Honing in on options for a potential White River Dam near Rangely

Looking up the White River valley, with the Wolf Creek valley opening up to the left. The view is from Hwy 64.

By Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

CRAIG — Three variations of a potential dam that could someday sit astride the main stem of the White River between Meeker and Rangely have been examined by the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District in Rangely.

Last week in Craig, Steve Jamieson, a principal engineer and president at W.W. Wheeler and Associates, told the members of the Yampa, Green and White river basin roundtable that an 80-foot-tall dam built across the main stem of the White River at Wolf Creek could store 68,000 acre-feet of water.

He said a 104-foot-tall dam across the river could store 138,000 acre-feet.

And a 290-foot-tall dam across the valley floor could store 2.9 million acre-feet of water.

“The maximum you can get here is 2.9 million acre-feet in this bucket,” Jamieson said. “It’s a big bucket, and you can do that with a dam that it’s about 290 feet high. It would be a very efficient dam site, but you need to have the water to fill it.”

A slide being presented by Steve Jamieson of Wheeler a showing the range of dam and reservoir sizes that have been studied for the potential White River Dam on the main stem of the White River 23 miles east of Rangely. The dams range in size from 80-feet-tall to 290-feet-tall and could store between 68,000 AF to 2.9 MAF. The dam sizes were studied as part of Phase 2A of the White River storage project, and the state has provided $500,000 in funding so far to study the project.
Steve Jamieson, left, of Wheeler and Associates, and Brad McCloud, right, showing an illustration of where the axis of a 290-foot-tall dam across the White River would be. The big dam would require a 500-foot-wide spillway, which would mean relocating a section of Hwy 64.

Water enough

About 500,000 acre-feet of water a year runs down the lower White River each year, flowing through Meeker and Rangely and into Utah and the Green River.

And between 1923 and 2014, the annual flow in the White River at the Utah line ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million acre-feet, according to Wheeler and Associates.

The potential White River Dam would be located 23 miles east of Rangely, along Highway 64.

The existing Taylor Draw Dam, which forms Kenney Reservoir on the main stem of the White River, is six miles east of Rangely.

That reservoir was built in 1984 to hold 13,800 acre-feet of water, but it’s gradually silting in, as was expected in a 1982 EIS done for the project. The surface area still “available for recreation,” or boating, is now less than 335 acres, down from 650 acres when the reservoir opened.

The dam’s hydro plant, however, is still generating about $500,000 a year in electricity revenue for the Rio Blanco district in a run-of-river setup.

A slide being presented by Steve Jamieson of Wheeler and Associates and Brad McCloud of EIS Solutions showing the range of dam and reservoir sizes that have been studied with state funding for the Wolf Creek drainage. The dams range in size from 80-feet-tall to 260-feet-tall and could store 41,000 AF to 1.6 MAF. The dam sizes were studied as part of Phase 2A of the White River storage project, and the state has provided $500,000 in funding so far to study the project.

Off-channel too

Jamieson also has been studying an off-channel dam in the Wolf Creek drainage, which is a broad, dry valley on the north side the river, just upstream of the proposed White River Dam site.

The Wolf Creek Dam would be located 3,000 feet back from the river and 170 feet above it.

An 80-foot-tall version of that dam could store 41,000 acre-feet of water, a 119-foot-tall dam could store 130,000 acre-feet, and a 260-foot-tall dam could store 1.6 million-acre feet, Jamieson said.

“This is really good dam site here, I like this,” Jamieson said. “It’s very flexible.”

However, the off-channel Wolf Creek Dam would require that water be pumped up from the river, at a high cost, or delivered via a 40-mile long canal or pipeline starting near Rio Blanco Lake — closer to Meeker than Rangely.

“It’s going to be a very long and expensive canal,” Jamieson said.

The pumping facility for a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir, which was studied in 2014, was estimated to cost $18.2 million build and up to $1.1 million a year to operate.

Jamieson said Highway 64 would need to be moved to accommodate the biggest White River Dam option, which requires a 500-foot-wide spillway on one side of the river valley.

The river itself would also have to be moved during construction.

“You’d be constructing two to three years at least,” Jamieson said. “So what we looked at is actually building a tunnel around into this abutment that we would divert the White River through during construction.”

A slide presented by Steve Jamieson of Wheeler and Associates on May 9, 2018, showing the maximum inundation area of a 290-foot-tall dam on the main stem of the White River. Jamieson presented the slide at the May 9, 2018 meeting in Craig of the Yampa/White/Green basin roundtable.

Gardner-sized

Jamieson said the district started studying the maximum size of the potential reservoirs after Sen. Cory Gardner asked during a site visit, “How big can you make this reservoir?”

During his presentation Jamieson repeatedly referred to Sen. Gardner, using phrases such as “this is the maximum Cory Gardner reservoir.”

A roundtable member asked, “Did the senator promise the money for this?”

The basin roundtables operate under the auspices of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and review grants for water projects.

“No, he did not, unfortunately,” said Brad McCloud of EIS Solutions, a public affairs consulting firm retained by the district. “We asked.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board also wants to know what the maximum reservoir size is.

“Based on recent comments from some stakeholders, it may be beneficial to build the largest possible reservoir at Wolf Creek,” the scope of work for a 2017 grant from the board to the district states.

It also says “a much larger reservoir … could have additional benefits to the state.”

One of those benefits could be helping the state avoid a compact call on the Colorado River.

“Part of the Phase 2A study is to determine if the project may have the potential to provide Colorado compact curtailment insurance during periods of drought,” the 2017 grant application from the district said.

Since 2013, the district has received three grants totaling $500,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board for its White River project, and the potential benefit of compact compliance has been mentioned in all three grants.

The White River near the vicinity of the Wolf Creek drainage. The river sends about 500,000 acre-feet of water a year across the state line into Utah, with flows ranging from 200,000 AF to 1.2 MAF a year. The White drains the western side of the Flat Top Mountains and flows through Meeker and Rangely.

20,000 or 90,000

On Wednesday in Craig, Jamieson downplayed compact curtailment and focused on the district’s goal of creating a 20,000 or 90,000 acre-foot “working pool” of water inside larger potential reservoirs.

For example, it would require a 138,000 acre-foot on-channel reservoir to establish a 90,000 acre-foot working pool for the district, after allowances for a recreation pool and a 24,000 acre-foot sedimentation pool — which would fill in over 50 years.

To establish a need of the stored water, Jamieson cited a 2014 study showing demand in the basin at 91,000 acre-feet in 2065.

That’s on the high end, though.

The low-end need in 2065 was 16,600 acre-feet.

The district filed in water court in 2014 for a 90,000-acre-foot storage right at both the on-channel and off-channel locations.

But Erin Light, the division engineer in Div. 6, told the district in July 2017 “this application continues to contain aspects that are speculative and this is concerning to me.”

She questioned the district’s use of the highest estimates for such potential uses as oil shale production and flows for endangered fish.

The water attorney for the district, Ed Olszewski, responded to Light in August.

He said the district “disputes that any portion of the application is speculative” and the application is intended to be “as flexible as possible.”

As Jamieson wrapped up his presentation, he said the Rio Blanco district plans to “initiate project permitting” in 2019.

“I know we’re very aggressive,” Jamieson said. “We’re making progress.”

Aspen Journalism is covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. The Times and the Post Independent published this story on Monday, May 14, 2018.

#ColoradoRiver District voices opposition to Aaron Million’s latest transmountain diversion plan

Green River

From the Rio Blanco Water Conservation District via the Rio Blanco Herald Times:

Earlier this month the Colorado River District released a statement protesting the application for water rights filed by Water Horse Resources LLC, owned by Aaron Million.

The application for Utah water rights requests 55,000 acre feet of water from the Green River with two pump stations located five miles from the Colorado state line in Dagget County, Utah, on Bureau of Land Management land. The water would then run through a hydroelectric facility before being piped nearly 500 miles northeast into Wyoming and then south down the Colorado Front Range.

The river district’s letter of opposition cites a variety of reasons why the application should be denied, including the speculative nature of the application saying, “A fundamental precept of water use in Colorado (and, we believe, in Utah as well) is a strict prohibition on speculative claims of water. No specific beneficial use or need has been identified for the project other than a general reference to future water demands in Colorado.”

The district also raises concerns about the legal and practical nature of enforcing and accounting for a water right issued by the State of Utah but with great impact on Colorado water users. The letter states, “The proposed water right would exacerbate the supply problems currently faced in the Colorado River Basin, and would increase the need and cost of any Upper Basin demand management program.”

Another concern raised by both the river district and numerous environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity who have spoken against the application is the lack of environmental analysis.

In years prior Million has unsuccessfully attempted to obtain water rights that would allow him to pipe water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the Front Range. The Colorado River District opposed that application as well.

“This new application suffers from many of the same problems as his previous proposals but presents a number of new problems and interstate legal issues as well,” said Peter Fleming, General Counsel for the Colorado River District.

In a statement released last week Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller said, “Development of this resource in this manner would not only harm existing Western Slope water users but would impact the ability of the River District and the State of Colorado to plan for and develop future water resources as well.”

Thirty-two letters of protest have been filed against the project including letters from the Utah Board of Water Resources and Division of Water Resources who raise similar concerns to those mentioned by the Colorado River District.

In a press release issued last week Million stated, “Utah is initiating an identical project…The Lake Powell pipeline. Point of diversion in Arizona, water and hydroelectric power into Utah. We are watching that closely as they are still sorting out federal permitting responsibilities. The Upper Colorado River Compact is clear and allows the use of water from Utah or Wyoming into Colorado. Or vice versa. For the last 96 years the Upper Basin, which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico has over-delivered its’ Compact share. The issues on the Colorado are almost strictly a Lower Basin over-use issue, which includes California, Arizona and Nevada. Had the Lower Basin not drained the Lower Colorado River and over-utilized their water allocation, Lake Powell and Mead would be full by five times plus.”

The project, nicknamed Grasshopper by Water Horse, is estimated to cost $890 million. Tom Wood, Project Management team member stated, “The Green has numerous advantages. A huge river system, excellent water quality, and Flaming Gorge Reservoir that will double the State of Colorado’s storage availability. Additionally, all the global warming models are indicating the Green River will be wetter than average in the future, coupled with a later snowmelt than the Colorado River main stem. The Green River headwaters is located several hundred miles north of the Colorado River headwaters. This year is a classic reason that two hydrologically diverse basins, meaning the Colorado River and Green River, and their respective water supplies, should be managed collectively. The Upper Green is currently running 140 percent of average snowpack, the Colorado River main-stem is half that or less, at maybe 60 to 65 percent. It diversifies water supply management risk, which ties directly to alleviating ecosystem and environmental impacts.”

Rio Blanco Water Conservation District Manager Alden Vanden Brink is concerned about the project. “Focusing on the water resource needs in Northwest Colorado I intimately understand how water projects that are speculative in nature, as Mr. Million’s project is, include, intrastate concerns and potentially put water resour ces in Western Colorado at risk to Compact curtailment are certainly something that we need to pay close attention to,” he said.

Projects underway to bridge #Colorado’s water supply gap

From Water Deeply (Matt Weiser):

At least seven major new reservoirs and water diversion projects are being planned in Colorado, which had a population of 5.6 million in 2017. Many would continue the controversial practice of diverting water across the Rocky Mountains from the state’s Western Slope, where the majority of Colorado’s precipitation falls, to its more arid Front Range, where people are flocking to Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Longmont and increasingly sprawling suburbs.

The water projects have been inspired partly by the Colorado Water Plan, an effort by Governor John Hickenlooper to solve a projected water deficit of 560,000 acre-feet by 2050, or enough to serve more than 1 million households. The plan calls for 400,000 acre-feet of new water storage and an equal amount of water conservation.

The plan is only two years old. But critics say it has prioritized gray infrastructure – new dams, pipelines and pumps – over green projects like water conservation and sustainable land use…

The state water plan does not recommend any specific water development projects. But Hickenlooper has personally endorsed several of them. He also appointed all the voting members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the entity that oversees the Water Plan and awards grants for water projects.

Greg Johnson, chief of water supply planning at the Water Conservation Board, said the state’s plan emphasizes conservation just as much as new water supply projects. But he said the latter may be more more pressing in some cases.

“Some of the bigger projects that are in permitting right now are helping meet really critical supply needs that a lot of those faster-growing northern Front Range suburbs have, where they’ve got new developments going up all over the place,” Johnson said. “They have maybe a 10- or 15-year horizon to get some of those things done.”

One of the water developments endorsed by the governor won a $90 million loan in 2017 from the Water Conservation Board – the largest loan in the board’s history. Known as the Windy Gap Firming Project, it proposes a new reservoir called the Chimney Hollow Reservoir near Longmont to store Colorado River water diverted through an existing tunnel under the Continental Divide.

The loan covers nearly one-fourth of total costs for the project, which is proposed by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

As its name implies, the project is intended to “firm up” existing Colorado River water rights held by a dozen Front Range cities. The cities already draw on these water rights, but can’t fully tap them in some years because of storage limitations. The new 90,000 acre-foot reservoir will solve this problem and allow them to divert the river almost every year.

The project would result in diverting 30,000 acre-feet more water out of the Colorado River every year than is currently diverted…

Other major projects in the works include the Moffat Collection System, a plan by Denver Water to expand Gross Reservoir to hold 77,000 acre-feet of additional diversions from Colorado River headwaters streams; and the White River Storage Project, a proposal for a new reservoir of up to 90,000 acre-feet in the northwest corner of the state, near the town of Rangely…

Greg Silkensen, a spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said the Windy Gap project is vital to many fast-growing Front Range communities that have lower-priority water rights.

“The Colorado economy is just crazy. Everybody and their brother is moving here,” Silkensen said. “There is a great deal of environmental mitigation that will go forward if the project is built. There’s going to be a lot of benefit to the Upper Colorado River if it does go through.”

Those projects include stream habitat restoration in the Colorado River and water quality improvements in Grand Lake, part of the existing Western Slope diversion system.

White River algae mitigation update

Bloom on the White River.
Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife via the Rio Blanco Herald Times.

From the White River Conservation District (Callie Hendrickson) via The Rio Blanco Times:

Thank you to all the interested public and stakeholders for your commitment to finding the drivers of the algae in the White River. We also want to thank you all for your patience with our Technical Committee (TC) as they have put a great amount of time, effort, and energy into identifying the most critical elements to the Scope of Work (SOW) that will help identify the causes of the algae. This is a very complex problem that has evolved over time and it will require some time to identify the cause. It is anticipated that there is no one single cause or source of this problem. There are multiple rivers across the western United States that are experiencing the excess algae issue, much like the White River.

A quick review of what the Technical Committee has done reminds us that USGS had originally recommended we do a one-year study primarily up-river from Meeker. The TC asked USGS to provide a proposal that would also include studying the river all the way down to Rangely and to make it a multi-year study over concerns that one year’s worth of data would not be statistically significant. USGS came back to the group with that proposal which gave many of the committee members “sticker shock.”

Realizing that it would be a huge challenge to get down to the detail necessary, a five-member workgroup was appointed in January to work out those details and bring a recommendation back to the TC. The final recommendation from the workgroup is the culmination of many hours (days), conversations, meetings, emails, etc. I’m confident that the workgroup has done exactly what the TC asked.

In reviewing the USGS draft SOW, the workgroup literally dissected it into a chart where they evaluated it line by line based on prioritized questions. Then they developed and analyzed a more elaborate spreadsheet for more discussion so that they could sort based on priorities and the “core” tasks required to ensure scientific analysis and credibility to the study. There were a number of tasks that each individual would like to include but the group finalized the SOW based on the highest priorities ensuring scientific integrity in determining the cause of excess algae. The workgroup’s final step in the two-month processes is to present the final SOW to the technical committee on March 21.

The workgroup recognizes that there is a sense of urgency in finding the cause of the algae and has balanced that sense of urgency with a solid scientific-based study that will give us the best of both worlds. To identify different sources of nutrients in the White River as quickly as possible, the proposed SOW will analyze isotopic-signatures of oxygen and nitrogen from nitrate in various source materials and in the river during 2018. Please remember, there is no guarantee that the “signatures” will be different enough to help determine the potential source. While analyzing samples for isotopic signatures, the proposed SOW will simultaneously include efforts to help develop a better understanding of the physical and chemical properties controlling the algal growth.

The draft proposal includes annual progress reports from USGS to evaluate the next year’s proposed work based on findings of the current year. We will be using adaptive project management based on annual findings.

While the anticipated cost is more than any of us would like to see, the workgroup has done a great deal of individual research and determined that we do need all the components of this SOW. Discussion was had about the USGS preliminary costs being a little higher than potentially other researchers. The consensus of the workgroup was that with USGS providing 35 percent of the funding and their reputation of being nonbiased, they are the best entity to have do this research and analysis.

So, how are we going to pay for the study? We currently have commitments for a total of $60,000 for 2018. That leaves us approximately $30,000 to raise for 2018 work. The conservation district and others will be meeting with individuals and agencies during the remainder of March to solicit this $30,000 because it is too short of a time frame to get grant funding and it seems like it is a “doable” amount to raise for such an important issue to the community.

In ensuing years, we will be seeking support again from the stakeholders and applying for grants through the Basin Roundtable, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and others to be determined.

The White River Conservation District anticipates that we will have annual agreements with USGS for the study dependent upon funding availability and on adaptive research based on each year’s outcome.

The technical committee meeting will be March 21 at the Fairfield Center beginning at 11 a.m. At that time the workgroup will give a brief overview of their recommendations followed by a more detailed presentation of the SOW by USGS. We will break for lunch and reconvene at 1:30 p.m. for further discussion and public comment specifically on the proposal in anticipation of finalizing the SOW by end of the day.

Landowners and interested parties are welcome to attend the technical committee meeting and will have an opportunity to provide comment and input on the proposal during the public comment period. We strongly encourage that anyone interested in providing comment in the afternoon attend the morning session, where they receive a copy of the proposal and hear the presentations.

Visit the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts’ website (www.whiterivercd.com) to find copies of the workgroup’s recommendations, previous meetings’ minutes, research and meeting information. Contact the conservation district office at 878-9838 with any questions.

White River Conservation District annual dinner recap

Algae bloom on the White River.
Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife via the Rio Blanco Herald Times.

From The Rio Blanco Herald-Times (Reed Kelley):

District Executive Director Callie Hendrickson, of Grand Junction, reviewed subjects including rangeland health and monitoring; excess horses on public range; range improvement programs and opportunities; greater sage grouse management; and water issues. The latter includes facilitation, on behalf of the county, of the deliberations and research of the county’s White River Algae Task Force. The mission of the task force, Hendrickson stated, is “to ascertain what is driving the algae growth in the White River (in order) to improve the overall health of the watershed.”

The 2018 Plan of Work presented covers the development and implementation of the rangeland monitoring and weed control project with the federal Bureau of Land Management on the Piceance-East Douglas (Wild Horse) Herd Management Area; ongoing facilitation of the White River Algae Task Force; continuing utilization of the Land and Natural Resource Plan and Policies developed by the districts and approved by the board of county commissioners as a guide to public lands use; continuing equipment rental, tire tank and polyacrylamide (PAM) sales for sites where quick fixes are needed on dam areas where there are known leaks and for setting up the surface for new ponds as well as flooded field irrigation and ditch projects; continuing excess wild horse education; continuing work with partners to support the wise use of natural resources; and working to secure long-term sustainable funding to replace losses in mill levy funding.

Enterprise Products, Williams gas company, and XTO Energy were the primary sponsors of the district dinner this year. Steve Cochran, Enterprise manager, and Darren Baker, representing Williams, were presented “thank you” awards for the sponsorships. Past district manager Chris Colflesh and his bride, Kim O’Donnell, both now of Silt, were also honored.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist, Kendall Smith from Craig, whose jurisdiction covers Moffat and Rio Blanco Counties; Kent Walter, field manager for the White River Field Office of BLM; and U.S. Forest Service Rio Blanco District Ranger, Curtis Keetch, each gave updates on the activities of their agencies.

The evening’s program closed out with presentations by Colorado Parks and Wildlife water quality guru Mindi May, Denver, and Elk Creek Ranch fishing manager Colton Brown sharing their perspectives on the White River algae situation.

Meeker Sanitation District board meeting recap

From The Rio Blanco Herald-Times (Niki Turner):

Replacing aging and failing infrastructure was the primary topic of discussion for Meeker Sanitation District board members at its Dec. 6 meeting. Cooper Best and Josh McGibbon, from JVA Consulting Engineers, presented their assessment of the town’s sewer system.

JVA had Action Services “clean and jet” the lines and record their findings, resulting in 180 hours of sewer line video…

JVA uncovered three instances of fiber optic cable punched through sewer lines. The county is paying for and finishing repairs for those now.

One of the main problems in the system involve “service laterals.” While the district is responsible for the main system, homeowners are responsible for the connection between their homes and the district line…

The assessment identified “quite a few areas” where the service laterals have become separated from the main line, allowing water and roots to get into the system.

The district is facing about $10 million worth of repairs and replacements during the next nine years, starting with the highest priority projects. Some areas will require “full line replacements.”

Funding options include capital reserves, increasing tap and user fees, but none of those options are enough to cover the costs…

McGibbon and Best outlined necessary steps for the district to qualify as a “disadvantaged community” for grant purposes.

The “disadvantaged” label is limited to the Colorado State Revolving Fund and only applies to water and sewer projects…

The board, with JVA’s help, will begin pursuing grant monies to fund the suggested repairs and replacements…

The board also approved the 2018 budget, which includes a “tax holiday” for taxpayers, temporarily reducing the mill levy from 9.47 mills to 6.47 mills. The district anticipates $769,281 in revenue in 2018. According to the budget, “For the operation of the district, the estimated expenditures for 2018 have increased by $17,379.57 from the 2017 appropriated expenditures. The district has seen an increase in the property and liability insurance, employee health insurance program, an increase in the water sampling program, an increase in sewer main maintenance, and the employees will realize a 3 percent wage increase based on the average of salaries.” The district employs five people, two in the office and three at the wastewater treatment plant.

Trustees reject consultant recommendation about Meeker Water Supply Improvements Project

Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

From The Rio Blanco Herald-Times (Niki Turner):

In an unprecedented move, the board voted against the bid award recommendations for the Meeker Water Supply Improvements Project from contracted civil engineer Olsson Associates. Olsson recommended awarding RNA Enterprises of Glenwood Springs for $340,948 and Ridge Electric of Grand Junction for $150,603 as the lowest bidders. Several trustees expressed concerns over the recommendation, as there was more than $100,000 difference between the low bid and the next highest bid, and the bid was not itemized.

Wyatt Popp of Olsson cautioned the board that the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) grant funding received from the town would be at risk if the board chose to go with a higher bid. State statutes for DOLA funds require awarding the lowest bid as long as the bidders are responsive and qualified.

“Deviating from the process at this point in time is not recommended,” Popp said. Refusing to accept the recommendation risks losing approximately $300,000 in DOLA grant funds…

Town Attorney Melody Massih asked if there is a way to re-bid the project. Popp said that would require additional discussion with DOLA.