According to the U.S. Drought Monitor all of Rio Blanco County is still currently classified as D3, or Extreme Drought, as precipitation around the county continues to fall well under normal rates. However, there is some hope to be found in the winter forecast.
Drought Levels in Rangely
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has been tracking weather and climate related data in Rangely since 1894. The station currently sits near the Rangely Water Treatment Plant. According to NOAA data, by the end of August Rangely was 1.37 inches below normal precipitation, receiving only 6.22 inches from January through August.
In 2017 Rangely received total precipitation of 8.66 inches for the entire year while the historic average total annual precipitation sits at 10.03 inches.
NOAA predicts that the below normal precipitation will continue through the rest of September.
The fact that precipitation has been well below normal for multiple years has certainly exacerbated the drought conditions.
Dry conditions in Meeker
NOAA tracks Meeker’s climate and weather at a station located at the Bureau of Land Management Office. Meeker is currently below normal for precipitation by 0.81 of an inch, receiving 9.16 inches through the end of August.
In 2017, Meeker received a total of 15.73 inches of precipitation for the year and the historical data, which dates back to 1893 for the community, places an average annual precipitation of 16.54 inches. Jim Pringle with NOAA doesn’t anticipate much change in the standings through the month of September, saying, “Although we still have to wait just under two weeks from now to obtain the September 2018 precipitation for Meeker, it is doubtful based on the latest computer-generated atmospheric model guidance that Meeker will receive normal precipitation for September.”
The good news is that the National Weather Services’ Climate Prediction Center (CPC) is anticipating an El Niño episode for the upcoming 2018-2019 winter season, with odds favoring at least near normal precipitation in northwest Colorado during the late fall, winter and spring months.
An El Niño event is characterized as bringing unusually warm waters in the Pacific Ocean. This typically produces warmer-than-average temperatures over the western and northern United States. Wetter-than-average conditions are likely over portions of the western U.S and Gulf Coast regions, while drier-than-average conditions are usually expected in the Ohio Valley and the Pacific Northwest.
Due to the low flows, dry conditions and extreme heat, higher water temperatures in the White River are nearing danger levels for cold-water fish. CPW officials have been encouraging anglers to fish in the early morning, when water temperatures are cooler and less stressful to fish. Last Friday, CPW, out of Grand Junction, asked for voluntary fishing closures on western Colorado rivers due to the high water temperatures and low flows.
CPW Area Wildlife Manager Bill de Vergie said before the meeting, “It’s important that ranchers, landowners, ditch users, fishing guides and fishing ranch managers, anglers, and other members of the public work together to protect our fishery and our river.”
CPW and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) entered into a water lease agreement in 2012. The agreement allows the partial release of CPW’s water stored in Lake Avery to help meet minimum instream flow needs of 200 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the County Road 4 (Wakara) bridge. Users at Lake Avery would see declining water levels in the lake whenever any releases are initiated. deVergie said CPW would give at least 48 hours notice prior to any releases.
In 2012, the lake level at Avery dropped about six feet as 1300 acre-feet out of the 7600 acre-foot storage capacity reservoir was used. Water released comes from the bottom of the reservoir, is relatively cold, and able to be quickly oxygenated. Releases this year could use twice as many acre-feet from the reservoir and drop the lake level up to 14 feet.
“If we do make releases from Avery (a.k.a. Big Beaver Reservoir), we will ask water diverters to avoid taking the additional water and instead leave it in the river to give the fish and river habitat a chance,” said de Vergie. “We all know how important this river is to our economy, and we expect that people will comply to ensure the river continues to be a destination fishery.”
The meeting was attended by local water users including ditch operators and users Don Hilkey, Tad Edwards, Wayne Johnson, Jerry Belland, Tel Gates, Joe Conrado, Chris Collins, Rob Raley, Forrest Nelson and Ben Rogers. CPW employees at the meeting included water resource specialist David Graf of Grand Junction, instream flow coordinator Jay Skinner, Katie Birch from Denver, aquatic specialist Melynda May, wildlife managers Bailey Franklin and Ross McGee, fisheries specialist Tory Eyre and Lori Martin, senior Northwest Region aquatic biologist. Erin Light, the Division 6 water engineer with the Division of Water Resources in Steamboat Springs, was also in attendance…
River advocates attending included Shawn Welder, Bob Dorsett of Colorado River Watch, Roy Wedding and Bob Regulski. Upriver fishing ranch interests were noticeably absent from the meeting. One such individual told the Herald Times after the meeting that neither he nor his manager had heard anything about the meeting beforehand.
Graf told the meeting that his agency is evaluating how their water rights statewide might be better used to improve difficult situations like the White River now faces which might differ, to varying degrees, from the related water right decrees.
Dorsett cautioned the group not to think of this as an unusual circumstance, that current data trends are for these low flows to be more the norm. This concern evoked some discussion about needing more water storage in the valley, which could possibly include enlarging Lake Avery.
Local diverters are anxious to avoid any call on the river. Light reinforced concern that any flows cannot really be legally protected unless the whole river is under a call for administration by the Division of Water Resources. Cooperation between irrigators and other users in times of low water is critical and, in the past, has prevented a call. Several irrigators indicated how well retired water commissioner Bill Dunham had facilitated cooperation between water users. Light said she was confident that the current commissioner, Shanna Lewis, would work as well with diverters and that she had her blessings to do so…
Johnson, a Miller Ditch irrigator, wondered why we were trying to save fish and habitat in the White River when there is so little public access to the river for fishing, to which de Vergie responded that the duty of CPW was to provide a viable fishery and to serve all members of the public, including those that avail themselves of fishing on the private ranches.
Lake Avery releases of 10 to 15 cfs in 2012 didn’t occur until Aug. 30 and continued until Oct. 3. That year, de Vergie said, we experienced some good rain in July that postponed the need to release Avery water until late August.
The threshold factors CPW said are critical for the fish are a flow of less than 200 cfs at the Wakara bridge, water temperatures above 70 degree Fahrenheit there, and dissolved oxygen levels of less than 5 ppm. These are the factors that will trigger releases.
From Colorado Parks and Wildlife via The Rio Blanco Herald Times:
Due to low flows, dry conditions and extreme heat, water temperatures in the White River are nearing dangerous levels for cold-water fish. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials are encouraging anglers to fish in the early morning, when water temperatures are cooler and less stressful to fish.
To help mitigate current conditions, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is considering releasing water from Lake Avery to increase flow in the White River, and potentially lower river water temperature.
To answer questions and address concerns about the possible release, CPW invites the public to a roundtable session, 7 p.m., July 9 at Kilowatt Korner (White River Electric Association—WREA), 233 Sixth St., in Meeker, Colo.
“We’ve been here before, and we know what we need to do, “ said Bill de Vergie, Area Wildlife Manager from Meeker. “It’s important that ranchers, landowners, ditch users, fishing guides, anglers, and other members of the public attend our meeting so that we can work together to protect this important fishery.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials and the Colorado Water Conservation Board entered into a water lease agreement in 2012. The agreement allows the release of CPW’s water stored in Lake Avery to help meet the minimum instream flow on the White River of 200 cubic feet per second.
Anglers at Lake Avery will see declining water levels in the lake beginning when the release is initiated.
“When the flow from Lake Avery begins, we will ask users to avoid taking the additional water and instead leave it in the river to give fish a chance of surviving,” said de Vergie. “Everyone around here knows how important this river is to our economy, and we expect that people will comply to ensure the river continues to be a destination fishery.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.