Storage tanks at Denver Water’s new, state-of-the-art water treatment plant taking shape.
The work started in the dark, at 2:30 a.m., continued through the dawn and lasted until noon on Friday, May 14.
Loaded concrete trucks trundled onto the site of the Northwater Treatment Plant, along Highway 93 north of Golden. A truck arrived every four minutes, delivering concrete that was pumped, then smoothed into place by an army of about 100 workers.
They shaped the round, concrete floor of what will be the first of the new treatment plant’s two water storage tanks. The tanks will hold clean, treated water to be delivered into Denver Water’s distribution system that sends safe drinking water 1.5 million people every day.
“It’s a big milestone day. Each tank can hold 10 million gallons of water — and to put that in perspective, that’s 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools,” said Bob Mahoney, Denver Water’s chief engineering officer.
“The project is going very well. It’s ahead of schedule and — in addition to pouring the floor of the new treated water reservoir — the overall project is about 38% complete.”
A look at the numbers behind the work:
23 feet, the height of the storage tank when finished, although most of it will be buried underground.
300-plus feet, the diameter of the tank, longer than a football field.
1,400 cubic yards of concrete were needed for the floor of the tank.
145 concrete trucks delivered the concrete.
100 workers were involved with the concrete placement.
The new, state-of-the-art water treatment plant, being built next to the utility’s Ralston Reservoir, is expected to be complete in 2024 and will be capable of cleaning up to 75 million gallons of water per day. Concrete for the floor of the second water storage tank is expected to be put in place July 2, weather permitting.
The Northwater Treatment Plant is part of Denver Water’s $600 million North System Renewal effort, which includes a new pipeline to carry water from the new plant and upgrades at the old Moffat Treatment Plant built in Lakewood in the 1930s.
The concrete work in mid-May drew a steady stream of curious onlookers, including workers building the new plant — and those who will run it when it’s finished.
“I had to come out. I really wanted to see how they do this,” said Nicole Babyak, a water treatment plant supervisor at Denver Water.
“The team and I, we’ve been involved in this project for years. We’re going to be running the plant and have seen parts of the facility being built from the ground up, but I haven’t seen a large concrete pour like this yet. It’s so neat to be here while they’re pouring the first tank.
Here’s a guest column from Jim Spehar that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
It’ll be hard to avoid the overwhelming desire for a tall glass of cool, refreshing water in the coming week while we’re flirting with record 100-degree plus temperatures here in the Grand Valley. In a broader sense, the daily blast of heat past the century mark will put another exclamation point on water issues along the Colorado River.
The first one came a few days ago. The water level at Lake Mead near Las Vegas hit its lowest level since filling in the 1930s. The Bureau of Reclamation expects the decline will continue until November, causing ripples upriver as agreements linking Mead and Lake Powell water levels come into play sooner than expected. Other recent alarms include massive drought-induced wildfires, resulting post-fire runoffs impacting water supplies, shorter irrigating seasons … the litany goes on and on while the Colorado River Basin is expected to post its second-driest year in more than a century of recorded history.
Before you complain about those fountains and golf courses in Sin City, consider what that desert community has done to alleviate its water use. Millions of dollars, as much as $3/square foot, is paid to residents to replace grass with xeriscaping. Building codes prohibit front lawns for new houses. A new state law will prohibit Colorado River water from being used to irrigate “non-functional turf” such as grass in office parks, at the entrances to subdivisions and in strips between sidewalks and streets.
That latest restriction, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, will save about 10% of the region’s Colorado River allocation, that 30,000 acre feet equal to the amount normally used by 60,000 homes. The Central Arizona Project is taking 30% less water from the Colorado River than in previous years. Further downriver, farmers in California and along the border in Arizona are being paid nearly handsomely to fallow cropland by cities clamoring for municipal water.
Here in Colorado, there are rumblings of what may become necessary steps for some communities in the not too distant future.
In Fountain, south of Colorado Springs, developers have applied for nearly 30,000 new water taps in the last year. The city currently serves 9,000 taps. According to Colorado Public Radio, Fountain is telling developers they need to support their applications with the millions of dollars necessary to obtain new water rights and storage and delivery infrastructure. Utilities Director Dan Blankenship is telling those developers “We can’t give you something we don’t have.”
Which spotlights the elephant (perhaps more appropriately the whale) in the room as water shortages are discussed — carrying capacity. It’s a question that’s been avoided for years but ultimately can’t be ignored. Is there a hard limit to how many of us can live, work, recreate in any one place along the Colorado River?
Of course there is. We just don’t want to acknowledge that, at least so far, though we live in an arid West where more than 40 million people in seven states and two countries depend, at least in part, on the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Twenty-five years ago, I worked for Gov. Roy Romer on his Smart Growth Initiative. One of his ideas was that developers wishing to build in the then-emerging area around Castle Rock ought to prove there was a 300-year supply of guaranteed water for their projects. That, of course, didn’t fly. Nor did a later 100-year proposed guarantee. But setting requirements like that, or such as Fountain is talking about, seems inevitable.
I’m both amused and frightened at suggestions the flawed 1922 Colorado River Compact needs to be renegotiated, hoping to keep more of “our water” in the Upper Basin. That’d take congressional action. Count the number of members from California, Arizona and Nevada and compare that total to those from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. Shouldn’t reopening the Compact be the option of last resort?
“Water, water, water…. There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” — Edward Abbey, “Desert Solitaire”
Jim Spehar represented western Colorado communities for eight years on the Board of Directors of the Colorado Water Congress. Comments always welcome to email@example.com.
A Montrose family whose teenage son and dog drowned in the South Canal in 2019 hit the canal’s operating entity with a wrongful death suit on May 4.
Their attorney said Matt Imus and Emily Imus, parents of the late Connor Imus, are also pursuing a federal claim against the land management agencies involved with the canal. This is action is undergoing a required administrative resolution process and could proceed to a lawsuit, pending that outcome.
The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association’s attorneys say in filings that Connor’s death was the result of his own actions, when he apparently jumped into the canal to save his dog, Bella.
Both were swept away by the deceptively calm-looking water and drowned. Connor, a standout on the Montrose High School basketball team, was 17.
As the canal operator, the UVWUA had duties to Connor to mark the property as private and to make clear the dangers of the canal, the lawsuit argues. But per the suit, on May 5, 2019, there was not a chain, a fence or other means of closing off the canal, nor was there signage warning against trespassing and the dangers at the spot where Connor fell in.
The Imuses are suing for negligence resulting in wrongful death and under premises liability resulting in wrongful death, as well as asserting survivors’ claims. They assert UVWUA’s wrongful actions or omissions caused injury and damages to Connor, who lost his life, and also caused ongoing injury to his parents, who continue to suffer emotional distress, pain and grief because of their son’s death. The plaintiffs want a judge to determine compensation for their loss and suffering; the filing does not specify an amount.
The UVWUA’s attorneys said they had no comment at this time.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Colorado Springs is one of the fastest growing regions in the state. Homes are getting more expensive and harder to buy. The boom is expanding into nearby cities — and the pressure is building…
There are currently fewer than 9,000 taps, or connections, to Fountain’s water supply. Over the last year, Blankenship said developers have applied for nearly 30,000 new taps to the city’s water system.
[Dan] Blankenship is telling developers, Fountain is tapped out…
To support that many new taps, the city would need to buy additional rights to use more water. They would also need a place to store that water, and the city would need to treat it and find a way to get it to homes.
That’s getting harder to make happen in a state like Colorado, where most of the people live on the Front Range but most of the water is on the Western Slope.
Where the city of Fountain gets its water from
Fountain gets most of its water from the Pueblo Reservoir, which is filled with water that would otherwise end up in the Colorado River. The reservoir project was built in the 1970s. It’s unlikely the city would be able to build something similar today, Blankenship said. It’s a lot tougher to do that now, just because of the environmental concerns…
Smith said it’s becoming more common for developers to have to secure water rights and pay for additional water infrastructure if they want to build a big project.
But he said the situation in Fountain is unusual…
Fountain hasn’t finalized any plans yet, but they say developers are going to need to help pay the millions of dollars to buy those new water rights, reservoirs, and pipes needed to support that kind of growth. Blankenship, Fountain’s utility director, said instead of the city paying for that upfront, he wants to shift that cost to developers…
No matter how a developer might have to secure water for a new project, the cost will get rolled into the price of a new home, said Kevin Walker, with the housing and building association in Colorado Springs…
Kevin Reidy, a senior water conservation specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said other water utilities are also worried about how to keep up with growth. Fountain is just the first to talk so openly about the issue…
A big part of Reidy’s job is to get water and land planners to work together, which he said have been too siloed. Reidy helps host training events to get water and land people in the same room to talk about these issues.
“I think we’re kind of hitting that point where people are kind of saying, ‘Okay wow, we’ve got to do things differently,’” Reidy said.
For Fountain, that means telling developers this town doesn’t have the water you need. If you want to build here, you’ll have to bring your own.
State and federal programs offer drought assistance, emergency loans
The order passed by the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners on June 1 says the purpose “is to activate the response and recovery aspects of any and all applicable local and interjurisdictional disaster emergency plans, and to authorize the furnishing of aid and assistance under such plans.”
Recent winters in Southwest Colorado have seen below-average snowpack, and a lack of monsoonal rains has depleted soil moisture. The lack of precipitation has left reservoirs unfilled this year, a devastating impact for the agricultural economy…
McPhee Reservoir irrigators will receive just 5% to 10% of their normal allocation this year, leaving thousands of acres fallow.
Montezuma County has only had one good snow season (2018-19) in the past four years and has had dry summers, said Peter Goble, drought specialist with the Colorado Climate Center, during a meeting with county officials…
The disaster status opens up emergency assistance programs from county, state and federal agencies. It also helps the Dolores Water Conservancy District receive drought assistance from the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the infrastructure of McPhee Reservoir and its canals.
In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 63 Colorado counties primary natural disaster areas because of the severe drought conditions.
Emergency loans are available for producers. The loans can be used to replace equipment or livestock, reorganize the farm operation and refinance certain debts.
Colorado State University Agriculture Extension provides education and connects farmers and ranchers with resources for drought management and assistance, said Greg Felsen, Montezuma County director and extension agent.
The forecast for a summer monsoon is not favorable for Southwest Colorado, according to the National Weather Service.
Dry conditions are predicted for June, July and August, according to the National Weather Service meteorologist Megan Stackhouse.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
The National Weather Service said Denver has seen its wettest start to a year since 1983.
All that rain has made significant improvements to Colorado’s drought map. Three months ago, nearly the entire state was in a moderate drought or worse. Now that’s just 43 percent.
But the map shows a tale of two Colorados. While above-average rain has brought relief to the eastern half of the state, the West Slope is in a terrible drought.
“Half of Denver Water’s supply comes from that West Slope side,” said Nathan Elder, manager of water supply at Denver Water.
So while those who live in Denver and the Front Range might be thinking, “What drought?”, Elder says it’s important to understand that water conservation is still needed, especially since half the city’s system exists in areas that are historically dry…
Elder says he expects reservoirs in the South Platte system will fill…
Elder says peak flows into Dillion reservoir will be about half of what’s normal. But overall, Denver’s reservoirs are 89 percent full, which Elder says is average for this time of year.
Experts from different organizations presented updates specific to their work, all focusing on water rights, drought outlooks and river basin updates.
Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, went through the recent history of the ongoing drought in the state. He said throughout the past few months, eastern Colorado has seen decent drought improvement, but western Colorado has remained about the same.
Schumacher presented a chart showing average temperatures and precipitation from April through September, which showed that 2020 was somewhat of an outlier.
“It was the driest April through September on record and one of the few hottest on record, and that is a recipe for a drought that develops quickly,” Schumacher said…
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, provided an overview of the goals and accomplishments from phase one of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan. The first objective of the plan, which Van Gytenbeek said the group has spent most of its time on, is to understand potential causes for declining fish populations between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how the decline can be mitigated…
The second objective is what Van Gytenbeek called a “literature search,” which aims to compile information regarding physical and biological aspects of the Blue River Basin’s water resources. This would then formulate objectives and goals for future phases of the plan.
Van Gytenbeek said the phase one report is currently being finalized, and they intend to submit it to an advisory committee in the middle of June. He said he expects the report to be made public in July or early August.
Once the report is completed the second phase of the project will continue, with hopes of having the final phase two report ready for the public by March 2022. Van Gytenbeek said he thinks integrated water management plan organizations like the Blue River Watershed Group should get some support to keep the dialogue going past the life of phase two of the project.
Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer at the Colorado River District, talked about supply issues within the Colorado River Compact…
Nathan Elder and Jason Finehout of Denver Water said there is a low likelihood of filling the Dillon Reservoir this year, predicting an inflow of about 50-60% of normal. Finehout went on to explain that many of Denver Water’s annual summer watering rules are the same as many jurisdictions’ stage one drought restrictions…
Brian Lorch, trails director of Summit County Open Space and Trails, provided an update on the Swan River Restoration Project, which aims to naturalize more than two miles of the Swan River Valley impacted by historical dredge mining.
Lorch said this summer, Reach B of the project will start to take shape, as contractors will create about another mile of stream channel.
Blue Mesa [Reservoir] is at about 345,000 acre feet and sits at 42% full, based on May data, which predict the reservoir will only hit just above 50-percent full — “not very good,” as Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Erik Knight put it.
“We’re lower than we were at any time in 2020. In 2018, we were below 250,000 acre feet by the end. We’re not projecting to go that low yet, but we’re heading in that direction, that’s for sure,” Knight said Friday.
“The reservoir is pretty low. Runoff hasn’t really kicked into gear, although I think that is starting now,” he added.
Although the Uncompahgre River is a bit bouncier and swelling with some snowmelt, Montrose County and the western side of the state remain locked in drought.
Conditions in the county range from extreme drought to exceptional — the two worst levels — according to US Drought Monitor data.
So far, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which serves about 3,500 shareholders, has been able to fill its contracts at 70%. The association’s storage “account” at Taylor Park Reservoir — which with Blue Mesa and other reservoirs is part of the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit — is full, UVWUA manager Steve Anderson said. (Taylor itself is not expected to fill at 100%, but UVWUA anticipates it will receive the full amount to which it is entitled from the reservoir.)
“I expect our account at Taylor to refill,” Anderson added. “We are storing second-fill water in Taylor right now and my expectation is for us to wind up the season with a full reservoir at Taylor. That means a lot to us, but that’s 100,000 acre feet and we need 600,000 acre feet to run the project. But that’s a good start.”
The storage account at Ridgway Reservoir is close to full, Anderson also said — of 21,000 acre feet of association water, a bit more than 300 acre feet have been used…
The water picture for the Grand Mesa and North Fork is worse than it is for Montrose, he said, and also pointed to the south, to the Dolores River.
McPhee Reservoir, which the river feeds, is well below average and, the Cortez Journal reported Wednesday, irrigators with contracts for its water have been told to expect between 5 and 10% of their ordinary fulfillments.
“The Dolores is just horrible,” Anderson said. Only one-sixth of the water would ordinarily be delivered from McPhee is coming to users, he said. “That’s pretty sad. We’re fortunate in that respect, that we’re not in those kind of dire straits.”
[Lake] Powell’s levels are within a whisker or two of being too low to sustain hydropower generation. If Powell drops below 3,490 feet elevation, that’s the danger zone, Anderson said in January. As of May 14, Powell was projected to end the water year at 3,543 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, although the agency also noted “significant uncertainty” at the time…
Flaming Gorge has enough storage right now that it can bail out Powell in an absolute emergency, as it could release 2 million acre feet, Anderson said…
Back at home, the Aspinall Unit also has drought contingency plans that kick in as needed to maintain baseflows and satisfy the requirements of legal records of decision.
In dry years, flow targets are dropped and that helps keep Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs in the unit from running dry, Knight said.
Northern Colorado is getting its biggest new reservoir in about 70 years, at the cost of diminished Colorado River flows.
Construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir will begin in August southwest of Loveland, just west of Carter Lake. An April legal settlement between project proponent Northern Water and environmental advocacy groups cleared the way for the project, which began the permitting process in 2003.
The 90,000-acre-foot reservoir is the main component of the Windy Gap Firming Project, a plan to increase the reliability of Colorado River water rights in the Windy Gap Project. The project’s 12 participants include Platte River Power Authority, Loveland, Broomfield, Longmont and Greeley. Construction is expected to take until August 2025, after which it will take about three years to fill the reservoir.
The reservoir’s water will come from the Colorado River, decreasing flows below Lake Granby by an annual average of 15%. Most diversions will take place in May and June.
The 18-year journey toward construction demonstrates the extensive maneuvering required to build new reservoirs in Colorado as rivers become increasingly stressed from climate change and heavy diversions as growing Front Range communities seek to shore up their water supplies. Northern Water won approval from key government agencies and some advocacy groups with a suite of mitigation measures and spending commitments for areas impacted by the project.
Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla described Chimney Hollow as “in the right place at the right time.” The reservoir site has a few qualities that have helped Northern Water avoid some common setbacks for new water project construction: It’s near existing Colorado Big Thompson Project infrastructure, so Northern Water won’t have to build much new infrastructure for water deliveries, and there are no homes or businesses at the site, which Northern has owned since the 1990s.
“The one assumption you have to make is that water storage is part of the future way that we’re going to provide water,” Stahla said, and he thinks it is. “If you get past the ‘Do we need storage’ question, this ends up being an incredible site that will meet lots of needs, including the ancillary needs of recreation, into the future.”
Northern Water Engineering Director Jeff Drager acknowledged the new reservoir’s impact on Colorado River flows, but he said the project’s targeted mitigation efforts still offer a major value and are a key reason why it crossed the regulatory finish line.
One of the most significant mitigation measures, known as the Colorado River connectivity channel, will involve shrinking the existing Windy Gap Reservoir in Grand County to about half its current size and building a new channel around it. The Windy Gap dam currently blocks the Colorado River, preventing movement of fish, silt and sediment.
The connectivity channel will allow the river below the reservoir to act more like “a stream without a reservoir on it” when Northern Water’s water rights aren’t in priority, Drager said. The mitigation measures will also open up a mile of stream to public fishing in an area where private landowners possess most of the land adjacent to riverbanks…
During wetter years, Lake Granby can overflow and the water that would’ve been delivered to Windy Gap users flows downstream. During drier years, Northern Water is often unable to divert the full extent of its water right because it is a junior right, meaning more senior water users get access to water first. During the 23-year period between 1985 and 2008, for example, no Windy Gap water was delivered for seven of those years.
Although Brian Werner has served on the WEco Board of Trustees for just over a year, he was involved with helping found the organization nearly 20 years ago. Now retired from his 38-year career as the Communications Department Manager and Public Information Officer at Northern Water, and still a life-long water historian, Brian has written and given hundreds of presentations on the role of water in the settlement and development of Colorado and the West. We spoke with Brian about Northern Water’s storage, the impacts of fire on water storage, permitting, and more.
How long have you been on the WEco board?
I’ve been involved with WEco since WEco has been around. I was involved with the first couple incarnations of water education efforts in Colorado in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and then I helped when WEco came into being in 2002. I was never on the board, until a couple of years ago. It was something I wanted to do towards the end of my career and I retired just last year in January 2020. Luckily I was appointed to the board and I’ve truly enjoyed it.
What kind of experience do you bring to the group?
I think the fact that I had a 38-year career in the water business with Northern Water is an asset. At Northern Water, I’d established relations with people from all over the state and I also coordinated probably 150 to 200 different children’s water festivals, so clearly I was into education. I’m really a big believer in the trickle up theory of water knowledge. Where if you can educate the kids, that knowledge is going trickle up to mom and dad, and those kids will somebody be parents themselves. Ultimately, I’ve been trying to build that ethic in what I’ve been about for most of my career.
How would you describe your experience being on the board?
I’ve really enjoyed being on the board. I’ve watched it and been very much involved for a long time. Both Nicole Seltzer and Jayla Poppleton worked with me at Northern Water, so I have a personal vested interest in them succeeding, and they really have. Nicole moved the organization in a wonderful direction and Jayla has just been top-notch in where she has taken WEco. It has been really interesting because we have a diverse board, and I have enjoyed getting to know people who I didn’t know previously.
I understand you recently retired from Northern Water, can you tell me what your role with them was and maybe what Northern Water does in a general sense?
Northern Water is the largest water conservancy district in the state of Colorado and operates a large Bureau of Reclamation project that is one of the largest in the entire western United States; the Colorado-Big Thompson project. It brings a quarter-million acre-feet a year from the West Slope into Northeastern Colorado to supplement both urban and rural supplies, meaning that it is both a municipal as well as an agricultural water supply. Now there are well over a million people that get a portion of their water supply from that project, but back in 1937, there were only 50,000 people living within Northern Water’s boundaries. So, nobody could have foreseen the growth that occurred since then. This growth has brought all sorts of issues and concerns, but Northern Water is one of the top water agencies in the state and I certainly had a wonderful career there and couldn’t have asked for anything better.
Personally, I was a public information officer for 35 of those 38 years. My role, in essence, was to be the public face of Northern Water and so I talked about Northern Water and its activities all the time. I was able to use my historical training, I have a master’s degree in history, to discuss the historical background of both water development and Northern Water. I focused very much on education, but ultimately, I spent my entire career talking all things water, which was a lot of fun.
I was also the manager of our communications department as we expanded and grew. As we grew, we brought on writers and pushed publications and annual reports, and then we got into the social media craze. So, for some time I managed that department. But really, it was about telling people what Northern Water was all about.
The map above displays estimates of the likelihood of debris flow (in %), potential volume of debris flow (in m3), and combined relative debris flow hazard. These predictions are made at the scale of the drainage basin, and at the scale of the individual stream segment. Estimates of probability, volume, and combined hazard are based upon a design storm with a peak 15-minute rainfall intensity of 24 millimeters per hour (mm/h). Predictions may be viewed interactively by clicking on the button at the top right corner of the map displayed above. Map credit: USGS
Perhaps a topical question, but how have the numerous forest fires affected the work that Northern Water does in trying to ensure water storage?
That is going to be Northern Water’s principal focus this coming year. Both of our major watersheds burned last year, the Upper Colorado with the East Troublesome wildfire, and then the Poudre watershed with the Cameron Peak wildfire. And both of these watersheds are where we get the vast majority of our water. Luckily, Northern Water had been looking at forest water management for years. Northern Water has been working with the U.S. Forest Service, the counties, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Parks Service. It wasn’t that these fires hit us and Northern Water had no idea what to do. We learned quite a lot from Denver Water after the Hayman Fire, with all of the issues that they had centering around water quality. Northern Water isn’t pleased, but we are certainly going to see some water quality impacts because of these fires.
We went in with our eyes open and with some plans in place for post-fire activities. We always said, ‘it’s not if, it’s when those fires hit.’
What do these fires mean for water supply and water quality now, as well as moving into the future?
One of the things that we see from these fires is a greater level of awareness in terms of forest management, not just if you have a house in a forest or nearby, but for those people living in major metropolitan areas, too. Those people in Denver, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs are all paying attention now, because they saw the two largest fires in Colorado history and what it did to our environment. And I think now there will be a lot more attention focused on the post-fire impacts, which obviously include water. People will certainly be paying attention to the water piece of the post-fire mitigation and clean-up. Overall, I think moving into the future we will have a better awareness, which is always a good thing. There is no way around it, it is going to take money, and where we are at with COVID-19 that discussion is not easy, but the state is making a concerted effort to put monetary resources and people into handling the situation.
How the present or future storage planning is different than what the state has done historically?
One thing I would point out is that the Federal government is no longer in the water storage building business. For years Reclamation, which had been established in 1902 helped jumpstart and build water projects, as they did the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The Federal government neither has the resources nor are they paying for water storage anymore. Now, water storage is something that is having to be more or less self-funded. Meaning that the growing cities are trying to figure out how they can finance additional water for their future citizens.
We are also now looking at the multiple uses of water. Nowadays, water is being used for environmental purposes, which means that we are looking to make sure that there is enough to release into the rivers to help the aquatic habitat. This is a much larger part of the picture today. At a base level of awareness, we want people to understand why we need storage reservoirs. It is a dry year, and it sure looks like we are only getting drier, and when you have the drier years you better make sure that you store when you have the wetter periods to carry you through. I think we are going to have difficulties trying to match up the storage, which we are going to continue to need, with all the environmental issues and issues surrounding the development of water infrastructure.
In the past 20 years, Northern has been in permitting so can you talk about that process?
We say water project permitting works at a glacial pace. When I started working on the Northern Integrated Supply Project permitting at Northern Water, I told my wife that I thought we would have a permit in around 5 years … I’m now retired. Northern Water is going on 17 years later, and they still haven’t received that permit. That’s frustrating. This wasn’t for lack of energy; I mean we were really working hard to secure that permit. These things take much longer than you would probably expect. You have to have a lot of perseverance because the process can really drive you crazy, but my hope is that in the future this process will become much better for all parties involved.
Kevin Foley, president of Performance Tours Rafting, said Friday, May 14, that recent reports he has received from Denver Water indicate the organization is likely to prioritize filling the Dillon Reservoir.
“What we are being told is, right now, the reservoir is low and snowpack is below average, so their model this year going to be more fill and spill,” Foley said.
Each spring and summer, Denver Water determines how much water it will release into the Blue River north of the Dillon Dam based on how much water is needed in different locations throughout an intricate network of water systems and reservoirs that service water users.
Foley said current conditions and a low water level in Dillon Reservoir point to Denver Water filling the reservoir with any new snow or rain in the coming weeks, rather than diverting flows downstream into the Blue River.
Foley said he will find out more from Denver Water at a meeting next week, but as of now, he said it’s unlikely there will be an extended season on the Blue…
The Class 2 to 3 Blue River stretch, which usually takes just over an hour for commercial trips, runs 5 to 6 miles from a U.S. Forest Service put-in at Hammer Bridge through Boulder Canyon down to a take-out at Columbine Landing. Foley said Performance Tours and KODI Rafting’s cutoff for the stretch is usually 500 cfs, signaling when they can start and stop. He said the best rafting on the Blue is at 1,000 cfs.
The commercial rafting season on the Blue is notoriously fickle, sometimes very short at just a couple of weeks in dry years to up to two months of rafting in wet seasons…
Foley said drainages down on the Arkansas River near Buena Vista are looking much better than the Blue. He credited the voluntary flow management program on the Arkansas that enables commercial companies to raft on good, augmented flows deep into summer. Trips out of Buena Vista have been operating for some commercial companies since May 1.
Created by Imgur user Fejetlenfej , a geographer and GIS analyst with a ‘lifelong passion for beautiful maps,’ it highlights the massive expanse of river basins across the country – in particular, those which feed the Mississippi River, in pink.
The Arizona Legislature on Tuesday made a formal request asking Congress to fund a study to determine the feasibility of pipelining Mississippi River floodwater to the Colorado River.
House Concurrent Memorial 2004 passed the Arizona Senate by a 23-7 vote and the Arizona House by a 54-6 margin. A memorial is not a law, but a legislative measure containing a request or proposal, asking other parties outside the Arizona Legislature’s jurisdiction to take action. HCMs have no official standing or effect, but serve as a public record of the request presented for consideration.
The memorial was introduced by Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma. Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, is among co-sponsors.
It asks that “the United States Congress fund a technological and feasibility study of developing a diversion dam and pipeline to harvest floodwater from the Mississippi River to replenish the Colorado River and prevent flood damage along the Mississippi River.”
It also states that “If shown to be feasible, the United States Congress implement the diversion dam and pipeline as a partial solution to the water supply shortage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead and the flood damage that occurs along the Mississippi River.”
Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the two major reservoirs on the Colorado River. Both are at historically low levels and likely will trigger a Tier 1 water emergency in Arizona later this year or in 2022.
The memorial notes the low water levels of both reservoirs and the “historic flooding in 2011 and 2019 along the Mississippi River” that caused 11 deaths and more than $9.5 billion in damage.
It asks that the request be sent to the President of the U.S. Senate, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the governors of states on the Mississippi River — Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin — as well as Arizona’s 11 members of Congress.
“Arizona has long been at the forefront among Western states in supporting the development and implementation of pioneering, well-reasoned water management policies,” Dunn said, a line straight out of the HCM he crafted. “Arizona and the other six Colorado Basin states are in the 20th year of severe drought and experiencing a severe water shortage. Water levels are at critical levels, jeopardizing the water delivery and power generation. A new water source could help augment Colorado River supplies.
“One promising possibility involves piping water that is harvested from Mississippi River floodwaters. Diverting this water, which is otherwise lost into the Gulf of Mexico, would also help prevent the loss of human life and billions in economic damages when such flooding occurs. This concept is already being proven in Denver, where floodwater is being successfully harvested from the Missouri River to help alleviate its water shortage.”
Early this year, five of Gallup, New Mexico’s 16 water wells stopped producing water, including two of its biggest. After a few days of maintenance, two worked. The other three were out of commission for more than a month. Had it happened in summer, the city might have asked residents to dramatically reduce use…
The shortage isn’t wholly surprising — 20 years ago, the city decided it could limp along on aging groundwater wells with dropping water levels until a new water project began delivering San Juan River water in late 2024. The project is also connecting nearby Navajo communities, where many residents lack running water, an issue the Navajo Nation says is long past due and in need of a fix. But now a potential four-year delay could force a growing number of people to rely on these strained groundwater sources. A plan to keep taps from running dry will come with a price tag.
The situation highlights how precarious water has become for this city of almost 22,000 in western New Mexico and offers a peek inside the complicated mix of relationships, creativity and familiarity with multiple government agencies that’s required to manage water in the 21st century.
Gallup sits in the high desert along the red sandstone mesas of the Colorado Plateau. For much of its history, it has functioned as an industrial town and a bustling commercial center. Named in 1881 after railroad paymaster David L. Gallup, freight trains and Amtrak still rumble through, in addition to a steady flow of semi-truck traffic around the exits for Interstate-40. Surrounded by the Navajo Nation, on the first weekend of the month the town swells by 100,000 as people stream in for supplies. Those with no running water at home fill water containers. People do laundry, wash cars, go out to eat.
For decades, the Navajo Nation bordertown has relied on groundwater stored in sandstone layers deep underground. With no nearby rivers, wells tapping that water have been the city’s only option. But because annual rain and snowfall don’t replenish the water, levels have dropped over recent decades. In the 1990s, the city projected shortages by as early as 2010.
“Not only was Gallup running out of water, everybody was running out,” said Marc DePauli, owner of DePauli Engineering and Surveying, which the city has hired to work on the water systems. About 20 smaller surrounding water systems had “straws in the same bucket,” all leaning on dwindling reserves.
Help is coming in the form of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, the result of a historic agreement that settled Navajo Nation claims to water in this arid region of the Southwest after decades of discussions.
Consisting of two major pipelines that run through Navajo communities in western New Mexico, the project will bring water from the San Juan River to within reach of some of the one in three homes without it on the Navajo Nation. One of the pipelines, the Cutter Lateral that branches to northwest New Mexico, is complete. The other, the San Juan Lateral, will move 37,700 acre feet of water each year for 200 miles along the western edge of the state, up to 7,500 acre-feet of which will come as far south as Gallup. In the future, the city will rely largely on water from the San Juan…
The water was supposed to flow by 2024, but a new design proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation will now likely push that date back by three to four years, putting Gallup in a tight spot, monetarily and water-wise. The construction delay coupled with the city shouldering more demand will require new wells to supply everyone until water from the San Juan arrives.
Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):
Coalition stays the course in fight to halt construction of tallest dam in Colorado history
A coalition of conservation groups filed a notice of appeal today in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals seeking to halt Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Dam in Boulder County and to protect sustainable flows in the Colorado River. The appeal challenges the dismissal by the lower court and asks the appeals court to order review of the merits of the case to ensure the health of the Colorado River, its native and imperiled species, and communities across Colorado that will be negatively impacted by the project…
The conservation coalition, including Save The Colorado, The Environmental Group, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Sierra Club, originally filed suit on December 19, 2018, in the federal district court of Colorado. The groups’ litigation sought to halt Denver Water’s expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County and prevent an additional diversion of water from the Colorado River through its Moffat Collection System due to violations of federal environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The project would triple the storage capacity of Gross Reservoir and the dam would become the tallest dam in the history of Colorado.
On March 31, 2021, the district court dismissed the coalition’s case finding that it was not before the proper court because the Federal Power Act provides the federal court of appeals with sole authority over hydropower licensing by the Federal Regulatory Commission.
“Given the climate, water and biodiversity crises upon us, we need to be restoring river ecosystems, not destroying them,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “This battle against the powerful water institution is not over and we will continue to fight for water and climate justice by working to reform this broken system of laws and policies.”
“The Sierra Club opposes the Gross Reservoir expansion because of the massive environmental damage it would cause,” said Rebecca Dickson, Chair of the Sierra Club-Indian Peaks Group. “If this project proceeds, hundreds of thousands of trees will be chopped down, countless habitats destroyed, and yet another waterway will be diverted from its natural course to the Front Range. On top of this, immeasurable amounts of greenhouse gasses will be released into the atmosphere during the construction and transportation process.”
“Denver Water’s plan to build the tallest dam in Colorado history will hurt the 40 million people in seven states and two countries who depend on the Colorado River for their water supply,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and advocacy director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “The basin is slowly dying a proverbial ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as its communities and ecosystems face a water crisis driven by unsustainable demand, prolonged drought, and runaway climate change. We stand with our fellow conservation groups in continuing to oppose this misguided and reckless water grab.”
“The expansion of Gross Dam is a shortsighted response to a long-term problem,” said Beverly Kurtz the President of The Environmental Group. “Denver Water should lead the way in finding sustainable solutions to the challenge of water scarcity, rather than destroying pristine areas of western Boulder County and further threatening the Colorado River with an antiquated dam proposal. Recent data confirm that predicted shortages of water in the Colorado River Basin due to climate change are happening even sooner than expected. Building a bigger dam does not increase the amount of water available. The District Court needs to hear the merits of our case rather than establishing a dangerous precedent by deferring authority to FERC and the federal court of appeals.”
“The year of decision, to not divert more water from the Colorado River, came and went about twenty years ago,” said John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers in Moab, Utah. “We know this is true because the development of contingency planning agreements to avoid water shortages began in 2014 and the urgency to resolve this threat still remains. Yet the contradictions and absurdities to also develop a suite of diversion projects in the Colorado River Basin also remains. If the basin’s water managers will not even adapt to the hydrology they accept, how could they possibly adapt to the hydrology of the future? Our lawsuit is an appeal to accept the truth that the Colorado River has nothing left to give.”
The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict has voted to approve a settlement of a federal lawsuit over Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
In a meeting Wednesday, the Municipal Subdistrict Board voted 10-1 to authorize its participation in the settlement.
The settlement means construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir will begin this summer and the Colorado River Connectivity Channel in Grand County next year. In return, the Municipal Subdistrict will contribute $15 million to a foundation to pay for projects that enhance the Colorado River and its many watersheds in Grand County.
“This settlement shows there is an alternative to costly litigation that can provide benefits both to the environment in Grand County and the Colorado River, as well as acknowledging the need for water storage,” said Northern Water General Manager Brad Wind.
The compromise will bring to a close a lawsuit in federal court filed by Save the Colorado, Save the Poudre, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club in October 2017. The suit challenged the permit issued by the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers for the construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir. On Dec. 19, 2020, the federal court ruled against the environmental organizations. The ruling was then appealed in February, and as part of the appeals process, both sides were required to engage in court-ordered mediation, which resulted in this settlement.
Chimney Hollow Reservoir, the key component to the Windy Gap Firming Project, will bring a reliable water supply to the 12 municipalities, water providers and utilities paying for its construction as well as provide a much-needed recreation area to be managed by the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will be located in a dry valley just west of Carter Lake in southwest Larimer County and will store 90,000 acre-feet of water from the Windy Gap Project for use by 12 participants, including Broomfield, Platte River Power Authority, Longmont, Loveland, Greeley, Erie, Little Thompson Water District, Superior, Louisville, Fort Lupton, Lafayette and the Central Weld County Water District. Chimney Hollow Reservoir will make the Windy Gap water supply serving those participants more reliable and meet a portion of their long-term water supply needs. Each participant will also enact a water conservation plan to comply with state law and permit requirements.
The compromise will also move forward other environmental measures related to the Project, including the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, a newly proposed channel around the existing Windy Gap Reservoir to reconnect the Colorado River above and below the reservoir. The channel will restore the ability for fish, macroinvertebrates, nutrients and sediment in the river to bypass the reservoir. Many other environmental protections are included, such as improving streamflow and aquatic habitat in the Colorado River, addressing water quality issues, providing West Slope water supplies and more.
The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict negotiated with Colorado River stakeholders to develop this package of environmental protections and received a permit from Grand County and approvals from others, including Trout Unlimited and the State of Colorado, to move forward with the Project.
Water storage such as Chimney Hollow Reservoir was specifically identified in the Colorado Water Plan as a necessary component for Colorado’s long-term water future. It joins conservation, land use planning and other solutions to meet future water needs in the state. To learn more about the project, go to http://www.chimneyhollow.org.
Northern Water will begin construction of the 25-story Chimney Hollow dam this summer.
complex Front Range dam-building project that includes transferring water from the Colorado River will move forward this summer after Northern Water agreed to a settlement putting $15 million in trust for waterway improvements in Grand County.
Environmental opponents begrudgingly accepted the mediated settlement of their lawsuit against Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming Project, which involves a menu of waterworks construction including Chimney Hollow dam near Loveland and rerouting the Colorado River around Windy Gap Dam near Granby.
The settlement resolves litigation in the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Northern Water said it now can begin construction of the 25-story Chimney Hollow dam this summer. The dam will plug the northern end of a dry valley northwest of Carter Lake. It will eventually be filled using Colorado River rights purchased by municipalities that are members of Northern Water. The Northern Water rights can be tapped only when Grand County is wet enough to supply other, higher priorities first…
An alliance of environmental groups opposing the project wants to stop any more transfers of Western Slope water, which would ordinarily flow west in the Colorado River, to Front Range reservoirs that supply growing Colorado cities and suburbs.
In the case of Chimney Hollow and Windy Gap, the environmentalists say damage has already been done to the Colorado River in Grand County, and the settlement can help them reverse some of the hurt…
The Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict Board voted 10-1 Wednesday to participate in the settlement. A federal district court had rejected the environmental groups’ challenge of permits for the Windy Gap and Chimney Hollow projects issued by Army Corps of Engineers, and mediation was required as part of the appeal.
Chimney Hollow water will be used by 12 of Northern Water’s members: Central Weld County Water District, Little Thompson Water District and the Platte River Power Authority, and the cities of Broomfield, Erie, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Lafayette, Longmont, Louisville, Loveland and Superior. The members say they need more water storage to accommodate future growth in homes, industry and agriculture.
Environmental groups, including WildEarth Guardians, Save the Colorado, Save The Poudre, Sierra Club, Living Rivers, and the Waterkeeper Alliance, filed a lawsuit in Oct. 2017 challenging the project’s federal permits. A federal judge in Dec. 2020 ruled against the environmental groups.
In a settlement reached with Northern Water — the agency pursuing Windy Gap on behalf of a municipal subdistrict of Front Range water providers — the environmental coalition agreed to withdraw their lawsuit, while securing $15 million for projects aimed at improving water quality, river health and fish habitat. The Grand Foundation in Grand County, Colo. will be the recipient of those funds. An advisory panel will be made up of representatives appointed by Northern Water and the environmental groups, and will decide how the money is spent. The funds will be issued in installments as the project is built…
The additional environmental mitigation joins other projects already negotiated between Grand County, Trout Unlimited and Northern Water, among other partners…
That previously agreed to package of environmental mitigation includes the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which is to be constructed around the existing Windy Gap dam and reservoir, and is designed to reconnect a portion of the Colorado River below its confluence with the Fraser River. The channel is meant to allow for more natural conditions to return, like allowing sediment to move downstream and providing more habitat for fish and aquatic insects. Monitoring programs and riparian restoration were also a part of the deal negotiated among those parties.
The connectivity channel was a recent recipient of a $1 million grant from the Colorado River District, becoming the first project to receive funds generated from ballot question 7A which appeared on the Nov. 2020 ballot in the district’s boundaries…
Despite the additional funding, representatives from the environmental coalition that sued to halt construction remained alarmed about the project’s legal success, and said the $15 million is a drop in the bucket…
Northern Water plans to begin construction on the Chimney Hollow dam this summer and on the Colorado River Connectivity Channel in 2022.
In the past year, Greeley officials purchased about 1,000 acre-feet of water, equivalent to about 1,000 football fields covered in a foot of water. Adam Jokerst, deputy director of water resources for the city, said it’s more water than city had acquired in the past 10 years. Jokerst, who manages the water acquisition program, said the program has about a $9 million budget this year…
What is a water right?
Colorado’s waters are owned by the state and all its citizens, but water rights dictate the right to use the water. Water decrees, issued by water courts, confirm water users’ rights to that water.
Older water decrees were simple, Jokerst said, giving the example of a decree for the city’s senior direct rights, meaning the city has priority to divert water for direct application to beneficial use. Throughout the year, the city can use 12.5 cubic feet per second. That’s about it, he said.
Newer decrees can range from dozens to hundreds of pages, detailing how the water is to be diverted, measured and accounted for.
“Greeley owns a portfolio made up of many different water rights,” Jokerst said. “Some of those water rights are direct diversions from the Poudre River. Some are ownership in irrigation companies.”
Irrigation companies that historically provided irrigation water to farmers can issue shares of stock, basically selling a piece of the water rights held by those companies. The city converts that water from agricultural to municipal use to change the water right, though the city does rent some water rights to agricultural users, maintaining the historic use.
The city also owns water through the Colorado-Big Thompson and Windy Gap projects, as well as water diverted from the Laramie River. With a lot of variability across these different sources, the city’s water experts always plan for the worst case scenario: How much water could we provide to our customers in a drought situation?
Through the current plan, the city can provide about 40,000 acre-feet per year to its customers, well above the roughly 25,000 acre-feet of demand the city sees in a typical year. In a wet year, the city could potentially deliver up to 70,000 acre-feet, to give an idea of the impact of the planned drought.
When the city can, it rents a lot of that water to agricultural partners, renting about 20,000 acre-feet in the past year. In addition to maintaining historic use, this provides a source of revenue and supports Greeley’s agricultural economy, Jokerst said.
Jokerst said he’d consider the city’s “Big Three” sources to be:
Senior direct rights from the Poudre River
Ownership in the Greeley-Loveland Irrigation Company, which feeds the city’s Boyd Lake System
Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) and Windy Gap projects
Jen Petrzelka, water resources operations manager, added the direct and C-BT water is available year round, whereas a lot of the ditch directs only come in during irrigation season, which typically starts about now to early May and runs through the end of September or into October.
Accounting for the city’s diverse portfolio
The city must account for its water on a daily basis, submitting a monthly report to the state. Petrzelka said they manage about 10 different spreadsheets for all the city’s water right decrees…
Petrzelka keeps an eye on the city’s water supply to help prevent the need for watering restrictions. In all, the city has four engineers and scientists who manage the various decrees and operations, plus three workers out in the field, according to Jokerst.
The state ensures water users aren’t causing injury to other users’ water rights, with local river commissioners dedicated throughout the state. Jokerst compared the commissioners to a referee in a sports game.
“Any time we change the way we’re operating, whether that be our releases or operating an exchange, we have to get their approval,” Petrzelka said.
When agricultural water rights are changed, Jokerst said, some water is owed back to the river, just as the water historically returned to the river and groundwater after agricultural use.
“A lot of what we do is add water back to the river to compensate for those irrigation rights that we changed,” he said.
In addition to enforcement by river commissioners, everybody watches their neighbors, keeping track of what other users are doing on a day-to-day basis. Part of that monitoring happens in water court, where decisions about decrees are settled…
Greeley has a steady stream of water court cases the city must defend in court, according to Jokerst, as well as cases involving other entities in which the city enters opposition to protect its water rights. As of this past week, the city was involved in 32 water court cases.
“Water court cases are really just a structured negotiation where the applicant and the opposers reach agreement on whatever it is the applicant is trying to do,” Jokerst said. “All the parties involved negotiate an outcome that protects all their water and gets the applicant what they need.”
Petrzelka and Jokerst estimated the city’s water court costs at about $500,000 this year, mostly covering the costs of outside attorneys and engineers. Internal legal counsel also helps guide the department, Jokerst said.
Here’s the release from the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka):
Five Directors were reappointed to the Board of Directors of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and were sworn in on Thursday, April 15, 2021.
Reappointed are: Seth Clayton, Executive Director of Pueblo Water, representing Pueblo County, and Secretary of the Board; Andrew Colosimo, Government Affairs Manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, representing El Paso County; Greg Felt, Chaffee County Commissioner and a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board; Carl McClure, a Crowley County farmer; and Howard “Bub” Miller, an Otero County farmer and rancher.
The Southeastern District is the state agency responsible for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. The Fry-Ark Project includes Pueblo Reservoir, Twin Lakes, Turquoise Reservoir, Mount Elbert Forebay and Power Plant at Twin Lakes, Ruedi Reservoir, a West Slope Collection System, and the Boustead Tunnel.
The Fry-Ark Project is designed to import 69,200 acre-feet annually for use by cities and farms in the Arkansas River basin from the Fryingpan River watershed near Basalt. Fry-Ark Operating Principles list environmental conditions that must be met when water is diverted.
The District also operates the James W. Broderick Hydropower Plant at Pueblo Dam, which was completed in 2019 under a Lease of Power Privilege with Reclamation.
The District is working with Reclamation to build the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a pipeline that will deliver a clean source of drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 communities east of Pueblo.
The District includes parts of nine counties, and has 15 directors who are appointed to 4-year terms by a panel of District Court judges.
Other directors of the Board are: President Bill Long, Bent County; Vice-President Curtis Mitchell, El Paso County; Treasurer Ann Nichols, El Paso County; Pat Edelmann and Mark Pifher, El Paso County; Patrick Garcia and Alan Hamel, Pueblo County; Tom Goodwin, Fremont County; Kevin Karney, at-large; and Dallas May, Prowers and Kiowa Counties.
Adequate native water supplies coupled with improved Front Range soil moisture from March snowstorms prompted the Northern Water Board of Directors to increase its 2021 quota allocation for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project to 70 percent.
The Board unanimously approved the allocation at its meeting Thursday, April 8, 2021, with several board members participating remotely because of the ongoing pandemic. The Board also directed Northern Water staff to update them in May and June to determine whether an additional allocation would be advisable during the peak demand season.
Emily Carbone, an engineer in the Water Resources Department at Northern Water, outlined snowpack and forecasted streamflows, and the Board also heard about the available native water supplies in regional reservoirs. In addition, the Board heard a presentation about the potential water resources impacts caused by the 2020 East Troublesome Fire. Public input was also considered.
The Board has been setting C-BT quota since 1957 and 70 percent is the most common quota declared. It was also the quota set for the 2019 water delivery season, while the 2020 quota was set at 80 percent. The quota reflects the amount of water to be delivered through the C-BT Project.
The quota increases available C-BT Project water supplies by 62,000 acre-feet from the initial 50 percent quota made available in November. Water from the C-BT Project supplements other sources for 33 cities and towns, 120 agricultural irrigation companies, various industries and other water users within Northern Water’s 1.6 million-acre service area. According to recent census figures, more than 1 million residents now live inside Northern Water’s boundaries. To learn more about Northern Water and the C-BT quota, visit http://www.northernwater.org.
Here’s the release from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (Charles Poling):
Climate change will drive more drought, heat waves, floods, and low river flows in seven western states
In the vast Colorado River basin, climate change is driving extreme, interconnected events among earth-system elements such as weather and water. These events are becoming both more frequent and more intense and are best studied together, rather than in isolation, according to new research.
“We found that concurrent extreme hydroclimate events, such as high temperatures and unseasonable rain that quickly melt mountain snowpack to cause downstream floods, are projected to increase and intensify within several critical regions of the Colorado River basin,” said Katrina Bennett, a hydrologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author of the paper in the journal Water. “Concurrent extreme events of more than one kind, rather than isolated events of a single type, will be the ones that actually harm people, society, and the economy.”
Another example of concurrent hydroclimate events might be low precipitation accompanied by high temperatures, which cause drought as an impact. Other factors such as low soil moisture or wildfire burn scars on steep slopes contribute to impacts.
“You never have just a big precipitation event that causes a big flood,” Bennett said. “It results from a combination of impacts, such as fire, topography, and whether it was a wet or dry summer. That’s the way we need to start thinking about these events.”
The Los Alamos study looked heat waves, drought, flooding, and low flows in climate scenarios taken from six earth-system models for the entire Colorado River basin. The basin spans portions of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California.
Using indicators such as maximum temperature, maximum precipitation, dry days, maximum and minimum streamflow, maximum and minimum soil moisture, and maximum evapotranspiration, the team ran the models for a historical period (1970-1999) and a projected future period (2070-2099). They studied the difference between the two periods (future minus historical) for events at four time scales: daily, monthly, seasonal, and annual.
Overall, precipitation across the Colorado increased by 2.1 millimeters between the future and historical periods, with some models showing increases in precipitation and some showing decreases. Nonetheless, the team found that in all cases, precipitation changes still drove an increase in concurrent extreme events.
Unsurprisingly, temperature increased across all six models and was an even stronger catalyst of events. Consistently across the entire basin, the study found an average temperature rise of 5.5 degrees Celsius between the future and historical periods.
In every scenario, the number and magnitude of each type of extreme event increased on average across the Colorado River Basin for the future period compared to the historical period. These numbers were given as a statistical expression of the change in frequency between the historical and future period, not as a count of discrete events.
Those increases have significant social, economic, and environmental implications for the entire region, which is a major economic engine for the United States. The study identified four critical watersheds in the Colorado basin — the Blue River basin, Uncompahgre, East Taylor, Salt/Verde watersheds — that are home to important water infrastructures, water resources, and hydrological research that would be particularly vulnerable to extreme events in the future.
More than 40 million people depend on the Colorado River basin for water, and it directly supports $1.4 trillion in agricultural and commercial activity — roughly 1/13 of the U.S. economy, according to 2014 figures.
In Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, flooding, drought, freezing events, wildfire, severe storms, and winter storms have cost approximately $40 billion between 1980–2020.
The Paper: “Concurrent Changes in Extreme Hydroclimate Events in the Colorado River Basin,” Katrina E. Bennett (corresponding author), Carl Talsma, and Riccardo Boero, in Water 2021, 13, 978, April 1, 2021. https://doi.org/10.3390/w13070978
The Funding: This work was funded by the Early Career Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
A federal judge has thrown out a legal action from multiple environmental organizations seeking to halt the expansion of a key Denver Water storage facility, citing no legal authority to address the challenge.
“This decision is an important step,” said Todd Hartman, a spokesperson for Denver Water. “We will continue working earnestly through Boulder’s land-use process and look forward to beginning work on a project critical to water security for 1½ million people and to our many partners on the West Slope and Front Range.”
The expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County is intended to provide additional water storage and safeguard against future shortfalls during droughts. The utility currently serves customers in Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Douglas and Adams counties. In July 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its approval for the design and construction of the reservoir’s expansion. The project would add 77,000 acre-feet of water storage and 131 feet to the dam’s height for the utility’s “North System” of water delivery.
FERC’s approval was necessary because Denver Water has a hydropower license through the agency, and it provided the utility with a two-year window to start construction.
A coalition of environmental groups filed a petition in U.S. District Court for Colorado against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking to rescind those agencies’ previous authorizations for the project. They argued the agencies inadequately considered the environmental impact of expansion…
…Denver Water pointed out that under federal law, appellate courts, not district-level trial courts, are responsible for hearing challenges to FERC approvals. By challenging the environmental review process that led to the project’s go-ahead, the government argued, the environmental organizations raised issues “inescapably intertwined with FERC’s licensing process.”
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Christine M. Arguello agreed that the groups’ challenge was indeed wrapped up in the FERC approval.
“[W]here a party does not challenge a FERC order itself, but challenges another agency order that is inextricably linked to the FERC order, the FPA’s exclusive-jurisdiction provision applies and precludes this Court from exercising jurisdiction,” she wrote in dismissing the case.
The Daily Camera reports that Boulder County’s approval is the final step for the expansion project.
Click here for all the inside skinny from Northern Water:
Spring Water Users Meeting
Tuesday, April 6, 2021, 8 a.m. to noon, virtual meeting via Zoom
Each spring Northern Water meets with Colorado-Big Thompson Project allottees and water users to preview the upcoming water delivery and irrigation season, learn about current water and snowpack conditions, runoff and streamflow predictions, progress on future water projects and more. After a discussion of the region’s water outlook, attendees will be able to offer input about the 2021 C-BT quota. This year, attendees also will be able to learn about project updates, as well as Northern Water’s response to the East Troublesome fire in Grand County.
A link to the Zoom meeting will be distributed in the days before the session to those who register.
I do want to clarify a couple of the statements made by people quoted in his article. I think that it is important to point out that the Windy Gap Connectivity Channel is not a drainage ditch, as John Fielder was quoted saying. Instead it is a multi-million-dollar stream channel designed by hydrologists and stream biologists to optimize habitat for macroinvertebrate and trout life and the riparian zone on both sides of the river.
The existing stream channel is at the bottom of a muddy reservoir with no ability to sustain any of these environmental values. A new stream channel around the reservoir will reconnect the disappearing aquatic species below the dam with the healthy species above the reservoir. When Fielder states that this new stream reach will not restore wildlife, he could not be more wrong.
The article ended with quotes from Gary Wockner that I feel need a reality check. His suggested solutions to Colorado’s water shortage should be taken with a grain of salt.
His first suggestion was to dry up agricultural land. Doing so has played a major role in damaging the Fraser and Upper Colorado rivers. Ranches that used to divert water from those rivers returned most of that water to those rivers. When Front Range cities bought that agricultural water and took it from the basin of origin to those cities, all of those return flows were lost to the river.
“Buy and Dry” has been bad for our headwaters rivers and for our cultural heritage of ranching. My friends in the ranching business don’t need the target put on their back, and our rivers can’t afford to lose any more return flows.
Gary also proposed ramping up conservation as an important solution to our water shortage. While I applaud this idea, I also know that it is only a piece of the puzzle in the water shortage problem. Every city in the West knows how important of a role conservation plays, and every city in the West has concluded that conservation will not solve their water shortage problems alone.
Conservation, however, is under-utilized here in Colorado and we do need to pick up the pace to help preserve our rivers and the environment that depends on them. We just can’t rely on conservation alone.
Gary’s final point was to stop all growth, stating that he will applaud the sanity of anyone that can accomplish this. I don’t find much reality in this possibility, but if he feels that there is, then I would like to see him use his talents to work toward that goal. This would allow him to work on solving most of Colorado’s problems with the exception maybe of the economy.
There are no easy answers to water issues in the West. We have to consider all possible solutions and avoid the trap of single-minded thinking. Protecting our rivers will require cooperation from every entity that has an impact on our rivers.
This is the reason that Colorado wrote a state Water Plan. If we allow that plan to guide us, conservation organizations, municipalities and the agricultural community will work together to assure that water is distributed equitably. If we decide instead to fight each other over water, all of us will come out losing.
Kirk Klancke is the president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, “an environmental organization with lots of members who like to fish.”
They snowshoed through a campground hidden under soft drifts, stepped carefully to the banks of the Middle Fork of the Williams Fork River, then broke the ice to find free-flowing water.
Nick Riney and Tyler Torelli worked efficiently, dipping a long-poled scoop into the waterway and filling several pint-sized plastic bottles with samples of the cold, clear stream.
Sturdy even in finger-pinching cold, the two set up a make-shift lab on the back end of the Sno-Cat, pulled equipment out of chubby metal suitcases and ran field tests right on the spot. Twenty degrees and snowfall aren’t the ideal working conditions for most, but these guys consider it a “pretty good office” all the same.
And their work on a mid-February day in Grand County gave Denver Water’s Water Quality Operations team an early look at how last summer’s Williams Fork Fire, which burned nearly 15,000 acres northeast of Silverthorne, might have affected the water flowing through the area.
See and hear what’s required to do this work:
By sampling water as it pours through the mountains, long before it reaches any reservoirs or treatment plants, Denver Water can understand what’s happening on the landscape. Samples that veer from typical readings could indicate unexpected pollution, echoes of old mining activity or, increasingly, the impacts of forest fires.
Understanding those impacts helps prepare water quality experts for potential impacts to reservoirs or treatment processes.
The field test results came back in a healthy range, with no indication yet that a significant amount of sediment left by the summer of record fires in Colorado had ended up in the water.
“That’ll change,” Riney said, as the winter turns to spring and melting snow and monsoons more readily pull soil and ash from the scorched hillsides to the east of the tributary.
“But right now, this water is clean. Turbidity is low. We like to see that,” he said. “We’ll keep tracking these spots every month and try to understand just how much damage this fire did to the landscape.”
To be sure, the burned lands around the Williams Fork River don’t present a risk to Denver’s drinking water, primarily because this water travels to an “exchange” reservoir, where it will be sent down the Colorado River to make up for other West Slope water that is diverted to the Front Range.
Even so, understanding the impacts of the fire on water quality is important, allowing Denver Water and its partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, to take steps to prepare for, and reduce, those effects.
Denver Water recently began making monthly treks to this high-country stream to monitor a wetland protection project nearby. The utility has long made quarterly trips to the area as part of its broader field-testing program to track water quality across its mountain watershed.
To collect samples from the Middle Fork stream, Riney and Torelli towed a Sno-Cat up and over Ute Pass Road off Highway 9, turned south in County Road 30 and went to work near Sugarloaf Campground.
“This sampling work keeps us well attuned to what’s happening in our watershed and can at times serve as an early warning for issues we may need to be watching out for further downstream,” said James Berrier, water quality monitoring supervisor at Denver Water. “We want to understand, is this just a temporary issue or something that could have a longer-term impact?”
Sampling teams measure for an array on indicators. In the field, they look at temperature, pH (which measures acidity), conductivity (which helps determine salt levels), turbidity and dissolved oxygen, which is an important factor for aquatic life.
Other water samples are transported back to Denver Water’s laboratory at the Marston Treatment Plant in southwest Denver (which will be moving in the future to its new home at Denver’s emerging National Western Center). Tests there include measuring for fluoride, chloride, nitrates, E. coli, nutrients and dissolved metal.
Samples collected a few months from now may shed light on how much damage the Williams Fork fire did to the land.
Burn levels also can show up in water quality, through indicators such as ash, sediment, metals and other signatures.
“Soil erosion modelling predicts that post-fire erosion rates are generally very low (close to pre-fire conditions) in areas with minimal fire impacts on ground cover and soils. However, rates of erosion increase dramatically … in moderate and high soil burn severity areas, especially on steeper slopes,” according to the response team’s December 2020 assessment.
Denver Water has already accumulated significant expertise and partnerships related to wildfire impacts. Collaborative efforts include From Forests to Faucets, a team approach from Denver Water, the Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Colorado State Forest Service.
These agencies, together with local groups, address overgrown forests on the front end with tree-thinning projects and repairing landscapes damaged by the kind of intense fires that dramatically slow the recovery of soils and vegetation.
“We have experience, unfortunately, with the havoc that wildfires and their aftermath can wreak on our water quality,” Berrier said, referencing major fires in the late 1990s and early 2000s that put enormous strain on reservoirs and treatment on the south end of Denver Water’s collection system, challenges that the utility is still working to overcome today.
“Tracking impacts to the water once the fires are out is a key step in getting our arms around what might be in store in the years to come.”
OK is first step toward dam and reservoir on Homestake Creek
The U.S. Forest Service on Monday approved an application from the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs for geotechnical drilling in the Homestake Valley, one of the first steps toward building a new dam and reservoir on Homestake Creek.
The approval allows the cities, operating together as Homestake Partners, to drill 10 bore samples up to 150 feet deep and for crews on the ground to collect geophysical data. The goal of the work, which is expected to begin in late summer and last 50 to 60 days, is a “fatal flaw” feasibility study to determine whether the soil and bedrock could support a dam and reservoir.
The project, known as Whitney Reservoir, would be located near the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which is six miles south of Red Cliff. Various configurations of the project show it holding between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet of water. The area is home to a rare kind of groundwater-fed wetland with peat soils known as a fen.
Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis approved the project despite receiving a total of 775 comments on the drilling proposal during the scoping period. According to the public scoping comment summary, the most common topics commenters had concerns about included the potential loss of wilderness, the destruction of fens and wetlands, impacts to water quality and disturbance to wildlife.
But just 80 letters — about 10% — were individual comments that the Forest Service considered substantive and specific to the geotechnical investigation. Most comments were form-letter templates from organizations such as Carbondale-based conservation group Wilderness Workshop or pertained to concerns about the Whitney Reservoir project as a whole, not the geotechnical drilling.
“A lot of the public comments were pertaining to a reservoir, and the proposal is not for a reservoir; it’s for just those 10 geotechnical bore holes,” Veldhuis said.
Many commenters also said the level of analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act wasn’t appropriate and questioned why the proposal was granted a categorical exclusion, rather than undergoing the more rigorous Environmental Analysis typical of big projects on Forest Service land. Veldhuis said the geotechnical investigation, a common occurrence on public lands, didn’t rise to the level of an EA; that could come later with any reservoir proposal.
“If the future holds any additional sort of proposal, then that would trigger a brand-new analysis with additional rounds of public comments,” she said. “Any future proposals for anything more would undergo an even bigger environmental analysis than this underwent.”
The proposed Whitney Reservoir would pump water from lower Homestake Creek back to Homestake Reservoir, about five miles upstream. Then it would go through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir, near Leadville, and then to the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs. The idea of expanding the intrastate plumbing system to take more water from the headwaters of the Colorado River over to thirsty and growing Front Range cities doesn’t sit well with many people and organizations.
Wilderness Workshop issued a news release saying it would oppose the reservoir project every step of the way. The organization also launched an online petition Monday to rally opposers, which had already garnered more than 200 signatures as of Monday evening.
“We would like to see the Forest Service change course,” said Juli Slivka, Wilderness Workshop’s conservation director. The decision was discouraging, she said, but Wilderness Workshop will continue pressuring the federal agency. “The idea of moving water from the Western Slope to the Front Range is not very appreciated out here.”
Eagle River MOU
But Front Range municipalities are not the only ones set to benefit from a new water-storage project. The Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding lays out a plan for both Front Range and Western Slope entities to develop water in the upper Eagle River basin. The agreement, signed in 1998, provides 20,000 acre-feet of water a year to Homestake Partners and 10,000 acre-feet a year to the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and Vail Resorts, known collectively in the MOU as the “Reservoir Company.”
The Reservoir Company is not an applicant in the drilling proposal and none of the Western Slope entities that are parties to the MOU submitted comments on the drilling proposal.
Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, said the water provider supports Homestake Partners’ right to pursue an application for their water.
“We trust the permitting process to bring all impacts and benefits to light for the community to consider and weigh in total,” Johnson said in an email.
The Forest Service also determined that impacts to wetlands from the drilling are negligible. Homestake Partners plans to place temporary mats across wetland areas to protect vegetation and soils from the people and machinery crossing Homestake Creek. In a June letter, a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the work did not require a permit from that agency.
The Forest Service also conducted a biological assessment and found that the drilling would not impact endangered Canada lynx.
This story ran in the March 23 edition of The Vail Daily and The Aspen Times.
U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis approved the cities’ plan Monday to drill into the high-alpine Homestake Valley and test whether the underlying geology could support a reservoir diverting water from the Colorado River to the growing municipalities.
It’s an early, key step in the effort to build the new reservoir, which would be called the Whitney Reservoir, in the National Forest about six miles southwest of the town of Red Cliff.
The cities have long held the water rights to build the new reservoir and divert the water, usually destined for the beleaguered Colorado River, to thirsty residents in Aurora and Colorado Springs.
With approval in tow, Aurora and Colorado Springs have the green light to test for several possible reservoir sites in the Homestake Valley.
Greg Baker, Aurora Water’s manager of public relations, told the Sentinel last year the reservoir could be built in about 25 years if the complicated approval process pans out. The new reservoir in the Homestake Valley could hold between 6,850 acre-feet and 20,000 acre-feet of water, according to the Forest Service…
Notably, the project requires environmental impact studies and possibly an act of Congress, according to Baker, to shave up to 500 acres from the popular Holy Cross Wilderness. However, he added that the plan is far from set in stone.
The plan has drawn scrutiny from conservation groups concerned about devastating the ancient wetland habitant that retains water — an increasingly scare commodity in the West. Various endangered fish species would be downriver from the dam.
The Colorado River itself has seen reduced flows in recent decades, in part because of human-induced climate change. Many environmentalists argue that as much water as possible should be left in the river, which multiple states and Mexico rely on…
Baker said in an email that the drilling study is “routine.”
“We value the collaborative process involved in exploring alternatives that minimize environmental impacts, are cost effective, can be permitted by local, state, and federal agencies, and which will meet the water requirements of the project partners,” he said.
Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan represents seven counties that include communities like Aspen and Crested Butte. In a letter opposing the project, Donovan wrote that, “she can’t express how sternly the people in her district dislike water diversion projects to the front range,” according to CPR.
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
These wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley are near the site of the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The Forest Service is considering whether to issue a permit for drilling and a geotechnical study to test whether the site would support a dam. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
A map from Colorado Springs Utilities that shows how tunnels could bring water to Whitney Reservoir from Fall and Peterson creeks, and from the Eagle River. The map also shows the route of a pipeline to pump water from Whitney Reservoir to Homestake Reservoir.
A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A map prepared by Aurora Water that shows a potential 500-acre adjustment to the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary near the potential Whitney Reservoir on lower Homestake Creek. The map as current as of July 16, 2019.
Homestake Reservoir, which is partially in Pitkin County, but mainly in Eagle County. Below the reservoir the Homestake Creek valley is visible, as well as short section of what’s known as Homestake Road. Water held in the potential Whitney Reservoir would be pumped up to Homestake Reservoir and then sent to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The dam in the Eagle River headwaters that forms Homestake Reservoir, which diverts water to the Front Range. If the wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley contain ancient peat bogs called fens, it could hinder the progress of the Whitney Reservoir project. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journailsm
FromThe Colorado Sun (Michael Booth and Jason Blevins):
The decision to let the Front Range water utilities move forward in taking more Western Slope water is only one of countless regulatory hurdles for a future Whitney Reservoir, but conservation groups say they are adamantly against any new water transfers to suburban water users across the Continental Divide and will oppose every approval step.
Colorado Headwaters, which opposes any new dams and water transfers, said it expected the approval but remains steadfast against any progress on the project. “We don’t think it will ever be built,” president Jerry Mallett said. “They haven’t done a transmountain diversion in 45 years. Water on the Colorado River is dropping from climate change. We don’t want to lose those natural resources.”
The decision from White River said the approval applies only to drilling 10 test bore holes the utilities applied for, and does not have bearing on any future decisions should the cities pursue the dam north of Camp Hale. The proposed reservoir would hold about 20,000 acre feet…
The cities partnered with Eagle County, the Colorado Water Conservation District, Vail Resorts and other Western Slope water users in 1998 in a deal that gave water rights to Eagle River communities and developed the 3,300 acre-foot Eagle Park Reservoir on the Climax Mine property.
The 1998 Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding included plans for possible reservoirs along Homestake Creek. The agreement — which brought together a diverse group of downstream users as “Homestake Partners” in the Eagle River Joint Use Water Project — also affirmed that no partner could object to a new reservoir plan if it met the memorandum’s agreement to “minimize environmental impacts” and could be permitted by local, state and federal agencies.
The proposed Whitney Reservoir project is not new and “represents our continued pursuit to develop water rights in existence for many years,” Colorado Springs Utilities spokeswoman Jennifer Kemp said.
Kemp said the cities have developed alternatives to building a new reservoir in the Homestake Creek drainage but those other options have not been proposed or discussed publicly. The results of the test boring and geotechnical work will help the two cities vet possible alternatives…
Environmental groups oppose new dams on Homestake in part because they would take water out of tributaries that feed the already-depleted Colorado River. But they are also focused on preserving complex wetlands called “fens” that develop over the long term and support diverse wildlife. They say fens cannot easily be recreated in any mitigation work that utilities traditionally include in dam proposals.
The headwaters group also questions why the Forest Service would encourage any steps when completion of a dam appears impossible. The utility proposals include shrinking the size of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area to create dam access, “which Congress will never approve,” Mallett said.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Aurora and Colorado Springs want to bring more of that water to their growing cities, which are the state’s largest after Denver. To do that, they want to dam up Whitney Creek in Eagle County south of Minturn and create a reservoir that could supply water for thousands of new homes…
There are a few different spots along the creek that could be the home to the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The largest of the potential sites would hold about 20,000 acre-feet of water…
Tension between protecting wetlands and securing more water for growing cities
[Jerry] Mallett’s group works to restore and protect areas like this one — a wetland with fox and moose tracks in the snow.
Mallett has fought Aurora and Colorado Springs before. After these cities teamed up and built Homestake Reservoir in the 1960s, they tried to build the reservoir Homestake II. That project was shut down in the 1990s.
“We’re not saying you shouldn’t grow or that you’ve got to control the population, that’s your issue,” Mallett said. “Ours is protecting the natural resources for other values.”
Aurora and Colorado Springs are working together because they have the same problem: Planners don’t think they have enough water where they are to support the cities’ expected growth. If the cities get their way and dam up Homestake Creek, it would reduce the amount of water that ends up in the Colorado River — which the Front Range and some 40 million people have come to rely on over the decades…
That’s changed, Mallett said. West Slope communities now see water as a crucial part of keeping their economies alive and now fight for it to stay. Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan represents seven counties that include communities like Aspen and Crested Butte. In a letter opposing the project, Donovan wrote that, “she can’t express how sternly the people in her district dislike water diversion projects to the front range.
“West Slope is not in a position I think today where they’re going to roll over and say, ‘Fine, we’ll lose that water,’” Mallett said. “I think they’ve got the political clout now, it’s a new game.”
If Colorado Springs and Aurora secure permits to build the Whitney Reservoir, it would be the first major trans-mountain water diversion project in decades…
Environmentalists are concerned about losing these wetlands, which are threatened by climate change. Delia Malone, an ecologist and wildlife chair of the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club, said most animals rely on wetlands…
Malone said the proposed reservoir locations could include areas that are home to fens, a type of wetland that is rare in the arid West and supports plant biodiversity. Fens have layers of peat, require thousands of years to develop and are replenished by groundwater. Fens also trap environmental carbon, improve water quality and store water…
Colorado and other states are obligated to send a certain amount of water downstream to states like California because of a century-old agreement. As the Colorado River dries with climate change, and more demand is put on the river, Udall said there’s higher risk for what’s called a “compact call,” a provision that gives downstream states like California authority to demand water from upstream states like Colorado for not sending enough water down the Colorado River.
If that happens, Udall said newer Colorado water projects — including the proposed Whitney Reservoir — could have to cut their usage to make sure enough water is sent downstream.
[Brad] Udall said the best available science is needed to answer the question: Is this water better left in the river or sent to Aurora and Colorado Springs?
“The science really does need to be heard here,” Udall said. “It’s somewhat disturbing and is very different from the science that we used in the 20th century to assess the value and benefits of these kinds of projects.”
Officials in Colorado Springs and Aurora declined CPR News’ interview requests.
Before the cities can move towards building the reservoir, the U.S. Forest Service has to sign off on structural testing and surveying which requires drilling test holes in the wetlands. A decision is expected later this month on that permit, which has received more than 500 public comments, with most arguing against the drilling and the project as a whole.
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The view from Music Pass in the Sand Creek drainage, where a multi-agency effort is unfolding to restore the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)
The Rio Grande cutthroat trout has dwindled in its native habitat. A multi-agency effort to restore it still can inspire anger and concern. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)
Workers administer the plant-based chemical compound rotenone at Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo range. The chemical kills all fish in the waterway so that Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a native species, had be restored to the habitat. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)
A center pivot irrigates a field in the San Luis Valley, where the state is warming farmers that a well shut-down could come much sooner than expected. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado
The West Fork fire complex of 2013 was composed of three fires that burned more than 109,000 acres on mostly public lands managed by the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests. Photo: Jonathan Coop, Western Colorado University via Colorado State University
The Rio Grande near Albuquerque in 2012. Photo credit: City of Albuquerque CC by 2.0 via The New Mexico Political Report
The Conejos River (right) joins the Rio Grande on the 3,200-acre Cross Arrow Ranch southeast of Alamosa. Photo By: John Fielder via Water Education Colorado
Side channels were excavated by the Bureau of Reclamation along the Rio Grande where it passes through the Rhodes’ property to provide habitat for the endangered silvery minnow. (Dustin Armstrong/U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation)
Kyler Brown rides along the Rio Grande River, where headgates divert water into irrigation canals. Coming up with a plan to reduce water use is the easy part, he says. Changing peoples’ behavior is trickier. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
The Rio Grande flowing through the Colorado town of Del Norte. Photo credit: USBR
The headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The drying riverbed of the Middle Rio Grande near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on April 4, 2018. Photo credit: USBR
A cottonwood forest in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Matthew Schmader/Open Space Division
Elephant Butte Dam is filled by the Rio Grande and sustains agriculture in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico. Sarah Tory
Nearly every mature spruce tree has been killed by spruce beetle in this area of the Rio Grande National Forest in southwest Colorado. (Credit: U.S. Forest Service; photo: Brian Howell)
Rio Grande River photo credit Wild Earth Guardians.
Kevin Terry, a project coordinator for Colorado Trout Unlimited, holds up a Rio Grande cutthroat trout at Upper Sand Creek Lake.
Rio Grande River March 2016 via Greg Hobbs.
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument via the Bureau of Land Management
Rio Grande River corridor near Del Norte.
Photo via the Rio Grande Restoration Project
A Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Photo courtesy Andrew Todd.
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia
Rio Grande Pyramid
Rio Grande River near South Fork via Division of Water Resources
“If climate change is the shark, then water is the teeth.” This catchy saying has gained traction over the past several years, which is problematic. The saying appears to have originated from James P. Bruce, a Canadian hydrogeologist and is repeated often in climate and water discussions.
Increasing greenhouse gas emissions and a resulting changing climate does impact water through increased scarcity (aridification), loss of stationarity, and extreme weather events. However, the intersection of climate change and water is complicated and not as simple as the shark and teeth analogy.
If we solve climate change via mitigation and adaptation, we will still not fix our water problems. Poor water policies and governance, overallocation, lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and inadequate investment in water infrastructure are not resolved by fixing the so-called climate crisis. These wicked water problems have root causes that are independent of our failure to address climate change.
The Colorado River Basin is an example.
The American West, including the cities of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Arizona, and Denver (among others) are within the greater Colorado River Basin (CRB), which is now among the world’s most water-stressed regions.
In addition to its environmental value, the economic importance of the CRB cannot be overstated. The Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, which is equivalent to about 1/12 of the total gross domestic product in the U.S1. It is estimated that if 10 percent of the river’s water were unavailable (a decline quite possible under projected climate change scenarios of 10 to 30 percent flow reductions by 2050) there would be a loss of $143 billion in economic activity and 1.6 million jobs, in just one year.
The CRB supplies more than 1 in 10 Americans with some, if not all, of their water for municipal water use, including drinking water2. The CRB provides irrigation to more than 5.5 million acres of land and is essential as a physical, economic, and cultural resource to at least 22 federally recognized tribes. In addition, dams across the Colorado River Basin support 4,200 megawatts of electrical generating capacity, providing power to millions of people and some of the largest cities in the U.S.
It has become clear that under current and projected conditions, the Colorado River is no longer able to meet the demands of its many users. The question is, why?
Western water law is part of the problem. Most western states in the US maintain that all water is owned by the state and allow water rights to be allocated in association with a given property and beneficial use. For the most part, western states follow the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation (the “first in time, first in right” principle), wherein those who first established a claim to, and beneficial use of, water had a right to use such water. Any entity or individual obtaining a permit thereafter is then only able to utilize their water right after senior water rights holders’ allocations are fulfilled.
In addition to each state’s management of water resources, a collection of statutes, court decisions and decrees, interstate agreements, and international treaties emerged from disputes over the allocation of the Colorado River’s water3. This collection of the primary basin-wide agreements governing the CRB is known as “Law of the River”.
How well has the “Law of the River” worked, and how is it adjusting to the impacts of climate change?
The “Law of the River” has not played out well. The CRB has faced increasing water demand from agriculture, urbanization, and industry making competition for water fierce, thus leaving many without access to safe drinking water. Demand was increasing compared to supply before the impacts of climate change were understood.
A recent article provides the history of overallocation and poor public policy along with the triggering of the CRB Drought Contingency Plan. During compact negotiations in the 1920s, records showed the river’s annual flows were lower than the total 17.5 million acre-feet allocated to the seven states and Mexico. In fact, three different studies during the 1920s estimated natural river flows at Lee Ferry at between 14.3 million acre-feet and 16.1 million acre-feet. Planners chose to ignore that information and evidence showing that the basin regularly experienced long periods of drought. In the lower basin, California, Nevada and Arizona have long overused their share of the river (approximately 7.5 million acre-feet annually, averaged over 10-year rolling cycles), whereas the upper basin states have yet to use more than around 4 million acre-feet (of the “remaining” 7.5 million acre-feet originally intended, but not necessarily guaranteed, for them).
The hot dry conditions that melted strong snowpack early in 2020 and led to severe drought, low river flows and record setting wildfires across the state could be a harbinger of what is to come in Colorado.
Climate change is likely to drive “chaotic weather” and greater extremes with hotter droughts and bigger snowstorms that will be harder to predict, said Kenneth Williams, environmental remediation and water resources program lead at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, headquartered in California.
“We are looking to be moving toward a future that is really decoupled from the past,” said Williams, who is leading a long-term watershed research project in Crested Butte.
In 2020, the Colorado River system had 100% of average snowpack on April 1 but then thwarted expectations when it didn’t deliver the 90% to 110% of average runoff that water managers could typically predict. The river system only saw 52% of average runoff because water was soaked up by dry soils and evaporated during a dry, warm spring, said Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University.
“It’s not typical, but it could very well be our future,” he said.
The 2020 drought will end at some point, but that appears unlikely this spring with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasting above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation through March, April and May.
Conditions could improve more rapidly on the eastern plains with big spring and summer rain, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist.
In the larger picture, breaking the drought across the vast Colorado River Basin will likely take a string of winters with much above average snowfall, Schumacher said.
In the long term, conditions across the Southwest are going to become more arid as average temperatures rise, driven by greenhouse gas emissions, Udall said, with lower soil moisture and stream flows among the negative impacts.
The 19-year stretch of only intermittingly interrupted drought from 2000 to 2018 in the Southwest U.S. was exceeded only by a late 1500s megadrought, the journal Science reported in a paper this year…
New reservoirs could play a role in the future, but construction alone cannot resolve the coming water woes.
“Anyone who thinks they can build themselves out of climate change is nuts,” Udall said. “There is a limit to the amount of storage that’s helpful.”
Too much storage can sit empty and if the water is allowed to sit for too long a valuable portion is lost to evaporation, he said.
In the highly variable years of climate-related weather to come, keeping water flowing to homes and farms will take better planning and a much better understanding of the “water towers of the West,” the remote peaks where significant amounts of snow accumulate above 8,000 feet.
Water managers are keen to know not just how much water may flow into rivers and streams, but when, and also what it might contain because as water flows drop water quality is also likely to be more of a concern…
The rapid change has left water managers and researchers in need of better data to understand short-term trends, such as how much runoff to expect this year and longer-term shifts.
Traditionally Colorado and the West have relied on a network of more than 800 snow telemetry sites — SNOTELS, as they are called by the Natural Resources Conservation Service — that automatically collect snowpack, temperature and precipitation. But now more snow is falling at elevations above the SNOTELS and aerial observations are needed to provide an alternative source of data on snowpack utilities and others wouldn’t otherwise know about, Williams said…
So Denver Water is forming a new collaborative to bring utilities, including Colorado Springs Utilities and other water users, such as water conservancy districts that serve farmers and ranchers, together to fund statewide flights, which can be quite expensive, she said.
The formal planning work around what data to collect and funding flights is set to begin in April and already the collaborative has attracted members from across the state, Kaatz said.
The group hopes to start funding the flights in about a year to provide the high quality data to water managers, Kaatz said. Having that data will be a valuable asset in Colorado’s semi-arid climate as it warms, she said.
“Warming is here and now. It’s not the next generation’s challenge.”
The rapid spring runoff is often the star in the water world. But high elevation groundwater is key to feeding streams in the late summer and winter, helping to sustain fish and late season irrigation. It is also an important source for reservoirs, said Rosemary Carroll, a hydrologist with the Desert Research Institute and collaborator on the Department of Energy projects in Crested Butte.
When Carroll started studying groundwater in the upper Gunnison watershed, she expected to find water that had percolated through the soil for two or three years before reaching streams. Instead, she’s found groundwater about a decade old, which has benefits and drawbacks during dry times, she said.
If the watershed is in a shorter drought, the groundwater can act as a buffer supplying old water that fell as snow and rain years ago, she said. But if it is a sustained drought then the absence of water from the system persists through a lack of groundwater, she said.
If the area continues to see hotter drier conditions, it’s likely that groundwater coming to the surface would be older and there will be less groundwater available to support streams, she said.
As Colorado Springs Utilities braces to absorb hundreds of thousands of new residents in the coming decades amid hotter weather, it is looking to conservation, agriculture, and new water supplies from the Colorado and Arkansas rivers to help fill the gap.
Utilities examined 50 future climate scenarios to prepare its latest 50-year plan and settled on a future that will be on average 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer with no change in average precipitation, instead of relying on historical weather trends to make projections, said Kevin Lusk, a water engineer with Utilities…
As new neighborhoods take shape, particularly in Banning Lewis Ranch, Utilities is planning for the city’s population to increase 53% from about 470,000 people to 723,000, the 50-year plan states. As those residents move in, the city’s annual water demands are expected to rise from 95,000 acre feet a year to 136,000 acre feet a year…
For Colorado Springs, reservoirs are already a key piece of a complex water system that brings 80% of the 95,000 acre feet of water the city uses annually into the area.
The largest amount of new water supply, 90,000 to 120,000 acre feet of water, is expected to come from the new or enlarged reservoirs or water storage within the Arkansas River basin, according to the 50-year plan. One of those projects could be a new reservoir or gravel pit complex between Twin Lakes and Pueblo Reservoirs, the plan states.
Utilities may also build additional reservoir space in the Colorado River watershed, and it is working with Aurora on a highly controversial new reservoir in the Holy Cross Wilderness in Eagle County. The U.S. Forest Service is expected to make a decision soon on whether to permit the exploration of the new reservoir’s feasibility…
Through conservation, Utilities expects to save 10,000 to 13,000 acre feet of water annually, said Patrick Wells, general manager with Colorado Springs Utilities Water Resources and Demand Management. The city’s watering restrictions adopted last year that limit outdoor watering to three days a week from May 1 to Oct. 15 are meant to help achieve long-term water savings and more than 550 acre feet of water was saved in the first year, he said.
In the future, water owned by agricultural interests, particularly farmers and ranches in the Lower Arkansas River basin, will also play a key role. But rather than purchase it outright, Utilities is looking to lease 15,000 to 25,000 new acre feet of water annually.
The leases are a move away from purchasing farms and their associated water rights outright and transferring that water to the city, a practice called buy and dry. In the 1970s, farmers sold the water rights that previously served 45,000 acres in Crowley County leaving only 5,000 acres in production, The Gazette reported previously.
Cities bought water outright from agriculture through the early 2000s as the primary means of transfer, said Scott Lorenz, water sharing senior project manager with Colorado Springs Utilities.
Now, the state and city are focused on lease agreements that can serve farmers in dry times, he said. For example, in a dry year a farm may not have enough water to put all the fields in production, the producer can lease some water to the city and earn money through the water instead, Lorenz said.
Compensating farmers for their water and taking land out of production can have consequences, however, because it can disrupt the overall agriculture market when farmers aren’t buying seed or materials or employing laborers, said Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. The buyers the farms supply may also go elsewhere for products if farms aren’t producing annually, he said.
Utilities’ already has several lease agreements in place, including one in perpetuity with the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association, a group that replaces the water taken from the Arkansas River through wells. As farmers pump from ground wells supplied by the river, the association ensures water flows back into the river so that downstream residents in Kansas receive their full water rights.
The city has agreed to lease water from the association five out of every ten years and pay for its water every year, said Bill Grasmick, association president. The city also paid for a new reservoir that the association is already using.
The decision of who gets to sit at that table, whose interests are represented, and what’s on the menu is still very much in flux. But the uncertainty isn’t stopping would-be participants from voicing concerns they feel leaders in the southwestern watershed can no longer ignore.
And when it comes to the water supply for 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, the stakes are much higher than a one-night feast.
“Who’s at the existing table?”
Late last year, the seven states that make up the Colorado River basin — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, California, Nevada and Arizona — made clear that after a federal government-induced year-long pause to negotiations, they were ready to start negotiating future policies.
In a letter dated Dec. 17 to then-Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, water officials gave notice they were “initiating preliminary conversations with one another,” to figure out how to operate the river’s biggest reservoirs.
The talks are focused on creating policy past 2026, when a current set of guidelines established in 2007 expires. The 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for the first time addressed the issue of looming water shortages in the basin, and linked the operations of Lakes Powell and Mead. While those who negotiated the agreement slapped each other on the back in Las Vegas, plenty of others in the basin said it failed to truly address the wide range of problems that have plagued the watershed for decades.
When water managers negotiated that major policy overhaul in 2007, the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the watershed were left out.
Daryl Vigil of the Jicarilla-Apache Nation says that’s also true for a landmark 2012 study that calculated water supplies and demands in the basin. According to a letter sent by 17 tribal leaders to the federal government about the 2007 guidelines, it’s only been in the last five years that tribes have seen the federal government meaningfully engage with them on Colorado River issues. Even now, as basin leaders commit to more tribal inclusivity this time around, the mechanism to do so doesn’t currently exist.
“There’s no process at all in the current structure to have inclusivity of tribes,” Vigil said.
Vigil is a co-leader of the Water & Tribes Initiative. The initiative receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage. The project’s main goal is to build capacity of tribes to participate in the renegotiation of the 2007 guidelines, Vigil said.
For all the talk of consensus-building in the watershed, up until now it’s only been among a narrow group of players, Vigil said. Many other perspectives, like the river’s cultural and spiritual value or its ecological role in some of the driest reaches of the country, are ignored or rejected.
“Who’s at the existing table? The existing table in terms of policy in the Colorado River truly is controlled by the basin states and the federal government,” Vigil said…
Tribal leaders aren’t the only people who’ve been summarily excluded in the past. Environmentalists, recreation advocates, scientists and water officials from Mexico have also been left out of various agreements in the past, depending on the issue at hand.
FromThe Associated Press (John Locher) via Tucson.com:
Less water for the Central Arizona Project — but not zero water.
Even more competition between farms and cities for dwindling Colorado River supplies than there is now.
More urgency to cut water use rather than wait for seven river basin states to approve new guidelines in 2025 for operating the river’s reservoirs.
That’s where Arizona and the Southwest are heading with water, say experts and environmental advocates following publication of a dire new academic study on the Colorado River’s future.
The study warned that the river’s Upper and Lower basin states must sustain severe cuts in river water use to keep its reservoir system from collapsing due to lack of water.
That’s due to continued warming weather and other symptoms of human-caused climate change, the study said.
The study from Utah State University said Arizona and the other two Lower River Basin states may have to slash their take from the river up to 40% by 2050 to keep reservoirs from falling too low. The other Lower Basin states are California and Nevada.
The study also says the four Upper Basin states must dramatically scale back or kill plans to divert more water from an already depleted river. Those states are Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The study appeared as the seven states are preparing to renegotiate the operating guidelines that expire at the end of 2025.
More immediately, the first cutbacks in Central Arizona Project deliveries from the river — primarily to Central Arizona farmers — appear likely for next year…
Eric Kuhn, one of the new study’s co-authors, speculated that over time, the Central Arizona Project will make a bunch of deals with irrigators along the river to buy water rights, following the footsteps of Colorado and Southern California water transfers.
“CAP water flows uphill to the money. Municipalities in Central Arizona have political power and money. How many votes are there along the river vs. how many votes there are in Maricopa County?” said Kuhn, retired director of the Colorado River Water District in Glenwood Springs.
It’s pretty clear the Imperial Irrigation District, the river basin’s largest water user by far, will also be a target for future water transactions to help cities, [Mark] Udall said. Imperial takes more than one-third of the Lower Basin’s 7.5 million acre-feet annual supply from the river…
Upcoming negotiations: Arizona’s top water officials and some outside water experts and activists are taking different stances toward the impending seven-state river negotiations.
Those talks should start sometime this year, although the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the reservoirs, isn’t being specific on when.
It’s working on developing a plan “that ensures that all of our partners on the river are able to participate and contribute in a collaborative and meaningful way,” bureau spokeswoman Patricia Aaron said…
Reacting to the negotiations and the new study, a CAP official said that agency has long understood risks to the Colorado River system associated with a hotter, drier future, and realizes that more work is needed to address them for the longer term…
The state has a good start in preparing for the seven-state talks, thanks to the structure of water interest groups the state assembled to put together the 2019 drought plan, said ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke.
“We anticipate looking at a variety of hydrologic futures, how they might impact lake levels, how we might protect those lake levels under those hydrologic scenarios, as well as how our efforts might equate to the frequency or magnitude of reductions,” Buschatzke said…
Retiring coal-fired power plants faster than now planned can save water because they use a lot, Bahr said.
Having water priced more “appropriately” — charging more for water use beyond what homeowners need for drinking, cooking and bathing, is also advisable, she said — something Tucson already does in its water rate structure.
Amid dry soils and struggling snowpack in Denver Water’s collection area, longer-term Colorado River challenges also loom large.
Denver Water’s supply managers are closely attuned to the dry weather, lagging snowpack and poor soil moisture in its mountainous collection area that could mean heightened efforts to conserve water this summer.
At the same time, the utility is closely engaged with a more persistent and growing long-term challenge: a drying trend across the seven-state Colorado River Basin.
The two issues go hand-in-hand.
While early snowpack has been underwhelming, a few recent storms brought us closer to average in the two nearby basins that matter most to Denver Water: The South Platte and the Colorado.
Even so, the long-running drought across the southwestern United States persists. And earlier this year, a new warning was triggered after updated projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation suggested poor inflows to Lake Powell could put the reservoir at a level low enough to take new steps.
In short, the BOR said Lake Powell — the massive storage vessel that serves as the bank account for the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — is at risk of falling below an elevation of 3,525 feet in 2022.
That’s important to Denver Water and many Colorado water users as a century-old law requires states in the upper basin to send a certain allotment out of Lake Powell each year to the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.
Under major agreements developed between the federal government and the seven states in 2019 called drought contingency plans, Reclamation’s projection initiates a planning process with water leaders across the upper basin states to address ways to avoid further elevation declines in Powell.
This is a trigger point to say, “Hey, it’s time to ramp up our monitoring and planning, to be ready to address the potential further decline in reservoir levels,” explained Rick Marsicek, planning manager for Denver Water. “This was a metric, developed to ensure the upper basin states focus harder on next steps should Lake Powell be at risk of hitting that level.”
Planners focused on 3,525 feet as a trigger point, so as to have time to act before Lake Powell falls another 35 feet, which would threaten its ability to send enough water through turbines to generate hydropower, another important element of Powell’s operations. Hydroelectricity at the dam provides power to more than 5 million customers.
It’s an initial step toward drought contingency plans, which could be triggered as early as 2022 in the Upper Basin. The lower basin’s DCP was triggered last year, when projected shortages in Lake Mead, the other gargantuan Colorado River reservoir — a sister of sorts to Powell — required Arizona and Nevada to pull smaller amounts from supplies stored there.
All of this movement comes amid other developments important to Denver Water and water interests throughout Colorado.
The state of Colorado is working with water providers and users across the state to gauge the potential of a “demand management” plan. Such a plan would compensate water users to temporarily and voluntarily conserve water that would flow instead to Lake Powell as a deposit in a sort of bank account. Such a “pool” of water would maintain critical water levels in Lake Powell and could later be released if necessary to assure Colorado River Compact compliance.
Water users kicked off a study related to demand management in 2020. Irrigators in the Kremmling area fallowed some parcels as part of a detailed study on how high-elevation farmland would respond should water be left off the land in some growing seasons.
At the same time, the basin states, in partnership with the federal government, are beginning to dig into a new set of guidelines to help manage river supplies that must be complete in 2026, when an existing set of interim guidelines is set to expire. These guidelines co-exist with the 1922 Colorado River Compact and numerous other agreements that make of the “law of the river,” which split the river between the two big basins and the country of Mexico.
Closer to home, Denver Water and other metro area and Front Range water providers are coordinating in preparation for a year when they may have to toughen summer watering restrictions to address a dry winter and spring. It’s too early yet to know for sure how supplies will look, but the meetings that kicked off this month are an effort to get ahead of the situation and see where watering and conservation messages can be aligned to help the public understand the potential need to reduce outdoor irrigation between May and October.
“There is a lot happening, and that’s a good thing,” Marsicek said. “Far better to overplan and overprepare than to simply hope for the best. We’ve had drought years before, and we have a long-term drought now in the Colorado River Basin. By working together and planning not just for a hot summer, but for a drier long-term future, we can meet this challenge with our eyes wide open.”
The San Juan Water Commission authorized Director Aaron Chavez to request a release from Lake Nighthorse in an attempt to capture that water for San Juan County residents — if the conditions are right.
The San Juan Water Commission hopes to someday have a pipeline that can reduce the losses from the river if a release from Lake Nighthorse is requested. However that pipeline does not yet exist.
That means the only way to deliver water from Lake Nighthorse to the City of Farmington is through the Animas River, and that has never been tried before.
The City of Farmington requested the action as it hopes to gather data while the river levels are low and the irrigators are not pulling water out of the river, the city’s Community Works Director David Sypher explained during the Feb. 3 meeting…
The proposed release would either be 40 cubic feet per second or 53 cubic feet per second. The release would last for five days and the City of Farmington would draw the water out of the Animas River using its pump at the Penny Lane diversion…
Chavez said during low flows he anticipates it could take 103 hours for the water to reach Penny Lane and there will likely be loss along the way. The water commission is projecting that 30 cubic feet of water per second would reach Penny Lane if 40 cubic feet per second was released. One reason Farmington hopes to do the release is to get better data about the amount of water lost.
If this release occurs, it will likely happen in March and it would cost $4,500 to $6,000 to replace the water in Lake Nighthorse. Sypher and Chavez would work together to ensure none of the water released from Lake Nighthorse passes the diversion at Penny Lane, where the pump station would take the water to Lake Farmington…
Multiple organizations would need to be notified, requiring two weeks of notification. These include the Colorado and New Mexico offices of the state engineer as well as the Animas-La Plata Association…
There has never been a release from Lake Nighthorse upon request of the San Juan Water Commission…
Sypher said the current drought forecasts are awful for the region. If the Animas River was to go dry, the water commission would likely need water released from Lake Nighthorse.
State engineers in the Arkansas River basin are beginning to crack down on more than 10,000 ponds without legal water rights, which they say are harming senior rights holders.
Last month, Colorado’s Division of Water Resources in Division 2 rolled out a new pond-management plan, which they say will help relieve pressure in the over-appropriated basin by restoring water to senior rights holders. The first step was mailing on Jan. 14 informational brochures to 317 pond owners.
Even though the ponds targeted in this effort may have existed for many decades, they don’t have a legal right on the books to divert and store the water. The main concern with these ponds is water loss through evaporation. According to the brochure, for every acre of pond surface area, up to 1 million gallons of water — which is just over 3 acre-feet — is lost to evaporation each year. Division 2 Engineer Bill Tyner said, “Tens of thousands of acre-feet over time would be maintained in the Arkansas River system with a pond-management system in place.”
Although the cumulative water loss could threaten Colorado’s ability to meet its obligations to deliver water to Kansas under the Arkansas River Compact, the main issue is injury to senior water users. Added together, these ponds without a water right could deplete enough water that it makes it hard for these senior water rights holders to get the full amount to which they are entitled.
“Once we put the data together and we could look at the images of ponds and get a count of the number and relative sizes on average of those ponds, it did make us just very sure that this was a problem that could have some very negative consequences for the basin if we didn’t get more aggressive about the way that we took it on,” Tyner said.
Front Range water users divert water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers into the Arkansas Basin, but the new pond-management plan probably won’t affect those transmountain diversions, Tyner said.
According to Colorado water law, anyone is allowed to divert water from a stream simply by putting it to beneficial use as long as it does not harm senior water-rights holders. To protect their ability to keep using the water and save their place in line, most users make their water right official by getting a decree through water court. This enshrines the water right in Colorado’s system of prior appropriation in which older water rights have first use of the river.
According to Colorado water law, anyone is allowed to divert water from a stream simply by putting it to beneficial use as long as it does not harm senior water-rights holders. To protect their ability to keep using the water and save their place in line, most users make their water right official by getting a decree through water court. This enshrines the water right in Colorado’s system of prior appropriation in which older water rights have first use of the river.
Because these undecreed ponds don’t have an official water right, they are taking water out of priority, which amounts to stealing water from senior users.
Matt Heimerich, the consumptive-use representative on the Arkansas River Basin Roundtable, said that over the past two decades the Arkansas River system has been under incredible pressure because of erratic and below-average flows. He described the shifting baseline of what constitutes a severe drought.
“It seems to me we just keep moving the bar lower,” he said. “How bad can the river get? We are always looking for the next threshold.”
Drought and warming temperatures fueled by climate change comprise the backdrop for the implementation of the pond-management plan.
“The system is drying out and the water right holder that typically would be in priority, they don’t have the amount of water they had in the past,” Heimerich said. “Ultimately, someone is taking a haircut that has a legitimate water right.”According to Colorado water law, anyone is allowed to divert water from a stream simply by putting it to beneficial use as long as it does not harm senior water-rights holders. To protect their ability to keep using the water and save their place in line, most users make their water right official by getting a decree through water court. This enshrines the water right in Colorado’s system of prior appropriation in which older water rights have first use of the river.
Because these undecreed ponds don’t have an official water right, they are taking water out of priority, which amounts to stealing water from senior users.
Matt Heimerich, the consumptive-use representative on the Arkansas River Basin Roundtable, said that over the past two decades the Arkansas River system has been under incredible pressure because of erratic and below-average flows. He described the shifting baseline of what constitutes a severe drought.
“It seems to me we just keep moving the bar lower,” he said. “How bad can the river get? We are always looking for the next threshold.”
Drought and warming temperatures fueled by climate change comprise the backdrop for the implementation of the pond-management plan.
“The system is drying out and the water right holder that typically would be in priority, they don’t have the amount of water they had in the past,” Heimerich said. “Ultimately, someone is taking a haircut that has a legitimate water right.”
In order to be allowed to keep water in a pond, pond owners must replace the water loss to the system, usually through what’s known as an augmentation plan.
In some areas in Division 2, pond owners can purchase water to replace their depletions through a conservancy district. Salida-based Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District offers this replacement water, but manager Ralph “Terry” Scanga doesn’t believe there is enough water to fully augment all the ponds in the already over-appropriated basin.
“That’s a concern of mine because that’s a lot of water,” Scanga said. “I don’t think it’s being overstated what the impact could be.”
Scanga, who also serves on the Arkansas River Basin Roundtable, said it may be time to prioritize certain water uses over others. Having domestic water for use in homes may be more essential than ponds for aesthetic purposes, he said.
“You may want that pond and you may have enough money to purchase that augmentation plan from the district, but is that a wise use of that resource?” Scanga said. “Those are the real hard questions that need to be asked.”
Un-decreed ponds can be found throughout the state, including in the Roaring Fork watershed. Last fall, Division 5 engineers issued five cease-and-desist orders for ponds without water rights that they said were out of priority and depleting the Colorado River system.
So far, state engineers are focusing their pond-management plan on just the Arkansas River basin; it’s not yet a statewide program. Still, Tyner said it’s a big undertaking for his division. It could take five years for engineers and water commissioners to work their way through all the ponds.
“How do you eat an elephant? It’s one bite at a time,” Tyner said. “Our approach is to be systematic about it and fair as we go.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Its water desk is supported by Sam Walton via the Catena Foundation. This story ran in the Feb. 1 edition of The Aspen Times.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel editorial board:
Nothing unites rivals like a common enemy.
Colorado may be notorious for its intrastate water conflicts, but a recent flurry of newspaper articles on the potential for water speculation by Wall Street firms has water managers across the state agreeing on one thing: Private investment in a precious public resource that dictates every aspect of life in the West is too risky to tolerate.
On [the January 30, 2021] front page, the Sentinel’s Dennis Webb traced the angst stemming from press coverage of this issue to its primary source: friction between James Eklund, a Grand Valley native and fifth-generation Coloradan, and the Colorado River District.
Eklund should be a familiar name. He is the former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. He played a major role in getting the state’s water factions to agree to a state water plan that former Gov. John Hickenlooper called for in 2013. Perhaps more relevant, Eklund served as the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission during negotiations over a drought contingency plan that saw creation of a special storage account in Lake Powell.
Water conserved under a “demand management” program would be stored in this separate account to ensure adequate delivery of water to Lower Basin states. It’s a hedge against a disastrous “compact call” in which Upper Basin water uses could be curtailed to meet delivery obligations of the 1922 interstate compact.
Eklund has since moved to private practice as a Denver-based water attorney. Among his clients is Water Asset Management, a New York investment firm that has spent more than $16 million buying more than 2,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the Grand Valley.
Naturally, the Colorado River District is suspicious about WAM’s intentions — even though Colorado has some of the toughest anti-speculation laws in the nation. While individual landowners own water rights, they must put water to “beneficial use,” which doesn’t include selling water for profit.
Still, “buy and dry” scenarios — in which water is converted from one beneficial use (agriculture) to another (municipal taps) illustrate the ongoing battle against the commoditization of water.
The Colorado River District’s executive director, Andy Mueller, has openly speculated that Eklund is behind a media campaign “to discuss the virtue of free markets and water markets” in the western United States.
More troubling is the district’s assertion that Eklund is trying to help WAM take advantage of a potential drought mitigation tool he helped set up — the storage account in Lake Powell — by lobbying for private accounts within that pool.
That would grease the skids for marketing water from the Upper Basin (where the water is) to the Lower Basin (where the money is).
Eklund met with the Sentinel’s editorial board on Jan. 22. With every right to be indignant about assertions he labeled as “flat-out false,” Eklund struck a conciliatory tone.
“I’m leading with empathy here,” he said. “I share the anxiety of private investment in Colorado water. I understand it.”
Much of Webb’s reporting recounts the series of events that led to the imbroglio, but it’s also offers Eklund an opportunity to defend himself. He wouldn’t push for private accounts in Lake Powell, he said, because it violates the “Law of the River” and undermines the benefit of the bargain Colorado got when it joined the 1922 compact.
Nor would he represent a client bent on profiteering, he said.
In contrast, Eklund said, WAM hasn’t done anything but invest in improvements on agricultural land — boosting efficiency, sequestering carbon in soils and keeping land in production.
“I care too much about my family (his parents operate a ranch in the Plateau Valley), the Western Slope and Colorado agriculture to advise anyone that would cause harm.”
As Eklund noted, for all the district’s concerns, there’s not much separating their views. “They want the Western Slope to control the Western Slope’s destiny and I completely agree with that,” he said.
Eklund will be judged on whether WAM deviates from its current course. In the meantime, the silver lining in this all of this mistrust is that it has brought into sharp focus the need to protect water.
There are all kinds of doomsday scenarios at our doorstep. If we hope to continue life in western Colorado as we know it, we need to fight any changes to the law and work like hell to prevent a call on the river.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
James Eklund remembers having to work to get the Colorado River District’s trust before, when he was director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and was seeking support for a state water plan.
He said when talks began on the plan it was “dead on arrival” among representatives of the Western Slope district.
“People were saying it’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s going to be an excuse for more transmountain diversions” of water to the Front Range, he recalls.
Eventually, a plan was agreed on that the district got behind. But these days Eklund once again finds himself in a battle to gain the district’s trust, now because of his work as a private water attorney representing a New York investment firm that has been buying up Mesa County agricultural land and associated water rights and leaving the river district nervous about its — and Eklund’s — intentions for that water.
Viewed from the river district’s perspective, Eklund is a Denver water attorney that the district fears is trying to help his client take advantage of a potential drought mitigation tool he helped set up, involving the storage of water in a dedicated account in Lake Powell.
But Eklund also is someone who was born in Grand Junction, to parents who own a family ranch in the Plateau Valley that his great-great-grandparents homesteaded in 1888.
He spent every summer there while growing up, and continues to visit and pitch in doing ranch chores to this day when time allows. Given that background, he insists that for all the river district’s concerns, there isn’t much daylight between it and him when it comes to the desire to protect the Western Slope and its water…
He said the river district wants the same thing he does — strong Western Slope agriculture and water that is not at risk…
A MEDIA CAMPAIGN?
The river district’s concerns about Eklund and Water Asset Management, the New York company that now owns more than 2,000 acres of agricultural land in the Grand Valley, were amplified as a result of a Jan. 3 New York Times article on Wall Street investments in the West, followed by a Denver Post guest column in support of temporary, compensated, voluntary fallowing of Western Slope irrigated land to bolster water levels in Lake Powell.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the river district, views the two pieces as part of a media strategy by Water Asset Management, and likely Eklund…
He also views it as an attempt to put pressure on the state and the Upper Colorado River Commission, which includes representatives from Colorado and other Upper Colorado River Basin states, to move forward quickly with a proposal for managing water demand in times of droughts through measures including fallowing by farmers and ranchers, without safeguards to protect local economies…
Agricultural, municipal and other water conserved under a demand management program would be stored in a separate account in Lake Powell as provided for under a drought contingency plan involving the states. It would be available to ensure adequate delivery of water to Lower Basin states as required under a 1922 interstate compact, in order to avoid a potential “compact call” under which Upper Basin water uses could be curtailed to meet delivery obligations.
The river district long has been insistent that water conserved through demand management be temporary, compensated and voluntary, concepts the Colorado Water Conservation Board has committed to as it explores the idea.
The river district also wants the impacts of conservation shared proportionally among users in a way that Western Slope agriculture and ag-based communities are protected…
Mueller also long has been concerned that some entities might push to set up individual accounts within the pool of water created through demand management, to protect water diversions for municipal utilities while Western Slope agricultural use gets shut down under a compact call.
Theoretically, water in those accounts could come from investment firms buying up Western Slope agricultural land and water rights.
Mueller believes Eklund is lobbying for such accounts, based in part on the Times article exploring the concept of a market-based approach to western water that could result in more water being moved from agriculture to municipal use.
If that’s true, it could be argued that Eklund is gaming the very system he helped set up. He served as Colorado’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission during the negotiations leading to the drought contingency plan agreements, including establishment of a separate storage account in Powell…
But Eklund said he isn’t pushing for private water accounts in Powell. Only sovereigns can hold water there — not special districts, private entities or individuals — he said.
“That’s always been the case. That always will be the case as far as I can see,” he said.
He said it’s also the way it should be, and he wouldn’t lobby to change something he doesn’t believe in…
Eklund said allowing only sovereigns to hold water in the reservoir is linked to the bargain Upper Basin states got from the 1922 compact. That deal assured that Upper Basin states could develop water at their own pace, as opposed to fast-growing places such as southern California getting their hands on the bulk of Colorado River water.
Mueller told The Daily Sentinel that he knows Water Asset Management has been directly in contact with several Front Range water utilities arguing for their support for individual accounts in Powell.
“James Eklund himself was in the halls of one of the water utilities while I was there, doing exactly that, meeting with them and trying to lobby them for their support on those individual accounts,” Mueller said.
“That’s an amazing accusation,” Eklund said when told of Mueller’s comments. He added that Mueller’s assertion is “flat-out false.”
Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said, “Mr. Eklund has not been lobbying us on the matter of private accounts, and certainly has not done so in our hallways, as they’ve been largely empty since remote work began amid COVID-19 in March of last year.”
Hartman added that “Denver Water is in opposition to the concept of private water storage pools in Powell, as is the law. Private sector entities don’t have the legal ability to manage water across state lines nor within federally owned reservoirs. This can only be done by the states and the federal government.”
Eklund said he understands the river district’s nervousness about what’s being characterized as outside investments in Colorado water. Its job is to protect West Slope water, he said…
[Mueller] said Water Asset Management views water scarcity on the Colorado River as an opportunity to make money by moving water from rural to urban areas. The district believes investment firms are angling to speculate on Colorado’s water, contrary to Colorado’s antispeculation laws when it comes to water. A state task force is looking at strengthening such laws…
The Times article was followed within days by a column in the Denver Post by Brian Richter bluntly headlined, “Western Slope needs to suspend irrigation to avert water shortage catastrophe,” in which Richter supports agriculture playing a role in helping boost Powell water levels…
He said all he and Water Asset Management can do is “make sure we walk the talk” by the company not taking actions such as flipping water for profit and being involved in buy-and-dry schemes to move water off agricultural lands. Eklund said it hasn’t done such things during three years of being invested in the Grand Valley. Rather, he said it is investing in improvements, boosting efficiency, sequestering carbon in soils and keeping land in production.
Eklund said he doesn’t represent companies that speculate on water, and antispeculation is important to him just as it is to the river district.
The San Juan Water Commission is considering asking for a release of Animas-La Plata Project Water. This water is stored in Lake Nighthorse in Durango, Colorado.
If the commission chooses to move forward with the release, it would be the first time that water is released from Lake Nighthorse upon the request of the San Juan Water Commission.
During the drought of 2018, the San Juan Water Commission took steps to request a release on behalf of the City of Farmington. However that release was cancelled as storms brought rain to the Four Corners region.
The water commission has been discussing a release from Lake Nighthorse as a test run that would allow it to address potential issues that could emerge. For example, making sure the water released from the reservoir reaches its intended destination.
The San Juan Water Commission meets at 9 a.m. Feb. 3 via Google Meets. A link is available on the agenda posted at sjwc.org.
Other agenda topics include legislation and long-term water development opportunities.
New Mexico water agencies are urging farmers to think twice about planting crops in what could be a tight water year. The state faces a big water debt to downstream users, and a multi-year drought is taking its toll.
The Office of the State Engineer recommends “that farmers along the Rio Chama and in the Middle Valley that don’t absolutely need to farm this year, do not farm,” according to a staff report that Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen presented to the Commission earlier this month.
Irrigation supply along the river from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Reservoir is governed by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. The district cut its 2020 irrigation season a month short, because there wasn’t enough water to go around. A shorter season also helped deliver some river water to Elephant Butte as part of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact obligations.
In January, the district board voted to delay the start of the 2021 season until April 1, a month later than usual.
This year is on track to be a situation of water shortages and storage restrictions unlike any since the 1950s, said Mike Hamman, the district’s chief engineer and CEO and an Interstate Stream Commissioner. The district also anticipates receiving as little as half the usual allotment of San Juan-Chama water.
“The hydrology really started to shift in the early ’90s,” Hamman said. “We’ve got into this cycle of below-average, average, above-average years, and I’ve noticed that our climatic conditions (limit) the available snowpack. That exacerbates things a little bit more now, where we need to have well-above-average snowpacks to address the poor watershed conditions that may have resulted from a poor summer rain period or fall moisture.”
Regional farmers are advised to prepare for severe water shortages by exercising “extreme caution” in planting crops this spring and by using any available water only for the most essential uses…
The current Rio Grande Compact water debt of about 100,000 acre-feet, or 32 billion gallons, restricts how much the state can store in reservoirs.
By the end of January, the state will have released about 3,200 acre-feet, or about 1 billion gallons, of “debit water” from El Vado and Nichols Reservoir near Santa Fe to Elephant Butte.
Last year’s monsoon season from May to September was the driest on record for New Mexico.
The Rio Grande could go completely dry this summer all the way from Angostura Dam north of Bernalillo through Albuquerque, especially if this year brings another lackluster monsoon season…
‘Last page in our playbook’
The fail-safe options New Mexico relied on last year to stretch the Rio Grande water supply won’t be available this year. This summer on the river may look like what water managers and environmental groups worked to stave off during last year’s hot, dry summer months.