@BoulderCounty commissioners affirm right to review Gross Reservoir expansion plans

Gross Dam enlargement concept graphic via Denver Water

From The Boulder Daily Camera (Charlie Brennan):

After more than four hours of impassioned pleas from members of the public Thursday night, Boulder County commissioners voted unanimously that Denver Water’s planned expansion of Gross Reservoir must go through the county’s review process.

That vote, affirming an earlier finding by Boulder County Land Use Director Dale Case, now poses a significant challenge for the utility, which serves 1.4 million water users in the Denver metro area — none of them in Boulder County — and claims the project is needed to meet the needs of metro population that’s just going to keep growing.

“I think it’s just critical that local people have their say on this project that affects them the most,” said Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones, just before the vote was taken…

Denver Water’s plan had been to start construction this year on a project to raise the Gross Reservoir Dam in southwestern Boulder County by 131 feet to a height of 471 feet and to expand the reservoir’s capacity by 77,000 acre-feet.

The cost of the endeavor, said to be the biggest construction project ever contemplated in Boulder County, is now estimated at $464 million (in 2025 dollars) and could take at least six years to complete.

Boulder County Land Use Director Dale Case issued a finding on Oct. 22 that Denver Water’s plans, formally known as the Moffat Collection System Project,were subject to the county’s so-called “1041” review process — that number references the state House bill passed in 1974 allowing local governments to regulate matters of statewide interest through a local permitting process.

Denver Water however, has argued to the contrary.

“We contend that state law exempts the expansion from the 1041 process because it was permitted under local land use codes at the time that the state enacted the law authorizing the 1041 review process,” said Denver Water spokesman Travis Thompson.

Pair of lawsuits challenges need for more #ColoradoRiver water — @AspenJournalism #COriver

The spillway and dam at the Windy Gap Reservoir on the headwaters of the Colorado River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Lindsay Fendt):

Two lawsuits making their way through the federal court system are challenging two significant water projects in Colorado designed to divert more water from the Colorado, Fraser and Williams Fork river basins in Grand County.

The projects — Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming project and Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System Project — would provide a combined firm yield of 48,000 acre-feet of water for the sprawling Front Range.

But environmental groups say government agencies violated the law in the environmental permitting processes of both projects.

“Our biggest claim is that [the agencies] claim they looked at reasonable alternatives [to the projects],” said Gary Wockner, the director of Save the Colorado, the lead plaintiff on both cases. “But they didn’t look at conservation or efficiency. Water providers are trying to go to big water projects first and not the cheaper option of conservation.”

Both Northern and Denver Water say they factored in conservation efforts when they calculated water demand and that even aggressive conservation efforts won´t be enough to meet water demand in the future.

“There are only a few answers for water supply in the future and Windy Gap Firming is one of those options,” said Brad Wind, the general manager of Northern Water. “Without that project, I can’t fathom where we will end up.”

But some water experts say that the state’s use of population growth as one of the major drivers of water demand was flawed.

“As population goes up, water demand continues to go down and it’s been that way for decades,” said Mark Squillace, a water law expert at the University of Colorado Law School.

Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

Decoupled demand

The phenomenon of increasing populations with declining water use is known as “decoupling,” and it has been happening in nearly every part of Colorado since the 1990s.

Higher efficiency appliances, utility-driven conservation programs and greater citizen awareness of water shortages have all driven the change.

But water managers say the state’s growing urban areas are reaching the point of “demand hardening,” where the additional water that can be conserved will not outweigh the amount needed in the future.

“We have been hearing those kind of stories for a long time and it never happens,” Squillace said. “There are a lot of things that we could still do on the conservation end that would be a lot cheaper [than new infrastructure] and a lot more consistent with the environment that we live in.”

While they differ, the pair of lawsuits being spearheaded by Save the Colorado could both hinge on demand and conservation estimates, and the assumption that additional conservation won’t be sufficient in the future.

Both lawsuits were filed in federal district court and are now awaiting action by a judge to move forward.

The Windy Gap Firming case was filed in October of 2017 against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Moffat Collection System case was filed in December against the Army Corps, the U.S. Interior Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

An aerial view of Windy Gap Reservoir, near Granby. The reservoir is on the main stem of the Colorado River, below where the Fraser River flows into the Colorado. Water from Windy Gap is pumped up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then sent to the northern Front Range through the Adams Tunnel.

The projects

Both the Windy Gap and Moffat projects were conceived decades ago to address projected water shortages on Colorado’s Front Range and to add resilience to both Northern and Denver Water’s supplies.

Now estimated to cost about $600 million, the Windy Gap project will include a new 90,000 acre-foot reservoir in western Larimer county called Chimney Hollow Reservoir.

The reservoir is designed to store water from the Colorado and Fraser rivers transported from the Western Slope through the existing infrastructure of the Colorado-Big Thompson project.

Windy Gap Reservoir, built in 1985, is created by a low river-wide dam across the main stem of the Colorado River, just downstream from where the Fraser River flows in.

The reservoir is relatively small, holding 445-acre feet, but it’s well situated to gather water from the Fraser, pump it up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then send it through the Adams Tunnel under the Continental Divide.

With the Moffat project, Denver Water plans to spend an estimated $464 million in order to expand Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, by raising the height of the dam by 131 feet, in order to store an additional 77,000 acre-feet of water.

Gross Reservoir is a part of the utility’s existing northern collection system and is filled with water from the headwaters of the Fraser and Williams Fork river basins. The water is moved through a pipeline in the Moffat Tunnel, which runs east through the mountains from the base of the Winter Park ski area.

The upper South Platte River, above the confluence with the North Fork of the South Platte. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The fork not taken

The plans to expand Gross Reservoir started in 1990 after the EPA rejected Denver Water’s plan to build Two Forks Reservoir on the South Platte River.

The EPA’s rejection of Two Forks signaled the end of an era of large dams and forced groups planning large water infrastructure projects to give more consideration to the environmental impacts of their plans.

Following this rebuke, Denver Water turned to the environmental groups that had opposed their project and solicited advice.

Throughout the 1990s, the utility implemented water conservation and recycling programs and started making plans to expand an existing reservoir instead of building a new dam.

“We embarked on the path that the environmental groups suggested. We implemented a conservation program and reduced our demands,” said Jim Lochhead, the CEO and manager of Denver Water. “But you can’t get to zero. We continue to be committed to conservation, but at the end of the day we still need more water.”

In partnership with environmental groups like Western Resource Advocates and Trout Unlimited, Denver Water has agreed to spend $20 million on environmental improvements in watersheds on the Western Slope as part of the Gross Reservoir expansion.

Denver Water has also agreed to a monitoring program that will require them to mitigate any unforeseen environmental problems caused by the project, a compromise between environmental groups and the largest water utility in the state.

“In some sense this project was the development of an alternative from a number of groups,” said Bart Miller, the director of the Healthy Rivers Program at Western Resource Advocates. “In some respect you are putting this in context next to what could happen or could have happened.”

Concerned with having their own projects fail, as Two Forks did, other water managers emulated Denver Water’s strategy.

When Northern Water started planning for the Windy Gap Firming project it also reached out to environmental groups, and ended up committing $23 million to mitigate problems caused by past projects and to make other improvements in the upper Colorado River watershed.

Even though there will be impacts from taking more water from the river, Northern Water says that these “environmental enhancements” will leave the river better off than it would be without the project.

And environmental groups working on the project agree.

“There is a lot of damage on the river that will continue to go on without an intervention,” said Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “This is probably the best shot.”

Gross Reservoir in the mountains to the southwest of Boulder. Denver Water hopes to increase the height of the dam 131 feet, to a new height of 471 feet, to store three times as much water, which it says will help it meet increasing demands and to better weather severe droughts.

The lawsuits

While some environmental groups have seen compromise as the best step forward, Save the Colorado and the other plaintiffs in the two lawsuits take a harder stance.

Save the Colorado, in particular, is against any new dams or diversions.

“The river has already been drained enough,” Wockner said. “The mitigation, in our mind, is not consequential.”

Colorado and the six other states that use Colorado River water are now negotiating a plan to better manage Lake Powell and Lake Mead in response to drought and acidification.

Last week, an engineer from Northern Water told the city council of Loveland that it may have to take a ten percent cut in the water it draws from the headwaters of the Colorado River, sending the water instead to Lake Powell, where water is held before being moved through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead for use in California, Arizona and Nevada.

And Northern’s statement did not go unnoticed by the plaintiffs in the Windy Gap and Moffat lawsuits.

“The old guard in water have the default setting that we need to build more reservoirs and we need to find more ways to bring water from the western slope,” said Kevin Lynch, the lawyer representing the environmental groups in the Windy Gap Firming case. “The argument my clients are hoping to make with this case is that that may have made sense in the past but it doesn’t now. We are definitely trying to buck the status quo and change the historical way of doing things.”

Lynch and his team are arguing that the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corp of Engineers — the two government agencies being sued in the Windy Gap Firming case — failed to update and independently verify the water demand data used to justify the project.

To back up this allegation, the plaintiffs petitioned the court to include a statistics report in the administrative record.

The report, which looks at water use statistics in communities with stakes in Windy Gap Firming water, showed that their demand projections made back when the agencies conducted their environmental assessments were between 9 and 97 percent higher than the actual water use rates in those areas.

The lawyers in the Moffat Project lawsuit also found that Denver Water used old data from 2002 to project their demands future demands.

The complaint filed by the plaintiffs says that the Army Corps and the Department of the Interior — which are the two agencies being sued in the Moffat case along with the Fish and Wildlife Service — ignored more recent data that was available when they conducted their assessments.

“If they were to use today’s data they would no way be able to justify that they need the water,” said Bill Eubanks, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Moffat Project case. “Here we are talking about almost two decades. Two decades where we have seen the most transformative uses of water in a century.”

Both legal teams say that even if the data did reveal a demand for more water, the agencies failed to analyze the alternatives to two large infrastructure projects, including conservation.

Specifically, Wockner and Eubanks both spoke about how a “cash for grass” program — where the government pays people to dry up their lawns — was never analyzed as an alternative. Looking at similar programs in California, they say the same amount of water could be saved, but for less money than either of the two infrastructure projects.

To this claim both Northern Water and Denver Water say that additional conservation measures are already planned for the future, but that they are not enough.

“The state has done a lot of studies for need for water on the Front Range,” said Jeff Drager, Northern Water’s director of engineering and the project manager for the WIndy Gap firming project. “We agree that there can be more conservation, but it won’t be enough to meet our participants needs.”

The pipeline, at the base of the Winter Park ski area, that moves water as part of the existing Moffat Collection System Project. The portal of the railroad tunnel is behind the pipeline, in this view. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Looking forward

Due to a long backlog in the court, both lawsuits are unlikely to see their day in court any time soon. According to both lawyers, it could be months or years until the cases are decided. The court’s slow pace could impact the construction of both projects.

Citing the lawsuit, Northern Water delayed bonds to build the project back in August.

Executives at Northern say they are using the time to hammer out the last of the details of the project’s design, but that if the project is delayed it may cause costs to rise or endanger the water supplies of the project’s participants.

Denver Water is still waiting on several permits before they can begin planning construction and is less concerned about a delay. Both Lochhead and Wind say they believe that the projects will go forward once the lawsuits are resolved.

“We feel confident that our permitting processes are on solid ground,” Wind said. “I don’t think there is anyone in this organization at all that has thought this lawsuit would be effective.”

While both Northern Water and Denver Water are confident that their projects will move forward, the plaintiffs in the cases are hoping for an upset that could topple the entire water system in Colorado.

“If we win this case, using this particularly egregious example of inaccurate water demand projections, we think we can set a precedent that would force the state to look at more recent data for different types of projects,” Eubanks said.

Potential San Luis Valley water export topic of Saguache County Board of Commissioners “working meeting” March 12, 2019

Saguache Creek

From The Valley Courier (Teresa Benns):

A group of county residents is appealing to those concerned about water issues in the county to attend an important water meeting March 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Road and Bridge Building in Saguache, 305 3rd Street, to sit in on a discussion with commissioners regarding water export plans.

The meeting is styled as “a listening work session,” meaning no public comment or questions will be allowed. The guest speaker is Sean Tonner, who will host a water export proposal presentation…

The water plan, apparently in the works for the past several years, was officially announced during a Rio Grande Water Conservation meeting in Alamosa, the Valley Courier reported Dec. 7, 2018…

Background

While some of those proposing the plan are newly arrived players, the proposal is not. The plan first emerged in the late 1980s with Maurice Strong’s Arizona Land and Cattle Co. and Stockmen’s Water. After reorganizing as AWDI, the new version of the plan was opposed and defeated in the early 1990s by the Rio Grande Water District and Valley citizens.

Originally AWDI, backed by then Baca Ranch owner Gary Boyce — also owner of numerous other water rights — presented a plan to pump 200,000 acre-feet of water annually from the underground aquifer. They claimed there would be no impact on the environment or existing water users. The application was later amended to 60,000 acre-feet annually, (approximately twice the amount consumed yearly by the City of Pueblo).

The new version of the water transport plan was most recently run past Saguache County Commissioners in 2014, prior to the death of Baca Ranch owner Gary Boyce. The entity then proposing the water was Sustainable Water Resources (SWR), now retitled as Renewable Water Resources (RWR). The new company is a mix of the previous organization and new members, a media advisor for the group said Tuesday.

Rio Grande River Basin via the Colorado Geologic Survey

Alamosa councillors plan to oppose latest San Luis Valley water export plans

The northern end of Colorado’s San Luis Valley has a raw, lonely beauty that rivals almost any place in the North American West. Photo/Allen Best

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Alamosa city councilors and staff are willing to join the fight against the latest water export proposal, they told water leader Cleave Simpson during a work session Tuesday night.

Simpson is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which has taken a position against a water export proposal by Renewable Water Resources. He shared with the council the history of former water export proposals and details about the latest one, which proposes to export 22,000 acre feet from the San Luis Valley to the south Denver metro area.

“I do believe it’s real,” Simpson said. “I think they intend to do it.”

Nothing has yet been filed in court but Simpson said the spokesman for Renewable Water Resources indicated the case might be filed by the end of this year. Simpson said the City of Alamosa could enter the case when it is filed.

The city council and staff discussed other ways they could be involved including taking an official stand through a resolution, like the water conservation district did, and participating in education and awareness.

“It would damage the agriculture of the Valley,” Councilman David Broyles commented about the proposed export.

“And economy,” added Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks.

Councilman Charles Griego said he believed the city’s first step would be to pass an official resolution during a council meeting. Brooks suggested the city council could pass a resolution either the second meeting in March or first meeting in April. “I am hearing this is something we should be taking seriously,” Brooks said.

Griego said the city needs to be clear that “not one drop” should be exported from the Valley and that the council would be against any kind of water leaving the Valley. He said the word needs to get out how devastating this would be to the Valley…

He said he is going to inform the Interbasin Compact Commission members later this week, as he is a member of that governor-appointed statewide water board.

Simpson said Renewable Water Resources on its website (renewablewaterresources.com) says “Best for the San Luis Valley. Best for the environment. Best for Colorado.” However, he sees no benefit whatsoever to the Valley of this project. “It’s not good for the San Luis Valley.”

He added that the Valley has a history of opposition to similar projects and will adamantly oppose this one too.

“Every 10-20 years, there’s another export proposal,” Simpson said.

Some of the past proposals, which were unsuccessful, were a proposal to export water from wells drilled in Costilla County to San Marcos, Texas in the 1970’s and multiple export proposals tied to the late Gary Boyce who owned land in Saguache County. American Water Development Inc. (AWDI) proposed to pump 200,000 acre feet of water from the Baca Ranch area to the Front Range.

The latest proposal is that of Renewable Water Resources, which purchased a 12,000-acre ranch north of Crestone. Their proposal is to pipe 22,000 acre feet of water from the confined aquifer out of the Valley and ultimately to the Denver area. (Simpson described 22,000 acre feet as the equivalent of 100 circles.) Renewable Water Resources representatives met with the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board to seek the district’s cooperation in helping the developers use up to $60 million (about $2,500 an acre foot) to buy and retire water rights across the Valley and to help manage a $50-million community fund. Although planning to pump out 22,000 acre feet, the water developers propose to buy up twice that much, 40,000-44,000 acre feet of water rights, and retire a portion, which is a different approach than previous water exporters, Simpson explained.

He said reducing water consumption is a similar goal to the water district and sub-districts. However, “We are not pursuing permanent dry up or permanent removal of 22,000 acre feet of water leaving the Valley.”

How much water can Colorado save? State is spending $20M to find out — @WaterEdCO

Gross Reservoir , in Boulder County, holds water diverted from the headwaters of the Colorado River on the West Slope. The reservoir is part of Denver Water’s storage system. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Colorado will launch a far-reaching $20 million conservation planning effort this spring designed to ensure the state can reduce water use enough to stave off a crisis in the drought-choked Colorado River Basin.

The money, likely to be spent over a period of two to three years, will pay for a major public, consensus-based initiative to determine how to equitably set aside enough water to protect Colorado’s share of the river and how to pay farmers and potentially cities to reduce their use.

The river is critical to Colorado’s water supply, with roughly half of the supplies for the Denver metro area coming from its annual flows and even larger amounts fueling the state’s farms.

The initiative will include at least seven technical and public work groups examining the legal, economic, and environmental issues inherent in such a demand management program, according to Brent Newman, head of the Interstate and Federal water section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). Demand management is the term water officials use to describe water conservation. It will also include a feasibility study and several pilot programs.

State staffers expect the work to take more than a year to complete as they iron out whether and where to cut back use, how to measure those reductions, and how to protect the environment, local economies, and the legal rights of water users while the program is in effect.

“We’re going to do this one bite at a time,” Newman said. “It’s not something that can be slammed together.”

Water users on both the West Slope and Front Range are gearing up for the project, hopeful that a proactive conservation program will provide a sort of insurance policy should a full-blown crisis erupt on the river.

“We’re pretty anxious,” said Brad Wind, general manager of the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which manages the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. The project diverts Colorado River water from the West Slope for farmers and cities on the Northern Front Range. “We realize it’s going to take some time, but we would feel better having a little insurance than having nothing and having everything implode.”

Seven states comprise the Colorado River Basin, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming forming the Upper Basin and Arizona, Nevada and California making up the Lower Basin.

Last October, after nearly four years of work, the seven states agreed to a broad, preliminary set of drought guidelines, known as the DCP, or drought contingency plan, that begin to spell out how cutbacks will occur on the river.

Under those agreements, Colorado and its Upper Basin neighbors could set aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special drought pool in Lake Powell. That’s enough water to serve roughly 1 million homes for a year.

In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will be allowed to release up to 1 million acre-feet of water from three Upper Basin state reservoirs that, together with Powell, are part of the Colorado River Storage Project, to boost storage in Lake Powell if it reaches critical lows. Two of those are located at least partially in Colorado.

How much time Colorado and the other states have to refine these drought plans and put them into action isn’t clear yet.

On Feb. 1, after California and Arizona failed to hit a federal deadline for finishing their drought plans, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it was moving forward to impose its own water-saving plan on the region.

Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said she would halt that federal initiative only if Arizona and California complete their work by March 4. If that deadline isn’t met, the states may have to incorporate the federal government’s directives into their own work.

Equally concerning is the weather.

The drought has pushed Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two primary storage buckets, to critical lows. If the region endures another year as desperately dry as 2018, Lake Powell’s ability to produce hydropower, the major source of revenue for complying with the Endangered Species Act, could be in jeopardy. If utilities don’t have the money to comply with the ESA, the federal government can shut down their water diversions, as it has done in the past in places such as the Klamath Basin in Oregon in 2001.

Even though early snows have helped boost mountain snowpacks across the region, they aren’t likely to be deep enough to pull the region back from the brink of a major water crisis. Inflows into Lake Powell this year, for instance, are projected to be just 64 percent of average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, well below the super-sized numbers needed for it to begin to refill.

At that rate, by August of this year, Powell will be shockingly close — within about 81 feet — of hitting its minimum power pool, a level it flirted with in 2012 and 2013, according to Heather Patno, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Salt Lake City.

In the Lower Basin, Lake Mead is already so low that Arizona is facing mandatory water cutbacks this year.

“We need as much time and space to craft and sharpen these tools as we can get,” said James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Knock on wood we’ll get a reprieve from the hydrology for a while.”

If not, Newman said that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation may release water from the Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado to boost levels in Powell, giving Colorado and other states more time to figure out how to execute these unprecedented conservation measures.

Water users across the state are closely watching this new water-saving initiative, with farm interests on the West Slope and out on the Eastern Plains intent on ensuring that any water cutbacks that may occur are done only on a paid, voluntary basis and that all water users shoulder the reductions equally.

At the same time large urban water users, most of whom have less favorable water rights than the state’s farmers do, want to ensure their municipal supplies aren’t radically reduced.

“We are at a point where the Upper Basin does have some time to get this demand management right,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District. Looking for ways to reduce water use, he said at a meeting of the Colorado Water Congress earlier this month, “is an incredibly threatening concept to West Slope water users. But the River District is committed to proactively engaging and working with the CWCB to figure out how we can stand a program up that truly protects all of us.”

A clearer outline of the state’s approach to developing the demand management initiative will be presented at a meeting of the CWCB March 20-21. Depending on the outcome of that meeting, the various task forces could begin work in April or May, Newman said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Restoring the #ColoradoRiver: Bringing New Life to a Stressed River — Yale 360 #COriver #aridification

Colorado River Delta

From Yale 360 (Jim Robbins). Here’s an excerpt click through for the photos and to read the whole article:

The Colorado River has been dammed, diverted, and slowed by reservoirs, strangling the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. But in the U.S. and Mexico, efforts are underway to revive sections of the river and restore vital riparian habitat for native plants, fish, and wildlife. Fifth in a series.

From the air, the last gasp of the Colorado River is sudden and dramatic. The pale green river flows smack into the Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border, and virtually all of it is immediately diverted into a large irrigation canal that waters a mosaic of hundreds of fields — alfalfa, asparagus, lettuce, and other vegetables, their vivid green color clashing against the sere desert. The slender thread of water that remains in the Colorado’s channel continues to flow south, but is soon swallowed up by a sea of sand, far short of its delta, which lies 100 miles farther on.

The Colorado River once surged through the delta during high flows, carrying so much water at times that shallow draft steamboats chugged hundreds of miles up the river into the U.S. with loads of freight. The water in the delta nourished a vast fertile landscape, a fitting end to a river known as the Nile of North America.

“The river was everywhere and nowhere,” the naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote during a 1922 canoe trip to the delta, describing the waterway as it ebbed, flowed, braided, and stalled into pools, nourishing a rich and diverse ecosystem of “a hundred green lagoons,” a “milk and honey wilderness” with thick stands of cottonwoods and willows that provided habitat for hundreds of species of birds. The delta’s marshes, mudflats, and white sand beaches were home to clapper rails, bitterns, mallards, teal, and clouds of egrets.

Bobcats, puma, deer, and wild boar wandered the delta’s forests. Leopold was searching for the jaguar that roamed there, but didn’t see any…

Morelos Dam. Photo credit American Rivers.

As a natural river, before it was dammed, the Colorado was a massive, dynamic waterway. It flowed from elevations above 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, then dropped to sea level, which meant that it moved at high water with tremendous force, liquid sandpaper carving out red rock canyons. It flooded the desert plains, carving new channels and braids with every inundation. When it receded, it left behind a mosaic of fecund marshes, wetlands, and ponds.

In its natural state, the Colorado had more extreme flows than any river in the U.S., ranging from lows of 2,500 cubic feet per second in the winter to 100,000 cubic feet per second in the summer. In 1884, an all-time historical peak flow reached 384,000 cubic feet per second in Arizona.

But extreme flows are too capricious to support a civilization, so over the past century or so humans have built a network of expensive dams and reservoirs, pipelines, canals, flumes, and aqueducts to tame and divert the flow. Yet these projects also strangled the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. By design, the river will never again function as a free-flowing stream.

Now, however, experts and environmentalists are rethinking this technological marvel of a river, and looking at ways a natural Colorado can flourish — to some degree, and in some places — with the permission of the engineers. One of those places is in the delta.

The water that flowed in the once-lush delta has been replaced by sand, and the cottonwoods and willows have surrendered their turf to widespread invasive salt cedar and arrowweed. Without the river and its load of nutrients, marine productivity in the Gulf of California — where the Colorado River once ended — has fallen by up to 95 percent. But despite the dismal forecast for the future of water on the Colorado, some conservationists are hoping to return at least a portion of the delta to its former glory.

Point 24 in the Colorado River Delta, September 12, 2016. Photo credit The Nature Conservancy.

“We are trying to restore a network of sites that creates a functional ecosystem,” said Francisco Zamora, who manages the project for the Sonoran Institute. “We’ve acquired water rights, but use them for habitat instead of cotton or wheat.”

The delta is one of a disconnected series of restoration projects that government agencies, local groups, and environmental organizations are undertaking along the Colorado. Numerous efforts are focused on tributaries to the main stem of the river, seeking to enhance resiliency by increasing the flow of water and protecting and restoring riparian habitat for fish and other wildlife.

For example, a coalition of groups — including state agencies, nonprofits, and the Arizona cities of Buckeye and Agua Fria — have been removing invasive salt cedar, planting native species, and building levees to reclaim a 17-mile stretch of the Gila River. Invasive salt cedars are a region-wide problem on the lower Colorado, with a single tree sucking up 300 gallons a day. The invasive forest on this stretch of the river uses enough water to serve 200,000 households.

In the upper basin, meanwhile, a number of groups and local landowners are working to restore a 15-mile-long floodplain with globally significant biodiversity on a narrow section of the Yampa River, another Colorado tributary. Called Morgan Bottom, the section has been damaged by deforestation and poor agricultural practices, threatening bald eagles and greater sand hill cranes, as well as a rare riparian forest of narrowleaf cottonwood and red osier dogwood.

But there are limits to how natural the Colorado River can become, especially along the river’s main stem. “We should not kid ourselves that we are making it natural again,” said John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program and the author of a book about the restoration of the Colorado. “We are creating an intensively managed system to mimic some nature because we value it.”

Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable.

Indeed, some of the remaining naturalness on the Colorado is, paradoxically, because of the human-made system. “The geography of the Colorado gives it hope because L.A. and southern California, which everybody loves to hate, guarantee that a lot of water stays in the system through the Grand Canyon,” says Jack Schmidt, a professor at Utah State University and a member of the Colorado River Research Group. “The best friend endangered fish ever had in the Colorado River Basin is that giant sucking sound” of California withdrawing water.

Widespread protection efforts are focused on native fish in the Colorado. The river once was home to an unusual number of endemic fish. But dams, irrigation, and the introduction of bullhead, carp, and catfish did them in. While the upper basin still has 14 native fish species, the lower basin, according to one study, “has the dubious distinction of being among the few major rivers of the world with an entirely introduced fish fauna.”

The Colorado pike minnow — something of a misnomer for a fish that historically grew to 6 feet in length and weighed up to 80 pounds — once swam through the entire system from Wyoming to Mexico. It is now listed as endangered, with two distinct populations remaining in the upper Colorado and the Green River.

The humpback chub lived in various canyon sections, and though once seriously endangered, it has fared better in recent years through transplantation efforts, growing from 2,000 to 3,000 fish to 11,000. Officials say it may soon be taken off the endangered list.

Beginnings. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Razorback suckers, once common, are now rare. The bonytail, a type of chub that is one of North America’s most endangered fish, no longer exists in the wild. A handful of these fish exist in hatcheries, and attempts are underway to restock them in the river throughout the basin.

Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable. Dams trap most of the river’s sediment in reservoirs, which means there is no material to rebuild beaches, sandbars, and important fish habitat downstream.

Dams also deprive the river downstream of nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, and stratify water temperatures. The native fish in the Colorado adapted to a wide range of temperatures, from cold to very warm. They also evolved to tolerate high flood flows along with extremely dry periods. Now, the water is cold in the summer for miles below the dams, and the humpback chub and other fish that had adapted to a range of water temperatures and flows suffer.

Something called hydro-peaking also has had serious impacts on the food web. Dams generate power according to demand. As people come home from work and switch on the stove, air conditioning, and lights, demand soars and dams release more water to produce power. “Prior to the construction of dams, there were almost no major daily changes in river levels,” said David Lytle, a professor of integrative biology at Oregon State University. When fluctuations in water levels occur, they “can interrupt the egg-laying practices of some species. It’s a serious problem.”

Insects lay their eggs just below the water level, and if levels drop rapidly it can dry them out. A recent study found that below the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, there was a complete absence of stoneflies, mayflies, and other species — insects that are vital food for fish, bats, birds, and other creatures.

Because of the ecological effects of the Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado is one of the least productive sections of river in the world. The Colorado here will always be highly unnatural, a novel, human-created ecosystem with some natural elements.

Today, there is a large and growing backlash against dams in America and elsewhere as the immense damages they have inflicted on rivers become manifest. Few dams, though, are as reviled as the Glen Canyon, which was built in 1963 and took 17 years to fill Lake Powell.

Before the Glen Canyon was dammed, those who saw it say it was not unlike the Grand Canyon, with towering walls of red, tan, and ochre. Early Native American sites were plentiful. Environmental activist Edward Abbey decried the dam, and in his novel the Monkey Wrench Gang fantasized about using houseboats packed with explosives to blow it up. In 1981, members of Earth First!, a radical environmental group with a connection to Abbey, rolled a black plastic “crack” down the face of the dam to symbolize its demise.

Changes in the northeastern reaches of Lake Powell are documented in this series of natural-color images taken by the Landsat series of satellites between 1999 and 2017. The Colorado River flows in from the east around Mile Crag Bend and is swallowed by the lake. At the west end of Narrow Canyon, the Dirty Devil River joins the lake from the north. (At normal water levels, both rivers are essentially part of the reservoir.) At the beginning of the series in 1999, water levels in Lake Powell were relatively high, and the water was a clear, dark blue. The sediment-filled Colorado River appeared green-brown. To see the complete series go to: earthobservatory.nasa.gov/WorldOfChange/LakePowell. Photos via NASA

Removing the dam was part of the reason the Glen Canyon Institute was formed, but activists have now dropped that idea, says Rich Ingebretsen, a Salt Lake City physician who founded the group. Today, he advocates draining Lake Powell to fill Lake Mead, which is downstream and where the need for water is by far the greatest. The “Fill Mead First” campaign would restore a free-running Colorado River to what was once Lake Powell.

“You’d get much of Glen Canyon back,” said Ingebretsen. “A free-flowing river through the Grand Canyon means you’d restore the river — riparian zones, animals that belong there, a beautiful canyon with arches and bridges and waterfalls. Much of that would come back very quickly.” There would also be increased water in the river, he says, because so much of the Colorado is now lost from Lake Powell; scientists estimate that the lake loses three times Nevada’s allotment of water because of evaporation. As levels in Lake Mead drop due to prolonged drought, a growing number of people are taking this idea more seriously.

Paradoxically, two of the Colorado River’s most important wetlands for wildlife are the product of runoff from irrigated farm fields — and are now at risk from a changing climate and agreements to reduce water use.

In the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico, the 40,000-acre La Cienega de Santa Clara wetland was inadvertently created in the 1970s when U.S. officials built a canal to dispose of salty wastewater from agricultural fields in Arizona. As the water began spilling into the desert, myriad forms of life began to appear. Now its cattail-studded marshes and mudflats are considered one of the most important wetlands in North America, home to 280 species of birds — including the endangered Ridgeways rail — on what was once hard-baked desert.

Meanwhile, in California, the Salton Sea was once a shallow inland lake whose levels routinely fluctuated. In 1905, an effort to increase Colorado River flow into the Imperial Valley led farmers to allow too much river water into their irrigation canal, overwhelming their system; for two years the water poured into the 35-mile-long, 15-mile-wide Salton Sea and expanded it.

But as less water becomes available to agriculture and rising temperatures cause more water to evaporate, scientists are concerned that these wetlands will dry and shrink faster than they already have. A 2003 agreement, for example, allows agricultural water in the Imperial Valley to be sent to San Diego for municipal uses. That could cause water levels in the Salton Sea to drop by more than 40 percent, dramatically reducing bird habitat and increasing toxic dust because wetlands would dry out. Local, state, and federal officials have devised a plan — still not fully funded — to restore 15,000 acres of wetlands, at a cost of more than $700 million.

The largest project to restore some semblance of nature to the Colorado River, though, is in the delta. An unusual agreement in 2012 between the U.S. and Mexico, called Minute 319, mandated that the two countries would provide water and funding to revive sections of the delta and release a one-time pulse of 105,000 acre-feet to again connect the river to the delta temporarily. Scientists would then study the effects.

In 2014, for the first time in decades, the river flowed again in Mexico — for eight weeks. San Luis Rio Colorado — once a Colorado River town, but now a dusty desert settlement — became a river town for two months, to the delight of locals, many of whom had never seen the river. The pulse offered a glimpse of what reclamation efforts might look like. “It gave us an idea of how the river behaves, and the best sites for restoration,” said Zamora.

Martha Gomez-Sapiens, a monitoring team member and postdoctoral research associate in the UA Department of Geosciences, stands on a riverbank next to willows and cottonwoods that germinated as a result of the pulse flow. (Photo: Karl W. Flessa/UA Department of Geosciences)

Minute 319 and its 2017 replacement, Minute 323, have funded the restoration of sections of the river. A group of nonprofits — including the National Audubon Society, the Sonoran Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and a Mexican group called Pronatura Noroeste — is working on a project called Raise the River to revive a significant swath of the delta.

In 2008, the group secured rights to 1,200 acres along the desiccated river channel. Since then, local residents have torn out acres of salt cedar and planted irrigated fields of cottonwood, willow, and other endemic species — more than 200,000 trees in all. A small supply of water mandated by the treaty, along with excess water that flows off of irrigated fields, have been dedicated to the restoration.

On a recent visit, I joined Zamora and botanist Celia Alvarado on a short boat ride to Laguna Grande, a 6-mile section of restored river and estuary. We skimmed across still water the color of weak tea, minnows darting away from our paddles. Thick groves of cottonwoods and willows lined the river. Zamora remarked that bobcats and beaver lived there now, along with blue grosbeaks and yellow-billed cuckoos. “Impacting the target species is key,” he said.

And what about the jaguar? I asked. It has not returned, he said. Will it come back?

“Yes,” said Zamora, smiling. “Someday. If they allow me to introduce them.”

#Drought, what drought? The #ColoradoRiver Basin dance — @WillSarni #cwcac2019 #COriver #aridification

A raft coming out of Cataract Canyon into upper Lake Powell encounters the bathtub ring left by the receding reservoir. As Lake Powell, and Lake Mead, continue to see less and less water, it’s prompting water managers, including those at the Colorado River District, to coordinate on ways to send more water downstream. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

From GreenBiz (Will Sarni):

At the invitation of Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, I presented the keynote address at its annual meeting Jan. 31. My presentation was on water as a business risk and opportunity, and the role of innovation — technology and partnerships, among other things — in solving water challenges.

One of the water challenges discussed at the gathering is close to the organization’s Denver home: the Colorado River Basin. The timing of the Colorado Water Congress (CWC) meeting and my participation in the annual meeting was timely, as the Colorado River Basin states had until the end of the day to agree to finalize the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP).

The CWC is an important organization that brings together stakeholders that are engaged in managing water in Colorado. This includes state government, water utilities, NGOs and other interested parties such as the private sector. Two of the more prominent discussions at the CWC meeting were the DCP negotiations and how to fund the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan. Central to solving both challenges is engaging the private sector. However, there was little discussion, if any, about the private sector’s critical interest in finalizing the DCP and ensuring the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan is funded.

This essay centers on thoughts about how progress has unfolded to date and the role of the business sector in the Colorado River Basin DCP. (I will focus on funding the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan in another article.)

The economic value of the Colorado River Basin is significant. It represents about $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity, the equivalent of about 1/12th of the total U.S. GDP, or roughly 16 million jobs. It is estimated that if 10 percent of the river’s water were unavailable, there would be a loss of $143 billion in economic activity and 1.6 million jobs in just one year.

The Colorado River Basin has two main reservoirs, Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border and Lake Powell upstream. The combined storage of these reservoirs is at the lowest level since the early 1960s. As a result, if the water level in Lake Mead falls to an elevation of 1,075 feet, water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be curtailed. This is a real possibility next year.
The goal of the DCP is to spread the curtailments more widely and eventually include California. Essentially, the plan advocates for keeping more water in Lake Mead to keep it from falling drastically and avoiding severe curtailments of water delivery to the Lower Basin states.

The state of play as of Jan. 31 among the seven Colorado Basin States was less than ideal, in my opinion. (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico have been designated as Upper Basin states, while Arizona, California and Nevada are Lower Basin states.)

Accordingly, on Feb. 1, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation (the bureau has broad authority to manage water supplies in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin) stated that since two states — California and Arizona — missed the deadline to reach consensus, the federal government could intervene and decide the rules.

The agency’s commissioner, Brenda Burman, said she prefers that the seven states that rely on the river reach a consensus for how to protect the basin. But she said, “We are close, and I applaud those who have worked to get us close but only done will protect this basin,” she told reporters. “Time to get the job done.” So, as of this writing, the future is still uncertain.

Arizona lawmakers did pass legislation supporting the drought plan, and Gov. Doug Ducey signed it. Arizona was the only state that required lawmakers to review the plan. Now, water users must sign 15 agreements that address water storage, conservation and other details.

James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on interstate river negotiations, said he wasn’t surprised or discouraged by Burman’s position. “You’ve got to stick with deadlines or sometimes people won’t take you seriously. She wasn’t draconian about it,” Eklund said.

While there has been much discussion of the positions of the various state and federal agencies on the DCP, the substantial interest and influence of the private sector only seems to be marshaled in times of crisis.

The Arizona business community, for example, seemed to weigh in on the DCP discussion only at the proverbial 11th hour. But the legislation it supported passed overwhelmingly.

Regardless, it is long overdue for the private sector’s strong voice on how to implement long-term solutions to manage the Colorado River Basin to be heard. A positive development: State Colorado River principals, such as Colorado’s Eklund, are asking the business community to weigh in, by engaging business groups such as the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

We are not experiencing a “drought” — in my view, this situation is a result of overallocation of the Colorado River Basin water coupled with the impacts of climate change.

It’s time for businesses to speak up and for them to ally with organizations such as the CWC, The Nature Conservancy, Business for Water Stewardship and other organizations to ensure there is sustainable water for economic development, business growth, ecosystem health and social well-being.