Rio Grande Roundtable meeting recap: “Shovel ready” projects get design and engineering funding

Mountain Home Reservoir via The Applegate Group

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Water leaders on Tuesday approved funding for two projects that will improve local reservoir and river operations.

The Rio Grande Roundtable approved $70,000 from locally allocated water funds for engineering work for Mountain Home Reservoir upgrades and $90,000 for surveying, design, and permitting work for projects primarily around the Rio Grande State Wildlife Area near Monte Vista. These funds will be matched with money from other sources to complete the projects. The Mountain Home Reservoir project is in its second of three phases, with the third phase encompassing construction work. The state is mandating repairs at the reservoir. Only one of the gates at the reservoir is operational, and not operating that well.

The reservoir, located east of Fort Garland, is operated by the Trinchera Irrigation Company and supports the irrigation of several thousand acres of farmland in Costilla County as well as fishing and boating opportunities. The Colorado Parks & Wildlife operates a State Wildlife Area at the reservoir and stocks the reservoir with trout. Both local residents and tourists enjoy the recreational opportunities at Mountain Home.

The dam was built in the early 1900’s and is showing its age. Leakage at the gate is costing irrigators, and replacement of the dam gates would restore the reservoir’s capacity and benefit the farmers and ranchers who depend on a portion of their water supply from the reservoir.

Trinchera Irrigation Company Superintendent Wayne Schwab presented the request for local roundtable funds, which the roundtable approved on Tuesday. The funds would go towards engineering and design work to replace the dam gates. The irrigation company has chosen Engineering Analytics, Inc., out of Fort Collins to conduct the work. The firm has experience in dam rehab work.

The total for the design phase portion of the dam rehab project is $100,000, with the roundtable funding comprising $70,000 of that. The remainder is coming from the irrigation company and Trinchera Blanca Foundation…

The roundtable was also receptive to the projects around the Rio Grande State Wildlife Area. Roundtable members Karla Shriver and Heather Dutton abstained from voting, Shriver because she is a member of one of the ditches that will benefit from the work and Dutton because she oversees the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Program requesting the funding.

As with the Mountain Home Reservoir project, the Roundtable funds for the wildlife area project will primarily be used for design, survey and permitting work, for which the roundtable board approved $90,000 from the local basin account, to be matched from other sources to complete the $213,990 total.

This project will ultimately stabilize eroded stream banks, preserve riparian vegetation and habitat and replace old diversion infrastructures on the SLV Canal and Centennial Ditch…

In high flows , the stream could wash away a siphon the Colorado Parks & Wildlife maintains for wetland areas and possibly cut off water delivery to the Centennial Ditch, a senior water right provider for 22 stockholders and irrigating 8,500 acres.

As part of this project, the diversion structure for the Centennial Ditch would be improved…

Headgate repairs would also be incorporated into this project on the SLV Canal, also a senior water right provider, which serves 78 stockholders, irrigates more than 20,000 acres and borders the wildlife area.

Bachman explained that another smaller project upstream near Del Norte is included in this request and although it is not geographically adjacent to the wildlife area has similarities in that it will improve the river, and all three are “shovel ready,” so work could begin as soon as funding is in place. Bachman said that in addition to roundtable funding , this project would be supported by funds from Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Great Outdoors Colorado and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grant Program.

Webinar: Stream Management Planning – Merging science and stakeholder involvement to support river health and community needs

The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

From Audubon:

Stream Management Planning – Merging science and stakeholder involvement to support river health and community needs
Wednesday, March 22, Noon – 1 p.m. MT

Rivers play an important role to all members of a community, and people with a wide range of interests have a stake in how rivers and the lands around them are managed. Engaging stakeholders in a process that incorporates their interests is critical for stream management plans to be effective and practicable. In this webinar, we describe the practical aspects of stream management planning, including understanding values and interests, assessing available resources and capabilities, and evaluating potential management strategies. This process overlays a rigorous scientific assessment using the River Health Assessment Framework (RHAF). Successfully communicating these scientific findings and their management implications to a diversity of stakeholders is critical to developing a community-supported and executable plan. Recently-completed and in-process stream management plans provide working examples of how detailed scientific analysis and community input come together for evaluating the costs and benefits associated with alternative land use, water management, and restoration scenarios.

Presenter biographies
Seth Mason. Seth Mason is the Principal Hydrologist at Lotic Hydrological, a consulting firm based in Carbondale, CO. He received his M.S. in Land Resources and Environmental Sciences from Montana State University and his B.A. in Environmental Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He specializes in hydrological modeling; stream characterization; deployment and operation of data collection and management systems; and development and coordination of water quality monitoring and assessment activities. Seth works extensively with city and county governments, federal agencies, and 501(c)3 organizations on a variety of watershed, land use, water quality, and water quantity issues.

Julie Baxter. Julie is a Senior Associate with Acclivity Associates and lives in Steamboat Springs, CO. She is a certified planner and floodplain manager with 13 years of experience assisting federal, state, and local governments in strategic planning, outreach and communications, and mitigation and resiliency planning. She enjoys developing stakeholder engagement and outreach activities to support highly technical projects. Her past experience includes serving as the program manager for the natural hazards mitigation planning program for FEMA Region VIII in Denver from 2009-2015. Prior to FEMA, Julie worked in the private sector as a project manager, as the communications specialist at the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center, and as a GIS and natural resources specialist for the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife. Julie has a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources from the University of Michigan and a Masters in Community and Regional Planning from the University of Oregon.

Mark Beardsley. Mark’s experience is grounded in a diverse educational and practical background. He holds B.S. degrees in chemistry and biology, an M.S. in ecology, and supplemental studies in environmental philosophy and mathematics, along with more than 20 years hands-on field experience as a stream, riparian and wetlands scientist. Mark specializes in interpreting scientific data to assess the functional condition of streams and wetlands and to evaluate the effectiveness of restoration and mitigation. He is a leader in the development, testing, and implementation of Colorado’s FACWet, FACStream, and RHAF functional assessment methods and is well-versed in all the common ecological and geomorphic assessment frameworks. As a freelance scientist and principal of EcoMetrics, Mark designed and carried out ecological research projects, hundreds of site-scale assessments, watershed inventories, and stream and wetland restoration projects that use natural approaches.

Register here

Across party lines, Western governors see a partner in Pruitt — @COindependent

Colorado abandoned mines

From The High Country News (Elizabeth Shogren) via The Colorado Independent:

Just a few days in office, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency hosted an early Sunday morning breakfast for 11 Western governors. Scott Pruitt told them face-to-face what he’s said repeatedly since he was nominated: Under his leadership, the EPA will defer to states much more than it has in the recent past.

Pruitt made a similar vow to profoundly transform the agency the day before at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “We’re going to once again pay attention to the states across this country,” Pruitt told a gathering of Republicans. “The future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA.”

This message resonated with the Western governors, regardless of their political affiliations, according to several members of the governors’ staffs. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-Independent whose state is 66 percent federal land, was “encouraged by (Pruitt’s) emphasis on state’s rights,” Grace Jang, Walker’s communications director, says.

The Western governors’ unanimity is striking in an era of intense partisanship and reflects the commitment they have to work together through the Western Governors’ Association. The breakfast was an annual event of that group, a rare hub of bipartisanship and consensus building in a polarized nation. The governors are in the midst of a major effort to transform the relationship between the federal and state governments to give them more input into federal regulations.

“The Republican governors were on the same page with their Democratic colleagues in telling Pruitt, we want it to be a partnership,” says John Swartout, senior policy advisor to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. “We haven’t been happy that the EPA hasn’t always treated us as a full partner. We can make progress together.”

As they ate scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and donuts at a square table in EPA’s Washington, DC, headquarters, the governors one-by-one told Pruitt their priorities. Over the course of two hours, many mentioned their desire to have more sway over federal environmental regulations.

Western governors have collaborated for about 100 years. Their desire to present a unified voice to Washington is driven in part because of the vast amount of federal land in the West, which means decisions made in Washington have acute impacts on their states’ economies. “It’s largely a function of being so distant from Washington and needing to amplify their distant voices,” said Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the group.

In the Western Governors’ Association, the governors focus on shared objectives and pass joint resolutions. In December, for instance, they passed a resolution calling for a greater role in crafting federal regulations and in other decisions by the federal government. Other resolutions present their consensus positions on a wide range of issues, including endangered species, wildfire fire management, invasive species and abandoned mine cleanups.

Western governors from both parties felt the Obama administration’s EPA failed to adequately consult the states as it crafted some important environmental regulations, such as the 2015 Clean Water Rule. (That rule was temporarily blocked in 2015, pending resolution of a court challenge brought by industry groups and 31 states.) “Had the EPA worked with us on the rule upfront it could have been a better rule,” Swartout says. EPA did address some comments the governors made about how the proposed rule impinged on state authority over water management, but not all of them.

Just this week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to launch a rollback of that rule and, until it’s rewritten, limit federal oversight to waterways that are navigable, leaving the rest to the states. Pruitt announced that he would rescind the Obama rule and write a new one that “restores the states’ important role in the regulation of water.”

“We believe (Pruitt’s EPA) will partner with states in a way that’s meaningful; in a way that quite frankly the previous administration did not,” says Nephi Cole, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s policy advisor policy.

Many scholars caution that undoing that rule will be particularly detrimental in the arid West, where so many small streams and those that run only intermittently are crucially important for wildlife and water quality and quantity. States tend to be more responsive to local industries, because of the benefits they bring to the economy like jobs and tax revenue.

But Cole argues that it’s a “false narrative” to suggest that giving states more control equates to allowing more pollution and less environmental protection. In another resolution adopted in December, Western governors assert that they want to be the ones to decide how to balance the needs of industry in their states and the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

During the two-hour breakfast, Pruitt spent most of the time listening to governors. (Most years, the secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, Energy and other cabinet members important to Western states attend the breakfast, but as of Sunday, Pruitt was the only one of those who had been confirmed by the Senate.) Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper urged Pruitt to personally engage in the Gold King Mine controversy. A 2015 blowout at the mine unleashed a surge of acid mine drainage down the Animas River. Pruitt committed to visiting Colorado and meeting with local and state officials, Swartout says.
A big priority for some governors is that the EPA continues to negotiate settlements with companies responsible for creating toxic waste sites covered under Superfund.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, urged Pruitt to move forward with the plan to clean up the Portland Harbor, a Superfund site, so the city can revitalize the waterfront and create jobs. She also stressed her state’s continued commitment to fighting climate change, according to her press secretary, Bryan Hockaday.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who heads the Western Governors’ Association, wants Pruitt to keep the pressure on to finally reach a settlement on the Superfund sites in and around Butte, Montana, where historic copper mining and smelting left behind the nation’s largest toxic waste site, according to his press secretary, Marissa Perry. After many years, negotiations between the EPA and Atlantic Richfield Corporation, owned by BP, have picked up steam. Bullock wants to make sure the momentum isn’t lost.

While the Western governors break out of the hyper-partisanship that’s plagued other branches of government and see some opportunity to work with Pruitt, potential major budget cuts to the EPA may give Pruitt a lot less leeway to respond to state needs.

This week, the White House sent agencies an outline of the president’s draft budget that reportedly would gut the EPA’s $8 billion budget, cutting by 30 percent the grants it sends to the states to implement air, water and toxic waste regulations. Pruitt told E&E News that he’s asking the White House to retain more funding for the states to improve air quality, clean up Superfund sites and improve aging water and wastewater infrastructure. Programs slated for zero funding include grants to clean up abandoned industrial sites and funding to bring safe drinking water and sewer systems to Native villages in Alaska, according to the Washington Post. More details on the budget are expected later this month. It’s not clear if the White House can win approval for its vision of a much smaller EPA.

The proof of whether the governors and Pruitt will be able to work together will emerge in coming months, as the Trump administration pursues its agenda and rolls back existing rules. “We’re trying to work with him. We need to work with the federal government,” Swartout says. “It’s too early to know. We have to see how it all plays out. It’s just speculation at this point.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington. This story originally appeared in High Country News on March 3, 2017.

A renewed and expanded “Forests to Faucets” partnership

Graphic credit

From KUNC (Desmond O’Boyle):

The Forests to Faucets partnership originally began in 2010 as a response to a series of wildfires, namely the 1996 Buffalo Creek and 2002 Hayman wildfires. Since its inception, the partnership’s goals have grown to not only reduce catastrophic wildfires, but to also restore forests impacted by reservoirs, erosion and beetle devastation. On Monday, Feb 27, Forests to Faucets was granted a $33 million extension to continue its ongoing projects.

Lawrence Lujan is the regional press officer for the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service, one of the organizations involved in the partnership. He says the specific strategies will be identified in a 5-year plan.

“Some of the tools in the toolbox include, thinning, prescribed fire, replanting trees, especially in areas that have been impacted by previous fires,” said Lujan. “We’ll be decommissioning roads, taking actions to minimize erosion and sedimentation of reservoirs.”

Locations for forest restoration and wildfire fuels reduction projects include Dillon, Strontia Springs, Gross, Antero, Eleven Mile Canyon, Cheesman and Williams Fork reservoirs. The partnership anticipates treating more than 40,000 acres of land…

The $33 million investment comes from an initial $16.5 million from Denver Water, targeting critical watersheds. Of that, the U.S. Forest Service will receive $11.5 million, the CSFS will receive $3 million and the NRCS will receive $2 million. Each entity will match Denver Water’s funding, for a total of $33 million.

If a tree falls in the forest, does our water suffer? – News on TAP

Reducing catastrophic wildfires and restoring forests help protect the watershed and maintain the quality of our water.

Source: If a tree falls in the forest, does our water suffer? – News on TAP

@csindependent: Forests along the Front Range may struggle to return after fires

From the Colorado Springs Independent (J. Adrian Stanley):

Limited conifer regeneration following wildfires in dry ponderosa pine forests of the Colorado Front Range, by Fire Ecologist Monica Rother and CU-Boulder Professor of Geography Thomas Veblen, surveyed conifer regeneration at six low-elevation Front Range sites that burned eight to 15 years before. Released in December and published in the journal Ecosphere, it found that “current patterns of post-fire seedling establishment suggest that vegetation composition and structure may differ notably from historic patterns and that lower density stands and even non-forested communities may persist in some areas of these burns long after the fire[.]”

Translation: Based on historical trends, these sites should have been populated with conifer seedlings. But 83 percent of the sites showed a very low density of seedlings. In fact, 59 percent had no seedlings at all.

Reached at the Florida research station where she now works, Rother says we can expect Front Range burn areas — like our own Waldo and Black Forest Fire scars — to regrow some conifers. But, due to a variety of factors, including increased temperatures, it’s unlikely that the forest will come back the way we remember it. “Our findings show some portions that burn will persist as grasslands,” she says.

Rother says her study can’t pinpoint the exact reason why forests aren’t recovering as expected because there are so many factors involved. Fires that burned hotter leave behind more damaged ground, for instance. Ponderosa seeds don’t travel far, so areas where trees were completely wiped out may be too distant from a seed source. Then there’s temperature, water and elevation to consider. Even the direction the slope faces or the amount of shade provided to an individual seedling can impact survival rate.

But here’s something to keep in mind, Rother says: The older trees that burn in fires were seedlings some 50 or 100 years ago, and we know the climate was different then. The 2014 Climate Change in Colorado report for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, for instance, found that statewide, annual average temperatures have increased 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 30 years, and 2.5 degrees over the past 50 years (precipitation levels have meanwhile shown no trend). While that may seem like a small change, Rother notes that in a separate 2015 study published in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research, she, Veblen and research assistant Luke Furman found that when they simulated different conditions that ponderosa pine and Douglas fir seedlings growing in a post-burn Front Range area might experience, those that saw more heat or less water fared poorly.

On a hopeful note, though, Rother says her more recent study looked at portions of three fires on the more northern Front Range, and portions of three more to the south. The southern fires — 2000’s High Meadows Fire, Buffalo Creek, and especially Hayman — showed the best recovery. That might seem odd, given that southern Colorado is known to be dry.

“That was a surprise to us too,” Rother says, explaining that it’s possible that higher altitudes or more summer monsoon rains made the difference on the Hayman.

Jim Gerleman is the Forest Vegetation Program Manager for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests and Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands — the local guy who’s tracking what’s happening on the Waldo Canyon burn scar. For the past few years, he says, the Forest Service has been planting seedlings over 200 acres in the burn scar.

All the seedlings are grown from local seed and most are professionally planted to target the best possible season (usually April), the most promising slopes, and even the exact sites where the babies are most likely to survive. Over three years, Gerleman says, the trees have had a 60 percent survival rate, which isn’t excellent, but is considered normal.

Ponderosas can be finicky, Gerleman says. They need minerals, which usually means vegetation has to grow first, then die and enrich the soil. But thick grass can also choke out ponderosa seeds.

Waldo, Gerleman says, has come back fairly well — there’s grass, shrubs, even some aspens. But he doesn’t expect the whole forest to regenerate unless they replant it all.

Ekarius says the problem is that ponderosa forests are designed to burn — just not the way that they have. In a natural setting, the oldest trees will survive. A ponderosa mother tree has to be at least 40 years old to produce cones, and her babies grow near her. This is how our forest is supposed to regenerate. But recent fires have burned super-hot, fueled by dry, sweltering weather, and a forest allowed to overgrow due to fire suppression. They left behind a barren landscape.

Ekarius thinks Waldo, aided by wet years, has recovered well. But she expects it to always have areas of grassland where tall stands of conifers once grew. Those grasslands, she says, should prove a good home to elk and bighorn sheep, though they won’t provide suitable habitat to forest squirrels and goshawks. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. “I think it’s different, and I think we don’t like different,” Ekarius explains. “If you’ve been looking at forest for the past 20 years out your back window and now you’re looking at grasslands, you’re probably thinking, ‘Well I didn’t want to live in the plains.'”

Southwestern Water Conservation District board shuffled

San Juan wildflowers.

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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