San Juan County, #NewMexico Commission declares #drought disaster — The #Farmington Daily Times #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

New Mexico Drought Monitor map June 15, 2021.

From The Farmington Daily Times (Mike Easterling):

The drought situation in San Juan County may not be unprecedented when compared to the challenges of the last 10 years, but it’s plenty bad, county commissioners were told during their June 15 meeting in Aztec.

Commissioners heard from a variety of county employees, led by emergency manager Mike Mestas, about the severity of the situation and how much worse it could get if significant moisture doesn’t fall from the sky soon. Mestas was on hand to seek a disaster declaration from commissioners because of the drought, a measure that passed unanimously when Mestas and his associates had completed their presentation.

Mestas said the declaration will allow government organizations to seek funding from state and federal sources, if and when it becomes available, to help offset some of the issues that are expected to arise because of the drought. According to drought.gov, most of San Juan County is designated as being in exceptional drought, the worst category, while the rest of the county is either in exceptional drought or extreme drought, the second- and third-worst categories.

Mestas noted that two of San Juan County’s neighbors — Montezuma County in Colorado and McKinley County in New Mexico — also had made disaster declarations because of the drought. The state of New Mexico filed a drought declaration in December 2020, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture already has declared a disaster declaration in 14 counties in the state, he said, with San Juan County being one of those. That designation will allow farmers, ranchers and some other residents who qualify for financial assistance to receive it, he said…

[Michelle] Truby-Tillen recalled the issues Animas Valley Water users experienced in 2016 when their system became largely inoperative and water filling stations had to be established for Crouch Mesa residents in Aztec and at McGee Park…

She explained that San Juan County is not just in a drought, it’s in what she termed a snow drought.

“We get our water from the mountains,” she said. “If there’s no rain here, yeah, it’s dry, we have problems. But as long as there’s snow in the mountains, we’re good to go. The big problem comes when there’s no snow. We’ve been in a snow drought this year comparable to several years ago when there was no snow at all on the mountains.”

In practical terms, the mountain snowpack in southwest Colorado was gone by April of this year, she said, and the ramifications of that are likely to be felt for quite some time.

USGS Report: Assessment of Streamflow and Water Quality in the Upper #YampaRiver Basin, Colorado, 1992–2018

Click here to read the report (Natalie K. Day). Here’s the abstract:

The Upper Yampa River Basin drains approximately 2,100 square miles west of the Continental Divide in north-western Colorado. There is a growing need to understand potential changes in the quantity and quality of water resources as the basin is undergoing increasing land and water development to support growing municipal, industrial, and recreational needs. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with stakeholders in the Upper Yampa River Basin water community, began a study to characterize and identify changes in streamflow and selected water-quality constituents, including suspended sediment, Kjeldahl nitrogen, total nitrogen, total phosphorus, and orthophosphate, in the basin. This study used streamflow and water-quality data from selected U.S. Geological Survey sites to provide a better understanding of how major factors, including land use, climate change, and geological features, may influence streamflow and water quality.

Analysis of long-term (1910–2018) and short-term (1992–2018) records of streamflow at main-stem Yampa River and tributary sites indicate downward trends in one or more streamflow statistics, including 1-day maximum, mean, and 7-day minimum. Long-term downward trends in daily mean streamflow in April (22 percent overall) at Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, correspond to observed changes in streamflow documented across western North America and the Colorado River Basin that are predominately associated with changes in snowmelt runoff and temperatures. During the short-term period of analysis, decreases in streamflow at main-stem Yampa River and some tributary sites are likely related to changes in consumptive use and reservoir management or, at sites with no upstream flow impoundments, changes in irrigation diversions and climate.

Concentrations of water-quality constituents were typically highest in spring (March, April, and May) during the early snowmelt runoff period as material that is washed off the land surface drains into streams. Highest concentrations occurred slightly later, in May, June, and July, at Yampa River above Stagecoach Reservoir, Colo., and slightly earlier, in February and March at Yampa River at Milner, Colo., indicating that these sites may have different or additional sources of phosphorus from upstream inputs. Yampa River at Milner, Colo., and Yampa River above Elkhead Creek, Colo., had the highest net yields of suspended sediment, Kjeldahl nitrogen, and total phosphorus, and are likely influenced by land use and erosion as the basins of both of these sites are underlain by highly erodible Cretaceous shales.

Upward trends in estimated Kjeldahl nitrogen and total phosphorus concentrations and loads were found at Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, Colo. From 1999 to 2018, the Kjeldahl nitrogen concentration increased by 10 percent or 0.035 milligram per liter, and load increased by 22 percent or 26 tons. Total phosphorus concentration increased by 20 percent or 0.0081 milligram per liter, and loads increased by 41 percent or 6.2 tons. Decreases in streamflow and changes in land use may contribute to these trends.

During multiple summer sampling events at Stagecoach Reservoir, the physical and chemical factors indicated conditions conducive to cyanobacterial blooms, including surface-water temperatures greater than 20 degrees Celsius and total phosphorus and total nitrogen concentrations in exceedance of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment interim concentrations for water-quality standards. Local geological features (predominately sandstones and shales) and additional inputs from upstream land use likely contribute to the elevated nutrient conditions in Stagecoach Reservoir.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Low water volumes due to #drought could affect #ColoradoRiver recreational activities — The #GlenwoodSprings Post-Independent

From The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent (Shannon Marvel):

Water volumes along the Colorado River are 55% of average for the amount of volume that would normally be seen from April to July, according to Aldis Strautins, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

That’s due to drought conditions that have persisted over the last year.

The Eagle River’s water volume is also at 55% of the average, and the Roaring Fork River is at 51% of the normal average volume, Strautins said…

Paula Stepp, executive director for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, said the drought will likely impact the Glenwood Springs area in many ways.

Stepp said there are concerns about how the drought and lower water volumes along the Colorado River will impact agriculture, recreation and aquatic habitat.

Water use by agricultural producers is already stressed by the drought, Stepp said…

Stepp said she’s already heard that there’s not a lot of water available and there’s a need to be conservative with water usage.

On the recreational side of things, Stepp said there could be a much shorter rafting season.

#Craig betting on #YampaRiver to help transition from #coal economy — @AspenJournalism #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

The Lefevre family prepares to put their rafts in at Pebble Beach for a float down the Yampa River to Loudy Simpson Park on Wednesday. From left, Marcie Lefevre, Nathan Lefevre, Travis Lefevre and Sue Eschen.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journlism (Heather Sackett):

With the impending closure of coal mines and power plants in northwest Colorado, Craig officials and river enthusiasts are hoping a long-overlooked natural resource just south of town can help create economic resilience.

The city has applied for a $1.8 million grant from the federal Economic Development Agency for the Yampa River Corridor Project, which will refurbish boat ramps, add parking areas and a whitewater park, in an effort to develop the Yampa River as a source of outdoor recreation and local pride. The project is part of a multi-pronged approach to help rural Moffat County transition from an extraction-based economy to one that includes outdoor and river recreation as one of its main pillars.

“(River use) has definitely grown in the last couple of years,” said Jennifer Holloway, executive director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce. “Awareness that the river could be part of our future has grown. It had just not been on our radar as a town. We had the coal mines, we had the power plants. People tubed the river and fished in it sometimes, but it was not looked at as an economic asset until the last few years.”

An August 2020 preliminary engineering report by Glenwood Springs-based consultant SGM laid out the project components. The first phase of the proposed project would include improvements to Loudy Simpson Park on the west end of town, including a boat ramp, parking, a picnic area and vault toilet. The park is often a take-out point for tubers and boaters who float from Pebble Beach, just a few miles upstream. The project would also create better waves, pool drops with a fish passage, two access points and a portage trail at what’s known as the Diversion Park, as well as improve the city’s diversion structure.

The total project cost is roughly $2.7 million. A second project phase, which is still conceptual, would include bank stabilization and a trail connecting the river to downtown Craig.

Project proponents see the river as one of the town’s most under-utilized amenities and say it can add to the quality of life in the town of about 9,000.

Josh Veenstra is the owner of Good Vibes River Gear in Craig. The company rents paddle boards, rafts and tubes, runs shuttles on the Little Yampa Canyon and sells hand-sewn, mesh bags and drying racks, which are popular among the boating community. This is the fourth season for his company and Veenstra said the momentum is unbelievable.

“What it’s going to do is give Craig a sense of identity,” he said.

This boat ramp at Loudy Simpson Park will be replaced by a new one about a quarter-mile downstream as part of the Yampa River Corridor Project. The park is a popular place to take out after a day float from Pebble Beach.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Transitioning from coal

Two of the region’s biggest employers and energy providers, Tri State Generation and Transmission and Xcel Energy, announced in 2020 that they would be closing their coal-fired plants and mines. Tri-State, whose plant is supplied by two local mines, Trapper and Colowyo, plans to close all three of Craig’s units by 2030. Xcel, whose plant is located in nearby Hayden, plans to close both its units by the end of 2028.

According to Holloway, the closures represent about 800 lost jobs.

“All of our restaurants survive off the power plant workers, all of our retail, all the rest of our businesses,” she said. “Most of our small businesses downtown are run by women whose husbands work in the mine. So I think we are going to see a mass changeover of people leaving.”

Holloway is focusing on ag-tourism, the arts and outdoor recreation as industries that can help replace lost jobs. Although she recognizes that tourism jobs generally don’t pay the high wages of extraction industries, outdoor recreation has been identified as an industry with a large potential for growth and is identified as a priority in Moffat County’s Vision 2025 Transition Plan.

In addition, the pandemic has shown that many white-collar workers can work remotely from anywhere that has internet. It has also increased interest in outdoor recreation. Project supporters say improving the river corridor could help attract a new demographic interested in the outdoors but who don’t want to pay the premiums of a resort community, like nearby Steamboat Springs.

“Entrepreneurs in the rec industry would be a great fit,” Holloway said. “A warehouse here would be so much cheaper than Steamboat. If we could get some of those entrepreneurs, that would attract those that have a remote job or business elsewhere but that want the rural outdoor lifestyle.”

This small section of rapids known as the diversion wave will get upgraded into a whitewater park as part of the Yampa River Corridor Project. The city of Craig is betting on river recreation to help fill the economic void as local coal-fired power plants shut down in the coming years.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Recreation water right

Although city officials are moving forward with plans to build the whitewater park, they are — for now at least — forgoing a step that could help protect their newly built asset and keep water in the river.

Many communities in Colorado with whitewater parks, including Glenwood Springs, Basalt, Durango, Silverthorne and Vail, have a water right associated with the man-made waves, known as a recreational in-channel diversion or RICD. This type of water right ties an amount of water necessary for a reasonable recreational experience to the river features.

A RICD can help make sure there is enough water in the river for boating, but it also has the potential to limit future upstream water development. Under Colorado water law, known as the prior appropriation system, older water rights have first use of the river and therefore, a RICD does not affect existing senior water rights.

“It’s something that we have had some discussion about and we are looking closely at; it can be kind of political,” said Craig City Manager Peter Brixius. “I have not personally heard from folks, but I know people are opposed to it.”

Brixius said the conversation about a RICD is on hiatus at least until the fall.

Without a water right, which would secure the whitewater park’s place in line, future upstream water development could jeopardize having enough water for the park.

Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said that while he can’t speak specifically for Craig, it makes sense for a municipality to protect its place in the prior appropriation system with a water right.

“If there may be some risk in the future that somebody is going to develop some water upstream that would either reduce or eliminate entirely the benefit of this expenditure, then yeah, you go to water court and try to protect this investment you have made,” he said. “Even if you don’t see anything on the horizon that is going to impact you, who knows what’s going to happen in 20 years.”

Craig has applied for a $1.8 million grant from the federal Economic Development Agency for the Yampa River Corridor Project, which will refurbish boat ramps, add parking areas and a whitewater park, in an effort to develop the Yampa River as a source of outdoor recreation and local pride.

Looking to the future

The city expects to find out if it got the EDA grant in early fall. The project has also received funding from Moffat County, Friends of the Yampa, Trapper Mine, Northwest Colorado Parrotheads, the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, Resources Legacy Fund and the Yampa River Fund.

City officials are hoping the Yampa River Corridor Project will attract visitors, contribute to marketing efforts to rebrand northwest Colorado and build morale around the area’s economic future. For river gear shop owner Veenstra, that future can’t come fast enough. He hopes to hold swift water rescue courses and do environmental education using the new river corridor area.

“Craig is one of the coolest little towns,” he said. “The closure of the power plant, everybody says it’s going to be the downfall of Craig. It’s the best thing that could ever happen to us because it made people snap out of it and go, ‘oh, we need to do something different.’ That’s why the whitewater park is getting built. It was a blessing in disguise.”

This story ran in the Craig Press on June 11.

Survey results: How Washington County, #Utah residents feel about the #LakePowellPipeline — The St. George Spectrum #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell Pipeline map via the Washington County Water Conservancy District, October 25, 2020.

From The St. George Spectrum (Joan Meiners):

According to the recent U.S. census, Utah was the fastest-growing state in the nation between 2010 and 2020, increasing its population at a blisteringly fast rate of 18.4%. And in its southwest corner, Washington County, with its stunning vistas, National Park access, recreation opportunities and warm, sunny climate led the state in that trend, attracting nearly 50,000 new residents over the last decade, a 36% increase over its 2010 population.

Those 50,000 new people are just the beginning of a growth pattern projected by the Gardner Institute to flood Washington County with 321,000 additional residents over the next 45 years, to reach a local population of 509,000 by 2065. That number of people — 80% of the current population of Las Vegas — will require a lot of water in this desert landscape, more than is locally available at our current rate of use.

A Solution?

The WCWCD, along with the Utah Division of Water Resources, saw this problem coming as early as the 1990s, and started making plans to import Colorado River water from Lake Powell via a buried pipeline that would stretch 140 miles through rocky desert terrain, crossing some tribal lands and sensitive habitats. The project has inched its way forward over the decades since, finally advancing its federally-required Environmental Impact Statement through the public review process during the Trump administration, which identified the pipeline as one of its infrastructure priorities…

What is most important to today’s Utahns?

Despite these sentiments about Utah’s cultural values driving water infrastructure decisions, there has never been a widespread, unbiased attempt to poll existing Washington County locals on their thoughts about the pros and cons of the Lake Powell Pipeline project and whether they are willing to bear its approximately $2 billion cost. So The Spectrum & Daily News, with funding from The Water Desk, designed and commissioned a survey to do just that.

Overlook of downtown St. George and adjacent Pine Valley Mountains. By St. George Chamber of Commerce – St. George Chamber of Commerce, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54242094

Getting Answers

Survey data were collected by the Utah-based market research firm Dynata, hired based on their reputation and reasonable cost quote. Employees of this company randomly selected residents of Washington County to contact for a phone survey and received responses from 400 of them. Respondents represented a balanced range of ages, gender, household income levels and length of time they had lived in Washington County. The results presented below have been weighted slightly by Dynata to best reflect the actual demographic makeup of the county.

Knowledge is lacking

Of the 400 people surveyed, nearly a quarter (22%) said they had never heard of the Lake Powell Pipeline, despite the fact that this is a decades-old project that will have major financial and lifestyle implications for all Washington County residents. 35% felt they “knew a little about it” and 12% felt they “knew a lot about it.” Only 52% of those surveyed said they felt they knew enough about the project to have an opinion on it.

Support is high

Support for the project outweighed opposition to it, with 59% expressing some level of support for it and 35% expressing some level of opposition to it. A majority held relatively mild views on the project, but 35% of all respondents were “very supportive” and 19% were “very opposed.”

But few want to pay

This high level of support, though, did not carry through to a willingness to help fund the project, which has been estimated to cost anywhere between $1.1 and $2.4 billion, to be initially bankrolled by the state and then repaid over 50 years by Washington County residents. In fact, some already-implemented increases in impact fees, property taxes and water rates are currently being put towards project expenses. The WCWCD estimates that the state has already spent around $40 million on planning costs and feasibility studies.

Only 40% of survey respondents answered yes to the question of whether, “knowing what you do about the project, and that the pipeline is proposed as a way to address potential water shortages in the future, are you willing to help fund it, either through increased water rates, higher taxes, or higher fees charged for new water hookups.” 44% answered no to that question and 15% declined to answer.

Among that 40% of people willing to help fund the project, just 8% said they would pay anything more than $50 per month in fees for it, though some estimates suggest the actual cost may be much higher than this. 22% of those who initially answered both that they supported the project and would be willing to help fund it then said that they would not be willing to contribute anything or refused to answer a question about specific amounts.

Overall, then, 50% of all surveyed residents indicated at some point — either in response to the initial funding question or when asked about specific amounts — that they would not be willing to contribute financially to the project at all, despite the fact that some fees are already being collected county-wide to support it. An additional 18% of all those surveyed said that they were unsure about contributing or refused to answer the question. Less than 1% were willing to pay amounts in the highest tier.

Instead, they show a willingness to conserve

In 2011, the Utah Division of Water Resources submitted a 256-page study to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission detailing how their water needs assessment justified pursuing the Lake Powell Pipeline project. In it, they outline how much water conservation they determined was “feasible for this area based on local conditions, development types, cost and public acceptance.” Conservation options that were considered but not deemed feasible to adopt included turf removal and some appliance rebates.

Survey results, however, indicate perhaps an increased willingness over the past decade to voluntarily adopt stricter water conservation measures.

When asked if they would be “willing to adopt any conservation practices in your own home or accept fewer amenities in your community if it would help avoid construction of the project,” 63% of survey respondents said they would, including 48% of those who had expressed support for the project. Only 26% said they would not be willing to conserve more water and 11% said they didn’t know.

Specific measures respondents said they would be willing to adopt included high levels of support for conservation measures previously ruled out by state and local officials as conflicting with Utah’s traditional cultural values:

  • 75% of people who were amenable to conserving more water said they would reduce the size of their lawn.
  • 88% were willing to take shorter showers.
  • 75% were in favor of requiring desert-friendly landscaping in new housing developments.
  • 67% thought we should stop building water features in parks and public places.
  • 83% would support scaling back lawns in public places or on golf courses.
  • 78% would be willing to update their home appliances.
  • 76% supported increasing water rates/accelerating a tiered pricing structure.
  • Summary

    Overall, results of our independent survey indicate that Washington County residents generally support the idea of the Lake Powell Pipeline project despite feeling that they don’t know much about it. But few want to contribute to it financially and instead they expressed a greater willingness to adopt new water conservation practices than has previously been recognized.

    The people of Washington County have spoken.

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

    Save the Poudre, No Pipe Dream sue over #FortCollins’ review of #NISP — The Fort Collins Coloradoan

    Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP) map July 27, 2016 via Northern Water.

    From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacy Marmaduke):

    Citizen groups Save the Poudre and No Pipe Dream are suing to stop the city of Fort Collins from processing an application for Northern Integrated Supply Project infrastructure in city limits.

    The two groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city and the Northern Integrated Supply Project Water Activity Enterprise over Northern Water’s SPAR (site plan advisory review) application for the controversial Poudre River reservoir project. The complaint argues that SPAR is the wrong way for the city to review NISP infrastructure and seeks to terminate the SPAR application. It also seeks to cancel the Fort Collins Planning and Zoning Board review of the application set for June 30…

    At the heart of the dispute is whether NISP, which seeks to divert flows from the Poudre and South Platte rivers for two new reservoirs, is an appropriate fit for the SPAR process. SPAR is a type of development review intended for “improvements to parcels owned or operated by public entities,” according to the city’s land use code.

    SPAR, compared to the more commonly used development review process, puts the city’s P&Z board in an advisory position rather than giving Fort Collins City Council the final say on a proposal. The governing board of a SPAR applicant can override P&Z’s vote and proceed with the development over the city’s wishes.

    The P&Z board must review a SPAR application within 60 days of the city accepting it. The city deemed Northern Water’s SPAR application complete on May 21.

    The city directed Northern Water to submit a SPAR application for components of NISP within city limits: the Poudre intake diversion structure, a river diversion that would be located in Homestead Natural Area northwest of Mulberry Street and Lemay Avenue, and a 3.4-mile length of pipeline running from the river diversion to the southeast, passing through Fort Collins and unincorporated Larimer County land as well as three city natural areas (Williams, Kingfisher Point and Riverbend Ponds)…

    The complaint also argues that Northern Water doesn’t meet the state’s legal guidelines for an entity that can overrule a municipal body’s decision on a development. The state gives that authority only to “the city council of a city … the board of trustees of a town, or any other body, by whatever name known, given authority to adopt ordinances for a specific municipality,” the complaint states…

    City attorney Carrie Daggett said the city is still reviewing the complaint and declined further comment. Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla affirmed that the water district will continue to pursue SPAR review for NISP as city staff directed…

    Fort Collins’ review of NISP is not the last step for the project. The project is awaiting a crucial record of decision from the Army Corps of Engineers that’s expected to come this year. An affirming record of decision would likely trigger another legal appeal.

    Two additional lawsuits filed by Save the Poudre, No Pipe Dream and Save Rural NoCo related to Larimer County’s approval of NISP infrastructure are also working their way through the courts.

    The Official June 1, 2021 Unregulated Inflow Forecast to #LakePowell for the April through July period is: 1800kaf, 23% of average — #Colorado Basin River Forecast Center #ColoradoRiver #COriver #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #aridification

    Graphic credit: Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

    Scott Hummer sent these photos via email showing the conditions in the Upper Yampa River Basin. The Yampa River is a major tributary of the Green River and therefore the Colorado River. He added, “Inflow at Stagecoach this morning was 8.88 CFS.”

    The Yampa River below the Stafford Ditch June 3, 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer
    Watson Creek at Ferguson Ditch Headgate June 3, 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    The Front Range May Have Gotten Soaked, But Half Of #Denver’s #Water Supply Comes From The #Drought-Stricken Western Slope — #Colorado Public Radio

    Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

    From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

    The National Weather Service said Denver has seen its wettest start to a year since 1983.

    All that rain has made significant improvements to Colorado’s drought map. Three months ago, nearly the entire state was in a moderate drought or worse. Now that’s just 43 percent.

    But the map shows a tale of two Colorados. While above-average rain has brought relief to the eastern half of the state, the West Slope is in a terrible drought.

    Colorado Drought Monitor map June 1, 2021.

    “Half of Denver Water’s supply comes from that West Slope side,” said Nathan Elder, manager of water supply at Denver Water.

    So while those who live in Denver and the Front Range might be thinking, “What drought?”, Elder says it’s important to understand that water conservation is still needed, especially since half the city’s system exists in areas that are historically dry…

    Elder says he expects reservoirs in the South Platte system will fill…

    Elder says peak flows into Dillion reservoir will be about half of what’s normal. But overall, Denver’s reservoirs are 89 percent full, which Elder says is average for this time of year.

    #Water worries abound as #drought wears on — The #Montrose Daily Press #runoff #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GreenRiver #DoloresRiver #GunnisonRiver

    From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

    Blue Mesa Reservoir

    Blue Mesa [Reservoir] is at about 345,000 acre feet and sits at 42% full, based on May data, which predict the reservoir will only hit just above 50-percent full — “not very good,” as Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Erik Knight put it.

    “We’re lower than we were at any time in 2020. In 2018, we were below 250,000 acre feet by the end. We’re not projecting to go that low yet, but we’re heading in that direction, that’s for sure,” Knight said Friday.

    “The reservoir is pretty low. Runoff hasn’t really kicked into gear, although I think that is starting now,” he added.

    Although the Uncompahgre River is a bit bouncier and swelling with some snowmelt, Montrose County and the western side of the state remain locked in drought.

    Colorado Drought Monitor map May 25, 2021.

    Conditions in the county range from extreme drought to exceptional — the two worst levels — according to US Drought Monitor data.

    So far, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which serves about 3,500 shareholders, has been able to fill its contracts at 70%. The association’s storage “account” at Taylor Park Reservoir — which with Blue Mesa and other reservoirs is part of the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit — is full, UVWUA manager Steve Anderson said. (Taylor itself is not expected to fill at 100%, but UVWUA anticipates it will receive the full amount to which it is entitled from the reservoir.)

    Taylor Park Reservoir

    “I expect our account at Taylor to refill,” Anderson added. “We are storing second-fill water in Taylor right now and my expectation is for us to wind up the season with a full reservoir at Taylor. That means a lot to us, but that’s 100,000 acre feet and we need 600,000 acre feet to run the project. But that’s a good start.”

    Ridgway Dam via the USBR

    The storage account at Ridgway Reservoir is close to full, Anderson also said — of 21,000 acre feet of association water, a bit more than 300 acre feet have been used…

    The water picture for the Grand Mesa and North Fork is worse than it is for Montrose, he said, and also pointed to the south, to the Dolores River.

    Mcphee Reservoir

    McPhee Reservoir, which the river feeds, is well below average and, the Cortez Journal reported Wednesday, irrigators with contracts for its water have been told to expect between 5 and 10% of their ordinary fulfillments.

    “The Dolores is just horrible,” Anderson said. Only one-sixth of the water would ordinarily be delivered from McPhee is coming to users, he said. “That’s pretty sad. We’re fortunate in that respect, that we’re not in those kind of dire straits.”

    […]

    Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
    CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

    [Lake] Powell’s levels are within a whisker or two of being too low to sustain hydropower generation. If Powell drops below 3,490 feet elevation, that’s the danger zone, Anderson said in January. As of May 14, Powell was projected to end the water year at 3,543 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, although the agency also noted “significant uncertainty” at the time…

    Flaming Gorge Reservoir July 2020. Photo credit: Utah DWR

    Flaming Gorge has enough storage right now that it can bail out Powell in an absolute emergency, as it could release 2 million acre feet, Anderson said…

    Back at home, the Aspinall Unit also has drought contingency plans that kick in as needed to maintain baseflows and satisfy the requirements of legal records of decision.

    In dry years, flow targets are dropped and that helps keep Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs in the unit from running dry, Knight said.

    Evaluating Conserved Consumptive Use in the Upper #ColoradoRiver: A discussion on the initial findings of a groundbreaking research project exploring water conservation in high-altitude ranching operations, June 24, 2021 — @CWCB_DNR #COriver #aridification

    Photo credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

    Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

    About this event

    Persistent drought and climate change are putting increasing pressure on our limited water supplies, and stakeholders throughout Colorado are exploring solutions to address these challenges in ways that support our economy, our environment, and our way of life. Providing options to temporarily reduce agricultural water use is one potential solution, but significant knowledge gaps exist about how this can work in practice for the high-altitude perennial grasses that make up the majority of the irrigated acreage on Colorado’s Western Slope.

    With support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board ,the Colorado Basin Roundtable is leading a multi-year field research project with ag producers in the Kremmling area, researchers from multiple universities, and conservation groups in directly tackling this information gap.

    Results from this research project will address three key questions on how ag water conservation can work in practice: How can we accurately and cost-effectively measure water use and water savings at scale? What are the impacts of reduced irrigation on these grass fields and how do they recover under normal irrigation? What does participation in a water conservation project mean for producers’ bottom line and for the ag-based community and economy of the region?

    The CBRT and CWCB invite you to join the project partners for a webinar covering results from the first year of the project and the implications for these challenging questions.

    The river of lost flows: Is the #AnimasRiver drying up? A look back at the dwindling last century says yes — The #DurangoTelegraph #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    View of Denver and Rio Grande (Silverton Branch) Railroad tracks and the Animas River in San Juan County, Colorado; shows the Needle Mountains. Summer, 1911. Denver Public Library Special Collections

    From The Durango Telegraph (John van Becay):

    The American West is stricken by drought. That is not news. For the past 20 years, moisture levels have been abnormally low in the region. Shriveling crops, raging wild fires and diseased forests are just some of the fallout. Now scientists fear we may be on the verge of a megadrought – a long-lasting period of greatly reduced moisture. The last megadrought was in the 1500s and lasted some 50 years. Past megadroughts were naturally occurring. Their causes are complex and not completely understood. What scientists do understand is that the present drought has been worsened by anthropogenic (human caused) warming. That’s right, our old friend global warming has worsened our present drought by 30-50 percent. How bad could it get? The past 20 years contends with any 20-year period in the last 1,200 years for the severity of drought. That is some bad news.

    The San Juan Basin drainage has been especially hard hit. The Animas River shows decreased flow not for the past 20 years, but for the past 30 years, since the early 1990s. In fact, discounting the abnormally wet 1980s, the Animas River has been steadily losing flow since the beginning of record keeping in the 1890s. The history of a single river graphed on a chart is notoriously hard to plumb for trends. Too many years buck the norm presenting a confusing welter of peaks and troughs. But dive deep enough and the evidence is there. The Animas River is not doing well.

    Durango flood of 1911 river scene. Photo credit Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College.

    On Oct. 5, 1911, after days of heavy rain, the Animas River came roaring out of its banks. It peaked at 25,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) which was 11 feet deep measured at the station near the power plant. The water reached the top of the arches on the Main Avenue Bridge. The monster runoff of 1911 set the record –since records have been kept – for peak run off of the Animas. Jump ahead to 1927 – a freakish combination of late snow melt and an early monsoon rain June 27, 1927, lashed the river to its second-highest historical level: 20,000 cfs and 9.65 feet…

    Peak flow is flashy. It makes stunning photographs. It puts people on the river and pictures in the paper. But it’s a flighty thing, much like spring itself. Peak flow does not water crops or nurture cities. That measurement is annual discharge – which is measured in thousand acre feet, or k/a/f…from 1913-25, the average annual discharge was 750 k/a/f, that’s three-quarters of a million acre feet per year.

    Our second period of increased annual discharge is 1941-1950 when the average annual discharge was 665 k/a/f. In our third period, 1979-88, average annual discharge ticked upward to 700 k/a/f, a period that has not been matched for the last 80 years.

    For comparison, from 2010-19 the average annual flow of the Animas dropped to 496 k/a/f, a staggering 34 percent decline from the average flow a century ago. If scientists are correct – and we are entering another megadrought, aided and abetted by global warming – the future of the Animas appears grim.

    In the past Durango survived the loss of its smelter. A present controversy over the coal-fired train continues to tear at the town. What is Durango’s future with an Animas River reduced to the size and ferocity of an irrigation ditch? How does that impact Durango’s self-image? Where then will lie the soul of el Rio de las Animas Perdidas? Along a dry river bed?

    San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

    #Drought saps agricultural economy in Southwest #Colorado — The #Durango Herald #DoloresRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Montezuma Valley

    From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:

    Irrigators tied to McPhee Reservoir contracts will receive just 5% to 10% of their normal supply, said Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

    The shortages affect full-service users in the water district in Montezuma and Dolores counties, the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch and the downstream fishery.

    The water district said no supplemental irrigation supplies will be available to the senior water-rights holders.

    Alfalfa farmers are consolidating acreage to try to produce one small crop…

    “Financial impacts will be hard on all agriculture producers,” said Dolores Water Conservancy District board president Bruce Smart, in a news release. “The recovery for producers, the Ute Mountain Tribe and the district will take years.”

    The tribe’s Farm and Ranch Enterprise reports it will limit employment and cut back on buying farm supplies.

    The 7,600-acre farm will only receive 10% of its normal water supply, tribal officials said.

    The tribe will limit operations to growing corn for its Bow and Arrow Brand cornmeal mill, and to protect high-value alfalfa fields, said Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart…

    The tribe intends to work closely with the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to protect the continued viability of the Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise.

    Heart notes that the tribe’s participation in the Dolores Project is a result of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act. He said the tribe will exercise the settlement rights “in the fullest to protect our Farm and Ranch Enterprise.”

    The economic impact of the irrigation water shortage will be widespread, as farmers expect a significant decrease in revenue that will trickle through the local economy, water officials said.

    If next year’s supply doesn’t improve “multigenerational farm families may face bankruptcy,” said Curtis.

    Unirrigated alfalfa fields will dominate the landscape this summer. Farmers noted that with some rain, the fallow fields can produce enough forage for cattle grazing. Ranchers have been contacting farmers to take advantage of the option, Deremo said.

    Curtailed supply for Dove Creek

    The town of Dove Creek depends on McPhee Reservoir water for its domestic water supply. The water is delivered via the Dove Creek Canal and into town reservoirs and a water treatment facility. But because of a shortened irrigation season, the canal will not run all summer, as it does during more normal water years.

    The water district is working closely with Dove Creek officials to keep the town’s water reservoirs adequately stocked for the winter months, Curtis said.

    During normal water years, the Dove Creek Canal runs to the first week in October, allowing Dove Creek to store 100 acre-feet that lasts them until May 1 the next year. This year, the canal is expected to shut off for irrigators before the end of June.

    The other large irrigation supplier in the area, Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., also faces shortages. Customers will receive only half their normal allocation. The irrigation company has the most senior water rights on the Dolores River, and therefore the impact of the water shortage is somewhat less…

    Montezuma Valley Irrigation has storage rights in McPhee Reservoir, and owns Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs.

    Dolores River watershed

    Runoff low in Dolores River

    Poor winter snowpack the past two years and no monsoonal rain for the past three years have hurt reservoir levels and depleted soil moisture.

    The winter snowpack failed to deliver at historical average, peaking at only 83% of normal snowpack on April 1, then dropping to 25% after another dry, windy and warm spring. Recent rains and snowfall on the high peaks were helpful, but not enough to significantly improve water supply.

    As dry conditions continue, 2021 is shaping up to be the fourth-lowest recorded runoff in the Dolores River, after 1977, 2002 and 2018.

    The Dolores River, below Slickrock, and above Bedrock. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.

    Fish will suffer

    As part of the McPhee Reservoir project, the downstream fishery is allocated 32,000 acre-feet of water during normal water years for timed releases downstream to benefit sport and native fish.

    This year, the fish pool will receive 5,000 acre-feet of its normal allocation.

    The Dolores River below McPhee dam will see flows of 10 cubic feet per second for a few months, then it will drop to a trickle of 5 cfs for eight months until spring.

    The river below the dam faces significant trout and native fish population losses, said Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife…

    The low flows will also affect native fish in the lower reaches of the Dolores River – the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub. The fish, listed by CPW as species of concern, have adapted to warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.

    #Runoff news (May 26, 2021): #YampaRiver stream flows see possible peak — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):

    There are two spots on Mount Werner that Erin Light looks at each spring to get a rough estimate about when the Yampa River may see peak stream flow.

    “A lot of times, it is very close. When those two spots come together, it is probably within a day or two that it will peak,” said Light, the regional division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “Looking at the Steamboat (stream flow) gauge, I would say we are probably done.”

    Stream flows for the Elk and Yampa rivers likely have already peaked, Light said, pointing to high flow marks Friday and Sunday. It is possible this isn’t the peak, as a spring storm could bolster water levels, but Light said it seems unlikely that is the case this year…

    …ranchers in the county are preparing for the worst, irrigating earlier than normal and contemplating taking measures like bringing livestock water in tanks and even selling off part of their herd, because they don’t have enough pasture land with water flowing through it to raise them all…

    There is more water flowing out of Stagecoach right now than going in, which happens every year but rarely this early. There are already calls on various ditches in the Yampa Valley, and Light said she expects more.

    Light is relatively confident there will be a call on the Elk River, which has happened almost every year since 2012. As for the Yampa, it could be different, as the Colorado River District has a $50,000 grant for strategic releases to hopefully avoid a call on the river. Without that, a call would almost be certain, Light said…

    Yampa River flows below Stafford Ditch May 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    The upper basin is particularly tough right now, said Hagenbuch, who is the director and agricultural agent for the Routt County CSU Extension Office. He said he hopes return flows from irrigation will boost water levels in the coming weeks, but he doesn’t have an optimistic outlook…

    [Kelly] Romero-Heaney said there is enough water to support municipal customers in town, but the more they use, the less there is in Fish Creek, which is an important spawning stream for mountain whitefish. She said she hopes Steamboat residents minimize outdoor watering to take some pressure off the resource.

    #Colorado Parks and Wildlife enacts emergency fishing closure on heavily fished portion of #YampaRiver below Stagecoach Reservoir #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Stagecoarch Reservoir outflow June 23, 2019. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Travis Duncan):

    Due to critically low water flow caused by dry conditions and minimal snowpack levels, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) will implement a mandatory fishing closure on a 0.6-mile stretch of the Yampa River between the dam at Stagecoach State Park downstream to the lowermost park boundary.

    The closure begins May 25 and will continue until further notice.

    “Should the flow rate increase substantially for a continuous period of time, CPW will re-evaluate the emergency fishing closure,” said CPW Senior Aquatic Biologist Lori Martin. “But because of the current conditions, we need to take this course of action now.”

    CPW works closely with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District (UYWCD), who owns and operates Stagecoach Reservoir, to stay informed on reservoir releases and monitor drought conditions. UYWCD is finalizing a contract with the Colorado Water Trust for environmental releases later in the year.

    “Timing (environmental releases) is critical to the health of the river system,” said UYWCD General Manager Andy Rossi. “We manage the reservoir and collaborate with our partners to ensure that water is available and legal mechanisms are in place to release water when the river needs it most. Unfortunately, flows are already low, but hot and dry summer months are still to come,” said Rossi.

    Water releases are currently only at 20% of average, and will be dropping to less than 15% of average for this time period. When water flows are minimal, fish become concentrated in residual pool habitat and become stressed due to increased competition for food resources. The fish become much easier targets for anglers, an added stressor that can result in increased hooking mortality.

    “We are trying to be as proactive as possible to protect the outstanding catch-and-release fishery we have downstream of Stagecoach Reservoir,” said CPW Area Aquatic Biologist Bill Atkinson. “This stretch of the river receives a tremendous amount of fishing pressure, especially in the spring when other resources might not be as accessible. This emergency closure is an effort to protect the resource by giving the fish a bit of a reprieve as they can become quite stressed during these extreme low-flow conditions. This spring we have not witnessed a spike in flows, which can offer fish protection and allow them to recoup energy following the spring spawn season.”

    CPW advises anglers to find alternative areas to fish until the order is rescinded. Many other local areas will become more fishable soon as runoff tapers down. Several area lakes are also opening and should be fishing well.

    CPW asks for cooperation from anglers, who should be aware the mandatory fishing closure will be enforced by law with citations issued for anyone violating the order.

    Wildlife officials warn when a fish population is significantly affected by low stream flows or other unfavorable environmental conditions, it could take several years for it to fully recover if not protected. Given the extreme drought conditions we are currently faced with, other stretches of river in this area may be subject to additional closures this season.

    Like many rivers and streams in western Colorado, the Yampa River offers world-class fishing and attracts thousands of anglers each year, providing a source of income to local businesses that depend on outdoor recreation.

    “We ask for the public’s patience and cooperation,” said Stagecoach State Park Manager Craig Preston. “It is very important that we do what we can to protect this unique fishery, not only for anglers, but for the communities that depend on the tourism these resources support.”

    For more information, contact Stagecoach State Park at 970-736-2436, or CPW’s Steamboat Springs office at 970-870-2197.

    Upper Yampa River Water Commissioner, Scott Hummer, sent these photos via email this morning to show the conditions above Stagecoach Reservoir. He writes, “Not much water being produced in the Yampa headwaters in South Routt County. Photo of inflow at Stagecoach Inlet yesterday = 10 CFS / 9% of the historic iflow rate! This morning [May 25, 2021] Stagecoach inflow = 7.9 CFS! The photos depict the story in the upper Yampa…”

    Eagle County water providers look at Bolts Lake renewal — The #Vail Daily #EagleRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #ariification

    Mountains reflect off of Bolts Lake, back in the day, as seen from US 24 S in Colorado. Photo via
    LessBeatenPaths.com.

    From The Vail Daily (Scott Miller):

    Possible reservoir a key element of [water] providers’ long-term plans

    The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority — separate entities that share offices — is looking at a possible plan to create a reservoir on the lake site just south of Minturn. The plan, if it comes to pass, could take 10 years to complete, at a still-unknown cost.

    The water providers currently have a purchase contract for the lake site with the Battle North LLC, which owns the property, and has for some time envisioned housing near the site.

    During the contract period — about 12 months — the district and authority will conduct feasibility studies for the lake.

    District Director of Engineering and Water Resources Jason Cowles said that work will include soils testing and other evaluation. If the evaluation provides the right answers, the water providers will buy the site and get to work.

    The current idea is to roughly triple the size of the old lake by digging down about 30 feet from the current empty lake bottom. That would keep the size of the new dam reasonable. The old dam was breached in the early 1990s for safety reasons. In addition, digging that much material would provide plenty of clean fill dirt to use for other purposes, including capping tailings from the Eagle Mine.

    A near-perfect site

    Eagle River Water & Sanitation District General Manager Linn Brooks said if the evaluation bears fruit, Bolts Lake is a nearly-perfect site for a reservoir.

    The site is on private land, is the right size and is off the main channel of the Eagle River, Brooks said, adding that the environmental impacts would be minimal…

    The upper valley’s water providers have long been looking for more water storage within the Eagle River basin. The providers get most of their water from streamflows…

    Since the Bolts Lake reservoir wouldn’t take water directly from the river, Brooks said the reservoir would still keep streamflows whole. And, like the providers’ other reservoirs, the water would be used to augment streamflows in the river, which helps river health.

    In an email, Tim McGuire of Battle North wrote that the company is excited to work with the water providers on the project.

    Opinion: The Windy Gap settlement is a win for the West Slope and its waters — The #Colorado Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    An aerial view of Windy Gap Reservoir, near Granby. The reservoir is on the main stem of the Colorado River, below where the Fraser River flows into the Colorado. Water from Windy Gap is pumped up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then sent to the northern Front Range through the Adams Tunnel. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

    Here’s a guest column from Merrit S. Linke, Jack Buchheister, Kathy Chandler-Henry, and Marti Whitmore that’s running in The Colorado Sun:

    As Western Colorado leaders, we congratulate the parties involved in continuing a history of cooperative solutions to benefit water users and choosing collaboration over litigation.

    The history of Western Colorado’s water is told in stories of hard-fought wins and losses, of lawsuits and government petitions, of tough negotiations and collaboration.

    In Grand County, the history of West Slope water — and Front Range demand for that water — is more visible than in other areas west of the Continental Divide. It is visible at the base of a concrete spillway below Windy Gap Reservoir that disconnects our state’s namesake river; and at the Fraser River’s edge, where visitors see only a fraction of the river that once carved its way downstream.

    Top row: Merrit S. Linke, Jack Buchheister. Bottom row: Kathy Chandler-Henry, Marti Whitmore. Credit: The Colorado Sun

    But Grand County has also been the backdrop for stories that center on the importance of collaboration and negotiation. Stories of water users coming together to protect and preserve Western Colorado’s water security, communities and local economies.

    A recently-announced $15 million settlement between environmental groups and Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict is a win for the Western Slope, adding to the nearly $100 million in benefits already secured for water users in Grand County and further downstream.

    We commend the parties for reaching this settlement and look forward to partnering with them on projects to further restore and enhance the aquatic environment in Grand County.

    The settlement allows the Windy Gap Firming Project to move forward with construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir near Loveland. It also unlocks the benefits of water, reservoir storage and funding outlined in a nearly 10-year-old agreement and clears the way for the long-promised Colorado River Connectivity Channel to break ground in Grand County.

    The enhancements secured by the prior agreement will create a healthier river system and benefit irrigators, communities and people who recreate on Grand County’s rivers.

    In 2012, after years of negotiation, the Colorado River District, Grand County, Middle Park Water Conservancy District and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments signed an intergovernmental agreement with Northern Water that secured hard-fought yet collaborative resolutions to restore and protect the health of our rivers and communities in Grand County.

    This agreement provides a secure water supply for Middle Park water users in Grand and Summit counties. It also secures perpetual reservoir releases for the environment, which will improve aquatic habitat and water quality and boost flows for recreation and endangered fish downstream in the Colorado River.

    These releases will provide more cool water in the river when it is most needed, alleviating low flow in the hottest, driest portion of summer and early fall. In addition, Grand County residents and visitors will enjoy preserved open space and public access to Willow Creek.

    Finally, the agreement supports the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which will boost river health by reconnecting the Upper Colorado River to its channel around Windy Gap Reservoir. The Connectivity Channel demonstrates how diverse interests can collaborate on solutions that benefit both water supply and watershed health.

    Security of our West Slope resources remains at the forefront for Grand County leaders, and the agreement includes important protections barring Northern Water from future water development or water rights acquisitions in Grand County without prior approval from Grand County and the Colorado River District.

    Each of these enhancements contribute to better water quality and a healthier river, and they will increase the resilience of our water supply in drought years. This is an achievement for everybody who uses the river.

    When the Chimney Hollow Reservoir was first proposed more than a decade ago, West Slope leaders had the foresight to secure these protections for water users.

    We congratulate the parties involved in the recent settlement in continuing a history of cooperative solutions to benefit West Slope water users and choosing collaboration over litigation.

    Merrit S. Linke is the chair of the Grand County Board of County Commissioners. Jack Buchheister is the president of the Middle Park Water Conservancy District. Kathy Chandler-Henry is the chair of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments’ Water Quality and Quantity Committee. Marti Whitmore is the president of the Colorado River District Board of Directors.

    Chimney Hollow, Northern #Colorado’s biggest new reservoir, will likely be one of its last — The #FortCollins Coloradoan #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacy Marmaduke):

    Northern Colorado is getting its biggest new reservoir in about 70 years, at the cost of diminished Colorado River flows.

    Construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir will begin in August southwest of Loveland, just west of Carter Lake. An April legal settlement between project proponent Northern Water and environmental advocacy groups cleared the way for the project, which began the permitting process in 2003.

    The 90,000-acre-foot reservoir is the main component of the Windy Gap Firming Project, a plan to increase the reliability of Colorado River water rights in the Windy Gap Project. The project’s 12 participants include Platte River Power Authority, Loveland, Broomfield, Longmont and Greeley. Construction is expected to take until August 2025, after which it will take about three years to fill the reservoir.

    The reservoir’s water will come from the Colorado River, decreasing flows below Lake Granby by an annual average of 15%. Most diversions will take place in May and June.

    The 18-year journey toward construction demonstrates the extensive maneuvering required to build new reservoirs in Colorado as rivers become increasingly stressed from climate change and heavy diversions as growing Front Range communities seek to shore up their water supplies. Northern Water won approval from key government agencies and some advocacy groups with a suite of mitigation measures and spending commitments for areas impacted by the project.

    Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.

    Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla described Chimney Hollow as “in the right place at the right time.” The reservoir site has a few qualities that have helped Northern Water avoid some common setbacks for new water project construction: It’s near existing Colorado Big Thompson Project infrastructure, so Northern Water won’t have to build much new infrastructure for water deliveries, and there are no homes or businesses at the site, which Northern has owned since the 1990s.

    “The one assumption you have to make is that water storage is part of the future way that we’re going to provide water,” Stahla said, and he thinks it is. “If you get past the ‘Do we need storage’ question, this ends up being an incredible site that will meet lots of needs, including the ancillary needs of recreation, into the future.”

    […]

    Northern Water Engineering Director Jeff Drager acknowledged the new reservoir’s impact on Colorado River flows, but he said the project’s targeted mitigation efforts still offer a major value and are a key reason why it crossed the regulatory finish line.

    Restoring a river channel in the Upper Colorado Basin

    One of the most significant mitigation measures, known as the Colorado River connectivity channel, will involve shrinking the existing Windy Gap Reservoir in Grand County to about half its current size and building a new channel around it. The Windy Gap dam currently blocks the Colorado River, preventing movement of fish, silt and sediment.

    The connectivity channel will allow the river below the reservoir to act more like “a stream without a reservoir on it” when Northern Water’s water rights aren’t in priority, Drager said. The mitigation measures will also open up a mile of stream to public fishing in an area where private landowners possess most of the land adjacent to riverbanks…

    During wetter years, Lake Granby can overflow and the water that would’ve been delivered to Windy Gap users flows downstream. During drier years, Northern Water is often unable to divert the full extent of its water right because it is a junior right, meaning more senior water users get access to water first. During the 23-year period between 1985 and 2008, for example, no Windy Gap water was delivered for seven of those years.

    Corps of Engineers #Omaha District: Annual sediment flushing exercise scheduled at Cherry Creek Reservoir

    Cherry Creek Dam looking south

    Here’s the release from the USACE:

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, will conduct its annual sediment flushing exercise at Cherry Creek Reservoir, Colorado, Wednesday, May 26.

    Katie Seefus, water manager, Omaha District said that the exercise involves high releases from Cherry Creek Dam, located south of Interstate 225 near Aurora.

    “When the gates are opened, the high velocity of the water leaving the reservoir scours the area immediately upstream of the gates and transports sediment with the flow,” she said. “This sediment flush is required to allow proper operation of the outlet gates.”

    Cherry Creek Dam will begin releasing 50 cubic feet per second on Tuesday, May 25, at 2:30 p.m. The actual flushing exercise will take place Wednesday, May 26, beginning at 9:00 a.m. and ending at 12:30 p.m. when the release will be set back to normal levels. The exact times are subject to change based on conditions. Each of the five gates will take turns releasing a maximum of 250 cfs. The water’s travel time from Cherry Creek Dam to the streamgage located at the Champa Street Bridge is approximately six hours.

    Col. Mark Himes, Omaha District commander asks the public to be aware that high flows will take some time to reach the downtown channel and flows from the last gate opened will not reach the downtown channel until Wednesday evening.

    “In the interest of public safety I urge the public not to attempt to cross the stream during this event,” Himes said.

    The high flows will cause higher than normal creek levels and potential flooding of bike paths and stream crossings, he added.

    #CrystalRiver Wild & Scenic advocates hope to learn from the past — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The view looking upstream on the Crystal River below Avalanche Creek. A Pitkin County group wants to designate this section of the Crystal as Wild & Scenic.
    CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    Colorado water shortage plays role in difficulty of securing designation

    According to Crystal River valley resident Chuck Ogilby, there are three ways to protect rivers in Colorado. The first two involve using the state’s water court and water rights system. But the third is the one he places the most faith in.

    “Who’s going to look after and be the parents, so to speak, of a free-flowing river? It’s the people,” Ogilby said. “The people of Colorado are the thing that will save our rivers. We have the right to fight for it the way we want, and we can advocate for free-flowing streams.”

    Ogilby is one of a handful of river advocates in Pitkin County who are reviving a grassroots effort to secure a federal Wild & Scenic designation on the Crystal. But in a state where the value of water is tied to its use, and landowners’ fear of federal government involvement stokes opposition, a campaign to leave more water in the river for the river’s sake may face an uphill battle.

    Proponents want protection of 39 miles of river from the headwaters of both the north and south forks, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, to the Sweet Jessup headgate, the first major agricultural diversion on the lower end of the river. Advocates have three goals: no dams on the main stem, no diversions out of the basin and protection of the free-flowing nature of the river. As the Crystal is one of the last undammed rivers in Colorado, they want to keep it that way.

    “I can’t tell you what the experience of walking up to a river and being on the river, whether I catch fish or not, does to me,” Ogilby said. “I can’t put it into words. It’s, I want to say, a religious experience. It’s very emotional.”

    Crystal River Valley resident Chuck Ogilby on the banks of the river near the confluence with Avalanche Creek. Ogilby believes a Wild & Scenic designation on the Crystal is the best way to protect it from dams and out-of-basin diversions.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    A history of development plans and pushback

    The Wild & Scenic River Act of 1968 brings protection from development. For example, new dams cannot be constructed on a designated stretch, and federal water-development projects that might negatively affect the river are not allowed. The National Wild & Scenic Rivers System seeks to preserve rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values in a free-flowing condition.

    There are three categories under a designation: wild, which are sections that are inaccessible by trail, with shorelines that are primitive; scenic, with shorelines that are largely undeveloped, but are accessible by roads in some places; and recreational, which are readily accessible by road or railroad and have development along the shoreline.

    The U.S. Forest Service determined that the Crystal, which flows through both Gunnison and Pitkin counties, was eligible for designation in the 1980s and reaffirmed that finding in 2002. There are four segments being proposed: about seven miles of the north fork inside the wilderness boundary would be classified as wild; from the wilderness boundary on the north fork to the junction of the south fork, about two miles, would be classified as scenic; from the headwaters of the south fork through its confluence with the north fork and on to Beaver Lake, about 10 miles, would also be scenic, and from Beaver Lake to the Sweet Jessup headgate, about 20 miles, would be recreational. The outstandingly remarkable values are scenic, historic and recreational.

    In 2012, conservation group American Rivers deemed the Crystal one of the top 10 most endangered rivers. This was spurred by plans from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservation District to renew their conditional water rights for nearly 200,000 acre-feet worth of storage in the form of Placita and Osgood reservoirs. Osgood would have inundated Redstone.

    The dam and reservoir projects were eventually abandoned after they were challenged in water court by Pitkin County, but the memory of the threat lingered for river activists, who decided to actively pursue a Wild & Scenic designation in 2012, with the goal of eliminating the possibility of this type of development in the future.

    The group shelved the discussion with the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016. Some trace the moment they realized they were temporarily defeated to a community meeting in Marble and subsequent opinion piece by former director of the Bureau of Land Management William Perry Pendley. A 2016 column for the conservative Washington Times, which also ran in Western Ag Reporter, titled “When ‘wild and scenic’ spells trouble,” stoked fear among landowners in the town of Marble and Gunnison County that a designation means the federal government has power over private property.

    “There were some mistruths spread in Marble that really moved them in the wrong direction from my perspective,” said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program.

    But the meeting was enough for the opposition to gain ground. If the town of Marble wouldn’t support the designation, neither would Gunnison County. The proposal was dead in the water.

    Larry Darien was one of those opponents in 2016. He remains opposed to the Wild & Scenic proposal this time around because he said federal involvement in river management could bring unintended consequences. Darien owns a ranch on Gunnison County Road 3 that borders the Crystal.

    “Whatever they come up with probably looks real good until you end up with something you didn’t bargain for,” he said. “I don’t want the federal government having anything to do with my property.”

    Darien said he doesn’t want to see dams or reservoirs on the Crystal either, but a federal designation is not the right way to go about preventing that. He would support a designation of the headwaters that flow through the wilderness, but would prefer if private property owners downstream along the river were left out of it.

    The Crystal River near the town of Marble forms a wetland area. A Pitkin County group wants to designate this section of the Crystal as Wild & Scenic.
    CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Wild & Scenic Act

    While the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does give the federal government the ability to acquire private land, there are many restrictions on those abilities. Condemnation is a tool that is rarely used. The legislation written for each river is unique and can be customized to address stakeholders’ values and concerns.

    White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams has worked on Wild & Scenic designations in Oregon, where there are more than 65 sections of designated rivers. He said that in the next step of the process, which would be a suitability determination and an Environmental Impact Statement by the Forest Service, the protection of private property rights would be paramount.

    “I’ve often said that if they changed the name to ‘leave the river as it is act,’ which is really what it does, people would be less concerned,” Fitzwilliams said.

    Although Wild & Scenic supporters initially squabbled about the best way to address opposition — some said engaging staunch opponents was like inviting a wolf into the hen house — most now agree the best way forward is to bring them into the conversation early.

    Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury is heading up a steering committee, which will decide how to proceed with the campaign. Pitkin County supports Wild & Scenic and commissioners have allocated an additional $100,000 to the Healthy Rivers board to work on getting a designation.

    Committee members are tight-lipped about their strategy moving forward, and have not yet laid out a plan for spending the money, but many are eager to not repeat what they view as the mistakes from the first time around. McNicholas Kury stresses that this time the group will engage any and all stakeholders who want to participate in the process, even and especially those who have been vocally opposed to a federal designation. She said the group will probably hire a neutral facilitator to direct the process and bring all the perspectives to the table.

    “The challenge will be ensuring we will reach all the interested parties and they will have a meaningful opportunity to contribute to what the final designations and river protections will be,” McNicholas Kury said. “It may require personally knocking on someone’s door and saying, ‘we need to hear from you.’”

    Darien said he would be interested in participating in a stakeholder process, but that so far no one from the advocacy group or Pitkin County has reached out to him.

    Avalanche Creek flows into the Crystal River north of Redstone near Avalanche Ranch. A group of Pitkin County river advocates are gearing up for another attempt at getting a Wild & Scenic designation on the Crystal.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Colorado protective of water use

    Despite its renowned river rafting, fishing and scenic beauty, which contribute to the recreation-based economy of many Western Slope communities, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache La Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. That’s less than one-tenth of 1% of the state’s 107,403 river miles, according to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System website.

    By comparison, Oregon — a state with a contentious history of clashes between ranchers and the federal government over land management — has 110,994 miles of river, of which 1,916.7 miles are designated as wild & scenic—almost 2% of the state’s river miles.

    Instead of backing the federal designation on its rivers, the state of Colorado instead funds a program for an alternative designation that carries some of the same protections as Wild & Scenic. In June of 2020, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service approved an alternative management plan on the Upper Colorado River which takes the place of a Wild & Scenic designation. The process took 12 years and involved cooperation between many stakeholders.

    Experts say the main reason there is opposition from water managers to Wild & Scenic in Colorado is not fear of a federal land grab, but the shortage of water in an arid state that is only getting drier with climate change. Fitzwilliams called water “the most valuable commodity in Colorado, without question.” A designation would lock up water in the river, making it unavailable for future development.

    “In these very, very arid states where we just don’t have the water, we are very protective of making sure that water is available for all public uses,” said Jennifer Gimbel, interim director of Colorado State University’s Water Center and former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “As we try to figure out how to manage the drought, we want to maybe figure out better how to move water from here to there and that Wild & Scenic designation would play a big part in that for better or for worse.”

    The two main ways to ensure water stays in the river in Colorado are instream flow rights and recreational in-channel diversion water rights. Instream flow water rights are a minimum streamflow set by the Colorado Water Conservation Board with the goal of preserving the natural environment to a reasonable degree. A recreational in-channel diversion creates a water right for a recreational experience, like the waves in the Basalt whitewater park.

    But Ogilby says these state protections don’t go far enough for the Crystal.

    “We have to be able to convince people that getting it out of the Colorado adjudication system is the way we are going to ultimately protect it,” he said. “We are not going to save it with Colorado water law. We’ve got to get a (federal) overlay.”

    Fears of development have recently returned in response to a study of a back-up water supply plan for the Crystal, undertaken by the same conservation districts who were behind the dam projects. The results aren’t in yet, but the study could find the need for storage to meet the demands of downstream water users in dry years.

    A view of the former coal mining village of Placita, with the upper Crystal River winding along the valley floor as seen from from Colorado 133 as it climbs up McClure Pass.
    CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Early indications of support

    The next few months will be crucial for the steering committee as they chart a path forward and decide how best to spend the money from Pitkin County. Broad-based local support is critical and there is some evidence the idea of Wild & Scenic is gaining ground.

    As part of her capstone project in sustainable studies at Colorado Mountain College, Carbondale resident Monique Vidal is conducting an online survey about recreation on the Crystal River. So far, she has received about 65 responses, about 95% of which support moving forward with Wild & Scenic legislation.

    “Our community overwhelmingly so far is supportive,” Vidal said.

    Ogilby owns Avalanche Ranch, a small hot springs resort near the Crystal River just north of Redstone. He has spent much of his life advocating for rivers in the Vail Valley and Crystal River valley, and has helped defeat plans for Front Range water providers to take more from the headwaters of the Colorado River. He served for years on the Colorado Basin Roundtable as a representative of Eagle County and is now a member of Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers board.

    “I felt a little frustrated being on the roundtable because our position didn’t always gain ground,” he said. “We were up against the big boys. When I came over here, I feel this is my home. And maybe I can’t change everything about all the rivers in Colorado, but maybe I can make a real difference on the Crystal.”

    For Wild & Scenic proponents, the clock is now ticking if they hope to get a designation while there is a Democratic administration under President Joe Biden. Ogilby said he feels a sense of urgency.

    “Everybody feels that,” he said. “It feels like, oh my god, we have been blessed so let’s get after it. We are going to be pushing.”

    Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and Swift Communitications publications. This story ran in the May 17 edition of The Aspen Times.

    #Runoff news (May 16, 2021): Commercial rafters unsure how much Blue River will run next month — The Summit Daily

    From The Summit Daily (Antonio Olivero):

    Kevin Foley, president of Performance Tours Rafting, said Friday, May 14, that recent reports he has received from Denver Water indicate the organization is likely to prioritize filling the Dillon Reservoir.

    “What we are being told is, right now, the reservoir is low and snowpack is below average, so their model this year going to be more fill and spill,” Foley said.

    Each spring and summer, Denver Water determines how much water it will release into the Blue River north of the Dillon Dam based on how much water is needed in different locations throughout an intricate network of water systems and reservoirs that service water users.

    Foley said current conditions and a low water level in Dillon Reservoir point to Denver Water filling the reservoir with any new snow or rain in the coming weeks, rather than diverting flows downstream into the Blue River.

    Foley said he will find out more from Denver Water at a meeting next week, but as of now, he said it’s unlikely there will be an extended season on the Blue…

    The Class 2 to 3 Blue River stretch, which usually takes just over an hour for commercial trips, runs 5 to 6 miles from a U.S. Forest Service put-in at Hammer Bridge through Boulder Canyon down to a take-out at Columbine Landing. Foley said Performance Tours and KODI Rafting’s cutoff for the stretch is usually 500 cfs, signaling when they can start and stop. He said the best rafting on the Blue is at 1,000 cfs.

    The commercial rafting season on the Blue is notoriously fickle, sometimes very short at just a couple of weeks in dry years to up to two months of rafting in wet seasons…

    Foley said drainages down on the Arkansas River near Buena Vista are looking much better than the Blue. He credited the voluntary flow management program on the Arkansas that enables commercial companies to raft on good, augmented flows deep into summer. Trips out of Buena Vista have been operating for some commercial companies since May 1.

    Blanco Basin agricultural irrigation needs survey underway — San Juan Conservation District #SanJuanRiver #COWaterPlan

    Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

    From the San Juan Conservation District via The Pagosa Springs Sun (Cynthia Purcell):

    The San Juan Conservation District has been focusing efforts on evaluating irrigation systems in the Upper San Juan River Basin and looking for opportunities to improve them.

    We have completed our inventory from the upper reaches of the San Juan River Basin down to the Blanco Basin watershed. We are now looking to assess the needs within both the Upper and Lower Blanco Basin.

    We have assembled a team of natural resource professionals to perform this agricultural in ventory. Sterling Moss, a retired Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservationist from southwest Colorado, will be leading the team.

    With technical assistance from NRCS, the team will be reaching out to ditch representatives, water right holders and agricultural water users to discuss voluntary participation in this process. They will be out in the watershed throughout the summer evaluating the ditches and are happy to perform a free on-site visit to evaluate private on- farm systems when they are in the area. According to the landowner’s identified goals and objectives, agriculture water system improvements will be developed, with cost estimates provided for the improvements. The ultimate goal is to find funding to help improve these irrigation systems.

    This is part of a larger project in cooperation with the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership to understand local water supply needs and identify potential project areas in the Upper San Juan River Basin. This process is part of the Colorado Water Plan and is funded in part by the Colorado Water Conservation Board as well as local organizations and partners.

    The San Juan Conservation District is a special district of the state of Colorado and was established in 1947 to help farmers and ranchers with soil erosion as a result of the devastation of the Dust Bowl. Today, our mission is to promote the prudent use and adequate treatment of all land, water and related resources within its boundaries to sustain the use of these resources for future generations and to assist in restoration of these resources. We serve the residents of Archuleta County and parts of Hinsdale and Mineral counties up to the Continental Divide. We also work closely with our federal counterpart, the NRCS, and share an office with them.

    Private landowner information will be kept confidential and not released to the public.

    If you would like to have your irrigation water needs evaluated or have questions, please contact Cynthia Purcell, district manager, at (970) 731-3615 or cynthia.purcell@co.nacdnet.net.

    Reconnecting the #ColoradoRiver to the Sea — @Audubon #COriver #aridification

    Delivery of water for the environment in the Colorado River Delta, May 3, 2021. Photo: Adrián Salcedo, Restauremos el Colorado

    From Audubon (Jennifer Pitt):

    Binational Water Conservation Making the Colorado River More Sustainable for People and Birds

    **Este artículo se puede encontrar en español**

    The Colorado River is flowing again in its delta. This is a big deal for a river that has not flowed through its delta in most years since the 1960s, resulting in an ecosystem that is severely desiccated and devastated.

    Thanks to commitments from the United States and Mexico in the Colorado River binational agreement—Minute 323 – 35,000 acre-feet of water (11.4 billion gallons) dedicated to create environmental benefits will be delivered to the river from May 1 to October 11. The expectation is that this will create and support habitat for birds like the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, and Vermilion Flycatcher, and give life to the many plants and animals in this ribbon oasis of green in the midst of the Sonoran Desert.

    Cattle Egrets and Snowy Egrets in the Cienega de Santa Clara, the largest remaining wetland in the Colorado River Delta. Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob via Audubon

    The last time the two governments cooperated to put water for the environment into the Colorado River was in 2014, when they released a “pulse flow” of water from Morelos Dam (the furthest downstream dam on the Colorado River, located at the U.S. – Mexico border). For eight glorious weeks, the Colorado River was conjured back to life in its final 100 miles. Birds took notice (bird abundance increased 20% from the previous year, and species diversity increased 42%) and local communities celebrated with a spontaneous river fiesta that went on for weeks.

    This time, the water will flow for more than five months. Thanks to lessons learned from scientists who studied the 2014 pulse flow, the water will be less likely to infiltrate into the ground, and more likely to fill the river channel providing environmental benefits all the way down to the Gulf of California. System operators are using Mexico’s canal system to bypass Morelos Dam and the driest parts of the channel, delivering the water into the river some 45 river-miles downstream. There it will fill the river where the channel is already wet, maximizing water use efficiency. The scientists’ design optimizes the location and timing of flow to support the hundreds of species of birds that use the delta, and the floodplain habitats they rely on.

    Audubon and its partners in Raise the River—the non-governmental organization (NGO) coalition working to restore the Colorado River Delta—are excited to see this sophisticated approach to environmental water delivery. Scientists will study the flow again this year in order to add to our understanding of how to best use the limited supply of water available for the environment.

    Roberto Salmon and Edward Drusina at the Minute 323 signing ceremony September 27, 2017. Photo credit .U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

    The agreement that made these flows possible—Minute 323—lasts through 2026. The agreement also commits more than $30 million for water conservation infrastructure in the Mexicali Valley. The water savings will improve local resilience to global warming, increase the water supply stored in Lake Mead, make additional water available to water users in the United States, and create additional water supply for the environment (the coalition of NGOs will also contribute from a local water trust). Minute 323 also ensures that the United States and Mexico conserve Colorado River water and share in shortages when supplies are low. In the context of a drought on the Colorado River that has persisted since 2000, and the expectation of climate change exacerbating drought conditions, these provisions create water supply reliability for both people and nature.

    This spring, water for the Colorado River Delta creates a renewed sense of hope. Over the next few months we have the opportunity to see what a small volume of water can do to revive the remnant ecosystem, to nurture its birds, and gift local communities with the return of their river. We can be reassured that, at least in parts of the delta, the Colorado River lives again. In an extraordinarily dry year, deliberate management of water to sustain the environment is the kind of management we will need throughout the Colorado River Basin to ensure that persistent drought and long term impacts of climate change do not lead to the end of river ecosystems in the arid West.

    #Maybell Project Restores Hope for Irrigators and Endangered Fish — The Nature Conservancy #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From the Nature Conservancy:

    As our climate changes, rising temperatures and drought conditions have intensified across the Colorado River Basin. This overstretched river system is also seeing rapid growth in the population that relies on it. Overuse has impacted agricultural water availability, native fish and many birds and plants that rely on streamside habitat and the river itself.

    Problems like these can seem daunting from a bird’s eye view. Solutions must come from within the communities themselves—and through many innovative, thoughtful collaborations along the way.

    That’s where the Maybell diversion comes in. Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. The diversion structure, built in 1896, channels water through a broken, antiquated headgate into the Maybell Ditch, an 18-mile canal that flows roughly in line with the river and irrigates hay pasture and ranchlands.

    MAYBELL DIVERSION Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. © The Nature Conservancy

    The Maybell Diversion

    The Maybell reach of the Yampa is home to abundant wildlife, including four endangered fish species, whose free movement depends on healthy river flows. While boaters enjoy paddling through Juniper Canyon, the reach of river with the Maybell diversion is known for hazardous conditions at high and low flows. Landslides and large boulders block the river, creating challenges for inexperienced boaters. Drought conditions exacerbate low flows and create awkward conditions for passage of boats and fish alike.

    “Maybell is the largest diversion on the Yampa and it was a high priority for the community to address the need for infrastructure improvements,” explains Diana Lane, director of Colorado’s Sustainable Food and Water program at TNC.

    In partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, The Nature Conservancy is working to rehabilitate the diversion and modernize the headgate, ensuring that the diversion provides water to the users who need it. At the same time, TNC is coordinating with the recreation community to ensure safe passage of watercraft through the new diversion. As a result of this project, we hope that the Yampa will see increased ecological connectivity and resilience to climate change and that the irrigators will have improved control of their irrigation system.

    Upgrading the Ditch, Headgate and Diversion

    The three parts of the project—lining the ditch, replacing the headgate and rehabilitating the diversion—will improve efficiency, water flow and habitat for native fish. Ditch lining, completed in November of 2020, repaired a section that was previously unstable, erosive and leaky.

    The next two steps occur together. Replacing the headgate with a new, remotely operated one will allow more flexibility for adjusting flows based on irrigators’ needs and local flow conditions. For example, when supplemental water is released from Elkhead Reservoir upstream for the benefit of endangered fish, the new headgate can be adjusted to ensure the water stays in the critical habitat reach. At the same time, diversion rehabilitation will repair the damage that’s been done by historic erosion and improve passage for boats and fish.

    “This is an exemplary multi-benefit project with agricultural, environmental and recreational elements that were brought to our attention by the community,” notes Jennifer Wellman, TNC’s project manager. “Working directly with the water users, we have an opportunity to rectify the diversion while paying attention to what the river needs. Drought conditions highlight that everyone benefits from flows in the river.”

    Through our partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, these projects create a better future for the diversion. Partnerships like these are crucial to cementing a better future for the Yampa River.

    This project is supported by strong local partnerships with Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, Moffat County and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program and potential grants from other agencies help support the multi-benefit project overall. The mosaic of public and private funds contribute to much-needed improvements to the Yampa River that mesh with community-driven solutions to drought and river protection. By modernizing the Maybell diversion and ditch operations, the Yampa River will see improved flows and function for years to come.

    RAZORBACK SUCKER The Maybell ditch is home to four endangered fish species [the Humpback chub (Gila cypha), Bonytail (Gila elegans), Colorado pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius), and the Razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus)] © Linda Whitham/TNC

    One Piece of a Larger Puzzle

    The success of this project is tied to the larger story of the Colorado River Basin. As rivers throughout the basin are being stretched to a breaking point, the 30 native fish species that are found nowhere else in the world face an increasingly uncertain future. These waters also feed habitat that supports an amazing array of the West’s wildlife.

    While one ditch in northwest Colorado may seem like a drop in the bucket, its story provides hope for the whole system. Bringing together agricultural, recreational and environmental interests is necessary if we hope to see positive change for this river system.

    “We’re trying to get ahead of the curve. I think if we all work together, we can come to a solution. If we don’t do that, then the next generation might not have the water they need,” says Camblin, of the Maybell Irrigation District.

    As work continues on the Maybell Ditch, it represents a win for agriculture, recreation and the environment that the economy relies on, and for the fish that have called this river home for thousands of years.

    The gaging station in the Yampa River near Maybell has documented declined flows in the last century that have led to a state proposal to designate the river as over-appropriated. The designation, if approved, will affect permits for some new wells in the basin.
    CREDIT: ALLEN BEST/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    From the Community Agriculture Alliance (Andy Baur) via The Craig Daily Press:

    The Yampa River Fund steering committee recently awarded $200,000 to six projects during its 2021 grant cycle. As designed, the YRF funded projects that enhance river flows, restore riparian and instream habitat, and improve infrastructure for a healthier river. One of the projects, permitting for the Maybell Diversion Restoration Project, is an excellent example of how the YRF supports multibenefit projects that help water users while benefiting river health and recreation as well. When completed, the Maybell Diversion Project will result in significant positive impact to the Maybell agricultural community, endangered and native fish habitat, and recreation interests. What makes the Maybell project a great fit for the YRF is it stands to create a positive impact in all river users, the economy and the environment for decades to come.

    The project is moving forward through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Maybell Irrigation District (MID). The goal is to reconstruct the historic Maybell diversion and modernize the headgates in the lower Yampa River. TNC, MID, Friends of the Yampa and other partners are committed to increasing water users’ control of irrigation water while improving aquatic habitat by removing impediments to flow as well as facilitating boat and fish passage at the Maybell diversion. Safer and reliable water infrastructure will bring increased economic benefits to the communities in the lower Yampa basin. In addition, this project supports recovery of four endangered fish while meeting agricultural irrigation needs and increasing ecological connectivity, water security and resilience to climate change.

    Located in the designated critical habitat reach of the Yampa, downstream of Juniper Canyon, the MID currently withdraws water through two broken and antiquated headgates into the Maybell Ditch. Built in 1896, the ditch is approximately 18 miles long and is one of the largest diverters on the Yampa River. Though the diversion infrastructure historically served the users well, it is impacted by critically low flows during times of drought and water scarcity.

    Stakeholders and community members view the project as critical to remedying chronic low-flow and obstacles to boat and fish passage in the lower Yampa. The project received funding in 2019 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to finalize engineering designs, specifications and permitting for construction to begin in 2022. TNC and partners are in the process of fundraising and working with the Maybell community to schedule construction and develop a path forward.

    You can learn more about the Maybell Diversion Project at http://Nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/colorado/stories-in-colorado/maybell-water-diversion-project. In addition, you can learn more about the Yampa River Fund and other funded projects at http://YampaRiverFund.org.

    #Arizona Legislature wants feasibility study for long-distance pipeline to replenish #ColoradoRiver supply: “One promising possibility involves piping water that is harvested from #MississippiRiver floodwaters” — The Mohave Valley News #COriver #aridification

    From The Mohave Valley News:

    The Arizona Legislature on Tuesday made a formal request asking Congress to fund a study to determine the feasibility of pipelining Mississippi River floodwater to the Colorado River.

    House Concurrent Memorial 2004 passed the Arizona Senate by a 23-7 vote and the Arizona House by a 54-6 margin. A memorial is not a law, but a legislative measure containing a request or proposal, asking other parties outside the Arizona Legislature’s jurisdiction to take action. HCMs have no official standing or effect, but serve as a public record of the request presented for consideration.

    The memorial was introduced by Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma. Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, is among co-sponsors.

    It asks that “the United States Congress fund a technological and feasibility study of developing a diversion dam and pipeline to harvest floodwater from the Mississippi River to replenish the Colorado River and prevent flood damage along the Mississippi River.”

    It also states that “If shown to be feasible, the United States Congress implement the diversion dam and pipeline as a partial solution to the water supply shortage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead and the flood damage that occurs along the Mississippi River.”

    Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the two major reservoirs on the Colorado River. Both are at historically low levels and likely will trigger a Tier 1 water emergency in Arizona later this year or in 2022.

    The memorial notes the low water levels of both reservoirs and the “historic flooding in 2011 and 2019 along the Mississippi River” that caused 11 deaths and more than $9.5 billion in damage.

    It asks that the request be sent to the President of the U.S. Senate, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the governors of states on the Mississippi River — Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin — as well as Arizona’s 11 members of Congress.

    “Arizona has long been at the forefront among Western states in supporting the development and implementation of pioneering, well-reasoned water management policies,” Dunn said, a line straight out of the HCM he crafted. “Arizona and the other six Colorado Basin states are in the 20th year of severe drought and experiencing a severe water shortage. Water levels are at critical levels, jeopardizing the water delivery and power generation. A new water source could help augment Colorado River supplies.

    “One promising possibility involves piping water that is harvested from Mississippi River floodwaters. Diverting this water, which is otherwise lost into the Gulf of Mexico, would also help prevent the loss of human life and billions in economic damages when such flooding occurs. This concept is already being proven in Denver, where floodwater is being successfully harvested from the Missouri River to help alleviate its water shortage.”

    Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to increase to 500 cfs May 12, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

    In response to a forecast for increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Wednesday, May 12th, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.

    Aerial image of entrenched meanders of the San Juan River within Goosenecks State Park. Located in San Juan County, southeastern Utah (U.S.). Credits Constructed from county topographic map DRG mosaic for San Juan County from USDA/NRCS – National Cartography & Geospatial Center using Global Mapper 12.0 and Adobe Illustrator. Latitude 33° 31′ 49.52″ N., Longitude 111° 37′ 48.02″ W. USDA/FSA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    Navajo Dam operations update: Temporary increase in releases to 600 cfs May 11, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

    In response to a forecast lull in flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a temporary increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Tuesday, May 11th, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.

    Fly fishers on the San Juan River below the Navajo Dam.U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

    Irrigators look to replace hydro plant — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel

    Orchard Mesa Irrigation District power plant near Palisade. Water from Colorado’s snowpack is distributed across the region through a complex network of dams, pipelines and irrigation canals. Photo credit: Orchard Mesa Irrigation District

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    Two local irrigation districts are looking to replace the aging Grand Valley Power hydroelectric plant by the Colorado River near Palisade with a new, adjacent plant after deciding against trying to keep the old plant running.

    The Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association expect to spend some $10 million, not counting cash spending and in-kind contributions to date, on what is to be called the Vinelands Power Plant. It will replace a plant that dates to the early 1930s.

    The existing plant is owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation but administered by the two local irrigation entities, with Orchard Mesa Irrigation overseeing day-to-day operations and Grand Valley Water Users diverting water for it. The local entities hold a lease of power privilege contract granted by Bureau of Reclamation to operate and maintain the existing plant, and will be negotiating a new lease with the agency for the new plant.

    Those negotiations take place in public, and are scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. on Monday in a virtual meeting on a Microsoft Teams platform. Information on joining the meeting may be obtained by contacting Justyn Liff at jliff@usbr.gov or 970-248-0625.

    A 30-minute public comment session will follow a scheduled two hours of negotiations, and negotiations will continue on another day if needed, said Ryan Christianson, water management chief for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office.

    Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said the hope is to begin construction on the new plant this fall and to have it operating within a year or so afterward.

    The irrigation entities had been proceeding on parallel tracks, both pursuing continued operation of the existing plant and considering the possibility of replacing it…

    Only one of the current plant’s two turbines is being used now. Harris said if the plant were rehabilitated, it could produce up to about 3.5 megawatts of power, compared to close to 5 megawatts for the new one.

    Power from the plant had been sold to Xcel Energy, but starting this year, it is being sold to Holy Cross Energy, based in Glenwood Springs.

    Harris said the new plant will be owned 51% by irrigators and 49% by Idaho-based Sorenson Engineering, which will build it. Harris said the company has built several power plants for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association.

    The Palisade plant will be built on land owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and by Orchard Mesa Irrigation. The project also makes use of fairly senior federal water rights and a federal canal to supply the plant, which are also reasons why the lease with the Bureau of Reclamation is required.

    The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

    For the plant’s owners, the project will produce revenues from selling power to Holy Cross. Harris said irrigators also benefit because water that supplies the plant also improves the ability to get irrigation water into a canal at the upstream “roller dam” diversion point at times when the Colorado River is running low.

    However, the dam has broader benefits as well. Harris said the Bureau of Reclamation holds a water right for the plant of 400 cubic feet per second in the summer and 800 cfs in the winter. That water helps bolster flows immediately downstream in what’s known as the 15-mile reach, an area of critical importance for four endangered fish because water levels can fall so low between where irrigation diversions occur for Grand Valley uses and the Gunnison River meets the Colorado River downstream.

    Keeping a power plant operating protects the federal water rights and helps in ensuring compliance with Endangered Species Act requirements to protect the fish, which Harris said benefits not just local irrigators but numerous other water diverters on the Colorado River in the state, including diverters of water to the Eastern Slope.

    The plant’s benefit to the fish has helped in securing a lot of partner funding for the new plant, from sources such as the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Water Trust.

    Navajo Dam operations update: Releases = 400 cfs May 8, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

    In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs on Saturday, May 8th, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.

    A boater, John Dufficy, makes his way down the lower end of the San Juan River toward the take-out, in 2014. Photo Credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

    Rainy start to May not yet enough to stem #YampaRiver Valley’s #water concerns — The #SteamBoatSprings Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):

    Steamboat Springs has been seeing some much needed rain to start the month of May, which is historically the wettest month of the year for the Yampa Valley.

    The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, which is a collection of volunteers that submit data to the Colorado Climate Center, have observed about 0.3 inches of rain in Steamboat since Sunday…

    Despite recent rain, however, water experts say it’s not enough.

    “There hasn’t been a tremendous amount of rain, and it is pretty standard for us to get some spring rain, so I don’t think it is going to overcome the deficit that we were already in,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

    Light placed water restrictions on the river last year and in 2018, but it is still too early to know if that will be needed this year. She said they are working with the Colorado River District to find ways to avoid a call, potentially releasing water from Elkhead Reservoir.

    If a call is avoided, Light said it would likely be because of this collaboration. Still, reservoir releases don’t necessarily fix the problem.

    “It doesn’t eliminate the fact that there may be no more stream flow left in the river,” Light said. “It is very possible that we are going to get to a point where our natural stream flow runoff has gone to nothing, and the only thing we are seeing in the river is reservoir water at certain locations.”

    This is what happened at the end of summer 2020 and in 2018 to trigger the call.

    Light said she is mainly looking at stream flows particularly farther down the river. She focuses on the gauges near Maybell and Deerlodge Park that are both in Moffat County, downstream from many irrigators that pull from the Yampa River west of Steamboat.

    “You can only put so many straws in the river before you start to run out of water,” Light said, adding that both of the gauges have hit record lows in recent weeks…

    At 10 a.m. Wednesday, both gauges showed flows were only about 20% as strong as they were this time last year. When looking at three-month outlooks, it suggests this summer will be both hotter and drier than normal, Light said.

    Steamboat typically receives about 2.5 inches of rain in May, according to the 30-year average from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    Ruedi Reservoir will pay a price for warm, dry April — The #Aspen Times #FryingpanRiver #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From The Aspen Times (Scott Condon):

    Reservoir expected to reach only about 90% of capacity this summer

    The dry, warm month of April prevented the snowpack from building and sunk the chances to fill Ruedi Reservoir this summer, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation…

    The snowpack in the upper Fryingpan Valley was only about 60% of median as of May 1, he said. Forecasts are for runoff into the reservoir to be only about 55% of average…

    Ruedi Reservoir is at about 60% full right now. It holds 102,000 acre-feet of water. It would need about 42,000 acre-feet to fill.

    Current projections are for it to reach about 90,000 acre-feet this summer, according to Miller…

    The Roaring Fork River basin, like much of Colorado and the Western United States, has been battling a prolonged drought. AccuWeather Inc. reported Wednesday that 75% of the Western U.S. is experiencing drought conditions. About 21% of the areas are facing exceptional drought, which is the most extreme…

    West Drought Monitor map May 4, 2021.

    A lower water level in the reservoir also will mean lower releases into the lower Fryingpan River through the summer. Water levels won’t be as high as usual in late spring and early summer, so there won’t be a disruption to the Gold Medal trout stream.

    However, low water levels and high summer temperatures are a regular cause for concern. The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy has sounded the alarm in past summers about high water temperatures stressing trout.

    Water releases could increase in June once downstream entities that possess senior water rights make a “call” for water for agricultural uses, Miller said.

    April Long, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said the reservoir is used to meeting numerous water needs in the Roaring Fork Valley and on the Colorado River system. It is hard to know the full impact of the reservoir not filling, she said.

    San Luis Valley Wetlands: Critical stopover habitat for bird migration and the ‘kidneys’ of the Earth — San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council

    Cinnamon Teal by NPS Patrick Myers.

    From the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (Zaylah Pearson-Good):

    Introduction
    Each spring and fall, thousands of feathers slice through the brisk San Luis Valley (SLV) sky, alerting resident wildlife, local farmers, and eager birders to the change of season. Ranging from shorebirds to songbirds, a myriad of avian species visit this high-elevation desert as they migrate along the Central Flyway to their breeding and wintering grounds. Nurtured by the Valley’s mosaic of wetlands, riparian corridors, and agricultural fields, the SLV is a critical stopover for these determined travelers.

    Foundational to the health of any stopover habitat is the presence of water. As local hydrology continues to be threatened by high agricultural demands, persistent drought, mining of the aquifer, and water export proposals, the future of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover is unknown. By protecting both ground and surface water reserves, we honor the miraculous winged creatures that bring energy, life, and color to the San Luis Valley.

    The Importance of Migratory Stopovers
    From distributing nutrients, seeds, and pollen, to balancing local food chains, animal migrations enhance ecosystem health. Spanning hundreds to thousands of miles in distance, these impressive voyages speak to the beauty, intelligence, endurance, and collective determination of species worldwide. Coming at tremendous energetic costs, migrations also highlight the importance of maintaining healthy habitat along migratory corridors.

    Jenny Nehring and Cary Aloia, SLV biologists and partners at Wetland Dynamics, explain that many people “overemphasize the importance of wintering and breeding grounds,” when in fact, a successful migration also requires the presence of intact, resource rich habitats along the way (Interview, 2021). Without areas to rest and refuel like the SLV, birds would arrive to their destinations underweight and undernourished. For this reason, birds navigate not by the arbitrary borders and boundaries designed by humans, but by the geographical landmarks, such as rivers and wetlands, that represent feeding and resting opportunities.

    Connected by threads of wetland and marsh habitats, the Central Flyway offers safe passage to thousands of birds during their biannual migrations. From the thick boreal forests of Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, this flight path is believed to support the movement of over 400 bird species each year (Bode, 2020). The San Luis Valley, a vast high desert shrubland in Southern Colorado, is a critical stopover for many migratory species. Blessed with interspersed wetlands, it is an especially important stop for Central and Pacific Flyway ducks, water birds, shorebirds, and the iconic Sandhill Crane (Ducks Unlimited).

    SLV Significance to Migratory Birds
    According to soil scientist and field ornithologist John Rawinski, the SLV’s drastic range in elevation, and therefore climate, creates a variety of distinct habitats for birds. Cradled by the impressive San Juan Mountains to the west and Sangre de Cristo’s to the east, the semiarid San Luis Valley ranges in elevation from 7,600 feet on the valley floor to over 14,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From the harsh alpine tundra to the tranquil grasslands of the lowlands, this diverse habitat in the SLV yields impressive avian biodiversity. Over 360 species have been recorded in this Valley and surrounding mountains (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Over 250 bird species have been identified at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve alone. Of this count, many are migratory species including the Great Blue Heron, American Avocet, Snowy Plover, Burrowing Owl, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Lewis’ Woodpecker, and Cedar Waxwing, (GSDNPPC,pgs. 1-8).

    The SLV Wetland and Wildlife Conservation Assessment identifies the San Luis Valley as being the “southernmost significant waterbird production area in the Central Flyway and the most important waterfowl production area in Colorado…” (Wetland Dynamics, 2019, pg. 19). For birds that winter in Mexico and South America, the area is ideal for breeding. In fact, it is one of North America’s most critical breeding grounds for various species of duck and colonial wading birds, specifically the Cinnamon Teal (Ducks Unlimited). Similarly, priority duck species, such as Mallard and Northern Pintail depend on the Valley’s flooded wetlands and densely vegetated habitats for migration, nesting, and wintering (Wetland Dynamics, 2019, pg. 19).

    For bigger bird species and waterfowl, the Valley functions as a vital rest-stop to regain stamina for the journey onward. For example, the SLV is an important destination for nearly the entire Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes as they fly along the Central Flyway. Due to their spectacular numbers and continued presence, this iconic wading bird highlights the value of the SLV’s high quality habitat.

    Sandhill Cranes in the SLV

    Sandhill Cranes West of Dunes by NPS/Patrick Myers

    Human Connection
    Dynamic, loud, and majestic, the Rocky Mountain Sandhill Greater Sandhill Crane migration has attracted perhaps the most attention out of any bird to visit the Valley. These grey, long-bodied creatures have flocked to the San Luis Valley for ages, inspiring ancient Native American petroglyphs that date back up to 3,000 years (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Spanning nearly 6 feet in length, the “Big Bird” petroglyph located outside of Del Norte speaks to the impact that cranes have always had on SLV residents.

    As the cultural landscape of the region changed throughout time, so did the cranes’ relationship to the land. For example, early cranes primarily ate the resources found in wetlands such as mice, frogs, snails, tubers, and invertebrates (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). As European settlement and widespread agriculture took root in the SLV, cranes adapted their diet to become more general. Waste grain from farmlands, especially barley, began to comprise a large portion of their diet. While the cultural and physical environment has changed overtime, humans continue to celebrate this majestic bird. Since 1983, locals and tourists have gathered to honor, experience, and learn from the species at the Monte Vista Crane Festival. The annual celebration attracts thousands of visitors each year to marvel at nearly 20,000 dancing, chortling, and swooping cranes.

    Experiencing a Sandhill Crane migration can be a surreal and incredible moment. Cody Wagner, Conservation Program Manager at the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center (INAC), shares that Sandhill Crane migrations are “one of the last great migrations on the planet,” comparable to the caribou in Canada (Interview, 2021). It is incredibly powerful, and spiritual for some, to witness such a large quantity of charismatic travelers.

    Like the SLV, Nebraska’s Platte River (INAC’s location) is a critical stopover for cranes along the Central Flyway, hosting copious amounts of birds each season. Wagner reports that there can be as many as 200,000 Lesser Sandhill Cranes on any 5-mile segment of the river at a given time. One thing that Wagner loves about being surrounded by so many cranes is that by watching them, you find they have a lot of relatable qualities. Like humans, cranes dance, play, get loud, and also show both an awkward and elegant side. When out on the river, he describes their calls as being “ancient,” “unique,” and “a thing of beauty.” (Wagner, Interview, 2021).

    Local SLV ornithologist and soil scientist John Rawinski shares a similar sentiment with Wagner. Visiting the cranes every chance he gets at the Monte Vista Refuge, he describes the encounter as deeply therapeutic. By “observing the beautiful sounds of the cranes, their majestic flight, and archaic appearance” it sets his day at peace (Interview, 2021). While he acknowledges that one can view the migration of the cranes in various locations on the continent, there is something extraordinary about their presence in the SLV. Snow-capped peaks, a crisp blue sky, and a vast open valley all combine to set an incredible backdrop for the spectacular crane spectacle.

    SLV Significance to Cranes
    Due to the memory of high-quality resources, nearly the entire population of Rocky Mountain Sandhills bottleneck in the SLV during their migration (Nehring & Aloia, Interview, 2021). In early February, the birds follow the Rio Grande River northward from their wintering grounds in New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Upon reaching the SLV, they scatter themselves throughout barley fields, lakes, wetlands, and the Rio Grande, feeding on high calorie grains and nutrient dense aquatic invertebrates.

    While waste grains from the agricultural fields provide the birds with energy-rich carbohydrates, they derive the majority of their nutrients from invertebrates, which are especially important for healthy eggshell production (Wagner, Interview, 2021). For 1-2 month periods, flocks of cranes congregate in the region’s National Wildlife Refuges (Alamosa, Monte Vista, Baca), Blanca Wetlands, and Russell and San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area, where there are high concentrations of viable habitat (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 73).

    Travelling up to 300 miles in a single day, Sandhills exert incredible energy during their biannual migrations (INAC). The stopover in the Valley allows the cranes to regain energy and strength to complete the journey to their breeding grounds in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem (including portions of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah). The Lesser Sandhill Crane, a slightly smaller version of the Greater Sandhill, travels even farther with its northern territory extending into the arctic. In the fall, the Valley will again serve as a rest-stop for the cranes as they venture back to their winter home in New Mexico.

    John Rawinski speaks to the importance of the Valley as a safe resting place for the cranes. He describes the aquatic habitats of the San Luis Valley as a“safe haven” for birds to relax and rest (Interview, 2021). By roosting in 6-8 inches of water, Sandhills are protected from predators such as coyotes, raccoons, and foxes. Water serves as an alarm system for the birds, as few predators can enter their roosting habitats without splashing loudly and alerting the birds to danger.

    From a conservationist perspective, the current Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes is stable. As omnivores, cranes have a fairly generalist and diverse diet, which speaks to their resilience as they do not depend on one sole food source to be well nourished. As well, cranes can modify their route if they sense insufficient resources along their traditional path. Rerouting demands additional energy, however, which can hurt crane populations and lead to malnourishment and unhealthy body weight (Nehring & Aloia, Interview, 2021). Efficiency is an important component to avian migration, and thus is the significance behind reliable, consistent stopover destinations.

    While cranes fortunately exhibit some resilient traits, they are currently vulnerable due to loss of habitat and the unforeseen impacts of climate change. The species, along with other migratory birds, cannot survive without wetlands. Wetlands are currently one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America, putting the cranes and countless other species in danger. By recognizing the significance of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover, we are helping to keep habitat along migratory corridors connected. In this way, conserving ecosystems in the Valley is essential for the wellbeing of all birds along the Central Flyway.

    The Importance of Water
    Receiving less than 8 inches of precipitation each year, the San Luis Valley is one of the driest regions in the state of Colorado. In the past two decades, drought, reduced precipitation, and high rates of ground and surface water withdrawals have threatened some of the Valley’s most precious habitats: wetland and riparian areas.

    Sunrise Over Wetland by NPS/Patrick Myers

    SLV Wetland Habitats
    Whether it is for nesting, breeding, feeding, or resting, all species that migrate through the San Luis Valley depend on the region’s wetlands. Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems that exist in low-lying depressions in the terrain. They are often referred to as the “kidneys” of the earth because they filter out pollutants, excess nutrients, and sediment from surface waters. They are also essential to the recharging of groundwater and protection against flooding and erosion events.

    Depending on the type of wetland, the habitat may be wet permanently, semi-permanently, seasonally, or temporarily. Variations in soil type, elevation, location, vegetation and climate create distinct types of wetland habitats, that service wildlife in different ways and at different times in their life history (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 17). For example, the Mallard and Northern Pintail ducks require wetlands with shallow water to forage, but seek refuge in wetlands with tall emergent vegetation during sheltering periods (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 20). During nesting, both waterfowl species require distinct habitat, with the Mallards preferring habitats abundant with Baltic rush, and the Pintails choosing less dense vegetation, such as greasewood (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 20).

    The SLV supports such a thriving community of migratory species, in part, because of its wide range of seasonal wetlands. In an analysis submitted to the Bureau of Land Management on SLV habitats and bird migration, Animas Biological Studies determined that shallow emergent and playa wetlands are “the most critical habitat type for migratory birds in both spring and fall” (pg. 15). Shallow emergent wetlands host a wide range of migratory species in their shallow pond and marsh like habitats. Characteristic of emergent vegetation like rushes and sedges, these habitats offer excellent feeding, nesting, and resting opportunities for migratory wading birds, waterbirds, and secretive marsh birds (ABS, pg. 3). Due to their semi-permanent to permanent quality, these SLV habitats are believed to be the most densely populated and used habitats by migratory shorebirds and waterbirds (ABS, pg. 3).

    Also supporting high biological density and diversity, playa wetlands are some of the Valley’s most unique wetland habitats. Intermittently saturated by either surface or groundwater, these wetlands have high soil alkalinity and salinity that may result in the formation of a white crust during drying cycles. According to John Rawinski, playa wetlands are both the most critical and vulnerable of wetland habitats because they host species that cannot survive in other environments. For example, SLV playas represent the largest nesting area for the Snowy Plover, a threatened North American shorebird that thrives in dry salt flats (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Additionally, several birds classified as “rare” are known to inhabit these distinctive wetlands, especially at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: Long-billed Curlew, Short-eared Owl, Black-crowned Night-heron, Foster’s Tern, and the White-faced Ibis (Malone, p. 3) Playa wetlands are also host to a globally endangered plant species, the slender spider flower (Malone, p. 4).

    Wetland threats in the SLV
    Wetlands are both the Valley’s most valuable and vulnerable ecosystems. While only representing 2% of Colorado’s total area, wetland and riparian habitats support over 80% of wildlife species throughout their lives (Wetland Dynamics, p 36, 2019). Furthermore, wetlands are believed to be the most imperative habitats for birds that are classified as “at-risk” (Rondeau et al., pg. 93). In other words, Colorado’s most threatened species are also most reliant on wetland ecosystems.

    Unfortunately, wetland conservation has been historically insufficient. In a report prepared by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the authors write that “Threats to wetland species are high and protection is generally poor” (Rondeau et al., p 128). Cody Wagner with the Audubon confirms this point in saying that many people undervalue these habitats; “Wetlands are held in less esteem by the public and have been historically viewed as a waste of space” (Interview, 2021). As a result, across the country, these habitats have been intentionally drained, burned out, converted into cropland/developments, polluted, or compromised by invasive species.

    Due to reduced precipitation, severe droughts, earlier peak runoff, unsustainable agricultural practices, and high demands from water users, wetlands in the SLV have suffered. Wetland Dynamics, a small business committed to the conservation of critical SLV ecosystems, reports that nearly half of the Valley’s total wet acres have been lost since the 1980’s (pg. 80). With water use continuing to exceed supply, conservation of local water resources will be instrumental to restoring and protecting these habitats.

    Wetland declines are of great concern for many reasons. Not only does it strain bird migrations, but losses also pose a threat to the surrounding environment. With less available habitat, birds will be forced to congregate in the few viable wetlands that remain. According to a study under the Society for Conservation Biology, wetlands overburdened by high densities of birds can cause “the destruction of wetland vegetation, impose heavy losses in local agricultural crops, increase the risk of infectious disease outbreaks, and decrease water quality” (Post, et al., p. 911). Furthermore, crowded habitat is also detrimental to wildlife, potentially leading to increased competition for resources, poor reproductive success, and reduced longevity.

    Willet and White Faced Ibis by NPS/Patrick Myers

    Riparian Habitat
    Defined as the interface between a river or stream and the surrounding terrain, riparian areas are hotspots for migratory species. Densely vegetated with native grasses, willows, sedges, rushes, and cottonwoods, these areas are sanctuaries for resident and seasonal wildlife in the arid SLV. Common bird species to utilize these local ecosystems include the Bullock’s Oriole, Great Horned Owl, Northern Flicker, American Robin, Yellow Warbler, and the American Kestrel (USFWS, 2014). Similar to wetlands, riparian habitats are some of the sparsest habitats in the region. Riparian habitats support about 80% of resident bird species but represent only 3% of the landscape in the Intermountain West (Wetlands Dynamic, p 20).

    Intersecting the SLV near Del Norte, the Rio Grande supports imperative riparian habitat for avian species. For example, the San Luis Hills State Wildlife Area protects 4.5 miles of the Rio Grande, which is considered “Critical Habitat” for the federally-endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (COGO, 2018). The surrounding uplands (sagebrush and grasslands) host Sage Thrashers and Mountain Plovers, both of which are suffering a decline in population (GOCO, 2018). The Higel State Wildlife Area also protects several miles of the Rio Grande. This area is known to be critical habitat and breeding ground for the Willow Flycatcher, and the threatened, Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 42).

    The Rio Grande is considered a critical migratory corridor as it offers species a continuous stretch of riparian habitat along their path. From the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande River supports an otherwise thirsty landscape along its 1,900-mile path. Feeding seasonal wetland and riparian habitats, the Rio Grande brings life to parched deserts and valleys, allowing for both human and wildlife communities to thrive.

    Jenny Nehring describes the Rio Grande as a “green ribbon in a very dry landscape” that directs birds towards resources along their high-energy voyage (Interview, 2021). The Rio Grande offers safe passage to countless migratory species, including the Sandhills, who utilize the river for both navigation and nourishment. Audubon New Mexico reports that roughly 18,000 Greater Sandhill Cranes, 200,000 waterfowl, and thousands of other water and shorebird species utilize New Mexico’s Rio Grande Corridor. Whether it is for wintering, migration, resting, feeding or nesting, the Rio Grande is an irreplaceable resource for migratory birds.

    Threats to the Rio Grande
    Excessive water use of the Rio Grande has become a growing concern. As early as the start of the 20thcentury, surveyors were already noticing the impact of SLV irrigation on the river. A USGS survey of the San Luis Valley in the early 1900s relayed that “the waters of this stream [Rio Grande river} are greatly over appropriated, even in the flood season” (Siebenthal, pg. 19). Currently, high water demands by agriculturalists, coupled with the drying impacts of climate change, have continued to tax this critical water supply. The upper Rio Grande is projected to decrease in volume by one-third in the coming years (Audubon New Mexico). Furthermore, over 90% of historical wetlands and riparian habitat along Rio Grande Corridor have already been lost in the last 150 years (Bode, 2020).

    Wetland Dynamics shares that with the projected impacts of climate change, warmer water temperature and reduced stream flow could decrease the Rio Grande’s “extent of overall flooding across the watershed” (pg. 28). Already, the Rio Grande Basin Implementation plan is anticipating a 30% decrease in the river’s stream flow (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 28). Reduced flow and thus flooding from the Rio Grande would have dramatic consequences for the wetland and riparian ecosystems that require surface water input. Visiting and resident wildlife would greatly suffer as a result of this major habitat loss.

    Young Great Horned Owl by NPS/Patrick Myers

    A Changing World for Birds
    Due to horrific collapses in bird populations across North America, birds depend on intact and healthy habitats perhaps more than ever. Extreme weather events, droughts, mismanaged resources, development, and loss of habitat have all contributed to the shocking losses in bird life. John Rawinski laments that today “we have 3 billion less birds (down 33%) in North America than we had in 1970” (Interview, 2021). Having started birding in the 70’s himself, he has seen this tremendous decline firsthand. He reports seeing fewer and fewer birds each year, and mass die offs, such as those experienced across the Southwest during the 2020 unseasonal summer snowstorm event. As a passionate birder and scientist, Rawinski begs the question: “Who will speak for the birds?” He urges that we need to start taking action now, before it is too late. Without important resting stops like the SLV, and intact migratory corridors such as the Rio Grande, migratory bird species do not stand a chance against climate change.

    The Importance of Birds
    A Changing World for Birds
    Due to horrific collapses in bird populations across North America, birds depend on intact and healthy habitats perhaps more than ever. Extreme weather events, droughts, mismanaged resources, development, and loss of habitat have all contributed to the shocking losses in bird life. John Rawinski laments that today “we have 3 billion less birds (down 33%) in North America than we had in 1970” (Interview, 2021). Having started birding in the 70’s himself, he has seen this tremendous decline firsthand. He reports seeing fewer and fewer birds each year, and mass die offs, such as those experienced across the Southwest during the 2020 unseasonal summer snowstorm event. As a passionate birder and scientist, Rawinski begs the question: “Who will speak for the birds?” He urges that we need to start taking action now, before it is too late. Without important resting stops like the SLV, and intact migratory corridors such as the Rio Grande, migratory bird species do not stand a chance against climate change.

    The Importance of Birds
    Besides their striking beauty and relaxing melodies, birds play essential roles in balancing ecosystems and ensuring a healthy environment. During migrations, birds visit a diverse range of landscapes. Travelling thousands of miles, birds pick up and disperse nutrients and seeds. This process contributes to a more biologically diverse and productive ecosystem. Many birds also consume large quantities of insects as they migrate, which serves as a natural pest control for farmers. Lastly, certain aerial migrants, such as bats and hummingbirds, are important pollinators along their respective flyways. This is especially true for flower pollination.

    In addition, birds are sensitive to environmental fluctuation, and therefore are considered good indicators of ecosystem health. Scientists have used the presence or lack of birds to learn about the impact of toxic pollutants such as PCBs and heavy metals in the environment. By ensuring healthy landscapes for birds, we reflect a healthy environment for human residents too. In this way, birds play a helpful role in teaching humans about the land in which they are a part. In the San Luis Valley, the continued visitation of large numbers of migratory species indicates that our landscape is blessed with prosperous habitats capable of supporting a wide range of life forms. With water export proposals such as RWR threatening our local water reserves, we cannot take these ecosystems for granted.

    Renewable Water Resources (RWR)
    Proposal Connected by a series of pipelines running through Poncha Pass, Renewable Water Resources (RWR) proposes to remove 22,000 acre-feet of SLV water from the deep aquifer each year. This trans-basin water diversion would transfer local water to growing municipalities in the Front Range at the cost of SLV’s economy, ecology and future. Backed by former deputy chief of staff Sean Tonner and former Governor Bill Owens, RWR is one of many nonlocal investors who have attempted to remove thousands of acres of feet of water from the SLV a year. Opposed by SLV water managers, towns, environmental advocacy groups, and many ranchers/farmers, the impacts of RWR’s proposal would have horrific impacts on the local environment.

    Potential Impact
    Central to the study of ecology is that everything is connected. Hydrology is no different. By removing thousands of acres of water out of the deep aquifer each year, the health of the shallow aquifer, as well as wetlands and rivers that sustain life above it, are put at risk. As SLV ground and surface water reserves are already over-appropriated and declining, the San Luis Valley cannot afford to lose any more water. As a scientist and advocate for the environment, John Rawinski notes that, whenever there is potential for water to leave the San Luis Valley, “the big loser is always wildlife” (Interview, 2021). While humans have the ability to buy and transport water, wildlife and the habitats on which they depend do not have this freedom. The resident and migratory species of this Valley cannot afford to lose their most precious resource at the hands of those who desire to profit from it.

    Conclusion
    Spanning nearly 120 miles from north to south, the San Luis Valley supports vibrant communities of wildlife. Attracting avian species from all across North America, the SLV stands out as a significant stopover for migratory species. High quality wetlands and riparian areas sustain these winged travelers as they cover thousands of miles during their migrations. These incredible voyages attract nature lovers, balance local ecosystems, and encourage local biodiversity. However, the future of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover is jeopardized due to water scarcity. The Valley is faced with an urgent call to conserve water resources. For wildlife and human inhabitants, we must prevent water miners from exporting water, implement more sustainable forms of irrigation and land stewardship, consider water re-use, and unite private and public landowners in habitat conservation. The future of wildlife and humans in the San Luis Valley is depending on a commitment to protect our water.

    Works Cited

    Animas Biological Studies (ABS). “2015 Migratory Waterbird and Shorebird Surveys to Inform Solar Energy Zone Planning, Avian Impact Minimization, and Species Conservation in the San Luis Valley, Colorado.” 2016.
    Audubon New Mexico. “Priority Birds in New Mexico.” National Audubon Society. https://nm.audubon.org/birds/priority-birds
    Bode, Christi. The Fragile Flyway: Conserving the Rio Grande Corridor. Vimeo, 4 November 2020, https://vimeo.com/475587503
    Ducks Unlimited, “Colorado Conservation Projects.” https://www.ducks.org/colorado/colorado-conservation-projects
    Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO). “New State Wildlife Area in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Thanks to Collaborative Effort on the Upper Rio Grande.” 2018. https://goco.org/news/new-state-wildlife-area-colorado’s-san-luis-valley-thanks-collaborative-effort-upper-rio-grande
    Ian Nicolson Audubon Center (INAC) at Rowe Sanctuary, “Sandhill Crane Facts.”National Audubon Society.https://rowe.audubon.org/crane-facts
    Malone, Dee. “Ecological Systems of Colorado: Inter-Mountain Basins Playa.” Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP). November 2017. https://cnhp.colostate.edu/projects/ecological-systems-of- colorado/details/?elementID=365181&wetland=1
    Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Colorado (GSDNPPC). “Bird Checklist.” National Park Service, 2006. https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/nature/upload/bird-checklist-2006-508.pdf
    Nehring, Jenny & Aloia Cary (SLV Biologists and Owners of Wetland Dynamics). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good, 8 March 2021.
    Post, et al. “ The Role of Migratory Waterfowl as Nutrient Vectors in a Managed Wetland.” Conservation Biology, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1998.
    Rawinski, John. (SLV soil scientist and ornithologist). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good,12 March 2021.
    Rondeau, R., et al. “The State of Colorado’s Biodiversity.” Colorado Natural Heritage Program,ColoradoState University, Fort Collins, Colorado, 2011. Siebenthal, C.E. “Geology and Water Resources of the San Luis Valley, Colorado. United States Geological Survey, Water Supply paper #240, 1910.
    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFS) “Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife and Habitat.” 2014. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Baca/wildlife_and_habitat/index.html
    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFS). “Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado” 2020. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Monte_Vista/wildlife_and_habitat/index.html.
    Wagner, Cody. (Conservation Program Manager at the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good, 2 March 2021.
    Wetland Dynamics. “San Luis Valley Wetland and Wildlife Conservation Assessment: Historic and Current distribution of Wetlands and Riparian Areas Recommendations for Future Conservation.” Final Edition 2, 8 May 2019,

    Amid #drought, Interstate Stream Commission seeks federal support — #NewMexico Political Report

    New Mexico Drought Monitor April 20, 2021.

    From The New Mexico Political Report (Hannah Grover):

    As much of New Mexico faces exceptional drought conditions, the Interstate Stream Commission authorized its chairman to ask the Department of Interior for financial support.

    The commission approved delegating that authority to commission chairman during its meeting on Friday.

    The chairman will work with State Engineer John D’Antonio to request funding for both long-term and short-term drought relief.

    The short-term relief could be something like assistance for farmers, said ISC Director Rolf Schmidt-Peterson…

    Low water flow in rivers

    The major water basins in the state are experiencing low flows in rivers.

    The Upper Colorado River Basin had 89 percent of normal snowpack this year, but the back-to-back years of drought left the soil dry. This led to more of the runoff soaking into the ground rather than flowing downstream, according to the staff report at the start of the meeting. This has left flows in the San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers at 50 percent of the historic average during March and April.

    Meanwhile, the Gila and San Francisco rivers are flowing at 5 to 21 percent of the historic average for March and April.

    The headwater tributaries of the Pecos River were flowing at 39 to 47 percent of average during the time period from October to March, according to information from the New Mexico Drought Taskforce. In the Canadian River Basin, the headwater tributaries were flowing at 18 to 67 percent of average.

    During the October to March time period, the Rio Grande streamflow upstream of Albuquerque ranged from 35 to 67 percent of average, according to the drought taskforce report…

    The Rio Grande Compact is preventing New Mexico from storing water in reservoirs built after 1929 because of the low levels and the state currently owes water from the Rio Grande to downstream users.

    Meanwhile, water users in the Pecos River basin will be relying on augmentation wells this year.

    Reservoirs below capacity

    As streamflow in much of the state is well below average, the reservoirs have dropped.

    Ute Reservoir near Logan is at 65 percent capacity, leaving community boat docks on dry land and needing to be shut down. Other reservoirs in the Canadian River Basin aren’t faring any better. Eagle Nest Reservoir is at 43 percent capacity and Conchas Reservoir is at 23 percent capacity.

    Meanwhile, in the northwest portion of the state, Navajo Reservoir is 62 percent full. Because of the low amount of water in Navajo Reservoir, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is not having the spring peak release this year that is usually done to clear out the channel and improve habitat for endangered fish like the Colorado pikeminnow.

    Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to drop to 600 cfs May 1, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridifcation

    A kayaker makes her way down the San Juan River, which delivers water from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

    In response to forecast warmer weather and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Saturday, May 1st, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

    #YampaRiver flow has business owners concerned — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From Steamboat Pilot & Today (John F. Russell):

    Despite his outward enthusiasm, Peter Van De Carr admits he is preparing for the worst as he looks over SNOTEL data collected by the National Resource Conservation Service that shows snowpack in the Yampa and White river basins is about 80% of normal.

    “You know if things turned around, and we started getting wetter than average kind of system coming in, it might turn around, “ Van De Carr said. ”We should be seeing rafts and kayaks, but it’s not worth going right now.”

    Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, agrees the river flow is eye opening for this time of year.

    “I’m surprised at how low the river is right now,” Romero-Heaney said. “I think it’s an indication that there is not a lot of snow remaining in the valley, because it melted off so quickly. I believe it got soaked up by the ground, because the soil was already so dry after last year.”

    Van De Carr, who has owned Backdoor Sports for more than 30 years, said most years, the Yampa River peaks twice. First, when the snow in the lower valley melts fueling the Yampa’s spring flow and then again as the snow from the higher peaks melts and makes its way into the river below.

    “We usually have this valley runoff surge, and the river will come up to 1,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). Then it’ll start going down, and everybody thinks its peaked,” Van De Carr said. “It does not peak until there’s almost no snow left on Mount Werner.”

    But this year, that valley surge wasn’t as strong, and like Romero-Heaney, Van De Carr believes most of that moisture soaked into the dry ground before reaching the river…

    Unfortunately, for Backdoor Sports and many other businesses that rely on the river to generate cash flow the outlook for this summer is challenging…

    Hall said not having the river will hurt traffic on Yampa Street and his retail business, which rents paddleboards and gear…

    Johnny Spillane, owner of Steamboat Flyfisher, said while the snowpack is important, the most vital thing for his business is getting moisture in the spring and summer…

    Hall is also hoping the Yampa River Fund, which has been used in the past to purchase stored water, will be used to bring water into the Yampa later in the season if the valley doesn’t see wet, cool spring weather.

    Appeal filed to sustain #ColoradoRiver flows and stop Gross Dam expansion — Wild Earth Guardians

    Gross Reservoir — The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project will raise the height of the existing dam by 131 feet, which will allow the capacity of the reservoir, pictured, to increase by 77,000 acre-feet. The additional water storage will help prevent future shortfalls during droughts and helps offset an imbalance in Denver Water’s collection system. With this project, Denver Water will provide water to current and future customers while providing environmental benefits to Colorado’s rivers and streams. Photo credit: Denver Water

    Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):

    Coalition stays the course in fight to halt construction of tallest dam in Colorado history

    A coalition of conservation groups filed a notice of appeal today in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals seeking to halt Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Dam in Boulder County and to protect sustainable flows in the Colorado River. The appeal challenges the dismissal by the lower court and asks the appeals court to order review of the merits of the case to ensure the health of the Colorado River, its native and imperiled species, and communities across Colorado that will be negatively impacted by the project…

    The conservation coalition, including Save The Colorado, The Environmental Group, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Sierra Club, originally filed suit on December 19, 2018, in the federal district court of Colorado. The groups’ litigation sought to halt Denver Water’s expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County and prevent an additional diversion of water from the Colorado River through its Moffat Collection System due to violations of federal environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The project would triple the storage capacity of Gross Reservoir and the dam would become the tallest dam in the history of Colorado.

    On March 31, 2021, the district court dismissed the coalition’s case finding that it was not before the proper court because the Federal Power Act provides the federal court of appeals with sole authority over hydropower licensing by the Federal Regulatory Commission.

    “Given the climate, water and biodiversity crises upon us, we need to be restoring river ecosystems, not destroying them,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “This battle against the powerful water institution is not over and we will continue to fight for water and climate justice by working to reform this broken system of laws and policies.”

    “The Sierra Club opposes the Gross Reservoir expansion because of the massive environmental damage it would cause,” said Rebecca Dickson, Chair of the Sierra Club-Indian Peaks Group. “If this project proceeds, hundreds of thousands of trees will be chopped down, countless habitats destroyed, and yet another waterway will be diverted from its natural course to the Front Range. On top of this, immeasurable amounts of greenhouse gasses will be released into the atmosphere during the construction and transportation process.”

    “Denver Water’s plan to build the tallest dam in Colorado history will hurt the 40 million people in seven states and two countries who depend on the Colorado River for their water supply,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and advocacy director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “The basin is slowly dying a proverbial ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as its communities and ecosystems face a water crisis driven by unsustainable demand, prolonged drought, and runaway climate change. We stand with our fellow conservation groups in continuing to oppose this misguided and reckless water grab.”

    “The expansion of Gross Dam is a shortsighted response to a long-term problem,” said Beverly Kurtz the President of The Environmental Group. “Denver Water should lead the way in finding sustainable solutions to the challenge of water scarcity, rather than destroying pristine areas of western Boulder County and further threatening the Colorado River with an antiquated dam proposal. Recent data confirm that predicted shortages of water in the Colorado River Basin due to climate change are happening even sooner than expected. Building a bigger dam does not increase the amount of water available. The District Court needs to hear the merits of our case rather than establishing a dangerous precedent by deferring authority to FERC and the federal court of appeals.”

    “The year of decision, to not divert more water from the Colorado River, came and went about twenty years ago,” said John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers in Moab, Utah. “We know this is true because the development of contingency planning agreements to avoid water shortages began in 2014 and the urgency to resolve this threat still remains. Yet the contradictions and absurdities to also develop a suite of diversion projects in the Colorado River Basin also remains. If the basin’s water managers will not even adapt to the hydrology they accept, how could they possibly adapt to the hydrology of the future? Our lawsuit is an appeal to accept the truth that the Colorado River has nothing left to give.”

    The groups’ appeal is posted here: http://pdf.wildearthguardians.org/support_docs/Notice-of-Appeal.pdf

    The organizations participating in this litigation are represented by the public interest environmental law firm Eubanks & Associates, PLLC.

    New dust-on-snow monitoring technology coming to #SteamboatSprings lab, expanding a growing #snowpack data network — @AspenJournalism #runoff #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From Aspen Journalism (Natalie Keltner-McNeil):

    Phenomenon drives earlier, more-intense spring runoff

    The first automated dust-on-snow monitoring technology in the mountains of Northwest Colorado is expected to be installed this fall to study the impact of dust from arid landscapes on downwind mountain ecosystems in the state and in Utah.

    McKenzie Skiles, who is a hydrologist and a University of Utah assistant professor, will use close to $10,000 from a National Science Foundation grant to purchase four pyranometers, which measure solar radiation landing on, and reflected by, snow.

    These instruments will be placed on a data tower at Storm Peak Lab, a research station above Steamboat Springs that studies the properties of clouds, as well as natural and pollution-sourced particles in the atmosphere. The lab sits at 10,500 feet near the peak of Mount Werner at the top of Steamboat Resort in the Yampa River basin. Starting next winter, live information will be transmitted to MesoWest, a data platform at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

    This station will be the latest added to a growing network of dust-on-snow monitoring towers across the state and Utah. Such stations offer key insights to researchers studying how dust impacts the timing and intensity of snowpack melt, Skiles said.

    “My goal is to have a network of dust-on-snow observation sites that spans a latitudinal gradient in the Rockies and headwaters of the Colorado River,” Skiles said.

    The Atwater study plot in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, pictured in January, began transmitting data in 2019 and is operated by the Snow Hydro Lab at the University of Utah.
    CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY MCKENZIE SKILES

    Five towers spread around Colorado and Utah currently take in data on the solar energy absorbed and reflected by the snow. Dust particles darken the snow’s surface then absorb more energy than clean snow does. Such a process changes light frequencies recorded by the pyranometers. Researchers take this frequency data and run it through models to quantify how much surface dust heats snow and speeds snowmelt.

    Of the currently operating stations, one is near Crested Butte; one sits on Grand Mesa above Grand Junction; two are near Silverton; and one is in the Wasatch Mountains near Alta, Utah. The sites are run, respectively, by Irwin Mountain Guides; by the U.S. Geological Survey and a collaborative user group; by the nonprofit Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies; and by University of Utah researchers.

    Stations were first established in the Senator Beck Basin, near Silverton in the San Juan Mountains, which is the Colorado range most immediately downwind from the deserts of the Colorado Plateau and receives the first dust — and the most dust. In analyzing data from the two radiation towers there, Skiles and colleagues revealed that dust on snow shortened the cover by 21 to 51 days and caused a faster, more-intense peak-snowmelt outflow. In a 2017 study that also analyzed data from Senator Beck Basin, Skiles showed that it was dust, not temperature, that influenced how fast snowpack melted and flowed into rivers downstream.

    The Steamboat station will fill a gap in the locations of radiation towers, Skiles said.

    “We know that a lot of dust comes from the southern Colorado Plateau and impacts the southern Colorado Rockies, but we don’t understand dust impacts as well in the northern Colorado Rockies,” she said.

    Since there isn’t a data station in the northwest portion of the state, “The only way to know if there’s dust there is to go and dig a snow pit,” said Jeff Derry, executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.

    CSAS runs the Colorado Dust on Snow program, or CODOS, which includes the two radiation towers in Senator Beck Basin.

    University of Colorado hydrology students dig a snow pit in front of Storm Peak Lab in March 2013. The lab hosts research groups and students from around the world to study atmospheric and snow science.
    CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY GANNET HALLAR

    Three times a year, usually in mid-March, April and May, CSAS staffers tour Colorado, digging snow pits at mountain locations to assess dust conditions statewide. Since dust events continue into May, this year’s conditions are currently hard to quantify, Derry said.

    So far, this spring has been dustier than 2020; five dust events have hit the Senator Beck Basin as of April 14, compared with the three total dust events last year. As in years past, Senator Beck Basin has experienced more dust events than have the sites to the northeast, according to Derry in the latest CODOS update. Yet, a recent April storm distributed dust on all sites in the state.

    Unlike the past few years, Rabbit Ears Pass — the CODOS sampling site closest to Steamboat Springs and located northwest of Bear Mountain along U.S. Highway 40 — has received at least as much dust as the Senator Beck Basin has, according to the CODOS update. As of the April 12 to 14 CODOS tour, two dust layers of moderate severity are present on the pass. That amount probably came from storms in the Uintah basin, in the Four Corners region and in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, Derry said.

    These dust layers will warm the snow and have an impact on snowmelt timing this runoff season, Derry said. In order to quantify that effect, radiation data from dust-on-snow study plots, like the one planned for Storm Peak, is needed.

    Dust in arid landscapes — often disturbed by human activity — travels in wind currents during storms and is deposited on downwind mountains, Skiles said. The number of dust events and mass of dust carried in storms vary from year to year depending on wind speed, the intensity of drought and the frequency of human activities that disturb surface soils, said Janice Brahney, an assistant professor at Utah State University who studies nationwide dust composition and deposition patterns.

    For instance, Senator Beck Basin experienced a peak in dust events from 2009 through 2014 and a decline in recent years. This decline is probably due to storms and winds that are not strong enough to carry and deposit dust into Colorado mountains, Brahney said.

    “My sense is that a lot of the storms that are occurring in the southern United States are still occurring — they’re just not always reaching Colorado,” she said.

    Dust covering snow near the Grand Mesa study plot on April 26, 2014. The Grand Mesa study plot was the third to be added to the network of dust on snow monitoring stations, and began transmitting solar radiation data in 2010.
    CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY THE CENTER FOR SNOW AND AVALANCHE STUDIES

    Dust data will provide future insights for Steamboat water policy and management.

    Skiles’ lab isn’t the only entity interested in the Storm Peak Lab dust-on-snow data. Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, anticipates using the data in the city’s next water-supply master plan.

    “We update our water supply master plan at least every 10 years,” Romero-Heaney said. “So, even if it’s another eight years of data that’s needed before we can see measurable trends, by the time we update our models, we’ll be able to integrate that data.”

    The most current plan, released in 2019, includes forecasts for Steamboat Springs’ water supply 50 years into the future. The plan — factoring in historic streamflow data and stressors to water supply such as climate change, wildfire and population growth — concluded that the city will meet its demands through 2070.

    “One thing we’re fortunate in is that we have a relatively small community for a relatively large snowy water basin,” Romero-Heaney said.

    Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District supplies the city with its water, derived primarily from Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoirs, said District General Manager Frank Alfone. In the summer months, the district also treats water from the Yampa River to meet irrigation demands, he said.

    In order to predict Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoir levels, Alfone relies on data from the Buffalo Pass snowpack station, which is run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and on monthly water-supply forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

    Alfone says dust on snow and the city’s water supply have “an impact now and more so in the future,” Alfone said.

    Indeed, dust levels are expected to rise throughout the West. A 2013 study revealed that since 1994, dust deposition has increased in the region, with the majority of dust lifting from deserts in the Southwest and West, along with regions in the Great Plains and Columbia River Basin. This increase, according to the study, is probably due to heightened human disturbance of dry soils, which includes off-road-vehicle use, gas drilling, grazing and agriculture.

    Increasing dust accelerates snowpack entrance into rivers, Skiles said. This earlier runoff lengthens the period when water can evaporate from rivers and lower streamflow, impacting water supply in the warmer months, according to her study,

    “What we’re finding is that runoff is happening earlier and earlier each year, and that has real implications for us come August and September, particularly if we get very little rain throughout the summer season,” Romero-Heaney said.

    Data from the widening dust-on-snow-monitoring network will aid water-resource managers and researchers in predicting how dust will shape future snowpack across Colorado.

    “Dust does play a really significant role in hydrology. And that’s really important in the Western states, where we rely on the mountain snowpack not just for our own drinking water, but for our own functioning ecosystem,” said Brahney, lead author of the 2013 dust study.

    “We anticipate some challenges for the whole basin, although we will still be able to reliably supply our customers with drinking water,” Romero-Heaney said.

    This story ran in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on April 23.

    Compromise Will Bring Conclusion to Federal Lawsuit on Chimney Hollow Reservoir — @Northern_Water

    This graphic, provided by Northern Water, depicts Chimney Hollow Reservoir, located southwest of Loveland, after it is built.

    Here’s the release from Northern Water:

    The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict has voted to approve a settlement of a federal lawsuit over Chimney Hollow Reservoir.

    In a meeting Wednesday, the Municipal Subdistrict Board voted 10-1 to authorize its participation in the settlement.

    The settlement means construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir will begin this summer and the Colorado River Connectivity Channel in Grand County next year. In return, the Municipal Subdistrict will contribute $15 million to a foundation to pay for projects that enhance the Colorado River and its many watersheds in Grand County.

    “This settlement shows there is an alternative to costly litigation that can provide benefits both to the environment in Grand County and the Colorado River, as well as acknowledging the need for water storage,” said Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind.

    The compromise will bring to a close a lawsuit in federal court filed by Save the Colorado, Save the Poudre, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club in October 2017. The suit challenged the permit issued by the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers for the construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir. On Dec. 19, 2020, the federal court ruled against the environmental organizations. The ruling was then appealed in February, and as part of the appeals process, both sides were required to engage in court-ordered mediation, which resulted in this settlement.

    Chimney Hollow Reservoir, the key component to the Windy Gap Firming Project, will bring a reliable water supply to the 12 municipalities, water providers and utilities paying for its construction as well as provide a much-needed recreation area to be managed by the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will be located in a dry valley just west of Carter Lake in southwest Larimer County and will store 90,000 acre-feet of water from the Windy Gap Project for use by 12 participants, including Broomfield, Platte River Power Authority, Longmont, Loveland, Greeley, Erie, Little Thompson Water District, Superior, Louisville, Fort Lupton, Lafayette and the Central Weld County Water District. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will make the Windy Gap water supply serving those participants more reliable and meet a portion of their long-term water supply needs. Each participant will also enact a water conservation plan to comply with state law and permit requirements.

    The compromise will also move forward other environmental measures related to the Project, including the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, a newly proposed channel around the existing Windy Gap Reservoir to reconnect the Colorado River above and below the reservoir. The channel will restore the ability for fish, macroinvertebrates, nutrients and sediment in the river to bypass the reservoir. Many other environmental protections are included, such as improving streamflow and aquatic habitat in the Colorado River, addressing water quality issues, providing West Slope water supplies and more.

    The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict negotiated with Colorado River stakeholders to develop this package of environmental protections and received a permit from Grand County and approvals from others, including Trout Unlimited and the State of Colorado, to move forward with the Project.

    Water storage such as Chimney Hollow Reservoir was specifically identified in the Colorado Water Plan as a necessary component for Colorado’s long-term water future. It joins conservation, land use planning and other solutions to meet future water needs in the state. To learn more about the project, go to http://www.chimneyhollow.org.

    From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

    Northern Water will begin construction of the 25-story Chimney Hollow dam this summer.

    complex Front Range dam-building project that includes transferring water from the Colorado River will move forward this summer after Northern Water agreed to a settlement putting $15 million in trust for waterway improvements in Grand County.

    Environmental opponents begrudgingly accepted the mediated settlement of their lawsuit against Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming Project, which involves a menu of waterworks construction including Chimney Hollow dam near Loveland and rerouting the Colorado River around Windy Gap Dam near Granby.

    The settlement resolves litigation in the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Northern Water said it now can begin construction of the 25-story Chimney Hollow dam this summer. The dam will plug the northern end of a dry valley northwest of Carter Lake. It will eventually be filled using Colorado River rights purchased by municipalities that are members of Northern Water. The Northern Water rights can be tapped only when Grand County is wet enough to supply other, higher priorities first…

    An alliance of environmental groups opposing the project wants to stop any more transfers of Western Slope water, which would ordinarily flow west in the Colorado River, to Front Range reservoirs that supply growing Colorado cities and suburbs.

    In the case of Chimney Hollow and Windy Gap, the environmentalists say damage has already been done to the Colorado River in Grand County, and the settlement can help them reverse some of the hurt…

    An aerial view of Windy Gap Reservoir, near Granby. The reservoir is on the main stem of the Colorado River, below where the Fraser River flows into the Colorado. Water from Windy Gap is pumped up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then sent to the northern Front Range through the Adams Tunnel. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

    The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict Board voted 10-1 Wednesday to participate in the settlement. A federal district court had rejected the environmental groups’ challenge of permits for the Windy Gap and Chimney Hollow projects issued by Army Corps of Engineers, and mediation was required as part of the appeal.

    Chimney Hollow water will be used by 12 of Northern Water’s members: Central Weld County Water District, Little Thompson Water District and the Platte River Power Authority, and the cities of Broomfield, Erie, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Lafayette, Longmont, Louisville, Loveland and Superior. The members say they need more water storage to accommodate future growth in homes, industry and agriculture.

    This graphic from Northern Water shows the lay out of the Windy Gap Firming Project. The River District has voted to spend $1 million on the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, an aspect of the project meant to mitigate impacts from the dam and reservoir.

    From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

    Environmental groups, including WildEarth Guardians, Save the Colorado, Save The Poudre, Sierra Club, Living Rivers, and the Waterkeeper Alliance, filed a lawsuit in Oct. 2017 challenging the project’s federal permits. A federal judge in Dec. 2020 ruled against the environmental groups.

    In a settlement reached with Northern Water — the agency pursuing Windy Gap on behalf of a municipal subdistrict of Front Range water providers — the environmental coalition agreed to withdraw their lawsuit, while securing $15 million for projects aimed at improving water quality, river health and fish habitat. The Grand Foundation in Grand County, Colo. will be the recipient of those funds. An advisory panel will be made up of representatives appointed by Northern Water and the environmental groups, and will decide how the money is spent. The funds will be issued in installments as the project is built…

    The additional environmental mitigation joins other projects already negotiated between Grand County, Trout Unlimited and Northern Water, among other partners…

    That previously agreed to package of environmental mitigation includes the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which is to be constructed around the existing Windy Gap dam and reservoir, and is designed to reconnect a portion of the Colorado River below its confluence with the Fraser River. The channel is meant to allow for more natural conditions to return, like allowing sediment to move downstream and providing more habitat for fish and aquatic insects. Monitoring programs and riparian restoration were also a part of the deal negotiated among those parties.

    The connectivity channel was a recent recipient of a $1 million grant from the Colorado River District, becoming the first project to receive funds generated from ballot question 7A which appeared on the Nov. 2020 ballot in the district’s boundaries…

    Despite the additional funding, representatives from the environmental coalition that sued to halt construction remained alarmed about the project’s legal success, and said the $15 million is a drop in the bucket…

    Northern Water plans to begin construction on the Chimney Hollow dam this summer and on the Colorado River Connectivity Channel in 2022.

    Navajo Dam operations update (April 21, 2021) #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The San Juan River, below Navajo Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From email from the Bureau of Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

    In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Wednesday, April 21st, starting at 12:00 PM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

    Interstate #water wars are heating up along with the #climate — The Conversation


    Aerial view of Lake Powell on the Colorado River along the Arizona-Utah border.
    AP Photo/John Antczak

    Robert Glennon, University of Arizona

    Interstate water disputes are as American as apple pie. States often think a neighboring state is using more than its fair share from a river, lake or aquifer that crosses borders.

    Currently the U.S. Supreme Court has on its docket a case between Texas, New Mexico and Colorado and another one between Mississippi and Tennessee. The court has already ruled this term on cases pitting Texas against New Mexico and Florida against Georgia.

    Climate stresses are raising the stakes. Rising temperatures require farmers to use more water to grow the same amount of crops. Prolonged and severe droughts decrease available supplies. Wildfires are burning hotter and lasting longer. Fires bake the soil, reducing forests’ ability to hold water, increasing evaporation from barren land and compromising water supplies.

    As a longtime observer of interstate water negotiations, I see a basic problem: In some cases, more water rights exist on paper than as wet water – even before factoring in shortages caused by climate change and other stresses. In my view, states should put at least as much effort into reducing water use as they do into litigation, because there are no guaranteed winners in water lawsuits.

    Dry times in the West

    The situation is most urgent in California and the Southwest, which currently face “extreme or exceptional” drought conditions. California’s reservoirs are half-empty at the end of the rainy season. The Sierra snowpack sits at 60% of normal. In March 2021, federal and state agencies that oversee California’s Central Valley Project and State Water Project – regional water systems that each cover hundreds of miles – issued “remarkably bleak warnings” about cutbacks to farmers’ water allocations.

    The Colorado River Basin is mired in a drought that began in 2000. Experts disagree as to how long it could last. What’s certain is that the “Law of the River” – the body of rules, regulations and laws governing the Colorado River – has allocated more water to the states than the river reliably provides.

    The 1922 Colorado River Compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet (one acre-foot is roughly 325,000 gallons) to California, Nevada and Arizona, and another 7.5 million acre-feet to Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. A treaty with Mexico secured that country 1.5 million acre-feet, for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. However, estimates based on tree ring analysis have determined that the actual yearly flow of the river over the last 1,200 years is roughly 14.6 million acre-feet.

    The inevitable train wreck has not yet happened, for two reasons. First, Lakes Mead and Powell – the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado – can hold a combined 56 million acre-feet, roughly four times the river’s annual flow.

    But diversions and increased evaporation due to drought are reducing water levels in the reservoirs. As of Dec. 16, 2020, both lakes were less than half full.

    Second, the Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – have never used their full allotment. Now, however, they want to use more water. Wyoming has several new dams on the drawing board. So does Colorado, which is also planning a new diversion from the headwaters of the Colorado River to Denver and other cities on the Rocky Mountains’ east slope.

    Much of the U.S. Southwest and California are in extreme or exceptional drought.
    Drought conditions in the continental U.S. on April 13, 2021.
    U.S. Drought Monitor, CC BY-ND

    Utah stakes a claim

    The most controversial proposal comes from one of the nation’s fastest-growing areas: St. George, Utah, home to approximately 90,000 residents and lots of golf courses. St. George has very high water consumption rates and very low water prices. The city is proposing to augment its water supply with a 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell, which would carry 86,000 acre-feet per year.

    Truth be told, that’s not a lot of water, and it would not exceed Utah’s unused allocation from the Colorado River. But the six other Colorado River Basin states have protested as though St. George were asking for their firstborn child.

    In a joint letter dated Sept. 8, 2020, the other states implored the Interior Department to refrain from issuing a final environmental review of the pipeline until all seven states could “reach consensus regarding legal and operational concerns.” The letter explicitly threatened a high “probability of multi-year litigation.”

    Utah blinked. Having earlier insisted on an expedited pipeline review, the state asked federal officials on Sept. 24, 2020 to delay a decision. But Utah has not given up: In March 2021, Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill creating a Colorado River Authority of Utah, armed with a US$9 million legal defense fund, to protect Utah’s share of Colorado River water. One observer predicted “huge, huge litigation.”

    How huge could it be? In 1930, Arizona sued California in an epic battle that did not end until 2006. Arizona prevailed by finally securing a fixed allocation from the water apportioned to California, Nevada and Arizona.

    Southwest Utah’s claim to Colorado River water is sparking conflict with other western states.

    Litigation or conservation

    Before Utah takes the precipitous step of appealing to the Supreme Court under the court’s original jurisdiction over disputes between states, it might explore other solutions. Water conservation and reuse make obvious sense in St. George, where per-person water consumption is among the nation’s highest.

    St. George could emulate its neighbor, Las Vegas, which has paid residents up to $3 per square foot to rip out lawns and replace them with native desert landscaping. In April 2021 Las Vegas went further, asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw ornamental grass.

    The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that the Las Vegas metropolitan area has eight square miles of “nonfunctional turf” – grass that no one ever walks on except the person who cuts it. Removing it would reduce the region’s water consumption by 15%.

    Water rights litigation is fraught with uncertainty. Just ask Florida, which thought it had a strong case that Georgia’s water diversions from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin were harming its oyster fishery downstream.

    That case extended over 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended the final chapter in April 2021. The court used a procedural rule that places the burden on plaintiffs to provide “clear and convincing evidence.” Florida failed to convince the court, and walked away with nothing.The Conversation

    Robert Glennon, Regents Professor and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law & Public Policy, University of Arizona

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

    Homestake Reservoir release proves tricky to track — @AspenJournalism

    Two men fish the Eagle River just above its confluence with the Colorado River in Dotsero. Homestake Partners released 1,667 acre-feet of water down Homestake Creek and into the Eagle River in September to test how a release would work in a compact call.
    CREDIT: BETHANY BLITZ/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sacket):

    Getting water to state line would be key in compact call

    In September, Front Range water providers released some water downstream — which they were storing in Homestake Reservoir — to test how they could get it to the state line in the event of a Colorado River Compact call.

    But accurately tracking and measuring that water — from the high mountain reservoir in the Eagle River watershed all the way through the Colorado River at the end of the Grand Valley — turned out to be tricky, according to a recently released report from the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

    From Sept. 23 through Sept. 29, Colorado Springs Utilities, Aurora Water and Pueblo Board of Water Works released a total of 1,667 acre-feet of water, which would have otherwise been diverted to the Front Range, from the reservoir into Homestake Creek, a tributary of the Eagle River. The release gradually ramped up from about 25 cubic feet per second to 175 cfs and then gradually back down over the seven days.

    But officials were unable to put a number on how much of that water made it to the state line.

    In their attempt to quantify the actual amount of reservoir release delivered to the state line, state engineers ran into challenges that caused uncertainty, they said in an email.

    Although they couldn’t measure how many acre-feet officially made it, State Engineer Kevin Rein said that the exercise was still a success and that all the water, minus transit losses, crossed into Utah.

    “We have heard this is a failure because not everything worked perfectly, but in my mind, this was an opportunity under non-stress conditions to find out what we need to do to ensure that things will work,” Rein said.

    A goal of this project, known as the State Line Delivery Pilot Reservoir Release, was to see if the water could be “shepherded” downstream without senior water-rights holders diverting the extra water. This required Division 5 water commissioners to actively administer some headgates, especially on Homestake Creek and the Eagle River.

    According to the report, the water took about 2½ days to make the journey from the reservoir to the gage on the Colorado River near Cameo — about 16 hours longer than predicted by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. Along the way, about 10% of the water either evaporated or was soaked up by thirsty streamside soils and vegetation — processes known collectively as transit loss.

    Making sure water could get to the state line would be essential in the case of a compact call.

    This scenario, the chances of which increase as climate change continues to reduce river flows, could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement.

    A compact call could be especially problematic for Front Range water providers since most of their rights that let them divert water over the Continental Divide from the Western Slope date to after the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That means mandatory cutbacks in water use could fall more heavily on the post-compact water rights of Front Range water providers.

    Colorado Springs Utilities and Aurora Water, operating together as Homestake Partners, said the problem was that the rate of release was too low. It was more a matter of flow volume than administration. Even in a dry year, a release of 175 cfs was not high enough to reliably track the water, especially when it reaches the Colorado River, which has a much higher volume of water than Homestake Creek or the Eagle River, and the reservoir release is a smaller fraction of its overall flow.

    In an email to Aspen Journalism, Homestake Partners said: “A bigger pulse of water would overcome some of the issues that DWR had in tracking the release. This sort of result is exactly what we wanted to explore — it tells us that if we, or anyone else in the state, chooses to make a state line release in the future, a higher volume of water will probably need to be released to be reliably tracked.”

    State engineers also had to deal with a river that was constantly in flux. Upstream reservoir releases and changes to irrigation diversions made for additional challenges.

    State officials said it was hard to separate the reservoir release from the rest of the Colorado River’s flow at the state line because of numerous ungaged streams and return flows from irrigation that enter the river between Palisade and the state line.

    “The ungaged inflows could not be subtracted from the total flow in the river, therefore the separated flows were too large and did not allow for the initial waves of the reservoir release to be identified,” officials said in an email.

    The total flows at the state line at the time of the reservoir release’s arrival were around 2,500 cfs, according to DWR.

    The total flows at the state line at the time of the reservoir release’s arrival were around 2,500 cfs, according to DWR.

    River District concerns

    The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, which protects Western Slope water interests, had several concerns about the reservoir release.

    “I think it’s important that the public and the state recognize that they released 1,600 acre-feet of water during an incredibly dry period and they couldn’t actually track it to the state line,” said River District general manager Andy Mueller.

    But Mueller’s concerns go beyond the trouble with tracking. He said the state engineer did not reach out to Western Slope water users who had the potential to be injured by the release. He also doesn’t trust that the cities won’t just refill the hole created by the release with more Western Slope water.

    The River District’s main concern is that in a water-collection system as complex as Homestake Partners — with several different transmountain diversions bringing water from the Western Slope to the Front Range — it’s hard for the state to make sure they won’t take more water to replace the pool they released.

    “From our perspective, it’s very difficult for the state to verify that they haven’t just brought the water over from a different part of their diversion system,” Mueller said. “So it leaves us with a lot of skepticism, and we voiced that in several discussions.”

    To address some of these concerns, the cities are required to submit a verification plan to the state to prove three things: that they had enough space available in reservoirs on the east side of the divide to store the water, and they weren’t just releasing water downstream they couldn’t use anyway; that they actually decreased water taken through the Homestake Tunnel by the same amount as the pilot release; and that they didn’t create additional space in Homestake Reservoir to allow for greater storage this year.

    “In essence, we brought the ‘hole’ we created in our storage in Homestake Reservoir through to the East Slope when we operated the tunnel in February and March,” the Homestake Partners’ email reads. “This was accomplished by not drawing down Homestake Reservoir quite as much as we otherwise could have this winter in preparation for spring runoff.”

    Homestake Creek flows from Homestake Reservoir near Red Cliff. A pilot reservoir release to test how to get water to the state line in the event of a Colorado River Compact Call proved hard to track for state engineers.
    CREDIT: BETHANY BLITZ/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Demand management

    The reservoir release also could have implications for a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently investigating. At the heart of a demand- management program is a reduction in water use on a temporary, voluntary and compensated basis in an effort to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster water levels in the giant reservoir — which spans Utah and Arizona — and, indirectly, to meet Colorado River Compact obligations.

    Under such a program, agricultural water users could get paid to temporarily fallow fields and leave more water in the river. Front Range water providers could participate by releasing water stored in Western Slope reservoirs.

    Rein was careful to say that the Homestake pilot release was in no way connected to demand management. Still, the experiment may have revealed potential problem areas should a demand-management program become reality.

    “The ability to track water that is conserved consumptive use all the way to the state line is really critical for the success of that program,” Mueller said. “And if you can’t track a slug of 1,600 acre-feet of water to the state line, how are you going to track the voluntary reduction in use of a small ditch on the West Slope that maybe they are saving 15 acre-feet?”

    Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with the Vail Daily and The Aspen Times. This story ran in the April 16 edition of the Vail Daily and The Aspen Times.

    @USBR and partners manage through consecutive years of #drought #RioGrande

    Rio Grande upstream near Montano, NM. Photo credit: USBR

    Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Mary Carlson):

    The Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their Annual Operating Plan for the Rio Grande [April 15, 2021] showing below average runoff for the second year in a row.

    The amount of water in the snowpack (snow water equivalent) measured in the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado feeding the river basin is below average and a below average spring runoff is expected for the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Most reservoirs on the Rio Chama, Rio Grande, and Pecos River are holding between 10% and 50% of their capacity heading into the irrigation season. In addition, the amount of moisture in the soil right now is extremely low, compounded by high temperatures, so much of the melting snow may be absorbed or evaporate before it reaches rivers.

    “We continue to learn more about the Rio Grande and Pecos and the species that rely on them as we manage through extended drought in the region,” said Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler. “We are in close coordination with water and species management partners to ensure we make the best decisions for all water users and for the health of the rivers in a tough year like this.”

    At the end of March, snow water equivalent was 88% of average for the Rio Chama Basin, 111% of average for the Upper Rio Grande Basin, 72% for the Sangre de Cristos, and 65% for the Jemez. Based on these values, the Natural Resources Conservation Service streamflow forecast issued for the month of April predicts that the Rio Chama flow into the El Vado Reservoir will be at 52% of its average, with an inflow of about 116,000 acre-feet of water.

    Information from Annual Operating Plan:

    • Under current Rio Grande Compact storage restrictions triggered by low storage at downstream reservoirs, water can only be stored in El Vado for the Prior and Paramount lands of the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District began irrigation on April 1, a month later than usual, with the natural flow of the Rio Grande.
    • Due to the expected low runoff, lack of water in storage, as well as a minimal supply of water for Reclamation to lease to supplement river flows, there—s a possibility that the Albuquerque reach of the Rio Grande could experience some drying this summer along with sections of the river in the Isleta and San Acacia reaches.
      • Reclamation is coordinating with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rescue fish from drying portions of the river and coordinating with partners to use the limited supply of water most effectively.
    • Rio Grande Project usable storage is currently about 245,000 acre-feet and is expected to peak at about 350,000 acre-feet before declining as irrigation releases start.
      • The irrigation season is scheduled to begin with releases from Elephant Butte Reservoir in early May and Caballo Reservoir in late May.
      • The dry riverbed between Elephant Butte and Caballo and below Caballo will take on water quickly. As such, it will be both unpredictable and dangerous and the public is asked to exercise caution around the river channel. Water levels will fluctuate through the rest of the short irrigation season.
    • On the Pecos River, basin-wide snow water equivalent was 57% of average on March 31, and the NRCS predicted 16,200 acre-feet of inflow to Santa Rosa Reservoir from March to July.
      • Reclamation is using a more conservative estimate for inflow, and the Carlsbad Irrigation District has only allocated 0.38 feet per acre, one of its lowest allocations ever.

    The Annual Operating Plan public meetings were held virtually this year in accordance with federal and state health guidelines. Those who were not able to attend the meetings can still view the presentation on Reclamation—s website at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/DocLibrary/Plans/MiddleRioGrande/20210415-MiddleRioGrandeAnnualOperatingPlan_508.pdf or contact Mary Carlson at mcarlson@usbr.gov.

    2021 Annual Operating Plan? April 1 Runoff Forecast

    Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11218868

    Water can be wrung out too much — Writers on the Range

    From Writers on the Range (Denise Fort):

    Santa Fe, New Mexico, once was sustained by the waters of the Santa Fe River, which begins in the high country of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, flows through the city and then onward to the Rio Grande.

    But when Western cities grow, they look everywhere for more water, with little regard for the rivers they drain. As the city’s population grew, Santa Fe turned to its groundwater. Later, New Mexico reached across the desert to take water from the Colorado River and deliver it to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and other beneficiaries on the Rio Grande.

    And yet the Santa Fe River downstream was not reduced to a dry and dusty arroyo. In fact, the riverbed is relatively verdant, supporting cottonwoods, willows and sustaining some irrigation in communities downstream. That moisture helps make Santa Fe a beautiful place in the desert.

    That’s because the water that Santa Fe residents use to flush their toilets or pour down the drain ultimately makes its way to the wastewater treatment plant, which returns the treated water to the Santa Fe River. That could soon change.

    The city’s water bureaucrats have fastened on the idea of capturing some of that treated effluent, either to get additional “return flow” credits by returning it to the Rio Grande, or by moving to direct potable reuse, a process derided in California as “toilet to tap.”

    But both of these proposals will also take water out of the Santa Fe River, affecting downstream irrigators, wildlife and even the cultural identity of the region.

    As climate change tightens its grip on the arid West, water managers are focusing on wastewater as a source of “new” water for cities. It’s hard to blame them: Municipalities don’t need new water rights in order to reuse treated effluent.

    Communities dump their treated sewage into rivers, and downstream users draw that water, treat it, and send it to residents’ homes. Orange County and Irvine Ranch in California are pioneers in recycling wastewater. The Bureau of Reclamation now administers a fund for water-reuse projects, and the Environmental Protection Agency has made it a national priority.

    There’s another strategy that Western cities like Santa Fe are exploiting to make use of their wastewater. Instead of sending all of the treated wastewater back into the potable water supply, Santa Fe plans to send some of its wastewater to the Rio Grande via a $20 million pipeline. This would give the city the right to pump additional water from the Rio Grande. Regardless of how the city proceeds, the Santa Fe River will end up losing some of the water that provides for its existence.

    Never forget that Western water law was set up to serve users, not rivers. And under Western states’ laws, cities own their treated sewage, meaning they can use it or sell it downstream as they wish. In fact, wastewater is such a reliable supply that it gets top value at Western water auctions.

    Santa Fe’s webpages overflow with the community’s commitment to sustainability. But these values were disregarded in the city’s focus on squeezing more water out of the system for a growing populace.

    Wastewater has other values and uses, though. How do we draw attention to them? A report by the National Wildlife Federation, the Pacific Institute and the Meadows Institute warns that reusing water can inadvertently “starve natural systems of needed flows and potentially reduce water available to communities downstream.”

    Instead, the groups urge planners to “incorporate actions to protect (and where possible, enhance) river flows downstream for the benefit of people and the environment” https://pacinst.org/publication/healthy-waterways/.

    By now, years of battles over Western water should have taught water managers that while people value reliable water supplies, they also value living rivers, small farms, historic communities and recreation. The report urges water managers to consult with the public before making decisions. It also lays out a blueprint for incorporating the value of living rivers, as well as addressing water supply.

    Wringing more use from water, even wastewater, is a powerful tool in addressing water scarcity. But just like the dams, pipelines and other tools of the Cadillac Desert era, wastewater ought to be approached with respect for all of its values. The proponents of water reuse need to acknowledge this.

    Denise Fort is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to lively conversation about the West. She is professor emerita at the University of New Mexico School of Law and has co-authored three reports for the National Academies on water reuse.

    Low flows on #DoloresRiver will hurt fish — The #Cortez Journal #snowpack #runoff

    Dolores River snowpack
    April 16, 2021 via the NRCS.

    From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

    Below-average snowpack and ongoing drought will hurt flows and fish habitat below McPhee Dam going into spring and summer, reports Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

    Water releases from the dam are expected to be under 15 cubic feet per second and could possibly drop as low as 3 cfs, said Jim White, a CPW aquatic biologist, in a April 14 news release.

    During normal snowpack years, McPhee Reservoir fills, and the allocated fish pool allows for a sustained dam release of 60 cfs in summer.

    Fish flows increase if snowpack runoff exceeds reservoir capacity, which prompts a recreational boating release. But a recreational water release will not happen this year because of below average snowpack and low reservoir carryover from last water season.

    As of April 13, Snotels in the Dolores Basin reported 39% of average snowpack for snow water equivalent.

    Trout and native fish will be adversely impacted by the water shortage below the dam, White said.

    The 12-mile section of river that flows through the Lone Dome State Wildlife Area from below the dam to Bradfield Bridge is a popular tail-water fishery. Most trout fishing is done within the first 6 miles.

    White said the lower flows will shrink the river habitat, and many brown and rainbow trout likely will die. The water coming out of the dam is about 42 degrees Fahrenheit, which is an ideal temperature for trout. But with such a low flow the water will warm quickly as it moves downstream…

    Roundtail chub

    The low flows will also affect native fish that live in the lower reaches of the Dolores River ─ the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub. The fish, listed by CPW as species of concern, have adapted to warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.

    White is concerned about lower sections of the river drying up or being connected by only tiny rivulets of water.

    Making the problem worse is the smallmouth bass, an invasive non-native fish that thrives in the lower Dolores River but preys on young native fish. Anglers are encouraged to fish for smallmouth bass; they are abundant, fairly easy to catch, tasty and have no bag or possession limit.

    As drought continues to grip the West, more and more rivers will face the same scenario — this year and beyond.

    “All of this is a result of three things: low snowpack, dry soil that will absorb runoff and no carryover water in the reservoir from last year,” White said.

    Dolores River watershed