‘As the Poudre Flows — Forest to Plains’ theme of Poudre River Forum

Scott Hummer, general manager of North Poudre Irrigation Company, talks about how his agency worked with Fort Collins Natural Areas and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to include a fish passage when the irrigation company replaced a diversion structure on the Poudre River that was destroyed by the 2013 floods. Work was completed [in February 2016]. (Pamela Johnson / Loveland Reporter-Herald)
Scott Hummer, general manager of North Poudre Irrigation Company, talks about how his agency worked with Fort Collins Natural Areas and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to include a fish passage when the irrigation company replaced a diversion structure on the Poudre River that was destroyed by the 2013 floods. Work was completed [in February 2016]. (Pamela Johnson / Loveland Reporter-Herald)

Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Jim Beers):

The Cache la Poudre River, which flows from the mountains through Fort Collins, Timnath and Windsor to the plains east of Greeley, is at the heart of countless activities: from irrigating crops and lawns to providing drinking water for more than 365,000 people and hosting numerous recreational activities.

Those with connections to and concerns for the Poudre River will gather on Friday, Feb. 3 for the fourth annual Poudre River Forum. After its first three years at Larimer County Fairgrounds, the forum is moving down the river to Greeley as a reminder that the Poudre River is important to all who benefit from it — from its headwaters to its confluence with the South Platte. This year’s forum — the theme is “As the Poudre Flows — Forest to Plains” — will be held from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at the Island Grove Events Center, 501 N. 14th Ave., Greeley. Pre-registration is required for all participants.

Understanding the river, each other

Sponsored by the Poudre Runs Through It Study/Action Work Group, the forum serves as a community-wide gathering of people from agricultural, municipal, business, recreational and environmental backgrounds to learn about and discuss issues related to the Poudre River.

“The Poudre River Forum brings together those who use the river for agricultural and urban diversions and those who work to improve its ecological health. In the past those groups have not necessarily seen eye to eye,” said MaryLou Smith, PRTI facilitator. “Increasingly our participants are open to the idea that it takes collective vision and action to make the Poudre the world’s best example of a healthy, working river.”

Once again, this year’s event will be facilitated by the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University. “The Forum is a great opportunity for the communities connected by the Poudre River to come together to better understand the entire watershed, and each other,” said Reagan Waskom, director of CWI.

Forests and water quality/quantity

Laurie Huckaby with the U.S. Forest Service, will present “The last 1,000 years in the Poudre according to the trees,” to kick off the topic of how important the upper watershed is to water quantity and quality.

“Water quality and forests are inextricably linked,” said Joe Duda of the Colorado State Forest Service, who will join Huckaby as one of the presenters. “Forest conditions and insects, disease and fire all can have profound impacts on water flow and quality. Only healthy, resilient forests can continuously supply clean water.”

Global lessons for local success

“Finding the Balance: Managing Water for People and Nature” is the message of keynote speaker Brian Richter. Richter has been a global leader in water science and conservation for more than 25 years, and currently serves as chief scientist for the Global Water Program of The Nature Conservancy in Washington D.C. Richter’s ideas about the importance of recognizing the balance of working river/healthy river are the basis for which PRTI was initially formed. He has consulted on more than 120 water projects worldwide, and has served as a water advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations, investment banks, the United Nations, and has testified before Congress on multiple occasions. Richter co-authored,with Sandra Postel, the 2003 book Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature and in 2014 wrote Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability.

Change affects all sectors

An afternoon panel session will probe the impacts of change — positive and negative — along the Poudre River and how they have been similarly and differently addressed by agriculture, urban, and environmental sectors. They will discuss what anticipated future changes might these three sectors see as opportunities or incentives for mutually beneficial collaboration that could result in a healthier, working river?

“It has been said that the only thing that is constant is change,” said John Bartholow, retired ecologist from U.S. Geological Survey, and panel coordinator/moderator. “The question is, can we learn to adapt to those changes sure to come on the Poudre in ways that benefit agriculture, municipalities, and the environment?”

The panel will include Eric Reckentine, deputy director, City of Greeley Water and Sewer; John Sanderson, director of science, Nature Conservancy of Colorado; and Dale Trowbridge, general manager, New Cache la Poudre Irrigating Company.

Videos, displays and music too

The day-long forum also includes “River Snapshots” highlighting more than 15 projects undertaken by a variety of groups on the Poudre last year; “My How the Poudre Has Changed,” featuring historical 1970’s footage of the Poudre; updates from both the cities of Greeley and Fort Collins on current water programs; and over two dozen river-focused displays from community organizations and agencies. The day concludes with a social hour including food, beer and other beverages, and river-themed door prizes.

Registration is $50 and includes lunch. Scholarships for students and reduced rates are available. The deadline to register is Friday, Jan. 27 at http://prti.colostate.edu/forum_2017.shtml.

For more information, contact event coordinator Gailmarie Kimmel at PoudreRiverForum@gmail.com or 970-692-1443.

“Colorado water law…there is not such a thing as absolute certainty” — Eric Wilkinson

Windy Gap and C-BT Granby area facilities
Windy Gap and C-BT Granby area facilities

From The Longmont Times-Call (Karen Antonucci):

Officials in charge of the Windy Gap Firming Project are checking to make sure that a Dec. 7 Colorado Supreme Court decision won’t adversely affect the $387.36 million transmountain water diversion project that will benefit the Front Range…

…in December, the Colorado Supreme Court sided with western slope interests against Aurora in case that had to deal with pumping western slope water across the continental divide and storing it on the eastern slope. Aurora had a one-half interest in the Busk-Ivanhoe Diversion Project in western Colorado.

Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, said the case relied on storage rights for the water.

“The big crux of the Aurora case is that they didn’t have the storage rights for the transmountain water that they took,” Pokrandt said. “So I’m sure what a lot of folks are doing is looking at their water decrees and seeing if they actually have decreed storage rights for transmountain water. That’s the question for the Windy Gap Firming Project.”

Pokrandt said that in the Colorado River District’s view, the court made the right decision.

“Our position is that water law is water law and under ordinary water law, you need a water right to store water. And Aurora argued that transmountain water didn’t need an exact water right to store it,” Pokrandt said. “But, no you do need that because water law is water law and there’s nothing special about transmountain water.”

The municipal subdistrict of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District is leading the Windy Gap Firming Project.

Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the municipal subdistrict, said they have staff researching to make sure the Aurora decision is unique to the case and to verify that the Windy Gap Firming Project is on legally stable ground moving forward.

“The Busk-Ivanhoe decision has a very significant application statewide … what the (Colorado) Supreme Court decision did is apply, in essence, 2016 water rights administration and laws to a decree that is dated 1928,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson added that staff are verifying that they have the water decrees to store Windy Gap water on the within the basin of use, which would be on the western slope.

Northern Spokesman Brian Werner said they are fairly certain the Colorado Supreme Court decision shouldn’t have major impacts on the Windy Gap Firming Project, which has been in the works since 2004.

“I want to emphasize that intent to store, we’ve had that all along with the Windy Gap Firming Project,” Werner said. “So if you’re asking what the impact (of the decision) is on the Windy Gap Firming Project, I can tell you there shouldn’t be any.”

Wilkinson added that with Colorado water law, nothing is certain forever.

“That’s the intent of our research to get to that point (of certainty),” Wilkinson said.

“But in Colorado water law and some of the interpretations that come out, there is not such a thing as absolute certainty. This Busk-Ivanhoe decision introduced some change in thought that didn’t exist before so say ‘here’s how it will be always and forever in absolute certainty’ is probably unreasonable, but we’re trying to get to a reasonable amount of certainty.”

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Coyote Gulch contributor Brent Gardner-Smith took a deep dive into the decision to extract a summary of the water court process for a change of use. Below is his email:

John,

You might appreciate this. In the midst of the Busk opinion is summary of the factors that go into changing a water right. I’ve stripped it of the legal references, but otherwise, it’s the court’s words. Thought you might appreciate it. Not sure what else to do with it yet.

BGS

Under Colorado’s doctrine of prior appropriation, a water right is a usufructuary right that affords its owner the right to use and enjoy a portion of the waters of the state.

One does not “own” water, but owns the right to use water within the limitations of this doctrine.

The touchstone of Colorado’s prior appropriation doctrine is beneficial use. That is, an appropriator perfects a right to use water by applying a specified quantity of unappropriated water to a beneficial use.

“Beneficial use” is “that amount of water that is reasonable and appropriate under reasonably efficient practices to accomplish without waste the purpose for which the appropriation is lawfully made.”

Colorado water law has long recognized the right of water users to make changes to the terms of their decrees—including changes to the type, place, or time of beneficial use; changes to the points of diversion; changes to storage; and changes from direct flow to storage and subsequent application and vice versa.

Permanent changes to a water right must be decreed through the adjudication process established by the legislature … and … parties wishing to change the use of a water right must obtain a water court decree allowing the change in use.

It is inherent in the notion of a ‘change’ of water right that the right itself can only be changed and not enlarged.

This is a basic predicate of water law dating to the nineteenth century; a change application merely continues the rights decreed in the original appropriation in a new form and may not expand the amount of water actually used under the original decree.

In other words, “the right to change a water right is limited to that amount of water actually used beneficially pursuant to the decree at the appropriator’s place of use.”

Thus, in order to determine that a requested change of a water right is merely a change, and will not amount to an enlargement of the original appropriation, the court must quantify the historic use of the right to some degree of precision.

Quantification of the amount of water beneficially consumed pursuant to the decree guards against rewarding wasteful practices or recognizing water claims that are not justified by the nature or extent of the appropriator’s actual need.

An absolute decree confirms that a right of appropriation has vested; the decree entitles the appropriator to use that right through its decreed point of diversion in a specified amount, usually expressed as a flow rate (for a diversion right) or in acre-feet of water (for a storage right).

The term “historic use” refers to the “historic consumptive use” or “historic beneficial consumptive use,” attributable to the appropriation of that quantity of water historically consumed by applying the water to its decreed beneficial use.

However, because “the period and pattern of use are not known with certainty at the time a water right is adjudicated,” the decreed flow rate at the decreed point of diversion is not the same as the matured measure of the water right.

Rather, over an extended period of time, “a pattern of historic diversions and use under the decreed right for its decreed use at its place of use” will become the true measure of the mature water right for change purposes, typically quantified in acre-feet of water consumed.

Crucially, proper analysis of the historic consumptive use of a water right measures the amount of water both actually and lawfully used in accordance with the decree.

Because beneficial use defines the genesis and maturation of every appropriative water right in this state, every decree includes an implied limitation that diversions are limited to those sufficient for the purposes for which the appropriation was made.

Importantly, the actual historic diversion for beneficial use may be less than the decreed rate because, for example, “that amount has simply not been historically needed or applied for the decreed purpose.”

Indeed, we have often observed that when an appropriator exercises the right to change a decreed water right, he runs the real risk that the right will be requantified at an amount less than his original decree, based on the actual historic consumptive use of the right.

In short, an initial change application reopens the original decree for determination of the true measure of the appropriative right’s consumptive use draw on the river system.

In sum, “the fundamental purpose of a change proceeding is to ensure that the true right — that which has ripened by beneficial use over time — is the one that will prevail in its changed form.”

The decision is actually a page-turner for water wonks.

“Water storage is ‘integral’ to Fort Morgan’s future” — Ron Shaver

Northern Integrated Supply Project July 27, 2016 via Northern Water.
Northern Integrated Supply Project July 27, 2016 via Northern Water.

From The Fort Morgan Times (Jenni Grubbs):

A community that does not have enough water is a community that does not survive, and Fort Morgan city leaders want to ensure that is not what happens here.

As such, the Fort Morgan City Council approved continuing the city’s role in the Northern Integrated Supply Project and the $360,000 expenditure that will require in 2017.

Fort Morgan has been gambling on NISP, a massive water storage project, getting permitted and built for 13 years now, according to Water Resources/Utilities Director Brent Nation.

But it’s a gamble that could pay off in water security for as long as the next five decades, according to City Manager Jeff Wells.

About NISP

That’s because NISP would include Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (aka Northern Water) building both Glade Reservoir north of Fort Collins and Galeton Reservoir northeast of Greeley and east of Ault.

If these reservoirs get built, it would mean “40,000 acre feet of new, reliable water supplies” for the 15 NISP participants, which include Fort Morgan, Morgan County and Morgan County Quality Water District.

But getting it built involves both completion of the final environmental impact statement for he project and getting a record of decision on a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

As of January 2017, Northern Water was estimating that the Corps likely will finish the FEIS yet this year and then issue the record of decision on the permit sometime in 2018.

Large cost, lengthy timeline

Fort Morgan, alone, will have spent more than $1.3 million toward NISP and the city’s 9 percent stake in it over the project’s 13 years of planning and studies. And there could be another 10 to 12 years yet to go before NISP and its reservoirs conceivably would go online and the city would have water stored in Galeton Reservoir and pumped back to Fort Morgan.

As the project progresses, the city’s annual payments for it will get larger and larger, Nation warned. He called the 2017 one among the last of the “smaller payments.”

Depending upon what the Corps does this year, the larger NISP payments could start next year.

“Next year, in 2018, we’ll start moving into the larger engineering payments, and then hopefully within a year or two after that we’ll be moving into construction-type payments, where we’re getting into millions of dollars for our portion of that work,” Nation said.

Regardless, if and when it does get built, NISP would provide enough water to give the city water security for the future and whatever residential, commercial and industrial growth may come, according to Mayor Ron Shaver, Wells and Nation.

And such a lengthy timeline is not unusual for this large of a water storage project, according to both Nation and officials from Northern Water.

Reasons to continue

But continuing to support it will be worth it for the city in the long term, Nation stressed.

He shared his reasons why the city should “move forward on this project” with the council.

“We continue to exist on a base water supply that we have to rent what we need for our current needs. We still have times of the year where we’re using some rental C-BT water in order to meet all of our water demands,” Nation said.

Also, the Fort Morgan Water Treatment Plant is experiencing record levels for demand for treated water, with 1.5 billion gallons treated over the last 12 months.

“Six out of the last seven months we had record production at treatment facility,” Nation said, adding that the local industry was “driving those numbers.”

Specifically, large industrial water customer Cargill Meat Solutions is continuously pulling in water.

“We’re not seeing a lot of downtime with Cargill,” Nation said. “And even when they’re down on that seventh day, they’re using a lot of water just to clean the facility.”

And expansions at both the Leprino Foods cheese plant and the Western Sugar Cooperative beet plant have meant increased demand for water from Fort Morgan.

“We just continue to see our industrial/commercial numbers go up as we continue just to exist at the current population that we’re at,” Nation said. “It kind of drives home to me that this project is important to us. It’s something that we need to continue to participate in and see it to the finish line. This is something we need as a community.”

Wells agreed, adding that the city has previously looked into many other options for obtaining enough water for the city’s future.

“Today, there are no more viable alternatives than NISP for the city of Fort Morgan,” he said.

Shaver, who served as the city’s utilities director before retiring from the city and then serving on the council and now as mayor, said NISP is what the city needs for its future.

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

The latest E-Waternews is hot off the presses from Northern Water

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

Storage Continues Above Average

December 1 water storage levels in the Colorado Big-Thompson Project remain above average, with total C-BT Project storage at 540,028 acre-feet (Dec 1 average is 444,533 AF). With statewide snowpack slightly below normal, above-average C-BT storage is good news.

cbttotalstoragede122016

The November 2016 eWaterNews is hot off the presses from @Northern_Water

First water through the Adams Tunnel. Photo credit  Northern Water.
First water through the Adams Tunnel. Photo credit Northern Water.

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

The C-BT Project water year ended on Oct. 31. C-BT Project storage levels on Nov. 1 were above average for a third consecutive year, with 548,274 acre-feet in active storage. The Nov. 1 average is 444,177 AF. Deliveries increased in 2016 over 2015 levels, with 204,078 AF delivered (including quota, Carryover Program and Regional Pool Program water). Forty-six percent of the deliveries were from Horsetooth Reservoir, 40 percent from Carter Lake and the remaining 14 percent went to the Big Thompson River, Hansen Feeder Canal and the South Platte River. Estimated deliveries to municipal and industrial users totaled 102,157 AF, while agricultural deliveries were approximately 101,921 AF.

#ColoradoRiver: @CWCB_DNR approves $90 million loan for Windy Gap project — Aspen Daily News #COriver

Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.
Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Daily News:

The board of directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board gave conceptual approval Wednesday to a $90 million loan to help finance the $400 million Windy Gap Firming Project, which will divert more water from the Colorado River.

The CWCB, charged with facilitating water supply projects in Colorado, has both a loan program and a grant program. And while its grant program is being challenged by a sharp drop in severance tax revenue from the oil and gas sector, the agency’s loan program remains robust, especially as Aurora just repaid a $70 million loan ahead of schedule.

The $90 million loan to Northern Water, which is developing Windy Gap, is the largest in the agency’s history. It will help facilitate a project that is more popular on the Eastern Slope than the Western Slope, given it will increase the level of water sent under the Continental Divide.

The loan, which still needs final approval from the CWCB board, will be part of a financing package for a new reservoir near Loveland called Chimney Hollow Reservoir, which will cost $400 million to construct.

Eric Wilkinson, the general manager of Northern Water, said he expects the project to be approved in 2017, that test drilling has begun at the dam site — next to Carter Lake Reservoir in Larimer County — and design work is well underway. Gov. Hickenlooper has also endorsed the Windy Gap project, even though final federal approval is still outstanding.

Wilkinson also said that the prospect of a CWCB loan has galvanized financing discussions among the 12 different entities – including 10 cities from Broomfield north to Greeley — who are involved in the project as members of the Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict.

“The difference that this has made cannot be overstated,” Wilkinson told the CWCB board about the loan.

Savings needed to backfill drop in severance tax funding

The $90 million loan makes up a big chunk of this year’s “projects bill,” which is submitted annually by the CWCB to the state Legislature for approval. This year’s projects bill is $165 million in all, which makes it the largest annual spending request in the history of the CWCB, which dates back to 1937.

Another big part of the projects bill is $55 million for an array of grants and loans spurred by the Colorado Water Plan, which was approved a year ago by the CWCB board and presented to the governor.

Of the $55 million, $10 million is for projects to be funded at the discretion of the CWCB directors, and $5 million is specifically for watershed restoration efforts and stream management plans, which is a nod to environmental interests in the state.

Another $10 million is used to fund the agency’s Water Supply Reserve Fund, which helps fund local water supply projects identified and approved by the nine basin roundtables around the state, including the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs.

Site of Chimney Hollow Reservoir via Northern Water.
Site of Chimney Hollow Reservoir via Northern Water.

Funding for roundtable projects is supposed to come from severance taxes paid by oil and gas producers in the state to the tune of $10 million a year. But the combination of the slowdown in the gas patch and property tax rebates given to the industry means that the CWCB is only going to see about a quarter of the severance tax revenue this year that it normally receives.

As such, the CWCB is asking the Legislature to let it spend severance tax revenue it has tucked away from the good years. That approach, however, is fraught with danger, as the Legislature is busy trying to figure out how to fill a $500 million to $800 million hole in the state’s budget, which must be balanced each year by law.

James Eklund, director of the CWCB, said the Legislature will be looking in all nooks and crannies for funds, but he’s hopeful that the approval of the state water plan last year will help convince lawmakers that the CWCB has a legitimate need for the money it has set aside for future projects.

Also in the $55 million bucket in the projects bill is a $30 million “loan guarantee fund” to help water suppliers with varying credit ratings to gain better interest rates when funding new projects together.

Eklund is sensitive to criticism that not enough has been achieved after the publication of the Colorado Water Plan a year ago, which itself was the product of an intense two-year collaborative effort among water interests in the state.

On Wednesday, he told the CWCB directors that while the Water Plan was now a year old, it was “only five days old in water years.”

“We are moving forward aggressively,” Eklund said. “And I don’t think slowly at all, especially if you look at it in water time.”

Board renews Ruedi fish-water lease

Also at last week’s CWCB meeting, Eklund said that the Ute Water Conservancy District in Grand Junction has offered to once again lease 12,000 acre-feet of water it owns in Ruedi Reservoir to the CWCB, so the agency can help maintain flows in the Colorado River, as it has done the last two years.

While the water from Ruedi benefits endangered fish in a critical 15-mile reach of the Colorado, it has also kicked up river levels in the lower Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir in the late summer and fall to the consternation of some anglers.

The CWCB board also approved a $1.7 million loan for improvements to the Grand Valley Power Plant, which controls one of the senior water rights that make up the “Cameo Call” on the Colorado River above Grand Junction.

The loan to the Grand Valley Water Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District will help cover the costs of a $5.2 million project to modernize the hydropower plant, which was built in the 1930s.

Contracts were also finalized this week with a bevy of water consultants to prepare the next edition of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI, which is a more technical version of the state water plan.

The SWSI plan is slated to be finished by December 2017 and is designed to inform regional water plans created by the basin roundtables, known as “basin implementation plans,” as well as provide a base of data for the next version of the more policy-driven Colorado Water Plan.

Also, State Engineer Dick Wolfe informed the CWCB board he’ll be retiring in June 2017 at age 55, after nine years in his role as the state’s top water cop.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water in Colorado. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

#ColoradoRiver: Beauty, “It’s not a concept that lends itself very well to science” — Esther Vincent #COriver

Grand Lake via Cornell University
Grand Lake via Cornell University

From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best) via The Aspen Daily News:

Nobody disputes that the Colorado-Big Thompson project has changed Grand Lake, the state’s largest, deepest natural lake. How could it not?

In the 1940s, Grand Lake was integrated into the giant C-BT, what the late historian David Lavender called a “massive violation of geography.” It’s Colorado’s largest transmountain diversion project. By one tally in the 1990s, it delivers an average 231,060 acre-feet annually from the headwaters of the Colorado River to cities and farms east of the Continental Divide. This compares to the 105,024 acre-feet from three tunnels through the Sawatch Range east of Aspen.

Almost immediately after the C-BT was completed in 1953, locals began to complain that the project shoehorned into the lake had sullied the lake’s clarity by introducing algae and sediments. This is, they insist, a violation of federal law.

The controversy pivots on Senate Document 80, a part of the Congressional authorization for project funding in 1937. The document describes the needs of irrigation, industrial and power production but also warns against impacts to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park.

The lake, if outside the park, has one of Colorado’s most memorable backdrops. The document specifies the need “to preserve the fishing and recreational facilities and the scenic attractions of Grand Lake…”

On that, say many locals, the C-BT has failed, and they say that until recently they got little response from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that built the C-BT.

But now, in a reversal, the bureau is working with 18 other stakeholders in an effort to solve the problem. Parties include Northern Colorado Water, the agency that manages the diversions for cities and farmers of northeastern Colorado, Grand County and other state and local organizations.

Grand Lake’s story fits into a broad theme of changed sensibilities in Colorado about 20th century river alterations. Restoration and remediation projects are starting or underway on the San Miguel River in Telluride, on the Eagle River at Camp Hale and on the Fraser River near Winter Park.

“It’s possible that at one time, the impacts of the CBT Project on Grand Lake clarity were thought to be just part of the price we pay for valuable water projects,” said Anne Castle, a fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Now, we are more inclined to believe that the environmental values have significance, including economic significance, and that operations can and should be adjusted to better accommodate these values.”

The work at Grand Lake also illustrates the power of persistence and spunk by advocates of environmental protection. And it involves a collaborative process called adaptive management that emphasizes consensus-based decision-making in solving stubborn issues involving water diversions.

Nobody thinks solving this problem will be easy, though. In April, after several years of working together, the Grand Lake stakeholders submitted a plan to the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. The plan approved by the commission sets an interim clarity goal for summer pumping during the next five years.

During that time, the Bureau of Reclamation is to develop a plan for long-term solutions. Alternatives include expensive new tunnels, possibly bypassing Grand Lake altogether. A preview of the alternatives may emerge at a meeting of stakeholders in late November.

Not everybody in Grand Lake thinks that reduced clarity is a problem. “There are people who think there’s a problem, but there is no problem,” says Jim Gasner, a member of the Grand Lake Board of Trustees, the town’s elected body, and a fishing “teacher” at Rocky Mountain Outfitters.

But Elwin Crabtree, a real estate agent and former Grand County commissioner, sees something different. “It’s adverse to its natural being,” he said in early August in an interview at his office along the town’s main street of knotty-pined stores and lodges. “I think we look at it as a moral issue,” he added. “I think we believe in having responsibility to be good stewards of our environment.”

The C-BT is an effort to address what one historian in the 1950s called “nature’s error.” Even as Aspen was putting on its silver-lined britches in the 1880s, farmers along the South Platte River and its tributaries were struggling with inadequate water in late summer to finish their corn and other crops.

Grand River Ditch July 2016. Photo credit Greg Hobbs.
Grand River Ditch July 2016. Photo credit Greg Hobbs.

Irrigators set out to remedy this. The first large-scale transmountain diversion from the headwaters of the Colorado River began in 1890. Called the Grand River Ditch, it’s beveled into the side of the Never Summer Range in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park, collecting water like a rain gutter from a roof.

Then came the 1930s, the decade of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and the New Deal. Farmers in northeastern Colorado had long been agitating for added infusions of water from the Colorado River headwaters. But they couldn’t get it done themselves. They needed federal funding.

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water
Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

The flawed design

But the work along the Continental Divide from 1939 to 1953 created a wound at Grand Lake. In retrospect, the design was flawed.

The C-BT at the Colorado River headwaters consists of three main bodies of interconnected water. Only one, Grand Lake, is natural.

Farthest downstream is Granby Reservoir, which is Colorado’s third largest, capable of holding 539,758 acre-feet of water during runoff of spring and early summer. This compares to Ruedi Reservoir’s 102,373 acre-feet and Dillon’s 257,304 acre-feet.

From Granby, water is pumped upstream as needed by Eastern Slope diverters to Shadow Mountain Reservoir. Shallow, no more than nine feet deep, Shadow Mountain is directly connected through a short canal to Grand Lake.

In 2011, reservoirs east of the divide were full, so water was allowed to continue down the Colorado River without diversion. This photo shows what the lake looked like on Aug. 30, without pumping. Photo courtesy of Byron Metzler and pilot Steve Paul
In 2011, reservoirs east of the divide were full, so water was allowed to continue down the Colorado River without diversion. This photo shows what the lake looked like on Aug. 30, without pumping. Photo courtesy of Byron Metzler and pilot Steve Paul

The canal occupies the original path of the Colorado River emerging from Grand Lake. From the interconnected Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Reservoir, water is then pumped through the 13.1-mile Alva Adams Tunnel underneath the national park to the Estes Park area for storage in reservoirs there and along the northern Front Range.

Shadow Mountain is a problem, though. Its shallowness allows water to be easily warmed in summer, producing algae that can float into Grand Lake. The shallowness also allows lake-bottom sediments to be disturbed more easily and dispersed into Grand Lake.

Evidence for the historic, pre-construction clarity of Grand Lake is scant: Just one measurement, taken in 1941, of 9.2 meters (30 feet).

Detailed observations during the last decade show clarity down to 6 meters (19.6 feet), but no more.

The standard adopted in April by the state agency specifies a minimum of 2.5 meters and an average of 3.8 meters (8.2 feet to 12.4 feet) during summer diversion season.

“I think the clarity standard has really elevated the discussion,” says Lane Wyatt, co-director of the water quality/quantity committee in the Northwest Council of Governments. “This is the only clarity standard in Colorado. It’s the first one we’ve ever done.”

Clarity is not the only issue, though. Water must be delivered to farms and cities. As it is flows downhill toward the Great Plains, it generates electricity distributed by the Western Area Power Authority. Purchasers of this low-cost power include Aspen Electric and Holy Cross Energy.

Canton “Scally” O’Donnell, president of the Three Lakes Watershed Association, remembers a more pristine past.

As a boy, his family summered at Grand Lake. That was in the 1930s and 1940s. “We drank the water right out of the lake, and many families did that,” O’Donnell said.

The first complaint about the sullied water was filed in 1954, the year after the project’s formal completion. In 1956, Grand Lake trustees adopted a resolution that informed Colorado’s congressional delegation of problems. The resolution was aimed at the Bureau of Reclamation.

“I think it’s fair to say that up until seven or eight years ago, the bureau pretty much stonewalled,” O’Donnell said. “They just did not want to recognize the problem, and Northern Colorado Water, the same.”

Movement has occurred during the last decade. One avenue for local protest was a proposed expansion of an existing diversion of the Colorado River at Windy Gap, about 15 miles downstream. Completed in 1985, the Windy Gap dam uses the C-BT infrastructure to deliver additional water to the Rawhide power plant north of Fort Collins, Greeley, Boulder and other cities.

The Windy Gap Firming, or expansion, plan was formally introduced after the drought of 2002. It proposes diversion of remaining water rights owned by a string of northern Front Range cities.

The effect of persistence

O’Donnell, of the Three Lakes Watershed Association, thinks the changed attitudes is explained by the persistence of individual public officials.

He singles out Lurline Underbrink Curran, then the Grand County manager. “She’s smart and she’s tough,” he said. “She just kept on beating on everybody to make it happen.”

He also points to the influence of Anne Castle, a long-time Denver water lawyer who served from 2009 to 20014 as assistant secretary for water and science in the Interior Department. Her responsibilities included oversight of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“I think part of the reason it has attention now is the fact that the Windy Gap Firming Project required the federal government to pay attention to Senate Document 80 and both C-BT and Windy Gap Firming Project do have an impact on Grand Lake’s recreation and scenic attraction. Calling attention to that issue, as both Lurline and I did, with prodding from Scally, had an impact,” Castle said.

But again, agreeing there is a problem is not the same thing as finding a solution.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about how our operations affect clarity,” said Victor Lee, an engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation.

The precise circumstances that cause algae and sediments to degrade clarity are poorly understood. Northern has been altering its diversion regimes, to see if that will improve clarity.

This year, from July until late August, pumping was conducted about 15 hours a day at 250 cubic feet per second. Clarity degraded, though. Algae growth was suspected. So the pumping was accelerated to about 20 hours a day with two pumps. Results were mixed.

It was a success, said Lee, in that they learned something. Clarity readings exceeded the minimum but did not meet the average standard. “I would say the experiment was successful, but we did not meet our objective,” he said.

Esther Vincent, water quality manager for Northern Water, said the effort to address Grand Lake’s muddled clarity is attracting attention across Colorado by water professionals. Spurring their interest, she said, is the possibility of other bodies of water being assigned clarity standards.

There’s also interest in the adaptive management process created for Grand Lake. It’s similar to but separate from Learning By Doing, which was created in response to expanded water diversions from both Windy Gap and by Denver Water’s Moffat Tunnel collection system.

Vincent also points out a deeply philosophical question. In 1937, when adopting S.D. 80, did Congress have the same notion about what constitutes “scenic attraction” as we do today?

“I am an engineer,” she said. “Asking an engineer to define what beauty is, is an interesting dilemma. It’s not a concept that lends itself very well to science.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of Colorado’s rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.