Wet meadows and riparian areas in sagebrush country only account for about 2% of the landscape. Trouble for these systems started when white settlers moved West. Instead of taking their wagons through the sagebrush where it was rocky and rough, they followed the edges of the meadows.
Seward said the wagon wheels created trenches that were reinforced by livestock trailing between water sources, and eventually off-road vehicles using the same paths. These trenches caused water to pool.
“When water gets captured in those trails it speeds up and becomes more erosive and it starts to downcut,” he said. “It starts actually washing away the topsoil and working its way until it finally hits the bedrock.”
Sawyer said these impacts are being sped up by climate change.
“We are trying to prevent these systems from disappearing entirely from our landscape,” he said.
Wet meadows provide critical habitat for deer, elk, migratory birds, pollinators, livestock and the federally threatened Gunnison sage grouse.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates there about 3,500 Gunnison sage grouse left, with a majority of the population living in the Gunnison Basin. In 2015, there were around 5,000.
The species suffers habitat loss due to human-driven growth and development. The birds need large swaths of healthy sagebrush habitat to thrive. Climate change also threatens what’s left of the species habitat. Wet meadows provide sage grouse with important brood-rearing habitat to raise chicks.
The Wet Meadows Restoration Resilience Building Project is a local effort to restore habitat for the threatened Gunnison sage grouse. It’s a collaboration by government agencies, nonprofits, private landowners and the public.
Wet meadows also act as natural sponges, holding water in the soil and slowly releasing it over time. Seward said the restoration work helps build resiliency into the ecosystem. That will only get more important as climate projections indicate the area will get warmer and drier.
“Everyone knows that water in the West is life,” he said. “All life needs water, so by holding more water here in the Gunnison Basin longer and putting it to good beneficial use for wildlife, for our agricultural industries, like ranching as well — really everyone benefits from this kind of work.”
Project organizers said the restoration is working in the Gunnison Basin. Overall, they’ve seen wetland vegetation double in treated areas since the program started in 2012.
This is just one of dozens of watershed restoration projects in Colorado and states across the West. Wet meadow restoration projects to benefit the Gunnison sage grouse are also happening in San Miguel, Montrose, Mesa and Delta counties.
OCTOBER 1 is a date virtually every farmer in the San Luis Valley’s ag-rich Subdistrict 1 has circled on their calendar. It’s when farm managers across Special Improvement District No. 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District will go to their center pivot sprinkler and read their flow meter, and then record that number with the subdistrict’s program manager, Marisa Fricke.
The reading will tell the farm operator how many acre-feet of water they’ve used this irrigation season, and the total of all the meter readings that Fricke records will determine the next steps in the urgent efforts to replenish the shallowest aquifer in the Valley, the unconfined aquifer of Subdistrict 1.
“It’s the ‘hold your breath’ couple of months,” said Fricke, as she navigates her SUV through the subdistrict on a recent fall morning and gives lessons on the state of the Rio Grande. “Everything is riding on it.”
The number she’s looking for is 240,000-acre-feet of water or less. Remember that figure.
The Valley’s Most Lucrative Corridor
Subdistrict 1 came into being in 2006 to “take action to help restore a balance between available water supplies and current levels of water use.” Remember, the unconfined aquifer had lost an estimated 1 million acre-feet of water to the changing climate from 2002 to 2004, and now efforts to replenish it have become vital to the Valley’s way of life, its $340 million annual ag economy, its growing tourist economy, and the quality of life, particularly in Alamosa, Saguache and Rio Grande counties where the boundaries of Subdistrict 1 largely lie.
It’s the biggest land subdivision in the San Luis Valley, with 3,000 water wells. When you think about Subdistrict 1, think of Coors and barley. Think about the Valley as the fifth-largest producer of potatoes in America. Think about lucrative ag contracts with Walmart and Safeway. Collectively the cash crops in the subdistrict are valued at approximately $400 million, said Fricke. Think about the farming communities of Center and Sargent and Mosca. Think about the Gator Farm, and the hot springs at the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool in Hooper. All of these attributes of the Valley reside in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Subdistrict 1, and collectively they show what a devastating blow it would be to the Valley if the state of Colorado were to ever shut down wells in the subdistrict.
The state hinted at such a drastic step as recently as 2018 and 2019, when State Engineer Kevin Rein sounded the alarms about the importance of reducing groundwater withdrawals during a drought season and concerns about bringing the aquifer to sustainable levels by 2031. That’s what’s been agreed upon and what a state court-approved water plan calls for.
ENTER Marisa Fricke. After she receives the October flow meter readings from approximately 310 farms in Subdistrict 1, she will analyze the figures and draft a report to the State Engineer and Colorado Water Resources Division on the status of the unconfined aquifer. Her report will tell the state the total amount of groundwater pumped out and the amount of surface water diverted and re-charged through ponds and irrigation ditches.
She’ll get around 1,800 meter readings in October, and she’ll then calculate how much groundwater was pumped, minus the amount of surface water that was diverted in. The net balance will reveal the amount of water that was truly over pumped from the aquifer.
She will also convey that it’s been yet another dry year in 2021 for the San Luis Valley, compounding an even drier 2020. Without consistent snowpack and summer monsoon seasons, the surest way the unconfined aquifer gets restored is through voluntary conservation efforts put in place by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Those efforts include:
A Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) that pays producers to not use their well for 15 years.
Paying farmers not to plant a field.
Purchasing acres of farmland and retiring the water wells on that land.
Creating water credits so farmers who return more water to the aquifer than they took out can sell credits to other farmers who need more water for their fields.
All of these items will show up in Fricke’s report. “We are trying everything,” she said.
The odd thing is the unconfined aquifer, because of its unique hydrology and recharge decree, adds little injury to the Rio Grande Basin itself. The change in climate, though, means the aquifer struggles to restore itself naturally and farmers then must shoulder more of the burden.
“In my lifetime, I’ve seen the climate changes,” said Fricke, an Alamosa High and Adams State graduate. She was raised in Alamosa county, knows farming, understands the agricultural life of the San Luis Valley, and worries about what’s to come.
“Everyone is very concerned,” she said.
Nine years left to 2031
The subdistrict basically has nine years left to recover 864,000 acre-feet of water, maybe. If Rein determines that it has become evident that the goal to return the unconfined aquifer to a sustainable level by 2031 can’t be met, then the state could take action sooner.
Now you understand the importance of October 1. In 2020, 247,000 acre-feet of water was pulled out of the aquifer. While this year hasn’t been as dry, 2021 certainly has not been a good year for precipitation in the San Luis Valley, and the forecast for October, November and December shows a probability of more of the same – dry and little moisture, which likely translates into an earlier spring runoff in 2022 if snow arrives late in the winter.
This is how the changing climate affects the situation, and why the conservation efforts in Subdistrict 1 are critical to the Valley’s ag and farming industry. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District has purchased another 11 wells this year in an effort to retire groundwater and will offer the same program again in 2022.
Fricke will litter her report to the state with these types of facts to show all the work being done to preserve the aquifer. She describes the next few months as “the worst stress ever.” But then she smiles and flexes her determination to prove to the state that the water plan is working.
Asked what would be a good figure for 2021, she paused, gave it some thought, and said 240,000 acre-feet or less would signal some relief.
Asked when she’ll know, she turned and said, “December we’ll know the numbers.”
From The Upper San Juan Enhancement Partnership (Mandy Eskelson) via The Pagosa Springs Sun:
This summer, the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP) started Phase 3, the last phase of a planning process to develop a local water plan, with potential project opportunities that support river health and our community’s ability to rely on rivers for multiple uses, now and in the future.
The WEP originally planned to host a public workshop in September to share updates and next steps of this planning process, but our group needed to delay this event due to scheduling challenges, as well as developments on new multipurpose pilot projects along the San Juan River that WEP and our partners have been exploring.
The WEP hopes exploring project ideas now could address immediate needs revealed through our Phase 2 watershed assessments and stakeholder interests for ecological and recreational improvements on the San Juan River. We hope these will just be the start of many project ideas community members can consider when we all get together again to develop a list of on-the-ground opportunities to support the agricultural, environmental, municipal and recreational water use needs in the San Juan, Blanco and Navajo watersheds.
We plan to share more about these concept-level projects at our upcoming workshop in October for the community to consider and weigh in on. Projects within the Yamaguchi South area have been publicly shared and reviewed through several town council meetings and http://MyPagosa.org. We hope to share other developing project components very soon, but first, the WEP is connecting with individual landowners adjacent to the project areas to gather their feedback and approval before we open it up to the broader community for input.
The WEP will announce a new workshop date in the next few weeks and details on how anyone from the public can attend this event. The goal of the workshop will be to share areas that our Phase 2 assessment results identified as highly valuable or areas of concerns for river health and/or our community’s ability to use the rivers we rely on.
The WEP is also working on drafting an initial list of goals and objectives to help in identifying specific actions or projects to address these broader watershed goals. We need your feedback to refine and add to this initial list, so we hope you all will attend the WEP’s future workshop to share locations, actions and projects you would like prioritized for this water plan.
If community members cannot attend the workshop, the WEP will offer other options for you to share your feedback and participate. We are currently finalizing a survey that can be done via your computer, phone app or printed options to submit your answers. We also intend to host other public events for stakeholders to help with this planning process.
The WEP will announce the workshop date and share details on how you can get involved and share your ideas in the next few weeks.
If you would like to learn more about the WEP and the planning process, visit http://www.mountainstudies.org/sanjuan/smp and contact Mandy Eskelson (email@example.com) or Al Pfister (firstname.lastname@example.org).
At its regular meeting held on Thursday, Sept. 23, the Pagosa Springs Town Council unani- mously approved two resolutions which approved $150,000 in matching funds needed for grants for river improvement projects in the San Juan River along Yamaguchi South Park and a portion of the river northeast of town.
Planning Director James Dickhoff presented the resolutions to the council, beginning with Resolution 2021-13, supporting submitting grant applications to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for recreational and ecological enhancement of the San Juan River adjacent to Yamaguchi South Park.
With this resolution, the council approved $96,000 of matching funds needed for the grant.
Town Manager Andrea Phillips explained in an email to The SUN that the council approved those funds to be taken out of the reserves for the 2021 budget.
“However, due to the timing of the grant application and notification, it may need to be included in next year’s budget instead. This would require additional council action in the future,” Philips wrote.
Dickhoff noted during the meeting that the total budget for the project along Yamaguchi South Park is $664,720 and the grant application is for $498,540.
Dickhoff explained that the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership ( WEP) has been working on identifying projects that are eligible for grant funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
He noted that the town will administer the grant, if awarded, with help from the WEP…
The initial proposal presented by Dickhoff was structured in a fashion that contemplates the project over three years.
However, the council determined that it would have a stronger application for the funds if the entire amount of matching funds from the town is committed up-front…
Dickhoff explained that a total of $166,180 in matching funds is need- ed for the grant to be awarded.
Along with the $96,000 committed from the council, the WEP will also be requesting funds from other local entities.
He explained that WEP is planning on requesting $22,500 from the tourism board, $30,000 from Archuleta County, $10,000 from the Southwest Water Conservation District, $3,000 from Trout Unlimited, $750 from Friends of the Upper San Juan, $750 from Weminuche Audubon, $1,500 from the Nature Conservancy and $2,500 from Great Outdoors Fund…
The second resolution presented by Dickhoff during the meeting was Resolution 2021-14, supporting grant applications to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for recreational and ecological enhance- ments of the San Juan River upstream of town.
Dickhoff explained that the WEP is also assisting the town with this grant application as well, and that Trout Unlimited would be the entity to administer the grant “on behalf of the community.”
With the resolution, the council unanimously approved $56,000 in matching funds to be taken from the town’s 2022 budget and is contingent upon Trout Unlimited being approved for the grant.
Dickhoff explained that this grant is for river cleanup projects along the section of the San Juan River stretching from Bob’s LP to the Running Iron Ranch…
Dickhoff indicated that the WEP will also be presenting this opportunity to the other entities for requests for matching funds.
He explained that the WEP is planning on requesting $86,859 from the RESTORE Colorado Grant; $300,000 from the Bureau of Reclamation Watersmart Program; $22,500 from the tourism board; $30,000 from Archuleta County; $10,000 from the Southwest Water Conservation District; $3,000 from Trout Unlimited; $750 from Friends of the Upper San Juan; $750 from the Weminuche Audubon; $1,500 from the Nature Conservancy at $1,500 and $2,500 from the Great Outdoors Fund.
Agenda documentation on the topic also indicates funding being requested from the San Juan Water Conservancy District.
The news on climate this summer has been grim. Not only did an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report paint a depressing future, the dire consequences of unchecked emissions are already wreaking havoc across the globe. Those effects include powerful storms across the eastern half of the United States, and brutal heat that seared the West, killing more than 200 people. It did a number on birds, too.
The temperatures, which exceeded 110°F in places where it rarely gets above 85°F, drove young birds to fling themselves from their nests in a desperate attempt to escape the heat. In Seattle, most of the chicks in a Caspian Tern colony leapt from their rooftop nesting site; Seattle Audubon and Audubon Washington worked with rehabbers to save as many birds as they could, but many chicks died of their injuries. In Portland, more than 100 young raptors—mostly Cooper’s Hawks—did the same, and Portland Audubon Society helped rescue those birds, too.
Compounding the effects of the increasing temperatures, a long-term megadrought now affects the western half of the United States. Water levels are at historic lows, threatening communities, public health, and birds as well as critical ecosystems. In August the Bureau of Reclamation declared reductions in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada, and the Republic of Mexico. This crisis is urgent for people—their businesses, their families—as well as for birds, a fact that they are telling us loud and clear.
But birds also tell us when we do something right.
The Colorado River is flowing again in its delta. Thanks to the Colorado River binational agreement with Mexico, Minute 323, more than 11 billion gallons of water will be delivered to the area this year for restored habitat. As the latest issue of Audubon magazine reports, with a relatively small amount of water committed to the delta—less than 1 percent of its former annual flow—more than 42,000 acres of riparian forest and wetlands can be protected and restored. In fact, targeted flows through the delta in 2014 led to a 20 percent increase in bird abundance and a 42 percent increase in bird diversity.
Our current water and climate crises are decades in the making, but there is still time to take action and reduce the damage. Good planning is critical to maintaining reliable water supplies for people and nature alike. Focusing on policy changes, research, and on-the-ground actions, we can unify the needs of birds with the water needs of cities and agriculture by helping communities adapt to climate change, reducing pressure on water supplies, and investing in natural climate solutions that absorb carbon pollution. By working together with Indigenous communities, governments, water agencies, and landowners, we can collectively protect birds and create an equitable and sustainable future for us all.
This piece originally ran in the Fall 2021 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.
As Great Salt Lake experiences alarmingly low water levels this year—dropping by nearly a foot below its previous historic low, the Utah Division of Water Rights this past week approved applications to deliver water to Farmington Bay of Great Salt Lake via the Jordan River. An innovative partnership is laying the groundwork to voluntarily share water for the lake to meet crucial needs for people, birds, and other wildlife.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Rio Tinto Kennecott, Central Utah Water Conservancy District, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, and Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission collaborated to achieve this important step in addressing Great Salt Lake’s declining water levels. Through two donations of water rights, up to approximately 21,000 acre-feet of water annually could be delivered to Farmington Bay over the next ten years, subject to seasonal water availability and priority of water rights.
Keeping water flowing to Great Salt Lake’s wetlands and open water habitats is vital to maintaining important natural areas of international and hemispheric importance for birds, while also benefiting people. Recreational opportunities—including birding, hunting, and boating—as well as the minerals and brine shrimp industries that rely on the lake represent nearly $1.32 billion annually in economic activity. In addition to the economic, ecological, and cultural importance of a healthy lake, adequate water levels also protect public health from lakebed dust exposure, and contribute to Utah’s lake effect snow.
“The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is dedicated to conserving, enhancing and actively managing Utah’s protected wildlife populations, which include shorebirds, waterfowl and other waterbirds,” said Justin Shirley, Director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “We appreciate this donation that represents a significant milestone for the Division and its ability to manage water needs for wildlife in unimpounded areas of Great Salt Lake and support critical wetland habitat around its shores.”
Rather than leaving the Jordan River at the historical diversion points some 30 to 40 miles upstream, the water will flow down river into Great Salt Lake, where the Jordan River flows into Farmington Bay.
“The Great Salt Lake sits on Rio Tinto Kennecott’s doorstep. It’s always been essential to our operations and our employees who care about the lake,” said Gaby Poirier, managing director of Rio Tinto Kennecott, which is donating up to 18,387 acre-feet of water annually. “This is a significant win for the health of the Great Salt Lake and a first in water rights history that we’re able to contribute to the lake as a beneficial water use. We’re excited to be part of this collaborative partnership that allows us to share water resources that benefit wildlife, habitats, delicate ecosystems and the whole Salt Lake Valley.”
Great Salt Lake water levels vary seasonally and from year to year, but overall have been on a steady long-term decline the last 150 years due to water diversions, drought, and a changing climate. Low water flows have particularly affected Farmington Bay, which includes the second-largest wetlands area on Great Salt Lake, covering approximately 121,500 acres. Currently, much of the lakebed in Farmington Bay is dry and exposed.
The aim is to deliver water for beneficial use into Great Salt Lake through voluntary water transactions while not interfering with other water rights, largely held by duck clubs along the south shores of the lake. Importantly, partners worked to find ways to use existing laws and policies to achieve the transactions.
“We are pleased to join in this partnership and use some of our water rights to benefit Great Salt Lake and Farmington Bay and its wildlife, while building relationships with organizations that understand the complexities of sustaining both environmental and community water needs,” said Gene Shawcroft, General Manager of Central Utah Water Conservancy District (District), which donated 2,927 acre feet of water annually. “The District has made instream flow commitments in many areas of the District, including environmental flows in the Sixth Water, Diamond Fork, and tributaries of the Duchesne River. This collaboration also helps the District realize its efforts to support environmental needs in ways that can have long-lasting effects on policy and provide avenues for future District projects that benefit nature.”
Farmington Bay, one of five Globally Important Birds Areas at Great Salt Lake, is a key resource for migratory birds. The Bay provides habitat for a large number of the world’s bird populations, including American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, White-faced Ibis and Wilson’s Phalarope.
“The health of Farmington Bay is essential to the health and productivity of the adjacent wetlands, including Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary, and we are grateful for this collaboration and the generous contributions of our partners,” said Marcelle Shoop, director of the National Audubon Society’s Saline Lakes program. “We also believe this project lays the foundation for future water transactions that can benefit wetlands and open water habitats of the lake. Audubon will continue to look for creative ways to ensure flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands.”
In 2019, Audubon and The Nature Conservancy approached Wildlife Resources, Kennecott and the District to explore opportunities for using Jordan River water rights to benefit Great Salt Lake’s Farmington Bay and correspondingly, the Lower Jordan River.
“The Nature Conservancy in Utah (TNC) has spent years working to protect the health of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, which provides invaluable benefits to Nature and the people who live and work along the Wasatch front,” said Dave Livermore, Utah State Director for TNC. “Our Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, located at the edge of Farmington Bay, will also benefit from maintained flows into the Bay, and we greatly appreciate all the contributions of these partners in helping this project come to fruition.”
The Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission (Mitigation Commission), which is responsible for projects to offset the impacts to fish, wildlife and related recreation resources caused by federal water reclamation projects in Utah, also joined the collaboration.
“The Commission has implemented important wetlands mitigation and conservation projects on the Jordan River and Great Salt Lake and we are fortunate to have longstanding relationships with all these partners in our efforts,” said Mitigation Commission Executive Director Mark Holden. “We greatly appreciate water right donations from Kennecott and the District, as well as Wildlife Resources’ pivotal management role using the water to benefit wildlife and the public. Likewise, the leadership of Audubon and TNC in their outreach and deliberative approach to water management lays an important pathway for similar efforts to preserve Great Salt Lake’s future.”
The city of Steamboat Springs is exploring a way to help it stay in compliance with state regulations and also cool down chronically high temperatures in an impaired stretch of the Yampa River.
A program called water-quality trading could allow the city to meet the requirements of its wastewater-treatment facility’s discharge permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by cooling other areas of the river by planting trees.
The Yampa River flows through downtown Steamboat, where several parks and the Core Trail have been built along its banks. The river, a vital and cherished amenity for the Steamboat community, is popular with tubers and anglers. According to a 2017 survey of citizens, 75% of respondents ranked the management and health of the Yampa as essential or very important.
But low flows and high temperatures, made worse in recent years by climate change, have impacted the public’s ability to use one of their favorite amenities. In July, the city closed the river to commercial use because of high temperatures — over 75 degrees. The city also recommended a voluntary closure for noncommercial users of the river.
The entire 57-mile segment of the Yampa from above the confluence with Oak Creek to above the confluence with Elkhead Creek often has temperatures that are too high during the summer months, and in 2016 the segment was designated as impaired for temperature under the Clean Water Act. For July, August, September and November, stream temperatures exceed state standards for a cold-water fishery.
Because the river is classified as impaired, city officials expect that when CDPHE issues a future discharge permit for the city’s wastewater-treatment plant, it will include more-stringent water temperature standards. The wastewater-treatment plant may not be able to meet these standards unless it cools the effluent before releasing it back into the river. The city’s current discharge permit expires at the end of the year.
According to CDPHE Marketing and Communications Specialist Eric Garcia, Steamboat’s next permit will likely not have temperature limits, but will have temperature monitoring requirements. The soonest the city would have temperature limits for the wastewater treatment plan is Jan. 1, 2027.
“These monitoring requirements are included so that we have a full understanding of the temperature issues in the Yampa River and at the plant before we set any temperature limits,” Garcia said in an email.
FromThe Steamboat Pilot & Today (Gene Hinkemeyer):
Did you know the Colorado Department of Natural Resources calls for 80% of prioritized rivers to be covered by a stream management plan by 2030? Yes, that includes our Yampa River Basin.
The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable — YWG BRT — is one of nine grassroots water policy roundtables throughout Colorado working to develop locally driven, collaborative solutions to water supply challenges. The YWG BRT has been working on an integrated water management plan for the past several years.
The overall goal of the integrated water management plan is to use science, data and community input to build a healthy, productive water future in the Yampa basin for all water users. A committee of volunteers selected by and reporting to the YWG BRT coordinates the project.
Over the past two years, the integrated water management plan has focused on four geographic segments in the basin: upper, middle and lower main stem of the Yampa and the Elk River. Stakeholder interviews were conducted of agricultural, environmental/recreational and municipal/industrial water stakeholders in the basin. Interviews were conducted to learn about stakeholder’s operation and diversion infrastructure, water and riparian land management related concerns and opportunities for improvement.
Diversion assessments were also conducted to identify, evaluate and recommend multibenefit projects. The diversion infrastructure assessment report, which can be found at http://YampaWhiteGreen.com, represents the findings of the structures assessed. The primary goal of the diversion assessments was to gain an understanding of infrastructure used for diversions and to identify locations where infrastructure improvements could provide multiple benefits to the river and water users. These assessments evaluate opportunities that could benefit the structure owner(s), fish passage, recreational boating and overall river health.
So, what do we do with all this information? The integrated water management plan volunteer committee organized three focus areas around key topics to learn more and help identify projects for future work: ag infrastructure; riparian habitat/wetland/natural bank stability; and flows/shortages. A few projects are already in the works, with other projects to begin later this year.
The ag infrastructure work group has identified an initial set of agricultural diversion infrastructure projects that the integrated water management plan hopes to support and fund starting in 2022. Using data collected from interviews, the riparian focused work group has identified landowners with concerns related to erosion, bank stability and riparian habitat. Follow up interviews over the next few months are planned to better characterize their concerns and learn more about potential solutions.
Additional work has been completed, including a remote assessment that provided geomorphic, hydrological and ecological context for the integrated water management plan planning effort. This broad characterization applies remote sensing and GIS-based tools and techniques to assess moderate-resolution data sets across watershed and planning segment scales to identify and map trends and characteristics in physical and biological functions within the basin. Field assessments are underway to ground truth and verify the remote assessment findings.
A fluvial hazard mapping project is also in progress to delineate areas vulnerable to sediment and debris impacts spurred by rainfall or rapid snowmelt. As a final product, these maps can be used to inform land use planning, stream interventions and to identify and prioritize the conservation or restoration of natural geomorphic floodplains, wetlands and river corridors within the basin.
The integrated water management plan volunteer committee has been busy and continues to work hard on community driven plans for the Yampa Basin. We can only be successful with input and ideas from all stakeholders. If you would like to learn more, please visit our website, http://YampaWhiteGreen.com/iwmp.
Gena Hinkemeyer is segment coordinator of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) continues to reintroduce one of the state’s prized animals to its natural habitat.
This week, CPW officers released infant Colorado River Cutthroat Trout to waterways in Southern Colorado. These fish were released into the North French Creek drainage because this body of water does not contain fish in its higher regions, allowing the trout to grow and reproduce.
The fish being stocked are the descendants of roughly 200 fish taken out of Hayden Creek near Salida, Colorado, during the Hayden Pass Fire in 2016. The fish were then taken to a CPW fish hatchery for their protection.
CPW said because of the fire, the creek is still uninhabitable, which is why they are putting the fish in other areas.
“When we have three to five stable populations in the Arkansas watershed, I’ll know we are preserving this unique species,” said PSICC Fisheries Biologist Janelle Valladares. “When I’m working on this project, I always think about conservationist Aldo Leopold. He said, ‘To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering’. We may not know just how this fish fits into the larger picture, but despite fires and flooding, it is important to preserve as many species as possible until we have a more complete understanding of their contribution to the environment.”
Crews will stock about 2,000 fish over the next few weeks and plan to stock more over the next three years.
“Actively managing these increasingly rare fisheries habitats is critical to maintaining the viability of these rare cutthroat,” said Pikes Peak District Ranger Oscar Martinez. “I am excited we can capitalize on the unique characteristics of Ruxton and French Creeks to help us with the stewardship of the cutthroat in response to an increasing number of stressors, like climate change and wildland fire events.”
The fish are most closely related to the Colorado River cutthroat trout, but with unique genetics that do not exist in any other trout population. The genetics of these cutthroat trout match museum specimens collected from Twin Lakes, near Leadville, Colorado, in 1890, according to CPW.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Reid Armstrong and Jason Clay):
The USDA Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, and a host of volunteers stocked 6,000 greenback cutthroat trout fry into Upper West Fork Clear Creek near Jones Pass on Wednesday, Sept. 22.
This is the third location in the Clear Creek drainage where the Greenback Cutthroat Trout Recovery Team has stocked greenbacks into, joining Dry Gulch and Herman Gulch.
“Greenback cutthroat trout reintroductions such as the West Fork Clear Creek are really only able to occur due to the coordination and efforts of each cooperating agency and non-profit partners such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service and the Greenback Cutthroat Trout Recovery Team to name a few,” said Valerie Thompson, South Zone Fisheries Biologist for the Forest Service. “Each partner contributes in unique ways that enable the success of major conservation projects such as this one on West Fork Clear Creek, where over fourteen years of stream health data was collected, an old mine site was remediated, and stream banks were restored to allow for habitat that is suitable to sensitive aquatic life and now a new home to the Colorado State Fish, the Greenback Cutthroat Trout.”
The fact that this tributary was fishless to begin with made it a good candidate for the greenbacks, among other factors.
“We’ve done temperature monitoring and the temperatures are conducive to support natural reproduction,” said Paul Winkle, Aquatic Biologist for CPW. “It is a goal to get another population of fish on the landscape, so this is definitely an important thing for the recovery of greenbacks.”
This stretch of stream was fishless due to downstream barriers, such as a quarter-mile-long culvert underneath the Henderson Mine Site, among other natural barriers. That saved some heavy lifting, not requiring a reclamation of the stream to remove other non-native species of fish. Removal of all other species is necessary to ensure the successful reestablishment of greenbacks, which are native to the South Platte River basin.
“We knew that there were no fish in that section of Clear Creek and what a great thing to be able to put fish in without having to do a reclamation,” Winkle said. “The more streams of greenbacks we stock along the Front Range drastically improves the conservation status of the species.”
Today, the greenbacks are listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species. Greenbacks have previously been stocked into Herman Gulch, Dry Gulch, the East Fork of Roaring Creek and Zimmerman Lake. Those all reside within the South Platte River drainage. The sixth body of water in Colorado where the official state fish currently resides is in Bear Creek outside of Colorado Springs.
These rare fish, twice believed to be extinct, are descendants of the last wild population of native greenback cutthroat trout. Researchers from CU Boulder in partnership with CPW discovered in 2012 that the cutthroat in Bear Creek were the last remaining population of greenback cutthroat trout.
CPW’s Mount Shavano Hatchery in Salida is responsible for rearing and delivering all greenbacks that get stocked. They hatch fertilized eggs in its Isolation Unit. Extra milt collected from male greenbacks in Bear Creek goes to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Leadville National Fish Hatchery to fertilize eggs from the greenbacks in its brood stock.
The eggs are then taken to Salida to be hatched and eventually stocked onto the landscape at various sizes. Sometimes those fish are of fingerling lengths (one to two inches), sometimes they are fry. Fry is a recently hatched fish that has reached the stage where its yolk-sac has almost disappeared and its swim bladder is operational to the point where the fish can actively feed for itself.
“Trout Unlimited and our West Denver Chapter have a long history of supporting the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife in stewardship of the Clear Creek drainage,” said David Nickum, executive director of Trout Unlimited. “We are so pleased to see those efforts coming to fruition with our volunteers working side by side with our partners to finally return greenbacks to their home waters in the West Fork headwaters.”
It’s been almost exactly a year since the Cameron Peak Fire tore through the foothills outside of Fort Collins, Colorado, on its way to becoming the largest fire in state history. Now, restoration efforts are underway. About 1 million people rely on water moving through this canyon, and one of the most effective ways to protect the area’s watershed uses these helicopters. Instead of scooping up water to drop on flames, pilots dip low and pick up bulging nets full of wood mulch to dump on the charred hillside.
Randy Gustafson, water resource administrator for the City of Greeley, looks on as a helicopter hovers near the ground, rumbling loudly over a pile of mulch bigger than a house. Then, it’s off as quickly as it came, zipping back and forth into the burn scar with heaving payloads in tow…
Even though Greeley is a two-hour drive away from this “aerial mulching” operation in Poudre Canyon, this is where the city’s water comes from. Snowmelt and rain make their way down from the foothills into the Cache la Poudre River before that water is piped over to the city. But Gustafson said a charred slope is slick like a frying pan. Water will run off of it, carrying dirt, ash and other debris into that water supply. So his team has to stabilize the hillside with mulch.
“I look at the Poudre as a living organism,” Gustafson said. “How do you keep it functional and operational and make it produce good, clean water for everybody down below?”
Gustafson’s team is just one part of the city’s strategy to keep the water clean. Another effort is underway above Chambers Lake, less than a mile from where the fire began. Here, fire debris threatens to cause harmful algae blooms in the reservoir. So big bundles of spongy wood shavings, held together by biodegradable nets, are laid out on the hillside.
“They form a baffle,” Gustafson said. “They stop the debris, soil, ash, and keep it from coming down into the reservoir.”
On a visit to the site, Gustafson shows how the baffles are successfully holding back sludgy piles of gray dirt in one of the most severely burned parts of forest…
In the grand scheme of things, though, these efforts could be little more than a Band-Aid. The expensive and time-consuming mulching work can only cover a fraction of the burn’s sprawling footprint. And more are likely on the way…
“These megafires are unfortunately not going to be going anywhere anytime soon,” said Hally Strevey, director of the Coalition for the Poudre River watershed. “We’re trying not to lose hope. There are plenty of things we can still do, working together collaboratively.”
That includes her organization’s precautionary forest management in areas prone to burning. The fact it’s carried out by a watershed group just further emphasizes how deeply water and fire are connected. Even after a fire is put out, it takes a lot of work to keep the water clean.
But restoration projects like the one in Poudre Canyon are not cheap. Keeping just one helicopter in the air costs $87 per minute. Greeley’s deputy water director, Adam Jokerst, says the high costs are worth it for two reasons…
The money spent on recovery work is also a precautionary measure against purification costs that could be incurred if ash finds its way into the water supply…
Greeley’s water team says restoration work will carry into the next few years, but because of the size and severity of the burn, it may never truly be the same as it was before the fire.
Three water projects in the region will get $4.7 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The board’s giving doubled this year due to COVID-related stimulus funds.
Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud is getting $3.8 million toward connecting the Windy Gap reservoir in Grand County to one at Chimney Hollow in Larimer County…
The grant goes for the [bypass] channel, which is still being designed.
“Colorado River Connectivity Channel is a major modification to Windy Gap Reservoir,” Stahla said. He said the channel’s funding is nearly complete. The grant “isn’t the final piece. We anticipate all the pieces coming together” by mid-2022…
Two other area projects got grants.
A “Poudre Headwaters Restoration — Grand Ditch Barrier” effort by Colorado Trout Unlimited in Denver got about $300,000 toward restoring 38 miles of stream and 110 acres of lake habitat.
The specific project involves the greenback cutthroat trout.
A $1.2 million irrigation infrastructure effort got half its costs from this round of water board funds. The grantee is Colorado State University, through its Fort Collins campus, to use on work to boost water and energy efficiency and agricultural production.
The specific project is to build storage ponds, upgrade the existing equipment and add irrigation systems and other infrastructure for research on soil and crops and to launch a farm management competition to improve agricultural profitability.
Thanks to a major infusion of COVID-related state stimulus cash earlier this year, nearly $13M in grants was awarded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board on Sept. 16 to projects designed to improve irrigation systems, aid the environment, improve water storage, and reconnect a critical channel on the Colorado River in Grand County.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) has historically dispensed $7.5 million annually in grants to assist projects that align with the goals of the 2015 Colorado Water Plan.
Thanks to the state stimulus funding, state legislators delivered $15 million in cash to the grant program, more than double last year’s amount. The funds must be awarded by July 2023.
In addition to supporting the water plan, the grants are designed to benefit multiple segments of the state’s economy, according to Anna Mauss, the CWCB’s chief financial officer.
“That can be hard to define,” she says, “but we are looking at solutions that benefit all sectors.”
Environment and recreation projects represented the largest slice of the pie at $6.6 million. The second largest slice, at $4.2 million, went to water storage and supply projects. Four agriculture projects together got $1.5 million.
The largest recipient of grants funds, at $3.8 million, is the Windy Gap Dam bypass, a project that will reconnect a critical channel on the Colorado River in Grand County. It has federal, state and county funding and cash from conservation organizations and landowners, all working under the umbrella of the Northern Water Conservancy District, which oversees Windy Gap for its owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The dam was constructed in the 1980s just below the confluence of the Fraser with the Colorado River west of Granby. Aquatic life has since diminished. The new channel is to reconnect the Colorado downstream from the dam with its upstream habitat.
According to the application, the project will expand the river’s gold medal trout fishery and make this segment more resilient in the face of increased water diversions, wildfires and climate change.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture got nearly $300,000 for a soil health project that will focus on the Republican River watershed for three years. Program directors expect 10 farmers to participate, incorporating water-saving actions into their land-use planning in a way that will conserve 47,000 acre-feet annually. In this way, according to the grant application, the project will also help sustain the Ogallala Aquifer.
Two other projects getting funding are on the Front Range. At Barr Lake, located along Interstate 76 northeast of Denver, the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Co. plans to enlarge the storage capacity. A new study of regional extreme precipitation by the Colorado Dam Safety found that raising the spillway culvert would safely accommodate 1,500 acre-feet of additional storage. This, however, will inundate structures in the surrounding state park. The $279,000 granted the company will provide partial funding to mitigate the higher water levels on the park facilities.
Trout Unlimited was awarded $300,000 for efforts to restore populations of the greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish, at the headwaters of the Cache la Poudre River. The species is native to the Eastern Slope, but the Poudre is augmented by diversions from the headwaters of the Colorado River in Rocky Mountain National Park. Most prominent of those diversions is the Grand River Ditch. The $300,000 granted to Trout Unlimited will go to creating a fish barrier in the Grand Ditch where it flows across the Continental Divide and into a tributary of the Poudre River.
David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said that the project will take about 10 years. The greenback is currently federally listed as threatened by the Environmental Protection Agency, but Trout Unlimited hopes that a recovery stronghold on the Poudre can result in delisting. The full project will provide connected habitat for the trout species to more than 38 miles of stream and more than 110 acres of lakes and reservoirs.
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to access the manual (Joseph M. Wheaton, Stephen N. Bennett, Nicolaas Bouwes, Jeremy D. Maestas & Scott M. Shahverdian. Contributions from: Stephen N. Bennett, Nicolaas Bouwes, Reid Camp, Christopher E. Jordan, William W. Macfarlane, Jeremy D. Maestas, Elijah Portugal, Scott Shahverdian, Nicholas Weber & Joseph M. Wheaton). Here’s the executive summary:
Stream and riverine landscapes or riverscapes are made up of a series of interconnected floodplain, groundwater, channel habitats, and their associated biotic communities that are maintained by physical and biological processes that vary across spatial and temporal scales (Ward, 1998). An over-arching goal of riverscape restoration and conservation is to improve the health of as many miles as possible, while ensuring those systems achieve and maintain their potential in self-sustaining ways. This design manual is intended to help the restoration community more efficiently maximize efforts to initiate self-sustaining recovery of degraded riverscapes at meaningful scales.
Structural-starvation of wood and beaver dams in riverscapes is one of the most common impairments affecting riverscape health. At a basic level, a riverscape starved of structure drains too quickly and efficiently, lacks connectivity with its floodplain and has simpler more homogenous habitat. By contrast, a riverscape system with an appropriate amount of structure provides obstructions to flow. What follows in the wake of structurally-forced hydraulic diversity are more complicated geomorphic processes that result in far more diverse habitat, resilience, and a rich suite of associated ecosystem services.
The purpose of this design manual is to provide restoration practitioners with guidelines for implementing a subset of low-tech tools—namely post-assisted log structures (PALS) and beaver dam analogues (BDAs)—for initiating process- based restoration in structurally-starved riverscapes. While the concept of process-based restoration in riverscapes has been advocated for at least two decades, details and specific examples on how to implement it remain sparse. Here, we describe ‘low-tech process-based restoration’ as a practice of using simple, low unit-cost, structural additions (e.g., wood and beaver dams) to riverscapes to mimic functions and initiate specific processes. Hallmarks of this approach include:
• An explicit focus on the processes that a low-tech restoration intervention is meant to promote
• A conscious effort to use cost-effective, low-tech treatments (e.g., hand-built, natural materials, non-
engineered, short-term design life-spans)
• ‘Letting the system do the work’, which defers critical decision making to riverscapes and nature’s ecosystem engineers
Importantly, the manual conveys underlying principles guiding use of low-tech tools in process-based restoration in systems impaired by insufficient structural complexity. Although intended to be simple, low-tech restoration still requires some basic understanding of watershed context, riverscape behavior and channel evolution, and careful planning. The manual provides interested practitioners with sufficient conceptual and applied information on planning, design, permitting, construction and adaptive management to get started, as well as references to additional information and resources. Detailed design and construction guidance is provided on two effective low-tech tools: 1) beaver dam analogues (BDAs) for mimicking beaver dam activity, and 2) post-assisted log structures (PALS) for mimicking wood accumulation in riverscapes. Throughout the manual, readers are reminded that the structures themselves are not the solution, but rather a means to initiate specific, desirable processes. Ultimately, embracing the design principles will help practitioners better understand the ‘why’ behind structural interventions and allow for more efficient and effective riverscape restoration.
In 1999, a strange virus began to afflict pig farmers in Malaysia. Patients suffered headaches, fevers and brain inflammation; ultimately more than 100 Malaysians died. Named the Nipah virus for the village where it was first identified, the pathogen is carried by fruit bats, which had been driven from their natural habitat by deforestation and fire and were foraging in orchards surrounding pig farms. It is believed that the bats were transmitting the virus to pigs, which passed it to humans. Nature’s deterioration, it seems, had spawned a public health crisis.
The Nipah virus spillover provided evidence of a profound truth: Our fate is inextricably linked to the biodiversity that surrounds us. Insects pollinate our crops; oceans feed us; forests provide us with shelter. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the fact that when nature suffers, human well-being follows suit—loss of habitat and more contact with wildlife increases the risk of transmitting zoonotic viruses to humans. “Healthy waters, healthy lands, healthy people—all are part of a cohesive and integrated whole,” says Lynn Scarlett, chief external affairs officer for The Nature Conservancy.
To keep that whole intact, delegates from nearly 200 countries will convene for the next meeting of the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity, which will set global priorities for safeguarding habitats, saving species and protecting the ecological services that sustain human communities. Although a date for the convention is uncertain due to global travel restrictions at the time of publication, its mission couldn’t be more urgent. Since the late 19th century, the world has lost approximately half of its coral reefs, and other critical ecosystems, like wetlands and tropical forests, are shrinking fast. Around 1 million species are threatened today with extinction. “The arc of conservation is at a pivot point,” Scarlett says.
To meet that challenge, a suite of innovative conservation strategies has evolved. Consider what happened in 2020 when a hurricane bludgeoned a coral reef in Mexico with wind speeds exceeding 100 knots. The damage from Hurricane Delta triggered a payout of about $850,000 from an insurance policy, taken out by the state of Quintana Roo with TNC’s assistance—perhaps the first such policy ever purchased on a natural feature. Within days the funds put locals to work cementing corals back into place and planting new colonies, rebuilding the living sea wall that will defend their coastline from future storms.
“We have increasingly come to realize that we can’t just create a preserve and put our picket fence around it,” Scarlett says. “And that means we need to be engaging a world of environmental stewards.”
But using out-of-the-box tactics and working with local partners are only half the battle. Tackling the scope of today’s mass-extinction crisis—the most severe since a hunk of space rock is believed to have set the dinosaurs on a crash course toward oblivion—requires a global perspective. Animals from gray whales to monarch butterflies cross national borders during their migrations; invasive species leap between continents; and climate change casts its net over the entire planet. The high seas, the vast expanse of ocean that lies beyond any nation’s territorial waters, have long been virtually lawless. But since 2018 U.N. delegates have been negotiating a treaty that would conserve and protect marine diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction—proof that international consensus is possible.
Scarlett is counting on the upcoming conference to ratify a similarly bold global vision: a commitment known as “30×30,” under which nations would pledge to protect 30% of their lands and seas by 2030. She also hopes that the conference will create new conservation funding sources; a recent report by TNC and its partners estimates that at least $598 billion more per year is needed to stave off the collapse of nature’s systems.
Fulfilling such lofty objectives won’t be easy—the world failed to achieve the previous targets the convention established in 2010. But signs of hope are not hard to find: At least 17% of land and inland water worldwide is already protected, and as much as 80% of the world’s forest biodiversity can be found on the lands of Indigenous peoples, who make up less than 5% of the global population. Conservation efforts have pulled dozens of species back from the brink, including the California condor and the Przewalski’s horse. And even as the window for preserving biodiversity grows narrower every year, we have no choice but to try. “When it comes to ambition,” Scarlett says, “more is better.”
Colorado and the West face unprecedented drought conditions, impacts from wildfires, and water scarcity driven by climate change. The Colorado River shortage declaration on August 16th is a sharp warning that the river system is in crisis. If we do not act quickly, the future could be even tougher. But, there are important things we can do now to keep the Colorado we love strong by building climate change resilience in our watersheds.
A recent report from Audubon and conservation partners suggests that we need to start investing now in solutions for the long-term. These solutions include improving forest health, restoring and protecting our natural water infrastructure (stream floodplains and wetlands), and practicing regenerative agriculture. Work must be done on a scale to match the scale of the water problems we’re facing.
Relatively affordable natural solutions are critical to have in the toolbox alongside traditional strategies. One such natural affordable method for restoring our source watersheds is called “low-tech process-based restoration (PBR).” PBR is a low-cost, high-benefit option designed to restore headwater rivers, floodplains, wet meadows, and wetlands. PBR methods benefit rivers and communities by restoring natural river processes like hydrology, sediment movement, and nutrient cycling by reconnecting deeply cut degraded streams with their floodplains and adjacent wetlands, if historically present.
PBR methods benefit the entire riverscape—streams, floodplains, wetlands, and the vegetation surrounding them. Riverscapes support habitat critical to birds and other wildlife and ecological services that directly influence water quality and quantity. Many studies in the past decade show that this type of restoration approach results in restoring natural ecological and hydrological stream processes that provide benefits beyond traditional restoration methods. The benefits include improved water quality and aquifer recharge, reduced flood risks, and improved riverscape ecology (see here and here).
Existing natural systems that are particularly important for birds—such as riparian areas, floodplains, and wetlands—slow runoff and promote groundwater recharge by effectively storing water and slowly releasing it back to the surface water system. In this way, these natural systems fill a role similar to traditional reservoirs. The hydrologic characteristics of these natural systems also improve water quality by filtering sediment and pollutants.
Models show that climate change and historic drought will continue to affect the Colorado River Basin in the coming years and further increase the severity and frequency of wildfires. These fires create devastating impacts for communities, wildlife, and forest ecosystems, including Colorado’s rivers and waterways. In the wake of Colorado’s three historic wildfires in 2020 and future wildfires, PBR techniques can help reduce the impacts of wildfires on water supplies and assist in wildfire recovery by sustaining riverscape plant communities.
(Two Utah landowners describe their experience using stream restoration to heal their land.)
The good news is that PBR methods help create resilience for our watersheds and are pretty affordable. PBR techniques can be scaled up to benefit all water uses and the cost is approximately $50,000 – $100,000 per mile on small streams.
Also, PBR techniques for stream restoration can reduce sedimentation loading in storage reservoirs. In 2010, Denver Water invested nearly $30 million in dredging Strontia Springs Reservoir after the Cheesman Fire, and it’s almost in need of dredging again. Dredging reservoirs temporarily takes care of the problem of loss of storage space and dam safety, but it is not a long-term solution that addresses the actual problem of sedimentation coming from degraded watersheds. Studies are showing healthy floodplains upstream of reservoirs capture and store more sediment while degraded riverscapes deliver more sediment [Disclaimer: Link is to a Coyote Gulch post, thanks!].
Riverscapes and wetlands are disproportionally important to birds and provide habitat for severely declining and climate-vulnerable species. Audubon Rockies is a partner in the Healthy Headwaters Working Group, a statewide collective of stream restoration experts, scientists, and agency, academic, and nonprofit staff who are working together to amplify headwater restoration in Colorado. Scaling up PBR projects in Colorado’s source watersheds can improve our long-term water security for people and wildlife in the face of increasing climate change impacts.
All of us depend on natural systems for clean and reliable water. When we invest in the health of Colorado’s watersheds and rivers, we invest in our resilience to climate change.
Area above Dillon Reservoir, seen in the upper left, before thinning and then after. Photos/Denver Water
A scene in Summit County, between Farmers’ Corner and Summit Cove, overlooking Dillon Reservoir, both pre-treatment and afterward.
Here’s a long-read from Alejandra Borunda that’s running in National Geographic. Click through for the photographs and to read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
Overgrown forests and climate change are making record-breaking wildfires commonplace, but land managers can “treat” forests to change their behavior during burns.
California’s Caldor Fire ripped its way across the Tahoe Basin this week, forcing thousands to evacuate, burning homes and communities in its path, and staining Lake Tahoe’s iconic blue waters with falling ash.
The fire, like many others burning across the U.S. West this year, spread rapidly in part because it’s burning intensely, propelled by hot, dry, windy weather conditions and forests overpacked with trees—food for hungry fire.
But it has also run up against some areas that have been “treated” to reduce their fire risk, patches of forest—some big, some not so big—that have been trimmed in the past, either by hand with chainsaws and masticators or with carefully managed prescribed fire. These treatments are intended to make forests healthier and more resilient to all kinds of pressures, including fire.
In the fires burning across California this year, and in other major recent fires, experts say these treatments may have done their job—which is not to stop the fires but to lower their intensity enough that they can be controlled.
The treatments serve many purposes, but one crucial role is that “they’re meant to give firefighters an opportunity to defend life and property,” says Kelly Martin, the former chief of fire for Yosemite National Park. “Now what we’re seeing is, we have several hundred-thousand-acre fires bearing down on these communities—for what it’s worth, they’ve done their job.”
The megafire era
Fires in the West are getting bigger and more intense. 2020 saw the country’s first “gigafire,” a burn that spanned more than a million acres, much of which burned at high severity—the kind of fire that generally causes great harm to homes and ecosystems alike.
The reasons for these changes are many. Crucially, the weather conditions that spur fast-spreading and intensely burning wildfires are becoming more common as climate change heats up and dries out many parts of the West. The fire season overall is lengthening, starting earlier in summer and stretching later into fall, so long that it’s essentially fire season year-round, a captain in California’s firefighting service has said. Dry air is becoming even drier; summer rainfall is sparser; nights are staying warmer, keeping fires active through times that used to provide a window in which to fight them; and the winds that fan the flames are as strong as ever during summer and fall, the riskiest times in much of the region.
At the same time, the West is facing a “fuels” overload. The region’s landscapes used to burn frequently; estimates suggest at least four million acres of California used to burn annually from a combination of fires set intentionally by Native Americans and natural lightning ignitions. Native American fire practitioners say that many areas burned every few years or sometimes even more often. In the northern Sierra Nevada, where the Caldor and Dixie Fires burn now, lower elevation forests probably burned every five to 30 years or so. But from the early 1900s until the late 1970s, federal policy dictated that any and all fires should be suppressed thoroughly and quickly; the “10 a.m. rule”—that any new fire needed to be out by 10 the following day—guided the U.S. Forest Service until 1978…
“The average fuel load right now is probably something like 50 tons per acre. Under the old fire regime,” when Native people managed the land, “it was probably more like 7 tons per acre—an order of magnitude less than what it is now across large areas,” says Rob York, a forestry expert with the University of California, Berkeley.
Such fuel loads change the way fire behaves. Super-charged burns that get up into tree crowns can not only damage the trees but also help kick off embers that can fly miles ahead of the fire front, starting new blazes and driving quick expansion…
Fuels treatments aren’t a panacea. Super hot fires or wind-driven spread can overwhelm even a treated area. But treatments—either mechanical thinning or prescribed fire, or ideally a combination—can help drop flame lengths and the “fireline intensity,” measures of how intensely a fire burns. In turn, that can help slow the pace of fire spread.
While we can’t change the weather patterns or climate pressures, York says, at least not in the short term, we can control the fuels. It’s possible to thin out the region’s overloaded landscapes, using chainsaws, masticators, and other tools to thin trees and lower-level brush, and setting carefully managed, low-intensity “good fire.” Research suggests that in overgrown areas, using both strategies may improve outcomes.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
AT THE END OF A UNIQUE WATER YEAR, COMES A UNIQUE WATER SEMINAR.
Water year 2021 was a wake-up call for water users across the Western Slope of Colorado. Extreme or exceptional drought conditions persisted for months as dry soils and historic high temperatures lowered streamflow. Agricultural users faced impossible choices while local municipalities dealt with aging water infrastructure in the wake of devastating wildfires. Downstream, Lake Powell dominated national headlines with plummeting levels, and the Drought Contingency Plan played a role years earlier than most expected.
Yet many of the stories which came out of this incredibly difficult year were ones of innovative solutions and never-before-seen partnerships. Collaborative projects upgraded irrigation infrastructure, increased streamflow, and even delisted 66 river miles from the Impaired Waters list.
Setting historic precedents in hydrology, 2021 also did much to highlight the ability of water users to reach across their differences in order to build a future for West Slope water together.
Wake-up Call on the Colorado River is a seminar which will face the harsh economic and environmental realities of this past year, along with a study of practical solutions and future collaboration.
Colorado Springs residents will decide in November whether to allow the city to keep up to $20 million in tax revenue to create a wildfire mitigation fund.
The Colorado Springs City Council voted unanimously to place on the ballot a question asking voters to retain the money and spend no more than 5% of the funding annually. The city needs voter approval to keep the funds because they are in excess of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights cap, a limit on how much tax revenues can grow each year.
Any additional funding over $20 million will be refunded to voters through their city utility bills, Mayor John Suthers said.
Colorado Springs Fire Chief Randy Royal said the new funds would help protect the 35,000 homes in the wildland urban interface, where homes are adjacent to wooded areas where fire danger is highest…
The city could use the funds to pay crews to do direct fire mitigation such as trimming back trees, shrubs and other vegetation. It could also use the funds for evacuation planning and community wildfire education.
Mitigation could help prevent the level of catastrophe the city saw during the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, Councilman Richard Skorman said…
The ballot question does not list all the ways the money could be used to mitigate fire to ensure the city can use the money as it’s needed, Suthers said. He expects the money to be used throughout the community, including areas such as Palmer Park and Corral Bluffs Open Space on the east side. The money can also be used outside the city’s boundaries if necessary.
If the question passes, the city expects to invest the money and use interest from the funds for mitigation and a portion of the main funds, he said.
The city could also replenish the fund with future TABOR retention questions, he added.
Skorman said he didn’t want to see the 5% limit on spending placed in the ballot question in case the city had an important opportunity for wildfire mitigation funding come up.
However, Suthers supported the limit to help show the community the money wouldn’t be spent all at once. The council as a whole supported the limitation as well in its vote.
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
Western Water Notebook: Despite water shortages along the drought-stressed river, experimental flows resume in Mexico to revive trees and provide habitat for birds and wildlife
Water is flowing once again to the Colorado River’s delta in Mexico, a vast region that was once a natural splendor before the iconic Western river was dammed and diverted at the turn of the last century, essentially turning the delta into a desert.
In 2012, the idea emerged that water could be intentionally sent down the river to inundate the delta floodplain and regenerate native cottonwood and willow trees, even in an overallocated river system. Ultimately, dedicated flows of river water were brokered under cooperative efforts by the U.S. and Mexican governments.
The first intentional flows happened for about eight weeks in 2014. This year, the flows will be much longer despite an ongoing drought that sparked first-ever declared shortage on the river earlier this month. The flows started May 1 and will continue through October. They are supported by myriad groups, including the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), created by the two countries 132 years ago.
“The United States is committed to meeting its environmental commitments to Mexico,” Daniel Avila, the IBWC’s acting U.S. commissioner, said in a statement. “I’m pleased to see the environmental water deliveries this year as part of our effort to improve wildlife habitat in the region.”
Avila’s counterpart in Mexico, Humberto Marengo, said in a statement that environmental cooperation on the Colorado River in Mexico is very important for both countries, as reflected by the agreed-upon use of water to help replenish parts of the riparian corridor leading to the Gulf of California.
It’s an audacious experiment, part of a multifaceted agreement that helps the two countries share the river. But it comes this time despite shortages elsewhere on the drought-stressed Colorado River, which supplies water to millions of people in the Southwest and large swaths of farmland in the U.S. and Mexico.
Amy Witherall, binational program manager with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the current flow for the delta has a lower peak volume and is spread across a longer time period than the 2014 experimental flow. And by using Mexico’s irrigation canals, water is moving more effectively to restoration sites.
“As a result of the binational coordination and collaboration that has developed, we were able to design a creative solution to maximizing the benefits of the environmental water available,” she said.
Learning from the Flows
The dedicated environmental flows delight conservation advocates who see ample opportunity to bring back some of the ecosystem benefits for birds, plants and wildlife.
“One really interesting thing to report is that it’s working,” said Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director with the National Audubon Society. “There’s definitely been reports and visual confirmation of the connection of those flows to the sea.”
Raise the River, a partnership of six U.S. and Mexican nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), is leading the work to reimagine parts of the Colorado River Delta to establish pockets of wildlife-friendly habitat and recreational opportunities for local communities. It’s an iterative process that reveals how the landscape responds when it gets water from the Colorado River.
It’s likely the lessons learned from the coming months will influence how water is applied during a future flow release – sometimes through the dry reaches and sometimes around them. “We are going to collect data and have lots of conversations about the tradeoffs,” Pitt said.
The flow that began this year will be one in a series of rewatering efforts on the delta’s riparian corridor through 2026. The U.S. and Mexican governments provide the water in tandem with coalition of conservation groups. From the time the first flows began in 2014, those living near the river have been profoundly affected.
“I have grown up watching a river die and today I see a river revived,” Antonia Torres Gonzalez, a member of the Cucapá tribe indigenous to the lower Colorado River, said in a video produced by the Sonoran Institute of Mexico, one of the NGOs involved with the river. “We have been taught that the river is like a person that we have to love and respect.”
Even with a drought-stressed Colorado River on the brink of severe use restrictions that limit water for all purposes, water is flowing to restoration sites and will continue to do so under addendums to an international treaty. Still, those restoration flows are expected to be pared back – though not halted – next year as a result of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Aug. 16 declaration of a shortage in 2022 that will reduce water supplies for Arizona and Nevada.
“You can’t just sort of take one part of it and say, oh we’re going to do this part, not this other part,” said Karl Flessa, professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona who closely monitors the delta flows. With Reclamation’s shortage declaration, “Mexico is going to share that shortage and there’s going to be a comparable shortage or sharing of the water that goes towards the restoration projects.”
Bringing Back the Delta
Across the Colorado River Basin, climate change is upending the expected patterns of hydrology. Reduced Rocky Mountain snowpack and rising temperatures are stressing the system, leaving less runoff flowing downstream to reservoirs, farms and cities. Those working to restore delta habitat using river flows hope that their efforts will help.
“We are trying to mitigate [climate change] in the areas with restoration, as we help to lower the temperature with the trees planted,” said Gabriela Caloca Michel, restoration project coordinator with Pronatura Noroeste, the oldest and largest conservation nonprofit in Mexico that manages several restoration sites.
The Colorado River once traveled all the way to the Gulf of California – an estuary of about 2 million acres. Dams and aqueducts moved water to irrigate farms, including those in Mexico and seven western U.S. states, and provide drinking water. As a result, the river made it all the way to the mouth of the estuary only during high flow years.
But people have come to realize that it’s possible to bring back a portion of the Colorado River Delta with relatively small contributions of river water. The first experimental pulse flow of Colorado River water – 105,000 acre-feet of water in total – into the delta was delivered to mimic the flood flows that used to naturally reach the delta with spring snowmelt. Some water was routed to established restoration sites along the river corridor to nurture newly planted native trees, such as cottonwoods and willows.
Much was learned from that 2014 flow. Even though the river would sometimes flood the delta, the 2014 release helped foster knowledge about water movement (including infiltration) that is aiding the current effort.
Pronatura’s Caloca Michel, who has worked on the delta since 2015, said the aim with the 2021 water release is to carefully map out the design of restoration sites, factoring irrigation infrastructure, plant selection and local nursery production, soil type and water table and water rights to be able to irrigate.
Getting To the Green-Up
Under the terms of a 2017 agreement, the United States, Mexico and the coalition of NGOs each agreed to provide one-third of the 210,000 acre-feet of water for environmental purposes in the delta through 2026. The NGOs have provided 26,369 acre-feet of water between 2018 and 2020.
The plan is to move water to different locations at different rates and times to realize the most ecosystem advantages. It’s a give and take between providing open water habitat for birds and moving releases to specific restoration sites that have been cultivated with native vegetation. Some flows are carried via established irrigation canals to limit the amount that seeps into the ground.
Infiltration of the flows into the ground isn’t a loss, Flessa said.
“If you’re pumping groundwater or a Mexican farmer, that’s a good thing. Groundwater does sustain a lot of vegetation along the way,” he said. “But if you want to deliver water to some of the more downstream restoration sites you really need to find a way to make sure that you maximize the efficiency of the water delivery so you don’t lose as much of the delivery as you would by putting water in the main channel.”
Teams constantly measure how the flows affect the groundwater table, the established vegetation and the new acreage plots established by the conservation groups.
Having water available through summer helps, given the harsh desert heat.
“It is a pretty stressful time for everybody,” Flessa said. “For the plants, if there is lack of irrigation or lack of support, those trees don’t like it.”
A common refrain is the surprise about how quickly vegetation such as cottonwoods and willows respond to what Pitt called “a drink of water.” But it’s not just water. The foundation established by conservation groups provides jobs for the community and re-establishes a connection to the riparian environment.
“I see a very big impact that the ecosystem is working well and the work we do has paid off,” said Celedonia Alvarado Camacho, who supervises tree preparation and planting for the Sonoran Institute.
Long-term, the question remains how to reimagine the delta with relatively small amounts of water. The flows were included as part of a pair of recent amendments to the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico. Conservationists expect that a commitment for environmental flows will be included in future treaty agreements.
“I have every reason to believe an environmental program will be part of [a new agreement], in part because we had it in the last two … and because both countries have made enormous investments in restoring habitat,” Pitt said.
Still, a sense of perspective is needed for the ancient delta. “We are not going to bring the whole river delta back, that’s for sure,” Flessa said. “But I do think we could sort of get a green ribbon from the border to the Gulf of California.”
From the Walton Family Foundation (Peter Skidmore):
From May to October, a surge of water is replenishing the Colorado River Delta
Seven years ago, the Colorado River Delta found its pulse when 105,000 acre-feet of water was released into Mexico from the Morelos Dam, filling dry channels and reviving wetland habitat. For the first time in decades, the Colorado flowed from source to sea.
The 2014 “pulse flow” recharged a portion of the West’s most important river that has been dying of thirst since the middle of the last century. It also reignited the memory and imagination of Mexican residents of the Delta, who celebrated the return of water and began to understand the river’s potential to support nature and people in the region.
For scientists, conservationists and governments, the pulse flow was a learning event. We learned that communities were enthusiastic about restoring the Delta and ready to seize the opportunity created by conservation projects in areas once dry and desolate.
We also learned it was possible to provide greater environmental benefit to the river with smaller flows over multiple years. To build on the 2014 pulse flow’s success, the U.S. and Mexican governments in 2017 reached an agreement – called Minute 323 – that provides at least 210,000 acre-feet of water over nine years for ongoing riparian restoration and recreation in the Delta.
Fast forward to this summer – and the Colorado River is again flowing in the region.
For 126 days, from May to October, more than 35,000 acre-feet of water – about 11 billion gallons – is being released into the Delta, supporting local economies and improving riparian and wetland habitat for wildlife.
The timing and rate of flow for this year’s release were designed by a team of scientists to maximize environmental and recreational benefits.
The current flow coincides with seed dispersal from cottonwood trees – mimicking how floods and seeds have coordinated for millennia – and to maximize recreation during the hottest part of the summer.
While only one-third as big as the 2014 pulse flow – and a fraction of the river’s historic flows – even this smaller amount of water is making a big difference in the health of the delta region.
Instead of releasing the water directly into the river at the border, water managers have bypassed the Morelos Dam via canals and released the water about 45 miles downstream. By doing this, more water is delivered to restoration and recreation areas and avoids being absorbed into the driest parts of the river channel.
The flows are delivered to existing restoration sites where they flush salts from soils, replenish local groundwater and provide seasonal habitat for migratory and resident waterfowl. Diverse wildlife – from beavers to panthers – are also returning to the river.
Because the flows are delivered to the central Delta through canals, they are also benefitting local farmers. The extra water in the canals helps water reach farms further down the Delta and reduce salinity, which improves agricultural productivity.
This year’s flow is proving the value of collaboration that made the 2017 binational water-sharing agreement possible. The deal included a unique three-party arrangement among the U.S. government, the Mexican government and Raise the River, a coalition of six nonprofits committed to conservation in the Delta. While this flow is delivered by the U.S. to meet its obligations under the agreement, our partner organizations in Raise the River are providing additional flow to all of the restoration sites and to the lower river channel every year.
Coming in the midst of the worst drought year on record, as the West is experiencing shortages in available water, this year’s Delta flow is a testament to the strength of Minute 323 and commitment of its partners to community and environment.
The agreement has become a global model for binational river management, showing how we can invest in water projects that conserve and share water between countries and dedicate environmental water at the same time.
There is much more work to do for all of us who care about the Delta’s future.
Of all the ecosystems impacted by the harnessing of the Colorado in the 20th century, the Delta suffered most. The construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, and then the Glen Canyon Dam from 1956 to 1966, sapped the Delta of its fresh water and sparked its decline.
Riparian forests of cottonwoods, willows and mesquite, as well as marsh and estuarine wetlands, that once thrived across about 2 million acres now cover just a small fraction of that area.
But based on a decade of testing and refining successful restoration practices, the potential of reconnecting the river to the sea is now in reach.
We see that in the success of this year’s flow.
As of late June, the river is reconnecting with the sea. During high tides, flows in the river channel are meeting the Delta estuary in the Sea of Cortez, mixing fresh water with salt water to sustain estuarine marshes.
As summer builds toward fall, we’re hopeful that this year’s flows will continue to reach the sea, reconnecting the river once again as it did in 2014 – and hopefully as it will do again in the future.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Bill Vogrin):
CPW and partners hike miles in heat to stock state-endangered boreal toad tadpoles
Under a blistering late July sun, a team of Colorado Parks and Wildlife native aquatic biologists, staff and volunteers hiked a steep mountain trail, each loaded with 30-pound bags of water filled with 100 or so squirming, black boreal toad tadpoles.
They were joined by other members of the Arkansas Basin Boreal Toad Team – an interagency workgroup created to coordinate conservation and management of the state-endangered Boreal toads within the Arkansas River basin in Colorado.
Besides CPW, the workgroup includes the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS).
In all, about 20 people hiked 7-plus miles, round trip, to deposit some 1,800 tadpoles into an alpine wetland along West Tennessee Creek at 11,500 feet elevation.
There, in the shallow waters of Titan Lake, they released their tadpoles, which immediately began swimming and feeding along its algae laden shores, beneath the jagged, snow-tipped summit of Homestake Peak at 13,209 feet.
The tadpole relocation project was done in consultation with the Colorado Boreal Toad Recovery Team. The interagency workgroup long ago identified the West Tennessee Creek drainage as a possible relocation site, given the quality of its wetlands and the potential for breeding and its history as a home to Boreal toads.
Similar parades of CPW biologists, staff and volunteers have recently taken place to high-altitude wetlands statewide as the agency pursues several avenues in its efforts to rescue the tiny brownish-black state-endangered toad.
Boreal toads once thrived in Colorado high country wetlands, but their numbers have been crashing due to a deadly “chytrid” skin fungus that is threatening amphibians worldwide.
The grueling hike was led by Paul Foutz, CPW native aquatic species biologist in the Southeast Region and Boreal Toad specialist. Partner teams were led by Jeni Windorski, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Leadville and Brad Lambert, a zoologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
The tadpoles were taken as eggs from the East Fork Homestake Creek boreal toad population in the Northwest Region, and grown (hatched & grown?) at the John Mumma Native Aquatic Restoration Facility hatchery in Alamosa, in the Southwest Region.
“With our partners, CPW is working hard to recover the state-endangered Boreal toad by creating new populations,” Foutz said. “The deadly chytrid fungus and other impacts to their natural habitat is causing this species to decline dramatically, and we’re doing everything we can to preserve them.
“We have just a few robust populations left on the landscape. They’ve been declining in recent decades. This is the first translocation in Lake County. We’re hoping the tadpoles we released today will survive and thrive, and in a few weeks metamorph into land-dwelling toadlets. We’ll continue to monitor this new population along with existing populations around the state in our effort to maintain boreal toads across the Colorado landscape for generations to come.”
Mature Boreal toad. Photo credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife.
In an ongoing conservation project, CPW recently released 1,700 boreal toad toadlets in a wetland in the San Juan mountains. Photo credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife
Biologists collect and record data at a field laboratory as they bathe 35 Boreal toads captured on South Cottonwood Creek, west of Buena Vista, on Sept. 6, 2018. Photo courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
A submerged Boreal toad. Photo courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife / Melissa Butynski
Squirming black boreal toad tadpoles feed on algae along the shore of Titan Lake above Leadville and just below the 13,209-foot summit of Homestake Peak. Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists, staff and partner agencies hiked them to the high alpine lake in an effort to rescue the state-endangered toad. Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Bill Vogrin
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The man who oversaw the construction of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon has found himself amazed at the amount of debris coming down there during rainstorms this summer, and thinks climate change is the culprit for problems in the canyon of a size and scope never anticipated when the road was designed and built.
Glenwood Springs resident Ralph Trapani is a civil engineer and former Colorado Department of Transportation employee who was CDOT’s manager on the highway construction for 12 years, from the $490 million project’s groundbreaking in 1980 to its ribbon-cutting in 1992. Last year, his workplace of more than a decade was struck by the 32,631-acre Grizzly Creek Fire, closing I-70 in the canyon for two weeks, and this summer, rainstorms on burn scars have caused multiple closures of the highway.
It has been closed since July 29 as CDOT crews continue to clear out major debris flows, assess the damage and look to make repairs. Debris flows on July 29 stranded more than 100 motorists in the canyon overnight.
Trapani said he’s surprised and amazed by how much debris has come down onto the roadway…
‘NO HISTORY’ OF SUCH A FIRE
Then again, a fire like the Grizzly Creek blaze wasn’t on the minds of Trapani and others involved with the canyon project planning and construction decades ago.
“There was absolutely no history of this kind of fire in Glenwood Canyon. We did extensive studies of the ground around the canyon for debris flows and things. There was no evidence of any sort of burn or ancient fire to the extent of what we have up there now. It was never anticipated,” he said.
But he said western Colorado is now “in a climate change bubble” that never could have been anticipated back in the 1960s-80s, when the road was planned and built.
“To me that’s the bottom-line issue here, is the extreme climate change bubble we’re in in western Colorado, and that to me is the cause of all this,” he said.
Here’s the release from Northern Water (Jeff Stahla):
Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict celebrated the groundbreaking for Chimney Hollow Reservoir on Friday, culminating a 20-year permitting process to add resilience to the water supply for more than 500,000 northeastern Colorado residents.
The groundbreaking also triggers a host of environmental efforts that will occur in the headwaters of the Colorado River on the West Slope. Those include construction of the Colorado River Connectivity Channel to reconnect portions of the river located above and below Windy Gap Reservoir, wastewater treatment plant upgrades in the Fraser River Valley, environmental improvement projects through the Learning By Doing coalition, and other work providing water and storage that can be used for environmental purposes.
“Today marks a long-awaited milestone that required years of hard work and cooperation among many groups with diverse interests to achieve a project that has benefits for everyone in Colorado,” said Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind.
The addition of water storage is a key component of the Colorado Water Plan. Our population continues to grow as climate change brings higher temperatures and greater precipitation variability to the Colorado River headwaters. Construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir gives the regional Windy Gap Firming Project participants a reliable water supply during dry years.
Since the Windy Gap Project was envisioned, water managers have recognized the need for additional storage specifically dedicated to storing Windy Gap water. Currently the Windy Gap Project depends on Lake Granby to store water when the project’s water rights are in priority. However, Lake Granby’s first priority is to store Colorado-Big Thompson Project water.
Chimney Hollow Reservoir is a key component for these Windy Gap Firming participants: Broomfield, Platte River Power Authority, Loveland, Greeley, Longmont, Erie, Little Thompson Water District, Superior, Louisville, Fort Lupton, Lafayette and Central Weld County Water District. Each of the reservoir project participants that provide residential water service has committed to reduce per capita water supply through water conservation.
Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict and Larimer County cooperated to purchase the Chimney Hollow property in 2004 from Hewlett-Packard. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will provide a much-needed outdoor recreational opportunity that can be enjoyed by everyone in Northern Colorado.
In recent weeks crews have been preparing the site for construction by bringing water and power to temporary administrative offices. In addition, the Western Area Power Administration relocated a high voltage power line from the footprint of the reservoir to a location up the hillside to the west.
Full dam construction activities are planned to begin Aug. 16. Barnard Construction Co. Inc. of Bozeman, Montana, is the general contractor for the four-year project. The cost of dam construction is estimated at $500 million, with the complete project including West Slope improvements at $650 million. The 12 project participants are paying its cost.
When the dam is built, it will rise about 350 feet off the dry valley floor. The dam incorporates a technology common in Europe but less so in the United States. Its water-sealing core will consist of a ribbon of hydraulic asphalt instead of the clay that serves that purpose at the Carter Lake and Horsetooth Reservoir dams. Geologists discovered there wasn’t enough high-quality clay material within the footprint of Chimney Hollow Reservoir, and instead of bringing it in from elsewhere, the hydraulic asphalt core option was chosen. The dam’s rock-fill shoulders will use material mined from the reservoir footprint, which will reduce costs, pollution and increase storage capacity.
This new storage project allows us to supply clean water reliably, even in times of drought, to the people of northeastern Colorado from the existing Windy Gap Diversion. Starting construction on Chimney Hollow Reservoir is a major step to address water supply shortages for our growing population, much like our visionary predecessors did for us, while demonstrating that modern storage projects can also improve the environment.
More than 500,000 Coloradans across the Front Range can look forward to a more resilient water supply in the near future, after a groundbreaking Friday set in motion a $650 million project that will give water providers more reliable access to a vital resource that’s become increasingly scarce due to growing populations and climate change.
A crowd of about 200 gathered Friday morning for the groundbreaking of the Chimney Hollow Reservoir, a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir at least 20 years in the making. The reservoir will be located west of the Flatiron Reservoir in Larimer County.
A dozen municipalities, water providers and a power authority are participating in the Northern Water project, which boasts a price tag of $650 million, $500 million of which is for the dam construction. Other costs are going to environmental and water quality improvements in collaboration with affected communities. Adding in things like permitting costs, project manager Joe Donnelly said the total program costs were about $690 million.
Greeley is one of the participants, making up about 10% of the project. Other participants include Longmont, Fort Lupton, Central Weld County Water District, Broomfield and more. Greeley Water and Sewer director Sean Chambers said the city is putting about $57 million toward the construction…
The project had relied on Lake Granby to store water when the project’s water rights were in priority, but the lake’s first priority is to store Colorado-Big Thompson water. Over time, it became clear Front Range water providers would need a way to store Windy Gap water because the water wasn’t available when Front Range communities needed it the most…
Northern Water cooperated with Larimer County to purchase the Chimney Hollow property from Hewlett-Packard in 2004…
Drager and other speakers detailed numerous setbacks, including years of federal litigation after environmental groups filed a 2017 lawsuit. A judge in December dismissed the lawsuit, according to BizWest. The biggest setback, according to Drager, was needing to get a 1041 permit from Grand County. State officials also took issue when project officials hadn’t developed a mitigation plan with the state.
“We kind of argued a little bit, but we came to the conclusion that to really make this thing work, we would have to give something,” Drager said.
In a meeting with a Division of Wildlife official, they eventually settled on stream restoration for the Colorado River — one of many environmental considerations and concessions that helped pave the way for the partnerships that made the project possible…
Though some environmental work is being done at the site, most is at the headwaters of the Colorado River, according to Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla. The environmental mitigation and improvements will cost more than $90 million, including about $45 million to provide water for the river when it’s running low. Other improvements include helping the town of Fraser upgrade its wastewater treatment plant and stream restoration projects.
“These are things that wouldn’t have happened if this project doesn’t get built,” Stahla said. “By doing these things, it’s … mitigation and enhancement, because we’re not just mitigating for the effects of this project, but we’re enhancing what’s already there.”
The site will also serve as an outdoor recreational opportunity managed by Larimer County.
Powered by a $2 million endowment, the Yampa River Fund is building a more resilient waterway.
…folks whose lives are tied to one of the [Colorado River Basin’s] tributaries in northwestern Colorado aren’t standing by idly. In September 2019, more than 20 regional partners from throughout the Yampa River Valley, including recreation-focused businesses, farmers, nonprofits, and municipalities, joined forces to create the Yampa River Fund. Powered by a nearly $4 million endowment, the fund is doing what individual actors cannot: financing environmental restoration projects, agricultural infrastructure improvements, and releases from nearby reservoirs to ensure farmers, recreationists, and wildlife all have enough water to thrive.
None of this will reverse climate change, but the healthier the Yampa is, the better it will be at weathering a hotter, drier world. This understanding is what brought so many diverse—and sometimes seemingly contradictory—interests together. “We focus on creating win-win-win solutions,” says Nancy Smith, Colorado River Program conservation director at the Nature Conservancy, one of the fund’s founding entities. Smith emphasizes that third “win” because consensus is key: “The working group that created the fund took the time to build trust with one another so that everyone in that valley who depends on the river felt like they had a place at the table.”
Using the proceeds from its endowment, the fund has awarded $400,000 in grants over the past two years. Here’s how it breaks down.
Grant Recipient: Moffat County
Moffat County used a grant to bolster the riverbank at Loudy Simpson Park, which was eroding, in part, due to the growing number of people using the steep shoreline to access the river. A new boat ramp built to handle the crowds will limit future erosion (and open six additional miles of river to boaters by creating a new downstream takeout), and an ADA-compliant ramp helps wheelchair users easily access the water.
Grant Recipients: Trout Unlimited and the Yampa Valley Stream Improvement Charitable Trust
The fund has awarded three grants to rehabilitate sections of the Yampa and its tributaries. The work includes improving fish habitat and riparian zones (the border between the water and the land) and stabilizing shorelines to stop the tributaries from carving away at productive farmland.
Grant Recipient: Colorado Water Trust
To combat rising water temperatures and decreasing water levels—both of which harm wildlife, including four species of endangered fish—the fund pays for strategic releases of cold water from nearby reservoirs. The releases also increase water security for local farmers and help keep the river open for recreationists, who pump tourism dollars into the region.
Grant Recipient: The Nature Conservancy
This outlay pays for the permits needed to rebuild the125-year-old Maybell Ditch headgate, which diverts water from the Yampa into an irrigation canal. The new headgate will be more efficient, meaning more water for farmers and wildlife, and safer for boaters, who often avoid this section of river, in part because of the dangerous hydraulics created by the structure’s weir dam. The new, fish-friendly design will also ease passage for endangered species, like the razorback sucker.
Grant Recipient: The city of Craig
Craig received a grant to help pay for a whitewater park to diversify its tourism economy. A new diversion dam will also sustain the city’s water supply and allow fish to move up and down the river to spawn, feed, and escape to deeper water when river levels drop.
Grant Recipient: Yampa Valley Sustainability Council
Volunteers with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council’s ReTree program have been planting cottonwoods, alders, and willows along the Yampa for more than a decade. In 2020, the council used a grant to procure an irrigation system to increase the saplings’ survival rates, and this year it received another disbursement to cover 2022’s expenses, such as site preparation. One of the main goals is to create more shade to help mitigate rising water temperatures.
Greenway Master Plan
Grant Recipient: The town of Oak Creek
Oak Creek obtained funds to aid the design of a new greenway along a portion of its neglected namesake waterway. Construction will improve access and include rehabbing the creek’s banks, vegetation, and wildlife habitat. A healthy riparian zone can help regulate water levels by soaking up runoff and slowly releasing it into the creek.
Water delivered through the desiccated channel will benefit the environment.
I had the great fortune to take my first, post-pandemic trip to Mexico to see the river flowing in the Colorado River Delta (click HERE for background). For 164 days the United States and Mexico are cooperating under the terms of Minute 323 to deliver environmental water. The flow rates and locations for water delivery are intended to optimize benefits for the delta ecosystem, and over time monitoring reports will tell that story. For now, I can share what I saw:
On May 1, 2021, water began flowing into the arid Colorado River Delta as part of a program of scheduled deliveries to restore this region, sanctioned under a bi-national agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments for advancing sustainable management of the Colorado River. The water deliveries are part of an ongoing plan of vital and historic importance implemented through the U.S. and Mexican sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission and supported by an alliance of conservation organizations from the United States and Mexico.
“Our collaborative efforts have been a paradigm shift in the way water is managed,” said Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program Director, National Audubon Society. “We are showing how we can share water, conserve water, and invest in new water projects and the health of the river itself. This demonstrated commitment to improving water supply for nature and people is a shining example of what two nations can achieve when we work together.”
The releases of water designed to mimic the river’s natural spring flows began on Saturday, May 1 and will extend through early October, delivering a total of 35,000 acre-feet (43 mcm) of water downstream into the long-depleted Colorado River Delta in a managed program designed to maximize the water’s impact. The water releases are planned to reach their highest flow rate in early June and have been specifically designed to amplify the environmental and recreational benefits for the central delta. The water flows will continue for a total of twenty-three weeks, bring much needed support for wildlife habitat, while also being able to be enjoyed by local communities.
“This is an exciting time for both countries,” said Carlos de la Parra, Academic in border studies specializing in water issues, and a member of the Minute 323 monitoring group. “By allocating resources to improve water delivery infrastructure, Mexico and the U.S. are helping Mexicali Valley farmers increase their profits and resilience to the impacts of climate change.”
An important part of Minute 323 implementation and monitoring is being conducted by members of Raise the River – a coalition of conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to bring water and life back to the Colorado River Delta. Participating organizations include the National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Pronatura Noroeste, The Redford Center, Restauremos el Colorado, and Sonoran Institute.
“We have worked hand-in-hand with our partners over the years to achieve the best results possible for the delta,” said Francisco Zamora, Director General of Sonoran Institute Mexico. “Working together to monitor prior water flows and determine their impacts on the delta, our observations have informed this current effort to stimulate healthy ecosystems in the Colorado River delta.”
Water will be delivered to the river corridor in the delta via irrigation canals in the Mexicali Valley that distribute Colorado River water to Mexicali’s farmers. The Colorado River’s water is diverted into this canal system just south of the United States – Mexico border. Once there, it will flow down the canals to specific locations where the Raise the River coalition partners have built highly successful restoration sites, and where this programmed release of water can benefit those habitats and the wildlife that use them.
“These water releases are a vital part of supporting our ongoing restoration efforts,” said Gaby Coloca, Coordinator, Water and Wetlands Program, Pronatura Noroeste, a Mexico-based non-profit conservation organization which manages several of the restoration sites. “Based on our prior work and the careful monitoring of its impact, we now know that relatively small amounts of water can make a big difference in the health of the delta region.”
These water releases are just one component of a multi-faceted policy agreement formally known as Minute 323 – an historic bi-national agreement negotiated between the U.S. and Mexico in September 2017 that defines how the two countries share Colorado River water through 2026 amidst growing pressures on water resources. This agreement is a part of a larger Colorado River policy framework that more broadly provides multiple benefits for water users on both sides of the border including sharing surpluses in times of plenty and reductions in times of drought, providing incentives for leaving water in storage, and conserving water through joint investments in projects from water users in both countries.
The water flows are an important element of Minute 323, which allocates water for the restoration and conservation of riparian habitat, and which extends the international cooperative management standard established by Minute 319 (in effect from 2012 – 2017). These restored sites are providing proven benefits to wildlife species and communities along the Colorado River in both countries and in the Colorado River Delta region in Mexico.
This 164-day program of scheduled water releases is part of a broader commitment under Minute 323 to provide water to support key restoration sites in the river’s riparian corridor through 2026. The United States and Mexico will provide 2/3 of the total water committed (140,000 acre-feet or 173 mcm over 9 years) and the Raise the River coalition of NGOs will provide 1/3 of the water (a total of 70,000 acre-feet or 86 mcm, over 9 years).
“Previous monitoring of environmental flows from Minute 319 have shown us how to obtain the greatest benefits from the smallest amounts of water delivered into restoration sites.,” said Eloise Kendy, Ph.D., Senior Freshwater Scientist, The Nature Conservancy. “It has been – and will continue to be — very helpful for both governments to obtain information that becomes increasingly relevant as we face droughts with more frequency, not only in the Colorado River basin but also in other watersheds.”
By raising awareness, funding and, ultimately, the water level of the river, Raise the River’s goal is to restore native habitat that reconnects the river with the Gulf of California and to establish a framework for the long-term dedication of water to the restoration of the Colorado River Delta.
“Through these cooperative efforts, we are rewriting history by increasing the resilience of the Mexicali Valley, reestablishing ecosystems and returning some of the river’s natural amenities to local communities which have been deprived of a healthy environment,” says Pitt. “Since the initial releases of water for the environment in 2014, we are demonstrating the long-term benefits of binational cooperation not only for the environment, but for all water users in the region. Our work in the Colorado River Delta is becoming a model for long-term water-sharing agreements across borders.”
Raise the River is a unique partnership of six United States and Mexico non-governmental organizations working to revive the Colorado River Delta through activities that support environmental restoration for the benefit of the people and the enhancement of wildlife in the Delta. Members include: The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, Pronatura Noroeste, the Redford Center, Restauremos El Colorado, and the Sonoran Institute. The coalition has worked with policymakers, water agencies and governmental representatives from the U.S. and Mexico since 2012 to cooperatively create historic change for the Colorado River Delta.
Luke Runyon KUNC is moving on in his career. I will miss his enthusiasm and rigor but most of all his story-telling ability. Let’s hope that he finds his way back to the Colorado water beat in the future.
It’s an attempt to reconnect portions of the river left dry from decades of overuse, and it’s happening in one of the driest years the basin has ever seen…
There’s no good substitute word for what the Colorado River delta is now. The Gulf of California’s tides still reach up into the Sonoran Desert. But there’s no river water. Dams along the Colorado River’s length in the U.S. and Mexico draw its water away to serve farms and cities throughout the region. Rather than emptying into the ocean, its water grows citrus in Arizona and greens up lawns in Los Angeles.
The delta’s exposed salt flats aren’t a wasteland. As Rivas explained, if you look close enough, you’ll see the animals and plants able to make a home: jumping spiders, tiny turquoise fiddler crabs, hardy species of saltgrass.
“These are harsh conditions here,” [Tomás] Rivas said. That day, it reached 120 degrees…
Rivas’ group, along with other Mexican and American environmental groups, are working to bring water back into this part of the estuary and study what happens…
Additional water releases into the delta began May 1 and will extend to October, with peaking flows in early summer. The water volume won’t be enough to fully revive the tidal bore, but Rivas said it can help restore riverine habitat.
‘A little bit of repair”
This spring and summer, portions of the Colorado River delta flowed again. But unlike 2014’s pulse flow, where the dam at the U.S.-Mexico border sent a huge volume all at once, this year’s releases of water are targeted to restoration sites…
“For Mexico, living with a dead river has been, I’ll say, sort of a wound,” said Jennifer Pitt, director of the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River program…
The Colorado River is grabbing national headlines this summer as water shortages become more urgent. Hot and dry conditions are coming home to roost in its reservoirs, dropping the two biggest — Lakes Mead and Powell — to record lows. Even in a dry year like this one, Pitt said both the U.S. and Mexico have agreed to set aside water for the environment.
“If we don’t figure out at this moment how to support the river itself and all of nature that it supports, I fear that we lose them permanently. So I think at this time it is more important than ever,” she said.
That idea of carving out water supplies just for the river itself remains controversial. Some skeptical city leaders and farmers in Mexico have said any water spilling into the ocean is wasted, said Carlos de la Parra, a professor at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, who’s acted as an adviser to the International Boundary Water Commission…
The flows happening this year were part of an update to the 1944 treaty that the U.S. and Mexico use to govern their shares of the Colorado River. Over the last 21 years of ongoing hot and dry conditions, de la Parra said the two countries have transitioned from a relationship held at arm’s length to one of mutual respect. That led to a commitment from the U.S. to fund irrigation efficiency projects in Mexico, with some of the conserved water from those upgrades being set aside for environmental flows…
But [Rocio Torres] Torres said the flows happening this year wouldn’t have occurred without the pulse flow seven years ago. The event galvanized communities in the region, she said. It built a base of support from water officials in both countries who agreed to set aside a small amount of water to benefit the plants and animals deprived for so long.
“I think that’s the way human beings, we learn,” she said. “We messed things up. We realized we shouldn’t have done that,” and bringing it back happens little by little.
David Bernhardt answers a question about climate change from Luke Runyon, December 13, 2019, Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference.
Luke Runyon near Hoover Dam power plant February 2018 via Colorado State University.
In 2020, Colorado battled the four largest wildfires in its history, leaving residents anxious for another intense wildfire season this year.
But last week, fires weren’t the issue—it was their aftermath. When heavy rains fell over the burn scar from the 2020 Cameron Peak fire, they triggered flash flooding and mudslides northwest of Fort Collins which destroyed homes, killed at least three people and damaged major roads. Flooding along the 2020 Grizzly Creek and East Troublesome burn scars also unleashed mudslides across Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon and in Grand County just west of Rocky Mountain National Park.
These tragic events make it clear that the effects of wildfire don’t end when the flames go out. There can be environmental consequences for years to come—and keeping an eye on water is key.
CU Boulder Today spoke with Professor Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, an environmental chemistry expert who studies how wildfires impact water quality; and Assistant Professor and CIRES Fellow Ben Livneh, a hydrologist who studies how climate change affects water supplies and how fires and rain influence landslide risk, about how fire may shape the future of water in the West.
What happens to water in lakes, rivers and streams after a nearby wildfire?
Rosario-Ortiz: When you have open flames, a lot of gaseous reactions and solid phase reactions, it results in the transformation of chemicals and alterations to the soil, and we observe the effects once we look at the water quality. For example, we observe the enhancement in the concentration of nutrients in water, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can cause subsequent issues in the reservoirs like algae blooms. There can also be a mobilization of metals and enhanced concentration and activity of what we call organic carbon as well as turbidity, which can then impact water treatment production and formation of disinfection byproducts.
How do city water suppliers and treatment plants deal with these impacts?
Rosario-Ortiz: Ideally, you want to have a secondary water source. In Fort Collins, back in 2012 after the High Park fire, the river was impacted but the reservoir was not impacted. So they could draw from the reservoir and wait for the worst to pass.
If you don’t have that option, some of the challenges after wildfire and rain events include increased sediment mobilization, which is very challenging for water treatment operations. Those are short-term effects that might give you a headache, but they can also become long-term challenges. Never mind the fact that you may have issues with infrastructure.
How can wildfire affect water quantity and timing in a landscape?
Livneh: In the western U.S. we really rely on water that flows in rivers and streams, and that fills the reservoirs for our supply. So when we think about even small changes to the amount of water that comes off of the hill slope, or across the landscape, that can have a big impact on the total availability of water.
One of the most notable things that happens in a fire is that the texture of the soil changes. Initially, less rain will soak into the soil, and more rain will become surface runoff. There’s a lot of reason to think that you will get more total water—but it’ll be much more “flashy” when it comes.
On one hand, that can be good if you have a reservoir to collect it. But we’ve heard of water utilities actually turning off their intakes after a fire if the quality of the water is too low. And that’s tricky, because often drought is involved in some fashion. So there’s often this competing need for more water, and yet the quality is low.
What are the factors that affect the likelihood of floods or mudslides after wildfire?
Livneh: When water carries enough stuff with it, we call it a debris flow, which is a type of landslide. The bigger and bigger it gets, the more impactful it is. We have research funded by NASA where we looked at 5,000 landslide sites around the world. We found that sites that had a fire in the past three years required less precipitation to cause a landslide.
But there’s also a lot of local variability that really matters. Moderately steep, heavily vegetated areas, types of soils—especially sandier soils—increase risk. Also we now have a lot of people who have built structures on steep slopes in these areas, so there’s a human element there, too. And the time of the year that it happens can matter. A fire right before your rainy season is an important factor.
What does this all mean for the future of Colorado and the western U.S.?
Rosario-Ortiz: When homes burn, you’re not just combusting houses, you’re combusting everything inside those homes. You might now be combusting electric vehicles, for example, with a large battery.
Then what are some of the other potential concerns with exposure to air? Water? That’s going to be something that we will need to explore further over the next few years.
Livneh: Some estimates say the amount of forest area being burned each year in the western U.S. has doubled in the last 25 years. And it really poses risks to communities, especially in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Managing it is largely a kind of a policy problem, but in the next 10 years or so we’re going to continue to have these big fires.
First and foremost, people need to be paying attention to these flood watches and to local guidance on evacuation. The most important thing is saving lives.
What can we do to prepare for the future?
Rosario-Ortiz: Utilities might have to be thinking about potential upgrades in facilities. That means we may have to also consider financing of these projects and how to improve overall resiliency.
Livneh: One of the most robust features of climate change is warming, right? As rain becomes more prevalent, we’re just going to have to continue expanding our portfolio of things we do to keep up. The more open-minded we can be about managing for these things is important. I’m kind of an optimist. As humans, we’ve overcome so many technical challenges; it’s not going to be something we can’t solve our way out of.
Today is a big day! As of July 26th, 2021 our partners at Ecological Resource Consultants and Tezak Heavy Equipment will be mobilizing crews and setting the stage for channel construction and Rock Island Road bridge installation. The pull off at the intersection of Tiger Road and Rock Island Road will be used by crews to stage equipment and will be closed to overflow parking from the Tiger Trailhead through the end of the construction season. Rock Island Road will remain open to the public throughout the construction phase, including during bridge installation.
This seasons work will include final grading, channel construction, bank stabilization, bridge installation, and initial revegetation of the site. When completed, 4,800′ of new channel, 13 acres of riparian habitat, and 5 acres of upland habitat will be created on Reach B. The new channel will include 20 riffle-glide-pool sequences that mimic the natural morphology of reference streams in similar elevations and habitats. These sequences will provide natural aquatic habitat and will be paired with large woody debris and boulder installation to further diversify the available habitat along this stretch of stream. New bank stabilization techniques that utilize logs and root wads will also be installed on this stretch to serve as fish refuges. By taking into consideration lessons learned on Reach A, we have made these improvements to the Reach B design and will continue to utilize the most current restoration techniques.
Last week, Summit TV was on site to shoot some aerial photography prior to the beginning of construction (see the photos below). Colorado Parks and Wildlife also toured the Reach A site recently to see an example of successful stream restoration and the following establishment of brook trout and sculpin populations. We hope that this project can continue to serve as a model for stream restoration, both here in Colorado and around the country.
Keep following the blog to see progress photos throughout the construction season and the transformation of the site.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to help small forest owners become a more significant part of the carbon markets, earn an income on their land, and help with carbon sequestration.
The Biden administration has set its climate change policy agenda, with a broad call to engage rural America. But one approach lacking a laser focus is on incentivizing rural forest owners to use their land for capturing and storing carbon.
America’s forests and forest products already capture and store more than 750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of nearly 15 percent of annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. With the right policies that enable voluntary action, the nation’s forests can do even more, with some estimates saying the U.S. could double this important contribution to climate mitigation.
“With the right tools and partnerships, American agriculture and forestry can lead the world in solutions that will increase climate resilience, sequester carbon, enhance agricultural productivity, and maintain critical environmental benefits,” the U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, said in a new progress report on using forests and agriculture to mitigate the impact of climate change.
One of those “right tools” must be action by the government to jumpstart carbon markets for small forest owners.
Families and individuals own the largest portion of forests – 36% – across the U.S. Research from the American Forest Foundation (AFF) and the U.S. Forest Service has found that these owners want to improve forest health, but the vast majority are not employing best practices due to the high costs associated with forest management.
Helping small forest owners access carbon markets would allow them to generate income from their land that can then be poured back into the trees for increased conservation and carbon capture. And generating income from carbon markets would provide a much-needed financial boost for forest owners, as many lack resources to sufficiently maintain their forests. One in three family forest owners has an annual income of less than $50,000.
Denver Water today [July 14, 2021] filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Boulder County, asserting the county is overreaching its authority and jeopardizing a federally ordered reservoir expansion critical to a safe and secure water supply for one quarter of the state’s population while risking long-planned benefits for the West Slope environment.
For nearly two decades, Denver Water has conducted an exhaustive and comprehensive planning and permitting process at the direction and oversight of six federal and state regulatory agencies. That process culminated last year in a final order to commence expansion of Gross Reservoir from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has final authority over the expansion project because Gross Reservoir occupies federal lands specifically designated for hydropower production.
For years, Denver Water has also attempted good faith efforts to work with Boulder County to secure county permits, including through two attempts at an intergovernmental agreement, robust engagement with county staff and neighbors, and participation in a local land-use review known as the “1041 process.” Unfortunately, Boulder County has been unreceptive and is using the 1041 process to frustrate the project, extending and delaying its review to the point that it is now placing the entire project at risk.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON NEED FOR THE PROJECT
It is hard to overstate the importance of the expansion of Gross Reservoir to the future of the Denver region. It will offer crucial protection to the utility’s water supplies from the urgent threat of catastrophic wildfire and prolonged drought — the same forces that nearly 20 years ago combined to threaten Denver Water’s ability to ensure drinking water to its customers.
This risk to clean water supplies is even higher today, in an era of rapid climate change and increasing periods of extreme weather. Last year’s record wildfire fire season, which generated the three largest forest fires in Colorado history, only just missed triggering major impacts to Denver Water’s supplies. Water providers to the north haven’t been as lucky, unable to treat some supplies running black and brown with ash produced by the Cameron Peak fire. Denver Water must act now to mitigate these risks.
The Gross Reservoir expansion conforms in every way to benchmarks in Colorado’s Water Plan, a plan developed through statewide and bottom-up guidance from eight major river basins over two years and published in 2015. That plan calls for increasing the capacity of existing reservoirs as a key element in creating 400,000 acre-feet of additional storage in the state by 2050.
The State of Colorado, in comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, expressed its support for the Gross Reservoir expansion and has identified it specifically as fitting within the kind of project defined as necessary in Colorado’s Water Plan: “A significant portion of Colorado’s future needs will be met with the implementation of projects and planning processes that the local water providers are currently pursuing, including the Moffat Collection System Project” (aka Gross Reservoir expansion).
The reservoir expansion also addresses the significant need for additional supplies in the metro region, as referenced in the Water Plan’s 2019 technical update. That update projected metro Denver demand will increase by 134,000 acre-feet to 280,000 acre-feet by 2050 against a 2015 baseline and the area likely will experience a supply shortfall, even accounting for the Gross Reservoir expansion and other water projects, a drop in per-capita use, and further conservation and reuse.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON DEVELOPMENT OF THE PROJECT
Denver Water’s diligent and earnest work to build partnerships across the Continental Divide, conduct significant and ongoing environmental mitigation for the project and work closely with regulators since the early 2000s has earned the project the support of major environmental groups, Grand County and each of the last five governors of Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded the project would result in net water quality improvement on both sides of the Continental Divide.
The dam, when built in the 1950s, was designed to be raised. In the 1980s, amid discussion of the Two Forks project southwest of Denver (later vetoed by the EPA) a coalition of environmental groups recommended the expansion of Gross Reservoir as a viable, environmentally stable project. “We feel that additional capacity at Gross Reservoir is an environmentally acceptable and cost-effective way of increasing the overall yield of the system,” the coalition wrote. It included representatives of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Trout Unlimited, among several other groups.
Denver Water also worked industriously with local governments and citizen groups on the West Slope to address the impacts that putting more water in an expanded Gross Reservoir would have on streams in Grand County. Those talks, often intense, and spanning half a decade, resulted in the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, an unprecedented cooperative effort involving 18 signatories and 40 partner organizations that began a new era of collaboration and conflict-resolution between Denver Water and the West Slope.
Expanding Gross Reservoir locks in a key component to that agreement: Denver Water would place a geographic limit on its service area, putting to rest fears the utility would continue to expand its reach to an ever-sprawling suburban ring. The utility also agreed to several measures that would provide more water to West Slope rivers, towns and ski areas and invest in improvements to aquatic habitat. The landmark concord also affirmed that with the Gross Reservoir expansion, Denver Water would benefit from more flexibility in its system, and it would use that flexibility to address stream flow and stream temperature concerns more nimbly and readily in Grand County.
Additionally, Denver Water worked with the cities of Boulder and Lafayette to establish an environmental pool in Gross Reservoir to provide additional water in South Boulder Creek during low-flow periods. Water in that pool would also supplement supplies for those two cities. Many of these commitments, however, depend on the project going forward and are therefore in jeopardy through Boulder County’s actions.
As planning for the expansion moved ahead, the utility undertook a proactive strategy to reduce demand. It deployed a water recycling facility to reduce its dependence on West Slope water supplies, embarked on a conservation program renown nationally for its success — cutting per capita water use by 22% between 2007 and 2016 — and has now undertaken direct efforts at water efficiency that pinpoint savings opportunities at the individual customer level. These are only a sample: The utility remains committed to innovation to drive further savings and expand water reuse as a core part of its strategy, work that will continue to be essential even with an increase in storage at Gross Reservoir.
In short, the effort to build civic and regulatory support for the Gross Reservoir expansion has been persistent, inspired and earnest. The future of the region, its access to clean, safe drinking water, protection of its urban tree canopy and environment, and its economic development rest in large part on the ability of Denver Water to protect water supplies from emerging threats, develop a climate-resilient system and remain prepared for the demands that will result from continued growth within its service area in metro Denver.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON BOULDER COUNTY’S PROCESS
Boulder County is endangering the project through delays, repeated and expanding requests for information — information demands that duplicate the already completed federal permitting process in which Boulder County participated — the potential for months of additional hearings and the fact that two of the county’s three commissioners have already publicly stated their opposition to, and desire to stop, the expansion project.
Further, the county’s land use director informed Denver Water on June 29 that the utility — despite over nine months of diligent and painstaking work to respond to Boulder County’s ever-expanding queries — failed to provide sufficient information to county agencies about the project, setting the project up for failure and rendering further involvement with the 1041 process futile.
These actions also put engineering and construction deadlines at risk, threaten to disrupt FERC-ordered timelines and risk other permits and actions necessary for successful completion of the project. A project of this size and complexity requires extensive preplanning, substantial resources and a highly skilled design and construction team. Delays resulting from Boulder County’s refusal to timely process the 1041 application add substantial costs and cause permitting, procurement and logistical issues that seriously disrupt Denver Water’s ability to execute the project.
In summary, the actions of a single local jurisdiction, Boulder County, threaten to derail and undermine a federally permitted and state supported project vital to a safe and secure water supply for one-quarter of Colorado’s population. This presents an unacceptable risk to a critical project spanning nearly 20 years and involving intensive review by environmental agencies at the federal and state levels and the engagement of dozens of organizations and communities across the metro area and the West Slope.
For that reason, Denver Water must seek relief in federal court. The complaint further details Denver Water’s attempts to work with Boulder County, the reasons that federal law preempts Boulder County’s claimed authority over the FERC-licensed expansion project, and the basis for Denver Water’s request that the court prevent Boulder County from further delaying and derailing the project.
From the Community Agriculture Alliance via The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Libby Christensen):
Many of you reading this article are fortunate to get to call Routt County home. Clearly after this year, word has gotten out, and we have seen an influx of new folks lucky enough to own land in our community. With this incredible opportunity, comes incredible responsibility.
In an effort to assure that everyone is stewarding this limited resource and to reduce potential conflicts, the Community Agriculture Alliance and CSU Extension are teaming up again to offer the 101 Land Stewardship class.
This course is for folks new to Routt County or to owning land in Routt County, real estate agents and anyone interested in learning more about agriculture and land stewardship. The six-week course is offered on Wednesday evenings, beginning on Sept. 15 through Oct. 20.
A wide variety of topics will be covered throughout the course. Participants will be taught how to identify common plants, weeds, grasses, and trees in the area. The course will cover the relationships between humans, soil, plants, and water.
At the end of the course, participants will be more aware of their surroundings and understand how land management decisions impact the land, water, and people around them.
Grazing and Ranching Stewardship will cover ranching in Routt County including a conversation about the impacts of wildlife on livestock and humans and vice a versa. Local experts, who represent multigenerational land stewards in Routt County, will be on hand to teach the class and to provide real world examples of positive ranch stewardship.
The Water Stewardship class will show learners how both nature and man can alter and/or improve waterways. Participants will be introduced to several different types of irrigation systems and how they work. Local experts will also provide an overview of basic Colorado water law.
In Preparing for Fire, instructors will review what steps you can take to prepare yourself, your animals, and your home for wildfire.
Community Stewardship conversations will focus on how to be a good neighbor, covering proper weed management, fence laws, and the Routt County Master Plan.
Wrapping it all together in our last class Stewardship with a Purpose, we will discuss how soil, water, animals, plants and air should all be considered when making plans to manage property.
Land stewardship is a responsibility that we owe not to the generations before us, but to those who come after us. Our forefathers thought enough of us to take care of the land so that we could use it for our benefit, and we have the opportunity to do the same for the generations who follow us.
The Land Stewardship 101 course will help you learn how to become a better steward of your property, benefiting you, your neighborhood, your community, your children, and anyone else who calls or will call our valley home.
The two leading science groups studying ecosystems and climate urged protection of carbon-rich habitats and warned against solutions to warming that lower species diversity.
Slowing global warming and stemming the loss of biodiversity have been viewed as independent challenges for years.
But a new landmark report concludes that climate change and the rapid decline of natural ecosystems are intertwined crises that should be tackled together if international efforts to address either are to succeed.
The report, released Thursday, was written by 50 of the world’s leading experts on biodiversity and climate change, representing two major international scientific groups collaborating for the first time: the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The findings emerged from a workshop held in December and months of subsequent research, and come as leaders gear up for two major upcoming United Nations conferences, one focusing on biodiversity and the other on climate change.
Until now, the authors of the report said, global collaborative efforts to address climate change, through platforms including the IPCC and the Paris climate agreement, have operated on a different track from efforts to address biodiversity, carried out through the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and other international organizations.
“For far too long we’ve tended to see climate and biodiversity as separate issues, so our policy responses have been very siloed,” said Pamela McElwee, one of the report’s authors and an associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University. “Climate has simply gotten more attention.”
Some key efforts can contribute to both the preservation of biodiversity and controlling global warming, especially stopping deforestation in the tropics, but also halting the degradation of other carbon-rich ecosystems, including mangroves, peatlands, savannahs and wetlands.The authors say that ramping up sustainable agriculture and forestry, while cutting subsidies to destructive industries, will also be critical.
“We are seeing multiple impacts of climate change on all continents and in all ocean regions. These increasingly add to the enormous human pressure on biodiversity,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a climatologist and previous IPCC author who co-chaired the steering committee of the collaborative workshop. “So far conservation efforts have not been sufficient. Human society depends on the services that nature provides, but climate change has caused loss in natural resources, especially those that are overused.”
Pörtner also pointed out that pandemics are linked to biodiversity loss because zoonotic diseases emerge from species that thrive when biodiversity declines. “Climate change and biodiversity loss are threatening human well being as well as society. They’re closely interwoven and share common drivers through human activity,” he said. “They’re reinforcing each other.”
The authors warned that some efforts to address the climate crisis could be detrimental to biodiversity, and they urged policy makers, governments and industries to avoid solutions that could effectively backfire. These include planting monocultural, non-native trees or vast tracts of land with crops for bioenergy.
“There are a lot of things being done for climate change, especially around adaptation, and many of them can be negative for biodiversity,” said Paul Leadley, a professor of ecology with the University of Paris Sud-France. “There’s a real risk that biodiversity can die from a thousand cuts.”
Almut Arneth, one of the authors and a modeling expert at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, said that one of those adaptive efforts, planting bioenergy crops, could eventually require a land area twice the size of India. “On the other hand, we’re using much more than 50 percent [of the world’s land] for food and timber production,” Arneth said. “So as you can imagine planting those large bioenergy crops will put enormous pressure on existing natural land, which would be catastrophic for biodiversity” and for food security.
Nature-Based Solutions Are Not Enough
While the report pointed to solutions, including cutting deforestation, the authors stressed that “nature based solutions” could only go so far.
“An immediate conclusion is that maintaining biodiversity and its functions relies on phasing out emissions from the burning of fossil fuels,” Pörtner said. “Nature is offering solutions, which can be helpful if done in parallel with strong emissions reductions.”
Strong policy and action—executed quickly— will be essential to staving off the twin crises, the authors said. They intend the report to provide the current state of thinking on the issue and said they hope it prods policy makers to push for conservation efforts like President Joe Biden’s plan to conserve 30 percent of American lands. The report called for a global effort to conserve up to half the world’s ocean and lands.
“Positive outcomes are expected from substantially increasing intact and effectively protected areas,” the report said. “Global estimates of exact requirements for effectively protected and conserved areas to ensure a habitable climate, self-sustaining biodiversity and a good quality of life are not yet well established but range from 30 to 50 percent of all land and surface areas.”
Pörtner added that successful implementation “depends on rapid entry into action. Overall, every bit of warming matters, and every lost species and every degraded ecosystem matters.”
The private sector, especially financial institutions, will also be critical in the effort, the authors said.
McElwee noted the recent development of the Task Force on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures, an effort to push banks to evaluate financial risk from the loss of natural systems, similar to the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, which defines how banks should evaluate risk from climate change.
“The goal is for the private sector to think about how the loss of biodiversity actually creates risk and build that risk into decision-making,” McElwee said. “To tackle these crises we need all hands on deck.”
Summit County received a $300,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, among other partners, to restore the area’s riparian floodplain, wetlands and upland habitat.
The foundation awarded $3.1 million to 10 habitat restoration projects across the state from its Restoration and Stewardship of Outdoor Resources and Environment — or RESTORE — Colorado program. Grant awards from this fund are meant for projects on public and private conservation lands that have the greatest benefit for wildlife habitat and local communities.
The grant will contribute to a project meant to improve habitat quality and connectivity for native cutthroat, brown and brook trout species in the Swan River Valley. The project will restore 0.8 miles of the main stem of Swan River as well as 30 acres of riparian and upland habitat.
Promoting community-driven wetland conservation with Pagosa Wetland Partners.
The story of Pagosa Wetland Partners (PWP) begins with a verdant, 15-acre stretch of wetlands teeming with birds adjoining the San Juan River in the southwestern Colorado town of Pagosa Springs. Uniquely fed by geothermal hot springs, this wetland is an ecological and cultural treasure. It harbors rare species, provides a key winter refuge and nesting site for birds, and serves as a premier site for nature observation. It is considered a birding hotspot by residents and tourists alike, with more than 180 species identified to date.
However, this downtown wetland area faces diverse threats, some of which include limited protections in local county and town building codes, possible light and noise pollution, and harmful water runoff. The possibility of inadvertent disruption to the unique warm geothermal water inflows is a primary concern that we are collaborating with the town and local developers to ensure doesn’t occur.
PWP began at a November 2019 meeting of the local Weminuche Audubon Society, where local conservationist Bob Lecour alerted the chapter to the possibility of proposed development that would threaten the Riverwalk Conservation Area. In the months to follow, a group of concerned citizens, including future PWP leaders Randy McCormick and Barry Knott, assembled and delivered a presentation to the Pagosa Springs town council on the environmental and tourist value of these unique wetlands. This presentation began the critical step of building awareness within the town government and community about the importance of wetland conservation. The proposed development did not materialize, however. The organization recognized that more extensive and far-reaching work would be required to ensure lasting protection of the wetlands.
PWP has grown in the year since its formation. We have recruited new members and articulated our mission and objectives to conserve, protect, and enhance the wetlands.
Our work has been shaped by three strategies:
Building partnerships wherever possible with local businesses and town government
Educating stakeholders about the value of wetlands
Striving for clear policy successes
From its inception, PWP has positioned itself as a willing collaborator with all stakeholders, including town government, environmental groups, and local developers. We have framed our environmental protection work in terms of promoting responsible development and science-driven conservation. We are very careful to avoid simplistic antagonism towards development. This approach has been key in building fruitful partnerships with developers and town government. Although there have been times when PWP has taken a firm stand against a potentially damaging project, more broadly, our relationships have been congenial and have allowed us to gain support and financial backing for our initiatives.
At the same time, our focus on rigorous science has allowed us to collaborate effectively with diverse conservation organizations, including a wetland water-monitoring partnership with River Watch of Colorado, utilizing Weminuche Audubon as a non-profit recipient for donations, and receiving ongoing guidance from Audubon Rockies staff. These partnerships have built our base of support, expanded our options for financial backing, and allowed us to connect with a diverse cross-section of the community, including many key decision-makers.
Our education initiatives aim to expand community knowledge and engagement with the wetlands, thus creating political pressure to preserve the area. This education initiative, inspired by advice from Abby Burk of Audubon Rockies, started with a series of educational articles in the local newspaper, the Pagosa Sun, in December 2020. These articles aim to educate the community about the unique ecology and beauty of the area as well as its importance as a tourist destination. They include pieces on wetland ecology, profiles of specific wetland species, and coverage of human threats to wetlands. As COVID-19 restrictions have loosened, our education and outreach have expanded, including a successful booth at the recent local Earth Day event and the upcoming launch of our Riverwalk Naturalist Program, which will provide guided nature tours of the wetlands to visitors and residents. Our education efforts have been successful in building community interest in the wetlands and in framing them as a key natural resource in the minds of residents and policymakers.
Our efforts also include the appointment of PWP co-chair, Barry Knott, to the Land Use and Development Code (LUDC) revision steering committee. He is working, along with other committee members, to update and add more significant wetland protection provisions into the revised code, which will be finalized in 2021.
PWP has also collaborated with the town to develop environmentally responsible approaches to proposed initiatives in the wetlands. These collaborations have included providing scientific and citizen input on the proposed placement of night lights along the wetlands pathway and the installation of a wind harp in the wetlands. In both cases, the information provided by PWP resulted in a reassessment of the environmental viability of the projects by the town and their collaborators. These collaborations are the most tangible markers of our growth as an organization. However, they would not be possible without the strong foundation of partnerships and public education that underlie them.
In addition to its value as a community conservation success story, I hope this article will offer a blueprint for other organizations looking to promote conservation in their communities. The three main themes of PWP’s development (building partnerships, educating the public, and pursuing policy protections) are easily transferable to many environmental causes. In addition, many of the organizational strategies we have used, including delegating tasks to match members’ skills, being willing to connect with key decision-makers, and being highly flexible about securing resources and building partnerships, are also useful to a range of start-up conservation organizations. Our work to protect the wetlands continues with the LUDC revision process and the launch of our naturalist program coming in the near future. As our work continues, I hope it provides an inspiration for others to advance their conservation goals. If you want to learn more, you can contact Pagosa Wetland Partners at email@example.com.
Here’s the release from Farmers.gov (Joanna Pope):
Nebraska isn’t known as a destination for celebrities, but for wildlife enthusiasts and birdwatchers, Nebraska had a visit from a few “A-list” celebrities recently – just in time for American Wetlands Month.
Haven for Migrating Birds
Trumbull Basin, a wetland located in Adams County in central Nebraska, was graced with the presence of four Whooping Cranes who stopped at the wetland during their migration north.
The Whooping Crane is one of the world’s most endangered species. There are currently just over 800 of these birds on earth.
Trumbull Basin, the wetland where these rare birds called home for 11 days, is in the heart of a unique geographic area known as the Rainwater Basin.
The Rainwater Basin is a complex of wetlands covering portions of south-central Nebraska. The area is also part of the migration route known as the Central Flyway. In spring, birds that have wintered on the Gulf Coast and across Texas and Mexico funnel into this 150-mile-wide area over central Nebraska that contains thousands of wetlands.
The wetlands provide habitat for migrating birds. Despite being critical to migrating and local wildlife species, the Rainwater Basin wetlands have been greatly reduced from their historic numbers.