We are rivers podcast: We can make a lot happen when we have a plan — @AmericanRivers #COWaterPlan

From American Rivers (Page Buono):

Join us for a two-part miniseries of our podcast series We Are Rivers. We’ll learn more about Stream Management Plans, an innovative planning tool prioritized in Colorado’s Water Plan, from people working with stakeholder groups and communities across Colorado to put them in place.

Orr Manufacturing Vertical Impact Sprinkler circa 1928 via the Irrigation Museum

Water has always been the architect of life in Colorado. Communities have worked within the availability, demands, and constraints of water to engineer lives and livelihoods. Water designs our lives as much by its availability as it does by scarcity—perhaps even more. In 2013, the State of Colorado recognized the impending impacts of rising populations, increasing demand across the state and the West, and a changing climate, then-Governor John Hickenlooper called for a plan to address these issues. He directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board—the government entity tasked with conserving, developing, protecting and managing the state’s water—to work with diverse stakeholders and develop Colorado’s first water plan. You can learn more about the Plan from Episode 6 in our podcast series.

Seven-point draft conceptual agreement framework for negotiations on a future transmountain diversion screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

In some ways, Colorado’s Water Plan articulated and formalized ways to meet the needs of agriculture, land use, and storage that were already in place. But it also did something else: for the first time, the Colorado Water Plan called for the consideration and integration of environmental and recreational flow needs. This decision came from growing recognition of the critical role rivers play in local economies, and the immense ecosystem services that healthy, functioning rivers and streams provide for all values—human and environmental. With this in mind, the Water Plan outlined a goal of inspiring community-driven development of Stream Management Plans for 80 percent of locally prioritized rivers and streams.

In the first episode of this miniseries, we hear from Nicole Seltzer, Science and Policy Manager of River Network, who talks us through the fundamentals of the stream management planning process. Holly Loff, Executive Director of Eagle River Watershed Council, shares on-the-ground experiences of a community planning effort along the Eagle River, and Chelsea Congdon-Brundige, a watershed consultant in the Roaring Fork Valley, shares her highlights from a similar but unique effort for the Crystal River.

As you’ll hear in the podcast, a critical component of Stream Management Planning is the diversity of stakeholders and interests at the table; the important and foundational role of science; and the way each Plan is unique to the community that builds it. SMP’s (as they’re often referred to) are really more about process than a final product, and the greatest win is the long-lasting trust inspired through tough but important conversations across values. SMPs aren’t designed to prioritize any one interest, but instead to bring agriculture, the environment, municipal needs, and recreation alongside one another for the best possible solutions for all.

Screen shot from the Vimeo film, “Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project: Five Ditches,” https://vimeo.com/364411112

If you’re inspired by this first Episode, and we suspect you will be, make sure to tune in for part 2 (coming 6/1/20) . We’ll hear from some of the same voices and from new ones from the Rio Grande Basin – including Heather Dutton with the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and Emma Reesor with Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project – about the groundbreaking and inspiring ways communities are working together to plan for the future of the rivers and streams that bind them, and all of us, together. Join us – and listen in today!

Repairs to El Vado Dam Begin Next Year — The #RioGrande Sun

From The Rio Grande Sun (Molly Montgomery):

Beginning in 2021, the Bureau of Reclamation will repair El Vado Dam.

Built in 1935, the dam is one of the only steel faceplated dams in the country. It can store around 200,000 acre-feet of water.

Some of the steel faceplates of the dam have become cracked and bent due to shifts in the land around the dam, wrote Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Specialist Mary Carlson in a March 6 email.

The shifts in land have also caused erosion behind the faceplates and cracks and bending in the plates on the dam’s spillway, she wrote.

Bureau of Reclamation Civil Engineer Carolyn Donnelly discussed the potential effects of these changes at the Fifth Annual Rio Chama Congreso Feb. 29.

“The spillway, some of those face plates, if you walk on it, you can hear it’s kind of hollow underneath and they move, so if we started using that at the full capacity, water could get under those plates, take them out, and then there could be failure of the dam,” Donnelly said. “And luckily there’s not a large population downstream, but for those who are there it would not be a good thing.”

El Vado stores water for irrigation in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which includes six pueblos—Santa Ana, Kewa, Cochiti, San Felipe, Isleta and Sandia.

It also sometimes stores drinking water for cities including Santa Fe and Albuquerque as part of the San Juan-Chama Project.

Carlson wrote that the Bureau of Reclamation is still working out details about how water will be stored and move during the repair, for which the reservoir will be close to empty for at least a year.

New Mexico Lakes, Rivers and Water Resources via Geology.com.

#Snowpack/#Drought/#Runoff news: Snowpack not enough to break ongoing drought across S. #Colorado — The Prowers Journal

Colorado Drought Monitor May 12, 2020.

From The Prowers Journal (Russ Baldwin):

[Snowpack] in the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins [was] near normal this year. That snow was not enough to relieve the on-going drought. Runoff in both basins is expected to be well below normal and looks to be coming early. Warm temperatures and lack of precipitation in April have accelerated the snowmelt. Models indicate the runoff may peak about 2-3 weeks ahead of an average year; the Rio Grande slightly earlier than the Arkansas. Runoff in the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins will be well-below average.

Drought conditions began to develop in the early fall of 2019. Below average rainfall during the summer and into the fall depleted soil moisture and groundwater going into the winter. Those dry soils and groundwater reservoirs are currently absorbing snow melt that would run off in a wetter year.

Forecasts from both the NRCS and the NWS reflected these dry soils and ground water deficits earlier this winter. Water users in the Arkansas River basin are fortunate to have a number of dams available within the system. Snowpack and runoff in 2018-2019 were abundant and some of it remains available in storage.

From OutThereColorado.com (Spencer McKee):

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Colorado’s current snowpack is at just 43 percent of where the snowpack was this time last year and 64 percent of the average for this date, despite reaching a peak snowpack at 103 percent of the norm this season. This low snowpack is due to warm temperatures and a dry spring, which has resulted in a faster melt and less snow…

One spot that’s particularly dry is the Upper Rio Grande Basin, which is at 25 percent of the median snow water equivalent as of May 13. This includes spots like Medano Pass, Wolf Creek Summit, and Hayden Pass. The Arkansas River Basin is also lacking quite a bit of snow – currently at 59 percent of the median snow water equivalent on May 13. The Arkansas River Basin includes areas like Saint Elmo, Glen Cove, and Fremont Pass…

While things do seem quite dry right now around the state, the 2018 snowpack was worse, as seen by the yellow line in the graph below.

Colorado Statewide Times Series Snowpack Summary May 15, 2020 via the NRCS.

From The Denver Post (Chris Bianchi):

There was a notably wide gap in snowfall totals from the west side of Denver to the east side this winter, with the east side of the city seeing only about half of the snowfall that the west side received. Consider, for example, Wheat Ridge’s approximately 100 inches of snowfall this winter compared to the 48 inches of snow that Brighton received.

To be clear, most winters feature some sort of noticeable gradient between all sides of the Denver metro area. But as evidenced in part by Boulder’s record-breaking snowfall season, this winter favored the east-facing foothills west of Denver in a perhaps slightly unusual way.

For example: Denver generally saw a slightly above average season’s worth of snowfall (57.6 inches at Denver International Airport, and about 71 inches at the Stapleton Airport weather observation site). This was a generally decent-sized winter (30-year average Denver snowfall: about 50 inches) for the immediate Denver area, but it wasn’t off-the-charts for local standards.

But if you push ever-so-slightly west into the west side of Denver and into the first suburbs on the other side of the city line, like Lakewood and Wheat Ridge, and those seasonal snow totals jumped dramatically. Wheat Ridge saw over 100 inches this winter, while Lakewood saw almost 90 inches of seasonal snowfall.

While there’s typically a gap between the east and west sides of Denver, the fact that the west side of the metro area almost doubled the east side’s snowfall is a bit of a wider spread than usual.

“There weren’t a lot of big synoptic storms that were widespread (in producing more evenly-distributed snowfall),” said Scott Entrekin, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Boulder. “Most of the folks on the plains only had 20 to 30 inches of snow, which is a bit below normal out there. We did have some upslope-heavy storms.”

If you stretch out the geography a bit, the gap gets even wider: Colorado’s Eastern Plains saw only about 20 to 30 inches of snow this winter, below average in most cases. Meanwhile, the foothills west of Denver saw as much as 200 inches worth of snowfall, well above the climatological average there.

This was likely due to a high number of snowstorms that primarily pushed in easterly winds, or ones that strongly favor the foothills and the west side of the Denver area. Because elevation begins its sharp climb just west of Denver, easterly winds are forced to climb with the terrain as well. When air rises, it condenses into moisture…

Traditionally, the wider snowfall gap comes between the south side of the metro area and the rest of the city. The Palmer Divide, the mountainous area between Denver and Colorado Springs that rises up to 7,000 feet in elevation, is typically one of the more significant areas of snowfall across the metro area. The Palmer Divide’s elevation difference and geography is why places like Castle Rock (83.5 inches of snow this winter) and Sedalia (about 80 inches) often wind up with some of the higher seasonal totals over the course of a full winter.

The divide, however, usually relies on a bit more of a northerly component to the winds to bring in both colder and more upslope-dominant winds that’ll rise more efficiently against the east-west orientated range.

But this winter, those Palmer Divide areas actually saw slightly less snowfall than places like Wheat Ridge and Lakewood, and Castle Rock barely half of Boulder’s 152 inches of seasonal snowfall. That’s far from unheard of, but it certainly is a bit unusual, and yet another indicator of the huge snow season that the foothills specifically had.

That led to a big difference in snowfall totals over just a few miles across the Denver area this winter, including slightly below average seasonal amounts for areas just north of the city.

A Decent Winter Becomes A Lousy Spring On The #RioGrande — #NewMexico in Focus #snowpack #runoff

From New Mexico in Focus (Laura Paskus):

This spring, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque is running at about 20 percent of its historic average—even though snowpack in the watershed was close to average last fall and into February. Conditions won’t get much better: Peak snowmelt occurred last week, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“This year was more along the lines of what I anticipate for the future, to happen more often,” says David Gutzler, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico. Gutzler has been studying climate change in the southwestern United States for decades.

Increasingly warm conditions play out in predictable ways in the arid Southwest. That includes having less water in rivers, even when the region isn’t necessarily mired in drought, experiencing a deficit in snowpack or rainfall.

“You get snow in the winter when it’s really cold, but then things get warm and dry—which is the long-term outlook for springtime in the Southwest—and the snow just melts away faster than our historical statistics would suggest,” Gutzler says of this year’s conditions.

“This is more like a global warming-style of a low streamflow year, as opposed to a drought year [like 2018] that started off bad and stayed warm, and was just bad for the whole winter.”

Two years ago, then-UNM graduate student Shaleene Chavarria published her research with Gutzler about declining snowmelt and streamflows in the Rio Grande. In that peer-reviewed study, she looked at annual and monthly changes in climate variables and streamflow volume in the headwaters of the Rio Grande in Colorado between 1958 and 2015. She found that flows are declining in March, April, and May.

Chavarria, a hydrologist, saw something else in the records: Snowpack in the Rio Grande watershed is decreasing. And it’s melting earlier.

That’s definitely playing out again this year.

Looking at the data, Chavarria notes that in 2018 and 2020, snowpack melted out about a month earlier than it normally did in the past. “This is something we address in the paper, and I think it’s interesting and scary to see it happening,” she wrote in an email to NMPBS…

The changes in the timing of spring runoff and in the amount of water flowing within the banks of the Rio Grande affect farmers and cities. They also affect the river’s ecosystem—including the cottonwood bosque—and the species that depend upon its waters and cycles.

Already, according to Carolyn Donnelly with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the water management agency has released about 4,000 acre feet of water from upstream reservoirs to prevent riverbed drying—and it plans to release supplemental water again within the week.

When the Natural Resources Conservation Service released its final May streamflow this week, the numbers were “pretty grim,” says Reclamation spokesperson Mary Carlson.

“In March, we were looking at a runoff that was near average. But that just didn’t materialize,” Carlson says. “We will continue to coordinate closely with our water operations partners to ensure that every drop of the supply that we do have will be used in the most beneficial way.”

She adds that New Mexico will likely end up under Article VII restrictions by the middle of June.

Under that provision of the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, New Mexico is only allowed to store water in upstream reservoirs when levels in Elephant Butte Reservoir are above a certain threshold. With little water flowing into that reservoir this year, the state won’t be able to store waters upstream—and Elephant Butte’s levels will keep dropping, too.

The bureau anticipates Elephant Butte’s levels will drop close to its 2018 historic lows, when the reservoir was at just three percent of capacity. (The reservoir, which was built to hold two million acre feet of water, is about 25 percent full this week. Water stored there is allocated to farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas)

Reclamation also anticipates that the Middle Rio Grande will dry within the next month, beginning within Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in San Antonio…

Upper Rio Grande River Basin High/Low graph May 7, 2020 via the NRCS.

For decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with federal, state, tribal, and local partners, has tried to keep the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow from going extinct. The two-inch long fish was once one of the river’s most abundant. But by the 1990s, its population had plummeted, earning it the dubious distinction of requiring federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Some of those efforts include releasing water to keep the river flowing longer, and also working with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to release water “spikes” when the minnows are spawning.

When the Middle Rio Grande does dry, as it has many summers since the 1990s, biologists end up in the riverbed, trying to salvage what live minnows they can find. They scoop the fish from pools and puddles, then transport them to sections of the river where flows are high enough to possibly sustain the tiny fish.

Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Thomas Archdeacon anticipates the river will dry around Memorial Day. When that starts happening, biologists will slog through the muddy—and then sandy—riverbed, seeking out the endangered fish.

Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

Five Ditches project wraps up — #RioGrande Headwaters Restoration Project

Screen shot from the Vimeo film, “Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project: Five Ditches,” https://vimeo.com/364411112

From The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project via The Valley Courier:

Over the past several years, the Restoration Project has worked with five ditch companies and diverse stakeholders to improve irrigation infrastructure on the Rio Grande between Alamosa and Del Norte, while also benefiting the river as a whole. The project’s founding document, the 2001 Study, found that changes in hydrology and aging, failing diversion structures were causing sediment deposition, erosion, loss of riparian habitat, and inefficient diversion of water.

The Five Ditches Project addressed these issues by replacing diversion dams and head-gates for five ditches and restoring surrounding streambanks. These efforts have resulted in a multitude of benefits, including improved diversion efficiency and irrigation operations, enhanced fish and wildlife habitat, reduced erosion and increased community safety. As the Five Ditches Project wraps up, those involved wanted to once again acknowledge the incredible collaboration that made this project possible and give an overview of everything that has been accomplished together.

If you haven’t seen it already, check out the film made by Moxiecran Media about the Five Ditches Project…

Rio Grande #2

Ditch The Rio Grande #2 Ditch irrigates 250 acres northeast of Del Norte. It suffered from an inefficient diversion dam and high maintenance due to trash and sediment. In Winter 2017, the diversion dam and headgate were removed and replaced with a fish-passable stacked rock cross vain diversion structure and a steel headgate. The surrounding channel and streambanks were also reshaped and stabilized, and aquatic and riparian habitat improvements and a rock deflector were added.

Consolidated and Pace Ditches

The Consolidated Ditch irrigates 6,849 acres, and had a crumbling, century-old concrete headgate with a difficult to maintain push-up diversion dam. To remedy these issues, the headgate was replaced with a new concrete structure with trash rack and automation, and a new concrete diversion dam was constructed featuring a fish ladder and two Obermeyer gates for fine control and sediment flushing. The adjacent banks have also been reshaped and revegetated, improving habitat for wildlife and channel stability. The Pace Ditch is a smaller diversion irrigating 107 acres, and is located directly adjacent to the Consolidated Ditch. Both ditches share the new diversion dam, and the Pace headgate was replaced at the same time as the Consolidated headgate, with a manual slide gate and pipe to convey water to the ditch. San Luis Valley Canal The San Luis Valley Canal provides water for 20,200 irrigated acres. Its headgate was redesigned to replace the existing hundred-year-old structure. Over time the river had moved away from the headgate structure, resulting in a static pool in front of the headgate that caused sediment deposition. The new concrete headgate is situated closer to the river and features automated gates. The banks were reshaped around the new structure, and a severely eroding bend in the vicinity of the diversion was reshaped, stabilized, and revegetated. The project also includes a trash deflector and rock weir check structure.

Centennial Ditch

Supplying water to 8,500 acres, the Centennial Ditch had a degraded concrete diversion that was dangerous to maintain. In order to divert water at certain flows, the ditch rider would have to wade into the river to put boards across the dam and raise the water level. In Winter 2017, the old diversion structure was removed and replaced with a grouted rock dam. The new structure also includes an Obermeyer gate in the low flow channel for fine control and sediment flushing. By request from CPW, the dam is a fish barrier to prevent the passage of nonnative species. Nearby streambanks were also stabilized.

Location map for the Five Ditches Project. Screen shot from the Vimeo film, “Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project: Five Ditches,” https://vimeo.com/364411112

Thanks again to each of the five ditch partners!

Centennial Irrigating Ditch Company

Consolidated Ditch and Headgate Company

Cooley & Sons Excavating

Pace Ditch

Rio Grande #2 Ditch Shareholders

Riverbend Engineering

Robins Construction

San Luis Valley Canal Company National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)

Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB)

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW)

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW)

The Five Ditches Project made great strides toward meeting agricultural, environmental, and recreational needs on the Rio Grande, however aging infrastructure and bank erosion is still a significant challenge across the Rio Grande headwaters. Your support will allow them to continue working with irrigators, landowners, and partners on the Rio Grande and Conejos River to complete infrastructure improvement and river restoration projects!

Map of the Rio Grande watershed. Graphic credit: WikiMedia

State Supreme Court rules on San Luis Valley water rights case — #Colorado Politics

The northern end of Colorado’s San Luis Valley has a raw, lonely beauty that rivals almost any place in the North American West. Photo/Allen Best

From Colorado Politics (Michael Karlik):

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday upheld an agreement that would allow a water conservation subdistrict in Southern Colorado to import water to the Rio Grande and use the entirety of its own imported water under long-standing legal doctrine.

The Closed Basin is a watershed in the San Luis Valley with a physical separation between itself and the Rio Grande. Surface water, therefore, does not flow into the river, and is imported through canals. However, a study revealed that pumping from an underground aquifer in the Closed Basin was causing depletion to the waters of the Rio Grande.

In 2010, a water court judge approved a plan for the Special Improvement District No. 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that proposed a way to restore river flows otherwise lost to irrigation-related pumping. The subdistrict would have to replace the river depletions, and consequently it contracted with Santa Maria Reservoir Company to lease water from its supply in two reservoirs.

The company, however, had to amend its bylaws to allow for the water to go toward replacement of flows, not just for irrigation. The idea was to release water from a reservoir and have it flow down the Rio Grande, with no diversions for irrigation to the Closed Basin.

By April 2016, all affected parties had withdrawn objections except for one rancher, Jim Warner. He owned property in the Closed Basin and needed the subsurface water created as a byproduct of the importation to stay at a certain level. Warner opposed the change out of a suspicion that he could no longer use flood irrigation of his hay crops.

During the trial, SMRC argued that its importation scheme would not harm other water users in the Closed Basin. Warner did not provide any evidence to support his claim, as well as for his allegation that the Closed Basin and the Rio Grande were not separate water systems after all.

The water court found acceptable the arrangement for SMRC to replenish the Rio Grande and for the subdistrict to use the entirety of its imported water into the Closed Basin for its own irrigation purposes…

Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Carlos A. Samour Jr. found that the water court was correct to approve the Closed Basin arrangement based on cases as early as 1907.

“We have repeatedly said that when water is introduced into a stream system from an unconnected stream system, it is imported,” he wrote. There was plainly a divide between the Closed Basin and the river, and the SMRC’s actions would not cause Warner injury.

@USBR Prepares for Below Average #Runoff in the #RioGrande #snowpack

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Mary Carlson):

On the heels of a banner water year on the Rio Grande, water managers are again preparing to manage through drought as a below average runoff is expected this spring based on the current snowpack in the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

The Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their Annual Operating Plan for the Rio Grande today showing below average runoff. While the amount of water in the snowpack (snow water equivalent) measured in the mountains feeding the river was close to average in March, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) warns that runoff may be below average as a result of low soil moisture levels resulting from a dry fall in 2019.

At the end of March, snow water equivalent was 81 percent of average for the Rio Chama Basin, 93 percent of average for the Upper Rio Grande Basin, 105 percent for the Sangre de Cristos, and 57 percent for the Jemez. Based on these values, the NRCS April streamflow forecast predicts that Rio Chama flow into El Vado Reservoir will be 56 percent of average with an inflow of about 125,000 acre-feet of water. Water is stored in El Vado for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and to meet the needs of the Six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos.

Rio Grande Project storage is currently about 600,000 acre-feet and peaked at about 650,000 acre-feet at the beginning of March before declining as irrigation releases started. The forecast shows that combined usable project storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs is likely to fall below 400,000 acre-feet in late June. This triggers restrictions under the Rio Grande Compact that limit storage in upstream reservoirs such as El Vado.

The Annual Operating Plan public meetings were held by WebEx this year in accordance with federal and state health guidelines. Those who were not able to attend the meetings can still view the presentation on Reclamation’s website at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/albuq/water/aop/index.html or contact Mary Carlson at mcarlson@usbr.gov.

Westwide SNOTEL April 17, 2020 via the NRCS.