@EPA awards over $575k in wetlands grants in #Colorado to bolster wetland assessments and the development of water quality tools and data

Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa McClain-Vanderpool):

Colorado Natural Heritage Society and Colorado State University-Natural Heritage Program will provide invaluable resources to Roaring Fork and Aurora watershed stakeholders

EPA has awarded $575,333 in wetlands grants to two programs in Colorado to survey, assess, map and provide technological tools such as smart phone applications.

“The data these projects generate are important to understanding, protecting and restoring wetlands in the state of Colorado,” said Darcy O’Connor, Assistant Regional Administrator of the Office of Water Protection. “Supporting decision making with solid scientific data is the wise approach to wetlands protection.”

Colorado Natural Heritage Society was awarded $221,250 to survey and assess critical wetlands in the Roaring Fork watershed in western Colorado. This project proposes to conduct a prioritized survey and assessment for critical wetlands within the Roaring Fork Watershed. The primary goal is to provide stakeholders, including private landowners with scientifically valid data on the condition, rarity, location, acres, and types of wetlands within the watershed.

Colorado State University’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) was awarded $221,250 for the 5th phase of CNHP’s wetlands database including vegetation classification, floristic quality assessment, a wetland restoration database and updates to the Colorado Wetlands Mobile App. The CNHP will revise Colorado’s wetland and riparian vegetation classification and floristic quality assessment, and create a Colorado wetland and stream restoration database.

The CNHP was also awarded $132,833 to assess critical urban wetlands in the city of Aurora, Colorado. CNHP will update the National Wetland Inventory mapping and conduct field-based wetland assessments in the greater Aurora area. Water quality data will also be collected at these sites. The goal is to create useful products for local land managers, land owners and community members.

EPA has awarded over $2.5 million in wetlands grant funding for 11 projects across EPA’s mountains and plains region of the West (Region 8). Healthy wetlands perform important ecological functions, such as feeding downstream waters, trapping floodwaters, recharging groundwater supplies, removing pollution, and providing habitat for fish and wildlife.

Wetlands Program Development Grants assist state, tribal, local government agencies, and interstate/intertribal entities in building programs that protect, manage, and restore wetlands and aquatic resources. States, tribes, and local wetlands programs are encouraged to develop wetlands program plans, which help create a roadmap for building capacity and achieving long-term environmental goals.

For more program information visit: https://www.epa.gov/wetlands/wetland-program-development-grants

The latest e-Waternews is hot off the presses from @Northern_Water

Workers place pipeline as part of the Southern Water Supply Project II now under construction in Boulder County. Photo credit: Northern Water

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Construction begins on Southern Water Supply Project II

Crews from Garney Construction have started work on a new pipeline project to bring reliable water supplies to four water providers in Boulder and Larimer counties.

Called the Southern Water Supply Project II, the pipeline will deliver additional Colorado-Big Thompson Project and Windy Gap Project water from Carter Lake to the city of Boulder, town of Berthoud, Left Hand Water District and the Longs Peak Water District.

The $44 million project includes more than 20 miles of steel pipe that will improve water quality and at some portions of the year will act as the primary source of raw water for the project’s participants.

Officials estimate the project will be complete in early 2020.

Click here for more information, including an interactive map of the pipeline route.

Mandatory curtailment of water rights in #Colorado raised as possibility — @AspenJournalism @CWCB_DNR #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Water experts say that if the ongoing drought persists, Lake Powell could be empty within three years, and call could be placed on the upper basin to curtail water rights. To avoid the chaos such an unprecedented call might bring, state officials are discussing how a more orderly, but still mandatory curtailment of water uses, might need to be implemented. A wall bleached, and stained, in Lake Powell. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith @AspenJournalism.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

A state-imposed mandatory curtailment of water in the Colorado River Basin within Colorado was discussed as a looming possibility during a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board on September 19 in Steamboat Springs.

Representatives from the Western Slope told the statewide water-planning board that while they favor creating a new legally protected pool of water in Lake Powell and other upstream federal reservoirs to help prevent a compact call on the river, they have significant concerns about the pool being filled outside of a program that is “voluntary, temporary and compensated.”

However, Front Range water users told the board that a voluntary program may not get the job done and that a mandatory curtailment program, based on either the prior appropriation doctrine or some method yet to be articulated, may be necessary to keep Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam functioning so Colorado, Utah and Wyoming can deliver enough water to California, Arizona and Nevada to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

“With the repeat of historic hydrology beginning in the year 2000, Lake Powell will be dry, and when I say dry I mean empty, within about three years,” Jim Lochhead, CEO and manager of Denver Water told the CWCB board.

Lochhead said that while a voluntary demand management program might help bolster water levels in Lake Powell, “it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.”

“So we may need — I know we don’t want to implement — but we may need other mechanisms to accelerate the creation of water into Lake Powell in the event of an emergency,” Lochhead said. “This is not something that Denver Water wants, or is asking for. What we are asking for is that the contingency plans be put into place. We need to have those plans in place before the system collapses.”

On Wednesday, Brent Newman, the chief of CWCB’s Interstate, Federal, & Water Information Section emphasized that neither they, nor the state attorney general’s office, is at this point “assessing, pursuing or recommending to the CWCB board any type of involuntary or ‘anticipatory’ curtailment scenario.”

And yet, such scenarios are on a lot of people’s minds.

(Please see related memo, slides and audio from the meeting. The audio is via YouTube, as provided by CWCB. The file opens well into the discussion, so click back to the beginning of the file, which opens just after the agenda item began, with brief introductory comments from CWCB Director Becky Mitchell. It’s well worth listening to. Also please see related story from Sept.18.).

The looming possibility of mandatory curtailment of water use has raised concerns among Western Slope water managers, who feel that such cuts could harm Western Slope agricultural, such as this hay filed in the Yampa River basin. However, as water levels continue to drop to record lows in Lake Powell, mandatory curltailments are being discussed as a real possibility, especially by Front Range water managers. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

At hand

Lochhead said Denver Water wants to see a voluntary, temporary and compensated program created as a “first priority,” but also said “I also don’t think that by not talking about mandatory curtailment we can pretend the problem will go away. We need to be thinking about it, and we need to be thinking about it proactively.”

However, Western Slope water interests as represented by the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District are concerned that if a new storage pool is created in Lake Powell, and a mandatory curtailment program is used to fill it, it could have dire consequences for agriculture on the Western Slope.

NPR panel discussion of The Future of Water at CSU May 24, 2016. L to R: Patty Limerick, Roger Frugua, Melissa Mays, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kathleen Curry, and host Michel Martin.

“This is our livelihood,” Kathleen Curry, a rancher in Gunnison who serves on the Gunnison River Basin Roundtable, told the CWCB. “This water is what we depend on. If we move in the direction of mandatory curtailment, and it isn’t equitable, you are going to have significant impacts to the water users in the state of Colorado, especially on the Western Slope.”

The two regional Western Slope water conservation districts had drafted a resolution they wanted the CWCB to adopt Wednesday, which did not happen, as the CWCB declined to vote on it.

The resolution stated that any mandatory curtailment program would be developed on a “consensus basis” with the two districts at the table, and not just be a directive of the state.

However, Bennett Raley, the general counsel for the Northern Water Conservancy District, which provides water to nearly a million people in northeastern Colorado, said the state, as a sovereign entity, should not be constrained by consensus.

He also said that mandatory curtailment may well be necessary in Colorado.

“If the drought continues, there are two paths,” he told the CWCB board. “If there is an infinite source of money, then voluntary works. Great, we’re all happy. If the drought continues and there is not an infinite source of money, then the state will go to mandatory. The Supreme Court will ensure that, sooner or later, it’s not a question.”

Part of the fear of such a mandatory program is that hardly anyone, outside of perhaps the state engineer, knows what it would look like.

“Ultimately it’s a state decision, it’s a decision of the state engineer as to how water rights would be curtailed to meet the state’s obligations under the Colorado River Compact,” said Lochhead, when asked after the meeting how mandatory curtailment would work. “The short answer is, I don’t know. There are a lot of questions and viewpoints.”

Lochhead did say Denver Water is willing to “work with the state and with the West Slope to ensure that any curtailment doesn’t disproportionally impact any region of the state, whether it’s on the West Slope or the Front Range, and that essentially the same rules apply to everybody.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and other newspapers in the Swift Communications group in Colorado on the coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Thursday, September 20, 2018. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent also published it on Sept. 20, as did the Vail Daily.

@USBR revises release forecasts for Olympus and Ruedi dams

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

From email from Reclamation (James Bishop):

Due to revised demands, releases from Olympus Dam to the Big Thompson River are scheduled to rise from 83 to 101 cubic feet per second (cfs) tonight at midnight (cusp between Thursday and Friday), 21 September. Earlier this week I announced releases from Olympus Dam were planned to rise to 225 cfs and that figure has since changed significantly.

At this point in our forecast, we do not anticipate releases to the Big Thompson River rising above 150 cfs as we use the river to deliver C-BT Project water. On that subject, use of the Big Thompson to make project water deliveries is slated to run through October 12, and those deliveries vary frequently. I will of course continue to provide updates while keeping in mind the old adage: “Plans are disposable. Planning is indispensable.”

A map of the Fry-Ark system. Aspen, and Hunter Creek, are shown in the lower left. Fryingpan-Arkansas Project western and upper eastern slope facilities.

From email from Reclamation (James Bishop):

Yesterday, I messaged you that we at Reclamation no longer planned to increase releases to 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) from Ruedi Dam to the Fryingpan River but would instead be maintaining releases at 355 cfs. That change holds, but I wanted to further explain this.

Due to the persistence of very low river flow conditions in the Colorado River, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in coordination with Reclamation engineers and other Program partners, has decided to reduce the rate of release of Endangered Fish Recovery Program water stored in Ruedi Reservoir to allow these releases to be extended further into October. The reduced rate of release will enable a longer duration of “fish water” to be delivered to the 15-Mile Reach over the upcoming weeks, optimizing its benefits to the endangered fish.

San Luis Valley: “Tale of Two Rivers” recap

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Hoping to avoid the wholesale shut down of agricultural wells in the San Luis Valley that occurred in the South Platte, water users here developed their own plan of action, Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Cleave Simpson explained during “A Tale of Two Rivers” Monday night at Adams State.

Simpson spoke about the Rio Grande Basin’s groundwater journey while CSU Director of the Colorado Water Institute Reagan Waskom spoke about the South Platte Basin.

Attendees at the September 17 talk asked Simpson if local efforts were going to be enough, especially in light of drought and generally warmer conditions in recent years.

He responded that if voluntary efforts to reduce water consumption are not successful, the state will force the issue, because local water users — at least those in the basin’s first water management sub-district — are mandated to bring the aquifer levels back up to a certain level in a specified amount of time.

That clock is ticking, he said.

In its eighth year of operation Sub-District #1, sponsored by the water district Simpson manages, is required by legislation to bring the Rio Grande Basin’s aquifer up to a more sustainable level in 20 years, which means it has 12 years remaining on that mandate, Simpson explained.

The sub-district concept was born as a way to self govern water use in the basin, he said. The various sub-districts throughout the basin focus on “communities of interest,” Simpson said.

The first sub-district, which will soon have several sister sub-districts throughout the basin, covers about 3,000 irrigation wells involving about 300 landowners. They have used many methods to reduce their consumption, repair their wells’ injuries to surface water users and to meet their aquifer sustainability mandate, Simpson said.

He said the first sub-district has invested $8 million in fallowing projects and $6 million in acquiring and drying up parcels irrigated by groundwater…

He said, however, that speaking personally and not as the district manager, he believed a lot more acreage would need to be taken out. He said of the approximately 500,000 irrigated acres currently in the San Luis Valley, he believed 100,000-150,000 irrigated acres could no longer be supported with the dwindling water supply and aquifer sustainability mandate, unless farmers found a crop that used half the consumptive volume of water they are now using.

“There’s social consequences for taking 100,000 acres out of production in the Valley,” Simpson said.

Waskom added that the South Platte Basin is different in that it is not as agriculturally dependent as the Rio Grande Basin. While the Valley’s economy is still largely dependent on agriculture, the South Platte has more diversity such as oil/gas, growth and commercial enterprises. Losing cropland in the South Platte is not as crucial as it is in the San Luis Valley, he said.

“It’s different here. You need to think about that as a community, what your future looks like,” he said…

Simpson said that while groundwater users in the Rio Grande Basin must replace their injurious depletions to surface rights, just as in the South Platte, one major difference in the requirements between the two basins is the obligation in this basin to “create and maintain a sustainable aquifer … unique requirements … Nowhere else in the state are well owners held to that standard.”

That requirement must be met 20 years from the formation of the first sub-district, which is now eight years into that timeline, Simpson said. He added that while there is flexibility on how to get there, “where you have to get to is clearly well defined.”

He pointed to the downward trends in stream flows, specifically on the Rio Grande at the Del Norte gauge where for the first time since flows have been measured at that gauge (1890 forward), the river has gone 10 years without reaching the 700,000 acre-foot annual flow and about 20 years without hitting 800,000 acre feet. The annual flow this year is about 285,000 acre-feet.

Simpson added, “It’s probably not fair to call it a drought anymore. It’s climate. It’s just where we are, natural or man made, it’s just where we are at.”

Simpson also referred to the unconfined aquifer study the district has undertaken since 1976, which is generally the same area covered by the first sub-district. The aquifer remained fairly steady prior to 2002 and in that drought year alone lost 400,000 acre feet volume of water in that study area, Simpson said.

The first sub-district through its varied efforts of fallowing and conservation recovered about 350,000 acre feet, Simpson added. Experiencing three or four years of close to average flows helped. This year has presented more of a challenge, Simpson added, and he expected a decline in the aquifer storage area of about 200,000 acre feet.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

#Colorado-Big Thompson Project operations update: @USBR expects releases to the Big Thompson River to increase significantly

Olympus Dam releases June 2011.

Here’s the release from Reclamation (James Bishop):

The Bureau of Reclamation is forecasting a notable increase in releases from Olympus Dam to the Big Thompson River beginning on September 20, 2018.

As of today, September 18, releases from Olympus Dam into the Big Thompson River are at 26 cubic feet per second (cfs). Between September 20th and October 12, releases are expected to rise to approximately 225 cfs.

This forecast assumes native inflows into Lake Estes as well as irrigation demands will not change significantly from our current projections, but both are subject to unexpected fluctuations.

Proposed Central #Colorado Water Conservancy District $47 million ballot aimed at resilient infrastructure

Recharge pond graphic via the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District.

From Central’s website:

Central’s Board places GMS bond measure on November 2018 ballot

The Board of Directors of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District placed a bond question for the Groundwater Management Subdistrict on to the 2018 ballot. Central’s board and management stated this measure is important to start planning the next steps to secure water rights and build storage for the region. The projects in the bond include:

  • Construction of 5,000 acre-feet of additional reservoir storage—which will increase Central’s holdings by 25 percent—in the Fort Lupton and Greeley/Kersey areas.
  • Construction of the Robert W. Walker Recharge Project, a large project at the Weld and Morgan county lines that will divert water from the South Platte River and send those flows to groundwater recharge basins as far as 5 miles from the river. This will increase drought resiliency for water users in the District. Central was awarded $1.5 million in state and federal grants for the estimated $15 million project.
  • Purchase of several senior water rights that are becoming available for the District’s portfolio, including the purchase of water currently being leased by Central, which will ensure this water stays in the community to be used by local farms and businesses.
  • To review the ballot language, click here. Please contact Central’s office if you have any questions.

    From The Greeley Tribune (Sara Knuth):

    Randy Ray said every local water manager remembers years like 2002 and 2012.

    “That’s one thing water managers don’t forget: the dry years. We always forget about the wet ones, except for the catastrophic floods,” said Ray, executive director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District. “How did their water supplies react to the dry years?”

    Water officials try to answer when they look toward the future of their systems. That’s why the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District will place a $48.7 million bond question on the ballot this November in an effort to address priorities that, officials said, would help the district plan for droughts such as the ones that ravaged this part of the state in 2002 and 2012. Another drought currently bakes portions of the state this year, as well.

    Central’s boundaries stretch through parts of Weld, Adams and Morgan counties and serve about 550 farmers who operate about 1,000 irrigation wells…

    The recharge project, the biggest of the three, would claim an estimated $15 million of the funding in an effort to divert water from the South Platte River and send flows to groundwater basins about 5 miles away from the river. Officials said that would create storage to increase drought resiliency for the district’s water users.

    For Ray, the recharge project is a solution to problems years in the making.

    “It’s complicated, but then again, it’s simple,” he said. “If you want to pump groundwater, you’ve got to replace it. We’re just simply putting water in the aquifer to offset pumping and generate additional supplies that we can count on.”

    Recharge projects, which have been in use for decades, exploded in the late 1990s, as strict regulations for well pumping required water users to replace the groundwater they pumped. They work by diverting water to a pond and allowing it to seep into the ground, and eventually, back to the river.

    At the Walker Recharge Project, which is named after a former district president, officials plan to divert the water from the South Platte River when it’s flowing at a high level to ponds along a plateau as far as 5 miles away.

    The district purchased the land for the project in 2015 after it became clear to Central officials that the district can’t rely on leasing reusable water from Thornton, Aurora, Longmont and Westminster sewer discharge plants the way it has in the past.

    Because the population in those cities is growing, Ray said, city officials are more reluctant to give their extra water supplies away. Water managers in those cities remember dry years such as 2002 too.

    Plus, Ray said, the district views the projects as better financial investments.

    “It’s like renting a house,” Ray said. “The landowner is getting the equity, and you’re just basically paying their mortgage.”

    Ray said the other main projects outlined in the ballot question — the reservoir storage and additional senior water rights — also will play a role in helping the district rely less on water leases from cities. The gravel pit reservoir storage, he said, would help the district divert water from the river quickly when water levels are high for additional storage.

    But Ray said the biggest selling point for the bond issue is agriculture.

    “That’s our big campaign, our big message to our constituents, preserving irrigated agriculture in the county,” Ray said.

    By purchasing additional senior water rights, he said, the district could help slow a trend called “buy-and-dry,” in which cities buy water rights from farms.

    “So, when one of those cities purchases those water rights, they retire the land, and it’s got to go back to a dry land setting, which has a lot of negative associations with that,” Ray said. “The economy dries up and the tax bases go away.”

    If Central takes over that water right, Ray argued, farmers would still have access to groundwater to irrigate a portion of the farmland.

    “If you’re 80 years old, 70 years old, that farm and its water rights are your 401(k),” Ray said. “We want to be an alternative to these beautiful senior water rights in Weld County being transferred to Denver, Arapahoe, Douglas counties and reside here under the management of the water conservancy district.”