The city of Aspen’s recently released integrated water resource plan outlines the strategy for an adaptable, phased approach to meet increasing demands and a large pool of “emergency” storage to protect against threats to supplies from Castle and Maroon creeks.
Aspen Utilities Director Tyler Christoff, Utilities Resource Manager Steve Hunter and John Rehring of Carollo Engineers, the Denver-based firm that the city hired to complete the study, presented the IWRP to City Council members at a work session Monday night. The report, which looks 50 years to the future, uses projections about population growth and climate change impacts to determine that the worst shortfalls could occur in two consecutively dry years and be about 2,300 acre-feet total over the course of both years.
To make up for that gap, the report offers six different portfolios of potential new water sources, including storage, nonpotable reuse, groundwater wells, Hunter Creek, enhanced water conservation and drought restrictions. The IWRP says storage is included in five of the six portfolios because no single supply option or combination of supply options can completely mitigate shortages without the use of at least some operational storage.
Two storage pools
The plan proposes two separate storage pools to meet demands under projected conditions in 2070: a 520-acre-foot operational pool and a 5,300-acre-foot emergency-storage pool to provide up to 12 months of water.
Since the report recommends a phased approach with each additional implementation coming after a predetermined trigger is reached, the first phase of operational storage would be for just 130 acre-feet to buffer the seasonal shortage. Streams are highest with runoff in the spring, but demands on Aspen’s water system are highest in late summer, when streamflows are low — and this is the gap operational storage aims to fill.
The construction of the combined 5,820 acre-feet of storage and its associated pipelines and pumps comes with a hefty price tag — it is estimated to cost more than $400 million in 2021 dollars as it is implemented over the coming decades.
“We want to make it flexible and adaptable so that we are ready for that worst-case condition,” Rehring told council members. “We implement as needed as we see those conditions unfold over time.”
The report says the emergency-storage pool must be full and ready for use when the need arises — if, for example, an avalanche makes the city’s supplies in Castle and Maroon creeks unusable. “Regardless of siting and co-location, emergency-storage volumes would be filled and maintained at their defined capacity until needed for an emergency,” the IWRP reads.
Storing water specifically until an emergency occurs is not a decreed beneficial use under Colorado water law. But municipal water providers often have a lot of leeway to plan for future needs, which could include storage projects.
Part of the goal of the IWRP is to narrow the city’s options for moving its conditional water rights for reservoirs in Castle and Maroon valleys. After a lengthy court battle, in which 10 entities opposed Aspen’s plans, the city gave up its water rights in those particular locations. One of the places to which the city could move them is a 63-acre plot of land that it bought in Woody Creek in 2018. If the city stores water there, it would have to pump it back uphill to the water-treatment plant via an 8-mile pipeline.
City Council member Ward Hauenstein asked about the timeline for storage and renewing the city’s conditional water rights.
To keep these rights, the city will have to show, through a 2025 filing in water court, that it still intends to use them and that it is making progress on a project.
“Recent history across Colorado shows that it could take decades to implement a storage project, even after sizing and siting analyses are completed,” the report reads. “Therefore, reservoir planning must start immediately.”
Aspen City Council will vote on whether to adopt the IWRP at a later meeting. Mayor Torre thanked the staff, consultants and community members who weighed in on the plan.
“The work you guys are doing on this is some of the most important work Aspen is going to have the benefit of over the coming 10, 20, 30 years,” he said. “Thank you.”
No matter your background, water plays a vital role in your day-to-day life. Like other necessities, it can be easy to take for granted, but a lack of it will quickly impact every facet of life. Businesses, for instance, can’t operate without reliable running water, lawns/fields go brown as municipal and agricultural users alike cut back on irrigation to prioritize critical needs, industrial operations weigh costs of doing business, and regional ecological health suffers as stream flows drop below levels sustainable for aquatic organisms.
In Rio Blanco County, the primary source of water is, well, the Rio Blanco, Spanish for “White River.” Historically, the White River has been “un-managed” compared to many other streams and rivers in the state.
Though irrigators, industrial users and municipalities are still expected to abide by mandated water allocations, residents in the Northwest Colorado region have so far enjoyed water use that is loosely monitored, if at all. Due to state legislation, declining precipitation/stream flows and Colorado’s obligation to deliver a certain amount of water to lower-basin western states, that state of affairs is set to change.
“The White River is part of a bigger system,” said Liz Chandler, coordinator of the Planning Advisory Committee for the White River Integrated Water Initiative (WRIWI). The locally-driven effort, which involves community stakeholders aims to establish a framework to guide future water use decisions and maintain some level of local control over water. Chandler explained the importance of the process amid mounting pressure on the Colorado River, its tributaries and by extension 40 million Americans who rely on its water as a result of declining snowpack/runoff and record low water levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
“Those big river issues may come back upstream into the White River,” said Chandler, “and so the more people [that] can be involved in this water initiative, the more control the White River basin is going to have of its own water,” said Chandler…
“‘The future is unknown, and yet with that given, we need to be prepared,’ said [Kari] Brennan, adding ‘whether you are involved in agriculture, or just use it municipally in your home, recreational, any of that, it’s good to know what’s going on, and also have a voice. This is the opportunity to have a say in what the White River Basin does with our water.'”
The White River Integrated Water Initiative is now in its second phase, and comes as a result of the 2016 Colorado Water Plan, which among other things, set a goal to have 80% of the state’s rivers, streams and critical watersheds under “management plans” by 2030…
The four goals of the initiative.
• Protect and preserve existing water rights and other beneficial water uses.
• Protect and enhance water quantity and quality through promoting best management practices for a) forest health b) riparian health c) rangeland health d) favorable conditions of streamflow.
• Identify opportunities for creation of infrastructure to support efficient consumptive and non consumptive uses.
• Support the development and maintenance of efficient and necessary long term storage solutions that will improve, enhance and ensure irrigation, river health, water quantity, water quality and native/recreational fisheries…
water scarcity driven by drastic climate-change along the Dolores River in southwest Colorado has been a real jaw-grinder for folks who bear a century’s worth of grudges over who gets water, how much and when.
After 22 years of drought, the river is down to a trickle this late fall and the water storage it feeds, McPhee Reservoir, has shrunk to its lowest level in decades. Even when the runoff was flowing last spring, the Dolores project was already in water shortage mode and farmers only got 10% of what they’re normally allocated, which means they were only able to grow 10% of the crops they’re used to producing.
Much of the farmland lays fallow…
The water that was released from McPhee Dam tells the story, said Colorado State University senior water and climate scientist Brad Udall: “The agreement is for 25 cubic feet per second minimum flow release and they were releasing 1/5 of that.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows Colorado’s Four Corners region in bright red, in the extreme drought category.
“I have said for years that the southwest portion of the state is very much at risk for these kinds of drought,” Udall said. “We should expect for them to occur repeatedly throughout the 21st century.”
At the mouth of the Dolores, one of the only things standing between a shovel to the head and civility is a Montezuma County sheriff deputy whose job it is to keep watch on water robbers.
Dave Huhn is a tall, silver-haired deputy with a bad back from 12 years of ditch riding. He sips from a Big Gulp-sized iced tea as he travels miles of county roads; a badge, a gun and a tablet of citations are his shield.
“Communication is everything and just because you’ve lived out here 100 years doesn’t mean you’re doing it right,” explains Huhn, who was given the responsibility of enforcing complicated Colorado water laws by the county commissioners in 2009. “You can’t steamroll these people. You’re not out there talking with a physicist. You’re out there talking with someone who needs to produce your food. You’ve got to listen to the problem.”
[Marty] Robbins is the keeper of the ditch deeds, which are the official record of water rights. He opened a drawer and pulled out a thick leather-bound dossier of evidence. It is the smoking gun in the world of water crime.
“My whole world changed when Dave took over ditch issues,” Robins said. “Around here, you have a whole lot of attitude and very little forgiveness.”
FromThe High Country News [November 23, 2021] (Sarah Tory):
Every summer in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a long, high desert valley ringed by mountains, Jose Martinez watches in admiration as water flows from an irrigation pipe across the contours of his land, feeding the eight acres of alfalfa he grows near his home in San Francisco, a town of less than 90 people. The water comes from a network of communal irrigation ditches, or acequias, which comes from an Arabic word meaning “water bearer.” The acequias were built in part by his ancestors who arrived in southern Colorado more than 150 years ago with other Hispanic families from what is now New Mexico, establishing seven villages around Culebra Creek.
“I get to thinking, back in the day, these men dug it all by what we call pico y pala — pickaxe and shovel,” Martinez, 76, told me when I visited recently. We were sitting in his kitchen on a cold October day with his wife, Junita, 70, while the two of them explained how acequias work.
Unlike normal irrigation ditches, acequias are a communal resource, collectively owned and governed by their parciantes, or members — the group of small-scale farmers with water rights to the ditch. Acequias are egalitarian, too: whether you irrigate one acre or 100 acres, you get one vote in decisions about the ditch in exchange for helping to clean and maintain the acequia. The parciantes elect a three-member commission to make decisions around ditch maintenance and operations, as well as a mayordomo to manage the irrigation infrastructure and tell people when they can irrigate and when they have to shut their gates.
In Colorado, acequias are found in four of the southernmost counties and irrigate only a tiny fraction of the state’s agricultural output. But in a region where some water rights have been sold to the highest bidder and private gain is sometimes prioritized over collective well-being, acequias remain a powerful antidote to the forces threatening rural communities — a way of valuing local resources beyond their dollar amount and a catalyst for sharing them in times of scarcity. During dry years, acequias work to ensure that everyone weathers the shortages equitably; occasionally, Jose has opted to forego his water entirely when he sees no prospect of a decent crop, so that other parciantes can have more.
“Our concept is community,” Junita explains. “If I can’t get something, why should I hurt my neighbor, if I could just let him have my water — maybe he can grow something?”
THAT COMMUNAL MINDSET originates in part from the families who arrived in the southern San Luis Valley in the mid 19th century to settle the one-million-acre Sangre de Cristo Land Grant. Drawn by promises of land and resources, they established small farming communities on land where the Cuputa band of Ute people had roamed for thousands of years, until they were gradually killed or forced out by European colonizers beginning in the 1600s. The families settling the valley beginning in the 1850s were primarily from Mexico, which had sold the territory now known as New Mexico — including the southern end of the San Luis Valley — to the U.S. government a few years earlier at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War.
Families built acequias and shared access to a mountainous tract of land in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains, known locally as La Sierra, which they relied on for water, firewood and foraging. The land grant was eventually sold, but its subsequent owners honored the historical rights of local families to access La Sierra.
Growing up, Jose Martinez remembers how families built cellars to store the vegetables grown on the land nourished by the acequias, as well as meat from deer and elk hunted in La Sierra — food that would last them the winter. Although they live in what is now one of Colorado’s most impoverished counties, “we ate like kings,” he said.
That all changed in 1960, when John Taylor, a North Carolina timber baron, bought 77,500 acres of La Sierra, renaming it the Cielo Vista Ranch and closing it off to the local community to create a logging operation. Taylor’s logging wrought lasting damage on the land. Poorly constructed roads created erosion, reducing the amount of water that flowed from the mountains into the acequias, according to area residents.
The water wasn’t the only resource reduced or eliminated as a result of Taylor’s actions. Without access to La Sierra for grazing, local families lost their herds and the culture of self-sufficiency that had sustained them for decades. Many, like Jose Martinez’s family, moved out of the valley. Those that stayed saw their health and well-being deteriorate. People went on food stamps and rates of diabetes soared. There were psychological impacts, too.
“You lose the relevance of what your land means,” said Shirley Romero Otero, the head of the Land Rights Council, which formed in the town of San Luis in the late 1970s to stop Taylor from denying access to the property. (A group of San Luis community members are participating in The Colorado Trust’s Community Partnerships strategy; Romero Otero previously was part of this effort.)
In 1981, the Land Rights Council mobilized local residents to sue Taylor for blocking their historical right to access the property. The ensuing legal battle lasted 40 years, fought by generations of the same families and leading to an April 2003 Colorado Supreme Court ruling, Lobato v. Taylor. The ruling granted people the right to graze their animals, cut timber and gather firewood on the land, if they could prove they were heirs to property that was part of the original Sangre de Cristo land grant.
“WE’RE SUCH DIEHARDS,” Junita told me, pointing to an old black-and-white photo from the early days of the land rights struggle taped to their refrigerator. Her husband was among the roughly 5,000 people given keys to access the ranch gates after a nearly 15-year process of identifying the land grant descendants.
“We won’t let go,” Jose added.
The Martinezes owe their persistence in part to the acequias, which are the lifeblood of each village, binding people to the land and to each other. Every spring, acequia communities gather for an annual ritual called La Limpieza to clean the ditch in preparation for the irrigation season. For families, it serves as a de facto reunion — regardless if someone has moved to Denver or to California, people come back for La Limpieza.
For Junita, that communal aspect is why acequias are important: working together to cultivate a shared resource. It’s also why she feels so strongly about protecting those resources from wealthy outsiders who threaten that culture. “We’re a land- and water-based people,” Junita explained.
The current owner of the Cielo Vista Ranch is William Harrison, heir to a Texas oil fortune, who bought the Cielo Vista property in 2018. According to its real estate listing, the ranch was listed at $105 million and encompasses 23 miles of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, including 18 peaks over 13,000 feet and one over 14,000 feet, Culebra Peak — the highest privately owned mountain in the U.S., and quite possibly the world.
Harrison’s ranch hands have intimidated and harassed local people who tried to access the property, according to court filings and residents — despite the legal rulings affirming the rights of the land grant heirs. With the threat of a violent confrontation growing, Jose and Junita’s children told their father they don’t want him going up onto the ranch alone to collect firewood, which he, like many locals, uses to heat their home.
A week before I visited, the Land Rights Council filed a motion in Alamosa Municipal Court to safeguard local residents’ rights to access the ranch. During a two-day hearing, a judge heard testimony about how the ranch’s aggressive surveillance tactics infringed on the community’s hard-won traditional land rights, including tracking people with drones and armed ranch hands approaching people with dogs. The ranch denied use of such tactics.
In an email, Harrison, through his lawyer, wrote that he believes that a few “bad apples” have abused those rights on occasion, illegally hunting, joy-riding ATVs and sneaking onto the property to fish. “That being said, we are fully committed to bringing the animosity of the past to a close, and are making a good-faith effort to bring healing and peace,” he added.
“Some of those places look like ghost towns because of that,” said Peter Nichols, a lawyer with the Acequia Project, a pro-bono legal assistance program supported by the University of Colorado Boulder Law School.
Thus far, acequia communities have resisted those efforts, ensuring their water stays with the land. With the help of the Acequia Project and Colorado Open Lands, an environmental nonprofit, acequias have adopted bylaws that protect acequias from outside buyers.
Still, like any collaboration, acequias are not perfect, said Sarah Parmar, the director of conservation at Colorado Open Lands. “It’s messy because there are human relationships involved, and anytime you have a community that goes back multiple generations, there are going to be grudges and things that have happened that they’re going to bring into those situations,” Parmar said.
But more than anything, acequia communities recognize that water is not just an asset; “it’s a piece of everything,” Parmar told me. “If you pull on that thread, the whole sweater unravels.”
JOSE GRABBED JUNITA’S ARM to steady her as the two walked outside to show me the Nana Ditch, the “mother ditch” that gurgles beneath the willow trees in their backyard.
“It would kill me to see water flow by that doesn’t belong to us,” Junita said. “We’d have to go away.”
Today, abandoned houses are scattered amongst the roads and villages of the Culebra watershed — a reminder of how this community, like so many rural communities, has changed. North of the villages, giant agricultural operations have replaced the smaller family-run vegetable farms that once filled the San Luis Valley, while their high-tech center pivot irrigation systems are depleting the aquifers beneath the valley floor at an alarming rate.
Meanwhile, so many people have left, with the population of Costilla County nearly half what it was in 1950. When their children were growing up, Jose and Junita moved to Colorado Springs so the girls could get a better education. But people are returning to the valley, too, like Martinezes did in 2002. Jose began growing alfalfa on his family’s eight acres again, and a few years ago, two of the girls bought the lots on either side of their parents, where they hope to one day build their own homes.
In the Spanish dialect spoken in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, there is a term called querencia, which translates roughly to “heart home or place.” Even after they left the valley, Jose and Junita would bring the girls back to San Francisco every summer to remind them: “This is where you come home.”
This story was republished with permission from Collective Colorado, a publication of The Colorado Trust.
Sarah Tory writes from Carbondale, Colorado. Follow @tory_sarah
Acequia La Vida via Greg Hobbs.
Santa Cruz River, Acequia de La Puebla, Chimayo
Selection of the 2015 native heirloom maize harvest of the seed library of The Acequia Institute in Viejo San Acacio, CO Photo by Devon G. Peña
An acequia along the Las Trampas in northern New Mexico is suspended on a trestle. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
Fig. 2. Mexican Land Grants in Colorado and New Mexico. The Baumann map depicted here mislabels these Mexican land grants as “Spanish”. Source: Paul R. Baumann 2001. SUNY-Oneonta.
Acequia San Antonio via Judy Gallegos
Acequia del Cerro, San Luis
Acequia cleaning prior to running the first water of the season
San Pedro Acequia. The headgate of the second oldest acequia in Colorado. Photo by Devon G. Peña
Bella Cruz has lived next to the People’s Ditch in San Luis for more than 60 years. Appropriated in 1852, it is the first surface water right in Colorado. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen
San Luis People’s Ditch March 17, 2018. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs
San Luis People’s Ditch spanning the long lot system
Local youth participate in the production of chicos del horno at Corpus A. Gallegos Ranch. San Luis, CO Photograph by Devon G. Peña
San Luis People’s Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain
The country’s second largest potato producing region, is in its 18th year of drought in 2020. The San Luis Valley in Colorado is known for its agriculture yet only has 6-7 inches of rainfall per year. San Luis People’s Ditch
The Uncompahgre may have a legal guardian in its future after a town vote, though critics of “rights of nature” resolutions call “personhood for the river” an empty gesture and a paradise for lawsuits from angry property owners.
The Ridgway town council has voted to give “rights of nature” to the Uncompahgre River that flows on the edge of its downtown, joining Nederland and a long list of international locations saying they want to be better stewards of their wild spaces.
The council followed the lead of Mayor John Clark in approving the river rights resolution 5-0, with one abstention. Supporters said that while their vote was largely symbolic, at the very least they want it on the record that preserving the environment of the Uncompahgre’s basin is important to town leaders.
“We believe nature deserves equal footing” with those who use the river’s water and other resources for other gains, Clark said after the vote on Nov. 10. “And so I’m pretty excited to be one of the few communities in the nation that are stepping up on this.”
It’s just a resolution for now, with no clear enforcement path. But the “personhood for the river” discussion is part of a growing effort to protect natural areas by granting them some legal form of a right to exist, after centuries of human intervention. Nederland already passed such a measure in the summer of 2021, and the nonprofits Earth Law and Save the Colorado are helping to spread the conversation in more Colorado towns. Save the Colorado says people have expressed interest in Lyons, Fort Collins and Crested Butte.
The natural rights movement has gone as far afield as New Zealand and Nigeria, with some efforts focused on protecting revered tribal lands, others to stop dams from forever changing valued waterways…
Legal critics of the strategy, though, contend that water can’t have rights unto itself, and that the people proposing to speak for Colorado’s rivers may have narrow views that don’t serve the state as a whole.
“The problem is the assumption that one particular party gets to unilaterally say what the interests of the stream are,” said David McDonald, an attorney who has followed the natural rights movement for the Mountain States Legal Foundation. “The stream has no voice. It’s not a person. It’s a collection of inanimate objects. These organizations are asking us to give them a great deal of trust.”
For rivers, the premise begins with the reality that all the rights to the water in Colorado streams are already carved up and passed out to buyers including ranchers, town water supplies, beer brewers and power utilities. The trout and the frogs and the mayflies and the H2O itself don’t get a say, while the water is pushed and pulled and dammed and drained.
The rights of nature movement, Durango-based Earth Law attorney Grant Wilson said in an interview, treats rivers as living entities. That’s a revolution, he said, from centuries of water law that treats river water as a human property. Wilson went to Ridgway to explain the resolution before the town council held its vote.
Assigning the water and the wildlife a guardianship recognizes that “nature just like humans has inherent and fundamental rights, and that recognizing those rights and incorporating them into the legal system is a part of the solution to environmental degradation,” said Wilson, who worked with Clark on the proposal.
After a lot of “whereas-es” that give a nice history of the Uncompahgre Valley, the first “therefore” of the resolution hints at the real point: “The right to maintain natural flow sufficient in quantity to maintain ecosystem health.” Meaning that even those who paid a lot of money for water rights shouldn’t be able to just dry up the river in the ongoing drought — in the future, they may have to argue with an attorney appointed by the town to represent the Uncompahgre as a client worth protecting.
The idea of a legally recognized mouthpiece for the voiceless is already common, Wilson noted, for children in family court or the ailing elderly. The resolutions have rarely been tested in the United States to see what new legal structures they might create. In practical terms, a town like Ridgway could pass a resolution and then work toward appointing an “independent, qualified legal guardian serving as basically the human voice of ecosystems in a way that governments currently don’t,” he said.
Nederland’s Alan Apt said he brought a similar resolution to the town board he sits on not as a launching point for endless litigation, but to put into words the importance local residents place on Middle Boulder Creek. Apt said he agrees with water advocates’ desire to “have the ecosystem be part of the conversation, the Boulder watershed, so that when we make decisions, it’s a reference point.”
Nederland holds some of its own water rights from Boulder Creek, currently stored in Barker Reservoir, and sees itself as a high-country link between the origins of mountain water near the Continental Divide to the west, through town, and down to Boulder on the east, Apt said.
Mountain States Legal Foundation would want to know, McDonald said, which inanimate object has the new natural rights — the water flow? The mosquitos? The frogs? And who decides whether the water’s right to exist is more important than a rancher’s right to use water to raise cattle, or a town’s right to supply a popular kayaking rapid?
The resolutions are far from ironclad, McDonald acknowledged. “But these are fringe ideas that are becoming more popular, and ideas are powerful. I think it’s important to stand against them.”
Wilson has no doubt the resolutions in Ridgway and other cities will be questioned by those who hold water rights or development dreams. But, he said, even holding the discussion helps a mountain town agree on shared values and what’s worth protecting.
Ouray County is asking the state water board to delay a water court filing designed to protect streamflows so it can try to resolve issues in a separate but related water court case.
In July, the Colorado Water Conservation Board approved an instream flow water right on Cow Creek, a tributary of the Uncompahgre River, and asked staff to file for the right in water court by the end of this year. Instream flow rights are held exclusively by the state with the goal of preserving the natural environment to a reasonable degree. The state board, which is charged with protecting and developing Colorado’s water supply, holds instream flow rights on about 1,700 stream segments and 9,700 miles of stream throughout the state.
Now, Ouray County is asking the CWCB to delay the filing by six months so that the two governmental entities can try to work out the board’s opposition to a reservoir and pipeline project on Cow Creek on which the county is a co-applicant. CWCB directors will consider the request at their regular meeting Thursday.
In a November letter to Ouray County, Robert Viehl, the CWCB’s chief of the Stream and Lake Protection Section, noted that state statutes set clear rules and timelines for commenting and making hearing requests, and that the county’s request to delay the filing falls outside of those parameters.
“Any entity had the opportunity to state concerns with the Cow Creek appropriation and filing of the water right at the CWCB’s March, May and July 2021 meetings, when the appropriation was noticed before the board,” the letter reads. “This request by Ouray County is outside of the set administrative process for the appropriation and filing on instream flow water rights.”
The CWCB, at the recommendation of Colorado Parks & Wildlife, is seeking instream flow protections for a 7.4-mile reach of Cow Creek — from its confluence with Lou Creek to its confluence with the Uncompahgre River, downstream of Ridgway Reservoir. CPW says this reach contains important fisheries, including the last-known remnant population of bluehead sucker in the upper Uncompahgre River basin.
The utility will pay millions to mitigate environmental concerns for Boulder County residents
The county received assurances Denver Water would pay to mitigate environmental damages expected from the work, but the deal still left Commissioner Matt Jones “heartsick.” He said commissioners fought for the best deal possible but he’s still concerned about the damage the project could do locally and for the millions of people who depend on the Colorado River…
Climate scientists and legal experts said they’re skeptical the parched Colorado River will provide enough water for Denver Water to fill an expanded Gross Reservoir. And even if the water’s there, the expansion and other projects like it will inevitably worsen water shortages on Colorado’s Western Slope and downstream, they said.
Utility officials, however, hailed the settlement and said that while they won’t be able to fill the reservoir every year — which they’ve known all along — years with above-average precipitation will provide more than enough water.
“We’re gonna fill the reservoir,” Denver Water Project Manager Jeff Martin said.
Climate change is trending in the wrong direction for such strong confidence, cautioned Mark Squillace, the Raphael J. Moses Professor of Natural Resource Law at the University of Colorado Law School.
“This just seems a bit insane to me that Denver Water is unwilling to acknowledge” that climate change is only likely to worsen water shortages on the Western Slope, Squillace said.
Martin said he still expects to break ground on the five-year, $464 million project by April…
Denver Water will pay $5 million to residents most impacted by the work and agreed to reduce noise and dust from the project using electric rather than diesel generators.
Denver Water’s drivers must complete bicycle awareness training, provide “truck free” days for cyclists and “leave Gross Dam Road in a better condition than before the project.”
Denver Water will pay $5.1 million to replace open space lands that would be flooded by the reservoir expansion and transfer 70 acres near Walker Ranch Open Space to Boulder County.
Denver Water will pay $1.5 million to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the project and another $1 million to restore a stretch along South St. Vrain Creek.
Squillace said while those terms might benefit county residents, it’s still not enough and he was disappointed to hear commissioners agreed to settle.
“We were between a rock and a hard place,” Jones said. “We were pushed into this corner of knowing that and trying to figure out what we could get for Boulder County residents…
Martin said he and others at Denver Water expect to be able to fill the expanded reservoir in average and above-average years. South Boulder Creek, which is not part of the Colorado River system, also feeds into the reservoir and could supplement water in dry years on the Western Slope, he noted…
[David] Bahr suggested Denver Water could instead pipe in water from the Missouri River or other places in the Midwest that are expected to see more water in the coming years. While Martin said those types of ideas could be explored for the more distant future, Denver Water officials maintain that an expanded Gross Reservoir is the best course of action for now.
The project could still come to a halt, Squillace said. The more delays the work faces, the more climate data will be available, increasing political pressure for Denver Water to seek another way to secure its water supply.
“I’m still not so convinced that the project’s ever going to actually be built,” he said.
After nearly 20 years of preparations, the expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County is moving ahead.
Last week, Denver Water took the final step necessary to proceed with the project after striking an agreement with Boulder County to take additional actions to offset impacts of the project.
The accord with Boulder County means Denver Water can proceed with the long-awaited project that will raise the dam, triple the reservoir capacity and mean far more water security for 1.5 million people in an era of more intense droughts, heavier rain events and earlier snowmelt – all driven by climate change.
“Today is an historic occasion for Denver Water,” CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead told Denver’s Board of Water Commissioners on Nov. 3, upon acceptance of the Boulder County agreement.
“We bring to a conclusion the federal, state and local review processes that will allow us to begin construction of the expansion of Gross Reservoir.”
Denver Water personnel will begin close coordination with Boulder County and others to prepare the area and local roadways for construction. Denver Water will continue to engage and communicate with project neighbors to ease impacts of the work.
“In the two decades Denver Water has spent preparing for the project, we have been driven by a singular value: the need to do this expansion the right way, by involving the community, by upholding the highest environmental standards and by protecting and managing the water and landscapes that define Colorado,” Lochhead said.
“Boulder County and its residents share these perspectives, and we look forward to continuing to work with them as the project moves ahead.”
Gross Dam was built in the 1950s and named after Dwight D. Gross, a former chief engineer at Denver Water. It was built to store water from the West Slope that travels through the Moffat Tunnel, as well as water from South Boulder Creek.
“The original engineers designed the dam so that it could be raised twice, if needed,” said Jeff Martin, Gross Reservoir project manager. “Based on our water supply projections and current system shortfalls, that need is here.”
Denver Water began the permitting process to raise the dam in 2003 and received approvals from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in 2016 and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2017.
The plan cleared its final federal hurdle on July 16, 2020, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its approval for the project and ordered Denver Water to proceed with design and construction.
The project has earned support from major environmental groups, business interests, water users on both sides of the Continental Divide and elected officials on both sides of the aisle, including the state’s last five governors.
Raising the dam will increase the reservoir’s storage capacity by 77,000 acre-feet of water and make Gross Reservoir the second-largest in Denver Water’s system. When complete, Gross Reservoir will be able to hold 119,000 acre-feet, second only to Dillon Reservoir in Summit County, which is capable of holding just north of 257,000 acre-feet.
Expanding Gross Reservoir is a major part of Denver Water’s long-term, multipronged approach to deliver safe, reliable water to more than 1.5 million people today and those who will call the Front Range home in the future. That approach includes increased water efficiency, recycling water and responsibly sourcing new storage.
The additional reservoir capacity will enable increased water capture in wet years to help avoid shortages during droughts. It will also help offset a current imbalance in Denver Water’s collection system that is a significant risk.
“Right now, 90% of our water storage is on the south end of our water collection system, but just 10% of our storage is on the north end,” Martin said.
“By enlarging Gross Dam, we’ll be able to store more water in the north, which will improve our flexibility in the event there’s a problem on the south side that could come from any number of operational issues or threats, like wildfires.”
Once filled, the expansion at Gross will provide an additional 72,000 acre-feet of water storage, which is roughly the amount 288,000 residential households would use for one year.
In addition, 5,000 acre-feet of storage space in the expanded reservoir — known as the environmental pool — is reserved to support environmental needs as part of an agreement with the cities of Boulder and Lafayette. Water from the environmental pool will be used to provide beneficial stream flows along a 17-mile stretch of South Boulder Creek below the dam during dry periods to protect fish and aquatic insects.
Denver Water also has committed over $20 million to more than 60 environmental mitigation and enhancement projects on both sides of the Continental Divide as a result of the project. According to Colorado officials, those commitments will provide a net environmental benefit for the state’s water quality.
Denver Water will use its existing water rights to fill the reservoir when it is complete. Engineers expect it will take around five years to fill the newly expanded portion of the reservoir, depending on precipitation and water use from customers.
“In the end, this project won’t be judged by whether we raised the dam, but rather how we went about expanding the reservoir,” Lochhead said. “We will continue to seek community input and look forward to working with Boulder County as the project moves ahead.”
City Council calls for local control rules in big land projects could delay approval of Northern Water’s Northern Integrated Supply Project by a year.
Fort Collins has placed new barriers in front of Northern Water’s $1.1 billion plan to build a dam and pipeline network along the Cache la Poudre River, further slowing a decades-long project backed by 15 growing Front Range communities and water districts.
City government put a hold on the kind of pipeline and infrastructure work Northern Water needs for its Northern Integrated Supply Project, saying Fort Collins will pause for a year to write new regulations under state “1041” permitting laws that encourage local control of big land use projects. Fort Collins’ planning commission had rejected a NISP pipeline proposal through city open space last summer, but Northern Water’s board overrode the decision, as is allowed by state law.
Northern Water says it has already complied with local approval protocols, including receiving 1041 approval from surrounding Larimer County, and will study its options if Fort Collins tries to force NISP through a newly created layer of planning.
“We think that we’ve completed” the city’s Site Plan Advisory Review process, which was the standard before Fort Collins started talking about creating 1041 rules, Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla said. “We’re really going to take a close look at exactly what was passed by the city council.”
Placing a hold on new projects and asking staff to create a 1041 process for the first time was not meant to target Northern Water specifically, though it will likely delay their Fort Collins projects, city council member Kelly Ohlson acknowledged. A new group of city council members taking office after spring elections learned Fort Collins could use the state’s 1041 law to influence projects rather than just react to them, Ohlson said…
Mayor Jeni Arndt said the new tier of local regulations should not make a big difference in Northern Water’s decadeslong pursuit of final project approvals. Northern Water wants to build two big reservoirs northwest and east of Fort Collins, and connect them to the Poudre and the South Platte River through a series of pipelines and ditches.
Arndt said city leaders have narrowed down their interests in creating a 1041 review process to two areas for now: water projects and development that impacts natural areas.
“I don’t feel like that’s an evil volley against them,” Arndt said. “It’s not tit for tat. We have some legitimate concerns about our natural areas and parks.”
Conservation groups that have battled NISP and its complex water engineering for years are happy to see a new bump in the road for Northern Water, which says it expects to receive a final federal-level permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers any month now. Opponents have filed suits and protested local government approvals since portions of NISP were first conceived in the 1980s. In July, they focused on the Fort Collins planning body’s decision whether to approve project pipelines buried in city park land and right of way…
A delay from Fort Collins to pursue more local control rules follows Northern Water’s success in September getting Larimer County approval for another key element of the project: moving U.S. 287 east over a ridge, north of Ted’s Place, to create the dam basin where Glade Reservoir will store Cache la Poudre water.
Overall, the northern supply project will build Glade and another new reservoir northeast of Greeley, Galeton, that will store South Platte River water. Some of the new supply will be delivered in the Cache la Poudre channel, while other transfers will be made by a series of pipelines and ditches.
Northern Water says the project will bring much-needed supply to 80,000 more residents in more than a dozen growing communities that have signed up for the water. The water agency says storing Cache la Poudre water in Glade during higher runoff allows them to supply a steady stream for wildlife and recreation through Fort Collins at times when the river otherwise runs nearly dry.
Opponents say NISP takes water from wildlife and scenic rivers, and encourages sprawling growth in communities that could do more to conserve water.
When water runs low in the late summer, many small creeks and streams dry up as water is diverted for irrigation, leaving pools scattered around each bend of the channel.
Ranchers and other water users have a right to this diverted water, part of a system that dates back more than 100 years. Until the early ’70s, leaving any amount of water in these creeks was considered a waste.
“There was no beneficial use recognized to keep water in the channel,” said Rob Viehl, a water resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Colorado passed a law in 1973 that said the streams had a right to some of the water too by establishing the Instream Flow Program. Nearly 50 years later, the board is considering new rights for two creeks in Routt County, adding to a network of more than 1,700 flow rights decreed across the state.
Deep Creek, which runs from the southwest side of Hahns Peak down into Steamboat Lake, and a stretch of Watson Creek, which is on public and private land west of Yampa, are being considered for the new instream flow rights.
These rights are a little different than traditional water rights because they span between two points on a stream, rather than a point where water is diverted. Between these points, the river is entitled to a certain amount of flow.
The riffles section of a creek will dry up first because it is the shallowest. But it also holds a lot of biological significance for fish and other aquatic species, Viehl said. The Instream Flow Program is meant to consider the uses of water with the benefits there are to leaving it in the creek…
But the program also provides certainty to current rights holders that any of these flow rights would still be administered within the larger system, Viehl said. For the proposed rights on Deep and Watson creeks, Viehl said they would be for 2022, meaning rights established for it are not affected.
That means there is no guarantee that these rights will be able to keep water in the channel year-round, Viehl said.
The rights take about three years to establish and requires another entity to approach the water board with a recommendation. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is the more likely recommending agency, but Viehl said the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies make recommendations, as well…
Deep Creek has a fishery of cutthroat and rainbow trout, riparian plants like willow and alder, and flows down into Steamboat Lake. The proposed right would ensure that there are 2.5 cfs of water flowing from May 1 to July 1, with a lesser amount later in the summer and winter.
Watson Creek’s fishery is different, with longnose and whitehead suckers rather than trout. It also has insects like mayflies and caddisflies, and several riparian grasses. The proposed flow rate would be 1.9 cfs from April 1 to June 21, but there would be no rate through July and early August.
The Pagosa Area Water and Sani- tation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors voted to exit the Stage 1 Drought, as defined in its drought management plan, at its regular meeting held on Oct. 28.
The board initially voted to enter the Stage 1 Drought on July 19.
District Manager Justin Ramsey explained during the meeting that the primary driver of the district’s drought management plan is the San Juan River flow in conjunction with the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Ramsey noted that the district has met conditions to exit the Stage 1 Drought for almost a month now.
He explained that since the only restriction was irrigation times, and not many people are still irrigating this time of year, he didn’t feel the need to call for a special meeting for the board to vote on exiting sooner…
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Water and Climate Center’s snow pack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 3.2 inches of snow water equivalent as of 10 a.m. on Nov. 3.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basins were at 106 percent of the Nov. 3 median in terms of snow pack.
The USDA website notes that readings “may not provide a valid measure of conditions” in regard to the basins.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 68.7 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 10 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3.
Based on 86 years of water re- cords at this site, the lowest recorded flow rate for this date is 22 cfs, recorded in 1956.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1987 at 657 cfs. The average flow rate for this date is 116 cfs.
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3, the Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at a rate of 53.2 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was 800 cfs in 1987.
A new lowest recorded rate was recorded this year for this date, earlier in the day at 37.5 cfs.
Based on 59 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for that date is 146 cfs.
The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) was last updated on Oct. 26.
The NIDIS website indicates 100 percent of Archuleta County is ab- normally dry.
The percentage of the county in a moderate drought is listed at 70.79, which is up slightly from the previous report of 69.81 percent. The NIDIS website also notes that 47.66 percent of the county is in a severe drought stage, consistent with last week’s report. Additionally, the NIDIS website notes that 10.33 percent of the county remains in an extreme drought. This is up slightly from last week’s report of 9.12 percent. No portion of the county is in
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (Chris Arend):
The Colorado Division of Water Resources (DWR) is announcing a virtual Measurement Rules Rulemaking stakeholder meeting to present an update of the draft Measurement Rules for Water Division 6 (North Central and Northwest Colorado for the Yampa, White, and North Platte River basins) and gather feedback and comment. DWR conducted in-person stakeholder meetings during October 2021 in Steamboat Springs, Oak Creek, Rangely, Meeker, Walden, and Craig, CO.
DWR invites participants from those meetings, as well as those who have not been to an in-person public meeting, to attend.
The purpose of the rulemaking is to develop consistent, stakeholder-driven standards for the implementation of DWR’s statutory authority for requiring measuring devices for water diversion and storage and reporting of records.
The Southwest’s active monsoon season this year washed tons of sand into the Colorado River, where it could have helped shore up the Grand Canyon’s withering beaches, if not for one big problem: The water stored behind Glen Canyon Dam is at an all-time low after more than two decades of drought.
As a result, the federal government’s dam managers have hit pause on an environmental program that calls for controlled floods out of Lake Powell when there’s enough sand for the water to push up and rebuild sandbars and beaches, preserving the national park’s ecology, river trip campsites and archaeological sites.
Prodigious rains from the summer and fall monsoon dumped the sand that created the right conditions for a November flood but left nowhere near enough water to prop up the shrinking reservoir.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cited projected losses in the dam’s hydropower production as a reason to hold back the envisioned floodwaters. That could save up to $4 million for electric ratepayers across the West, but it also sets an ominous precedent for a river that’s becoming too drained by aridification and overuse to sustain its own health…
The dam that created Lake Powell in the early 1960s choked off more than nine-tenths of the Colorado’s contribution to Grand Canyon’s sand flow, dropping it on the new lakebed and sending clear water downstream from the hydropower plant’s turbines.
That left the sand that the Paria River washes out of southern Utah toward the Colorado at Lees Ferry to build beaches in the upper Grand Canyon, and the sand from Arizona’s Little Colorado River deeper in the canyon…
Starting in the 1980s, a group of scientists puzzling over how to restore a semblance of nature in the canyon imagined a program opening the dam’s bypass tubes to create artificial floods whenever enough sand accumulated for the pulse of water to push it downstream and deposit it on bars and beaches.
Benefits would include everything from the creation of shallow, warm backwaters more familiar to the river’s native fishes to coverage of threatened artifacts, and restoration of beaches for float trips that account for more than 100,000 user days on the river each year.
The occasional planned floods began in 1996, four years after Congress passed the Grand Canyon Protection Act mandating dam operations that balance water and power needs with the canyon’s environment. The floods continued haltingly, every several years until the Obama administration adopted a plan that supporters believed took costs and politics out of the equation and would trigger a flood whenever sand measurements at Lees Ferry warranted one.
That would include this fall when Utah State University river researcher Jack Schmidt said the sand is more plentiful than it is in three out of every four years.
Schmidt was among the scientists who first envisioned the controlled floods, and he later directed the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. He said he fears the government’s decision against flooding when there’s this much sand indicates that low water levels are leading to backsliding on the commitment to manage according to the science.
“This decision takes us dangerously close to the old world where politics dictates not having a flood,” Schmidt said…
Reclamation officials at the bureau’s Upper Colorado Basin office in Salt Lake City decided against conducting a flood this fall. They did not respond to a request for comment, but a bureau presentation at the technical work group’s fall meeting cited the Western Area Power Administration’s hydropower cost estimates as a reason that regional state and federal officials advised against pushing more water downstream.
They determined that a 60-hour flood of the sort that has occurred before would cost $1.3 million in lost hydropower revenues, while an unprecedented 192-hour flood — allowed by rule when sand accumulates like it did this year — would cost $3.7 million.
A 192-hour flood could have been especially problematic, the officials reported, because it would have dropped the lake’s elevation by 5 feet, to within about 10 feet of the dam’s buffer zone for producing hydropower without damaging the turbines. A 60-hour flood would limit the reduction to about 2 feet…
Controlled floods, officially known as high-flow experiments, are no cure for what ails the Grand Canyon. They temporarily restore beaches, which are then eroded over time by flows that fluctuate to meet water and power demands. Only the next flood can keep them from eroding to critically low levels.
Today, with no flood since 2018, the sandbars and beaches are as low as they’ve been in a decade, and are projected to decline another 10% before next year’s rafting season. Had the government scheduled a 192-hour flood, the beaches were projected to grow by 75%, and to remain 50% larger after winter erosion…
“It seems as though the Grand Canyon Protection Act was not given much weight,” said Peter Bungart, a cultural resources officer for the Hualapai Tribe.
That law’s mandate for managing the dam in harmony with canyon resources is “clear as mud,” according to University of Utah law professor Robert Adler. It first directs the government to release water in a way that protects and restores the natural and recreational resources for which Grand Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area were established.
Then it says to do that in a way that’s consistent with the suite of other laws governing the river’s water storage and distribution agreements, laws often in conflict with the canyon’s environmental interests…
Still, environmental groups and tribes objecting to the flood’s rejection and the exclusive decision-making process sent a joint letter to the Bureau of Reclamation on Wednesday seeking a greater role in future flood debates, and greater consideration to the Grand Canyon Protection Act…
If losing a few million dollars in revenues is to become a flood disqualifier, [Larry] Stevens said, there may never be more floods.
Colorado’s map from the Oct. 26, 2020, U.S. Drought Monitor looked like some kind of fresh hell, its swaths of red and orange highlighting what happens when there is too much heat and not enough water for a long time. Colorado’s resulting fire crisis had good company; much of the Western United States had similar stories of people running from their homes as the fires closed in.
It was so 2020, as further evidenced by the strain on the Colorado River and the ongoing wake-up calls in communities that receive its water – directly or diverted.
Locally, Chaffee County’s economies lean on supplemental summer releases into the Arkansas River. Despite two decades of drought and aridification, the Arkansas has been able to remain visually stunning in the high season – not entirely due to the workings of nature. It’s uncertain how that may change.
One year later, the colors on Colorado’s map have softened to shades of beige and an innocuous-looking lemon-yellow, with darker spots remaining in the northwest corner and the far southwest edge. With some rain to its credit over this past summer and perhaps just plain luck, Colorado managed to escape the land-killing infernos such as the Cameron Peak Fire and the aptly named East Troublesome Fire of 2020.
Nobody knows exactly how those 2020 fires would have raged had not a major snowstorm rolled in on Oct. 25 last year and snuffed their trajectories. As it stood, East Troublesome charred 193,212 acres and 580 structures.
Snow is good. And traditionally it has been the utility player, if not hero, in the seven-state region served by the Colorado River, where, in a perfect world, it stores naturally on Colorado’s mountain peaks. Upon melting with a timed grace and running off in mid-spring, it flows south and west to the Gulf of California, serving some 40 million people en route.
Thanks to warmer temperatures and aridification, that sweet rhythm is off. Spring runoff gushes from the peaks too fast and sinks into the parched landscape before enough of it gets to its intended waterways.
That said, later-season snows helped address an alarming dry trend in the spring of 2021, helping Chaffee County look better on the Drought Monitor and delighting those with fixations on the SNOTEL system and its high-country snowpack reports. The infusion of summer rain gave the appearance of a kinda-maybe monsoon pattern locally.
Water flowing through the Fry-Ark system, the trans-basin diversion from the Colorado River that flows out of the Frying Pan River in Pitkin County and which is released from Turquoise Lake and Twin Lakes, once again plumped the moneymaking waves in the Arkansas River from July 1 until mid-August this year.
Under the Voluntary Flow Management Program with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (SECWCD), 10,000 acre-feet of water is allocated during that time; moved to benefit recreation. All told, Fry-Ark sends out an average of 58,000 acre-feet each year, much of it going to agriculture below the Pueblo Reservoir.
It didn’t hurt that the Pueblo Board of Water Works was able to release 6,000 acre-feet from Clear Creek Reservoir early in the summer season. It echoed the cooperative dance of moving large amounts of water that has, by necessity, developed between water entities. This highlights the increased communication that is one of the upsides in the long-reaching, exhaustive conversations about water among an exhaustive list of stakeholders in Colorado and the West.
Chris Woodka, Senior Policy and Issues Management Manager with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said the increasing pressures on water have caused groups to come to the table and seek solutions. “What’s different is we’re talking all the time with each other,” he said. “There was a time when people were wary of how other people were moving water. Everyone now realizes it’s to their advantage to talk.”
With water from Fry-Ark and Clear Creek Reservoir – not to mention rain, the fattened Arkansas River gurgled through the county once again and gave more than a passing nod to the local economies over the summer. Pandemic aside, things seemed nice and easy.
“It almost gives you a false sense of security,” [Greg] Felt said, noting that with continuing drought and aridification, there are increasing signs of hydrological systems not being able to correct themselves.
“That whole program is built on Fry-Ark water,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake here. Diversions from the Fry-Ark project could be seriously impacted, and that’s a major concern.”
“It’s a no-brainer, probably, that a voluntary flow management program will be a lower priority than delivery for consumptive use,” he added.
Indeed, nothing is truly nice and easy anymore as the West faces challenges to just about everything that is known about water and how it continues to serve us…
…with average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin running 2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than in the 20th century, those original nice ideas [Colorado River Compact] are being retooled or sidelined in the name of badly needed, better ideas; addressing drought, aridification and salination, and how to feed people when the river can’t help so much anymore. A new plan for operating the Colorado River is due in 2026.
The mobile observatory is manned by 100 scientists who hope to show how the West can get a better handle on where and when water will be available
Eight white shipping containers, instruments spouting from the tops of some and a generator humming away in another, sit in the East River valley, on the outskirts of this mountain town, pulling data out of the air.
The containers, a “mobile atmospheric observatory,” will gather bits of information over the next two years about the winds and clouds and rain and snow and heat and cold above the silvery and serpentine waterway as it slides past the gray granite dome of Gothic Mountain on its way to the Colorado River.
“It is like a satellite, but on the ground looking up,” said Heath Powers, who oversees the atmospheric observatory program operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. “It’s a traveling scientific carnival.”
Traveling, indeed. The last assignment for the observatory, now in the old mining town of Gothic, 9 miles north of Crested Butte, was on the deck of a German research vessel icebound in the Arctic…
The observatory, while in demand all over the world, is the centerpiece in an unprecedented effort to understand how — and how much — water moves from the sky to the rivers of the West. Three separate teams, nearly 100 scientists in all, are in the East River valley studying every facet of the question.
The researchers are employing an equally large array of instruments, from balloons to drones to aircraft to multiple kinds of radar to cloud chambers and flux sensors to stream gauges and rain buckets.
The goal is to better understand the “water story” so that water managers across the West can, from year to year, have a better handle on how much water will be available.
The Western United States has always relied on water resources that come from these rugged mountain systems,” said Dan Feldman, the principal researcher for the project using the mobile observatory.
Those systems, however, are not well understood, hobbling forecasting. “We know the list of physical, chemical and biological processes that affect water,” Feldman said. “The question is how do they fit together?”
It is more than just a theoretical question. As the climate changes, and the world gets warmer, the Rocky Mountain snowpack, which provides 75% of the water for the Colorado River Basin, has already declined by a fifth in the past 30 years and by 2050 the flow of the river, supplying water to 40 million people, could drop by as much as 20%…
And so, Feldman is leading a group of scientists in the Surface Integrated Atmosphere Laboratory project (SAIL), while Gijs de Boer, is heading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Study of Precipitation, the Lower Atmosphere and Surface for Hydrometeorology (SPLASH).
Both are seeking to better understand the atmospheric dynamics — clouds and rain, wind and snow…
Can studying a single, small watershed — with measurements from the size of raindrops to the amount of water finding its way deep into bedrock — tell the tale for the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River and its 246,000-square-mile basin?
“The East River shares characteristics with the vast majority of headwaters in the Rocky Mountains,” Williams said. “What we are learning in the East River will be translatable to other mountain systems.”
The switch was flipped on at DOE’s mobile observatory Sept. 1 and it will gather data through the next seven seasons…
Overseeing the operation is John Bilberry, 43, the lead project manager for SAIL. “I run the circus,” he said. Bilberry was with the mobile observatory in the Arctic (he had to hitch a ride on a Russian icebreaker to get there) and got stranded onboard by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic…
SAIL, which is being run under the auspices of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has deployed about 50 different instruments, some on the roofs or inside the shipping containers, some on valley hillsides.
The project also releases weather balloons twice a day and has a larger tethered balloon with an array of instruments that will be trucked around the watershed.
Those devices will gather detailed data on eight elements that affect the water cycle: the fine particles floating in the air called aerosols, clouds, rain and snow and the winds that drive them, sunlight, thermal energy and temperatures.
The total sky imager is tracking the horizontal distribution of clouds, microwave radiometers are measuring the water content of those clouds, doppler lidar radar is gauging the direction and speed of the wind, and a nephelometer is measuring the behavior of aerosols…
Other instruments will log ozone levels, the water content of falling snow, how much snowpack is lost to evaporation (known as sublimation) and the surface energy balance — heat coming in from the sun and that radiating back into the air.
Every hour a bank of computers, linked to the sensors, collects all the data and uploads it to the internet for use by SAIL and researchers around the world. “It is a virtual machine,” Bilberry said…
Fitting the data into a big picture will be a challenge as the behavior of any one element can be complex.
Aerosols, for example, can, in the form of soot, warm the air, while sulfate aerosols can cool it. Dust covering the snowpack leads to a quicker melt. Aerosols create the nucleus around which moisture in the air forms rain and snow. Too little aerosol, no rain, too much and the moisture is disbursed and again there is no rain or snow, until it builds up and leads to really heavy downpours or snows.
“Aerosols have all these different effects that they are exerting on these mountainous watersheds,” Feldman said. “Aerosols are impacting the way water is delivered downstream.”
While SAIL efforts are centered in Gothic, NOAA’s SPLASH gear will be arrayed over more than 10 miles and will be focused on gathering data to help improve the administration’s forecasting tools.
These include the Unified Forecast System, which makes up to 14-day forecasts, the Rapid Refresh Forecast System, which provides hourly updates, and the National Water Model, which predicts stream flows.
“SPLASH was born out of a desire to build upon SAIL and tune things to be more specific to NOAA needs,” said de Boer, a University of Colorado researcher who works at NOAA. “That has turned into a very significant investment from NOAA.”
The project is being led by NOAA’s Physical Science Laboratory in Boulder and CU, in collaboration with about a dozen other institutions, including Colorado State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Among SPLASH’s installations will be a 33-foot tower to measure winds, turbulence, radiation and temperatures. It will also deploy three drones to measure things such as soil moisture and snow reflectivity…
Some water near Gothic has been underground for 2,000 years
On a late summer morning, the SFA’s Williams was up on Snodgrass Mountain drilling a deep well into the mountaintop — SAIL’s white shipping containers could be glimpsed down below.
Granite dust billowed from the hole as the drill pounded away searching for groundwater.
Williams, a Berkeley Laboratory geologist, has drilled wells across the East River valley — into the shale beneath Aspen forests, the loose landslide deposits of Alpine meadows and hard granite of conifer forests — in search of groundwater.
That mixture of granite, shale and soils from mountainside erosion, and the spruce, aspen and evergreen forests, along with Alpine meadow sitting atop them, is a terrain widely shared by Rocky Mountain watersheds…
Williams’ wells have hit groundwater 15 to 20 feet below the surface, but in the well atop Snodgrass Mountain they found no water even at 300 feet. A dry hole. Williams lowered a borehole camera and found only fractures with seepage. Still, they are being monitored. “All data is useful data,” he said.
Once the water is found in a well, sensors are lowered to measure the soil moisture content at different depths. Samples are also taken for geochemical analysis, such as water dating. Some of the groundwater SFA has found has been down there for as long as 2,000 years.
Williams’ team of 55 scientists, buttressed by collaborators at universities around the country, is trying to write the last chapter in the mountain water story, how a mountainous watershed retains and releases water and how much actually gets to the river.
SFA researchers are trying to measure every drop from tree top to bedrock, down to the role microbes play…
Among the questions Watershed Function is trying to answer is how much of the precipitation is lost to trees and plants sucking it up. In one experiment flux meters have been attached to trees to chart the water flowing from roots to leaves and out as water vapor.
Another question is how much water ends up in aquifers and how long does it stay there? While snowpack runoff feeds the river in the spring, by late summer more than 50% of the East River’s flow is coming from ground water, Williams said.
All the SFA data is also being put up on the internet — so far 69 data sets containing millions of data points — although not by the hour.
Data for modeling for everything from next week’s weather to climate change
The tools for understanding the massive amounts of data being collected by the three projects are computer models that aim to reflect everything from how much water flows in a stream, to next week’s weather, to the future impact of climate change on the world.
The models, however, are vulnerable in two ways. First, they are based on assumptions about how the world works — how much water vegetation absorbs or how snow gathers on mountainsides — and then they are only as good as the data they crunch…
“There is a critical linkage between measurement and modeling,” Williams said. “The models need to be informed by the data being collected, to show they are anchored in reality.”
“It is data gathering not for the sake of data gathering, but to assure that our predictive models are as accurate as possible,” he said. Scientists call it “ground truthing.”
The data can aid in refining the assumptions and algorithms that run the model. “They can help improve our knowledge of the chemistry and physics of how the world works,” said Alejandro Flores, associate professor of geoscience at University of Idaho and a SAIL researcher focused on models.
Mountains have been particularly difficult to model…
SPLASH, de Boer said, is seeking a better understanding of the “physics of key processes,” such as sublimation of snow, snow crystals and rain-on-snow events, that govern how much water ends up in the river…
Those data and insights will be used to evaluate the performance of the Weather Service forecasting and other NOAA models.
Ultimately, the data and knowledge of chemical, biological and physical processes gleaned from the East River could inform the Earth Systems Models that project the world’s climate…
And it is not just a question of what happens in the West. Between 60% and 90% of the world’s water comes from mountainous watersheds. “Mountain environments are important and they are changing rapidly,” Flores said. “This is an important part of the world and it is important to focus on it.”
FromThe Colorado Springs Gazette (Carol McKinley and Marianne Goodland):
The Colorado Water Trust is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, with two decades of efforts to restore flows in Colorado rivers. But the trust’s next 20 years will likely face greater challenges of climate change and population growth that are already taking a toll on the state’s waterways.
The trust’s main focus is to improve instream flows, the flows and water levels in a stream or river.
Back in 1973, the Colorado General Assembly recognized the need for a statewide instream flow program. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) was given the authority to acquire water rights, or lease them, for instream flow purposes. Instream flow water rights, one of the beneficial uses under Colorado’s water rights law, are the exclusive authority of the CWCB.
While the original purpose of the legislation was to “protect the natural environment,” the instream flow program has expanded to address “water requirements for declining, sensitive, and threatened and endangered species, and protection of macroinvertebrate populations and rare riparian vegetation assemblages,” according to the CWCB.
Since 1973, the CWCB has appropriated instream flow rights for 1,700 stream segments covering more than 9,700 miles of stream.
But the instream flow program got off to a slow start, and drought was becoming an increasing problem in Colorado. One of the first big droughts was in the winter of 1976-77, which “sent shock waves through Colorado’s economy and state government.”
There was a gap. The CWCB had the authority over junior water rights for instream flows, but nothing in place to acquire senior water rights.
Those junior rights are useful very high up in the mountains where there aren’t a lot of other rights, said Andy Schultheiss, the trust’s executive director. Senior water rights, on the other hand, are more secure, but the state needed an outside group to scout opportunities for the state to buy or lease those senior water rights.
In 2000, water engineers, water lawyers and conservationists began discussions on how to bolster the instream flow program, and that led to the formation of the trust in 2001.
Like most new water programs in Colorado, the trust faced suspicion from water rights holders early on, especially farmers and ranchers. According to the Colorado Water Exchange, 80% of the state’s water goes toward irrigation, and that’s mostly for agriculture.
“It took us eight or nine years to develop our first project,” Schultheiss said. “There’s a lot of reluctance to try anything new.”
That first major project came in 2009, when Pitkin County and the CWCB signed an agreement, brokered by the trust, to allow the county to lend water for the instream flow program.
Since then, the trust has directed 13.5 million gallons of water through 588 miles of Colorado waterways.
The approach today works like this: The Trust goes to a rancher and says, “How about you stop irrigating, say Aug. 1, and we compensate you for the days you’re missing, and we give the rest of your water to the state to lease it to use in an instream flow reach?” That’s a classic kind of trust project, Schultheiss said.
In an apparently groundbreaking permanent water sharing agreement in 2014, said to be the first in the West, the trust purchased a portion of the water rights on the McKinley Ditch to restore flows to a three-mile segment of the Little Cimarron River, a tributary of the Gunnison River. In spring and summer, the water is available for agricultural irrigation. Late summer and fall, the water heads down the Little Cimarron…
The trust has been trying to improve instream flows on the Yampa since the 2012 drought, according to Schultheiss. In some years, the water they buy from Stagecoach Reservoir represents a third or more of the water in the river, he said.
Back in 2012, the trust recognized that there was water sitting in Stagecoach with very few customers.
“And we said, ‘Why not? Why can’t we just buy water and release water from Stagecoach? There’s an in-stream flow reach just below the dam, and then there’s the city farther down.’”
By 2021, the releases from Stagecoach have been institutionalized, according to Schultheiss. Thanks to the Yampa River Fund, a collaboration between the Steamboat Springs and the Nature Conservancy, and with a $4.5 million endowment to pay for it, the river got a record-breaking 2,000 acre-feet of water from Stagecoach. In a year with severe drought in northwestern Colorado, it was enough to keep the water temperatures down and avoid fish kills and other environmental damage…
“We are a market-based organization. … Our whole reason for being is that we participate in the market on behalf of the environment, and we need money to be able to do that.” — Andy Schultheiss
The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District continues to change, grow and adapt its public outreach efforts, directing the public to the main focus of their mission — managing the basin’s limited water supply.
Upper Gunnison is an active leader in all issues affecting the water resources of the Upper Gunnison River Basin. Their role in the valley has grown in importance as the basin continues to experience worsening drought conditions. In response, the district has continued to try and raise awareness of the community’s water use.
Upper Gunnison General Manager Sonja Chavez said that, after the drought year the basin experienced, it’s about getting a message out to the community.
“Water is a finite resource,” Chavez said. “I think most people don’t realize or understand that the whole Colorado River Basin is over allocated, we’re using more water than we actually have. As temperatures increase and stream flows decrease, it’s just going to become a greater challenge.”
The district’s education and outreach budget increased from $34,000 in 2021 to almost $42,000 for 2022. Although part of it is driven by the rising cost of promotional products and an increased sponsorship to the Gunnison River Festival, Chavez said overall, public outreach is “central and important” to the district’s mission…
Within their education action plan, staff began to break the public down into age groups, from elementary through high school as well as growing their relationship with Western Colorado University. The district’s goal was to try and be intentional about where they put the funding, who they reach out to and making sure it’s age appropriate.
Historically the Upper Gunnison helped fund the Water Workshop, which was renamed and reorganized into the Western Water Future Games. The Water Workshop, based at Western, has a 45-year history.
It was created to give more of a voice to the people of the Western Slope because at that time it was perceived that the Front Range was the dominant voice in water issues in the state, said Jeff Sellen, who oversees the program…
With a small staff of five, the Upper Gunnison has limited manpower. To make their outreach efforts more effective and far-reaching, their strategy has been “figuring out where they can add value” to existing events or programs, Chavez said.
Where there is an access to water the Upper Gunnison tries to build upon that opportunity for education. The Upper Gunnison has its hands in the River Festival, the 4-H Program and the Taylor Challenge. It also has an established mini-grant program designed to support educational projects intended to expand the awareness of water-related issues.
Name recognition is another important aspect of increasing the visibility and effectiveness of the Upper Gunnison’s water messaging in the valley. The district has used a newsletter, radio advertisements, yard signs and promotional items to spread the word that “water doesn’t grow on trees.”
Chavez said she thinks “a lot of people within the community don’t know exactly who we are or what we do.” But this is something that even larger districts still struggle with…
Upper Gunnison has started taking a harder look at its education and outreach in terms of who it’s reaching, and how successful it’s been, Chavez said. When people have an issue or question about water “I would want them to first think of the Upper Gunnison District.”
As the gap between water supplies and demands narrows in northwestern Colorado, state officials want to ensure that, as best as reasonably can be done, every last drop gets measured and recorded.
They made their case to about 60 ranchers in North Park’s Walden, Colo., on Friday in the fifth of six stakeholder meetings during October that will conclude tonight with a meeting in Craig.
The proposed rules governing the Yampa, White and North Platte River basins would require that headgates, which allow water diversions into ditches, be supplemented with measuring infrastructure, either flumes or weirs, to track the amount of water being diverted. The rules would also institute protocols for reporting the measurements, for collection in state databases. Authority to require the measuring and reporting is clearly defined by state law, but the law leaves room for discretion about the particulars, hence the stakeholder process.
In an already drought-stricken region likely to become hotter and drier yet in the 21st century, those measurements will become ever-more important in administering water rights. The Yampa River this century has carried on average 6% less water than it did during the 20th century. On the White River, flows have fallen 19%.
Already, there is concern that Colorado will be forced to curtail diversions of water rights dated later than the 1922 Colorado River Compact if the aridification of the Colorado River Basin continues, said Kevin Rein, the state water engineer, at the outset of the meeting in Walden.
The compact specifies that Colorado along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico “will not cause the flow of the river” at Lee Ferry, at the top of the Grand Canyon, “to be depleted below an aggregate” of 75 million-acre feet for an period of 10 consecutive years. Colorado and the three other upper basin states are in relatively good shape—for at least the next couple of years. In the last decade, 92 million acre-feet have flowed past Lee Ferry toward Arizona, Nevada, California and, eventually, Mexico.
But if below-average becomes the new normal, as climate scientists warn almost certainly will be the case, Colorado may be forced to defend its diversions in light of the compact. “When they come in and ask for water, we can’t refuse if we have no data,” said Mike Sullivan, the deputy state water engineer.
The state water officials pointed to the Aug. 2021 report Lessons Learned from Colorado Experiences with Interstate Compact Administration issued by the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University and MacIlroy Research and Consulting. “Confronting the limits of a water supply is a painful experience,” the report said after studying the Republican, Arkansas and Rio Grande basins. “Across each of the basins, earlier action to address potential compact and supply issues has enhanced the control communities have to develop and choose their own, less painful, options.”
The North Platte River does not flow into the Colorado River. It’s east of the Continental Divide but separated from the Front Range by the Medicine Bow and other mountain ranges. So why the need to measure water in North Park the same as in the Yampa and White river valleys?
Because it’s good to have the data should it be necessary as required by other interstate agreements, in this case involving Wyoming and Nebraska, said Sullivan.
But there’s another reason for more rigorous accounting of diversions, said the state water officials. Owners of water rights can best look out after their own interests by documenting their water use. This guards against those rights being placed on lists of abandoned water rights that state law requires be issued every 10 years. The most recent list for all river basins, including North Park, was issued last year.
Measuring devices also give those with more senior water appropriations the right to divert their legal entitlements in water-scarce years. And in the case of land sales with connected water rights, it gives owners the proof of water use to demonstrate value to potential purchasers.
In several river basins in Colorado, notably those east of the Continental Divide, measurements became crucial as early as the 19th century. In those river basins where water users experienced an earlier squeeze between supplies and demands, those with senior water rights began placing calls that required those with newer—and hence more junior— rights upstream to cease or cut back diversions.
In Water Division 6, which includes the North Platte, Yampa and White river basins, 54% of headgates had appropriate measuring devices as of April. This compares with upwards of 90% in several other water divisions of Colorado.
Overlapping the new rules is a proposal being considered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources to designate the Yampa River as over-appropriated. Most rivers in the state are already considered over-appropriated, in some cases over a century ago. Segments of the Yampa—including the river upstream from Steamboat Springs and several tributaries—already have been so designated. This designation will require irrigators drilling wells to have water that they can use to augment streamflows if there is a call on the river by a senior user. Improved measuring will assist in administration. Meetings to gather input were scheduled for Monday night in Craig and Thursday night in Hayden.
State officials hope to get the measurement rulemaking as well as the Yampa designation completed by early next year. Rules will be unique to the needs of Northwest Colorado, just as rules governing the Republican and Arkansas River basins are unique to the interstate water agreements and other circumstances governing water use in those basins.
North Park was particularly warm and dry last winter. One rancher after the Walden meeting recalled that it was possible to drive across his hay meadows all of last winter whereas many years he has to plow the driveway almost daily.
“It was pathetic, really,” said Keith Holsinger, standing on a bridge over the Michigan River east of Walden where he grows hay on 800 acres. One of his neighbors, who usually gets 500 to 600 tons of hay, got only 90 tons this year, he reported.
Holsinger has lived on the ranch all of his 77 years. His water rights range from among the oldest in North Park, an 1885 decree with a priority number of 32, to more junior rights of 240th in priority.
He remembers putting in the first measuring device sometime after the drought of 1977. His last device, a weir, he had installed last year.
During the meeting, some skepticism was voiced about the coming measurement rules. State representatives characterized the relationship between water users and state authorities as one of cooperation and trust. But one audience member pushed back. Implementation seemed to be discretionary, he said. “It’s a trust issue, and I’m sorry to say I don’t have a lot of faith.”
But as for the need for the rules, Holsinger is already persuaded. “If it’s free water in priority, if you want that water, you had better have a headgate and weir,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The most significant discontent voiced in the background of the meeting agenda was about the high turnover in water commissioners. It’s a common problem across Colorado, say state water officials, as the job is by nature semi-seasonal. But in conversations after the meeting, North Park residents suggested that if the state wants water users to be partners in administration, the state needs to allow proper resources. A water commissioner has between 350 and 500 headgates to check, and there’s a learning curve.
Some people wanted to know why the state wanted the ability to lock headgates. State representatives said they rely primarily on voluntary compliance with water allocations but need the ability to force compliance if diverters take more than they are entitled to.
“In 20-some years, I have probably ordered a half-dozen headgates locked,” said Sullivan. “If we can’t get someone to keep their hands out of the cookie jar, we lock the cookie jar.”
As for the specific type of weir or flume, there are several formal varieties as well as less formal ones. They can be expensive, but none of the irrigators in Walden indicated that cost alone is an issue. Erin Light, the Steamboat Springs-based water engineer for Division 6, said she had seen a flume made of a road sign. It worked, she reported. Sullivan reported seeing one made of rock that worked effectively.
Said Sullivan, speaking to people mostly old enough to remember a bestselling small-model car in 1979 and 1980, “We don’t want to require a gold-plated Cadillac headgate when a Chevette will do.”
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Growers in the West have persisted through the ups and downs of dry years for a long time, but a two-decades-long trend of drought in the region is now entrenching itself with no clear end in sight.
This year is unlikely to bring any major relief.
Forecasters say this winter will be shaped by “La Niña,” a weather phenomenon during which cold water off the Pacific coast alters temperature and precipitation patterns over the Western U.S. Its effects are hardly guaranteed, but typically mean a colder, wetter winter for the northwestern portion of the country, and a warmer, drier winter in the Southwest. The dividing line often falls in the middle of Colorado.
“In general it means towards the northern mountains would be more likely to have a better winter season and the southern mountains — the San Juan Mountains, the Sangre de Cristos — might not be able to get as much,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist at Colorado State University.
She cautioned that weather is hard to predict with a high degree of certainty, describing the area’s erratic patterns as “a crapshoot,” but historical records suggest it will likely leave the Colorado River basin warmer and drier than normal this coming winter.
“While we do depend on the (summer) monsoon season,” Bolinger said, “especially to help fill up those soils before we enter the cold season, we really need that snowpack to kind of really dig out like Arizona did with its monsoon season.”
Bolinger was alluding to this year’s historically wet summer in Arizona — where parts of a state with millions of Colorado River water users were drenched with record-setting rain totals. Tucson, for example, saw its wettest calendar year in recorded history. July was the state’s second-wettest month of all time…
And in the grand scheme of the Colorado River basin, wet seasons in Arizona are literally a drop in the bucket. Before going on to feed farms and taps all the way down to Mexico, the majority of the river’s water starts as rain and snow high in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. In the long term, Bolinger says climate change will bring shorter winters, warmer temperatures and drier soil…
Turning things around in the Colorado River basin and bringing more water to the people who depend on it will take years of above-average rain and snow where it matters most.
In response to decreasing irrigation and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 350 cfs for Tuesday, October 26th, at 4:00 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). This release change is calculated as the minimum required to maintain the target baseflow.
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. Be advised, due to low storage and forecast levels in WY 2022, the minimum release of 250 cfs, as documented in the Navajo Record of Decision (2006), may be implemented this winter as long as that release can satisfy the target baseflow.
For the first time since the historic Cameron Peak Fire charred a record breaking 208,000 acres in 2020, and since the rain on the burn scar caused fatal flooding in the Poudre Canyon in July of 2021, wildlife officers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife are seeing the detrimental impact the blaze had on the fish in the Cache la Poudre River. As feared, recent surveys of the river showed thousands of fish were killed as a result of the fire and its lasting impacts.
“The runoff events we saw this summer, post fire, have had a detrimental impact on the fishery,” said Kyle Battige, Aquatic Biologist with CPW…
CBS4’s Dillon Thomas was invited to join CPW staff as they conducted their first fish testing of the year along the Poudre River.
Battige and his team conducted Standardized Electrofishing Surveys along the Poudre River in mid-October, their first time surveying the region since the fatal flooding and Cameron Peak Fire…
The fatal landslide in July claimed the lives of four people near the Black Hollow Road area. CBS4 was invited to join CPW as they surveyed their two nearest stations, one upstream and one downstream from the slide.
Kelly Flats is a campground and recreation area just downstream from the landslide.
“Last year we caught approximately 200 fish,” Battige said of the roughly 40-yard stretch of the river they survey at Kelly Flats. “(This year) we caught zero trout.”
Not one single fish was found near Kelly Flats, just one year after hundreds were located there. Battige said he expected there to be fewer fish due to the impacts of the past year. However, he said he was shocked to not catch one single fish…
Though the results of the electrofishing were upsetting for the staff at Kelly Flats, greater signs of hope were unveiled a mile upstream from the landslide.
Within 30 seconds of entering the Poudre upstream from the slide and turning on their electrofishing system, multiple fish were being caught for counting…
At the survey station upstream more than 50 fish were caught during one pass. More were caught during a second pass. CPW staff were thrilled to see the fish were still in the region, even if not at the same population of previous years…
Battige said the Poudre River is typically not stocked with trout. The ecosystem has long thrived on its own even after natural disasters. The fish have historically repopulated and redistributed along the river without human intervention.
Battige said he was hopeful the fish would soon make their way toward the Kelly Flats area, repopulating that region…
The fish that are caught in the electrofishing process are weighed, measured, listed for species and then returned to the same waters.
Now, with stats in-hand, CPW will weigh their options for the future. Either let the river bounce back on its own, or try and shock the system by stocking the river with fish.
Natural resources experts who surveyed the fire’s impacts on the watershed, which [northern Colorado relies] on for drinking and irrigation water, believed the Cameron Peak Fire will have impacts on the Poudre River for at least 10 years.
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Shawna Bethell is a freelance essayist/journalist covering the people and places of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.
I’m not a fish person. They aren’t even on my radar until my nephew catches them, cleans them, and fries them up into a fabulous meal with hushpuppies and slaw. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the role they play in both our natural ecosystems and in the Kansas economy via the sport fishing industry. I understand, too, that both hang in the balance depending on decisions being made north of our state border.
Under the Republican River Compact, Kansas is considered both an upstream and downstream state. Born on the eastern [plains] of Colorado…the Republican River flows east across the plains, tipping our northwest corner before entering Nebraska. There the river continues eastward until it drops south again, re-crossing our border and eventually emptying into Milford Reservoir before finally meeting up with the Smoky Hill River in Junction City to create the Kansas River.
The 1934 compact was supposed to ensure allocations of water for each state through which the river flows. However, historically, both Colorado and Nebraska have — at times — overused their shares.
In an effort to prevent such occurrences in the future, entities affiliated with water and irrigation districts in Nebraska made a 2018 application to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources to transfer water from the Platte River Basin to the Republican River Basin to meet the requirements of allocation. The application was denied due to objections by interested parties, including those of Kansas’ then-Gov. Jeff Colyer, who cited the negative effects of invasive species to our waterways should an inter-basin transfer move forward.
The plan did not die, however, and a revised application was filed. Met again with objections, Nebraska conducted a hearing in July 2021, where it again gathered testimony from concerned parties. According to the agency’s legal counsel, Emily Rose, there is no set date for a final decision.
Like her predecessor, Gov. Laura Kelly also objects to the inter-basin transfer. According to Reeves Oyster, a spokeswoman for the governor: “There are too many potential impacts to the health of our state’s vital natural resources.”
Oyster also said that “as it stands right now, this is a matter that first needs to be addressed in Nebraska. We hope our neighboring state will make the right decision, but should the transfer gain any traction, we will respond and engage accordingly.”
I should hope so.
“Our most pressing concerns are Silver and Bighead Carp and White Perch,” wrote Chris Steffen, aquatic nuisance species coordinator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. “All three species have proven in Kansas to be incredibly detrimental to the waters they invade and are located within the Platte River near the proposed point of diversion.”
According to Steffen, other states that have seen an influx of these species have experienced declines in their sport fish populations of more than 80%. If the species were allowed to take hold in Lovewell and Milford Reservoirs, it could risk the state’s $210,000 fishing industry. Aside from economics, changes to the river’s ecosystem could affect critical habitat for species such as the Shoal Chub and the Plains Minnow, which are already deemed threatened in the state.
“Kansas Wildlife and Parks has been working diligently to prevent the spread and limit the impact of aquatic invasive species,” Steffen wrote. “This project would undermine those efforts and place our natural resources at risk.”
Last spring I traveled to Nebraska, where I spent a morning at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary that sits along the Platte. Eagles and herons hunted the shallows, while the songs of meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds pierced the air.
According to Audubon’s website, the Platte River is also critical habitat for endangered and iconic species, including the piping plover and the sandhill crane, and like the Kansas department, they and their partners have invested heavily to preserve their state’s natural resources. Reducing water flow via a transfer would alter the ecology of nesting grounds and food sources relied upon by both native and migratory birds. Although the sanctuary is not in Kansas, as residents of the Plains, we need to recognize that the entire eco-region and its wildlife are treasures to protect.
In that light, I encourage our current administration to stay informed and ready to engage as they have said they would. Not only for the state’s economic benefit, but for the assurance that the progress we’ve made so far in preserving and protecting our natural assets is sustained and encouraged hereafter.
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.
A new federal system for projecting Colorado River water flows in the next two years confirms dire news about drought draining the West’s key reservoirs, and increases pressure on Colorado to conserve water immediately to avoid future demands from down-river states, conservation groups say.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation’s new system for projecting vital Colorado River flows in the next two years drops earlier, wetter years out of the historical reference, and gives more weight to two recent decades of drought. The regular October update this week shows water runoff into Lake Powell, the storage basin for four Upper Colorado Basin states, was only 32% of average for the 2021 water year, which runs from October to September.
The new projections for the next two years show that even with federal officials draining portions of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to get more water to Lake Powell’s hydroelectric generating station, a moderate winter would leave the Colorado River in the same crisis a year from now. And a low-water scenario this coming winter season would drop Lake Powell well below the minimum level required to generate electricity by November 2022.
In addition to federal officials trying to protect hydroelectric generation at Lake Powell, and at Lake Mead as the downstream water bank for the Lower Basin states, water compacts govern how much Colorado River water needs to go downstream for use by agriculture and cities…
“We don’t have any more time to talk about it,” Matt Rice, co-chair of the Water for Colorado Coalition and Director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Programs, said after reviewing the latest Bureau of Reclamation update.
Starting with the October update, the bureau begins the historical average calculations in 1991, instead of the 1981 cutoff used until now. The 1980s were much wetter in the Colorado River Basin, Rice said.
“These projections are worse than they have been in the past, but they’re also more realistic,” Rice said. Many conservation groups find that a positive step despite the bad news, Rice added, because it increases pressure on state water officials, local water conservancy districts, agriculture interests, cities and environmentalists to work faster on solutions.
At the same time, Rice said, the updated numbers should drive home the reality that there is 20% less water available now in the Colorado River than as recently as 2000. “There’s no more flexibility in the system, right? We’re looking over the edge of the cliff.”
Water conservation experts in Colorado have worked for years to avoid their worst-case scenario, which is a “call” or a sudden demand from federal managers to deliver more water for hydropower or to satisfy the compacts with the Lower Basin. Without advance planning, a call would force the state water engineer and local conservancy districts to cut irrigators’ water rights based only on the seniority of their water-use rights.
While state and local officials have been working with nonprofits on conservation plans, there are legal tangles that could require new legislation, and seemingly endless ethical questions about which parts of the state would suffer the most water loss, said Sonja Chavez, director of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District…
Blue Mesa Reservoir in her region has been nearly drained by drought and by federal officials taking extra from Western reservoirs to solidify Lake Powell’s power pool. Blue Mesa is projected to soon be down to 27% full, Chavez said. Blue Mesa was 33% full in mid-September, according to Bureau of Reclamation records.
State and private officials have cooperated to experiment with “demand-management” programs, where instead of buying agriculture land and its accompanying water rights outright, they buy the right to rent the water for a few years out of a decade. That rented water can be sent downstream in dry years, and in theory the restoration of water in other years should preserve the farm or ranch land while providing income for the farmer.
But renting or buying of water rights on the scale to meet compact demands would require hundreds of millions of dollars, with no current pot of money to pull from, water experts say. Colorado officials have mentioned the possibility of using money from the infrastructure stimulus plan currently under debate by Congress, but it’s uncertain whether the bill will pass, and how much water-related money will be in it if it does…
The largest amounts of water to be conserved are in agriculture, by far, but Front Range residents must be part of the statewide discussion about finding more water for the downstream Colorado River, Rice and Chavez said.
“You’re not going to get as much out of a city compared to what is the amount of irrigation water diverted for agriculture,” Chavez said. “But there’s also agriculture on the Front Range that benefits from our transmountain diversions,” some of which are created and controlled by urban water departments. “That has to be part of the picture.”
The White and Yampa rivers traditionally supply a comfortable amount of water compared with other waterways across the state, according to Jeff Lukas, a Lafayette climate consultant and former water scientist with the University of Colorado Boulder. But that’s not as much the case recently.
“The whole Colorado River system is on the wrong side of the knife’s edge in the first part of the 21st century,” Lukas said.
Over the last two decades, the Yampa’s average flow decreased by about 6% from its 20th-century average, Lukas said. And the White’s average flow decreased by about 19%.
So officials with Colorado’s Division of Water Resources want to better track who’s taking water from the rivers — and its tributaries — and how much. Better tracking there would bring the division’s northwest region into line with the rest of the state, where that type of data collection is already more common.
Division officials are hosting stakeholder meetings in the region to develop rules by which water usage will be measured and hope to have the process finished by the end of next year, state Engineer Kevin Rein said. And as more data flows in, the state can better allocate water to those legally allowed to take it, an increasingly precise task as droughts continue to plague the Western Slope.
And in the bigger, and unprecedented, picture, if Colorado is called to work with upper- and lower-basin states because not enough water is passing southwest through the Colorado River, it will need that concrete data in hand, Rein said.
“We just need to know where it’s going,” Brain Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, said. “Every drop counts when it comes to water.”
The process underway in northwest Colorado is part of an increasing nationwide trend to better track water use as droughts become more common, Fuchs said…
One key indicator that water is tighter in northwest Colorado is that senior water rights holders along the Yampa River are more frequently calling state engineers to shut off supply for junior rights holders until their thirst is quenched, according to Erin Light, water division engineer for the region.
The first ever call like that on the Yampa came in 2018, Light said. Another followed in 2020 and then another this year, both of which only ended after Colorado River conservation officials agreed to release water from the Elkhead Reservoir, northeast of Craig.
Water shortages and calls like those can spell trouble not only for those in Colorado but also millions more downstream.
Water from the Yampa and White rivers flows into the [Green River then the] Colorado River and ultimately into Lake Powell, making up to a fifth of the reservoir’s water supply each year, Lukas said.
The reservoir, which sank to its lowest level on record this year, supplies water to about 35 million people, irrigates millions of acres of cropland and generates billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.
While calls from senior water rights holders come each year — even in non-drought years — along the Arkansas, Rio Grande and South Platte rivers, Rein said “it’s a new thing to the Yampa.”
Not only are those rivers drying due to climate change but more water is allocated from them than the rivers actually have to offer. And now the historically water-abundant Yampa, which is also over-allocated, appears to be joining those ranks, Light said…
Accounting for water
As Colorado’s rivers dry up, like the Ogallala Aquifer on the eastern plains…for example, governments across the country are working to take better inventory of their water supply, Fuchs said. When those water shortages arise, people start to ask where the water went and who took it.
“All of a sudden these questions are starting to be asked and (governments) can’t really put those cards on the table because they don’t have them,” Fuchs said.
The same logic applies when states strike deals with each other over rivers that cross their borders, Fuchs added. The states not only want to make sure they’re following the agreements but also that they’re keeping as much water as possible.
Colorado’s northwest region represents a gap in the state’s inventory.
As of April, only about 54% of the structures used by water rights holders in Light’s region, which covers Craig and Steamboat Springs, have devices to measure their water usage.
For comparison, about 95% of the structures in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins to the southeast have measuring devices, [Aspen Journalism] reported.
In late 2019, Light ordered hundreds of water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices and then in March 2020 she issued formal notices for others along the White and Green rivers to follow suit, the Summit Daily reported. And Light’s office is now holding stakeholder meetings this month across the region as they look to cement consistent rules for what kinds of devices can be used, how they should be maintained and how they measure water use.
Rein said he hopes that the rule-making process could be finished by the end of next year, but he doesn’t want to rush it.
One of the central questions dimly visible in the early discussions around the upcoming renegotiation of the Colorado River’s water operations and allocations rules is the question of how bad a “worst case” scenario should be considered.
This is crucial, because it constrains what sort of questions must then be confronted. The lower the future flows considered, the more likely it is that the negotiators will have to stare down the third rail question of how much water the Upper Basin can delivery hydrologically, and must deliver legally, at Lee Ferry, the dividing point between the Upper and Lower Basins.
For the century since the Colorado River Compact was signed, we’ve avoided dealing with that central question – what happens if the river’s flows are so low that the Upper Basin cannot deliver the 7.5 million acre feet per year (or 8.25 million acre feet, we can’t even agree about which number to argue about) contemplated by the compact’s Article III.
This question is so untouchable that in work done for the 2012 Basin Study, the Bureau of Reclamation’s modelers famously added what came to be called “miracle water” at Lee Ferry every time one of their model runs dropped below the threshold that might have otherwise triggered this legal argument.
Under the low flows possible under climate change, we face a stark choice – either we reduce the Upper Basin’s Lee Ferry deliveries below 7.5/8.25 maf, or we will have to curtail existing Upper Basin uses. Advocates of modeling such low flows in the planning scenarios are essentially saying – Let’s have that conversation now.
At the tale end of yesterday’s (Friday 10/15/2021) House Natural Resources Sucommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, it was California Rep. Jim Costa, a congressman from outside the Colorado River Basin, who asked the question pointed at the heart of the matter – how do we redo water allocations that make no sense in a river much smaller than contemplated in our hallowed Law of the River?
“The Law of the River and the quantification of the Upper and Lower Basin states amounted to some 17 million acre feet of water that was determined at that time was the annual flow of the Colorado River, and we know that in the last two decades its been more like 12.4 million acre feet, and that doesn’t account for other Native American tribes that have reserved water right claims that have yet to be resolved. So there’s just a tremendous amount of demand. And with climate change, we know the yield is only going to decline.
“This is the question I’d like to submit to all of you, and if you want to provide written statement to your answer I think we would appreciate that.
“Let’s say the annual yield over the next 30 years is 10 million acre feet. I don’t know, with climate change, maybe it’s plus or minus. How do we take into account how we got to the original allocation, with the Upper and Lower Basin States and the Native tribes, the sovereign nations, and then reallocate that on a lot less water.”
At this point all we can see through the public windows into discussions about next-step Colorado River management guidelines is shadow boxing on this question.
But testimony yesterday from Southern Nevada’s John Entsminger suggests the public shadowboxing we’re seeing on this question is representative of disagreements in the private discussions. (I quote here from John’s written testimony.)
“Despite the fervent warnings from internationally renowned scientists like Jonathan Overpeck and Brad Udall that urge us to plan for a future with even less than 12.3 million acre-feet, the river community is far from consensus about how dry of a future to plan for. And, while this panel was asked to talk about drought, on-the-ground evidence suggests the Colorado River basin is not experiencing drought but aridification – a permanent transition to a drier future. If we are to build upon the river’s many successes over the last 25 years, we must confront the magnitude of the challenge in front of us and quickly reach agreement on what future scenario we’re willing to plan for. (emphasis added)”
Speaking two weeks ago at this year’s Getches-Wilkinson Center conference in Boulder, Entsminger put a number to Southern Nevada’s thinking. In the next iteration of its long range water resources plan, Entsminger’s Southern Nevada Water Authority will include a “what if” planning scenario for how the agency would deal with an 11 million acre foot per year Colorado River. This is not to say that Southern Nevada expects an 11 million acre foot river, but rather than it believes it needs to have a plan in place should that happen.
I could be wrong, but so far I’ve seen no public evidence that any of the states of the Upper Basin are willing to entertain flows that low in the planning scenarios to be considered in the modeling done to support the upcoming negotiations. I look forward to seeing the written answers the basin states’ representatives submit to Costa’s question.
FromThe Current (Ken Neubecker) via The Vail Daily:
This is Part II of a three-part series.
In the previous column, we reviewed the history of water development in the Homestake Valley, as well as some of the key points contained in the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding that was agreed to and signed by the principal parties in 1998. Of primary interest in this column is what is referred to as “Exhibit 2” in the MOU, and pertains to Homestake Creek-based alternatives.
As a reminder, the Eagle River Assembly and signatories of the MOU were Aurora and Colorado Springs (named the Cities in the memorandum), Colorado River Water Conservation District (River District), Climax Molybdenum Company (Climax) and the Vail Consortium, consisting of Vail Associates, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority. The Vail Consortium and the River District together are known as the “Reservoir Company” in the MOU.
The primary objective of the MOU was to create a joint project from one of four options, which were explained in the previous column. The idea was to develop a water supply project that “minimizes environmental impacts, can be permitted by local, state and federal agencies, and provides sufficient yield to meet the water requirements of project participants…”
The baseline sharing of water would provide as much as 10,000 acre-feet (an acre foot is enough water to cover one acre — about a football field — one foot deep), on average, for the Eagle County participants, 20,000 acre-feet on average for the east slope participants and 3,000 acre-feet average for Climax. These amounts were based on a firm dry year yield, which means the maximum quantity of water which can be guaranteed during a critical dry period.
There are provisions in the MOU for the range of needs and timelines of the parties. Any party or parties wishing to build a project must seek the participation of all the other parties. If the other party or parties do not wish to participate at that time, then the initial parties may “proceed independently of the others…,” with additional caveats regarding money, infrastructure and “rights of refusal” to water, depending on the final size of a project.
If the proposed project is a joint project, the parties shall all apply for permits as co-applicants for federal, state and county permits. But, what happens if one or more of the parties decline to participate?
The MOU outlines the following: “To the extent that any party exercises its right not to participate… such party shall nevertheless support any application that is consistent with the terms of this MOU.” The non-participating parties will “provide favorable testimony and letters of support in any permit proceedings…” If any party or parties fail to support a proposed project than “the Cities shall have no obligation to subordinate their water rights…”
Such refusal of support would also jeopardize a specific exchange of water.
The MOU considers the need to study and mitigate potential environmental impacts. It is designed to focus primarily on compiling all information on existing wetlands, identifying and quantifying wetlands in the area, estimating mitigation costs and “identifying potential benefits for recreation, fish and wildlife in a qualitative sense.” This last comment is important and reflects a long history of resistance by Front Range water diverters to any quantification of flow needs for environmental protection or recreation.
If any flow rates, seasonal or otherwise, including any range of flows needed for the environment, fish, wildlife and recreation were provided, the diverters might be expected to provide for flows through depletions, or when their diversion is impacting local stream flows.
The MOU calls for an environmental analysis of the various alternatives to identify impacts to wetlands and concerns from inundation, or the flooding of the valley floor and surrounding landscapes. It specifically states that, “If it is found that there are less environmentally damaging practicable alternatives [any of these proposed projects] may prove difficult to permit.”
Now that’s an understatement.
The third column will explore some serious questions brought to mind by both the MOU and the assumptions underlying the work of the Eagle River Assembly. The significant cultural, hydrologic and climatic changes that have occurred since 1998 will also be investigated. The world and problems we face with water and rivers in the West in 2021 are not the same as those the Eagle River Assembly was trying to address in the early 1990s.
Ken Neubecker is a founder of and former board president for Eagle River Watershed Council and recently retired from his position as the Colorado Project Director at American Rivers. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit erwc.org.
From email from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (Chris Arend):
The Colorado Division of Water Resources and Community Agriculture Alliance are partnering to educate the community and solicit public comment about the proposal to designate the Yampa River Basin as over-appropriated.
An over-appropriated stream system is one in which at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of a stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system. Two public meetings will be held to outline how the over-appropriation proposal affects new and existing residential well permits.
A recording will be available after the Moffat County event for those who are unable to attend in-person.
Seven states will negotiate access to what’s left in the river. My job is to represent all of Colorado’s interests.
If you live in Colorado—you get it. We don’t quit when challenged. Whether you live in a city, on a farm or ranch, in a rural town, or somewhere in between—you are part of the dynamic group of people who call Colorado home; people who understand when it comes to protecting Colorado water, specifically the Colorado River’s water, we must rise together to meet the challenge.
From its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River flows broadly across 1,450 miles of the southwestern United States, changing elevation by a remarkable 10,000 feet. More than 40 million people rely on the Colorado, the nation’s fifth-longest river, for drinking water and energy through hydroelectric power. In addition, the river supports an estimated $25 billion recreational economy and an agricultural economy of about $1.4 trillion a year.
About 100 years ago, the seven states in the Colorado River Basin created an agreement known as the 1922 Colorado River Compact and divided the seven states into two groups, the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), and the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). It was the beginning of these seven states acting cooperatively to take the lead in managing and allocating the Colorado River’s annual flow of water.
Yet, in the early 1900s, it was impossible to foresee that in the 21st Century, the dwindling supply of water due to climatic forces, coupled with growing demand, would result in the present-day low water levels in our nation’s two largest reservoirs.
Extensive drought that began over 20 years ago in 2000—and continues to this day—has been a major factor leading to Lake Powell, on the Utah-Arizona border, reaching its lowest level since being filled. Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir on the Arizona-Nevada border, also is at its lowest level since filling.
The state of the river is important to every Coloradan – all 6 million of us. It is critical to providing for the needs of current and future generations of Coloradans. More broadly, it is critical to the 40 million people who directly rely on the water of the Colorado River.
That is why all seven states agree that working collaboratively is critical to solving our own river management issues through cooperative agreements like the 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan.
The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan provides that, should Lake Powell’s water levels fall too low, Upper Basin states would release more of the river’s water from other reservoirs, to be stored in Lake Powell as part of the Drought Response Operations Agreement in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
The agreement has been activated and the states now are in planning mode.
Another tool could involve an effective demand-management program, which provides compensation for water users, such as farmers and ranchers and municipalities, to voluntarily conserve water on a temporary basis — without the loss of their ongoing water rights — while allowing for more water to be stored in Lake Powell with greater downstream water flow.
So, where do we stand? The seven Colorado River Basin States soon will be negotiating new interim guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead to coordinate operations of both reservoirs.
As Commissioner representing Colorado’s interest in these negotiations, I am charged with effectively representing and protecting the state’s water and the water users’ interests, while also working collaboratively with the other six states and the federal government. As a state, we will continue leading the effort in conjunction with all the Colorado River Basin states.
Throughout the process, I commit to hearing the voices of tribal nations, key stakeholders, non-governmental organizations, and our fellow Coloradans. To learn how to make your voice heard, visit EngageCWCB.org.
As we continue to face the challenges of climate change, persistent drought, and growing populations, we cannot quit.
Rebecca Mitchell, of Denver, is Colorado commissioner for the Upper Colorado River Commission.
States in the Colorado River Basin are adjusting to the reality that their rights outstrip the available water by nearly one-third, state and tribal leaders told a congressional panel Friday.
The situation is likely only to worsen as the climate changes, leaving states and tribes in competition for their most vital resource.
Representatives from the seven Western states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Utah and Wyoming — that depend on the river for drinking water and irrigation said at a U.S. House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing that they are preparing for a future where the river and their entitlements do not match.
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State officials and lawmakers emphasized how serious the situation was, but offered few solutions during Friday’s hearing — the first of two the panel plans to hold on the drought in the Colorado Basin — beyond general appeals to conservation and collaboration.
States and tribes in the basin are legally entitled to 15 million acre-feet of water per year, with another 1.5 million going to Mexico, but only about 12.4 million has flowed in an average year over the last two decades.
The deficit is the result of a years-long drought that was tied to climate change, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, and others said.
“After more than two decades of drought with no end in sight, it’s clear — to most of us at least — that climate change is fundamentally altering the Colorado River,” Huffman said. “It’s decreasing the amount of water available from this key river.”
Ranking Republican Cliff Bentz, of Oregon, said the shortage in the Colorado River Basin could soon be the reality elsewhere.
“This situation the Colorado’s facing is so reflective of what we’re going to be seeing all over the West,” Bentz said, adding that whatever solution was reached could be “a template of some sort.”
Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, chairman of the full Natural Resources Committee, called for “a comprehensive initiative” to plan for lower water levels in the basin.
States preach cooperation
Representatives from the states testified about the challenges the shortfall created, and how they were preparing for a more dire future, though they offered few specific solutions.
“Drought and climate change are presenting challenges that are likely to increase over time,” Tom Buschatzke, the director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, said.
Buschatzke said the choice was either to cut each state’s water allocation or to conserve use. Arizona was focused on conservation, he said. Partnerships with tribes, neighboring states and other entities would help, he added.
John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said collaborative, regional projects like a water recycling partnership between his agency and one in Southern California, would be needed to deal with the lower water flows.
“We have a simple but difficult decision to make,” he said. “Do we double down on the promises of the last century and fight over water that simply isn’t there, or do we roll up our sleeves and deal with the climate realities of this century?”
Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said water shortages were forcing “heart-breaking” decisions for the state’s farmers, ranchers and tribal communities.
Some residents had decided to sell multi-generational family farms, she said.
“These decisions have significant psychological, sociological and economic impacts to the communities,” she said.
John D’Antonio, the state engineer for New Mexico, said the partnership between states, tribes and the Mexican government had worked for nearly a century and called for that to continue, even as water levels drop.
“Any future decision-making process should consider science, legal and policy aspects concurrently,” he said. “I am confident that all seven Basin states will strive to employ a fact-based approach that considers that holistic vision.”
Bentz said the ideas of collaboration and conservation sounded good, but raised doubt about what those ideas could do on their own.
Saying he could pose the same question to anyone who had testified, he asked Mitchell how much water conservation measures could save in her state.
Colorado’s water conservation plan could conserve 400,000 acre-feet, Mitchell said, though she said that included areas outside the Colorado River Basin.
Amelia Flores, chairwoman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, told the panel that her government lacked full rights to its share of the water. More than 70 miles of the river runs through the tribes’ lands in Arizona and California.
While the tribes are allowed to divert water for their own purposes, they may not lease it to other communities, a right other tribes enjoy, Flores said. A bill to allow the Colorado River Indian Tribes the same right would help their neighbors, she’s said.
“Without the right to lease our water, we can do little to directly assist communities in Arizona,” she said. “We are simply requesting the right to decide for ourselves how best to use our water.”
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After prolonged neglect, Mexico’s Colorado River Delta is teeming with life. This summer, Ridgway’s Rails and Least Bitterns prowled in lush marshes. People jumped into the river’s water to escape record-breaking heat, or enjoyed picnics on the shore. Fish long absent shimmered in sunlit water.
This life aquatic was unthinkable until recently. Beginning in 1922, water-sharing agreements among the seven U.S. states in the Colorado River basin and Mexico claimed nearly every drop of the once-mighty waterway, which begins high in the Rocky Mountains and wends 1,450 miles to northwest Mexico, where it empties into the Sea of Cortez. Over ensuing decades, dams and diversions built to sustain farms and growing cities from Colorado to California left little water for downstream stretches south of the border. By the 1960s, when Lake Powell began to fill behind Glen Canyon Dam, the river no longer reached the sea.
Deprived of nourishment, the Colorado River Delta shrank, becoming a sliver of the expanse of lagoons and braided channels that naturalist Aldo Leopold saw when he paddled through a century ago. Ninety percent of its wetlands shriveled. Migratory birds, arriving to find far fewer places to feed and rest, made do with less appealing alternatives, such as agricultural waste ponds.
This year, however, marks a turning point in the delta’s long-sought revival: From May through October, 35,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water—about 11 billion gallons, or enough to supply at least 70,000 Southwest households for a year—is snaking from the U.S.-Mexico border to the river’s fan-shaped terminus 100 miles away. It is the first time since a brief period in 2014 that the Colorado reached the sea. And thanks to tireless advocacy by Raise the River, a binational alliance of six conservation groups, and a series of delicate negotiations between the two nations, the delta’s future is awash in promise. By 2026 it will receive 210,000 acre-feet of water in total.
This moment was a long time coming. After years of talks, the United States and Mexico did a test release, a 105,392-acre-foot “pulse flow” for two months in spring 2014. The surge, along with small deliveries made possible in part by Mexican farmers, helped biologists restore 1,400 acres of riparian systems, which involved planting more than 47,000 native trees and acquiring water rights.
The delta bloomed in response: Bird abundance rose 20 percent and avian diversity increased 42 percent, showing even a modest amount of water can make a big difference. “You almost can’t believe how quickly an area can be transformed from a pretty decimated landscape and disturbed ecosystem into something that really conjures the river of the past,” says Jennifer Pitt, Audubon’s Colorado River Program director. “A lot of hard work in the hot sun made something miraculous happen.”
“We know that we are never going to have the delta like it was 100 years ago, no,” says Gabriela Caloca Michel, water and wetlands conservation program coordinator at Pronatura Noroeste, a coalition member group. “But we know that we now have more birds, we have restoration, we have people working there—because we have some water.”
Buoyed by the results, in 2017 conservation groups convinced the two nations to ink a longer-term deal to send regular surges downstream and, along with nonprofits, contribute to a total of $18 million for restoration, science, and monitoring. Minute 323, an addendum to a 1944 Colorado River water-sharing accord, was born.
Crucially, the agreement not only allocated water to the delta, but also called for both nations to make voluntary cuts in dry times and required the United States to fund water-efficiency projects in Mexico to ease the way. “Getting the two countries aligned was harder than I ever imagined it would be,” says Pitt. “And keeping them aligned remains complicated. But knowing what that takes makes it all the more special to see.”
The design of this year’s release, the first under the new accord, builds on lessons from 2014. This time, to ensure as much water as possible reaches the delta rather than sinks into the thirsty riverbed on its journey south, the water’s path is diverted near the border through irrigation channels to bypass a 35-mile dry stretch. Some irrigation water, purchased from Mexican farmers, is also sent to the river’s floodplain instead of fields. Overall, the volume dedicated to the delta is less than one percent of the river’s total average flow. But again managers expect a little will go a long way, boosting restoration efforts and transforming desiccated areas into verdant habitat for Vermilion Flycatchers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and more of the 380 avian species using the delta.
What makes the win even more extraordinary is that it comes amid extreme challenges. The Southwest, and two-thirds of Mexico, is in the grips of one of the most intractable droughts the region has ever experienced, fueled by climate change. This year the Colorado River Basin’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, dropped to record low levels. In August the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that in 2022, for the first time, it would reduce water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico and may have to impose more cuts in coming years.
With hotter, drier times ahead, some advocates worry that water dedicated for the delta and other basin ecosystems could begin to look tempting, as farms and cities try to harness every drop. Yet despite painful shortages, those working to resurrect the delta remain cautious optimists. “The water that we’re putting in the river isn’t only for wildlife,” says Francisco Zamora Arroyo, the Sonoran Institute’s senior director of programs. “It’s for the people, too.” With locals again connected to their river, he says, the case to keep it flowing will only strengthen.
After all, Pitt adds, the same agreements that are re-watering the delta enable Mexico’s commitment to share in shortages. In an exception to the norm, an ecological revival—made possible by sharing rather than fighting over water—has inspired a new way to value the region’s most precious resource. “I see the two countries saying, ‘We need to figure out how to sustain this,’ ” says Pitt. “And that really is so important and amazing.”
In response to decreasing irrigation and 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 for Monday, October 18th, at 4:00 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). This release change is calculated as the minimum required to maintain the target baseflow.
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. Be advised, due to low storage and forecast levels in WY 2022, the minimum release of 250 cfs, as documented in the Navajo Record of Decision (2006), may be implemented this winter as long as that release can satisfy the target baseflow.
The West’s dire drought issues took a national stage on Friday, as a roster of prominent Western water experts from the region testified in front of the U.S. Congress.
Water decision-makers representing seven states and two tribes within the Colorado River basin spoke about drought in a virtual hearing held by the Committee on Natural Resources’ subcommittee on water, oceans and wildlife.
This week’s hearing, and a similar set of testimonies in front of the U.S. Senate last week, comes at a time of crisis for water in the West. More than two decades of drought are straining the region’s supplies, and forecasts predict a hotter, drier future due to climate change. Declining levels in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, have forced mandatory cutbacks for some users and projections indicate that more will be necessary in the next few years…
As leaders are faced with the challenge of allocating the steadily shrinking resource, many called for collaboration and additional funding for new and improved infrastructure. Some flatly said the only viable path forward includes major reductions in usage…
Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, touched on the sprawling effects of a drought currently touching 90% of the state, including shortages threatening the livelihoods of farmers, and increasingly frequent and devastating wildfires. She also highlighted the heavy impacts the drought had on the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, where an agriculture-dependent economy has been challenged by shortages.
Tribal leaders advocated for greater acknowledgement and respect for tribal sovereignty. Darryl Vigil, water administrator of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, urged the federal government to formalize a process for tribal participation in water negotiations.
“We have experience and knowledge developed over many hundreds of years of sustainable and adaptive living,” Vigil said. “We understand the importance of honoring the very things that keep us alive, that feed us and quench our thirst.”
He explained that tribes have senior water rights to at least 25% of the current natural flow of the Colorado River, and said they have historically been “excluded from decision-making or consulted” only after decisions have been made.
“It is my sincere hope that the attention and action of this committee represents the beginning of a new chapter in the management of the Colorado River,” Vigil said. “A chapter in which tribes are treated with the same dignity, respect and responsibility as the other sovereigns in the basin.”
Amelia Flores, chairwoman of the Colorado Indian River Tribes, emphasized the need for new water infrastructure that would allow tribes to use it more efficiently. That group is Arizona’s largest single user of water from the Colorado river – but is unable to use its full allocation. Flores highlighted proposed legislation that would allow the tribes to lease water to other users.
A Colorado water seminar always had climatechange on the agenda, but the tone was different this year, more alarmed, more worried, if still optimistic
What a flip-flop from 2001. We were going to war in Afghanistan, worrying about terrorists in our midst, and anthrax arriving in the mail.
The reservoirs of the Colorado River were close to full.
At the time I had given little thought to climate change, other than to be somewhat skeptical about the alarm. That changed in 2003, when I was given an assignment by the editor of Ski Area Management to round up what was being said. I read a year’s worth of articles in the New York Times and then—my eyes widened considerably—set out to find much more. It has been front and center for me ever since.
Brad Udall also immersed himself in climate change beginning in 2003. He had been trying to preserve open space in Eagle County for a few years but then returned to the Front Range. There, he directed the Western Water Assessment in Boulder and, more recently, joined the staff of the Colorado State University Water Institute as a scholar and scientist. He has expertise in hydrology but also in crunching numbers.
Over the years, Udall has distinguished himself as an expert on the effects of the warming climate on the Colorado River. His most prominent insight was a paper published in 2017 by the prestigious journal Science. Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, who also was originally schooled in Boulder and I believe still has a cabin in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride, sifted through the data before concluding that at least a third of the reduced flows in the Colorado River should be attributed to heat, not reduced precipitation.
On Oct. 1, speaking to the Colorado River District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction remotely from Boulder, Udall described the strengthened evidence that half of the reduced flows could be explained by rising temperatures. He calls it aridification.
Much worse, he said, is yet to come.
Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, had introduced the session, using words of greater alarm than I had heard at the annual seminar—and I’ve attended most, in person or virtually, since the first session in 2003. He used the metaphor of a train wreck.
“For a decade or more, we have seen the train wreck slowly moving this way,” he reiterated afterwards when I spoke to him for a story published by Fresh Water News. “It has picked up speed pretty significantly in the last couple of years. The question is how do we avert the train wreck (from coming into our station).”
Mueller had described reduced flows and warm temperatures in the Yampa River as it flows through Steamboat Springs that have caused the river to be closed to recreation something like 8 of the last 14 years. There were fish kills in the Colorado River this year. He told of shortening ski seasons and warned lower-elevation ski areas may not make it in the future.
He had also told the audience in Grand Junction that adaptations to lower flows would be necessary. Farmer and ranchers might have to cut irrigation to marginal areas, forego low-income crops. He vowed that Front Range cities would have to conserve and not expect the Western Slope to bear the burden.
Climate change has never been a verboten word at River District seminars, even if this is from an area that elected Lauren Boebert to Congress. Udall, for example, has spoken at least three times in my memory and probably more.
This year’s outlook was different, less cautious, more worried. The tone was reflected in the seminar title: “Wake-Up Call on the Colorado River.”
National publications this summer brimmed with stories about the distress of the Colorado River, especially after the Bureau of Reclamation on Aug. 16 issued a shortage declaration. Arizona is most immediately affected, but this is huge for the five other basin states, including Colorado.
Mueller agreed with me when we talked by phone that none of what happened this year was surprising. Most people involved with the river saw it coming.
I remember talking with Udall in 2019 (for a story in Headwaters, the magazine), when something called the Drought Contingency Plan was completed. That agreement tightened the belt of Arizona but kicked the fundamental decisions down the road to a plan projected to be implemented in 2026. Udall was skeptical that the emergency would be that slow to arrive.
Now there’s an awareness in the public of the brittleness of the hydraulic empire created in the 20th century in Southwest states, including Colorado. A decade, ago, there was hope that some big snow years like we had in the ‘80s and ‘90s would fill the reservoirs. We’ve had some big snow years, but the runoff doesn’t show it.
Now, one major question is whether they will go so low as to make it impossible to generate electricity.
I asked Mueller about his remarks, the tone of this year’s session. “The tone has to reflect the reality on the ground,” he said.
“I think at every level our folks who are paying attention to the science and the hydrology, there is an increasing sense of urgency in the Colorado River Basin, and it’s shared by folks on the ground today, from ranchers in the Yampa River Valley to farmers in the Uncompahgre Valley to major urban providers like Denver Water. We all recognize there is something very different going on than there was 10 years ago in the Colorado River,” he said.
“People like Brad have been saying for years that this is coming. I have seen lots of people in power turn their backs to Brad when he’s talking,” he said, likely meaning that metaphorically. “They’re not doing that so much anymore.”
What is happening is complex but understandable. There is drought, as conventionally understood, but then the overlay of higher temperatures. The warmer temperatures cause more evaporation. They cause more transpiration from plants. More precipitation can overcome this, but particularly in Southern Colorado, there’s actually been less.
The most interesting slide Udall showed compared the runoff of several rivers over time. The San Juan River—which originates in Colorado, near Pagosa Springs—had 30% less water in 2000-2019 at Bluff, Utah, as compared to 1906-1999. The decline of the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs was 6%.
Another compelling statistic reported during the seminar was about soil moisture. Dry soil sops up snowmelt before it can get to the stream. Runoff from deep snows can be lost to the previous years’ dry soils.
In 2020, the snowpack was 100% but the runoff was 50%. That soil-moisture deficit played into this year’s even worse runoff, 30% of average from a snowpack that was 90% of average.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation during the Trump years operated well, although I do remember a session at the Colorado River Water Users Association in December 2019 of top Trump water officials who sat on a panel and patted themselves on the back for the better part of an hour, seemingly oblivious to the big issue of that day. It was like the famous Trump cabinet meeting where the cabinet heads took turns praising Trump like he was the North Korean dictator.
Udall, in his presentation to the River District seminar, pointed to the tremendous drop in storage. The two giant reservoirs, Mead and Powell, in January 2020 were 90% full and held 47 million acre-feet. They are projected to fall to 15 million acre-feet combined by April 22, leaving them 30% full.
This has manifold implications—including for Colorado. In 2009, I wrote my first story about Colorado’s possible need to curtail diversions in order to comply with the Colorado River Compact. That possibility is far more concrete now, and Udall mentioned it in his presentation.
But even when it was more remote, water managers in Colorado were talking about various programs that could allow cities to pay farmers and ranchers, especially on the Western Slope, to use their water (for a price, of course). The farmers and ranchers tend to have the oldest and most senior water rights; the cities tend to have the more junior rights – almost exclusively junior to the Colorado River Compact.
Looking around me on the Front Range, I don’t see a response that I think the situation justifies. From Pueblo to Fort Collins, we all depend greatly upon imported water. That will almost certainly change. We’re going to see a very different water paradigm a decade from now. Predicting the changes is beyond me, but the water in the 21st century isn’t there to satisfy 20th century expectations.
There may be implications in other realms. I am reminded what Colorado State Sen. Chris Hansen said at a fundraiser this summer, about the growing room for new alliances with conservatives to move forward on climate action. The evidence—wildfires, heat waves, the drying of the Colorado River – is becoming overwhelming.
Visiting Greeley to attend the Energy and Environmental Leadership Symposium on Oct 8-9, I was struck by the shift. This is in Weld County, where 90% of oil and gas production occurs in Colorado. The keynote speaker, Chris Wright, the chief executive of Liberty Oilfield Services, downplayed the risks and costs of climate change and emphasized the cost of trying to shift from fossil fuels. This will be a 200-year journey, he said, not something done in 30 years.
But for the next day and a half, whether talking about fossil fuels or renewables, all the sessions in some way had to do with a carbon-constrained world.
To modify Mueller’s cliché about the train, it seems like the train has left the station on this energy transition and it’s picking up speed. This train will have to move a lot quicker. Just what value will those giant reservoirs built during the 20th century on the Colorado River have in the 21st century? It’s an open question.
This stretch of the South Platte and its world-class fishing have been damaged by floods, but borrowed root wads and other material could repair and protect it for years to come
Situated at 8,700-feet elevation in one of the largest plateau basins in North America, cradled by hills with snow-dusted peaks in the distance, this stretch of the South Platte owes its reputation to a combination of circumstances that create ideal habitat for fish — largely brown and rainbow trout but also species like kokanee salmon. They not only breed in sustainable numbers but also live long and grow to eye-popping sizes.
The stretch of river meanders through easily accessible flatlands between two reservoirs, Spinney Mountain to the northwest and Eleven Mile to the southeast, for three miles as the crow flies, though anglers walk its winding path for closer to five miles. But multiple floods over the past several years have chipped away at the banks and vegetation that provided safe harbor and attractive spawning grounds for the fish, threatening the optimal conditions.
Last month, Colorado Parks and Wildlife workers launched a project to restore the banks of this picturesque and prolific fishery in South Park, about 45 minutes west of Colorado Springs. And in a unique twist, the project was linked with another several miles away, focused on improving habitat for elk and mule deer.
Matt Kondratieff, aquatic researcher and stream restoration manager, already had done significant restoration on the Dream Stream back in 2013, but the project took a major hit months after its 2015 completion when a major flood ripped through the river and undid much of the work…
This wasn’t just any stretch of river. The Dream Stream ranks in the highest tier of Colorado fisheries, called Gold Medal waters. Those areas can produce 60 pounds of trout per acre, including a dozen that measure 14 inches or larger. Of the state’s roughly 9,000 miles of trout streams, only 322 miles meet those criteria — and this section of the South Platte exceeds the standards significantly.
“When we look at the Dream Stream numbers, the number of pounds per acre, we are 4.25 times the Gold Medal standards for biomass,” says Tyler Swarr, a CPW aquatic biologist whose territory includes the waterway. “And we’re almost five times the Gold Medal standard for the number of quality trout. So it’s a very robust fishery — really phenomenal, especially the brown trout population.”
The portion of the river that connects Spinney and Eleven Mile reservoirs now lies within what since 2010 has been known as the Charlie Meyers State Wildlife Area, named for the longtime Denver Post outdoors writer whose combination of eloquence and policy-minded conservation advocacy defined Colorado’s landscape. A memorial near the parking area celebrates Meyers, who died at 72 of complications from lung cancer…
Reality behind the dream
It may fly-fish like a dream, but there are plenty of reasons — both biological and hydrological — for this waterway’s abundance.
Start with Eleven Mile Reservoir, built in 1970. Lake species like brown and rainbow trout do well in the deep (more than 100 feet) and cool habitat, where they remain largely safe from predators and reside for most of the year — until it’s time to spawn. Then, they head upriver into the South Platte, where undercut banks provide further refuge while they pursue their journey to deposit their eggs in the river’s riffle habitat.
Riffles are generally shallower, faster parts of a stream where protruding rocks churn and oxygenate the water — which in turn aids water-dwelling insects, which become a current-driven buffet for fish. The gravel beneath provides the ideal repository for trout eggs.
Spinney Mountain Reservoir formally opened in 1982, providing a bookend to a remarkable ecosystem. The standing water of Spinney, plus gravity, creates groundwater movement that eventually rises into the Dream Stream from below — and the gentle upwelling provides prime conditions for trout eggs.
Too much sediment in a stream can smother them, but the rising water essentially cleans the gravel where the eggs lie and tumbles them in oxygen to enhance their development. Hatcheries replicate that natural water movement.
But as flooding washed away the river banks, once-prime spawning areas began accumulating fine sediment that hindered egg development. Left unrepaired, the stream would continually widen and become shallower. Water temperature would rise — a detriment to cold-water species like trout — and crucial hiding spots would disappear, exposing fish to predators from above…
Since water is released into the South Platte from the depths of Spinney, not the surface, the temperature remains hospitably cool, even in the heat of summer…
While Spinney also provides water to Aurora, the city has been accommodating in scheduling releases so that they don’t impact fish health or spawning — especially for the large population of browns in the area, notes John Davenport, chapter president for Denver Trout Unlimited.
“The way it has been managed and improved,” he says, “and with Aurora such a good partner to keep water flowing and take into consideration fish health, those fish grow large. If you’re not from Colorado, the Dream Stream will look nothing like your preconceptions. This is a meandering stream through flat, dry, sagebrush desert. It’s more like you’re on the plains than into the mountains. But as soon as visiting fishermen hook into big fish, they forget all about that.”
An unusual repair project
When Matt Kondratieff started formulating a plan for restoring the Dream Stream, he huddled with the project’s primary architects: CPW engineers, aquatic researchers and biologists Swarr and Spohn — people with decades of experience in the watershed.
He also consulted with several outfitters and anglers — including Landon Mayer — to fine tune the plans…
The project’s primary goal was to repair damage resulting from record high runoff in 2015, and two years later from a storm cell over the drainage that produced flash flooding. The use of toewood — a technique that employs submerged wood to reinforce the stream bank — would be augmented by other materials like cobble (basically rocks ranging from baseball- to basketball-size), large gravel and sod transferred from upland areas.
The area has a history of periodic flooding, often from localized storms that drench the region. One particularly freak storm just a few years ago dumped 3 inches of rain in less than an hour. Then rain turned to heavy hail and triggered a wall of water estimated at 10 feet high on the river.
What made the Dream Stream project unusual is that it fed off another CPW land management effort several miles away to enhance habitat for elk and mule deer. As the proliferation of mature conifer trees began to crowd out stands of aspen, a favored food source, crews worked in the James Mark Jones State Wildlife Area to thin the conifer.
“Bottom line,” Kondratieff says, “we needed large trees with root wads. So they figured out where there was overcrowding, took those trees and trucked them down. We used the root wad with the stem to weave into the banks, leaving root wads toward the channel, which creates complex habitat trout love.”
In all, workers moved nearly 60 15-foot tall trees, root wads still in place, four that measured 35 feet, plus 102 logs and more than 200 cubic yards of slash. Those elements were woven into the banks, while 15 tons of rock and boulders were strategically placed to enhance riffles…
By repairing the Dream Stream’s banks, CPW also aims to maintain a narrower channel that will effectively transport the fine sediment that can threaten egg-laying areas farther down the river to the next reservoir…
CPW research has determined that adding in-stream wood more than doubles trout abundance, as the root wads in particular provide cover for the fish to avoid predators, Swarr explains. Aside from anglers, the fish also must be wary of predatory birds that patrol the area, including eagles, herons, pelicans and osprey.
The project was funded largely by insurance money from the 2015 flood — about $60,000 — along with about $40,000 from CPW’s capital construction fund. Swarr estimates that to pay a private contractor for the work would have cost about $1.2 million compared to a little over $100,000 that it cost CPW to keep the work in-house, source materials on its own and combine it with the work on the department’s high-country project…
The heavy equipment required for the bank repair work is gone, but tracks remain as lingering evidence of the short-term disruption of the Dream Stream. Although plant life requires time to take hold and flourish — it could be a decade before it matures — the fish adapt quickly to the changes. Often it takes only days or weeks for them to adjust to the river’s new design, to discover new safe havens and food-rich riffles.
Spinney Mountain Reservoir
Managed flows along the South Platte River in Eleven Mile Canyon have helped rainbow trout eggs and young fish survive during spring runoff.