Here’s guest column from David Nickum writing in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
For more than a decade, the battle over Colorado’s Roan Plateau — a beautiful green oasis surrounded by oil and gas development — raged in meetings and in courtrooms. At issue: Would the “drill, baby, drill” approach to public lands carry the day and the path of unrestrained energy development run over one of Colorado’s most valuable wildlife areas? Or would “lock it up” advocates preclude all development of the Roan’s major natural gas reserves?
Luckily, this story has a happy ending — and a lesson for Colorado and other states in the West struggling with how to balance the need for energy development with conservation of public lands and irreplaceable natural resources.
The Bureau of Land Management recently issued its final plan for the Roan Plateau, closing the most valuable habitat on top of the plateau to oil and gas leases. The plan, which will guide management of the area for the next 20 years, also acknowledges the importance of wildlife habitat corridors connecting to winter range at the base of the plateau.
At the same time, the BLM management plan allows responsible development to proceed in less-sensitive areas of the plateau that harbor promising natural gas reserves and can help meet our domestic energy needs.
What happened? After years of acrimony and lawsuits, stakeholders on all side of the issue sat down and hammered out a balanced solution. Everyone won. It’s too bad it took lawsuits and years of impasse to get all sides to do what they could have done early on: Listen to each other. We all could have saved a lot of time, money and tears.
The Roan example is a lesson to remember, as the incoming administration looks at how to tackle the issue of energy development on public lands. There’s a better way, and it’s working in Colorado.
The BLM also this month, incorporating stakeholder input, closed oil and gas leasing in several critical habitat areas in the Thompson Divide — another Colorado last best place — while permitting leasing to go ahead in adjacent areas.
That plan also represents an acknowledgment that some places are too special to drill, while others can be an important part of meeting our energy needs.
And in the South Park area — a vast recreational playground for the Front Range and an important source of drinking water for Denver and the Front Range — the BLM is moving ahead with a Master Leasing Plan (MLP) for the area that would identify, from the outset, both those places and natural resources that need to be protected and the best places for energy leasing to proceed.
We have said that we want federal agencies in charge of public lands to involve local and state stakeholders more closely in land management planning — that perceived disconnect has been the source of criticism and conflict in the West regarding federal oversight of public lands.
The MLP process is a new tool that promises to address some of that top-down, fragmented approach to public land management. To their credit, the BLM is listening and incorporating suggestions from local ranchers, conservation groups and elected officials into their leasing plan for South Park.
This landscape level, “smart from the start” approach is one way for stakeholders to find consensus on commonsense, balanced solutions that allow careful, responsible energy development to occur while protecting our most valuable natural resources.
The lesson I take from the Roan? We can find solutions through respectful dialogue—and we shouldn’t wait for litigation to do so. [ed. emphasis mine] Coloradoans can meet our needs for energy development and for preserving healthy rivers and lands by talking earlier to each other and looking for common ground.
David Nickum is executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited.
Solar-powered water systems let livestock drink more easily and take pressure off ponds and streams
[Vance Fulton], an engineering technician with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, described the way solar energy provides an effective way for landowners to transport water to their livestock.
“Especially around here, (landowners) have found that solar is a much more efficient way to pump water than the old windmills,” Fulton said.
And now, with the birth of the Sage Grouse Initiative, the solar-powered systems are receiving increasing amounts of federal support. Fulton said the systems have received funding through the Farm Bill for decades — but for the last several years, SGI has targeted more money for the solar-powered projects in places where the sage grouse is affected, such as Moffat County.
Surprising as it may seem at first glance, the creation of multiple water sources for cattle helps sage grouse too.
The system often works this way: A solar panel powers a pump that drives water through an underground pipeline, and the pipeline delivers the water to troughs at various points in the land so that animals can drink. The pump often fills up a storage tank for a backup water supply, as well.
The system, as Fulton explained it, creates an efficient means of supplying water to animals on the land. By creating several water sources, the system also eases stress on the ponds, puddles and streams where animals may gather to drink. That benefits a host of creatures — including the sage grouse.
Chris Yarbrough, formerly a biologist with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, who is now regional habitat biologist for Idaho Fish and Game, explained how a water system such as this can help sage grouse. If there’s only one pond on a ranch, he said, that’s where the cows will congregate.
“That area will probably get overgrazed, and you’ll probably get a lot of weeds — things that aren’t good for wildlife,” he said.
But water troughs scattered throughout the land can attract animals to different spots, easing the pressure on a pond or a stream.
“The grasses and (other plants) then have a chance to grow,” he said — something that’s good for sage grouse and lots of other species, as well.
Yarbrough said much of the funding to install solar pumping systems in Moffat County is generated by the SGI, launched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2010.
Fulton said the NRCS works with about 20 landowners in Moffat County on solar watering systems, and he noted there may be others using solar power, as well. It’s a number that’s far larger, he said, than it was about a decade ago, before the SGI.
One of the Moffat County landowners who uses solar-powered system is Doug Davis, who has a ranch called Davis Family Farm LLC that lies in the eastern part of the county.
“We discovered a very good water source up high, and because it’s up high you can use gravity flow,” Davis said.
Davis explained that the solar panel on this ranch pumps water from the well into a storage tank — and from that storage tank, gravity allows the water to flow through pipes to troughs throughout the property. Davis said that, on another property, he uses the solar-powered pump to push water directly to the troughs.
Either way, Davis said he’s glad to be using solar energy. He used to use windmills, which could be tough to maintain and less reliable.
“Windmills are much higher maintenance, and the wind does not blow as consistently as the sun shines,” he said. “Solar, which has turned out to be a low-maintenance, relatively low-cost proposition for us, is a winner.”
As Fulton walked through Davis’s land on that sunny July day, he pointed to some small nuances in the equipment, including strategically placed fencing to protect the plumbing from the animals drinking from the troughs, and a “small animal escape ramp” to let otherwise trapped animals climb to safety.
Fulton said the solar-powered system works without batteries, which means that energy is transferred directly to the pumps. It also means that the amount of energy may vary from day to day, depending on the supply of sunlight at a given time. That’s where the agility of the pumps comes into play.
“These pumps are able to work on variable voltage,” he said. “They’ll even continue to pump on a slightly cloudy day.”
Storing water during the sunny days, Fulton said, creates a water supply to use on the cloudy ones.
“You store water instead of storing electricity,” he said.
Fulton said, too, that advances in technology — in the pumps and the solar panels — have made the system even better than it used to be.
“It got more dependable, more efficient through the years,” he said — a sign that the sun soaking ranches throughout the county will be put to good use for many more years to come.
FromThe Craig Daily Press (Randy Baumgardner and Bob Rankin):
Our main takeaway from the meeting and subsequent tour was that the proposed Wolf Creek Reservoir project is a gem in the making for Colorado. In light of the governor’s water plan for the state, and his recent announcement that he wants to ensure that the we improve efficiencies and streamline the regulatory process for completing water projects in Colorado, it was highly encouraging to us to see a plan and a project like this in the works. Following our visit, we are confident that the Wolf Creek Reservoir can be an example and set the standard for how such projects can work, and we also both feel strongly that, for this reason, the Wolf Creek Reservoir should be made a priority within the state’s water plan.
More specifically, this project will bring a number of important regional benefits: it will provide the Town of Rangely with the quality and quantity of water necessary to serve their needs and address the growing water crisis that they are facing; it will assist in conservation efforts, providing possible opportunities for enhancing endangered fish species recovery; and, crucially, it will provide diversification to the local and regional economy through the tremendous recreational options it affords — offering growth and economic opportunity to an area that has been hit hard due to the drop in oil and gas prices, and other external and political factors that have ravaged the local energy industry. We will, of course, continue to work together at the state Capitol to address some of the political issues facing our energy sector; but in the meantime, seeing a project of this magnitude and importance begin to spring to life in this part of our state is extremely encouraging to us, as we are sure it is to the residents of Rangely and the whole area.
This project has great potential to offer incredible returns to both Rio Blanco and Moffat counties. The recreational opportunities alone will certainly enhance the quality of life for the region as well as diversify the local economy, as it will draw people not only from around the region and the rest of the state, but from neighboring states as well.
We both believe that it is time for the state and the various stakeholders involved to get behind making this project a reality. This is a perfect example of how the state can prioritize helping western Colorado. In particular, we would ask the governor to put his support behind it, and to use this as an opportunity to prove his commitment to speeding up the permitting process…
Sen. Randy Baumgardner and Rep. Bob Rankin composed this Op-Ed.
Here’s the release from The Center for Biological Diversity (Taylor McKinnon):
Lawsuit Launched Over Fracking, Water, Climate Change in Colorado River Basin
The Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers today filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to compel them to update invalid, outdated Endangered Species Act consultations on the impacts of climate change and expanded fracking in western Colorado on the Colorado River system and its four endangered fish. The challenge seeks to halt all new oil and gas leasing and development on federal public lands in the Upper Colorado River Basin of Colorado — including the White River and Grand Junction field offices — pending updated consultations.
“The Colorado River system’s endangered fish can’t handle more water depletions. The river system is already overtaxed, and declining flows because of climate change are making a bad situation worse,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center. “It’s hard to imagine a more self-destructive policy for the Colorado River Basin than using scarce water to fuel more climate-warming fossil fuel extraction — but that’s exactly what the Obama administration is allowing.”
The notice asserts that a programmatic “biological opinion” study authorizing water withdrawals for oil and gas development on public lands in the Upper Colorado River Basin is outdated and invalid. The study fails to consider impacts to endangered fish from the drawing-down of large amounts of water that would be used for horizontal drilling, as well as the impacts of developing expanded estimates of Mancos shale gas deposits, existing and projected future climate-driven Colorado River declines, oil and other toxic spills, mercury and selenium pollution, and the failure of the federal recovery program to provide minimum river flows in critical habitat for the fish.
The notice challenges both agencies’ reliance on the study when they approved new land-use plans for the Grand Junction and White River field offices last year and other oil and gas development plans this year. Together the new land-use plans would allow nearly 19,000 new oil and gas wells in western Colorado. Yet the Fish and Wildlife Service has already conceded that any further water depletions from the Colorado River or its tributaries would jeopardize the four endangered fish — the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail.
“Fracking in the Colorado River Basin comes at the peril of public lands, our climate, the river, its endangered fish, and tens of millions of downstream water users,” said McKinnon. “It’s backward public policy in face of a worsening climate crisis. Now’s the time for the Obama administration to align our country’s energy policies with its climate goals by ending new fossil fuel leasing on America’s public lands.”
Center for Biological Diversity attorneys Wendy Park and Michael Saul are staffing the case.
On behalf of the American people, the U.S. federal government manages nearly 650 million acres of public land and more than 1.7 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf — and the fossil fuels beneath them. This includes federal public land, which makes up about a third of the U.S. land area, and oceans like Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard. These places and the fossil fuels beneath them are held in trust for the public by the federal government; federal fossil fuel leasing is administered by the Department of the Interior.
Over the past decade, the combustion of federal fossil fuels has resulted in nearly a quarter of all U.S. energy-related emissions. A 2015 report by EcoShift Consulting, commissioned by the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth, found that remaining federal oil, gas, coal, oil shale and tar sands that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential greenhouse gas pollution. As of earlier this year, 67 million acres of federal fossil fuel were already leased to industry, an area more than 55 times larger than Grand Canyon National Park containing up to 43 billion tons of potential greenhouse gas pollution.
Last year Sens. Merkley (D-Ore.), Sanders (I-Vt.) and others introduced the Keep It In the Ground Act (S. 2238) legislation to end new federal fossil fuel leases and cancel non-producing federal fossil fuel leases. Days later President Obama canceled the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, saying, “Because ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”
Download the Center for Biological Diversity’s legal petition calling on the Obama administration to halt all new offshore fossil fuel leasing.
Download the Center for Biological Diversity’s legal petition with 264 other groups calling on the Obama administration to halt all new onshore fossil fuel leasing.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Two conservation groups say oil and gas leasing and development need to be halted on federal lands in the Upper Colorado River Basin until agencies can take the steps needed to protect endangered fish.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers have notified the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they plan to sue the agencies for failing to take into account new information in order to properly protect the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail. This information includes the growing use of water-intensive horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to produce oil and gas from the Mancos shale formation, which holds a much larger developable resource than previously thought. The U.S. Geological Survey recently estimated that the Piceance Basin’s Mancos shale formation contains 40 times more recoverable gas than it previously had estimated.
The groups say the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service relied on an invalid and outdated study authorizing water depletions for oil and gas development in the Upper Colorado Basin as the BLM approved land-use plans in the region, most notably plans involving the Grand Junction and White River field offices that combined allow for nearly 19,000 oil and gas wells…
The study, known as a programmatic biological opinion, was adopted in 2008, before the BLM recognized the potential for horizontal drilling and the associated water impacts, the groups say in their notice of intent to sue. The notice said while the BLM estimated that local wells drilled out directionally and then vertically into producing formations require an average of 2.62 acre-feet of water, nine local horizontal wells ended up consuming an average of nearly 69 acre-feet each. That largely was responsible for water consumption of nearly twice the projected annual total for oil and gas development for a sub-basin portion of the Colorado River, in violation of a depletion limit intended to protect the fish, the groups say.
The groups’ notice said difficulty meeting minimum recommended flows for the fish in a critical 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River in Mesa County strongly suggests the habitat there will be unsuitable for the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker in dry years, “and that flow depletions from oil and gas development will only exacerbate these unsuitable conditions and reduce these species’ chances of recovery.”
BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service spokesmen said Monday their agencies don’t comment on pending litigation.
Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance industry group said the legal action is another attempt by conservation groups to grasp at straws in their opposition to the industry. She noted a state estimate that fracking consumes less than a tenth of a percent of Colorado water.
“It’s a very small amount of water that is used for fracking and for oil and gas development in general,” she said.
She added that one horizontal well replaces several vertical wells, so the overall water use is actually lower. And she questioned how much impact energy development can be having on fish at a time of minimal drilling activity on the Western Slope.
The conservation groups single out in their notice water consumption by Black Hills Exploration & Production, but that company since has suspended local drilling.
MEEKER – The mule in a pasture east of Meeker along the White River seemed happy to see Erin Light, a state division engineer, and Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner, when they went to take a look at the amount of water flowing through the Meeker Ditch on July 11.
Lewis, who grew up on a Colorado ranch, praised the mule’s beautiful, deer-like coloring and said they’d become friends on her frequent visits to check the ditch.
But the warm equine reception the two enforcers of Colorado water law received differed from the response they sometimes get from ranchers in Division 6, which encompasses the Yampa, White and North Platte river basins, especially when they are visiting a ditch because they think its operator is diverting more water than they need through their head gate.
“I would say I’m more telling than I am curtailing,” said Light, who has been the division engineer based in Steamboat Springs since 2006. “There have only been a few situations where I’ve actually said, ‘That’s it. We’re curtailing you.’ And they’re very obvious situations where they’ve got a lot of water going down the tail end of their ditch, where you can’t argue that this isn’t waste.
“Where the problem becomes in determining waste is that I can go out to a piece of land and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got 6 inches of water on this land. There’s ducks swimming around. This is wasteful,’” she continued. “You can go to the landowner or the irrigator and say, ‘This is waste,’ and they’ll stare you right in the face and say, ‘The hell it is.’”
Division and state engineers working for Colorado’s Division of Water Resources, as Light does, are the only officials who have the authority to determine if waste is occurring on an irrigation system. And their primary response is to curtail wasteful flows at the head gate.
But determining if there is waste in a ditch is a case-by-case exercise. It’s site specific and time sensitive, and it can take time to understand how someone manages their ditch.
There’s no state definition of waste or written guidelines, but in the end it’s a fact-based analysis focused on how much water is needed to irrigate so many acres.
An allowance is also made for customary inefficiencies on a ditch system. Water leaking out of an old ditch, for example, is not considered waste. But beyond inefficiency, which is often a physical issue, there is waste, which is usually a water-management issue.
And waste is a much bigger issue on the Western Slope than on the state’s drier eastern plains, where irrigators have long watched for anyone wasting water.
Free river, or not
In 2014, Light served the Meeker Ditch with a written curtailment order, and she also told the big Maybell Canal on the Yampa River that they had to stop wasting water.
And she did so even though neither river was “under administration,” the term for the body of water being called out by senior downstream diverters, so both were considered in a “free river” condition.
Nor was there another water right that was being injured by either ditch’s diversions.
Just in the past 10 days, Light’s office has informed rancher Doug Monger that water is being wasted in the irrigation system he manages on his Yampa River Ranch three miles east of Hayden.
Monger is a Routt County commissioner, a member of the Yampa-White Roundtable, and a director on the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s board.
When asked Tuesday, during a break in a daylong strategic retreat at the River District, about Light’s belief that he was wasting water, he responded in a way that she has heard before.
“I don’t know what the hell difference it makes if I’m wasting water or not, it’s going back in the river,” Monger said. “Who the hell cares, if it’s a free river.”
“I know he is wasting water,” Light said Monday of Monger. “And he should be the poster child of what should be done, not what shouldn’t be done.
“About 10 days or so ago, our water commissioner approached a bunch of water users in the ditch system,” she explained. “There are several ditches that combine and co-mingle there.
“They were immediately going, ‘That’s Doug Monger’s responsibility, Doug’s the one controlling that,’ which I take as Doug is the one controlling the head gates,” Light said. “One of our water commissioners, Brian Romig, went to Doug and said, ‘We’ve got a problem here. You’re diverting too much water.’ From what Brian told me, Doug somewhat recognized it. He concurred that he needed to reduce his diversions.”
But Tuesday, Monger was not willing to go that far, saying he understood from the water commissioner only that he was still figuring out how Monger’s ditch works.
“I won’t acknowledge it,” Monger said of the allegation that he was diverting more water than he needs. “And if they start coming up with some scenario on it, we can always get our attorney. “
That was the same initial response that David Smith, the primary shareholder on the Meeker Ditch, had when Light curtailed his ditch in 2014.
But since then, and after spending $40,000 in legal and engineering fees, Smith has come around to see Light’s point.
“I would tell you that Erin and I started out on opposite ends on this thing, but both of us have kind of tried to work our way towards middle ground that we can both agree on,” he said.
Smith was busy this week bringing in hay on his well-tended fields along the White River just west of Meeker — the same fields his grandfather irrigated.
“I’ve had some disagreements with her, but Erin is an intelligent gal,” he said of Light, who has a master’s degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University with an emphasis in hydraulics and hydrology. “We’ve worked with her, and we’ve worked with the people that she has here, and at the end of the day it’s helped all of us, and I think we’re all better educated because of it.”
Laying down the law
The Meeker Ditch has a water right dating back to 1883 to divert 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water and two other later and smaller rights that allow it to divert 25.95 cfs in all.
The ditch diverts water from the White River just east of Meeker, runs it through Meeker proper, and then to fields west of town. (See map).
In her August 2014 curtailment order, Light said the historic water rights held by the Meeker Ditch represent enough water to irrigate about 1,000 acres, but today only 153 acres are actively being irrigated. And engineers at Resource Engineering Inc. calculated that the Meeker Ditch only needed 6 cfs to irrigate the fields still served by the ditch.
Attorney Kevin Patrick of Patrick, Miller and Noto, a water law firm with offices in Aspen and Basalt, had hired Resource Engineering to analyze the irrigation ditch on behalf of a client who owned commercial property under the ditch.
Since 2004, the property had been intermittently subject to flooding by water leaking from the ditch.
Patrick sent the engineering report and a letter to Light. “The ditch is diverting unnecessary water which is merely being spilled” and “the excessive running of water, over that reasonably required for the reasonable application of water to beneficial use for the decreed purposes and lands, is forbidden” under state law, the letter says.
After investigating the matter, Light found the ditch had been consistently diverting about 20 cfs at its head gate, but was then sending much of the water out of the ditch and down Curtis Creek, Sulphur Creek or Fairfield Gulch, back toward the White River.
Light then curtailed diversions at the Meeker Ditch head gate, which she has the authority to do. And when asked to do so by Smith, she put the curtailment order in writing.
“Colorado statute clearly prohibits the running of water not needed for beneficial use,” Light wrote in her order, dated Aug. 15, 2014.
Light cited a Colorado statute that reads “it shall not be lawful for any person to run through an irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”
And she addressed the issue of water being released from the ditch and back to the river.
“Generally when water is being wasted off the end of the irrigated acreage, through waste gates, or at the tail end of the ditch, the head gate should be turned down to eliminate that waste of water,” Light wrote. “In this case it appears that water is being diverted at too great a rate for the lands that are being irrigated, and the rate of diversion is not being reduced to eliminate waste.”
Light’s stance on enforcing waste has the backing of her boss, State Engineer Dick Wolfe.
Use it or lose it?
Both Wolfe and Light served recently on a committee, convened by the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, that issued a report in February on the widely brandished piece of advice to irrigators to “use it or lose it.”
The report is called “How diversion and beneficial use of water affect the value and measure of a water right” and is subtitled “Is ‘use it or lose it’ an absolute?”
The 11-page report ends with several declarative statements about waste that give further backing to Light’s approach, and that she might well wish to see chained to every head gate on the Western Slope.
“Water that is diverted above the amount necessary for application to a beneficial use (including necessary for transit loss) is considered waste,” states the report.
“Increased diversions for the sole purpose of maintaining a record of a larger diversion are considered waste,” it says, referring to the practice of diverting toward the full amount of a decree in order to bolster the future potential value of a water right.
And, “Wasteful diversions will either be curtailed, or will not be considered as part of the water right’s beneficial use.”
Wolfe, who recently gave a presentation to the Colorado Ag Water Alliance on the “use it or lose it” report, said that Light is not being overzealous in her enforcement of waste.
“She is not going out and as a division engineer purposely looking and being more assertive or aggressive about trying to find where waste is going on,” Wolfe said. “These are ones that just came to our attention.”
Alan Martellaro, the division engineer for Division 5, has not taken the same approach as Light when it comes to curtailing waste.
“To actually actively go look for waste is not something that’s historically been done unless there’s a call on the stream,” said Martellaro, who is based in Glenwood Springs and whose jurisdiction includes the Colorado, the Roaring Fork, and the Crystal river basins. “It just hasn’t been the mode we’ve ever been in.”
Kevin Rein, the deputy state engineer who also served on the “use it or lose it” committee, said issues vary from division to division.
“In Division 6, in the Yampa-White, we’ve had periods of free river without administration for a long time, because it hasn’t been over-appropriated,” Rein said. “That means not being water short. So very often people were just diverting whatever they wanted because, why not? But she’s really directing herself to getting people to measure their diversions and pay attention to duty of water. I think you choose what’s important in your division. That’s important in her division.”
“Duty of water” is essentially how much water someone needs to grow crops on a certain amount of land, without waste. In the Yampa and White river basins, the duty of water is generally held to be that it takes 1 cfs to adequately irrigate 40 acres of land.
After giving a presentation at a water workshop in Gunnison in June about the “use it or lose it” report, Rein was asked why the state doesn’t go around and curtail people who are over-diverting.
“We do, as resources allow,” Rein said. “It’s simply a matter of looking at our water districts where we, maybe, have one water commissioner and maybe a deputy. Maybe if they each had two or three more deputies, then we could do that.”
Light sounds like she could use some help.
“When it comes down to obvious waste,” she said, “I would say we have a tremendous problem with it. I had a long-standing water commissioner — he was with us for 40 years and grew up a rancher — tell me one day, ‘The problem with irrigators today is they don’t go out and move their sets. They just open the head gate wider.’”
“Sets” refers to how irrigators have set various control points, such as check dams and internal head gates, along their ditches.
“That just blew me away,” Light said. “Here’s a longtime rancher living in the community of Meeker his entire life who is more or less telling me that his co-irrigators … just open up their head gate and don’t move sets anymore. To me, that’s where the inefficiency is. Go out, divert less water, and move your damn sets.”
After receiving Light’s written curtailment order in August 2014 on the Meeker Ditch, Smith appealed it to an administrative hearing officer, which was a rare move.
Wolfe said the appeal, which was addressed to him, “is the only curtailment order that I am aware of that has been appealed since I have been state engineer.” He’s been state engineer since since 2007 and has been with the Division of Water Resources since 1993.
An attorney for the Meeker Townsite Ditch Co., which owns the Meeker Ditch, told the state that Light was “attempting to restrict the diversion of water down the Meeker Ditch at a time when the White River is not under an administrative call and at a time when no other water rights owner is affected by the diversion.”
At that point, the state stepped in to defend Light’s curtailment order, and Philip Lopez, an assistant attorney general, prepared an answer to Smith’s appeal.
In his answer, Lopez cited a relatively straightforward statute that reads: “During the summer season it shall not be lawful for any person to run through his irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, and for domestic and stock purposes, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”
And he quoted the Colorado Supreme Court in Fellhauer v. People, where it said, “The right to water does not give the right to waste it.”
As to the matter of Light, or any other division engineer, not being able to curtail waste if there is not a call on the river, Lopez wrote “the division engineer has the authority to curtail [the Meeker Ditch’s] wasteful diversions at any time pursuant to [state law], regardless of whether or not the White River is under administration.”
Lopez did concede, though, that the water rights held by the Meeker Ditch still allowed it to divert water, as long as they did so “without waste.”
That’s an important distinction for Smith, who insists that he wasn’t technically curtailed, only that he can’t waste water when diverting.
“She hasn’t curtailed me to the amount of water that I can use,” Smith said. “All that Erin tells me is that whatever amount of water I have in the ditch, that she doesn’t want us wasting any water.”
Light has a different take.
“We curtailed them,” Light said. “We issued an order to stop wasting. They hired an attorney. They hired an engineer. It went to the hearing officer. They don’t waste anymore.”
The hearing officer in the case denied the ditch’s appeal, indicating it was a matter for water court. But Smith declined to go there.
“We kind of came to a working agreement that we were going to try to work with it, but as far as the laws, there was never a test case,” Smith said.
That may be, but on July 11, when Light and Lewis measured the flow in the Meeker Ditch, it was running at 6 cfs, not 20 cfs as it often used to.
The Maybell Canal
Light has also curtailed another irrigation ditch in Division 6, the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River near Maybell, which she found was similarly diverting more water than it needed.
The canal diverts water from the Yampa into a head gate located in a canyon on the edge of Little Juniper Mountain, about 30 miles west of Craig. (See map).
The Maybell Canal has a senior water right for 42.2 cfs that was adjudicated in 1923 and appropriated in 1899. It also has a junior right for 86.8 cfs that was adjudicated in 1972 and was appropriated in 1946.
The waste on the Maybell Canal was brought to Light’s attention by one of her water commissioners who’d visited the ditch. Light then verbally instructed the canal’s manager to stop wasting water. Mike Camblin, manager of the Maybell Irrigation District, wasn’t happy when he got the curtailment order from Light, but he’s now working to secure funding to make $197,000 worth of improvements to the irrigation system.
On July 13, the Yampa-White-Green basin roundtable approved a $108,000 grant of state funds to help fix several issues on the ditch system. One of those improvements is a modern, automated “waste gate” a mile below the head gate.
Camblin said such a remote-controlled system won’t work at the head gate, which is higher up in the canyon without cell phone service and prone to being washed out by high water.
But he is willing to use the automated gate to reduce sending more water than necessary out the bottom of the ditch, where the water returns to the Yampa River.
The arrangement for the new gate does not entirely please Light, however. She insisted that Camblin agree to send someone up to the head gate within three days after receiving information from the new automated gate that they are over-diverting.
An agreement to that end has been worked out and is poised for adoption, both Light and Camblin said.
“The whole goal is to not only help Erin out but to make us better at what we do,” Camblin told his fellow roundtable members on July 13.
In an interview this week, Camblin said, “At times we were probably taking more water than we need, but that’s what this whole process is about, to cut that down.” He said he is forging a productive working relationship with Light.
“I think it all comes down to communication, especially with Erin and the water commissioners,” he said. “If they get to know us and how our ditch can run better, and we allow them to do that, and we communicate, we can solve a lot of problems.”
Watch that stick
Dan Birch, the deputy general manager at the Colorado River Conservation District and a member of the Yampa-White basin roundtable, is supportive of the improvements that Camblin is trying make on the Maybell Canal.
“I think Mike’s really trying to do the right thing, and I think he wants to take a look at ways he can manage his diversions better,” Birch said. “I certainly don’t think he’s diverting just for the sake of diverting.”
Birch also cautioned against using a stick to beat back waste.
“You can’t go into a situation and say, ‘Hey, you guys are wasting water, I want you to reduce your diversions,’” Birch said. “You really have to be prepared to go into that situation and say, ‘Hey, look, here’s something that we’re seeing here. Let’s have a conversation. I’m interested in exploring what we might do to improve flow in the river.’”
But Light feels the Maybell Canal needed to be prodded into action.
“What has partially pushed the Maybell Canal to go the direction they have is us really putting our foot down that we’re not going to allow this waste to continue,” she said. “Again, the waste is so blatant. They were diverting about 54 cfs at the head gate, and we estimated about 18 cfs going out the tail end. It’s like, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
Birch was asked directly if he thought the Maybell Canal would be making its proposed improvements without Light’s enforcement actions.
“That’s a fair question, and my immediate response is probably not,” he said.
While Light has been able to work with both Smith and Camblin, she knows she’s raising the hackles of ranchers in the Yampa and White river basins.
“I don’t think the irrigation community wants to be told they’re wasting,” she said. “I’d love to do more as far as waste, but I do have to tread lightly.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, July 24, 2016
As my friend Ed Quillen once said, “Oil shale has been the ‘Next big thing’ in Colorado for over a hundred years.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):
The White River meanders through Utah on its way to joining the Green River, flowing slowly through land on which an energy company hopes to develop its oil shale holdings.
Opponents and supporters of the proposal by Enefit American Oil have drawn familiar lines in the sandstone of the Colorado Plateau.
Opponents contend that the project threatens the local environment and that development could unbalance the global climate.
Supporters say the project would prop up local economies in two states still reeling from the fall in oil prices that slowed production and put a virtual halt to exploration.
Enefit is seeking a right of way across federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, which listed the route as a preferred alternative in its environmental study of the request.
Oil shale development is a greater threat to the atmosphere than other fossil-fuel development, said John Weisheit of Living Rivers.
“It’s not a contribution to society,” Weisheit said. “It’s a detriment to society.”
More like a lifeline to struggling northwest Colorado and northeast Utah, said Lannie Massey, natural resource specialist for Rio Blanco County.
“This Enefit deal is a good deal for everybody involved,” Massey said. “It would lessen our dependence on foreign sources” of energy and pump new life into the moribund energy industry.
Enefit’s project has attracted an array of opposition, including the Grand Canyon Trust, Earthjustice, Western Resource Advocates, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, as well as Living Rivers.
The northwest Colorado town of Rangely stands to benefit from Enefit’s project because of the town’s proximity. Rangely is about 30 miles from the area via Rio Blanco County Road 23, which could connect to Dragon Road in Utah, and then into the project site.
The project is expected to require about 2,000 jobs, which would be “a huge boost for this area and for this region, eastern Utah and western Colorado,” said Tim Webber, executive director of the Western Rio Blanco County Metro Recreation and Park District.
Bonanza, Utah, and Rangely are the nearest towns and they sit 20 miles apart as the crow flies, 28 miles apart by road. The rough-and-tumble territory in between is pockmarked with drillpads and Gilsonite mines that cut deep, straight-edge swaths into the earth.
Enefit’s oil shale project sits on private land as well as state land set aside for development to benefit Utah schools and other institutions.
Enefit is planning to mine oil shale under 27,243 acres, most it privately held.
The project under consideration by the BLM is a utility corridor over federal land that Enefit would use to extend utilities to serve the project, which projects production of 50,000 barrels of oil per day for as many as 30 years.
Enefit is planning to build three pipelines, expand an existing road and run a 138-kilovolt power line to the project area 12 miles southeast of Bonanza.
“I fly over that area a lot,” said Bruce Gordon of Aspen-based EcoFlight. The corridor land is “relatively pristine” with good habitat for animals, Gordon said.
The area is “pretty industrialized and disturbed already,” said Enefit Chief Executive Officer Rikki Hrenko-Browning.
Enefit could develop its private holdings without crossing federal land, but that would require a constant stream of heavy trucks and other heavy equipment, resulting in reduced air quality, the BLM said in its draft environmental impact statement.
The BLM needs to better understand the oil that would be produced by Enefit, as well as take into account the potential effects on water quality and of spent shale, said Anne Mariah Tapp of the Grand Canyon Trust.
The possible effects of a spill of oil into the White River or Evacuation Creek — and how to clean it up — have gone unstudied, Tapp said.
“Water quality is as important as water quantity,” Tapp said.
The BLM also should have a better idea of what will happen with 23 million tons of spent shale produced every year, Tapp said.
Spent shale — as the rock left over after the process is referred to — contains poisons, such as arsenic, as well as minerals, such as lithium.
Enefit is planning a “zero-liquid discharge” process in which all water to be used will be captured, treated and reused, said Hrenko-Browning. [ed. emphasis mine]
Plans also call for Enefit to have ongoing reclamation in areas of surface mining, Hrenko-Browning said.
Once the BLM completes its process, Enefit will seek permits from the state, including the state mining permit.
Rangely and western Rio Blanco County are working hard to diversify the regional economy, said Massey.
There is more at stake than that, however, Massey said.
Colorado, Utah and Wyoming contain the largest oil shale resources in the world.
“If we can get somebody to commit money and improve the retort process,” Massey said, “it would be a benefit to all of us in the oil shale region.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):
The Roan Plateau is high on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s list of issues to be resolved in the remaining months of the Obama administration.
Jewell recently discussed the next 100 years of conservation and a “course correction” before the National Geographic Society.
The Interior Department has “some work left to re-examine whether decisions made in prior administrations properly considered where it makes sense to develop and where it doesn’t,” Jewell said. “Or where science is helping us better understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development. Places like Badger Two-Medicine in Montana, or the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, or the Roan Plateau in Colorado.”
Jewell’s comments, however, left some Colorado officials questioning whether they signaled a change in the direction of the management of the Roan.
The Bureau of Land Management is completing an environmental study of the area. BLM, industry and environmental groups and local governments in late 2014 reached an agreement to cancel 17 of the 19 leases issued on the plateau in 2008. The remaining two leases on top and 12 leases at the base of the plateau were to remain in place.
Jewell was referring to the plan now under study by the BLM, the Interior Department said…
The Roan Plateau was managed by the U.S. Department of Energy as an oil shale reserve until 1997, when President Bill Clinton signed legislation transferring the area to the BLM.
The act required the BLM to manage the area for multiple use and instructed the agency to begin leasing it for oil and gas development.
“We hope the secretary’s mention of the Roan Plateau bodes well for the future of the area,” said Luke Schafer, West Slope Advocacy director for Conservation Colorado, urging the BLM to complete the management plan “to protect the pristine lands, rare species, and remarkable habitat on the Roan.”
The directive to lease the area, however, remains, said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
Jewell’s “policies may contribute to compliance with that law taking decades rather than years,” Ludlam said, “but for the benefit of future generations we will never stop advocating for the responsible development that must and someday will occur on the Roan Plateau.”
Roan Cliffs Aerial via Rocky Mountain Wild
Roan Plateau settlement map via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel
East Fork Parachute Creek
Drilling rig above waterfall Roan Plateau via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel
Drilling sites in a valley on the Roan Plateau via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel
Oil and gas well sites near the Roan Plateau
Oil and gas development on the Roan via Airphotona