From the Kansas News Service. (Ben Kuebrich) via the Hillsboro Free Press:
Great Canal of Kansas
Clayton Scott also uses the latest water technology on his farm in Big Bow. Yet he said that just using water carefully won’t be enough.
He thinks any pumping limits severe enough to preserve the aquifer would dramatically cut back the region’s harvest. That would push up local grain prices, and without cheap grain, livestock feed yards would close, and meatpacking plants would follow.
At its core, the western Kansas economy is built on irrigation.
A 2015 study calculated that losses in irrigation could cost some 240,000 Kansans their jobs and wipe out $18.3 billion of yearly economic activity, or about 10 percent of the state economy.
Scott and others in the region have their eyes on a more drastic solution to the water problem. Kansas could invest in a 360-mile series of canals and pumping stations to bring in water from the Missouri River.
He knows it sounds extreme, but Arizona has already built a similarly sized aqueduct. The Central Arizona Project diverts water from the Colorado River and there’s been extensive research into building a similar canal across Kansas.
“Arizona looked at their situation and decided, ‘We have no other choice,’ ” Scott said. “They estimate almost a trillion dollars of benefit to the economy of Arizona.”
Arizona’s aqueduct has always been controversial. The federally funded canal remains at the center of multi-state disputes of water usage.
Experts say that a generation later, the legal and regulatory hurdles of building a long-distance canal through Kansas only look more daunting.
Water from the Colorado River is channeled through Arizona, much the way some people think it should be diverted from the Missouri River across Kansas.
Still, Kansas and surrounding states have been considering aqueducts for a long time. A 1982 study came up with a plan to bring water from the Missouri River to a reservoir near Utica, Kansas, but nothing ever came of it. At the time, though, losing the Ogallala seemed like a distant prospect.
In 2011, while western Kansas was in a drought and farmers struggled to pump enough water to keep their crops alive, the Missouri River was flooding. Scott says that sparked renewed interest in a canal.
“It’s a long-term solution,” Scott said. “We can harvest the high flows of water off of the eastern rivers and bring them out here into the western High Plains, offset the droughts … and bring things into more of a balance.”
In 2015, the Kansas Water Office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers re-assessed that 1982 study. The agencies estimated that, depending on the capacity of the canal, it would now cost between $5 billion and $20 billion to build.
Because the water would have to be pumped uphill as it goes west, it could take more than $500 million a year in energy costs alone, for the largest-capacity canal. With interest costs from construction, the yearly tab could exceed $1.5 billion.
At the time, the head of the water office said, “this thing we studied is unlikely to happen.” The costs would simply run too steep.
A canal project would have other barriers. Although the Missouri river sometimes floods, it also experiences lows, and levels would have to be maintained to permit barge traffic. There would also be challenges displacing people in the path of the aqueduct. While a highway can be redirected to avoid a town, a canal’s path is more constrained by topography.
At the same time, environmental issues could come both from taking water from the Missouri and in the path of any aqueduct. Upstream and downstream states on the waterway already tangle over how to manage the water. An effort to siphon away water would further complicate the situation.
Scott knows the project would be massive, and massively controversial, but that’s why he’s talking about it now—before the Ogallala runs dry.
An uncertain future
At a conference in April, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey said public support for an aqueduct is unlikely unless farmers show first that there’s no other way to water their crops.
“Until we can show people that we are utilizing every drop of water in the best way possible, no one outside of this region is going to invest in a water transfer project,” McClaskey said.
Clayton Scott says he isn’t looking for the rest of Kansas to bail out the farmers out west.
Scott imagines the canal would be a federal project, similar to Arizona’s aqueduct. Water users would repay the costs of construction and maintenance through a water use fee.
He also contends that an aqueduct could help a broader region.
Scott says an aqueduct could extend out to Colorado’s Front Range to supply booming cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs that draw water off of the dwindling Colorado River. If they drank from Kansas’ aqueduct instead, that would leave more water to trickle down the Colorado, which extends out into water-starved southern California.
A canal, advocates contend, could supply water at a fraction of the price that southern California farmers pay now and help alleviate shortages in that region.
Scott’s interest in water transfer is common in southwest Kansas but far from universal. For example, Roth isn’t convinced.
“It’s impractical and it’s one heck of a distraction,” Roth said. “Right now we need to concentrate on local conservation with what we do have, what we can do right now.”
Ray Luhman, Northwest Water district manager, thinks the state should consider all options, including channeling water across the state.
“The conversation needs to be had,” Luhman said. “But to, let’s say, mortgage your future on a project maybe 20 to 30 years from completion? We also need to look to something in the interim.”
Ben Kuebrich reports for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and HPPR covering health, education and politics.
…But irrigation soon could end on [Brant] Peterson’s southwest Kansas farm. The wells under his land in Stanton County are fast running dry as farmers and ranchers across the Great Plains pump the Ogallala faster than it can be replenished naturally.
Three of his wells are already dry.
Within five years, Peterson estimates, he likely won’t be able to irrigate at all.
Wet and dry: A country divided
While the east half of the country generally receives at least 25 inches of rain a year, much of the west is dryer.
This means much of our country’s corn and hogs are farmed west of the 100th meridian. Meanwhile, in the Great Plains, milo, or grain sorghum, has become a popular crop due to its reduced need for water, and cattle farming has long been popular out west…
Western Kansas’ only significant water source is the Ogallala…
The vast freshwater reservoir beneath the prairie formed 5 million to 10 million years ago as streams draining from the Rocky Mountains deposited water in the clay, sand and gravel beneath the Great Plains.
The water lay there undisturbed for epochs until enterprising homesteaders who settled the West discovered the liquid bonanza that would make their arid land bloom.
Now, in a geological blink of an eye, the Ogallala, which made the Great Plains the nation’s breadbasket, is in peril…
The disappearing water supply poses a twofold danger. It could end a way of life in a region where the land and its bounty have been purchased by the toil and sweat of generations of farmers.
It also threatens a harvest worth $21 billion a year to Kansas alone and portends a fast-approaching, and largely unstoppable, water crisis across the parched American West.
With water levels already too low to pump in some places, western Kansas farmers have been forced to acknowledge that the end is near. That harsh reality is testing the patience and imagination of those who rely on the land for their livelihoods.
As they look for survival, farmers are using cutting-edge technologies to make the most efficient use of the water they have left. They’re contemplating something almost unimaginable just a generation ago: voluntary pacts with their neighbors to reduce irrigation.
And many are investing their long-term hopes in an astronomically expensive water transportation project that isn’t likely ever to be built.
The Arkansas River, which once flowed out of Colorado into western Kansas, is nothing but a dry ditch now, its riverbed reduced to a rugged obstacle course for all-terrain vehicles.
And average rainfall here is just 14 to 16 inches a year, nowhere near enough to replace the water that farmers draw from the Ogallala.
Kansas enjoyed a rainier-than-normal spring this year, easing several years of drought conditions throughout the state. But the relief is temporary.
The storms that soaked the state in recent months won’t alter the Ogallala’s fate, experts say…
Once emptied, it would take 6,000 years to refill the Ogallala naturally…
The Ogallala Aquifer supplies water for 20 percent of the corn, wheat, sorghum and cattle produced in the U.S.
It sprawls 174,000 square miles across eight states, from South Dakota to Texas, and can hold more than enough water to fill Lake Huron and part of Lake Ontario.
But for every square mile of aquifer, there’s a well. About 170,000 of them. Ninety percent of the water pumped out is used to irrigate crops…
Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to address the rapid decline of the aquifer. Water rights holders in much of western Kansas had to install flow meters in all their wells starting in the mid-1990s. Soon all wells in Kansas will have to be metered. And the state government has stopped issuing new permits to pump water from the Ogallala in areas of western Kansas where water levels have dropped the most.
Now, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has pledged to make water policy a central pillar of his administration. The final draft of his 50-year “water vision” for the state, released in January, outlines an incentive and education-based approach focused on encouraging voluntary, coordinated conservation efforts by the farmers who have the most to lose by the aquifer’s decline.
So far, however, farmers have agreed to limit water use in just part of two northwestern counties. A group of farmers in Sheridan and Thomas counties established a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, in 2012 to cut water use by 20 percent over five years.
It seems to be working: In the first year, participants in the LEMA used about 2.5 inches less water for irrigation than their neighbors and produced just two bushels less per acre, on average.
A proposal to create another LEMA in west-central Kansas was voted down last year by water rights holders.
“The problem is everybody wants to be democratic, and you have people for and you have some people against,” said Bill Golden, an agricultural economist at Kansas State.
It isn’t easy to convince individuals to put their profits at risk to preserve a common resource, especially when some farmers have more water left than others, Golden said.
“But I think that we will probably see more LEMAs in the coming years,” he said. “That is the most acceptable answer. I mean, we’re going to run out of water. Nobody’s talking about saving the aquifer and not using the water. The question is, can we extend the life of the aquifer and make it a soft landing?”
For now, that leaves individual farmers making their own decisions about how best to manage water on their land.
Ten miles east of Peterson’s farm, in Grant County, Kan., Clay Scott parked his Dodge pickup on a country road and reached for his iPad.
A few hundred feet away, a solar panel planted in a field of wheat powered a probe that measures soil moisture at different depths.
Right now the probe told Scott’s iPad that he could hold off on watering the field. His sprinklers lay idle.
“People think that we waste our water out here,” Scott said, “and we just kind of grin because we work so hard to use that water.”
In addition to the soil moisture probes linked to his iPad, Scott consults satellites and radar data to track every shift in the weather and drop of rain that falls in his fields so he can minimize irrigation. He uses low-till techniques to preserve the soil and experiments with genetically engineered drought-resistant corn. He installed more efficient nozzles on his center-pivot sprinklers.
And he’s trying out a new device called a “dragon line,” which drags perforated hoses behind a center pivot to deposit water directly on the ground, reducing pooling and evaporation.
Scott’s version of high-tech farming would be unrecognizable to his great-grandfather, who homesteaded in nearby Stanton County around the turn of the century.
Still, despite all his efforts, Scott knows there will come a day – sooner rather than later if nothing is done – when irrigation is no longer viable in this part of Kansas.
The effects of the depleted aquifer already can be felt on Scott’s farm, where he’s had to reduce irrigation by 25 percent.
Some of his two dozen wells are pumping just 150 gallons per minute now, down from thousands of gallons per minute when they were first drilled. And as the water table drops, the energy costs of pumping from deeper underground have become higher than the cash rents Scott pays on the fields he leases.
“We’ve gone through periods where we re-drilled and tapped all but the very lowest water,” Scott said. “There are places we don’t pump the wells anymore.”
As an elected board member for the local Groundwater Management District, Scott hopes that he’ll be able to shape conservation policies that will enable his children to continue farming after him. He sees the situation in California, where the state has forced farmers to cut water use, as a cautionary tale. If farmers in Kansas don’t find ways to conserve enough water on their own, the state could enforce water rationing.
“I’ve got three boys, and a couple of them have already talked very seriously about coming back to the farm, and I’d like them to have the opportunity and ability that I’ve had to grow crops and livestock, even in a drought,” he said.
Scott’s long-term hopes rest in the construction of an $18 billion aqueduct that would import high flows off the Missouri River to water crops grown in western Kansas.
As conceived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the concrete ditch would stretch 360 miles from east to west across Kansas with 16 lift stations and massive reservoirs on either end. The proposal was met with opposition – and not a little ridicule – by the legislature in Topeka, as state lawmakers struggled to close a $400 million budget hole.
“We’re not working on it at this point,” Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, said in an interview.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon dismissed the aqueduct as a “harebrained” scheme that would divert river water needed for barge traffic and municipal use.
But in western Kansas, it doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea.
“When they’re flooding in the Missouri River and cities are sandbagging, it sure seems to us like we have an answer to their problems,” Scott said. “Nobody wants to build a house and see it flooded; nobody wants to plant a field and watch it wither.”
Fervent support for the project speaks to the urgency felt by Scott, Peterson and other farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods and communities depend on irrigation. They’re hoping to convince the federal government to kick in funds for the aqueduct. And they’re looking into the possibility of building it through a public-private partnership, like a toll road. Farming cooperatives in California and Colorado have expressed interest in the project, they say, and want to explore extending it farther west.
A federal engineering bailout for western Kansas isn’t very likely, however.
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in an interview that such a costly project would be a nonstarter under Congress’ current budget caps.
“In all honestly, it’s a front-burner issue for folks in southwest Kansas, but to build that kind of aqueduct would be billions of dollars, and I just don’t think that’s feasible at this point,” Roberts said.
Barring the construction of an aqueduct, rural communities that depend on the Ogallala face a bleak future.
The state would have to cut its irrigated acres in half today to get anywhere close to sustainability, said Golden, the agricultural economist from Kansas State.
But it isn’t as simple as turning off the sprinklers.
“People survived out here on dryland farming. I can do it,” Peterson said, using the term “dryland” to refer to growing crops without irrigation. “Here’s the cost: My community is going to wither away.”
An irrigated field in southwest Kansas produces more than eight times more corn per acre on average than a field that isn’t irrigated, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Land values would drop. The loss of equity and tax base would mean fewer farmers and bigger farms, consolidated school districts, and impoverished towns with declining populations.
Like any economy dependent on mining a finite resource, this one is headed for a bust, and the farmers know it.
“We can’t wait another 30 years to get our policy right,” Scott said. “The drought in California is showing what living in denial can do.”
Keith Gido, professor in the Division of Biology; Josh Perkin, 2012 Kansas State University doctoral graduate; and several co-authors have published “Fragmentation and dewatering transform Great Plains stream fish communities” in the journal Ecological Monographs.
The article documents a reduction in water flow in Great Plains streams and rivers because of drought, damming and groundwater withdrawals. This is causing a decrease in aquatic diversity in Kansas from stream fragmentation — or stretches of disconnected streams.
“Fish are an indication of the health of the environment,” Gido said. “A while back there was a sewage leak in the Arkansas River and it was the dead fish that helped identify the problem. Children play and swim in that water, so it’s important that we have a good understanding of water quality.”
Several species of fish — including the peppered chub and the plains minnow — were found to be severely declining in the Great Plains during the ecologists’ field research, which compared historic records to 110 sampling sites in Kansas between 2011-2013. Both fish species swim downstream during droughts and return during normal water flow, but the construction of dams, or stream fragmentation, prevents fish from returning upstream.
“The Great Plains region is a harsh environment and drought has always been a problem. Historically, fish were able to recover from drought by moving,” Gido said. “They could swim downstream and when the drought was over, they could swim back. Now, there are dams on the rivers and the fish are not able to recover.”
Streams in the Great Plains region have more than 19,000 human-made barriers. Gido estimates that on average, stretches of streams in the Great Plains are about six miles long. In surveying Kansas’ streams and rivers, the researchers discovered numerous small dams that do not allow enough habitat for the fish to complete their reproductive cycles. Moreover, the fish are unable to migrate in search of suitable habitat.
“Groundwater extraction exasperates the drought, and the damming of the rivers inhibits the fish from being able to recover from those conditions,” Gido said. “This is unfortunate, but there are some things we can do to help.”
Gido suggested a renewed focus to conserve water, reduce dams and make fish passageways like the one on the Arkansas River under Lincoln Street in Wichita. During the planning for the reconstruction of the Lincoln Street Bridge and the dam over the river, the city worked with wildlife agencies to build a passage that would allow fish as well as canoes and kayaks to navigate through the structure.
Similar structures could be constructed on the Kansas River to help fish migrate.
“The plains minnow is still found in the Missouri River and could recolonize the Kansas River — where they used to be the most abundance species — if there was a fish passage through some of the dams.”
That theme of cooperation, including striking a balance between consumption and conservation, quickly rose to the surface Friday, as members of the whitewater, conservation and political communities met at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs to discuss the future of state water policy.
“To the best of our ability, we don’t want it to be West Slope against East Slope, “ said Heather Lewin, watershed action director for the Roaring Fork Conservancy. “We want to be working together to understand where water comes from, and how to use it most efficiently … so that we can do the best we can for the people who live here and for the environment.”
Members of the environmental group Conservation Colorado hosted the confab, which was set to coincide with Colorado River Day. The discussion largely revolved around local water issues and the recent release of the draft Colorado Water Plan. As water levels dwindle throughout the West, Colorado is formulating its first state water plan…
A benefit of the state effort is that many interest groups have gotten together to discuss the issue, creating new partnerships that before may never have been possible, said Kristin Green, Front Range field manager for Conservation Colorado.
“I think it’s important to recognize the diversity of holders we do have in this state, particularly in this area, that feel very direct effects from how we are managing our rivers,” she said. “Now more than ever we need to make sure all those different voices are being heard.”
More than 24,000 comments have been made concerning the draft water plan, and the public comment period doesn’t end until Sept. 17, Green said.
She noted that the second draft of the water plan begins to delve into potential solutions, and suggests a conservation goal of saving 400,000 acre feet by 2050. It’s the start of establishing the criteria officials may want to discuss, she said.
“There definitely was more meat on the bones,” Green said of the second draft…
Roaring Fork watershed increases quality of the Colorado
Lewin said that while the Roaring Fork River may be a small component of the overall Colorado River Basin, it still contributes around 1 million acre feet of water to the larger river each year.
She said the quality and quantity of that water can be very significant farther downstream in both an ecological sense and for its value to industries, municipalities and agriculture. But diversions strain that resource.
“Having high-quality water in the Roaring Fork makes a big difference of the water quality overall in the Colorado,” Lewin said.
She added that the river’s gold medal fishing designation is a huge economic boost to the valley. That lofty standard is met when there are at least 60 pounds of trout per acre of water, including at least 12 fish that are 14 inches or longer.
“That’s a lot of fat fish,” Lewin said. “But [keeping] those fish growing fat, healthy and swimming doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
These conditions occur when a river or stream consists of clean water, and is home to an abundant insect population and a healthy riparian area. Lewin said surrounding riparian areas provide shade to cool river temperatures; food for aquatic creatures; erosion control; and help to filter pollutants.
“As you increase development, and as we diminish stream flows, riparian vegetation becomes one of the first things to really suffer,” she said. “So it’s hard to regenerate cottonwoods without overbanking flows. Cottonwoods are a key part to that riparian vegetation piece.”
Lewin said the recent wet spring led to the term “miracle May,” a month with a huge amount of precipitation that helped make up for a dry and warm winter. The heavy flows also helped to clear out sediment that built up in areas of the Roaring Fork.
“One of the biggest transmountain diversions out of the basin, the Independence Pass Tunnel, was shut down for nearly two months,” she said (that was because the East Slope had ample water supplies). “It just started operations about a week ago or so. By closing down that tunnel we were able to really see the full effects of the spring flushing flow and the benefits to the river.”
Lewin added that old oxbows in the North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen were again filled with water this spring, putting the wetland area in a more natural state.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy has also engaged residents in the Crystal River Valley to work on addressing low stream flows. That effort has focused on looking at best practices to manage diversions and return flows, and studying the area’s physical features.
“We’re trying to see if we can use all of those pieces together in cooperation with the people who live on and around the river, and use that water to do the best we can for the Crystal,” Lewin said.
Dean Moffatt, a local architect, inquired about efforts to bestow the federal “Wild and Scenic” designation and its protections on the Crystal River.
“As an organization, we’re certainly supportive of the process,” Lewin replied. “We think that it’s really important and has the potential to be really beneficial.”[…]
‘No more water to give’
Aron Diaz, a Silt town trustee, said there’s a lot of interest among local leaders in the Colorado Water Plan.
“We’re really in a unique position and have the opportunity to craft Colorado’s water policy at the larger state level,” he said. “But we need to keep in mind how that affects the Western Slope.”
Diaz said the biggest point of concern is that Front Range basins are still adding placeholders, indicating that they may need more West Slope water to meet demands.
“We’re pretty tapped out for the amount of water that we have available to us,” he said. “Both with our obligations to stakeholders along the Colorado and those environmental, recreational, agricultural, industrial, municipal needs … as well as our downstream obligations with the compact, we’re really at the limit.”
There’s a need to set “achievable, but very aggressive conservation goals” to assure every avenue is studied before looking at new diversions, Diaz said. He urged the public to visit westslopewater.com to sign a petition that will be delivered to Gov. Hickenlooper and Colorado Water Conservation Board director James Eklund. It requests that no new diversions of water be made to the Front Range…
“The Western Slope in Colorado has no more water to give. We, the undersigned western Colorado residents, strongly urge you to oppose any new trans-mountain diversion that will take more water from the Western Slope of Colorado, as you develop Colorado’s Water Plan,” the petition states. “We cannot solve our state’s future water needs by simply sending more water east.”
FromThe Mountain Town News (Allen Best) via the Summit Daily News:
In Colorado, snowpack this winter was about average in the Blue River Basin, which is where Breckenridge, Keystone, and several other ski areas are located. “Everybody has Blue River envy,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, at a recent meeting covered by the Summit Daily News.
Blue River’s snowpack will soon fill Dillon Reservoir, one of the main reservoirs for metropolitan Denver. However, endangered fish in the Colorado River downstream near the Utah border won’t fare so well, because of less snowpack in the other tributary basins. Peak flows must be at least 12,900 cubic feet per second; they’re expected to peak at 9,600 cfs.
Taking a broader view, Kuhn sees this time in the 21st century as one of transition. “After 100 years of develop more, develop more, develop more, we’re going to have to cut back our uses.”
Kuhn pointed to the declining water levels in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two giant “buckets” on the Colorado River. “Bad things happen when Lake Mead and Lake Powell get drained,” he said, a distinct possibility in the next few years, particularly at Lake Mead.
What about building a pipeline to the Mississippi River or some other water-rich location? “To expect that we can export our problems to somebody else, I just don’t see that somebody else will willingly accept them,” he said.
HB15-1167 is up for hearing tomorrow in the House Agriculture, Livestock, & Natural Resources committee. The bill is the brainchild of J. Paul Brown representing District 59 down in southwestern Colorado. It would direct the CWCB to study the feasibility of new mainstem storage on the South Platte River downstream from Greeley. It also directs the CWCB to utilize existing studies of the possibility of pumping water from the Missouri River Basin back to Colorado. I suppose he’s talking about the USACE’s alternative to Aaron Million’s pipeline from the Green River or the Kansas Aqueduct project.
The bill calls out the Narrows Dam Project (650,000 AF) that was authorized by the US Congress but never built for a number of reasons, most of which would be faced by any new mainstem project.
Senator Sonnenberg shows up as the Senate sponsor.
Here’s what Representative Brown had to say on the subject in the Pagosa Daily Post:
My time in the legislature is challenging and exciting. I am working hard on my bills as well as keeping up on my committee bills and the bills that come to the floor. I actually have a little advantage over other legislators in that my apartment is half a block from the Capitol, so all of my time, when I am not sleeping, showering, or attending receptions, is spent reading and preparing for action on bills.
My number one issue is water storage and primarily storage in the South Platte drainage in Colorado. Why on the South Platte? Because that is the one drainage on the eastern side of Colorado that regularly has water that leaves the state that can legally be stored and used in Colorado. When I was in the legislature in 2011 and 2012 I started paying attention to the water in the South Platte Basin that was leaving the state. There were two years in particular where over 1,000,000 acre feet per year were wasted, another where 600,000 acre feet left the state, and even today there is excess water running out of the state that could be used to augment other water needs in Colorado. If we could store that water, it would help to satisfy the demand on the Front Range and relieve the need to send water from the Western Slope to the more populated Eastern side of the Continental Divide.
For the past many years I have been learning all I can about water, water law, water compacts with other states, and everything else related to water that I could possibly learn. I started at a young age when my parents were paid to measure the water at the Colorado/New Mexico state line on the La Plata River South of Hesperus, Colorado. On most early mornings before I caught the bus for school I would measure the amount of water in the river. That information was then relayed to the water authorities in both states where ditches were closed or opened depending on their priority. I have monitored Governor Hickenlooper‚s „water plan‰ and have attended as many Water Roundtable meetings as I could possibly make. I have attended the Colorado Water Congress meetings amongst the most knowledgeable water lawyers and providers in Colorado.
I still have much to learn.
Everywhere I go I have asked folks about storage on the South Platte. The more I have learned, the more it became evident that all of the information needed to make good decisions on where and how to store water was scattered in many different places. I decided that it was necessary to pull all of that information together and that the easiest way to do so is to run a bill. That bill is HB15- 1167. It will be heard in the House Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources Committee upon adjournment on the 18th of February.
Western Kansas is heavily dependent on the Ogallala Aquifer. But since 1950, that ancient supply of underground water has been rapidly depleted by irrigation. That irrigation produces corn, which is fed to livestock to support the beef and, more recently, dairy industries, which are the foundation of the western Kansas economy. But water levels have dropped so low in parts of more than 30 counties that irrigation pumps can no longer be used there. That’s why rivers in western Kansas are little more than dry stream beds.
Mark Rude is tracking the depletion of the aquifer for a groundwater management district in the heart of the affected area.
“We’re only 9 percent sustainable with that 2 million acre-feet that we use in southwest Kansas,” Rude says. “And 9 percent sustainable is a very formidable number, because you can’t conserve your way out of that.”
In other words, 91 percent of the water currently being pumped would have to be shut off just to keep the aquifer from declining any more. But if the water doesn’t come from the aquifer, where could it come from? The 2011 flooding on the Missouri River gave Rude and others an idea about how to answer that question. While devastating to those along the river, the flood looked like an opportunity.
“Folks who realize the deep value of water in western Kansas looked at that and go, ‘Wow, if we only had a couple days of that flow we could fill the aquifer, and we’d all be happy,’” Rude says.
Rude looked into that idea, and rediscovered the 1982 study proposing a system to capture excess water from the Missouri River and store it in a huge, new lake near White Cloud in the northeastern corner of the state. It would then be pumped uphill through an aqueduct to western Kansas. There it would be stored in another new lake — by far the largest in the state — for distribution.
The cost was estimated at $1,000 per acre-foot of water delivered. With that price tag, the concept was dead on arrival. But recently, the Kansas Water Office told the committee charged with updating the old study that the cost is now closer to $500 per acre-foot. The savings are due to lower interest rates. Cost is a concern for committee member Judy Wegener-Stevens, but it’s not the only reason she’s opposed to the project.
“I don’t feel an aqueduct should be built,” Wegener-Stevens says. “I feel that people in western Kansas have been pumping water unconditionally, without any rules, for 40 years, and they have not used their resource very well.”
Wegener-Stevens, who lives in White Cloud, said the nearby Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska would fight a proposed aqueduct. They have rights to water in the Missouri River and are working to quantify those rights. There might also be objections from other states, even though the idea is to take only “excess” water. Throw in anticipated battles over property rights and environmental concerns, and some committee members say the aqueduct still doesn’t appear realistic.
But committee member Clay Scott isn’t willing to give up on the idea. Three generations of his family raise cattle and grow irrigated corn and wheat near Ulysses, in southwest Kansas. Scott points to an Arizona aqueduct called the Central Arizona Project as proof that a Kansas aqueduct is feasible. He says a reliable source of water is vital to the future of his family’s farm.
“I’ve got three boys that are looking to maybe come back to the farm, but, you know, it takes a lot of acres in western Kansas to support a family — especially coming through these last three years of drought,” Scott says. “It’s a challenge to tell your boys that there’s an opportunity. There’s a future for you here.”
Scott and other members of the advisory committee say the first priority should be some sort of compact with other states and Indian tribes to secure rights to Missouri River water. Then they can worry about all the other obstacles to the project. Earl Lewis, the assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, agrees with that approach.
“Moving forward and investing considerable time and funds into pursuing a project that doesn’t have the legal security of a water right or some kind of compact doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Lewis says.
Even if the Missouri River doesn’t pan out as a water source, Lewis says there may be other options. State law could be changed to make it easier to transfer surplus water to western Kansas from other parts of the state. And Kansas may be able to get some financial help from Colorado, in exchange for providing water to ease shortages on the Front Range. But it will be up to others to explore those options and others. The advisory committee’s charge was solely to update the aqueduct study and make recommendations. Those recommendations are due by the end of January.
“We created the largest artificial watershed in the world,” says Pat Mulroy, the powerful head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a wholesaler that supplies Las Vegas.
Water from the Colorado River is piped across deserts, channeled through mountains, and — after being treated in local sewage plants — winds up in rivers that flow to the southern ends of the country:
Some of New Mexico’s share goes into the Rio Grande, eventually flowing south and east through Texas and into the Gulf of Mexico.
What Denver returns to nature flows into the South Platte, a tributary of the Missouri River.
The coastal cities of Southern California dump a good bit of their diversion into the Pacific Ocean.
None of these water bodies is the logical end of the line for the Colorado River, whose natural terminus is a delta at the northern crook of the Gulf of California. A delta that is, ironically, all dried up…
The river’s web, if some have their way, could become even larger. John Kaufman, the man who proposed the Missouri River pipeline, wants to see the artificial boundaries expand. Kaufman is the general manager of Leavenworth Water, which serves 50,000 people in a town that welcomed Lewis and Clark in 1804 during the duo’s westward exploration.
The identity of the pipeline’s proponent, who was anonymous during the Bureau of Reclamation study and is for the first time being named in the media, is important because of where he lives — outside of the natural Colorado River Basin, or in the extended web.
In Kaufman’s vision, Kansas becomes a hydrological keystone for the West, facilitating water transfers that could affect at least 10 states and Mexico.
“We’d hopscotch water across Kansas and sell it to communities in the state,” Kaufman told me during a phone interview last month, explaining the benefit to his home territory. Construction of the pipeline would also supply jobs to Leavenworth, where the intake facilities would be located. At least one groundwater district in western Kansas is advocating for a similar concept, a Missouri River pipeline to the High Plains to compensate for declines in the Ogallala Aquifer, an essential source for irrigation. Kaufman has presented his idea to state and local officials several times this year.
Once the water flows past Kansas, “it’s a horse trade,” Kaufman said. Water delivered to the Front Range would be earmarked for the South Platte River Basin, which includes Denver. (The South Platte, remember, is part of the Missouri River Basin.) A pipeline would close the circle, sending South Platte water, via the Missouri, back uphill. Of course a few drops of the Colorado would be in the pipe, too.
“It’s a reuse project, really,” said Kaufman, who serves on Kansas governor Sam Brownback’s Missouri River advisory committee…
Then there are the swaps. Front Range cities get roughly 72 percent of their supplies from the Colorado River, according to a 2009 study commissioned by the Front Range Water Council. If water from the Missouri were imported, then some of the trans-Rocky diversions could remain within the Colorado River Basin.
Kaufman’s idea — he calls it the Eisenhower Pipeline, in honor of the sponsor of the interstate highway system, which got its start in Kansas — was included in the Bureau of Reclamation’s final report, but top federal officials distanced themselves from the project, once word leaked a few days before the report’s official release last December.
“In my view, [water import] solutions are impractical and not feasible,” said Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior at the time. The study actually gave the pipeline high marks for technical feasibility, but the $US 8.6 billion price tag and the high energy costs pushed the pipeline to the bottom of the pile. Conservation was the big winner, deemed to be significantly cheaper and able to deliver more water.
Kaufman knows the scheme is expensive, which is why he says that he needs financial buy-in from the states in the Colorado’s Lower Basin and cooperative agreements among all the Basin states in order to shuffle water supplies.
“It’s not about providing water to the Front Range,” he said. “It’s about providing water to the West.”
Here’s a guest column about Colorado’s water plan, written by State Senator Gail Schwartz running in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. Senator Schwartz has been in the middle of water legislation for most of her time in the state legislature. Here’s an excerpt:
The state water plan will pave the way for water decisions that responsibly and predictably address future challenges. The governor’s executive order detailed that the plan must promote a productive economy that supports vibrant and sustainable cities, viable and productive agriculture, and a robust skiing, recreation and tourism industry. It must also incorporate efficient and effective water infrastructure planning while promoting smart land use and strong environmental protections that include healthy watersheds, rivers and streams, and wildlife.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has been tasked with creating the Colorado Water Plan. The board must submit a draft of the plan to the governor’s office by Dec. 10, 2014, and a final plan by Dec. 10, 2015. The CWCB will incorporate the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and nine Basin Roundtables recommendations to address regional long-term water needs.
As chair of the interim Water Resources Review Committee (WRRC), I will help ensure that the diverse voices of Colorado’s water community are heard during the development of this plan. The 10-member WRRC comprises legislators representing districts in each of the state’s major river basins. The committee has a full agenda as we are charged to review water issues and propose legislation. The WRRC will also remain actively engaged with the CWCB in development of the State Water Plan…
As charged, the water plan has a broad scope and will inevitably need to address difficult and contentious issues. I believe that we should first focus on conservation and efficiency both at the municipal/industrial level and in agriculture. Water conservation is an area with broad consensus. A recent public opinion study of Coloradans identified conservation as the most important water-related issue. Other studies have strikingly demonstrated that 80 percent of Coloradans favored conservation over new construction projects. In 2013, I sponsored SB13-19 which gives landowners a new tool to conserve water without injuring their water rights. New conservation and efficiency tools are needed in the State Water Plan as they stress wise use of our precious water resource.
Conservation may be just one piece of this larger puzzle, and I want to hear what pieces are important to you.
State Water Plan, meet the “not-one-more-drop-club” from the Grand Valley. Here’s a report from Gary Harmon, writing for The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
Colorado should import water to meet burgeoning Front Range demands — and lessen the pressure on the Western Slope to slake that thirst, Grand Valley water officials suggest.
Managers of 10 Grand Valley water agencies and municipalities are preparing to ask their bosses to insist that bringing water into the state [ed. emphasis mine] — which would be known as augmentation — is a needed step in the development of a statewide water plan.
The problem, the water managers have concluded, is that there simply isn’t enough water in the state to meet the demands of growth, particularly on the Front Range, and the demands of millions of downstream Colorado River water users in Arizona, California and Nevada.
“Reallocation of state water resources is not going to do the job,” Larry Clever, general manager of Ute Water Conservancy District, said.
Managers of the agencies sat down together to draft a Grand Valley response to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s call for a statewide water plan, and they began the process as a “not-one-more-drop club,” Clever said, in reference to any further diversion of water from the Western Slope over the mountains to the east. So any additional drops will have to come from elsewhere, Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, said.
“Our problem is that we’re the cheapest source of good clean water to the Eastern Slope, and there’s no other way around it,” Schmidt said. “We need to find outside water. Actually, we do not. They do.”
The concerns by Grand Valley water managers center on the possibility that the lower basin states will place a call on the Colorado River under the 1922 compact governing the river. “Every time that (the East Slope) takes water from the West Slope, that enhances the chance of a compact call,” that in theory would hit hardest on the Eastern Slope, Schmidt said.
Hickenlooper in May directed the drafting of a statewide water plan, to be complete by December 2014.
The proposed position acknowledges that the Colorado Water Conservation Board estimates that there could be as many as 800,000 acre feet of water available for diversion and storage, but notes there is “considerable doubt” that additional development won’t result in a compact call.
The Grand Valley response would set out nine goals that such a plan would have to include, one of them being “implementation of a long-term, regional water-augmentation plan.” Other goals include protecting the “cornerstones of our economy,” agriculture, resource extraction, recreation and tourism; preparation for the possibility of a compact call; protecting the health and quality of the state’s river basins; and preparing for the effects of climate change.
Other goals include protecting and promoting the area’s agricultural heritage; preserving local control of planning for development; ensuring federal agencies operate within state water law; and ensuring that upstream diversions protect and maintain water quality for downstream users.
Ultimately, “it is imperative for state officials to engage officials from the federal government and other basin states in developing, implementing and paying for an augmentation plan” that will benefit all the states dependent on the Colorado River, the proposed position says.
The proposed position will go before the governing boards of Fruita, Grand Junction and Palisade, as well as Clifton Water District, Grand Valley Irrigation Co., Grand Valley Water Users Association, Mesa County Irrigation District, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, Palisade Irrigation District and Ute Water.
Here’s a guest column running in The Denver Post, written by Allen Best, that gives an overview of the current state of the Colorado River. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
Tow icebergs from Alaska? Pilfer from a tributary of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming? Or, even sneak water from the Snake, boring a 6-mile tunnel from a reservoir near Jackson Hole to the Green River? While it’s sure to make Idaho’s spud farmers cranky, it would help Tucson, Los Angeles and that parched paradigm of calculated risk, Las Vegas.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and everybody else with a megaphone has carefully branded these ideas as improbable or worse. Only slightly more credible is the idea of a pipeline from the Mississippi River. It could originate near Memphis, traverse 1,040 miles and, if reaching Castle Rock, rise 6,000 feet in elevation. Pumping would require a steady 800 megawatts of electricity, or a little more than what the Comanche 3 power plant in Pueblo produces.
In theory, this 600,000-acre feet of muddy Mississippi would replace diversions from the Colorado River headwaters between Grand Lake and Aspen. Those diversions range between 450,000 and 600,000 acre-feet annually. That would leave the creeks and rivers to the whims of gravity and geography, at least until arriving at Las Vegas and other places with growing thirst.
Cheap water? Not exactly: It would cost $2,400 per acre-foot for this Memphis-flavored sludge, assuming the idea isn’t grounded by protests from barge and riverboat operators. (Sometimes they, too, say they need more water.)
The federal government has come up with dozens of ways to enhance the diminishing flow of the Colorado River, which has long struggled to keep seven states and roughly 25 million people hydrated…
…also in the mix, and expected to remain in the final draft of the report [ed. Colorado River Basin Water Supply & Demand Study], is a more extreme and contentious approach. It calls for building a pipeline from the Missouri River to Denver, nearly 600 miles to the west. Water would be doled out as needed along the route in Kansas, with the rest ultimately stored in reservoirs in the Denver area…
The fact that the Missouri River pipeline idea made the final draft, water experts say, shows how serious the problem has become for the states of the Colorado River basin. “I pooh-poohed this kind of stuff back in the 1960s,” said Chuck Howe, a water policy expert and emeritus professor of economics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But it’s no longer totally unrealistic. Currently, one can say ‘It’s worth a careful look.’ ”
The pipeline would provide the Colorado River basin [ed. Denver, Kansas, etc., are not in the Colorado River Basin] with 600,000 acre-feet of water annually, which could serve roughly a million single-family homes. But the loss of so much water from the Missouri and Mississippi River systems, which require flows high enough to sustain large vessel navigation, would most likely face strong political opposition…
Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, said that during the course of the study, the analysis done on climate change and historical data led the agency “to an acknowledged gap” between future demand and future supply as early as the middle of this century.
That is when they put out a call for broader thinking to solve the water problem. “When we did have that wake-up call, we threw open the doors and said, ‘Bring it on,’ ” she said. “Nothing is too silly.”[…]
It is unclear how much such a pipeline project would cost, though estimates run into the billions of dollars. That does not include the cost of the new electric power that would be needed (along with the construction of new generating capacity) to pump the water uphill from Leavenworth, Kan., to the front range reservoirs serving Denver, about a mile above sea level, according to Sharlene Leurig, an expert on water-project financing at Ceres, a nonprofit group based in Boston that works with investors to promote sustainability.
But [Burke W. Griggs] and some federal officials said that the approval of such a huge water project remained highly unlikely.
Ms. Leurig noted that local taxpayers and utility customers would be shouldering most of the expense of such a venture through their tax and water bills, which would make conservation a more palatable alternative.
Water transfers from the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River or Alaska and Canada to the arid southwestern U.S.
These are perennial favorites: people look at the vast amount of water in the Great Lakes, or flowing down the Mississippi River, or flowing north to the Arctic Ocean and think, gee, what could make more sense than to take that water and move it to where we really need it, like California or Arizona or Las Vegas. After all, we’ve been moving water around since the beautifully designed Roman aqueducts, and even earlier. But most of these mega-projects are zombies – killed off years ago, only to linger, undead.
Patricia Mulroy, who runs the Southern Nevada Water Authority, recently revived the idea of moving floodwaters from the Mississippi River all the way to Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona to free up Colorado River water that could then be given to feed Las Vegas. Fear that similar projects would take water out of the Great Lakes led to a provision in the new international agreement signed by the U.S. and Canada that effectively prohibits transfers of water out of the basin because of fear that such diversions would lower the Great Lakes levels and threaten the health of fragile natural ecosystems. And of course there is the granddaddy of all water diversion proposals – called NAWAPA (the North American Water and Power Alliance) – proposed in the late 1950s and early 1960s by a consulting/construction company to divert around 150 million acre-feet of water annually (ten times the flow of the Colorado River) from the Yukon, Copper, Kootenay, Fraser, Peace, and other Alaskan/Canadian rivers all the way east to the Great Lakes and south to the southwestern U.S. and even Mexico. And a smaller version of this zombie is the Million Conservation Research Group proposal (named after Aaron Million – if it had anything to do with the cost, it would be the Billion Conservation Research Group) to build a pipeline from Wyoming to eastern Colorado to take 250,000 acre-feet of public water to sell for private gain. Professor Robert Glennon from the University of Arizona quipped that he sees many obstacles to the project, “not the least of which is the Rocky Mountains.”
These mega-projects are certainly technically feasible: there’s no mystery to building dams, aqueducts, pumping plants, and pipelines. What kills these projects is their massive political, environmental, and economic cost. They would cost tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars and lead to vast environmental destruction and devastation. Half a century ago, we didn’t know about the ecological consequences of massive water diversions, or we didn’t care, but those days are over. On top of this, any such project would require unprecedented political and legal water sharing agreements and anyone who believes such agreements can be reached is living in a fantasyland. But that doesn’t stop these zombies from periodically coming back to life.
I’ve thought for a long time that Aaron Million’s proposal is akin to him driving a tanker truck across the Colorado/Wyoming border — not subject to Colorado water law — and that any water moved would count against the Upper Colorado River Compact. That’s the way the deputy state engineer sees it as well. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:
“The state engineer cannot curtail diversions from another state,” Deputy State Engineer Mike Sullivan told the Legislature’s water resources review committee Tuesday. “We can’t go into Wyoming and padlock a headgate.” Sullivan and State Engineer Dick Wolfe told the committee they have concerns about proposals to take water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the Green River in Wyoming and send it through a pipeline to Colorado’s Front Range.
Wolfe explained that such plans could interfere with water rights administration in Colorado, particularly if lower basin states in the Colorado River Compact were to put a call on the river. Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the Green River are both part of the Colorado River basin, which supplies 80 percent of Colorado’s water. Under the compact, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah are required to deliver 75 million acre-feet of water over a 10-year period at Lake Powell. If they fail to do so, Arizona, California and Nevada could demand water, calling out junior rights in Colorado [ed. the compact has a 1922 priority, senior, for example, to the Colorado-Big Thompson Project]…
Fort Collins entrepreneur Aaron Million is claiming a Wyoming water right as the basis for his Flaming Gorge project, which would make enforcing it difficult under Colorado’s priority system. The Colorado-Wyoming coalition, led by Frank Jaeger of Parker Water and Sanitation, plans to work with the Bureau of Reclamation, and could claim the Flaming Gorge priority date. “There’s no authority in place for dealing with Flaming Gorge,” Wolfe told the committee.
Meanwhile, meeting attendees were treated to a discussion of population estimates yesterday. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:
The state population grew to more than 5 million in 2010, from 4.3 million in 2000. Colorado grew at a 17 percent rate over the decade, compared with 9 percent for the nation as a whole…
[Elizabeth Garner, state demographer] gave a detailed analysis of counties, showing that the Eastern Plains and San Luis Valley were flat or lost population in the past decade, while the Front Range and Western Slope were the fastest growing parts of the state…
But the picture gets more complicated because baby boomers are getting older. Colorado’s population over age 65 is expected to grow by 150 percent in the next 20 years, which could also contribute to smaller household sizes, changes in water consumption patterns and the tax base. “We are becoming very different,” Garner said. “For the last decade, the largest part of our population has been the most productive . . . In the next 10 years, 1 million people will be leaving the labor force.”
“Why should agriculture, which is already short on water, be the reservoir for the state?” Brown asked. “We need to go forward with a better analysis of the shortage and what is needed to support agriculture.” Brown also is a member of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District and Arkansas Basin Roundtable, and has often tried to keep the issue in front of those groups…
Earlier this month, the [Arkansas Basin] roundtable formed a committee to address Brown’s concerns. In the process, he hopes to guide the state to a new way of thinking about its water needs. At last week’s Lower Ark meeting, Brown expanded on the need for the committee, which is closely aligned with the district’s goals. “The agriculture industry deserves to be more than the stepchild for water supply in the future,” Brown said…
Water users in El Paso County — Fountain, Widefield, Woodmoor and Donala — have been buying farms and ranches for water in recent years. Large blocks of water have been purchased on the Fort Lyon and Bessemer canals for future municipal use. Half of the Amity Canal was sold to Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association for a future power plant. And there are agricultural operations that easily could turn into municipal supply projects throughout the valley, potentially catching the valley off-guard as GP’s plan did. Large blocks of agricultural water have been consolidated in Pueblo and Otero counties, causing public officials to worry about where the water could be headed…
The Lower Ark board is one of few water agencies in the state that firmly supports a Flaming Gorge pipeline. Last year, it supported Aaron Million’s idea for the 560-mile line from the Green River in Wyoming to Colorado’s Front Range because it would develop unused state entitlement in the Colorado River basin and take pressure off Arkansas Valley farms. Million has always insisted that some water from the pipeline be set aside for agricultural and environmental uses. The state’s roundtables have committed to investigating Million’s plan, along with a similar proposal by the Colorado-Wyoming Coalition, as a way of filling the water supply gap…
At a roundtable meeting earlier this month, Fremont County rancher Tom Young asked whether the state should seriously consider importing water from the Missouri River basin in South Dakota, rather than looking for more out of the Colorado River basin from Flaming Gorge Reservoir.