As the #ColoradoRiver shrinks, can the basin find an equitable solution in sharing the river’s waters? — @WaterEdFdn #COriver #aridification #crwua2021

Lake Powell, a key reservoir on the Colorado River, has seen water levels drop precipitously as a result of two decades of drought. (Source: The Water Desk and Lighthawk Conservation Flying)

From The Water Education Foundation (Douglas E. Beeman):

Drought and Climate Change are raising concerns that a century-old compact that divided the river’s waters could force unwelcome cuts in use for the upper watershed

Climate scientist Brad Udall calls himself the skunk in the room when it comes to the Colorado River. Armed with a deck of PowerPoint slides and charts that highlight the Colorado River’s worsening math, the Colorado State University scientist offers a grim assessment of the river’s future: Runoff from the river’s headwaters is declining, less water is flowing into Lake Powell – the key reservoir near the Arizona-Utah border – and at the same time, more water is being released from the reservoir than it can sustainably provide.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

Udall’s slides and charts suggest that unless something changes soon, water levels behind Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah border may fall so low by 2025 or 2026 that no water can get past the dam. That could ultimately leave downstream states like California, Nevada and Arizona short of water promised under the century-old Colorado River Compact that divided the river’s waters between the upper and lower watersheds.

And that has the potential to set up something that many water interests on the river say they want to avoid – a so-called “Compact call.” Such a scenario could force the Upper Basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – to curtail their own water use to fulfill their Compact obligation to send a certain amount of water to the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

There has never been a Compact call on the river. But as evidence grows that the river isn’t yielding the water assumed by the framers of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, questions arise about whether a Compact call may be coming, or whether the states and water interests, drawing on decades of sometimes difficult collaboration, can avert a river war that ends up in court. It’s no small matter for a river that serves water to 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles and irrigates more than 4 million acres of crops. The growing risk and the difficult actions that might be necessary to avoid a Compact call have been hot topics of discussion at several recent Colorado River conferences.

“The temperature, metaphorically, seems to be rising,” Anne Castle, a former assistant secretary of the Interior for Water and Science and a Colorado River veteran, said in an interview. “There is a need for speed in reaching some sort of agreement to share the reduced flows of the river.”

A River in Trouble

Without question, the Colorado is a river in trouble. After more than two decades of drought, both of the river’s anchor reservoirs – Lake Powell, upstream of Lee Ferry (the dividing point between the Upper and Lower Basins), and Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir located downstream of Lee Ferry near Las Vegas – are only about 30 percent full. The river’s Rocky Mountain watershed has begun to see snow this winter, but many more rich winters of storms would likely be needed to undo 22 years of drought.

In August, the Bureau of Reclamation declared a first-ever shortage for next year, requiring Arizona and Nevada to cut back their annual take of the river by a total of 533,000 acre-feet (a cut of about 17 percent, mostly from Arizona) beginning this month. Based on a 2017 agreement, Mexico also will reduce its draw from the river. The move is intended to prevent already dire water levels from falling further in Lake Mead. Meanwhile, Reclamation’s most recent 24-month operating plan projects that, if hydrology remains extremely dry, the water level in Lake Powell by next September could approach the minimum needed to keep the hydropower turbines running.

Drought in the Colorado River Basin has pushed the water level in Lake Mead, Southern Nevada's main water source, to a historic low. (Source: Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Under a set of river operating guidelines adopted in 2007, the two reservoirs are managed in tandem, with Powell releasing water to help prop up water levels at Lake Mead. That arrangement has sometimes frustrated water interests in the Upper Basin, who have at times complained that the Lower Basin is using too much water and that their own ambitions for developing the river are being stymied.

“The level of Mead dictates in part how much water is released from Powell,” Becky Mitchell, the state of Colorado’s top water official, said at a recent water conference. “It’s important to focus on what’s going out of Lake Mead, because that has the greatest impact on the [Colorado River] system.”

When commissioners from the seven Basin states gathered in 1922 to hammer out the Compact – the foundational document in a growing set of agreements, laws and court cases called the Law of the River – they believed the river routinely carried about 17.5 million acre-feet a year. On that belief, they apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet a year each to the Upper and Lower Basins. They also agreed that any water committed to Mexico by a later U.S. treaty would be supplied equally by the two Basins. Native American tribes, who are now acknowledged to hold substantial rights to the river’s water, were barely mentioned.

Senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University and one of the authors of the National Climate Assessment. Photo credit: Colorado State University Water Institute

But more recent Bureau of Reclamation data show river flows averaged just 12.3 million acre-feet annually from 2000 to 2021 as severe drought gripped the river basin. Udall, the veteran Colorado State University climate researcher, said at an October conference that a warming climate that is drying out the Basin is making things worse. From 2000 to 2014, he estimates, hotter temperatures reduced Colorado River flows by about 6 percent. That’s on top of reductions just from less rain and snow. By 2050, Udall said, with a continuation of the current precipitation decline the hotter temperatures could reduce runoff by 30 percent and those losses could reach 45 percent — or more — by 2100.

Udall, speaking at the annual conference of the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, said releases from Lake Powell to meet the Upper Basin’s obligation to downriver users coupled with evaporative losses exceed what is flowing into Powell. That, he added, is not sustainable.

“The Upper Basin is headed to a Compact issue with the Lower Basin here at some point in time if those flows continue,” Udall said.

Risks of a Compact Call

The Green and Colorado rivers cut through Utah's Canyonlands National Park. A warming climate is adding to the drought-driven declines in snowmelt and spring runoff across the Colorado River Basin. (Source: LightHawk Conservation Flying/The Water Desk)

No one knows exactly how a Compact call would work or who would set it in motion since it has never happened before. A 1948 agreement — the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact — places the responsibility for deciding how to divide any water use reductions among the states on the Upper Colorado River Commission, made up of representatives from the four Upper Basin states and one federal government representative. The commission’s responsibilities include making sure the Upper Basin meets its obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

Colorado, considered one of the headwaters states and holding the largest river apportionment in the Upper Basin, would likely feel the greatest pain from any Compact call, said Castle, the former Interior Department official, now a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado School of Law.

Castle and writer John Fleck, at the University of New Mexico, wrote a 2019 paper looking at the risk of a Compact call, or a “Compact curtailment” as they called it. Their basic conclusions: The risk is substantial, there are options for compromises that could reduce that risk, and a so-called “demand management” program, where willing participants could be compensated for using less water, could lessen the potentially devastating risks that a forced curtailment of Colorado River water would have on users.

Anne Castle, the former assistant Interior secretary and a veteran of Colorado River issues. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

In an interview, Castle said at its worst, a Compact curtailment could pare back Colorado’s water use to levels that existed before the Compact was signed in 1922. Denver, which reaches across the Continental Divide to tap the Colorado River for its residents, could lose half of the city’s supply. That’s unrealistic, Castle said, adding that in that case Denver would likely seek out farmers with higher-priority water rights and cut deals to use their water to meet the city’s needs.

Doug Kenney, a longtime Colorado River researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, said the Upper Basin is getting caught in a squeeze: As river flows shrink and the Lower Basin continues to draw on its 7.5 million-acre-foot annual apportionment, less water is available for the Upper Basin. A primary objective of the 1922 Colorado River Compact was to equitably divide the river’s waters, Kenney said.

“You cannot talk about Compact calls,” he said, “and be true to the spirit of what the agreement is all about.”

Addressing A Shrinking River

he Green River, one of the drought-stressed tributaries that flows into the Colorado River. (Source: LightHawk Conservation Flying/The Water Desk)

Getting to an agreement to resolve the river’s declining hydrology is unlikely to be easy. As drought and climate change dry the river basin and rob it of runoff, water interests in the Upper Basin states argue that they shouldn’t have to absorb the full impact of those declining river flows. They say Upper Basin states have been absorbing water shortages for years as the upper watershed dries out, while the Lower Basin continues to use water at a rate that’s drying out both major reservoirs. They say those declines should be shared equitably between the Upper and Lower Basins and that the Lower Basin should reduce its use of the river’s water that has contributed to the drawdown of water levels in lakes Powell and Mead.

Mitchell, Colorado’s top water official, argues that the two reservoirs – which are among the nation’s largest – provide the Lower Basin certainty and security for water deliveries. The Upper Basin states don’t have a big reservoir higher up in the watershed to provide the same kind of certainty about their water supplies, she told a Congressional hearing in October. Instead, the Upper Basin states rely primarily on runoff from annual snowpack, she said, and when the snow is thin, the water runs short.

At the same time, some Upper Basin water officials argue that they should be free to develop more projects that could allow them to use more of the water that was apportioned to them by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Utah, for example, has been pursuing a $2 billion pipeline project to bring water from Lake Powell to fast-growing communities like St. George in southwestern Utah.

Getting to an agreement to resolve the river’s declining hydrology is unlikely to be easy. As drought and climate change dry the river basin and rob it of runoff, water interests in the Upper Basin states argue that they shouldn’t have to absorb the full impact of those declining river flows. They say Upper Basin states have been absorbing water shortages for years as the upper watershed dries out, while the Lower Basin continues to use water at a rate that’s drying out both major reservoirs. They say those declines should be shared equitably between the Upper and Lower Basins and that the Lower Basin should reduce its use of the river’s water that has contributed to the drawdown of water levels in lakes Powell and Mead.

Mitchell, Colorado’s top water official, argues that the two reservoirs – which are among the nation’s largest – provide the Lower Basin certainty and security for water deliveries. The Upper Basin states don’t have a big reservoir higher up in the watershed to provide the same kind of certainty about their water supplies, she told a Congressional hearing in October. Instead, the Upper Basin states rely primarily on runoff from annual snowpack, she said, and when the snow is thin, the water runs short.

At the same time, some Upper Basin water officials argue that they should be free to develop more projects that could allow them to use more of the water that was apportioned to them by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Utah, for example, has been pursuing a $2 billion pipeline project to bring water from Lake Powell to fast-growing communities like St. George in southwestern Utah.

Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65868008

In the Lower Basin, state officials and water interests acknowledge that river flows are shrinking and reductions in use are necessary. In recent years, Lower Basin water interests have pared back their take of river water as they’ve watched levels in Lake Mead plummet. In December, they took more action: At the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas, officials from California, Arizona and Nevada and the Bureau of Reclamation signed a two-year, $200 million agreement that promised to conserve an additional 500,000 acre-feet a year that would remain in Lake Mead. Half of the money would come from the federal government, with the rest split by water agencies in the three states.

But they chafe at the notion of the Upper Basin expanding its draw on the river when shrinking flows suggest more should be done to conserve what remains.

“If the goal is to get the Basin to equilibrium, where our uses are taking out of the river what we can reasonably expect the river to deal us over the next several decades, then reducing overuse while increasing new uses isn’t going to get you to that equilibrium,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told the audience at the Getches-Wilkinson Center’s conference in October.

A Sense of Urgency

The shrinking hydrology and the simmering tensions between the Upper and Lower Basins come at a precarious time for states and water interests along the Colorado River. The key set of interim guidelines for river management, in place since 2007, are due to expire in 2026. Water-related interests – including water agencies, states, Native American tribes and nongovernmental organizations – are preparing to work out a new set of operating guidelines to guide river management and address shortages. But impacts of drought and climate change may force them to act sooner.

Lake Powell's decline is seen in these photos of Glen Canyon Dam taken a decade apart. On the left, the water level in 2010; on the right, the water level in 2021. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

At December’s Colorado River Water Users Association, an annual Las Vegas gathering of key Colorado River water interests, there was a grim sense of urgency to address the river’s needs.

“Climate change is real. We need to take innovative, proactive measures to address the effects here in the Colorado River Basin and throughout the West,” Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, told the group.

Although water interests in the Basin have sometimes turned to the courts to resolve disputes, Jeff Kightlinger, the former general manager for Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and a veteran of many of the Colorado River’s complex agreements over two decades, said in an interview that water interests from the Upper and Lower Basins have proven repeatedly that they can find common ground. He cited the 2007 Interim Guidelines that guide river operations, the 2017 Minute 323 agreement with Mexico that included conservation measures, and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans as examples.

“The best result is when we stop suing each other,” Kightlinger said. “Hopefully we can stick to that model. It’s going to be hard.”

But he acknowledged that finding common ground now is likely to be more difficult given the shrinking river and declining reservoirs. When the drought started in 2000, Lake Powell and Lake Mead were nearly full, so water interests had space and time to work out agreements. “The hard part is there is no cushion anymore,” he said, “so now we’re working without a net.”

The possibility that the courts may be asked to settle how the shrinking river should be shared hangs in the background. Kenney, the veteran Colorado River researcher who recently retired from the University of Colorado Boulder, said there’s been an unwritten understanding that differences in the Basin would be settled in the conference room, not the courtroom. The Upper Basin’s fear, he said, has been that they may end up worse off in court than at the negotiating table. But as their own water resources get squeezed to bolster water levels in Lake Mead, Kenney said, the Upper Basin may decide they’re no worse off making their case in court.

Becky Mitchell, the state of Colorado's top water official. (Source: Colorado Water Conservation Board)

Yet key water managers in the Upper Basin say litigation is an outcome they hope to avoid. Mitchell, the Colorado water manager, said avoiding litigation is among the principles that guide her state’s approach to renegotiating the 2007 river operating guidelines.

Among the other principles, she told the Hutchins Water Center’s virtual November conference in Grand Junction, Colo.: Provide additional water supply security and certainty for Colorado and throughout the river basin, improve operations of lakes Powell and Mead and avoid curtailment of water uses in the Upper Basin.

Meanwhile, Mitchell said, the Upper Basin states are continuing to investigate the feasibility of a conservation effort called demand management that would compensate water users that are willing to temporarily use less water.

Eric Kuhn, a retired Colorado water manager and co-author with John Fleck of a book on the 1922 Colorado River Compact, said that while science is pointing to an accelerated decline in river flows, there are things the Upper Basin can do to have a robust economy and still conserve water. Coal-fired power plants are closing, which should free up water, he told an audience at the Getches-Wilkinson Center conference in October, and reductions in turf – both in cities and on farmland – can add to conservation.

“We can do some really, really good things in this Basin for the economy and our quality of life and still use less water,” he said.

Adapting Intelligently

In the Lower Basin, some water managers and Colorado River veterans believe the water users in Arizona, Nevada and California may have to cut their draw of the river by 1.5 million acre-feet. Entsminger, Southern Nevada’s general manager, said his agency is updating its 50-year water resource plan that anticipates the Colorado River’s annual supply will average just 11 million acre-feet instead of the 15 million acre-feet that was divided between the Upper and Lower Basins by the 1922 Compact.

Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, the state agency established in 1937 to protect California’s rights and interests on the Colorado River, said water interests throughout the river basin are likely pondering a range of possible river flows. Harris said California and other Basin states will need to be flexible and adapt to whatever the river gives.

“We’ve just got to be better at being able to adapt intelligently,” Harris said.

The Imperial and Palo Verde irrigation districts in Southeastern California hold some of the earliest significant rights to the river’s water along with Native American tribes. While California is protective of its “very senior” water rights, Harris said California water users have demonstrated in the past that through collaborative agreements and partnerships, they can conserve significant water supplies on farms and in cities. And while Upper Basin water officials talk about their own water shortages as they send supplies downriver, Harris said California has been coping with drought and managing water shortages for decades. In response, he said, the state has improved water supply infrastructure and implemented conservation measures to stretch its supply.

“Hydrologic shortages are not an anomaly or an aberration in one basin or the other. They’re occurring in every state,” Harris said. “We are all dealing with a new water supply reality.”

A two-year agreement signed in December by Reclamation and water agencies in California, Nevada and Arizona committed up to $200 million for water conservation measures, including for crop fallowing on farms. Some farm areas are reluctant to embrace fallowing because of its community impacts. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

The two-year agreement signed in December by Reclamation and water agencies in California, Nevada and Arizona that committed up to $200 million for water conservation measures included money for crop fallowing on farms and urban conservation measures. Some of the conservation measures have yet to be identified. The goal is to keep 500,000 acre-feet a year in Lake Mead. Separately, Reclamation signed agreements with Gila River Indian Community and Colorado River Indian Tribes to conserve 134,250 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to serve two to three households for a year.

Kightlinger, the former Metropolitan Water District general manager, believes the Lower Basin may have to reduce its draw on the Colorado River by 1.5 million acre-feet a year. Still, he added, it doesn’t all have to be done at once and it might not all involve cuts. Additional ocean desalination or wastewater recycling, he said, could help grow the pot of water. Lower Basin interests may be able to develop a 25-year plan with targeted water savings and benchmarks to measure progress. Such a reduction plan would surely include participation from agricultural water users, he said. “There’s no way to come up with that kind of number absent a strong ag participation,” Kightlinger said.

Metropolitan Water District has done partnerships in the past with agricultural water districts like Imperial and Palo Verde irrigation districts for conservation improvements or compensated land fallowing. In December, the district signed yet another partnership, a seasonal land fallowing agreement with the Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation to conserve up to 3,500 acre-feet of Colorado River water.

Kightlinger said such agreements for farm water conservation can be done in a way that works for farmers and agricultural communities. “There’s more cooperation out there than people realize,” he said.

Tina Shields, Imperial Irrigation District’s water department manager, said her agency generally doesn’t support farmland fallowing because of the economic impacts to the community in lost jobs and support service revenues. But the agency does implement large-scale agricultural and on-farm efficiency-based conservation programs and believes there’s room for expansion. “We’re conserving a half-million acre-feet a year already,” she said.

Tina Shields, Imperial Irrigation District water manager. She said her agency has implemented water efficiency improvements for farms, but does not support fallowing as a conservation measure. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

But there are complications. One is that the district has limited options to store saved water, Shields said. The 1931 agreement that apportioned California’s share of the river gave Metropolitan Water District an exclusive right to store the state’s water in Lake Mead. More recent agreements have given IID the ability to store a modest amount of water in Lake Mead and a somewhat larger amount within Metropolitan’s system off-river, she said, but those savings accounts are full. Imperial is now partnering with Metropolitan to store another 50,000 acre-feet of conserved water in Lake Mead under Metropolitan’s account – still a tiny amount compared to Imperial’s 3.1 million-acre-foot river entitlement – and is discussing partnerships with both Metropolitan and the Bureau of Reclamation to store even more conserved water in the lake.

Another complication, Shields said, is the impact that any additional conservation has on the Salton Sea, California’s largest inland lake. Earlier water-saving agreements resulted in less farm runoff flowing to the sea. The district compensated with mitigation flows to the sea, but since those ended in 2017 the sea has been receding, creating the potential for unhealthy dust clouds from its newly exposed shoreline and rising salinity to levels that can no longer support the sea’s fishery and bird communities. The state of California is working on a 10-year restoration plan for the sea. But any further water conservation effort by Imperial Irrigation District, she said, will need to account for impacts of reduced farm runoff going to the Salton Sea – and require help from state and federal agencies.

Avoiding the Supreme Court

Across the entire Basin, there is an undercurrent of concern that as water interests try to work out an equitable solution between the Upper and Lower Basins, their lawyers are preparing legal arguments in case their interstate differences land them before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Harris, with the Colorado River Board of California, said he believes there’s a willingness and commitment to do anything and everything to avoid going to the Supreme Court.

“If you end up in the United States Supreme Court, isn’t that just a bald-faced acknowledgement of failure?” asked Harris.

At the Getches-Wilkinson Center conference in October, members of a panel titled “Time to Get Real” were asked how the Upper and Lower Basins could get beyond the legal jousting over who should get how much of the river’s waters.

Entsminger, Southern Nevada’s general manager, offered a note of concern over whether water interests in the two basins are up to the challenge of reaching an equitable solution in the face of climate change.

If this winter or the next one is as dry as last year, and the two basins cannot work together to find solutions to the river’s woes, he said, “Mother Nature is going to pick the winners and losers. And she’s going to do it really quick.”

“So we can keep shadow boxing about who’s feeling more pain, or who should have done what over the last 20 years or over the last 100 years,” he added. “Or we can come to the table and come up with a plan to use the amount of water the river’s actually going to give us.”

Dropping reservoirs create ‘green light’ for #sustainability on #ColoradoRiver: Lower-basin 500+ Plan fits in window of opportunity — @AspenJournalism

This photo from December 2021 shows the famous “bathtub ring” at Lake Mead due to declining water levels. The lower basin states are planning to save water in the reservoir through the 500 + Plan.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Some Colorado River scholars say that a plan by the lower-basin states to leave more water in Lake Mead embodies a principle they explore in a recently published article: Dropping reservoir levels have opened a window of opportunity for water-management policies that move the river system toward sustainability.

In December, water managers from California, Nevada and Arizona signed a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, to spend up to $200 million to add 500,000 acre-feet of water in both 2022 and 2023 to Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, which has dropped precipitously low due to climate change and drought.

Water managers developed the program, known as the 500+ Plan, in just four months — lightning speed for something that requires the cooperation among — and millions of dollars from — each participant.

Water experts say part of the reason the plan came together so quickly is because it got a push from last year’s record-bad conditions. Water managers have watched reservoir levels in lakes Powell and Mead slowly dwindle for the past two decades, but 2021 was a wake-up call for many. A near-normal snowpack translated to just 31% of normal runoff, which was the second-worst inflow into Lake Powell ever.

“We had no idea how bad 2021 hydrology would be,” said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “We knew it was a dry year, but when it turned out to be 31%, it was an eye-opener.”

It wasn’t until June that water managers realized how bad the situation was, and talks about the 500+ Plan began in August, Hasencamp said. That quick turn-around tracks with the findings of a new article by John Fleck, a writer-in-residence at the Utton Center at the University of New Mexico, and Anne Castle, senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado. Their paper, “Green Light for Adaptive Policies on the Colorado River,” was published in December.

The paper says that frenzied media attention, dramatically dropping reservoirs to their lowest levels ever and the first-ever shortage declaration by federal water managers created an opening for the political will necessary for an innovative solution. Rapidly dropping reservoirs create a “green light” scenario for river management where conditions shift from a situation to be monitored to a problem that needs to be solved.

“That visceral experience we have with low reservoirs and seeing the snowpack not end up in them last year is part of what’s created this moment of opportunity,” Fleck said. “When we look at those reservoirs — which have been our safety for a long time, they have been our security blanket — and they’re gone, you see political leadership lurching to the issue.”

Click the image to go to the interactive Tableau version on Aspen Journalism’s website.

500+ Plan builds on previous work

But since political will can be fickle and fleeting, it’s important that policy solutions — usually the product of years of careful crafting — are ready to be implemented quickly when the timing is right and the “green light” window of opportunity opens. Although formal discussions about the 500+ Plan were only four months long, much of the groundwork had been laid over previous years.

“We know the technocrats behind the scenes, the people working at NGOs and government offices, they are thinking about this stuff and producing policy before we need it so they can attach it onto a problem when a problem arises,” said Elizabeth Koebele, a researcher at the University of Nevada and who studies how government policies get made collaboratively.

The lower basin is taking action after modeling showed that Lake Mead’s surface elevation could drop below 1,030 feet, which is a critical threshold identified in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. The reservoir is currently at 1,066 feet elevation.

The basic way the program will work is by municipal water providers paying irrigators to not use water so it can be stored in Lake Mead. It will be funded by $40 million from the Arizona Department of Water Resources; $20 million each from the Central Arizona Project, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Southern Nevada Water Authority; and $100 million in matching funds from the federal government.

The 500+ Plan is resonant of the System Conservation Pilot Program, which ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid upper-basin farmers and ranchers to voluntarily fallow fields in order to boost levels in Lake Powell.

“These were ideas they didn’t have to make up from scratch,” Fleck said. “I was amazed at the speed with which (the 500+ Plan) came together. It was very impressive because it built on work that had been going on behind the scenes for a long time.”

This photo from December 2021 shows one of the intake towers at Hoover Dam. California, Nevada and Arizona recently penned a deal to keep 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead to boost the declining reservoir levels.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Upper-basin lessons?

Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission, said in an email that she generally supports the lower basin’s efforts to take less water out of Lake Mead.

She pointed out challenges with shortages and water saving in the upper basin: Water users don’t have large reservoirs on which to rely the way that the lower basin does. Emergency releases from upper basin reservoirs last summer and fall to prop up Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower have harmed local businesses and left the reservoirs low, she said.

“Given the drastic shortages already occurring in the upper basin, coupled with these emergency releases, it is unclear how much more Colorado can provide,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said that the upper basin states only use about half of what they are entitled to under the Colorado River Compact and that the lower basin states use far more than their share.

But with climate change continuing to rob the river of flows, the amount of water promised to each basin in the century-old agreement may no longer exist. Fleck said the other reason why the lower basin was able to come up with the 500+ Plan seemingly quickly is because water managers there have been having difficult conversations for years that acknowledge the river’s hugely diminished flows — something upper basin water managers still seem averse to.

“(The upper basin states) have to have those difficult conversations with water users who don’t want to hear it, but they might not get what the compact promised,” he said. “Those are conversations we just need to be having in the upper basin right now, and we are not having them.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

Lees Ferry streamgage and cableway downstream on the Colorado River, Arizona. (Public domain.)

New Research Advocates Basic Strategy for Native Fish Recovery: Access to #Water — #Utah State University

Threatened and endangered native fish of the Colorado River need access to the most basic of resources for recovery — adequate natural streamflow, according to new research. (Photo courtesy Nate Cathcart)

From Utah State University (Lael Gilbert):

Rivers need water — a fact that may seem ridiculously obvious, but in times of increasing water development, drought and climate change, the quantity of natural streamflow that remains in river channels is coming into question, especially in the Colorado River basin. Newly published research from Utah State University poses a tough question in these days of falling reservoir levels and high-stakes urban development: whether the continued development of rivers for water supply can be balanced with fish conservation.

Historically, the Colorado River basin has been highly dynamic with a wide range of streamflow, river temperatures and large sediment loads. Native fish evolved through periods of wet and dry cycles. But water-supply development has depleted the flow of many rivers in the Upper and Lower Colorado River basins, and today’s river habitats are increasingly decoupled from the natural cycle of spring snowmelt, monsoon-season floods and intervening low flows in favor of development and for stocking nonnative sports fish.

The health and recovery of native fish species now depends largely on the public’s willingness to protect rivers that retain some semblance of a natural flow regime as freshwater conservation areas, say authors Casey Pennock, Phaedra Budy, Wally Macfarlane and Jack Schmidt of the Watershed Sciences Department in the S. J. and Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources and colleagues.

“Most people who study or manage fishes know that complex habitat required by native fish is created and maintained by adequate river flows, or a natural flow regime,” said Budy. “Nonetheless, society continues to manage our desert rivers as if we think that fish don’t need water. If we continue down this path, we will watch native fishes, some of which are found nowhere else on Earth, blink off the planet.”

Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

Dams have changed the natural flow in many rivers in the Colorado River basin, but a more pressing problem is the depletion of flow such that little water remains in the channel. At a regional scale, water in the Colorado River basin is completely consumed and no water reaches the Gulf of California in most years. Even in the Upper Colorado River basin, some streams, such as the Duchesne, Price and San Rafael Rivers are nearly completely depleted of natural flow. If there is not enough flow in the river, other conservation efforts for native fish don’t really matter, say the authors.

Endangered fish recovery programs are designed not to interfere with existing or proposed future water development. The task of recovering endangered native fish populations may be an impossible goal wherever natural streamflow is declining due to a warming climate and wherever consumptive water uses are increasing, according to the authors. Despite decadeslong efforts by state, federal, tribal and private organizations, some native fish can’t maintain self-sustaining populations in the Colorado River basin today, and some species would be extinct without federal stocking programs.

“Managing for the minimum amount of water necessary to sustain native fish during dry spells is a common approach, but there are not many places where this strategy is sufficient to recover and protect native fish. We think conservation of natural flows is critical for long-term conservation of fish,” Pennock said. “In some rivers there have been attempts to recreate the benefits of natural flow with managed releases from large dams to reduce the negative downstream impacts of water development. These kinds of actions can have some localized benefit, but they are not likely to help native fish long-term or large-scale.”

Schmidt, who also directs Utah State’s Center for Colorado River Studies, stressed the importance of action.

“This study reminds us that increasing consumptive water use in an era of declining natural streamflow inevitably jeopardizes one of the Colorado River’s most distinctive attributes — its endemic native fishery,” Schmidt said. “If we care about protecting natural river ecosystems, then we as a society are going to have to care about leaving significant amounts of water in our rivers.”

As #drought strikes region, decades of aggressive #water development keep #Aurora in the swim — The Aurora Sentinel

From The Aurora Sentinel (Philip Poston):

To say that Aurora has a prolific portfolio of water rights and reservoirs is apt. Spanning across three water basins, Aurora water is transported 180 miles through a vast and complicated system.

But it hasn’t always been that way…

Aurora was wholly served by the City and County of Denver until 1954, when Denver put into place a “blue line” no longer granting permits for new taps in the ever-growing metropolitan area, leaving parts of Aurora out of Denver’s service region.

In 1957, Aurora purchased the water rights to the Last Chance Ditch and diverted the water that ran through it to be stored near the Cherry Creek Dam.

The completion of phase one of the Homestake Reservoir, which the city shares with Colorado Springs, was in 1967 and with that, Aurora was able to become completely self-reliant when it came to supplying the wet stuff to its residents.

The next 20 years saw rapid growth of Aurora’s water rights acquisitions, including rights in the three major basins being Colorado, Arkansas and South Platte. The city has continued to purchase water rights in areas spanning from Park to Eagle counties.

While the water rights are large in number for Aurora, 95% of the municipality’s water comes from reusable water…

Prairie Waters schematic via Aurora Water.

This is where the Prairie Waters filtration system plays its vital role in supply for the city. Meeting approximately 10% of the demands of the city’s water, the system begins at the South Platte River in southern Weld County, and through a system of 23 wells, water is ushered through hundreds of feet of sand and gravel which serves as a filter to clean out impurities in the water. It is then pumped into basins where it goes through another level of filtration removing even more contaminants. The water is then sent to one of three different pump stations and finally to a purification facility.

UV pretreatment Peter D. Binney Purification Facility.

The Peter D. Binney Purification Facility uses what are some of the most advanced processes of purification in the country, through ultraviolet oxidation, water officials say. With the ability to treat 50 million gallons a day, it’s the largest facility in the nation to use this technology…

With Aurora’s acquired water rights and the Prairie Waters System, Aurora looks to be prepared for the city’s growth.

Aurora Water serves more than 91,000 accounts in a city of more than 386,000 people and that number is rapidly increasing. The population is expected to double in the next 30 to 40 years.

With a bevy of new housing developments popping up on the eastern plains, it’s imperative that Aurora has the water to serve the increasing population with the most recently announced development promising 5,000 new homes.

Aurora water managers have long said that the city is set to provide water to tens of thousands of additional residents for at least another half century. Projections have shown that the city could need more than 40 billion gallons of water a year by 2070, more than double the usage in 2015.

In order to accommodate that amount, there needs to be ample storage, and Aurora has plans for that, too. Aurora currently has 156,000 acre feet of water storage, and enough to provide water to the city for three years, were there not to be another drop.

With 12 current reservoirs along the front range and throughout the mountains, Aurora has plans for three more reservoirs throughout the next 50 years.

One such reservoir has a litany of hurdles to jump, and might even require an act of Congress.

This map shows the location of test holes Homestake Partners plans to drill as part of its geotechnical investigation into the feasibility of a dam site in the Homestake Creek valley. The Forest Service has received more than 500 comments, most of them in opposition to, the drilling and the overall reservoir project. Credit: USFS via Aspen Journalism

The proposed Whitney Reservoir on U.S Forest land in Eagle County would be shared with Colorado Springs. U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis approved the plan this spring allowing the cities to test for possible sites…

With 95% of Aurora’s water being surface, or reusable water, there is always the risk of a low snow-pack, quick evaporation or plain-old drought. The new reservoirs will prevent Aurora having to sell or lease water resulting from not having enough storage.

Wild Horse Reservoir, which looks to be the next reservoir completed, hopefully by decades end, was planned with the purpose of not only providing adequate and better storage, but work in providing better management of exchanged water.

Aspinall Unit Operations Meeting – January 20, 2022 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Aspinall Unit

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The next Aspinall Unit Operation Coordination Meeting will be conducted using Microsoft Teams (see link below). We are again using this format as an alternative to allow interactive participation, as we are not yet able to meet in person. No special software is required. Please contact me at rchristianson@usbr.gov or (970) 248-0652 if you have any questions. The proposed agenda is below:

Microsoft Teams meeting
Join on your computer or mobile app
Click here to join the meeting

Or call in (audio only)
+1 202-640-1187,,459511369# United States, Washington DC
Phone Conference ID: 459 511 369#

Renewable Water Resources proposes selling San Luis Valley #water to Douglas County—SLV opposition organizes — The #Crestone Eagle #RioGrande

The country’s second largest potato producing region, is in its 18th year of drought in 2020. The San Luis Valley in Colorado is known for its agriculture yet only has 6-7 inches of rainfall per year. San Luis Valley via National Geographic

From The Crestone Eagle (Lisa Cyriacks):

RWR’s proposal to Douglas County is, for an initial payment of $20 million, to build a pipeline that would bring 22,000 acre-feet of water from the San Luis Valley aquifer to the Front Range. If Douglas County agrees, the $20 million would come from ARPS stimulus money.

Struggling with water scarcity, changing climate, and aquifer depletion, San Luis Valley residents object to the proposal. A formidable group has organized around the belief that there is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.

Protect Our Water–San Luis Valley lists as members: 15 local water districts and entities; 22 cities and towns; 22 conservation and environmental groups; and two farm groups. On its website local governments in opposition to RWR’s proposal include the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the Towns of Crestone and Saguache.

Despite their marketing assertions, RWR’s plan to export water from the San Luis Valley was not devised by locals nor will it benefit the entire valley.

RWR needs to find a customer like Douglas County to move its proposal forward. The plan relies on drawing water from the Upper Rio Grande Basin and exporting it to the Front Range. Without an identified end user for the exportation and sale of the water, RWR can’t file its plan in Colorado Water Court.

While the project has been in the works for some time, many questions remain unanswered.

RWR does not own municipal water rights, and RWR would need to buy wells and well rights before filing in court to convert irrigation water rights to municipal water rights.

Until recently, RWR executives asserted specifics about project locations, timetables, or costs were uncertain because they are focused on winning valley support and filing a legal case in Colorado’s water court, which could take three to five years to process. That case would help determine whether the San Luis Valley has enough water for RWR to legally export without hurting existing users.

In general, the proposal before Douglas County Commissioners reveals that RWR would build a wellfield northeast of Moffat. A pipeline would carry water north along state Highway 17, more than 1,000 feet up and over Poncha Pass to two access points along the South Platte River Basin, one at Antero Reservoir and another Elevenmile Reservoir, both in Park County.

In addition, a $50 million “community fund” would be developed under the RWR proposal to assist local communities with schools, broadband or food banks, senior services or job training. A separate pool of money, about $68 million, would pay farmers and ranchers who agree to sell their water rights, known in agriculture circles as “buy and dry.”

Those dollars will come from long-time private investors, according to Sean Duffy, a spokesman for RWR.

An agreement using stimulus money would give Douglas County access to needed water at less than half the typical rate of $40,000 to $50,000 per acre-foot, said RWR spokesman Sean Duffy…

Duffy also pointed out that both the water and economic status quo in the valley are not currently sustainable. Critics say the RWR project will only make the situation worse, while supporters argue it offers a more sustainable solution to the state’s water woes.

The San Luis Valley is described as one of the most arid regions in Colorado, receiving less than 9 inches of precipitation annually. In recent years snowfall on the Sangre de Cristos has been perceptibly less, resulting in reduced stream flows and reduced recharge of the two aquifers below the valley floor.

The shallow unconfined aquifer has been tapped with wells for crop irrigation for several generations and is over-appropriated. Below lies the confined aquifer which Renewable Water Resources believes holds a billion-acre foot of water.

That one-billion-acre foot estimate is highly disputed by local water managers, farmers and ranchers.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Since 2012 many farms and ranches in the valley have already made self-imposed cuts in irrigation to try and prevent further depletion of the shallow aquifer. A number of subdistricts have been formed as local farmers’ only way of buying more time to solve depletions to the aquifer in their own way. Each subdistrict has until 2031 to replenish water to a predetermined level. Failure to meet those targets could result in the State Engineer’s office shutting down wells until the aquifer reaches that target through unimpeded recharge with no groundwater pumping.

RWR’s proposal is offering very similar benefits to those proposed by Stockman’s Water in 1998, a project that ultimately failed.

Stockman’s Water proposed to export at least 100,000 acrefeet annually, mitigating any water losses by offering, in exchange, 25,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of senior water rights.

Gary Boyce, the manager/ owner of Stockman’s Water, also promised a $3 million trust fund to be administered by Saguache County, and environmental benefits—more riparian and wetland habitat. Renewable Water Resources offers the potential opportunity to add over 3,000 acres to the Baca Wildlife Refuge located off of County Road T.

Cleave Simpson has met with the Douglas County Commissioners. Using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for the RWR proposal is a twist he didn’t see coming.

“I think it’s unconscionable to use those federal dollars to diminish one community in support of another community,” he said. In addition to representing the San Luis Valley in the Colorado Senate, Simpson is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which is leading the opposition to the RWR plan.

Simpson reminds us that there is a long history of legal fights over water export claims in the San Luis Valley. The Rio Grande Water Conservancy District already had money set aside to challenge the RWR proposal after the court awarded valley residents legal fees from a previous failed export case involving a developer in the 1970s, called American Water Development Incorporated.

USBR Releases Draft Environmental Assessment for Arkansas Valley Conduit #ArkansasRiver

Arkansas Valley Conduit Logo. Credit: USBR

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Elizabeth Smith):

The Bureau of Reclamation released a draft environmental assessment to supplement a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) completed in 2013 for proposed changes associated with construction and operation of the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC).

“Reclamation released an AVC Supplemental Information Report, in June 2021, that identified proposed changes in the AVC footprint, AVC participants, and a three-party contract with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Southeastern) and Pueblo Water,” said Reclamation Eastern Colorado Area Manager, Jeffrey Rieker. “This draft environmental assessment provides the supplemental analysis of the information in that report.”

Arkansas Valley Conduit map via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka) June 2021.

Reclamation would construct the AVC trunkline and Southeastern while AVC participants and others would construct AVC spur and delivery pipelines under the Proposed Action. The AVC project would utilize Pueblo Water’s existing system to treat and deliver AVC water from Pueblo Reservoir to a connection point east of the City of Pueblo along U.S. Highway 50, and eliminate 24.7 miles of pipeline construction around the city of Pueblo that was originally included the FEIS’s selected alternative.

The three-party contract will address AVC’s use of Pueblo Water’s water treatment plant and water delivery system, as well as Pueblo Water’s continued use of excess capacity storage in Pueblo Reservoir. The contract also incorporates the storage of additional water rights associated with the Bessemer Ditch and will replace an existing 25-year excess capacity contract that expires in 2025.

The environmental assessment has been prepared in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act and is available for public review and comment at: https://www.usbr.gov/gp/ecao/avc/. The 2013 AVC FEIS, 2014 AVC Record of Decision, and 2021 AVC Supplemental Information Report can also be accessed from this webpage. Reclamation is requesting that any comments on the draft environmental assessment be submitted by January 30, 2022. Comments can be sent to tstroh@usbr.gov. For additional information, please contact Terence Stroh, Environmental Specialist, at 970-461-5469 or the above email address.

AVC is and authorized feature for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project in Southeastern Colorado in Pueblo, Crowley, Otero, Bent, Prowers and Kiowa Counties. You can find more information on the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project at: https://www.usbr.gov/projects.

#Water rates to rise slightly in 2022: Supporting the large, complex system that provides water to 1.5 million people across the #Denver metro area — News on Tap

From Denver Water (Cathy Proctor and Kim Unger Jay):

Lea este artículo en español.

Since its formation more than 100 years ago, Denver Water has always planned ahead when investing in the system that today supplies clean, safe drinking water every day to a quarter of Colorado’s population.

And with a variety of changes — from regulations to weather patterns — expected in the future, the utility and its 1,000 employees are continuing the work needed to maintain, repair, protect and upgrade its 4,000 square miles of watershed and 3,000 miles of pipe, plus its dams, pump stations and underground storage tanks and more.

Denver Water delivers safe, clean water to 1.5 million people every day, 25% of Colorado’s population. Photo credit: Denver Water.

While the global COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of complexity, Denver Water has worked to keep rate increases for customers as small as possible.

On Oct. 27, the Denver Board of Water Commissioners adopted new water rates that will effective Jan. 1, 2022, to help pay for critical upgrades and projects to keep this system operating efficiently. How that rate increase will affect individual customer bills will vary depending on where the customer lives in Denver Water’s service area and how much water they use.

For typical single-family residential customers who receive a bill from Denver Water, if they use 104,000 gallons of water in 2022 as they did in 2021, the new rates will increase their monthly bill by a range of about 47 cents to $1.34 depending on where they live.

“Denver Water’s mission is to ensure that we deliver safe, clean water to the people who rely on us every day,” said CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead. “Over the next 10 years, we are forecasting an estimated investment of $2.6 billion into our system to increase its resiliency, reliability and sustainability in the face of changes we are anticipating. From more frequent droughts and wildfires to additional regulations we expect we will be asked to meet — we will be prepared.”

A helicopter collects water from Dillon Reservoir during efforts to contain the Ptarmigan Fire near Silverthorne, Colorado, in late September. Photo credit: John Baker, safety specialist at Denver Water.

A customer’s monthly bill is comprised of a fixed charge, which helps ensure Denver Water has a more stable revenue stream to continue the necessary water system upgrades to ensure reliable water service, and a volume rate for the amount of water used.

The fixed monthly charge — which is tied to the size of the meter — is increasing by 74 cents in 2022 for most single-family residential customers to ensure Denver Water is recovering 20% of its needed revenue from fixed charges.

After the fixed monthly charge, Denver Water’s rate structure has three tiers based on the amount of water used.

“Even with such large efforts in our future, it’s our goal to have slow and steady rate increases with even, annual adjustments that allow our customers to plan ahead and avoid rate shocks,” said Fletcher Davis, rates manager for Denver Water.

To keep water affordable, the first tier, which covers essential indoor water use for bathing, cooking and flushing toilets, is charged at the lowest rate.

The amount of water in this first tier is determined for each customer by averaging their monthly water use as listed on bills dated January through March each year. This is called their average winter consumption.

Water use above the average winter consumption — typically used for outdoor watering — is charged at a higher price. Efficient outdoor water use is charged in the second tier (middle rate), followed by additional outdoor water use in the third tier (highest rate).

Meet customers who used Garden In A Box, a Resource Central program supported by Denver Water, to beautify their landscapes with water-wise plants.

The difference in volume rates for customers who live inside Denver compared to those who live in the suburbs is due to the Denver City Charter, which was changed in 1959 to allow permanent leases of water to suburban water districts based on two conditions: 1) there always would be an adequate supply for the citizens of Denver, and 2) suburban customers pay the full cost of service, plus an additional amount.

Denver Water encourages customers to be efficient with their water use.

Using less water means more water can be kept in the mountain reservoirs, rivers and streams that fish live in, and Coloradans enjoy. And using less water also can lower your monthly water bills, saving money.

“We are continuing our work maintaining and replacing water mains in the street, building a new state-of-the-art treatment plant and water quality laboratory, preparing for the needed expansion of Gross Reservoir and replacing old, customer-owned lead service lines to protect our customers from the risk of lead in drinking water,” Lochhead said.

“At the same time, we use the tools available to us to help pay for the necessary investment in our system and keep our rates as low as possible.”

In addition to rates paid by customers, Denver Water relies on bond sales, cash reserves, hydropower sales and the fees paid when new homes and buildings are connected to the system.

The utility does not make a profit or receive tax dollars. It reinvests money from customer water bills to maintain and upgrade the water system.

Infographic credit: Kim Unger, Denver Water.

A future of #drought? Ute Mountain Ute Tribe looks at life with less #water — The #Durango Herald #DoloresRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #SanJuanRiver #MancosRiver #aridification

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe area map via USBR/Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:

Limited water supply consolidated to keep corn crop and flour mill operating; jobs lost, canal payment assistance requested

In the Ute Mountain Ute language, paa is the word for water, nüvav means “snow,” uway means “to rain” and tühpar üatüaa means “dried up cropland.”

These words weigh heavily on the minds of Ute Mountain Utes in Southwest Colorado because they are missing the critical ingredients of snow in the mountains and rain in the valleys.

Tribal member Wilford Lang drove a tractor for more than 20 years for the tribe’s 7,600-acre alfalfa and corn farm, southwest of Towaoc.

He has seen water supply fluctuate up and down. But when flows in the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir came in at 10% for the 2021 season, he and 20 other workers on the farm suddenly lost their jobs…

Water is sacred for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and with less to go around, the tribe is searching for ways to augment its supply.

Tribal elders remember water scarcity long before the Colorado Ute Water Rights Settlement of 1988, which provides water for tribal lands from the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir.

Vera Summa remembers the 1950s, when she and her grandmother collected water from the springs and mesas of Sleeping Ute Mountain. During winter, adults, elders and children collected snow in bundles and hauled it out on their backs, Summa said…

Mancos River in Montezuma County

The Mancos River runs through Ute Mountain reservation lands, but it dried up after Jackson Reservoir was built in 1950 to serve the Mancos area upstream, said elder Laverna Summa, Vera’s sister.

Water shortages are happening again, brought on by a worsening dry spell that started in 2002…

In 2021, drought-stricken fallow fields have replaced the bounty of alfalfa and corn harvests on the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch operations, an economic hardship brought on by the worst water year in McPhee Reservoir history.

Marginal mountain snowpack was sucked up by dry ground and whisked away on the warm spring wind.

Mcphee Reservoir

The runoff from mountain snowmelt never made it to McPhee, where the water level already was low from the previous parched year.

The 2021 deficit caused a 90% water shortage for farmers tied to the Dolores Water Conservancy District, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

The tribe’s 7,600-acre farm received just 10% of its 24,517 acre-foot allocation.

The water shortage dried out fields and brought financial challenges for the farming and ranching operations. The tribe laid off half its farm workers, about 20 total, most of whom are tribal members…

Farm operations include the Bow and Arrow mill, a state-of-the-art facility opened in 2014 that sells non-GMO, gluten-free and kosher cornmeal to food manufacturers, grocery stores and distilleries.

The mill’s products are used to make chips, polenta, pasta, grits, cornbread, whiskey and more.

Simon Martinez, general manager of the Ute Mountain Ute Bow and Arrow Brand and Farm & Ranch Enterprises, talks Oct. 20 near Towaoc about how drought and reduced irrigation have affected crop production. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Jerry McBride

The Ute Mountain Ute Bow and Arrow Brand mill on Oct. 20 near Towaoc. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Jerry McBride

Martinez used most this year’s limited water supply to irrigate the white, yellow and blue corn crops and keep the mill and its staff of 13 going. The tribe’s ranching operation, with a 600 cow-calf herd, has been kept whole.

So far, business has been brisk at the corn mill, but the drought weighs on everyone’s mind…

South of Hesperus August 2019 Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

Lang said the farm and ranch operation and Bow and Arrow corn mill have been an economic boon for the tribe. They provide well-paying careers for many tribal members and create a deep sense of pride…

Towaoc-Highline Canal via Ten Tribes Partnership/USBR Tribal Water Study

The drastic drop in crop revenue fell short of the $660,000 in annual delivery costs for the water on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Towaoc-Highline Canal.

So far this year, Martinez said, the tribe has paid $150,000 of that bill and has asked the Bureau of Reclamation for drought assistance to pay the rest…

Martinez and his reduced farm staff still must tend to thousands of acres of fallow fields, and they are discing the soil and controlling weeds to prep the fields for next year.

Long-term forecasts for the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah call for abnormally dry and hot weather…

Senior water rights buffer drought impacts
Ute Mountain Ute water rights have a complex history.

As part of the Colorado Ute Water Rights Settlement of 1988, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe gave up 1868 rights on the Mancos River in exchange for more junior water rights to the Dolores River in McPhee Reservoir, said Mike Preston, a water consultant for the tribe.

The settlement was made partly in response to the Mancos River going dry through Ute Mountain Ute land after Jackson Lake was built upstream in Mancos.

As original inhabitants, Native American tribes have inherent water rights, which were codified by the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision that mandates that tribal reservations have access to water.

As part of the 1988 settlement, the Dolores Project and McPhee Reservoir satisfied Ute Mountain Ute water rights via delivery from McPhee and the gravity-fed 39-mile Towoac-Highline Canal to Ute Farm and Ranch.

The settlement also created a reliable domestic water line to Towaoc from the Cortez water treatment plant, which gets the water from McPhee…

Ute Farm and Ranch shares equally with other water district farmers when water supply is below normal.

Consequently, the tribe took a 90% hit this year, along with other ranches and farms. The fish pool, 32,500 acre-feet earmarked for native fish habitat downstream of McPhee Reservoir, also took the cut. Municipalities do not share in the shortage.

Montezuma Tunnel

McPhee, the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the tribe are more exposed to drought because their water rights on the Dolores River are junior to those of Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co.

In these dry times, the tribe has redoubled its efforts to study and potentially claim all its water rights, including on the San Juan River, said Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart. The river touches the Ute Mountain reservation while flowing from New Mexico to Utah…

Colorado’s prior appropriation water system of “first in line, first in right” can leave more junior water right holders high and dry in extreme drought, a situation that is playing out now.

The practicality and fairness of the system in a new era of aridification and chronic water shortage has been a point of discussion, Heart said.

“We have been here the longest, but don’t have senior status, plus we have OandM costs on the canal to get our water,” Heart said. “We’re seeing a megadrought. In the future if the drought gets worse, who will get cut short, Montezuma, Cortez or us?”

Looking west across the northeast bay of Totten Reservoir with the boat in the background; the photo was taken from the peninsula between the two bays at the north end of Totten Reservoir. Sources/Usage Public Domain via USGS. Photographer: Keelin Schaffrath

The tribe has hired additional staff to work on water issues, and Heart encourages leaders to “think out of the box.” He said the tribe should have looked into buying Totten Lake, which recently was sold to Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. Totten feeds McElmo Creek, which flows through tribal lands…

“We’d like to talk about adding storage to Jackson Lake, so we could release our share down the Mancos and collect it here,” Heart said. The water could augment water shortages from the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir.

Montezuma Tunnel steel arches.

Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. has senior rights

Montezuma Valley Irrigation’s senior water rights date to 1888 and 1885 and include the first 795 cubic feet per second of the Dolores River. Anything above that flow mostly goes to Dolores Water Conservation District.

In normal runoff years, the river flows well above that level and is enough to satisfy MVIC rights and fill McPhee reservoir.

But during extreme dry periods, MVIC’s senior position buffers the impact of drought somewhat for its shareholders because at lower flows, their river rights are more senior and more likely to be filled.

View to southwest, looking down on Groundhog Reservoir. Photo via dcasler.com.

MVIC, which stores water in Narraguinnep, Groundhog and Totten reservoirs, has rights to about 130,000 acre-feet of Dolores River Basin water annually. This year, it received only 92,000 acre-feet because of the drought.

The poor snowpack caused a 30% shortage this year for MVIC, and the irrigation season was shortened by about 20 days, said MVIC manager Brandon Johnson.

2021 Brings Flurry of Activity to Northern #Water

The Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project hosted a groundbreaking event on Aug. 6, 2021. Photo credit: Northern Water

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

Several noteworthy undertakings in 2021 led to a number of achievements for Northern Water, the Municipal Subdistrict, project participants and water users. Milestones include the start of construction on a new reservoir, fire recovery efforts, campus development projects and more. 

January kicked off with the connection of the Southern Water Supply Project pipeline into the new Eastern Pump Plant. The plant, located near Platteville, increases capacity of the SWSP pipeline to meet the growing demands of users benefitting from the supply.  

In March, two projects earned awards from the Colorado Contractors Association. The Poudre River Drop Structure earned an award in the best Open Flow Concrete Structure category, and the Cottonwood Siphon earned an annual award as the Best Slipline Project under $6 million.

The Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project hosted a groundbreaking event on Aug. 6, 2021.

April 21 marked an exciting milestone for the Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project, as the Municipal Subdistrict reached an agreement with environmental groups to settle ongoing litigation over the project. The $15 million settlement will ultimately fund aquatic habitat enhancements in Grand County. It also allowed construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir in Larimer County to begin. 

Northern Water also began construction on multiple aspects of its campus development efforts in May on both the Berthoud campus and new West Slope facility. With growth to our operations and throughout the region, we are in need of additional facilities to meet our collection and delivery efforts, as well as the advancement of new water projects. Phase I construction commenced on May 13 at the Berthoud headquarters and includes new buildings to house the Operations Division, fleet storage, a parking lot expansion and other campus improvements. The West Slope’s Willow Creek Campus near Willow Creek Reservoir will include 41,000 square feet of offices, fleet maintenance space and a control room. The new facility will replace much of the existing office and shop facilities at Farr and Windy Gap pump plants. The project is making significant progress and we expect it to open its doors in August 2022. 

In June, the first public electric vehicle charging station in Berthoud was installed at our headquarters. The station can provide a full charge to a standard EV in just three to four hours. Northern Water also opened a temporary office at the Grand Lake Center to better serve Grand County residents affected by the 2020 East Troublesome Fire. This location allowed us to work with landowners and assist with watershed recovery efforts. 

The implementation of our fire recovery efforts took full effect in July. Debris booms were placed in Grand Lake and Willow Creek Reservoir to intercept floating debris from the East Troublesome Fire burn area. Aerial seed and mulch treatments also began at Willow Creek Reservoir. This 15-minute recap video offers a look at the projects completed this year while describing future recovery needs.   

August found its way into our historical records when Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict celebrated the groundbreaking for Chimney Hollow Reservoir on Aug. 6. The ceremony culminated an extensive permitting process that began in 2003. The project includes the construction of a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir situated behind a 350-foot dam – the tallest to be built in the United States in 25 years – all to add resilience to the water supply for more than 500,000 Northeastern Colorado residents.  

Northern Water was honored with two more awards during October and November, including the 2021 WaterSense Partner of the Year Award and the Colorado Waterwise Gardener Award. Promoting water-efficient products, homes and gardens and continually educating individuals and organizations on the importance of water conservation continues to be a growing part of our mission.  

As population growth in Northern Colorado persists, we will continue to manage and pursue water projects to ensure an adequate supply of reliable water well into the future.

The San Luis Valley angler in a changing environment — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

Photo credit: Ryan Michelle Scavo

From The Alamosa Citizen (Owen Woods):

ANGLING is a time-honored tradition that spans family generations and fills a spiritual or even religious void in many people’s lives. Above it all, though, it is an almost daily connection with nature. These days, changes in the environment around us are becoming more apparent and even alarming.

This story started out as a pursuit to gain an understanding of climate change through the gaze of the Valley angler. Most of the questions were broad and allowed the angler to speak freely, but as more interviews were conducted, there became a series of throughlines, common subjects, and themes that became present: water levels, the Hoot Owl, an increase in recreational angling, and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

“The water is never gonna be what it used to be,” said Larry Zaragoza. He is an avid angler and fisher, who’s observed a stark decline in water levels and fish health over the past two years.

In his 53 years of fishing the Valley’s waters, Zaragoza said that he cannot compare these last two years to any other. He said the average 14-16 inch trout he catches are not as healthy looking, “not as meaty,” and slender-looking. As a catch-and-release fisherman, he said that there’s hardly even anything to catch and release.

What do he and his fellow anglers discuss when they meet or get together? “Water level is the first thing we talk about.”

Photo credit: Ryan Michelle Scavo

Deacon Aspinwall, the City of Alamosa’s planning and development specialist, is an avid angler himself.

Aspinwall has a science background and prefaced his answers by stating that in the 10 years he’s fished in the Valley’s waters it’s hard to draw long-term conclusions. However, he did say that within the last 10 years we have seen climate shifts, with runoff occurring much earlier than it did 20 years ago. He’s observed, through the angler’s perspective, a two-phase runoff, with the initial snow melt surge dubbed the “meltoff,” which is occurring earlier in the season from drier and warmer days.

His climate concerns as an angler are the lower snowpacks and earlier runoffs. In 10 years of fishing here he has noticed some changes in the fisheries – such as more “snot moss” turning up, and in higher elevations. And some fisheries that 10 years ago were fishable have now dried up.

He said that trout populations in Cat Creek and East Pass Creek that existed 20 years ago no longer exist today. “What will the next 20 years look like?” he pondered, especially, at what high mountain lakes and streams will look like in two decades.

Aspinwall said that it’s often difficult to discuss climate in a meaningful way that resonates with people. He added that a changing climate is natural, but the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere isn’t.

On top of this, Aspinwall said that a real concern of his is the increase in angling pressure on fisheries. In the last year alone, he noticed that the Valley’s waters have seen an increase in angling and fishing.

“Some fisheries can’t handle more than one angler a day,” he said, pointing out that we all have a responsibility to fish and angle sustainably, for the next generation, and that all anglers and fishers should ask themselves, “Are we doing this sustainably, are we doing this responsibly?”

Conversations with the Hoot Owl

He said anglers need to be mindful of the “Hoot Owl.” This is the time to stop fishing. Catch-and-release fishing in warming waters after 2 p.m. can cause harm to the fish.

Trout Unlimited has worked closely with CPW to suggest that fishers and anglers voluntarily stop fishing between noon and 2 p.m.

Aspinwall and Kevin Terry, Trout Unlimited’s Rio Grande Basin program director, both brought up the point that it is a common misconception that the coolest part of the day to fish during is as the sun goes down. For catch-and-release fishing on warmer days in warmer waters, this presents a problem, as the warmest water temperatures, in fact, often don’t break until 9 or 10 at night.

So, the solution to this is to fish earlier in the day.

Terry said that if the water temperatures are high, and cause for concern, then fishing in the evening and at night is a problem, but if the temperatures are fine, then fishing in the afternoon is also fine. He said that it is the anglers’ responsibility to take a temperature reading of the stream to be certain it’s okay to fish there.

This goes against traditional thinking, but anglers have to evolve. This becomes more difficult for traveling anglers who spend time and money and travel to fish in the Valley’s waters. Though it is voluntary to adhere to the Hoot Owl, most catch-and-release anglers respect it.

Terry works for the National Trout Unlimited, and is a board member of the SLV Trout Unlimited chapter.

It’s worth noting that during the interview, Terry stressed that anglers and farmers are having similar water issues. There is a larger picture of the San Luis Valley’s water and how it affects everyone who lives here – and it brings attention to recent attempts to export water to the Front Range and the chronic unease that is felt around the Valley’s water.

The Rio Grande cutthroat is the only trout native to the San Luis Valley. Evidence suggests it was a native fish to Lake Alamosa 700,000 years ago. Photo credit: Ryan Michelle Scavo

Terry talked more on the Rio Grande cutthroat trout and its dwindling historic range. Native RGCT now only live in about 10 percent of that range, with about 10 “aboriginal” populations that have “never been messed with.” Those populations have never been reintroduced, moved, or hybridized.

A consistent population of RGCT requires isolation, with “fish barriers” such as waterfalls, culverts, or man-made structures. These allow the fish to maintain genetic isolation and avoid other risks. However, isolated streams can become vulnerable. Wildfires can send ash and soot down a high mountain stream and wipe out populations, or low-flow streams (less than 1 CFS) during one drought season can be “blinked out.”

For fishery biologists, Terry said that the conservation of RGCT is an “extremely high priority.”

He noted that these fish are not at historic sampling sizes, and that 2-3 populations have “blinked out” in the past 8 years.

The solution is to reintroduce these fish to more streams and bigger streams to make them less localized, isolated, and less at-risk. It is slow work.

Mark Seaton, president of the SLV Trout Unlimited chapter, said that the organization is anything but a fishing club. It’s a conservation organization that works closely with local groups to focus on habitat.

Seaton has noticed that shoulder seasons (spring and fall) have become longer and that winter temperatures are not as cold.

He stressed that rising temperatures are not good for trout.

The fly fishing community is aware of climate change he said, and that the last couple of years have been tough to fish.

The “number of boats on the river (Rio Grande) have increased dramatically,” he said.

For Seaton, the most concerning issues are low snowpack and the lack of water in streams and creeks. He said climate change is “a pretty big deal” in Trout Unlimited.

Trout Unlimited is a conservation-based organization with 400 unique chapters. There are 300,000 members from Maine to Alaska. Within TU’s ranks, there are state councils that organize the chapters. Through these state councils, state-wide efforts can be identified and tackled. Trout Unlimited can also provide state agencies with support through its members, providing much needed eyes, ears, and flies on the ground to provide empirical data.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Disease, algal blooms and the Rio Grande cuttthroat trout

Though the Valley has many species of fish, including kokanee salmon, largemouth and smallmouth bass, carp, northern pike, and bluegill, the trout is the most abundant and diverse species found in our waters. The Valley is home to rainbow, brown, brook and native Rio Grande cutthroat trout. The Rio Grande cutthroat is the only trout native to the San Luis Valley. Evidence suggests it was a native fish to Lake Alamosa 700,000 years ago.

Being the only native fish species to our land, it has been near extinction more than once. According to the book The Geology, Ecology, and Human History of the San Luis Valley, “mining, logging, over-harvesting, and extensive stocking of non-native fish drastically reduced their populations.” The biggest threats are “non-native fish, over-grazing, and the myriad issues associated with a warming climate: low snowpack and early melting, rising summer stream temperatures, high-severity wildfires, and low stream flows.”

The biggest issue facing fish populations is rising water temperatures. Trout are a cold water fish, requiring water temperatures between 37-66 degrees Fahrenheit for their life cycle from spawning, incubation, and growth. Water temperatures that exceed 70 degrees contain less dissolved oxygen. Trout, at these temperatures, have a difficult time getting oxygen and are more prone to disease such as Whirling disease.

Whirling disease is a parasitic infection that occurs in salmonid fish species – in Colorado, rainbow and cutthroat trout are the most at risk. Estevan Vigil, CPW’s Valley aquatic biologist, says it is the biggest disease to combat in the Valley.

Rising water temperatures can also lead to algal blooms. Algal blooms are a rapid growth of algae that bloom to the surface. Most blooms occur through a high nitrate content in the water which can occur through nutrient pollution from surrounding farms, industrial buildings, or cities. However, with high mountain lakes, blooms occur with warmer water or rural nutrient runoff, which allows more harmful bacteria to thrive in the algae causing it then to take in more light and grow.

Most blooms create foul odors and mucky surfaces, but some are toxic. Humans and animals exposed to toxic algae can show symptoms ranging from lung irritation to neurological damage.

Climate change will cause lakes and streams to warm over time and become more stagnant, which encourages more bacteria growth in algae.

Angling in a fish-less world

The act of angling is a method in mindfulness and a grounding meditation that has proven to de-stress. In England there are some therapists that have prescribed fly fishing to their patients. Project Healing Waters helps veterans with disabilities recover through time spent on the water. Casting for Recovery is an organization that helps women with breast cancer enhance their lives through fly fishing.

The lessons learned about angling in an unsteady climate are clear. The future remains the only unclear, murky aspect of angling. Some data from hundreds of years ago can be fun to look at, but averages can’t fully paint the picture of what’s happening now and a year from now, let alone 20 years from now.

Angling and fishing will continue for a long time in the Valley. There will still be safe havens on our streams and in our reservoirs for anglers and fish alike, but there needs to be constant attention to sustainability and responsibility. Meat fishing must be done within state regulations and angling must be done with temperature and conservation in mind.

Snowpacks will become more unpredictable. With meltoffs occuring in off seasons, the downstream effects are yet to be determined.

Climate change will cause lakes and streams to warm over time and become more stagnant, which encourages more bacteria growth in algae.

Scarcity the theme of #ColoradoRiver conference — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification #crwua2021

Lake Powell near Page, AZ on December 13, 2021. Inflow into the Colorado River’s second largest reservoir was the second-lowest ever last year and current projections from the Bureau of Reclamation suggest this year could be similar. Water scarcity was a main topic of discussion at a gathering of water managers and experts in Las Vegas this week. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Sobering. Troubling. The new abnormal. Crazy bad. These were the words used to describe conditions on the Colorado River at the largest annual gathering of water managers and experts in Las Vegas this week.

“I just want to manage everyone’s expectations,” said Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission and former Colorado River Programs Manager for the Central Arizona Project. “It is super grim.”

Water scarcity — and a sense of urgency to address it — has underscored this year’s Colorado River Water Users Association conference. In 2000, the storage system was nearly full, but over the past two decades, the river’s two largest buckets, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have fallen to just one-third of their capacity. In July, the Bureau of Reclamation began releases from three upper-basin reservoirs, including Blue Mesa in Gunnison County, to prop up levels at Lake Powell and preserve the ability to generate hydropower. In August, the federal government declared the first-ever tier-one shortage in the lower basin, which triggered mandatory cuts for Arizona farmers.

But scarcity, Cullom said, also drives innovation and collaboration. On Wednesday, lower-basin water managers signed a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, to spend up to $200 million to keep levels in Lake Mead from dropping to dangerously low levels. The agreement, known as the 500+ Plan, aims to add 500,000 acre-feet of water to the reservoir in both 2022 and 2023, which would raise the reservoir by about 16 feet.

The program will be funded by $40 million from the Arizona Department of Water Resources; $20 million each from the Central Arizona Project, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Southern Nevada Water Authority; and $100 million in matching funds from the federal government.

The lower basin is taking action as a requirement of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, which set a threshold of 1,030-feet elevation in Lake Mead. It’s currently at 1,065 feet.

“We have all seen just how quickly the conditions have continued to deteriorate,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of Metropolitan. “The lower-basin water users have recognized we don’t have a lot of time to wait. This unites Arizona, Nevada and California.”

The signing of the MOU came on the same day that the Bureau of Reclamation released its December 24-month study report, which predicts how much water will flow into Lake Powell, a critical data point for water planners. Last month, the bureau predicted the spring runoff would be about 82% of normal. But after a dry November in the upper basin, on Wednesday, the updated monthly estimate had fallen to just 64% of average. Water from Lake Powell feeds Lake Mead downstream. Modeling suggests Lake Powell could fall to below the minimum level needed to generate power by next fall.

Conditions are setting up to mirror a historically bad 2021, when a near-normal snowpack translated to only 31% of normal runoff. It was the second-worst inflow to Lake Powell ever. One of the culprits was a hot, dry previous summer and fall, underscoring the outsized impacts that continuing drought and rising temperatures from climate change are having on the flows of the Colorado River.

“The last 22 years has no 20th-century analogue,” said Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. “If you call it anything, call it the new abnormal.”

Upper Basin Colorado River Commissioner Pat Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming, said the 500+ Plan was a quick action to respond to the quickly deteriorating conditions.

“It is not painless, that part is self-evident,” he said. “There is no effective approach to the imbalance that doesn’t impact some water user somewhere.”

It’s still unclear where exactly the 500,000 acre-feet of water would come from. One possibility is paying irrigators to voluntarily leave water in the river.

The director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Rebecca Mitchell, who also serves as Colorado River commissioner for the state, told state water managers at a breakfast Wednesday that she had not yet seen the details of the water-savings plan from the lower basin.

“We have not seen anything in writing,” she said. “But anything to address and protect the reservoirs I’m obviously going to support.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

A #ColoradoRiver veteran takes on the top #Water & Science post at Interior Department — @WaterEdFdn #CRWUA2021 #COriver #aridification #ClimateChange

Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Interior Secretary for Water and Science (Source: U.S. Department of the Interior)

From the Water Education Foundation (Douglas Beeman):

Western Water Q&A: Tanya Trujillo brings two decades of experience on Colorado River issues as she takes on the challenges of a river basin stressed by climate change

For more than 20 years, Tanya Trujillo has been immersed in the many challenges of the Colorado River, the drought-stressed lifeline for 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles and the source of irrigation water for more than 5 million acres of winter lettuce, supermarket melons and other crops.

Trujillo has experience working in both the Upper and Lower Basins of the Colorado River, basins that split the river’s water evenly but are sometimes at odds with each other. She was a lawyer for the state of New Mexico, one of four states in the Upper Colorado River Basin, when key operating guidelines for sharing shortages on the river were negotiated in 2007. She later worked as executive director for the Colorado River Board of California, exposing her to the different perspectives and challenges facing California and the other states in the river’s Lower Basin.

Now, she’ll have a chance to draw upon those different perspectives as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science, where she oversees the U.S. Geological Survey and – more important for the Colorado River and federal water projects in California – the Bureau of Reclamation.

Lake Powell, a key reservoir on the Colorado River, has seen water levels drop precipitously as a result of two decades of drought. (Source: The Water Desk and Lighthawk Conservation Flying)

Trujillo has ample challenges ahead of her. For two decades, drought – fueled in no small part by climate change – has gripped the Colorado River Basin, starving the huge reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead of runoff. Drought plans in place since 2019 failed to stop the decline of these critical reservoirs. New operating guidelines for the river are now being discussed and the Basin’s 30 tribes, which have substantial rights to the river’s waters, want to make sure they get a seat at the negotiating table.

The Department of Interior faces still other water challenges: For example, in southeastern desert of California, the ecologically troubled Salton Sea has nearly upended past Colorado River negotiations involving drought contingency planning.

Trujillo talked with Western Water news about how her experience on the Colorado River will play into her new job, the impacts from the drought and how the river’s history of innovation should help.

WESTERN WATER: You’ve worked on Colorado River issues for years, both in the Upper Basin (as a member of New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission) and Lower Basin (as executive director of the Colorado River Board of California). How is that informing your work now on Colorado River Basin issues?

TRUJILLO: I’m very appreciative of having had several different positions that have allowed me to work on Colorado River issues from different perspectives. As the general counsel of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, we were finalizing the 2007 Interim Guideline process [for the Colorado River] and I very much had an Upper Basin hat on at that time. That was also right in the middle of our work in New Mexico on negotiating the Indian water rights settlements with the Navajo Nation. Both the Guidelines and the Navajo settlement work really expanded the notion of flexibility in the Basin with respect to the existing statutes and the existing regulations.

I had a Lower Basin perspective when I was working for the state of California on Colorado River issues with the Colorado River Board of California although I was working with a lot of the same people and there were a lot of familiar legal and operational questions. But for the other half of the job, I was brand new to California and was having to learn the whole Lower Basin perspective from scratch.… It was great just to learn the perspective of the Lower Basin and because there are quite a few challenges just within the Lower Basin that are independent of what’s going on in the Upper Basin.

WW:It’s pretty clear the Colorado River Basin is in trouble – too little snowpack and runoff, too little water left in Lakes Powell and Mead. Are we headed toward a Compact call? Or are there still enough opportunities to protect Powell and Mead and meet obligations to the Lower Basin and Mexico without draining upstream reservoirs?

More than two decades of drought in the Colorado River Basin have left Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, at just 34 percent of capacity. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

TRUJILLO: I think in some respects it’s the wrong way to think about this question…. A better approach is to focus on the strategies the Upper Basin develop to continue to protect the water resources and communities and economies that rely on that water. There’s a lot to build off of.

Going back to the ‘07 guidelines, we were thinking about building off of the existing regulations that described the operating criteria. We were thinking about how to protect those resources in the Upper Basin, even when there is a drought, even when there is less water that’s naturally occurring in the system on a continual basis.

But that translates into concerns about how to protect the system in the context of the lower reservoir levels, including the impact on hydropower generation. Each of the Upper Basin states is carefully watching that not only from a power supply perspective, but because if there’s less [hydropower] production, there’s less funding coming in and the funding supports programs that are very important and beneficial to the Upper Basin, like the salinity control program and the [endangered] species recovery programs in the San Juan Basin and the Colorado Basin.

So I know those are concerns that the states have, to protect the elevations at Lake Powell. And another important concern that we specifically agree on is the need to be very careful with respect to the infrastructure and the structural integrity of the [Glen Canyon] dam itself. We may have to operate the facilities at levels that we haven’t experienced before. So we have no operational experience with how the turbines are going to function – and not only the turbines but also how the structures are going to function if we have to use the jet tubes if the turbines are not available.

WW: So there’s concern about how the structures function in terms of getting water from one side of the dam to the other? Or in terms of the physical structure itself?

TRUJILLO: I’m a lawyer and not going to be opining on the actual engineering situation. But we have lots of people who are working in the Upper Basin and Denver Technical Center who are dam safety engineers and they have not had experience in working at this facility under those low water levels. And so that’s where there’s uncertainty. We don’t know how the structures will function under those conditions and that means that people are concerned about that uncertainty because that’s such a critical piece of the infrastructure. [That is] additional motivation among the Upper Basin states for trying to think proactively about how to make sure that the supply and the flows that extend down to Glen Canyon Dam can be maintained.

WW: Given how drought and climate change have left far less water in the Colorado River than the 1922 Compact assumes, is it time to rethink that Compact? Or do you think the Compact and the rest of the Law of the River has the flexibility to accommodate the current realities? And how?

TRUJILLO: I might take the liberty of quarreling a bit with the context of the question because I think the focus should be a forward-looking focus as opposed to rethinking the situation that existed 100 years ago. Even just looking at the past 20 years, we’ve been able to be very innovative and very focused on continued efforts to improve the [weather] prediction capabilities and continued efforts to make sure we have additional flexibility, additional tools, and additional conservation options that can help us work at a multi-faceted level. There are multiple layers of innovations and flexibilities that we have been able to successfully pull together, and my expectation and hope is that will be the same kind of approach that we will continue to work through.

WW: In July, you toured portions of western Colorado to discuss drought and water challenges across the Upper Colorado River Basin. What did you hear? What did you tell them?

TRUJILLO: That was a great trip. The basis of that trip was a listening session that was co-hosted with the governor of Colorado and our Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland. It was an opportunity to hear updates and perspectives from a wide variety of water users in Colorado…. I personally was able to visit quite a few communities in the West Slope, starting in Grand Junction, and see some of the innovative agreements that are coming together in that area with respect to some upgraded hydropower facilities. So it’s great to have the aging infrastructure issues being addressed in that area.

Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary of the Interior, speaks speaks during a stop while on a tour of Colorado this summer with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (second from left). (Source: U.S. Department of the Interior)

There is obviously a lot of strong, productive agricultural communities that are clearly watching with respect to any drought developments. I was also able to visit the Colorado River District board meeting and heard a discussion about the different perspectives relating to support for additional infrastructure and funding different infrastructure projects. There was a USGS proposal that was being approved by the River District, and they were able to really showcase the tremendous contribution that USGS is able to provide to some of their cooperative investigations. I also met with representatives from Northern Water and the Arkansas Valley Conduit Project, so it was a great opportunity to get an overview of the many important projects that are underway in Colorado.

WW: Did they tell you anything that surprised you?

TRUJILLO: No, I don’t think so. I have a pretty good base of background with some of the challenges that exist in that area. Maybe one way to sum up that that week of visits is that the broad variety of examples there in Colorado can be replicated in other states as well. It was great to just see a diversity of projects that are that are in place there. I would go back there in a second. It was the first trip for me in my tenure as assistant secretary and it was very informative.

WW: As you know, the Salton Sea has been a festering environmental problem for years, and it threatened to upend California’s participation in the 2019 Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan when Imperial Irrigation District insisted that the sea’s ills needed to be addressed as part of the DCP. What can — or should — Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation do to help find a sustainable solution for the Salton Sea?

TRUJILLO: The Salton Sea has had a long history over the past century and is a dynamic and changing terminal lake. For decades there has been a recognition that the changing conditions at the Salton Sea needed to be addressed. The Bureau of Reclamation, other entities within the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies have been involved in the Salton Sea for many decades.

The receding Salton Sea exposes large swaths of playa that generate harmful dust emissions. (Source: Department of Water Resources)

There are various types of federal lands surrounding the Salton Sea, the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge provides a sanctuary and breeding ground for migrating birds, and Reclamation plays an important role as a partner with respect to ongoing habitat and air quality projects in support of the state of California’s Salton Sea Management Program and the Dust Suppression Action Plan. Reclamation also works in partnership with Imperial Irrigation District to implement the Salton Sea Air Quality dust control plan. Since 2016, for example, Reclamation has provided approximately $14 million for Salton Sea projects, technical assistance and program management. Reclamation and its federal partners participate in a number of state-led committees and processes, providing technical expertise on activities related to the long-term restoration of the sea.

Working within #ColoradoRiver’s 1922 water compact for 21st century focus of annual meeting: #Water managers talk about how to divide the waters — @AspenJournalism #CRWUA2021 #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

As the climate change-fueled Colorado River crisis worsens, hundreds of water leaders from each of the seven basin states will gather in Las Vegas next week for the annual Colorado River Water Users Association Conference.

The backdrop to many of policymakers’ discussions is sure to be one of the most important legal documents governing how the river’s waters are shared: the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which divvied up flows between the upper basin and lower basin. But this agreement is a relic of the 20th century. Those flows — totaling 15 million acre-feet, with 7.5 million for each basin — no longer exist, if they ever existed in the first place. The river was overallocated to begin with, and hotter and drier conditions mean flows will continue to dwindle.

These realities have some experts talking about how best to continue dividing the waters within the confines of the century-old agreement while tweaking it to adapt to 21st century conditions. Many water managers agree that renegotiating the compact is not realistic because it would require the agreement of too many competing interests as well as congressional approval. But it also may not be necessary.

“I think we can come to agreement around an appropriate response to these reduced supplies without going through the brain damage of renegotiating the compact,” said Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center, who will be moderating a panel at CRWUA.

Eric Kuhn is one of the thinkers proposing that basin states adopt something called a nonstationary set of compact guidelines. Kuhn is an author and former director of the Glenwood-Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District. He says that instead of allocating 7.5 million acre-feet annually each to the upper basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and lower basin (California, Nevada and Arizona), the river should simply be split down the middle: Each basin gets half of the river’s flows, however much that may be.

“A set of guidelines that are based on a stationary set of rules for a nonstationary river is not going to lead to success,” Kuhn said. “We have to consider adopting a more flexible system that is tied to how much water there is in the upper basin.”

Kuhn laid out the concept at a presentation at the Colorado Mesa University Upper Colorado River Basin Forum last month. He also pointed out that requiring the upper basin, where most of the river’s flows originate as snowpack, to contribute the same fixed amount each year despite declining flows means that the upper basin is unfairly bearing the brunt of climate change. Under the compact, the upper basin is required to deliver the lower basin’s 7.5-million-acre-foot share or risk mandatory cutbacks.

“In the upper basin for a decade, we have been talking about the upper basin squeeze,” Kuhn said. “It’s when the flow goes down, but you have fixed commitments. That was somewhat theoretical until a few years ago.”

So far, it’s unclear whether Kuhn’s idea is one that is being seriously considered by water managers. But it has been gaining traction among academic circles, especially in the past few years as river flows have declined at unprecedented speed. This year’s upper-basin flows into the river’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Powell, ranked second worst, at 31% of average, despite a near-normal snowpack.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

Climate scientist Brad Udall has found that flows at Lee Ferry — the dividing line between the upper and lower basins and where upper-basin deliveries are measured — have been about 20% less over the past 22 years than in the 20th century. A river system that once produced 15 million acre-feet has now dwindled to just 12.4 million.

Tying the upper basin’s delivery obligations to the variable river hydrology instead of a fixed number would be a way of solving the “significant math problem” where usage exceeds supplies, according to Castle. The concept could be adaptable to changing conditions year over year, she said.

“It could be in effect while supplies continue at the level we have been experiencing and wouldn’t continue if supplies go up in the future,” she said. “So there could be a return to previous delivery levels if there’s sufficient inflow in the river to support that. I don’t think it has to be thought of as a permanent change, but a mechanism that is triggered by some measurement of low levels of supplies.”

This map shows the Colorado River Basin and surrounding areas that use Colorado River Water, with four regions delineated, based on the degree to which flow is regulated and the channel physically manipulated. The dividing line for the upper and lower basin is Lee Ferry near Glen Canyon Dam.
CREDIT: CENTER FOR COLORADO RIVER STUDIES
Quenching Thirst in the Colorado River Basin cover. Click the image to read the report.

Law of the river should bend, not break

Karen Kwon and Jennifer Gimbel of the Water Center at Colorado State University last month released a paper called “Quenching Thirst in the Colorado River Basin.” The paper is devoted to understanding the historic issues that have shaped water use in the basin so that “the historical doctrines can bend to the needs of the present and future without eroding a foundation upon which we all stand.”

“There is a valid reason for asking that question of why something that was written in 1922 … why don’t we just redo it?” Kwon said. “But entire economies and societies have been built off the understandings and infrastructure that exists.”

Kwon, who is also moderating a panel discussion at CRWUA, hopes the paper will provide historic background and context for future negotiations and discussions about interim operating guidelines for reservoirs Powell and Mead. Achieving flexibility and parity between basins while staying within the framework of the compact should be the goal, she said.

Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam. ALIK GRIFFIN VIA FLICKR

Who gives?

But getting both the upper and lower basins to agree to flexible allocations based on annual river flows means they each must give up something — a tricky and as-yet-unlikely prospect. The framers of the compact reserved 7.5 million acre-feet for the upper basin because it wasn’t developing as quickly as the lower basin. If states relied solely on the system of prior appropriation where older water rights get first use of the river, thirsty and fast-growing California could have used up the water decades ago, leaving none for the slow-growing upper basin.

The upper basin currently uses about 4.4 million acre-feet per year. The lower basin uses close to its full 7.5 million acre-feet.

“One of the reasons we need to stay within that framework is because that is what protects us in the upper basin,” Gimbel said. “The only way to protect us getting our fair share of the river was to allow us to develop over time.”

But upper-basin water managers are also reluctant to admit that their states probably won’t grow to use their full amount and jealously guard their apportionment. A February white paper by the Center for Colorado River Studies says these unrealistic future water-use projections by the upper basin make it hard to plan for a water-short future. Still, despite shortages, recently completed Basin Implementation Plans for each of Colorado’s river basins lay out a wish list for millions of dollars’ worth of future water-development projects.

“Bringing new water development into the equation makes the problem worse for everybody, and I don’t see how that can be part of an equitable solution,” Castle said.

Upper-basin water managers argue that their states have been taking shortages for years: When flows are low, they are forced to use less and can’t just draw down an upstream reservoir as can the lower basin with Lake Mead.

Lower-basin water managers may not want to allow a more flexible delivery obligation for the upper basin because it would probably mean that in dry years they would get less than the full 7.5 million acre-feet promised under the current interpretation of the compact.

A fountain outside of Ceasars Place in 2019, the morning of a regional water conference that’s held every year in Las Vegas. This year’s gathering of hundreds of water managers and experts is Dec. 14-16.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Complicated politics

The politics are really complicated, said Kathryn Sorenson, director of research at the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University and former director of Phoenix Water Services. People tend to get very excited about new technologies that could increase supplies — for example, desalination plants on the California coast — but balk at further cuts to water use.

“It’s easier to put those ideas forward than to put forward ideas about using less,” Sorenson said. “So that gives you some idea of what a lower-basin perspective might be.”

Both the upper basin and the lower basin have valid points, Kwon said. Sticking to what was promised to them under the compact, which has governed river operations for a century, makes sense. But navigating a water-short future will require moving beyond who is right and who is wrong. Anything else is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, Kwon said.

“All of those statements are accurate, but we need to rise above it,” Kwon said. “I hope that we can find a way to have a discussion that protects people’s interests without just outright staking positions, but recognizes and honors interests so we can move the boat instead of just moving the deck chairs.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the Dec. 11 edition of The Aspen Times.

Members of the Colorado River Commission, in Santa Fe in 1922, after signing the Colorado River Compact. From left, W. S. Norviel (Arizona), Delph E. Carpenter (Colorado), Herbert Hoover (Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of Commission), R. E. Caldwell (Utah), Clarence C. Stetson (Executive Secretary of Commission), Stephen B. Davis, Jr. (New Mexico), Frank C. Emerson (Wyoming), W. F. McClure (California), and James G. Scrugham (Nevada)
CREDIT: COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY WATER RESOURCES ARCHIVE via Aspen Journalism

Prepping for mountain snowmelt today and tomorrow: Learn how #ClimateChange complicates the spring #runoff season and what @DenverWater is doing about it — New on Tap

From Denver Water (Jay Adams):

Managing water collected from the mountain snow’s spring runoff has plenty of challenges — and will become more complex in the future due to climate change.

“As water planners, we prefer to see predictable weather patterns,” said Nathan Elder, water supply manager at Denver Water. “Unfortunately, every year is different and with climate change we’re seeing more variability and that makes it tougher to manage our water supply.”

That challenge may be most acute during runoff season, that critical — and brief — window of time when snow melts, flows into streams and fills reservoirs. Climate change may lead to changes in runoff timing that, in turn, require more nimble reservoir operations.

What’s happening?

Since the 1960s, average temperatures in Colorado have increased 2.5 degrees, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. That change is manifesting in significant ways.

“We’re seeing more swings between wet and dry years, more variation in year-to-year stream runoff and earlier runoff,” said Laurna Kaatz, climate program manager at Denver Water. “We’re also expecting to see more extreme weather events like extreme heat and enhanced drought, but we could also see more intense rainstorms and flooding especially if heavy rain falls on top of a lot of snow.”

Timing is everything

The timing of the snow runoff in Summit County, which is home to Dillon Reservoir, provides an example of how climate change impacts not only water collection but also recreation and flooding.

Rapid snowmelts caused by rain falling on snow could lead to a greater risk of flooding below Dillon Dam.

During a gradual runoff, Denver Water can take steps to minimize the risk of flooding below the dam, however, if there are more instances of warm weather combined with rain falling on snow, large amounts of water can fill Dillon quickly and send water through the dam’s overflow spillway. This scenario can lead to high water levels on the Blue River through Silverthorne.

“We do our best to minimize high flows out of our reservoirs, but if there is a fast runoff, we can only do so much and there’s a greater chance for flooding downstream if there’s a major rain-on-snow event,” Elder said.

Changes in runoff and precipitation also impact when Dillon Reservoir fills — or doesn’t fill — which plays a role in boating season and water levels for the Dillon and Frisco marinas.

The timing of the runoff also impacts Denver Water’s ability to make the most of its water rights.

“Later runoff allows us to use our water rights to match higher customer demand during the summer watering season,” Elder said. “Early runoff means we have to let some water go downstream before we can put it to use on the Front Range. This also impacts how much water we can store for times of drought.”

When Dillon Reservoir is full, water flows down its overflow spillway into the Blue River. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Extreme weather events

Colorado has seen several big swings in weather over the last 20 years, suggesting the kind of uncertainty that may be more pronounced as climate change intensifies and the resulting complexity in managing the snow runoff.

Most recently, the winter of 2017-2018 was exceptionally dry across the state but was followed by above average snow in 2018-2019.

The years 2012 through mid-2013 were another period of drought, followed by record flooding in September 2013. Two wet years followed in 2014 and 2015.

The dramatic weather turnaround in 2002 and 2003 is another example of how extreme weather impacts Denver Water’s water supply and planning.

Those years marked a major period of drought. In 2003, Denver Water was preparing to have water restrictions and Dillon Reservoir was more than half empty and critically low. But in March 2003, the Front Range and central mountains got hit with a major snowstorm that filled Denver Water’s reservoirs.

“A drought could last one year or several and then be followed by big snow years,” Elder said.

“We could get most of our water for the year from one or two big storms, so we have to be prepared for these situations.”

Swings in weather patterns and extreme events could have Denver Water planning for drought conditions with watering restrictions for customers and end up with a surplus of water after a big storm.

Cheesman Reservoir during the 2002 drought. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Planning for climate uncertainty

Denver Water has relied primarily on historical weather patterns and data to plan for how much water it will collect from mountain streams. Now the utility is incorporating climate change into its long-range preparation through scenario planning.

“One component of scenario planning involves creating a variety of potential climate scenarios instead of simply assuming patterns will stay the same over the next 50 to 100 years,” said Jeff Bandy, a water resource manager at Denver Water. “This approach helps us plan for potential changes in climate and evaluate our system’s reliability.”

Denver Water takes data from global climate models and uses the information to create various outcomes on streamflow and precipitation in its water collection system.

The planning team develops scenarios that include variables such as warmer temperatures, more precipitation and shifts in timing of precipitation, all of which result in changes to volume and timing of runoff in Denver Water’s watersheds.

“We evaluate the scenarios and determine if future infrastructure projects or operational changes are needed,” Bandy said.

Denver Water’s entire collection system. Image credit: Denver Water.

Enhancing data collection

Denver Water collects water from 4,000 square miles in Colorado’s central mountains and foothills. With such a large area, getting accurate and timely information about weather and streamflow conditions is critical to water supply management.

“We use a lot of different data sources to manage and forecast water supply and a lot of these data sources are based off historical climate data,” Elder said. “With a changing climate, the current data sources are no longer as reliable as they used to be. This makes it more difficult to manage our reservoirs.”

In preparation for more weather extremes and variability, Denver Water has begun investing in new technology to get a more accurate picture of the snowpack above Dillon.

Looking to the south from a plane above Dillon Reservoir in June 2019, during an Airborne Snow Observatory flight to gather data on the snowpack above the reservoir for Denver Water. Photo credit: Quantum Spatial.

“In April 2019 we used NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which uses a plane, to measure snowpack over the mountains in our watershed,” Elder said. “The more we know about the snow, water content and runoff, the better decisions we can make when it comes to managing our water supply for our customers and the communities where our reservoirs are located.”

Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply, tracks a variety of factors to keep tabs on the snowpack and water supply. Photo credit: Denver Water.

What can customers do?

The best way communities can be prepared for the impacts of climate change is to use water wisely.

“Our water supply is vulnerable to climate and our customers play a major role in how we manage our system,” Elder said. “That’s why we always ask our customers to be efficient with their water all year long and even in wet years.”

Water is a limited resource in Colorado so climate change will impact communities on both sides of the Continental Divide.

“Climate change means water change and that’s important to us all,” Kaatz said. “So, it’s our goal at Denver Water to make sure we’re thinking about it and actively preparing for the changes we’re going to experience.”

#California, #Arizona and #Nevada in talks on new plan to save #ColoradoRiver water — The Los Angeles Times #COriver #aridification

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

From The Los Angeles Times (Ian James):

Two and a half years after signing a deal aimed at averting a damaging crisis along the Colorado River, water officials from California, Arizona and Nevada are discussing plans to take even less water from the shrinking river and leave it in Lake Mead in an effort to prevent the reservoir from falling to dangerously low levels.

Representatives of water agencies from the three states said they are firming up the details of a deal that would leave an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir next year, and the same amount again in 2023 — about double the quantity of water used annually by Las Vegas and the rest of southern Nevada.

For California, the deal would mean participating in water reductions prior to Lake Mead reaching levels that would otherwise trigger mandatory cuts.

The talks took on urgency this summer after federal projections showed growing risks of Lake Mead falling to critically low levels, despite plans for mandatory cutbacks throughout the Southwest that the states agreed to in 2019.

With the reservoir in a first-ever shortage and those cuts still insufficient, water management officials settled on a goal of together leaving half a million acre-feet of additional water in the reservoir instead of sending it flowing to farms, cities and tribal lands. The stored water would be roughly as much as 1.5 million average single-family households use in a year.

“We’ve got to stabilize the lake with this plan,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He said representatives of California, Arizona and Nevada developed the framework of the deal within about two months after they saw projections showing growing risks of Lake Mead dropping to lows that would trigger much larger water reductions in all three states.

“I think coming together in that short a period of time is indicative of urgency we’re feeling to do more,” Buschatzke said. “If the lake keeps falling, cuts are going to be deeper and deeper and deeper. So I think it’s indicative of the risks.”

The deal would nearly double the reductions in planned water deliveries next year among the three states beyond those already planned under the 2019 agreement, called the Drought Contingency Plan. This new proposal, dubbed the 500+ Plan, would partially involve securing money to pay some water users to voluntarily relinquish water.

The water would come from various sources, including farmers who would be paid for leaving portions of their land dry, tribes that would contribute water supplies, and water agencies that would leave some water in Lake Mead instead of taking it out as planned.

Negotiations on the details are continuing, and officials from California and Arizona said they hope to have the overarching agreement ready to be signed next month at [the Colorado River Water Users Association] conference in Las Vegas.

Arizona has pledged $40 million toward the deal. Board members of the Southern Nevada Water Authority are scheduled to consider approving up to $20 million in contributions this week.

The board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is scheduled to consider the proposed agreement next month…

If the details of the proposal come together as planned, 500,000 acre-feet of water over two years would translate into water levels about 16 feet higher in Lake Mead…

For now, the talks have focused on lining up funds and water for two years. But Buschatzke said it’s intended to be a five-year plan, lasting until the current agreement expires at the end of 2026, by which time the states will need to have negotiated new rules for dealing with shortages.

If the winter were to bring heavy snow to the Rocky Mountains, it could still help ease the shortages. But the region’s water managers said they’ve decided to plan for more of the dismal runoff they’ve seen in the watershed during the past two years of extreme heat and parched conditions.

Bill Hasencamp, MWD’s manager of Colorado River resources, said if such extreme dryness persists for another year or two, then Mead could end up at such low levels that cuts would become “unmanageable.”

[…]

When Buschatzke testified in a congressional hearing on the Colorado River last month, he noted that snowpack in the Colorado River Basin peaked at 89% of average this year, but runoff in the watershed was only 33% of average.

“This phenomenon is likely the result of the hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change,” Buschatzke said in his written testimony. “This trend is one that water managers must take into account as we plan for the future of the Colorado River.”

[…]

Since 2000, the Colorado River has been ravaged by a series of mostly dry years, which have been compounded by the heating of the planet with the burning of fossil fuels. In that time, the flow of the Colorado River has declined nearly 20% below the 20th century average.

Scientists have estimated that about half the decrease in runoff in the watershed since 2000 has been caused by unprecedented warming. And this heat-driven aridification is projected to significantly worsen as temperatures continue to climb.

Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, recently likened the planned water reductions under the existing deal to a parachute — one that is too small and being opened too close to the ground…

Given the alarming declines in the river’s reservoirs, the flaw with the parachute analogy is that the end of the story would put the parachutist safely on the ground, Udall said.

“We’re landing on the edge of a cliff, if you will. And there’s still further to fall. We need another parachute here,” Udall said.

Hopefully that next parachute will be ready well before 2027, he said, when the existing rules expire, and the Southwest needs to have long-term plans in place for adapting to a hotter, drier watershed and a river that yields less water.

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam. Lake Mead last month [May 2021] fell to its lowest level since the Hoover Dam was built in 1936. The shoreline has dropped 45 meters since the reservoir was last full in 2000. Photo by Ken Neubecker via American Rivers

Hope seen for Western water storage in infrastructure bill — The #Montrose Daily Press #GunnisonRiver

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

No amount of planning or legislation can make more water — but it can help the parched Western Slope make more use of the water it has.

The trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorizes, as part of an overall $55 billion for water infrastructure, $8.3 billion under its Western Water Infrastructure title for the Bureau of Reclamation between Fiscal Years 2020 — 2026.

On the laundry list of designated funds for Western Water Infrastructure are $3.2 billion for aging infrastructure, $1.5 billion for storage, $1 billion for the Drought Contingency Plan on the Colorado River and $400 million for WaterSMART and energy efficiency grants.

“All in all, it’s certainly the most meaningful investment in Western water resources that we’ve seen in my generation,” said Zane Kessler, director of Government Relations for the Colorado River District. The district sees an opportunity to fight for some of those dollars to flow into western Colorado, he said — and there are several meaningful investments that Colorado and the Western Slope are well-equipped to pursue…

The act provides additional funding to the Aging Infrastructure Account created in 2020’s Consolidated Appropriations bill. This funding helps the Bureau of Reclamation provide direct loans to finance the non-federal share of major, nonrecurring maintenance of water infrastructure owned by the bureau, in water projects across the West that require major upgrades or replacement.

“As those facilities, most of which are more than 50 years old, continue to age, the issue of storing and delivering water effectively, efficiently and in a timely matter only increases,” a summary from The Ferguson Group states. The Ferguson Group represents the Family Farm Alliance, of which the Colorado River District is a member.

Of the $3.2 billion, $100 million is to be available for dam rehabilitation, reconstruction or replacement. Another $100 million is to be available for reserved or transferred works that have suffered a critical failure, per the summary.

Water storage, groundwater storage and conveyance projects receive a $1.05 billion boost and of that, $100 million is to fund grants to plan and build small-surface water and groundwater storage projects.

There is $1 billion available for water projects authorized by Congress before July 1 of this year in accordance with the Reclamation Rural Water Supply Act of 2006.

The river district is pleased overall with the package of options the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act opens up, Kessler said, and it will be working to bring some of those dollars here.

The infrastructure act’s passage comes at a time of dire drought in the Gunnison Basin and Colorado.

The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Earlier this year, Blue Mesa Reservoir was drawn down a total of 36,000 acre-feet between August and October and Flaming Gorge in Utah released 125,000 acre-feet. Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico is set to have released 20,000 by December — a trio of infusions mandated by the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement to keep hydropower operational at Lake Powell…

The earlier drawdown at Blue Mesa took 17,000 acre feet from the reservoir in August; 16,000 acre feet in September and 3,000 acre feet in October, according to BuRec numbers.

That provided the requisite 36,000 acre feet to Powell from Blue Mesa, but at the end of October, Powell was 156 feet from full pool, with an elevation of 3,544.25 acre feet. It had 7.18 million acre feet in storage — 30% of live capacity, as Catlin noted.

He and others eye the weather and potential snowpack. They wait. They hope.

Catlin said that as it is, the entire Gunnison Basin is drying so much, it’s hard to say what the overall impact might be — but more than agriculture would suffer…

Taylor Park Reservoir

Blue Mesa has about 218,000 acre feet in storage, he said. Taylor Park, another pot of water in the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit, sits “OK” at 59,000 acre feet in storage, Knight said. Ridgway Reservoir has 63,000 acre feet in storage, a bit low, but in light of how dry the year was, not as bad it could be, he also said…

Blue Mesa’s elevation sat at 7,431 this week — ideally, it would reach 7,490 by the end of December.

“We’ll be nowhere close to that,” [Erik] Knight said.

Indy Q&A: Southern #Nevada Water Authority General Manager on the #ColoradoRiver and preparing for a drier future — The Nevada Independent #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead low elevation. Photo credit: Department of Interior via ensia

From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):

Colorado River officials face a math problem.

Already, there is not enough water flowing through the Colorado River to meet all of the demands on the watershed, which spans seven U.S. states and crosses into Mexico. And as the climate changes, scientists warn that those who depend on the watershed should plan to receive even less water each year…

Already, the Lower Colorado River Basin states that rely on Lake Mead — Arizona, California and Nevada — have been meeting to discuss and find funding for a program that would keep more water in the reservoir in an attempt to stave off further shortages and cuts. That plan would keep about 500,000 acre-feet in the reservoir next year and in 2023…

The states came together to develop the plan as part of a consultation clause in an existing 2019 agreement, known as the Drought Contingency Plan. That plan builds off of a set of operating guidelines for the river, approved in 2007 and set to expire in 2026. At the same time that water officials from the seven Colorado River states tackle near-term issues, they are all positioning to negotiate a new set of guidelines.

The Colorado River is governed by a series of overlapping laws, contracts, compacts and agreements, including the guidelines. Working within these structures, the states face a major challenge — to reduce use on the river and prepare for the worst-case scenario of a future with far less water to go around. Next month, water officials from across the basin are set to meet in Las Vegas to discuss that challenge and other issues facing the river.

John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the states will be able to find a way to lower use “because of the structures we’ve already put in place.” He noted that if Lake Mead were to hit 1025 feet above sea level, current agreements would already trigger cuts of about 1.3 million acre-feet of water.

The Nevada Independent spoke to Entsminger about the negotiations and how dry of a future Colorado River water officials should plan for. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the Colorado River moving forward?

I hate to be obvious, but the biggest challenge for the river is we have a lot less water than people have legal entitlements.

How does that play into discussions around management as they’re evolving right now?

It makes the interstate and international discussions much more difficult, because really what you’re ultimately doing is negotiating to divide up a far smaller pie than what was believed to be the case in the 20th century.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

You mentioned not that long ago, testifying in Congress, that “the river community is far from a consensus about how dry of a future to plan for.” What are some of the differing opinions right now? And where are people on establishing that baseline of what the future looks like for the river?

I was on a panel at the University of Colorado Law School within the last six weeks or so. And a couple people on the panel were asked that question of how dry a future should we be planning for, and I said I thought an 11 million acre-feet annual flow of the river is probably a good place to start based upon what I’ve heard from folks like Jonathan Overpeck and Brad Udall and other smart climate scientists.

But there were some folks on that panel that threw out a number of 13 to 14 million acre-feet, which, frankly, is quite a bit more water than the average of the last 20 years. So I think just from that exchange, you can see that there isn’t currently a consensus on what sort of worst-case scenario should we be planning for, as we negotiate operating guidelines for post-2026.

Let’s take that number, 11 million acre-feet. What would it mean in terms of water use to get to that number?

As a basin (seven states plus the country of Mexico), we’re currently using about 14 [million acre-feet]. So it would mean finding a way to cut current uses by three million acre-feet and not add any new uses, at least without retiring a commensurate amount of existing uses.

Knowing how hard it is to reduce use, that sounds like a very big challenge. Do you think that’s an achievable goal?

That’s the amount of water that Mother Nature gives us. We don’t really have a choice whether or not to achieve it. You have to find a way to live within the amount of water that nature actually gives you.

Signing ceremony for the Colorado River upper and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans. Back Row Left to Right: James Eklund (CO), John D’Antonio (NM), Pat Tyrell (WY), Eric Melis (UT), Tom Buschatzke (AZ), Peter Nelson (CA), John Entsminger (NV), Front Row: Brenda Burman (US), and from DOI – Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Tim Petty. Photo credit: Colorado River Water Users Association

Some Coloradans’ drinking water still has highest radium levels in the nation — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette

Arkansas Valley Conduit map via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka) June 2021.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Evan Wyloge):

Some of the highest concentrations of radium-contaminated drinking water in the nation are clustered in rural southeast Colorado, according to a recent compilation of data.

The problem is hardly new. The presence of radium in the area’s groundwater, which is linked to an increased cancer risk particularly for children, has been known for decades. The newly compiled data shows that out of the 50,000 water systems included in the research, six of the ten worst radium levels in the nation are in Colorado.

The water providers are required to inform their customers of the contamination, and they say they’d like to fix the problem, but providing clean, radium-free tap water in the most remote areas comes with an untenable price tag.

A massive infrastructure project that promises to largely resolve the problem, the Arkansas Valley Conduit, broke ground this year, but its completion is years away and the bulk of its funding hasn’t materialized yet.

For now, most are hopeful that the conduit will be fully funded and fully built, but until then, the faucets in the area will still provide water with as much as four times the legal radium limit…

Radium poses a unique risk to children, because it is treated by the human body like calcium and deposited into developing bones, where it remains radioactive and can kill and mutate cells.

Although the area’s groundwater was known to have contaminants, high levels of radium in Colorado’s groundwater became a regulatory problem around 20 years ago, when the Environmental Protection Agency promulgated new radionuclide standards. Federal law allows up to 5 picocuries of radium-226 or radium-228, the most common versions of the element, per liter of water…

Rocky Ford Melon Day 1893 via the Colorado Historical Society

According to the Environmental Working Group’s new drinking water contamination data compilation, the worst radium content in the nation is found in Rocky Ford, where there was an average of 23 picocuries of radium per liter of water.

Eighteen other water systems in Colorado contain more than the legal limit. Most are clustered around the small rural towns of Rocky Ford, Swink and La Junta, about an hour’s drive east from Pueblo. The new data show one in every six Otero County resident has tap water above the federal limit.

After years of testing, studies and planning, the solution that‘s emerged is one proposed sixty years ago: The Arkansas Valley Conduit, the massive clean water delivery system proposal that stalled for decades over the project’s equally massive price tag.

Elsewhere in the state the Peak View Park mobile home park, situated on a wooded hillside along U.S. Route 24 in Woodland Park, registered more than twice the legal limit of radium for years, as the owners struggled to get the problem fixed…

But a key feature of the system Peak View Park installed is the access to Woodland Park’s sewer system. LaBarre said he had to make arrangements with the city’s wastewater treatment officials about the timing of their extraction system’s wastewater disposal, so that they can send the radium-saturated byproduct of the extraction process into the sewer when the system can adequately handle it…

The lack of a sewer system is what cripples any similar efforts in the more rural areas around La Junta. There, where many of the residents use septic tanks, storing an extraction byproduct would be prohibitively expensive…

Bill Long, the president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said the towns along the first 12 miles of the [Arkansas Valley Conduit], Boone and Avondale, should be getting clean water from the conduit by 2024.

More funding will be needed to finish the project, and Long said he believes there will be money allocated from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill, and that the funds could help get the conduit finished, but that the details aren’t yet clear.

Arkansas River Basin alluvial aquifers via the Colorado Geological Survey

#Aurora and other #Colorado communities push past ‘toilet-to-tap’ reluctancy — The Aurora Sentinel

Prairie Waters schematic via Aurora Water.

From The Associated Press (Brittany Peterson and Sam Metz):

hen Aurora buys one bucket of water, it’s really buying multiple buckets of water. Each drop of water will likely be used over and over again.

The growing city approaching 400,000 residents isn’t interested so much in acquiring single-use water anymore, said Greg Baker, spokesperson for Aurora Water. With its Prairie Waters potable reuse system, Aurora can recapture and reuse about 95% of the city’s water, so having multiple uses written into water rights agreements has become a top priority as water rights are likened to gold in the West — expensive and often hard to come by.

Aurora’s method — sterilizing wastewater from toilets, sinks and factories and then piping it back into homes and businesses as tap water — is catching on across the U.S.

In the Los Angeles area, plans to recycle wastewater for drinking are moving along with little fanfare just two decades after similar efforts in the city sparked such a backlash they had to be abandoned. The practice, which must meet federal drinking water standards, has been adopted in several places around the country, including nearby Orange County…

The shifting attitudes around a concept once dismissively dubbed “toilet to tap” come as dry regions scramble for ways to increase water supplies as their populations boom and climate change intensifies droughts. Other strategies gaining traction include collecting runoff from streams and roads after storms, and stripping seawater of salt and other minerals, a process that’s still relatively rare and expensive.

Though there are still only about two dozen communities in the U.S. using some form of recycled water for drinking, that number is projected to more than double in the next 15 years, according to WateReuse, a group that helps cities adopt such conservation practices.

In most places that do it, the sterilized water is usually mixed back into a lake, river or other natural source before being reused — a step that helps make the idea of drinking treated sewage go down easier for some.

In Aurora, the process is thanks to the Prairie Waters system, which was opened in 2010. It starts south of Weld County along the Platte River, where Aurora holds water rights that can be used “to extinction,” meaning nearly endlessly.

“Essentially, this means that the water residents use for washing, laundry, showering, as well as some of the water from lawn watering, stays in the South Platte River Basin,” Aurora Water explains…

A few dozen wells on the basin pull water through hundreds of feet of sand and gravel to purify the water. Next, the water is pumped into basins of more sand and gravel where filtration continues. Finally, pipes take the water to three different pump stations, which lift the water 1,000 feet over a ridge and back to the Peter D. Binney Purification Facility, near Aurora Reservoir.

From there the water is treated and pumped back out to the city’s thousands of homes and businesses, where the cycle begins all over again…

Currently, the facility treats about 50 million gallons of water each day…

Funding for more wastewater recycling projects is on the way. The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress has $1 billion for water reuse projects in the West, including the $3.4 billion project in Southern California.

And tucked into the federal budget reconciliation package being debated is $125 million in grants for alternative water sources nationwide that could include reuse technologies.

Plans for expansion of the Aurora Prairie Waters project are ever-evolving and so there isn’t a build out budget attached, Baker said.

#Drought along a #ColoradoRiver calls for extreme efforts to enforce #water laws: A badge and a gun — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette

Dolores River watershed

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Carol McKinley):

water scarcity driven by drastic climate-change along the Dolores River in southwest Colorado has been a real jaw-grinder for folks who bear a century’s worth of grudges over who gets water, how much and when.

After 22 years of drought, the river is down to a trickle this late fall and the water storage it feeds, McPhee Reservoir, has shrunk to its lowest level in decades. Even when the runoff was flowing last spring, the Dolores project was already in water shortage mode and farmers only got 10% of what they’re normally allocated, which means they were only able to grow 10% of the crops they’re used to producing.

Much of the farmland lays fallow…

The water that was released from McPhee Dam tells the story, said Colorado State University senior water and climate scientist Brad Udall: “The agreement is for 25 cubic feet per second minimum flow release and they were releasing 1/5 of that.”

Colorado Drought Monitor map November 23, 2021.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows Colorado’s Four Corners region in bright red, in the extreme drought category.

“I have said for years that the southwest portion of the state is very much at risk for these kinds of drought,” Udall said. “We should expect for them to occur repeatedly throughout the 21st century.”

[…]

Desperate times

At the mouth of the Dolores, one of the only things standing between a shovel to the head and civility is a Montezuma County sheriff deputy whose job it is to keep watch on water robbers.

Dave Huhn is a tall, silver-haired deputy with a bad back from 12 years of ditch riding. He sips from a Big Gulp-sized iced tea as he travels miles of county roads; a badge, a gun and a tablet of citations are his shield.

“Communication is everything and just because you’ve lived out here 100 years doesn’t mean you’re doing it right,” explains Huhn, who was given the responsibility of enforcing complicated Colorado water laws by the county commissioners in 2009. “You can’t steamroll these people. You’re not out there talking with a physicist. You’re out there talking with someone who needs to produce your food. You’ve got to listen to the problem.”

[…]

[Marty] Robbins is the keeper of the ditch deeds, which are the official record of water rights. He opened a drawer and pulled out a thick leather-bound dossier of evidence. It is the smoking gun in the world of water crime.

“My whole world changed when Dave took over ditch issues,” Robins said. “Around here, you have a whole lot of attitude and very little forgiveness.”

Uncompahgre Valley slated for a second #water supply source by 2025 — The #Montrose Daily Press

Ridgway Reservoir during winter

From The Montrose Daily Press (Cassie Knust):

When Project 7 began drawing up plans for a water resiliency program in 2019, its leaders didn’t plan to invest in connecting a raw water line from the Ridgway Reservoir to a new treatment plant in Ridgway.

The new treatment plant and water line would be designed so additional capacity can be added in the future, allowing a maximum capacity of approximately 10 million gallons per day, more than a 30% increase in drinking water supply for the region.

The plan to construct the Regional Water Supply Program in conjunction with the Ridgway Water Treatment Plant is a decision driven by water supply security. The project will add a second water source to the region while serving all Project 7 members.

The valley hasn’t yet experienced water supply interruption, but Project 7 intends to stay ahead of a slew of risks that could potentially affect over 50,000 people and thousands of local businesses.

The new treatment plant would allow direct access to existing water rights in the Ridgway Reservoir while building a system resilient to wildfire, drought and transmission interruptions in the Gunnison Tunnel.

Project 7 Water Authority is a wholesale water treatment provider that supplies to the City of Montrose, City of Delta, Town of Olathe, Tri-County Water Conservancy District and the Menoken and Chipeta water districts, although each entity owns its own water rights.

Although geographically the second smallest entity in the cooperative by size, the City of Montrose uses roughly 50% of the water supply due to population density, with about 8,000 residents using water services from Project 7…

As it stands, the Gunnison River remains the only water supply source for the region, with one treatment facility to provide to the six entities within the cooperative.

The cooperative projected the overhead cost of the project to be between $50 – $70 million. The estimate includes the raw water line, but will become more specific as the design process progresses, said Miles Graham, spokesman for the resiliency program.

City of Montrose customers will see an increase in water rates on Jan. 1, 2022, due in part to Project 7’s elevated fees. Huggins noted that the impact of increasing wholesale rates for customers depends largely on the size and budget of the district…

Montrose residential water bills will increase by $4.86 per 3,000 gallons of water used per month and increase $1.35 per 1,000 gallons used per month, due in part to the water supplier raising its own fees by 15%.

At this stage in the planning process, it’s impossible to predict the cost for each entity without knowing the ultimate program cost or the amount of outside state and federal support, said Graham.

By using a uniform rate structure for all entities to provide local funding, the cost will be shared equally throughout the valley and supplemented by aggressively seeking grants and low-interest loans.

As the process moves forward, the team will be able to test and determine which treatment technology is best for the new plant and raw water line, as well as finding opportunities to make use of existing water distribution infrastructure near the new facility site.

The cost may be higher to build the raw water line, but overall, the cost to run and operate will be lower since the water quality leaving the reservoir will provide a stable water supply, Huggins noted. The water will also be easier to treat, with less influence from rain events washing mud and silt in the river that have to be removed, allowing for mitigated operation costs…

Water treatment plants often use electrical backup generators that run on diesel or natural gas, which is typically banned in the event of a wildfire, the engineer said. Because a gas-run generator on a tank of fuel presents a dangerous risk, utility companies usually shut off any natural gas in the area if a wildfire is present.

“So if you think about an emergency situation, having the ability to bring water down to this site and continue operations at the plant without having to pump it up from the river made a lot of sense. [It’s] a more sustainable solution than the other options for getting water to the site.”

Construction for the project is expected to begin in 2023. The new water line and treatment plan is slated to go online by 2025.

For more information on Project 7 and the resiliency program project, visit https://www.project7water.org/

Denver Water reaches Gross Reservoir settlement, but #water supply concerns remain — The #Denver Post #SouthPlatteRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Gross Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Denver Post (Conrad Swanson):

The utility will pay millions to mitigate environmental concerns for Boulder County residents

The county received assurances Denver Water would pay to mitigate environmental damages expected from the work, but the deal still left Commissioner Matt Jones “heartsick.” He said commissioners fought for the best deal possible but he’s still concerned about the damage the project could do locally and for the millions of people who depend on the Colorado River…

Climate scientists and legal experts said they’re skeptical the parched Colorado River will provide enough water for Denver Water to fill an expanded Gross Reservoir. And even if the water’s there, the expansion and other projects like it will inevitably worsen water shortages on Colorado’s Western Slope and downstream, they said.

Utility officials, however, hailed the settlement and said that while they won’t be able to fill the reservoir every year — which they’ve known all along — years with above-average precipitation will provide more than enough water.

“We’re gonna fill the reservoir,” Denver Water Project Manager Jeff Martin said.

Climate change is trending in the wrong direction for such strong confidence, cautioned Mark Squillace, the Raphael J. Moses Professor of Natural Resource Law at the University of Colorado Law School.

“This just seems a bit insane to me that Denver Water is unwilling to acknowledge” that climate change is only likely to worsen water shortages on the Western Slope, Squillace said.

Martin said he still expects to break ground on the five-year, $464 million project by April…

  • Denver Water will pay $5 million to residents most impacted by the work and agreed to reduce noise and dust from the project using electric rather than diesel generators.
  • Denver Water’s drivers must complete bicycle awareness training, provide “truck free” days for cyclists and “leave Gross Dam Road in a better condition than before the project.”
  • Denver Water will pay $5.1 million to replace open space lands that would be flooded by the reservoir expansion and transfer 70 acres near Walker Ranch Open Space to Boulder County.
  • Denver Water will pay $1.5 million to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the project and another $1 million to restore a stretch along South St. Vrain Creek.
  • Squillace said while those terms might benefit county residents, it’s still not enough and he was disappointed to hear commissioners agreed to settle.

    “We were between a rock and a hard place,” Jones said. “We were pushed into this corner of knowing that and trying to figure out what we could get for Boulder County residents…

    Martin said he and others at Denver Water expect to be able to fill the expanded reservoir in average and above-average years. South Boulder Creek, which is not part of the Colorado River system, also feeds into the reservoir and could supplement water in dry years on the Western Slope, he noted…

    [David] Bahr suggested Denver Water could instead pipe in water from the Missouri River or other places in the Midwest that are expected to see more water in the coming years. While Martin said those types of ideas could be explored for the more distant future, Denver Water officials maintain that an expanded Gross Reservoir is the best course of action for now.

    The project could still come to a halt, Squillace said. The more delays the work faces, the more climate data will be available, increasing political pressure for Denver Water to seek another way to secure its water supply.

    “I’m still not so convinced that the project’s ever going to actually be built,” he said.

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
    @GreatLakesPeck.

    Gross Reservoir Expansion Project is a go after federal, state and local reviews finalized: Project to raise dam will improve water reliability for more than 1.5 million people while benefiting the environment — News on Tap

    From Denver Water (Jay Adams and Todd Hartman):

    After nearly 20 years of preparations, the expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County is moving ahead.

    Last week, Denver Water took the final step necessary to proceed with the project after striking an agreement with Boulder County to take additional actions to offset impacts of the project.

    The accord with Boulder County means Denver Water can proceed with the long-awaited project that will raise the dam, triple the reservoir capacity and mean far more water security for 1.5 million people in an era of more intense droughts, heavier rain events and earlier snowmelt – all driven by climate change.

    “Today is an historic occasion for Denver Water,” CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead told Denver’s Board of Water Commissioners on Nov. 3, upon acceptance of the Boulder County agreement.

    “We bring to a conclusion the federal, state and local review processes that will allow us to begin construction of the expansion of Gross Reservoir.”

    Expanding the reservoir requires raising the dam 131 feet by placing new concrete on the existing structure. Image credit: Denver Water.

    Denver Water personnel will begin close coordination with Boulder County and others to prepare the area and local roadways for construction. Denver Water will continue to engage and communicate with project neighbors to ease impacts of the work.

    “In the two decades Denver Water has spent preparing for the project, we have been driven by a singular value: the need to do this expansion the right way, by involving the community, by upholding the highest environmental standards and by protecting and managing the water and landscapes that define Colorado,” Lochhead said.

    “Boulder County and its residents share these perspectives, and we look forward to continuing to work with them as the project moves ahead.”

    Building the Gross Reservoir Dam in the 1950s. Photo credit: Denver Water.

    Gross Dam was built in the 1950s and named after Dwight D. Gross, a former chief engineer at Denver Water. It was built to store water from the West Slope that travels through the Moffat Tunnel, as well as water from South Boulder Creek.

    “The original engineers designed the dam so that it could be raised twice, if needed,” said Jeff Martin, Gross Reservoir project manager. “Based on our water supply projections and current system shortfalls, that need is here.”

    Denver Water began the permitting process to raise the dam in 2003 and received approvals from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in 2016 and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2017.

    The plan cleared its final federal hurdle on July 16, 2020, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its approval for the project and ordered Denver Water to proceed with design and construction.

    The project has earned support from major environmental groups, business interests, water users on both sides of the Continental Divide and elected officials on both sides of the aisle, including the state’s last five governors.

    Raising the dam will increase the reservoir’s storage capacity by 77,000 acre-feet of water and make Gross Reservoir the second-largest in Denver Water’s system. When complete, Gross Reservoir will be able to hold 119,000 acre-feet, second only to Dillon Reservoir in Summit County, which is capable of holding just north of 257,000 acre-feet.

    The graphic shows the existing dam and water level and how high the new dam will rise above the current water level. Image credit: Denver Water.

    Expanding Gross Reservoir is a major part of Denver Water’s long-term, multipronged approach to deliver safe, reliable water to more than 1.5 million people today and those who will call the Front Range home in the future. That approach includes increased water efficiency, recycling water and responsibly sourcing new storage.

    The additional reservoir capacity will enable increased water capture in wet years to help avoid shortages during droughts. It will also help offset a current imbalance in Denver Water’s collection system that is a significant risk.

    Denver Water has a water storage imbalance between its two collection systems with 90% of its reservoir storage located in the utility’s South System compared to 10% in its North System. This storage imbalance creates vulnerability if there is a drought, mechanical issue or emergency that affects the South System. The storage imbalance is one of the reasons Denver Water is expanding Gross Reservoir. Image credit: Denver Water.

    “Right now, 90% of our water storage is on the south end of our water collection system, but just 10% of our storage is on the north end,” Martin said.

    “By enlarging Gross Dam, we’ll be able to store more water in the north, which will improve our flexibility in the event there’s a problem on the south side that could come from any number of operational issues or threats, like wildfires.”

    Once filled, the expansion at Gross will provide an additional 72,000 acre-feet of water storage, which is roughly the amount 288,000 residential households would use for one year.

    In addition, 5,000 acre-feet of storage space in the expanded reservoir — known as the environmental pool — is reserved to support environmental needs as part of an agreement with the cities of Boulder and Lafayette. Water from the environmental pool will be used to provide beneficial stream flows along a 17-mile stretch of South Boulder Creek below the dam during dry periods to protect fish and aquatic insects.

    Denver Water also has committed over $20 million to more than 60 environmental mitigation and enhancement projects on both sides of the Continental Divide as a result of the project. According to Colorado officials, those commitments will provide a net environmental benefit for the state’s water quality.

    Denver Water will use its existing water rights to fill the reservoir when it is complete. Engineers expect it will take around five years to fill the newly expanded portion of the reservoir, depending on precipitation and water use from customers.

    “In the end, this project won’t be judged by whether we raised the dam, but rather how we went about expanding the reservoir,” Lochhead said. “We will continue to seek community input and look forward to working with Boulder County as the project moves ahead.”

    Inside the Gunnison Tunnel, the first major water diversion system in the U.S. — The #Colorado Sun

    East Portal Gunnison Tunnel gate and equipment houses provide for the workings of the tunnel.
    Lisa Lynch/NPS

    From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins). Click through for the cool photos, here’s an excerpt:

    After more than a half-hour splashing through the dank dark of one of the world’s longest irrigation tunnels, Dennis Veo grins in the sunshine showering the cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River…

    The 120-year-old, 5.8-mile tunnel was the largest irrigation tunnel in the country when it opened in 1909. It was also the first major transmountain diversion in the U.S., becoming a model for moving Western water beneath mountains, connecting wet basins with dry deserts.

    Today, the Gunnison Tunnel can move more than 500,000 acre-feet of water a year, more than the entire Eastern Slope draws from the Upper Colorado River Basin.

    That water, roughly 1,150 cubic-feet-per-second when filled to the ceiling of the granite-blasted tunnel, irrigates about 83,000 acres for 3,000 members of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association and also delivers water to more than 50,000 people in the three-county Project 7 Water Authority. The water that pours from the Gunnison Tunnel is the lifeblood of the Uncompahgre Valley, flowing through 128 miles of major canals and 438 miles of lateral ditches in Montrose and Delta counties.

    “We are the largest diverter of water in Colorado,” says Steve Anderson, the second-generation general manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. “We can take about the same as the entire Front Range takes from the Colorado River. And about the same as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California takes out of the Colorado River. That is a lot of water.”

    Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

    An engineering marvel

    In the late 1800s, it became clear that the fickle flows of the Uncompahgre River alone could not irrigate enough acres in the river valley between Delta and Montrose. There were close to 100,000 acres homesteaded by farmers but only enough water to irrigate a fraction of that.

    An ambitious plan to connect the Gunnison River with the Uncompahgre River valley started in the early 1900s, when a pair of intrepid engineers with the local power company and the U.S. Geological Survey descended the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River on rubber air mattresses. With cameras and rudimentary surveying equipment, they searched for a place to build a diversion dam and tunnel.

    The first bore of the Gunnison Tunnel opened in 1909. It was the first major project approved by the Department of the Interior under the 1902 Reclamation Act. More than 26 men died during construction of what was then the longest irrigation tunnel ever built. Countless more workers were maimed. The manual diggers — crews of 30 men working around the clock from both ends of the tunnel — were off by only 6 inches when they met in the middle, Veo said. By 1912, water was flowing through the tunnel and irrigating crops from Delta to Montrose.

    In 1973, the American Society of Civil Engineers honored the Gunnison Tunnel as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. A few years later it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places…

    The Gunnison Tunnel is the critical link of the Wayne N. Aspinall Unit, one of the four projects that make up the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project…

    The other units created under the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project Act include the Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River in Utah, the Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico and Lake Powell in Utah. The network of reservoirs and dams are used by Upper Colorado River Basin states to store water and generate electricity as part of the Colorado River Compact that divides up the river between seven states and Mexico…

    The engineering masterpiece has sustained a lush vibrancy along the Uncompahgre River. It’s pretty simple to imagine what the valley would look like without that tunnel, says John Harold, who farms corn, onion and beans in the valley.

    Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

    Major $2.6 billion, 10-year investment on tap: How @DenverWater is protecting the #water system now — and preparing for the future News on Tap

    From News on Tap (Cathy Proctor and Jay Adams):

    From protecting customers from the risk posed by old lead service lines to preparing to meet the challenges of the future, Denver Water takes a long-term view when planning for the future.

    And the utility has been recognized nationally for its work, by peer utilities as well as by federal officials.

    Denver Water in early October was recognized — for the second time — by the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, a group representing the largest publicly owned drinking water suppliers in the United States.

    At the association’s annual meeting, held in Denver this year, Denver Water received the group’s 2021 AMWA Sustainable Water Utility Management Award for its work to curb carbon emissions, increase its use of renewable energy and protect the environment and its communities.

    Denver Water crews install a new culvert over Cabin Creek in Grand County in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and Grand County Learning By Doing. The new culvert will improve habitat for native cutthroat trout in the stream. Photo credit: Denver Water.

    Denver Water’s groundbreaking Lead Reduction Program was recognized by the national utility association and also was highlighted by leaders at the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year for the jobs it created and its unique approach to diverse communities.

    Replacing all the old, customer-owned lead service lines in Denver Water’s service area at no direct cost to the customer will take 15 years to complete, and it’s just one of the major undertakings that make up the utility’s 10-year forecast for an estimated $2.6 billion investment into the system that supports about 25% of the state’s population, including Colorado’s capital city.

    About 90% of the forecast investment over the next decade is dedicated to large projects and regular annual inspection and maintenance programs that protect customers, position Denver Water for the future and continue regular monitoring programs for infrastructure already in place. The remaining investment focuses on maintenance and improving the resiliency of the system.

    “Powerless” against #Denver Water, #Boulder County OKs deal to triple size of Gross Reservoir — The #Colorado Sun

    Gross Reservoir — The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project will raise the height of the existing dam by 131 feet, which will allow the capacity of the reservoir, pictured, to increase by 77,000 acre-feet. The additional water storage will help prevent future shortfalls during droughts and helps offset an imbalance in Denver Water’s collection system. With this project, Denver Water will provide water to current and future customers while providing environmental benefits to Colorado’s rivers and streams. Photo credit: Denver Water

    From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

    Commissioners say they hate the project, but the odds of winning a lawsuit were poor. Denver Water upped the offer to help mitigate impacts of construction to $12.5 million.

    The Boulder County Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a settlement allowing Denver Water to expand the dam and pool at Gross Reservoir, despite vocal opposition from some residents, after a $10 million mitigation deal was sweetened by $2.5 million to soften construction impacts for neighbors.

    Denver Water is likely to vote Wednesday to approve a total of $12.5 million in mitigation and open space donations for Boulder County, after last-minute talks raised the sum.

    The commissioners said they were heartsick at the destruction the dam expansion will cause for neighbors and for revered county open lands. But, they added, county attorneys advised them that federal laws preempt their planning process because the existing dam includes a hydroelectric generator and is therefore controlled by federal laws.

    The attorneys said Boulder County would lose a federal suit filed by Denver Water and that the agency would withdraw its mitigation offer if they delayed a vote.

    Denver Water already has the federal approval it needs to raise the dam on South Boulder Creek by 131 feet, and inundate the surrounding forest for 77,000 more acre-feet of storage, nearly tripling capacity…

    The commissioners wanted Denver Water to go through the county’s existing “1041” land use process, allowed under state law, before construction on the Gross Reservoir expansion begins. But in July, Denver Water sued, saying federal laws superseded Boulder County’s process and that its federal permit required the utility to begin construction by 2022. Boulder County was intentionally slowing down the project, Denver Water argued…

    Denver Water Manager Jim Lochhead said in a statement after the vote, “I appreciate that this was a hard and emotional decision for the Boulder County Commissioners.

    “We have tried for the last year to go through the County’s 1041 land use process, and only after delays were we forced to file litigation to prevent violation of the order by FERC for us to commence construction of the project. Denver Water continues to be committed to do everything in our power to mitigate local impacts of construction,” Lochhead said.

    Construction would impact surrounding forests, trails, roads and neighbors, and also temporarily cut off access to popular open spaces in parts of the area. Commissioner Marta Loachamin said she toured areas around Gross Reservoir for the first time in June, and was struck by markings in the forest showing how many trees will have to be removed and how high the new water pool will rise in the canyon.

    Conservation groups who have sued to stop the dam expansion can continue to negotiate with Denver Water for additional mitigation, deputy county attorney David Hughes told the commissioners. Denver Water has indicated they would continue to talk with the groups, he said…

    The conservation groups are adamant Boulder County could have negotiated for more mitigation. Save the Colorado and PLAN-Boulder County said they had proposed $70 million in mitigation as a settlement, and that Boulder County stopped including them in talks last week.

    Gross Dam enlargement concept graphic via Denver Water

    The agreement with Denver Water now includes:

  • $5 million for the construction impacts on immediate neighbors of the reservoir.
  • $5.1 million to Boulder County open space funding to acquire new land or repair and maintain trails and facilities under extra strain from visitors who can’t use Gross Reservoir spaces.
  • $1.5 million to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from construction.
  • $1 million for South St. Vrain Creek restoration.
  • A transfer of 70 acres of Denver Water land near Gross Reservoir to Boulder County to expand Walker Ranch Open Space.
  • A hotter, drier west poses hard questions for the #water flowing out of the #ColoradoRiver — The Ark Valley Voice #ArkansasRiver #COriver #aridification

    Headwaters of the Arkansas River basin. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journlaism

    From The Ark Valley Voice (Tara Flanagan):

    Colorado’s map from the Oct. 26, 2020, U.S. Drought Monitor looked like some kind of fresh hell, its swaths of red and orange highlighting what happens when there is too much heat and not enough water for a long time. Colorado’s resulting fire crisis had good company; much of the Western United States had similar stories of people running from their homes as the fires closed in.

    It was so 2020, as further evidenced by the strain on the Colorado River and the ongoing wake-up calls in communities that receive its water – directly or diverted.

    Locally, Chaffee County’s economies lean on supplemental summer releases into the Arkansas River. Despite two decades of drought and aridification, the Arkansas has been able to remain visually stunning in the high season – not entirely due to the workings of nature. It’s uncertain how that may change.

    Colorado Drought Monitor October 27, 2020.

    One year later, the colors on Colorado’s map have softened to shades of beige and an innocuous-looking lemon-yellow, with darker spots remaining in the northwest corner and the far southwest edge. With some rain to its credit over this past summer and perhaps just plain luck, Colorado managed to escape the land-killing infernos such as the Cameron Peak Fire and the aptly named East Troublesome Fire of 2020.

    Nobody knows exactly how those 2020 fires would have raged had not a major snowstorm rolled in on Oct. 25 last year and snuffed their trajectories. As it stood, East Troublesome charred 193,212 acres and 580 structures.

    Snow is good. And traditionally it has been the utility player, if not hero, in the seven-state region served by the Colorado River, where, in a perfect world, it stores naturally on Colorado’s mountain peaks. Upon melting with a timed grace and running off in mid-spring, it flows south and west to the Gulf of California, serving some 40 million people en route.

    Thanks to warmer temperatures and aridification, that sweet rhythm is off. Spring runoff gushes from the peaks too fast and sinks into the parched landscape before enough of it gets to its intended waterways.

    Colorado Drought Monitor map October 26, 2021.

    That said, later-season snows helped address an alarming dry trend in the spring of 2021, helping Chaffee County look better on the Drought Monitor and delighting those with fixations on the SNOTEL system and its high-country snowpack reports. The infusion of summer rain gave the appearance of a kinda-maybe monsoon pattern locally.

    Water flowing through the Fry-Ark system, the trans-basin diversion from the Colorado River that flows out of the Frying Pan River in Pitkin County and which is released from Turquoise Lake and Twin Lakes, once again plumped the moneymaking waves in the Arkansas River from July 1 until mid-August this year.

    Under the Voluntary Flow Management Program with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (SECWCD), 10,000 acre-feet of water is allocated during that time; moved to benefit recreation. All told, Fry-Ark sends out an average of 58,000 acre-feet each year, much of it going to agriculture below the Pueblo Reservoir.

    It didn’t hurt that the Pueblo Board of Water Works was able to release 6,000 acre-feet from Clear Creek Reservoir early in the summer season. It echoed the cooperative dance of moving large amounts of water that has, by necessity, developed between water entities. This highlights the increased communication that is one of the upsides in the long-reaching, exhaustive conversations about water among an exhaustive list of stakeholders in Colorado and the West.

    Chris Woodka, Senior Policy and Issues Management Manager with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said the increasing pressures on water have caused groups to come to the table and seek solutions. “What’s different is we’re talking all the time with each other,” he said. “There was a time when people were wary of how other people were moving water. Everyone now realizes it’s to their advantage to talk.”

    With water from Fry-Ark and Clear Creek Reservoir – not to mention rain, the fattened Arkansas River gurgled through the county once again and gave more than a passing nod to the local economies over the summer. Pandemic aside, things seemed nice and easy.

    “It almost gives you a false sense of security,” [Greg] Felt said, noting that with continuing drought and aridification, there are increasing signs of hydrological systems not being able to correct themselves.

    “That whole program is built on Fry-Ark water,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake here. Diversions from the Fry-Ark project could be seriously impacted, and that’s a major concern.”

    “It’s a no-brainer, probably, that a voluntary flow management program will be a lower priority than delivery for consumptive use,” he added.

    Indeed, nothing is truly nice and easy anymore as the West faces challenges to just about everything that is known about water and how it continues to serve us…

    …with average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin running 2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than in the 20th century, those original nice ideas [Colorado River Compact] are being retooled or sidelined in the name of badly needed, better ideas; addressing drought, aridification and salination, and how to feed people when the river can’t help so much anymore. A new plan for operating the Colorado River is due in 2026.

    Shutting off a super-sized spigot: A slate of critical construction means closing off a key supply system until spring @DenverWater

    From Denver Water (Todd Hartman):

    Moving water from mountain reservoirs to household taps is never easy. For the next several months, Denver Water will be doing it with the equivalent of one hand tied behind its back.

    A series of major maintenance and construction projects will require Denver Water to, essentially, shut down the entire north side of its collection, delivery and treatment system, and rely wholly on the southern end to supply 1.5 million people with water as the utility heads into the colder seasons.

    The work has required a Colorado Ballet level of choreography to move water around the system months in advance in preparation for a rare set of circumstances.

    This summer, divers spent several weeks installing a new, massive grate at the bottom of Gross Dam. The grate protects the outlet works from potential damage from large debris. Photo credit: Black & Veatch

    “Shifting all that water here and there, it’s a lot to keep straight, a lot to think about, a lot to juggle,” said Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water. “And it all comes on top of watching the weather to see what it might — or might not — bring us as far as precipitation.”

    Rivers and creeks in Grand County are part of Denver Water’s North Collection System. Water flows through the Moffat Tunnel, under the Continental Divide, to Gross and Ralston reservoirs. Image credit: Denver Water.
    Denver Water’s entire collection system. Image credit: Denver Water.

    Denver Water is conducting several projects that required the utility to turn off the spigot on its north side supply system late this summer. Those include:

  • Replacing a massive grate at the bottom of Gross Dam that prevents heavy debris from finding its way into the pipes and valves that calibrate water releases at the base of the dam. The project is so complex it requires specially trained diving crews working hundreds of feet under the reservoir surface.
  • Replacing concrete at the Moffat Canal near the east portal of the Moffat Tunnel. The freeze-thaw cycle at 9,200 feet has taken a toll and allowed for water to seep underneath concrete and create the potential for damaging erosion.
  • Repairing deteriorated concrete within the Moffat Tunnel caused by years of scour within the tunnel.
  • Replacing key structures at Ralston Reservoir along Highway 93 near Golden. The work to replace equipment that regulates the way water is carried through the dam will allow for safer operation of reservoir releases. Replacing that equipment requires draining the reservoir.
  • A project to connect the emerging Northwater Treatment Plant to Denver Water’s distribution system. This work, the overarching reason for shutting down north side flows, also requires taking the existing Moffat Treatment Plant offline for modifications related to the Northwater connections.
  • Ralston Reservoir, a key water supply bucket near Golden, has been drained to allow Denver Water to construct a new outlet works to release water from the base of the dam. Photo credit: Denver Water.

    All that north side work means Denver Water will have to rely almost fully on supplies from its southern end that gather water from the South Platte River as well as from Dillon Reservoir in Summit County.

    This north side shutdown is even more complicated than the maneuverings required in the summer of 2020, when Denver Water had to undertake big shifts in how it moved water through its system due to repair work that closed the Roberts Tunnel for two months, closing off access to water from Dillon Reservoir.

    That orchestration was hard enough. Planning for the current shutdown began months ago when engineers decided to coordinate several projects to contain the treatment and delivery disruptions to a single fall and winter cycle.

    “Doing it this way made the most sense,” explained Jennifer Gelmini, a senior engineer at Denver Water who is coordinating the projects. “We realized we were going to have a long outage for the work needed for the Northwater plant connections and Moffat modifications and looked at how we could take advantage of this big shutdown and what other projects could fit into that timeframe.”

    Work started in August to replace concrete at the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel near Rollinsville. Repairs were required on both the inside and outside of the portal area. Photo credit: Denver Water.

    That plan made it critical to maintain as much water as possible in Dillon Reservoir to help with supplies in the late summer and fall, while also keeping levels high at Cheesman and Marston reservoirs so they can be relied on over the upcoming winter months.

    Anglers and Sunday drivers may have noticed big flows in the North Fork of the South Platte River, too, in late summer, as the utility moved more water than usual from Dillon, through the Roberts Tunnel under the Continental Divide and into the North Fork. At times, late summer flows reached 450 cubic feet per second, compared to a more typical September flow of one-third that volume.

    “We’ve been setting the stage on this for months,” Elder said. “Taking the north end out of the equation means we have to set up our southern end for all the heavy lifting for nearly an eight-month span. It’s a highly unusual and tricky undertaking.”

    Ralston Reservoir near Golden must be drained completely to replace the outlet works at the base of the earthen dam. That reservoir holds nearly 11,000 acre-feet and will be out of commission until the beginning of runoff season in April 2022, creating a dramatic gap in Denver Water’s typical water delivery and treatment pattern.

    Because the 84-year-old Moffat Treatment Plant also will be offline for that period, all the water treatment needs are pushed to the utility’s Marston and Foothills plants in the southwest side of the region.

    Construction continues at the emerging Northwater Treatment Plant below Ralston Reservoir. Work this fall and winter will connect the facility to Denver Water’s distribution system. The plant is expected to be complete in 2024. Photo credit: Denver Water.

    Further complicating such an extended dance: Denver Water this summer had to release large volumes of water from two West Slope reservoirs (Williams Fork and Wolford Mountain) to make up for a water debt it owed on the other side of the Continental Divide.

    While those releases weren’t tied to the projects on the north end, it was another factor water managers had to keep in mind as they ensured Denver Water met all its many obligations, both to its customers and to agreements related to Colorado River flows.

    “This year has been unusual,” Elder said. “No year is ever the same in water supply, but between a pretty dry winter, then a wet spring and early summer, followed by another dry stretch as we try to set the system up for these construction projects, there were a lot of details to sweat.”

    The good news: Come spring, a lot of key projects will be wrapped up, and water managers will once again have more flexibility to manage water between its north and south systems.

    Just in time for spring runoff season.

    @DenverWater, @BoulderCounty to consider settlement proposal to end Gross Reservoir lawsuit — The #Denver Post

    Denver Water is planning to expand Gross Reservoir in Boulder County. The additional storage capacity will create more balance in the utility’s storage and give water planners more flexibility in their operational strategy. Photo credit: Denver Water.

    From The Denver Post (Sam Tabachnik):

    Boulder County and Denver Water could be nearing a settlement to resolve a simmering dispute over plans to expand the Gross Reservoir.

    Denver Water in July sued Boulder County in federal court, claiming commissioners were taking too long to consider the utility’s request to expand the reservoir.

    “The proposed settlement would require Denver Water to pay more than $10 million to mitigate the impacts of the project in Boulder County,” Boulder officials said in a Friday news release. “In exchange, Boulder County would not dispute Denver Water’s claim that the project is exempt from review.”

    Boulder County’s Board of Commissioners will meet Tuesday to discuss the proposed settlement, while Denver Water’s board will meet the following day. A federal judge had set oral arguments in the lawsuit for Nov. 4, but those would be canceled if the agency and county government approve the settlement…

    The proposed expansion would raise the existing Gross Dam by 131 feet and widen it by 800 feet, increasing the reservoir’s capacity from nearly 42,000 acre-feet to nearly 120,000 acre-feet.

    But Denver Water can’t just do it on its own — it needs a permit from Boulder County, which will receive none of the water security and all of the construction, traffic and ecosystem effects. Those who live near the reservoir complain that the five years of construction would bring pollution, lights and noise, while environmental advocates say tens of thousands of trees would have to be cut down to complete the project…

    Some of the money ($2.5 million) would be allocated to assist Boulder County residents directly impacted by the project, while $5.1 million would go to open space funding to replace land consumed by the larger reservoir, Boulder officials said. Other funds would address greenhouse gas emissions from the project and restoration efforts of the South Saint Vrain Creek.

    Denver Water would also agree under the proposed settlement to transfer 70 acres of land near Walker Ranch Open Space to Boulder County, which would be added to the recreational land…

    In its lawsuit this summer, Denver Water alleged that Boulder County was overstepping its authority and jeopardizing the water project.

    A federal judge dismissed a separate lawsuit in March from a coalition of environmental organizations, which sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2018 to block the project.

    Your water rates may go up next year… but not by very much: In order to fund extra projects, @DenverWater will increase usage rates — Denverwrite

    Denver Water relies on a network of reservoirs to collect and store water. The large collection area provides flexibility for collecting water as some areas receive different amounts of precipitation throughout the year. Image credit: Denver Water.

    From Denverwrite (Rebecca Spiess):

    The Denver Board of Water Commissioners agreed on Wednesday to raise water rates and fixed monthly charges, which will all go into effect Jan. 1, 2022.

    For typical single-family residences using the same amount of water each year, this would shake out to an increase of 47 cents to $1.34 per month, or about $5.64 to $16.08 per year. However, these rates are also dependent on where in the Denver metro a customer lives, since rates are higher in the suburbs due to the rules of the Denver City Charter.

    There are also multiple charging tiers at Denver Water, beginning with the lowest rates for water used for essential things like bathing and cooking, calculated by assessing water consumption during the winter. Other water usage, mainly for outdoor watering in the summer, is charged at higher tiers.

    Denver Water is funding upgrades through these extra charges. These projects include expanding the Gross Reservoir near Boulder to increase storage capacity during wet years and boosting the entire system’s resilience as climate change leads to more unpredictable weather patterns. Other projects include the city’s efforts to replace old lead-containing pipes… as well as the city’s creation of new water quality laboratories and treatment centers.

    New projections for low #ColoradoRiver flows speed need for dramatic conservation

    From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

    A new federal system for projecting Colorado River water flows in the next two years confirms dire news about drought draining the West’s key reservoirs, and increases pressure on Colorado to conserve water immediately to avoid future demands from down-river states, conservation groups say.

    The federal Bureau of Reclamation’s new system for projecting vital Colorado River flows in the next two years drops earlier, wetter years out of the historical reference, and gives more weight to two recent decades of drought. The regular October update this week shows water runoff into Lake Powell, the storage basin for four Upper Colorado Basin states, was only 32% of average for the 2021 water year, which runs from October to September.

    The new projections for the next two years show that even with federal officials draining portions of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to get more water to Lake Powell’s hydroelectric generating station, a moderate winter would leave the Colorado River in the same crisis a year from now. And a low-water scenario this coming winter season would drop Lake Powell well below the minimum level required to generate electricity by November 2022.

    In addition to federal officials trying to protect hydroelectric generation at Lake Powell, and at Lake Mead as the downstream water bank for the Lower Basin states, water compacts govern how much Colorado River water needs to go downstream for use by agriculture and cities…

    “We don’t have any more time to talk about it,” Matt Rice, co-chair of the Water for Colorado Coalition and Director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Programs, said after reviewing the latest Bureau of Reclamation update.

    Starting with the October update, the bureau begins the historical average calculations in 1991, instead of the 1981 cutoff used until now. The 1980s were much wetter in the Colorado River Basin, Rice said.

    “These projections are worse than they have been in the past, but they’re also more realistic,” Rice said. Many conservation groups find that a positive step despite the bad news, Rice added, because it increases pressure on state water officials, local water conservancy districts, agriculture interests, cities and environmentalists to work faster on solutions.

    At the same time, Rice said, the updated numbers should drive home the reality that there is 20% less water available now in the Colorado River than as recently as 2000. “There’s no more flexibility in the system, right? We’re looking over the edge of the cliff.”

    Water conservation experts in Colorado have worked for years to avoid their worst-case scenario, which is a “call” or a sudden demand from federal managers to deliver more water for hydropower or to satisfy the compacts with the Lower Basin. Without advance planning, a call would force the state water engineer and local conservancy districts to cut irrigators’ water rights based only on the seniority of their water-use rights.

    While state and local officials have been working with nonprofits on conservation plans, there are legal tangles that could require new legislation, and seemingly endless ethical questions about which parts of the state would suffer the most water loss, said Sonja Chavez, director of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District…

    The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Blue Mesa Reservoir in her region has been nearly drained by drought and by federal officials taking extra from Western reservoirs to solidify Lake Powell’s power pool. Blue Mesa is projected to soon be down to 27% full, Chavez said. Blue Mesa was 33% full in mid-September, according to Bureau of Reclamation records.

    State and private officials have cooperated to experiment with “demand-management” programs, where instead of buying agriculture land and its accompanying water rights outright, they buy the right to rent the water for a few years out of a decade. That rented water can be sent downstream in dry years, and in theory the restoration of water in other years should preserve the farm or ranch land while providing income for the farmer.

    But renting or buying of water rights on the scale to meet compact demands would require hundreds of millions of dollars, with no current pot of money to pull from, water experts say. Colorado officials have mentioned the possibility of using money from the infrastructure stimulus plan currently under debate by Congress, but it’s uncertain whether the bill will pass, and how much water-related money will be in it if it does…

    The largest amounts of water to be conserved are in agriculture, by far, but Front Range residents must be part of the statewide discussion about finding more water for the downstream Colorado River, Rice and Chavez said.

    “You’re not going to get as much out of a city compared to what is the amount of irrigation water diverted for agriculture,” Chavez said. “But there’s also agriculture on the Front Range that benefits from our transmountain diversions,” some of which are created and controlled by urban water departments. “That has to be part of the picture.”

    Front Range cities take water from the Roaring Fork River basin in a transmountain diversion through the Twin Lakes Tunnel. The city of Aspen is studying the potential for an Alternative Transfer Method, or ATM, to increase its water supplies, which could include approaching transmountain diverters about participating in a water-sharing agreement. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism