Renewable Water Resources San Luis Valley transmountain diversion project update

Aerial view of the San Luis Valley’s irrigated agriculture. Photo by Rio de la Vista.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Dangling money, the developers at Renewable Water Resources — which counts former Gov. Bill Owens as a principal — contend that because the urban Front Range is the richest part of the state, it has the potential to give the most to the poorest.

They envision pumping 22,000 acre-feet per year from 14 wells drilled 2,000 feet deep at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, building a pipeline costing $250 million to $600 million, and then pumping water at least 40 miles northward over Poncha Pass toward Front Range cities.

“We need between 300,000 acre-feet and 500,000 acre-feet of new water for the Front Range. The question is: Where’s that going to come from?” said Sean Tonner, managing partner of Renewable Water Resources.

“We can take it out of the Colorado River, but we know what the stresses are there. The Poudre River? The Arkansas? The South Platte is already the most over-appropriated river. Folks are looking at moving water from the Mississippi River back to Colorado,” he said. “These are the lengths people are looking to for adding water.”

Exporting San Luis Valley water would be “fairly easy” compared with other options, Tonner said…

The San Luis Valley retort? “There is no win-win,” said Cleave Simpson, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and a farmer, who has been traveling statewide to make the case against this trans-basin diversion of water…

The intensifying water battle here reflects the rising tensions and inequities across the arid western United States, where water and control over water looms as a primary factor of power. Thirsty Castle Rock, Parker, Castle Pines and other south metro Denver suburbs, where household incomes top $110,000 and development has depleted the groundwater, can marshal assets that dwarf those of farmers in the San Luis Valley, where families’ average income is less than $35,000…

State officials in Denver say they will study Renewable Water Resources’ proposal once the developers file it at the state water court in Alamosa.

“We’ll have to have a perspective of being open to anything,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, declining to take a position…

A Renewable Water Resources diagram provided to The Denver Post presented details of a water-siphon project that would begin near Moffat on a company-owned ranch with 14 wells spaced 1 mile apart. A pipeline, 24 inches to 32 inches in diameter, would convey no more than 22,000 acre-feet of water per year northward at least 40 miles over Poncha Pass to Salida, and also to a point west of Fairplay, Tonner said.

San Luis Valley water then could be diverted into the Arkansas River, the Eleven Mile Reservoir used by Colorado Springs and the upper South Platte River that flows into a series of Denver Water reservoirs, he said.

The exported valley water purchased by south Denver suburbs ultimately would be stored in the newly enlarged Chatfield Reservoir southwest of Denver and Parker’s Rueter-Hess Reservoir, still barely half full. Suburban water users would pay the cost of the pipelines, Tonner said, and Renewable Water Resources would use $68 million raised from investors to purchase water rights in the valley — rights to pump 32,000 acre-feet of water for irrigation. But the developers would export no more than 22,000 acre-feet a year. The difference would mean a net gain for the aquifer…

At least 40 farmers have inquired about selling water rights, some of them meeting with former Gov. Owens and other Renewable Water Resources officials. Tonner also declined to identify those farmers…

The ethics of siphoning water away from low-income areas toward the richest parts of the state would have to be considered as part of the state’s water project planning process, said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“That is definitely something that has to be looked at. Is that the way we want to grow as a state? Is that what the value structure is?” Mitchell said. “There are cases where those (trans-basin diversions) can be win-win. But without the buy-in of the local community, there are going to be struggles.”

In recent months, Renewable Water Resources’ principals have been working quietly in the valley, meeting with farmers and proposing the creation of a $50 million “community fund” and possibly other payments. Just the annual interest income from such a fund could exceed Saguache County’s current budget, Tonner said.

By paying farmers for a portion of their water rights, Renewable Water Resources could help them stay on their land, perhaps growing different crops that require less water such as hemp, and infuse the valley with the $50 million and possibly other payments while also retiring wells to ensure a net gain of water in the aquifer.

Winner of the Best Tasting Water in the Rocky Mountain Section-City of Fort Collins — @RMSAWWA

Winning cities representatives 2019.
Photo credit: AWWA — Rocky Mountain Section

Here’s the release from the AWWA — Rocky Mountain Section:

The water has been tasted, the water has been tested and the winner of the “Best of the Rocky Mountain Section” water taste test has been announced! City of Fort Collins took first place with a panel of veteran judges and media reporters evaluating water appearance, quality, order, and taste, of course. Competition was stiffer this year with 15 municipalities, from Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, competing for the title of the best drinking water in the mountain west during the 2019 annual conference of the Rocky Mountain Section of the American Water Works (RMSAWWA) in Keystone, Colorado. You can learn more about the winner, City of Fort Collins Utility, by visiting http://www.fcgov.com. Second place was awarded to Aurora Water, Colorado with the City of Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities, Wyoming coming in third.

City of Fort Collins will now go on to represent the mountain west in the national “Best of the Best” water taste test at the American Water Work Association’s Annual Conference and Exposition (ACE20) in Orlando, Florida, June 14-17, 2020. Over 11,000 water professionals across the country will gather at ACE20 where the best-tasting tap water in North American will be declared.

The RMSAWWA is the regional section for the AWWA, which is the largest non-profit, science-based organization in the world for drinking water professionals. The RMSAWWA covers Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico and has over 2,400 members, representing water utilities, engineering consultants and water treatment specialty firms.

Aspinall unit operations update: Flows in the Gunnison Tunnel ~= 1030 CFS

Grand opening of the Gunnison Tunnel in Colorado 1909. Photo credit USBR.

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 100 cfs, today, September 9th. Reservoir contents at Morrow Pt and Crystal have sufficiently recovered to allow for higher releases. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for September through December.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 1030 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 500 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 1030 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 600 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Arkansas Valley Conduit update

From High Plains Public Radio (Abigail Beckman):

Chris Woodka is with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. He said part of the reason we’re seeing more water systems violate water standards is that federal and state standards have changed. They are now accounting for even more minute quantities of contaminants.

He said water from wells can be especially affected because, “shallow wells in the alluvial aquifer are high in organic contaminants, nitrate and selenium.”

“Deeper wells often have elevated levels of radioactive materials,” he said. “And nearly all of the communities east of Pueblo take water from wells.”

Some communities have responded by using water filters. Las Animas and La Junta have both installed large reverse osmosis membrane systems to remove contaminants from the water supply. Woodka said that has improved the taste and appearance.

But, he said, even after filtration, radium and uranium can still remain in the water at low levels.

And then there’s the cost.

“Those communities still face tremendous expense in disposing of the waste from the treatment processes,” Woodka said, “which can only be reduced by adding more clean water.” And extra water, let alone clean water, is hard to come by in a drought-prone state like Colorado. But there is one possible solution that’s been in the works for decades.

It’s called the Arkansas Valley Conduit.

Arkansas Valley Conduit Comanche North route via Reclamation

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation describes the conduit as a “bulk water supply pipeline designed to meet existing and future municipal and industrial water demands in the Lower Arkansas River Basin.”

It would include about 230 miles of buried pipeline, a water treatment facility, and water storage tanks. Water would be routed to six counties – Pueblo, Otero, Crowley, Bent, Kiowa and Prowers – and would serve an estimated 50,000 people.

The project was first approved in 1962. Some work was completed in the early 1980’s, but the actual conduit has yet to come to completion. Woodka said that’s mainly because of cost.

“[These] communities could never afford to build [the conduit] themselves.” Woodka explained.

Congress passed a law in 2009 that reduced the amount of money local governments would have to pitch in for the project. Woodka said that finally made the construction of the conduit feasible.

But it’s still a $500 million project.

“The main problem that we’ve run into,” said Woodka, ”has been getting adequate federal appropriations to start building it. He said they are working on ways to lower the overall costs of the project.”

Woodka said lawmakers at the state and national level have been “extremely active” in promoting this project on both sides of the political spectrum…

[Republican State Senator Larry Crowder] said the key now is for residents to get involved.

“We’re getting the cities involved, we’re getting the people in the cities involved to send letters to Senator Gardner, Senator Bennet and Congressmen Buck and Tipton,” he said, “to make sure that they are aware of how the people feel about it.”

Video: The Colorado-Big Thompson Project — @Northern_Water

First water through the Adams Tunnel. Photo credit Northern Water.

The August “#GunnisonRiver Basin News” is hot off the presses

Click here to read the newsletter from the Gunnison Basin Roundtable. Here’s an excerpt:

August in the Basin: High and Dry!

Bountiful snowmelt and increased soil moisture conditions, resulted in “boomer” inflows, boosting basin reservoirs levels and causing an amazing recovery from last year’s low levels – this included Blue Mesa, Colorado’s largest reservoir – with over 160 percent of average inflow volume. Although most of the snow has melted, the Upper Basin rivers are still flowing at higher than average rates, even in the face of drying conditions (July and August precipitation has been generally below average).

Also, very importantly Lake Powell – the Upper Basin’s largest water storage and management facility received an inflow volume of 145% of average.

Current conditions and Aspinall Unit operations

Aspinall Unit dams

West wrestles with #ColoradoRiver “grand bargain” as changing climate depletes water governed by 1922 compact — The Denver Post

In 1922, Federal and State representatives met for the Colorado River Compact Commission in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Among the attendees were Arthur P. Davis, Director of Reclamation Service, and Herbert Hoover, who at the time, was the Secretary of Commerce. Photo taken November 24, 1922. USBR photo.

Here’s an in-depth look at governance in the Colorado River Basin in the coming years from Bruce Finley writing for The Denver Post. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

The grand bargain concept arose from increasing anxiety in booming Colorado and the other upper-basin states — New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — about their plight of being legally roped into sending more water downriver, even if dry winters, new population growth and development made that impossible without shutting faucets…

Total water is decreasing in the 1,450-mile river, which trickles from high mountain snow northwest of Denver and carves canyons up to a mile deep. Over the last 15 years, amid a climate shift toward aridity, warming has reduced the river’s flows by at least 6%, according to research based on federal hydrology and temperature data.

Yet the Colorado River remains the primary water source for an expanding population of 40 million people and 90% of the nation’s winter vegetable production — one of the most over-allocated rivers in the world, with water taken out each year exceeding natural flows from rain and snow.

The grand bargain would remove the legal right to “call,” or demand, more water during dry times that was established by the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

Colorado farmers and Front Range cities no longer would face the threat of downriver states legally mandating that more water be left in the river, forcing shut-offs. In return, lower-basin states would be guaranteed a set amount, possibly less than what they’re currently using, and gain time to stop their steady draw-down of the Lake Mead reservoir, which remains less than half full even after a wet winter. The upriver Lake Powell reservoir, also less than half full, would serve as storage to help lower states adjust to living on less water…

California officials this week indicated an interest in exploring new ways to address climate warming impacts. But Chris Harris, director of the Colorado River Board of California, told The Denver Post his state is not ready to discuss any specific bargain that would require giving up a legal right to “call” for more water. And John Entsminger, manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority manager and his state’s chief negotiator, questioned how the bargain would help the lower states.

The serious behind-the-scenes contemplation of this bargain “reflects the current conditions on the river — the extended drought we’ve been through, the speed at which the system has gone down, the reality of a warming climate and what that is going to mean for flows,” said Jim Lochhead, the manager of Denver Water who previously served as Colorado’s director of natural resources and represented the state in river negotiations with other western states.

While Lochhead discussed the bargain in an interview with the Post, he said he hasn’t taken a formal position supporting any specific proposal.

“What we need is some kind of arrangement that gives the lower basin time to manage demands and solve their structural deficit problems” — overuse — “and also provide some assurance, in exchange for that time, to the upper basin that we are not going to be facing a legal crisis in the form of a compact ‘call’ or some type of curtailment,” Lochhead said.

“From a Colorado perspective, my interest would be that Western Slope irrigated agriculture and the economy on the Western Slope be protected, and, obviously, that Front Range municipalities that rely on the Colorado River be protected in our water supplies. … That would be our starting point,” he said.

“Given the status of the reservoirs. … the speed at which Powell and Mead have dropped, we don’t have the luxury to take a lot of time and deal around the edges of the problems. We need to think about some bigger, and different, solution to resolve the deficit that is staring us all in the face.”