#MancosRiver watershed plan update

Mancos and the Mesa Verde area from the La Plata Mountains.

From the Colorado Ag Water Alliance via the Fencepost:

Agricultural producers in southwest Colorado, mostly cow-calf ranchers, expended less labor to access the same amount of water to irrigate their pastures since implementing improvements to their irrigation ditches as part of a community-wide project. They also have seen improvement in riparian habitats. A new video, which can be viewed at https://www.coagwater.org/stream-management, portrays the impact to the community of these project improvements.

The improvements were implemented following development of the Mancos Watershed Plan in 2011. The community project was able to acquire $6 million along with Natural Resources Conservation Service cost share dollars to improve irrigation ditch diversion structures, install pipe irrigation systems and reduce ditch bank erosion in some of the 49 ditches that divert water off the Mancos River and its tributaries. The funding also allowed the watershed to improve the river’s fisheries.

“Ranchers involved in the project were skeptical at first of the help proposed by the watershed plan and the different values and perspectives of those involved in the project,” said Gretchen Rank, director of the Mancos Conservation District. “But as they saw the opportunities to improve their irrigation system, while also improving the environmental health of the river, they agreed to work together on the project.”

“We learned not to make assumptions based on personal views and knowledge,” Rank said. “Involvement in the stakeholder process enabled participants to recognize the diversity of opinions, needs and knowledge that are brought to the table. Throughout the process, participants gained respect for other perspectives, often changing the way they think about the watershed. Decisions made at the watershed level affect everyone within that watershed, so it is important that decisions are data driven and community informed for the best possible outcomes.”

Through the watershed planning process, several ditches were identified as being in dire need of better diversion structures that would require a lot less maintenance and upkeep, according to Ben Wolcott, Wolcott Ranch, Mancos, Colo., who also served on the Mancos Conservation District board of directors.

“Before any of this got upgraded, irrigation diversions were just push-up structures and anything cobbled together, sometimes tree trunks and whatever was in the river,” said Wolcott. “Most years we didn’t even get any water, but now with the new diversion structures and screens we have in place in front of piped ditches, we’ve seen leaps and bounds in (improved) efficiency. I go to each headgate once a week instead of daily, and that is mostly a five-minute maintenance check. The diversions can handle high water really well and then still divert water under low flows.”

Another rancher who has benefited from the project is Ryan Brown, Reddert Ranch, Mancos, Colo. “Over my 60 years, I’ve seen the river channel deepen, which makes it harder to dam up diversions. It was helpful when the Mancos Conservation District came to us and asked if it could help make those diversions more efficient.”

Tom Weaver, Ratliff Homestead, Mancos, Colo., said that before water piping was installed there was a lot of seepage and evaporation in his and his neighbor’s irrigation ditch. “There’s more (water) going down the river now due to increased efficiency.”

Rank added that the piping and diversion improvements have allowed fish to pass through upstream to reach their spawning grounds, while reducing soil erosion and the spread of noxious weeds.

“I think it is important for local landowners to stay involved with their communities and with the organizations that are helping facilitate the changes and improvements like this,” said Wolcott. “Their voice can be heard, and their values can be shared.”

The Mancos Watershed Plan is the second of three projects showcased in a video series. The series is produced by the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and River Network with the goal of demonstrating how farmers, ranchers, ditch companies, conservation districts, environmental groups and other entities have come together to improve river health, irrigation efficiency and environmental and recreational use of Colorado’s limited water supplies.

“As Colorado’s population grows, farmland is pressured by development, and agricultural water is being sold or rented to municipalities,” said Greg Peterson, CAWA executive director. “It is imperative that we work with others to preserve agricultural irrigation water and that farmers and ranchers get involved in watershed planning.”

To see a six-minute video of the Mancos Watershed Project, a fact sheet on this project and other resources, visit https://www.coagwater.org/stream-management. For more resources on funding for agricultural infrastructure improvements, contact Greg Peterson with the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance at coagwater@gmail.com.

Grants to help fund stream management planning, such as those used by the Mancos Watershed Project, are available through the Colorado Water Conservation Board. For more information on stream management planning in your area, visit http://coloradosmp.org or contact Alyssa Clarida with the Colorado Department of Agriculture State Conservation Board at alyssa.clarida@state.co.us

Southwestern Water Conservation District’s Annual Water Seminar: Friday, November 1, 2019

Swim class on the San Juan River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click here for all the inside skinny:

The 37th Annual Water Seminar will be kicked off by SWCD’s new executive director, Frank Kugel. He has a strong track record of building partnerships and leveraging local resources for collaborative water solutions. Frank will speak to some of the challenges SWCD sees facing water management in southwestern Colorado, and opportunities for our communities to proactively address them.

Anxious for winter storms? First, we’ll hear about the forecast from KKTV meteorologist Brian Bledsoe, and cutting-edge methods for snowpack measurement from Jeff Deems of the National Snow & Ice Data Center.

No water seminar in 2019 would be complete without a discussion of the state’s current feasibility investigation of a demand management program. Mark Harris, Grand Valley Water Users Association, will moderate a panel of heavy hitters on the topic: Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell, The Nature Conservancy Water Projects Director Aaron Derwingson, and Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller.

Further expanding on the subject, we’ll hear a proposal from local economist Steve Ruddell and consultant Dave Stiller which challenges the notion that a successful *and* voluntary, temporary, compensated demand management program would be impossible. State Senator Don Coram and State Representative Marc Catlin will react to this proposal and provide their thoughts more generally on funding water management in Colorado.

And if you haven’t heard the latest results of the West Slope Risk Assessment, John Currier, Colorado River District, will be summarizing the report for southwestern Colorado and taking questions. Jayla Poppleton, Water Education Colorado, will also preview several exciting programs and content making waves across the state. Watch your inbox for the final program, coming soon!

Reserve your seat now. Registration includes catered breakfast and lunch. Click here to register or call 970-247-1302.

Southwestern Water Conservation District Area Map. Credit: SWCD

The Water Information Program August/September 2019 Newsletter is hot off the presses #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Southwestern Water Conservation District Hires New Executive Director

Southwestern Water Conservation District (SWCD) is pleased to announce the confirmation of their new Executive Director, Frank Kugel.

Frank Kugel. Photo credit: Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District

Kugel was the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District for almost 13 years, and is a registered Professional Engineer with a Civil Engineering degree from the University of Colorado – Denver. Frank was involved in construction engineering in the Denver area before joining the Colorado Division of Water Resources as a Dam Safety Engineer. He served in the Denver and Durango offices of DWR before moving to Montrose where he ultimately became Division 4 Engineer for the Gunnison, San Miguel and lower Dolores Basins. Frank joined the UGRWCD upon leaving DWR in 2006. He was a member of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable since its inception and chair of its Basin Implementation Planning Subcommittee.

WIP had a brief chat with Frank to give you a bit more information. Here are a few questions and answers from our conversation.

WIP: What experience and knowledge do you bring to the District?

Frank: I have been the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District for the past 13 years. During that time I worked on local and statewide water issues and reported to an 11-member board. Prior to that, I was Division Engineer for Water Division 4, encompassing the Gunnison, San Miguel and lower Dolores River basins. As Division Engineer, I frequently attended SWCD board meetings and the SW seminar. Before that, I lived in Durango for 11 years while inspecting dams for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

WIP: As the new Executive Director of SWCD, what is your vision for the district?

Frank: My vision as Executive Director is to build upon the many successes accomplished by the Southwestern Water Conservation District. I intend to work closely with the board of directors in developing policies that will help guide the district. Instream flows and drought contingency planning are two of the areas that could benefit from policy guidance.

WIP: What are some of your top priorities with/or within the district?

Frank: A top priority for me is to reach out to the local communities. I plan to attend a county commissioner meeting in each of the nine counties within my first year at the district. Working on Colorado River issues will also be a high priority.

WIP: What do you foresee being challenges?

Frank: Facing a future with reduced water supplies due to climate change, coupled with increasing population, is a challenge for all of Colorado. The Southwest District can play a lead role in educating our constituents about this pending gap between water supply and demand and how the District can mitigate its impact.

We welcome Frank Kugel to SWCD and wish him all the best in his new position!

Southwestern Water Conservation District Area Map. Credit: SWCD

@USBR begins Mancos Water Conservancy District repayment contract negotations for Jackson Gulch Canal System rehabilitation, November 5, 2018

Jackson Gulch Dam photo via USBR

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Marc Miller, Justyn Liff):

The Bureau of Reclamation is initiating negotiations on an amended repayment contract with the Mancos Water Conservancy District for the rehabilitation of the Jackson Gulch Canal System and other infrastructure. The first negotiation meeting is scheduled for Monday, November 5, 2018, at 6:00 p.m. at the Mancos Community Center, 117 North Main Street, Mancos, Colorado.

The amended contract to be negotiated will provide updated terms, and further flexibility to fund rehabilitation work for the project. All negotiations are open to the public as observers, and the public will have the opportunity to ask questions and offer comments pertaining to the contract during a thirty-minute comment period following the negotiation session.

The proposed contract and other pertinent documents will be available at the negotiation meeting, or can be obtained on our website at: http://www.usbr.gov/uc/wcao/index.html, under Current Focus or by contacting Marc Miller at 185 Suttle Street, Suite 2, Durango, Colorado, 81301, 970 385-6541 or mbmiller@usbr.gov.

Mesa Verde piñon-juniper forests struggle to return after wildfires #ActOnClimate

Pinon and juniper forests that burned in the early 2000s show little sign of regeneration. Pony Fire area photo credit AWeekOrAWeekend.com.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

From 2000 to 2003, a series of wildfires ripped through Mesa Verde National Park, burning about 24,000-acres – nearly half of the park’s old growth forest.

Now, almost two decades later, park managers and biologists are concerned that the piñon-juniper woodland is showing virtually no signs of growing back, posing the tough question: Will Mesa Verde’s iconic forests ever be the same?

“We’re very concerned about the park’s woodlands,” said George San Miguel, Mesa Verde’s natural resource manager. “Because if we lose the park’s forests entirely, or if we have only scattered remnants, it won’t tell the same story.”

Mesa Verde is both a national park and World Heritage site, home to more than 4,300 archaeological sites of the ancestral Puebloan people, and most notably known for the 600 cliff dwellings within the park’s 52,485-acre boundary…

Yet as researchers rediscovered Mesa Verde in the late 19th century, leading to a national park designation in 1906, it became abundantly clear the original inhabitants of the area used the piñon-juniper woodland in ingenious ways.

“The people that lived here learned to be part of the ecosystem, part of woodland,” San Miguel said.

Ancestral Puebloans not only harvested wood to endure harsh winters, build structures and make tools, they also relied heavily on the protein-rich piñon nuts as a staple of their diet…

A vulnerable forest
In the mid-to-late 1990s, the invasive Ips beetle found its way into Mesa Verde and wiped out the old-growth piñon in its path, the oldest of which ranged from 500 to 1,000 years old.

Then, a severe drought in the 1990s caused perfect fire conditions – dead, dry trees – so when a lightning strike hit private property near the entrance of Mesa Verde at about 1:30 p.m. July 20, 2000, it wasn’t long before a fire spread, ultimately consuming 19,607 acres within the park.

Though this fire, called the Bircher Fire, consumed the greatest amount of forest, several other fires in the ensuing years, notably the Pony and Long Mesa fires, also took their toll in the park. Both were also caused by lightning strikes.

“If you fly over, there’s fire scars everywhere,” said Steve Underwood, park fire-management officer. “You’re seeing these forests change, and it’s very startling. And it’s happened not just over the course of my lifetime, but my career.”

Piñon and juniper woodlands thrive in high-elevation deserts, usually between 4,500 to 7,500 feet. And while the hardy plants can survive a mere 7 to 25 inches of rain a year, they are terribly ill equipped to deal with wildfire.

“These trees evolved not to deal with fire,” said Renee Rondeau, a conservation biologist with Colorado Natural Heritage Program. “They can go without fire and it would not affect them, which tells you the places they grow did not, historically, have a lot of fires.”

Yet with the introduction of Western civilization in the American Southwest, and the impacts associated with climate change, such as drier years and an increased risk of wildfire, the new reality is that piñon-juniper woodlands may not be adapted for future survival.

Conditions inhibit regrowth
Even in perfect natural conditions, piñon and junipers take a long, long time to grow.

Piñon, for instance, don’t produce germinating seeds until they reach 75 years in age. And even then, the plants only produce seeds every seven to eight years, requiring non-drought conditions and proper dispersing by animals.

According to National Park Service data, piñon-juniper woodlands cover as much as 15 percent of land in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

“How can something that’s that picky be that common?” Rondeau said. “That just tells you the climate has been fairly stable for quite a while.”

Yet now a multitude of factors seem to be inhibiting piñon-juniper regeneration in the burned areas of Mesa Verde.

Warmer and drier conditions, associated with the impacts of climate change, and therefore increased fire risk, seem to be directly affecting the woodland’s regrowth, researchers said.

And then enter issues with more competitive Gambel oak and invasive species, such as cheat grass, and the question surfaces whether the piñon-junipers can ever gain a stronghold again.

The issue is not specific to Mesa Verde.

At Bandelier National Monument, another ancestral Puebloan site in New Mexico, a series of high-severity wildfires consumed the predominately ponderosa forests, which are now overtaken by a variety of shrubs.

“We’re researching that question right now: Why aren’t we getting pine regeneration?” said chief of resource management Jeremy Sweat. “And we may have to redefine recovery, because we’re not sure some of these forest types will ever return.”

Last year, the Los Alamos National Laboratory released a study that suggested piñon-junipers could be wiped out of the American Southwest by the end of this century as a result of climate change.

Rondeau said models of different scenarios of piñon-juniper habitat in 2035 and 2065 found that while there may be some refuges for the woodland, suitable habitat will significantly diminish over time.

“If we can get our carbon emissions down and … keep (these forests) from burning, maybe our grandkids will be able to have piñon here,” Rondeau said.

What about the future?
“One of the most common questions we get is when and why was there a burn,” Underwood said of Mesa Verde’s visitors, which hit 583,527 last year. “We’ve added signs around the park, delineating each fire.”

San Miguel said there are indications in the park that piñon-junipers can grow back. A 200-acre area known as the Glades that burned around 1700 or so does have a patch of young piñon-juniper trees, about 200 years old.

“That’s our reference,” San Miguel said. “That’s what happens with fire and natural regeneration under good conditions.”

But if global temperatures continue to rise at their current pace and increase 5 to 7 degrees by the end of this century as scientists predict, San Miguel said, and fires continue to plague the arid desert landscape, it may be time to rethink what Mesa Verde will look like.

Carbon dating conducted a few years ago in the park of sediment deposits went back tens of thousands of years, finding that Mesa Verde at one time supported ponderosa and Douglas fir in wetter years, and was absent of piñon-juniper in drier years.

These are indications that Mesa Verde’s forests have changed over time, San Miguel said. But human impacts are creating a complication of unknowns in the process.

“What we’re heading for now is not necessarily unprecedented,” San Miguel said, “but you throw in invasive plants and fires, and then you have a wild card that throws everything into question.”

Boating halted at Totten Reservoir, prevention of quagga and zebra infestation cited

Zebra and Quagga Mussels

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The Dolores Water Conservancy District board voted unanimously on Thursday to close Totten Lake to all boating to prevent contamination by non-native quagga and zebra mussels…

The Totten closure follows a boating ban on Narraguinnep Reservoir, enacted last week by the privately owned Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., which also cited the mussel threat.

“To prevent a mussel contamination, and to be consistent with MVIC’s decision, the board voted to prohibit all boating on Totten,” said DWCD general manager Mike Preston.

The boating ban on the two lakes is for all non-motorized and motorized, and includes kayaks, canoes, stand-up boards, windsurfers, oar boats, rafts and jet-skis. Fishing at the popular lake will be allowed from the shore.

“There was a lot of debate on our board about possible exceptions, but the board decided that to be clear, and best protect our irrigators, the ban will be to all boating,” said MVIC manager Brandon Johnson.

A boating closure order for Totten is being drawn up in cooperation with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which manages the fishery. A locked gate on the boat ramp will be installed soon. Narraguinnep already has a locked gate installed. Violators at Totten and Narraguinnep will be issued tickets by Parks and Wildlife and the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office.

Boat inspection stations are effective at preventing a mussel contamination in lakes. But there is no funding for inspection stations at Totten or Narraguinnep, so managers say their only other option is to close them to boating because the contamination risk is too great.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District is also tightening up boating access on McPhee this year to better prevent the mussels from entering the regional irrigation reservoir.

Boating is still allowed at McPhee because there is funding for boat inspections. But access for motorized and trailered watercraft is only allowed during the season through two boat inspection stations at the McPhee and House Creek boat ramps.

When the stations are closed, newly installed locked gates will prevent lake access. In the past, boats could still launch when the inspection stations were closed.

To accommodate boaters who return to the ramps after the boat stations are locked, one-way spike strips will be installed this season to allow boaters to exit the lake after hours.

“We made that concession to prevent boaters from becoming stranded on the lake,” said McPhee engineer Ken Curtis.

McPhee managers adopted the state standard for preventing the mussel that requires trailered and motorized boats to be inspected, but allows non-motorized, hand-launched craft to enter the lake anywhere without inspection.

In general, non-motorized kayaks, canoes, rowboats, stand-up boards, and windsurfers pose less of a risk or contaminating a waterway with mussels.

However, mussels on a boat from an infected lake can be transported to another waterway.

All boats and their motors should be cleaned, drained and dried before entering a waterway and after leaving a waterway.

MVIC also owns Groundhog Reservoir, and is considering closing it to boating. A decision is expected soon.

Southwestern Water Conservation District board shuffled

San Juan wildflowers.

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Board President John Porter and Vice President Steve Fearn, representatives of Montezuma and San Juan counties, respectively, were voted off the board by commissioners in their respective counties.

Fearn, a prominent longtime coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, has represented San Juan County on the water conservation board since 1990 and served as vice president since 2007.

But San Juan County commissioners said Fearn’s representation no longer reflects county values, which have changed significantly since Silverton’s mining days to include more recreational interests with respect to water, county attorney Paul Sunderland said…

Commissioners voted to appoint Charlie Smith, part-time Silverton resident and eight-year general manager of the Lake Durango Water Authority, as Fearn’s replacement.

“Commissioners thought Charlie Smith would better represent San Juan County,” Sunderland said. “He has a lot of water expertise, and he’s probably more in tune with the wants of the current board. Historically, San Juan County has been largely dominated by mining interests, and Steve Fearn is very much associated with those interests, but the board’s interests have shifted more toward recreation.”

The fact that the state of New Mexico named Fearn in a lawsuit as a “potentially responsible party” for mine pollution in the Gladstone area was noted in the county’s decision, Sunderland said.

“It’s definitely something we’re aware of, given his ownership interests around Gladstone,” he said…

The board consists of nine members representing Archuleta, Dolores, Hinsdale, La Plata, Mineral, Montezuma, Montrose, San Juan and San Miguel counties. Board directors can serve an unlimited number of three-year terms.

“I want to make sure the county’s views are represented,” Smith told The Durango Herald. “I have an understanding of their water rights, and a lot of work needs to be done to secure those rights and make sure the uses align with what the county envisions.”

Montezuma County commissioners selected Don Schwindt to replace Porter, who was general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District for 22 years and a Southwestern board director for 26.

Schwindt is a director on the Dolores Water Conservancy District board and a critic of the Dolores National Conservation Area, a controversial proposal in Montezuma County to congressionally protect land and water along the lower Dolores…

Porter thinks the proposal, criticized by Montezuma County commissioners, influenced his removal. Under Porter’s leadership, Southwestern Water Conservation District contributed funds to hire a water attorney to rewrite draft National Conservation Area legislation, which Porter thinks was perceived as support for the bill.

“I perceived the funding as an effort so everyone involved knew all the problems, the facts on both sides and could intelligently make a decision,” Porter said. “I think Southwestern’s involvement was perceived by others that we were very much in favor of the NCA legislation. That had something to do with it, and the fact that I’m 80-plus, and my 26 years on the board.”

Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Suckla said the commission chose Schwindt because of his water knowledge, and the conservation area proposal did not play a part in the decision.

“Don has shown ways that he would save water and retain water for farmers and ranchers,” Suckla said. “John Porter is an icon for Montezuma County. He was involved in the management of the lake (McPhee Reservoir), and all the benefits the county has received from that is because of the work he did, but it felt like it was time for new eyes.”

When Porter joined the board in 1990, he said water storage and dam construction were the district’s primary focus, including such projects as Lake Nighthorse. But gradually, the focus broadened to consider recreational water use and water quality.

Porter refers to his tenure as a career highlight, and said the importance of inter-basin relations and dialogue will only increase as time goes on, water supply dwindles and population grows.

“You’re asking someone who’s biased, but I’ve always felt that the Southwestern board tried its very best to represent all interests,” Porter said. “True, the majority of the members, including myself, were and still are agriculture-oriented. Yet to me, as Colorado’s population grows, it’s inevitable that our water supply will be drying up agriculture. And that’s not in our best interest, but I don’t see a way of satisfying municipal needs that we’re going to have without drying up some ag use. Irrigation takes a lot of water, and just that amount converted to municipal use will take care of a lot of families in an urban situation.”