Deep in the Cameron Peak burn scar, nestled among charred hills, there’s an oasis of green — an idyllic patch of trickling streams that wind through a lush grass field. Apart from a few scorched branches on the periphery, it’s hard to tell that this particular spot was in the middle of Colorado’s largest-ever wildfire just a year ago.
This wetland was spared thanks to the work of beavers.
The mammals, quite famously, dam up streams to make ponds and a sprawling network of channels. Beavers are clumsy on land, but talented swimmers; so the web of pools and canals lets them find safety anywhere within the meadow.
On a recent visit to that patch of preserved land in Poudre Canyon, ecohydrologist Emily Fairfax emphasized the size of the beavers’ canal network.
“Oh my gosh, I can’t even count them,” she said. “It’s a lot. There’s at least 10 ponds up here that are large enough to see in satellite images. And then between all those ponds is just an absolute spiderweb of canals, many of which are too small for me to see until I’m here on the ground.”
The very infrastructure that gives beavers safety from predators also helps shield them from wildfire. Their work saturates the ground, creating an abnormally wet patch in the middle of an otherwise dry area. Dams allow the water to pool, and the channels spread it out over a wide swath of valley floor.
Fairfax researches how beavers re-shape the landscapes where they live. Across the West, she’s seen beaver-created wetlands survive wildfires.
“When you’re at this beaver complex,” she said, “it never stops being green. Everything else in the landscape – the hill slopes on either side, they both charred. They lost all their vegetation during this fire. But this spot, it did not. These plants were here last year and they’re still here today.”
Three water projects in the region will get $4.7 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The board’s giving doubled this year due to COVID-related stimulus funds.
Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud is getting $3.8 million toward connecting the Windy Gap reservoir in Grand County to one at Chimney Hollow in Larimer County…
The grant goes for the [bypass] channel, which is still being designed.
“Colorado River Connectivity Channel is a major modification to Windy Gap Reservoir,” Stahla said. He said the channel’s funding is nearly complete. The grant “isn’t the final piece. We anticipate all the pieces coming together” by mid-2022…
Two other area projects got grants.
A “Poudre Headwaters Restoration — Grand Ditch Barrier” effort by Colorado Trout Unlimited in Denver got about $300,000 toward restoring 38 miles of stream and 110 acres of lake habitat.
The specific project involves the greenback cutthroat trout.
A $1.2 million irrigation infrastructure effort got half its costs from this round of water board funds. The grantee is Colorado State University, through its Fort Collins campus, to use on work to boost water and energy efficiency and agricultural production.
The specific project is to build storage ponds, upgrade the existing equipment and add irrigation systems and other infrastructure for research on soil and crops and to launch a farm management competition to improve agricultural profitability.
It was 1952 when the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs first started gobbling up water rights in a remote, high mountain valley on the state’s Western Slope. The valley is called Homestake, and now, those same cities want even more of its pure water.
In western Colorado, where only about 20% of Colorado’s population lives, all water tries to flow toward the Pacific Ocean. On the east side, where most people live, water flows to the Atlantic. To bring the water from the west side to the east side of the Rockies requires lots of money and lots of pipelines.
But money isn’t much of a barrier when your population is exploding: Colorado Springs, with 478,961 residents, and Aurora, with 386,261, need more water. And they aim to get it even if it must cross under the Continental Divide and damage a fragile and ancient wetland called a “fen” in the process.
The new reservoir the two cities plan to build would be five miles downstream from their existing Homestake Reservoir, and called Whitney Reservoir after a creek that flows into Homestake Creek. There’s also a Whitney Park within the nearby Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which could lose some 500 acres if the new reservoir goes through.
But protesters are already active, and conservation groups are threatening lawsuits. Meanwhile, the cities have already quietly begun test drilling at four possible dam sites on U.S. Forest Service land along Homestake Creek.
Obstacles, however, are popping up. The Forest Service says it won’t even consider a reservoir proposal that shrinks a wilderness area, and the cities would have to get that approval from both Congress and the White House.
The U.S. congressman for the district, rising Democratic star Joe Neguse, has also made it clear he doesn’t support shrinking a designated wilderness or damaging wetlands. Local leaders are also chiming in: “A Whitney Reservoir would irreparably change and harm our community,” said Minturn Mayor John Widerman and Red Cliff Mayor Duke Gerber, who co-wrote a letter to the Forest Service. Both represent small towns dependent on tourism and outdoor recreation.
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat who grew up in the nearby ski town of Vail, also wrote the Forest Service to oppose the dam: “I cannot express how sternly the citizens of my district … oppose water diversion projects to Front Range communities.”
Another issue, and for some it’s the most critical, is the fate of valuable “fen” wetlands that would be destroyed by a dam and reservoir. “This is one of the finest wetlands we can find on our forest — it’s unbelievable,” White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams told Aspen Journalism in 2019. “You can mitigate, but you can’t replace 10,000 years of work.”
Nor can you turn the clock back to 1952, when Colorado’s population was 1.36 million, compared to 5.7 million today, and the global land and ocean temperature was 1.52 degrees Fahrenheit cooler. Climate change, scientists say, will cause the Colorado River to lose up to 31% of its historical flow by 2052. That prediction was a factor in a recent, first-ever federal water shortage declaration.
“When Colorado Springs and Aurora got their water right, the [Holy Cross] wilderness wasn’t there and wetlands at that time were something we were just filling in,” said Jerry Mallett, president of the local conservation group Colorado Headwaters. “Since then (wetlands) have become an extremely valuable resource because of what they can do for groundwater recharge, addressing climate change — all kinds of things.”
Then there’s the issue of Kentucky bluegrass, Colorado’s landscaping groundcover of choice. Kentucky gets more than 50 inches of rain a year compared to the Front Range average of 17, so why pump western Colorado’s high-elevation water through the Rockies for lawns?
Colorado photographer and conservationist John Fielder, who says he’s been just about everywhere within the nearly 123,000-acre Holy Cross Wilderness Area, wants people to just look at his images of the fen wetlands along Homestake Creek, and then ask themselves these questions:
“Is anything more sublime and fertile and life-giving than a 10,000-or-more-year-old fen wetland? You can’t “mitigate” the loss of ancient wetlands by creating a manmade wet place somewhere else. No more water to the Front Range.”
David O. Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a freelance writer who lives near Vail, Colorado.
Drought has spread from western Colorado across much of Denver’s metro area, including Arvada, according to a monitor released Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The agency classified the following cities and regions as ‘abnormally dry’:
Eastern Jefferson County
Eastern Douglas County
Eastern Boulder County
Rainfall kept Arvada drought-free throughout the summer, but recent dry conditions have increased, weather officials said.
Western Colorado has battled extreme drought for several months. Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco and Montezuma counties remain under ‘extreme’ or ‘exceptional’ drought conditions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
FromThe Fort Collins Coloradoan (Miles Blumhardt):
Eight years ago this week, Colorado experienced one of its worst natural disasters when a week of rain flooded 20 counties, caused nearly $4 billion in damages, killed nine people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.
Not only was the devastation staggering, but it marked only the second time in Colorado weather history that such a flood happened in September.
The National Weather Service ranked the 2013 flood its top weather story of the 2010-19 decade…
On Sept. 10, it started raining and didn’t stop for virtually a week, dropping copious amounts of precipitation from the Colorado-Wyoming border to Colorado Springs…
Fort Carson near Colorado Springs set a state record of 11.85 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, according to the National Weather Service. Boulder received 9.08 inches in one day and 18.16 inches in the week, which equates to more than the area’s average precipitation for a year.
Fort Collins reported 5.3 inches, Buckhorn Mountain west of the city 9.87 inches and Estes Park 9.31 inches for the week. For Buckhorn Mountain, 7.62 inches of that rain fell Sept. 11-12…
At one point, [Fort Collins] was cut off with all roads leading in and out impassable, including Interstate 25 where it crosses the Poudre River and the Big Thompson River near Loveland.
The flood is one of the reasons the I-25 bridge over the Poudre River is being raised 8 feet as part of the North I-25 Express Lanes project.
The devastation was staggering:
The flood covered 4,500 square miles, or the size of more than 10 Rocky Mountain National Parks
The damage estimate reached nearly $4 billion
More than 19,000 people were evacuated
26,000 homes were damaged
200 businesses were destroyed and 750 were damaged
200 miles of road were damaged or destroyed, including U.S. Highway 34 in the Big Thompson Canyon
50 major bridges damaged
Schumacher said a blocking ridge of high pressure parked over the Pacific Northwest and western Canada prevented other weather patterns from moving into the area.
A low pressure sat stationary in the Four Coroners area drawing up large amounts of tropical moisture and swinging that moisture out east then back west, creating an upslope condition against the foothills and mountains.
It rained early that week but then on the evening of Sept. 11 a weak disturbance coincided with the showers and thunderstorms, resulting in a slow and almost stationary area of heavy rain along the Front Range that lasted through much of Sept. 12.
The rain intensity lightened up, but rain continued through Sept. 16 with many areas of the Front Range receiving 6 to 18 inches of rain over the week.
Schumacher said another anomaly of the storm was at how high of elevation it rained. He said conventional wisdom is that intense rain rarely happens above 7,500 feet because in upslope conditions the moisture is pushing up the mountainsides, running out of moisture as it moves up in elevation.
However, the 2013 storm produced up to 10 inches of rain at 10,000 feet and higher…
Schumacher said the only other September rain that comes close to 2013 was in May of 1938.
He said heavy rain flooded the Republican River in eastern Colorado then. In 1938 and even in 1997 when Fort Collins was flooded, rainfall measurements were taken by measuring rain found in buckets, old tires or anything that collected rain, Schumacher said.
Some measurements in 1938 recorded more than 20 inches of rain, but the measurement never became official because the rain was not recorded in a gauge…
For more information about the 2013 flood, read the Bulletin of American Meteorlogical Society [report].
At City Superintendent Mark Brown’s request, Holyoke City Council members held a work session immediately following their Sept. 7 meeting to discuss issues related to the city’s water.
He told the council that he, Lennie Fisbeck and Jeremy Thompson met with Element Engineering LLC on Friday, Sept. 3, to review ideas to address the issues…
Brown provided council members with spreadsheets showing nitrate level samples of the city’s different wells from 2002 through the third quarter of this year.
He said the increasing nitrate levels in the cemetery well are raising concerns. One of the possibilities of the increased levels is that an excessive nitrate plume could be headed in that direction.
He then discussed the possibility of getting the Stout well set up as a municipal well. This well, along with 318 acres located 2 1/2 miles south of Holyoke, was purchased by the city in 1996 from Clarence and Bernice Stout.
Brown said there are different options that can be used to bring the Stout well in, it’s just a matter of finding the one that suits the city best.
One of these options is to blend the Stout well with the cemetery well and come up with an acceptable nitrate limit.
This would involve connecting the two wells with underground pipes to let the water mix at a suitable distance before it ever gets to the city.
If the cemetery well gets to the point where it exceeds nitrate levels, allowing water from the Stout well to blend with water from the cemetery well would create an acceptable nitrate limit while still keeping both allocations…
Flushable wet wipes still causing problems
Brown then brought up the subject of the city’s wastewater, noting that flushable wet wipes continue to be an issue.
He outlined two possible scenarios to try to address the problem.
He said a grinder could be installed in the wet well of the existing lift station in Holyoke, grinding wipes up and pumping them to the lagoons. This would mean the lagoons would have to be dredged much more frequently since the debris would collect in the bottom of the lagoons.
FromThe Summit Daily via The Sky-Hi News (Lindsey Toomer):
The Blue River Watershed Group has completed the first phase of its Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan with the help of partner Trout Unlimited. The organizations have been working on the project for a couple of years now to gather information on the health status of the river.
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator with Trout Unlimited, said the project is a way to bring all stakeholders relating to Blue River water use together. He said the watershed group taking the lead on this project will ensure it is a continuously evolving document…
Kendra Fuller, executive director of the Blue River Watershed Group, said the first phase of the project was meant to gather information about the current and future uses of the river, looking at what kinds of data has already been collected. She said the second phase — which is currently underway — will mostly be to fill in the gaps of information that couldn’t be found in the first phase. The final phase will be implementing actionable steps to maximize benefits for all Blue River users, as well as protect the water as a resource.
The biggest information gap found in the initial phase is that the watershed group hasn’t determined why there are declining fisheries between the town of Silverthorne and Green Mountain Reservoir. Fuller said the second phase aims to find answers by looking at a comprehensive picture of the health of the river.
Researchers will look at geomorphology — the study of the shape and flow of the river — macroinvertebrates, algae and water temperature to connect all the dots of the river’s ecosystem, Fuller said…
Van Gytenbeek said completing Phase 1 of the plan allowed them to get a good baseline of information to start determining what factors are causing what problems in the river…
When splitting the Blue River into its three reaches, the key issues with each section are clear and unique to each portion of the watershed…
The first reach, which goes from around Hoosier Pass to the Dillon Dam, has seen some water quality issues due to a history of mining in the area. Fuller said while some restoration work has been done, there is still a lot more to do. She said fish surveys show that the fishery in this area isn’t great because of the mining and water-quality issues, and macroinvertebrate communities have been impacted, too.
While the biggest concern in the second reach from Silverthorne to Green Mountain Reservoir is the decline in fisheries, Fuller said this reach is heavily influenced by the Dillon Dam, including how and when water is released. She said this stretch of river used to be classified as a gold medal fishery, but the status was removed in 2016 because there were no longer enough fish to qualify. The loss of the gold medal status affects the river as a tourist attraction for fishing.
Fuller said the primary concern with the third reach of the Blue River, which goes from Green Mountain Reservoir until its confluence with the Colorado River, is high water temperatures. She said it has enough water to support the fish habitat but the temperatures have been exceeding the state’s temperature standards.
Further north, the river also has issues with streamflow changes based on how much water is being released from the Green Mountain Reservoir dam. Fuller said the amount of water released from the dam fluctuates greatly throughout the day and has an impact on the river’s ecosystem downstream, also creating safety issues for recreation if there are huge rises and falls in the water level…
Looking to the future
Another potential issue for Blue River streamflows is the fact that some Front Range water users have more water rights than they are using, Fuller said…
Fuller said it’s inevitable that local rivers will get lower due to a variety of factors like climate change and evolving Front Range water rights. Because of this, it’s essential to make sure our water is properly cared for as the Summit community continues to grow, she said.
State climatologist Russ Schumacher said a weather station in Akron recorded its second-wettest spring, followed by the driest summer recorded there.
Joel Schneekloth, a regional water resource specialist with Colorado State University Extension, said if the extra spring moisture had been met with average summer rainfall, it would have been a “fantastic” year for many crops.
Schneekloth said the “saving grace” of this summer for the plains was the wet spring and closer-to-normal temperatures meant farmers used just a little more water than average. He said that made the biggest difference compared to historically dry summers in years like 2012 and 2002…
The wet spring meant most corn growers in Washington County will likely have a better year than they did in 2020, Schneekloth said. The county’s average corn crop yielded around 15 bushels per acre in 2020, but that average could increase to 35 this year.
What’s hurting the most this summer is proso millet, which was the third-largest crop for Washington County, according to 2017 data from the USDA.
“In our area for the most part, it’s a disaster,” Schneekloth said.
The millet is planted in early June, and the area’s last good rain was weeks before that. Schneekloth said the shallow roots failed in the dry soil. Those dry soils will have a long-term effect going into the fall because they will make planting wheat before the winter tough, Schneekloth said. He hopes some rain will fall before then…
Ron Meyer, an agronomist for Colorado State University Extension, said the extreme rain helped some crops on the Eastern Plains.
Meyer worried there wouldn’t be any wheat to harvest after a dry fall and winter in 2020 and into 2021. But the moisture got the wheat-growing again in March, which resulted in an above-average crop.
Once it stopped raining again in the summer, spring-planted crops like corn, sunflower and millet are now struggling.
Meyer said the dry summer shows why it’s important for farmers and ranchers to adapt to a warming climate. One way is through “banking” soil moisture by adopting practices that promote soil health and reduce tilling, as well as using drought-adapted varieties of crops to improve their chances of having a good harvest in extreme conditions.
With purified, reuse water flowing into Castle Rock homes this summer, the town was already celebrating the ability to supply high-quality drinking water to customers.
Accolades for the success at Castle Rock Water continued last week when the department received recognition for Outstanding Water Treatment Plant by the Rocky Mountain Section of the American Water Works Association.
The Rocky Mountain Section is the regional division of the American Water Works Association, the principal association for scientific and educational opportunities dedicated to managing and treating water. The Rocky Mountain Section represents water industry organizations in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Castle Rock won in the large department category, which includes programs serving more than 50,000 people. The award was given specifically for the operations at the Plum Creek Water Purification Facility, which has developed the advanced treatment processes to accommodate purified reuse water…
The association also presented Castle Rock Water plant mechanic Casey Devol with the Water Treatment Maintenance Award for his design of new processes to clean pipelines. The annual award is given to a maintenance professional who demonstrates exceptional performance, dedication and teamwork. Devol was also recognized for his contribution to the Water to Wire efficiency study to reduce energy usage and pumping costs.
The local and national recognition for Castle Rock Water comes as efforts to invest in the town’s sustainable water future continues. Dating back to 2006, the town invested $208 million to build the reusable water facility.
Part of that investment included the construction of the $60 million Plum Creek Purification Facility. Reuse water will account for one-third of the community’s water supply and will be a big step in providing a sustainable water supply as the town grows and drought conditions are expected to continue.
In addition to the American Water Works Association awards, Castle Rock Water also received recognition for its efforts in environmental stewardship. This is the third consecutive year the water provider has received a Gold Level in the Environmental Leadership Program by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Reducing energy consumption, increasing water conservation efforts and instituting purified reuse water were among the primary considerations for the award.
The city of Greeley is set to bring in at least $60,000 more per year after revising a longstanding agreement on water with the town of Windsor.
An amendment to an existing agreement, approved by city council Tuesday, will make drought supply municipal water available to Windsor during dry times…
While Greeley still owns the rights, Windsor pays to [lease] those water rights to keep the city going if (and when) drought hits.
Greeley and Windsor have worked together on water for decades. The two entered into an intergovernmental agreement back in 1996 when Greeley agreed to treat and deliver potable water drawn from Windsor’s own sources.
In the event we do see times of shortage, Windsor will be able to access up to 350 acre-feet of water per year, enough water for about 700 to 1,050 homes…
The agreement approved by city council Tuesday goes into effect in 2022, starting at $60,000. Windsor is set to pay regardless of whether it is a drought year. The annual payment will then tick up by 3% per year.
Why does this matter?
Greeley hasn’t had to use drought restrictions for almost 20 years. But city officials haven’t forgotten how dire things got in 2002, a drought year that climate experts agree was one of the worst in 300 years.
According to the city, the shortage conditions that would need to kick in for Windsor to use the water happen about twice per decade – but climate change could mean those conditions would be met more often.
Toss a Frisbee too far at the disc golf course in west Denver and you’ll hit water burbling at the bottom of Lakewood Gulch.
Your errant Frisbee shouldn’t be underwater. Not this time of year. The other stream that runs into the confluence that makes up the disc golf park has a more historically accurate name: Dry Gulch.
A new study from Colorado State University researchers shows that about 80% of the water running through Denver’s inviting stream parks late in the summer flows there from lawns drenched in Denver tap water and leaks from the agency’s intricate system, not from snow runoff or foothills rain.
By history, geology and hydrology, these greenbelts should be bone dry. It’s only the return flow from all your lawn watering that makes a Denver stream anything other than a dry gulch for much of the year, according to the study. Watering to excess — meaning the grass doesn’t need all of it or the sprinklers are hitting concrete instead of green space — makes up most of that 80%. Leaking pipes and system flushes flowing down into stream beds make up the rest.
“It was surprisingly high,” said lead researcher Aditi Bhaskar, assistant professor at CSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Water engineers know tap water flows have an influence on urban streams, but Bhaskar had not expected them to make up effectively the entire creek.
Northern Water, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Grand County and additional regional health, water and recreation officials are closely monitoring a potentially harmful algal bloom that developed at Willow Creek Reservoir in July, a component of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in Grand County.
In late July, monitoring teams found the presence of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), which can sometimes produce toxins (cyanotoxins) that can be harmful to humans and animals. With this discovery, the U.S. Forest Service’s Arapaho National Forest placed restrictions on water contact recreation and posted signs informing the public of the issue.
Recent tests indicate the concentration of cyanotoxins in the two samples collected to be nearly negligible. However, because of evidence of algae in other parts of the reservoir where sampling has not occurred the reservoir remains under the existing restrictions for contact recreation.
Willow Creek Reservoir is part of the collections system for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which gathers water in the headwaters of the Colorado River for delivery to cities, farms and industries in northeast Colorado.
In the East Troublesome Fire of 2020, as much as 90 percent of the watershed that feeds into the reservoir sustained damage. This summer, the arrival of monsoonal moisture has increased the delivery of nutrients from the burn scar to the reservoir, and made these nutrients available to support increased growth of all kinds of algae. However, the vast majority of algae species are not harmful. Water recreation enthusiasts can learn more by viewing the Colorado Parks and Wildlife video and visiting the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment links available from Grand County.
Water from Willow Creek Reservoir is pumped intermittently into Lake Granby to make room in Willow Creek Reservoir should future flooding occur. However, with a maximum capacity of 10,600 acre-feet, Willow Creek Reservoir is dwarfed by the 540,000 acre-foot Lake Granby, meaning the overall impact to the region’s water supply is negligible. In addition, water quality testing equipment installed in the aftermath of the East Troublesome Fire will be able to monitor key water quality metrics in the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. A monitoring program has been implemented to watch for algae blooms and potential toxins in the Three Lakes, as well as in Willow Creek Reservoir. Agencies will continue to review data and monitor the issue until the bloom disappears.
The Colorado River at Kremmling in Grand County will enjoy a big bump in flows from August into October as Denver Water pays off a hefty water debt.
The rising flows — an addition of more than 300 cubic feet per second (more on that later) sent from Wolford Mountain and Williams Fork reservoirs — serve as a good example of how Colorado’s intricate system of water rights can drive river flows higher when they might typically be lower as autumn settles in.
In this case, it works like this: A dry year created conditions that now require Denver Water to “pay back” water to the West Slope.
Why? Let’s stick with the easy version.
An agreement that emerged over 50 years of Byzantine legal fights allows Denver to move water from Dillon Reservoir in Summit County to the Front Range when it needs the water for its customers.
But — and this is a big “But” — if another big reservoir called Green Mountain (that’s the very long reservoir you drive past as you cruise Highway 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling) — doesn’t fill up in the spring and summer, Denver Water has to make up the difference later in the year.
Stay with us here. Take a look at the map that accompanies this story to help.
Years like this, when Denver Water has to refund water, are called “substitution” years. There have been big substitution years, when a lot of water is involved in the refund, in dry years such as 2002, 2004, 2012 and 2013.
This year is shaping up as a big one, too; one of the largest. In all, the utility expects to release about 37,600 acre-feet from Williams Fork and Wolford to make up what Green Mountain, a reservoir operated by federal Bureau of Reclamation, lacked this year.
That’s a lot of water — close to the capacity of Gross Reservoir, the big Denver Water reservoir in the foothills northwest of Denver. An acre-foot is roughly enough water to serve three or four households for a year.
But wait, you say. Water from Williams Fork and Wolford won’t find its way to Green Mountain, since the Green Mountain Reservoir is on the Blue River and those two reservoirs send their water into the Colorado River, not the Blue.
(Also, water can’t flow upstream from the Colorado River into Green Mountain Reservoir. Take another look at the map in this story.)
That’s OK, as the point is to make up for flows in the Colorado River that would otherwise be augmented by releases from Green Mountain. In short, the releases keep the flows moving on the West Slope.
Now, back to those flows. Releases are expected to add an additional 400 cubic feet per second to the Colorado River in August, 320 cfs in September, and then decrease somewhat to an extra 200 cfs in the first two weeks of October.
How much water is that?
Quite a bit. If you think in terms of gallons (think of the gallon of milk at the grocery story), a cubic foot contains about 7.5 gallons. So 300 cubic feet per second means about 2,250 gallons of water per second added to the river flows. (Think about that many milk jugs floating by each second).
While it’s a lot of water to pay back — and it means Denver Water will need to draw down its supplies in Wolford and Williams Fork quite a bit — it could have been even more.
But a wet spring on the Front Range kept sprinklers off and demand low. Monsoons returned this year as well, boosting flows on both sides of the Continental Divide. All of that allowed Denver Water to reduce what it moved from Dillon Reservoir, through the Roberts Tunnel, to the Front Range.
Which, in turn, allowed a bit more water down the Blue River and into Green Mountain and reduced the “substitution” amount to be repaid.
If you’ve stuck with us until now, we raise a toast to you, salute your interest in a puzzling topic, and hope that this boost in late season flows in the Colorado River brings a smile to all of us inspired by the beauty of a moving stream.
checking in from a twitter break…was looking at the rain that caused the awful flash flood in the Poudre Canyon on Tues. Nearly 2" in 2 hours at that elevation (9500+ ft) is really unusual, and happened in about the worst possible location with respect to the burn scar 1/ #cowxpic.twitter.com/lMIbeIJTNh
FromThe Fort Collins Coloradoan (Miles Blumhardt):
Two Larimer County floods in July caused $2 million in damages to roads and other infrastructure and prompted a report that concluded the risk to residents of Black Hollow from another flood is too great for them to stay overnight in their homes.
Lori Hodges, the county’s director of Emergency Management, said most of the damage to county roads and culverts has occurred in Buckhorn Canyon west of Fort Collins and the Retreat area just east of Glen Haven. About 6 miles of the newly rebuilt Buckhorn Road from the 2013 flood sustained damage.
Because of the ongoing risk of another flood in the Cameron Peak Fire burn scar, the county will take a wait-and-see approach to rebuilding the roads and replacing culverts, she said, which were damaged during July 20 and July 30 flash floods.
“We have a few more weeks to get through the monsoon season, and so we will have to figure out the best way to rebuild to better be able to withstand more flooding,” she said.
She said a Colorado Geologic Survey assessment of the Black Hollow neighborhood in the upper Poudre Canyon stated the danger from the instability of the area is so great that no one should spend the night.
The one item on the agenda was Ordinance 11-21 (passed unanimously) which amends chapter 13.24 of the Estes Park Municipal Code (MC) regarding agreements to provide raw water.
According to a memo to the board from Utilities Director Rueben Bergsten and Water Superintendent Chris Eshelman, the amendment is to assure the responsible management of water resources by requiring Town Board approval for raw water agreements lasting more than a year.
“The responsible management of our raw water resources, I think we would all agree, is becoming more and more important,” [Rueben] Bergsten said at the meeting….
The question for the state as a whole, and Estes Park itself, is how many entities to allow access to our water resources and for how much?
“We do anticipate, as time goes by, more and more and more property owners are going to be coming to the Town of Estes Park asking for what’s called replacement water,” Bergsten told the board. “We do this for a lot of people. It’s a matter of keeping the local economy healthy.”
A typical client seeking replacement water is someone using well water, or river water for irrigation and have water needs that still outweigh their supply.
“The Town owns 300 acre-feet of Windy Gap water rights. Windy Gap water can fulfill augmentation plan requirements for replacement water,” the memo said. “The Town has occasionally entered into long-term agreements with entities to supply replacement water.”
The most recent agreements made were: Preuss in July 2020, Idlewild in April 2019, and Cheley Camp in May 2012.”
Bergsten and Eshelman believe these raw water lease agreements are beneficial to the local economy and the surrounding communities; however, they tie up the town’s water rights.
“Town Staff foresee an increase in the number of replacement water requests as the State Water Commissioner increases their effort to audit augmentation plans,” the memo said. “Their audits included private wells.”
While requiring Town Board approval for raw water agreements lasting more than a year does have advantages such as reducing the administrative workload required to account for water use and augmentation, and supporting the responsible management of the town’s water, Bergsten and Eshelman are mildly concerned they may appear to be over reaching.
“Requiring properties to connect to our system might appear heavy-handed; however, their alternative requires them to pay an engineering firm to develop an augmentation plan, hire a lawyer to process the augmentation through water court, and secure replacement water from the Town,” the memo explains.
The Julesburg Town Board may be changing directions on its waste water project after listening to Brad Simons with MMI Water Engineers. Simons told the board that after reviewing the plans previously provided to him, he is agreeing more with former Trustee Todd Blochowitz that the town may be putting the cart before the horse. Blochowitz had made the remarks earlier in the year at a public meeting. Simons said after reviewing the proposed wastewater project that the design may still not meet the state’s required effluent discharge.
He suggested that the town pause briefly and research reversing their priorities and focus on the water project which may have a larger effect on correcting the problem at the wastewater facility. The water project would include upgrading of the reverse osmosis equipment that is 20 years old.
Northern Water’s board of directors unanimously overturned the city of Fort Collins’ denial of infrastructure associated with the Northern Integrated Supply Project, clearing the way Wednesday for construction of a pipeline and Poudre River diversion in city limits.
Fort Collins’ Planning and Zoning Commission rejected a SPAR (site plan advisory review) application for NISP infrastructure in a 3-2 vote on June 30. But state law allows governing boards to overrule denials of SPAR applications for public infrastructure with at least a two-thirds majority vote.
The Northern Water board’s decision means the water district, after getting the necessary city permits, should be able to build a river diversion on the Poudre at Homestead Natural Area and about 3.4 miles of pipeline in city limits. The diversion and pipeline are part of Northern Water’s plan to release between 18-25 cubic feet per second of the project’s Poudre River diversions through a 12-mile section of the river in Fort Collins before piping it to NISP participants.
NISP would take water from the Poudre and South Platte rivers to deliver an estimated 40,000 acre-feet of water annually to 15 small municipalities and water districts in Northern Colorado, including Fort Collins-Loveland Water District and Windsor. The water would be stored in two new reservoirs: Glade Reservoir, with a capacity of 170,000 acre-feet located northwest of Fort Collins at the mouth of the Poudre Canyon, and Galeton Reservoir, with a capacity of 45,600 acre-feet located northeast of Greeley.
On July 1, the Blue River below Dillon was flowing at 221 cubic feet per second. On Aug. 5, it jumped up to 455 cfs. Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water, explained that in the first week of August, the Blue River’s flow reached the 450 mark and has slowly declined since. On Tuesday, Aug. 10, it was 340 cfs, which he said is slightly above normal for this time of year.
Denver Water manages Dillon Reservoir, which the Blue River flows into and out of.
“We’re trying to match outflow with inflow and send that water downstream to Green Mountain Reservoir,” Elder said…
The increase in water to Green Mountain Reservoir is welcome, as the reservoir was over 50,000 acre-feet below normal in late July, and a downstream call for irrigation rights was placed on the reservoir. As of Aug. 11, the reservoir, which is full at about 154,000 acre-feet of water, was holding 100,243 acre-feet of water.
Summit County saw its wettest July in 10 years, which is what has contributed to the increase in outflow, Elder said. He noted that not only has the rain on the Western Slope helped, but rain on the Front Range has lowered water demands on that side of the Continental Divide. That has reduced the need to send water through Roberts Tunnel, which has kept more water in Dillon Reservoir and made way for the release of more water down the Blue River and into Green Mountain Reservoir…
Dillon Reservoir started out the year lower than normal, and less water flowed in from the melting snowpack. In late June, Elder reported that the reservoir was full but only because much less water was released from the reservoir to the Blue River than in an average year. The lack of water flowing into the Blue River meant two things: Less water went to Green Mountain Reservoir, and commercial rafting couldn’t happen on the river this year…
As for the Goose Pasture Tarn, which is currently lowered due to the rehabilitation of the dam, Elder said the tarn’s water that is being stored in Dillon Reservoir has a “very small impact.” For context, the tarn is 771 acre-feet, whereas Dillon Reservoir is over 257,000. Once it’s time for the tarn to be refilled, it will be given priority for water rights.
Colorado water commissioners declined to upgrade water quality rules for the urban stretch of river, though conservation groups say they are finally being heard.
Public officials, conservation groups and citizen speakers pleaded with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission [August 9, 2021] to reverse a 2020 decision and strengthen protections for the South Platte River in north Denver and Adams County, but the commissioners declined.
Opponents of the commission’s decision last year thought they had one last chance in a “town hall” feedback format to urge the commissioners to revisit the controversial vote, which rejected a staff recommendation to upgrade the South Platte to higher water quality protections. They pointed to the recent weeks of high heat and air pollution in metro Denver, as well as a new climate change report showing irrefutable and irreversible damage to the environment, as more reasons to protect the river with tougher regulations…
“We cannot wait five more years to upgrade or revisit what’s happening to the communities in north Denver,” said Ean Tafoya, Colorado director of the nonprofit GreenLatinos.
The commissioners, who are appointed by Gov. Jared Polis to oversee the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said they would not reverse their 2020 decision now. The coalition favoring more protections said after the town hall they would consider trying to force the commission to reconsider through a petition process, by taking legal action…
But some commissioners appeared to leave the door open to further discussions and to seek more community input on future river decisions…
Those who want to elevate the South Platte’s urban stretches used the commission’s town hall comment period to attack the 2020 decision. The staff of the water quality division last year had recommended that the South Platte River through north Denver and Adams County, long plagued by industrial releases and wastewater effluent, be upgraded to the next higher level of stream protections.
The higher level would have forced existing polluters in that section, like Metro Wastewater, Suncor or Molson Coors, to avoid further degrading water quality with any new activity unless they could prove it was essential to their continuing business. As it stands now, those existing polluters have “protected use” status that permits them to degrade the water, even though water quality in those central urban streams has improved in recent decades.
The Colorado division of Parks and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Adams County Commissioners and others had supported the staff request for a river protection upgrade. The water commissioners rejected the idea last year, and then again in June.
Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said he wanted to be frank with the water commissioners that not enough opponents were prepared for the discussion ahead of the 2020 decision.
“Back in 2020 we did not know how this specific decision would affect our river and our communities,” O’Dorisio said.
Jeff Neuman-Lee, describing himself as a citizen speaker for the town hall forum, pointed to Colorado’s air fouled by wildfire smoke and heat-generated ozone in recent weeks.
“We’ve been just degrading our Earth over and over and over again, and we can’t tolerate any more,” he said. “It’s depressing to see that we’re allowing water quality to go unheeded; to create stretches of our rivers and say we don’t care about them, we’re just going to let them go.”
Some of Monday’s speakers said they were concerned that leaving the South Platte’s water quality protection where it is now will weaken the current permit renewal process underway for the Suncor refinery, which borders Sand Creek as it empties into the South Platte. The state health department is reviewing and answering public comments on Suncor’s permit application, and conservationists and neighborhood groups want Suncor’s water and air pollution caps cut way back.
“This idea of grandfathered legacy pollution,” Tafoya said, “just because they always have, doesn’t mean they should continue to.”
John Rauch and his family have operated the Cedar Springs Marina here since 1986. But three weeks ago, when the federal government suddenly ordered millions of gallons of water to be released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir down the Green River to Lake Powell, Rauch wasn’t prepared.
“It was a total gut punch,” he said on a recent hot, sunny morning. As visitors trekked down to rent his pontoon boats, and others slid their fishing craft into the reservoir, Rauch and his employees were already planning which boat docks and ramps would have to be relocated to keep them afloat. The reservoir is projected to drop as much as 2 feet a month through the fall as water is released.
Drought has plagued the Colorado River Basin for 20 years, but it hit crisis proportions this summer, pushing lakes Powell and Mead to historic lows and triggering, for the first time, emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs.
All told, 181,000 acre-feet of water are to be sent to Lake Powell by the end of December. Powell has dropped so low that its hydropower plants, which supply millions of homes with electricity and generate revenue for such things as a critical Colorado River endangered species program, may stop operating as early as next year if water levels continue to drop as they have been. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates there is a 3 percent chance of this occurring next year and a 29 percent chance of this occurring in 2022. But given the speed of the Powell’s decline, no one wants to risk a hydropower shutdown.
Since their construction in the 1960s these reservoirs, known as Reclamation’s Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs, have acted as a giant savings account, helping ensure that if a crisis erupted on the river, the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico would have enough water on hand to fulfill their legal obligation to deliver water to Nevada, Arizona and California, known as the Lower Basin states.
Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, part of the Aspinall Unit, is already low, at just 43 percent of capacity as of last month. Fed by the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, the reservoir is tourism hot spot on Colorado’s West Slope.
Kathleen Curry, a former Colorado lawmaker, sits on the Colorado River District Board. She said she understands the need for the releases, but she said the changes in the shoreline at Blue Mesa aren’t going unnoticed.
“It’s taking residents and visitors by surprise, just because I don’t think anyone was expecting it,” she said.
The releases come under a special Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan approved by Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in late 2018. A similar drought plan is in place for the Lower Basin, and they have been cutting back withdrawals from Lake Mead for the past two years.
Still the river system is drying out. And water leaders in Colorado are deeply worried that their carefully protected savings account is going to dry up too quickly to solve the Colorado River’s long-term problems.
Will it work?
“I understand and support the necessity of the Secretary [of the Interior] taking this action,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water. “The major concern I have is that Reclamation says the 181,000 acre-foot release will raise Lake Powell three feet. But I don’t know that they can even show that. I don’t know that they have accounted for transit losses and other losses.
“It’s important when these releases are made that they are accounted for, that we know where this water is going. If it doesn’t actually get down to [Lake Powell] to accomplish what it was designed to do, we should have kept it in that savings account,” Lochhead said.
Becki Bryant, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado River region, said the agency is working to create a hydropower buffer in Lake Powell and believes the releases are adequate to accomplish that. But Reclamation is not yet doing the kind of precise tracking and accounting known as water “shepherding,” to ensure flows make it downstream, that Lochhead is requesting.
On Aug. 1, Lake Powell’s elevation stood at 3,553.8 feet above sea level. The action point, or so-called target elevation is 3,525. When that point came close in July, Reclamation moved quickly to order the emergency releases.
Powell’s hydropower plant stops generating power when it drops to 3,490 feet in elevation, according to Reclamation.
“Reclamation expects the additional release of water will be sufficient to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation through 2021. That target elevation provides a 35-vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam.
“Shepherding water would be beneficial but is challenging on many levels for Colorado River Basin states,” said Bryant via email.
Bryant said Reclamation will continue to consult with the Upper Basin states as it monitors reservoir levels and weather forecasts. Should conditions deteriorate further, the agency could examine whether to declare the releases futile and stop them, as it is allowed to do under the 2018 Drought Contingency Plan.
The water being released is so-called “system water,” meaning that it isn’t owned by a particular user.
Held by the federal government for the benefit of the Upper Basin states, the amounts of water specified in the release plan are jaw-dropping: 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge; 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa; and 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover one acre of land to a depth of 12 inches.
If that same amount of water were going to cities, it would be enough to serve more than 362,000 homes for one to two years. If going to farms, it could irrigate more than 113,000 acres, depending on the crop.
If the historic, 20-plus-year drought cycle doesn’t end soon, refilling those reservoirs is going to be difficult. And that has water managers worried.
“My level of concern is quite high,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water planning and policy agency. She also sits on the four-state Upper Colorado River Basin Commission, which advises Reclamation on river issues.
“And I can’t tell yet if [the releases] are going to do the trick,” she said. “But we have to respond to the levels in Powell.”
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Colorado and the other Upper Basin states must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) [per year, 75 maf per 10 years] of water to the Lower Basin on a 10-year running average. Right now, the Upper Basin is delivering roughly 9.2 maf, Mitchell said, meaning that there is still time to help the system come back into balance before the Lower Basin states could legally call for more water than they currently receive.
Lake Powell is the Upper Basin’s largest storage pool on the system and is designed to be the four Upper Basin states’ major source of protection. Because of their legal obligations, Colorado water users are closely monitoring this year’s plunge in Powell, with the threat to hydropower production being seen as a dangerous antecedent to a compact call.
“That the system continues to deteriorate is concerning,” Lochhead said.
Roughly half of Denver Water’s supplies are derived from water rights it owns on the Colorado River system. While one portion of its portfolio dates back to 1921, and would therefore trump a 1922 compact call, several other rights were established later, meaning the utility might have to stop pulling from those water sources if Colorado were forced to cut back in order to meet compact obligations.
Other Front Range water providers, who also have Colorado River rights, are even more vulnerable, including the Pueblo-based Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
Southeastern’s rights date only to 1957.
Contingency v. reality
Lee Miller, Southeastern’s attorney, said the Colorado River crisis remains a long-term problem for his agency.
The rapid deterioration this year, however, is prompting everyone to rethink how much time they have to balance the massive river system as drought and a warming climate, as well as population growth, continue to sap its flows.
“Both the Upper and Lower Basin have now had to initiate elements of their drought contingency plans. When we passed it a couple of years ago everyone thought, “It’s good to have a contingency plan.’ But I don’t think anyone thought we would have to use the plans this quickly. It’s gone from being a contingency to being a reality, and that’s concerning.”
Back up at Flaming Gorge, John Rauch is watching the levels drop and making his own contingency plans.
“We are planning for the worst,” Rauch said. “For the foreseeable future, the outlook is dry. If it ends up that by the end of all of this that the reservoir becomes a river channel, we will be down there at water’s edge selling worms.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
A group of Colorado residents demonstrated Saturday against the construction of a reservoir in the Homestake Valley, marching through the streets of Red Cliff and treating passing vehicles to a variety of colorful signs.
If you were headed south on Highway 24 on Saturday afternoon, you might have been able to read a clever statement like “Stop the whole dam thing,” and “They can’t ‘fen’ for themselves.”
Or you might have noticed a message or two that was more direct. Using an elongated trash picking tool to hoist her sign, Silverthorne resident Jan Goodwin wrote “CO Springs doesn’t need Red Cliff’s water.”
The group is opposed to building a new reservoir in the Homestake Valley 6 miles southeast of Red Cliff, which would be used by the people of Colorado Springs and Aurora, who hold water rights in the area, including the rights to the water in the existing Homestake Reservoir.
But the nuances of the issue, including the sensitive wetlands known as “fens” and the study required for “the whole dam thing,” as referenced in the signs, was also discussed among the demonstrators. In order to construct a new dam and reservoir, the area will require some study, and the Forest Service has already approved that study, which will allow the cities to drill “10 bore samples up to 150-feet deep using a small, rubber-tracked drill rig as well as collect geophysical data using crews on foot,” according to the Forest Service, along with the construction of more than a half-mile of temporary roads to facilitate the work.
The effort could also impact up to 180 acres of wetlands on lower Homestake Creek, wetlands that include fens — groundwater-fed wetlands which began forming during the last ice age. A scientifically unproven idea to relocate the fens is being spearheaded and paid for by Aurora Water and the Board of Water Works of Pueblo…
[Charles] Fleming said he would like to see the people of Colorado Springs and Aurora make more of a good faith effort toward water conservation before seeking another reservoir in the Homestake Valley.
“I’d like to see them get rid of the green grass and focus more on xeriscaping first,” he said.
Parks said as a hotelier in Red Cliff, she sees the recreational appeal of the Homestake Valley as a wild space, not a space that would benefit from the creation of a National Recreation Area or reservoir.
One version of the reservoir envisions an encroachment into 500 acres of the Holy Cross Wilderness area of the White River National Forest, which would require an act of Congress.
Here’s the release from Northern Water (Jeff Stahla):
Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict celebrated the groundbreaking for Chimney Hollow Reservoir on Friday, culminating a 20-year permitting process to add resilience to the water supply for more than 500,000 northeastern Colorado residents.
The groundbreaking also triggers a host of environmental efforts that will occur in the headwaters of the Colorado River on the West Slope. Those include construction of the Colorado River Connectivity Channel to reconnect portions of the river located above and below Windy Gap Reservoir, wastewater treatment plant upgrades in the Fraser River Valley, environmental improvement projects through the Learning By Doing coalition, and other work providing water and storage that can be used for environmental purposes.
“Today marks a long-awaited milestone that required years of hard work and cooperation among many groups with diverse interests to achieve a project that has benefits for everyone in Colorado,” said Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind.
The addition of water storage is a key component of the Colorado Water Plan. Our population continues to grow as climate change brings higher temperatures and greater precipitation variability to the Colorado River headwaters. Construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir gives the regional Windy Gap Firming Project participants a reliable water supply during dry years.
Since the Windy Gap Project was envisioned, water managers have recognized the need for additional storage specifically dedicated to storing Windy Gap water. Currently the Windy Gap Project depends on Lake Granby to store water when the project’s water rights are in priority. However, Lake Granby’s first priority is to store Colorado-Big Thompson Project water.
Chimney Hollow Reservoir is a key component for these Windy Gap Firming participants: Broomfield, Platte River Power Authority, Loveland, Greeley, Longmont, Erie, Little Thompson Water District, Superior, Louisville, Fort Lupton, Lafayette and Central Weld County Water District. Each of the reservoir project participants that provide residential water service has committed to reduce per capita water supply through water conservation.
Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict and Larimer County cooperated to purchase the Chimney Hollow property in 2004 from Hewlett-Packard. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will provide a much-needed outdoor recreational opportunity that can be enjoyed by everyone in Northern Colorado.
In recent weeks crews have been preparing the site for construction by bringing water and power to temporary administrative offices. In addition, the Western Area Power Administration relocated a high voltage power line from the footprint of the reservoir to a location up the hillside to the west.
Full dam construction activities are planned to begin Aug. 16. Barnard Construction Co. Inc. of Bozeman, Montana, is the general contractor for the four-year project. The cost of dam construction is estimated at $500 million, with the complete project including West Slope improvements at $650 million. The 12 project participants are paying its cost.
When the dam is built, it will rise about 350 feet off the dry valley floor. The dam incorporates a technology common in Europe but less so in the United States. Its water-sealing core will consist of a ribbon of hydraulic asphalt instead of the clay that serves that purpose at the Carter Lake and Horsetooth Reservoir dams. Geologists discovered there wasn’t enough high-quality clay material within the footprint of Chimney Hollow Reservoir, and instead of bringing it in from elsewhere, the hydraulic asphalt core option was chosen. The dam’s rock-fill shoulders will use material mined from the reservoir footprint, which will reduce costs, pollution and increase storage capacity.
This new storage project allows us to supply clean water reliably, even in times of drought, to the people of northeastern Colorado from the existing Windy Gap Diversion. Starting construction on Chimney Hollow Reservoir is a major step to address water supply shortages for our growing population, much like our visionary predecessors did for us, while demonstrating that modern storage projects can also improve the environment.
More than 500,000 Coloradans across the Front Range can look forward to a more resilient water supply in the near future, after a groundbreaking Friday set in motion a $650 million project that will give water providers more reliable access to a vital resource that’s become increasingly scarce due to growing populations and climate change.
A crowd of about 200 gathered Friday morning for the groundbreaking of the Chimney Hollow Reservoir, a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir at least 20 years in the making. The reservoir will be located west of the Flatiron Reservoir in Larimer County.
A dozen municipalities, water providers and a power authority are participating in the Northern Water project, which boasts a price tag of $650 million, $500 million of which is for the dam construction. Other costs are going to environmental and water quality improvements in collaboration with affected communities. Adding in things like permitting costs, project manager Joe Donnelly said the total program costs were about $690 million.
Greeley is one of the participants, making up about 10% of the project. Other participants include Longmont, Fort Lupton, Central Weld County Water District, Broomfield and more. Greeley Water and Sewer director Sean Chambers said the city is putting about $57 million toward the construction…
The project had relied on Lake Granby to store water when the project’s water rights were in priority, but the lake’s first priority is to store Colorado-Big Thompson water. Over time, it became clear Front Range water providers would need a way to store Windy Gap water because the water wasn’t available when Front Range communities needed it the most…
Northern Water cooperated with Larimer County to purchase the Chimney Hollow property from Hewlett-Packard in 2004…
Drager and other speakers detailed numerous setbacks, including years of federal litigation after environmental groups filed a 2017 lawsuit. A judge in December dismissed the lawsuit, according to BizWest. The biggest setback, according to Drager, was needing to get a 1041 permit from Grand County. State officials also took issue when project officials hadn’t developed a mitigation plan with the state.
“We kind of argued a little bit, but we came to the conclusion that to really make this thing work, we would have to give something,” Drager said.
In a meeting with a Division of Wildlife official, they eventually settled on stream restoration for the Colorado River — one of many environmental considerations and concessions that helped pave the way for the partnerships that made the project possible…
Though some environmental work is being done at the site, most is at the headwaters of the Colorado River, according to Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla. The environmental mitigation and improvements will cost more than $90 million, including about $45 million to provide water for the river when it’s running low. Other improvements include helping the town of Fraser upgrade its wastewater treatment plant and stream restoration projects.
“These are things that wouldn’t have happened if this project doesn’t get built,” Stahla said. “By doing these things, it’s … mitigation and enhancement, because we’re not just mitigating for the effects of this project, but we’re enhancing what’s already there.”
The site will also serve as an outdoor recreational opportunity managed by Larimer County.
Conservation groups want more “cash for grass” and other plans to acquire new water by saving it. But Denver and Aurora, among others, say there’s only so much to cut before a new dam is needed.
Conservation groups applaud water savings efforts like Aurora’s. What they want is far, far more of the same.
They point to reports required by the state water conservation board showing many large agencies on the Front Range cutting back spending and personnel dedicated to water conservation since 2013, at the same time those water departments press to build massive dam complexes for new water they say they desperately need.
Large water agencies like Denver Water and Aurora Water say they do have ongoing conservation efforts they take seriously, but that fast population growth on the Front Range overwhelms potential savings and they need new water storage…
It would be much better for Colorado’s environment, the conservation groups respond — not to mention cheaper — to acquire water by using less of it, rather than spending billions of dollars on dams and diversions of Western Slope water.
And yet, several projects are on the drawing board:
Aurora wants to team up with Colorado Springs to build Whitney Reservoir and divert more of Homestake Creek over the Continental Divide to the Front Range
Denver Water wants to expand Gross Reservoir above Boulder to hold more Fraser River water diverted from the Colorado River Basin
Northern Water has a $1 billion proposal to dam more Cache la Poudre River water for more than a dozen northern suburbs and cities
All of those would be unnecessary, the conservationists say, if the agencies doubled down on water-saving efforts that cut deeply into household use in the years after the devastating 2002 Front Range drought…
“We know that water in the West is increasingly in short supply and will only become more so as climate change results in worsening drought conditions and water shortages. The answer can’t simply be to pull every last drop of water out of our rivers,” said Juli Slivka, policy director at Wilderness Workshop, which is among the groups fighting any new dams on Homestake Creek.
Some of the bigger water agencies on the Front Range respond that conservation remains a primary goal, despite the falloff in their spending evident in annual reports required by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Aurora’s population will grow by hundreds of thousands of people by 2050, said Aurora Water spokesman Greg Baker. The agency focuses intensely on conservation to expand its water supply, Baker said, through programs like the smart meters and rebates to property owners who remove thirsty lawns, and with Prairie Waters, the largest potable water recycling system in the state.
But that growth, highly visible on Aurora’s eastern edge at the Highlands or Painted Prairie, means stretching existing water use is not enough for future supply, he added. Acquisition of new water must continue. The agency just spent about $17,000 an acre-foot for 500 acre-feet of farm water in the South Platte River Basin, Baker said.
“That’s more than we could find through conservation right now, unless we took such draconian measures — you know, say we banned all outdoor water use,” he said.
Denver Water, serving 1.5 million customers as the largest water agency in Colorado, said it is proud of conservation efforts launched after the wakeup call of the 2002 drought, achieving its goal of a 22% cut in per capita water use in a campaign from 2007 to 2016. Since then, said Denver Water’s manager of demand planning Greg Fisher, some resources have shifted to the concept of “efficiency” — focusing less on absolute cuts to everyone’s use, and instead consulting with larger customers and homeowners to ensure they are using only the water they actually need…
Denver Water’s officially reported tally of its conservation work fell from 36 full- and part-time staff and a budget of $8 million in 2013 — the first year of required reporting — to five full-time staffers and $1.5 million in spending in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic shut down many field services. Denver’s peak of conservation staffing, at 40 in 2016, was the same year the agency said it achieved the long-set goal of 22% per capita reductions in use.
Denver Water says daily water use fell from 211 gallons per person in 2011, before another severe drought began in 2013, to 165 gallons a day in 2016. Since then, Fisher said daily use has declined to about 140 gallons. In the years since the 2002 drought, Denver Water’s annual overall use has gone down, even as the customer base has climbed by hundreds of thousands.
The Denver agency says the state conservation reports are partially misleading because they ask for too narrow a classification of spending that ends up cutting water use. For example, Fisher said, Denver Water is spending more money on staff time helping local agencies rewrite green building codes to require more efficient water use…
Aurora’s conservation staffing has changed less dramatically, from 15 full-time and 13 contract positions in 2013, to a total of about 24 positions now, officials said. The emphasis has shifted over the years, Baker said. Most home and building owners have long since swapped out older toilets for efficient models, and individual homeowner irrigation audits are not as productive as broader efficiency programs…
Environmental conservation groups opposed to diverting water from Western Slope rivers are especially focused this year on Boulder County’s Gross Reservoir, where Denver Water wants to raise the dam by 131 feet at a cost of $464 million. A higher dam would allow Denver to bring over more of the water it owns in the Fraser River, part of the Colorado River Basin west of the Continental Divide. Denver also says it needs more water storage on the northern end of the Front Range in case changing climate patterns and wildfire runoff threaten water collection in the southern South Platte River basin, where most of its available water is collected…
Multiple environmental groups have sued to stop Gross Reservoir and sought to scrap it during the local permitting process. Boulder County held the power over a key construction permit Denver Water needs this year. Now Denver Water has asked a federal court to take over jurisdiction for the permit because the agency believes Boulder County Commissioners have already demonstrated their intent to block it…
Aurora Water says it is one of the few Colorado utilities that is doing exactly that [paying cash for grass], with its “water-wise landscape” payments. Aurora will design a homeowner’s low-water garden for free, and pay material costs up to $3,000 for 500 square feet — even more for a zero-water landscape, Baker said…
Denver Water says it offers everything from low-water “garden-in-a-box” kits, to rebates for installing the kind of smart controllers Aurora promotes, to training for landscapers…
Building storage, though, must remain a part of the water acquisition mix, both Denver and Aurora argue. As the system has gotten more efficient through conservation, Denver Water said, possible future gains diminish. In the 2002 drought, Denver said, its short-term restrictions cut water use 30%. After years of conservation work, similar restrictions in the 2013 drought — for a significantly larger customer base — cut water use only 20%.
“We are reaching the edges of supply,” Hartman said.
Settlement involving Windy Gap yields $15 million for science-based work
In the early 1980s, when a dam on the Colorado River near its headwaters was proposed and Andrew Miller was a writer for the Winter Park Manifest, he wrote an editorial called “Requiem for a Cottonwood Grove.”
The headline was premature because the dam at Windy Gap, where the Fraser River flows into the Colorado, had not yet been constructed. But it soon was, causing the cottonwood trees to be felled and allowing water from the new reservoir to be pumped uphill to Grand Lake. From there the water flows into diversion under the Continental Divide called the Alva Adams Tunnel to be distributed among cities and some farms in the northern Front Range.
But that story almost 40 years later continues, as news of a settlement suggests. The Grand Foundation will soon receive $15 million remediation for work in Grand County, where the Colorado River originates. The money will be used to try to create strategies for preserving trout and other aquatic life in the warming but ever-more shallow waters.
The big story here is of incremental depletions of the Colorado River at its headwaters by growing Front Range cities now colliding with the impact of the warming climate, hotter and drier. The two, each powerful, leave in doubt how long cold water-loving trout can survive.
“Trout need water temperatures below 70 degrees, and we are regularly bumping up against 70 degrees in our rivers,” says Miller, now a contractor and president of the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group.
The $15 million will come from the municipal subdistrict of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District responsible for this incremental diversion. The district built Windy Gap to divert the waters to the northern Front Range. A subsequent project spurred by the distressing drought of 2002 and those of later years yielded an expansion of the diversions at Windy Gap.
The additional water will be stored, in part, at a new reservoir snuggled among the foothills rising from the Great Plain southwest of Loveland. The dam to create that 90,000-acre-foot reservoir, called Chimney Hollow, has not yet been constructed.
The political subdivision responsible for the new diversion consists primarily of towns and cities, from Broomfield, Superior and Fort Lupton on the south to Loveland and Greeley on the north.
Save the Colorado and the Sierra Club, among other groups, in 2017 had sued Northern, arguing that the process used to review the impacts was deficient in failing to adequate address cumulative impacts. In December 2020 a federal court ruled in favor of Northern, but the environmental groups appealed.
In April, a compromise was announced. The environmental groups dropped the lawsuit and Northern agreed to the $15 million settlement in what Northern described as a productive alternative to costly litigation.
The financial documents of the settlement agreement are to be signed by directors of Northern on Aug. 6 and by the Grand Foundation on Aug. 10. Because of delays in signing, Northern will transfer the first payment totaling $5 million immediately after the Grand Foundation signs, says Gary Wockner, of Save the Colorado and an allied group, Save the Poudre.
Administering the $15 million grant will be the Grand Foundation, which is to consist of three members from Miller’s organization, the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group. In addition to Miller, Dave Troutman the treasurer, and Geoff Elliott, the staff scientist, will be on the committee responsible for overseeing allocation of the grant. Northern Water has authority to name the three other members.
“Our charge over the next 10 years is to spend $15 million in ways that improve Grand County’s watershed in a collaborative process,” explained Miller. “In some ways, we are on opposite sides of the fence,” he said, referring to the Northern District’s appointment members. “But in many of the important ways we are on the same side. We both depend upon high-quality water, Northern almost more than us.”
Other measures in the agreement address water quality and provide more water for Western Slope users.
Separately, Northern plans to create a new channel around Windy Gap Dam, to allow the Colorado River to flow without impoundment. The channel is intended to allow fish, macroinvertebrates, nutrients and sediment in the river to bypass the dam and reservoir. The project is called the Colorado River Connectivity Channel. The bypass channel will be the result of a settlement negotiated by Trout Unlimited and others, says Wockner. No draft environmental assessment has been released. “It remains to be seen if the channel will be permitted, funded or built,” he says.
Because of its proximity to the northern Front Range farms and cities and its relative plentitude of water-producing snow, Grand County has been the go-to place for trans-mountain diversions since the late 1880s. The two most significant are those accomplished by the 6.2-mile pioneer bore of the Moffat Tunnel, which allowed diversions from the Winter Park and Fraser area to begin in 1936; and the 13.1-mile Adams Tunnel, which began delivering water to the Estes Park area in 1947.
Miller sees pressing task of the foundation set up to administer the settlement funds will be to lay down a baseline of existing conditions. The existing data, says Miller “really aren’t that good.”
Beyond that, the challenge will be more difficult, perhaps impossible.
“Basically we need to figure out how to run a watershed when we only have 30% of the natural water, which is about all we have left after the diversions by the Front Range.”
In addition to the stepped-up diversions by Northern Water, Denver Water also wants to take additional water through the Moffat Tunnel for impoundment in an expanded Gross Reservoir.
By at least some estimates, 70% of the native water of eastern Grand County currently gets exported to the Front Range. With these new diversions, exports will increase to 80%.
When these incremental diversions were first conceived not quite 20 years ago, the science of global warming was firming up but the effects were not yet evident, at least not like now. Even a decade ago, after significant drought had begun and temperatures had clearly started rising, the big picture was more tentative.
Miller’s group contends no water remains available from the Grand County headwaters of the Colorado River for additional diversion.
“I don’t think anybody realized how persistent this drought would be,” says Miller. “It could be a forever thing. We have created a new climate, and we will never see the rainfalls and snow we have in the past.”
Colorado water officials have reached an agreement removing one of the last barriers to a new environmental water program in Chatfield Reservoir.
The agreement settles a dispute among water agencies about who could use storage space in a special environmental pool in the reservoir.
The agreement is one of the final steps in the re-operation of the recreational site just southwest of Denver and comes after years of permitting disputes and lawsuits.
The federally owned reservoir was built in 1967 and was initially designed for flood protection in years when the South Platte River surged beyond its banks.
But as drought and climate change, as well as population growth, increased pressure on urban and agricultural water supplies on the Front Range, federal, state and local agencies began working to convert a portion of Chatfield’s flood storage to municipal and agricultural water storage. The reallocated storage space totals 20,600 acre-feet, of which 2,100 acre-feet is designated as the environmental pool.
The new storage will give south Denver metro area cities such as Highlands Ranch more protection against drought and diminishing groundwater supplies, and will give farmers on the Eastern Plains the ability to use stored water to irrigate crops late in the season when flows in the South Platte River run low. Water from the environmental pool will be used for releases to boost streamflows downstream, improving water quality and providing other environmental and recreational benefits. Downstream irrigators will also benefit from those releases.
The physical work on the re-operation was completed last year after the project won federal approval and a major lawsuit against it failed.
The latest legal dispute stems from a disagreement between Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch, and the Greeley-based Central Colorado Conservancy District, over whose water rights could be used to fill the environmental storage space and whose space would be filled first.
Centennial’s and Central’s boards must still approve the settlement, according to Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which negotiated the deal. [Ris also serves on the Board of Trustees for Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.]
“There was a disagreement among the parties about which water rights could be used,” Ris said, with ultimately the Colorado Water Conservation Board giving up some of its storage space to settle the dispute between the water agencies.
Central officials could not be reached for comment.
Centennial Water Resources Manager Rick McLoud said his agency had spent millions of dollars and more than 20 years to ensure that the new Chatfield plan would serve Highlands Ranch well, and that its ability to store water there would not get bumped too far down the priority list.
“We spent 27 years working to get it and more than $55 million. We did not want to lose out,” McLoud said.
Environmentalists, including the Denver Chapter of the Audubon Society, had long battled the re-operation of the reservoir because it inundated the existing shoreline and resulted in a loss of bird habitat, among other issues.
New habitat has been set aside farther downstream for birds and other species, and water from the environmental pool will help maintain streamflows and habitat as it is released.
Abby Burk, an Audubon Society official, said her group is still deeply worried about the loss of habitat.
But she said the fierce drought and ongoing shortages of water for environmental purposes make the Chatfield habitat water critically important.
“Chatfield was a hard go. We lost some strong riparian areas for birds,” Burk said. “But anytime we can have environmental benefits, particularly in a challenging drought year, we have to go for it.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Denver Water conveying stunningly scenic parcels to Forest Service as part of Gross Reservoir Expansion Project.
It’s been getting crowded on the trails, open spaces and forests along the Front Range, especially since COVID-19 sent lock-down weary residents bursting into the backcountry in an eager search for safe, socially distanced outdoor recreation.
That newfound enthusiasm for backcountry adventure isn’t expected to fade any time soon.
But now, thanks to an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and Denver Water, explorers will have just a sliver of additional elbow room.
Denver Water is in the process of conveying 539 acres of wetlands, meadows and forests in Gilpin County to the Forest Service to be managed for public use.
The remote acreage, near the east portal of the Moffat Tunnel, protects ecologically precious lands near two wildly popular wilderness areas (Indian Peaks and James Peak) and the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests. The land also complements a larger landscape protection effort in the region assembled by The Conservation Fund.
“Denver Water is thrilled to be a part of this landscape preservation effort,” said Jim Lochhead, the utility’s CEO/Manager. “This region near these precious wilderness areas is an environmental gem and one much loved by Coloradans, especially many within our service area.
“Ensuring its permanent protection is an outcome we are proud to be a part of, and we appreciate our partnership with the Forest Service and the Conservation Fund in putting this all together,” he said.
Denver Water agreed to provide the land for its ecological value and public use as part of a sweeping agreement with the Forest Service to offset environmental impacts associated with the expansion of Gross Reservoir to the east of the area.
It’s one of several steps Denver Water has already taken to complete so-called “mitigation” projects years ahead of the expansion work.
The lands being conveyed are part of what’s known as the Toll Property, the name derived from a ranching family that owned the land for 120 years.
Denver Water’s contribution, scattered across 11 parcels, is part of a much larger agreement, according to reporting in the Boulder Daily Camera. A much larger area of 3,334 acres remains in the Toll family’s private ownership, but with a perpetual conservation easement to prevent development.
An additional 823 acres also were acquired by the Forest Service.
The entire land protection project creates a significant buffer, separating the adjacent James Peak Wilderness to the west from rural development and urban areas to the east, as described in a summary by The Conservation Fund.
It also helps protect a four-mile stretch of the upper portion of South Boulder Creek, a key part of Denver Water’s supply.
The landscape is familiar not only to backpackers. Train aficionados know the area as part of the route taken by Amtrak’s California Zephyr, between Denver and San Francisco.
Wellington faces a Catch-22, caught between its desire for growth and the water issues that threaten to slow it to a crawl.
The town of about 12,000 has plenty of water — the lifeblood of any community — to serve thousands of new homes. But the cost of water is rising rapidly and the town currently lacks the capacity to store it, treat it or flush it. Both its water and wastewater treatment plants are overextended.
Expansions are underway but still three years away from completion.
It’s not a new problem for Wellington, which earlier this year raised water rates to pay for an expansion of its water and wastewater treatment plants, imposed water restrictions and limited new residential building permits to about 100 per year until the expansions are complete.
The very measures it’s taking to create that infrastructure have raised water rates to the highest in Northern Colorado, which could, in turn, adversely affect growth as builders consider their options.
It’s a fragile balance that’s frustrating residents who are now paying about double what they were two years ago and has the town asking for patience.
Residential water and sewer taps, the largest slice of new development impact fees collected when a building permit is issued, went from $5,500 to $7,500 for a typical home tap and sewer taps increased from $7,500 to $9,700.
Those fees, which also pay for things like parks, streets, water and sewer lines, are typically passed on to the homebuyer or business, which is one reason the cost of homes is going up in Wellington…
Continuing to increase impact fees while at the same time limiting the number of residential permits to stay within treatment capacities “could reach a point where developers or buildings are unwilling to build in Wellington,” the town wrote on its website, “and could result in a slowdown or stop to new development, shifting the cost of paying for improvements onto existing residents…
When treatment plant expansions are done in 2024, they will be able to support Wellington’s expected growth for about 20 years, when the population is expected to double to about 24,000, Town Administrator Patti Garcia said.
Plant expansions won’t bring rate relief, however, she said. Base water rates were raised $31 — to $66 a month — in January to pay the debt service on the water treatment plant. To get the loan, the town had to prove it could pay it back, Garcia said…
For comparison, Fort Collins’ base water rate is $18.30 with a charge of $2.83 per 1,000 gallons of water up to 7,000 gallons. Like Wellington, it has tiered rates that go up the more water used. The charge for water over 13,000 gallons is $3.75 per 1,000 gallons.
That means a Wellington resident using the average 7,000 gallons per month would pay $97.92 per month compared to $38.11 for the same amount of water through Fort Collins Utilities…
It won’t help rates, but finishing the treatment plant expansions should ease water restrictions and lift the moratorium on building permits…
Wellington is served by the North Poudre Irrigation Co., whose share costs have risen 40% since 2018, when the town wrote in its resolution to increase rates. That resolution passed in August 2020. NPIC water currently sells for $200,000 or more per share.
In response to past increases and hedging its bets against future increases, Wellington increased its raw water rates from $19,285.50 to $67,586 for 0.58 acre feet of water — the amount of water it requires for every developed dwelling unit.
“Once we have capacity in the water treatment plant we will be fine,” Garcia said. “We have plenty of water, the issue is having the capacity to provide it, store it, use it and flush it. We’re looking forward to what 2024 can bring.”
Since that time, CPP requested additional information from Denver Water. On June 29, 2021, the CPP Director acknowledged Denver Water’s intent to not provide additional requested information, and determined the 1041 review will move to public hearings.
Denver Water filed a lawsuit against the county in July 2021. The lawsuit alleges that the county does not have the authority to regulate the project because the project requires a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Because of the lawsuit, on July 26, Denver Water’s attorney requested that the CPP Director place the 1041 application on hold, and CPP Director Dale Case granted the request the next day, July 27.
Consequently, public hearings that were set for August and September have been canceled.
“It makes sense to have the court resolve the legal issues about whether Boulder County can proceed before conducting hearings on the 1041 review,” said Case. “We have already devoted significant time and resources to processing Denver Water’s application, and it would take even more county resources to proceed with public hearings.”
The Areas and Activities of State Interest (1041) application for the expansion of Gross Reservoir is a request to store an additional 77,000 acre-feet total of water, which includes increasing the dam height by approximately 131 feet, the dam length by approximately 790 feet, and the spillway elevation by approximately 126 feet; quarry operations to obtain aggregate needed for construction; construction of a temporary concrete batch/production plant and an aggregate processing plant; permanent road improvements to Gross Dam Road from State Highway 72 to Gross Reservoir; temporary road improvements to FS359 (Winiger Ridge Road) and FS97 (Lazy Z Road); and the relocation of the Miramonte Multi-Use Trail.
At Hays Market, gallon jugs of drinking water have been flying off the shelves for the better part of two weeks. According to grocery manager Daniel Gehring, the store has gone from ordering several cases of water to palates of it, and not because of the hot weather.
“The town’s water is smelly, funny and has a dirt taste to it, so people are buying the heck out of the gallon water,” Gehring said.
For the grocery store, the business is a plus, but around town, folks like David Salls are concerned. He’s recently turned to filtering all of the water anyone in the family drinks, including his dogs…
Town manager Matt LeCerf says the odor is harmless, and the result of chemical compounds created by algae blooms in the Lone Tree Reservoir, the city’s main water source.
Normally, the water travels into town via a pipeline and drainage ditch, but this year the drainage ditch is not being used because of the nearby Cameron Peak and East Troublesome Fire burn scars…
According to LeCerf, the ditch into town naturally aerates and filters the water more than the pipeline.
“We’re basically in a position where we have to run our water through the reservoirs where we do have that standing water that’s causing some of the taste and odor issues,” LeCerf said.
After hearing similar concerns in the past, the town approved a new $2 million granular activated carbon system earlier this year, which LeCerf said is 90% effective in removing the taste and odor. Construction has been underway for more than two months, and the system is expected to be online Wednesday…
The carbon filtration system isn’t the only improvement in the works for Johnstown. According to LeCerf, the town is also upgrading its water treatment plant and putting special buoys in the reservoir that use ultrasonic wavelengths to help mitigate algae growth.
While Douglas County remains under a drought watch, water officials in Parker and Castle Rock are optimistic about water supplies as the state heads into the hottest part of summer.
Castle Rock Water Director Mark Marlowe said this is the first summer the town is using the reusable water supply. In 2006, the town invested $208 million to build the reusable water facility. Water started pumping into residents’ homes early this year.
Because of the renewable water source, Marlowe said as the high-use water months continue, Plum Creek resources are “holding up well.”
“We have been able to utilize renewable water because the creek is running well,” he said. “Reusable water tends to be more drought resistant, and it does not depend on rainfall. It is water we have already used that will be put back into the system. It is a reliable source, especially during a drought.”
Ron Redd, district manager for Parker Water & Sanitation District, said water supplies are holding up well, and residents have not even met peak demand as expected this year.
Thanks to a wet spring, Redd said, customers in Parker and Castle Pines have used a lot less water in June and early July this year compared to the same time last year.
With 2020 being so dry, Redd said residents were using about 28 million gallons of water per day. This year, the average use is half that at 14 million gallons.
Even in the absence of bark beetle outbreaks and wildfire, trees in Colorado subalpine forests are dying at increasing rates from warmer and drier summer conditions, found recent CU Boulder research.
The study, published in February in the Journal of Ecology, also found that this trend is increasing. In fact, tree mortality in subalpine Colorado forests not affected by fire or bark beetle outbreaks in the last decade has more than tripled since the 1980s.
“We have bark beetle outbreaks and wildfires that cause very obvious mortality of trees in Colorado. But we’re showing that even in the areas that people go hiking in and where the forest looks healthy, mortality is increasing due to heat and dry conditions alone,” said Robert Andrus, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at Washington State University. “It’s an early warning sign of climate change.”
These deaths are not only affecting larger trees, thus reducing forests’ carbon storage, but hotter and drier conditions are making it difficult for new trees to take root across the southern Rockies in Colorado, southern Wyoming and northern parts of New Mexico.
It’s well known that rising temperatures and increasing drought are causing tree deaths in forests around the globe. But here in Colorado, researchers found that heat and drought alone are responsible for over 70% of tree deaths in the 13 areas of subalpine forest they measured over the past 37 years. That’s compared with about 23% of tree deaths due to bark beetles and about 5% due to wind damage.
“It was really surprising to see how strong the relationship is between climate and tree mortality, to see that there was a very obvious effect of recent warmer and drier conditions on our subalpine forests,” said Andrus, who conducted this research while completing his graduate degree in physical geography at CU Boulder. “The rate of increasing mortality is alarming.”
With temperatures in Colorado having risen by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1980s and increasing more quickly at higher elevations, estimates of another possible 2.5 or more degrees of warming in the next few decades due to climate change indicate that the rate of tree deaths will only increase.
Seeing the forest for the trees
Subalpine forests cover over 10,000 square miles in Colorado and are best known by those who ski or recreate in the mountains. Subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce dominate the area above the Peak to Peak Highway in the Front Range, and if you go over any mountain pass in Colorado, you’re going into the subalpine zone, according to Andrus.
Previous research at CU Boulder has shown how wildfire, beetle kill and the two combined can affect the mortality and health of Rocky Mountain subalpine forests. This new research isolated the effects of those two common stressors from those of heat and moisture to find out how much of an effect climate change is having on these tree populations.
“As trees die in increasing numbers due to fire, bark beetles and drought, the warmer and drier climate is making it much less likely that new tree seedlings can establish and replace the dead adult trees,” said Tom Veblen, co-author of the study and professor emeritus of geography.
Launched by Veblen when he arrived on campus in 1982, this is the longest running study of tree mortality in Colorado with measurements made frequently enough to identify the factors causing tree death. Every three years since, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and undergraduate field assistants have diligently returned to the more than 5,000 marked trees on Niwot Ridge just west of Boulder. In these 13 subalpine forest plots, they recorded that more trees died during summers with higher maximum temperatures and greater moisture deficits.
They found that tree mortality increased from .26% per year during 1982 to 1993, to .82% per year during 2008 to 2019—more than tripling within 40 years.
“It is really challenging because it’s not very visually obvious to the casual observer,” said Andrus. “But the thing to keep in mind is that while warmer, drier conditions are also causing more fire and bark beetle outbreaks, these slow and gradual changes are also important.”
Additional authors on this publication include Rachel Chai of the Veblen Lab at CU Boulder; Brian Harvey, previously a postdoctoral researcher in geography at CU Boulder and now an assistant professor at the University of Washington; and Kyle Rodman, previously a graduate student in the Veblen Lab at CU Boulder and now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
Leaders of the Colorado mountain town Nederland just gave their surrounding 448-square-mile watershed “fundamental and inalienable rights,” like those conferred on people and corporations — bolstering a movement that has gained traction amid concerns nature is suffering.
The Nederland resolution, which passed 5-1 on July 6, also directs town trustees to appoint guardians who can speak for nature in local decision-making the way court-appointed guardians speak for children, dementia-stricken elders and pop star Britney Spears.
Under current U.S. law, forests, mountains and rivers lack legal rights, let alone standing to be represented in court.
Proponents contend subjugating nature as a commodity, used to satisfy human demands, is leading to disaster as the climate warms and they’re pressing for a new paradigm. But federal and state law can preempt local measures, and property rights groups are girding against what they see as an environmentalist grab for moral high ground.
For now, the focus of the nonbinding resolution in Nederland (population 1,600) is simply to spur deeper conversations about effects of population growth and development — and avoid litigation. Upcoming tests include new construction in the Caribou Ridge subdivision on moose and elk habitat, and a proposed new reservoir along Boulder Creek.
“This may become a national movement. We’re at a very early stage, just getting off the ground with this,” said Nederland trustee Alan Apt, a retired publisher and former Fort Collins councilman who led the local effort. “Human needs are important, and we want to make sure we meet the needs of our human population. But we also need to think about the air, water, wildlife, trees – everything that constitutes nature. It’s a survival issue.”
At a time when studies warn of open space disappearing across the United States at the rate of a football field every 30 seconds, elected leaders in recent years have passed rights of nature ordinances in Santa Monica, Calif.; Toledo, Ohio; Grant Township and Tamaqua, Pa.; Mora County, New Mexico; and Orange County, Fla.
The concept has been circulating for decades after emerging a half-century ago in a law professor’s article. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 recognized possible rights of nature in a case addressing a proposed ski resort development in a federal forest, with Justice William Douglas declaring in a dissent that “public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium … should lead to the conferring of standing upon environment objects to sue for their own preservation.”
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty, urges leaders worldwide “to consider and recognize when appropriate the rights of nature.” The Yurok tribe in California in 2019 gave rights to the Klamath River, and the Nez Perce did so with the Snake River last year. Nature’s rights are enshrined in Ecuador’s constitution, and Bangladesh in 2019 gave rivers the same legal rights as humans.
Crestone in 2018 became Colorado’s first town to pass general rights of nature legislation, part of a push for official certification as a dark skies community that controls light pollution.
Nederland is the first municipality in the Rocky Mountain West to pass a measure specifically designating a watershed, reflecting water’s essential ecological role and recent river-protection court wins in Colombia and New Zealand based on inherent rights of nature.
Organizations leading the movement — the nonprofit Save the Colorado River in Colorado and California-based Earth Law — say legal rights for nature to exist, flourish and be restored will guide local government decisions, from proposals to build new houses and roads to routing of new pipelines to siphoning of water that humans demand…
Colorado voters’ track record on environment-oriented ballot measures, most recently ordering state officials to reintroduce wolves, has opened this as a possibility for establishing legal rights of nature.
“Young people here in Denver and across the state are talking about it,” GreenLatinos and Sunrise Movement leader Ean Tafoya said. “If corporations have personhood rights, why shouldn’t the natural world?”
Tackling the challenges surrounding climate change and water supply will require collaboration and creative thinking, Colorado’s top water leaders and senior federal officials agreed Thursday.
More than a dozen state officials and water leaders from across the state met at Denver Water’s Operations Complex with Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to discuss the impacts of climate change, the ongoing drought across the Colorado River Basin and how leadership and collaboration at every level will be needed to help address it.
After the discussion, Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager, welcomed the group — which included Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo, Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg — to a news conference at the utility’s Administration Building, completed in 2019, that is itself a demonstration of the future of water and water efficiency in an urban setting.
Lochhead said the roundtable also included a discussion of the investments Denver Water is making in watershed health, through its From Forests to Faucets program that includes partners at the state and federal level, water conservation, resiliency and sustainability.
Haaland said she was glad to tour “this beautiful building” and praised the roundtable for bringing a wide range of people together for a thoughtful and important discussion…
Greenberg said it meant a lot to the people working across Colorado’s agriculture sector to know issues surrounding climate change were “top of mind” at both the state and federal level…
Attendees at the water leaders’ roundtable discussion were:
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of Interior.
Davis Raff, Chief Engineer, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Carly Jerla, Senior Water Resources Program Manager, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Diana DeGette, U.S. Representative for Colorado’s First Congressional District.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Colorado Lt. Governor Dianne Primavera.
Kate Greenberg, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture.
Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Rebecca Mitchell, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Jim Lochhead, CEO/Manager, Denver Water.
Christine Arbogast, representing Colorado Water Congress.
Peter Fleming, General Counsel, Colorado River Water District.
Jim Broderick, Executive Director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservation District.
Ken Curtis, General Manager, Dolores Water District Manager (retired).
Steve Wolff, General Manager, Southwest Water Conservation District.
Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program Director, National Audubon Society
Diane Carman’s opinion column this morning touches on the cost of moving sustainability and resilience forward in Denver Suburb:
For decades, we’ve heard that a reckoning was coming.
Climate change would threaten our fundamental way of life in the West. After years of neglect, essential parts of our infrastructure would fail. The bills for the costs of maintaining our essential services — kicked willy-nilly down the road to a murky unidentified date in the future — would come due.
We ignored it all, blithely turning up the air conditioning, watering our lawns and tuning out the scientists, the engineers, the city managers.
Now that reckoning has arrived.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks in Westminster. They can tell you all about the connections between climate change, infrastructure and money.
Officials from Westminster’s water and sewer departments began warning that the 50-year-old facilities were worn out.
The storage tanks for the city’s water, the pipes and pumps delivering it, and the sewage treatment systems were shot. Concrete was flaking away, pipes deteriorating, pumps becoming unreliable.
The city council looked at the mountain of evidence and made the only responsible choice: it voted to upgrade the system.
To pay for it, the council also voted to raise the rates for water and sewer customers and, since the cost of the projects was estimated in the tens of millions, the increased fees were significant, especially for high users.
When the summer of 2020 came and the thermometer hit 90 or above for a record-setting 75 days, the good folks of Westminster sprinkled their lawns like they always had (maybe not blithely but still …) and the resulting water bills blew their minds.
Still in deep denial of reality, a group of Westminster activists mobilized as Water Warriors to recall several city council members for their failure to kick the problems down the road once more.
The effort was an expensive bust, with the recall of only one council member, Jon Voelz, making it onto the ballot, only to fail spectacularly in the special election last week.
But this war is far from over.
Several Westminster council members will face re-election in November and surely water rates will be an issue. Those who routinely flood their lawns with 20,000 gallons or more each month and pay the highest rates are not about to give up the fight for their right to Kentucky Bluegrass — drought and system failures be damned.
But Westminster is hardly unique. In fact, it’s really Everytown, USA. Its water war is a mere skirmish in the seething national debate about how to face the reckoning now upon us.
The facts are indisputable.
After years of drought in the West, reservoirs, water tables and rivers are at historic lows.
California is forced to forced to choose between leaving enough water in the streams so that salmon can survive and drawing enough to grow crops. Ranchers across the West are reducing their stocks as it becomes more apparent that they won’t be able to feed them. Customers who rely on hydroelectric power face shortages as water levels drop and heat waves stretch even into Canada. Fishermen have been asked to abide by a voluntary ban on angling in the mighty Colorado River.
At the same time, critical infrastructure from bridges and highways to the antiquated electric grid have been left to degrade for most of a century, risking public health and safety for lack of political will.
The backlog of delayed infrastructure projects in Colorado alone is huge: $10 billion for safe drinking water, $9 billion for transportation, $4 billion for wastewater systems … the list goes on.
But while nobody would say the Westminster water wars have been easy (or cheap), the outcome so far is cause for mild optimism.
Mayor Anita Seitz has listened to constituents’ concerns both about the condition of the water system and the painful rate increases and has chosen not to duck the issue for mere political expedience. Instead, she and other council members are working to help the community understand the problem and what the future holds.
Acres of green lawns, long a symbol of abundance, now represent reckless profligacy. Failure to address the crumbling infrastructure can only bring more serious and expensive problems down the road. An unwillingness to fix the problems now will only cost the community more in the future.
“Every single member of council swears an oath to our charter. And our charter dictates that we need to set rates of our utility to meet the operating needs of that utility,” Seitz said. There’s not much “wiggle room.”
She’s right. Whatever wiggle room we had to address climate change and meet our infrastructure needs is long gone.
In this summer of heat domes, wildfires, droughts, floods and structural failures, that message should be loud, clear and irrefutable.
Take it from the folks in Westminster, it’s time for action.
High up on Colorado’s Independence Pass, a narrow, winding road weaves through the evergreens and across mountain streams, up and over the Continental Divide at more than 10,000 feet. At one point that road crosses a canal.
It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, but that canal is part of water infrastructure that makes life on Colorado’s Front Range possible.
The state has a geographical mismatch between where water shows up and where much of the population has settled.
“Wherever you are in this state, you’re either at the source of the drinking water supply, you’re in the middle of the drinking water supply, or you’re at the end of the tap,” said Christina Medved, outreach director at Roaring Fork Conservancy. “So on the Western slope, we are at the source of the water.”
About 80% of Colorado’s water falls on the western side of the state. Much of it is high-mountain snow and rain that eventually trickles down into streams and rivers like the ones on Independence Pass.
But about 80% of Colorado’s people live on the east side of the mountains. Because of gravity, that water doesn’t flow to them naturally. Instead, Colorado’s heavily-populated Front Range relies on a massive plumbing system to keep drinking water flowing to its taps.
For a century and a half, engineers have carved up the mountains with tunnels and canals that pipe water across the state through trans-mountain diversions. Some of that infrastructure is nestled near the high-alpine headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, which eventually flows through Aspen and Glenwood Springs on its way to the Colorado River. Near Lost Man reservoir, a dam and tunnel create a juncture between water that will follow that natural path westward to the Colorado, and water that will be diverted eastward through the mountains and onto cities such as Colorado Springs.
A tunnel through the mountains draws in water that will pass through two reservoirs and the Arkansas River on its way to the southern portion of the Front Range. Water diverted from the Colorado River basin, through trans-mountain diversions, makes up 60 to 70% of the water used by Colorado Springs. Denver, Greeley, Fort Collins and smaller municipalities on the Front Range also rely heavily on Western Slope water.
And these kinds of set ups aren’t confined to Colorado. Similar systems bring water to big cities all across the region. Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Los Angeles rely on canals and tunnels to ship faraway water into their pipes. New ones are in the works on the Front Range and in southern Utah.
But these systems aren’t without critics.
“When you first learn about it, the concept of a trans-mountain diversion is crazy,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It seems wrong. It seems antithetical to the health of the river. And I have to say all of that’s true.”
His organization was set up in the 1930s to oppose these diversions and ensure that there is enough water for people on the Western side of the state…
The issue is, contemporary environmental values aren’t written into the West’s water law. Instead, water use is defined by regulations written when Colorado first became a state in the 1800s. The rules say that if you have rights to use water, it doesn’t matter if you want to use it hundreds of miles away from its source – even if that requires miles of cross-mountain plumbing to do so.
At this moment, there is less water to pull from in every part of the state. The Front Range escaped from drought after steady spring rains, but those high-mountain areas that usually provide a dependable source of water for all of Colorado are experiencing a different fate. The western slope is deep in the second year of drought conditions, leaving snowpack and river flows lower than they should be.
Mueller thinks that only sharpens the need for the Front Range to curtail its water use. Although they retain the legal right to use a certain amount of water, he’s asking them to use less – which he says will promote the health of rivers and their ecosystems west of the divide.
On the Front Range, those on the receiving end of diversions say they are listening to their western counterparts when they put up distress signals during particularly critical times. They also say deliberate conservation work is paying off in the longer term. Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, said over the past two decades, per capita water use in his district is down by 22%.
“Everyone in Colorado needs to decrease their use,” he said…
Amid tension between demands for water on both sides, exacerbated by extreme drought conditions, is the fact that there is not much of an alternative. Colorado’s water system is built to accommodate the fact that the majority of its people and the majority of its water are far from each other. Without fundamental changes to the bedrock of water law, those asking for water will have to work within a system built on trans-mountain diversions…
Some contingency planning – within the reality of a diversion-centric system – is already in place. In Colorado Springs, which receives some of the flow diverted from the top of Independence Pass, re-use practices are helping the city get more mileage out of the water it’s apportioned.
Abby Ortega, water resources manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, said reused water accounts for 26% of the city’s total portfolio and the city relies heavily on storage to get through dry years like this one.
But climate change threatens to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts, which has water managers on edge and looking more intently at ways to maximize what’s available.
“Every water planner in the state has some worry with the rapidly declining hydrology on the Colorado river,” Ortega said.
Since mid-May, Woodland Park residents and businesses have confronted Level 2 water restrictions conditions, which can affect their daily and weekly watering habits.
Property owners can only water their lawns so often, and the restrictions impact big commercial users, like the Shining Mountain golf course in Woodland Park. Area linksters will be forced to abide by cart-path-only rules for some time due to the lingering drought and because of the city’s limited availability of H2O…
With all the recent rainfall, locals may be wondering why these restrictions are still in place. The story is complicated, as much of the city’s water supply depends on sources some 200 miles away.
According to drought.gov website, in collaboration with The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAH) and National Integrated Drought Information System, (NIDIS), no one in Teller are affected by drought at this time. Drought.gov states that May of 2021 was the 24th wettest period in 127 years, at 1.52 inches above normal for Teller County.
However, drought.gov also states that 36.4-percent of Colorado is under a “severe drought” and 30-percent of the state is under “extreme drought” conditions. The western slope of Colorado is where the majority of these “severe” and “extreme” drought conditions exist. The western slope headwater drainages are the major source of the city’s augmentation water.
As a result of the drought conditions on the western slope, On July 1, a declaration of a drought emergency for Western Colorado by Gov. Jared Polis opened up federal and state dollars to help those most affected by the lack of moisture. As of July 1, the US Drought Monitor lists 18 counties as being in extreme or exceptional drought.
Drought conditions are so bad on the Colorado river, that water storage in Lake Mead is at historic lows. Lake Mead, the largest US reservoir, and fed by the Colorado River — fell below the elevation of 1,075 feet. It has hit that mark only a handful of times since the Hoover Dam was finished in the 1930s, but it always recovered shortly after. It may not this time, at least not anytime soon…
Lake Mead is currently 16 feet below where it was this time last year and the reservoir is only 37-percent full.
The second largest reservoir in the Colorado river basin, Lake Powell, is not faring any better.
Lake Powell is down 35 feet from last year and sits at just 34-percent of the lake’s total capacity…
According to Wiley, “The amount of water in a share varies according to the source. Our shares never get cut off. We always own those shares. It’s the production of those shares (amount per share). The production is controlled by the amount of precipitation and snowpack and then how water rights are allocated. The only thing that happens is in a dry year the yield (amount) is less on those shares.”
Denver Water today [July 14, 2021] filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Boulder County, asserting the county is overreaching its authority and jeopardizing a federally ordered reservoir expansion critical to a safe and secure water supply for one quarter of the state’s population while risking long-planned benefits for the West Slope environment.
For nearly two decades, Denver Water has conducted an exhaustive and comprehensive planning and permitting process at the direction and oversight of six federal and state regulatory agencies. That process culminated last year in a final order to commence expansion of Gross Reservoir from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has final authority over the expansion project because Gross Reservoir occupies federal lands specifically designated for hydropower production.
For years, Denver Water has also attempted good faith efforts to work with Boulder County to secure county permits, including through two attempts at an intergovernmental agreement, robust engagement with county staff and neighbors, and participation in a local land-use review known as the “1041 process.” Unfortunately, Boulder County has been unreceptive and is using the 1041 process to frustrate the project, extending and delaying its review to the point that it is now placing the entire project at risk.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON NEED FOR THE PROJECT
It is hard to overstate the importance of the expansion of Gross Reservoir to the future of the Denver region. It will offer crucial protection to the utility’s water supplies from the urgent threat of catastrophic wildfire and prolonged drought — the same forces that nearly 20 years ago combined to threaten Denver Water’s ability to ensure drinking water to its customers.
This risk to clean water supplies is even higher today, in an era of rapid climate change and increasing periods of extreme weather. Last year’s record wildfire fire season, which generated the three largest forest fires in Colorado history, only just missed triggering major impacts to Denver Water’s supplies. Water providers to the north haven’t been as lucky, unable to treat some supplies running black and brown with ash produced by the Cameron Peak fire. Denver Water must act now to mitigate these risks.
The Gross Reservoir expansion conforms in every way to benchmarks in Colorado’s Water Plan, a plan developed through statewide and bottom-up guidance from eight major river basins over two years and published in 2015. That plan calls for increasing the capacity of existing reservoirs as a key element in creating 400,000 acre-feet of additional storage in the state by 2050.
The State of Colorado, in comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, expressed its support for the Gross Reservoir expansion and has identified it specifically as fitting within the kind of project defined as necessary in Colorado’s Water Plan: “A significant portion of Colorado’s future needs will be met with the implementation of projects and planning processes that the local water providers are currently pursuing, including the Moffat Collection System Project” (aka Gross Reservoir expansion).
The reservoir expansion also addresses the significant need for additional supplies in the metro region, as referenced in the Water Plan’s 2019 technical update. That update projected metro Denver demand will increase by 134,000 acre-feet to 280,000 acre-feet by 2050 against a 2015 baseline and the area likely will experience a supply shortfall, even accounting for the Gross Reservoir expansion and other water projects, a drop in per-capita use, and further conservation and reuse.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON DEVELOPMENT OF THE PROJECT
Denver Water’s diligent and earnest work to build partnerships across the Continental Divide, conduct significant and ongoing environmental mitigation for the project and work closely with regulators since the early 2000s has earned the project the support of major environmental groups, Grand County and each of the last five governors of Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded the project would result in net water quality improvement on both sides of the Continental Divide.
The dam, when built in the 1950s, was designed to be raised. In the 1980s, amid discussion of the Two Forks project southwest of Denver (later vetoed by the EPA) a coalition of environmental groups recommended the expansion of Gross Reservoir as a viable, environmentally stable project. “We feel that additional capacity at Gross Reservoir is an environmentally acceptable and cost-effective way of increasing the overall yield of the system,” the coalition wrote. It included representatives of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Trout Unlimited, among several other groups.
Denver Water also worked industriously with local governments and citizen groups on the West Slope to address the impacts that putting more water in an expanded Gross Reservoir would have on streams in Grand County. Those talks, often intense, and spanning half a decade, resulted in the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, an unprecedented cooperative effort involving 18 signatories and 40 partner organizations that began a new era of collaboration and conflict-resolution between Denver Water and the West Slope.
Expanding Gross Reservoir locks in a key component to that agreement: Denver Water would place a geographic limit on its service area, putting to rest fears the utility would continue to expand its reach to an ever-sprawling suburban ring. The utility also agreed to several measures that would provide more water to West Slope rivers, towns and ski areas and invest in improvements to aquatic habitat. The landmark concord also affirmed that with the Gross Reservoir expansion, Denver Water would benefit from more flexibility in its system, and it would use that flexibility to address stream flow and stream temperature concerns more nimbly and readily in Grand County.
Additionally, Denver Water worked with the cities of Boulder and Lafayette to establish an environmental pool in Gross Reservoir to provide additional water in South Boulder Creek during low-flow periods. Water in that pool would also supplement supplies for those two cities. Many of these commitments, however, depend on the project going forward and are therefore in jeopardy through Boulder County’s actions.
As planning for the expansion moved ahead, the utility undertook a proactive strategy to reduce demand. It deployed a water recycling facility to reduce its dependence on West Slope water supplies, embarked on a conservation program renown nationally for its success — cutting per capita water use by 22% between 2007 and 2016 — and has now undertaken direct efforts at water efficiency that pinpoint savings opportunities at the individual customer level. These are only a sample: The utility remains committed to innovation to drive further savings and expand water reuse as a core part of its strategy, work that will continue to be essential even with an increase in storage at Gross Reservoir.
In short, the effort to build civic and regulatory support for the Gross Reservoir expansion has been persistent, inspired and earnest. The future of the region, its access to clean, safe drinking water, protection of its urban tree canopy and environment, and its economic development rest in large part on the ability of Denver Water to protect water supplies from emerging threats, develop a climate-resilient system and remain prepared for the demands that will result from continued growth within its service area in metro Denver.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON BOULDER COUNTY’S PROCESS
Boulder County is endangering the project through delays, repeated and expanding requests for information — information demands that duplicate the already completed federal permitting process in which Boulder County participated — the potential for months of additional hearings and the fact that two of the county’s three commissioners have already publicly stated their opposition to, and desire to stop, the expansion project.
Further, the county’s land use director informed Denver Water on June 29 that the utility — despite over nine months of diligent and painstaking work to respond to Boulder County’s ever-expanding queries — failed to provide sufficient information to county agencies about the project, setting the project up for failure and rendering further involvement with the 1041 process futile.
These actions also put engineering and construction deadlines at risk, threaten to disrupt FERC-ordered timelines and risk other permits and actions necessary for successful completion of the project. A project of this size and complexity requires extensive preplanning, substantial resources and a highly skilled design and construction team. Delays resulting from Boulder County’s refusal to timely process the 1041 application add substantial costs and cause permitting, procurement and logistical issues that seriously disrupt Denver Water’s ability to execute the project.
In summary, the actions of a single local jurisdiction, Boulder County, threaten to derail and undermine a federally permitted and state supported project vital to a safe and secure water supply for one-quarter of Colorado’s population. This presents an unacceptable risk to a critical project spanning nearly 20 years and involving intensive review by environmental agencies at the federal and state levels and the engagement of dozens of organizations and communities across the metro area and the West Slope.
For that reason, Denver Water must seek relief in federal court. The complaint further details Denver Water’s attempts to work with Boulder County, the reasons that federal law preempts Boulder County’s claimed authority over the FERC-licensed expansion project, and the basis for Denver Water’s request that the court prevent Boulder County from further delaying and derailing the project.
It’s going to be difficult for legislators to strengthen Colorado’s already strong water anti-speculation laws, but that’s what a study group is looking at.
Joe Frank, manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, told his board’s executive committee Tuesday it will be tough for the study group to come up with viable recommendations to the legislature.
The study group was authorized by Senate Bill 20-048 during the 2020 legislative session. The bill “requires the executive director of the department of natural resources to convene a work group to explore ways to strengthen current anti-speculation law and to report to the water resources review committee by August 15, 2021, regarding any recommended changes.”
Frank said the 18-member working group, which has been meeting since November 2020, is “a pretty diverse group,” and that has caused some concerns about the viability of recommendations that it may propose.
“The hard part, in my mind, is how you distinguish between traditional speculation and investment speculation, and how you protect people’s property rights,” Frank said. “How do you tell a landowner who he can and can’t sell his property to? (Some states have) laws about selling (farmland) to people outside the state, but I’ve talked to some (Colorado) tenants whose out-of-state landowners are really good landlords.”
Water speculation is generally thought of as buying water rights without having an immediate beneficial use for the water, hoping to later sell the water for a profit. The concern is that agricultural water would be taken off the land and sold out-of-state. Current water law requires that anyone buying water shares or buying ag land with a water right must have an immediate beneficial use for the water.
That has led to the practice “buy and dry,” in which cities and utilities buy agricultural land and use the water for their own purposes. One example is when Sterling purchased the Scalva Bros. farm in the early 2000s so it could use the farm’s strong water right to augment pumping for municipal use. Although the water is still being used to irrigate crops on the farm, eventually it will have to be taken off the cropland and the land returned to a natural state.
Board member Gene Manuello said anti-speculation legislation can be a double-edged sword. He referred to a 2009 Colorado Supreme Court decision in which the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District and San Juan Water Conservancy District were denied permission to build Dry Gulch Reservoir. Trout Unlimited sued the districts claiming their projections of water needs over the coming 50 years were excessive and amounted to water speculation.
The high court ruled that the Pagosa area water districts, which supply water to nearly all of Archuleta County, had not sufficiently demonstrated a need for the amount of water they claimed, based on projected population growth and water availability over a 50-year planning period…
A report on recommendations from the study group is due in mid-August, Frank said.
In other business Tuesday the executive committee when into executive session to discuss legal and negotiation issues concerning the proposed Fremont Butte project. That project would store excess South Platte River runoff in Prewitt Reservoir and a new reservoir south of there, to later be pumped upstream for use by the Parker Water and Sanitation District.
FromThe Douglas County News-Press (Thelma Grimes):
As afternoon rainstorms have continued through spring and early summer, officials of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, the water provider in Highlands Ranch, warn residents that the community is still under a drought watch designation.
“A drought is not just about precipitation,” said Swithin Dick, water rights administrator for Centennial Water. “Precipitation is one part of the equation, but you also have to look at snowpack, water runoff, demand and water supply.”
Centennial Water monitors the water supply for the community daily. On July 7, Centennial Water’s reservoir storage was 8,048-acre feet, or 47% of 17,200 acre-feet total capacity. Centennial Water’s median storage level for July over the past 10 years has been 8,904 acre-feet, or 52% of the capacity…
“Despite the precipitation we have received over the past month, the storage level in our reservoirs has declined,” Dick said. “This is because community water demand has increased, which is offsetting the water we have been able to capture.”
Dick said water supplies are based on water rights priority in the region. Water rights determine who is able to capture the water for use…
Centennial Water has three stages for measuring drought condition. In April, the Centennial Water Board of Directors approved the lowest stage level, drought watch. The drought watch designation is for residents in Highlands Ranch, Solstice, and portions of northern Douglas County.
If drought conditions get worse, the board can approve two new stages, Drought Stage 1 and Drought Stage 2, which would mean higher fees to further encourage residents to practice water conservation.
For instance, a resident who uses between 101% and 120% of the allotted amount, rates would go from $5.52 per 1,000 gallons to $6.95 under a Stage 1 designation. Under a Stage 2 designation, rates would increase to $8.38.
The Chatfield Reservoir south of Littleton was built as a flood control measure after the devastating floods in 1965 and is the centerpiece of a beloved state park. But it now serves a new purpose: providing more water storage for the Front Range without adding a major footprint. After a three-decade planning process, the reservoir level was raised 12 feet and storage space has been reallocated to add 20,600 acre-feet of storage, including an environmental pool of up to 2,100 acre-feet.
“At first blush, this doesn’t sound so complicated. You’re taking water storage that already exists and making it multi-purpose storage without any impacts to the dam itself,” says Charly Hoehn, general manager of the reallocation project. But it was the first project of its kind in the state, so Hoehn’s team had to act as “guinea pigs” on permitting and mitigation issues.
While the project didn’t require new dam construction, it was not without challenges. State park facilities had to be moved, and there were environmental concerns, like the removal of trees and wetlands to accommodate the higher water level. The Audubon Society of Greater Denver unsuccessfully sued to stop construction, citing impacts to birds and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. Polly Reetz, the Audubon conservation committee chairperson, says she continues to question “whether this would even work at all” with the project’s relatively junior water rights and doesn’t think it was worth impacting “a very important birding area.”
Other green groups worked with project organizers on a mitigation strategy that placed a value on each piece of land that would be affected (accounting for impacts to wetlands and animals), then found other areas to offset any damage. The result was significant restoration to flows on nearby Plum Creek and bank stabilization primarily upstream on the South Platte River to prevent erosion. The environmental pool will accommodate timed releases to help address some low-flow conditions downstream on the South Platte River. Final approval and the completion of mitigation work in 2020 allowed the new storage to begin, but Hoehn says that the low spring runoff allowed only a “marginal amount” to be stored in its first year.
The Colorado Highway 119 Boulder Canyon permanent flood repair project is complete after two and a half years of construction.
The project spanned from Boulder to Nederland to repair damage from the 2013 floods.
Flood waters saturated the area in September 2013, causing numerous material slides, ditch damage and erosion to the roadway embankment. The floods also washed out the road in several places. Large amounts of debris that fell into the creek led to redirected water flows, which further contributed to erosion of the channel banks, undermining the highway.
Altogether, the project included:
13 miles of repaved highway
2 miles of entirely redesigned and reconstructed highway
Rock blasting to widen roadway in areas where highway was washed out
Rock stabilization to prevent rock slides
Cleaned, replaced or added culverts to convey stormwater drainage under the highway
New highway directional and safety signage
Removal of materials placed during emergency repairs
Repaired slopes where material failed in the storm
Re-established native grass seed and erosion control to slopes that were disturbed during emergency recovery work
New, more effective rumble strips
Concrete islands to improve the roundabout in Nederland
3,500 feet of trail extension in partnership with Boulder County
Denver Water cuts back on some of its West Slope supplies to help struggling streams.
The Colorado River is hurting.
The struggles of the river’s largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have been well documented over the last decade as drought has ravished the West.
The story, however, starts more than 500 miles upstream in Grand County, Colorado.
The county is filled with streams that make up the beginning of the mighty Colorado’s journey in the mountains north of Grand Lake. Around 60% of the water in Grand County is diverted from these streams and used for agricultural and municipal water supply, mostly on the Front Range.
That includes the Denver metro area, which receives about 20% of its water from Grand County, where Denver Water has water rights dating back to the 1920s. Most of the water is captured in rivers and streams around Winter Park when mountain snow melts in the spring.
But, after a lackluster runoff season on the West Slope combined with dry soils from the past year, the hot, dry conditions in early June meant the high-country rivers and streams needed help.
Denver Water responded by voluntarily reducing diversions from several Grand County creeks and coordinating with the Colorado River District, Grand County, Northern Water and other Learning By Doing partners to adjust operations, where possible, to help boost water levels in some of the more troubled areas.
“While our primary responsibility is to make sure we’re supplying water to 1.5 million people in the metro area, we’re always looking for opportunities to help improve conditions on the rivers, to help the aquatic environment, recreation and communities they flow through,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply.
By reducing diversions, Denver Water foregoes collecting a portion of water it is legally entitled to collect for its water supply in exchange for improving streams and tributaries along the Colorado River.
It started with a plea for help
On June 5, the Colorado River District asked Denver Water for help after reporting extremely low water levels and critically high water temperatures on the Colorado River. The river district reported conditions were creating unhealthy habitat for fish and aquatic insects.
“When the email came in Saturday morning, we were in a position to quickly respond and reduce the amount of water we were pulling from several Grand County creeks,” Elder said.
Denver Water has continued making operational adjustments since that email.
The utility estimates that by early July it will have voluntarily foregone collecting around 11,000 acre-feet of water from Grand County to help keep more water in the Colorado and Fraser rivers. That’s roughly enough water to supply over 44,000 residences for one year.
“It has been helpful to hear directly from stakeholders in Grand County, including Trout Unlimited and ranchers along the river, on where we may be able to truly help the river, the community and the environment with our operational adjustments,” Elder said.
“With help from the West Slope, we’ve been able to target specific areas and send some beneficial water downstream.”
This includes adjusting water releases from Williams Fork Dam twice a day in a way that also benefits the Colorado River.
For example, when releasing water from the dam, Elder and his team try to time the flows, so the water reaches the river in Kremmling — an area prone to higher river temperatures — during hotter times of the day.
The higher water level helps to cool down the water, which is better for the aquatic environment.
Position to help
The wet spring conditions along the Front Range boosted water supplies in Denver Water’s South Platte River collection system, which drastically reduced customers’ demand for water across the metro area — where Denver Water serves a quarter of the state’s population.
In fact, from January to May, Denver Water’s customer water use hit a 50-year low across the metro area, despite nearly 600,000 more people in its service area since 1970. That includes years in which the metro area was on mandatory drought restrictions.
“Some of the low use may be due to COVID-19 impacts on business and obviously a wet, cool spring helped,” said Greg Fisher, demand manager for Denver Water.
“It’s a great sign that our customers really understand efficient water use and let Mother Nature do the watering for them when possible.”
This wet spring on the Front Range also helped provide additional flexibility on how Denver Water collected and distributed water across its collection system during the spring snow runoff.
“We were able to turn off the Roberts Tunnel in April, which helped bring water levels up in Dillon Reservoir for boating,” Elder said.
“The conditions also enabled us to send more water down the Blue River below Dillon Dam to help improve fish habitat around Silverthorne instead of sending the water to the Front Range.”
Denver Water uses the Roberts Tunnel to bring water from Dillon — the utility’s largest reservoir — under the Continental Divide to the Front Range.
But flexibility like this is not always possible, especially with the myriad threats Denver’s water system is facing.
“Between the rising temperatures, changes to the timing of spring runoff, extreme fire behavior and half a million more people expected in the metro area by 2040, our ability for flexible operations is decreasing in a time when we need it the most,” said Elder.
“We must take an ‘all-in’ approach that includes conservation, water reuse and development of new water supplies so we can continue to maximize the benefits of a large system.”
According to Elder, hot, dry weather conditions highlight the benefits of having a large water collection system, as it provides the water planning team more flexibility in its operational playbook.
The vision for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, which is in its final steps of permitting, is an example of how additional water storage can really help streams in times of drought.
“As part of the Gross Reservoir Expansion, some of the voluntary things we’re doing this year — like leaving more water in the Grand County rivers — will become required annual operations for us,” said Elder.
That’s because Denver Water is one of 18 partners who signed the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, ushering in a new era of cooperation between the utility and West Slope stakeholders, all with the vested interest in protecting watersheds in the Colorado River Basin.
As part of that agreement, a process called “Learning by Doing” was created, which has helped the utility stay better connected on river conditions in Grand County. The partnership is a collection of East and West Slope water stakeholders who help identify and find solutions to water issues in Grand County.
“Denver Water has been part of Grand County for over 100 years, and we understand the impact our diversions have on the rivers and streams,” said Rachel Badger, environmental planning manager at Denver Water.
“Our goal is to manage our water resources as efficiently as possible and be good stewards of the water — and Learning By Doing helps us do that.”
The Bureau of Reclamation is awarding $1.14 million in WaterSMART Water Marketing Grants to seven projects in California, Colorado, Utah, and Washington. These grants will provide cost-shared financial assistance for the selected entities to develop water marketing strategies to establish or expand water markets or water marketing activities.
“Water markets and water marketing allow the movement of water between willing buyers and sellers under state and federal law,” said Chief Engineer David Raff. “These strategies will provide water managers more flexibility in addressing their water management challenges and reduce conflicts over water.”
These grants will support more than $2.6 million in water marketing planning activities including the recipients’ cost share. The seven selected projects are:
City of Vallejo Water Department, Water Marketing Strategy Development for Lake Curry Reservoir (California): Reclamation Funding: $200,000, Total Project Cost: $495,995
San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority, San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority Water Marketing Strategy Plan (California): Reclamation Funding: $200,000, Total Project Cost: $400,000
City of Thornton, City of Thornton Northern Properties Stewardship Plan: Water Optimization Market Feasibility Study (Colorado): Reclamation Funding: $275,000, Total Project Cost: $550,000
Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Colorado’s Rio Grande Basin Water Cooperative Project (Colorado): Reclamation Funding: $212,755, Total Project Cost: $425,511
Mt. Nebo Water Agency, South Utah County Water Banking Strategy (Utah): Reclamation Funding: $44,000, Total Project Cost: $88,460
Selah Moxee Irrigation District, Easy Moxie Declining Groundwater Area Water Marketing Strategy (Washington): Reclamation Funding: $150,000, Total Project Cost: $480,000
TransAlta Centralia Generation, LLC, TransAlta Centralia Water Marketing Strategy (Washington): Reclamation Funding: $60,000, Total Project Cost: $120,000
Through WaterSMART, Reclamation works cooperatively with states, tribes, and local entities to plan for and implement actions to increase water supply reliability through investments to modernize existing infrastructure and attention to local water conflicts. Visit http://www.usbr.gov/watersmart to learn more.
Rejection of the NISP pipeline is yet another skirmish in a series of water and pipeline battles playing out in the northern Front Range.
The Fort Collins planning commission on Wednesday rejected an application by Northern Water to run more than three miles of pipeline in a 100-foot-wide construction zone through city parks and neighborhoods as part of the complex Northern Integrated Supply Project.
The 3-to-2 rejection may not stall the massive project for long, as state law allows Northern Water’s own board to override the decision by a two-thirds vote, which it is sure to get. But the unrest in Fort Collins is another skirmish in a series of water and pipeline battles playing out this year in northern Front Range counties.
Water developers say they need supply to meet the demands of growing cities and suburbs, while many residents are objecting to the cost to the environment and to their own wallets.
“What happens during that construction will forever change the activity of wildlife, the patterns of wildlife, and they may never come back to those areas,” Fort Collins planning board member Per Hogestad said before he voted against the NISP pipeline application.
Fort Collins city planners launched the night’s hearing by recommending the board reject the NISP pipeline. Among other objections, city staff said its construction would cut down important riparian cottonwood stands without rebuilding them, and that the plan lacked detailed restoration plans for other areas in the proposed easement…
Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind told the planning commission that the water agency, which serves more than 1 million people in parts of eight counties on the northern Front Range, has made numerous changes to the $1.1 billion NISP to accommodate the steady stream of objections made over more than 10 years. Most importantly, he said, the new system of water buckets and delivery pipes that make up NISP will put a steadier, stronger flow of water into the Poudre River through Fort Collins, improving the health of an overused river that nearly dries up in summer…
Friday morning, Northern Water issued a statement saying in part that it would “look closely at the concerns raised by the City of Fort Collins staff, planning and zoning commissioners and public commenters. We look forward to working with the city to address those concerns while keeping the long-term goal in sight” of building the water delivery project. The board will consider its next steps at a meeting in August, spokesman Jeff Stahla said…
The list of Front Range water fights is long
NISP is one of the longest-running of a growing number of water delivery disputes pitting neighbors against city and county planning boards, and cities and counties against each other.
Thornton wants to build a 74-mile underground pipeline from water it owns in a Larimer County reservoir, through Weld County and onto city treatment plants. After similar years of wrangling, Weld County listened to neighbor and landowner objections and voted against a permit through county space. But Thornton, in Adams County, on Tuesday overrode the decision, which state law allows the applying entity to do when it is financing and building the pipeline.
In Westminster, many residents are furious at city council members for a series of steep increases in domestic water prices, among other planning decisions, and their anger has helped fuel an ongoing series of recalls and marathon voting sessions. Some longtime city residents say the council and city utilities have botched long-term planning for adequate water resources and failed to maintain treatment plants and other infrastructure.
Brighton is also in a series of battles over water use and water prices, including conflicts over power sharing between the city manager and elected officials on water questions.
The Fort Collins planning decision is not likely to be a major hurdle for Northern Water, which is close to breaking ground on the reservoir-and-pipe system that makes up NISP but has more regulatory problems to solve.
The Northern Integrated Supply Project has navigated a tangled route of permits since at least 2004. Fifteen communities that are part of Northern Water want to build new reservoirs called Glade and Galeton, bracketing Fort Collins on the west and east, and connect them through the Poudre and a series of farm water ditches with complex withdrawal and return pipelines.
As part of the overall plan, Northern Water would let about 22 cubic feet per second out of its newly-stored pool in Glade to keep a steady flow in the Poudre through most of Fort Collins, for most of the year. The pipeline under debate Thursday night would then take that water back out of the river and carry it to a separate pipeline that runs on the north side of the project.
Conservationists ridicule that plan, saying Northern Water’s gesture toward the environment would turn the Poudre into a weedy, low-flow “ditch” populated by carp.
The Fort Collins Planning and Zoning Commission denied a development application for the Northern Integrated Supply Project, leaving the ball in Northern Water’s court for a possible overriding vote.
Commission members voted 3-2 on Wednesday to deny the Site Planning Advisory Review (SPAR) application for NISP infrastructure that would be located in Fort Collins city limits.
The components are part of Northern Water’s plan to run a portion of the project’s water deliveries through a 12-mile section of the Poudre River in Fort Collins. A river intake structure at Homestead Natural Area would take the water back out, and a 3.4-mile section of pipeline would shuttle the water southeast to meet up with another pipeline outside city limits.
The decision presents an obstacle to the proposal to take water from the Poudre and South Platte rivers for storage in two new reservoirs, but it isn’t binding…
Commission members who voted against the application — chair Michelle Haefele, vice chair Ted Shepard and member Per Hogestad — agreed with city staff, who recommended denial because of impacts to city natural areas and insufficient detail about several aspects of the project…
Degradation of wildlife and riparian habitat was of particular concern for some of the commission members who voted to deny the application. City staff said the pipeline location would damage restored wetlands and prohibit replanting of cottonwoods the city has worked to restore in riparian corridors. The pipeline route passes through Williams, Kingfisher and Riverbend Ponds natural areas…
Jeff Hansen and Jeff Schneider, the commission members who voted to move the application forward, said they had faith in Northern Water’s ability to address staff feedback. They also wanted to support the agency’s effort to mitigate some of the impacts of NISP by running between 18 and 25 cubic feet per second of water through a portion of the river, which would eliminate some dry-up spots on the river during low flow periods.
“They don’t have to do this pipeline at all,” Schneider said. “They could pull this water out and not even run it through the river. I think there’s some good intent that they’re trying to supply water to the Poudre instead of just pulling it directly out.”
Other points from city staff’s recommendation to deny the application stated that Northern Water didn’t adequately consider protection of natural resources and wildlife when it evaluated alternative routes. Staff also said the application didn’t include enough information about proximity of the NISP pipeline to city-owned utilities; downstream and floodplain impacts of the river intake structure; and how Northern Water will mitigate construction impacts to private property, historic and cultural resources.
Shepard said Northern Water should consider running the water through the river until it intersects with another project pipeline planned for the Larimer-Weld county line.
Brad Yatabe of the city attorney’s office interjected at that point in the meeting to caution commission members against suggesting alternative actions, which he said isn’t in the city’s purview for SPAR.
Northern Water staff described the diversion structure and pipeline as the culmination of a concerted effort to blunt NISP’s impacts on the Poudre through Fort Collins. Northern Water staff picked the diversion point for stability and with a goal of going as far downstream as possible while preserving water quality for drinking, project manager Christie Coleman said…
Northern Water expects that requirements associated with other permits for NISP, including the anticipated record of decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will address some of the planning commission’s concerns about environmental impacts, Stahla said. He added that Northern Water will take a closer look at concerns about the construction easement’s impacts to city natural areas.
FromColorado Community Media (Liam Adams) via The Colorado Sun:
Thornton can start building a segment of a water pipeline in Weld County, even though the Weld County Board of Commissioners told the city “no” two months ago.
Thornton City Council on Tuesday night unanimously approved a resolution that overrides Weld County’s denial of a permit to build a segment of the Thornton Water Project, and authorized the start of construction.
The 74-mile Thornton Water Project will deliver water from a reservoir near Fort Collins, nearly doubling the city’s current water supply. Twelve miles of the pipeline will run through Larimer County, 34 miles through Weld County, and 5 miles through Adams County. The rest of the pipeline will pass through towns and cities in those counties…
The council was [approved the measure on June 29, 2021]…
Weld County landowners, including Hicks and her daughter, have been influential opponents of Thornton as the city moved through the permit application process. In 2019, the Weld County Planning Commission recommended approval of the project, but landowner protests caused the panel to reverse its recommendation in 2020. Residents’ complaints were also cited by commissioners as a reason for denying the permit at at a hearing on May 5.
The Weld County commissioners also said in a resolution dated June 3 that the pipeline would negatively affect future growth and that it was inconsistent with a new county comprehensive plan.
Some Weld County residents want Thornton to build its pipeline in the right-of-way, or literally underneath a county road, instead of on private land next to the road.
But since the beginning of the process, Thornton has pursued the private-land option, which was supported by Weld County staff.
Building in the right-of-way requires an easement from the county, while building outside of the right-of-way requires easements from private landowners. Thornton has obtained easements from 98% of landowners. Some were obtained through eminent domain proceedings, frustrating specific landowners and further provoking their protest.
The pipeline, which runs from Terry Lake near Fort Collins to just east of Cobb Lake in Weld County and then south to the Wes Brown Water Treatment Plant in Thornton, will be buried and the city will compensate any landowners, especially farmers, whose land and crops are damaged by construction…
City spokesman Todd Barnes confirmed that the city has already reached an agreement with Hicks’ family to construct part of the pipeline on their land…
Weld County negotiated terms with Thornton after the county recognized the city was able to override the denial. The terms still require the city to apply for road construction permits in areas where the pipeline crosses streets, to regularly communicate with county staff about the progress of construction, and to be diligent about dust management.
The city hasn’t said yet when it plans to break ground.
The Thornton Water Pipeline is closer to becoming reality in Weld County following a unanimous vote Tuesday night by Thornton City Council to override the county commissioners’ denial of a use by special review permit to construct the pipeline.
State law allows political subdivisions to override restrictions of county or municipal zoning regulations in certain cases. The board anticipated the city’s ability to override the decision, sending a letter acknowledging as much to Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann earlier this month.
The letter, signed by Weld County Commission Chairman Steve Moreno, requested that the city council include a commitment to comply with terms and conditions set forth by the county in its override decision. In overriding the county’s decision, the city council agreed to adhere to the terms and conditions.
Commissioner Mike Freeman said the board denied Thornton’s permit for a number of reasons, including being inconsistent with the county’s comprehensive plan and going through multiple Opportunity Zones. Doing so will negatively affect development on those properties, Freeman said.
Thornton included in its resolution a response to the county’s concerns. The city responded that the pipeline and fiber optic cable will be buried so that it is compatible with the existing industrial zoned properties and heavy industrial use. It also worked with property owners to develop a pipeline alignment that would minimize impacts to those properties, according to the resolution. The city also said impacts to industrial properties will be of limited duration during construction.
Freeman said the county found that the permit application didn’t show that all reasonable efforts had been made to avoid irrigated cropland or minimize negative impacts to agriculture. Weld is the state’s leading producer of beef cattle, grain, sugar beets and dairy, according to the county’s website.
Thornton responded that the pipeline will be buried below the plow line to prevent interference with continuing agricultural and estate land uses. Effects on agricultural uses will be temporary during construction and are anticipated to be minimal after construction, according to the city. Thornton also said it worked with property owners to locate the pipeline, including minimizing effects to the operations of irrigation equipment.
Additional measures the city will take include stripping and storing topsoil separately from excavated trench materials and seeding or leaving land fallow in accordance with the property owner’s agreement for reclamation procedures following pipeline construction.
Another finding by the county that led to the commissioners’ unanimous denial of the permit was that the pipeline could have an undue adverse effect on existing and future development in areas along the municipal limits of Dacono, Firestone, Frederick, Johnstown, Platteville, Severance, Timnath and Windsor.
The city reiterated the pipeline will be buried and that impacts will be temporary during construction and are anticipated to be minimal after construction. Property owners are also compensated for any impacts to future residential, commercial and industrial development if that is the highest and best use of their property, the city added.
Finally, the county found that all reasonable alternatives to the proposal hadn’t been adequately addressed and that the pipeline isn’t consistent with the best interests of the people in Weld County. Multiple property owners have expressed opposition to the pipeline, with at least seven appearing at the Board of County Commissioners’ meeting on May 5, when the commissioners denied Thornton’s application.
The city responded that the pipeline will not have long-term impacts to continuing agricultural uses. It noted that two property owners who opposed the pipeline have since agreed Thornton accommodated their requests. For four property owners whose relocation requests weren’t feasible, the city argues the pipeline will not hinder the property owners’ future development plans.
“What we’re supposed to be looking at on applications is, ‘Is the application in the best interest of Weld County citizens?’ and obviously this pip