The White River National Forest opened a public comment period last week concerning the next phase of a would-be reservoir project dubbed the Whitney Reservoir. Water authorities in Colorado Springs and Aurora plan to divert water near the Vail Valley — normally destined for the Colorado River — to the Front Range by way of pumps and tunnels.
For comparison, Cherry Creek Reservoir stores more than 134,000 acre-feet.
Aurora Water and its southern counterpart, Colorado Springs Utilities, applied for a Special Use Permit to do so. Geologists would conduct ground-level seismic analyses of the ground below and also drill up to 150 feet below the surface. Currently, the operation proposes ten drilling sites.
The water could help Aurora meet the needs of a rapidly-expanding city while capturing water rights Aurora already holds, Baker said. He estimated the reservoir could be completed in 25 years if key steps were met, including a geological analysis.
The Whitney Reservoir project drew early attention from Colorado River conservationists and a fishing association concerned for the health of local fish habitats and the river system. Prolonged drought and existing diversions have already diminished Colorado River flows in recent decades.
The project could also impact pristine wetland ecosystems and would also require cutting near 500 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness.
Members of the public can find more information about the project on the U.S. Forest Service website. Comments can be made any time but will be “most helpful” if submitted before June 30, 2020, the Forest Service said in an information release…
The water rights behind the proposed Lake Powell pipeline are not actually coming from the project’s namesake lake, but rather from the major reservoir upstream on the Green River.
Now, Utah water officials’ new request to overhaul those rights has handed opponents a fresh opportunity to thwart the proposed pipeline just as federal officials are about to release a long-awaited environmental review of the $1.2 billion project, which would funnel 82,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to St. George.
The request, known as a change application, seeks to shift the the water rights’ “point of diversion” from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to a spot 400 miles downstream behind Glen Canyon Dam. The change, which also keys into where and how the water would be used, is needed to fit the goals of the pipeline, which is to bolster water supplies for Utah’s mushrooming Washington County.
The application was filed now because the timing made sense at this stage in the project’s development and has no bearing on whether the pipeline gets built, according to Joel Williams, assistant director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
Environmental groups hope to block or at least delay the project’s approval if they can persuade Utah State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen to deny the change application filed April 13. Exhibit A in the many protests filed is the Colorado River system’s chronically diminishing flows in the face of climate change, long-term drought and overallocation…
A 1922 interstate compact divvies up water flowing in the Colorado River and its many tributaries among seven basin states and Mexico. For decades, Utah has underutilized its share, pegged at 23% of the Upper Basin’s flows above 7.5 million acre-feet, while the three Lower Basin states have historically drawn water in excess of their allocations, largely to fuel urban growth and corporate agriculture.
Here’s an opinion piece from Denise Fort that’s running in The Aspen Daily News:
Each spring, the acequias in New Mexico carry cold, clear snowmelt to freshly furrowed fields on small farms. The centuries-old irrigation culture is recognized in state law and supported by strong communities.
These farms often come to mind when we think about agriculture in the West: a cool riparian valley with adjacent fields and people rooted in the land, growing crops that may be sold at a farmer’s market in a nearby town.
So when former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suggested in a recent Writers on the Range opinion piece published in the Aspen Daily News on May 12, that a portion of agricultural water rights should be transferred to urban areas, it no doubt conjured up some strong emotions — small family farms drying up so that suburbanites could water their lawns and golf courses.
But Secretary Babbitt’s proposal makes sense, and he is right about the need to recognize the mismatch in population in the Colorado River Basin between the urbanized West and rural areas where most of the basin’s water is allocated. He is also right that the Colorado River cannot continue serving 40 million people, irrigating the same acreage, and meeting our aspirations for healthy rivers, in this time of megadrought.
There are a lot of caveats to his idea of people voluntarily retiring irrigation rights, including the need to create a process that allows full public participation. But unless we begin to retire irrigated acreage with a carefully managed strategy, we will have showdowns among states and tribes that share the basin’s water and increasingly desiccated rivers.
The real obstacle to Babbitt’s proposal springs from our romanticized vision of what agriculture looks like in the West. New Mexico may have acequia-fed fields, but it’s also in the nation’s top 10 for the number of dairy cattle, the products of which are largely exported to other states.
For every rain-fed cornfield sprouting emerald-like in the Arizona desert, there are tens of thousands of acres of alfalfa fields guzzling up millions of gallons of water per year. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of food, which means that the arid West is, in effect, exporting our water via huge, corporate farms.
Let’s not forget that it is agribusiness — not small farmers – that’s responsible for 80% of the water use in the West.
Meanwhile, climate change is drying up what water remains. The declining flows and warming temperatures are no longer just a contested forecast about the future, but our lived experience.
In my own corner of the West I’m astounded by how quickly desertification is occurring, with hard-packed soils where there was vegetation just a few years ago. Those obnoxious dust storms (haboobs) seem to be moving northward, leading me to tell everyone to watch Ken Burn’s powerful TV series on the Dust Bowl. Ranchers are on the front line in New Mexico, where grazing is looking more and more problematic.
Of course, water isn’t just valuable to farms and cities. The West has a huge outdoor recreation industry that depends on hiking, rafting and fishing, and our riparian areas grant solace in hectic times. Declining river flows, dried up springs and parsimonious releases for fishes detract from this sector of a growing economy.
Babbitt proposes to alleviate this situation by creating a mechanism by which farmers can lease their water rights to municipalities for a set period of time. He proposes free-market transactions — entirely voluntary and at the full discretion of each operator — funded by the federal government. I suggest that agricultural water also be made available to remain in our rivers for the health of our fragile river ecosystems.
Of course, there is a danger to a market-driven solution. If there were a federally run market in water rights, one would expect to see low-value agricultural areas to be the first to be approached for water sales.
That may be why in Europe policies explicitly protect small farms. This could lessen the departure of farmers from parts of northern New Mexico or rural areas on Colorado’s Western Slope, and other areas where small farms still exist.
No one is choosing the drought that has settled into the western United States, along with warming temperatures, wildfires and the rest of our changed climate. We have to cooperate to lessen the effect of climate on individuals and our shared environment.
That is why Bruce Babbitt’s proposal deserves a good, full-throated civic discussion. I just hope it is followed by actions to help the lands and people west of the 100th meridian thrive in the 21st century.
Denise Fort is a contributor to WritersontheRange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a Professor Emerita at the University of New Mexico School of Law and chaired President Clinton’s Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission.
The city of Aspen is moving ahead on a project aimed at increasing the reliability of its water supply and environmental flows through what’s known as an “alternative transfer method,” or ATM.
But water managers will have to think outside the box since the usual process of an ATM is transferring water from agricultural to municipal use, and there isn’t much irrigated agriculture in the upper Roaring Fork River basin.
In Colorado, most water rights are held by irrigators. So when towns and cities want to increase their water supplies, they often turn to agriculture to secure extra acre-feet. Permanent water-transfer agreements, often derided as “buy and dry,” can harm agricultural communities and economies, and ATMs are seen as a way to reallocate water more fairly and sustainably from agriculture to municipalities.
These voluntary water-sharing agreements would allow local irrigators to temporarily loan their water to Aspen and get paid for doing so. The most straightforward way for this to happen would be for water-rights holders above the city’s diversions on Castle and Maroon creeks to loan their water to the city.
But according to Colorado’s Decision Support System, which is the state database that tracks irrigated land, there is no irrigated land above Aspen.
“Certainly, the easiest way to meet the most goals is to find water above the city,” said Jason Brothers, principal at Summit Water Engineers, the engineer on the project. “If that’s not available, we will have to look at creative ideas.”
Most of the irrigated acreage in the upper Roaring Fork River valley is grass pasture in the Woody Creek area.
Aspen’s ATM project is funded with a $183,356 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, plus $15,000 each from the city and Western Resource Advocates. It would be the first program designed for a Western Slope headwaters municipality.
In addition to increasing city water supplies, a secondary goal of the project is to improve river flows for the benefit of the environment, especially in the reach of the Roaring Fork through downtown Aspen. In dry years, flows can fall short of the 32 cubic feet per second of water required by the CWCB’s junior instream flow right, which is meant to protect the river environment “to a reasonable degree.”
The 2015 Colorado Water Plan sets a goal of 50,000 acre-feet of water transfers through ATMs by 2030.
“I think that backdrop (of buy and dry) really kind of set the stage for more of a state focus on how do we meet our continuing water-supply needs and can we do that in a way that minimizes harm to ag,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water resources specialist for the CWCB.
According to the grant application, city officials say there are 2,800 irrigated acres in the upper Roaring Fork valley and tributary basins, which the team could explore for compatibility with an ATM program, and that if a third or a quarter of these irrigated lands were in such a program, it could yield 1,000 acre-feet of water.
City officials won’t clarify exactly where those irrigated acres are. The project is still in its infancy and officials don’t have many answers yet, said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager for Aspen’s water department.
“We just kicked this off,” Hunter said. “I don’t see answers coming for months, if not the latter end of a year into the project.”
One of those creative opportunities Brothers mentioned could involve participation by Front Range water providers that divert water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River. The cities of Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo divert water from the upper Roaring Fork through the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System via the Twin Lakes Tunnel.
“We are not just looking at in-basin ATMs, but exploring the concept of ATMs on the east slope and if entities would be willing to forego their diversions from the West Slope,” said Todd Doherty, president of Western Water Partnerships. “We are seeing if there’s a willingness between the stakeholders to even consider that.”
Transmountain ATM opportunities are still conceptual at this point, and a water transfer from a transmountain diverter to Aspen would be a break from the way ATMs are typically conducted. However, Funk said the CWCB would be supportive of a municipal-to-municipal transfer of water under the ATM program.
Doherty’s organization is based in Denver and is a Colorado Public Benefit Corporation. The city has contracted with WWP for $213,356 to complete Phase 1 of the ATM investigation, which will entail examining all the water rights that could potentially be available to participate in an ATM program and approaching the holders of those water rights to see whether they are interested. No water-sharing agreement will happen unless the irrigators think it’s a better deal than what they are growing, Doherty said.
“I think it will be a success if we can get a few, hopefully a few larger ones, that will help demonstrate to the other irrigators in the basin that maybe this deal is worth looking at,” Doherty said.
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the May 29 edition of The Aspen Times.
Fulfilling Drought Contingency Plan commitments and achieving water security for Arizona.
As part of an overall $38 million effort to bolster Lake Mead surface levels by fallowing irrigable farmland on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in western Arizona, the National Audubon Society has reached an agreement with the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) to help fund the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ (CRIT) on-going efforts to conserve 150,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead over the next three years.
“Leaving water in Lake Mead for the greater Colorado River system creates more security for people and birds in the arid Southwest,” said Karyn Stockdale, Audubon’s Western Water Initiative Senior Director.
“This is a great first step toward completing an important piece of the funding plan approved by the Steering Committee members and the Arizona Legislature,” said ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke. “I commend the National Audubon Society for recognizing the importance of keeping Lake Mead surface levels as stable and healthy as possible.”
The three-year deal is expected to reduce water demand and add approximately two vertical feet to Lake Mead’s surface levels.
According to the agreement signed on May 21, Audubon—supported by their corporate partner Intel Corporation—will contribute to an Arizona Fund created in 2019 to incentivize the CRIT for creating up to 150,000 acre-feet of system conservation water in Lake Mead, helping to avoid precipitous declines in the Lake.
“I want to thank our partners at Audubon, Intel, and the Arizona Department of Water Resources for their ongoing support of this conservation project,” said Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairman Dennis Patch. “The partnership among the State, nonprofit organizations, corporations and our tribal government demonstrates that working together we can tackle the most enduring water supply challenges. The Colorado River Indian Tribes look forward to continuing to work with our partners ensuring the State of Arizona has a sustainable water future.”
The CRIT offered to forego irrigation water deliveries and fallow approximately 10,000 acres of farmland in exchange for the funding.
The fallowing/funding effort is a part of Arizona’s celebrated agreement among dozens of water users, agencies, tribes and conservation groups statewide in January 2019 to address instability in the Colorado River system through the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). After nearly 20 years of drought in the Colorado River Basin, the DCP is designed to promote conservation, reduce demand, and stabilize water levels in Lake Mead through projects such as the CRIT’s system conservation project.
“Intel is proud to support this vital effort, and to restore water to the community we’ve innovated and invested in for 40 years,” said Liz Shipley, Intel Arizona Public Affairs Director. “Investing in our watershed is an investment in our future.”
Signed May 21, Audubon’s funding contribution agreement with ADWR comes almost exactly one year after the May 20, 2019 signing of the DCP on the Observation Deck of Hoover Dam by the seven Colorado River States and the federal Department of the Interior.
Background on System Conservation and DCP
The months-long, public efforts of Arizona’s Steering Committee, led by ADWR Director Buschatzke and Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) General Manager Ted Cooke, opened the door to the State Legislature’s approval of legislation authorizing the ADWR Director to sign the DCP, as well as legislation necessary for the DCP to be implemented in Arizona.
On signing the legislation on January 31, 2019, Governor Doug Ducey hailed the DCP as “the most significant water legislation passed in nearly 40 years.”
The specific terms of the CRIT conservation effort were set out in an agreement by ADWR with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, operator of the Colorado River system, and the CAWCD, which delivers about 1.6 million acre-feet of Arizona’s 2.8 million acre-foot annual allocation to users mainly in central and south-central Arizona.
To fund the CRIT creation of system conservation water in Lake Mead, the State of Arizona appropriated $30 million in budget year 2019/2020. By a separate agreement, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) agreed to deposit $2 million into the Fund by January 31, 2020 and use its best efforts to raise an additional $6 million into the Fund no later than July 15, 2021.
The Audubon contribution is a part of the EDF agreement. Intel’s leadership support of Audubon made this vital project possible, and also opens up opportunities to leverage additional philanthropic support later this year.
This project demonstrates how the landmark DCP agreement is achieving the goal of creating positive partnerships among entities, fulfilling funding commitments and achieving water security for Arizona.
Federal officials have issued preliminary permits for two hydro-storage proposals on the Little Colorado River. The projects would include four dams and four reservoirs east of Grand Canyon National Park. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius reports.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval doesn’t allow the Phoenix-based company Pumped Hydro Storage to enter any lands or create ground disturbance. But it does let the company conduct feasibility studies for the combined 4,700-megawatt projects that would include dams up to 240 feet high across the Little Colorado River on the Navajo Nation…
Groups like the Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity say it would destroy the Little Colorado’s ecosystem and the habitat of the endangered humpback chub. The U.S. Interior Department has also objected.
On behalf of the State of Colorado, Attorney General Phil Weiser today filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Denver to protect Colorado’s streams and wetlands from a dangerous federal rule that would leave them vulnerable to pollution under the Clean Water Act.
By radically changing how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers define “waters of the United States” that are protected under the Clean Water Act, the new 2020 rule will leave a substantial portion of Colorado’s streams and wetlands without federal protection and jeopardize the integrity and quality of Colorado’s waters.
“The federal government’s new definition of ‘waters of the United States’ violates the Clean Water Act, contravenes controlling U.S. Supreme Court precedent, and ignores sound science,” Weiser said. “This illegal action shirks the federal government’s responsibility to implement this law and thrusts on Colorado the responsibility of protecting water quality with limited warning and with no support to do so. We are bringing this lawsuit to stop this new rule and reckless action from taking effect.”
The Clean Water Act protects U.S. streams, wetlands, and rivers from pollution. Previously, under Supreme Court precedent, the rule included ephemeral streams—streams that run because of melting snow or precipitation—and wetlands that aren’t connected on the surface to larger bodies of water.
“We need to challenge this action to avoid a bigger problem for our economy at a time when our state is already hurting from COVID-19. Some flood control, stormwater erosion, transportation, and other important projects may not be able to move forward because the new rule takes away the permitting path needed to ensure environmental protection and project development. That’s a problem that we need to fix,” said John Putnam, Environmental Programs Director, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The new 2020 rule does not include many ephemeral streams or wetlands without a surface connection. The lawsuit states that the new, narrower definition of the types of water protected under the Clean Water Act eliminates federal jurisdiction over a significant number of Colorado’s tributaries, adjacent waters, and wetlands that affect downstream waters, without providing any rational basis for the rule. This leaves Colorado’s snowmelt streams and wetlands vulnerable to pollution, which would negatively impact our state’s agriculture and outdoor recreation economy.
Through the lawsuit, Colorado is asking the court to maintain the definition in place since the 1980s and to stop the new, unlawful rule from going into effect. In so doing, Colorado is following up on its comment to the agencies, which praised earlier 2008 guidance as legally sound and grounded in science. Maintaining the status quo will also protect important agriculture exemptions, respect state authority to administer water rights, and provide the appropriate level of federal partnership.