts to the water users in the state of Colorado, especially on the Western Slope.”

The two regional Western Slope water conservation districts had drafted a resolution they wanted the CWCB to adopt Wednesday, which did not happen, as the CWCB declined to vote on it.

The resolution stated that any mandatory curtailment program would be developed on a “consensus basis” with the two districts at the table, and not just be a directive of the state.

However, Bennett Raley, the general counsel for the Northern Water Conservancy District, which provides water to nearly a million people in northeastern Colorado, said the state, as a sovereign entity, should not be constrained by consensus.

He also said that mandatory curtailment may well be necessary in Colorado.

“If the drought continues, there are two paths,” he told the CWCB board. “If there is an infinite source of money, then voluntary works. Great, we’re all happy. If the drought continues and there is not an infinite source of money, then the state will go to mandatory. The Supreme Court will ensure that, sooner or later, it’s not a question.”

Part of the fear of such a mandatory program is that hardly anyone, outside of perhaps the state engineer, knows what it would look like.

“Ultimately it’s a state decision, it’s a decision of the state engineer as to how water rights would be curtailed to meet the state’s obligations under the Colorado River Compact,” said Lochhead, when asked after the meeting how mandatory curtailment would work. “The short answer is, I don’t know. There are a lot of questions and viewpoints.”

Lochhead did say Denver Water is willing to “work with the state and with the West Slope to ensure that any curtailment doesn’t disproportionally impact any region of the state, whether it’s on the West Slope or the Front Range, and that essentially the same rules apply to everybody.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and other newspapers in the Swift Communications group in Colorado on the coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Thursday, September 20, 2018. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent also published it on Sept. 20, as did the Vail Daily.

@USBR revises release forecasts for Olympus and Ruedi dams

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

From email from Reclamation (James Bishop):

Due to revised demands, releases from Olympus Dam to the Big Thompson River are scheduled to rise from 83 to 101 cubic feet per second (cfs) tonight at midnight (cusp between Thursday and Friday), 21 September. Earlier this week I announced releases from Olympus Dam were planned to rise to 225 cfs and that figure has since changed significantly.

At this point in our forecast, we do not anticipate releases to the Big Thompson River rising above 150 cfs as we use the river to deliver C-BT Project water. On that subject, use of the Big Thompson to make project water deliveries is slated to run through October 12, and those deliveries vary frequently. I will of course continue to provide updates while keeping in mind the old adage: “Plans are disposable. Planning is indispensable.”

A map of the Fry-Ark system. Aspen, and Hunter Creek, are shown in the lower left. Fryingpan-Arkansas Project western and upper eastern slope facilities.

From email from Reclamation (James Bishop):

Yesterday, I messaged you that we at Reclamation no longer planned to increase releases to 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) from Ruedi Dam to the Fryingpan River but would instead be maintaining releases at 355 cfs. That change holds, but I wanted to further explain this.

Due to the persistence of very low river flow conditions in the Colorado River, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in coordination with Reclamation engineers and other Program partners, has decided to reduce the rate of release of Endangered Fish Recovery Program water stored in Ruedi Reservoir to allow these releases to be extended further into October. The reduced rate of release will enable a longer duration of “fish water” to be delivered to the 15-Mile Reach over the upcoming weeks, optimizing its benefits to the endangered fish.

Ruedi releases are bolstering Fryingpan River streamflow

Fryingpan River downstream of Ruedi Reservoir. Photo credit Greg Hobbs

From Aspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):

While most local rivers are flowing at levels far below average, the Fryingpan is the exception. Releases from Ruedi Reservoir are supplementing low flows downstream, in the Colorado River.

The Bureau of Reclamation controls the amount of water that flows out of Ruedi dam, and announced this week that flows in the Fryingpan will increase to 400 cubic feet per second (cfs), more than double the average.

The increases will mean more water delivered to irrigators with senior water rights in the Grand Valley. It will also provide water to four endangered fish in an area known as the 15-Mile Reach near Grand Junction.

Flows in the Fryingpan River are expected to remain at 400 cfs through the end of September.

Proposed Central #Colorado Water Conservancy District $47 million ballot aimed at resilient infrastructure

Recharge pond graphic via the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District.

From Central’s website:

Central’s Board places GMS bond measure on November 2018 ballot

The Board of Directors of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District placed a bond question for the Groundwater Management Subdistrict on to the 2018 ballot. Central’s board and management stated this measure is important to start planning the next steps to secure water rights and build storage for the region. The projects in the bond include:

  • Construction of 5,000 acre-feet of additional reservoir storage—which will increase Central’s holdings by 25 percent—in the Fort Lupton and Greeley/Kersey areas.
  • Construction of the Robert W. Walker Recharge Project, a large project at the Weld and Morgan county lines that will divert water from the South Platte River and send those flows to groundwater recharge basins as far as 5 miles from the river. This will increase drought resiliency for water users in the District. Central was awarded $1.5 million in state and federal grants for the estimated $15 million project.
  • Purchase of several senior water rights that are becoming available for the District’s portfolio, including the purchase of water currently being leased by Central, which will ensure this water stays in the community to be used by local farms and businesses.
  • To review the ballot language, click here. Please contact Central’s office if you have any questions.

    From The Greeley Tribune (Sara Knuth):

    Randy Ray said every local water manager remembers years like 2002 and 2012.

    “That’s one thing water managers don’t forget: the dry years. We always forget about the wet ones, except for the catastrophic floods,” said Ray, executive director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District. “How did their water supplies react to the dry years?”

    Water officials try to answer when they look toward the future of their systems. That’s why the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District will place a $48.7 million bond question on the ballot this November in an effort to address priorities that, officials said, would help the district plan for droughts such as the ones that ravaged this part of the state in 2002 and 2012. Another drought currently bakes portions of the state this year, as well.

    Central’s boundaries stretch through parts of Weld, Adams and Morgan counties and serve about 550 farmers who operate about 1,000 irrigation wells…

    The recharge project, the biggest of the three, would claim an estimated $15 million of the funding in an effort to divert water from the South Platte River and send flows to groundwater basins about 5 miles away from the river. Officials said that would create storage to increase drought resiliency for the district’s water users.

    For Ray, the recharge project is a solution to problems years in the making.

    “It’s complicated, but then again, it’s simple,” he said. “If you want to pump groundwater, you’ve got to replace it. We’re just simply putting water in the aquifer to offset pumping and generate additional supplies that we can count on.”

    Recharge projects, which have been in use for decades, exploded in the late 1990s, as strict regulations for well pumping required water users to replace the groundwater they pumped. They work by diverting water to a pond and allowing it to seep into the ground, and eventually, back to the river.

    At the Walker Recharge Project, which is named after a former district president, officials plan to divert the water from the South Platte River when it’s flowing at a high level to ponds along a plateau as far as 5 miles away.

    The district purchased the land for the project in 2015 after it became clear to Central officials that the district can’t rely on leasing reusable water from Thornton, Aurora, Longmont and Westminster sewer discharge plants the way it has in the past.

    Because the population in those cities is growing, Ray said, city officials are more reluctant to give their extra water supplies away. Water managers in those cities remember dry years such as 2002 too.

    Plus, Ray said, the district views the projects as better financial investments.

    “It’s like renting a house,” Ray said. “The landowner is getting the equity, and you’re just basically paying their mortgage.”

    Ray said the other main projects outlined in the ballot question — the reservoir storage and additional senior water rights — also will play a role in helping the district rely less on water leases from cities. The gravel pit reservoir storage, he said, would help the district divert water from the river quickly when water levels are high for additional storage.

    But Ray said the biggest selling point for the bond issue is agriculture.

    “That’s our big campaign, our big message to our constituents, preserving irrigated agriculture in the county,” Ray said.

    By purchasing additional senior water rights, he said, the district could help slow a trend called “buy-and-dry,” in which cities buy water rights from farms.

    “So, when one of those cities purchases those water rights, they retire the land, and it’s got to go back to a dry land setting, which has a lot of negative associations with that,” Ray said. “The economy dries up and the tax bases go away.”

    If Central takes over that water right, Ray argued, farmers would still have access to groundwater to irrigate a portion of the farmland.

    “If you’re 80 years old, 70 years old, that farm and its water rights are your 401(k),” Ray said. “We want to be an alternative to these beautiful senior water rights in Weld County being transferred to Denver, Arapahoe, Douglas counties and reside here under the management of the water conservancy district.”

    @USBR: Decreased Releases from Green Mountain Reservoir

    Green Mountain Reservoir. Photo credit: Panoramio

    From email from Reclamation (James Bishop):

    This evening, 17 September, 2018, we at Reclamation adjusted releases from Green Mountain Reservoir to the Blue River from 525 to 475 cubic feet per second (cfs). Releases will remain at 475 cfs until further notice.

    Feel free to contact me with any questions at jbishop@usbr.gov or by phone at 970-962-4326.

    Fountain Creek trial: @EPA, et al. v. Colorado Springs begins

    The confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River in Pueblo County — photo via the Colorado Springs Business Journal

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Robert Boczkiewic):

    A trial began Wednesday to determine whether the city of Colorado Springs violated clean water laws by discharging pollutants and large-volume water flows from its storm water into Fountain Creek and other Arkansas River tributaries.

    The trial is for a 2016 lawsuit by federal and state.environmental agencies against Colorado Springs. The case is central to long-standing disputes that Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas River Valley have with the city for defiling the creek and the river.

    The environmental agencies contend the city is responsible for creating a threat to public health because the stormwaters increase levels of E. coli, pesticides and other pollutants into the creek.

    The agencies also contend discharge of “extraordinary high levels of sediment impairs (the creek’s) ability to sustain aquatic life, damages downstream infrastructure and communities like Pueblo, worsen flood damage (and) impairs farmers’ ability to irrigate and obtain water to which they are legally entitled under Colorado law.”

    Senior Judge Richard P. Match of U.S. District Court in Denver is presiding over the trial that is expected to run at least 10 days.

    The Pueblo County Board of County Commissioners and the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment as plaintiffs by intervening in the case.

    The district is comprised of Pueblo, Otero, Crowley, Bent and Prowers counties.

    The lawsuit alleges that damage to the creek and river is caused because Colorado Springs’ stormwater system is inadequate, and for numerous years has violated clean water laws by exceeding discharge limits set in permits issued by the state for the system…

    An attorney for the city, Steven Perfrement, defended the city’s efforts to operate the system, and to control discharges of pollutants and the volume of water flows. “The city has adopted programs and enforces them.”

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Inflows to Blue Mesa Reservoir April-July = 35% of average

    Blue Mesa Reservoir

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased by 75 cfs on Sunday, September 9th. Releases are being decreased in order to bring flows in the lower Gunnison River closer to the baseflow target while conserving storage in Blue Mesa Reservoir. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir was 237,500 AF of inflow, which is 35% of average.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 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 890 cfs for September.

    Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 575 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 500 cfs.