Wyoming’s Powder, Bighorn and North Platte rivers serve as headwaters of the Missouri River. They begin as trickles in the mountains and rush down into bottomlands as they gain volume. Once, all three ran full with a buffet of warm- and cool-water fish, from the prehistoric, armor-plated shovelnose sturgeon to the shimmery goldeye.
That’s where their similarities end.
Today, the Powder River remains one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the West. The Bighorn River has several dams, but still retains some of its native species. The North Platte River, on the other hand, has been fundamentally altered. What pollution didn’t kill was largely extirpated by dams and irrigation projects…
It’s no surprise then, that the uninterrupted Powder River still retains the same suite of native fish as it had millennia ago. Sauger, plains minnow, sturgeon chub and many other species swim in its waters. The North Platte, meanwhile, transformed slowly over the course of the mid-to-late 1900s into a thriving cold-water fishery with trophy brown and rainbow trout.
But biologists see a future where at least some of those native fish can be restored not only to the Bighorn River, where species have been lost or are struggling, but also to the lower stretches of the North Platte…
Sauger once ran up and down the North Platte River in such abundance that historical records show they were a major food source for soldiers stationed at Fort Laramie. Sauger are a bit smaller than their nonnative but more popular cousin the walleye, and have telltale black spots on their dorsal fins, said David Zafft, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s fisheries management coordinator…
But where sauger struggled in the Platte, they held on in the undammed and relatively untouched Powder River. They can also be found in sections of the Wind River, and have maintained strongholds in the Bighorn River — the same stream by a different name — largely downstream of Worland…
If you wondered what a swimming dinosaur might have resembled, take a look at the shovelnose sturgeon.
The ancient fish is covered in armored plates and has a giant forked tail and long nose used to scoot sand away from river bottoms to find food. Wyoming’s state record is only 10 pounds — big but not notable for a fish in the state — but that record catch measured an impressive 44 inches long…
Unfortunately, the shovelnose sturgeon went the same way as the sauger in the North Platte River. It needs long expanses of uninterrupted running water to spawn and survive, something the Platte lacked once it was developed into a series of reservoirs.
They are doing well in the Powder River, but were largely extirpated from the Bighorn River until reintroduction efforts in the mid-90s, Zafft said. Shovelnose sturgeon were stocked almost every year between 1996 and 2020, when the final batch poured in…
One of the largest channel catfish recorded in the state in its native range came from a fish survey in Glendo Reservoir. Biologists estimated it weighed between 25 and 30 pounds, but an exact measurement proved impossible because it was too big for the scale.
Channel catfish are often associated with southern states, but they were also abundant in the Platte, Powder and Bighorn. Like the others, channel catfish were gone from the Platte by the mid-1900s, but unlike other species, they are now thriving in places like Glendo Reservoir, Zafft said.
There, fisheries biologists have been stocking about 20,000 a year, with another 8,000 stocked in the North Platte River above Glendo. These catfish are not completely the original, though. Native channel catfish are part of a harder-to-obtain northern strain, and biologists have been reintroducing a southern strain imported from Arkansas.
Channel catfish are still sustainably reproducing in the Bighorn and Powder rivers, and are, according to Zafft, one of the state’s “most underutilized game fish.”
Somewhere in the slow-moving expanses of the Powder River near the Montana border is a nongame fish that looks like a herring.
The goldeye — a member of the mooneye family — has a compressed body, keeled belly and giant eyes.
They’re not classified as game fish, but they’re aggressive and “fight like crazy,” said Zafft. They also grow to be up to 15 inches long.
They’re gone now from the North Platte, and likely won’t be reintroduced. Biologists say they couldn’t naturally reproduce anymore because of the system of dams and reservoirs.
But goldeye are another fish that still thrives in the strange Powder River system.
FromWyofile.com (Angus M. Thuermer Jr) via The Wyoming Business Report:
Lawmakers appropriated $24.3 million for water development, earmarking significant funding to rebuild the old and suspect LaPrele Dam above Douglas and repair a domestic water line to Midwest and Edgerton.
The Wyoming House and Senate both approved two water bills last week despite questions over cloud seeding and whether the state should prioritize water development over other crucial needs amid the ongoing budget crisis. Much of the money, some of which will be spent over several years, will upgrade aging water infrastructure.
In the largest appropriations, lawmakers earmarked grants of $4.3 million to study replacement of the unconventional and suspect Ambursen-style LaPrele Dam and $7.3 million to rehabilitate the Salt Creek water line to Midwest and Edgerton north of Casper.
Underscoring the need to repair aging infrastructure, one provision in the bills would transfer $7.5 million from a planning to a rehabilitation account to help fund the LaPrele reconstruction. The 137-foot high, 325-foot long dam, finished in 1909, may be the poster child for suspect, aging infrastructure.
LaPrele Dam held 20,000 acre-feet for an irrigation district before operators restricted storage because of safety worries. The $4.3 million allocation would help find a replacement for the unusual buttressed concrete-wall construction that blocks a canyon on LaPrele Creek above Ayres Natural Bridge Park, Interstate 25 and the city of Douglas 27 miles away.
The Water Development Office favors building a new dam downstream at an estimated cost of $50-$80 million, according to the Glenrock Independent…
Another big-ticket item addresses aging infrastructure and a lack of maintenance in an oilfield boom community north of Casper that’s gone bust. The bills would grant $7.3 million to the towns of Midwest and Edgerton, two Teapot Dome-Salt Creek oilfield communities that rely on a 45-mile water line.
Midwest and Edgerton were home to a combined 1,500 people in 1980, but by 2010, only 600 lived there. There’s no good water to be found in the area, according to a consultant.
The towns built their transmission line in 1996, didn’t maintain it well and corrosive soils have eaten at it. The line connects to the Central Wyoming Regional Water System at Bar Nunn, which draws water from the North Platte River.
Until it recently failed, part of the towns’ water system operated on a Windows 95 program and a dial-up modem, consultants wrote. Now operators manipulate valves manually. Water meters are plagued by freezing, poorly insulated pits and neglect.
Water spends 20 days in the system before reaching the user, degrading quality with “disinfectant residues and byproduct residuals,” the consultant wrote. As recently as 2017, Edgerton violated a water-quality rule limiting coliform bacteria.
Edgerton must monitor for impacts from its system’s asbestos-cement pipes.
The grant would amount to approximately $12,166 per resident. Those residents’ water bills could double from about $50 a month.
The legislation’s $24.3-million price tag is a fraction of the roughly $315 million Wyoming has already appropriated for water projects. The water Development Office holds those previously allocated funds in earmarked accounts and is poised to spend them. Those appropriations include $156 million for dams and reservoirs, $36 million for a rehabilitation account and $123 million that’s essentially for planning.
With the bills’ approval, water development will have about $35 million to appropriate going into next year’s biennium budget process, Gebhart told lawmakers.
Laws fund the water office annually with about $23.3 million diverted from mineral severance taxes. Because the diversion comes from the first $155 million of taxes generated annually, the arrangement isn’t threatened by declining revenues from fossil fuels.
Wyoming water development will receive that $23 million whether oil sells for $25 a barrel or $77 a barrel, Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) told a House committee. Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas) told colleagues the most recent estimate put those tax revenues at $500 million a year, well above the $155 million necessary to generate the expected water office funding.
The state has a couple of dam projects under construction and “probably five or six additional projects at various levels of permitting” Gebhart told a committee. “Not many states are able to do what we’re doing,” he said.
Work is completed on the Big Sandy Dam enlargement in Sweetwater County and planning continues to enable Fontenelle Dam in Lincoln County to disgorge an additional 81,000 acre feet a year, Rep. Eklund said. Reconstruction is ongoing on the suspect Middle Piney Dam, partially located on a landslide.
Audubon works to protect wildlife like birds and their habitats.
As part of an agreement between Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas, this water transfer would help meet the state’s delivery obligations within the Republican River Compact.
But over the years, water from the Platte River has heavily been used by municipalities and agriculture.
This has led to the compact being short on water deliveries for quite some time.
The state also has an agreement with other neighboring states to balance this overused water supply through the Endangered Species Act, which began about 30 years after the river compact, and through the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program that aims to add water back to the river…
A diversion of the already short water supply to the Republican could create a ripple effect.
“Overall, taking water from one basin that is already water short and transferring it to another basin that’s water short.. that doesn’t really give us a long term solution. It doesn’t provide certainty for water users and it potentially has ecological impacts for both river basins,” said Mosier.
Taddicken said almost 70% of the water from the Platte River is gone before it even makes it to Nebraska and an interbasin transfer would heavily impact the its supply.
“This water removed from the Platte actually leaves the basin which is a real problem. Moving water around irrigation canals and things like that, eventually a lot of that water seeps back into the groundwater and back to the Platte River. This kind of a transfer takes it out completely,” said Taddicken.
He said farmers in the Platte River Valley should be really concerned if the transfer goes through…
Streamflow also helps to create multiple channels and varying depths which attract many wildlife species, especially birds.
“Sandhill cranes, whooping cranes, piping plovers and other birds.. they use those sand bars for protection. That’s where they like to nest and roost, so that’s really important. Stream flow makes that happen,” stated Mosier, “there’s also an important connection between streams on the Platte River and wetlands. Those wetlands are where a lot of birds and other wildlife find their protein sources.”
Taddicken said we’ve made a lot of compromises for wildlife already as the width of the Platte River has slowly declined and vegetation has taken over where the waters don’t extend.
The impact then extends its reach to the economy, with less sandhill cranes coming to the area that could impact tourists traveling to Central Nebraska.
Invasive species making their way into Kansas is also a concern.
Back in 2018, former Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer wrote a letter objecting to the transfer due to the risk of invasive species.
The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.
…while a significant portion of the water supply that is held and accessed by the project that serves the northern Front Range communities is impacted by the fires, the water supply itself is not in danger.
According to Jeff Stahla, public information officer for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District — or simply Northern Water — the near-term supply is fine.
The decision to close off a tunnel — which transports water pumped from Lake Granby to Shadow Mountain Reservoir before traveling by gravity through the tunnel through Rocky Mountain National Park to Lake Estes and elsewhere, before eventually settling in Horsetooth Reservoir and Carter Lake in Fort Collins and Loveland — will not impact the water supply that’s eventually drawn from those two reservoirs to supply much of Northern Water’s million-plus customers in Northern Colorado, including Greeley.
That’s because, Stahla explained, the system is proactive. While new water will not be replenished quite according to the normal schedule in the Horsetooth and Carter Lake reservoirs, that water is, in essence, paying down a future withdrawal that won’t happen for a year or more…
“The water coming out of your faucet now, if it’s this project’s water, was probably snow that fell in maybe 2018,” Stahla explained. “It ran off in spring of ’18 and filled up Lake Granby, and then around the end of 2018 into 2019, it would’ve been used to fill up reservoirs on the front range. That would’ve happened over winter of 2018-2019, and then it would’ve been in reservoirs all of 2019 and probably drawn out now in 2020. This project works on a multi-year cycle of gathering runoff, feeding reservoirs and serving the public.”
The water is still in Lake Granby, but temporarily won’t be pumped up to Shadow Mountain because of concerns that the fire will impact the power supply to the pump at Lake Granby…
However, that water is only a portion — a very sizable portion, close to half — of the water that is used by Greeley customers, according to city of Greeley water and sewer director Sean Chambers.
And, truly incredibly, the other major sources of water, four in total, from which the city draws its 20,000 to 25,000 acre feet-per-year supply are also being impacted by these unfathomable wildfires.
“We have water from four different river basins,” Chambers said. “We get water from the Poudre River Basin, that’s where the year-round treatment plan by Bellevue, northwest of For Collins is. The top of the Poudre is where the fire started. You go north and cross into Laramie River Basin — the Laramie flows north into Wyoming but we have a system of ditches and tunnels that brings water back into the Poudre. The fires burned a bit of the headwaters of the Laramie. We also get water from the Big Thompson Basin, and the Cameron Peak Fire spread southeast over the last ten days, blown over the ridge line and the divide into the Big Thompson Basin. And then the last basin is the Colorado River Basin, which is where the East Troublesome Fire comes from.”
Chambers, marveling, called this phenomenon the first time “in recorded history” that this has happened, where all four major water sources are affected by fires at the same time…
Further, while snow melt over burned land could well impact other water sources as well, there are plans in place, Chambers said.
“When the High Park Fire happened, that fire had these post-precipitation water-quality events in the river, where Fort Collins and Greeley and others, who take water directly off the Poudre River for municipal treatment, we turned off our intakes and let the bad water go by, let the water quality improve. We can do that because of the beautiful supplemental supply in the Colorado Big Thompson project.”
The flexibility requires planning, though, including, Chambers said, installing source-site filtration systems where snow runoff on its way the river systems are filtered prior to entering the water supply…
In the immediate moment, though, the water supply even well into next year is in good shape, regardless of the fires Stahla said.
“Not even just into early next year,” Stahla said. “Reservoirs are there for that kind of demand management that you can have some stocked away close to meet your needs. As of now, there’s no operational changes because of the wildfires to the water supply on the Northern Front Range. Those reservoirs will be refilled by next spring.”
Click here to read the report. Here’s the abstract:
Across the Upper Missouri River Basin, the recent drought of 2000 to 2010, known as the “turn-of-the-century drought,” was likely more severe than any in the instrumental record including the Dust Bowl drought. However, until now, adequate proxy records needed to better understand this event with regard to long-term variability have been lacking. Here we examine 1,200 y of streamflow from a network of 17 new tree-ring–based reconstructions for gages across the upper Missouri basin and an independent reconstruction of warm-season regional temperature in order to place the recent drought in a long-term climate context. We find that temperature has increasingly influenced the severity of drought events by decreasing runoff efficiency in the basin since the late 20th century (1980s) onward. The occurrence of extreme heat, higher evapotranspiration, and associated low-flow conditions across the basin has increased substantially over the 20th and 21st centuries, and recent warming aligns with increasing drought severities that rival or exceed any estimated over the last 12 centuries. Future warming is anticipated to cause increasingly severe droughts by enhancing water deficits that could prove challenging for water management.
In much of the western United States (hereafter “the West”), water demand (i.e., the combination of atmospheric demands, ecological requirements, and consumptive use) is approaching or has exceeded supply, making the threat of future drought an increasing concern for water managers. Prolonged drought can disrupt agricultural systems and economies, challenge river system control and navigation, and complicate management of sensitive ecological resources. Recently, ample evidence has emerged to suggest that the severity of several regional 21st-century droughts has exceeded the severity of historical drought events; these recent extreme droughts include the 2011 to 2016 California drought and the 2000 to 2015 drought in the Colorado River basin.
Conspicuously absent thus far from investigations of recent droughts has been the Missouri River, the longest river in North America draining the largest independent river basin in the United States. Similar to California and the Upper Colorado River Basin, parts of the early 21st century have been remarkably dry across the Upper Missouri River Basin (UMRB). In fact, our assessment of streamflow for the UMRB suggests that the widespread drought period of 2000 to 2010, termed the “turn-of-the-century drought” by Cook et al., was a period of observationally unprecedented and sustained hydrologic drought likely surpassing even the drought of the Dust Bowl period.
Northern Hemisphere summer temperatures are now likely higher than they have been in the last 1,200 y, and the unique combination of recent anomalously high temperatures and severe droughts across much of the West has led numerous researchers to revisit the role of temperature in changing the timing and efficiency of runoff in the new millennium. Evidence suggests that across much of the West atmospheric moisture demands due to warming are reducing the effectiveness of precipitation in generating streamflow and ultimately surface-water supplies.
The waters of the Upper Missouri River originate predominantly in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, where high-elevation catchments capture and store large volumes of water as winter snowpack that are later released as spring and early summer snowmelt. This mountain water is an important component of the total annual flow of the Missouri, accounting for roughly 30% of the annual discharge delivered to the Mississippi River on average, but ranging between 14% to more than 50% from year to year, most of which is delivered during the critical warm-season months (May through September). Across much of the UMRB, cool-season (October through May) precipitation stored as winter snowpack has historically been the primary driver of streamflow, with observed April 1 snow-water equivalent (SWE) usually accounting for at least half of the variability in observed streamflow from the primary headwaters regions. However, since the 1950s, warming spring temperatures have increasingly driven regional snowpack declines that have intensified since the 1980s. By 2006, these declines amounted to a low snowpack anomaly of unusual severity relative to the last 800 y and spanned the snow-dominated watersheds of the interior West. A recent reassessment of snowpack declines across the West by Mote et al. suggests continued temperature-driven snowpack declines through 2016 totaling a volumetric storage loss of between 25 and 50 km3, which is comparable to the storage capacity of Lake Mead, the United States’ largest reservoir.
Here we examine the extended record (ca. 800 to 2010 CE) of streamflow and the influence of temperature on drought through the Medieval Climate Anomaly, with a focus on the recent turn-of-the-century drought in the UMRB. The role of increasing temperature on streamflow and basin-wide drought is examined in the UMRB over the last 1,200 y by analyzing a basin-wide composite streamflow record developed from a network of 17 tree-ring–based reconstructions of streamflow for major gages in the UMRB (Fig. 1) and an independent runoff-season (March through August) regional temperature reconstruction. We also explore the hydrologic implications (e.g., drought severity and spatial extent) and climatic drivers (temperature and precipitation) of the observed changes in streamflow across the UMRB and characterize shifts in the likelihood of extreme flow levels and reductions in runoff efficiency across the basin.
For the first decade of the century, the Upper Missouri River Basin was the driest it’s been in 1,200 years, even more parched than during the disastrous Dust Bowl of the 1930s, a new study says.
The drop in water level at the mouth of the Missouri — the country’s longest river — was due to rising temperatures linked to climate change that reduced the amount of snowfall in the Rocky Mountains in Montana and North Dakota, scientists found.
The basin has continued to experience droughts this decade — in 2012, 2013 and 2017 — but their severity in comparison with historic drought is unknown. The “Turn-Of-The-Century Drought” study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused only on the 10 years after 2000.
“In terms of the most severe flow deficits, the driest years of the Turn-Of-The-Century-Drought in the [Upper Missouri River Basin] appear unmatched over the last 1,200 years,” the study said. “Only a single event in the late 13th century rivaled the greatest deficits of this most recent event.”
Researchers familiar with drought of this magnitude in the dry Southwest were surprised to find it in the Midwest…
“These findings show that the upper Missouri Basin is reflecting some of the same changes that we see elsewhere across North America, including the increased occurrence of hot drought” that’s more severe than usual, [Erika] Wise said.
The study is the latest to show how human-influenced climate change threatens to reshape the landscape by making naturally occurring drought far more severe.
In June, a small team of PBT interns set out for the highest point in the Platte Basin watershed.
We had big intentions of catching 5-star media to fill in cracks for the Grays Peak scene in the upcoming PBT documentary featuring Mike and Pete’s 55-day, 1,300-mile journey across the watershed.
Grays Peak is the highest point in the Platte Basin watershed. The mountain, located west of Denver in the Front Range of Colorado, is ranked as the tenth-highest summit of the Rocky Mountains of North America. With the top reaching an elevation of 14,278 feet, it may be considered to some as quite a commitment to reach the top.
The beginning of the trip went as intended. We had the car loaded with all of our equipment and prepared a schedule that would allow us enough time to focus on what we needed to do, or so we thought.
After incidents of altitude sickness, a split hiking boot, bird invasions, and a major bear spray accident, we all accepted our humorous situation of what the trip turned into. We came back with quite the story for the rest of the PBT team. Nevertheless, we agreed the trip had been a successful one and after arriving back in Lincoln, made the best out of what we managed to capture.
A year after flooding battered the Missouri River’s levee system, inundating towns and farmland and causing multiple closures to the nation’s interstate highway system, early forecasts warn that more of the same could be on the way: above-normal rainfall, greater than normal spring runoff. A USA TODAY Network analysis delves into records of an aging system of nearly a thousand levees where nobody knows how many were damaged last year or how many were repaired…
The forecast is a veritable index of meteorological plagues: above-normal rainfall; greater than normal spring runoff; thoroughly saturated soils; and an aging system of nearly a thousand levees where nobody knows how many were damaged last year and in previous floods or how many were repaired.
The 855 levee systems throughout the Missouri River basin protect at least half a million people and more than $92 billion in property. Yet a USA TODAY Network analysis of Army Corps of Engineers’ records found at least 144 levee systems haven’t been fully repaired and that only 231 show an inspection date.
Of those, nearly half were rated “unacceptable,” which means something could prevent the levee from performing as intended or a serious deficiency was not corrected. Only 3.5% were deemed acceptable; the rest were found to be “minimally acceptable.”
Only 231 of the levee systems show any inspection date. For 38, the most recent inspection date was more than five years ago.
In the Army Corps’ Kansas City district, for example, about 70 projects, spanning 119 levees that requested repair assistance, are eligible for funding, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be ready if the waters rise like they did last year.
“Some of them have been repaired, but from a total system perspective, I don’t think any of them are whole,” said Jud Kneuvean, the district’s chief of emergency management, who expects full levee rehabilitation and repair to take at least another year.
In the meantime, the extent and impacts of flooding will depend on when and where the rain falls…
The 2,300-mile Missouri River begins in southwestern Montana, where the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson rivers converge near the community of Three Forks, before gathering water from 10 states and parts of two Canadian provinces to become the “Big Muddy,” North America’s longest river.
In recent years, more rainfall has been pouring into the Missouri River basin, raising questions about whether climate change is bringing worsening floods more often. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dating back to 1895 shows record-setting rainfalls in the area occurring more often. Last year, for example, was the wettest on record in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
All that water adds to the challenge faced by Corps policymakers, who juggle sometimes conflicting priorities that include maintaining navigation; managing the reservoir system to prevent flooding; providing farmers with irrigation and hydropower; protecting endangered species; and preserving recreational opportunities.
While the priority is protecting human life and safety, the Corps’ decision-making sometimes puts special interest groups at odds, and the agency remains embroiled in controversy over whether the engineering of the river exacerbates flooding.
Things came to a head last year when a bomb cyclone in March melted all the snow in Nebraska and Iowa at once and dumped tremendous rain, swelling not just the Missouri, but the Elkhorn, Platte, James and Big Sioux rivers.
The Niobrara River in Nebraska breached the Spencer Dam on March 14, sending a wall of water downstream and into the Gavins Point reservoir near Yankton, South Dakota. At the peak, water flowed into the reservoir at 180,000 cubic feet per second — nine times more than the normal average for March. Meanwhile water was coursing into the rivers downstream of the dam and the effects of all that water were felt in nearly every community downstream.
Two other big rain events occurred in May and September. When the Corps’ Kansas City district deactivated its emergency operations center in December, it had been open for 279 days, the longest period on record…
Construction of the higher levee is in the administrative and planning stages, with actual construction activity set for fall.
Most of the Missouri’s levees fall into one of two categories: either federally built and locally operated or locally built and operated. The Corps inspects — and helps pay to repair — only the levees maintained to federal standards that participate in the federal flood program.
That exception means no one has a full list of damaged levees still in need of repair.
The number of levees that aren’t regularly inspected doesn’t surprise Neal Grigg, an engineering professor at Colorado State University who chaired a Corps-appointed review panel after 2011 flooding.
In an ideal management system, every levee “would be under the responsibility of some authority that was responsible and had enough money and good management capability to do that,” Grigg said.
But that’s not realistic, he added, noting that the Corps has tried through a task force to get some organization to the levee systems along the river, but it’s problematic, in part, because there are so many conflicting interests.
A host of agencies are cooperating to repair levees, but the progress is slow, said Missouri farmer Morris Heitman, who serves on the Missouri River Flood Task Force Levee Repair Working Group.
In addition to the Corps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state of Missouri, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and a large number of local levee districts all work to repair levees.
“We’re trying to dance with different agencies,” Heitman told the University of Missouri Extension. “All these agencies have their own requirements and parameters, and we’re trying to coordinate those to build a secure system against the river.”
Fixes to the 144 levee systems listed in disrepair in the Corps’ Omaha and Kansas City districts are in various stages of completion, and some aren’t expected to be done for more than a year.
In the Omaha district that includes Nebraska and Iowa, “pretty much all of the levees were damaged in one way or another,” said the corps’ Matt Krajewski.
While almost all of the district’s levees that qualify for federal aid have been restored to pre-2019 flood heights, Krajewski said they don’t offer the same level of “risk reduction” because they need final touches such as sod cover and drainage structures to protect against erosion. The Corps hopes to complete those repairs this summer.
In the meantime, the Corps is working to prepare its flood storage capacity by releasing more water than normal from its dams.
“We’re being really aggressive with our releases and trying to maintain our full flood storage,” said Eileen Williamson, a Corps spokeswoman for the Northwestern region.
But the projections for spring runoff don’t look good and may limit how much the Corps can do.
In February, the runoff was twice the normal average, said Kevin Grode, with the Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management district.
The James River, a tributary that flows out of South Dakota, has experienced flooding since March 13 last year and that flooding is forecast to continue. Moderate flooding is expected along the Big and Little Sioux Rivers in South Dakota and Iowa, and possibly in Montana’s Milk River basin. A risk of minor to moderate flooding is forecast from Nebraska City to the river’s confluence with the Mississippi in St. Louis.
But it’s not just the spring runoff that’s a problem, Grode said. The forecast also calls for “above average runoff for every month in 2020.”
John Remus, chief of the Corps’ Missouri River Water Management Division, said during a March briefing that if those projections are realized, “the 2020 runoff will be the ninth highest runoff in 122 years of record keeping.”
In March, a three-man team with Montana’s Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest set off on horseback for a 35-mile, five-day journey into the wild North Fork of the Sun River, a tributary of the Missouri River.
They rode horses for the first 12 miles. When they reached a foot of snow, they switched to skis and took turns breaking trail.
Greeted by a half inch of new snow each morning, higher and higher they skied, encountering snow depths of 19 inches, then 2 feet, 9 inches and finally, 3 feet, 3 inches.
At each elevation, aluminum tubes with non-stick coating were stuck into the snow to collect core samples used to measure the depth and water content of the snowpack.
“The numbers are used for everything from dam control along the Missouri River to regulating the locks on the barges of the Mississippi,” said Ian Bardwell, the forest’s wilderness and trails manager, who led the snow survey expedition. “It just depends on what level you are looking at it from.”
As of Wednesday, mountain snowpack in the Missouri River basin in Montana was 112% of normal, said Lucas Zukiewicz, a water supply specialist with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Montana.
In 2018, Montana’s April snowpack was 150% of normal, then 7 to 9 inches of rain over six days drenched the Rocky Mountain Front, inundating communities in its shadow. The Corps was forced to release water from the Fort Peck Dam spillway, a rarity, as a result of surging flows. Had that same thing happened last year, flooding in states downstream would have been even worse.
“With the way things are changing with our climate,” said Arin Peters, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Great Falls, Montana, “it’s probably a matter of time before something combines to create a big catastrophe downstream.”
Yet for this year, there may be some good news downstream from the Montana snowpack, at the Gavins Point Dam in Yankton.
Gavins Point is what’s known as a reregulation dam, its purpose to even the Missouri’s flow from the reservoirs upstream. Because Gavins Point wasn’t designed to hold floodwater, its gates had to be opened last year, sending a surge downstream after Nebraska and parts of South Dakota were hit with rain and the bomb cyclone.
In November and December, Gavins Point was still releasing water at a rate of 80,000 cubic feet per second — more than five times the average flow, and something that had never happened before, said Tom Curran, the dam’s project manager.
The good news? Releasing all that water through the winter left the mainstem dam system drained to its multipurpose zone, where it has capacity to absorb runoff while also fulfilling its other functions, including recreation and downstream barge traffic.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Jennifer Dimas):
The 2020 Ogallala Aquifer Summit will take place in Amarillo, Texas, from March 31 to April 1, bringing together water management leaders from all eight Ogallala region states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming. The dynamic, interactive event will focus on encouraging exchange among participants about innovative programs and effective approaches to addressing the region’s significant water-related challenges.
“Tackling Tough Question” is the theme of the event. Workshops and speakers will share and compare responses to questions such as: “What is the value of groundwater to current and future generations?” and “How do locally led actions aimed at addressing water challenges have larger-scale impact?”
“The summit provides a unique opportunity to strengthen collaborations among a diverse range of water-focused stakeholders,” said summit co-chair Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU. “Exploring where we have common vision and identifying innovative concepts or practices already being implemented can catalyze additional actions with potential to benefit the aquifer and Ogallala region communities over the short and long term.”
Schipanski co-directs the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) with Colorado Water Center director and summit co-chair Reagan Waskom, who is also a faculty member in Soil and Crop Sciences. The Ogallala Water CAP, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has a multi-disciplinary team of 70 people based at 10 institutions in six Ogallala-region states. They are all engaged in collaborative research and outreach for sustaining agriculture and ecosystems in the region.
Some Ogallala Water CAP research and outreach results will be shared at the 2020 Ogallala Summit. The Ogallala Water CAP has led the coordination of the event, in partnership with colleagues at Texas A&M AgriLife, the Kansas Water Office, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service-funded Ogallala Aquifer Program, with additional support provided by many individuals and organizations from the eight Ogallala states.
The 2020 Summit will highlight several activities and outcomes inspired by or expanded as a result of the 2018 Ogallala Summit. Participants will include producers; irrigation company and commodity group representatives; students and academics; local and state policy makers; groundwater management district leaders; crop consultants; agricultural lenders; state and federal agency staff; and others, including new and returning summit participants.
“Water conservation technologies are helpful, and we need more of them, but human decision-making is the real key to conserving the Ogallala,” said Brent Auvermann, center director at Texas A&M AgriLife Research – Amarillo. “The emergence of voluntary associations among agricultural water users to reduce groundwater use is an encouraging step, and we need to learn from those associations’ experiences with regard to what works, and what doesn’t, and what possibilities exist that don’t require expanding the regulatory state.”
The summit will take place over two half-days, starting at 11 a.m. Central Time (10 a.m. MDT) on Tuesday, March 31 and concluding the next day on Wednesday, April 1 at 2:30 p.m. The event includes a casual evening social on the evening of March 31 that will feature screening of a portion of the film “Rising Water,” by Nebraska filmmaker Becky McMillen, followed by a panel discussion on effective agricultural water-related communications.
Visit the 2020 Ogallala summit webpage to see a detailed agenda, lodging info, and to access online registration. Pre-registration is required, and space is limited. The registration deadline is Saturday, March 21 at midnight Central Time (11 p.m. MDT).
This event is open to credentialed members of the media. Please RSVP to Katie.firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Here’s the release from the Kansas Water Office (Katie Patterson-Ingels, Amy Kremen):
8-State Conversation to Highlight Actions & Programs Benefitting the Aquifer, Ag, and Ogallala communities
The 2020 Ogallala Aquifer Summit will take place in Amarillo, Texas, from March 31 to April 1, bringing together water management leaders from all eight Ogallala region states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming. The dynamic, interactive event will focus on encouraging exchange among participants about innovative programs and effective approaches being implemented to address the region’s significant water-related challenges.
“Tackling Tough Questions,” is the theme of the event. Workshops and speakers share and compare responses to questions such as: “What is the value of groundwater to current and future generations” and “how do locally-led actions aimed at addressing water challenges have larger-scale impact?”
“The summit provides a unique opportunity to strengthen collaborations among a diverse range of water-focused stakeholders,” said summit co-chair Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU. “Exploring where we have common vision and identifying innovative concepts or practices already being implemented can catalyze additional actions with potential to benefit the aquifer and Ogallala region communities over the short- and long-term.”
Schipanski co-directs the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) with Colorado Water Center director and summit co-chair Reagan Waskom, who is also a faculty member in Soil and Crop Sciences. The Ogallala Water CAP, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has a multi-disciplinary team of 70 people based at 10 institutions in 6 Ogallala-region states, engaged in collaborative research and outreach aimed at sustaining agriculture and ecosystems in the region.
Some Ogallala Water CAP research and outreach results will be shared at the 2020 Ogallala Summit. The Ogallala Water CAP has led the coordination of this event, in partnership with colleagues at Texas A&M AgriLife, the Kansas Water Office, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service-funded Ogallala Aquifer Program, with additional support provided by many other individuals and organizations from the eight Ogallala states.
The 2020 Summit will highlight several activities and outcomes inspired by or expanded as a result of the 2018 Ogallala Summit. Participants will include producers, irrigation company and commodity group representatives, students and academics, local and state policy makers, groundwater management district leaders, crop consultants, agricultural lenders, state and federal agency staff, and others, including new and returning summit participants.
“Water conservation technologies are helpful, and we need more of them, but human decision-making is the real key to conserving the Ogallala,” said Brent Auvermann, Center Director at Texas A&M AgriLife Research – Amarillo. “The emergence of voluntary associations among agricultural water users to reduce ground water use is an encouraging step, and we need to learn from those associations’ experiences with regard to what works, and what doesn’t, and what possibilities exist that don’t require expanding the regulatory state.”
The summit will take place over two half-days, starting at 11:00 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday, March 31 and concluding the next day on Wednesday, April 1 at 2:30 p.m. The event includes a casual evening social on the evening of March 31 that will feature screening of a portion of the film “Rising Water,” by Nebraska filmmaker Becky McMillen, followed by a panel discussion on effective agricultural water-related communications.
Visit the 2020 Ogallala summit webpage to see a detailed agenda, lodging info, and to access online registration. Pre-registration is required, and space is limited. The registration deadline is Saturday, March 21 at midnight Central Time.
This event is open to credentialed members of the media. Please RSVP to Katie.firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in coordination with the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, plans to release water from Lake McConaughy to benefit downstream habitat used by threatened and endangered species.
Releases will start Monday and may continue through March 15…
USFWS, PRRIP and Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District staff will coordinate the releases, monitor weather and runoff conditions, and be prepared to scale back or end releases if required to minimize the risk of exceeding flood stage.
Current expectations include:
Environmental account water traveling down the North Platte channel below Lake McConaughy will be increased by approximately 300 cubic feet per second to 700 cfs.
– The river will remain well below the designated flood stage of 6 feet at the city of North Platte.
– Flows downstream of North Platte are expected to be significantly below flood stage.
– Flows at Grand Island should be approximately 700 cfs, or less than 6 inches higher than current flows.
– In the Overton to Grand Island stretch, the river stage is expected to be less than 1 foot above normal levels for this time of year.
Click here to download the paper. Here’s the executive summary:
The Northern High Plains aquifer underlies about 93,000 square miles of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming and is the largest subregion of the nationally important High Plains aquifer. Irrigation, primarily using groundwater, has supported agricultural production since before 1940, resulting in nearly $50 billion in sales in 2012. In 2010, the High Plains aquifer had the largest groundwater withdrawals of any major aquifer system in the United States. Nearly one-half of those withdrawals were from the Northern High Plains aquifer, which has little hydrologic interaction with parts of the aquifer farther south. Land-surface elevation ranges from more than 7,400 feet (ft) near the western edge to less than 1,100 ft near the eastern edge. Major stream primarily flow west to east and include the Big Blue River, Elkhorn River, Loup River, Niobrara River, Republican River and Platte River with its two forks—the North Platte River and South Platte River. Population in the Northern High Plain aquifer area is sparse with only 2 cities having a population greater than 30,000.
Droughts across much of the area from 2001 to 2007, combined with recent (2004–18) legislation, have heightened concerns regarding future groundwater availability and highlighted the need for science-based water-resource management. Groundwater models with the capability to provide forecasts of groundwater availability and related stream base flows from the Northern High Plains aquifer were published recently (2016) and were used to analyze groundwater availability. Stream base flows are generally the dominant component of total streamflow in the Northern High Plains aquifer, and total streamflows or shortages thereof define conjunctive management triggers, at least in Nebraska. Groundwater availability was evaluated through comparison of aquifer-scale water budgets compared for periods before and after major groundwater development and across selected future forecasts. Groundwater-level declines and the forecast amount of groundwater in storage in the aquifer also were examined.
Aquifer losses to irrigation withdrawals increased greatly from 1940 to 2009 and were the largest average 2000–9 outflow (49 percent of total).
Basin to basin groundwater flows were not a large part of basin water budgets.
Development of irrigated land and associated withdrawals were not uniform across the Northern High Plains aquifer, and different parts of the Northern High Plains aquifer responded differently to agricultural development.
For the Northern High Plains aquifer, areas with high recharge and low evapotranspiration had the most streamflow, and most streams only remove water from the aquifer.
Results of a baseline future forecast indicated that groundwater levels declined overall, indicating an overdraft of the aquifer when climate was about average and agricultural development was held at the same state as 2009.
Results of two human stresses future forecasts indicated that increases of 13 percent or 23 percent in agricultural development, mostly near areas of previous development, caused increases in groundwater pumping of 8 percent or 11 percent, and resulted in continued groundwater-level declines, at rates 0.3 or 0.5 million acre-feet per year larger than the baseline forecast.
Results of environmental stresses forecasts (generated from two downscalings of global climate model outputs) compared with the baseline forecast indicated that even though annual precipitation was nearly the same, differences in temperature and a redistribution of precipitation from the spring to the growing season (from about May 1 through September 30), created a large (12–15 percent) decrease in recharge to the aquifer.
For the two environmental stresses forecasts, temperature and precipitation were distributed about the same among basins of the Northern High Plains aquifer, but the amounts were different.
Peterson, S.M., Traylor, J.P., and Guira, M., 2020, Groundwater availability of the Northern High Plains aquifer in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1864, 57 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/pp1864.
After a year of anxious waiting, scientists and researchers who’ve helped build one of the most successful species recovery programs in the nation have gotten a 13-year extension to finish their work.
The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program began operating in 2007 with the bi-partisan backing of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since then it has created some 15,000 acres of new habitat for stressed birds and fish, and added nearly 120,000 acre-feet of new annual water to the Platte River in central Nebraska. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons.
The region is critical because it serves as a major stopping point for migrating birds, including the whooping crane, the least tern and the piping plover.
In addition to helping fish, birds and the river, the program also allowed dozens of water agencies, irrigation districts and others to meet requirements under the Endangered Species Act, which can prevent them from building and sometimes operating reservoirs, dams and other diversions if the activity is deemed harmful to at-risk species.
Last year it wasn’t clear that three new governors, three state congressional delegations, and a fractious Congress could come together to re-authorize the program.
Jo Jo La, an endangered species expert who tracks the program for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said everyone was grateful that politicians united to push the federal legislation, and the new operating agreement, through. It was signed by President Trump at the end of December.
“Our program was fortunate to have the leaders it had,” La said.
But it wasn’t just politicians who were responsible for the program’s extension, said Jason Farnsworth, executive director of the Kearney, Neb.-based program.
It was the diversity among the group’s members that was also key, he said. “Everyone from The Nature Conservancy to the Audubon Society to irrigation districts in the North Platte Basin supported this. You don’t often see an irrigation district sending a support letter for an endangered species recovery program. That’s how broad the support was.”
Of the $156 million allocated, Colorado is providing $24.9 million in cash and another $6.2 million in water, Wyoming is providing $3.1 million in cash and $12.5 million in water, Nebraska is providing $31.25 million in land and water, and the U.S. Department of Interior is providing $78 million in cash, according to PRRIP documents.
With their marching orders in hand, researchers and scientists can now focus on completing the program so that at the end of this 13-year extension it will become fully operational.
Early results have won accolades from Wyoming to Washington, D.C. The CWCB’s La said congressional testimony routinely described it as one of the “marquee” recovery programs in the nation, largely because, even though it isn’t finished, species are coming back in a major way.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the endangered whooping crane, least tern and pallid sturgeon, and the threatened piping plover, were in danger of becoming extinct, with the river’s channels and flows so altered by dams and diversions that it could no longer support the species’ nesting, breeding and migratory habitats.
Today the picture is much different.
Still ahead is the work to acquire more water and land, and research to understand how to help the rare pallid sturgeon recover. Thus far it has not responded to recovery efforts, in part because it is extremely difficult to locate.
The idea is to ensure there is enough water and habitat to keep the birds and fish healthy once the program enters its long-term operating phase.
“The intent is to spend the next 13 years working on identifying the amount of water and land that is necessary to go into [the final operating phase]. The focus will be less on acquiring and learning, and more on operating and managing,” Farnsworth said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Whooping crane adult and chick. Credit: USGS (public domain)
Least Tern. Photo credit Doug German via Audubon.
Platte River Recovery Implementation Program target species (L to R), Piping plover, Least tern, Whooping crane, Pallid sturgeon
Click here to view the story map from Platte Basin Timelapse. Here’s the preface:
The flood event of 2019 was historic and devastating for parts of Nebraska and the Midwest.
Platte Basin Timelapse team members Grant Reiner, Carlee Koehler, Ethan Freese, and Mariah Lundgren traveled to parts of the state to explore questions they had about this historic weather event. What happens to wildlife during these big weather events? How were people affected by the floodwaters? What does this mean for the birds that nest on the river? How many PBT cameras survived? These are our stories.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
A victory for wildlife and Colorado water, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, and the Governors of Nebraska and Wyoming signed a Cooperative Agreement to extend the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (Program) with $156 million.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board has played a major role in this Program’s creation and ongoing efforts, including policy and financial support.
“This collaborative program supports the recovery of four threatened and endangered species by improving and maintaining habitat in the Platte River in Nebraska while allowing for continued water use in Colorado,” said Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell. “We look forward to continuing our role in the upcoming years of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program.”
“The commitment by the states and the U.S. Department of the Interior to continue the program’s innovative approach to species recovery and Endangered Species Act compliance is a win-win for the future of Colorado’s citizens and the environment,” said Governor Polis.
The Program was set to expire at the end of 2019. However, with support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board; Colorado Parks and Wildlife; the Department of Natural Resources; and other state, federal, and non-governmental partners; a bill supported by the entire Congressional delegation from Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming was passed and signed by the President before the New Year.
Together with its water users, the Colorado Water Conservation Board is celebrating the Program’s more than a decade record of success. As the Program enters into its next 13 years, it has momentum to continue to recover threatened and endangered species, which provides assurance for future water use in Colorado.
The Wyoming State Engineer’s Office recently heard a proposal to drill eight high-capacity water wells in Laramie County, and now 17 ranchers and farmers in the area are protesting.
The wells would use a total of 1.5 billion acre feet of water from the Ogallala Aquifer that many states in the Western U.S. rely on for water. Fifth generation Wyoming rancher and attorney Reba Epler said if the state engineer approves these wells, stock wells on her family ranch would likely dry up.
“One of the ways we’d be impacted immediately is that we’d have shallower stock wells that we’ve used for about 50 years,” Epler said. “We’d have to drill much deeper, and the cost of drilling deeper is getting significantly more expensive.”
Epler said all eight wells were applied for by three members of the Lerwick family. She said it’s possible the family wants to sell the water to use in the fracking process since a lot of oil and gas development is happening in the area.
“If you really want to know, I think it’s a classic resource grab,” Epler said. “And anyone who controls 4,642 acre feet of water has a tremendous amount of power and they will have it a long time and many generations of people will have that kind of power.”
Epler said it doesn’t make sense to give anyone that much water when the Ogalalla Aquifer is already drawing down so much nationwide.
“The aquifer in parts of Texas has gone dry, it’s gone dry in parts of New Mexico. Oklahoma, Kansas are having a really difficult time because their pivots are drying up. Colorado, eastern Colorado is having a heck of a time.”
Epler said she remembers when Lodgepole Creek near her ranch ran year round.
The Colorado River Compact and water infrastructure projects will be among the items discussed at the annual Four States Irrigation Council meeting held Wednesday through Friday in Fort Collins.
the Four States Irrigation Council is a group of irrigators, irrigation and water districts, ditch companies and others looking to discuss water-delivery and irrigation-related issues affecting the Four States region, which encompasses Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming.
Exhibitors at the event will showcase some of the latest innovations and provide attendees with up-to-date information on new products and services. Awards will also be presented.
Membership in the Four States Irrigation Council is open to anyone and free of dues or fees. Someone can become a member by attending the annual meeting or visiting 4-states-irrigation.org and requesting to be added to mailing list.
More information about the meeting is also available on the website.
Here’s the release from the Department of Interior (Brock Merrill):
Secretary of the Interior, along with Governors of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, commit an additional $156 million for recovering threatened and endangered species in the Platte River Basin
U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed an amendment to the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Cooperative Agreement, along with the governors of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, committing resources to extend the program through Dec. 31, 2032. The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program utilizes federal- and state-provided financial resources, water and scientific monitoring and research to support and protect four threatened and endangered species that inhabit areas of the Central and Lower Platte rivers in Nebraska while allowing for continued water and hydropower project operations in the Platte River basin.
“This program is truly an important partnership that has been successful because of the broad collaboration between federal and state representatives, water and power users and conservation groups,” said Secretary Bernhardt. “All of these stakeholders working together to help recover imperiled species is critical as new water and power projects are continued and developed in the Platte River Basin.”
The program provides compliance for four species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for new and existing water-related projects in the Platte River Basin. Examples of existing water related projects include the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado Big-Thompson Project on the South Platte River in Colorado and the North Platte Project in Wyoming and Nebraska.
“Programs like the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program are critical to ensuring that Reclamation is able to deliver water and power in an environmentally and economically sound manner,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman “This program is a true success story of how stakeholders and government from across state lines can work together for the common good.”
The program began in 2007 and is managed by a governance committee comprised of representatives from Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, water users, environmental groups and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program has brought together three states, environmental groups, water users, and two federal agencies to forge a common goal of balancing existing use with an eye towards recovery for four threatened and endangered species,” said Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon. “This program has ensured that Wyoming continues existing water uses in the South and North Platte River Basins while making measurable contributions to species recovery.”
“The signing of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Cooperative Agreement Amendment marks the celebration of more than a decade of success,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis. “The commitment by the states and the U.S. Department of the Interior to continue the program’s innovative approach to species recovery and Endangered Species Act compliance is a win-win for the future of Colorado’s citizens and the environment. We look forward to the next 13 years working with our partners to lead in this national model of collaboration.”
“Agriculture is Nebraska’s number one industry. Extending the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program gives Nebraska’s ag producers certainty around water and land use in the coming years,” said Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts. “We appreciate the collaboration we enjoy with the other states who are party to this agreement, and we look forward to working with them in the coming years.”
The estimated total value of federal and state contributions to the program during the first extension is $156 million. The U.S. Department of the Interior will provide one half of the funding necessary for the extension, which will be matched by states through contributions of non-federal funding and water from state-sponsored projects that is provided for the benefit of target threatened and endangered species.
The people of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska got an early Christmas present from the U.S. Senate on Thursday, and it has Don Ament breathing a sigh of relief.
Ament has said he was delighted to hear that the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill Thursday to extend the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program as part of the year-end spending package. The bill was introduced by Colorado Senators Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R). The bill was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this week and will now go to the president’s desk to be signed into law…
The first increment of the program is set to expire on at the end of this year; Senate Bill 990 extends the program by an additional 13 years. PRRIP is a cooperative agreement among the governors of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Secretary of the Interior to achieve Endangered Species Act compliance on the Platte River.
Ament, who represents Colorado’s governor on the four-entity board that oversees the program, has been concerned since April about whether PRRIP would be extended. That’s when Bennet and Gardner, along with U.S. Senators John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), introduced the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Extension Act.
Since then, however, Washington, D.C., has been somewhat distracted by political conflict between Republicans and Democrats, making any kind of bipartisanship seem to be impossible. That has had Ament concerned that funding for the program would lapse after Dec. 31, leaving the program’s future in doubt…
In addition to addressing protections under the federal Endangered Species Act, PRRIP has allowed the three states and the Department of Interior to avoid lengthy and expensive litigation involving the Endangered Species Act. According to a statement released by the U.S. Interior Department, “The program has provided a level of certainty to water users in the Platte River drainage that litigation would not have afforded.”
Whooping crane adult and chick. Credit: USGS (public domain)
Governor Mark Gordon announced today he has appointed Greg Lanning Wyoming State Engineer. Lanning takes over for Pat Tyrrell, who retired in January after serving as State Engineer for 18 years.
The State Engineer is a position established by the Wyoming Constitution and has a term of six years. The State Engineer serves as the chief water official in the state and is responsible for the general supervision of Wyoming’s waters, including technical, policy and regulatory matters concerning its beneficial use. The search process involved numerous stakeholders including experienced water industry professionals and representatives of rural water users; agriculture; the mining, oil and gas industries; and environmental organizations.
“Finding the right State Engineer was a challenging process, as the position requires a unique set of technical, policy and political skills,” Governor Gordon said. “Greg’s background expertly balances these requirements and I can think of no one better to hit the ground running to lead the way in managing Wyoming’s water. I look forward to welcoming Greg back to his home state of Wyoming.”
A Casper, Wyoming native, Lanning previously served as Deputy State Engineer under Tyrrell from 2012 to 2014. His broad background in civil engineering and water resource management includes time spent as Public Works Director for communities both in Wyoming as well as neighboring states. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and his Masters in Business Administration degrees at the University of Wyoming. He holds a Masters in Civil Engineering from Colorado State University and is a registered Professional Engineer.
“It is an honor to once again serve this great state,” Lanning said. “I look forward to re-introducing myself to our Wyoming water users and stakeholders and returning to our dedicated team of more than 120 employees at the State Engineer’s Office.”
Erin Light is the division engineer for the Yampa, White and North Platte River basins for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the state agency that manages water rights. Light said she’s sent orders requiring 575 water users to install headgates and measuring devices as required by Colorado law. Most of these orders went to users in the Yampa River basin, though Light estimated about 100 of them went to users in the North Platte River basin in North Park.
In March, water rights holders received notice that they would be required to install headgates and measuring devices. Light estimated fewer than 25% of the users who received notices actually installed the required infrastructure.
Now, those water rights owners have been sent an order to install these devices by Nov. 30. After that date, they’ll be required to either have devices in place or stop using their water.
“If you choose to not divert water and say ‘Fine, I only have a headgate, I’m shutting it. Again, I’m shutting it. I’m not going to put a measuring device in.’ That’s fine, as long as you don’t divert water,” Light said. “But if you have a headgate, no measuring device and choose to divert water contrary to that order after Nov. 30, next spring, May or whenever you turn on (your water), and we see that, we’re going to shut the headgate, and if necessary, we’ll lock the headgate.”
If users break the lock or open the gate, the division could pursue enforcement actions with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, Light said.
Without a headgate, users and engineers can’t shut off water. For users who divert water without a headgate, Light said the fine for diverting water contrary to the order is $500 each day water is flowing.
Colorado water rights are a “use-it or lose-it” commodity. If a person is not using all of their water right, they can lose part or all of their water right through the abandonment process. Every 10 years, division engineers are required to provide the water court with a list of water rights they believe are abandoned partially or entirely. Light’s office is working through this process now. A preliminary list will be published on July 1, 2020.
“We’re talking to people about the fact that their water right is being considered for abandonment, because we do have an initial list that we’ve developed,” Light said. “Our water commissioners are inspecting structures with water rights on the list and talking to water users, and there’s a lot of frustration (from users) about ‘How could my water right be on the abandonment list?’”
Light said some users don’t realize they can lose part of their water right, but statute says water rights can be abandoned “in whole or in part.”
Keeping accurate records can help. Light encourages water rights owners to track the water they’re using as her office works through the abandonment process. Light said water users should keep note when and at what flow they turn their diversions on or off, any time they adjust flows or anytime water levels in streams and ditches significantly fluctuate.
“Maybe they did divert their water right, but we never got a record of it,” she said. “We observe something less because we weren’t out there at peak flow, and if water users would provide us accurate records of their water use, it’s possible that some of these water rights wouldn’t be included on the list. … It’s really critical that people start taking on that responsibility to protect their water right and keep records. It’s critical in many instances, but one of them is abandonment.”
A wet 2019 delayed construction work throughout Nebraska, including a Platte River Recovery Implementation Program water project southwest of Elm Creek.
At Tuesday’s PRRIP Governance Committee meeting in Kearney, program civil engineer Kevin Werbylo said the completion date for the project on the south side of the Platte River was moved from May 1 to Aug. 1 to Oct. 15.
“Given the conditions the contractor had to deal with, they did a nice job and the engineers did a nice job,” Werbylo said.
The project fits program goals to reduce depletions to Central Platte target flows and to protect, restore or maintain land used as habitat by threatened and endangered species — least terns, piping plovers and whooping cranes.
The basinwide plan allows entities in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming with federal licenses, permits and/or funding to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Department of Interior is the other major participant.
The Elm Creek project will help meet an immediate goal to reduce by 120,000 acre-feet the annual depletions to target river flows set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the protected species. Water held in shallow detention cells on the broad-scale site will seep into the groundwater that eventually reaches the adjacent Platte River.
Platte water will be diverted into Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District’s Phelps Canal at times when flows exceed targets. According to PRRIP 1995-2017 data, that most commonly occurs in December and January.
A new pipeline built as part of the project links the canal to the 416-acre site where earthen berms up to 6 feet tall create eight shallow cells to temporarily hold water at depths of 12 inches or less.
Werbylo said the project budget is $4.3 million and there is $480,000 left to pay.
Dirt work needs to settle and vegetation is being established, he said, so it will be late spring to mid-summer 2020 before any water deliveries are made to the broad-scale project site.
PRRIP Executive Director Jason Farnsworth told the Hub that even if the original construction schedule had allowed the project’s use this fall, there would have been no diversions because of already high groundwater.
Here’s the release from the AWWA — Rocky Mountain Section:
The water has been tasted, the water has been tested and the winner of the “Best of the Rocky Mountain Section” water taste test has been announced! City of Fort Collins took first place with a panel of veteran judges and media reporters evaluating water appearance, quality, order, and taste, of course. Competition was stiffer this year with 15 municipalities, from Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, competing for the title of the best drinking water in the mountain west during the 2019 annual conference of the Rocky Mountain Section of the American Water Works (RMSAWWA) in Keystone, Colorado. You can learn more about the winner, City of Fort Collins Utility, by visiting http://www.fcgov.com. Second place was awarded to Aurora Water, Colorado with the City of Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities, Wyoming coming in third.
City of Fort Collins will now go on to represent the mountain west in the national “Best of the Best” water taste test at the American Water Work Association’s Annual Conference and Exposition (ACE20) in Orlando, Florida, June 14-17, 2020. Over 11,000 water professionals across the country will gather at ACE20 where the best-tasting tap water in North American will be declared.
The RMSAWWA is the regional section for the AWWA, which is the largest non-profit, science-based organization in the world for drinking water professionals. The RMSAWWA covers Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico and has over 2,400 members, representing water utilities, engineering consultants and water treatment specialty firms.
Governor Mark Gordon expressed his gratitude to Wyoming and Nebraska’s congressional delegations, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts and State of Nebraska agencies, and especially to State of Wyoming agencies for their collaborative efforts to address the ongoing needs of farmers impacted by the July 17 Goshen/Ft. Laramie irrigation tunnel collapse. These efforts contributed to today’s announcement by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency that crop losses and prevented planting due to the collapse will constitute an insurable event.
“We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the diligent work of the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security, Wyoming State Geological Survey, Wyoming State Engineer’s Office and the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, alongside our counterparts in Nebraska, to help provide the necessary information to open the doors for crop insurance coverage for producers in the affected area,” said Governor Gordon. “The State of Wyoming will continue our ongoing efforts to obtain additional assistance for farmers impacted by this event. Many thanks to the numerous federal, state and local elected officials for bringing their resources to the table as well.”
The July 17, 2019 irrigation tunnel collapse and subsequent breach of a canal wall cut off irrigation to more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Wyoming and Nebraska. Work to repair the irrigation tunnel and stabilize a sinkhole that formed above the tunnel’s roof is continuing.
“The Wyoming Office of Homeland Security, our other sister agencies and Goshen Irrigation District have provided much-appreciated leadership since the collapse,” added Doug Miyamoto, Director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. “We need to continue this collaboration to ensure that the irrigation system is restored as quickly as possible. It is vital that we exhaust all avenues of potential assistance to our producers in the aftermath of this disaster.”
From The University of Nebraska Lincoln< (Jessica Groskopf/Cory Walters):
As repairs continue on the tunnel that collapsed on the Goshen/Gering-Fort Laramie Canal, unanswered questions remain about whether crop insurance will cover crop losses stemming from the loss of irrigation water.
Crop Insurance provides protection against “unavoidable, naturally occurring events.” Due to the complexity of the Goshen/Gering-Fort Laramie situation, it is unknown if crop insurance will cover crop loss.
Three tunnels are used to deliver water from the Whalen Dam on the North Platte River to the Goshen/Gering-Fort Laramie Canal. The second tunnel, south of Fort Laramie, Wyo., collapsed on July 17. Water has been shut off at the Whalen Dam since the incident occurred in order to inspect and repair the tunnel. This has left 107,000 acres of cropland in Nebraska and Wyoming without irrigation water during a critical time in the growing season.
Several factors may have contributed to the tunnel collapse. According to a report by the National Weather Service in Cheyenne “precipitation has been upwards of 200-300% above normal for the past water year (1 Oct. 2018 to present).” However, the tunnel in question was built in 1917 by the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the structure. The Goshen Irrigation District and Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation District were responsible for operating and maintenance of the tunnel.
Crop insurance is a federal program administered by the USDA Risk Management Agency. All crop insurance policies, regardless of the crop insurance agent, are subject to the same provisions. Thus if it is determined that the tunnel collapse was not from an “unavoidable, naturally occurring event,” all crop insurance policy holders on the Goshen/Gering-Fort Laramie Canal would not receive an indemnity payment for their crop loss.
Farmers in the affected area need to continue to manage their crop as if water will return to the canal and they will covered by their crop insurance policy. Failure to do so may negate individual crop insurance coverage. Producers must receive written permission from the insurance company to replant, abandon or destroy a crop.
This information is designed to support and help clarify existing crop insurance policy provisions and procedures. For more detailed information and options you may have, please consult a crop insurance agent.
The Gering-Ft. Laramie-Goshen canal ordinarily carries water from the North Platte River to irrigate more than 100,000 acres in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. But last Wednesday, part of a 102-year old concrete tunnel on the canal collapsed, blocking that water. Wednesday, an overflow crowd packed a Scottsbluff meeting room to hear an update on the situation.
Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District General Manager Rick Preston said officials are working on a temporary fix which will involve working into the tunnel, inserting steel ribs covered with metal plates and grout, hoping to clear a path to resume the flow.
“This is a long shot. We don’t even know what’s in there. In a perfect situation, you’re looking at 21 days before we can get water back into the system,” Preston said.
Gering–area farmer Preston Stricker said he’s coped with water shortages before, but never a complete cutoff. “The effects? Nobody’s ever tried this, so we don’t know yet. But it could be devastating, with no rain and the heat the way it generally is at the end of July, the first part of August. Corn’s in its pollinating stage within the next week to 10 days, and a very, very critical time, so the yield drag could be tremendous,” Sticker said.
Xin Qiao, a University of Nebraska irrigation management specialist, said that if corn doesn’t get any irrigation water by mid-August, that could cut yields by 80-90 percent.
In addition to how long the outage will last, other questions include who will pay for repairs, and how much, if any of the losses will be covered by crop insurance.
According to a Goshen Irrigation District news release, during the early morning hours on July 17, an apparent collapse in a tunnel on the Fort Laramie Canal, about one and a half miles south of the town of Fort Laramie, caused water to back up and breach the canal bank upstream of the tunnel. The Fort Laramie Canal provides irrigation water to approximately 107,000 acres in Wyoming and Nebraska served by the Goshen and Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation Districts and the Wright and Murphey Ditch Company.
Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Vice President/Goshen County Farmer Cole Coxbill says the magnitude of the tunnel collapse is devastating. “In 13 miles, the water in the canal rose by four feet in just a half hour,” he explained. “It just went from bad to worse as the severity of the washout and tunnel collapse was discovered. The crew’s quick action and response to get the canal shut down as soon as they did saved additional destruction.”
All hands are on deck to determine a plan to repair the tunnel and canal to restore service. “Tunnel experts are onsite as well as engineers, legislators, irrigation district board members and other interested parties,” Coxbill said. “Today, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon toured the damage and is in touch with and working with Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts.”
To put the scope in perspective, Coxbill explained the size of Tunnel 2; the tunnel that collapsed. “Construction started in 1916 and finished in 1917. It is 2,160 feet long; 140 foot to 180 foot below ground and it is a 14 foot by 14 foot concrete tunnel,” he explained. “The cave in blocked it off totally and backed the water up in the canal washing out a good quarter mile of the canal. All of this is about 13 miles from the diversion dam on the river and the canal’s length in Wyoming alone is 85 miles.”
According to Coxbill, a state economist gave an initial forecast guess of a $60 million direct economic impact to Wyoming and Nebraska. “That doesn’t include the turnover effect,” Coxbill explained. “That is the direct economic impact the loss of irrigation water will have on our states.”
There are approximately 52,000 acres in Wyoming impacted with the loss of irrigation water. “Farmers are all in at this point in the season,” Coxbill stated. “All our chips are on the table and now we face the outlook of no irrigation water.”
“We are hoping to have some more answers as the irrigation boards meet again tomorrow to discuss what the tunnel company found and what they think,” he said.
“The devastation and reality of no water is still setting in and on how tragic this can and will be to the farmers and the community,” Coxbill concluded.
Momentum is building in Colorado to create new reservoirs to draw more water from the South Platte River, reducing the flow into Nebraska. Nebraska officials should monitor this situation closely, now and in coming years, to make sure the water volume continues to meet the requirements under a 1923 South Platte River agreement between the two states.
Maintaining a proper flow in the Platte River — formed by the confluence of the South Platte and North Platte Rivers in western Nebraska — is crucial to our state’s agriculture, hydropower and long-term metropolitan water sources for Omaha and Lincoln.
Colorado apparently has considerable room at present to make further diversions and still remain in compliance. “In many years, more water is passing that gauging station at the state line than needs to” under the agreement, Colorado State Engineer Kevin Rein says.
The proposed reservoirs, to serve Front Range urban residents, would keep about 150,000 acre-feet of water in Colorado, the Denver Post reports. That’s about half of the estimated amount that Colorado lawmakers claim their state can legally divert on average each year under the 1923 agreement. For comparison: When full, Nebraska’s Lake McConaughy has a capacity of 1.74 million acre-feet.
A 1993 study of Nebraska water history by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln stated, “Some Nebraskans may still bemoan that the state gave away too much water to Colorado in the South Platte Compact of 1923, but it was a voluntary agreement.”
The tremendous metro growth in Colorado’s Front Range is spurring the call for new reservoirs. Urban groundwater levels are declining in the face of dramatically increased demand. Meanwhile, agricultural producers in Colorado’s South Platte River basin support reservoir creation as a way to safeguard their own groundwater from urban diversion. Officials in western Colorado are in favor, saying the South Platte water could reduce the current allocation of western Colorado water to the Front Range via tunnels. Supportive, too, are Colorado water-policy officials, who included the South Platte reservoir concept in their 2015 State Water Plan.
In short, a wide-ranging set of powerful urban and rural interests in Colorado have come together to press for more South Platte water. “We owe it to our state, to our water users and our farmers to capture as much water as we can” out of the South Platte, said Joe Frank, manager of Colorado’s Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District.
Nebraskans can take heart that strong legal protections are in place to safeguard the significant water volume the state receives via the North Platte River, a vital irrigation source. The river supplies Lake McConaughy, for example, with its wide-ranging irrigation and groundwater recharge role for more than half a million acres in the Platte River valley, plus hydropower generation and recreation.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decree in 1945 setting out a legal framework for interstate water allocation along the North Platte. In 2001, Nebraska and Wyoming reached a settlement on sharing North Platte water after 15 years of legal wrangling. The agreement essentially froze Wyoming’s water use at the 2001 level and stipulated that groundwater hydrologically connected to the North Platte be included. The settlement created a committee — of federal, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado officials — to work out future disagreements.
“In contrast to the meager and seasonal administrative execution of provisions contained in the South Platte Compact,” a 2006 UNL analysis stated, “administrative actions in the North Platte River watershed are extensive and occur year-round.”
Nebraska may have future legal leverage regarding the South Platte if any Colorado diversions raise environmental concerns, such as negative effects on protected animal species. Two examples: sandhill cranes and whooping cranes, which congregate in great numbers annually in central Nebraska.
The proposed South Platte reservoirs are “one of those rare solutions that really is good for both rural Colorado and folks who live in the Denver metro area,” a Colorado state senator stated. Evidently so, but on this side of the border, Nebraskans need to remain watchful and assertive to ensure our state’s rights are recognized and safeguarded to the full extent of applicable law.
Governor Mark Gordon, members of the executive branch, and representatives from multiple state agencies are mobilizing in an effort to provide assistance to farmers affected by a catastrophic irrigation tunnel collapse in Goshen County.
The Governor signed an Executive Order for a Declaration of Emergency today, allowing him to deploy state resources to Goshen County as needed. The collapse occurred early in the morning of July 17 along the Fort Laramie-Gering irrigation canal west of Lingle and caused a large breach of the canal wall. The disaster inundated farmland near the breach and has left more than 100,000 acres of cropland in Wyoming and Nebraska without water during a critical period for growers. Goshen County Commissioners issued a Local Disaster Declaration earlier today.
“This is a serious emergency and we recognize addressing an issue of this magnitude will take coordination, especially because it affects so many Wyoming and Nebraska farmers,” Governor Mark Gordon said. “We are working with an understanding of the urgency of the situation, along with a need to proceed carefully. Wyoming is united in its effort to find the right way to help the Goshen Irrigation District get up and running.”
After visiting the site on Friday, the Governor and members of the executive branch met Monday morning to analyze ways to provide state support to Goshen County and the Goshen Irrigation District. The Governor’s office is assembling resources to engage federal partners and is working with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security and the State Engineer’s Office to explore potential options for resources and assistance.
State officials and representatives from Governor Gordon’s office will attend a stakeholder’s meeting organized by the Goshen Irrigation District scheduled for 2 pm Wednesday, July 24, at the Eastern Wyoming College auditorium. The meeting is open to the public and will include a discussion of the collapse and a possible timeline for repairs to the tunnel and ditch.
From the Goshen County Commissioners via The Torrington Telegram:
The Goshen County Board of Commissioners has officially declared the collapse of an irrigation tunnel along the Fort Laramie-Gering Irrigation Canal as a local disaster.
In a declaration issued Monday morning, July 22, the county stated that “extensive damage was caused to private property and the loss of irrigation water will result in an extensive loss of agricultural crops to the farmers of Goshen County within the disaster area.”
The declaration, signed by Chairman Wally Wolski, vowed to seek emergency funds from any and all sources.
“All locally available public and private resources available to mitigate and alleviate the effects of this disaster have been insufficient to meet the needs of the situation,” the declaration said. “The Chairman of the Goshen County Board of Commissioners has declared a State of Emergency on behalf of Goshen County, and will execute for and on behalf of Goshen County Commission the expenditure of emergency funds from all available sources, the invoking of mutual aid agreements, and the requesting of assistance from the State of Wyoming.”
The Goshen Irrigation District has organized a stakeholder’s meeting to discuss the Fort-Laramie Gering irrigation tunnel collapse, repairing the tunnel and the ditch, and the timeframe of the repairs. The meeting will be held Wednesday, July 24, 2 p.m. at the Eastern Wyoming College auditorium.
The GID issued a press release on Friday, July 19, to ask people to stay away from the collapse to allow the GID and various contractors space to make the necessary repairs. The collapse occurred in a remote section of the canal, with only a one-lane road to get in or out of the site.
“Goshen Irrigation District and Gering-Fort Laramie District are asking for all patrons to please observe all road closure signs near the tunnel and canal breach,” the release said. “There will be large equipment and contractors in and out of that site every day of the week and for extended hours. Please, for your safety, do not impede the work that needs to be done.”
The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP) is a multi-state effort that began in 1997, when the governors of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska joined with the U.S. Secretary of Interior to sign the “Cooperative Agreement for Platte River Research and Other Efforts Relating to Endangered Species Habitat along the Central Platte River, Nebraska.”
Based on the novel idea that a collaborative approach would prevent years of courtroom battles over limited water supplies and individual river species, the PRRIP works to accommodate the habitat needs of these threatened and endangered bird species by increasing stream flows in the central Platte River during relevant time periods. While these species require habitat in central Nebraska for survival, their habitat is created and maintained through a dynamic river system that begins with water from Colorado and Wyoming. The program also enhances, restores and protects habitat, and does so in a manner to accommodate new water-related activities. This is a good program but due to expire this year.
Wyoming Senator Barrasso (R) and Colorado Representative Neguse (D) each took leadership positions on this issue, sponsoring complementary bills in the Senate (S.990) and House (H.R. 3237), that propose to extend the program. Audubon Rockies and Audubon Nebraska thanked the entire Colorado Congressional Delegation for their unanimous, bipartisan support for these bills. Our offices also thanked Wyoming’s Senator Enzi for supporting the Senate bill, and Representative Cheney recently joined other western co-sponsors of the House bill. Additionally, all Colorado and Wyoming Audubon chapters sent letters thanking their respective congressional delegations for their unanimous, bipartisan of a strong stewardship program.
Whooping crane adult and chick. Credit: USGS (public domain)
The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.
Meanwhile click here to enjoy the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards winners.
Birds make fascinating subjects, as the winners and honorable mentions of this year’s contest, our 10th, make clear. They’re at once beautiful and resilient, complex and comical. It’s no wonder why we love them so.
The images that won the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards, presented in association with Nature’s Best Photography, are as impressive as ever, but attentive readers might notice a few more images than usual. That’s because we’ve added two awards. The Plants for Birds category is inspired by Audubon’s Plants for Birds program, supported by Coleman and Susan Burke, which provides resources for choosing and finding plants native to zip codes in the United States. This category poses a new challenge to photographers: Don’t just capture an incredible moment—make sure it also features a bird and plant native to the location in which the photo was taken, in order to highlight the critical role native habitat plays in supporting bird life. And in the spirit of Kevin Fisher, Audubon’s longtime creative director who recently retired, the Fisher Prize recognizes a creative approach to photographing birds that blends originality with technical expertise. It honors a photograph selected from all of the submissions that pushes the bounds of traditional bird photography.
We want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all 2,253 entrants, hailing from all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and 10 Canadian provinces and territories. Your dedication to appreciating, celebrating, and sharing the wonder of birds and the landscapes they inhabit inspires us now and throughout the year.
The Poudre and Big Thompson rivers are gushing as a wave of warm weather sends mountain snowmelt rushing toward Northern Colorado, but regional officials say flows should taper this week and don’t expect major flooding.
The Poudre flowed about 4.3 feet high at the Lincoln Street gauge Tuesday afternoon. Its volume of 956 cubic feet per second was nearly three times the median for this time of year…
A blast of summer heat will bring Fort Collins a string of days with highs above 90 degrees, starting Wednesday and holding on through Saturday, according to the National Weather Service. Hodges said flood risk isn’t a big concern, though, because so much of the mountain snowpack that feeds the Big Thompson and Poudre rivers has already melted…
Remaining snowpack is plummeting in both the North Platte and South Platte river basins, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service…
The onset of summer also means people will divert more water from the Poudre, which loses over 60% of its water before it even gets to Fort Collins…
The Big Thompson and Poudre rivers have likely already reached their peaks, Hodges said. The Big Thompson reached about 5.8 feet — action stage for flooding is 6.5 — above the canyon mouth on Thursday, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources…
The Poudre reached about 5.7 feet at the canyon mouth Friday. Action stage is 6.5 feet. It peaked at about 5.5 feet through town on Friday, well below the action stage of 9 feet.
The warmer temperatures in Colorado’s mountains are expected to melt quite a bit of snowpack. Be warned that Colorado’s rivers and waterways will be swollen with fast moving and powerful water, making them very dangerous. Three people have died in three separate incidents over the past week in Colorado rivers.
Warming temperatures but especially so during spring months
In Pennsylvania, the groundhog known as Punxsutawney Phil saw no shadow this year. That is supposed to portend an early spring.
In the Rocky Mountains, early springs have been coming no matter what. This was a cold winter in many places, but on average the climate has been warming for several decades. It’s sure to get much warmer yet.
A case in point is Colorado’s North Park, headwaters of the North Platte River but a short distance from the headwaters of the Colorado River and also the Steamboat ski area.
There, according to Dr. J.J. Shinker, an associate professor from the University of Wyoming, the temperature overall has increased 1.44 degrees Celsius (2.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1909.
But warming during the spring months of March, April, and May has been disproportionate, rising almost 4 degrees Fahrenheit (2.21 degrees C) on average since 1909.
“That’s a lot of warming in a short period of time,” she told members of the Colorado Water Congress at a recent conference. She also pointed out that warming at high elevations has been disproportionately greater than the global average.
(But Jeff Lukas of Western Water Assessment, the lead author of “Climate Change in Colorado,” the 2014 synthesis report sponsored by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, points out that “there is no robust and consistent evidence that higher-elevation regions in Colorado are warming at a different rate than lower-elevation regions.”
But of disproportionate warming during spring, there is no dissent. And that produces earlier runoff in the North Platte and other rivers in Colorado. On average, runoff occurs five days earlier for every degree Celsius in warming.
This matters to water managers, who try to ensure the irrigation ditches still have enough water come August and September. It also matters to mountain resorts as warming springs shrink the backend of ski season.
But everybody should be concerned for two more reasons, says Shinker. First, the worst droughts we’ve seen, the worst on record since Eurosettlement about 150 years ago, don’t come close in depth and intensity to those of the past. Forest fires of the past were also giant affairs.
This was part of natural variability. But now there is the overlay of what might be called unnatural variability, this overlay caused by human forcing of the climate.
“The warming that we are seeing is occurring at a rate that is outside the range of natural variability,” Shinker said in an interview after her talk to Colorado water managers. “And it’s occurring as a result of the greenhouse gases that result from human activity.”
Paleoclimatologists can tell much about shifting climates of the past 12,000 years by studying high mountain lakes. Consider Emerald Lake, which is in Colorado’s Sawatch Range, near the trailheads to the state’s two highest mountains, Elbert and Massive. Scientists studying lake sediments and other clues have documented shorelines that a millennium ago were much lower. The droughts then lasted for decades, even hundreds of years, what are called megadroughts.
Lake of the Woods, which is located in Wyoming along the Continental Divide south of Jackson Hole, also offers evidence deciphered by scientists of a megadrought 5,200 years ago.
The point, said Shinker, is that natural variability has always occurred in the interior West. So, too have, extreme events, such as the wildfires that accompanied a megadrought in North Park about 2,000 years ago.
In the Colorado River Basin, scientists have reached much the same conclusion. Undeniably, there have been several hard drought years since 2000. But Brad Udall of Colorado State University and other scientists have concluded that it’s not a drought as conventionally understood. Rather, rising temperatures have begun causing more evaporation and transpiration, resulting in less water getting downstream.
That doesn’t mean conventional climatic forces don’t have swagger. From her post in Wyoming, Shinker studies what causes natural climatic variability in the interior West, such as movement of the polar jet stream north and south. But now there’s an overlay to those natural climatic variations, one created by human activities.
Water is a contradiction for Western Nebraska. It’s both seemingly abundant, yet simultaneously finite and scarce.
A new film by a local award-winning documentary filmmaker explores this contradiction and tells the story of water in the Panhandle, from the founding of the numerous irrigation and natural resources districts that line the North Platte valley, to the legal fights surrounding the regulation, distribution and control of that water.
Insight Creative Independent Productions Executive Producer and Director Becky McMillen’s “Rising Water,” was originally designed to be a web series, and viewers will get a first peek at it when the film premiers at the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering on Saturday, March 2, at 1 p.m. The screening of the documentary is in conjunction with The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street the Water/Ways” exhibit, which is open now until April 13 at Legacy.
“Everyone knows how to use YouTube, and they’ve gotten used to web series,” McMillan said. “They’re used to watching short pieces.”
In essence, each of the segments of the film is a self-contained documentary which covers a different facet of the story of our water, she said.
The hour and fifteen minute feature is the product of more than three solid years of work, with much of the footage and information gathered over a greater period of time. McMillen said that her father, Udell Hughes Sr., helped her with much of the technical research for the film. It also contains material gathered during production of McMillen’s last major project, “River of Time: Wyoming’s Evolving North Platte River,” a half-hour program which premiered on Wyoming PBS in November 2012.
“We’ve been sort of building up towards this film,” she said. “A lot of my historical research was actually done at Legacy of the Plains.”
The film contains interviews with managers of irrigation districts, farmers, UNL researchers and footage from public hearings concerning water issues.
“I knew that I needed to talk about the Ogallala Aquifer, but it took me a while to understand that issue,” McMillen said.
So she consulted UNL research hydrogeologist Jim Goeke, who is known as “Mr. Water.” Goeke researched the aquifer and arguably knows more about the water under our feet than any other human being.
McMillen said she was surprised by how candid Goeke.
“He gave me courage to address issues that probably weren’t very popular and won’t be very popular,” she said. “We have sucked so much water out of the aquifer and I’ve been watching the Pumpkin Creek battle for years, but lost track of it.”
The challenge for McMillen was to tie together the surface water and ground water portions of the story.
And it was a lawsuit over the little western Nebraska stream that became a big State Supreme Court case.
In 2009 The Spear T Ranch settled with more than a dozen upstream ranchers and farmers in a dispute between irrigators feuding over water in Pumpkin Creek.
“I was thinking about Pumpkin Creek, but I didn’t have any visuals,” she said. “I’d filmed a meeting of farmers years ago, but the camera went south on me and there was no way I could recover the footage.”
Then synchronicity struck. McMillen’s bookkeeper was from the Spear T Ranch, and the family over time had saved all of the newspaper clippings about the fight.
“That helped me tie it all together,” McMillen said. “You just have to be able to listen and when you hear something say ‘What was that?’”
And the hunger for investigative work is what fuels most of her projects.
“I have to tell myself to stop, take notes and check things out,” she said. “I hear stories all the time and I’d love to go chase them, but I have to be responsible and pay my bills.”
McMillen said a lot of the project has been self-funded because she couldn’t kick the habit once a lead seemed promising.
Newspapers also provided McMillen a window into the issues. As the “first draft of history,” clippings are featured at prominent portions of the film.
“The Star-Herald is in a lot of these stories that I brought back from the past,” she said. “There was so much information that really help me understand what was going on at the time.”
Another portion of the film is spent exploring contamination concerns, especially the 2015 fight against a Colorado company who sought permission to use an abandoned oil well in Sioux County as a wastewater disposal site. Sioux County landowners eventually won their appeal and state lawmakers reformed the process in which permits are granted.
“I documented almost everything, and there is a lot of that in there, along with newspaper clippings” she said. “The physical thing is really important, because I couldn’t have told any of this story without the work of reporters from back in the 1800s on to the present day.”
And those are the little things, McMillen said.
“I saw articles where they hung effigies of law makers because they were going to shut the water off,” she said. “There’s always a fight about water. One guy will say ‘I was here first,’ and another guy will say, ‘hey I need that.’ And just because you were here first doesn’t mean you get to have all of it.”
And over the course of making the film McMillen said that she’s learned that there needs to be change to protect and preserve not only the Valley’s greatest gift, but the way of life for Farmers and Ranchers who live here.
“We’re going to have to look beyond what we’re calling ‘traditional practices,’” she said. “We can continue on the same track that we have been. We can’t keep expanding and still be able to sustain that.”
It was her discussions with farmers that drove home the point for her.
“I think we need to look at it as growing food,” she said. “I would like us to grow more food that doesn’t have to be shipped, because we’re going to have to address climate change and reverse it.”
And at the same time, caution needs to be exercised when employing solutions, she said.
“What we think are the solutions are not always the best way of doing things,” she said. “We can’t just blindly forge ahead just because we think it’s a good idea. At the time we’re looking at sustainable energy, we’re also wanting to put it in places that will never be the same.
“We need to work within the infrastructure we already have and not go to condemning land so that we can use it for transmission lines or wind farms. There is plenty of space for that without tearing up areas that can’t be returned to their natural state.”
…as Colorado’s drought intensifies and the state grows desperate to increase snowpack, a new study is helping create buzz around cloud seeding. And for the first time, Colorado is stepping up its game and plans to try cloud seeding not just from generators on the ground, but by airplane.
Cloud seeding, or weather modification, is mentioned multiple times in the Colorado Water Plan.
And a drought contingency plan approved this month by half of the seven states that make up the Colorado River Basin coalition includes three key components: reducing water consumption, managing reservoirs and “augmenting” the water supply through cloud seeding and removal of water-sucking tamarisk, or salt cedar trees.
“By itself, cloud seeding is not a drought buster, but it is one proven method to use along with demand management and reservoir operations,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the Colorado River District, based in Glenwood Springs.
A breakthrough study of cloud seeding by aircraft involving University of Colorado and University of Wyoming researchers took place in 2017 in the mountains of southwest Idaho. It captured attention after its results were published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For the first time, researchers — in a second aircraft flying near the cloud-seeding plane — could see silver iodide enter the clouds and form snow crystals.
“We unambiguously can show it works in the atmosphere,” said Dr. Katja Friedrich, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at CU and one of the study’s authors. “That was very revolutionary.”
In the experiment, funded by the National Science Foundation with support from Idaho Power Co., the cloud-seeding airplane passed through the clouds dropping flares of silver iodide, a compound that attaches to water molecules and forms crystals. The turboprop soaring above the Payette Basin also flared silver iodide from its wings as it flew through clouds rich with supercooled water droplets, ripe for seeding.
The research plane flew near the seeded clouds and was able to record via radar that silver iodide caused the water molecules in the clouds to freeze. The researchers’ radar detected water molecules inside clouds becoming “glaciated” and growing heavier after they were seeded with silver iodide, forming snow.
Now that they’ve proved cloud seeding works, follow-up work is needed to determine how much snow it actually produces and whether it’s an efficient way to increase snowpack, Friedrich said. Cloud seeding in Colorado is a $1.2 million annual operation, and according to the best estimates of researchers, can increase snowfall anywhere from 2 to 15 percent per storm…A turboprop plane, a King Air C90 owned by Weather Modification International, recently began seeding clouds in southern Wyoming. Now the North Dakota-based company is working with Jackson County, Colorado, on plans to boost snowfall in the lower Medicine Bow Range northwest of Fort Collins.
Snowpack from that mountain range ends up in the headwaters of the North Platte River and Walden Reservoir, northeast of Steamboat Springs. Jackson County water officials have filed permits for the project with the state Department of Natural Resources and final approval is only a matter of paperwork..
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Brock Merrill):
The Bureau of Reclamation has released the Final Environmental and Biological Assessment (EA) and signed the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, Proposed First Increment Extension. Reclamation, working with the states of Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska, water users, and environmental and conservation organizations, proposes to extend the First Increment of the basin-wide, cooperative Recovery Implementation Program by 13 years. Reclamation participates in the Program to meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act.
The purpose of this action is to continue implementing Program projects in order to accomplish the following:
Reduce flow shortages in the Platte River aimed at conforming with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service target flows
Continue land management activities necessary to provide habitat for target threatened and endangered species
Continue integrated monitoring, research, and adaptive management, in order to assess the progress of the Program and inform future management decisions
The final EA and FONSI evaluates and discloses the potential impacts of the proposed 13 year extension of the Program’s First Increment. The final EA and FONSI does not represent the final decision of the Secretary of the Interior, in cooperation with the Governors of the states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming, to extend the Program. The final EA and FONSI informs the Secretary that the potential impacts of the proposed extension do not warrant the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement. The formal decision by the Secretary regarding whether or not to extend the Program in cooperation with the Governors will occur at a later date.
When a town has high electric bills and no available land for a solar farm, a floating solar plant on the pond of a waste water plant makes great sense. Walden, Colorado, population 750, elevation 8,000 feet plus, and land area of 0.34 square miles, is such a town.
“We were spending about $22,000 a month for electricity for the water treatment facility, and this 75 kW solar installation will save us $10,000 a month,” says Jim Dustin, mayor of Walden, Colo. “We’ll pay for the plant in 20 years, and it is still expected to run 10 more years after that,” he says.
The plant technology was furnished by floating solar specialists Ciel & Terre USA and was installed by GRID Specialists. The $400,000 cost of the plant was offset by a $200,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, which manages revenues earned by oil and gas development tax in the state. The project also was supported by the Colorado Energy Office.
“The Energy Office is interested in this installation because it gets down to minus 40 or 50 degrees in the winter, and we have very high winds. They want to know if the technology will work, because there are irrigation ponds and unused water bodies all over this state,” says Dustin. The energy office has offered $120,000 to move the installation to another location if it doesn’t work in Walden, he adds.
The Energy Office is also interested in conserving water in the state, where evaporation reduces holding pond levels by up to 90 inches per year, according to Taylor Lewis, a program engineer at the agency. “We have 2,000 man-made reservoirs in the state to keep water so if we can identify a few where it makes sense to cover them with solar, there could be a double benefit of water savings and electricity generation,” he says.
The concept of covering drinking water bodies to reduce evaporation is not new. “I’ve been looking at claims by the City of Los Angeles that they have saved billions of gallons of water over the past 10 years at four reservoirs, using black floating plastic balls,” Lewis says. “We’re interested in studying the impact with floating solar here,” he adds.
Johnson Controls came up with the initial idea of a floating solar array for Walden, says Dustin. “The floating solar array is a milestone for the Town of Walden and highlights the potential for Colorado’s overall energy efforts,” said Rowena Adams, a Performance Infrastructure account executive at Johnson Controls, in a statement.
“It was a practical choice for Walden given the surrounding bodies of water and the town’s energy resiliency efforts at the Town Water Treatment Facility, as well as the desire to conserve water and minimize algae growth,” Adams said.
Ciel & Terre, the technology provider, has more water projects in mind for Colorado. “With demand for solar power continuing to rise and available real estate becoming more expensive, floating solar is the ideal solution for anyone with a manmade pond or body of water. It’s cost-effective, quick to install, easy to maintain, and offers a variety of environmental benefits,” said Eva Pauly-Bowles, the representative director for the US office of the French company.
“Floating solar is no longer an exotic niche in the US, but a rapidly growing sector of the solar market. Ciel & Terre USA has other larger floating solar projects under construction and planned across the country,” Papuly-Bowles said.
Deploying a floating solar array on manmade bodies of water improves energy production by keeping the solar system cooler, Ciel & Terre says. At the same time it reduces evaporation, controls algae growth, and reduces water movement to minimize bank erosion, it says. Floating solar arrays also make optimal use of pond surfaces, providing clean solar energy without committing expensive real estate or requiring rooftop installations, the company adds.
Established in 2006 as a renewable Independent Power Producer (IPP), Ciel & Terre has been fully devoted to floating solar PV since 2011. The French company pioneered Hydrelio, the first specific and industrialized system to make solar panels float on water, with criteria such as cost-effectiveness, safety, longevity, resistance to winds and waves, simplicity, drinking water compliance, and optimized electrical yield, the company states in its profile.
Ciel & Terre has floating solar installations in Japan, Korea, China, UK, France, Brazil, Singapore, Malaysia, Italy, and Taiwan as well as the United States. The company has its United States headquarters in Petaluma, California.
From the University of Denver Water Law Review (Jeremy Frankel):
The grain-growing region in the High Plains of America—known as America’s breadbasket—relies entirely on the Ogallala Aquifer. But long term unsustainable use of the aquifer is forcing states in the region to face the prospect of a regional economic disaster. As the High Plains states reach the verge of a major crisis, the states have taken different approaches to conservation with varying results.
The Ogallala Aquifer supports an astounding one-sixth of the world’s grain produce, and it has long been an essential component of American agriculture. The High Plains region—where the aquifer lies—relies on the aquifer for residential and industrial uses, but the aquifer’s water is used primarily for agricultural irrigation. The agricultural demands for Ogallala water in the region are immense, with the aquifer ultimately being responsible for thirty percent of all irrigation in the United States. The Ogallala Aquifer has long been unable to keep up with these agricultural demands, as the aquifer recharges far slower than water is withdrawn.
Aside from the obvious agricultural ramifications from the Ogallala’s depletion, recent studies have shown that groundwater depletion also has a severe effect on freshwater ecosystems in the region. Each state has had to confront the issue in their own way, but the depletion of the aquifer has become severe enough to warrant the attention of the federal government as well. At the state level, the focus has been on maintaining an orderly depletion of the aquifer rather than developing a plan for sustainable use. However, some states have achieved some level of success in slowing down the aquifer’s depletion. Kansas, for example, has recently achieved mild success by adopting a program that put conservation in the hands of the State’s farmers. On the other hand, Nebraska has seen more success than Kansas by being tougher on farmers and exercising its enforcement powers. The federal government has also set up financial and technical assistance for farmers who commit to conservation and is funding large-scale pipeline projects to bring in water to the more desperate areas of the High Plains.
When early explorers Zebulon Pike and Francisco de Coronado came upon the High Plains, they described it as a desert — an impossible region to farm.
Irrigation changed that. It allowed residents to pull water from the Ogallala Aquifer, and grow crops nearly anywhere. The first irrigation wells in Kansas were drilled east of Garden City in 1908.
The Ogallala is a massive, underground sponge, spanning from South Dakota and Wyoming, down through the High Plains to west Texas and New Mexico. Over 27,000 of the total 35,000 wells with active water rights in Kansas overlie the Ogallala, with 87 percent used for irrigation.
But decades of pumping water out, with little return, has taken its toll.
After 110 years of drilling and draining, the world’s largest aquifer is drying up.
The Ogallala is the primary source of water for western Kansas farms, ranches and some communities, but projections indicate several areas that will go dry within 25 to 50 years at current usage rates. Some regions in Haskell County may have a decade or less…
The Ogallala Aquifer Summit was organized by Colorado State University’s Ogallala Water CAP Program — a coordinated agriculture project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture – National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The summit brought together scientists, government agents and producers from the eight states situated over the Ogallala to discuss shared challenges and current initiatives to preserve the aquifer.
Conversations between states had a rocky start, partly because they were spurred out of litigation regarding the Republican River basin along the Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas borders. The conflict led to monthly meetings of the Republican River Compact Administration — comprised of one member from each state — to change the approach and improve water management.
“No offense to those that are here, but I’m just excited to come to an interstate water conference that doesn’t have more lawyers than it does farmers and ranchers,” Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey said to applause from the summit crowd.
Nebraska Natural Resources Program Director Jesse Bradley and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown joined McClaskey for the first panel of the summit, discussing the cultivation of interstate conversations.
Brown joked that the whole problem was Nebraska’s fault — Nebraska native Frank Zybach invented center pivot irrigation while living in Colorado — and Bradley fired back that ‘you always blame the upstream state.’
She credits interstate conversations regarding the Republican River as a critical factor for changing the tone of the discussion. Instead of fighting over the water, the group is now working together to preserve water.
“The biggest way we learned this lesson is from the complete 180 we’ve done on the Republican River discussions,” McClaskey said. “In July 2014, we started meeting month-to-month and created a true, long-term agreement, and are using those lessons to expand to all the states.
“Now, I would call my colleagues from Nebraska and Colorado friends, which may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a lot easier to solve a problem with a friend than with an enemy.”
The Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a North Platte River Water Information Meeting in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
The meeting will be held at 10:00 a.m., on Wednesday, April 11, at the Scottsbluff Panhandle Station Auditorium, Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The meeting is being held to apprise water users and other interested parties of the reservoir storage and current water supply conditions. Information regarding snowmelt runoff and expected reservoir operations for water year 2018 will be presented.
The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.
The plan is to divert excess Platte water via canal, culvert and pipeline over the Platte-Republican divide near Smithfield in south-central Nebraska’s Gosper County and run it south into the Republican via Turkey Creek, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
The 25-mile-long stream is a tributary of the Republican starting about 3 miles west of Smithfield. It empties into the Republican between Edison and Oxford. The Republican River rises in Colorado and crosses southern Nebraska before flowing into Kansas.
The primary objective is to help ensure the state’s compliance with an interstate compact that allocates certain percentages of the Republican River’s flows to Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado, said John Thorburn, general manager of the Tri-Basin Natural Resources District in Holdrege. Although the states have been working in harmony on managing the river in recent years, disputes among the three have escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
After three years of active planning, project proponents submitted their initial permit paperwork to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources last week.
Tri-Basin partnered with the Alma-based Lower Republican NRD to develop the $1.4 million to $1.9 million enterprise known as the Platte Republican Diversion Project. It would tap Platte water from a canal owned by the Holdrege-based Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District. The district stores North Platte River water in Lake McConaughy in western Nebraska and delivers it downstream and into canals for delivery to farmers to irrigate cropland.
“This is precedent-setting for Nebraska,” Thorburn said. “We’d be taking otherwise ‘wasted’ water to be put to good use for a beneficial purpose.”
Thorburn and others expect resistance from environmental organizations that have raised concerns, saying there really isn’t extra water in the Platte and that it’s all precious in providing habitat for endangered bird species, including the whooping crane, piping plover and least tern.
The Platte’s floodwater — the excess flows that would be diverted at times — scrubs trees and other vegetation from sand bars and other important habitat for sandhill cranes. Downstream near Lincoln and Omaha, the river replenishes aquifers and well fields providing drinking water to the state’s two largest cities.
The diversion would not occur during the June-through-August irrigation season, Thorburn said.
The potential economic impact of the project in the Republican basin would range from $14.2 million to $33 million, depending on how much of the water required to meet interstate agreements and obligations comes from the diversion versus other sources, according to a study by the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The Platte in central Nebraska is designated by the Natural Resources Department as over appropriated, meaning there is more demand for the water than the river can provide. It is the state’s only over appropriated river. Still, there are times when floods funnel high water down the river’s usually shallow channels.
An engineering study by Olsson Associates of Lincoln for the project partners indicated that under two scenarios a potential 57,000 to nearly 140,000 acre-feet of unallocated water could have been diverted from the Platte into the Republican during the period of 2013 to 2016. An acre-foot is the volume of water that would cover an acre of land 12 inches deep.
The peak scenario would require 100 cubic feet per second of water to flow down Turkey Creek at times. A cubic foot is like a box of water measuring one foot by one foot by one foot. It contains around 7½ gallons. This rate of flow is a bit less than the volume of water Omahans see in Big Papillion Creek at Q Street in a typical March.
Turkey Creek’s current base flow is about 12 cubic feet per second. Erosion-control measures and other improvements would allow the creek to handle diverted flows up to 100 cubic feet per second without damaging the surrounding land in Gosper and Furnas Counties, according to the engineering study. The draft application calls for diverting 275 cubic feet per second from the Platte in order to provide up to 100 cubic feet per second into Turkey Creek.
Platte River photo credit US Bureau of Reclamation.
Here’s the release from the US Bureau of Reclamation (Brock Merrill):
The Bureau of Reclamation is preparing an environmental assessment (EA) for the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, Proposed First Increment Extension. Reclamation, working with the states of Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska, water users, and environmental and conservation organizations, proposes to extend the First Increment of the basin-wide, cooperative Recovery Implementation Program by 13 years. Reclamation is doing this to meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act.
The purpose of this action is to continue implementing projects that provide additional water, in order to accomplish the following:
Reduce flow shortages in the Platte River aimed at conforming with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service target flows
Continue land management activities necessary to provide habitat for target threatened and endangered species
Continue integrated monitoring, research, and adaptive management, in order to assess the progress of the program and inform future management decisions
Reclamation will hold four public scoping meetings during the 45-day scoping period to gather information from other agencies, interested parties, and the public on the scope of alternatives for the EA. The public is encouraged to attend the open house EA scoping meetings, to learn more about the proposal and to assist Reclamation in identifying issues.
The public scoping meetings on the EA are scheduled as follows (All meetings will be held 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.):
October 4, 2017, at Goshen County Fair Grounds, 7078 Fairgrounds Road, Torrington, Wyoming
October 5, 2017, at The Ranch Events Complex, 5280 Arena Circle, Loveland, Colorado (Located in the Larimer County Conference Center; park in Lot B)
October 11, 2017, at Hotel Grand, 2503 S. Locust Street, Grand Island, Nebraska
October 12, 2017, at Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Executive Director’s Office, 4111 4th Avenue, Suite 6, Kearney, Nebraska
At each meeting, the public will have the opportunity to provide written input on resources to be evaluated, significant issues or concerns, and potential alternatives.
Written comments are due by close of business November 2, 2017. Members of the public may submit written comments at the public scoping meetings, via email to email@example.com, or by mail to:
Bureau of Reclamation
Attention: Brock Merrill
P.O. Box 950
Torrington, WY 82240
Here’s the release from Colorado State University:
Farmers in the Great Plains of Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas and the panhandle of Texas produce about one-sixth of the world’s grain, and water for these crops comes from the High Plains Aquifer — often known as the Ogallala Aquifer — the single greatest source of groundwater in North America. A team of researchers, including Colorado State University Professor Kurt Fausch and Jeff Falke, a CSU alumnus and an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, have discovered that more than half a century of groundwater pumping from the aquifer has led to long segments of rivers drying up and the collapse of large-stream fishes.
If pumping practices are not modified, scientists warn that these habitats will continue to shrink, and the fish populations along with them.
The research team combined modeling from the past and future to assess changes in Great Plains streams and their fish populations associated with groundwater pumping from the High Plains Aquifer. The findings have implications for watersheds around the world, because irrigation accounts for 90 percent of human water use globally, and local and regional aquifers are drying up.
A ‘train wreck’
Fausch said the study results are sobering. Based on earlier observations and modeling by Falke and a team of graduate students and faculty at CSU, the Arikaree River in eastern Colorado, which is fed by the aquifer and used to flow about 70 miles, will dry up to about one-half mile by 2045.
“You have this train wreck where we’re drying up streams to feed a growing human population of more than 7 billion people,” Fausch said.
Fausch described the situation as a “wicked problem,” one with no good solution. “More water is pumped out every year than trickles back down into the aquifer from rain and snow,” he said. “We are basically drying out the Great Plains.”
Pumping has dried up streams, small rivers
Since the 1950s, pumping has extracted nearly as much water as what exists in Lake Erie — about 100 trillion gallons — and almost none of it trickles back into the aquifer.
“This pumping has dried up long segments of many streams and small rivers in the region,” Fausch said. From 1950 to 2010, a total of 350 miles of stream dried up in the large area the team studied in eastern Colorado, southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas. “Our models project that another 180 miles of stream will dry up by 2060,” Fausch said.
The loss of fish in the area is also a concern. “What we’re losing are the fishes that require habitat found only in the rivers and large streams of the region, and replacing them with those that can survive in the small streams that are left,” Fausch said. “We are losing whole populations of species from rivers in that region because there’s no habitat for them.”
As an example, seven of the 16 native fish species that were once found in the Arikaree River have disappeared since the first surveys were done in the 1940s. These fish include small minnows, suckers and catfish, species that the CSU scientist said are not among those that are currently federally endangered or threatened, so there’s little regulatory authority to preserve the habitats.
“We’re losing fish that people really don’t know about,” said Fausch. “They are cool and very beautiful, but not charismatic.”
Losing a river means losing more than fishes
Effects from the groundwater pumping will extend beyond the fishes and streams, too. Farmers in that area hope to conserve enough water so that future generations can continue to work on the land. And the everyday places that benefit from water could also disappear.
“If they lose the river, they’ll not only lose fishes, but they’ll also lose water for their cattle, and cottonwoods that provide shade,” Fausch explained. “They also lose the grass that grows in the riparian zone, which is critical forage for cattle in summer. Some of that’s your livelihood, but it’s also the place you go for picnics, and to hunt deer and turkeys. If you lose the river, you lose a major feature of what that landscape is.”
Fausch said that there are some signs of progress, despite the grim findings. Local officials have put meters on wells to ensure that farmers pump only the amount of water allowed under their permits. And farmers are always experimenting with new technology that will allow them to optimize the amount of water they use to achieve the highest crop yields, since it takes electricity to pump the water from deep underground and this is an important cost to them. This doesn’t mean that the groundwater levels that feed streams are not declining, but instead are declining at a slower rate than in the past, he said.
Growing dryland crops an option
One additional option, though it might be a hard sell, is for farmers to grow dryland crops, meaning that they rely only on rainfall each year, instead of pumping water. The problem is the crop yields then vary widely from year to year, depending on the rain.
“Every farmer understands that eventually they will no longer be able to afford to pump as much water,” said Fausch. “Farmers are amazing economists. New options such as economical drip irrigation are being discussed, and farmers will likely switch to these options when they become available.”
Fausch, who has studied rivers throughout his entire career, grows wistful when talking about the research. “When we lose these rivers, we will lose them for our lifetime, our children’s lifetime, and our grandchildren’s lifetime,” he said.
Even if all pumping were stopped tomorrow, the aquifer would refill very slowly, over the next 100 years or more, said Fausch. As the groundwater table rose, rivers would start to flow again.
“Groundwater declines are linked to changes in Great Plains stream fish assemblages” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Falke received his doctorate in fisheries biology from CSU in 2009. The research team includes scientists from Kansas State University, Tennessee Technological University, U.S. Geological Survey, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Westar Energy and The Nature Conservancy.
The U.S. Geological Survey has released a new report detailing changes of groundwater levels in the High Plains aquifer. The report presents water-level change data in the aquifer for two separate periods: from 1950 – the time prior to significant groundwater irrigation development – to 2015, and from 2013 to 2015.
“Change in storage for the 2013 to 2015 comparison period was a decline of 10.7 million acre-feet, which is about 30 percent of the change in recoverable water in storage calculated for the 2011 to 2013 comparison period,” said Virginia McGuire, USGS scientist and lead author of the study. “The smaller decline for the 2013 to 2015 comparison period is likely related to reduced groundwater pumping.”
In 2015, total recoverable water in storage in the aquifer was about 2.91 billion acre-feet, which is an overall decline of about 273.2 million acre-feet, or 9 percent, since predevelopment. Average area-weighted water-level change in the aquifer was a decline of 15.8 feet from predevelopment to 2015 and a decline of 0.6 feet from 2013 to 2015.
The USGS study used water-level measurements from 3,164 wells for predevelopment to 2015 and 7,524 wells for the 2013 to 2015 study period.
The High Plains aquifer, also known as the Ogallala aquifer, underlies about 112 million acres, or 175,000 square miles, in parts of eight states, including: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. The USGS, at the request of the U.S. Congress and in cooperation with numerous state, local, and federal entities, has published reports on water-level changes in the High Plains aquifer since 1988 in response to substantial water-level declines in large areas of the aquifer.
“This multi-state, groundwater-level monitoring study tracks water-level changes in wells screened in the High Plains aquifer and located in all eight states that overlie the aquifer. The study has provided data critical to evaluating different options for groundwater management,” said McGuire. “This level of coordinated groundwater-level monitoring is unique among major, multi-state regional aquifers in the country.”
After hearing dozens of public comments, and having their email inboxes flooded with input, the council voted 6-1 late Tuesday night to take a place at the table with the Northern Water Conservancy District, the lead proponent of NISP and representative of 15 backers of the project. NISP would include two reservoirs fueled by the Poudre River, including one near the mouth of the Poudre Canyon.
Council members were also clear that they didn’t view opening discussions as giving in to the project. Councilman Bob Overbeck — the only vote against it — added to the Tuesday resolution that the council outright opposed the project in 2008 and voted in 2015 not to support the project in its current form. The word “negotiate” and phrase “mutual interests,” referring to the city and Northern Water, were also struck from the resolution.
Nonetheless, Gary Wockner, of Save the Poudre, said his group is looking at putting the question of whether the city should support NISP before city voters…
Advocacy group Save the Poudre conducted an opinion poll, via 556 automated phone calls, which results found an overwhelming amount of opposition to the project among city voters.
About 50 of the 60 or so people who made public comment Tuesday opposed the resolution or NISP outright…
John Stokes, head of the city’s natural areas department, said Wednesday staff was happy to get more direction from council, in terms of having discussions with Northern Water regarding city concerns and mitigation proposals. He was also clear that staff didn’t view it as authority to make any decisions regarding the city’s support or efforts of NISP.
“Council makes the decisions about all of this, and, clearly, if we’re going to make any progress on this, it needs to be with council on board,” he said…
Brian Werner, spokesperson for Northern Water, said his group was grateful to be able to have more robust conversations about NISP with the city. There have been some talks with the city about its concerns, but it always felt “sort of like walking on egg shells,” without formal backing, Werner said.
He noted Northern Water and its constituents have already shifted plans to address concerns about low-flow periods of when the Poudre River might dry up by including promises of base flows. Werner cited the city’s softening positions between 2008 and 2015 as proof of Northern Water’s efforts.
“They’ve gone from an almost hell no, to a we’re not happy right now, but maybe make some changes and come back with another proposal,” Werner said. “… I would argue that shows we’ve been listening to Fort Collins as we’ve been trying to craft and draft this plan.”
Update: The council adopted an amended version of the resolution with a 6-1 vote. Bob Overbeck was the only dissenting vote.
The Fort Collins City Council discussed Resolution 5217, which would begin discussions with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, a public agency which provides water to northeastern Colorado, on Tuesday. The discussion revolved around a controversial proposal known as the Northern Integrated Supply Project.
The NISP is a proposed project meant to deliver 40,000 acres of water a year to 15 Northern Colorado communities. While the city itself would not a participate in the NISP, a portion of southeastern Fort Collins would partake in the project.
The NISP would consist of three reservoirs along the Cache La Poudre River, including a large reservoir to the north of the city known as Glade Reservoir which would divert over 1,200 cubic feet per second of the river’s peak flows. This would reduce annual river flows by 20 percent and by 30 percent during the peak flow months of May, June and July, a staff report said.
However, the project is not without opposition. According to non-profit organization Save the Poudre, the NISP/Glade Reservoir project would cause immense ecological damage to the Poudre River.
According to the organization’s website, the project’s aim of reducing peak flows would prevent the river from cleaning itself of algae, endangering the Poudre’s water quality as well as the habitat of a number of aquatic plants and animals.
The staff report also acknowledges that “it is likely the health of the river will be negatively impacted by NISP, especially without well-planned and extensive mitigation actions.” The report states that although the river is able to support a number of ecological systems, the Poudre is approaching “critical thresholds below which the river’s health and resilience will suffer.”
The city’s Natural Resources Director John Stokes recommended the City Council to begin discussions with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. In particular, he recommended to negotiate with the public agency, saying it would be the best alternative outcome.
If the city were to forego consulting with Northern Water the project would be left to federal and state agencies who would not consider the NISP’s impacts on Fort Collins.
Close to 40 Fort Collins citizens approached the council for public comment, some urging the council to negotiate with Northern Water and some voicing their reservations.
“I’ve noticed a marked decline in the river corridor already… I see virtually nothing anymore,” said one Fort Collins citizen about the current state of the Poudre.
The city owns around 60 percent of the river’s corridor and the city has already engaged in a number of projects with regards to the Poudre, such as clean-ups and the creation of trails.
Negotiations with Northern Water does not mean that the city has already agreed to the NISP’s construction. In order to construct the reservoirs a permit must be obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who must assess the environmental impacts of the project.
The NISP has been in the federal permitting process for 12 years and thus requires many state and federal permits in order for the project to push forward. In 2015 the council passed a resolution which stated “the City Council cannot support NISP as it is currently described and proposed (as of 2015).”
By permanently barring the use of two wells in an area where farmers rely on the Ogallala Aquifer to grow corn, the judge concluded the Garetson family’s senior water right had been “impaired” by their neighbor – a company that holds a junior water right.
“What made this case so important is the precedent that is now set,” said Jay Garetson, who filed the lawsuit in 2012 together with his brother Jarvis. The Garetsons have said they sued not only to defend their livelihood but also to press the state to enforce its water laws, and to call attention to the urgent need for action to preserve the aquifer.
“Our goal was to force this to the forefront,” Garetson said in an interview on Wednesday. “The best-case scenario would be it forces people to recognize that the status quo is no longer an option.”
Kansas’ “first-in-time, first-in-right” water rights system gives priority to those who have been using their wells the longest. And farmers are actually using much less water than they would be permitted under the system of appropriated groundwater rights established decades ago.
But with aquifers levels dropping and a limited supply left that can be economically extracted for farming, the Garetsons and others argue that the state and water districts should step in to establish limits on pumping…
Garetson said the decision should help bring order to a chaotic situation, and he hopes the case will be a catalyst for management of groundwater. He said he thinks the local groundwater district should establish a water budget and institute a sort of “cap-and-trade” system, in which water use would be scaled back based on established rights and could be sold between farmers, thereby allowing the market to sort out the scarcity problem.
He thinks such a system could serve as a model across the Ogallala Aquifer and in other areas of the country where aquifers are declining due to excessive pumping.
Garetson has seen some wells go dry on his farm, where he and his brother grow corn and sorghum. And he acknowledges his own pumping contributes to what is effectively the “mining” of groundwater.
He wants state officials and the region’s water managers to establish limits to move “in the direction of sustainability” – even though that’s a high bar to reach given the area’s limited water supplies and slow rate of aquifer recharge.
Garetson said he hopes the court decision will help Kansas farmers move away from the pattern of unchecked pumping that is draining the aquifer. Under the status quo, he said, “we’re actually just borrowing from the future. We’re burning up our savings account.”
The Michigan Ditch is a 5.2-mile conveyance system that brings water from the high mountains into the Joe Wright Reservoir, a part of City’s two water sources. Over the years, the Michigan Ditch, a combination of pipeline and open channel originally built around 1900 and purchased by Fort Collins in the 1970s, was subject to the whims of Mother Nature. Specifically, one portion of the water supply route that crosses an area known as “the mudslide” was subject to periodic damage when the slides occurred.
The City was accustomed to making simple repairs that involved digging up the pipe and moving or replacing it when the slide moves. But in September 2014, crews noticed something unusual. The pipe, which typically moved only during snowmelt in the spring, had moved substantially since its repair that summer. The following spring, even more movement showed that a more permanent fix was needed.
“It was apparent that this wasn’t something we could simply dig up and put back in place like previous years,” said Owen Randall, chief engineer for Fort Collins Utilities. “We knew we needed a long-term solution that could cost upwards of $10 million. When I told City management the response was: ‘The water is worth $180 million, so go fix it.’”
In summer 2015, the City got to work with a geotechnical assessment that included seismic refraction as well as vertical and horizontal borings. Meanwhile, the City put together a team of consultants and contractors to help ascertain the best way to move forward. After exploring the options, the team decided that a tunnel that would re-route the water through the mountain in stable rock was the best solution…
The tunnel option provided the long-term solution the City was looking for while having the added benefits of less maintenance, less environmental impact and a construction cost comparable to other options…
The logistics of working on the side of a mountain also presented challenges. The project site was located 2.5 miles up a narrow, winding dirt road that dictated the weight and dimensions of the equipment that could be safely transported. Additionally, the nearest town (Walden, Colorado; population 3,000) was located 30 miles away, with Fort Collins 70 miles away. Even cell phone service had to be brought in.
“Due to the nature of the road, we were limited to about an 11-ft wide load,” said John Beckos, project manager for BT Construction. “We were unable to get a crane to the site, and the biggest excavators we could bring in were nearly hanging off the edge of the mountain on the way up.”
The site access also dictated the type of tunnel boring machine that could be used to excavate the tunnel. After evaluating the options, the project team elected to use an Akkerman hard-rock TBM that had a mixed face cutterhead to deal with the highly fractured, hard rock and abundant fault and shear zones. The machine was compact enough to accommodate the limited space at both the launch and retrieval pits, light enough to be handled by the available equipment, and had enough power to drill through rock that reached strengths of 15,000 psi…
The tunnel was mined from the downstream portal to the upstream portal. The first 40 ft of the alignment was straight before it transitioned into the 630-ft radius curve spanning 726 ft. The TBM was equipped with a conveyor system and dual muck boxes to remove the spoil. Spoil was stockpiled near the site to be used by the City for future repairs to the ditch and pipeline, as well as the access road, which the City also maintains…
Randall said the ground made tunneling a challenge. “The only thing consistent about the ground was that the rock was inconsistent,” he said. “We would find hard zones 2-3 inches thick, 2-3 feet thick and 30-feet thick. We knew we were going to get into difficult geology, but it still posed a challenge.”
Once the TBM was completely launched into the mountainside, the team had originally planned to be tunneling for about 6 weeks from early July through the middle of August. The inconsistent rock in the middle of the drive would end up slowing productions down and delaying the hole out until Sept. 29. And, despite the challenging ground, the TBM holed through precisely on target. Project team members credited the VMT guidance systems, typically used for larger and longer tunnels, for keeping the tunnel on line and grade…
Over the last 20 years, Fort Collins has implemented and refined its delivery system known as the Alternative Product Delivery System (APDS). Fort Collins retains a group of prequalified contractors and consultants on an annual contract basis – known as master service agreements – and when a project is needed, the City can call on its team of service providers with expertise in a particular area to negotiate a contract. This allows the City to quickly gather a team to develop the project from start to finish.
In the case of the Michigan Ditch Tunnel, the project team was brought on board to determine the best solution for the problem. As the project began to take shape as a tunnel, the City negotiated further contracts for tunnel design, construction and TBM procurement. The project team additionally developed a risk register to help identify and mitigate potential occurrences that could impact the project.
“Rather than trying to write a contract for the whole project up front, we can write contracts that are very well defined, knowing what our scope of work is going to be as planning and design progresses,” Randall said.
The added benefit of having the project team in place was that the project goals were defined by the team, rather than by an individual party or parties. “This was a very challenging and difficult project, but when you have everybody working toward the same goal, it makes all the difference in the world,” Randall added.
“The team functioned at a very high level and with great communication,” Dornfest said. “It was extremely challenging, but there was never any finger pointing and we were able to get the job done on schedule and under budget.”
Thanks to planning, teamwork and determination, the Michigan Ditch Tunnel project was successfully completed approximately $1 million below the initial budget of $8.5 million. The ditch system is now back online, assuring Fort Collins citizens of a reliable source of water for the years to come.
Morgan Conservation District’s 62nd annual meeting will be held on February 9th.
It will be held at the Fort Morgan Home Plate Restaurant, 19873 U.S. Hwy. 34. Breakfast will be at 8 a.m. and the meeting will start at 9 a.m. The cost of the meeting will be $25 in advance, and that will cover the annual meeting, annual membership in Morgan Conservation District, and free breakfast that morning.
If you do not RSVP in advance, and show up on the day of the meeting, please be advised that the cost will be the same, however breakfast will not be free, due to our needing to order the food in advance. Our keynote speakers, Bill Hammerich and Andrew Neuhart.
Bill Hammerich has served as the CEO of Colorado Livestock Association (CLA) for the past fourteen years. He grew up on a cattle and farming operation in Western Colorado and he attended CSU where he graduated with a degree in Agricultural Economics. Following graduation, he began working with Monfort of Colorado, then Farr Feeders and was with the Sparks Companies before joining CLA in 2002.
His time spent in the cattle feeding industry provided him not only with an understanding of how to feed cattle, but also the importance of protecting and sustaining the environment in which one operates.
Bill and his wife Sabrina live in Severance, Colorado and have two grown children, Justin and Jessica, and four grandsons.
Andrew Neuhart completed both a B.S. in Natural Resource Management and an M.S. in Watershed Science at CSU. After spending two years assisting in precision farming studies in the San Luis Valley for the USDA Soil, Plant and Nutrient Research team, Andrew went to work for the State of Colorado’s Water Quality Control Division. For 9 years with the WQCD, Andrew led a Permitting Unit for discharge permits under the Clean Water Act, for both industrial and domestic wastewater treatment facilities. Working for Brown and Caldwell over the last 4 years, Andrew assists clients with regulatory issues under the Clean Water Act, and has been working with the Ag Task Force, part of the Colorado Monitoring Framework, to get the word out regarding nutrient regulations and their impacts to agricultural operations.
Mr. Hammerich and Mr. Neuhart will be speaking about Regulation 85.
Regulation 85 establishes requirements for organizations holding a NPDES permit and with the potential to discharge either nitrogen or phosphorus to begin planning for nutrient treatment based on treatment technology and monitoring both effluents and streams for nitrogen and phosphorus.
The data from these efforts is designed to better characterize nutrient sources, characterize nutrient conditions and effects around the state and to help inform future regulatory decisions regarding nutrients. Please come to the meeting and learn more from our very knowledgeable keynote speakers!
Please RSVP as soon as possible to Angela at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970-427-3362. Space is limited.
“All the (protected) species and all the habitat are in Nebraska,” he said.
The Central Platte Valley is the target area for least terns, piping plovers and whooping cranes, while pallid sturgeon are in the Lower Platte River.
All the water options for a proposed program extension, which will focus on reducing river depletions by another 40,000 [acre-feet] or more, are in Nebraska to be as close as possible to the target habitat.
Fassett said that with a major reservoir project now off the table, new projects will include groundwater recharge, facilities to hold water for retimed releases and water leasing.
He noted Tuesday at the annual convention of the Nebraska State Irrigation and Nebraska Water Resources associations that initial water projects were completed by all three states toward meeting the program’s first-increment goal to reduce river depletions by 130,000-150,000 [acre-feet].
However, more recent projects and those being considered for the future are only in Nebraska. “There is hydrologic logic about that,” Fassett said, because projects hundreds of miles from the target habitat are not as effective.
Nebraska’s benefits include regulatory stability the program provides for the Platte Basin. Projects in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming that must comply with the federal Endangered Species Act can do so through the program instead of individually, he said.
Another issue for Nebraska is its own demands to enhance water in the river. Fassett said state laws for the overappropriated area of the Platte Basin west of Elm Creek require “moving the train backward” to mitigate new water uses since 2007.
Click here to buy your tickets. Here’s the pitch from the Colorado Water Trust:
The destiny of the west is written in the headwaters of Colorado. Tens of millions of people, billions of dollars of agricultural production, and an enormous amount of economic activity across a vast swath of America from California to the Mississippi River are all dependent on rivers born in the mountains of Colorado. In this time of increasing demand and limited supply, it is essential to promote a more informed and inclusive discussion concerning decisions affecting our water resources.
VIP Reception starts at 5:30pm in Henderson’s Lounge followed by the screening.
Proceeds from the event will go to support the Colorado Water Trust:
The Colorado Water Trust is a private, nonprofit organization whose mission is to restore flows to Colorado’s rivers in need. Founded in 2001, the Colorado Water Trust coordinates market-based water transactions, water-sharing agreements, infrastructure projects, and other creative solutions to restore flows to our state’s dry rivers and streams. Together with our diverse partners throughout the state, we are restoring habitat for fish and other wildlife, improving local economic opportunities, and where lost, returning to Colorado’s landscape the beauty of a flowing river. http://www.ColoradoWaterTrust.org
“I used to be a orthodox card-carrying humanities academic with contempt for the manipulations of nature that engineers perpetrated. And then, I realized how much a beneficiary I was of those perpetrations.” — Patty Limerick (The Great Divide)
This is an important film and Ms. Limerick hits the nail on the head with her statement. When folks understand the history of Colorado and how water has shaped that history, when they learn about the disease and hardship that goes hand in hand with scarcity of water here in the arid west, when they witness the bounty from plains farms and the western valleys and the economic drivers associated with Colorado’s cities, when they take time to sit down to talk and learn from neighbors and others, opinions can change, understanding can grow, problems can be solved, and opportunities can be realized.
Jim Havey and the filmmakers set out an ambitious goal, that is, the telling of Colorado’s water story, without advocacy and without pointing fingers. The Great Divide accomplishes the telling using a superb screenplay written by Stephen Grace, the stunning footage by Jim Havey, along with the old photographs and maps of Colorado (and the Colorado River Basin).
Prior appropriation and anti-speculation are big ideas that form the foundation of Colorado water law. Article XVI of the Colorado Constitution includes detail about the preferred uses and the rights of diverters to cross private land to put the public’s water to beneficial use. All water in Colorado belongs to the citizens but diverters gain a property right allowing them to use the water.
The filmmakers manage to explain these details well during the film. The film describes the law, the compacts between states, river administration, and the 21st Century world of water. They emphasize the work and pioneering efforts needed to get Colorado where it is today.
Starting with the San Luis People’s ditch (the oldest water right in continuous use in Colorado — 1852) Coloradans have built out many projects large and small to put the water to beneficial use. The Great Divide describes many of these projects including the big US Bureau of Reclamation projects, Colorado-Big Thompson, Fryingpan-Arkansas, the Aspinall Unit, and what many think will be USBR’s last big project, Aninas-La Plata.
According to the film an early project, Cheesman Dam on the South Platte River, enabled delivery of high quality water to the City of Denver which had been plagued by outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases.
These projects have gotten Colorado to this point with over 5 million residents and a diversified economy. However, in the documentary the head of Denver Water Jim Lochhead states, “If we grow the next 5 million people the way we’ve grown the last 5 million — that may not be sustainable.”
There is a tension between environmentalists and water developers in today’s Colorado, highlighted by the film. The Great Divide explores the historical roots of the environmental movement starting with the Sierra Club effort to save Echo Park on the Yampa River, up through the legislation allowing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to hold and establish instream flow rights, the successful efforts to block groundwater withdrawals in the San Luis Valley for Front Range growth, and the mammoth decision to not permit the Two Forks Reservoir on the the South Platte River.
The City of Denver and many of the suburbs were counting on that project for future needs. It is interesting to note that the loss of Two Forks led to increased groundwater withdrawals from the Denver Basin Aquifer System and an increase in purchases of agricultural rights by municipal systems. Both of these alternatives are unsustainable but have led to recharge projects, water reuse projects by Denver Water and Aurora Water, along with serious efforts to allow alternative transfer methods for agricultural water that would protect farmers and keep the water with the land. The Great Divide touches on these newer more sustainable solutions.
Drought is a constant possibility in Colorado. The film shows how the drought of the 1930s spurred northeastern Colorado to line up behind the Colorado-Big Thompson Project for new supplies and storage.
When things turned around after the drought of 2002 The Great Divide informs us that municipalities had to rethink conservation efforts and that pumpers with insufficient augmentation water were shut down. Denver Water managed to cut per capita consumption by 20% below pre-2002 levels and other utilities noted similar savings.
The film examines the aftermath of the 2002 drought and the efforts by the Colorado legislature which passed the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act. It established the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and the nine basin roundtables. The roundtables and the IBCC were formed as a forum to share needs but most importantly share values. One of the outcomes of the effort has been the realization, stated in the film by Travis Smith that, “We are more connected than we’d like to admit.”
This connectedness, along with the need to solve looming wide-ranging supply gaps were the motivation for Governor Hickenlooper to issue an executive order to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to create Colorado’s first ever water plan. The Governor has an opportunity to present his view of the need for the plan in the film. He touches on the fact that however the plan turns out it will be built by the grass roots.
During his introduction of the film Justice Gregory Hobbs advised us to listen to the words along with viewing the images. He was right, the narrative by Peter Coyote engages and informs. You cannot listen to Mr. Grace’s words without learning at the same time. And that’s the point right? Educate and inform with an accurate representation of Colorado water issues and history…
The film is a stellar vehicle for educating and generating conversation. Go see it when you can, buy the book, and then start talking and teaching.