#ColoradoRiver: Familiar protagonists raise concerns about new Western Slope water study — Aspen Daily News #COriver

Conceptual vision of potential transmountain diversions from the South Platte Roundtable Basin Implementation Plan
Conceptual vision of potential transmountain diversions from the South Platte Roundtable Basin Implementation Plan

From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best) via The Aspen Daily News:

After several years of warm-and-fuzzy talk, water leaders in Colorado are on the verge of a squabble. At issue is just how much water in the Colorado River remains to be developed and under what terms.

The Continental Divide again divides the protagonists as well as the waters. Two water districts representing the water-rich but more sparsely populated Western Slope in January launched the Joint West Slope Roundtable Risk Study.

The idea, first hatched at a joint meeting in Grand Junction of the four water roundtables on the Western Slope, is that even now, after the drafting of a state water plan, much remains unknown about the Colorado River, the state’s go-to source for both farms and cities.

Front Range water agencies that serve approximately 80 percent of Colorado’s population challenge assumptions that were used in the study. A Nov. 9 letter from James Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water and also president of the Front Range Water Council, expresses “concern” that the assumptions “may be creating biased impressions regarding the amount of the remaining developable water under the compacts.”

Not so, responded Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation district, one of two Western Slope districts to sponsor the study. The other is Durango-based Southwest Colorado Water Conservation District. The initial phase of the study, completed this fall, looked at the risk of water levels in Lake Powell dropping below manageable levels. The river district and other West Slope entities now want to complete additional analysis of numerous supply and demand scenarios.

“The study was never intended to be a water supply availability study and shouldn’t be used in that matter,” Kuhn said. “It’s really no more than a ‘how much might we have to cut back in order to prevent Lake Powell from dropping below dangerously low levels under a number of different demand and hydrology assumptions.’”

Demand reduction would have to be “big” if drought comparable to that of 2002 or that of the mid-1950s revisits the region, he said.

In a Nov. 15 memo, Kuhn took issue with the review of the study by Glenwood Springs-based hydrologist Kerry Sundeen conducted for the Front Range Water Council.

Funding for the study, Sundeen noted in his report, “was not adequate to prepare detailed documentation of the modeling assumptions used in the study, nor the study results.” He described the hydrology and demand assumptions in the study as being in a “narrow range.”

Sundeen’s challenge to the findings came as Western Slope water groups were preparing to seek state funding for the second phase of the study. The application to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s lead water policy agency, has been delayed until January or March, according to Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the River District and chair of the Colorado River Roundtable.

Sundeen’s report to the Front Range Water Council also warned of what that next study seeks to do. His memo says the “proposed administrative operations to assure compact compliance could place a disproportionate burden on Colorado River water supply systems essential for meeting demands on the East Slope.”

In his memo, Sundeen also warned that a Western Slope-led study might lead to “confusion as to the state’s position on Colorado River” in negotiations with other states.

Sundeen’s warnings and Lochhead’s protest reveal traditional tensions in Colorado, where 90 percent of the state’s 5.4 million residents live east of the Continental Divide, mostly at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Close to 90 percent of Colorado’s agriculture production also occurs east of the Divide. But 80 percent of the state’s water originates west of the Continental Divide, mostly in the form of snow.

Just how much of Colorado’s water remains available for development is the giant question still dangling in Colorado. The state water plan didn’t seek to answer the question. The official estimate is somewhere between none and 800,000 acre-feet. Independently, Kuhn has estimated 150,000 acre-feet.

What may be more important yet is how much water will be available if drought prevails and if the climate becomes warmer. The 1922 Colorado River Compact requires Colorado and the three other upper-basin states to allow 75 million acre-feet to flow downstream to Lee’s Ferry, at the mouth of the Grand Canyon, in rolling 10-year cycles. Lake Powell has become the bank vault for ascertaining those obligations can be met.

But how much more water can be developed out of the Colorado River without violating compact requirements? In September, at the River District’s annual conference in Grand Junction, Kuhn pointed out that the compact governing water use among the upper-basin states apportions 51 percent of their water (roughly half in the total river) to Colorado. But, in the last 10 years, Colorado has been using 58 percent.

At least two ideas for major water diversions to the Front Range have been introduced in the last decade, one from the Yampa River and the other from Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

The Front Range Water Council was first to register opposition to the Western Slope’s plan to get state funding for a new study.

“We believe these investigations are best conducted in a statewide or upper basin manner with all interested water users represented, rather than by particular sub-regions or individual roundtables,” said Lochhead’s letter.

The letter went on to hint at the depth of concerns. The Western Slope’s proposed second study “proposes to assess various involuntary compact curtailment alternatives that could be imposed on existing uses … ,” Lochhead’s letter stated. “Some of the proposed involuntary curtailment alternatives” in the next study “potentially favor limited special interests.”

Other water providers on the Eastern Slope have also talked about the Western Slope study.

Meeting in Longmont, along the St. Vrain River, the South Platte Basin Roundtable took no formal position because the Colorado River Roundtable’s formal request for state funding had been withdrawn. But speakers, including Sean Cronin, executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, said that if the study is to be applicable to all of Colorado, then it needs to be a state-supervised study.

In an interview the next day, Joe Frank, chair of the South Platte Roundtable, reiterated the belief that “we need one voice” about Colorado River water.

“I think the metro and the Eastern Slope hopes that state takes the lead in looking at this issue of risk analysis and curtailment and everything,” he said.

He also suggested concerns among existing diverters of Colorado River water about the impact of future diversions.

“They have as much issue with a new transbasin diversion as the Western Slope would,” Frank said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

Flatiron Reservoir, Marys Lake and Lake Estes drawn down for work — Loveland Reporter-Herald

Colorado-Big Thompson Project east slope facilities
Colorado-Big Thompson Project east slope facilities

From The Loveland Reporter-Herald:

Starting Oct. 27, officials from the Bureau of Reclamation turned off the water diversion tunnel from the West Slope to the Colorado-Big Thompson Project that feeds many of the lakes and reservoirs in Larimer County. The reservoir levels have also been lowered through the release of water to storage downstream.

According to a news release from the agency, the shutdown has allowed for the inspection of dams at Marys Lake and Lake Estes near Estes Park, and Flatiron Reservoir west of Loveland.

While the reservoirs are at low levels, crews are also looking at the power generation facilities at the Marys and Pole Hill power plants and the Charles Hansen Feeder Canal.

According to agency officials, the work will continue on the reservoirs and facilities throughout November, with water diversions through the Adams Tunnel from the Western Slope slated to resume in mid-December.

#ColoradoRiver: Beauty, “It’s not a concept that lends itself very well to science” — Esther Vincent #COriver

Grand Lake via Cornell University
Grand Lake via Cornell University

From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best) via The Aspen Daily News:

Nobody disputes that the Colorado-Big Thompson project has changed Grand Lake, the state’s largest, deepest natural lake. How could it not?

In the 1940s, Grand Lake was integrated into the giant C-BT, what the late historian David Lavender called a “massive violation of geography.” It’s Colorado’s largest transmountain diversion project. By one tally in the 1990s, it delivers an average 231,060 acre-feet annually from the headwaters of the Colorado River to cities and farms east of the Continental Divide. This compares to the 105,024 acre-feet from three tunnels through the Sawatch Range east of Aspen.

Almost immediately after the C-BT was completed in 1953, locals began to complain that the project shoehorned into the lake had sullied the lake’s clarity by introducing algae and sediments. This is, they insist, a violation of federal law.

The controversy pivots on Senate Document 80, a part of the Congressional authorization for project funding in 1937. The document describes the needs of irrigation, industrial and power production but also warns against impacts to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park.

The lake, if outside the park, has one of Colorado’s most memorable backdrops. The document specifies the need “to preserve the fishing and recreational facilities and the scenic attractions of Grand Lake…”

On that, say many locals, the C-BT has failed, and they say that until recently they got little response from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that built the C-BT.

But now, in a reversal, the bureau is working with 18 other stakeholders in an effort to solve the problem. Parties include Northern Colorado Water, the agency that manages the diversions for cities and farmers of northeastern Colorado, Grand County and other state and local organizations.

Grand Lake’s story fits into a broad theme of changed sensibilities in Colorado about 20th century river alterations. Restoration and remediation projects are starting or underway on the San Miguel River in Telluride, on the Eagle River at Camp Hale and on the Fraser River near Winter Park.

“It’s possible that at one time, the impacts of the CBT Project on Grand Lake clarity were thought to be just part of the price we pay for valuable water projects,” said Anne Castle, a fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Now, we are more inclined to believe that the environmental values have significance, including economic significance, and that operations can and should be adjusted to better accommodate these values.”

The work at Grand Lake also illustrates the power of persistence and spunk by advocates of environmental protection. And it involves a collaborative process called adaptive management that emphasizes consensus-based decision-making in solving stubborn issues involving water diversions.

Nobody thinks solving this problem will be easy, though. In April, after several years of working together, the Grand Lake stakeholders submitted a plan to the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. The plan approved by the commission sets an interim clarity goal for summer pumping during the next five years.

During that time, the Bureau of Reclamation is to develop a plan for long-term solutions. Alternatives include expensive new tunnels, possibly bypassing Grand Lake altogether. A preview of the alternatives may emerge at a meeting of stakeholders in late November.

Not everybody in Grand Lake thinks that reduced clarity is a problem. “There are people who think there’s a problem, but there is no problem,” says Jim Gasner, a member of the Grand Lake Board of Trustees, the town’s elected body, and a fishing “teacher” at Rocky Mountain Outfitters.

But Elwin Crabtree, a real estate agent and former Grand County commissioner, sees something different. “It’s adverse to its natural being,” he said in early August in an interview at his office along the town’s main street of knotty-pined stores and lodges. “I think we look at it as a moral issue,” he added. “I think we believe in having responsibility to be good stewards of our environment.”

The C-BT is an effort to address what one historian in the 1950s called “nature’s error.” Even as Aspen was putting on its silver-lined britches in the 1880s, farmers along the South Platte River and its tributaries were struggling with inadequate water in late summer to finish their corn and other crops.

Grand River Ditch July 2016. Photo credit Greg Hobbs.
Grand River Ditch July 2016. Photo credit Greg Hobbs.

Irrigators set out to remedy this. The first large-scale transmountain diversion from the headwaters of the Colorado River began in 1890. Called the Grand River Ditch, it’s beveled into the side of the Never Summer Range in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park, collecting water like a rain gutter from a roof.

Then came the 1930s, the decade of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and the New Deal. Farmers in northeastern Colorado had long been agitating for added infusions of water from the Colorado River headwaters. But they couldn’t get it done themselves. They needed federal funding.

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water
Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

The flawed design

But the work along the Continental Divide from 1939 to 1953 created a wound at Grand Lake. In retrospect, the design was flawed.

The C-BT at the Colorado River headwaters consists of three main bodies of interconnected water. Only one, Grand Lake, is natural.

Farthest downstream is Granby Reservoir, which is Colorado’s third largest, capable of holding 539,758 acre-feet of water during runoff of spring and early summer. This compares to Ruedi Reservoir’s 102,373 acre-feet and Dillon’s 257,304 acre-feet.

From Granby, water is pumped upstream as needed by Eastern Slope diverters to Shadow Mountain Reservoir. Shallow, no more than nine feet deep, Shadow Mountain is directly connected through a short canal to Grand Lake.

In 2011, reservoirs east of the divide were full, so water was allowed to continue down the Colorado River without diversion. This photo shows what the lake looked like on Aug. 30, without pumping. Photo courtesy of Byron Metzler and pilot Steve Paul
In 2011, reservoirs east of the divide were full, so water was allowed to continue down the Colorado River without diversion. This photo shows what the lake looked like on Aug. 30, without pumping. Photo courtesy of Byron Metzler and pilot Steve Paul

The canal occupies the original path of the Colorado River emerging from Grand Lake. From the interconnected Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Reservoir, water is then pumped through the 13.1-mile Alva Adams Tunnel underneath the national park to the Estes Park area for storage in reservoirs there and along the northern Front Range.

Shadow Mountain is a problem, though. Its shallowness allows water to be easily warmed in summer, producing algae that can float into Grand Lake. The shallowness also allows lake-bottom sediments to be disturbed more easily and dispersed into Grand Lake.

Evidence for the historic, pre-construction clarity of Grand Lake is scant: Just one measurement, taken in 1941, of 9.2 meters (30 feet).

Detailed observations during the last decade show clarity down to 6 meters (19.6 feet), but no more.

The standard adopted in April by the state agency specifies a minimum of 2.5 meters and an average of 3.8 meters (8.2 feet to 12.4 feet) during summer diversion season.

“I think the clarity standard has really elevated the discussion,” says Lane Wyatt, co-director of the water quality/quantity committee in the Northwest Council of Governments. “This is the only clarity standard in Colorado. It’s the first one we’ve ever done.”

Clarity is not the only issue, though. Water must be delivered to farms and cities. As it is flows downhill toward the Great Plains, it generates electricity distributed by the Western Area Power Authority. Purchasers of this low-cost power include Aspen Electric and Holy Cross Energy.

Canton “Scally” O’Donnell, president of the Three Lakes Watershed Association, remembers a more pristine past.

As a boy, his family summered at Grand Lake. That was in the 1930s and 1940s. “We drank the water right out of the lake, and many families did that,” O’Donnell said.

The first complaint about the sullied water was filed in 1954, the year after the project’s formal completion. In 1956, Grand Lake trustees adopted a resolution that informed Colorado’s congressional delegation of problems. The resolution was aimed at the Bureau of Reclamation.

“I think it’s fair to say that up until seven or eight years ago, the bureau pretty much stonewalled,” O’Donnell said. “They just did not want to recognize the problem, and Northern Colorado Water, the same.”

Movement has occurred during the last decade. One avenue for local protest was a proposed expansion of an existing diversion of the Colorado River at Windy Gap, about 15 miles downstream. Completed in 1985, the Windy Gap dam uses the C-BT infrastructure to deliver additional water to the Rawhide power plant north of Fort Collins, Greeley, Boulder and other cities.

The Windy Gap Firming, or expansion, plan was formally introduced after the drought of 2002. It proposes diversion of remaining water rights owned by a string of northern Front Range cities.

The effect of persistence

O’Donnell, of the Three Lakes Watershed Association, thinks the changed attitudes is explained by the persistence of individual public officials.

He singles out Lurline Underbrink Curran, then the Grand County manager. “She’s smart and she’s tough,” he said. “She just kept on beating on everybody to make it happen.”

He also points to the influence of Anne Castle, a long-time Denver water lawyer who served from 2009 to 20014 as assistant secretary for water and science in the Interior Department. Her responsibilities included oversight of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“I think part of the reason it has attention now is the fact that the Windy Gap Firming Project required the federal government to pay attention to Senate Document 80 and both C-BT and Windy Gap Firming Project do have an impact on Grand Lake’s recreation and scenic attraction. Calling attention to that issue, as both Lurline and I did, with prodding from Scally, had an impact,” Castle said.

But again, agreeing there is a problem is not the same thing as finding a solution.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about how our operations affect clarity,” said Victor Lee, an engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation.

The precise circumstances that cause algae and sediments to degrade clarity are poorly understood. Northern has been altering its diversion regimes, to see if that will improve clarity.

This year, from July until late August, pumping was conducted about 15 hours a day at 250 cubic feet per second. Clarity degraded, though. Algae growth was suspected. So the pumping was accelerated to about 20 hours a day with two pumps. Results were mixed.

It was a success, said Lee, in that they learned something. Clarity readings exceeded the minimum but did not meet the average standard. “I would say the experiment was successful, but we did not meet our objective,” he said.

Esther Vincent, water quality manager for Northern Water, said the effort to address Grand Lake’s muddled clarity is attracting attention across Colorado by water professionals. Spurring their interest, she said, is the possibility of other bodies of water being assigned clarity standards.

There’s also interest in the adaptive management process created for Grand Lake. It’s similar to but separate from Learning By Doing, which was created in response to expanded water diversions from both Windy Gap and by Denver Water’s Moffat Tunnel collection system.

Vincent also points out a deeply philosophical question. In 1937, when adopting S.D. 80, did Congress have the same notion about what constitutes “scenic attraction” as we do today?

“I am an engineer,” she said. “Asking an engineer to define what beauty is, is an interesting dilemma. It’s not a concept that lends itself very well to science.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of Colorado’s rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

#ColoradoRiver: Moffat Collection System Project update #COriver

Denver Water's collection system via the USACE EIS
Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

From The Wall Street Journal (Jim Carlton):

Next year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to decide whether to issue a permit to triple the capacity of Gross Reservoir in the Rocky Mountain foothills, with additional shipments of about 18,000 acre feet of water a year from the Colorado River watershed. An acre foot is enough water to meet the annual needs of an average family of five.

That is one of the last regulatory barriers for utility Denver Water’s $380 million project, for which district officials say they hope to break ground in 2019 to help ensure local water supplies.

“We have an obligation to supply water,” said Jeff Martin, Denver Water’s manager of the project, as he stood recently atop a 340-foot concrete dam that is to be raised by 131 feet under the plan. “It’s not an option to not have water.”

[…]

The Corps of Engineers is expected to decide next year on a proposed new “Windy Gap” project in Colorado, which would divert up to another 30,000 acre feet a year to the Front Range, the heavily populated area where the Rocky Mountains rise up from the plains.

In addition, more than 200,000 acre feet would be diverted for proposed projects in Utah and Wyoming…

Water officials in California and other lower basin states say they aren’t overly concerned about more diversions upstream, because a 1922 compact requires the upper basin states to deliver them about 7.5 million acre feet a year, or one half the river flow set aside for human use north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Much of that water is stockpiled in Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border.

With the Colorado running much lower than when the compact was signed, water experts say there is less water to divert.

“So long as their development doesn’t impinge on their release to us, that is their business,” said Chuck Cullom, a program manager at the Central Arizona Project in Phoenix, which pulls from the river and stands to lose a fifth of its deliveries if a shortage is declared on the Colorado. “If it falls below that, then they would have to figure out how to manage their demand.”

Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which oversees use of the river in the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, agreed that new diversions increase the risk of shortages.

“The more you develop, the more a severe drought can affect you,” said Mr. Ostler. “But we are able to live with a certain amount of shortage.”

In Denver, water officials don’t feel they have much choice but to seek more Colorado water.

In 2002, tons of sediment from a forest fire clogged one of Denver Water’s reservoirs during a drought. “We came close to running out of water in the northern end of our system,” said Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer of Denver Water, a utility that serves 1.4 million people.

That crisis helped prompt the district in 2003 to undertake the Gross Reservoir expansion, which would store more water from an existing tunnel that transfers Colorado River water from the west side of the Continental Divide.

Denver officials pledged to only take the water in wet years and release more into streams when it is dry—measures that drew praise from some conservationists…

Gov. John Hickenlooper in July gave the state’s approval, calling the dam’s expansion vital. “The state’s responsibility is to ensure we do the right thing for Colorado’s future,” the Democratic governor said at the time, “and this project is vital infrastructure for our economy and the environment.”

The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Front Range apple cideries buy up juice from Montezuma County — The Cortez Journal

La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain
La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Local apples were once again pressed into juice for market during a successful pilot project held in a Lebanon orchard last month.

The event, sponsored by the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, processed 800 bushels of apples gathered from local orchards.

“It went really well, we generated 2,200 gallons of raw juice that was sold to hard cider makers,” said MORP manager Nina Williams.

The group is studying the feasibility of using a mobile pressing unit to process apples from the many forgotten local orchards that otherwise let the fruit go to waste.

They were awarded a $42,400 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to test the idea.

For two days in October, Northwest Mobile Juicing, out of Montana, set up in the Russell apple orchard in Lebanon. The unit can press, pasteurize, and package the juice for market.

For the pilot, the raw juice could only be sold to hard cider companies for fermentation. Additional permits are needed to sell pasteurized apple juice.

“We proved we can get if off the trees for sale to the hard cider market,” Williams said. “If the demand is there we can work through the regulations to sell local juice as well.”

Several orchard owners realized some profits from the project, and were paid 10 cents per pound for apples still on the tree.

A dedicated crew of twenty MORP volunteers spend 300 hours picking the apples in the weeks prior to the pressing. In all, nine apple orchard owners were paid $3,500 for their apples.

One local cider maker and four from Boulder and Denver bought the raw juice. A semi-truck was loaded with the juice for a night run to Front Range cideries.

“They were impressed with the quality,” Williams said. “The juice was a blend of local heritage apple varieties.”

Apple mash produced was hauled off by local livestock owners for feed.

MORP said they broke even on the trial run, and are studying how best to set up a local pressing facility.

“We learned that there is a lot of labor and infrastructure involved besides just the pressing equipment,” Williams said.

Commercial apple operations require warehouses, shipping docks, refrigerated cold storage to store apples, and heavy equipment such as trucks and forklifts.

MORP has been documenting once popular heritage apple varieties from the days when the area was a thriving fruit market more than 100 years ago.

They have brought many of them back to life through careful grafting and propagation techniques, and are encouraging local farmers to plant heritage apple orchards.

“Our big goals is to bring back this genetic diversity to keep heritage apples from going extinct, and to get it so people can have these trees again,” said MORP orchardist Jude Schuenemeyer. “Trees that worked here for over 100 years are really well adapted to this place.”

A recent victory for MORP was the rediscovery of the rare Colorado orange apple in a Cañon City orchard in 2012. For the last several years, local orchardists have been grafting and cultivating this near-extinct apple known for its fine flavor, hardiness, storage qualities, and cider-making potential.

There are dozens of abandoned apple orchards in the county that still produce a good crop, but have a limited market. The juice market is seen as ideal because the apples do not have to be perfect and the ones that fall on the ground can be used as well.

“One of our goals is to get local orchards back in shape by hosting workshops this winter on pruning and orchard management,” Williams said.

For more information go to http://www.montezumaorchard.org

@CMUWater: Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin Water Forum recap

Hay meadows near Gunnison
Hay meadows near Gunnison

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Eckert alfalfa grower Paul Kehmeier has driven across large, parched swaths of eastern Colorado where agricultural water rights apparently have been sold for municipal use.

He doesn’t want Eckert to look like that, so a few years back he and his father got involved with exploring alternatives under which agriculture can temporarily transfer water for other uses rather than resorting to the permanent, “buy-and-dry” approach to meeting water supply demands in Colorado.

Kehmeier has incorporated methods such as splitting irrigation seasons or starting irrigation later in the year, and received financial compensation in return, taking advantage of funding available to explore the feasibility of such voluntary efforts in boosting overall water supplies.

He’s found that his alfalfa can withstand the changes in irrigation that result from such measures.

“So alfalfa is well-suited to it. I nominate alfalfa for this duty,” Kehmeier wryly observed Thursday during the annual Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum put on by Colorado Mesa University’s Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center.

Kehmeier participated in an $11 million pilot conservation program launched by the Bureau of Reclamation and several major municipal water providers to test various agriculture and municipal conservation projects in the Colorado River Basin. He’s interested in taking advantage of future opportunities to release water downstream rather than irrigate. But he also warned of shortcomings that need to be addressed, such as the laborious eight-month process it took him to get a signed contract.

“I don’t think the average farmer is going to go through that kind of hassle to lease a little bit of water,” he said.

He also suggested that such a program could be made more user-friendly for agricultural interests if it was administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has local offices and already administers the Conservation Reserve Program, under which farmers are paid to leave fields fallow. The pilot water conservation program is being administered in the Upper Colorado Basin by the Upper Colorado River Commission. It’s been extended through next year to fund another round of projects.

While the program doesn’t specifically send conserved water to Lake Powell, its goal is to look at ways to boost storage levels of that reservoir so the reservoir can be used to keep meeting Upper Colorado Basin water delivery obligations to downstream states, especially in times of drought.

In Colorado, water-transfer approaches are being explored by a working group on water banking, made up of the Colorado River District, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, The Nature Conservancy and others. Water banking is a conceptual idea for addressing the risks of water shortages through payments to water rights holders to curtail use, with the saved water being stored or held in account elsewhere, Aaron Derwingson of The Nature Conservancy said.

The working group has been involved in some of the pilot water conservation projects, and in ongoing field studies in partnership with Colorado State University, to test the ability of farms to reduce irrigation levels and later be able to return to normal levels of production. Derwingson indicated the results so far have been promising, particularly when it comes to split-season irrigation. They’ve also shown the importance of managing fields while they’re fallow to control weeds, prevent wind erosion and ensure the fields look well-managed from a community perspective, he said.

Another approach that’s being piloted involves transitioning to organic operations, with water saved during the transition and a resulting crop that can be sold at a higher price.

The next step for the working group is to try such measures at a larger scale with a project next year in the Grand Valley involving 10 farmers, 1,250 acres and 3,200 acre feet of water. The program will cost $1 million for payments to farmers and other costs including program administration and infrastructure improvements.

“It’s a significant step up from where we’ve been in the past and I think a good model for where we can go in the future,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, water banking can’t just involve agriculture.

“It must involve everyone that relies on water in the Colorado River Basin,” he said. “Everyone really shares in that risk (of a shortage) and so everyone’s got be involved in the solution.”

Brett Bovee of Westwater Research has done a financial analysis of lease-based water transfer alternatives to buy-and-dry on the Front Range. He said incentives or subsidies may be needed to induce such approaches by municipal water providers, as well as an exploration of ways to reduce costs.

“Leasing water in the long term looks to be more costly (than permanent acquisition of water rights). If it is, you have to address that to get people interested,” he said.

It also would help to focus on trying to get involvement in leasing programs by water entities that are water-stressed and have limited supply options, he said. That could help build an initial comfort level in the idea and lead to more widespread use.

James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said it will be important to learn from the pilot projects and water banking efforts.

Otherwise, he warned of “the unintended consequences of just letting inertia build to the point where monied, Front Range interests are going to want to just buy senior water rights on the West Slope and solve the (water supply) problem that way.”

San Juan water commissioners pony up $20,000 to study pipeline from Lake Nighthorse

Lake NIghthorse September 19, 2016.
Lake NIghthorse September 19, 2016.

From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

The pipeline could supply the water commission’s share of water from the Animas-La Plata project — a water storage project that led to the creation of Lake Nighthorse south of Durango, Colo.

Aaron Chavez, the executive director of the San Juan Water Commission, said the study will examine three alternatives — construction of a small-diameter pipe that could supply water in case of emergencies, construction of a larger-diameter pipe that would provide San Juan County with all of its Animas-La Plata water rights or increased raw water storage.

Commissioner Jim Dunlap, who represents rural water users, said there will always be a lot of questions about the possibility of a pipeline.

“Nineteen-thousand or $20,000 is a small amount to pay to answer some of the questions,” he said.

He said the study could help the commission determine if a pipeline is feasible.

“It may be a good idea, but it may cost so much that we can’t afford it,” Dunlap said.

Dunlap also advocated for making the results of the study available to the public…

In other business, the commission heard a presentation from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission about the Colorado River Basin System Conservation Pilot Program, which aims to combat the dropping water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The two reservoirs are experiencing declining levels in light of a 15-year drought in the Colorado River Basin, which includes San Juan County, according to the presentation.

Kristin Green, a representative of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, said hydropower generated at Lake Powell funds the San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program. The program focuses on recovering populations of endangered fish.

Green warned that a loss of money from hydropower could impact the fish populations in the San Juan River basin.

The water conservation pilot program began in 2014 and has had several rounds of applications for project funding. The final round of project applications opened at the beginning of October. The application deadline is Nov. 30.

Of the 35 projects approved, only two have been from New Mexico. One of the two projects was a municipal efficiency improvements project, and the other involved fallowing — or taking agricultural land out of production.

Dunlap cautioned about taking agricultural land out of production to conserve water.

“If you take all the agriculture out of a community, then you kill the community,” he said.

Green said the majority of the approved projects have been fallowing projects and are temporary.

“We’re not looking to buy and dry,” she said.