Water cutbacks set to begin under deal designed to ‘buy down risk’ on #ColoradoRiver — The Arizona Republic #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2019

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

From The Arizona Republic (Ian James):

Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will start taking less water from the Colorado River in January as a hard-fought set of agreements kicks in to reduce the risk of reservoirs falling to critically low levels.

The two U.S. states agreed to leave a portion of their water allotments in Lake Mead under a deal with California called the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, which the states’ representatives signed at Hoover Dam in May.

California agreed to contribute water at a lower trigger point if reservoir levels continue to fall. And Mexico agreed under a separate accord to take steps to help prop up Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir near Las Vegas, which now sits 40% full after a nearly 20-year run of mostly dry years.

The agreements, including another deal in the river’s Upper Basin, increase the odds of Western states making it through the next seven years without reservoir levels crashing. But researchers examining the latest climate projections have also warned of the possibility that declines in the river’s flow could force water curtailments in the coming years, and they’ve suggested looking at options to reduce risks.

For the first time since signing the drought contingency deals, representatives of seven states will meet this week at a conference in Las Vegas to talk over their next steps in managing the Colorado River…

Arizona will see a cut of 192,000 acre-feet in water deliveries next year, or 6.9% of its total allotment of 2.8 million acre-feet. Nevada’s share will be reduced by 8,000 acre-feet, while Mexico’s will take 41,000 acre-feet less.

That water will remain in Lake Mead, and will only be recovered in future years once the reservoir rises above an elevation of 1,100 feet. Its level now stands about 15 feet below that threshold.

The cuts under the deal represent 12% of the total water supply for the Central Arizona Project, which delivers water by canal to Phoenix, Tucson and other areas. The agency that manages the canal has said the cuts will reduce deliveries for agriculture by about 15% and eliminate water that would have been available for storing underground and replenishing groundwater at facilities along the CAP Canal…

According to Bureau of Reclamation figures, Arizona and California together conserved 316,000 acre-feet in 2018, and are on track to conserve an estimated 685,800 acre-feet in 2019. Burman said voluntary conservation efforts by the states have helped, and the drought contingency plan has incentivized more conservation…

Arizona’s plan for managing the water cutbacks involves deliveries of “mitigation” water to help lessen the blow for some farmers and other entities, as well as compensation payments for those that contribute water. The payments will be covered with more than $100 million from the state and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

Much of the money will go toward paying for water from the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community…

In one study, climate scientists Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck used climate models to estimate a business-as-usual scenario of greenhouse gas emissions. They projected that without changes in precipitation, warming will likely cause the Colorado River’s flow to decrease by 35% or more by the end of the century…

In a new report, water researchers Anne Castle and John Fleck warn that the Colorado River’s water supply could decline so much in the next decade that the ability of the four Upper Basin states “to meet their legal obligations to downstream users in Nevada, Arizona, California, and Mexico would be in grave jeopardy.”

Castle and Fleck examined the latest science on projected flows and analyzed the legal framework governing the Colorado River…

Patti Aaron, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation, responded to the researchers’ findings.

“We applaud a continued focus on the Colorado River, particularly regarding the risks we all are facing going forward,” Aaron said in an email. “We have a solid history in this Basin of finding solutions to complex problems by working together in an open and collaborative way. Reports of this nature help us stay on that path.”

[…]

California signed on to the deal, but the state’s Imperial Irrigation District balked at participating.

Salton Sea screen shot credit Greetings from the Salton Sea — Kim Stringfellow.

Imperial holds the single largest share of Colorado River water, which flows to farms producing crops such as alfalfa, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Imperial’s officials have called for the state and federal governments to urgently address a worsening environmental crisis at the Salton Sea, which is shrinking and exposing dry lake bed that sends dust blowing into surrounding communities.

The sea has been shrinking more rapidly under a 2003 deal that is transferring water from the Imperial Valley to growing urban areas in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley.

In October, the Imperial Irrigation District’s board members voted unanimously to declare an emergency at the Salton Sea, pressing for California officials to break through years of wrangling and red tape to get working on dust-control and habitat projects along the retreating shores.

Last month, the IID board adopted a resolution laying out parameters for IID’s involvement in future Colorado River negotiations. They said in the resolution that “the linkage between the Colorado River and the Salton Sea is inextricable.”

[…]

Burman, who is scheduled to speak, said the drought contingency plan has laid a foundation that will help the states and other parties work through their next steps.

“Our history on the Colorado River is making improvements and incremental progress as we go,” Burman said. “It’s important that we’re out there talking about the challenges. It’s important that we’re out there talking about possible solutions.”

Aspen moves ahead with integrated water plan and moving its conditional storage rights — @AspenJournalism

Aspen’s iconic Maroon Bells are visible from the site where the city of Aspen had proposed building a dam and reservoir. The city has hired an engineering firm to help figure out where to move its conditional water-storage rights after a water court judge in June ruled out the possibility of building dams or reservoirs on upper Maroon or Castle creek. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

With the clock ticking on moving its conditional water-storage rights, the city of Aspen is taking steps toward developing a water integrated resource plan, or IRP.

City Council last month approved spending $81,674 to hire Broomfield-based Carollo Engineers as a consultant for the first phase of the IRP. A main goal of the plan will be to decide where to move the city’s conditional water-storage rights after a water court judge in June approved the city’s settlement with opposing parties in two water court cases. The decrees issued by the judge in those cases rule out the possibility of the city building dams or reservoirs on upper Castle or Maroon creeks.

The city has six years to finalize a plan to move the water rights and associated storage to new locations. That and the increasing effects of a hotter, drier climate, which means less water in streams, have the city feeling a sense of urgency when it comes to figuring out its water supply.

“We do have a sense of urgency, but we also recognize we are only going to get one chance to make such a large change to our system,” said Margaret Medellin, Aspen’s utilities resource manager. “We want to do it right.”

The site on Maroon Creek where the city of Aspen had proposed building a dam and reservoir on a snowy day in spring 2019. The city has hired an engineering firm to help figure out where to move its conditional water-storage rights after a water court judge in June ruled out the possibility of building dams or reservoirs on upper Maroon or Castle creek. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Conditional water rights

All 10 parties who settled with the city in water court, one of which was environmental group American Rivers, agreed not to oppose the city’s efforts to change its conditional water-storage rights to different sites.

Instead of flooding two pristine valleys to create reservoirs, the city has identified five other locations to where it could possibly store water. Those sites are the city golf course; the Maroon Creek Club golf course; the city’s Cozy Point open space; the Woody Creek gravel pit; and a 63-acre parcel of land next to the gravel pit, which the city bought in 2018.

“We don’t have any issue with Aspen’s plan to move forward with those conditional water rights,” said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program. “That’s a decision for them and local stakeholders to make.”

Carollo Engineers was one of five firms that responded to the city’s summer request for proposals. The more than $81,000 that the City Council approved will pay for Carollo to complete only Phase 1 of the IRP, which will define goals and develop a detailed scope of work. Phase 2 would create the IRP using community input.

“Normally, when we do an IRP, we are looking at what the future looks like in terms of water needs and trying to characterize those and predict them out several decades,” said John Rehring, senior project manager and vice president of Carollo Engineers.

The city of Aspen has identified this 63-acre parcel of land it bought in 2018 next to the gravel pit in Woody Creek as a potential site of water storage. The city has hired an engineering firm to help figure out where to move its conditional water-storage rights after a water court judge in June ruled out the possibility of building dams or reservoirs on upper Maroon or Castle creek. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Storage needed?

City officials maintain that a lack of reservoir storage is a problem.

Medellin said the lack of water-storage facilities is a big weakness in the city’s water system and that it is controversial to build dams and reservoirs “because every valley up here is beautiful.”

But, Medellin said, climate change may increase the need for water storage.

“We’ve acknowledged these storage rights are very important to the future of Aspen, especially as we start to see climate-change implications,” she said.

Carollo Engineers agrees with that assessment.

“Clearly, the city of Aspen’s system lacks the water storage it needs to reliably meet demands through a range of supply-and-demand conditions even now — before the impacts of climate change have fully taken hold,” the proposal reads.

The issue of storage came to the forefront in the Aspen community in 2012 when news broke that the city was contemplating using its conditional water-storage rights to build dams and reservoirs in Castle and Maroon valleys.

Consultants have come to different conclusions about how much water storage the city actually needs. A 2017 report by Deere and Ault Consultants, which was based on conclusions in a risk analysis by Headwaters Corporation, said Aspen needs 8,500 acre-feet of water storage. But a 2016 study by Wilson Water concluded Aspen does not need any storage.

Two other areas that the IRP will address is the vulnerability of Aspen’s water supply to natural disasters such as 2018’s Lake Christine Fire and last winter’s historic avalanches in Castle and Maroon valleys, as well as how to decrease customers’ demand for water. Even though Aspen has taken steps to reduce the use of water for outdoor irrigation through a landscape ordinance, those gains could be wiped out because in a warmer future, there will be less water flowing in local streams.

“It’s almost like you are playing this game where you, on one hand, lower the level of demand but, on the other side of the equation, climate change is decreasing our supply,” Medellin said.

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 26 edition of The Aspen Times.

Study: #ColoradoRiver water crisis could dry out Front Range, West Slope cities and farms — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Gross Reservoir, west of Boulder. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Water sufficient for more than 1 million homes on the Front Range could be lost, and thousands of acres of farm land on both the Eastern and Western Slopes could go dry, if the state can’t supply enough water from the drought-stricken Colorado River to downstream states as it is legally required to do, according to a new study.

Among the study’s key findings:

+ In the next 25 years, if the state does nothing to set more water aside in Lake Powell, the Front Range could lose up to 97 percent of its Colorado River water.

+ All but two of the state’s eight major river basins, under that same “do nothing” scenario, also face dramatic water cutbacks.

+ If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico increase their water use by as little as 11.5 percent, as predictions indicate they will by 2037, the risk of a legal crisis spurring such cutbacks on the river doubles, rising from 39 percent to 78 percent, under one scenario, and 46 percent to 92 percent under another.

“Every water user in every river basin [linked to the Colorado] faces some risk,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, one of the sponsors of the Colorado River Risk Study, as it is known. The Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District also sponsored the work.

Palisade peach orchard

“That’s an important takeaway because when you begin to realize the extent of potential damage, whether it is on the West Slope or the Front Range, then we all come to the realization that we have a shared risk,” Mueller said.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s supplies are divided between the four Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) and three Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona). The compact dictates that cities and farmers in the Upper Basin whose water rights were obtained after the compact was signed would have to give up some or all of their water to the Lower Basin if there isn’t enough water in Lake Powell to meet the terms of the compact. Colorado uses the most water of all the Upper Basin states and therefore faces the most risk.

The study was conducted by Boulder-based Hydros Consulting and released in June. It looked at different scenarios for the way river conditions and reductions to diversions could play out, as well as ways to reduce the risk cities and farms face, including spreading the cutbacks proportionately among all the river basins, something that isn’t typically done.

Scare tactics

Front Range water utilities are wary of the study and have begun a new round of analysis to determine if they agree with the results.

Alex Davis is a water attorney for the City of Aurora. At a recent forum on the risk study, she said that the chances of a Colorado River crisis were being exaggerated. And the study acknowledges that under some scenarios the risk of such a legal crisis is low.

“All of this talk is helpful to get people to think about the issue, but it also seems like a bit of scare tactics. If the Lower Basin states did try to do something, there would be a whole number of reasons [they would not get far],” she said.

Including the fact that they continue to overuse their share of the river by about 1.2 million acre-feet a year. Before Colorado and its northern neighbors were asked to cut back, the Lower Basin would have to do additional cutbacks as well, she said.

If drought and climate change continue to sap the river’s flows, and a legal crisis erupts with downstream states, six of the state’s eight major river basins could be forced to give up water. The Front Range and Eastern Plains are most vulnerable if shortages hit the river downstream and could lose as much as 97 percent of their Colorado River supplies. Credit: Chas Chamberlin via Water Education Colorado

West meets east

Though the Colorado River flows west, and originates in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, a large chunk of its flows, more than 530,000 acre-feet, are pumped east over the Continental Divide to the state’s Front Range cities, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Boulder, Fort Collins and Broomfield, among others. That’s enough water to supply 1.06 million homes or to irrigate more than one-half million acres of crops.

Because these water users built their tunnels and reservoirs decades after the 1922 Compact was signed, they could be among the first to be cut off. Denver’s largest storage pool, Dillon Reservoir, was completed in the 1960s. East Slope cities and farmers would lose 97 percent of their Colorado River supplies if those diversions were completely shut down, according to the study.

“You have to start with the fact that 50 percent of the water on the Front Range comes from the West Slope. Should the Upper Basin fail to meet its delivery obligation, half of water use on the Front Range would be curtailed. That’s an enormous problem,” said Brad Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.

Other parts of the state also face risk, some more than others. The Yampa River Basin, home to Steamboat Springs, would lose slightly more than 70,000 acre-feet of water, or 30 percent of its Colorado River supplies.

The Gunnison Basin, where agriculture controls historic water rights that pre-date the compact, is better protected, with the potential to lose just over 57,000 acre-feet of water, or 10 percent of its share of the river.

But a large swath of the southwestern part of the state would also be hard hit. Despite the historic farm water rights in this region, several small communities and irrigation districts built reservoirs after the compact was signed, just as cities did on the Front Range, meaning that those stored water supplies are also at high risk. In this basin, 178,000 acre-feet of water, roughly 36 percent of its Colorado River supplies, could be lost, according to the study.

The likelihood of ongoing drought and hotter summers only deepens the uneasiness over the river’s ability to produce the amount of water the state once relied on.

“We don’t expect to see cooler temperatures in the future, we expect to see warmer temps,” Mueller said. “If that is true, then we have to plan on reduced water supplies within our state.”

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Saving more water?

The study comes as the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the lead water policy agency in the state, is examining whether to launch a massive, voluntary conservation program that would allow the state and its neighbors to save some 500,000 acre-feet of water and store it in a newly authorized drought pool in Lake Powell. The pool, to be used only by the Upper Basin states, could help protect Colorado and its neighbors if drought and climate change continue to sap the river’s flows.

Michelle Garrison is a modeler with the CWCB who has analyzed the study’s results. She said the scenarios it considered are important for comparative purposes and may help the West Slope and Front Range collaborate on any water cutbacks, something that hasn’t always occurred in the past.

“It’s a tough one,” she said. “The hydrology in the Colorado River has always been extremely variable and it’s predicted to become even more variable. But I’m really pleased to see them sharing their results.”

In places like the Yampa Basin, if the state cut back water use based strictly on prior appropriation, where water right dates determine who gets water first in times of shortage, Stagecoach Reservoir, the most significant storage pool in the valley, could be shut off because its storage rights date only to the 1980s. And residents would be hard pressed to cope if another long-term drought drained the river and their only source of stored water was no longer able to refill.

Kevin McBride is manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns Stagecoach. He, like dozens of other water managers across the state, is still contemplating the options. (Editor’s note: McBride serves on the board of Water Education Colorado, which houses Fresh Water News.)

“Generally being safe from drought is what it’s all about,” McBride said. “But how do you get there?

“It’s complicated and it comes down to how it’s done.”

McBride and others on the West Slope are asking for another round of modeling that would examine more equitable ways to cut back water use, so that no one takes the brunt of the reductions.

With insurance, or without?

Others have suggested that the state should let the rules embedded in the 1922 Compact and Colorado’s water rights system play out, rather than creating an expensive, legally complex water conservation program.

Anne Castle is a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources who specializes in Colorado River issues. Going without a major conservation program carries its own set of very high risks, such as decades of expensive lawsuits or unplanned water shortages.

Over the next several months, the state will continue to examine how best to protect its Colorado River water as part of drought planning work it is engaged in with the other Upper Basin states. Late next year, all Colorado River Basin states will begin negotiating a new set of operating guidelines for the entire river system, designed to bring it back into balance and slash the risk of major cutbacks.

“Truly one of the points of this risk study is to make sure that anyone who is at risk understands the risk,” Mueller said. “If you’re a water planner, it may set off some alarm bells. But we don’t want people to panic. The hope is people will look at this and say, ‘Our community is at risk…what are we going to do about it?’”

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.

This graphic shows the transmountain diversions in Colorado.

Efforts to relocate an ancient wetland could help determine the fate of a water project on Lower Homestake Creek — @AspenJournalism

A wetland area along Homestake Creek in an area that would be flooded by a potential Whitney Reservoir. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Sarah Tory):

One morning last month, Brad Johnson arrived at a patch of rippling yellow grasses alongside U.S. 24, a few miles south of Leadville in the upper Arkansas River valley. Sandwiched among a cluster of abandoned ranch buildings, a string of power lines and a small pond, it is an unassuming place — except, of course, for its views of 14,000-foot peaks rising across the valley.

But appearances can be deceiving. The rather ordinary-looking property was a fen, which is a groundwater-fed wetland filled with organic “peat” soils that began forming during the last ice age and that give fens their springy feel.

“It’s like walking on a sponge,” Johnson said, marching across the marshy ground, stopping every now and then to point out a rare sedge or grass species.

Johnson was visiting the fen to record groundwater measurements before winter sets in. As the lead scientist for the Rocky Mountain Fen Research Project, Johnson is part of an effort spearheaded and paid for by Aurora Water and the Board of Water Works of Pueblo to study new ways to restore fens.

The research could help facilitate future water development in Colorado, such as the potential Whitney Reservoir project, part of a 20-year water-development plan from Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities for the upper Eagle River watershed. The utilities, working together as Homestake Partners, are looking at building the reservoir in the Homestake Creek valley, south of Minturn, in an area that probably contains fens, which could hinder the project.

Aurora and Colorado Springs are working together on the reservoir project, and Aurora and Pueblo are funding the fens research. Although the Whitney project is not directly tied to the fen project, if the research efforts are successful, they could help Aurora and Colorado Springs secure a permit approval for the reservoir — and maybe alter the fate of an ecosystem.

Brad Johnson, a wetland ecologist for the Rocky Mountain Fen Research Project, takes groundwater measurements at the research site near Leadville, while his dogs, Katie and Hayden watch. The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are looking to develop additional water in Eagle County and divert it to the Front Range. Photo credit: Sarah Tory/Aspen Journalism

Irreplaceable resources

If you’ve walked through Colorado’s high country, chances are you’ve walked by a fen, which are among the state’s most biodiverse and fragile environments. To protect fens, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency drafted a “fen policy” in 1996. The policy, amended in 1999, determined that fens are irreplaceable resources because their soils take so long to regenerate. “On-site or in-kind replacement of peatlands is not possible,” the policy reads.

Inside the Fish and Wildlife Service, however, a different interpretation emerged. “Irreplaceable” became “unmitigable,” making it difficult or impossible to secure approval for any project that would severely impact fens.

Although Johnson is in favor of fen conservation, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “unmitigable” interpretation bothered him. Not only was that status not supported by the fen policy itself, he believes saying “no” all the time is not in the best interest of fens.

“My fear is that if we don’t have the means of mitigating our impacts, we’ll just impact them,” he said.

Eventually, Johnson believes, conservationists will have to make some concessions to development. But by researching better mitigation techniques, he hopes he can help preserve fens in the long run.

Fen soils are made of a rich, organic peat material that take thousands of years to form and require a constant groundwater source to survive. At the Rocky Mountain Fen Research Project, scientists transplanted fen soils from another site to the “receiver” site south of Leadville where they restored a groundwater spring to sustain the transplanted soils. Photo credit: Sarah Tory/Aspen Journalism

An organ transplant

For water utilities, fens have been particularly troublesome. Fens like to form in high-alpine valleys, the places best suited for dams and water reservoirs that take water from rivers mostly on the Western Slope and pump it over the mountains to supply the Front Range’s growing population.

But the fen policy has stymied many of the utilities’ plans to develop new water projects. Those defeats helped spur Front Range utilities to start researching new mitigation strategies that would help them comply with environmental regulations — and get around the fen policy.

“They wanted to figure out how to do this right so they could actually permit their projects,” Johnson said.

Through the fen-research project, Aurora and Pueblo saw an opportunity to address the fen policy’s requirement that a project offset unavoidable impacts to a fen by restoring an equivalent amount of fen elsewhere.

Since the fen project began 16 years ago, Aurora and Pueblo have invested $300,000 and $81,500 in the research, respectively. More recently, other funders have joined the effort, including Denver Water, Colorado Springs Utilities at about $10,000 each and the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($100,000).

After a number of fits and starts, Johnson three years ago settled on a design for the research that would test whether it’s ecologically possible to transplant fen soils from one location to another. First, Johnson restored the original groundwater spring at the old Hayden Ranch property. Then, he and a team of helpers removed blocks of soil from another degraded fen site and reassembled them, like an organ transplant, at the “receiver” site, where the restored spring now flows through veinlike cobble bars and sandbars, feeding the transplanted fen.

Brad Johnson, the lead scientist for the Rocky Mountain Fen Research Project, at the project site in the Upper Arkansas River Valley. Launched by two Front Range water utilities in 2003, the project is studying a new way to mitigate potential impacts to fens, an ecologically rich and fragile wetland found throughout Colorados’ high country. Photo credit: Sarah Tory/Aspen Journalism

Positive signs

It’s still too early to know whether the project could eventually serve as a fen-mitigation strategy for a new reservoir, but Johnson is optimistic about the results thus far. In 2017, after just one growing season, he was shocked to discover 67 different plant species growing at the transplanted fen site — compared with just 10 at the donor site. He was thrilled by the news. The data showed that the transplanted fen ecosystem is thriving.

That’s good news for utilities such as Aurora, too.

A week after Johnson visited the Rocky Mountain Fen Project site, Kathy Kitzmann gave a tour of the wetland-filled valley formed by Homestake Creek where Aurora and Colorado Springs are planning to build Whitney Reservoir.

Kitzmann, a water resources principal for Aurora Water, drove down the bumpy, snow-covered road that winds along the valley bottom, pointing to the two creeks that would — along with Homestake Creek and the Eagle River, near Camp Hale — help fill the reservoir. A pump station would send the water upvalley to the existing Homestake Reservoir and then through another series of tunnels to the Front Range.

In the lower part of the valley, Kitzmann stopped at the first of four potential reservoir sites — ranging in size from 6,000 acre-feet to 20,000 acre-feet — that the utilities have identified for the project and the wetlands it would inundate.

“You can sort of see why it wouldn’t be the best, just given the vastness of the wetlands,” Kitzmann said.

Farther along, the valley becomes more canyonlike, with higher rocky walls and fewer wetlands — probably offering a better reservoir site, said Kitzmann, although the permitting agencies won’t know for sure until they complete their initial feasibility studies.

In June, Aurora and Colorado Springs submitted a permit application to the U.S. Forest Service to perform exploratory drilling and other mapping and surveying work, but the agency has not yet approved the permit.

Potential fen impacts are just one of several environmental hurdles facing the project. One of the Whitney alternatives would encroach on the Holy Cross Wilderness. Aurora and Colorado Springs have proposed moving the wilderness boundary, if necessary, to accommodate the reservoir.

It’s also likely that the wetlands in the Homestake Valley contain fens, but until the utilities conduct wetland studies around the proposed reservoir sites next summer, the scope of the impacts remains uncertain.

Environmental groups including Colorado Headwaters, a nonprofit, oppose the Whitney Reservoir project, arguing that it would destroy one of the state’s most valuable wetlands, as well as an important habitat for wildlife and rare native plants.

In the meantime, Aurora is hopeful that Johnson’s research might one day help solve some of the environmental problems around new water development. “We are excited about proving that you can restore and rehabilitate fens,” Kitzmann said.

The dam in the Eagle River headwaters that forms Homestake Reservoir, which diverts water to the Front Range. If the wetlands in the Homestake Creek valley contain ancient peat bogs called fens, it could hinder the progress of the Whitney Reservoir project. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journailsm

Inevitable impacts

But is a transplanted fen as good as not touching one in the first place?

A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said fens are still designated a “Resource Category 1,” which means that the appropriate type of mitigation is avoidance, or “no loss.”

White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams echoed the spokesperson’s statement, noting that land managers place a high emphasis on protection for fens: “It’s really hard to replace a wetland in these high elevations.”

Johnson, asked whether he was worried that his research into fen mitigation might end up facilitating the kinds of projects that are most damaging to fens. He sighed. “I’m sensitive to that,” he said.

But like it or not, Johnson believes that more impacts to fens are inevitable. As Colorado’s population grows, water utilities will have to build new reservoirs, the state will need new roads and ski resorts will want to expand.

“I can’t argue with whether they should get built,” he said. “I’m just a wetlands guy.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 18 print edition of the Vail Daily.

#GlenwoodSprings is spending $1.2M in tax money on a public affairs campaign to fight a mine above town — The #Colorado Sun

Glenwood Springs via Wikipedia

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

The city is assembling a war chest to ward off an “existential crisis” stemming from a politically connected company, Rocky Mountain Resources, that wants to expand a limestone mine just above Glenwood Springs’ famous hot springs

“I don’t think citizens have a problem with us spending their money on health and safety issues for things that are a threat to our town. And this proposal, this is 100% a threat to our town. It’s a threat to everything we are,” Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes said about the city’s new publicly funded advertising and media campaign to block a politically connected mine owner from exponentially expanding an open-pit limestone quarry just above the city’s hot springs.

The historic resort city has directed $250,000 toward the fight to stop the expansion of the Mid-Continent Limestone Quarry and put another $1 million in a reserve war chest. And Glenwood Springs leaders have gathered unprecedented support for its first public affairs campaign targeting a business, with council members, trustees and commissioners from every municipality in Pitkin and Garfield counties unanimously backing the fight to block the mine expansion.

The resolutions the city has gathered in recent months come from the Pitkin County commissioners as well as trustees and council members from Rifle, Silt, New Castle, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Basalt, Aspen and Snowmass Village. Every community vote was unanimous…

Garfield County’s commissioners have not formally issued a resolution opposing the mine, but the board is defending lawsuits filed in both state and federal court by the mine’s owner, Rocky Mountain Resources, which argues the county’s enforcement of the mine’s county permit conflicts with state and federal permitting. The resolutions passed by Glenwood Springs’ neighbors demand that RMR comply with those local regulations.

“It’s really cool and it’s really wonderful that these other municipalities are coming to help us,” said Steve Beckley, the owner of the Iron Mountain Hot Springs and Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, which is adjacent to the proposed expansion of the Mid-Continent Limestone Quarry. “When a mine owner sues a county and says you don’t have jurisdiction over us even though we are in your backyard, I hope that everybody in this state stands up and takes notice. This could be a precedent that impacts everywhere in Colorado.”

RMR, which has owned the Mid-Continent Limestone Quarry since 2016, wants to expand its federal permit with the Bureau of Land Management from 15.7 acres to 447 acres, with mining of chemical-grade limestone and dolomite on 320 acres within that boundary.

The proposal calls for RMR to increase its now-seasonal operations, which are prohibited from Dec. 15 to Apr. 15 and produce up to 60,000 tons of limestone products a year, to a 20-year, year-round operation that would produce 5 million tons of limestone products a year. The proposal seeks BLM permission to use as many as 30 semi-trucks, each making 15 to 20 daily round-trips from the mill down the unpaved Transfer Trail road to a riverside railyard.

The BLM is pursuing an intensive Environmental Impact Statement review of the Mid-Continent expansion plan, but the likely years-long process is just beginning and public comment is months away.

But the communities around the mine are preparing residents for that comment period, hoping the public campaign can sway the BLM to reject the proposal.

In addition to concerns over visibility, truck traffic and potential disruption of the flow of geothermal water that feeds the town’s hot springs, opponents of the mine fret that RMR’s owner, Chad Brownstein, has deep political connections that could greenlight the expansion despite opposition.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt once lobbied on behalf of oil and gas clients for Brownstein’s father’s influential Denver law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

The ultimate decision for the mine expansion will fall to Bernhardt, who is under investigation for influencing policy that benefited California’s Westlands Water District, which was his largest client as a lobbyist.

“Are we worried about the failure of the BLM to listen to the concerns of the community and follow the law? Yes we are and we should be. Some of the lawyers and lobbyists at the Brownstein firm working on this plan are former BLM officials. The revolving door is spinning wildly on this one,” said Matt Ward, an environmental lawyer whose Washington, D.C.-based Sustainable Strategies DC is helping Glenwood Springs plan its campaign…

The proposed expansion of the Mid-Contintent Limestone Quarry above Glenwood Springs by the politically connected Rocky Mountain Resources has spurred the city to create a taxpayer funded campaign against the plan. The mine’s existing footprint of roughly 16 acres is in yellow and the proposed expansion is in red. Photo credit: City of Glenwood Springs via The Colorado Sun

In April, Garfield County’s commissioners held a public hearing and found RMR was not in compliance with the county’s special-use permit last amended in 2010, citing five issues:

* The mine’s federal, state and county permits authorized chemical-grade limestone dust, but RMR was supplying road base and construction materials.

* The quarry operated between Dec. 15 and April 15, when operations are not permitted.

* The mine’s operators expanded to almost 21 acres but the county permit allows operations on only about 16 acres.

* The mine’s exploratory drilling, allowed under a BLM permit, was not authorized by the county permit.

* Mine traffic on Transfer Trail was violating conditions of the county permit.

The commissioners gave RMR until June 1 to correct the permit violations. (The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety has approved the operation’s boundary of 38 acres and in 2017 reported the mine was in compliance with its rules.)

In May, less than two weeks before the county’s deadline, Rocky Mountain Resources sued Garfield County commissioners, arguing the county does not have the authority to enforce the permit.

The lawsuits urged both courts to stop the county’s permit enforcement, saying the county’s Notice of Violation conflicted with not just federal and state permits, but the General Mining Act of 1872. The fight hinges on that 147-year-old legislation. RMR says it is mining “locatable minerals,” which federal law dating to 1872 encourages with lesser regulation, smaller taxes and easier access to public lands. But RMR’s Mid-Continent mine has historically produced minerals the legislation describes as “common,” like basic limestone and aggregate, which requires stricter regulation and bigger severance tax payments to the federal government and local communities.

Grand Junction U.S. District Court Judge Gordon P. Gallagher in late September suspended the federal lawsuit while the state court mulled the case…

The lawsuit is now winding through state court.

The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety last month contacted RMR asking about the Garfield County Special Use Permit and what the company was doing to resolve “potential noncompliance issues.”

Last week the company’s attorneys replied to the division, noting the lawsuits and saying the county “has not acknowledged preemption of state and federal law.” RMR’s attorney David McConaughy, with Garfield & Hecht, said Garfield County won’t act on its list of violations until the federal case is resolved and since the federal case has been stayed, the county’s Notice of Violation “will not be enforced and will have no impact on RMR’s operations for at least several months.”

McConaughy also said RMR is applying for a new special-use permit from Garfield County…

RMR also is asking the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division for air quality permits allowing its Mid-Continent mine to expand its current air quality permit limit on limestone production to 800,000 tons a year from 400,000 tons.

The required Air Pollutant Emissions Notice applications detail air quality mitigation plans for blasting, crushing, screening and moving as much as 3.9 million tons of limestone products for 10 hours a day, 250 days a year. The air quality permit request documents mitigation efforts for 64 daily round-trips by 34-ton trucks on unpaved roads for 10 hours a day, 365 days a year. The request included a check for $573.39 for processing the notice applications.

50 truck trips an hour

The potential for as many as 600 truck trips up and down the unpaved Transfer Trail between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day of the year — that’s 50 trips an hour, according to the BLM application — ranks among the most troubling issues for residents of Glenwood Springs.

Equally troublesome is RMR’s more recent request for the BLM to allow drilling of five wells — between 125- and 250-feet deep — to study water quality and hydrology around the mine as part of a baseline to anchor the BLM’s environmental review of the proposed expansion. RMR is asking the BLM to exclude the monitoring wells from more intensive environmental review.

That proposal drew 250 comments that the BLM is reviewing, agency spokesman David Boyd said.

Glenwood Springs residents fear the wells could disrupt the delicate geothermal network that feeds the historic Glenwood Hot Springs Pool and the newer Iron Mountain Hot Springs, two of the city’s top tourist attractions…

Garfield County’s three commissioners want the BLM to include the drilling of the water-monitoring wells in a comprehensive environmental review to safeguard the hot springs, which they described in a letter to the BLM sent last month as “the lifeblood and economic engine” of the community…

More than 200 Roaring Fork Valley businesses have signed a petition protesting the planned expansion, Peterson said…

Mining for highly valuable, or “locatable” minerals is regulated less tightly and allows for smaller severance taxes paid to local communities. That part of the 1872 mining law was designed to encourage mining for valuable minerals on public land. RMR is arguing its mining of chemical-grade limestone for high-end concrete and dolomite falls under the 1872 legislation’s “locatable minerals” protections.

But opponents of the plan say the mine is producing common minerals, which require stricter regulation and heftier payments. Residents and city leaders have collected sales receipts showing the company is selling aggregate, or road base, for local projects, like Glenwood Springs’ new bridge spanning the Colorado River.

Monitoring will make sure Aspen snowmaking doesn’t harm creeks — @AspenJournalism

Aquatic ecologist Bill Miller, left, and chair of the Pitkin County Healthy Streams Board Andre Wille stand on the banks of Castle Creek as Miller prepares to take macro-invertebrate samples. The county hired Miller to collect baseline data to ensure increased snowmaking on Aspen Mountain won’t harm the health of the stream. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

On a recent snowy morning, aquatic ecologist Bill Miller dipped what’s known as a Hess sampler into the frigid waters of Castle Creek near Aspen.

Miller stirred up the streambed with his hands, funneling the rocks, sediment and leaves — along with macro-invertebrates such as insects and worms — into the collection container.

After putting the organic material into smaller jars and giving each one a squirt of alcohol as a preservative, heferried them to a lab in Fort Collins. Scientists there will count the number and types of bugs in each sample.

“By the different species that are there, you can get a good indication of stream and water quality, and overall ecological function,” Miller said.

Miller’s work is part of a program that will monitor the health of Castle and Maroon creeks, ensuring that Aspen Skiing Co.’s increased water use for snowmaking on Aspen Mountain won’t harm the aquatic environment of the creeks. The stream-monitoring program was set out in September as a condition of Pitkin County’s approval of Skico’s Aspen Mountain Ski Area Master Plan.

“I think the idea of this is we don’t want the snowmaking to cause significant harm to the creeks,” said Andre Wille, chairman of Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board.

Aquatic ecologist Bill Miller shows the bugs and worms from Castle Creek that he collected with a Hess sampler. Starting in the 2020-21 season, Aspen Mountain will use an additional 57 acre-feet of water from city supplies, which come from Castle and Maroon creeks, for snowmaking per season. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Aspen Mountain expansion

As part of its planned expansion, Aspen Mountain will use an additional 57 acre-feet of water per season, bringing the total average snowmaking water use to roughly 257 acre-feet. For context, Wildcat Reservoir, which is visible from the Snowmass Ski Area, holds about 1,100 acre-feet of water.

Skico is expanding its snowmaking for the 2020-21 season on 53 acres near the summit of Aspen Mountain, which will make it easier to have reliable and consistent snow coverage to ensure a Thanksgiving opening. Skico draws its water for snowmaking on Aspen Mountain from the city’s treated municipal supply, which is from Castle and Maroon creeks.

When Skico makes snow in November and December, the upside is there are fewer municipal water users pulling from local streams — outdoor irrigation season is over and holiday crowds have yet to arrive —but snowmaking uses water when natural streamflows are at some of their lowest points of the year.

“We were definitely concerned with the possibility of too much water being taken out in those early months of the winter,” Wille said.

Miller collected samples from above and below the city’s diversion dams on both lower Castle and Maroon creeks. His samples will act as a baseline against which the condition of the streams in future — and perhaps drier — years will be measured.

According to the resolution approving Aspen Mountain’s master plan, if the county’s aquatic ecologist determines, in future years, that the additional water usage is having a negative effect on stream health, the county could limit Skico’s water use to historical levels — about 200 acre-feet a year.

Aquatic ecologist Bill Miller, left, shows chair of Pitkin County Healthy Streams Board Andre Wille the three samples of macro-invertebrates he collected from Castle Creek. Some say the instream flow water rights held by the Colorado Water Conservation Board don’t necessarily go far enough to protect stream health. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Instream flows

There is another safeguard to keep water in the river, but some say it may not go far enough to ensure stream health.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency, holds instream-flow water rights on both Castle and Maroon creeks. And the state has determined that it requires at least 12 cubic feet per second of flowing water to protect the environment to “a reasonable degree” on lower Castle Creek and 14 cfs on lower Maroon Creek.

“We don’t feel it’s advisable to look at what the CWCB may have decreed in the past for a minimum instream flow,” said John Ely, Pitkin County attorney. “That’s not necessarily indicative from a scientific point of view of what is actually needed to maintain a healthy stream.”

That’s why the county hired Miller — who also is the longtime consulting biologist for the city of Aspen — to do its own assessment of stream health.

Ely said stream samples may not need to be taken every year — just in dry years when snowmaking could exacerbate already low flows. He estimated the annual cost of the monitoring program at about $5,000 to $10,000.

Jeff Hanle, Skico’s vice president of communications, said the company is taking steps to increase the efficiency of its on-mountain storage for snowmaking, such as adding two new ponds on Gent’s Ridge, so it won’t need to pull as much water from the city’s supply during the early season.

Although Skico and Pitkin County still need to work out the details of the stream-monitoring program, Hanle said the company is on board with preserving the ecological health of Castle and Maroon creeks.

“We would not make snow if it’s harming the stream, even if it could shorten a season,” he said. “We aren’t going to damage our home.”

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Nov. 11 edition of The Aspen Times.

Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin Water Forum Day 1 recap #COriver #aridification @WaterCenterCMU

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.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Demand management “is a form of insurance,” Anne Castle said at the ninth annual Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum, which continues today and is presented by CMU’s Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center…

Castle and John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program, recently released a report evaluating the risk of future curtailment of river water use in Upper Colorado River Basin states under a 1922 river basin compact. The report discusses the concept of working to take an insurance-based approach to address the risk of curtailment.

“As with any form of risk, you can insure against it,” Castle said…

Earlier this year, Congress approved legislation allowing implementation of drought contingency agreements involving both Upper and Lower basin states. The agreements are aimed at helping keep water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling so low as to jeopardize hydropower production and force water supply reductions. In the Upper Basin, an agreement allows in part for any water conserved by possible demand management programs to be stored in a separate account in Lake Powell to protect the reservoir’s water levels.

Colorado and other Upper Basin states since have begun exploring the possibility of pursuing demand management programs. Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said at Wednesday’s forum that in Colorado, nearly 100 members of work groups have been meeting as the state begins “to investigate just the feasibility of that program.”

Colorado is looking into issues surrounding the idea of a possible program involving temporary, compensated, voluntary reductions in use by agricultural and other water users.

Castle said demand management is complex and “not an easy solution but it does give us the opportunity to plan and we can hedge our bets a little bit.”

[…]

Castle said a legal question surrounds whether the 1922 [Colorado River Compact] requirement not to deplete water means a requirement to deliver it.

If it only means don’t deplete, the Upper Basin is fine as as long as it doesn’t use more than 7.5 million acre feet a year under the 1922 compact, she said. But if it must deliver that much, it bears all the risk of climate change and reduced river flows in future years, she said…

Meanwhile, climate scientists have projected a 20 to 30% reduction in the river’s flows by mid-century, and a 35 to 55% drop by the end of the century…

She said demand management would have costs, including payments to water users and secondary impacts. Some on the Western Slope want to ensure that temporary cutbacks in use aren’t borne disproportionately by agricultural users, harming rural economies.

Castle said the costs of curtailment need to be considered as well, and those costs could be greater, could last longer and potentially can’t be planned for.

Curtailment would particularly affect municipal transmountain diversions of Colorado River water to the Front Range, because those generally involve more junior water rights.

But Castle and Fleck note in a white-paper, summary version of their report, “While that might sound superficially attractive to West Slope agricultural interests, such a prospect could motivate affected municipal water providers to buy or lease pre-Compact West Slope irrigation water rights, possibly in substantial volume. Although these would almost certainly be market-based, arms-length transactions, the resulting economic impact could be geographically concentrated and tremendously disruptive to commodity supply chains and rural communities.”

[…]

The full report may be found at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3483654. The white paper is available at https://www.getches-wilkinsoncenter.cu.law/wpcontent/uploads/2019/11/Summary-of-Risk-Assessment-White-Paper.pdf.

Photo credit: Maricopa County, Arizona

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

Declining flows could force Southwest water managers to confront long-standing legal uncertainties, and threaten the water security of Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

A new paper by Anne Castle at the University of Colorado-Boulder and John Fleck at the University of New Mexico identified many risks facing the basin. These risks need to be addressed in order to avoid disaster for the Colorado River, a water source relied on by more than 40 million people in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, the paper’s authors wrote. (Some of Castle’s work receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage).

Reclamation’s forecast for Lake Mead elevations using both the full hydrologic record from 1906 to 2017 and the stress test hydrology.

Much of the risk lies in the relationship between the river’s two basins. Ambiguity exists in the language of the river’s foundational document, the Colorado River Compact. That agreement’s language remains unclear on whether Upper Basin states, where the Colorado River originates, are legally obligated to deliver a certain amount of water over a 10-year period to those in the Lower Basin: Arizona, California, and Nevada.

According to that document, each basin is entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, with the Lower Basin given the ability to call for its water if it wasn’t receiving its full entitlement. That call could result in a cascade of curtailments in the Upper Basin, where cities and farmers with newer water rights would be shut off to meet those downstream obligations. That’s a future scenario water managers need to acknowledge and plan for, Castle argues…

Back in the early 2000s the Colorado River basin saw one of its driest periods on record. Castle and Fleck’s analysis suggests that if that the dry period from 2001 to 2007 were to repeat, within a few years the river’s biggest reservoirs would decline so rapidly that the threat of a Lower Basin call would become much more real.

In the long term, Castle said, the risk grows even higher. Layer on climate change models, which project that the river will likely experience significant declines in coming decades, and “things get pretty serious pretty quickly,” Castle said.

Much like the calculation of whether or not to buy insurance to hedge against a catastrophic or costly loss of home, car or health, Castle said the Upper Basin states need to fully explore what kinds of risks they’re facing when it comes to water supplies from the Colorado River.