@AspenJournalism: Study provides insight into how dams affect ecology of southwestern #Colorado rivers

The Dolores River in southwestern Colorado on Memorial Day in 2009. Photo/Allen Best

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The San Miguel and Dolores rivers are both southwestern Colorado waterways that begin high in the San Juan Mountains.

Both carve through narrow, red sandstone canyons. Eventually, the two rivers become one when the San Miguel merges into the Dolores and the Dolores with the Colorado River in eastern Utah.

But there is one major difference: The Dolores is dammed at McPhee Reservoir near the town of Dolores, while the San Miguel is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West.

A study of plant traits on these two rivers may provide clues about how riparian habitats will respond to climate change, not just in southwestern Colorado, but across the state and the West.

Measuring traits

Researchers from Colorado State University recently completed a two-year study on the Dolores and San Miguel rivers, the results of which were presented at the Upper Colorado River Basin Forum in Grand Junction in November.

The study compared two sites on the Dolores (Rico and Bedrock) with two sites on the San Miguel (Placerville and Uravan) by documenting different plant traits at each of the four sites. A “trait” is simply a measureable feature of a plant, such as leaf area, root depth, and height. The more diverse these traits are, the higher something called “functional diversity.”

For both of the upstream sites, Placerville and Rico, functional diversity was higher than it was at the downstream sites, which scientists expected because the downstream sites receive less rainfall. But the Bedrock site, downstream from McPhee Reservoir, had a much lower functional diversity than its sister site of Uravan. This is likely due to the changes in the river’s flow as a result of the dam. With lower functional diversity comes a decreased resistance to invasive species or climate change.

“Dams really do have a huge impact on the downstream ecosystem, and it’s not always talked about,” said Erin Cubley, one of the researchers on the project and a Ph.D. candidate in ecology at Colorado State University. “Dams hold sediments and seeds, they change the flow; they change the processes that are essential in maintaining these ecosystems.”

The dam across the Dolores River that forms McPhee Reservoir is downstream from the small town of Dolores. It forms the fifth biggest reservoir in the state and holds back about 381,000 acre-feet of water. McPhee Reservoir supplies the agricultural irrigation needs of farmers and ranchers south of the Dolores River Basin. The resulting decreased flow below the dam has big impacts on the downstream ecology, Cubley said. A smaller river channel cuts deeper, not wider, and this lowers the groundwater that riparian plants depend upon for survival.

“Riparian species have a big taproot and can access water a few feet down, but if they can’t access groundwater, they die,” Cubley said. “That is what we are seeing at Bedrock.”

Spring runoff

By measuring traits and functional diversity instead of specific plant species (which may vary depending on the river and location in the watershed), the study has implications for many of the state’s rivers.

“By using traits, we can look at how similar their traits are and put them into groups and say, ‘OK, we can transfer our findings across rivers that have different species compositions,’” Cubley said.

Another way dams alter the natural flow of the river has to do with spring runoff. Many dams are managed solely with maximum storage capacity in mind, said David M. Merritt, a riparian ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service National Stream and Aquatic Ecology Center. There are easy tweaks water managers can make that will not compromise the power or storage needs of the dam that can also improve the ecological functioning downstream.

For example, one of the most important components of river health is peak flows and flooding with spring runoff. Some species, such as the cottonwood tree, time the release of their seeds to coincide with peak flows. The fluffy white fibers use the river to carry them downstream to hopefully take root in the riverbank. But when dams control the river and don’t allow for this peak flow to happen, it can have a negative effect on cottonwoods, as well as the whole downstream ecosystem.

“If you are a dam operator, it might be easy for you to time a spike that coincides with that historic timing,” Merritt said. “The timing of peak flow is reliant on temperatures with a little variability annually. A dam operator would have tremendous flexibility on when that would occur.”

A view of the Dolores River below Slickrock.

Effects of climate change

Assuming that the future of the American West will be warmer and drier than it currently is, the research team can model what a future ecosystem might look like: At what point will more drought-resistant plants move in? If you change the flows of a river, then how will the vegetation respond? What would happen if water managers changed dam operations?

“What if climate change is twice as bad or what if it’s not as bad?” Merritt said. “We are scientists who predict change. … We will be able to show predictions of what the vegetation will look like. It’s a model and a technique that can be used on any river anywhere.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Vail Daily, the Summit Daily, The Aspen Times, and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Vail Daily published this story on Jan. 2, 2017. The Summit Daily published it on Jan. 3.

Dolores River watershed

Telluride Regional Wastewater Plan update

Telluride

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Justin Criado):

Council members and several town officials visited their Mountain Village neighbors to the north in order to discuss the proposed Telluride Regional Wastewater Treatment Master Plan. The plan has not been formally finalized, but it’s not likely to change drastically, Public Works Director Paul Ruud said.

The two-hour work session included a presentation highlighting immediate, short-term and long-term goals over the next 10 years…

The current wastewater treatment plant at Society Turn serves the communities of Telluride, Mountain Village, Eider Creek, Sunset Ridge, Aldasoro and Lawson Hill.

The plant is reaching its originally designed capacity, officials explained. Plus, Department of Public Health and Environment regulations through the Colorado Discharge Permit System have been altered over the years. (Colorado Water Quality Control Division stipulations regarding acceptable metals levels in the water also changed beginning this year.)

Those variables, in conjunction with an increased waste stream and new treatment options, make updating and eventually expanding the current plant paramount within the next decade…

Immediate focuses include talking with commercial wastewater dischargers about pre-treatment agreements, seasonal restrictions on septage hauling to the plant and a receiving station for storage of septage, among other items.

Ruud called the more immediate objectives “stepping stones.”

The long-term plan, outlined until 2027, includes plant expansion to meet possible new state nutrient regulations.

The San Miguel Valley Corporation owns the land immediately around the current plant. Ruud said there have been “very preliminary” talks with corporation officials about possibly acquiring more land.

The total cost of all proposed master plan improvements would be in the $30-$40 million range. Telluride officials explained addressing future wastewater plans in annual budgets would help with the planning process. (Telluride had a specific focus on water and wastewater projects when sculpting its 2017 budget.)

The recently opened, $22 million Fruita wastewater plant was used as an example of what is possible, but Ruud explained Telluride’s wastewater flow is higher than Fruita’s, which calls for larger improvements.

Telluride Town Manager Greg Clifton said none of the master plan objectives are necessarily “set in stone” just yet…

The city continues to replace outdated water lines, update treatment plant technology, and develop better ways to store and treat water and wastewater.

Water and wastewater projects are covered through separate enterprise funds, which use taxes and service fees to raise capital.//

For 2017, projected Telluride Water Fund revenues are $2.6 million, while projected expenditures are $3.5 million.

Plans to replace more pipes around town and the Bridal Veil Basin are in the works for this year, including repairs to pipes that carry water through the Lewis and Blue lakes areas. The Mill Creek Water Treatment Plant is in need of equipment and holding tank updates, which are projected to be $278,500, according to town officials.

Clifton added that exploring alternative, outside funding options will be a hot topic at future meetings.

@CFWEWater’s Southwest Basin Tour Next Week! Scholarship Opportunity and Optional Whitewater Rafting Add-On

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Click here for the inside skinny and to register.

From email from the Colorado Foundation for Water Education:

The itinerary for this year’s annual river basin tour in Colorado’s Southwest is full of exciting site visits and informative speakers!

We’ll be covering a wide range of local municipal, recreational, industrial, agricultural and ecological projects and priorities. This is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

But hurry, the tour is next week and there are just eight seats left, including one scholarship spot!

Get on the bus for this year’s Southwest Basin Tour, hosted in Colorado’s beautiful San Juan mountains June 13-14. Share a unique educational experience with other tour participants, including the Colorado legislative Interim Water Resources Review Committee, and get an in-depth look at how the Southwest Basin Implementation Plan is being put into action in the San Miguel and Dolores watersheds. Review the draft agenda here, find some highlights below, and register now to reserve your spot.

On Day 1, we’ll make exciting stops at sites along the lower San Miguel watershed and part of the Dolores, hearing from agency reps, nonprofits, and civic leaders about topics such as:

  • Blending a local ag and recreational economy, and balancing the needs of multiple users
  • Using instream flow appropriations as a tool to protect Wild and Scenic Outstandingly Remarkable Values plus alternative Wild and Scenic stakeholder processes
  • Native fish restoration and the Dolores River Dialogue
  • A local municipal raw water project
  • Other Southwest Basin Implementation plan priorities
  • Plus tour the Paradox Salinity Unit and Indian Ridge Farm

On Day 2, we’ll concentrate on the upper San Miguel and explore topics including:

  • Ski industry concerns in the face of climate change and unpredictable snowpack
  • Regional cloud-seeding efforts to stimulate precipitation
  • Creative and collaborative municipal water management in conjunction with local mining and power supply
  • The evolution of watershed planning and incorporation of stream management plans
  • Plus tour the Valley Floor Project restoration site and view a special showing of the film that debuted at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival

BONUS: Participants now have the option to add on an optional whitewater rafting trip at the end of the tour and will receive a 40% discount off of normal rates. Find out more here.

*Interested in a scholarship? Email Jennie@yourwatercolorado.org to let us know what you do and why you need a scholarship to attend.

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.”

History made right, as [San Miguel] river is restored — Telluride Daily Planet

Photo via TellurideValleyFloor.org
Photo via TellurideValleyFloor.org

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Jessica Kutz):

Thanks to the Valley Floor River Restoration Project, the San Miguel River on the west side of Telluride finally was reunited on Sunday with its natural meandering ways.

The plan for the “new” river route was based on aerial photography taken before the channelization had taken place. This helped project officials in finding the general area where the river had once been. They then were able to accurately locate the original alignment by studying the prominence of gravel layers in the area.

In the words of Gary Hickcox, former chair of the Open Space Commission and former director of the San Miguel Conservation Fund, “The river will be able to do what rivers do.” It will be able to flood when necessary, foster riparian habitat and overall “be a much healthier river system,” he said.

Once confined to the southern side of the Valley Floor, the river will now run lazily through the space and work its magic on land that had been devoid of the water source for more than 100 years. To recreate the meandering nature of the river, an additional 1,300 feet of length was introduced.

It is hoped that ecologically, the area eventually will return to something close to its original state. As David Blauch, project designer with Ecological Resource Consultants, put it, “ Five years from now, we are hoping that nobody knows this is a new channel.”

According to Hilary Cooper, program manager for Valley Floor Preservation Partners, “They set up the project to have minimal human engineering and to have the river do the engineering.”

Although there will be some human-led interventions, including planting a seed mix based on studies of plants native to the area as well as continuous monitoring, it is believed that the river — and as some said, the beavers — will take care of the rest.

If the river is able to flood naturally again, it will be able to “deposit sediment in a way that naturally encourages vegetation,” Cooper said.
Hickcox added that for nature enthusiasts, the river restoration was a good move “not only from an environmental standpoint, but also visually it will be much more attractive.”

For Cooper, and for many others invested in the project, Sunday was momentous. “It is important in so many ways ecologically, but emotionally right now it feels really good to resolve something that was a mistake. Trying to control a river and channelize it for the human population is never a good idea,” Cooper said.

So what happens next? According to town Program Manager Lance McDonald, the commission now will start planning new trails. But he added, “We will wait to see how the landscape functions prior to making any decisions.”

McDonald said remaining work should be completed before the end of this month, and the area will be open to the public sometime in November for all to enjoy.

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

Telluride: “People don’t want to talk about pipes. It’s just not sexy” — Greg Clifton

Photo via TellurideValleyFloor.org
Photo via TellurideValleyFloor.org

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Justin Criado):

The 2017 General Fund budget is approximately $200,000 more than the current year’s amended budget, with the biggest difference being indirect project costs.

Areas of focus next year will be water and wastewater projects as the city continues to replace outdated water lines, update treatment plant technology, and develop better ways to store and treat water and wastewater.

Water and wastewater projects are covered through separate enterprise funds, which use taxes and service fees to raise capital.

“People don’t want to talk about pipes. It’s just not sexy,” Town Manager Greg Clifton said of the current pipe-replacement project. “But when water doesn’t come out of the faucet, our phones will ring.

“There’s so much work behind the scenes just to make sure water comes out of the faucet.”
For 2017, projected Water Fund revenues are $2.6 million, while projected expenditures are $3.5 million.

The town currently is replacing a 60-year-old pipe along East Colorado Avenue as part of a comprehensive project to revamp the infrastructure.

Plans to replace more pipes around town and the Bridal Veil Basin are in the works for next year, including repairs to pipes that carry water through the Lewis and Blue lakes areas.

“We’re chipping away on these things,” Clifton said. “(Colorado Avenue) was our worst pipe.”

Efforts to improve the water system have been ongoing for some time now, Clifton explained, including construction of the Pandora Water Treatment Plant in 2014.

The Mill Creek Water Treatment Plant is in need of equipment and holding tank updates, which are projected to be $278,500, according to city officials.

A new computer-monitored control panel will be installed to help regulate the lines, and one of the two holding tanks will be relined.

Telluride Public Works Director Paul Ruud explained that water lines need almost constant maintenance.

“I think we’re doing pretty good in that regard, but we do have some differed maintenance,” Ruud said.

Karen Guglielmone, environmental and engineering division manager for the town, explained during a recent budget workshop session that replacing pipes and fixing leaks in the Bridal Veil Basin and surrounding areas is difficult given the potentially treacherous location.

“It’s a hodgepodge of various pipe types. Much of it still has to be replaced,” Guglielmone said. “It’s very dangerous to get up there during avalanche season.”

The projected Wastewater Fund revenues for 2017 are just under $2.3 million, while projected expenditures are $2.8 million.

Treatments to remove chemicals from wastewater will be an area of focus in an effort to comply with new state regulations regarding wastewater care, Clifton said.

Water-line project said to be on schedule — The Telluride Daily Planet

Water infrastructure as sidewalk art
Water infrastructure as sidewalk art

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Justin Criado):

The water-line replacement project along East Colorado Avenue should be finished within the next two weeks, according to Town Engineer Drew Lloyd.

He cautioned that work this time of year is dependent on good weather. A turn in the weather could push back paving of the road after the subsurface tasks are completed.

Businesses and residents along the stretch from Willow to Maple streets are tied-in to the new water line…

Lloyd was on hand as water pressure in the new pipe was tested Wednesday afternoon. Karen Guglielmone, environmental and engineering division manager for the town also observed the test. Norwood’s Williams Construction is performing the work.

The new line passed the water-pressure test. “The next step is to chlorinate the line for disinfection,” Lloyd said. “After that we’ll be doing our service tie-ins, which will be tying in all these businesses and residents to the new water line. That’s going to take a few days.”

[…]

The project is replacing a 60-year-old, six-inch pipe that is no longer functional in its current capacity with a 10-inch ductile iron pipe…

The total amount of the project is $600,000 with half of the funds coming from a Colorado Department of Local Affairs matching grant and the other half covered by the town.