#ColoradoRiver basin due for more frequent, intense hydroclimate events — #LosAlamos National Laboratory

Adjacent areas that receive Colorado River water. Map credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

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.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

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.

Graphic credit: Western Water Assessment

Judge tosses challenge from environmental groups to halt #DenverWater reservoir expansion — Colorado Politics

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

From Colorado Politics (Michael Karlik):

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.

@Northern_Water: Spring Water Users Meeting April 6, 2021 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Screenshot of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project boundaries via Northern Water’s interactive mapping tool , June 5, 2019.

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.

Click here to register.

Opinion: If we fight each other over #water, we’ll all come out losers — Kirk Klancke #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Kirk Klancke Erica Stock Fraser River. Photo credit: Bob Berwyn

Here’s a guest column from Kirk Klancke that’s running in the Colorado Sun:

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.

of a very complex water project so succinctly. In his March 15 Colorado Sun article, “Colorado’s latest proposal to divert water from the Western Slope is a complex, disputed set of pipes,” he was able to explain a project in understandable terms that most people in Colorado have little understanding of.

Restoring a river channel in the Upper Colorado Basin

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.

The broad priorities of the Colorado Water Plan as put forward by Becky Mitchell in a June 20, 2017 presentation to three Front Range roundtables. The slide reflects the competing priorities in Colorado when it comes to water and 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.”

After the fire: A wintery check on #waterquality — @DenverWater News on Tap #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Water Quality Operations crew member Nick Riney delivers water into a sample bottle secured by colleague Tyler Torelli. The pair will fill several bottles, including some that they’ll drive back to Denver Water’s laboratory in southwest Denver for testing. Photo credit: Denver Water.

From Denver Water (Todd Hartman):

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.

Riney and Torelli prepare to run field tests on water samples using portable equipment set up on the back edge of their Sno-Cat. The field tests can analyze the turbidity of the samples, offering clues as to the impacts of wildfire. Photo credit: Denver 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.

A topographic map showing the area targeted by water sampling crews in mid-March. This area in the Arapaho National Forest is north of Silverthorne and east of Highway 9. Photo credit: Denver Water.

As part of that work, Water Quality Operations crews visit eight counties and collect samples from 77 locations. It’s work that’s distinct from the testing that goes on at reservoirs, water treatment plants and within the distribution system that bring water to household taps.

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.

A Sno-Cat helps Water Quality Operations crews access stream sections that are far from roadways, moving quickly over deep snow to eliminate longer walks on snowshoes. On this day, Denver Water crews were northeast of Silverthorne and just west of the Byers Peak Wilderness Area. They were about to head toward Sugarloaf Campground, a destination indicated on the nearby signage. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Samples collected a few months from now may shed light on how much damage the Williams Fork fire did to the land.

Burned Area Emergency Response teams with the U.S. Forest Service have initially concluded that the fire did varying levels of damage. Their assessments found 23% of the area suffered high-intensity burn, while 40% was unburned or experienced low-intensity fire.

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.

he Williams Fork River, lined by snow-covered banks. Photo credit: Denver Water.

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.”

> Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

Forest Service approves test drilling for Whitney Reservoir site — @AspenJournalism #EagleRiver

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

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

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.”

Homestake Creek flows from Homestake Reservoir near Red Cliff. Starting Wednesday, Homestake Partners will be releasing water out of the reservoir to make sure that water can get to the state line as another option to fulfill the state’s upstream duties of delivering water to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

Whitney Reservoir

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.”

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.

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.

Aurora, #ColoradoSprings clear hurdle on Whitney Reservoir in Eagle County — The #Aurora Sentinel #EagleRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Aurora Sentinel (Grand Stringer):

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.

As reported by Colorado Public Radio, the project has also run into early opposition from central Colorado and Western Slope communities.

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.

From The 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.

#Aurora and #ColoradoSprings Want More #Water. The Proposed Solution — A New Reservoir — Would Have Far-Reaching Impacts — #Colorado Public Radio

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

From Colorado 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…

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

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?

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

“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.

Annual #RioGrande State of the Basin Symposium March 20, 2021

CLick here for all the inside skinny and to register:

Join this annual community conversation about our water, threats & opportunities! Engage & learn how you can help sustain the agriculture, environment & economy of the San Luis Valley. This virtual event is free & open to the public.

#Water and #climatechange: the #ColoradoRiver Basin case study — Qatium #COriver #aridification

From Qatium.com (Will Sarni):

“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.

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

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?

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

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).

“We are looking to be moving toward a future that is really decoupled from the past” — Kenneth Williams via The #ColoradoSprings Gazette #drought

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Mary Shinn):

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.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

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…

Fort Collins weather station on the CSU campus via the Colorado Climate Center.

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…

A flight from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory gathers data about the snowpack above Dillon Reservoir on a flight. Information gathered from the flight helped Denver Water manage reservoir operations. Photo courtesy of Quantum Spatial

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.

Colorado Springs Collection System via Colorado College.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Mary Shinn):

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.

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

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.

In Rapidly #Warming #ColoradoRiver Basin, The Negotiating Table Is Being Set — KUNC #COriver #aridification #DCP

The All American Canal diverts water from the Lower Colorado River to irrigate crops in California’s Imperial Valley and supply 9 cities. Graphic credit: USGS

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

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.

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

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…

Collectively the tribes hold rights to about 20% of the river’s flow. Combine that with a dwindling supply due to rapidly warming temperatures at the river’s headwaters, and the alarm bells start ringing more loudly…

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.

The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

#ColoradoRiver study means it’s time to cut #water use now, outside experts say — #Tucson.com #COriver #Aridification

At full pool, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States by volume, but two decades of drought have dramatically dropped the water level behind Hoover Dam as can be seen in this photo. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

From The 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.

Aerial photo – Central Arizona Project. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=326265

“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.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

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…

Central Arizona Project map via Mountain Town News

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.

A watchful eye on the ‘Big River’ — News on Tap #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #DCP

From Denver Water (Todd Hartman):

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 Colorado River, which feeds into Lake Powell, begins its 1,450-mile journey in Rocky Mountain National Park near Grand Lake, Colorado. Denver Water gets half of its water from tributaries that feed into the Colorado River. Some of these tributaries include the Fraser River in Grand County and the Blue River in Summit County. Photo credit: Denver Water

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.

Watch this 2018 video journey with CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead to see drought impacts on the Colorado River and learn what we’re doing about it:

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.”

Lake Powell ended the 2020 “water year” at an elevation of 3,596 feet above sea level. That is 104 feet below what is considered Powell’s full capacity. The “water year” is a term used by the U.S. Geological Survey to measure the 12-month hydrologic cycle between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30. The October start date is used to mark when snow begins to accumulate in the mountains. Photo credit: Denver Water

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.

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

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.”

    San Juan Water Commission may request #LakeNighthorse water release if ‘stars align’ — The #Farmington Daily Times #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

    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.

    Lake Nighthorse in the Ridges Basin in La Plata County, Colorado. The view is from the overlook on County Road 210. By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81402953

    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.

    San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

    #Colorado Division of #Water Resources cracks down on ponds in #ArkansasRiver basin: “Ultimately, someone is taking a haircut that has a legitimate water right” (Matt Heimerich) — @AspenJournalism

    This pond is in Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs. State water engineers are beginning an evaluation of ponds without legal water rights throughout the Arkansas River basin. Photo credit: Colorado Division of Natural Resources via Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    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.

    Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

    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.”

    This pond in Chaffee County near Salida is one of thousands in the Arkansas River Basin that is being evaluated by the Division 2 engineer’s office as part of a new pond management program. Engineers say ponds without decreed water rights could injure senior water rights holders. Photo credit: Colorado Division of Natural Resources via Aspen Journalism

    Augmentation plans

    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.

    #Water speculation flap signals need for review — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    James Eklund, hails from a Western Slope ranching family. He often works to add a touch of levity to otherwise serious-minded state-level water meetings. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

    From The 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.

    Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

    From The 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…

    Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com

    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.

    Meetings: San Juan #Water Commission to discuss release from #LakeNighthorse — The #Farmington Daily Times #SanJuanRiver

    Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

    From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

    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.

    #NewMexico #water managers warn communities to prepare for low #RioGrande — The #Albuquerque Journal

    From The Albuquerque Journal (Theresa Davis):

    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.

    The Middle Rio Grande didn’t look good in July 2020. The MRCGD had just a few days of water supply left.

    No water could have meant no irrigation for farmers, but also limited river habitat for endangered species, scarce drinking water supply for local communities, and meager flows for river recreation.

    Then came word from the other Rio Grande Compact states of Colorado and Texas: New Mexico had permission to boost river flows by releasing a total of 12 billion gallons from El Vado Reservoir.

    “That was the last page in our playbook, or pretty darn close to it,” Schmidt-Petersen told the Journal.

    The release kept the Rio Grande from drying completely in the Albuquerque stretch and helped extend the irrigation season for central New Mexico farmers.

    Colorado River water diverted via the San Juan-Chama Project also added to the trickling native Rio Grande flows.

    Last summer’s massive release from El Vado was water that had been stored as assurance that the state’s Rio Grande Compact debt would be paid.

    That water is gone. New Mexico still has to “pay back” the 12 billion gallons, plus any obligations accrued this year.

    State Engineer John D’Antonio said the drought is shaping up to be as severe as the conditions the state experienced in the 1950s.

    New Mexico Drought Monitor January 26, 2021.

    Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s December 2020 emergency drought declaration could provide some financial relief for communities affected by the record-setting dry conditions.

    “There could be appropriated up to $750,000 for each eligible and qualified applicant that the governor may designate from the surplus unappropriated money in the general fund, if there is any,” D’Antonio said.

    The state Drought Task Force would determine which organizations or local governments receive the money, which under the emergency declaration could be used for water conservation projects, to offset economic losses caused by the drought, or as a match for federal funding.

    Dylan Wilson on the banks of the Rio Grande near Las Cruces, N.M. Photo credit: Allen Best

    Gloomy forecast

    New Mexico will endure another double whammy of limited water supply and growing Rio Grande Compact water debt if snowpack levels don’t improve dramatically by early spring.

    Statewide snowmelt runoff forecasts published Jan. 1 showed most of New Mexico at less than 80% of normal levels.

    Since then, some snowstorms have brought much-needed moisture to the northern half of the state.

    But New Mexico needs several months of above-average snow and rain to dig out of a drought before the hot summer months.

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 1, 2021 via the NRCS.

    Groundwater wells in the lower Rio Grande region of southern New Mexico supply water for municipal and agricultural uses when the river is low.

    “That’s not the same in the middle valley for all the farmers there,” Schmidt-Petersen said. “There are limitations on wells that have been in place for long periods of time, so some places can pump and some cannot, and similarly all the way up the Chama.”

    Opinion: On this one thing, 9 #Colorado water managers agree — The Colorado Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From top left, Andy Mueller, Bob Wolff, Jim Lochhead, Brad Wind, Marshall Brown, Earl Wilkinson, Seth Clayton, Kevin Lusk, James Broderick. (Provided photos via The Colorado Sun)

    From The Colorado Sun (Andy Mueller, Bob Wolff, Jim Lochhead, CEO, Brad Wind, Marshall Brown, Earl Wilkinson III, Seth Clayton, Kevin Lusk, James Broderick):

    We may not always agree on the particulars of water policy and water use in the Centennial State, but we all recognize the importance of the Colorado River to our statewide economy and our Colorado way of life. The Colorado River is arguably the single most important natural resource to the State of Colorado. It powers economies on both sides of the Continental Divide. It provides food and fiber to the nation and the world from both sides of the Divide. And its fate will determine our own.

    Colorado’s constitution and our state’s laws have long recognized one simple truth: The waters that originate in our great state are the property of the public. The people of Colorado have the right to appropriate and use that water for beneficial uses, such as municipal, irrigation, industrial and recreation. Long excluded from the list of beneficial uses of water is holding water for speculation. Our state supreme court has ruled unconstitutional any scheme that “would encourage those with vast monetary resources to monopolize, for personal profit rather than for beneficial use…”

    Recently we have seen a series of articles and opinion pieces discussing and even advocating for the potential influx of financial capital from out of state investment funds to buy water from Colorado’s vibrant farms and ranches with the apparent aim of “solving” Colorado’s drought problems.

    This is not the first time we have seen venture capital eyeing our state’s water resources. This time around, however, the investors and their representatives are posturing to portray themselves as the only solution to a climate change driven reduction in the flows of our rivers. We have come together to set the record straight on this misguided concept.

    Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

    Our organizations and the water users we represent are working collaboratively with the State of Colorado to examine solutions to the threat of water shortages brought on by a changing climate and prolonged overuse of the River’s water by downstream states. Together, we are exploring a multi-faceted effort to secure our state’s water supply and protect irrigation for food product, our thriving communities and the environment that depend on this water. Among these approaches is the feasibility of a proposed “demand management” program to temporarily compensate water users in Colorado and other Upper Basin states to reduce their use of water to assure that we are able to meet our obligations under the Colorado River Compact.

    Demand management is complex. It is controversial. But we are approaching these conversations in good faith because we recognize that we must work together to protect the economies and livelihoods supported by the Colorado River throughout the entire state. Since solutions to our water challenges must be undertaken for the benefit of the state as a whole, these efforts must be led by the state. The Colorado Water Conservation Board articulated a set of guiding principles for this process in November 2018, principles with which we agree.

    One thing is clear. There is no place for private for-profit interests in this process. Moreover, private sector entities do not have the legal ability or authority to manage water across state lines or through federally owned reservoirs. This can be done only by the states and the federal government. Colorado state government has a long history of opposing interstate marketing and transfers of water by private interests, and that opposition should continue.

    The introduction of private investors in our statewide water planning efforts will only serve to further exacerbate the water divisions that exist between our urban areas and our irrigated agricultural communities on both sides of the Continental Divide. Our state must stand strong together to protect our Colorado way of life.

    Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District

    Bob Wolff, president, Southwestern Water Conservation District

    Jim Lochhead, CEO, Denver Water

    Brad Wind, general manager, Northern Water

    Marshall Brown, general manager, Aurora Water

    Earl Wilkinson III, chief water services officer, Colorado Springs Utilities

    Seth Clayton, executive director, Pueblo Water

    Kevin Lusk, president, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.

    James Broderick, executive director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District

    Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:

    In recent weeks, much attention has been focused on an issue not new to officials in the water world: private interests or hedge funds purchasing water rights from agricultural communities and diverting that water to cities.

    An open letter from almost 10 water officials from across the state, including the local Southwestern Water Conservation District, lashes out against the practice, saying, “waters that originate in our great state are the property of the public.”

    “The people of Colorado have the right to appropriate and use that water for beneficial uses, such as municipal, irrigation, industrial and recreation,” the letter, sent Thursday, says.

    The open letter is largely in response to a Jan. 3 article in The New York Times called “Wall Street Eyes Billions in the Colorado’s Water,” which says private investors may become more of a force in the political water world.

    The article cites several examples of private investors purchasing water rights from ranches, and then diverting it to cities to feed new developments or subdivisions in drought-strapped places.

    Several private equity owners argue the practice could be one of the solutions to curb the impacts of climate change that has resulted in drought and less available water throughout the West.

    In one stance, Greenstone, a private investment firm, bought most of the water rights in Cibola, Arizona, and then sold the rights to a suburb of Phoenix known as Queen Creek, 175 miles away.

    “One of the things I think we’ve learned over time is that a resource like water is best allocated through kind of a combination of market forces and regulatory oversight,” Grady Gammage, a spokesman for Greenstone, said in the article…

    The practice has been more common in urban areas along the Front Range or near Phoenix, and the issue hasn’t reared its head quite yet in Southwest Colorado, according to several water officials interviewed for this story.

    Robert Genualdi, Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 7 engineer, which covers Durango, said there are several key distinctions why the hedge funds of Wall Street haven’t set their sights on local waterways.

    For one, in most places along the Front Range where it is happening, the waterways are over-appropriated and there is not enough water to go around to serve new developments or subdivisions.

    As a result, entities looking for water for urban areas seek out farm and ranch owners who may be interested in selling their rights. Then, the developers use that water for their projects and let the farms go fallow, known as “buy and dry.”

    On the other hand, most waterways in the region, like the Animas River, are not over-allocated, meaning water rights can still be bought, Genualdi said.

    “In our corner of the state, it’s probably not as prevalent as it might be in other parts of the state because of the water availability down here,” he said.

    Also, Genualdi pointed out that much of the water is stored in Bureau of Reclamation projects – like Vallecito, Lake Nighthorse and McPhee reservoirs – which bring some level of federal protections against the practice.

    “Those projects were built for specific things, so it’s more of a task to get water use changed,” he said. “You’d have to go to Congress for a change.”

    While not currently an issue in Southwest Colorado, efforts should be made to prepare for private interests in water, said Amy Huff, a water attorney recently appointed to the Southwestern Water Conservation Board…

    Mike Preston, former manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said several water districts in the region have set up restrictions for people to sell off to private companies.

    “They’ve done what they can to protect themselves,” he said. “That water is all tied up to the land.”

    Ed Tolen, general manager of the La Plata Archuleta Water District, said his water right holders shouldn’t have to worry because it’s all domestic water use, not for irrigation.

    But still, he said there is concern among the agricultural community that some ranchers and farmers may have to send their water to lower basin states to meet water compacts…

    “One thing is clear. There is no place for private for-profit interests in this process,” the open letter said. “Colorado state government has a long history of opposing interstate marketing and transfers of water by private interests, and that opposition should continue.”

    Are there rivers beyond the #Colorado? — The Mountain Town News #RioGrande #ArkansasRiver #SouthPlatteRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Cache la Poudre River. Photo credit: Allen Best

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    Jeff Lukas co-wrote a Colorado River book. It deserves attention, he says, but it’s not the only river of the West!

    Jeff Lukas calls the Colorado the “charismatic megafauna of Western rivers.” This riverine equivalent of grizzly bears, bald eagles, and humpback whales gets lots of attention, including national attention.

    Some of that attention is deserved. It has the nation’s two largest reservoirs, among the nation’s tallest dams, and many of the most jaw-dropping canyons and eye-riveting national parks in the country. It also has 40 million to 50 million people in Colorado and six other southwestern states, plus Mexico, who depend upon its water, and a history of tensions that have at times verged on the political equivalent of fist-fights.

    Jeff Lukas via the Western Water Assessment.

    Just the same, Lukas admits to some crankiness about all the attention lavished on the Colorado River—including his own. It is not the only river in the West. Other rivers, including those in the state of Colorado, have problems and attributes, too. They should, he says, get more time on stage. These other rivers, too, do an awful lot of heavy lifting.

    Lukas recently became a water consultant after 11 years at the CU Boulder-based Western Water Assessment, a program that works with water decision-makers across Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, along with other research institutions. Before that he was a dendrochronologist, an analyst of the rings found in the bores extracted from trees to understand past growth and hence weather and climates. He calls himself a geographer at heart.

    If he has never rafted the Colorado River’s great canyons, Lukas knows the river basin very well. After all, he was the co-lead author on a recently-released 500-page synthesis report—essentially, a book—called “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science.” Brad Udall, a former colleague of Lukas’s at Western Water Assessment, called it the “most comprehensive scientific report ever produced about the Southwest’s iconic river.” [Click here to read the Coyote Gulch post about the report.]

    Even before climate change began to intrude into the hydrology of the river, as Udall and other climate scientists have now documented, the Colorado River was tasked to be all that everybody wanted it to be. It’s unlike the Mississippi, dumping vast amounts of water into the Gulf of Mexico. The Colorado is a much smaller river and, since the 1990s, has almost never delivered water to the Sea of Cortez, an arm of the Pacific Ocean. That is part of the river’s drama.

    Other river basins have drama, too. The rivers may not be as long. Their canyons may not be quite as absorbing. The challenges, though, aren’t all that different.

    The Colorado River Basin “doesn’t have as many unique challenges as we’ve been led to believe,” says Lukas. “It gets too much attention. It leads to a biased view of Western water issues, at least from a national perspective. Most other rivers do not get examined in the same way, either by researchers or the media.”

    The Platte River plods through downtown Denver, a small workhorse with a big load. Top photo, the ice-fringed Poudre River during early winter. Photos/Allen Best

    A case in point is the river book shelf. Every year a new book seems to come out about the Colorado River. The South Platte River? Not so much. There’s Ellen Wohl’s body of work, including “Virtual Rivers” and “Wide Rivers Crossed,” Tershia d’Elgin’s memoir about her father, “The Man Who Thought He Owned Water,” and “Confluence: The story of Greeley Water,” one of several books by former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs. The shelf is short for books about these other rivers.

    A woman jogs along the South Platte River underneath highways and railroad tracks near downtown Denver. Photo credit: Allen Best

    The South Platte is in many ways Colorado’s most important river. It arises along the Continental Divide in Colorado, near the town of Fairplay, traveling south before circling around for descent through the foothills to the Great Plains. If you’ve flown from Phoenix to Denver, you have hewed to some of this route as the plane glides down toward landing. Continuing north before veering eastward at Greeley, the river is augmented by the Poudre and the Big Thompson, along with Clear Creek, the St. Vrain, and Boulder Creek.

    The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.

    In its journey the South Platte and these tributaries provide water for 4 million of Colorado’s 5.8 million residents and some of its most productive farms. As recently as 2015, some 86% of the water in the South Platte gets used by agriculture – sometimes time and again. By some estimates, water from the Platte gets used seven times before the river meekly enters Nebraska, thoroughly tired.

    Like the Colorado River, the Platte has problems aplenty. The Colorado has been tamed, but so has the South Platte. The Colorado becomes nothing—literally—shortly after it enters Mexico. The South Platte becomes basically nothing during its journey through Denver.

    Dylan Wilson on the banks of the Rio Grande near Las Cruces, N.M. Photo credit: Allen Best

    Context always matters. “You know the saying that all politics is local,” says Lukas. “All vulnerability is local.”

    Even within this one basin, the challenges differ. Consider the consequences of the 2002 drought. Aurora, the strapping suburb on Denver’s eastern side, came uncomfortably close to draining its reservoirs. In response, the city tightened up conservation measures but also created a major water-reuse project called Prairie Waters. It reclaims water released after treatment at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant after it has flowed for about 20 miles in the river’s banks and adjoining aquifers. Near Fort Lupton, the water gets drawn from an aquifer for pumping 34 miles back to Aurora Reservoir.

    Denver Water, a much bigger provider, rode out that drought more easily. There were pinches, which it is still trying to address via both conservation but also expansion of Gross Reservoir. But the point is that context matters—and, oh by the way, it’s not just the Colorado River struggling to meet all the demands imposed on it.

    This is from the Jan. 28, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com

    Making his case even more granular, Lukas points to the needs and vulnerabilities in just one city, Boulder.

    “People who live in Gunbarrel (a community jutting out from the city’s northeast corner) have a different vulnerability relative to their water supply than do people in the central part of Boulder, because they are served by a different set of raw water sources, treatment plants, and pipelines.”

    Like the Colorado River, the Platte is a contentious river among the states through which it passes. Actually, there has been contention in nearly every river originating in Colorado.

    Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11218868

    Consider the Rio Grande, which arises in the San Juan Mountains and flows through the San Luis Valley on its way into New Mexico and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. New Mexico believes that the river never delivers enough water. From south of that border, flows are carefully monitored.

    The Arkansas River slithers across the prairie near the remains of Bents New Fort, in southeastern Colorado. Photo credit: Allen Best

    The Arkansas River Basin has also provoked expensive courtroom showdowns with Kansas. Colorado and Kansas don’t even pronounce the name of the river the same, East of Holly, where the river enters the Sunflower State, it becomes the ar-Kansas River. In the Centennial State, it’s universally the Ar-kan-saw River.

    Sure, the Arkansas and the South Platte both benefit from imported water from the Colorado River Basin. In the case of the Platte, a little more than 33% of the annual flows comes from the various tunnels and ditches that extract water from the Colorado River headwaters. But just because these rivers get help from the Colorado River does not diminish their own unique challenges.

    Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth

    Again, there’s the question of how can the co-author of a 500-page report about the Colorado River say that this same river gets too much attention, at least compared to other rivers. Lukas acknowledges he sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.

    It is, he says, a matter of balance.

    “It would be valuable to have this same sort of science synthesis done for other basins as well,” he said.

    “Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today” (Dave Kanzer) — The #Colorado Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Gunnison River Basin snowpack January 25, 2021 via the NRCS Colorado Snow Survey.

    From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

    The Bureau of Reclamation’s dire projections for Colorado River Basin reservoirs for the first time triggers drought contingency planning across seven basin states.

    The dry 2020 and the lack of snow this season has water managers in seven states preparing for the first time for cutbacks outlined in drought contingency plans drafted two years ago.

    A sobering forecast released this week by the Bureau of Reclamation shows the federally owned Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the nation’s two largest reservoirs and critical storage for Colorado River water and its 40 million users — dipping near-record-low levels. If those levels continue dropping as expected, long-negotiated agreements reached by the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 will go into effect, with water deliveries curtailed to prevent the federal government from stepping in and making hard water cuts.

    The Bureau of Reclamation’s quarterly report was dire, showing Lake Powell at 42% of capacity and downriver’s Lake Mead at 40% capacity. And there’s not much water coming.

    “Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, presenting the bureau’s latest forecasts to the district’s board last week.

    The bureau’s January report showed the impacts of a warming, drying climate peaking last year. The period from April to December was among the driest stretches ever recorded in the Southwest, with current conditions mirroring 2002, 2012, 2013 and 2018, four of the five driest years recorded in the Colorado River Basin. The bureau forecasts three scenarios for the next 24 months. Those three projections detail a most probable result, a best-case scenario and a worst-case situation.

    Snowpack conditions right now in the mountains that feed the Colorado River and eventually fill Lake Powell are perilously close to the worst-case scenario. The bureau report shows the 2021 inflow into Lake Powell most likely will land around 53% of normal, but could end up as bad as 33% of normal.

    The bureau expects the Utah reservoir will finish 2021 at 35% of capacity. If things get worse and follow that worst-case projection, the water level at Lake Powell could drop below a critical level — 3,525 feet above sea level — in early 2022 and that would threaten the ability of Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity…

    The “bathtub ring” at Lake Powell evidences lower flows coming into the reservoir. According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the total inflow into Lake Powell for the 2020 water year was about 6 million acre-feet, just 55% of average. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    If the reservoir falls below that 3,525-foot elevation level, the Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to deliver hydro-electricity to more than 3 million customers and the federal government could lose as much as $150 million a year in revenue from selling that electricity. Any projection that the reservoir is headed toward that critical threshold gets water managers in all seven basin states ready for drought-response operations that spread the pain of water cuts across every region of the Colorado River Basin.

    Jim Lochhead has helmed Denver Water for half of this prolonged drought. He’s seen good years like 2011 — really the last decent year for water in Colorado — and bad years, like 2013…

    But with the lack of snow this season and snowpack in all but one of the state’s seven major river basins below median levels, Lochhead said he is “certainly very concerned about the supply outlook.”

    […]

    Kanzer, in his report to the Colorado River district board last week, said soil conditions are very dry across Western Colorado. So the state can’t blizzard itself out of this drought hole.

    “Even if we did get a good spring we would not get much benefit because all of the moisture would go into the soil and not run off,” Kanzer said.

    #ColoradoRiver restoration project crawls forward as some environmental groups call for radical change — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

    The dam that forms Windy Gap Reservoir on the Colorado River, just below its confluence with the Fraser River in Grand County. The River District board approved $1 million toward a project to build a connectivity channel aimed at improving deteriorated conditions caused by the dam and reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Lindsay Fendt):

    The Colorado River Water Conservation District at a board meeting [January 19, 2021] voted to give $1 million of their taxpayer-raised funds to help construct the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which will improve deteriorated conditions at the headwaters of the Colorado River.

    “When I look at this, it has benefits that are assisting our communities in the damage caused by transmountain diversions,” River District General Manager Andy Mueller said during the meeting.

    The district’s vote is the first step in a final push to fund and build the long-awaited channel, which has been in the works since the early 2000s. The connectivity channel is the first project to which River District board members have allocated money as part of the organization’s new Project Partnership Funding Program.

    Restoring a river channel in the Upper Colorado Basin

    If built, the channel would mitigate much of the damage to the Colorado and Fraser rivers that has been caused by the Windy Gap reservoir in Grand County. While the channel itself has broad support, its fate is tangled in that of a more controversial project that will draw additional water from the Colorado River system.

    The Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District constructed the original Windy Gap Project in the 1980s to divert water from the Colorado River to customers across the Continental Divide.

    “It’s an unchanneled reservoir, meaning that it’s just plopped right in the middle of the Colorado River,” said Mely Whiting, the legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “It basically blocks the river all the way across, and that has serious consequences.”

    The project cut off the river’s flow and led to large stretches of river that went dry. It caused sediment buildup and a documented decline in biodiversity below the reservoir, including a 38% loss of its aquatic insect species and declines in fish populations.

    The connectivity channel, which is designed to undo some of this damage, would reconnect the Upper Colorado and Fraser rivers to the main stem of the Colorado by routing the river around the dam of the Windy Gap Reservoir, creating a path for fish, water and sediment to flow down the river.

    Since the release of its original conceptual design in the early 2000s, the connectivity channel has seen its estimated costs grow from about $10 million to $23.5 million. The River District money would help close the remaining $7 million funding gap — but not completely. According to Mueller, the River District voted to give the money in hopes that it would entice other groups to do the same.

    The project has been lauded as a rare example of collaboration in the world of water management. It carries support from an unusual coalition of environmental groups, local government and water-management groups on both sides of the Continental Divide. The River District is just one of 10 of the project’s financial backers, which include Northern Water, Grand County and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

    But the channel’s construction does come at a cost. Much of the funding for the project depends on the construction of the Windy Gap Firming Project — an expansion of the Windy Gap Project that would result in the construction of a 90,000-acre-foot reservoir in Larimer County.

    To date, the Windy Gap’s junior water right has meant that the project’s managers have not been able to divert water in dry years and have not had a place to store water for their customers during wet years. The reservoir would give the project’s customers a consistent supply — or “firm yield,” as it’s called — of 30,000 acre-feet annually.

    Drawing additional water from the beleaguered Colorado River was controversial, so to win support for their plan, Northern Water signed on with a battery of agreements with environmental groups and Western Slope municipalities and water managers.

    Included in these agreements was $5 million for the connectivity channel, a guarantee to maintain a minimum streamflow below the dam, construction of water storage for Western Slope communities and a promise to open negotiations over other water rights that impact the Western Slope.

    This graphic from Northern Water shows the lay out of the Windy Gap Firming Project. The River District has voted to spend $1 million on the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, an aspect of the project meant to mitigate impacts from the dam and reservoir.

    Environmental mitigation

    For many groups that traditionally oppose moving water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, the benefits from the project were enough to win them over. Additional supporters and sponsors of the project include Trout Unlimited and the Grand Board of County Commissioners.

    “We have to look at this in a realistic light,” Mueller said of the compromise. “This won’t fix the original sin of placing the Windy Gap Reservoir right in the middle of the Colorado River channel, but it does mitigate it.”

    Trout Unlimited has used the funds from Northern Water as leverage for attracting other funding and grants for the connectivity channel and other projects to improve the habitat quality on the river. These include plans to protect the river from some of the effects of climate change by narrowing parts of the river channel to lower stream temperatures and adding fire protection.

    “Everything that we’re doing is to make the river more resilient,” Whiting said. “It’s not going to be what it would be naturally in terms of size and volume and flows, but it will function naturally and it will function as good habitat in spite of all those limitations.”

    But while many have heralded the Windy Gap Firming Project as the beginning of a new era of cooperation in water management, not everyone agrees that mitigating environmental damage to the river is enough.

    “We are past the point where we can do work around the margins,” said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “There is a climate crisis, there’s a water crisis. These things are real, and they are not going away by us mitigating them around the edges.”

    WildEarth Guardians is one of six environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Save the Colorado, that filed a lawsuit against the Windy Gap Firming Project. The 2017 suit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alleged that the agencies violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Clean Water Act by approving the permits for the Windy Gap Firming Project. Northern Water was not a defendant in the case.

    In the lawsuit, the environmental groups argued that the agencies did not consider conserving water instead of building a diversion project as an alternative for providing water to Front Range communities.

    The call for conservation came as a surprise to Northern Water, which used the state’s water-demand projections to justify the need for their project. Those projections already assume that municipalities will adopt a certain level of conservation measures.

    “We’ve been pretty confident with our project that we addressed all the issues in our environmental work that they had questions about,” said Jeff Drager, Northern Water’s director of engineering. “And part of the reason they take so long is because the federal agencies are nervous about getting sued like this, and they want to make sure they check all their boxes and get things done.”

    A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in December. In his ruling, the judge did not analyze water conservation as an alternative. Instead, he noted that the agencies followed the procedural laid out in the law and that he was required to give deference to the agencies’ decisions.

    While the plaintiffs weigh whether to appeal the case, Northern Water and the other supporters of the Windy Gap Firming Project have begun taking small steps toward constructing their projects. Barring another legal challenge, they will begin construction on the project’s reservoir as soon as this summer and on the connectivity channel in the fall.

    For now, the supporters of the firming project are excited about what they see as a paradigm shift in water management: a move toward cooperation over competition for water resources. Those against the project also are hoping for an eventual shift, but their idea of what that looks like is something more dramatic.

    “This just highlights for me that federal environmental laws aren’t really working anymore. When you have deference to the agency, it’s hard for someone else to come in and say that here are other ways that this can be done,” Pelz said. “I think one of the things that needs to happen, which is a radical thing, is that we need to actually live within the river means.”

    Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Its water desk is supported by Sam Walton via the Catena Foundation. AJ was supported by the Walton Family Foundation from 2016 to 2018, and the foundation has also supported Trout Unlimited. This story ran in the Jan. 20 editions of The Aspen Times and The Vail Daily.

    #EastTroublesomeFire could cause water-quality impacts for years — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Drivers between Granby and Walden will encounter many scenes of hillsides where only snags remain from the 193,000-acre East Troublesome Fire in October. Water managers say the worst impacts of the fire may be felt with summer rains. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best):

    For some ranchers in Troublesome Valley, the worst impacts of the wildfire that began near there in October might not arrive until summer — or even summers beyond.

    Experts say the greatest danger of sedimentation from the East Troublesome Fire will occur during and after a hard rain, especially of an inch or more. That is when the severe soil damage from the fire will cause sediment to wash into the east fork of Troublesome Creek and into a diversion ditch used to irrigate 10,000 acres of hay.

    “It’s a real concern for us,” said Kent Whitmer, one of seven ranch owners who get water from the ditch owned by the East Troublesome Mutual Irrigation Co.

    Whitmer said he most fears sediment filling the ditch so badly that it overflows.

    “That would be disastrous,” he said.

    Agricultural and municipal water users will see broad, lingering effects of the 193,812-acre fire.

    The East Troublesome Fire, which had been burning east of Colorado Highway 125, exploded on the afternoon of Oct. 21, driven by 70 mph winds. In all, the fire grew 100,000 acres in 24 hours, eventually becoming the second-largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. The fire was formally designated as contained Nov. 30, although small plumes of smoke could be seen in the golf course area as recently as Christmas Day. All but about 5,000 acres of the fire burned in Grand County.

    Denver Water may offer lessons useful to water managers, who will be dealing with impacts from the East Troublesome Fire for years, perhaps decades. Denver Water has struggled with sediment and debris clogging its two major reservoirs in the foothills southwest of Denver. The fires that caused problems for those reservoirs — Buffalo Creek in 1996 and Hayman in 2002 — fried soils, removing their ability to absorb moisture. Sediment has been washed up to 11 miles into Strontia Springs and Cheesman reservoirs, pushed by water during summer cloudbursts.

    Denver Water has spent $28 million in reservoir dredging, facilities repair and landscape-restoration projects. It discovered that debris and sediment can travel downstream to cause problems in critical water infrastructure. At Strontia Springs, Denver Water dredged for sediment as recently as five years ago but may need to do so again this year.

    “Dredging is very costly,” Denver Water watershed scientist Christina Burri said during the recent post-fire water impacts webinar. Retrieving sediment and debris can be challenging, and then there’s the issue of what to do with the debris. “Do you pile it? Do you burn it? Where can you take it?” Burri said.

    The East Troublesome Fire might produce fewer problems. A fire assessment called burned-area emergency response was conducted by U.S. Forest Service land managers and shows mostly low to moderate soil burn severity, suggesting lesser impacts to water quality.

    But water managers still expect significant challenges come spring, when melting snow produces debris and sediment that can clog bridges, culverts and reservoirs.

    This house north of Windy Gap Reservoir was among the 589 private structures burned in the East Troublesome Creek Fire. Water managers worry soil damage by the fire will cause sediment to clog irrigation ditches and municipal water infrastructure alike. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

    Assessing the damage

    The fire came through in October “so quickly that it didn’t have a chance to do long-term scarring of the soil,” said Jeff Stahla, public information officer for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “However, this is still a sobering assessment because it really lays out the challenge we have going forward.”

    Northern Water operates the Colorado-Big Thompson diversion project, which employs Willow Creek, Granby and Shadow Mountain reservoirs as well as Grand Lake to deliver water to more than a million people and 615,000 irrigated acres along the northern Front Range and in northeastern Colorado.

    The district estimates the fire burned as much as 94% of the Willow Creek watershed, 90% of the area drained by Stillwater Creek, 29% of the Colorado River drainage above Shadow Mountain Reservoir and 42% of the North Inlet watershed. A more detailed assessment will be needed in the spring after snow has melted, Strahla said.

    “It’s not as bad as Hayman, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bad,” Stahla said, referring to the 138,000-acre fire in 2002 that was the largest forest fire in Colorado’s recorded history until last year. In size, Hayman was eclipsed by the three Colorado fires in 2020: East Troublesome, Cameron Peak and Pine Gulch.

    In assessing the damages caused by the East Troublesome Fire, resource specialists estimated 5% of the soil suffered high severity, 48% of it moderate severity and 37% of it low severity burns. Within the fire perimeter, 10% of the land was unburned.

    The mapping for the 22,668 acres of the East Troublesome Fire within Rocky Mountain National Park has not yet been released.

    Soil in severely burned areas has lost its structure, as the fire burned the forest litter and duff, weakening the roots of trees and other material that hold soil together.

    Areas of severe damage include the basin drained by the east fork of Troublesome Creek, where the fire was first reported Oct. 14. There, the fire hunkered down, moving slowly but burning most everything. Other notable severe burn areas are near Willow Creek Pass, between Granby and Walden, and a gulch immediately north of Windy Gap Reservoir. Some areas near Grand Lake burned with surprising severity.

    Erosion in high or moderate soil burn areas depends on the specific characteristics, such as the slope and soil texture, of each area, according to the burn report.

    Little that was live remained standing in this area along Colorado Highway 25, north of Windy Gap Reservoir, after the East Troublesome Fire. Agricultural and municipal water users will see broad, lingering effects of the fire. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism

    Watching the water

    Impacts to drinking water in Grand County will vary. Well owners generally should have no problems with the debris.

    “These folks will want to make sure that wellheads and components are not damaged, to test for coliform bacteria before drinking the water post-fire and to treat it if necessary,” said Katherine Morris, water-quality specialist for Grand County. “If a well is located in an area known to be down-gradient from an area where homes burned, it may be prudent to ensure that your water treatment is adequate.”

    At Grand Lake, the town draws water from 80-foot wells.

    “We have not seen anything yet,” said Dave Johnson, the water superintendent for Grand Lake. He said he doesn’t expect problems but that the water will continue to be monitored, as it has been.

    But Grand Lake’s microhydro plant could have problems. Located on Tonohutu Creek, the small plant constantly generates 5 kilowatts of electricity used in treating the town’s domestic water.

    “We can only filter out so much debris before we have to close the intake,” Johnson said.

    In that case, the water treatment plant will be operated solely by electricity from Mountain Parks Electric.

    Hot Sulphur Springs, which draws water from wells that tap the river aquifer, will be the only town in Grand County with municipal water supplies directly impacted by the fire. Kremmling also can tap the Colorado River, but it does so only in emergencies.

    Hot Sulphur Springs Mayor Bob McVay said his town expects challenges when the snow melts this spring, producing ash-laden water and debris. The town already has set out to take precautions, but it’s not yet clear what will be required.

    Upgrading of the filters in the town’s water treatment plant, a project that began a year ago, probably will be completed in January, providing duplicate filtering systems. But that might not be enough. Secondary wells in the groundwater along the river remain an option.

    In Troublesome Valley, Whitmer hopes to consult the expertise of the Natural Resources Conservation Service about how to mitigate effects of the fire on the irrigation ditch. He also wonders whether beaver dams in the East Fork will trap at least some sediment.

    For Northern Water, this was just one of several fires affecting its operations in 2020. It was impacted by fires on both sides of the Continental Divide, including the Cameron Peak Fire, the state’s largest wildfire, which affected the Poudre River and other creeks and drainages.

    Stahla said managers attempt to prepare for wildfire and other contingencies, but they did not prepare for such a severe wildfire season.

    “If you had come to us with a scenario that there is wildfire burning above Grand Lake, above Estes Park and throughout the Poudre River Basin, we probably would have pushed back, thinking that’s a little too over the top,” he said.

    Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with Swift Communications newspapers. Our water desk is funded in part by the Catena Foundation. This story ran in the Jan. 16 edition of the Summit Daily News and the Jan. 15 edition of Sky-Hi News.

    #CameronPeakFire’s threat to #PoudreRiver a concern for #FortCollins water supply — The Fort Collins Coloradoan

    From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Miles Blumhardt):

    Mesmerized by miles of mountainsides of blackened trees and seared soil that hugs the banks of the upper Poudre River, it’s difficult not to reflect on the 2012 High Park Fire and 2013 flood.

    You can’t help but wonder, given the steepness of the slopes and the severity of the riverside scar left by the Cameron Peak Fire, if Northern Colorado is poised for a repeat of history regarding the Poudre River.

    Come spring, snowmelt, rainfall and potential flash floods are almost certain to wash large amounts of ash from Colorado’s largest wildfire, soil and even entire trees into the river that serves as a source of drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people in Fort Collins and the surrounding area…

    A recent Burned Area Emergency Response assessment for the Cameron Peak Fire indicated a 90% to 100% chance that water quality would be impacted by ash- and sediment-laden runoff, nutrient loading and potential debris flows within the first few years following the fire.

    And that’s only the half of it.

    Fort Collins receives half of its water from the Poudre River and the other half from Horsetooth Reservoir, whose water quality could be impacted by the East Troublesome Fire in Grand County.

    An assessment for the East Troublesome Fire estimated 53% of the burn area suffered moderate (48%) or high (5%) soil burn severity compared to 36% — 30% moderate and 6% high — for the Cameron Peak Fire. The Cameron Peak Fire assessment also showed more than half the soil tested to be repellent to water absorption…

    By the time the 112-day Cameron Peak Fire’s flames were finally extinguished on Dec. 2, a watershed recovery collaboration of area municipalities, Larimer County, federal and state agencies, water providers and organizations such as the coalition, was already meeting to start planning efforts to address the fire’s impact.

    This isn’t the first fire for many of those stakeholders, and lessons learned from the High Park Fire are helping the group quickly prepare for this spring’s impacts.

    That being said, the Cameron Peak Fire was more than twice the size of the High Park Fire and paired with the 193,812-acre East Troublesome Fire — the second-largest wildfire in state history — delivered a massive one-two punch to several watersheds, making recovery even more daunting…

    Mark Kempton, the city of Fort Collins’ interim deputy director of Water Resources and Treatment, said the city has implemented steps since the High Park Fire to better equip it to handle the after-effects of a major fire.

    He said the city has installed warning systems along the Poudre River that alert it several hours ahead of water turbidity issues so workers can turn off the water supply. When the city turns off the Poudre River supply, it can draw on Horsetooth Reservoir water. That was the case for 100 days during the High Park Fire.

    The High Park Fire taught recovery leaders to include the use of shredded tree mulch instead of straw mulch to better prevent the mulch from blowing away for soil and slope stabilization. Strategically increasing culvert size also reduced damage to roads.

    Kempton said another key component will be workers removing sediment by flushing the water treatment system more often and removing sediment from the river intake system and catch basins.

    Proposed #PlatteRiver #water transfer could have far reaching ripple effect — #Nebraska TV

    Platte River. Photo credit: Cody Wagner/Audubon

    From Nebraska TV (Danielle Shenk):

    More than 65,000 gallons of water per minute is being proposed for an interbasin transfer from the Platte River to the Republican River, but Audubon Nebraska is taking legal action to stop it.

    Audubon works to protect wildlife like birds and their habitats.

    As part of an agreement between Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas, this water transfer would help meet the state’s delivery obligations within the Republican River Compact.

    But over the years, water from the Platte River has heavily been used by municipalities and agriculture.

    This has led to the compact being short on water deliveries for quite some time.

    The state also has an agreement with other neighboring states to balance this overused water supply through the Endangered Species Act, which began about 30 years after the river compact, and through the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program that aims to add water back to the river…

    A diversion of the already short water supply to the Republican could create a ripple effect.

    “Overall, taking water from one basin that is already water short and transferring it to another basin that’s water short.. that doesn’t really give us a long term solution. It doesn’t provide certainty for water users and it potentially has ecological impacts for both river basins,” said Mosier.

    Taddicken said almost 70% of the water from the Platte River is gone before it even makes it to Nebraska and an interbasin transfer would heavily impact the its supply.

    “This water removed from the Platte actually leaves the basin which is a real problem. Moving water around irrigation canals and things like that, eventually a lot of that water seeps back into the groundwater and back to the Platte River. This kind of a transfer takes it out completely,” said Taddicken.

    He said farmers in the Platte River Valley should be really concerned if the transfer goes through…

    Streamflow also helps to create multiple channels and varying depths which attract many wildlife species, especially birds.

    Sandhill Cranes in flight via Colorado Parks and Wildlife

    “Sandhill cranes, whooping cranes, piping plovers and other birds.. they use those sand bars for protection. That’s where they like to nest and roost, so that’s really important. Stream flow makes that happen,” stated Mosier, “there’s also an important connection between streams on the Platte River and wetlands. Those wetlands are where a lot of birds and other wildlife find their protein sources.”

    Taddicken said we’ve made a lot of compromises for wildlife already as the width of the Platte River has slowly declined and vegetation has taken over where the waters don’t extend.

    The impact then extends its reach to the economy, with less sandhill cranes coming to the area that could impact tourists traveling to Central Nebraska.

    Invasive species making their way into Kansas is also a concern.

    Back in 2018, former Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer wrote a letter objecting to the transfer due to the risk of invasive species.

    #Drought-stricken #ColoradoRiver Basin could see additional 20% drop in #water flow by 2050 — Yale Climate Connections #COriver #aridification

    The white bathtub ring along Lake Mead reflects the effects of years of drought in the Colorado River Basin. Source: Water Education Foundation

    From Yale Climate Connections (Jan Ellen Spiegel):

    The region is transitioning to a more arid climate, challenging longstanding practices of water-sharing in the basin.

    Colorado is no stranger to drought. The current one is closing in on 20 years, and a rainy or snowy season here and there won’t change the trajectory.

    This is what climate change has brought.

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

    “Aridification” is what Bradley Udall formally calls the situation in the western U.S. But perhaps more accurately, he calls it hot drought – heat-induced lack of water due to climate change. That was the core of research released in 2017 by Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center, and Jonathan Overpeck at the University of Michigan.

    Their revelation was that the heat from climate change was propelling drought. “Previous comparable droughts were caused by a lack of precipitation, not high temperatures,” the study said. And all the factors at play were having compounding effects on each other that made the situation even worse. Those impacts were being felt most acutely on the biggest water system in the West – the Colorado River Basin.

    Without a dramatic and fast reversal in greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change, Udall and Overpeck said, the additional loss of flow in the basin could be more than 20% by mid-century and 35% at the century’s end – worse than currently assumed.

    “I always say climate change is water change,” says Udall, whose father was Arizona congressman Morris (Mo) Udall, an iconic environmental activist. “It means too much water, not enough water, water at the wrong time. It means reduced water quality. You get all of these things together as the earth warms up.”

    In Colorado it’s all pretty much coming true. The drought is the second worst 20-year period in the past 1,200 years, according to Udall. This summer/fall alone had some of the hottest spells on record and the worst wildfire season ever. On the other hand, 2013 brought catastrophic floods to the Front Range. “I got 17 inches of water in my house here in four days. It’s all part of the same change,” Udall says.

    It’s forced Colorado to start facing the reality that its perpetual struggle for water can no longer be written off as cyclical weather that will all balance-out over short periods of time. It’s climate change at work, and it requires long-term planning and likely fundamental changes to the paradigm of how the state gets, uses, and preserves its water.

    The state and individual municipalities are beginning to address their new reality with policies that range from the obvious – conservation, just using less water, to the more innovative – considering using beaver dams to restore mountain wetlands and generally remediating the landscape to better handle water.

    But all those actions and more must face the political reality of the longstanding way water-sharing is handled in the basin. It pits state against state, rural against urban, agriculture against, well, everyone.

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

    The Colorado River Compact

    The Colorado River Basin provides water to a massive swath of the Rocky Mountain and western states. The Compact that rules it dates to 1922, with California, Nevada and Arizona – the lower basin states – essentially getting first dibs on water that flows from upper basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah – with secondary access to the water, so they generally absorb the brunt of water losses.

    Colorado is a headwaters state – where the river flows down from the continental divide. It relies on whatever falls out of the sky: It does not have the luxury of access to whatever water may flow in farther downstream.

    A process to re-evaluate aspects of the Compact is underway with a 2026 deadline. No one expects the basic structure to change, though other contingencies are likely to be layered on, as has happened a number of times in the intervening years.

    River levels are off some 20% since the Compact was initiated, compounding the water crunch while the region’s population has grown dramatically, especially in Colorado. That combination of factors have many water experts and administrators convinced any new strategy has to do more than divvy-up the water differently.

    That’s because it’s climate change and not cyclical weather causing the problems, Udall says emphatically: “Yup. Yup. Yup.” He notes that scientists already see impacts they hadn’t expected to see until 2050.

    “I think some of the predictions about reduced flows in the Colorado River based on global warming are so dire it’s difficult to wrap your brain around them. We have no operating rules for that kind of reduction in supply,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources at the University of Colorado. “Even with these discussions that will be taking place over the next five years for the Colorado River system, I’m not sure that they will be able to get to an agreement about what would happen if flow is reduced by 50%.”

    The critical climate change impacts seem to act in a loop: heat causes more evaporation of surface water. The resulting lower water level means water will warm more easily, and in turn evaporates more readily.

    Global warming is also changing the dynamics of snowpacks. They melt faster and earlier and don’t regularly continue to slowly dissipate, creating a gradual runoff that is more beneficial and sustaining to the water supply. Udall notes that on April 1, 2020, there was 100% of normal snowpack above Lake Powell, which with Lake Mead are the two enormous reservoirs in the system. In a normal year that would provide 90-110% of runoff. But it provided only 52% in 2020 as a result of dry warm weather through fall.

    Sustainable water supplies are also threatened as weather events occur more often as extremes: major rains in a short period of time sandwiched by extended dry periods. Torrential rains that follow a long drought may help the soil, but runoff may never make it to the water supply.

    Wildfires, in recent years larger and longer, complicate matters by dumping ash and crud into water bodies, which results in less water and contamination that can render unusable what water there is. And if difficult climate conditions keep trees from growing back after fires, the resulting ecosystem changes could further damage water supplies.

    Big ideas in place

    “This is not your average variability,” says Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which covers most of the water used by the state. “Cooperative management of water resources can really help in these hot dry summers,” he says.

    Mueller says the district tried releasing additional water from a reservoir that also creates hydropower. The extra water helps cool the river it flows into – slowing evaporation and allowing fishing and other activities often stopped when the water gets too warm and low to resume. That same water was also used for other hydropower plants downstream. Some then continued to other river areas. And some was diverted for crop irrigation, important given that farming and ranching are the biggest consumers of water in the state.

    Basic conservation – just using less water – is always the first step, but even Colorado Water Conservation Board senior climate specialist Megan Holcomb admits: “We’re definitely beyond that conversation.”

    The Board is considering systems that employ the technique of demand management: finding ways to use minimal water to allow for storage for dry years. So far, the thinking involves a voluntary program.

    Already in place is an online tool called the Future Avoided Cost Explorer or FACE: Hazards. It helps quantify impacts of drought and wildfires on sectors of the Colorado economy.

    “We know these hazards are going to continue to impact our economy, but we have no numbers to even say how much we should invest now so that we don’t have financial impacts in the future,” Holcomb says.

    Castle talks about ideas such as consideration of water footprints on new developments and re-developments; integrating land use planning with water planning including things such as landscaping codes; and use of technology at various levels of water monitoring.

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

    In search of more equitable sharing of water

    She notes also a drought contingency plan adopted in 2019 by the Compact states calling for reductions in deliveries to the lower basin. It’s pointed in the right direction, she says. “At the same time pretty much everyone involved in those discussions and that agreement also agreed that it was not sufficient,” Castle says.

    Many experts have called for more equitable sharing of water reductions. But ideas on what is fair differ from state-to-state and also among different groups within a region where some interests are pitted against agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the water usage in the basin.

    “I think people look at that huge volume of water being used in irrigated agriculture as a place where there’s flexibility. And when you get to the politics of working through that in an equitable way, it gets really complicated,” says Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society.

    The suggestions have included crop switching or alternative transfer mechanisms that call on farmers to periodically grow less water-intensive crops, or pay them not to grow, as a way to make water available for municipal use or storage.

    “From a pure economic perspective, it may seem like you pay them and they’re whole,” Udall says. “There are actually a lot of things where they don’t get whole. They potentially lose a market that they’ve established over years and a great relationship with a buyer. And if that goes away for a year, that buyer may not come back.”

    In the end, experts say people in the Southwest should definitely not count on more precipitation arriving to bail them out. “I would disabuse people of the idea that you’re going to get more water,” Udall says. “I think it’s pretty clear you’re going to have less water.” So for folks who think building more reservoirs is a solution, Udall says: “It’s not at all clear to me that that works.”

    But less conventional strategies just might.

    A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Beaver dams to the rescue?

    Beaver dams are a water management technique that has worked in nature for eons – at least for beavers. Sometimes for people? Not so much.

    But the thinking is they could help slow water loss from high-elevation wetlands. That includes the real deals built by beavers or human-constructed beaver dam alternatives.

    “We think there’s a possible synergy there that helps to improve water supply for water users and helps to improve habitat conditions for species – birds in particular – that depend on that kind of wetlands being around,” Pitt says.

    The goal would be to protect remaining ones, help establish new ones, and do the same for high-elevation meadows.

    A lot of research is still needed, Pitt says. “There’s all kinds of instrumentation that has to go into place to understand the groundwater, the surface water, evaporation, the water balance, what it does to your river downstream,” she says. There are water law considerations. And then the inevitable pilot projects.

    Overall, she says, this type of holistic approach to water through natural ecosystem restoration could become a component of water-sharing agreements as have already been done with Mexico. In exchange for getting river areas restored to better flow, Mexico agreed to a sharing agreement it might not otherwise have.

    Johnny Appleseed. By Unknown author – http://fortamanda1812.blogspot.com/search?q=Johnny+Appleseed+, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94733925

    More people, less water, and a touch of Johnny Appleseed

    More people and less water has forced Denver Water to work with uncertainties not previously considered. “Variability is the name of the game in Colorado,” says lead climate scientist Laurna Kaatz. “And that variability’s going to increase over time. That makes it incredibly challenging to continuously provide high-quality drinking water when you’re not sure what’s coming around the corner.”

    The situation calls for adaptive capacity, she says, to provide technical and legal flexibility to adjust for changing circumstances.

    Kaatz pointed to the One Water project that pairs water with usage. For instance, treated wastewater could be used to water a golf course, saving the purest water for drinking.

    Another project is called From Forests to Faucets, which works on watersheds as natural infrastructure to optimize water flow. It has already proved successful at keeping a wildfire in 2018 from encroaching on a reservoir. In April, Denver Water plans to expand its Airborne Snow Observatory, which uses technology developed by NASA to track snow availability, but now it can be deployed above an altitude of 8,000 feet.

    Together the efforts seem to be working – since the 2002 drought, Denver Water has maintained a 22% per-person reduction in water usage from pre-drought levels.

    Steamboat Springs is opting for tree-planting. The idea is that trees will help cool down the Yampa River, which is part of the Colorado River Basin. Hot, dry seasons had been pushing stream temperatures so high that part of the river wound up on EPA’s impaired waterbody list.

    “That was a call to action,” says Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs’ water resources manager.

    The timing also dovetailed with the 2015 release of a Colorado Water Plan that included goals for stream management. Steamboat Springs did a streamflow management plan – released in 2018. In it was the idea of shading the Yampa.

    “What we learned was that flow alone cannot overcome the thermal load for the solar radiation, as strength of that radiation increases over time,” she says. “The more that we can prepare the river for that, the better it will buffer against the impacts of climate change.”

    They joined forces with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council’s ReTree program that began in 2010 as a reforestation effort to counteract trees killed by pine beetle infestations. It morphed into a three-year Yampa River restoration.

    “That work also increases resilience to future changes,” says Michelle Stewart, the council’s executive director. “We’re really learning the important role soil moisture plays in resilience.”

    ReTree planted 200 narrow leaf cottonwoods in 2019 and another 350 this past October. This coming October, its plans are for 450 cottonwoods and 150 mountain alders. All were raised at the Colorado State Forest Nursery from Yampa Valley clippings. “We’re using local trees that are already kind of adapting to big swings in temperature and probably have a little bit more of that hardiness that we need and drought readiness,” she says.

    It’s too early to know how the shading is working but there are plans for citizen help to monitor that and to implement a soil moisture monitoring network in the Yampa Basin.

    “This is a Johnny Appleseed project,” says Romero-Heaney. “We plant today and hopefully my children will get to enjoy it.”

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

    Aspinall Unit operations update #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #GunnisonRiver

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Decision looms on Holy Cross reservoir exploration permit — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #EagleRiver

    Mystic Island Lake, Holy Cross Wilderness Area, south of Eagle, Colorado. By CoMtMan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12260170

    From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

    The U.S. Forest Service said it is just weeks away from deciding whether a high-profile request to explore the geological feasibility of a new reservoir site in Colorado’s Eagle County that would capture water flowing from the iconic Holy Cross Wilderness should be granted.

    The request comes from Aurora and Colorado Springs, among others, who want to be able to capture more of the water flowing from the wilderness area to meet their own growing needs.

    David Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said a decision is expected “early this year.”

    Proponents had hoped for a decision late last summer, but Boyd said the delay wasn’t unusual and was triggered in part by last summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire.

    Aurora and Colorado Springs, which own and operate the only reservoir in the area, Homestake I, hope to demonstrate that they can divert more water and build another reservoir to serve Front Range and West Slope interests without damaging the delicate wetlands and streams in the mountain forests there.

    But in advance of any request to build an actual reservoir, they have asked the Forest Service for a special use permit to survey the area and to bore several test holes to determine soil conditions and areas best suited to build the proposed Whitney Reservoir.

    If a reservoir were to be built, it would also require that the 122,000-acre-plus wilderness area shrink by 500 acres, an action that will require congressional approval.

    Significant opposition to the exploratory permit erupted almost as soon as the proposal became public last year. The U.S. Forest Service received more than 500 comments on the proposal last summer. The majority of those were opposed to it, citing the need to protect the wilderness and the need to preserve as much of the region’s water as possible. The Eagle River, a part of the Colorado River system, is fed in large part by the Holy Cross watershed.

    Warren Hern, a co-founder of the Defenders of the Holy Cross Wilderness, said the plan would do irrevocable damage to the rare bogs and wildflowers that populate the area.

    He also noted that the proposed reservoir site lies along a major fault line.

    “We will do everything in our power to stop this,” Hern said.

    Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora Water, said his agency is well aware of the special relationship thousands of Coloradans have with the Holy Cross and its spectacular wetlands and hiking trails.

    Baker declined to comment for this article, saying the agency would wait until the Forest Service issues a decision.

    But in a recent interview, Baker said the cities had little choice but to pursue additional water supplies to meet growing demand.

    “Water is a rare commodity and it needs to be used very carefully,” Baker said.

    He also said any environmental damage that might occur could be successfully mitigated.

    “What you do is wetlands rehabilitation, where you develop wetlands in other areas on a two- or three-to-one basis so you’re restoring additional wetlands for those you may lose,” Baker said.

    The new proposal comes under a 1998 agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, which allows the reservoir proponents to develop enough water to serve environmental, municipal and industrial interests.

    Parties to the 1998 agreement include Aurora, Colorado Springs, the Colorado River District, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority.

    Located west of Vail between Minturn and Leadville, the Holy Cross Wilderness Area was the subject of a significant battle in the 1980s when Aurora and Colorado Springs sought to build a second major reservoir there known as Homestake II.

    After the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Homestake II was defeated in 1994.

    In exchange, however, the cities were granted permission to develop a smaller amount of water in the future in partnership with Western Slope interests, resulting in the permit request now being considered by the Forest Service.

    Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Vail Associates as a participant in the Whitney Reservoir proposal.

    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.

    #LakePowellPipeline tests #ColoradoRiver’s future — S&P Global Market Intelligence #COriver #aridification

    From S&P Global Market Intelligence (Richard Martin):

    In an era of perennial [aridification], when the future of the Colorado River watershed, the lifeline of the U.S. Southwest, is the subject of fierce debate in state capitols across the region, the idea of bringing more than 26 billion gallons of water a year to a community of fewer than 200,000 people on the edge of the Mojave Desert strikes many as folly. To officials in Washington County, of which St. George is the county seat, though, it is a critical resource for the future.

    Currently the county has one primary source of water, the Virgin River, said Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, and more will be needed in the coming decades.

    “They only have one water source, and they have potential vulnerabilities with the Virgin River,” Adams said in a recent interview. “They need a second reliable source.”

    What’s more, St. George, a bedroom community about 120 miles from Las Vegas with more than a dozen golf courses, lavish resorts and a high percentage of retirees, is expected to continue to grow rapidly through mid-century. To serve all those new arrivals, and all those fairways, more water will have to be imported, say local and state officials.

    “Based on the population growth projections for Washington County through 2060, it’s expected to triple in size to over 500,000,” said Adams. “And with that growth, additional water sources will be needed.”

    The problem is that taking water from one part of the Colorado River watershed diminishes the water available for other parts. And long before St. George reaches its ultimate population level, there may not be enough to go around…

    Proposed Lake Powell Pipeline project map via the Washington County Water Conservation District (Utah) as of November 30, 2020.

    Undead

    Approved by the Utah state legislature in 2006, the Lake Powell Pipeline has become one of what opponents and environmentalists have dubbed “zombie water projects”: proposals for diversion and transportation in the Colorado River watershed that face significant opposition and may never get built, but that refuse to die.

    The pipeline was originally pitched as a source of water and power generation. The initial plan called for a large hydropower generating station along the route and a reservoir for pumped energy storage, but those elements were scrapped to reduce the environmental impact of the overall system, according to Karry Rathje, a spokesperson for the Washington County Water Conservation District. The line will still include six smaller inline hydropower facilities, to manage the water pressure and to reduce the electricity load from the pipeline on the regional grid. Those stations will total 85,000 MWh of generation a