In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Friday, April 9th, starting 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).
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.
City of Steamboat Springs officials know the municipality’s primary fresh water supply is increasingly at risk from potential wildfire danger in the Fish Creek watershed, so work will continue this summer to boost water supply redundancy.
The city along with Mount Werner Water District are proceeding with construction of enhanced and expanded “infiltration galleries,” or shallow wells that are filled by ground water near the Yampa River, to increase the volume of secondary water supply intake. Water collected through the Yampa well field, which is located near where Walton Creek meets the Yampa River, is piped to the nearby Yampa Water Treatment Plant
Frank Alfone, water district general manager, said the district’s work should be complete by Dec. 1 for a third shallow well and new raw water transmission line located about a quarter mile south of the district’s two existing wells. The additional well will push intake capacity for 2022 from 1.8 million gallons per day to 2.8 million.
The Yampa Water Treatment Plant, built in 1972, has about half the capacity of the primary Fish Creek Filtration Plant. The Yampa plant was updated in 2018 to be able to process more gallons per day and is used primarily to process water for the outdoor watering season from June through September, Alfone said.
Kelly Romero-Heaney, city water resources manager, said the city will open up bids in 2022 for construction of four additional Yampa River shallow wells to increase the overall intake capacity in the location to 3.5 million gallons per day, which would be available by 2023.
The secondary water intake improvements are part of the city’s updated Water Supply Master Plan, completed in 2019, and a key component of the overall supply plan is the updated Water Conservation Plan approved in May, Romero-Heaney said. The goal of the 10-year Water Conservation Plan is to reduce the amount of water used per household by 10%…
[Romero-Heaney] said the city accomplished six key water conservation measures in 2020. Steamboat Springs City Council and the district adopted regulations that permanently limit outdoor watering to between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. three days per week based on the last digit of a street address. The city replaced 619 feet of aging and possibly leaking water lines, fixed five water main breaks and replaced irrigated sod in front of City Hall with a low water use demonstration garden.
The city updated the water distribution infrastructure master plan to prioritize water line replacements to mitigate leaks and water loss…
The updated conservation plan, posted on the city’s Water Conservation webpage, notes the city is actively engaged in meeting a variety of challenges to ensure a reliable water supply. Those challenges include drought, wildfire, need for more water treatment capacity, uncertainty of Colorado River Compact call, aging infrastructure, low flows in Fish Creek, growth in the west Steamboat Springs area and the uncertainty of climate change that has increased the statewide annual average temperatures by 2.5 degrees through the past 50 years…
The plan looks to preserve the health of Fish Creek and the Yampa River and protect drinking water supplies while reducing the use of chemicals and the energy intensive carbon footprint of treating fresh water and waste water. The plan also factors in the water requirements of the estimated 400,000 to 500,000 visitors to the city each year.
Steamboat’s primary source of treated water comes from snowmelt from the 22-square-mile Fish Creek watershed. Those supplies are stored in Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoirs and treated at the Fish Creek Filtration Plant.
Questions about the water conservation plan can be emailed to email@example.com.
Unrelenting drought and years of rising temperatures due to climate change are pushing the long-overallocated Colorado River into new territory, setting the stage for the largest mandatory water cutbacks to date.
Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir on the river, has declined dramatically over the past two decades and now stands at just 40% of its full capacity. This summer, it’s projected to fall to the lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s following the construction of Hoover Dam.
The reservoir near Las Vegas is approaching a threshold that is expected to trigger a first-ever shortage declaration by the federal government for next year, leading to substantial cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
Arizona is in line for the biggest reductions under a 2019 agreement that aims to reduce the risks of Lake Mead falling to critical lows.
The river has been slipping closer to a shortage for years, and the drought has deepened over the past year, shrinking the flow of streams that feed the river in its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains. The soils across the watershed remain parched and will soak up some of the melting snow this spring and summer. The amount of water that flows into Lake Powell at the Utah-Arizona state line over the next four months is projected to be only about 45% of the long-term average and among the lowest totals in years.
April 1, 2021 streamflow forecast Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Legend for streamflow forecast.
With the reservoirs continuing to drop, the expected cuts next year will reduce the Central Arizona Project’s water supply by nearly a third…
Managers of Arizona’s water agencies say they have detailed plans in place to deal with the reductions in water supplies over the next five years, even if the drought continues to worsen. These initial steps to cope with shortages are playing out while the seven states that depend on the river prepare for difficult talks on post-2026 rules, negotiating a plan for adapting to a river that’s yielding less as the watershed grows progressively warmer with climate change…
Officials who manage Arizona’s 336-mile Central Arizona Project Canal, which runs from Lake Havasu to Tucson, have known since plans were first drawn up for the system that they hold the lowest priority and could face cuts in a shortage…
Representatives of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin signed the set of agreements known as the Drought Contingency Plan nearly three years ago in a ceremony at Hoover Dam. Under one of the agreements, Arizona and Nevada agreed to take the first cuts to help prop up the level of Lake Mead, while California would participate at lower shortage levels if the reservoir continues to fall.
Under a separate deal, Mexico agreed to help by leaving some of its water in Lake Mead.
The deals lay out shortage tiers based on Mead’s levels. The federal government’s latest projections show the lake level will sit below the threshold elevation of 1,075 feet at the beginning ofnext year, triggering what’s called a Tier One shortage.
For Arizona, that means a cut of 512,000 acre-feet or about a third of the CAP’s supply…
The Colorado River’s flow has shrunk during one of the driest 22-year periods in centuries. Scientists say the West is experiencing a megadrought and one that’s worsened by humanity’s heating of the planet.
The drought over the past year has hit especially hard in the Colorado River watershed. Last spring and summer, months of extreme heat combined with the lack of monsoon rains baked the soils dry and shrank the amount of runoff, sapping the river and its tributaries.
This winter, the storms that rolled across the Rockies brought some snow, but not nearly enough to brighten the picture. The snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin now stands at 75% of the median for this time of year…
The upshot, as climate researcher Jeff Lukas puts it, is that “the exceptionally low soil moisture will turn a blah snowpack into a terrible runoff year.”
The effects will ripple downstream to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which hold supplies for cities, farming districts and tribes across the Southwest.
The country’s two largest reservoirs are both headed for record lows. The last time Lake Mead reached a record low level was in 2016. The latest projections from the federal Bureau of Reclamation show Mead could fall below that mark as soon as July. Lake Powell is now just 36% full, and estimates show it could decline to a record low around March 2022.
A federal judge has thrown out a legal action from multiple environmental organizations seeking to halt the expansion of a key Denver Water storage facility, citing no legal authority to address the challenge.
“This decision is an important step,” said Todd Hartman, a spokesperson for Denver Water. “We will continue working earnestly through Boulder’s land-use process and look forward to beginning work on a project critical to water security for 1½ million people and to our many partners on the West Slope and Front Range.”
The expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County is intended to provide additional water storage and safeguard against future shortfalls during droughts. The utility currently serves customers in Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Douglas and Adams counties. In July 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its approval for the design and construction of the reservoir’s expansion. The project would add 77,000 acre-feet of water storage and 131 feet to the dam’s height for the utility’s “North System” of water delivery.
FERC’s approval was necessary because Denver Water has a hydropower license through the agency, and it provided the utility with a two-year window to start construction.
A coalition of environmental groups filed a petition in U.S. District Court for Colorado against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking to rescind those agencies’ previous authorizations for the project. They argued the agencies inadequately considered the environmental impact of expansion…
…Denver Water pointed out that under federal law, appellate courts, not district-level trial courts, are responsible for hearing challenges to FERC approvals. By challenging the environmental review process that led to the project’s go-ahead, the government argued, the environmental organizations raised issues “inescapably intertwined with FERC’s licensing process.”
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Christine M. Arguello agreed that the groups’ challenge was indeed wrapped up in the FERC approval.
“[W]here a party does not challenge a FERC order itself, but challenges another agency order that is inextricably linked to the FERC order, the FPA’s exclusive-jurisdiction provision applies and precludes this Court from exercising jurisdiction,” she wrote in dismissing the case.
The Daily Camera reports that Boulder County’s approval is the final step for the expansion project.
Click here for all the inside skinny from Northern Water:
Spring Water Users Meeting
Tuesday, April 6, 2021, 8 a.m. to noon, virtual meeting via Zoom
Each spring Northern Water meets with Colorado-Big Thompson Project allottees and water users to preview the upcoming water delivery and irrigation season, learn about current water and snowpack conditions, runoff and streamflow predictions, progress on future water projects and more. After a discussion of the region’s water outlook, attendees will be able to offer input about the 2021 C-BT quota. This year, attendees also will be able to learn about project updates, as well as Northern Water’s response to the East Troublesome fire in Grand County.
A link to the Zoom meeting will be distributed in the days before the session to those who register.
I do want to clarify a couple of the statements made by people quoted in his article. I think that it is important to point out that the Windy Gap Connectivity Channel is not a drainage ditch, as John Fielder was quoted saying. Instead it is a multi-million-dollar stream channel designed by hydrologists and stream biologists to optimize habitat for macroinvertebrate and trout life and the riparian zone on both sides of the river.
The existing stream channel is at the bottom of a muddy reservoir with no ability to sustain any of these environmental values. A new stream channel around the reservoir will reconnect the disappearing aquatic species below the dam with the healthy species above the reservoir. When Fielder states that this new stream reach will not restore wildlife, he could not be more wrong.
The article ended with quotes from Gary Wockner that I feel need a reality check. His suggested solutions to Colorado’s water shortage should be taken with a grain of salt.
His first suggestion was to dry up agricultural land. Doing so has played a major role in damaging the Fraser and Upper Colorado rivers. Ranches that used to divert water from those rivers returned most of that water to those rivers. When Front Range cities bought that agricultural water and took it from the basin of origin to those cities, all of those return flows were lost to the river.
“Buy and Dry” has been bad for our headwaters rivers and for our cultural heritage of ranching. My friends in the ranching business don’t need the target put on their back, and our rivers can’t afford to lose any more return flows.
Gary also proposed ramping up conservation as an important solution to our water shortage. While I applaud this idea, I also know that it is only a piece of the puzzle in the water shortage problem. Every city in the West knows how important of a role conservation plays, and every city in the West has concluded that conservation will not solve their water shortage problems alone.
Conservation, however, is under-utilized here in Colorado and we do need to pick up the pace to help preserve our rivers and the environment that depends on them. We just can’t rely on conservation alone.
Gary’s final point was to stop all growth, stating that he will applaud the sanity of anyone that can accomplish this. I don’t find much reality in this possibility, but if he feels that there is, then I would like to see him use his talents to work toward that goal. This would allow him to work on solving most of Colorado’s problems with the exception maybe of the economy.
There are no easy answers to water issues in the West. We have to consider all possible solutions and avoid the trap of single-minded thinking. Protecting our rivers will require cooperation from every entity that has an impact on our rivers.
This is the reason that Colorado wrote a state Water Plan. If we allow that plan to guide us, conservation organizations, municipalities and the agricultural community will work together to assure that water is distributed equitably. If we decide instead to fight each other over water, all of us will come out losing.
Kirk Klancke is the president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, “an environmental organization with lots of members who like to fish.”
Last summer, the Aspen Global Change Institute’s first subalpine soil-moisture and snowpack-monitoring station began transmitting live data to researchers, stakeholders and the Aspen water department.
The station, which sits at 11,500 feet on Cooper Basin Road near the edge of the Castle Creek watershed, tracks soil moisture at multiple depths; soil temperature; snow depth; wind speed and direction; air temperature; humidity; and radiative balance. That data is made available online in real time.
“The new station fills a gap in that there wasn’t information being measured at that elevation,” AGCI research director Julie Vano said recently.
AGCI now has 10 stations covering the major elevation zones and ecosystems present in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The stations, known as the Interactive Roaring Fork Observation Network (iRON), gather data on soil-moisture levels, which are key but understudied variables in streamflow forecasting. In the 2020 Western Water Assessment report for the Colorado River upper and lower basins, scientists emphasized that surface soil-moisture data — critical for streamflow forecasting and for monitoring the impacts of climate change on the hydrologic cycle — was sparse.
Gathering data at all elevations throughout the Roaring Fork Valley provides scientists with a localized, clearer picture of how climate change is impacting the hydrologic cycle at the Colorado basin’s headwaters. The study of headwater areas is important because 15% of the upper and lower basins’ surface area — primarily the high mountains of the Western Slope, but also spanning mountainous areas in Utah and Wyoming — provides 85% of total annual runoff into the Colorado River.
A storehouse of data
The AGCI network gives scientists the opportunity to study how elevation and varying ecosystems shape soil-moisture retention.
“People who live in the mountains know that everything varies a lot in a pretty small geographic distance,” said AGCI community science manager Elise Osenga. “You’ll have changes in soil type, changes in plants, even changes in rainfall from one mile to the next mile over.”
As the network continues to accumulate data, it will create a local picture of climate change’s impacts on the water cycle. Throughout the upper basin, scientists have shown that snowmelt and runoff are occurring earlier than they did between 1950 and 2000. Every degree Fahrenheit of warming is expected to reduce upper-basin runoff by between 2-6%. Having a data record for a specific basin will give these impacts a local focus, Vano said.
Since 2015, AGCI staffers have been submitting their data to international hydrologic and soil-moisture databases.
“Since we started sharing, over 1,800 requests for our data have been made,” Osenga said.
The AGCI is working to create partnerships with other soil-moisture monitoring basins and research institutions across the West to share data, allowing for future hydrologic studies involving intrabasin comparisons.
“Nothing is fully underway just yet,” Osenga said.
Determining climate-change trends via iRON data will take time to develop. The first iRON station was created in 2012. Of the 10, six have been installed since 2015. As the length of the record grows, it will become increasingly easier to detect climate change trends, Vano said.
Adding to the uncertainty, the Colorado River basin has been in an extended dry period marked by frequent droughts since 2000, marking “the driest 21-year period in the Colorado River basin in more than 100 years of record keeping and one of the driest in the past 1,200,” according to a 2021 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation report on water-supply security.
“We have really short data records, and those data records exist within an already really dry period,” Osenga said of iRON.
So, in order to gain an understanding of soil moisture in the Roaring Fork Valley, data from future potentially droughtless years is needed, Osenga said.
While drought is predicted to become more frequent and intense in the future, it is less clear how precipitation trends — which are the greatest drivers of soil moisture — will take shape. Some models indicate that precipitation could increase in the upper basin in the coming decade, which would reshape iRON’s soil-moisture data, Osenga said.
Don’t be so predictable
While long-term trends from the Roaring Fork data remain ambiguous, yearly data provides useful insights for the Aspen water department in predicting spring- and summer-streamflow conditions.
“When I’m not in meetings and other obligations, I’m constantly looking at data,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager for the city of Aspen.
To better predict spring streamflow, Hunter checks weather and snowpack data from national organizations such as the U.S. Geological Service and the National Resource Conservation Service. Hunter frequently checks data from the NRCS Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) sites in the Roaring Fork watershed. The SNOTEL site at Independence Pass is closest to Castle Creek, which provides the majority of Aspen’s water, Hunter said. On Wednesday, the snow-water equivalent measured at Independence Pass was at 13.8 inches, which is 91% of average, calculated from data from 1981 to 2010. Snow depth, which is different from SWE, at Independence Pass was at 52 inches. At the Castle Creek iRON station, snow depth was at 53 inches.
Hunter also tracks the information coming from iRON. Soil-moisture data ends in the fall, when frozen water begins accumulating on the soil as snow. In the fall of 2020, seven of nine stations had the lowest levels of soil moisture on iRON station record, said Osenga. (The Castle Creek iRON station was not included in analysis.) Of the two with higher water levels than prior years, one station is in an irrigated area, providing an artificial boost to moisture levels, Osenga said.
Dry fall soil conditions mean that as snow begins to melt this spring, more water will soak in — and be absorbed by plants and the atmosphere — before running into local creeks and rivers, Osenga said.
Hunter is holding out hope that more stormy weather could give the snowpack the boost it needs for adequate streamflow this spring and summer.
“We’re just hoping we get a lot of snow and then liquid precipitation in the spring,” said Hunter.
Deciding what’s important
While the AGCI plans on expanding its reach through collaborations, the organization does not plan to add more iRON sites in the near future. Each site has been funded by a combination of partners, including private organizations, government entities and educational interests.
“It’s supported by the community, which is really amazing,” Vano said of iRON. “You don’t see that often in the world of science. So, the community is really deciding that understanding these changes is really important.”
This story ran in the March 26 edition of The Aspen Times.
They snowshoed through a campground hidden under soft drifts, stepped carefully to the banks of the Middle Fork of the Williams Fork River, then broke the ice to find free-flowing water.
Nick Riney and Tyler Torelli worked efficiently, dipping a long-poled scoop into the waterway and filling several pint-sized plastic bottles with samples of the cold, clear stream.
Sturdy even in finger-pinching cold, the two set up a make-shift lab on the back end of the Sno-Cat, pulled equipment out of chubby metal suitcases and ran field tests right on the spot. Twenty degrees and snowfall aren’t the ideal working conditions for most, but these guys consider it a “pretty good office” all the same.
And their work on a mid-February day in Grand County gave Denver Water’s Water Quality Operations team an early look at how last summer’s Williams Fork Fire, which burned nearly 15,000 acres northeast of Silverthorne, might have affected the water flowing through the area.
See and hear what’s required to do this work:
By sampling water as it pours through the mountains, long before it reaches any reservoirs or treatment plants, Denver Water can understand what’s happening on the landscape. Samples that veer from typical readings could indicate unexpected pollution, echoes of old mining activity or, increasingly, the impacts of forest fires.
Understanding those impacts helps prepare water quality experts for potential impacts to reservoirs or treatment processes.
The field test results came back in a healthy range, with no indication yet that a significant amount of sediment left by the summer of record fires in Colorado had ended up in the water.
“That’ll change,” Riney said, as the winter turns to spring and melting snow and monsoons more readily pull soil and ash from the scorched hillsides to the east of the tributary.
“But right now, this water is clean. Turbidity is low. We like to see that,” he said. “We’ll keep tracking these spots every month and try to understand just how much damage this fire did to the landscape.”
To be sure, the burned lands around the Williams Fork River don’t present a risk to Denver’s drinking water, primarily because this water travels to an “exchange” reservoir, where it will be sent down the Colorado River to make up for other West Slope water that is diverted to the Front Range.
Even so, understanding the impacts of the fire on water quality is important, allowing Denver Water and its partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, to take steps to prepare for, and reduce, those effects.
Denver Water recently began making monthly treks to this high-country stream to monitor a wetland protection project nearby. The utility has long made quarterly trips to the area as part of its broader field-testing program to track water quality across its mountain watershed.
To collect samples from the Middle Fork stream, Riney and Torelli towed a Sno-Cat up and over Ute Pass Road off Highway 9, turned south in County Road 30 and went to work near Sugarloaf Campground.
“This sampling work keeps us well attuned to what’s happening in our watershed and can at times serve as an early warning for issues we may need to be watching out for further downstream,” said James Berrier, water quality monitoring supervisor at Denver Water. “We want to understand, is this just a temporary issue or something that could have a longer-term impact?”
Sampling teams measure for an array on indicators. In the field, they look at temperature, pH (which measures acidity), conductivity (which helps determine salt levels), turbidity and dissolved oxygen, which is an important factor for aquatic life.
Other water samples are transported back to Denver Water’s laboratory at the Marston Treatment Plant in southwest Denver (which will be moving in the future to its new home at Denver’s emerging National Western Center). Tests there include measuring for fluoride, chloride, nitrates, E. coli, nutrients and dissolved metal.
Samples collected a few months from now may shed light on how much damage the Williams Fork fire did to the land.
Burn levels also can show up in water quality, through indicators such as ash, sediment, metals and other signatures.
“Soil erosion modelling predicts that post-fire erosion rates are generally very low (close to pre-fire conditions) in areas with minimal fire impacts on ground cover and soils. However, rates of erosion increase dramatically … in moderate and high soil burn severity areas, especially on steeper slopes,” according to the response team’s December 2020 assessment.
Denver Water has already accumulated significant expertise and partnerships related to wildfire impacts. Collaborative efforts include From Forests to Faucets, a team approach from Denver Water, the Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Colorado State Forest Service.
These agencies, together with local groups, address overgrown forests on the front end with tree-thinning projects and repairing landscapes damaged by the kind of intense fires that dramatically slow the recovery of soils and vegetation.
“We have experience, unfortunately, with the havoc that wildfires and their aftermath can wreak on our water quality,” Berrier said, referencing major fires in the late 1990s and early 2000s that put enormous strain on reservoirs and treatment on the south end of Denver Water’s collection system, challenges that the utility is still working to overcome today.
“Tracking impacts to the water once the fires are out is a key step in getting our arms around what might be in store in the years to come.”
One of the wetter spots in Colorado, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, is east over the mountains from Steamboat Springs in Larimer County.
Much of that county is in the lowest level of drought, called “abnormally dry,” thanks in part to historic snowfalls on the Front Range earlier this month. If Larimer County is dry, the trek west to Routt County — through part of the state that saw several record wildfires in 2020 — might test which drought-related adjectives apply.
The drought monitor goes with “extreme” and “exceptional” to describe drought conditions in Routt County. Most of the Western Slope is looking at a similar situation, with the western third of Colorado being shades of ruby red and maroon on the latest map released by drought officials last Thursday.
After having a call put on it for the second time in three years in 2020, state water officials are now considering whether the Yampa River has enough water to fulfill rights held by people downstream of Steamboat Springs. What is most concerning to officials isn’t just the low amount of snow seen this winter, but also how dry the ground was before it started falling.
In the Yampa and White River Basins in Northwest Colorado, the snowpack is about 87% of average in terms of snow water equivalent, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, but there isn’t much snow forecasted for the next few weeks, and the average peak in the snowpack generally comes around April 10…
Rain is key at maintaining soil moisture, Romero-Heaney said. Because the soil was so dry last fall, she anticipates a lot of the melting snow will be soaked up and water runoff will be lower than normal.
This means stream flows will be lower, likely requiring release of water from Stagecoach Reservoir to support the health of the Yampa River later in the season. Romero-Heaney said more often then not, since 2013, they have needed to release water into the Yampa.
If enough of that spring and summer rain does not come, Romero-Heaney said the valley could see a summer much like the last, and “we start to run out of water for all the uses in the basin.”
Municipal customers running out of water is not a concern at this point. Whether there will be enough water for all the agricultural uses in the basin while also keeping the river healthy is in question though, Romero-Heaney said…
Despite lower snow totals, Andy Rossi, general manager at the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said he anticipates they will be able to fill Stagecoach Reservoir this year. That said, Rossi is not expecting to be able to fill Yamcolo Reservoir, which is primarily used for agriculture…
In repeated dry years, it can be increasingly hard to fully recover a reservoir until that streak ends, and there is a wetter year. In these dry years, potentially this summer, it can become difficult to meet the need of all the agricultural water diversions, Rossi said.
In 2018, Erin Light did something that had never before been done on the Yampa River downstream from Steamboat Springs. She placed a call.
As district water engineer, Light was responsible for administering Colorado’s complex matrix of water rights. Rights are ranked by date and volume, from earliest decreed and hence most senior to most recent and hence junior. A senior water-rights holder on the Yampa River at Lily Park, near the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, had called to say he was not getting the water decreed to that property for irrigation of the hay meadows.
The call she placed that summer lasted 21 days, causing the most junior of users upstream to cease diversions until that senior right was met. Then came another hot and dry summer in 2020, and she placed another call, this one lasting 9 days. It was a paradigm shift for the Yampa, a river that through the 20th century always had had enough water for anybody who wanted to dip a straw into it.
If foreign to the Yampa River, such calls have long been commonplace on Colorado rivers. The premise is water scarcity, the idea that there just isn’t enough water for all who want it, at least all the time.
Colorado’s hierarchy of seniors and juniors, older and younger, is commonly traced to the development of irrigation agriculture in the Poudre Valley between Fort Collins and Greeley. The Greeley irrigators were first, but then came new irrigators upstream near Fort Collins. In a drought year, their new diversions had an effect on what was available downstream. Within a decade, soon after Colorado became a state, the first calls were placed on that river.
It took little time for scarcity to be understood on all of Colorado’s rivers east of the Continental Divide. Scarcity was slower to be understood on the Western Slope, where there was more water and, even in the days of feverish gold- and silver-mining, fewer people. Yet over the decades, the Colorado and other rivers came to be fully appropriated.
The Yampa, though, stood alone among major rivers in Colorado in its relative plentitude. It routinely delivered water to all who wanted it. Even its reservoirs, modest in size, came relatively late in the 20th century, to help moderate flows.
The Yampa’s relative isolation played a role in this. It’s two mountain ranges distant from the Front Range, two significant fences to hop for Front Range cities and Great Plains farmers.
Climate also played a role. You can’t grow corn in the Yampa Valley with any reliability. You can grow hay, but the geography makes even that problematic.
Now that climate is shifting. Not enough to grow corn but enough to cause the Yampa to be marginally less robust and, as the 21st century has shown in 2018 and 2020, but also in other years before that, unable to deliver.
This has led to Light recommending that the Yampa be designated as “over-appropriated.” It’s a legal phrase that suggests something more odious than is actually the case. It sounds like the theater has been oversold and some people will be escorted from their seats to stand outside.
Over-appropriated doesn’t mean that. It does have implications for those wanting to drill large-capacity wells along the river. They must show the ability to deliver augmentation water, which is commonly purchased from an upstream reservoir. Most of Colorado’s rivers long ago were designated as over-appropriated.
Light wasn’t the district engineer in 2002, and only recently did the downstream irrigator near Dinosaur explain why he hadn’t demanded his water that summer and fall. He just didn’t have the heart to cause so much pain upstream in that year of scorching temperatures, forest fires, and meager winter snows eviscerated by spring winds.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence from Light were these statistics, drawn from the U.S. Geological Survey gaging station at Maybell, located along the Yampa River (and Highway 40), between Craig and Dinosaur National Monument. A century ago, the gauging station recorded an average annual 1.5 million acre-feet. That has declined to 1.1 million in the 21st century. And, of course, some years are worse, including one year in the last decade of 500,000 acre-feet.
At a recent meeting of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, a representative of Boulder County mentioned drought caused by climate change in support of regulations to control methane emissions. One of the AQCC commissioners, Randy Ahrens, of Broomfield, wanted to know why, if the ski areas could talk about what wonderful record-breaking snows we had, we could still be in drought.
In that question I think I heard some skepticism, perhaps a wondering whether enviros were just a little too chicken-littlish. It was a legitimate question, though.
I saw the answer during my three trips to the Yampa Valley in 2020. In early March I visited Steamboat and then Craig, seeing evidence of a big snow year, reminiscent of the winter and spring I had spent there in 1979. I got skilled that winter at chaining up my Ford Pinto in the dark during a snowstorm while crossing Rabbit Ears Pass.
But those heavy snows I saw in March 2020 soon disappeared in a warm, dry spring.
Kelly Romero-Heaney, the water resources manager for Steamboat Springs, laid it out for me. The snow-water equivalent—a measure of the snowpack—showed 116% of median on March 1. It was down to 69% by June 1.
Then came summer, hot and dry, a record in both categories during August against 130 years of measurements.
That heat and lack of precipitation, Romero-Heaney told me, drove a measure called the SPEI, or Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index. “The combination
of heat and lack of precipitation drove an SPEI figure that far exceeded drought years, such as 2002, 2012, and 2018,” she said.
Last August, when I returned again to explore the Little Snake River, it felt like an oven. Stopping for a sandwich in Steamboat on the return to the Front Range, it felt Denver hot. That afternoon I continued eastward across Cameron Pass then drove past Long Draw Reservoir and toward the headwaters of the Colorado River. A week later, it was afire.
That Cameron Peak Fire was still in advancing in early October when we returned to Craig a third time. It was a smoky time there—and everywhere.
On that October trip I drove up the Elk River northwest of Steamboat Springs to see Jay Fetcher. His ranch a few miles from Steamboat Lake had been his parents’ ranch when they arrived from Philadelphia in 1949 and he was a toddler. His parents had kept a record through their years of when the last snow disappeared from the meadow. His father died just a few years ago, a legend in Steamboat and beyond, partly because he was a co-founder of the ski area, but also because of his work in water.
Jay has continued the work of his parents, charting the withering of the winter snowpack. And the chart he gave me showed a clear progression toward earlier springs, particularly during the 21st century. There’ still great variability, but now more so. The “snow off meadow” date arrives an average one day earlier every five years. That means longer summers.
The story here is that last year was emblematic of what has been happening in the Yampa River. There’s no longer enough water for everybody who wants it all the time. It’s not because of additional new diversions, although there are some. But that does not tell the story. The longer, hotter summers may cause ranchers to divert more water to irrigate. That could be part of the story.
The largest story is of the warming weather, the shifting climate.
Light has submitted her proposal for over-appropriation to her boss, Kevin Rein, the state water engineer. In an interview, he had also chosen his words about climate change carefully. Approving this, he said, would not be a prediction of a climate to come, only a recognition that the hydrological balance has shifted.
Fair enough. But there’s the weight of evidence, almost crushing, that climate change has started playing a heavy hand in the Colorado River. There are the studies by Udall, et al, that point to the “hot drought” as the story, with roughly half the recorded declines due to temperature and not precipitation. There are, of course, the enduring images of the bathtub ring at Lake Mead. And there are the models that predict much more warmth is yet to come.
Climate change is not just the future. It’s here, it’s now. And from all available evidence, the climate scientists were too conservative in their predictions.
This was published in the March 18, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine. For a free subscription, go to http://BigPivots.com.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Sara Leonard):
On March 17, amended rules governing the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s (CWCB) Instream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program became effective.
The amended rules create additional tools and expand CWCB’s authority regarding temporary loans of water rights to the agency for instream flow use, including the ability to improve the natural environment, and allowing loans to be renewed for two additional 10-year periods, among other features.
The rule revisions implement Colorado House Bill 20-1157, sponsored by Senator Kerry Donovan and Representatives Dylan Roberts and Perry Will. On January 26, 2021, CWCB held a rulemaking hearing at which public comments were heard and the CWCB ultimately adopted the amendments to its existing rules.
“The CWCB staff is looking forward to working with the water community on both expedited and renewable loans, and appreciates having additional tools for protecting flows in Colorado’s streams,” said Linda Bassi, CWCB Stream and Lake Protection Section Chief.
A consultant working for the city of Aspen is presenting both new sources and storage as part of its water future.
Denver-based Carollo Engineers is working on Aspen’s Water Integrated Resource Plan, which aims to predict and plan for water needs through 2070.
A main goal of the plan is figuring out how to address what they say are potential future water shortages, especially in late summer under hotter and drier conditions fueled by climate change. Carollo expects to submit a final IRP with recommendations and a plan to implement them in late spring or early summer.
Engineers define a shortage as the inability to meet all water uses — potable, irrigation, goals for instream flow (ISF), and hydropower generation — at the same time. ISF water rights are held by the state of Colorado and set a requirement for minimum flows between specific points on a stream. They are aimed at improving the natural environment to a reasonable degree. The ISF for the creeks that provide Aspen’s municipal water is 14 cubic feet per second on Maroon Creek and 13.3 cfs on Castle Creek.
The city’s consultants calculated future water demands using the variables of population, occupancy rates, climate change, water-use efficiency and unmetered water use. They claim that Aspen’s future water demand for the next 50 years, depending on these variables, could be between 4,900 and 9,300 acre-feet per year, according to a slide show presented at a public engagement meeting March 3.
Consultants say they are planning for the worst and, instead of hoping for the best, making the IRP flexible and adaptable. The factors that, according to the consultants, would contribute to Aspen having 9,300 acre-feet of water demand would include a 3.6 degree (Celsius) increase in temperature due to climate change and an annual population increase of 1.8% by 2070, according to John Rehring, senior project manager and vice president of Carollo Engineers.
This demand forecast already includes conservation measures and drought restrictions, which would decrease indoor use by 2% and outdoor use by 5% to 15% by 2070.
Rehring said that even under stage-three drought restrictions limiting water use, his firm’s projections show future supply gaps.
For the past several years, Aspen’s water demands have hovered between about 4,000 and 5,000 acre-feet per year. A 2016 study by Wilson Water concluded that Aspen did not need any storage, although drought years could cause the creeks to dip below the ISF standard without more water conservation.
Looking for storage locations
In this month’s earlier public meeting, consultants presented six different portfolios for meeting a potential projected shortage. Five of the six — all except the current status quo — included storage as a component.
The city has identified five potential reservoir sites: the city golf course; the Maroon Creek Club golf course; Cozy Point open space; the Woody Creek gravel pit; and a 63-acre parcel of land next to the gravel pit. Officials believe water could be stored underground at some of these sites.
A map included in the presentation with city officials and Carollo representatives on March 3 included three new possible sites: the Aspen airport, Zoline Open Space and North Star Nature Preserve.
But Aspen Utilities Resource Manager Steve Hunter said it’s highly unlikely the city would pursue water storage at these locations. Hunter said they were included on the map because the consultant used a geographic information system (GIS) mapping tool to pick out large tracts of city-owned land that would be big enough to store water.
“The three are low if not off the list,” he said. “I don’t see the city pursuing any of these three.”
According to Hunter, Zoline is probably too small and the airport too fraught with logistical challenges. North Star is valued for its natural beauty and important riparian habitat, and building city water infrastructure there is something Hunter said won’t happen.
“I don’t ever see it happening in my lifetime due to the pushback they would get,” Hunter said. “I’m almost 100% confident that is not going to fly.”
The pushback to which Hunter is referring would be of the same sort Aspen faced when it attempted to hang onto conditional water rights to build dams and reservoirs in the Castle and Maroon valleys. The Maroon Creek Reservoir would have held 4,567 acre-feet of water and the Castle Creek Reservoir would have held 9,062 acre-feet of water.
After a lengthy water court battle in which 10 entities opposed the city’s plans, the city gave up its water rights, which date to 1965, in those particular locations. The final water court decree in the case granted Aspen the right to store up to 8,500 acre-feet from Castle and Maroon creeks combined.
Now that the Castle and Maroon valleys are out of the question, part of the IRP process is figuring out where the city should store the water granted by those conditional water rights.
Consultants are proposing two different storage pools: seasonal/operational and emergency.
The seasonal/operational pool would be used as a traditional reservoir to retime flows by capturing spring runoff and saving it for use later in the summer, when creek flows have dwindled but demands — especially outdoor watering — are still high.
Emergency storage would be left untouched most years and only tapped if there was a disaster such as a wildfire or a flood that made the city’s water sources temporarily unusable. The two pools could be combined in the same reservoir or stored in two different locations.
Diversified supply of water encouraged
Consultants are also working toward a recommendation that the city develop additional sources of water in order to protect supply.
The city takes nearly all its water from Castle Creek and some from Maroon Creek, which consultants say makes Aspen vulnerable to drought, wildfire or avalanches. In addition to storage, the portfolio options included combinations of new sources from groundwater wells, tapping the flows of Hunter Creek, reuse of wastewater and enhanced conservation measures.
“We see strength in diversity, when we diversify the supply sources,” Rehring said.
Each of the six portfolios were ranked based on six criteria: supply availability; supply resilience; community and environmental benefits; affordability; ease of implementation; and ease of operations. (Supply availability is the most important of these.) Portfolio 6 — which includes storage, groundwater wells, enhanced conservation and reuse, in addition to current supplies from Castle and Maroon creeks — scored the highest.
The portfolios did not include an “everything but storage” option; storage was a part of all the portfolios except for the “do nothing” option. Rehring said storage is an effective way of helping the city use its current sources of Castle and Maroon creeks and avoid or defer bringing another water source online as quickly.
Hunter said he sees conservation, wells and reuse leading the charge on the front end, but he adds that the city will also use storage.
“Yes, storage will be a component,” he said. “It’s a phased approach — we don’t need to go out and put in … a 2,500 acre-foot reservoir and fill it up tomorrow.”
In addition to holding three public-engagement sessions on the IRP, the city also formed a technical working group — with representatives from Pitkin County, the Bureau of Reclamation, Western Resource Advocates, Aspen Global Change Institute, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and other entities — to provide input.
Laura Belanger, a senior water-resources engineer and policy adviser with Western Resource Advocates and a member of the technical working group, said the city is doing a good job getting input from stakeholders, including those who have been opposed to some of Aspen’s water plans in the past. WRA was one of the 10 opposing parties in the city’s conditional water-rights case.
Belanger said it’s encouraging that the city is considering enhanced conservation and reuse as part of the IRP.
“I think we actually like the way the city is approaching this,” Belanger said.
Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the March 20 edition of The Aspen Times.
A showdown is looming on the Colorado River. The river’s existing management guidelines are set to expire in 2026. The states that draw water from it are about to undertake a new round of negotiations over the river’s future, while it’s facing worsening dry conditions due in part to rising temperatures.
That means everyone with an interest in the river’s future — tribes, environmentalists, developers, business groups, recreation advocates — is hoping a new round of talks will bring certainty to existing water supplies and demands.
The table at which those deals will be hammered out is beginning to take shape. The federal government, mostly in the form of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the seven basin states hold the greatest power in determining what will be up for debate, what will be left out, and whose voices are listened to.
To prepare for the talks, and to coalesce around a set of priorities, leaders in the individual states are attempting to settle their internal issues before coming to that broader negotiating table. We reached out to leaders in three of those states to learn how they’re preparing:
In Utah, all eyes are pointing toward the state’s southwest corner. That’s where the proposed Lake Powell pipeline would transport water from the Colorado River’s second largest reservoir and deposit it near the fast-growing communities of Washington County.
The proposed pipeline is shaping up to be an important bargaining chip in the state’s overall Colorado River negotiation strategy.
Utah’s pursuit of the project has also led the six other states in the watershed — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona — to raise serious concerns…
In Arizona, water from the Colorado River enters the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal, and becomes a ribbon of blue that winds through miles of arid desert to reach the cities of Phoenix and Tucson, where it supplies homes, gardens, businesses, agriculture and golf courses.
Under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, Arizona is already taking cuts to its CAP supply. If current projections hold, those cuts will increase nearly three-fold next year, said Ted Cooke, the project’s general manager.
“So 512,000 acre-feet coming out of the CAP supply is about a third — 30% to a third. That’s a lot,” Cooke said.
Arizona could lose a lot more water if the levels in Lake Mead keep dropping. The state’s junior rights mean its Colorado River supply is more vulnerable than others. With drought plans in place now, Arizona is getting good practice at reining in its uses and finding flexibility as supplies shrink, he said…
The Colorado River starts as a modest-sized stream high up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. As the river flows through the Southwest, it picks up enough water from its tributaries to supply 40 million people across the seven basin states and Mexico.
About 70% of the river’s flow comes from Colorado’s Western Slope. That fact alone leads water officials in the state to feel protective of the river, said Colorado Water Conservation Board director Becky Mitchell. She also sits on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
“First and foremost, I think it’s important, as Colorado’s commissioner, that we’re looking at protecting our legal entitlement on the Colorado River and protecting our state’s waters for those who depend on it,” Mitchell said.
Leading up to this new round of negotiations, Upper Basin leaders, like Mitchell, have been under pressure to consider implementing what’s referred to as a “demand cap.” In theory, it could be one half of a “Grand Bargain,” a concept that’s been in the Colorado River management ether for years.
Water demands on the river in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico have been flat since the late 1980s. Putting a hard limit on future uses would give water planners throughout the entire basin more certainty, and could appease downstream users from ever issuing a dreaded Compact Call on the river. But Mitchell said that much buzzed-about concept is a non-starter.
From The Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (Mandy Eskelson and Al Pfister) via The Pagosa Springs Sun
A Pagosa Springs-based collaborative group, called the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP), has been working since 2018 to identify concerns and opportunities to address the needs of the diverse water users of the Upper San Juan River Basin.
The WEP strives to be a community-driven effort that supports values and needs unique to our basin while assisting the broader state and regional goals of the Colorado State Water Plan and Southwest Basin Implementation Plan. The state calls these local planning efforts of multiple water uses either Stream Management Plans (SMP) or Integrated Water Management Plans (IWMP).
The WEP’s three-phased IWMP process is designed to ensure there is ample time to gather public feed- back, conduct analysis and create a plan with local priorities, which is why we encourage all community members to attend our upcoming virtual public meeting. We are excited to share our updates from our work and hear your ideas on how this information can be used to support local water users.
In Phase I, the WEP organized a steering committee comprised of representatives of the agricultural, environmental, municipal and recreational water users of our community to begin outlining water-related needs and issues. Through multiple public meetings, the steering committee gathered input on the geographic scope/focus, concerns and potential project opportunities to help guide what information was known, what gaps existed, new data to collect, and what analysis and modeling the community wanted in Phase II.
In 2020, as part of Phase II, the WEP has partnered with experts Lotic Hydrological and San Juan Conservation District/NRCS to analyze components identified as priorities during public meetings, such as current and future river flows, riparian habitat, forest health/wildfire risk influences on water resources, and agricultural infrastructure conditions and needs. Based on public feedback and the capacity of models and our partners, the WEP’s work has mainly focused on the upper San Juan watershed, but we continue to include steering committee members and project components from the Rio Blanco and Navajo watersheds.
Results from Phase II’s data analysis, field assessments and model outputs now need to be reviewed and approved by you, the community. Our upcoming public meeting on Wednesday, March 31, held via Zoom
from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., will present the preliminary results of these assessments and models, gather feedback to ensure it aligns with local experience and knowledge, or identify where additional data and analysis may be needed. WEP steering committee members Joe Crabb and Justin Ramsey will also present on local water systems and drought preparations.
To learn more about other Colorado watershed groups conducting a SMP/IWMP process, visit www. coloradosmp.org. If you have questions, please contact Al Pfister at firstname.lastname@example.org or Mandy Eskelson at email@example.com. We hope to “see” you on March 31.
The Pagosa Area Water and Sani- tation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors approved its drought management plan at its regular meeting on March 11, with things mostly staying the same from last year’s plan, except for changes made to drought triggers.
In an interview on Monday, PAWSD Manager Justin Ramsey explained the reason behind the changes in drought triggers.
“Historically, it’s been a cumulative amount of water: how much water is in the lakes, how much water is in the river, altogether,” he said. “Now, we’re going to break that up. If the lake gets too low, we’re going to go into drought management regardless of what the river is doing, or vice versa.”
Drought management stages could also be triggered by snow water equivalency (SWE) data and whether or not a call is made on Fourmile Creek, he added later.
“We did it the exact same way, we just broke it up so it’s not a cumulative amount of water, it’s individual pieces of water that could put us into a drought stage,” he said.
According to the plan, there are four stages of drought, which in- cludes a voluntary period of water
The voluntary stage, according to the plan, is intended to give the community advanced notice about developing drought conditions and aims to start the process of water conservation, according to the plan.
Level-one drought management, or a low category of drought, could be triggered by a variety of methods, whether it be SWE, a call date on Fourmile, the reservoir level in Hatcher Lake, drought stages or the San Juan River flow, Ramsey noted.
Level one is categorized as being a stage that aims to build upon the voluntary efforts while also incorporating basic mandatory water-use restrictions that look to curb excessive outdoor irrigation. This stage would also include an “increase community outreach and awareness campaign,” according to the plan.
The plan further notes that there would no surcharges or modifications to rate structures, but penalties for noncompliance could be issued.
“For all of them, anything could go on depending on how early it happens,” Ramsey said of the four stages of drought triggers. “Any of these triggers could put you into a drought stage one through four. It just depends on what happens.”
Level two, or moderate level of drought, is described as an “advance notice” of severe drought conditions.
This stage of drought features amplified mandatory water-use restrictions, more aggressive com- munity outreach and a modified water-use rate structure for residential users.
Level three, or serious level of drought, is defined by the plan as drought conditions that threaten water availability.
“Mandatory water use restrictions are further amplified to curb water consumption and extend the usability of current water supplies,” the plan reads. “A drought surcharge will be implemented on both residential and commercial customers and the water use rate structure will be implemented for commercial customers and be further modified for residential customers.”
The final stage, level four, or severe drought, indicates “dangerously low” water supply levels, according to the plan.
This stage would feature drought surcharges and the water-use rate structure being further modified, according to the plan.
Ramsey explained that sur- charges will not be triggered until level three. There will be a charge for heavier water use at level two, but no surcharge will be incurred. The surcharge for drought stage three is $17.23 per equivalent unit (EU) and for drought stage four it’s $21.53 per EU, he noted.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Aurora and Colorado Springs want to bring more of that water to their growing cities, which are the state’s largest after Denver. To do that, they want to dam up Whitney Creek in Eagle County south of Minturn and create a reservoir that could supply water for thousands of new homes…
There are a few different spots along the creek that could be the home to the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The largest of the potential sites would hold about 20,000 acre-feet of water…
Tension between protecting wetlands and securing more water for growing cities
[Jerry] Mallett’s group works to restore and protect areas like this one — a wetland with fox and moose tracks in the snow.
Mallett has fought Aurora and Colorado Springs before. After these cities teamed up and built Homestake Reservoir in the 1960s, they tried to build the reservoir Homestake II. That project was shut down in the 1990s.
“We’re not saying you shouldn’t grow or that you’ve got to control the population, that’s your issue,” Mallett said. “Ours is protecting the natural resources for other values.”
Aurora and Colorado Springs are working together because they have the same problem: Planners don’t think they have enough water where they are to support the cities’ expected growth. If the cities get their way and dam up Homestake Creek, it would reduce the amount of water that ends up in the Colorado River — which the Front Range and some 40 million people have come to rely on over the decades…
That’s changed, Mallett said. West Slope communities now see water as a crucial part of keeping their economies alive and now fight for it to stay. Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan represents seven counties that include communities like Aspen and Crested Butte. In a letter opposing the project, Donovan wrote that, “she can’t express how sternly the people in her district dislike water diversion projects to the front range.
“West Slope is not in a position I think today where they’re going to roll over and say, ‘Fine, we’ll lose that water,’” Mallett said. “I think they’ve got the political clout now, it’s a new game.”
If Colorado Springs and Aurora secure permits to build the Whitney Reservoir, it would be the first major trans-mountain water diversion project in decades…
Environmentalists are concerned about losing these wetlands, which are threatened by climate change. Delia Malone, an ecologist and wildlife chair of the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club, said most animals rely on wetlands…
Malone said the proposed reservoir locations could include areas that are home to fens, a type of wetland that is rare in the arid West and supports plant biodiversity. Fens have layers of peat, require thousands of years to develop and are replenished by groundwater. Fens also trap environmental carbon, improve water quality and store water…
Colorado and other states are obligated to send a certain amount of water downstream to states like California because of a century-old agreement. As the Colorado River dries with climate change, and more demand is put on the river, Udall said there’s higher risk for what’s called a “compact call,” a provision that gives downstream states like California authority to demand water from upstream states like Colorado for not sending enough water down the Colorado River.
If that happens, Udall said newer Colorado water projects — including the proposed Whitney Reservoir — could have to cut their usage to make sure enough water is sent downstream.
[Brad] Udall said the best available science is needed to answer the question: Is this water better left in the river or sent to Aurora and Colorado Springs?
“The science really does need to be heard here,” Udall said. “It’s somewhat disturbing and is very different from the science that we used in the 20th century to assess the value and benefits of these kinds of projects.”
Officials in Colorado Springs and Aurora declined CPR News’ interview requests.
Before the cities can move towards building the reservoir, the U.S. Forest Service has to sign off on structural testing and surveying which requires drilling test holes in the wetlands. A decision is expected later this month on that permit, which has received more than 500 public comments, with most arguing against the drilling and the project as a whole.
A small crowd gathered to watch as Jim Dunlap pressed a control button. Moments later, the people inside the small building could hear the sound of water from Lake Nighthorse rushing through a pipe and out of the dam.
It was a simple move, but one that had been decades in the making for Dunlap. It was the first time water from the reservoir had been released into the Animas River at the request of the San Juan Water Commission.
While the Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association has released water from the dam as part of maintenance operations and to ensure everything is properly functioning, this was the first time it had been released based on an official request.
Lake Nighthorse stores water for municipal use for the San Juan Water Commission as well as other water users, including Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Tribe. Filling of the reservoir began in 2009, and there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2018…
Drought management plans for the San Juan County Commission include using water stored in Lake Nighthorse, but little is known about what would happen to the water once it is released.
The commission hopes one day there will be a pipeline to transport the water from Colorado to New Mexico, but, until then, the water must be released into the Animas River. The March 15 release will help gather data that can be used in the future to predict how much water could be lost from the time it is released from Lake Nighthorse to the time it reaches pump stations for water users downstream.
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The view from Music Pass in the Sand Creek drainage, where a multi-agency effort is unfolding to restore the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)
The Rio Grande cutthroat trout has dwindled in its native habitat. A multi-agency effort to restore it still can inspire anger and concern. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)
Workers administer the plant-based chemical compound rotenone at Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo range. The chemical kills all fish in the waterway so that Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a native species, had be restored to the habitat. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)
A center pivot irrigates a field in the San Luis Valley, where the state is warming farmers that a well shut-down could come much sooner than expected. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado
The West Fork fire complex of 2013 was composed of three fires that burned more than 109,000 acres on mostly public lands managed by the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests. Photo: Jonathan Coop, Western Colorado University via Colorado State University
The Rio Grande near Albuquerque in 2012. Photo credit: City of Albuquerque CC by 2.0 via The New Mexico Political Report
The Conejos River (right) joins the Rio Grande on the 3,200-acre Cross Arrow Ranch southeast of Alamosa. Photo By: John Fielder via Water Education Colorado
Side channels were excavated by the Bureau of Reclamation along the Rio Grande where it passes through the Rhodes’ property to provide habitat for the endangered silvery minnow. (Dustin Armstrong/U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation)
Kyler Brown rides along the Rio Grande River, where headgates divert water into irrigation canals. Coming up with a plan to reduce water use is the easy part, he says. Changing peoples’ behavior is trickier. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
The Rio Grande flowing through the Colorado town of Del Norte. Photo credit: USBR
The headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The drying riverbed of the Middle Rio Grande near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on April 4, 2018. Photo credit: USBR
A cottonwood forest in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Matthew Schmader/Open Space Division
Elephant Butte Dam is filled by the Rio Grande and sustains agriculture in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico. Sarah Tory
Nearly every mature spruce tree has been killed by spruce beetle in this area of the Rio Grande National Forest in southwest Colorado. (Credit: U.S. Forest Service; photo: Brian Howell)
Rio Grande River photo credit Wild Earth Guardians.
Kevin Terry, a project coordinator for Colorado Trout Unlimited, holds up a Rio Grande cutthroat trout at Upper Sand Creek Lake.
Rio Grande River March 2016 via Greg Hobbs.
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument via the Bureau of Land Management
Rio Grande River corridor near Del Norte.
Photo via the Rio Grande Restoration Project
A Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Photo courtesy Andrew Todd.
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia
Rio Grande Pyramid
Rio Grande River near South Fork via Division of Water Resources
Colorado water officials are considering whether to designate the increasingly stressed Yampa River from Steamboat Springs downstream to near its entrance into Dinosaur National Monument as over-appropriated.
If approved by the state water engineer, the designation would require augmentation plans for larger-volume wells along the river from Steamboat to Lilly Park, where the Little Snake River flows into the Yampa.
Augmentation plans document how the water used will be replaced to satisfy senior water rights. Such water is typically delivered from upstream reservoirs, both large and small.
The proposal comes amid growing evidence that the Yampa River can no longer deliver water to all users all the time as they wish. There have been two “calls” on the river in the past three years, limiting diversions of users with later — or junior — diversion decrees until those of older or more senior decrees are satisfied.
The changed hydrology of the river can best be understood at the gauging station along U.S. Highway 40 near Maybell. There, according to Division 6 Engineer Erin Light, annual flows a century ago of 1.5 million acre-feet annually have declined to 1.1 million acre-feet annually. The gauge during one year in the past decade recorded only 500,000 acre-feet.
Light is proposing the over-appropriation designation. When the comment period will begin and how long it will extend has not been determined.
“An existing water right is not going to be injured by this over-appropriation designation,” Light said on a video conference meeting Monday evening with more than 100 viewers. “They would be protected.”
Colorado law considers all groundwater to be tributary to the stream system unless proven otherwise. As Light recently explained to the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, when a stream system is over-appropriated, drawing water from a well can deplete the stream during times when the water in the stream is insufficient to satisfy all decreed water rights.
The Yampa River famously long had sufficient flows such that it lacked the close supervision of many of the state’s rivers, including all of those on the east slope.
“If you look at the South Platte, the Rio Grande and the Arkansas, these are basins where the surface water was over-appropriated 100-plus years ago,” said Kevin Rein, the state engineer. He will be making the decision whether to approve Light’s recommendation.
Only a few of Colorado’s rivers, mostly on the flanks of the San Juan Mountains, remain free of restrictions that require augmentation plans for wells along rivers as are now proposed for the Yampa.
Regulation of large-capacity wells began in Colorado during the 1960s. The laws were adopted in response to conflicts in the South Platte River Valley between farmers diverting water directly from the river and those drilling wells. State legislators clarified the legal rights of each. The key breakthrough was acceptance that groundwater was, in many cases, part of the same water system as the surface flows.
In the Yampa River valley, this designation would primarily impact new residential wells located on lots less than 35 acres and wells used for purposes other than domestic uses.
Permits for new wells located on lots of less than 35 acres in existing subdivisions may be issued for in-house use. If the well serves additional purposes, such as for livestock watering or a pond that intercepts groundwater on a lot less than 35 acres, then an augmentation plan must be in place before a well permit will be issued.
Well permits may be issued for as many as three single-family dwellings, irrigation of as much as 1 acre of lawn and garden, and for watering of domestic animals, on lots greater than 35 acres.
Based on her experience after designations of the Elk River and the Yampa River upstream of Steamboat Springs in the past decade, Light expects to see no major impacts.
“I have just not seen a tremendous impact on people because of this designation,” she said.
Stagecoach Reservoir, near Oak Creek, has several thousand acre-feet of its 36,000 acre-feet of storage capacity available for augmentation. YamColo, a smaller reservoir located on the Bear River, upstream from Yampa, has lesser quantities available. Both are administered by the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, whose boundary goes to but does not include Craig.
How much augmentation water will be needed from upstream reservoirs will depend upon the use, explained Holly Kirkpatrick, external affairs manager for the district. Does the well provide for livestock water, for example, and if so how many animals?
The conservancy district has enough water in the two reservoirs, especially Stagecoach, to provide for all needs, at least in the near term.
“Individual augmentation plans are of very small magnitude,” said Andy Rossi, general manager. “We might be talking about less than one acre-foot up to three acre-feet” (annually), he said of augmentation plans for new wells.
Traditional agriculture water users would normally seek storage rights in the reservoirs for larger volumes.
It will still be possible to file for new water rights in the Yampa subject to Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right pecking order. But the proposal signals a new paradigm for the full Yampa River Basin.
“It should be a clear indicator to those individuals establishing a new appropriation that water may not be available all of the time every year to meet their water needs,” Light said.
One of the key water rights in determining water use upstream are those at Lilly Park.
Twice in the past three years those rights have triggered “calls” on the Yampa River upstream, causing Light, as the water engineer, to require more junior users upstream to end their diversions. That same call could have been made in 2002, but the owner of the water rights at Lilly Park recently confided to Light that he didn’t want to cause the problems upstream in that notoriously dry year.
Enlargement of Elkhead Reservoir, near Hayden, has also allowed more water to be delivered downstream, forestalling the need for the designation of over-appropriation.
The Yampa River upstream of Steamboat Springs and many of its tributaries were previously designated as over-appropriated after a water decree for a recreational in-channel diversion for the kayak park in Steamboat Springs was granted in 2006.
For Steamboat Springs, one consequence was the need to create an augmentation plan for the wells along the Yampa River supplying its water treatment plant. The water from Stagecoach will be needed only if the river downstream is on call, meaning that Steamboat’s water diversions must be curtailed to meet needs of senior users.
Will the over-appropriation designation downstream of Steamboat impact the city’s water supplies?
“No, not that I’m aware of,” said Kelley Romero-Heaney, the city’s water resources manager.
The designation of over-appropriation “just means there’s more accountability” to ensure that new diversions don’t injure existing water users and water-right holders, Romero-Heaney said.
The state also designated the Elk River, north of Steamboat, as over-appropriated Jan. 1, 2011, just a few months after the first call. Water is available from Steamboat Lake for augmentation.
Small reservoirs have also been constructed to deliver augmentation water in the Elk River basin. Small augmentation reservoirs may be needed for new development downstream from Craig, such as for new rural subdivisions.
Light, in recommending the over-appropriation designation, identified no single trigger.
There were the two calls, critical low-flows in other years, and the increasing importance of juggling reservoir releases. She said the most important signal of a new era came in 2018, when the first call was placed on the river.
“I think you could make a good case of climate change and different ecological conditions,” said Rossi. Snowfall remains highly variable, but runoff has consistently arrived earlier followed by more intense heat and, perhaps, a later arrival of winter.
Soil moisture may also be a factor. If soils are dry going into winter, they’ll soak up more of the runoff.
“Start the season with dry soils, and that is the first bucket that needs to be filled when the snow starts melting,” Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist for Colorado, explained last week in The Washington Post.
These changes were evident in 2020. Winter snows were healthy and the snow water equivalent, or the amount of water in the snow once it has melted, was 116% of median. Then came spring, early and warm. By June, the snow-water equivalent of the remaining snowpack had dropped to 69%.
Then came summer, hot and mostly absent rain. August broke records for both the hottest and driest summer month on the 130-year record. This combination of heat and lack of precipitation actually made 2020 worse than the other notorious drought years of recent memory: 2002, 2012 and 2018, according to Romero-Heaney
Designation of over-appropriation, however, would not forecast the climate in the Yampa Valley, cautioned Rein.
“It just recognizes what has been happening recently,” he said.
Climate change has started playing a significant role in declining river flows and falling reservoir levels in the Colorado River basin. These declines have led to concerns in Colorado during the last 20 years that requirements of the compact governing the Colorado River and its tributaries in the seven basin states could force curtailment of water use within Colorado.
From his perspective in Denver, Rein sees the proposed designation on the Yampa being neutral. All groundwater is already considered tributary to the river and hence should have no additional impact on compact compliance matters.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the March 10 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today.
The San Juan Water Commission continues to monitor conditions around the Animas River, including flow and snowpack, to decide if it will request a release from Lake Nighthorse this month.
San Juan Water Commission Director Aaron Chavez said the decision will likely be made later this week…
The City of Farmington initially requested a possible release from the reservoir as a way to test the water delivery from Lake Nighthorse to entities in San Juan County. The City of Aztec has expressed interest in also taking some of the water released if it does occur…
The release depends on the water levels in the river remaining low because the test release will be a way to gather data for a drought scenario…
A test release could help provide data about water loss as the water would flow down the Animas River channel. Because the irrigation ditches are closed for the winter, it would also provide data about water flow and downstream recovery in the river without any of that water being diverted for agriculture.
On the morning of March 8, the Animas River was flowing at 138 cubic feet per second in the Cedar Hill area near the state line, according to the U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge. A stream gauge in Farmington was registering 175 cubic feet per second. These readings are about half of what would typically be seen on the Animas River in a normal year.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:
The Department of the Interior will conduct a spring disturbance flow release from Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona, beginning March 15 at 5 a.m. and ending March 26 at 8 a.m.
A spring disturbance flow is planned at Glen Canyon Dam from March 15 to March 26. It is expected to maximize ecosystem benefits to the Colorado River ecosystem through the Glen, Marble, and Grand canyons, while meeting water delivery requirements and minimizing negative impacts to hydropower production. The spring disturbance flow will not affect the monthly or annual release volumes from Lake Powell through Glen Canyon Dam.
The spring disturbance flow capitalizes on a unique low flow of 4,000 cubic feet per second for 5 days, which is needed to conduct maintenance on the apron of Glen Canyon Dam. This low flow will be followed by a gradual increase to higher releases that will culminate in a discharge of approximately 20,150 cubic feet per second for 82 hours. The peak release of the spring disturbance flow will stay within the maximum release levels allowed under normal operations.
This combination of low and high flows is expected to disturb river bottom habitats and may drive positive aquatic ecosystem responses like increased algae and insect production. This could increase aquatic insect prey available for endangered humpback chub, non-native rainbow trout, an important sportfish, as well as other wildlife. The spring disturbance flow may disadvantage brown trout in Glen Canyon by reducing survival of emerging fry. The spring disturbance flow may also provide new scientific information that can be used in future decision making.
Recreational users are reminded to exercise caution along the Colorado River through Glen and Grand Canyons during the entire spring disturbance flow period.
The San Juan Water Conser- vancy District (SJWCD) approved its strategic plan for 2021 at a meeting on Feb. 15.
The strategic plan, which had been in development since 2018, is to be used to help the district identify water resource issues in the Upper San Juan River Basin within the district’s geographical scope, according to the plan.
Additionally, the plan outlines that its purpose is to help the district evaluate its options for addressing water resource issues and outlining which options could be acted upon.
Other objectives include the SJWCD Board of Directors developing long-term goals and direction for the district and relaying that information to the public, the plan notes.
Mission and value statements
Included within the plan is the SJWCD’s mission statement, which reads “To be an active leader in all issues affecting the water resources of the Upper San Juan River Basin.”
These statements note that the SJWCD board is “committed to ensuring that various current and future water supply needs are met through whatever conservation and water management strategies and methodologies are available.”
Another value statement reads, “The Board opposes any new transfers of water from the Upper San Juan River and its tributaries upstream of Navajo Reservoir to basins outside of the Upper San Juan River Basin.”
The opposition toward this comes from the SJWCD believing that transfers would interfere with existing beneficial uses of water, damage to economic stability and reduced environmental quality, the plan indicates.
Other value statements include that the SJWCD board is commit- ted to managing water rights it holds, supporting wise land-use policies and processes, and man- aging and funding effective monitoring, protection and restoration programs.
One value statement notes that the SJWCD board believes that the district must participate in statewide processes, like the Colorado Water Plan, to address various issues such as climate change, drought and water shortages.
The hot dry conditions that melted strong snowpack early in 2020 and led to severe drought, low river flows and record setting wildfires across the state could be a harbinger of what is to come in Colorado.
Climate change is likely to drive “chaotic weather” and greater extremes with hotter droughts and bigger snowstorms that will be harder to predict, said Kenneth Williams, environmental remediation and water resources program lead at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, headquartered in California.
“We are looking to be moving toward a future that is really decoupled from the past,” said Williams, who is leading a long-term watershed research project in Crested Butte.
In 2020, the Colorado River system had 100% of average snowpack on April 1 but then thwarted expectations when it didn’t deliver the 90% to 110% of average runoff that water managers could typically predict. The river system only saw 52% of average runoff because water was soaked up by dry soils and evaporated during a dry, warm spring, said Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University.
“It’s not typical, but it could very well be our future,” he said.
The 2020 drought will end at some point, but that appears unlikely this spring with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasting above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation through March, April and May.
Conditions could improve more rapidly on the eastern plains with big spring and summer rain, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist.
In the larger picture, breaking the drought across the vast Colorado River Basin will likely take a string of winters with much above average snowfall, Schumacher said.
In the long term, conditions across the Southwest are going to become more arid as average temperatures rise, driven by greenhouse gas emissions, Udall said, with lower soil moisture and stream flows among the negative impacts.
The 19-year stretch of only intermittingly interrupted drought from 2000 to 2018 in the Southwest U.S. was exceeded only by a late 1500s megadrought, the journal Science reported in a paper this year…
New reservoirs could play a role in the future, but construction alone cannot resolve the coming water woes.
“Anyone who thinks they can build themselves out of climate change is nuts,” Udall said. “There is a limit to the amount of storage that’s helpful.”
Too much storage can sit empty and if the water is allowed to sit for too long a valuable portion is lost to evaporation, he said.
In the highly variable years of climate-related weather to come, keeping water flowing to homes and farms will take better planning and a much better understanding of the “water towers of the West,” the remote peaks where significant amounts of snow accumulate above 8,000 feet.
Water managers are keen to know not just how much water may flow into rivers and streams, but when, and also what it might contain because as water flows drop water quality is also likely to be more of a concern…
The rapid change has left water managers and researchers in need of better data to understand short-term trends, such as how much runoff to expect this year and longer-term shifts.
Traditionally Colorado and the West have relied on a network of more than 800 snow telemetry sites — SNOTELS, as they are called by the Natural Resources Conservation Service — that automatically collect snowpack, temperature and precipitation. But now more snow is falling at elevations above the SNOTELS and aerial observations are needed to provide an alternative source of data on snowpack utilities and others wouldn’t otherwise know about, Williams said…
So Denver Water is forming a new collaborative to bring utilities, including Colorado Springs Utilities and other water users, such as water conservancy districts that serve farmers and ranchers, together to fund statewide flights, which can be quite expensive, she said.
The formal planning work around what data to collect and funding flights is set to begin in April and already the collaborative has attracted members from across the state, Kaatz said.
The group hopes to start funding the flights in about a year to provide the high quality data to water managers, Kaatz said. Having that data will be a valuable asset in Colorado’s semi-arid climate as it warms, she said.
“Warming is here and now. It’s not the next generation’s challenge.”
The rapid spring runoff is often the star in the water world. But high elevation groundwater is key to feeding streams in the late summer and winter, helping to sustain fish and late season irrigation. It is also an important source for reservoirs, said Rosemary Carroll, a hydrologist with the Desert Research Institute and collaborator on the Department of Energy projects in Crested Butte.
When Carroll started studying groundwater in the upper Gunnison watershed, she expected to find water that had percolated through the soil for two or three years before reaching streams. Instead, she’s found groundwater about a decade old, which has benefits and drawbacks during dry times, she said.
If the watershed is in a shorter drought, the groundwater can act as a buffer supplying old water that fell as snow and rain years ago, she said. But if it is a sustained drought then the absence of water from the system persists through a lack of groundwater, she said.
If the area continues to see hotter drier conditions, it’s likely that groundwater coming to the surface would be older and there will be less groundwater available to support streams, she said.
As Colorado Springs Utilities braces to absorb hundreds of thousands of new residents in the coming decades amid hotter weather, it is looking to conservation, agriculture, and new water supplies from the Colorado and Arkansas rivers to help fill the gap.
Utilities examined 50 future climate scenarios to prepare its latest 50-year plan and settled on a future that will be on average 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer with no change in average precipitation, instead of relying on historical weather trends to make projections, said Kevin Lusk, a water engineer with Utilities…
As new neighborhoods take shape, particularly in Banning Lewis Ranch, Utilities is planning for the city’s population to increase 53% from about 470,000 people to 723,000, the 50-year plan states. As those residents move in, the city’s annual water demands are expected to rise from 95,000 acre feet a year to 136,000 acre feet a year…
For Colorado Springs, reservoirs are already a key piece of a complex water system that brings 80% of the 95,000 acre feet of water the city uses annually into the area.
The largest amount of new water supply, 90,000 to 120,000 acre feet of water, is expected to come from the new or enlarged reservoirs or water storage within the Arkansas River basin, according to the 50-year plan. One of those projects could be a new reservoir or gravel pit complex between Twin Lakes and Pueblo Reservoirs, the plan states.
Utilities may also build additional reservoir space in the Colorado River watershed, and it is working with Aurora on a highly controversial new reservoir in the Holy Cross Wilderness in Eagle County. The U.S. Forest Service is expected to make a decision soon on whether to permit the exploration of the new reservoir’s feasibility…
Through conservation, Utilities expects to save 10,000 to 13,000 acre feet of water annually, said Patrick Wells, general manager with Colorado Springs Utilities Water Resources and Demand Management. The city’s watering restrictions adopted last year that limit outdoor watering to three days a week from May 1 to Oct. 15 are meant to help achieve long-term water savings and more than 550 acre feet of water was saved in the first year, he said.
In the future, water owned by agricultural interests, particularly farmers and ranches in the Lower Arkansas River basin, will also play a key role. But rather than purchase it outright, Utilities is looking to lease 15,000 to 25,000 new acre feet of water annually.
The leases are a move away from purchasing farms and their associated water rights outright and transferring that water to the city, a practice called buy and dry. In the 1970s, farmers sold the water rights that previously served 45,000 acres in Crowley County leaving only 5,000 acres in production, The Gazette reported previously.
Cities bought water outright from agriculture through the early 2000s as the primary means of transfer, said Scott Lorenz, water sharing senior project manager with Colorado Springs Utilities.
Now, the state and city are focused on lease agreements that can serve farmers in dry times, he said. For example, in a dry year a farm may not have enough water to put all the fields in production, the producer can lease some water to the city and earn money through the water instead, Lorenz said.
Compensating farmers for their water and taking land out of production can have consequences, however, because it can disrupt the overall agriculture market when farmers aren’t buying seed or materials or employing laborers, said Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. The buyers the farms supply may also go elsewhere for products if farms aren’t producing annually, he said.
Utilities’ already has several lease agreements in place, including one in perpetuity with the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association, a group that replaces the water taken from the Arkansas River through wells. As farmers pump from ground wells supplied by the river, the association ensures water flows back into the river so that downstream residents in Kansas receive their full water rights.
The city has agreed to lease water from the association five out of every ten years and pay for its water every year, said Bill Grasmick, association president. The city also paid for a new reservoir that the association is already using.
The decision of who gets to sit at that table, whose interests are represented, and what’s on the menu is still very much in flux. But the uncertainty isn’t stopping would-be participants from voicing concerns they feel leaders in the southwestern watershed can no longer ignore.
And when it comes to the water supply for 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, the stakes are much higher than a one-night feast.
“Who’s at the existing table?”
Late last year, the seven states that make up the Colorado River basin — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, California, Nevada and Arizona — made clear that after a federal government-induced year-long pause to negotiations, they were ready to start negotiating future policies.
In a letter dated Dec. 17 to then-Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, water officials gave notice they were “initiating preliminary conversations with one another,” to figure out how to operate the river’s biggest reservoirs.
The talks are focused on creating policy past 2026, when a current set of guidelines established in 2007 expires. The 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for the first time addressed the issue of looming water shortages in the basin, and linked the operations of Lakes Powell and Mead. While those who negotiated the agreement slapped each other on the back in Las Vegas, plenty of others in the basin said it failed to truly address the wide range of problems that have plagued the watershed for decades.
When water managers negotiated that major policy overhaul in 2007, the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the watershed were left out.
Daryl Vigil of the Jicarilla-Apache Nation says that’s also true for a landmark 2012 study that calculated water supplies and demands in the basin. According to a letter sent by 17 tribal leaders to the federal government about the 2007 guidelines, it’s only been in the last five years that tribes have seen the federal government meaningfully engage with them on Colorado River issues. Even now, as basin leaders commit to more tribal inclusivity this time around, the mechanism to do so doesn’t currently exist.
“There’s no process at all in the current structure to have inclusivity of tribes,” Vigil said.
Vigil is a co-leader of the Water & Tribes Initiative. The initiative receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage. The project’s main goal is to build capacity of tribes to participate in the renegotiation of the 2007 guidelines, Vigil said.
For all the talk of consensus-building in the watershed, up until now it’s only been among a narrow group of players, Vigil said. Many other perspectives, like the river’s cultural and spiritual value or its ecological role in some of the driest reaches of the country, are ignored or rejected.
“Who’s at the existing table? The existing table in terms of policy in the Colorado River truly is controlled by the basin states and the federal government,” Vigil said…
Tribal leaders aren’t the only people who’ve been summarily excluded in the past. Environmentalists, recreation advocates, scientists and water officials from Mexico have also been left out of various agreements in the past, depending on the issue at hand.
It’s a picture-perfect scene — the snow-dusted Sandia Mountains providing a backdrop to the dormant willow and cottonwood trees lining the Rio Grande.
While the recent snow has provided a psychological salve to the pains of a persistent drought, it won’t go far in easing the exceptional conditions that have taken hold of New Mexico over the past year.
Every square mile of the arid state is dealing with some level of dryness, with more than half locked in the worst category — exceptional drought. And much of the West is no better off, with parts of Arizona, Utah and Nevada among the hardest hit.
DROP IN THE BUCKET
The problem is the recent storms were accompanied by frigid temperatures and wind, making for a double whammy of sorts. Forecasters explained that snow tends to be drier when temperatures are that cold, so there’s less water content in the snow. The wind then blows it away, leaving patches of bare ground.
Typically, about 12 inches (30.48 centimeters) of snow make for an inch (2.54 centimeters) of water when it melts, said Kerry Jones, chief meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. With colder air, those ratios climb and nearly triple the amount of snow is needed to produce that same inch of water.
That means less water to recharge the soil and less that will find its way into rivers and reservoirs this spring…
A good example can be found on Sierra Blanca, a mountain peak in southern New Mexico. The snow-water equivalent measured there is less than an inch, or about 10% of normal, even after the storms.
The Rio Chama basin in northern New Mexico has fared better, but even after the storms it lagged at about 86% of normal. Meanwhile, the headwaters of the Pecos River in the Sangre de Cristo range dropped to just 44% of normal…
DEEPER IN THE HOLE
Many places already were dealing with deficits as winter snowpack and spring runoff have become less reliable in recent years. Add to that a contracting monsoon season.
Summer rains were spotty at best across New Mexico, while the mountain city of Flagstaff, Arizona, marked its second consecutive driest monsoon season on record in 2020.
That means whatever water can be squeezed out of the recent snowfall is likely to be soaked up by the dry soil before it can feed any rivers or reservoirs.
The Rio Grande — one of the longest rivers in North America — has been reduced to a trickle as it flows through the town of Bernalillo. Its meager flows follow a year in which municipal, state and federal water managers had to ink sharing agreements to keep it from drying up through the Albuquerque stretch.
Cities across the West have made exponential progress with conservation efforts over the years, while farmers have been installing drip systems, pipelines and high-tech monitors to eliminate evaporation and waste. Still, farmers and ranchers are preparing for what they call harsh realities as long-term forecasts call for more dry, warm weather.
Along the Pecos River, which supplies farms in New Mexico and Texas, irrigation managers in Carlsbad recently set the allotment for this growing season at one-quarter of an acre-foot of water based on snowpack and expected runoff.
According to district records that go back to 1908, never has the allotment been that low. It came close in 1953 with just over one-third of an acre-foot. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) and is enough to serve one to two average households a year.
Phil King, engineering consultant for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District on the lower Rio Grande, said the northern mountain ranges are feeling the effects of La Nina, a weather pattern that results in drier conditions…
HANGING IN THERE
Rough. That’s how ranchers have described current conditions to Megan Boatright, a rangeland ecologist with the State Land Office.
Like ranchers always do, they found a silver lining with the recent storms. While the snow might be too dry to put a dent in the drought, they say at least it has a better chance of soaking in rather than causing runoff and erosion. Boatright said that bit of soil moisture could have a positive effect on cool season grasses sprouting in the spring.
Continued drought has forced many ranchers to sell cattle and reduce their herds as they deal with the cost of supplemental feeding and water tanks and wells going dry.
The State Land Office this week acknowledged the added pressures and low beef prices when it set the 2021 grazing fee. It marks the fourth decrease in as many years.
FromThe Associated Press (John Locher) via Tucson.com:
Less water for the Central Arizona Project — but not zero water.
Even more competition between farms and cities for dwindling Colorado River supplies than there is now.
More urgency to cut water use rather than wait for seven river basin states to approve new guidelines in 2025 for operating the river’s reservoirs.
That’s where Arizona and the Southwest are heading with water, say experts and environmental advocates following publication of a dire new academic study on the Colorado River’s future.
The study warned that the river’s Upper and Lower basin states must sustain severe cuts in river water use to keep its reservoir system from collapsing due to lack of water.
That’s due to continued warming weather and other symptoms of human-caused climate change, the study said.
The study from Utah State University said Arizona and the other two Lower River Basin states may have to slash their take from the river up to 40% by 2050 to keep reservoirs from falling too low. The other Lower Basin states are California and Nevada.
The study also says the four Upper Basin states must dramatically scale back or kill plans to divert more water from an already depleted river. Those states are Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The study appeared as the seven states are preparing to renegotiate the operating guidelines that expire at the end of 2025.
More immediately, the first cutbacks in Central Arizona Project deliveries from the river — primarily to Central Arizona farmers — appear likely for next year…
Eric Kuhn, one of the new study’s co-authors, speculated that over time, the Central Arizona Project will make a bunch of deals with irrigators along the river to buy water rights, following the footsteps of Colorado and Southern California water transfers.
“CAP water flows uphill to the money. Municipalities in Central Arizona have political power and money. How many votes are there along the river vs. how many votes there are in Maricopa County?” said Kuhn, retired director of the Colorado River Water District in Glenwood Springs.
It’s pretty clear the Imperial Irrigation District, the river basin’s largest water user by far, will also be a target for future water transactions to help cities, [Mark] Udall said. Imperial takes more than one-third of the Lower Basin’s 7.5 million acre-feet annual supply from the river…
Upcoming negotiations: Arizona’s top water officials and some outside water experts and activists are taking different stances toward the impending seven-state river negotiations.
Those talks should start sometime this year, although the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the reservoirs, isn’t being specific on when.
It’s working on developing a plan “that ensures that all of our partners on the river are able to participate and contribute in a collaborative and meaningful way,” bureau spokeswoman Patricia Aaron said…
Reacting to the negotiations and the new study, a CAP official said that agency has long understood risks to the Colorado River system associated with a hotter, drier future, and realizes that more work is needed to address them for the longer term…
The state has a good start in preparing for the seven-state talks, thanks to the structure of water interest groups the state assembled to put together the 2019 drought plan, said ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke.
“We anticipate looking at a variety of hydrologic futures, how they might impact lake levels, how we might protect those lake levels under those hydrologic scenarios, as well as how our efforts might equate to the frequency or magnitude of reductions,” Buschatzke said…
Retiring coal-fired power plants faster than now planned can save water because they use a lot, Bahr said.
Having water priced more “appropriately” — charging more for water use beyond what homeowners need for drinking, cooking and bathing, is also advisable, she said — something Tucson already does in its water rate structure.
Amid dry soils and struggling snowpack in Denver Water’s collection area, longer-term Colorado River challenges also loom large.
Denver Water’s supply managers are closely attuned to the dry weather, lagging snowpack and poor soil moisture in its mountainous collection area that could mean heightened efforts to conserve water this summer.
At the same time, the utility is closely engaged with a more persistent and growing long-term challenge: a drying trend across the seven-state Colorado River Basin.
The two issues go hand-in-hand.
While early snowpack has been underwhelming, a few recent storms brought us closer to average in the two nearby basins that matter most to Denver Water: The South Platte and the Colorado.
Even so, the long-running drought across the southwestern United States persists. And earlier this year, a new warning was triggered after updated projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation suggested poor inflows to Lake Powell could put the reservoir at a level low enough to take new steps.
In short, the BOR said Lake Powell — the massive storage vessel that serves as the bank account for the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — is at risk of falling below an elevation of 3,525 feet in 2022.
That’s important to Denver Water and many Colorado water users as a century-old law requires states in the upper basin to send a certain allotment out of Lake Powell each year to the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.
Under major agreements developed between the federal government and the seven states in 2019 called drought contingency plans, Reclamation’s projection initiates a planning process with water leaders across the upper basin states to address ways to avoid further elevation declines in Powell.
This is a trigger point to say, “Hey, it’s time to ramp up our monitoring and planning, to be ready to address the potential further decline in reservoir levels,” explained Rick Marsicek, planning manager for Denver Water. “This was a metric, developed to ensure the upper basin states focus harder on next steps should Lake Powell be at risk of hitting that level.”
Planners focused on 3,525 feet as a trigger point, so as to have time to act before Lake Powell falls another 35 feet, which would threaten its ability to send enough water through turbines to generate hydropower, another important element of Powell’s operations. Hydroelectricity at the dam provides power to more than 5 million customers.
It’s an initial step toward drought contingency plans, which could be triggered as early as 2022 in the Upper Basin. The lower basin’s DCP was triggered last year, when projected shortages in Lake Mead, the other gargantuan Colorado River reservoir — a sister of sorts to Powell — required Arizona and Nevada to pull smaller amounts from supplies stored there.
All of this movement comes amid other developments important to Denver Water and water interests throughout Colorado.
The state of Colorado is working with water providers and users across the state to gauge the potential of a “demand management” plan. Such a plan would compensate water users to temporarily and voluntarily conserve water that would flow instead to Lake Powell as a deposit in a sort of bank account. Such a “pool” of water would maintain critical water levels in Lake Powell and could later be released if necessary to assure Colorado River Compact compliance.
Water users kicked off a study related to demand management in 2020. Irrigators in the Kremmling area fallowed some parcels as part of a detailed study on how high-elevation farmland would respond should water be left off the land in some growing seasons.
At the same time, the basin states, in partnership with the federal government, are beginning to dig into a new set of guidelines to help manage river supplies that must be complete in 2026, when an existing set of interim guidelines is set to expire. These guidelines co-exist with the 1922 Colorado River Compact and numerous other agreements that make of the “law of the river,” which split the river between the two big basins and the country of Mexico.
Closer to home, Denver Water and other metro area and Front Range water providers are coordinating in preparation for a year when they may have to toughen summer watering restrictions to address a dry winter and spring. It’s too early yet to know for sure how supplies will look, but the meetings that kicked off this month are an effort to get ahead of the situation and see where watering and conservation messages can be aligned to help the public understand the potential need to reduce outdoor irrigation between May and October.
“There is a lot happening, and that’s a good thing,” Marsicek said. “Far better to overplan and overprepare than to simply hope for the best. We’ve had drought years before, and we have a long-term drought now in the Colorado River Basin. By working together and planning not just for a hot summer, but for a drier long-term future, we can meet this challenge with our eyes wide open.”
The San Juan Water Commission authorized Director Aaron Chavez to request a release from Lake Nighthorse in an attempt to capture that water for San Juan County residents — if the conditions are right.
The San Juan Water Commission hopes to someday have a pipeline that can reduce the losses from the river if a release from Lake Nighthorse is requested. However that pipeline does not yet exist.
That means the only way to deliver water from Lake Nighthorse to the City of Farmington is through the Animas River, and that has never been tried before.
The City of Farmington requested the action as it hopes to gather data while the river levels are low and the irrigators are not pulling water out of the river, the city’s Community Works Director David Sypher explained during the Feb. 3 meeting…
The proposed release would either be 40 cubic feet per second or 53 cubic feet per second. The release would last for five days and the City of Farmington would draw the water out of the Animas River using its pump at the Penny Lane diversion…
Chavez said during low flows he anticipates it could take 103 hours for the water to reach Penny Lane and there will likely be loss along the way. The water commission is projecting that 30 cubic feet of water per second would reach Penny Lane if 40 cubic feet per second was released. One reason Farmington hopes to do the release is to get better data about the amount of water lost.
If this release occurs, it will likely happen in March and it would cost $4,500 to $6,000 to replace the water in Lake Nighthorse. Sypher and Chavez would work together to ensure none of the water released from Lake Nighthorse passes the diversion at Penny Lane, where the pump station would take the water to Lake Farmington…
Multiple organizations would need to be notified, requiring two weeks of notification. These include the Colorado and New Mexico offices of the state engineer as well as the Animas-La Plata Association…
There has never been a release from Lake Nighthorse upon request of the San Juan Water Commission…
Sypher said the current drought forecasts are awful for the region. If the Animas River was to go dry, the water commission would likely need water released from Lake Nighthorse.
State engineers in the Arkansas River basin are beginning to crack down on more than 10,000 ponds without legal water rights, which they say are harming senior rights holders.
Last month, Colorado’s Division of Water Resources in Division 2 rolled out a new pond-management plan, which they say will help relieve pressure in the over-appropriated basin by restoring water to senior rights holders. The first step was mailing on Jan. 14 informational brochures to 317 pond owners.
Even though the ponds targeted in this effort may have existed for many decades, they don’t have a legal right on the books to divert and store the water. The main concern with these ponds is water loss through evaporation. According to the brochure, for every acre of pond surface area, up to 1 million gallons of water — which is just over 3 acre-feet — is lost to evaporation each year. Division 2 Engineer Bill Tyner said, “Tens of thousands of acre-feet over time would be maintained in the Arkansas River system with a pond-management system in place.”
Although the cumulative water loss could threaten Colorado’s ability to meet its obligations to deliver water to Kansas under the Arkansas River Compact, the main issue is injury to senior water users. Added together, these ponds without a water right could deplete enough water that it makes it hard for these senior water rights holders to get the full amount to which they are entitled.
“Once we put the data together and we could look at the images of ponds and get a count of the number and relative sizes on average of those ponds, it did make us just very sure that this was a problem that could have some very negative consequences for the basin if we didn’t get more aggressive about the way that we took it on,” Tyner said.
Front Range water users divert water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers into the Arkansas Basin, but the new pond-management plan probably won’t affect those transmountain diversions, Tyner said.
According to Colorado water law, anyone is allowed to divert water from a stream simply by putting it to beneficial use as long as it does not harm senior water-rights holders. To protect their ability to keep using the water and save their place in line, most users make their water right official by getting a decree through water court. This enshrines the water right in Colorado’s system of prior appropriation in which older water rights have first use of the river.
According to Colorado water law, anyone is allowed to divert water from a stream simply by putting it to beneficial use as long as it does not harm senior water-rights holders. To protect their ability to keep using the water and save their place in line, most users make their water right official by getting a decree through water court. This enshrines the water right in Colorado’s system of prior appropriation in which older water rights have first use of the river.
Because these undecreed ponds don’t have an official water right, they are taking water out of priority, which amounts to stealing water from senior users.
Matt Heimerich, the consumptive-use representative on the Arkansas River Basin Roundtable, said that over the past two decades the Arkansas River system has been under incredible pressure because of erratic and below-average flows. He described the shifting baseline of what constitutes a severe drought.
“It seems to me we just keep moving the bar lower,” he said. “How bad can the river get? We are always looking for the next threshold.”
Drought and warming temperatures fueled by climate change comprise the backdrop for the implementation of the pond-management plan.
“The system is drying out and the water right holder that typically would be in priority, they don’t have the amount of water they had in the past,” Heimerich said. “Ultimately, someone is taking a haircut that has a legitimate water right.”According to Colorado water law, anyone is allowed to divert water from a stream simply by putting it to beneficial use as long as it does not harm senior water-rights holders. To protect their ability to keep using the water and save their place in line, most users make their water right official by getting a decree through water court. This enshrines the water right in Colorado’s system of prior appropriation in which older water rights have first use of the river.
Because these undecreed ponds don’t have an official water right, they are taking water out of priority, which amounts to stealing water from senior users.
Matt Heimerich, the consumptive-use representative on the Arkansas River Basin Roundtable, said that over the past two decades the Arkansas River system has been under incredible pressure because of erratic and below-average flows. He described the shifting baseline of what constitutes a severe drought.
“It seems to me we just keep moving the bar lower,” he said. “How bad can the river get? We are always looking for the next threshold.”
Drought and warming temperatures fueled by climate change comprise the backdrop for the implementation of the pond-management plan.
“The system is drying out and the water right holder that typically would be in priority, they don’t have the amount of water they had in the past,” Heimerich said. “Ultimately, someone is taking a haircut that has a legitimate water right.”
In order to be allowed to keep water in a pond, pond owners must replace the water loss to the system, usually through what’s known as an augmentation plan.
In some areas in Division 2, pond owners can purchase water to replace their depletions through a conservancy district. Salida-based Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District offers this replacement water, but manager Ralph “Terry” Scanga doesn’t believe there is enough water to fully augment all the ponds in the already over-appropriated basin.
“That’s a concern of mine because that’s a lot of water,” Scanga said. “I don’t think it’s being overstated what the impact could be.”
Scanga, who also serves on the Arkansas River Basin Roundtable, said it may be time to prioritize certain water uses over others. Having domestic water for use in homes may be more essential than ponds for aesthetic purposes, he said.
“You may want that pond and you may have enough money to purchase that augmentation plan from the district, but is that a wise use of that resource?” Scanga said. “Those are the real hard questions that need to be asked.”
Un-decreed ponds can be found throughout the state, including in the Roaring Fork watershed. Last fall, Division 5 engineers issued five cease-and-desist orders for ponds without water rights that they said were out of priority and depleting the Colorado River system.
So far, state engineers are focusing their pond-management plan on just the Arkansas River basin; it’s not yet a statewide program. Still, Tyner said it’s a big undertaking for his division. It could take five years for engineers and water commissioners to work their way through all the ponds.
“How do you eat an elephant? It’s one bite at a time,” Tyner said. “Our approach is to be systematic about it and fair as we go.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Its water desk is supported by Sam Walton via the Catena Foundation. This story ran in the Feb. 1 edition of The Aspen Times.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel editorial board:
Nothing unites rivals like a common enemy.
Colorado may be notorious for its intrastate water conflicts, but a recent flurry of newspaper articles on the potential for water speculation by Wall Street firms has water managers across the state agreeing on one thing: Private investment in a precious public resource that dictates every aspect of life in the West is too risky to tolerate.
On [the January 30, 2021] front page, the Sentinel’s Dennis Webb traced the angst stemming from press coverage of this issue to its primary source: friction between James Eklund, a Grand Valley native and fifth-generation Coloradan, and the Colorado River District.
Eklund should be a familiar name. He is the former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. He played a major role in getting the state’s water factions to agree to a state water plan that former Gov. John Hickenlooper called for in 2013. Perhaps more relevant, Eklund served as the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission during negotiations over a drought contingency plan that saw creation of a special storage account in Lake Powell.
Water conserved under a “demand management” program would be stored in this separate account to ensure adequate delivery of water to Lower Basin states. It’s a hedge against a disastrous “compact call” in which Upper Basin water uses could be curtailed to meet delivery obligations of the 1922 interstate compact.
Eklund has since moved to private practice as a Denver-based water attorney. Among his clients is Water Asset Management, a New York investment firm that has spent more than $16 million buying more than 2,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the Grand Valley.
Naturally, the Colorado River District is suspicious about WAM’s intentions — even though Colorado has some of the toughest anti-speculation laws in the nation. While individual landowners own water rights, they must put water to “beneficial use,” which doesn’t include selling water for profit.
Still, “buy and dry” scenarios — in which water is converted from one beneficial use (agriculture) to another (municipal taps) illustrate the ongoing battle against the commoditization of water.
The Colorado River District’s executive director, Andy Mueller, has openly speculated that Eklund is behind a media campaign “to discuss the virtue of free markets and water markets” in the western United States.
More troubling is the district’s assertion that Eklund is trying to help WAM take advantage of a potential drought mitigation tool he helped set up — the storage account in Lake Powell — by lobbying for private accounts within that pool.
That would grease the skids for marketing water from the Upper Basin (where the water is) to the Lower Basin (where the money is).
Eklund met with the Sentinel’s editorial board on Jan. 22. With every right to be indignant about assertions he labeled as “flat-out false,” Eklund struck a conciliatory tone.
“I’m leading with empathy here,” he said. “I share the anxiety of private investment in Colorado water. I understand it.”
Much of Webb’s reporting recounts the series of events that led to the imbroglio, but it’s also offers Eklund an opportunity to defend himself. He wouldn’t push for private accounts in Lake Powell, he said, because it violates the “Law of the River” and undermines the benefit of the bargain Colorado got when it joined the 1922 compact.
Nor would he represent a client bent on profiteering, he said.
In contrast, Eklund said, WAM hasn’t done anything but invest in improvements on agricultural land — boosting efficiency, sequestering carbon in soils and keeping land in production.
“I care too much about my family (his parents operate a ranch in the Plateau Valley), the Western Slope and Colorado agriculture to advise anyone that would cause harm.”
As Eklund noted, for all the district’s concerns, there’s not much separating their views. “They want the Western Slope to control the Western Slope’s destiny and I completely agree with that,” he said.
Eklund will be judged on whether WAM deviates from its current course. In the meantime, the silver lining in this all of this mistrust is that it has brought into sharp focus the need to protect water.
There are all kinds of doomsday scenarios at our doorstep. If we hope to continue life in western Colorado as we know it, we need to fight any changes to the law and work like hell to prevent a call on the river.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
James Eklund remembers having to work to get the Colorado River District’s trust before, when he was director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and was seeking support for a state water plan.
He said when talks began on the plan it was “dead on arrival” among representatives of the Western Slope district.
“People were saying it’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s going to be an excuse for more transmountain diversions” of water to the Front Range, he recalls.
Eventually, a plan was agreed on that the district got behind. But these days Eklund once again finds himself in a battle to gain the district’s trust, now because of his work as a private water attorney representing a New York investment firm that has been buying up Mesa County agricultural land and associated water rights and leaving the river district nervous about its — and Eklund’s — intentions for that water.
Viewed from the river district’s perspective, Eklund is a Denver water attorney that the district fears is trying to help his client take advantage of a potential drought mitigation tool he helped set up, involving the storage of water in a dedicated account in Lake Powell.
But Eklund also is someone who was born in Grand Junction, to parents who own a family ranch in the Plateau Valley that his great-great-grandparents homesteaded in 1888.
He spent every summer there while growing up, and continues to visit and pitch in doing ranch chores to this day when time allows. Given that background, he insists that for all the river district’s concerns, there isn’t much daylight between it and him when it comes to the desire to protect the Western Slope and its water…
He said the river district wants the same thing he does — strong Western Slope agriculture and water that is not at risk…
A MEDIA CAMPAIGN?
The river district’s concerns about Eklund and Water Asset Management, the New York company that now owns more than 2,000 acres of agricultural land in the Grand Valley, were amplified as a result of a Jan. 3 New York Times article on Wall Street investments in the West, followed by a Denver Post guest column in support of temporary, compensated, voluntary fallowing of Western Slope irrigated land to bolster water levels in Lake Powell.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the river district, views the two pieces as part of a media strategy by Water Asset Management, and likely Eklund…
He also views it as an attempt to put pressure on the state and the Upper Colorado River Commission, which includes representatives from Colorado and other Upper Colorado River Basin states, to move forward quickly with a proposal for managing water demand in times of droughts through measures including fallowing by farmers and ranchers, without safeguards to protect local economies…
Agricultural, municipal and other water conserved under a demand management program would be stored in a separate account in Lake Powell as provided for under a drought contingency plan involving the states. It would be available to ensure adequate delivery of water to Lower Basin states as required under a 1922 interstate compact, in order to avoid a potential “compact call” under which Upper Basin water uses could be curtailed to meet delivery obligations.
The river district long has been insistent that water conserved through demand management be temporary, compensated and voluntary, concepts the Colorado Water Conservation Board has committed to as it explores the idea.
The river district also wants the impacts of conservation shared proportionally among users in a way that Western Slope agriculture and ag-based communities are protected…
Mueller also long has been concerned that some entities might push to set up individual accounts within the pool of water created through demand management, to protect water diversions for municipal utilities while Western Slope agricultural use gets shut down under a compact call.
Theoretically, water in those accounts could come from investment firms buying up Western Slope agricultural land and water rights.
Mueller believes Eklund is lobbying for such accounts, based in part on the Times article exploring the concept of a market-based approach to western water that could result in more water being moved from agriculture to municipal use.
If that’s true, it could be argued that Eklund is gaming the very system he helped set up. He served as Colorado’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission during the negotiations leading to the drought contingency plan agreements, including establishment of a separate storage account in Powell…
But Eklund said he isn’t pushing for private water accounts in Powell. Only sovereigns can hold water there — not special districts, private entities or individuals — he said.
“That’s always been the case. That always will be the case as far as I can see,” he said.
He said it’s also the way it should be, and he wouldn’t lobby to change something he doesn’t believe in…
Eklund said allowing only sovereigns to hold water in the reservoir is linked to the bargain Upper Basin states got from the 1922 compact. That deal assured that Upper Basin states could develop water at their own pace, as opposed to fast-growing places such as southern California getting their hands on the bulk of Colorado River water.
Mueller told The Daily Sentinel that he knows Water Asset Management has been directly in contact with several Front Range water utilities arguing for their support for individual accounts in Powell.
“James Eklund himself was in the halls of one of the water utilities while I was there, doing exactly that, meeting with them and trying to lobby them for their support on those individual accounts,” Mueller said.
“That’s an amazing accusation,” Eklund said when told of Mueller’s comments. He added that Mueller’s assertion is “flat-out false.”
Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said, “Mr. Eklund has not been lobbying us on the matter of private accounts, and certainly has not done so in our hallways, as they’ve been largely empty since remote work began amid COVID-19 in March of last year.”
Hartman added that “Denver Water is in opposition to the concept of private water storage pools in Powell, as is the law. Private sector entities don’t have the legal ability to manage water across state lines nor within federally owned reservoirs. This can only be done by the states and the federal government.”
Eklund said he understands the river district’s nervousness about what’s being characterized as outside investments in Colorado water. Its job is to protect West Slope water, he said…
[Mueller] said Water Asset Management views water scarcity on the Colorado River as an opportunity to make money by moving water from rural to urban areas. The district believes investment firms are angling to speculate on Colorado’s water, contrary to Colorado’s antispeculation laws when it comes to water. A state task force is looking at strengthening such laws…
The Times article was followed within days by a column in the Denver Post by Brian Richter bluntly headlined, “Western Slope needs to suspend irrigation to avert water shortage catastrophe,” in which Richter supports agriculture playing a role in helping boost Powell water levels…
He said all he and Water Asset Management can do is “make sure we walk the talk” by the company not taking actions such as flipping water for profit and being involved in buy-and-dry schemes to move water off agricultural lands. Eklund said it hasn’t done such things during three years of being invested in the Grand Valley. Rather, he said it is investing in improvements, boosting efficiency, sequestering carbon in soils and keeping land in production.
Eklund said he doesn’t represent companies that speculate on water, and antispeculation is important to him just as it is to the river district.
The San Juan Water Commission is considering asking for a release of Animas-La Plata Project Water. This water is stored in Lake Nighthorse in Durango, Colorado.
If the commission chooses to move forward with the release, it would be the first time that water is released from Lake Nighthorse upon the request of the San Juan Water Commission.
During the drought of 2018, the San Juan Water Commission took steps to request a release on behalf of the City of Farmington. However that release was cancelled as storms brought rain to the Four Corners region.
The water commission has been discussing a release from Lake Nighthorse as a test run that would allow it to address potential issues that could emerge. For example, making sure the water released from the reservoir reaches its intended destination.
The San Juan Water Commission meets at 9 a.m. Feb. 3 via Google Meets. A link is available on the agenda posted at sjwc.org.
Other agenda topics include legislation and long-term water development opportunities.
New Mexico water agencies are urging farmers to think twice about planting crops in what could be a tight water year. The state faces a big water debt to downstream users, and a multi-year drought is taking its toll.
The Office of the State Engineer recommends “that farmers along the Rio Chama and in the Middle Valley that don’t absolutely need to farm this year, do not farm,” according to a staff report that Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen presented to the Commission earlier this month.
Irrigation supply along the river from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Reservoir is governed by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. The district cut its 2020 irrigation season a month short, because there wasn’t enough water to go around. A shorter season also helped deliver some river water to Elephant Butte as part of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact obligations.
In January, the district board voted to delay the start of the 2021 season until April 1, a month later than usual.
This year is on track to be a situation of water shortages and storage restrictions unlike any since the 1950s, said Mike Hamman, the district’s chief engineer and CEO and an Interstate Stream Commissioner. The district also anticipates receiving as little as half the usual allotment of San Juan-Chama water.
“The hydrology really started to shift in the early ’90s,” Hamman said. “We’ve got into this cycle of below-average, average, above-average years, and I’ve noticed that our climatic conditions (limit) the available snowpack. That exacerbates things a little bit more now, where we need to have well-above-average snowpacks to address the poor watershed conditions that may have resulted from a poor summer rain period or fall moisture.”
Regional farmers are advised to prepare for severe water shortages by exercising “extreme caution” in planting crops this spring and by using any available water only for the most essential uses…
The current Rio Grande Compact water debt of about 100,000 acre-feet, or 32 billion gallons, restricts how much the state can store in reservoirs.
By the end of January, the state will have released about 3,200 acre-feet, or about 1 billion gallons, of “debit water” from El Vado and Nichols Reservoir near Santa Fe to Elephant Butte.
Last year’s monsoon season from May to September was the driest on record for New Mexico.
The Rio Grande could go completely dry this summer all the way from Angostura Dam north of Bernalillo through Albuquerque, especially if this year brings another lackluster monsoon season…
‘Last page in our playbook’
The fail-safe options New Mexico relied on last year to stretch the Rio Grande water supply won’t be available this year. This summer on the river may look like what water managers and environmental groups worked to stave off during last year’s hot, dry summer months.
The Middle Rio Grande didn’t look good in July 2020. The MRCGD had just a few days of water supply left.
No water could have meant no irrigation for farmers, but also limited river habitat for endangered species, scarce drinking water supply for local communities, and meager flows for river recreation.
Then came word from the other Rio Grande Compact states of Colorado and Texas: New Mexico had permission to boost river flows by releasing a total of 12 billion gallons from El Vado Reservoir.
“That was the last page in our playbook, or pretty darn close to it,” Schmidt-Petersen told the Journal.
The release kept the Rio Grande from drying completely in the Albuquerque stretch and helped extend the irrigation season for central New Mexico farmers.
Colorado River water diverted via the San Juan-Chama Project also added to the trickling native Rio Grande flows.
Last summer’s massive release from El Vado was water that had been stored as assurance that the state’s Rio Grande Compact debt would be paid.
That water is gone. New Mexico still has to “pay back” the 12 billion gallons, plus any obligations accrued this year.
State Engineer John D’Antonio said the drought is shaping up to be as severe as the conditions the state experienced in the 1950s.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s December 2020 emergency drought declaration could provide some financial relief for communities affected by the record-setting dry conditions.
“There could be appropriated up to $750,000 for each eligible and qualified applicant that the governor may designate from the surplus unappropriated money in the general fund, if there is any,” D’Antonio said.
The state Drought Task Force would determine which organizations or local governments receive the money, which under the emergency declaration could be used for water conservation projects, to offset economic losses caused by the drought, or as a match for federal funding.
New Mexico will endure another double whammy of limited water supply and growing Rio Grande Compact water debt if snowpack levels don’t improve dramatically by early spring.
Statewide snowmelt runoff forecasts published Jan. 1 showed most of New Mexico at less than 80% of normal levels.
Since then, some snowstorms have brought much-needed moisture to the northern half of the state.
But New Mexico needs several months of above-average snow and rain to dig out of a drought before the hot summer months.
Groundwater wells in the lower Rio Grande region of southern New Mexico supply water for municipal and agricultural uses when the river is low.
“That’s not the same in the middle valley for all the farmers there,” Schmidt-Petersen said. “There are limitations on wells that have been in place for long periods of time, so some places can pump and some cannot, and similarly all the way up the Chama.”
Various efforts along the river or tributaries annually remove about 1.2 million tons of salt. But the largest brine-removal system in the basin has been shuttered for two years over earthquake concerns. In December, President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration released a final environmental review on what to do about it.
The chosen course: No action, leaving the fate of the project and of salt removal murky. Now local suppliers say they will be pressing the Biden administration to do the opposite.
“For the last two years the salt has been flowing back into the river,” said Bill Hasencamp, chair of the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum, which represents all of the states that draw from the river. “We were very disappointed. There’s no plan to capture [it] going forward.”
Water suppliers have filed comment letters about the “no action” decision and sent letters to former Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. The average annual economic loss from salinity levels in the Colorado River is estimated to be $495 million, Reclamation said in its environmental review.
At issue is the Paradox Valley Unit near the Colorado-Utah border. The project, in operation since 1996, took saline groundwater before it could hit the Colorado and the Dolores River, a tributary, and injected it more than three miles beneath the surface into a well disconnected from the river system. About 95,000 tons of salt were removed each year.
But injecting, like hydraulic fracturing, can cause seismic shifts.
Reclamation shut down Paradox Valley in March 2019 after a magnitude 4.1 earthquake, which the U.S. Geological Survey considers moderate in size. Operations resumed for a six-week test at reduced use in spring 2020, but the well currently isn’t operating.
Technical experts are evaluating next steps and it’s too soon for the agency to propose a new salinity control plan, Reclamation spokeswoman Linda Friar said in an email.
The agency currently doesn’t plan to issue a record of decision, which would finalize the “no action” plan Reclamation selected, she said.
Hasencamp, also manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and others had pushed for that delay in comments filed with Reclamation earlier this month…
In its environmental review, Reclamation considered and rejected building a new injection well, using evaporation ponds for brine to be treated at the surface, and building a discharge facility to evaporate and condense water before sending salt to a landfill.
The “no action” alternative was “in the best interest of public health and safety,” Ed Warner, Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area office manager, said in a news release.
James Eklund, former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said when he served as the state’s representative on salinity control programs, he was “pretty adamant” that the bureau should switch from earthquake-causing deep injection wells to evaporating ponds in order to deal with the saltwater. Eklund is now at Denver-based Eklund Hanlon LLC…
But more than 600 miles south, the loss of Paradox Valley could increase salinity levels at Imperial Dam by 9 to 10 parts per million, which could lead to $23 million in estimated economic losses each year, Harris, from the Colorado River Board of California, said in a December letter to Burman, a Trump appointee no longer in office.
The EPA doesn’t have a drinking water standard for sodium chloride, but it has a voluntary standard of 250 parts per million for chloride, a component of salt. Voluntary standards are generally related more to aesthetic concerns like taste and appearance.
“It’s not huge, but we get essentially a ton of salt in every acre-foot of water,” said Tina Shields, water manager for Imperial Irrigation District, which borders Mexico. “If you don’t continue to implement these upstream salinity control measures by default, it can only go up.”
Nearly all farmers in the Imperial Irrigation District have drains installed beneath the surface to leach salt away from crops, which requires even more water. But that’s not a permanent solution.
Imperial is the last stop for water before it gets into Mexico, where the Colorado River delivers water to 2.3 million people and 500,000 acres of agriculture…
Urban areas will be able to weather the salt problem better than agricultural ones because they have mass treatment to comply with drinking water standards, said Patricia Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and owner of the consulting firm Sustainable Strategies.
Paradox Valley Location Map. Credit: Bureau of Reclamation
The Paradox Valley in western Colorado, a place with uranium mineral deposits. (Photo by Emily Hunnicutt via Flickr: Creative Commons)
Pagosa Country received nearly 20 inches of snow throughout the past week.
As of 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 27, Wolf Creek Ski Area reported 51 inches of new snow received over the previous seven days. The recent storms put the ski area at 228 inches of total snowfall received so far this season…
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report, the Wolf Creek Summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 20.4 inches of snow water equivalent as of 2 p.m. on Jan. 27.
That amount is 102 percent of the Jan. 27 median for this site.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins were at 79 percent of the Jan. 27 median in terms of snowpack.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 37 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 27.
Based on 85 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 58 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 2005 at 152 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 22 cfs, recorded in 1990.
The Piedra River was flowing at a rate of just under 50 cfs near Arboles as of Monday, Jan. 25. An instantaneous value was unavailable for Jan. 27.
Based on 58 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for Jan. 27 is 75 cfs.
The highest recorded rate was 287 cfs in 2005. The lowest recorded rate was 18.6 in 2003.
Aurora Water, the city’s water utility, will co-chair the regional group.
Spokesperson Greg Baker said it’s still too early to tell whether Aurora Water’s vast network of reservoirs and sources will lose enough water to trigger use restrictions in city limits. So far, dry soils, low snowpack and extreme drought conditions in much of the state aren’t painting the picture of a summer flush with water…
The utility and others are banking on big snow-makers hitting the mountains in the spring, which tremendously benefit water networks in high river basins…
Currently, Aurora Water has about two years of water supply stored in various reservoirs and facilities. The utility usually hopes for a three-year supply in storage, and low levels may trigger restrictions, Bak